One of the oldest tropes in the Mormon apologetic book is that ex-Mormons, when they were in the church, were too serious about Mormonism. Put in another way, one might say that disaffected Mormons had unrealistic expectations of the church and its members, or that they were too perfectionistic. The idea ultimately is that if only the disgruntled former Mormon could learn to expect less and tolerate more, then they would be able to have a mature, nuanced faith and stay in the church.
First, the Ex-Mormon Archetypical Narratives
A little while ago, Carrie Sheffield wrote an article describing the efforts Mormonism needs to take to reform itself. I’ll paste just a snippet to provide a first exhibit of a representative ex-Mormon experience I would like to discuss:
…Yes, Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church.
The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking. This caused trauma and cognitive dissonance when I questioned church doctrine and official history…
…While studying at Brigham Young University, I spiritually imploded after learning… facts outside official church curriculum. Disturbed, I met with a high-ranking Mormon leader who told me to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were “worse than pornography.”
Similarly, in response to the surge in “hipster” Mormons appearing publicly with the I’m a Mormon campaign, Mel wrote of her frustrations:
…I think I’m angry because I worked so fucking hard to be perfect—I sacrificed and hated myself and handed years of my life to that church, all the while feeling like I was a rotten sinner who had their own personal silk-lined handbasket to hell. And when I decided to be true to myself and left the church, my world fell apart. Any post- or ex-mormon knows the costs, and they are devastating and hard to describe without sounding exaggerated. But there are costs. Then I see these ads, and here specifically is a dude who’s admitted to drinking and smoking and he’s all, “I’m a Mormon,” like it’s some wicked cool thing to be now, and it’s totes acceptable to not wear garmies and pay 10% tithing and all those other silly things, and I get so angry I could punch something…
The last post I would like to link with respect to this narrative archetype is Angela from Segullah, and I would like to point out that Angela is not an ex-Mormon (as far as I can tell). In other words, what she writes about the expectations of perfection are what a faithful member can see.
Our LDS church services aren’t super concerned with letting us rest in our non-perfection. Of course, Mormon churches exist for the benefit of non-perfect people just as much as the Protestant church with the banner. Every single Mormon, from the nervous twelve-year-old girl at the pulpit reciting an Article of Faith to any one of the men sitting up on the stand at General Conference, is a non-perfect person, and we all know this. Or at least we should know this. But our slogans don’t tend toward “Perfect people not allowed.” We prefer action verbs (“Lengthen your stride!”) or punchy, motivational rallying cries that also work for tennis shoe companies (“Do it!” — even punchier without the “Just.”) A familiar phrase that’s been important to me since I was a girl, “Walk tall, you’re a daughter of God”? Even that implies effort. Walking, for example. And good posture. “Curl up in a ball on the Love Sac and take a nap, you’re an exhausted mother of four,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but oh! On certain days I would be tempted to print that out in vinyl lettering and slap it over my entryway.
All kidding aside, though, there are times I wish our church culture allowed us to admit our imperfections a little bit more.
These are just three experiences of people who — for whatever reason — experienced a pressure to believe or act a certain way, and when they felt difficulty in doing so, faced confrontation from others either directly (from leaders, family, or friends) or indirectly (through church slogans or phrases.)
Second, the Faithful Mormon Response Archetypes
Perhaps some thoughts went through your head when you read the previous snippets. With respect to Mel (the second snippet), I could think of the trope that Mel just took church too seriously. With respect to Carrie (first snippet), I thought, “Well, the church/gospel is perfect, but the people are not.” Each of these responses minimizes or discounts the experiences of the person experiencing them as being a fault of the person. It’s Mel’s fault for (forgive the pun) not being more mellow. It’s Carrie’s fault for not recognizing the flaws of the people in the church — both dead and gone, relegated to history; and living and current, the members of our families and wars — when evaluating the church. But you don’t have to take my word for these kinds of responses…I’ll post some of these kinds of responses I’ve read recently.
