“It feels good not to be trammeled.”

Joseph Smith, founding a Church that becomes a bastion of conformity

I was recently listening to a podcast I stumbled across called Latter-day Struggles. It’s a pretty good podcast, although I don’t normally (sorry guys) listen to or enjoy Mormon podcasts. This one is a little more general, focused on psychology and avoiding (to an extent) specific references to Mormonism, instead applying its discussion to conservative Christian sects generally. In this recent episode, they discussed the idea that there are two broad types of people at Church: those who have not struggled or suffered, and those who have.

Those who have not experienced suffering enjoy what the podcasters called a pseudo-community (here’s where I start paraphrasing and probably mess up their actual points), which is superficial and based on structural associations, but it doesn’t rise to the level of true friendship because there is no vulnerability or depth to the relationships. This lack of relationship results in a “pseudo-community,” one that is discussed frequently in online Mormon (and ex-Mormon) spaces. People lament that those they thought were their friends didn’t care when they quit coming to Church, or weren’t really their friends when they went through a personal struggle, or ditched the relationship as soon as they expressed doubts, or only discussed Church related things with them, etc. It’s a very common conversation. In the podcast, they mentioned that there aren’t many Churches that actually create a real community because people are seldom vulnerable and raw with each other (which I gotta be honest sounds awful anyway). They said it’s why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous are successful at creating empathy and deep relationships whereas Church is just not good at that. Church is really more of a country club than a hospital, but it plays a doctor on TV.

Speaking of playing a doctor on TV, we have been re-watching M*A*S*H episodes chronologically[1] since most of our TV shows are not currently on (they mostly hold up, believe it or not), and last night we got to Season 2, Episode 22 “George.” In this episode, a soldier is being operated on for his 4th time having been hit in the line of fire. Frank and Margaret laud what a brave hero he is for his service. Hawkeye & Trapper note that he’s also covered in bruises.

The patient, George, sees that Hawkeye is a caring person and confides to him that his bruises are due to his unit finding out that he’s gay and beating him up. Because homosexuality is grounds for dishonorable discharge in the army during the Korean war, he pleads for Hawkeye to keep his secret and make sure he can get back to the front lines and finish his service honorably. While Hawkeye doesn’t divulge his sexual orientation, Frank finds out from gossip and immediately works to notify the army to dishonorably discharge this “pervert” as he calls him.

In true M*A*S*H fashion, Hawkeye points out directly to Frank that it’s none of his business, and that he’s a pious hypocrite since he’s having an affair with Margaret (often including weird fetishes). Frank is unmoved, so Trapper & Hawkeye entrap Frank into divulging that he cheated on his medical exams, which they threaten to use to ruin Frank’s practice at home. This is portrayed as an equivalent threat, but also (troublingly) as an equivalent “transgression.” Both men (George & Frank) have “made mistakes,” and why can’t Frank see that and let bygones be bygones?

This episode originally aired February 16, 1974. That was almost 50 years ago. It was more compassionate toward homosexuality than some things I’ve heard from the Church in the last six months.

What it got right: the hypocrisy and lack of empathy of homophobic, supposedly religious people like Frank. The character of Frank Burns is always portrayed as the worst impulses of Americans and the military: lauding bravery while displaying cowardice, pretending religiousness despite having been a serial adulterer his entire life, and making plenty of contradictory statements in a whining, self-defensive voice that illustrate his fecklessness and hypocrisy. What the episode missed or at least did not address: the fact that this kid, who was already gravely injured 4 times, was begging to go back to the front lines where he would again face the prospect of being killed. The fifth time’s the charm?

Rather than treating this like what it appeared to be to me (suicidal ideation), they showed that he was the bravest soldier, not at all a threat to his unit, but instead a true hero, unlike people like Frank. While that’s a fine message (and important in a homophobic military), it’s also not typical for M*A*S*H which normally portrays gung-ho types as the real risk to their units, the ones who stupidly charge into danger, putting everyone in the crosshairs in their quest for glory. M*A*S*H is at its heart an anti-war sitcom, using the Korean war as a placeholder for criticising the Vietnam war.

