If you hadn’t already known, post, ex, former and disaffected Mormons suffer from demeaning stereotypes. They “leave the church, but can’t leave it alone.” Perhaps the disaffected Mormon disaffected because she “was offended,” or maybe the ex-mormon left because “he wanted to sin.”
These stereotypes cause folks to raise walls for defense — chances are that if a comment comes about that is even possibly construed as suggesting that an ex-Mormon only has issues with the church because they wanted to sin, then there will be at least someone in the discussion who will vocally protest that idea. As most of the stereotypes about ex-Mormonism tend to focus on subjective factors (being offended, wanting to sin, etc.,) the typical ex-Mormon response is to minimize these subjective factors completely and to highlight objective criticism — the church, its doctrine, and its history have x, y, and z problems that cannot be ignored and that are inadequately addressed by apologists, so the response will go.
A few weeks ago, I provided selected transcripts of John Dehlin’s interview on Mormon Stories and A Thoughtful Faith, and I asked for your opinions without providing much commentary. I just wanted to see if John’s comments would be as controversial when laid out on a page rather than stretched over 3 hours…but I also wanted to see if anyone had similar thoughts to the ones I had when I was listening to the podcast and reviewing the transcript. In honesty, I did indeed see on several other online venues — especially on Facebook — some people who had similar reactions as I did, but these reactions were far from the most common reactions.
For fairness’s sake, I understand John’s sadness that his words have been misinterpreted so far. Whatever one feels about its statistical validity, John’s research definitely seeks to dispel the common myths about why Mormons become disaffected.
There were just several points of the transcript of John’s interview that gave me pause. And when I thought about why I paused, I realized it was because I recognized a great complexity in the issue of morality post-Mormonism. I will address my (often conflicting concerns) in three broad strokes. 1) Exmormons aren’t immoral (at least not to the extent that one would inferred by John’s thematic repetition in his interview), but there is something to be said for reevaulating morality when one leaves the church because 2) there are plenty of elements of Mormon morality that shouldn’t be taken for granted and 3) Mormonism itself does a bad job of teaching people how to think about morality.
1) Exmormons aren’t immoral.
Throughout the interview, John cautiously walks a line between trying to speak about his own experience and generalizing to others’ experience. As I excerpted from part 2, he describes thoughts that he experienced after his faith crisis, but his use of the second person implies far more generality to the phenomenon:
I started seeing people — and I was doing it — there’s this weird thing that happens when you lose your faith in Mormonism…you immediately start questioning your morality. Wow! I’ve never had sex before I was married…I’ve only had sex with one person…like, I don’t know anything! What if sex is way better with other people or in other ways…or, what am I missing? Is alcohol cool — like I’ve still never tried alcohol — but what if that’s really fun and interesting? And I just started saying: there’s this whole world out there that I haven’t experienced, and maybe I wouldn’t have married Margi if I had to do it all over again…maybe my family would be better off if Margi and I were to split, because…we’d be getting along better. (Why weren’t we getting along? Because I was totally emotionally disconnected.)
But you start thinking these things, and you start wondering — wow! these other women are attractive…or experimenting sexually…and you start thinking about this whole world and you see these people…it sorta reminds me of Lehi’s dream and the great and spacious building and you start seeing this stuff and it’s enticing and it looks fun. But the good Mormon boy in me and the angel on my shoulder would always say: “That’s dangerous; that’s scary…you don’t want to go there” And you don’t want to lead people there, and that’s what I felt like was happening…all these people were just checking out of the church and then they were dropping their spouse and they were sleepin’ around and drinking and doing drugs and doing all this scary stuff and I just felt irresponsible…I felt like that was irresponsible. So, I started these communities thinking: I’m not trying to create a religion because there’s no theology or doctrine here, and I don’t want to be a prophet — that was a broken model, in my mind — …but somebody’s got to bring these people together to support each other.
Later, when discussing his thoughts on the regional communities of support, he discusses:
But the third thing that’s been really hard is to keep witnessing what happened. And people ended up leaving the church. People that had been believers weren’t, and then got divorced, and again, what would happen after these conferences? In some of these communities, they would hold parties, and they’d smoke weed and wives would make out…
The first reaction I had to sections like these was that these experiences aren’t generalizable. It just isn’t necessarily the case that “when you lose your faith in Mormonism, you immediately start questioning your morality [including fidelity to your wife or the idea of monogamy itself].” In fact, I think many disaffected Mormons have a period of time where Mormon moral sentiments remain residually…it requires intentional and conscious effort to move from habit. If John’s morality is so fragile, then perhaps there should be a way for him and others like him to handle it with more care, but I would think that many people’s moralities are built of hardier stuff.