Jake, right here at W&T, just published an article implying that those whose faiths fall apart from certain historical details do so because they had too much faith. In the following passage, the emphasis is preserved from Jake’s original post:
…we all place people on monstrous pedestals, we place Joseph Smith, the church, and the leadership on these pedestals. We think that we are making them ideals, but the fact is they are only false idols. Of course, the leadership are complicit in the building up of these idealistic images of the past, and the present, but our belief in them is entirely our own; no one forces us to accept the images and interpretations of others and we must take ownership of the fact that we chose to believe too much. The problem with any form of idealism is that it invariably leads to disappointment.
Carl C. had a post calling on people to leave the LDS cult of false expectations:
…I think that for far too many in the church have set up a false church. They think that their church says science is satanic, that it tells all of its women to only stay home and produce babies, that the prophets and apostles are infallible, never have disagreed, don’t currently disagree, never will disagree, and meet with the Savior weekly in the temple meeting Thursday morning, that all of church history is puppies and rainbows and roses except for when other bad evil nasty people attack the completely innocent and saintly Mormons and maybe the 116 pages incident, that polygamy was introduced and ended without a hitch, that anybody who is questioning the church in any way, shape, or form must be secretly a dirty sinning apostate because why would you ask questions unless you had been completely abandoned by the Spirit?!?, that the Book of Mormon civilizations were every Native American from the top of Alaska to the bottom of South America, that every prophet from Adam to Thomas S. Monson knew exactly everything that every other prophet knew, and that it all corresponds to the current correlated manuals, and that everybody outside the church is not going to end up in the Celestial Kingdom so we should shun them, even members of our own families, too bad for them.
I call this the LDS Cult of False Expectations.
The solution is to leave it.
Now, there are two ways to leave it. You can either (1) take off from the LDS church itself, or (2) you can get Mormonism right.
…I’m so terribly sorry for all of those who grew up or are currently in environments, whether a ward, a seminary or institue class, or a family, or whatever, that adheres to and teaches the principles of the LDS Cult of False Expectations. I’m sorry that many Mormons aren’t what they are supposed to be. In many ways, Sheffield’s article should be a wake-up call to Mormons in general. Nay, a call to repentance! We’re not getting our own religion right. It’s not supposed to be that way. I was blessed enough to be born into, and later to marry into, a family that largely, I think, does get it right. But we have work to do ourselves. Everybody does. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints
Finally, a Synthesis and Call to Action
What I liked about Carl’s post (but I felt it could’ve been emphasized more, and I think many of the comments at his blog were from people who did not feel he adequately addressed this concern) was that it implied that it’s not just disaffected Mormons who are prey to this Cult of False Expectations. Rather, it’s the perfectionistic family, the hyper-conservative Bishop, the anti-intellectual seminary teacher, just as well. And on and on and on.
See, here’s the deal. Where I disagree with Jake is that I don’t think that beliefs are “entirely our own.” I don’t think that saying “no one forces us to accept the images and interpretations of others” means that we have a perfectly free, 100% unbounded choice in believing whatever we want to believe. Instead, when we grow up, we do so situated in a particular environment…and what our parents expect…what our friends in the ward expect, what our leaders expect…all of these will have an impression upon us.
If we grow up in an environment that Carl C calls “the LDS Cult of False Expectations,” then we are more likely to internalize and perpetuate that environment’s attitudes and assumptions about the church.
This isn’t just a problem for disaffected Mormons. This is a problem for every Mormon. Mormons who are in some way — whether consciously or unconsciously — perpetuating false expectations. Mormons who are burdened by those false expectations. Mormons who have experienced an altogether different church than the cult of false expectations and who, like Carl, want others to get Mormonism right. Each of these groups has to work together to make progress.
Ultimately, the answer is not to divide the church from the people. The church and its people are an interconnected system: after all, the church is perpetuated by people, and even more importantly, the goals of the church are, in some ways, to change people. To put it in another way, organizationally and ideologically, the church is connected to people, so one cannot divide one from the other. So, instead of dividing blame between church and people, perhaps we need to instead discuss…
- What is it about the church *and* the people within the church that perpetuates these attitudes?
- Why do these attitudes seem more pervasive in some families and not in others? In some wards and not in others?
- What it is that could nip these false expectations in the bud, or at the very least, help those who have had these false expectations realize that there are other legitimate ways of engaging in the church without these expectations? W
- What is it that could make *all members* — not just the disaffected ones — “mellow” out?