Everybody leaves. At least, that’s how it feels when you are a progressive Mormon trying to make it work in the church. You are defensive of your Mormon identity and hopeful you can be the change you want to see, but it’s hard to do either when it feels like everybody who thinks like you stops coming around and a good chunk of the people who don’t think like you want you gone. You worry that 2012-2013 was high tide for unorthodox Mormons. You envision a time that you will look around the chapel and wonder, where have all the feminists gone? You know your daughter will leave. You know it will be because of what you teach her about her worth and about God, about how He or She or They or It love everyone the same.
Even way back when, at the very beginning of my journey into the Mormon hinterland, before the decade-plus I spent traversing the boundary, meandering the liminal space–in and out and in again–I was always envious of the people who came and went easily.
- The boy who found Bud Heavy and decided right away that a life with beer was better than one of deprivation.
- The girl who shacked up with her college boyfriend and wondered what was so bad about living in sin, anyway.
- The Jack Mormons who realized they could ditch the moniker altogether, the first part and the last, and move through their lives like normal people, not transgressive, not special, but also not Other, no longer marked at all.
I liked booze and boys as much as the next mostly straight teenage girl and didn’t even feel guilty about it. (Shame would come later on, when I tried to quit drinking and found I couldn’t, when I fell in love with an atheist and found I couldn’t fall out.) I liked them enough that I understood why people left. I entertained the idea myself. I wanted to want to leave. What I didn’t understand was how people who were raised in the church could just…go. Like it was nothing. Like it never meant anything at all.
As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t leave Mormonism alone. I would show up at church high or hungover, reeking of sweat and sex and booze and sit in the pew and try to focus on the ceiling while the room pitched and lurched around me in an effort not to hurl. The wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling of chapels crisscrossing the country from Tucson to New Orleans to Seattle to Ann Arbor looked like the hull of a great ship and I’d be carried away in visions of myself as the brother of Jared, rocking around in an ark bound for the promised land.
Why did I keep going? I guess I just believed.
That pissed me off, by the way. Making bad decisions on Friday is much less fun when you spend Sunday worrying about how to be good.
Years passed and I kicked the drugs and cut back on the drinking and married the atheist and went back to church. I couldn’t ignore the pull I felt toward Mormonism. We were tethered, naval to pulsing, bloody mass. It wasn’t perfect or anywhere near, but I put together a life that looked Mormon enough. I went to church most weeks. I taught a Sunday School class. I visited the women in my congregation that I was assigned to visit and shared uplifting messages about Jesus. I gave people rides. I tithed thousands of dollars to the church. I read the Book of Mormon every day. I read church magazines. I listened to General Conference twice a year. I prayed constantly. Mormonism made me happy, much happier than I’d been before.
But I still tracked the people who left, and wondered how they did it.
- The husband who read mysterious things about the church on the Internet and decided that while he had spent the last thirty years perfectly content to believe Joseph Smith translated gold plates using a pair of spectacles and a breastplate, the notion of the boy sticking his face in a hat to read words flashing across a rock was a bridge too far.
- The young man fresh off his mission who discovered the number–and the ages–of Joseph’s wives and couldn’t wrap his head around this sordid new information about the prophet he revered.
- The woman who lifted her veil and saw for the first time where she fell in the hierarchy of woman, man, and God.
- Entire families that passed out fliers supporting Prop 8 but freaked out when the church invested in a mall in downtown SLC.
I’d spent so long trying and failing at being a good Mormon it never occurred to me that I might not want the church I came back to.
Of course the red flags had been there all along. Once, when I was still very precarious in regard to the church, only sporadically attending a student ward at university, a Sunday School teacher, a woman, college-aged and educated, made the bizarre pronouncement in the middle of a lesson that the Big Bang Theory was “stupid.” I didn’t know church was a place I could disagree yet, so I spent the rest of class silently fuming and called my mom in a rage as soon as it was over. On the surface, I was angry because literal, biblical, six-day Creationism is not even required Mormon doctrine. Sure, some Mormons believe that stuff, but the official party line is that religion and science work together. Mormons aren’t the kind of fundamentalists who tear pages out of biology textbooks. My anger was defensive, on account of my membership in the group. Mormons are already so weird; who did this woman think she was, putting our cultural relevance in further jeopardy by perpetuating backward anti-science gobbledygook without anybody even saying she had to?
