Ex-Mormons Shouldn’t Proselytize Mormons… Really?

On January 30, 2014, Newseek published a 3,100 word article entitled “When the Saints Go Marching Out” about the difficulties of leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  I read it and liked it—I even tweeted the author, Hannah Miet, and told her so.  I thought it provided relatively balanced, insightful coverage of a few of the many, many challenges post-Mormons face when they outgrow their Mormon beliefs and community, including: the way information easily available on the Internet contradicts many of the church’s primary truth claims, anger over feeling they’ve been deceived, the difficulty of finding someone to talk to about doubts, and how inexperience and naivete impede socializing like most American adults.

On February 3, 2014, on the blog of FairMormon, a “non-profit corporation that is dedicated to helping people deal with issues related to anti-Mormonisn,” there appeared. a 1,000 word response entitled “When the Saints Go Marching Out of Control” (which, I admit, is a fabulous title).  The piece’s first criticism of Ms. Meit’s article is that she “chose to lead off by focusing on ex-Mormon efforts to actively proselyte* Church members”; the remainder of the first paragraph is devoted to that topic.

The second paragraph begins, “Ms. Miet then chose to describe in painstaking detail what she called ‘Preaching the Liquor Gospel.’”  Those are the only two topics from Miet’s article the byline-free FairMormon piece acknowledges before lamenting that

The resulting article seems to confirm and reinforce the existence of the stereotypical ex-Mormon who “leaves the Church, but cannot leave it alone” or the member who leaves the church because they “want to sin.” Indeed, there is little in this article to discourage such a perception.

Having spent a grand total of 250 words on what the article actually says, the writer then devotes 750 words to the topics s/he thinks Ms. Miet should have covered instead.

The FairMormon writer notes that “Believers go through a mourning process for their ‘spiritually dead’ loved ones in much the same manner that one grieves the physical death of a relative”—because someone who stops believing in the teachings of the LDS church is therefore “spirituality dead”? The scare quotes don’t undermine the condescension of the phrase.  What does it mean?  Is it saying that those who leave the church are understood to lack any chance of eternal salvation?  Any sort of religious belief?  A moral compass?  Compassion? An interior life? A sensitivity to truth and beauty or other things Mormons consider related to “the spirit”?

The FM response acknowledges that believers might choose to “shun” their “‘spiritually dead’ loved ones” before complaining that

Some new non-believers, on the other hand, sometimes wants to share their new-found “truth” with those they love in order to “get them out” of what they now mockingly refer to as “the cult”; in the process, they place unneeded stress and pain on family relationships by mocking the Church and Mormon beliefs during family gatherings.

I must ask: who wrote this?  Can the writer(s) possibly have forgotten how new converts are encouraged to try to convert their own family members?  How they are told to share “their new-found ‘truth’” of the LDS gospel with their loved ones?  As for “mocking the church and Mormon beliefs during family gatherings,” have they ever stopped to wonder what so many Mormon statements sound to anyone who is not an active member?  It’s not merely that other beliefs are mocked: they are often simply and matter-of-factly labeled the workings of Satan.  Does that not place “unneeded stress and pain on family relationships”?

What gives someone who belongs to the largest proselytizing organization in the world the wherewithal to write this sentence: “one should not attempt to rip away the beliefs of family members simply because one’s own views have changed”?  If that’s true, why are new members encouraged to proselytize to family members of any other faith?

Many, many people have noted the vast double-standard between Mormons’ view of their own missionary efforts and any efforts to convert them.  The first is seen as a generous, loving act; the second an insult, an intrusion that cannot and should not be tolerated.  My favorite illustration of this is from an episode of John Safran vs. God, a 2004 Australian TV.  Armed with a copy of The Origin of Species, Safran flies to Salt Lake City to promote atheism.

I love when Safran offers one woman “a reading from 1980s concept band XTC,” quoting the lyrics to “Dear God,” just as I shake my head when an old man attempts to silence Safran by announcing that he’s “a bishop in the LDS church,” as if that’s an obvious reason why no one should attempt to share their beliefs with him, or when another simply swats Safran with a rake.

The FairMormon writer calls for “mutual respect for one another’s ability to chose” (sic), which “requires the non-believer to respect the wishes of those who still believe, without classifying them as ‘blind followers’ who are now perceived to be incapable of logic and reason.”

But “mutual respect” also requires “believers” not to classify those who no longer believe as “spiritually dead.”  It requires believers not to imagine that those who do not share their beliefs are somehow lacking and must therefore be persuaded to accept the truth the believers possess.

The October 2013 LDS General Conference included a talk by Dallin H. Oaks entitled “No Other Gods.”  Oaks asserts that “we offend God when we ‘serve’ other gods—when we have other first priorities.”  Dismissing the priorities of others as ‘false gods” offensive to the real God one imagines one worships is not an attitude that shows respect to others.  It does not allow one to demand respect from anyone else.

It would be truly delightful to see people like Oaks and the writer(s) at FairMormon actually display an attitude of respect for others.  It might encourage others to respect them back.

The FairMormon piece concludes,

Unfortunately, the article “When the Saints Go Marching Out” propagates the harmful stereotypes that all who leave the Church want to immediately get drunk and actively recruit others out of the Church.

Well, it might propagate that stereotype if that’s all one is attuned to see—if the paragraphs in the article about the psychological distress of discovering problems with the church’s truth claims, or the difficulty of finding someone with whom to discuss doubts, or the need to find a community beyond Mormonism, are somehow invisible to a reader.

One of the earliest pieces I wrote for Religion Dispatches dealt with a commonplace Mormon complaint about ex-Mormons who “leave the church but can’t leave it alone,” as if anyone who ceases to believe in Mormonism loses any and all right to discuss the church or care about their own past—and believe it or not, I’ve been told precisely that.

Reading something like “When the Saints Go Marching Out of Control,” it’s hard to shake the sense that post-Mormons are tolerable to active Latter-day Saints only if we never speak at all of either the beliefs we have abandoned or those we have adopted.  Given the article’s prissy disapprobation that post-Mormons might actually be curious about alcohol—it makes us look like we “leaves the church because [we] ‘want to sin’”!—apparently we must also continue to live according to Mormons standards, eschewing coffee, alcohol, R-rated movies and any sexual relationship but married heterosexual monogamy—God forbid (heh) we try to see if the non-Mormon world actually knows anything about socializing or community or relationships or art.

In other words, “mutual respect,” in the view of this piece from FairMormon, is mutual in that both post-Mormons and Latter-day Saints are expected to respect Mormon beliefs, Mormon codes of behavior, and Mormon missionary work as righteous, benevolent, beneficial and admirable.  Simultaneously, everyone should share the mutual and tacit understanding that post-Mormon beliefs, post-Mormon codes of behavior, and post-Mormon missionary work are vulgar, divisive, harmful and shameful.

If one wants to condemn “unneeded stress and pain” caused by intolerant, offensive attitudes about others’ beliefs and choices, one need look no further than this smug, sanctimonious call from FairMormon for a sort of respect the writer(s) apparently are unable and unwilling to extend to anyone who does not share their behaviors and beliefs.

*In common usage, proselyte is a noun, a person who is converted, while proselytize is a verb, the attempt to convert someone.  Mormons use proselyte as a verb, and the noun they use is convert.

holly.welker@gmail.com'

Holly Welker [@hollywelker] has an MFA in nonfiction writing and PhD in literature from the University of Iowa. Her poetry and prose have appeared in publication ranging from Seventeen to Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought to Bitch to the New York Times. Born and raised in southern Arizona, she currently lives in northern Utah.

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