…however, it’s not so simple as this. If you know any disaffected Mormons, then you probably do recognize that they have different moral beliefs than they did when they were Mormon. At the very least, they might not view keeping the Sabbath in the same terms as an active, believing member might…but beyond that, many ex-Mormons do start drinking. If only coffee or tea. As far as sex goes, let’s just think about gay members. If a gay member disaffects and decides to pursue a relationship, isn’t that by default a change in morality (regardless of the nature of the relationship).
That made me think of a second point, though.
2) Mormon morality shouldn’t be taken for granted
There are plenty of rules in Mormonism that simply don’t make much sense when you drop the Mormon context. Tea and coffee, for the vast majority of folks, is going to be a non-issue. Even alcohol, to the extent that it is considered problematic, is problematic in excess, rather than at all.
I’ll relate back to a post I wrote last year in response to some comments by Richard Bushman. Emphasis added:
You know we had this one image that I’m sure is true in lots of instances of people who kind of begin to let up on the standards, they don’t pay tithing anymore, and then they may take a glass of wine, and they may smoke a little bit and maybe have a few brief affairs or what have you. Not that they’re becoming demons, but you just sort of a slackening. That moral rigor that is required of Mormons and upheld by the sense this is God’s purpose and will. Once that’s relaxed, you know everything kind of relaxes. I don’t know whether it ends up that people stop praying or stop thinking of God or not, but that’s one course that I can see people following as a result of this disruption.
Bushman talks about relaxing the “moral rigor that is required of Mormons” — but his examples of the slackening are telling…he lumps in not paying tithing with taking a glass of wine, smoking a little bit…….AND having a few brief affairs (“or what have you”).
It seemed like Bushman was being pretty casual on this interview, so I don’t take much from his stock, but the fact that in his casual discussion, he sees wine, smoking, and affairs all similarly as morality issues is something that most folks wouldn’t do.
If someone leaves, they probably are going to reevaluate whether or not “taking a glass of wine” should be considered categorically similar (if less potentially damaging) than “having a few brief affairs.” So, there are rules like these that I would argue should be reevaluated when someone’s position with the church changes. And in many cases, those rules will be found lacking. And this shouldn’t be called “slackening” — the entire point is that when the reevaluation occurs, one no longer recognizes these things as being sins at all. If you don’t drink coffee or tea, that’s fine, but don’t say people who do are sinners.
Still…these relate to intentional, conscious, controlled changes. Even I must concede the possibility for some folks to really “go on the wild side” at some point in their lives. But to the extent that this happens (and, per (1), I don’t think this happens with nearly as much frequency as to make a huge deal about it), then why is it happening? Are the people in question weak, immoral people who were just barely held back by Mormonism? When religion is gone, do people lose the “checks” on their behavior that they otherwise would not have?
I don’t think so. I think another culprit is responsible.
3) Mormonism doesn’t teach folks how to think about morality
I wanted to end the post with the most pointed statement last. But I’ll point this out — individuals do not exist in a vacuum, and neither are they socialized in a vacuum. A couple of weeks ago, shenpa warrior wrote an open letter to current active Mormons. Within, he links the potential for a member to become an unhinged ex-Mormon precisely to how they lived as members. Approximately quoting Alma:
“Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis [of faith], that I will [be a nicer person]. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this [church], that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that [DAMU] world… For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your [becoming an emotionally developed person with a tolerance for ambiguity along with an internalized moral compass] even until [you leave the church], behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of [everything that makes people nice to be around] hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of [all those who meet the above diagnosis] who leave.”
shenpa warrior ended his post by begging that those afflicted with epistemological certainty and rigidity change their ways. But I want to point something out — people don’t become rigid on their own. This is something that is either cultivated and taught and valued…or it is not.
And for members — especially very active, very involved members, the church is the greatest socializing agent in their lives.
What I would say is that it’s not just disposition that can be imparted. Rather, the church teaches a moral code, and I think that in comparison to many other religions, the LDS church tends to do a good job here.
…the issue is that a moral code isn’t the same as moral reasoning, and on this front, members are left to fend for themselves. The elements of the moral code are moral because they are revealed, or because they come from God. Check out the quotation from Richard Bushman from the earlier section: per him (emphasis added):
That moral rigor that is required of Mormons and upheld by the sense this is God’s purpose and will.
But if that is the extent to one’s moral reasoning, then it’s no brainer that when one questions the revelations of Mormonism, or questions the edicts, purpose, will (or even existence) of God, that one is going to question the moral code built from these foundations.
Fortunately, I think that in the same way that many people are not rigid and epistemologically certain (and thus, aren’t at risk of becoming “unhinged” even if they do leave the church), many people — members or not — recognize that no matter what their rules, there has to be a way of thinking about those rules.