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When I was a child, like all children, I believed everything my parents and most other adults told me. But, unlike most of my friends, I was being raised by Mormon converts. My father converted to Mormonism in the late 1960s after his commanding officer in Viet-Nam noticed that he wasn’t attending church services on Sundays and invited my father to join him – he was baptized there. My mother converted in 1972 after her brother and sister-in-law joined and encouraged her to do the same. My parents met at a church dance when my dad was stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, they got married seven months later.
I remember getting into arguments with my non-Mormon friends about religion. I was convinced that I was right and they were wrong, and this spilled over into most aspects of my life. I wasn’t taught to believe the church was true, I was taught that it was true – to know the truth. Therein lies the difference. I believe that I’m going to live to see tomorrow, but I know it. As with anything I’ve since learned that I can’t really know anything. Everything changes, and what was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but I’m rarely disappointed.
With all the hubbub surrounding Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman’s presidential bids, it’s shed an interesting light on the Mormon experience. I personally don’t concern myself with the religious affiliation of those running for any office, because it doesn’t matter to me. However, I do see this as an opportunity for the Mormon church to do more than the “I’m a Mormon” campaign. Being Mormon means more than believing that a prophet is currently alive and can literally speak for God, more than the beliefs is the culture.
Mormons go to church each Sunday and refer to one another as “brother” and “sister.” They are taught that the second coming of Christ cannot happen until all the spirits waiting in heaven have received bodies here on Earth, hence their large families and the church’s former policies against contraception (they now leave family planning to couples to decide over prayer as large families began to drain the church welfare system). They believe that men and women have equal, but different roles, and those “different” roles are what lead outsiders (and insiders) to think that the role of the woman is to remain supplicant to the man. If you have questions, it’s best not to ask them because only those who aren’t devoted to the Church, and to God could question it, and you don’t want other members to talk about your wavering faith. Though, if you do ask a question that doesn’t have an answer you’ll probably be told that the answer has yet to be revealed to a modern day prophet and that God will reveal that knowledge when the time is right.
In yesterday’s Washington Post Carrie Sheffield wrote about her experience within the church and out of it. And I can agree with everything she has to say. Though, unlike her I started questioning the church in middle school. When boys and girls turn 12, they graduate from Primary – essentially a time each Sunday for children to sing fun songs about god – to the Young Men or young Women’s organizations. There we’re taught about our roles within the church and society and how we can be good members of the church within those roles. This is to say, I was told that women should go to college, to get an education “just in case” anything should happen to my future husband that would require me to work outside the home. And that my first responsibility was to my husband and then my children, and that I should only grow up to work outside the home if absolutely necessary.
That wasn’t the life I had envisioned for my future. My parents allowed me to develop a slight obsession with Frank Lloyd Wright, and I wanted to be an Architect. If my mom could do it all, why couldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I? I’ve never been very receptive to being told what to do if I can’t see it directly benefiting me. I like making my own decision and not having ridiculous rules set in place for me to follow. In the summertime I liked wearing shorts, but once I hit puberty suddenly everything was too short. “Modesty” is defined as wearing clothing that isn’t “revealing” – shirts must completely cover your back and stomach no matter how you move, skirts and pants must cover the knee, and shirts must cover the shoulder – all of this is to prepare you for temple marriage and the “special underwear” you will one day wear. That’s fine, but it’s presented as a choice, but nothing in Mormonism is really a choice.
Your choice is to do what you’re “supposed to do” or not be a member in good standing, which goes on your church record and will affect what callings (job) you may have at church and ultimately if you’ll get into Heaven. It is often said that you should “be in the world, but not of the world.” Though many have taken that to an extreme as to ostracize those who do not believe, and do not act the same way you do. Members of the church are more than happy to welcome you into the fold, but as soon as you question something, or express a difference in opinion, those friends you’ve made can be gone. Because if you’re choice to live life in such a way that makes you happy, is not the prescribed method for happiness as proclaimed by the church – it is wrong.
If you leave, or “fall away,” you have to be prepared to not have those friends anymore. The beliefs of the church aren’t so different from other Christian faiths, but the culture is among the most uniform and extreme. It’s not enough to share the same basic beliefs if you don’t practice them in the same way. And if you come to the realization that it’s all bull pucky, well, they will mourn your loss and discuss it in the hallway as though you took up heroin and need to go to rehab. Because how could anyone not be happy living the way that they do?
It does seem appealing, and I understand that living that way works for a lot of people. But it didn’t make me happy. Leaving the Church was like having a boulder lifted off my back. The anxiety, the depression, the consistency of never being good enough – that was gone. I still feel these things from time to time, but not because I feel inadequate trying to reach some ideal that’s been decided for me, I feel that way because I know who I want to be and I haven’t reached become her yet.