Sunday, April 19, 2009

Off the Derech Mormon

For those who didn't grow up in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, your entire conception of the Valley of the Sun may be limited to images of saguaro cactus, mind-melting summertime temperatures and a few Kurt Warner stats. There are a few others who've spent enough time in the area to have sampled our excellent Mexican food and those who've experienced the best golf courses Scottsdale has to offer. Usually, that's about all people know.

But if you go past the touristy parts of town and get to where real people spend their daily lives, then you're likely to run into Mesa, the state's third-largest city that was founded by Mormon settlers in the 1870s. Today the city of 500,000 is home to several hundred wards, stake centers, seminaries and other markers of the faith. There are churches where all the proceedings take place in Spanish and others designated for singles (which is actually a fantastic idea I wish the Jews would co-opt).

What there isn't often is a place within the Mormon fold for people who grew up in the religious ranks but who don't feel the strictest interpretations are the best fit for them. In the Jewish world, we call people who grow up "Orthodox," or "frum," or "traditional," or "fundamentalist," as being "off the derech," literally "off the path," when they leave behind their sometimes secluded life for something more liberal.

Luckily, the Jewish observance spectrum is profoundly broad and diverse and many of these people find a place for themselves that feels comfortable. It may mean wearing a kippah instead of a black hat or pants instead of skirts. It may also mean eating different foods, working different jobs or working different days altogether. What matters most for the purposes of this discussion is that no matter what, they are always Jews. They may be Reform, Conservative, post-denominational or just plain Jewish, but they are still Jews.

Short disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in the Mormon faith so please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here. However, it's been my understanding from several young people who have felt their religious, political and theological ideas fall outside the norms of the LDS Church - that there is often little or no place for dissention, new interpretation and ritual selectivity. Put in layman's (or Heidi Klum's) terms, you are either in or you're out.

While some people can reconcile Saturday night beers or Sunday afternoon coffee (alcohol and caffeine are strictly verboten and Sundays are circumscribed as family time in the Mormon religion), with being a member of the Church, others sadly cannot. And sometimes the issue at hand is much bigger than a choice of beverage. Rather, it's about being homosexual or (gasp!) a Democrat. For some this means isolation, confusion, strained relationships with families and/or friends and even addiction.

Of course, the Jewish community knows all too well that addictions to drugs and alcohol often afflict those navigating the challenges of leaving the Orthodox world, and I'm sure it can happen to very observant Muslims, Protestants and Catholics too. Where the rub comes in for Mormons is that often the Church seeks to distance these people from the rest of the flock. Those not found in good standing are barred from certain ceremonies and the inner sanctum of the Temple becomes off-limits even for special occasions like a family member's wedding.

During my trip home to Mesa last week, I had a chance to reconnect with some high school friends who grew up LDS and who now struggle to live as they want but still go to church when they choose. It hurt me to see these young men (they happened to all be male) chafing against the fundamentalism but still desperate to be a part of the faithful.

We pondered what would come first - a woman president or a more liberal branch of the Church? Would we live to see a form of Mormonism that embraced critical questioning, progressive politics, women's leadership and lenient rules about caffeine/alcohol/sex? We had no answers.

For whatever its worth to new Church President Thomas S. Monson or anyone else out there, I hope more faith traditions take on the challenge of modernity and find a way to harmonize today's realities with yesterday's beliefs. Though I don't think Mormonism would work for me, I know many, many people who have found a spiritual, behavioral and moral guidance in the Church and that's really all any of us can ask for from any religion.


Jannah said...

Tonight is an interesting night for me to read this post. Let's just say I have too much to say about this to even try to keep in this little box. We'll have to discuss this over a BIG pitcher of margaritas.

Jessica said...

