By random coincidence, after I had written this post, news broke that the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) is undergoing a huge scandal regarding sex abuse among their clergy. You can read more about it here. One of the many money quotes:

In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.

“This is the Southern Baptist Apocalypse,” Christianity Today


There’s a moment in Under the Banner of Heaven, episode 5 where the narrative turns a corner for me. Detectives Pyre and Taba are talking to a witness / possible accomplice in his very Mormon home with his very Mormon wife. The husband is gushing about how wonderful his sweetheart is and encourages her to go make everyone some homemade lemonade (WTF is up with this lemonade nonsense?), and while she’s safely ensconced, out of earshot, in the kitchen (where she belongs, no doubt), he openly admits to the Detectives that he has been a part of this secret School of the Prophets polygamist group that is discussing that they should all be taking additional wives, and obviously that’s what all men want, right? But he keeps checking over his shoulder to be sure his wife won’t hear. Det. Pyre, who is clearly appalled, keeps acting like he’s going to expose the husband to his wife as the dark-hearted would-be adulterer that he so obviously is, but he never really does it, instead applying pressure to get compliance from him.

The scene reminded me of an Eddie Murphy sketch on Saturday Night Live from the early 80s in which he puts on “white face,” and then the camera follows him into public spaces and captures just how differently white people act when only white people are present. All the other white people he encounters act like he’s in a secret club where everything is free, there are private parties and drinks on public transportation (but only when all the BIPOC people have exited), and there are no consequences for one’s actions. Apparently, that’s what it’s like to be a Mormon man once the wives are out of the room. Like Trump claiming that “if you’re rich, they let you,” then explaining it was just “locker room talk” (an all-male space), Mormon men secretly harbor the hope that they can have sex with as many women as they want, have their every domestic wish fulfilled without lifting a finger, have a huge posterity that they only have to spend 15 pleasurable minutes contributing to, and their eternal reward is glory and godhood. Are there Mormon men who are like this? I’m sure there are. Were founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young like this? Probably, according to lots of evidence. Are they the majority? I hope to God they are not, and I hope equally fervently that they are becoming more rare.

Lindsay Hansen Park did an eye-opening post sharing the stories of women (and a few men) who found the portrayal of Mormon abuse in Under the Banner of Heaven to be all too familiar. It’s definitely worth a read if you haven’t yet. As I read through these stories, including several in which a woman’s partner tried to coerce or manipulate her into allowing him to practice polygamy, or used “plural marriage” as a justification for his own infidelity, or physically and verbally abused her using the justification that she needed to submit to his priesthood authority, it occured to me that 1) I have not been abused in these ways, but 2) I do know people who have been abused in these ways, and 3) they were frequently not given the support that they should have been given by their family, their ward, church leaders, and church rhetoric. It made it more easy to understand why these victims of abuse feel triggered by the progressive criticism that the show inaccurately portrays our faith culture. One thing was clear to me in all of the stories I’ve heard, that this is the protection hierarchy: Church > priesthood holder > victims and everyone else. [1]

All patriarchal religions seem to have a “flavor” to the types of abuse that flourish in them. That flavor is comprised of the unique justifications abusers use to blame their victims, exonerate themselves, and garner support from the organization. Within the Catholic Church, the flavor includes elements of the celibate priesthood, pedophilia (and other sex abuses), and the sacredness of the confessional (your confessed misdeeds can’t hurt you). Within Mormonism, our recipe includes polygamy, godhood, priesthood, and gender roles, to name a few of the ingredients. Part of the specific Mormon flavor is that, unlike Catholicism, we’ve brought that patriarchal “priesthood” authority into the home and given that privilege (and justification) to all males, whereas in the Catholic Church that potential weapon remains inside the Church and its institutions. We’ve imported the abuse. The calls are coming from inside the house.

I am aware of a few specific examples of “Mormon-flavored abuse” that I actually heard about. One was a mission president who tried to convince sister missionaries (successfully in some cases) that they were supposed to become his plural wives. This was in the 1970s, I believe, maybe the 1980s. I remember thinking how ridiculous it was that anyone would attempt that or fall for it because the idea was so foreign to me. Another was closer to home. A man in our ward was physically abusing his wife because she would not submit to his priesthood authority (he said) and she fled with her baby. Our family harbored them for a while, but her husband convinced her to come home again. One assumes the abuse resumed at that point because that is how domestic abuse stories go.

Of course, that’s not to say that the Church deliberately creates abusers, and it probably doesn’t even follow that abuse occurs at a higher rate within the Church. [2] Abusive people exist inside and outside of the Church, just like racism and sexism exist both inside and outside of the Church. The reason there is a flavor (including a Mormon-flavored racism and a Mormon-flavored sexism) is because there are elements within the Chuch’s own rhetoric and culture that protect and foster racist, sexist and abusive attitudes, even if the Church also claims not to condone any of these things and sometimes speaks out against them. As Professor Kendi put it, it’s not enough not to be racist; you have to be anti-racist because the system is racist. The culture is racist. The default is racism. If you aren’t actively and effectively and consistently fighting against these problems, you are allowing them to flourish. You can say you are anti-cockroach, but words without actions do nothing about what’s hiding under your fridge.

