Mormon culture, boundaries and family
Three posts have gotten me thinking about a couple of themes that come up all the time round the DAMU, and perhaps somewhat less regularly around the bloggernacle. This post at FMH is about orthopraxis and the time-honoured discussion of whether there can be such a thing as a cultural but non-practicing Mormon. This post at Times & Seasons makes a case for a bona fide Mormon culture, complete with unique identity markers. And this thread at FLAK, and a few recent ones that are similar, cover the longstanding problems, in the Mormon world, of what happens when one spouse has a drastic change in beliefs while the other spouse maintains more traditional LDS beliefs. Readers are welcome to click those links and read the entire threads that got me thinking, but I’m not going to cover the content here in depth. I’m just thinking about this whole religious thing that unites and divides us so thoroughly.
The old questions of why there can be Jews who do very little that would be considered “Jewish” in the religious sense, nonetheless consider themselves Jews, as do most other people (except perhaps very orthodox groups, who might consider them Jewish traitors rather than non-Jews); and why there can be barely or non-practicing Catholics who are still Catholic; so why can’t there be a non-practicing Mormon? Well, really, of course there are loads of non-practicing Mormons, but they often have tendencies to not self-identify as Mormon (though plenty still do) and/or they are often identified as outsiders or traitors to their people, in a sense, by even the most mainstream of practicing, active Mormons. As a young religion, there is still a fairly bright practical line between who’s in and who’s out. If Mormonism survives and grows long enough to become an old religion, it will doubtless have people all across the orthodoxy/orthopraxis continuum who are nonetheless all “Mormons.”
But for now, the “who’s in” part of this equation seems to be defined nearly as much by who they are not as who they are. A Real Mormon doesn’t drink coffee, doesn’t drink alcohol, doesn’t skip church on Sundays with any regularity, doesn’t have non-marital sex, doesn’t wear sleeveless tops, etc. So those who do the non-Mormon behaviours become identified as non-Mormons pretty easily. At the cultural level this is understandable and, from a sociological perspective, even predictable. I think where the problems arise, from my perspective, is how this plays out in the lives of individuals and their family members. The process of changing beliefs from traditional Mormon to more post-Mormon, of all varieties, together with the worry of “coming out” to family and loved ones as having different beliefs, are emblematic of the feelings people experience as they move from Inside to Outside, and rethink their entire personal identity and beliefs.
The most poignant and difficult of these processes, from my viewpoint, seem to happen at the level of individual couples. Two people who were Mormon, who often married in the Temple (Real Mormons don’t get married anywhere else!), who continued to have individual identities as Mormons and then began building a shared identity as a Forever Family of Mormons, based largely on the church and its individual and shared requirements for them. When one of these individuals has a fundamental shift in beliefs, the other individual often is devastated and the couple go through a sometimes protracted period of turmoil and major emotional upheaval, sometimes leading to divorce — if the Forever part of the equation is gone, perhaps the Family itself is not worth saving from a religious perspective? There are many who say, and perhaps are usually at least partially correct in doing so, that the marriage had other problems and that religion just became the catalyst. However, I think there are also a number of otherwise good marriages that are broken up by the conflict in religious beliefs. And how many marriages don’t have a few problem areas that might crack along those faultlines if borne down on with unbearable pressure?
The part that is difficult is the roles the couple are expected to play after the belief changes. For whatever reason, it seems that the believing spouse is often the one who defines what is okay, what is allowed. Because the religion itself has so much doctrine AND cultural baggage about “apostasy,” when you’re In and when you’re Out, the believing Mormon has a very hard time seeing their spouse’s change in beliefs as anything other than “bad” at least and possibly sinful, prideful and probably the result of bacchanalian, all-night orgies of anti-Mormon literature wallowing. And as a result of guilt for having these “bad” changes — which, let’s face it, even “cultural Mormons” have been indoctrinated with from birth — the nonbeliever spends months, years, a lifetime playing the game of life by someone else’s rules. Granted, I’ve also seen post-Mormons who are completely intolerant of their spouse’s belief in Mormonism and work very hard to get them to change their beliefs, or make the same divorce ultimatums even (exlicitly and implicitly), as the Mormon spouse does. I must admit, however, that the latter (in *my* experience) is much less frequent a scenario. It’s usually the “apostate” who still goes along with the Mormon way to some extent, or else ends up losing their marriage and family.
The poignance of these choices is hard for me to fathom. If your beliefs change in such a way that you no longer believe in “god” or in “eternal life,” what you do now, in “this life,” matters — and very much so. For the Mormon spouse, the thought of losing their Forever Family is often more than they can bear. For the post-Mormon spouse, the idea of spending their one brief life faking religious beliefs and behaviours for a god they don’t believe in is also exquisitely painful. And, as has also been seen many times, once both spouses experience a change in belief, sometimes the marriage doesn’t survive that either.
At the very least, it’s one more indication that Mormonism is a religion that ingrains roads so deep and broad through your soul that, for true believers, losing it changes *everything*. That is not a cultural religion, at least not anytime soon.