This is fabulous. I blog at a liberal feminist Mormon blog called Exponent
and we discuss issues like this all the time.
In fact, I recently went to a Mormon women's conference where the entire day was devoted to making space for ourselves within our religious tradition.
It can be difficult, but I loved an analogy that I heard regarding this. As background, the reason larger LDS groups are called stakes is because they are metaphorically stakes in the tent of God/Zion/Israel, etc. So, if we think about holding on to our own stakes while staying in the tent, it creates space for others to stay near us. Even if the tent moves (to the right let's say :)
if I'm still holding on to my stake, then there's room for me and those like me.
It's an encouraging analogy for those who are trying to walk the line of believing some, but perhaps not all, of LDS doctrines.
Maybe this is too bold, but I think being Mormon is a lot like being Jewish. It's more than a religious tradition, it's a culture, it's an identity.
Even people who leave the religion behind still feel Mormon in some ways.

I will disagree with your post on two small points. First, it's not necessarily caffeine that is against the Word of Wisdom, it's coffee and tea. Plenty of caffeine is consumed, mostly in the form of Diet Coke, by Mormons I know.
Secondly, I believe the church does try to reach out to those dealing with addictions. There are a lot of resources available for those who struggle with these things. As long as members are trying to change, they are welcome. It's the people who disagree on fundamental doctrine (gay marriage, women's equality, etc) that are often kept at arm's length. It's understandable, obviously, because for a religion that believes in absolutes, rejecting these things is also rejecting relativism.

Sorry about the long comment. This is very much an important topic to me and I'm very thrilled that you blogged about it.
I really wish I had joined you when you were in town. I would have loved to have heard more of this conversation!

Josh said...

Not an expert at all -- the vast majority of my knowledge comes from Big Love and a Jon Krakauer book -- but LDS is so different from so many other religions we're familiar with because it is so young. It means that it's harder for them to claim the infallibility of their prophet (there were newspapers around when Joseph Smith lived, not so with Moses or Jesus), but it also means that we should cut them some slack on their modernization. Sure, it's different times now than it was in 200 C.E., but think about how crazy Rabbinical Judaism must have been only 150 years after it was founded.

Kylee said...

Hi Becca!
Thank you for your honest post.
I don't think we have ever officially discussed it :) but I did convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in fact this weekend marked 10 years of being a "Mormon" for me :)Crazy I know! but its been great.
I can't say that you are totally incorrect in your assessment. There are many people who would like the LDS Church to assimilate more readily into main stream society. And is one beer going to send a person spiraling immediatly down a path of evil? Probably not. (Although I would make a case for it based upon my Catholic and LDS upbringing, as well as family tradjedies and working for a number of years in Non-Profit area mostly dealing with of abused children.)
What I do think is unfair, and it happens all of the time, is the incorrect belief that there is a direct tie between the Commandments of God and expression of individuality. As well as the difference between self-inflicted dissention and punishment for sins versus those that come from Church leaders of any religion.
I would never deny the strictness of the LDS Church, is strict and sometimes very difficult to reconcile its teachings with the messages we receive on a daily basis from every where. But we believe strongly that the purpose of life is to gain experience and to overcome the "natural man". The natural desire everyone on earth has to enjoy pleasure. Pleasure in many forms and to varying degrees. Learning to control these desires is what brings us closer to God. This of course is not a belief exclusive to the LDS Church, infact I believe this to be a fundamental doctrine of most religions. Think of the spiritual high after finishing a long race, after steadily maintaining a goal to achieve self improvement, or after turning down any vice that you simply know you shouldn't do or partake in. These spiritual accomplishments are what makes us all great people!
Alcohol, drugs, sex outside of marriage, and pornography are the vices that quickly damage and corrupt the soul. So we are instructed to avoid them. Consequences of such actions are natural and most often they are self inflicted and very destructive. Very rarely is a church leader the one to bring about the first consequence of willfully disobeying any commandment of God.
In reality we all have struggles, temptations, failures and consequences. No one is alone in not "fitting in" we all fall short and that is the whole point isn't it?
I don't know if this helps but it is actually this fundamentalism that rings true with people. There are now more people outside of America who belong to the LDS Church than inside the US. and there are now more 1st Generation members (converts) than those who grew up within the church.
I do have to say there is a huge dirrerence between "Mormon Culture" and true Doctrines of the Church. And I believe most of the offenses occur from people following a culture that is not correct in following teachings.