On a deeper level, I was hurt and baffled. Here I was, at church, during the Sunday school class that meets at the end of a three-hour worship service no less, for the first time in who know how long, desperately trying to inject some spirituality into a life that felt poisonous, and this woman, who was supposedly called by God, who was supposed to be leading the class by inspiration, was using her platform to engage a culture war that had been out of date for decades? A war that was never ours to fight in the first place? Church was a hospital and I was dying and this was the first time I sensed that I might show up and get something that made the hurt worse.
So, yes, I came back to church with questions. How could I not, having been blessed with a brain that works and a family that told me to use it? How could I not, having been raised in a church that taught me that all are alike before God, black and white, bond and free, male and female? How could I not, after years of living and studying and working alongside women with astonishing resumes, men who treated me like an equal, atheists who were kinder than any Christian I’d ever known? Of course I came back with questions. The fact that I’d already come back once, that I’d come back at all, after living through my own approximation of hell, stilled the part of me that wanted to abandon the faith altogether. Even so, I had enough questions to understand why other people did.
What I didn’t understand was how people could do it so quickly, with so much certainty. Like it was so black and white.
Like many people, I found information that challenged my faith online. It started with the mixed-orientation marriage forums. I found my way there looking for resources for people in mixed-faith relationships after I decided to marry my non-LDS boyfriend. I needed reassurance that we could make it, in spite of our religious differences. What I found–lots of women trying to stay in marriages to gay men–was neither especially relevant to my situation, not especially comforting. How had all these men ended up married to women anyway? What were they going to do, faced as they were with choosing between the deepest longings of their hearts and the church they lived and a family hanging in jeopardy in the middle? I couldn’t fathom the difficulty and thanked God I didn’t have to choose.
Next came the blogs. I devoured a secret personal blog by a closeted gay Mormon man. He was married to a woman and they had four children. He kept writing that he wanted to stay, with his wife, in the church, but when he wrote about blossoming friendships with other men, about exploring intimacy outside the confines of his marriage, I thought it was painfully obvious that wasn’t exactly the case.
I couldn’t relate to anything this man was experiencing but I was fascinated by this glimpse into the mind of another tortured Mormon soul.
A friend from law school turned me onto Feminist Mormon Housewives. He was giving a presentation on Proposition 8 in our Critical Legal Theory class and he was careful to mention that not all Mormons are socially conservative, glancing over at me, and citing FMH as proof. I’d never heard of the website and ran home to type the words into my web browser. I was gobsmacked. It was a group blog run by Mormon women and the tagline in the header read, “angry activists with diapers to change.” Who were these ladies, writing about canning jam and fighting the patriarchy? They were simultaneously eerily regressive (absolute piles of children) and wildly radical (there’s a Heavenly…Mother?). Post after post challenged fundamental Mormon beliefs and practices. They questioned the idea that God told the early Mormons to practice polygamy. They suggested that Mormon women once held a version of the priesthood and perhaps the day would come when they would again. They aired horrific accounts of ecclesiastical abuse. They talked in circles around temple ceremonies that broke their hearts they were so inequitable.
This was the most absorbing content I’d ever read. I felt like I’d walked into a conversation I’d spent my whole life wanting to have.
FMH led me to the semi-Mormon Mommy Bloggers, Mormon women with personal websites that were snarky, and funny, and intellectual, and irreverent. I hadn’t realized that Mormon women could be smart and cool. Chalk it up to internalized misogyny or to me not ever giving Mormon women a real chance, I was willing to atone. I had finally found my people.
After the blogs came the podcasts. Hungry for stories about other Mormon misfits, I tore through the archives of Mormon Stories and Mormon Expressions and Mormon Matters, honing in on women’s stories. Dark as they often were, with self harm and loss and painful encounters with religious authority, these were the stories of women steeped in the same tradition as me making it work, often after watching their religious world disintegrate around them.
