There has been much talk recently about whether America is ready for a Mormon president. This tolerance question should cut both ways.
Nearly a quarter of Americans told Gallup last summer that they wouldn’t vote for a Mormon president, which is unfortunate since former Gov. Mitt Romney and former candidate Jon Huntsman are both smart, capable men.
Meanwhile, though the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently found that 56 percent of Mormons think America is ready for a Mormon president, the church isn’t exactly welcoming of outsiders. Mormons account for 57 percent of Utah residents yet some 91 percent of Utah state legislators self-identify as Mormons. The state that’s home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has elected only two non-Mormon governors in nearly 116 years and has sent just one non-Mormon to Congress in the past five decades.
Some of this distrust of outsiders is understandable because the church has been persecuted by religious and secular foes since its inception. Many mainstream Christians consider Mormonism a cult — a fact thought to have given Romney trouble in South Carolina’s primary. To combat anti-Mormonism, last year church leaders expanded a multimillion-dollar image campaign begun in 2010 that is nearly identical to the “I Am A Scientologist” campaign from a year earlier: On airwaves, YouTube, billboards and more, smiling, family-oriented people declare, “I’m a Mormon.” It’s part of a series of efforts to buy public affection.
Yes, Mormons love families. But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church.
The church I was raised in values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking. This caused trauma and cognitive dissonance when I questioned church doctrine and official history. In online forums and support groups, former and questioning Mormons gather and offer comfort. Some of us are prominent, such as Steve Benson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, or singer Tal Bachman. Most of us are quiet dissidents who wish to lead conscientious lives.
I was born into an multi-generational Mormon pioneer family. The mantle of those ancestors who made the ultimate sacrifice while crossing America’s plains to Utah weighed heavily on me as I grew up romanticizing the church’s worldwide missionary successes.
But I struggled after realizing that Mormonism’s claims about anthropology, history and other subjects contradict reason and science. While many faiths’ irrational claims are obscured by centuries of myth and rubble, the LDS church lacks the moderation and scholarship of its older peers. It also stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements, labeling such behavior as satanic.
Critics of Mormonism include geneticists, Egyptologists and even the Smithsonian Institution, which stopped Mormon apologists from claiming the institute viewed the Book of Mormon as a factual document.
While studying at Brigham Young University, I spiritually imploded after learning these things and other facts outside official church curriculum. Disturbed, I met with a high-ranking Mormon leader who told me to quit reading historical and scientific materials because they were “worse than pornography.” BYU’s dean of religious education wouldn’t answer my growing list of questions. Ot her leaders told me that questioning is acceptable so long as it’s done secretly. I became distraught. For years my faith was an unshakable part of my identity, and if I openly voiced my concerns I risked rejection from the community I loved. Since Mormonism is highly centralized, without the local doctrinal flexibility that exists in Judaism and many Christian churches, I had no place to live a moderated, reformed existence.
Salt Lake City’s male gerontocracy told me to avoid books and marry, but I could not stomach all their teachings. For example, mainstream Mormons banned polygamy in 1890 to obtain Utah’s statehood, but they continue to perform temple ceremonies that “seal” one man to multiple women in the hereafter. My idea of heaven did not involve a husband whose love could be shared with many wives.
Staying in the church meant I would have my family, but I couldn’t pretend to believe. And it was difficult to live a fulfilling life without Mormonism. My parents shut me out of their home for nearly five years because of religion, and some former friends shunned me.
Many other dissident Mormons find themselves discouraged from voicing doubts and ostracized if they do. Those whose spouses leave the church are sometimes encouraged to get divorced and remarry a faithful Latter-day Saint. Non-Mormons are not allowed to attend family members’ weddings in Mormon temples. Many gay Mormons have been driven to suicide, deeply conflicted about whether acting on their sexuality is, as the church teaches, a sin.
With public interest in Mormonism so high, I hope the scrutiny will help break down the church’s fundamentalist trappings: secrecy about its finances, anti-women doctrine and homophobia, to start. Perhaps someday the church will not excommunicate, fire and demote people who want honest, church-wide dialogue about Mormon history and doctrine.
Some Mormons compare Joseph Smith, the church’s founder, to Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who exposed Catholic power abuses and doctrinal inconsistencies. Mormonism needs a Luther of its own.
Carrie Sheffield is a writer in New York.