I appreciated that it showed that a gay man could be a patriotic, brave soldier (especially given all the effeminate slurs the spineless and cowardly Frank uses to describe gay people), but I would have liked the show to comment on the toll it takes on someone to be gay when surrounded by this kind of derision and fear of coming out, and the very real and repeated threats to his safety. Were his injuries evidence of his bravery, or of his unit being unwilling to provide him cover, seeing his life as worthless due to his sexual orientation?

The show deals with homosexuality quite often, but usually in underdeveloped ways, mostly as a joke, but never revulsion. Even Klinger, who cross-dresses to get a Section 8, is treated with respect and admiration for his total commitment and his fashion choices. Only the characters who illustrate negative character traits (like Frank, Col. Flagg, or others who represent war-mongering hyper-masculine types or religious hypocrites) treat others with contempt. I’ve just been thinking about this difficulty that some have in feeling empathy, and that it seems to go hand in hand with a patriotic fervor focused on its own righteousness and loyalty to the institution. Struggling, admitting doubts or fears, can be mistranslated as disloyalty to the mission or the organization.

In a recent church talk, the speaker talked about her pioneer forebears[2], detailing their struggles, including burying newborns, losing loved ones to illness, and physical hardships that are beyond our imagination. She insisted that these paragons of long-suffering virtue were never sad despite these problems. They never grumbled or doubted. They cheerfully went on their way as if it was just another Tuesday. I might have detached a retina in the eyeroll her assertions prompted. She might believe that her ancestors never complained or that they were cheerful as they buried a baby in the desert, but I don’t believe it.

More importantly, though, why would anyone tell such a story? The point of shared suffering is often to build empathy and compassion, to bring people closer together through vulnerability. But her stories were not about suffering. They were about suffering being the enemy to be avoided. That faith requires us to be cheerful constantly as evidence of our rightness. That only the weak or bad people find suffering to be difficult. Good people maintain cheer in the face of adversity. Not only is this hogwash, it’s downright dangerous. This type of detachment is how sociopaths think. For people who’ve actually suffered, this kind of happy talk is hurtful.

As he that taketh away a garment in cold weather, and as vinegar upon nitre, so is he that singth songs to an heavy heart.

Proverbs 25:20

I don’t actually think she’s a sociopath, just someone who doesn’t really have a lot of empathy, who finds being “right” more important than being human, someone who hasn’t really suffered, someone for whom pseudo-community is not only enough but at risk and needing to be protected from the messiness of life. That kind of attitude is fine for Primary maybe, but it’s just not worth my time as an adult. And it seems to be, more and more, what’s on offer.

At one point in the M*A*S*H episode, Frank reveals his revulsion about the homosexual soldier in an exchange with Pierce and Trapper:

Frank: Don’t you understand? The man is not normal.

Trapper: What’s normal?

Frank: Everybody doing the same thing.

Pierce: What about individuality?

Frank: Individuality’s fine. As long as we all do it together.


Suffering is not a group activity, and it is one of the things that make us unique. Keeping our meetings patriotic, focused on obedience, fealty to leaders, and a sort of patriotic religiosity makes it a place where empathy can’t really exist because nobody can be real. We have to be performing our happiness because anything other than that would imply the church isn’t enough to fix every problem. But that forced cheerfulness is itself a problem.

  • Do you find Church to be a pseudo-community or have you created truer, deeper relationships with your fellow Mormons? What made the difference?
  • Do you see a lack of empathy as a problem at Church?
  • Do you find the comparison of Church with the military instructive or misplaced? Explain your answer.
  • Are you a M*A*S*H fan?


[1] We are re-watching on Hulu Premium because conventional TV is cutting so much content out of the episodes to fit in more commercials that they don’t really even make sense!

[2] I can literally feel my teeth beginning to grind when a speaker inevitably steers into his or her personal pioneer pedigree.