There is a long list of people who are surprised to discover that I'm LDS. Some of these folks include people who grew up with me — people who figured that I would have moved on by now.
It's difficult for them to understand how a feminist and a staunch GLBTQ ally attends church in an LDS building each week (and I'm in charge of children, for heaven's sake). I'm a progressive socially and economically. Plus, I have authority issues (see what I did there?) and I speak my mind. It's hard for some to fathom that there is a place for me in the LDS church. (And, honestly, I sometimes wonder if there is a place for me here as well.)
A lot of this attitude comes from the fact that many people engage in shopping for religion. After all, there are plenty of options out there, and seems a little strange to stick with something that doesn't quite fit with you. I've been told by Anglicans (Episcopalians), Unitarian Universalists, and Presbyterians that I would probably fit in better in their congregations. (“You'd fit in so much better with us,” says one of my Unitarian friends.) And I have several atheist friends who aren't sure why I bother with religion at all. (“You are far too rational and thinking for this stuff,” says one friend.)
And there are days that I think they all have points.
But many people are drawn to faith, and our brains are “hardwired” for religious experiences. Even atheists feel in awe of the universe, and have feelings and emotions that believers connect with God and faith, but don't necessarily spring from those sources.
We also like to be comfortable. For those looking for the divine, shopping for religion can allow us to be comfortable, finding a place where our religious experiences and faith align with our own personal values and beliefs. And that is mighty tempting.
One of the conversations I had with a good friend recently involved talking about scriptural preferences, and personal style.
Him: “I like the ‘smells and bells,' as my dad calls it, but I don't like the older text in the books. Thees and thous don't absorb as well in modern English.”
Me: “I'm good at thees and thous. If you grow up Mormon, you use the King James Version of the Bible, and the Book of Mormon is written in that style. Honestly, I think the NIV and other modern versions are weird. I like my scriptures to read like scriptures.”
Him: “I wouldn't want to be at a church that's so controlling. I also don't like the other end of the spectrum where church is more like a concert.”
He also pointed out that church offers more than a place to connect with God. “We look at it as some moral teaching for our boys, and some community. Lots of good stuff at church, beyond just God.” Church can prompt discussion with your children, and provide a starting point for discussions about morality and life. (But, at the same time, religious observance and/or belief isn't required for good morality. I know plenty of atheists with strong moral codes that impart values of equality, justice, generosity and dignity to their children.)
You Can't Just Pick Up and Leave
But it's not quite so simple for Mormons — especially Mormons who have been brought up in the religion. My friend doesn't really know much about Mormonism. He was surprised to discover that there are no women in the formal, hierarchal Priesthood organization. (How's that for a reminder that not everyone in the world knows about the debate over women's roles in the priesthood?) But, even with that gap in knowledge, there is one thing he — and many others — know about the LDS church as a cultural influence: It's not so easy to leave it behind.
He's one of those that thinks I probably need a new church. “But I'm guessing being a Mormon is a rather deep-seated thing that you don't normally decide to leave in one week.”
And then he said the thing that prompted this post: “We could go to a new church and it would be more like changing what grocery store you shop at.”
Yes, for many people, religion shopping is about finding where you are comfortable. And this mode of choosing a church works out very well. There are plenty of committed, devoted, and righteous people who found their ideal faith community by shopping around.
Being Mormon is a deep-seated thing. And it's why there are so many people who are inactive, or even excommunicated, that self-identify as Mormon. I know people who haven't been to church in years (and imbibe forbidden beverages) that consider themselves Mormon.
Because what else could they be?
They grew up in the church. They live in the culture. They understand the culture. They attend the baptisms of their nieces and nephews and write to their cousins on missions.
When you start thinking of leaving the church (or at least just not going to meetings anymore), it may be a personal matter, but it's still very difficult.
And, when it comes to the LDS church, for many, it's not as easy as shopping for religion. Many people love many aspects of the church and agree with a lot of what's taught. But there's this assumption that the doctrine is set, perfect, and unchanging (which isn't always the case). So, if the church is right (and it always is), if you have a problem with something, it's a personal problem. You either need to get over it and fit your square self into the round hole or you need to go shopping for religion — one that better works for you.
But at the same time, nobody wants you to leave the church. Because no one that loves you wants to be an apostate. And many people take it personally when you move on from the religion. Which makes sense on a number of levels. Mormons have a very high religiosity, and, as evidenced by those that self-identify as Mormons — even though they might not be active — the religion is very personal. It's not surprising that some members feel personally rejected when a loved one rejects the gospel.
Even So, Why Stay?
Staying, rather than shopping for religion, is a complex matter, since there are lots of things lots of people like about Mormonism. And those that know the history of changing doctrine and practice know that, sometimes, discussion leads to changes.
Plus, there are a lot of liberal and progressive aspects of the LDS faith, from beliefs about the afterlife to the Law of Consecration. And, of course, we believe that doctrine and practice can change and move forward.
It's conclusions like the following, from a piece about the way Joseph Smith changed his mind about the sisters in Zion's Camp, that give me hope:
But for these women, in 1834, to ask to participate in a direct military action, without concealment or shame, invites us to consider how Joseph himself was exploring new avenues for female empowerment, how he was open to expanding women’s spheres in very unconventional ways, and how he was willing to listen to and heed these unique requests from his women followers. But most importantly, Mormon women’s actions in Zion’s Camp allow us to think about women’s own willingness to expand the expectations and boundaries of their sex.
Yes, that's right. THE prophet made a decision about how the women of Zion's Camp should be left behind to keep them out of military action. And then, in response to their requests and new information about the situation, he changed his mind. If that isn't the essence of progressivism, I don't know what is. It provides a model for what could be — and a reason that I'm still here.