“Every solution is a ticket to a new problem.” I’ve quoted Henry Kissinger in many a blog post. We’ve been warned to take our vitamins and buckle up because Pres. Nelson has many reforms in mind for the church. So far, most of these have been either net positive or somewhat neutral (hobby horse policy changes like not using “LDS” or “Mormon”) , and yet, I’ve heard the term “whiplash” used to describe how members are feeling. Surprisingly, some of the most progressive members are the ones reeling the most from the progressive changes. Why is that?
“Every change coming out recently seems like a slap in the face to everyone who was told that they had to do things a certain way because that’s how god wants things done, that they were only upset because they didn’t have enough faith. I don’t think the future members should have to suffer the same way, but I really wish the church would acknowledge the pain it’s caused and show appreciation for the people who have been actively working to get changes made instead of pretending that these are all just god changing his mind.” Comment in a discussion about the latest temple sealing change, allowing couples to marry in a civil ceremony without the previous punitive  one-year mandatory waiting period.
Sunk cost: “In economics and business decision-making, a sunk cost is a cost that has already been incurred and cannot be recovered. Sunk costs are sometimes contrasted with prospective costs, which are future costs that may be incurred or changed if an action is taken.” (from Wikipedia)
It’s no wonder that church leaders would make decisions based on avoiding future costs rather than addressing the sacrifices that have already been made, the embarrassments and inconveniences suffered, the relationships harmed. Better to move forward. We can’t change the past, right? We can’t unfeel racism or sexism in temple practices. We can’t get back the hours of church meetings we’ve already attended. We can’t go back and undo the hurt feelings of converts’ families who had to wait outside of weddings. Water under the bridge. But it stings, like getting an expensive speeding ticket the day before the speed limit is raised.
Without any sort of acknowledgement or public statement of apology, those who sacrificed the most–or who feel those sacrifices most keenly–may be feeling a second type of pain: that their sacrifices were arbitrary and in vain. For some policy changes, the pain is more acute than others, particularly since some people were impacted more than others. The revised policy around gay parents was one, temple verbiage changes another, and this week’s announcement about no longer delaying temple sealings for civil married couples is another.
Once you conclude that the church’s institutional policies have caused you unnecessary pain with what feel like arbitrary man-made policies that are easily reversed, it’s not a long walk to putting all existing and future church policies on the table for reevaluation. For progressives who have long clamored for these changes either publicly or privately, this sense of vindication reduces the influence of church authority in personal decision making. That may be a good thing, perhaps long overdue, maybe inevitable for progressives in a conservative faith, or maybe it’s one of those new problems Kissinger talked about.
In considering the new policy regarding civil marriages, the majority of impacts were those felt by brides & grooms with non-LDS family members that they excluded from this important day in their lives. It was a policy that was particularly difficult for converts who married church members, resulting in several bad outcomes:
- Sealings where one spouse had dozens of relatives and friends in attendance with literally nobody in attendance, not even a suitable escort, for the convert spouse.
- Parents who had paid for the wedding being excluded from the ceremony.
- Non-members being permanently turned off the church and/or estranged from their convert children because of hurt feelings.
- Individuals who chose to marry civilly first rather than hurting their non-temple family members being shamed by tactless leaders and church members, their marriages called by some “invalid in God’s eyes,” and others assuming a lack of worthiness of bride & groom, looking for signs of pregnancy.
“On what should’ve been the happiest day of my life, my new BIL said that morning, “This isn’t a wedding, it’s a disappointment.”” Comment from church member who chose to marry civilly before a temple sealing.
“Two months after I joined the church my wife and I eloped. We had a civil marriage. We were told that God didn’t recognize our marriage as valid.” Comment from a new convert who married civilly first rather than waiting a full year to marry.
Even in situations where both spouses were from LDS families, there were people excluded besides non-members:
- Younger siblings or relatives
- Children of the bride or groom
- Gay parents or siblings
- Non-tithe paying parents
- Family members with mental disabilities
“It would be an understatement, I believe, to say that my family were unsympathetic towards me. On the contrary, they thought I should just do the right thing – do what it takes, to have a temple recommend. What it would have taken is to lie through my teeth to my bishop & stake president, and (knowing the bishop) likely to pay a year’s worth of back tithing.” Comment from man excluded from his daughter’s temple wedding.
“It’s funny how the Mormon church is redoing everything as they continue their rebranding efforts yet they make no apologies. They could have stopped the pain for families decades ago, but didn’t. And today they act like they’ve never hurt anyone…and yet they’ve been shaming, extorting, and separating families forever.” Comment from a church member feeling resentful of the lack of apology.
The lack of acknowledgement carries another pain point: personal regret at past actions for those who upheld those policies, who now see themselves as having behaved callously, chosen the institution over family, or felt smugly superior for following church counsel, souring relationships in the process.
“I regret it everyday. The exclusion and moral superiority I felt at that time, now disgusts me and makes me feel horrible. This change is fantastic, but IMO, too little to late.” Church member regretting following a now defunct policy.
“I will always feel bad that I excluded them, but mostly I’m angry … angry that I was put in that situation, and that I allowed an organization to manipulate me into hurting those that I loved the most.” Comment from a church member.
I don’t think I’m the only progressive church member to be thrilled with this long-overdue change. We should definitely breathe a sigh of relief. But that sense of relief is a reminder that we were putting up with something. And it increases my own awareness of other times I feel I’m putting up with something unpleasant because of a church policy. It raises the stakes for future behavior.
Among the most orthodox, this doesn’t seem to be as big a concern. Putting up with things feels like evidence of one’s righteousness. I have heard many talks in which teaching the youth in particular that they can “do hard things” is deemed important.
Sacrifice is part of living a Christian life, certainly, but not all sacrifices are equal. Failing to acknowledge them at these times of overdue progressive change feels like the sacrifices are either not valued by the organization or its people or that they are now deemed as having been unnecessary, the choices and fault of the person who made them.
Some orthodox members refer to the progressive changes as the church caving to social pressure to prevent attrition. They call it a “lower law,” as if the old, more hurtful policies were somehow a “higher law.” That’s a pretty outlandish perspective from where I’m sitting, but it has always been this way: when the united order was scrapped in favor of tithing, when polygamy was disavowed, when garments were shortened from ankle and wrist length, when Coke became available on BYU campus, etc. I don’t know how you get such individuals to put down their muskets and get a clue.
- Who is the larger casualty of all the change? The orthodox who are disappointed with the church “caving” to social pressure or the progressives who feel their sacrifices were in vain?
- How have you felt as a result of the changes? Have you experienced whiplash?
- What future changes do you anticipate?
 They can pry those words out of my cold, dead lexicon.
 Whether you agree it was intended to be punitive or not, the difference between the policy in European countries and the US felt punitive to civil-married couples in the US.