One thing I related in my mission memoir was that as sisters we were constantly approached by victims of domestic abuse, and yet, we really didn’t have any tools or training to help us know what to do for them. The only tool in our kit was baptism, something which not only didn’t address their abuse but might even lead to more of it. In one case, a distraught woman explained that she had an abortion because her husband was physically abusive and she was afraid he would kill her. We were told by our Mission President to drop her because of his anti-abortion views; her violent abuse was easily dismissed, but her abortion was a dealbreaker.

Reading through the stories Lindsay compiled and considering the horrible abuses that culminated in murder and incest in Under the Banner of Heaven, I am reminded of the Swiss cheese analogy. When things go wrong, we have a tendency to blame the last person who touched it. The reality is that sytems and relationships are more complex. There is never just one failure or cause, including with abuses like these. Many things must have failed to get to this point. Like a stack of Swiss cheese slices, the holes in someone’s support system sometimes randomly all line up, leaving them completely vulnerable to their abuser.

Abuse is often multi-generational; unresolved trauma lives on and is passed from one generation to the next, both through family and church culture, and even in our DNA. Abuse is usually justified by the abuser who blames his or her victims and teaches them to internalize the shame, to hide the abuse, and to protect the abuser. People who should be the victim’s support network, who should help them extricate themselves from the abuse, fail when they don’t believe victims or look for the ways the victim was imperfect rather than dealing with the abuse directly. Abusers are adept at using their privilege within systems to silence and marginalize their victims.

If you want to know where the trauma lies in a family (or a church), look for the thing those responsible for the organization don’t want to acknowledge or deal with. That’s where the trauma is. If you are Mormon, and you don’t know that polygamy is a place where trauma resides (or the unequal treatment of women, or racism, or homophobia), listening to Brad Wilcox’s breathtakingly bizarre justifications or Elder Oaks’ tone deaf punchlines should make it clear. Let’s pretend it’s a joke, and maybe it will deflect blame and make it look like we’re not complicit because it’s not really a problem, and the people complaining are the issue. Nothing to see here. Move alone. The fact that actual missionaries assigned to conduct the Beehive House tours didn’t even know Brigham Young was a polygamist is another such tell.

Under the Banner of Heaven makes one thing clear that totally rang true: the mainstream Church does not want information about fundamentalist sects to hit the news because they know it will reflect badly on them. [3] While this is true in part because outsiders will conflate fundamentalists with mainstream Mormons, it’s also a neat dodge since both sects share the same roots, and while one may have steered into the trauma, and the other seeks to distance itself from it, neither has rooted it out. Neither has addressed the harm in a direct way. Neither is truly anti-polygamy (one is pro, the other is trying to avoid the question, even to its own membership). Erasing and suppressing trauma isn’t the same as addressing and resolving it.

Every time we teach our young men that they have more authority than the young women, we set up a pre-written script for future abuses to be justified. We aren’t creating that abuse, and abuse is still the exception and not the rule, but we are providing the narrative. We are adding holes to the Swiss Cheese, making it more likely that they will line up. When we encourage women to be financially dependent on their husbands, to marry early, to have children often and early, we are creating vulnerabilities that make it nearly impossible for a woman to leave an abusive relationship and survive. When every ecclesiastical leader involved in giving marital advice is a man, we foster an alignment with the male abuser’s perspective, not because bishops are abusive, but because they are not abusers (and don’t recognize it for what it is). While they can’t imagine being an abuser, they can imagine the horror of a false accusation more than they can imagine the horror of being a victim of abuse.

They also are not women, and we’ve set up women to be a wholly different species, not equal, not comprehensible, a role of domestic duties rather than a person. When we teach that a woman’s sole purpose is housework, child care, and to support a man, we allow her family and friends to turn on her or turn away from her when her ability to fill this role crumbles or if her role performance is imperfect. We leave her in a position to hear that she just needs to try harder, be better, do more, forgive freely; we reinforce her abuser’s justifications that place the blame on her and encourage her to downplay her abuse, even to herself.

We must quit adding holes to the Swiss cheese. We must quit handing pre-written scripts to abusers.

  • Have you encountered examples of these types of “Mormon-flavored” abuse, directly or indirectly?
  • How should the Church address sexism, racism, homophobia, and polygamy in order to prevent abuse and further trauma?
  • What other examples of Mormon traumas, things we don’t want to acknowledge or discuss, can you think of?
  • What would you tell the Church to do differently to prevent abuse and to address it? What would you tell your daughters?


[1] That hierarchy holds up in every religious scandal from what I can see, and we are far from the “gold standard” we claim to be.

[2] Kirton-McConkie certainly works overtime to make sure we will never know.

[3] This was so effective that at 18 when I first went to BYU, I had absolutely no idea that fundamentalists even existed, or that anyone was still actually practicing polygamy. I had imagined, completely wrongly, that when the end of polygamy was announced, 100% of Church members were hugely relieved and immediately quit this terrible practice, grateful that the madness was over.