- Claudia Bushman forced out of publishing the Exponent II after her husband became stake president.
- Sonia Johnson excommunicated after pushing for the ERA.
- Maxine Hanks and Lavina Fielding Anderson and Margaret Toscano and others excommunicated after writing and editing books about the history and theology of Mormon women.
In addition to the giants of Mormon feminism, I discovered dozens of women with far less storied histories sharing about the personal undoing they experienced when they caught onto a loose thread of inequality and followed it into the rich and tangled web of unorthodox Mormonism. Often, this undoing was followed by a re-weaving of their lives into the Mormon whole, by which I mean: they kept going to church. Theirs were stories of betrayal, loss, and redemption.
After years of ambivalence around the church, torn between feeling like I should be a better Mormon despite not really wanting to be Mormon, it was the Mormon feminists that drew me in, and it was the Mormon feminists who would show me how to stay.
As I read more and more accounts of people who disaffected from Mormon orthodoxy, I noticed that my experience diverged from the typical story in one major way: none of the information I was learning about Mormonism shocked me.
Among the many gifts my parents gave me is a Mormonism that is malleable. A Mormonism that, when I was a teenager, easily accommodated bikinis and short shorts and protest songs. A Mormonism that opposed the Iraq invasion. A Mormonism that drew back in horror when, that same year, the ward choir director announced that the Easter program would shock and awe us, in an obvious reference to the campaign in the Middle East, but loved that choir director just the same. A Mormon community that smiled, bemused, at my hot pink hair in college and applauded when I graduated from law school before getting married.
This kind of Mormonism would readily expand to make room for fallible prophets and bishops behaving badly and confusing and incomplete doctrines about women, people of color, and gay people when the time came. This kind of Mormonism not only tolerated but welcomed big questions. Why does God let bad things happen to good people? What do we do when people claiming to be God’s servants get it seriously wrong.
Make no mistake: I had a healthy fear of “anti-Mormon literature,” which is what my Mormon parents called books and websites that were critical of the church in the 1990s and early aughts. I fretted when my non-LDS boyfriend read things about the church online, worried he’d stumble into something so profoundly ugly that it would ruin any chances of him ever joining the church. Well into my twenties, when I was Hoovering in stories of people who had doubts about the veracity of the church’s teachings, who had had negative experiences in the church, and who, whether as a result of their particular makeup or their unique history, were on their way out, I nervously avoided seeking out information about the church that wasn’t filtered through the lens of a personal story.
Vacuum cleaner that I was, I picked up the bad news anyway. Bad news like:
- Anachronisms in the Book of Mormon–e.g., references to horses and coins when there is no archaeological record of such things having existed in the Americas during the time periods covered by the Book of Mormon. For some people, this is all the proof they need that Joseph Smith faked the whole thing–the One True Church is a scam. It made me want to learn more about the art of translation and how a translator’s worldview impacts the subject text.
- DNA studies–e.g., evidence that ancestors of American Indians migrated from Central Asia and not, as it happens, ancient Israel. For some people, this information undermines everything they thought they knew about the origins of the Americas as told in the Book of Mormon. I couldn’t get through more than 30 minutes of academic discussion on the subject, because it’s dry as hell. Also, everybody gets killed off at the end of that book; it made sense to me that they wouldn’t have left a significant genetic record.
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre–e.g., that time (1857) when a band of Mormon settlers murdered 120 men, women, and children emigrating by wagon from Arkansas to California. This one threw me a little more than the others. I honestly had no idea my people were capable of that. On further thought, though, it is tragic but not senseless. The Mormons were isolated and hysterical, persecution memories were fresh, and tensions were high. Plus, there is evidence that Brigham Young helped orchestrate the attack, and Mormons are nothing if not obedient. History is a bloody mess and I was a natural apologist.
