“You left the church two decades ago,” my sister said to me recently. “Why can’t you leave it alone?”
It’s a common conversation between former or inactive Mormons and those who are still faithful. “People can leave the Mormon church, but they can’t leave it alone” is an adage I heard as a child. It supposedly proves that the Mormon church is true and that those who leave it are broken in some fundamental way—though the exact means by which this is proven is never clearly established.
This at least is true: although I stopped attending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1989, I continue to study and write about it—and I can explain why.
The LDS church was an integral part of my early life. I grew up in a tiny community in Arizona so Mormon that activities at the public school were often held at the Mormon church, and vice-versa. Most of my classmates, virtually all my friends, and much of my family were Mormon.
At church I was commanded to keep a journal, examining my life for the narrative threads that guide my choices and determine my character. I will never shake this habit, no matter what. Truth be told, if the LDS church somehow lost all it leaders and members tomorrow and existed only as a historical relic, I would still strive to puzzle out how my past—including the two and a half decades I spent as a devout Mormon—shaped my present life.
Not only was the LDS church a dominant institution in my life, it was something I had a personal and passionate relationship with. It wasn’t merely the religion of my community; it was, more importantly, my own private religion. I studied its texts, learned its doctrines. I went through the temple and participated in the rituals there. I served a mission, learning Mandarin Chinese so that I could teach the Mormon gospel in Taiwan.
Given the depth of my attachment to Mormonism, the decision to leave was correspondingly agonizing. As I know from discussing the topic with former Mormons from England, Belgium, Germany, and South Africa, the rupture can be harrowing even for people who have never set foot in Utah and are one of only a handful of Latter-day Saints in their community.
In The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi states, “Changing moral codes is always costly; all heretics, apostates, and dissidents know this.” Mormons who leave the church face dire consequences: damnation, separation for all eternity from loved ones, shunning and judgment in this life, as well as irritated, self-righteous assertions that we shouldn’t even discuss parts of our own history. It’s hard to invite all that, and one main reason to do so is that you come to the tortured conclusion that the LDS church doesn’t offer you truth, integrity, or salvation in this life or the next.
For years after my exodus, I tried to work out my feelings about Mormonism on my own, and to avoid saying anything about it that would upset my family. But it was difficult, particularly since the church wouldn’t leave me alone. (I got repeated phone calls, letters, and visits to my home from missionaries and people in the congregation, despite formal requests that they stop.) Eventually I sought a community of people also striving to come to terms with what it meant to have been but no longer be a devout Mormon. Luckily a diverse community of ex-, post-, or lapsed Mormons (we differ on what to call ourselves) thrives on the internet.
Another thing that makes leaving Mormonism difficult is how little it is understood by the world at large. It’s frustrating to have to explain fundamental elements of the church before discussing the crisis of faith those elements prompted. Mormonism has unusual and esoteric doctrines (i.e., the idea that God is married), a rich and complex (albeit somewhat brief) history, some deeply peculiar practices (such as wearing sacred underwear and baptizing other people’s dead ancestors), and educated, ambitious, but often clannish and eccentric members. The intricacies, oddities, and relative newness sometimes make it both intriguing and impenetrable to outsiders.
Anyone familiar with Mormonism is occasionally called upon to explain it. Those of us who have intimate knowledge of its inner workings but are bound neither by orthodoxy nor its evangelical agenda (Mormons are the most aggressive proselytizers on the planet) are well equipped to do so. It’s true that we have our own biases, but that does not mean we see nothing valuable in Mormonism and cannot discuss it honestly. I have written extensively about Mormonism’s virtues and strengths. Granted, I’ve written more about its failings and flaws; but if I thought the benefits of remaining Mormon outweighed the costs, I would still be a practicing Mormon.
In particular, we are asked to explain aspects of LDS politics, at least recently. Latter-day Saints are generally among the most politically conservative voters in the U.S., and the church has marshaled both its own and its members’ resources to support conservative political causes. In the 1970s, when I was a teenager, we had church activities where we were required to write letters to our legislators, urging them not to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. (Even at the time, I wondered why legislators would be impressed by letters from high school students, but ever dutiful, I wrote them anyway.) The LDS church was most recently a major player in the 2008 campaign to amend the California State Constitution to ban gay marriage via Proposition 8.
That, of course, is one primary reason I cannot and will not leave the church alone: it continues to exert its influence in areas that affect my life and the lives of people I love. Most of what I have written recently about the church deals with gender and sex; as long as the church has opinions that move it to action on these topics, I will have opinions on the church’s actions, which I claim the right to express.