Super long post I know...and I hope this all taken in the spirit of discussion.
It was awesome to see you just the other day! You are just amazing to make time and effort to see me when you are so busy. I totally appreciated it.

Sam W said...

Good thoughts Becca. It is unforunate when people find themselves at odds with their you say some of your LDS friends have. The reason though the "mormon" religion doesn't have a, for lack of better wording, "Chiller" version is because the Latter-Day Saint faith is simple. There is only one way...and that is it. You either follow it or you don't. You accept it or you don't. You believe it or you don't. You have faith in it or you don't. If you chose to go against the teachings of the church you are not alienated by the church but you estrange yourself from the church and its' teachings.
Why a lot of your friends probably have a hard time is because they grew up believing in something and now suddenly they don't know if that is what they believe or they absolutely believe in what they grew up believing but are chosing not to live that way. This is an internal battle they must come to find closer with in themselves.
Let's imagine that you went against the teaching that your family has held true for so long Becca. How would you feel inside? You'd feel as though you were doing wrong wouldn't you? At least initially. You would either come back to your original beliefs or you'd have to find a new belief system for yourself that you can justify and you can stand for. This is the same with your friends who are at odds with what they grew up believing.
I have an older brother who has not gone to church since he was 17. He has tattoos, he had pre-marital sex, he drinks. Since he was 17 he was always at odds with my parents and just it seemed with himself but around 28 he changed. He stopped making excuses for how he chose to live his life and he just lived it! And he seems happy now and he has a beautiful wife and son niether of whom are LDS. They are a terrific family and I realized that there is truth in this world Becca. But truth is different for all people Becca. What may make you happy doesn't neceassarily make me happy. What is right for me and my life my not be right for you.
If we all try to be respectful of one another and listen and share with one another and do what is right I know that we will all be just fine.
As for the LDS church having only one set of rules. For that I am gratful. There is no confusion, it is a simple path that yes may be strict but if you don't want to follow it well then nobody is making you. That is why we have agency.
Sorry for the typos and I hope this made some sort of sense.
PS a commentor said his knowledge came from Big Love...Big Love is not the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which "mormons" I know you are referring to. Big Love is the Fundumentalist Church of Jesus Christ which was a group of people that rebeled against the LDS church manifesto in the late 1800s abolishing the practice of polygamy.

Rivkah said...

Three Cents:

1. I Grew up in Utah and must say: BIG difference between Jews and Mormons. Namely: Ethnicity. Every religion has a culture, but not every religious group is also an ethnic group.

2. The LDS church, however, has attempted to acquire ethnicity throughout its history by teaching that they are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. They believe that they are the "true" chosen people. They even have a Magen David Stained glass window on the Tabernacle in Temple Square in SLC. I'm sorry, but this is just not true. In the past, it may have been simple to suggest such a thing (who could prove otherwise?) but with DNA testing this could be extremely easy to disprove today, which leads me to:

3. The LDS church has, historically, not been interested in allowing their assertions about both faith and non-faith matters to be scrutinized. The culture they create is more than a commonly held set of unquestioned theological points. It's a web of highly bizarre and illusory claims. This DOES make the culture and the theology difficult to separate. But allowing the scrutiny of beliefs and social constructions might be a good place to start if they want to maintain any relevance to modernity and to the outside world. Admittedly, things in Utah are more controlled than in communities outside of the state. But I think a good place to start being sensitive to other religious/ethnic groups as well as allowing their own members some room to flex might be in fixing that little claim about being Jewish...

Josh said...

Congrats on attracting a troll! I had one, too, when I did a post on how absurd the National Popular Vote movement it and it was a lot of fun to mess with them.

RivkA with a capital A said...

I never knew that Mesa was founded by Mormons.

I guess I did not live in Phoenix long enough to pick up on that.