Because nothing shocked me, there was no turning point, no clear demarcation between then and now. I learned something new and it was like I’d always known it. I polished off the whole apple without realizing I’d even taken a bite. I did everything short of walking out of the garden.
My Mormonism was, in addition to being malleable, porous. Teachings that made no sense slid along the membrane and slipped right out. So Joseph Smith married a 15-year-old. My qualms with wrapping my head around the idea of a prophet fucking up to such a monumental degree were few. But I was not about to twist my conscience up in knots pretending that God told him to do that. Or that God just changed his mind about black people in 1978. Or that God cries anything but tears of joy when two men, or two women, fall in love and decide to be family.
Each new, unpleasant pebble of church history dissolved smoothly into the bubble of my belief, as though I had always known it. Those that didn’t passed through. The new information did not rock my faith so much as change the composition and the shape of it, slightly, over time. If anything, these revelations made me more attached to the church. A moody, complicated faith suited my rebellious nature. I knew I’d stick around longer if I could fight for something within the faith, even while I defended it on the outside.
What I didn’t expect is that the church would fight me back.
The first shots rang out in 2012, when I marched with a contingent of LDS supporters of gay marriage in the Chicago Pride Parade. The men wore white shirts and ties and the women wore pioneer dresses and we walked quietly with the other religious groups armed with rainbow flags and signs announcing our allyship. The event organizers were generous enough to put all us Jesus freaks at the front of the parade, and the moment I went from grinning my face off waving at drag queens to rounding a bend and being booed by the Westboro Baptist Church remains one of the most powerful of my life. Humans built bridges that day and God was pleased. A month later, a friend and former law school classmate called me to repentance. He told me that I couldn’t hide my sin by slapping a progressive label on it. He told me that my dissent made me something other than a real Mormon.
The firestorm came later that year, when a ragtag band of Mormon feminists organized Wear Pants to Church Day. What started off as a day for us to show solidarity and raise awareness by wearing pants instead of the customary skirts or dresses to church blew up into an international event with press coverage in major outlets from the New York Times to the Huffington Post to NPR. I got emails from other Mormons, strangers, condemning me.
- Anyone who supports this protest is revealing more about your feeling jipped for being born a woman than it is showing you are proud of womanhood.
- I have you to thank for the hate that is overcoming my facebook today. You incited a verbal riot. Is this what you intended? If not, please remove your event.
- If you wanted to create contention with your page, you have succeeded marvelously. What does the scripture say, “Contention is of the devil”. I wonder what you thought you would accomplish with this. If it was anything other than dividing the membership of the church, you were sadly mistaken.
- Shame on you for trying to make a place of worship, and women in the church feel even more divided and making an issue out of one that really shouldn’t be there. Church leaders have said nothing about wearing pants. This distracts from Christ and being united. It’s not right. People should not be judging others for wearing pants if necessary, as well as those who choose to wear skirts. This idea and day to wear pants is just wrong. Are you truly following Christ and uniting and loving, or are you like the great divider….you decide.
Stephanie L., the woman who started the movement, received a death threat. My mom accused me, with hurt and fear in her voice, of wanting the priesthood–the ability to act in God’s name with God’s power, a privilege available to all Mormon men but only to Mormon men–for myself. I responded to every email graciously, practically begging the question, “What would Jesus do?” I quoted liberally from the Book of Mormon, determined to show them I was the better Christian.
I was besieged in 2013, after I had my baby. I dutifully took her to church on Sundays, alone, desperate for support and reassurance that I was making the right choices as a mother, that I wasn’t doing permanent damage to my daughter by going back to work while my husband stayed home, that I hadn’t already screwed her up royally by marrying outside of the church in the first place. What I got was people asking me when I was going to quit my job, was leaders reminding me that a woman’s job is to nurture and a man’s to provide, that women and men are different but equal.
In the spring of that year, Kate Kelly launched her website advocating for the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Mormon church and members pushed back. Feminists tried to attend the all-male priesthood session of the church’s semiannual general conference in the fall and were turned away at the door. I quietly posted a profile on ordainwomen.org and didn’t share it with anybody because I didn’t want my family to be ashamed.
The war waged in 2014, when the church excommunicated Kelly for her role in pushing for ordination. I wrote about being crippled after watching the body of Christ self-amputate, draining good women like so much lost blood. Up to this point, I’d been crawling along the boundary of what was acceptable in Mormonism, pushing against it and enjoying the way it flexed and stretched. There was always more room, it seemed, for me and for the people I loved. In 2014, the skin snapped back. The pores clogged. My once airy bubble sealed shut, in the world but not of it, a place unto itself. At church, I watched my daughter watch the deacons pass the sacrament. Those twelve-year-old boys had more power in the church than she would ever have. I lived six days a week as a human and went to church on the seventh a failed mom. I could not breathe.
I started drinking again. I got high.
People have been leaving the church for as long as there’s been a church to leave but in 2014 my people started leaving in droves. My friends in Chicago. The women I planned Wear Pants to Church Day with. Women I’d admired from afar. For the first time since I’d come back to the church in my twenties, I wanted out.
Why did I keep going? It wasn’t because I got a thrill out of being an iconoclast. I mean, I did, but it’s not the life I would have chosen for myself. I went because I still believed.
But what did I believe? That the church was “true,” whatever that means? In my heart of hearts, I’d been a universalist for years. I had to be. I was married to a non-believer. My grandmother is an atheist. I had too many friends who would never join the Mormon church in large part because of the irredeemable positions it took on social issues. I had to believe that things would work out for these people or I’d have drunk myself to death years ago over the tragedy of it all.
My belief system was big and slippery, but only for other people. When it came to my own salvation, I was certain that I would live and die in the Mormon bubble. I remembered what my life had been like without the church, how lucky I was to have survived addiction, depression, and insanity, and knew I couldn’t go back. I remembered the experiences that had led me back to the church, the angels that lined my path, the voice of God in my head, and knew I couldn’t discard their power. Mormonism was the only place, the only language, God had ever spoken to me and so I believed it was the only place God would. I believed Mormonism was where and who I was supposed to be. My God was as big as my mind was small.
The irony is that, although it was the church’s rejection of the movement to ordain women to the priesthood that was pushing me to the edge, I never wanted to be a priest. How could I? The notion of a woman acting with authority in the church, in any church, was beyond my wildest imagination. Plus, submitting to the laying on of hands would mean giving up my spot in the cheap seats and my identity a fringe Mormon.
Some months after Kelly’s excommunication, I had a vision of myself in robes. It was during my morning commute. I rode the red line from my neighborhood on the north side. My mind, at that point, was a minefield of anxiety, alcoholism, and fear. The train descended from the elevated tracks to the tunnels below. I couldn’t think of work or family or church without tripping the wire that told me I was failing, that I was falling apart, across the board. The doors slid open and I pushed out into the dark. A comedian’s voice buzzed in my ears; I’d taken to listening to podcasts to muffle the noises in my head, to blunt the existential dread. The escalator closest to my office was under repair so I took the long way to the stairs at the other end of the tunnel and emerged blinking in the bright morning light. I couldn’t get myself to and from work without courting disaster. I stepped off the curb ready to cross State Street, ready to walk out of my life, when it happened. I saw myself standing shin-deep in the water, draped in white, with an embroidered stole. My arms waved, beckoning somebody to join me. I didn’t need more context to know that I was not being baptized into another church; I was doing the baptizing.
Something clicked into place and the pressure in my chest released, breathing life into my cramped vision of how women relate to God. As a Mormon woman, I had been fighting for something that women of other faiths already have. I’d spent so long convinced that, for me, the options were Mormon or nothing, and vacillated wildly between the two. In a moment, I saw that could go somewhere else, and that that place would be filled with light, and that my passions and talents and questions would not just be tolerated, but received.
Is revelation ever easy to take? The vision dissolved into the bubble with every other unsettling thought I’d ever had. Like Jonah, I fled and spent the next year in the belly of the beast.
In November 2015, the LDS church updated its handbooks to include a new policy. Per the policy, members of the church in same-sex marriages were apostates subject to excommunication from the church. Children of same-sex couples were forbidden from being blessed as babies and baptized into the church as children. Instead, they had to wait until they turned eighteen, moved out of their parents’ homes, disavowed gay marriage, and obtained approval from First Presidency–the prophet and his two counselors, the highest leaders in the church.
The policy came as a shock after half a decade during which many progressive Mormons perceived the church as softening its stance toward gay and lesbian members and the larger LGBTQ community. The effects were immediately devastating. Church members across the spectrum expressed bewilderment, hurt, and sorrow, online, at family members. Thousands gathered in Salt Lake City to submit letters resigning their membership in the church. Many more just stopped going. Those committed to the church circled the wagons. Straight people reached out to their gay friends to tell them they were welcome. Bishops and other church leaders offered to meet with their congregants to answer their questions. Ward members invited people into their homes, to hold each other, and to talk. I drank rye whiskey from the bottle and wept.
As with most people, it was the aspect of the policy that barred children from being baptized that hit me hardest. I knew the church sometimes made people leave. I’d seen it in my own lifetime, with Kelly, and others. This was the first time I’d known the church, my church, a young and eager church, a proselytizing church, turn people away who, against all odds, actually wanted to join. The policy dangled the possibility of baptism at a later date, and some kids will probably grab for that chance, but others won’t. I was baptized when I was eight years old. It was an easy choice. Back then, thinking about the church was like wrapping myself in a warm blanket. By the time I was eighteen, all I wanted to do was to get high–I never would have gotten baptized at that point. The new policy told me that the church was okay with losing kids like me. The policy told me that the baptismal covenant wasn’t the essential, life-saving ordinance the church proclaimed it to be. The policy told me that, for some of us, a life inside the church was negligible.
Word of the policy spread like a contagion, and I had an appointment with my bishop within days. He struggled to put into words the reasons for church’s new position. “The church respects families,” he said. “We don’t want to put children in the confusing position of receiving conflicting messages about the sacred doctrine of marriage at church and at home. We don’t want to undermine the parents of those families.”
“But that’s my family. I married outside the faith, outside the temple. And my husband and I believe that people have the right to marry whoever they want and we are teaching our daughter to do the same. How are we different?”
He looked at me with compassion and concern and a profound inability to answer my question. “I want you to know that you and your family are always welcome in our ward.”
But I wasn’t looking for permission to stay. I didn’t need that. Mormonism was my birthright. I’d rejected it and gotten it back and now my heart and my mind were a mess with it. Nobody could take Mormonism from me. I was looking for permission to go, and in the policy I finally had it, from the mouth of the Lord’s anointed.
A few days later, I went for an early morning run outside. It was warm for November. The sidewalks were wet with rain from the night before and the sun was coming up gold over Lake Michigan. I was glad nobody was up yet because every few blocks my face would crumple and I’d let out a horrific barking sob. My relationship with Mormonism had been an agonizing intellectual head game for so long it bizarre to hear my body finally emit the grief. I needed to get away from where people might be so I ran to Lake Michigan and followed the trail out to a little peninsula with a dock that looks south to the city. I dropped to my knees and traced the shoreline past all the neighborhoods I lived before, untethered from them all. A vee of geese knifed through the sky. It seemed late for to be leaving, but when I looked it up later, I learned that the migrations are nothing to set your watch by. Canada Geese pass through Chicago most of the winter and, thanks to warmer winters and urban feeding, some never leave it all.
These days, I don’t know what to call myself. I don’t go to church anymore, but it’s different than before, when I was still a Mormon living in the land of should. Ex-Mormon is too harsh, Post-Mormon too smug. I still envy the people who know how to rip the Band-aid off. I could never be so rash. My relationship with Mormonism was a long, slow unpeeling. Mormonism wasn’t adhesive, it was epidermis and it pulled the follicles of my faith up and out of my one by one. Once I called Mormonism my whole heart, but that was wrong. Mormonism was skin. I can live without it, but I will be raw for years.