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Responding to Mormon Matters’ on Integrity

November 19, 2011
Dan Wotherspoon

Mormon Matters' podcast host, Dan Wotherspoon

Today, I listened to Mormon Matters’ 60th podcast — Matters of Integrity. In this whopper of a podcast (2 and a half hours! I know that many Mormon Stories podcasts have the possibility of going even longer, but I think podcasts in general need to rein themselves in…or offer transcripts or outlines of the topics discussed at particular times in the podcast) Dan Wotherspoon invited three other podcaster to address the issue of how to live with integrity after a Mormon faith crisis — however a life of integrity might look like.

What was good about this podcast was that they covered a lot of the criticisms and questions that are usually brought up in these kinds of discussions…I bet people like Joanna Brooks, Dan Wotherspoon, and Brian Johnston (also Jeff Green, although I am not as familiar with him in the Mormon online sphere) have to field these questions and criticisms from doubters or the disaffected all the time.

…but…the podcast was just so long. And so, although I wrote a comment on that site, I felt like I should organize my thoughts more and write a post in response. Here below I have taken the effort of responding to some of the podcast participants’ points and of writing approximate times within the podcast of when the points were brought up:

Does Mormonism teach its members to value truth too highly?

Joanna Brooks

Joanna Brooks

At 13:50 in the podcast, Joanna begins to investigate further what it is people mean when they say they feel “the church betrayed them.” She points out that her faith crisis didn’t drill down to issues of betrayal, so much as “ouch” issues (e.g., as someone who is a feminist, she was hurt by the church’s anti-feminist positions.) So, why might that matter for others? By 18:18, Brian Johnston has just finishing answering that a common narrative in the church is that Mormonism has had a special truth restored, and that many Mormons spend 2 years of their lives trying to convince people of this point. At this point, Joanna elaborates on her pet theory: faith crises for men who go on missions is generally different than for women, etc., because of the intensive energy put into missions.

I think there’s something to Joanna’s hypothesis. For me, I never went on a mission, and so I don’t have a lot of the angst of feeling “betrayed” that the church wasn’t what it claims to be. I mean, I’m aware of those issues, but it doesn’t seem to go to the core of anything for me as it does for many other people. (Then again, I didn’t have a faith crisis so much as having a faithlessness crisis.)

At 19:51, Jeff agrees that gender may make a great deal of difference in faith crises, but that one’s mission status may not be as decisive. Women who go on missions may nevertheless have different valuations of the church — stressing community over truth claims. The line of reasoning he gives is one I’ve heard from quite a few ex-Mormons:

JEFF: For me…I would say often…”Man, this is ridiculous to think that the true church has this in it. It’s really unfortunate that people behave this way…but thank God it is true. I wouldn’t put up with this if Joseph Smith weren’t a prophet, if the Book of Mormon weren’t true,” and I basically put more and more pressure over time on those truth claims.”

JOANNA: And so truth salved for you the shortcomings of the community.

For a slight variation, see this comment from Guest Writer 800+.

Should we expect the LDS Church to live up to its values?

From the discussion above, the conversation shifted rather fluidly into a discussion of whether we can expect any organization to be ideal in its behaviors matching its values. Joanna Brooks relates a quotation from her feminist days at BYU from Marni Asplund-Campbell:

JOANNA (first quoting Marni): “There’s not one organization or body or community that we can belong to that doesn’t involve some sort of compromise of principles. Whether it’s the bank you patronize or the nation you belong to.”

…it’s sort of like being a veteran who went and fought for the US, and then coming back and going to college and realizing that not only was the US not the home of the free and the land of the brave, but that it actually was a nation with a genocidal history and a racist history, an imperialist present, inequality of wealth… What does that person do at that point?

Jeff fortunately immediately counters the analogy: the difference between the church and America is that America is (theoretically) a place for dialogue…whereas the church is a place where criticizing your leaders is wrong. As he summarizes at 27:02:

Either you have to be open to discussion…or you have to be right all the time because you commune with God.

It seems that one thread in these kinds of discussion (as exemplified in this podcast) is something like, “Well, sure, the church isn’t perfect. But neither is anything else in the world.” I would have no problem if the church were just another organization, or if it just claimed to be another organization. But the church claims to be considerably different than just any organization, and it justifies its actions, practices, and doctrines with divinity. So, in order for any unorthodox or liberal or heterodox member to persist in the church, they always have to oppose — whether publicly or privately — rather critical and foundational ideas. Meanwhile, even if they oppose these things, they have to publicly appear to support these things, because the church highly encourages that conformity and orthodoxy.

Should disaffected Mormons avoid burning bridges?

Brian Johnston

Brian Johnston

After the discussion of the disaffected veteran, Brian jumped in…he pointed out that the story resonated with him because his faith crisis was preceded by a crisis from his involvement in the military, and that whereas in the aftermath of his military crisis, he did resign from his job, he now feels that that was a hasty or extreme reaction that he wants to avoid with his church involvement. At 33:10:

I think I could’ve done better if I had stayed involved…but the way I exited made it so that I could never use those career skills…I burned the bridge…

Brian continues later one (around 1:39:30):

One argument about moving slow is that you can’t unsay things…I know…I have felt where you want to jump up and be validated and say, “I know about this and that…and none of you know how bad it is!” But you can’t unsay these things to people, and you have these relationships that you can damage.

This is part of a comprehensive argument that my father makes to me about many, many issues, so I found this part pretty interesting.

Should Post-Mormons be Postmodern Mormons instead?

Michel Foucault

I'm guessing Foucault never expected to be used in defense of the Mormon discourse...

At 37:22, Joanna Brooks goes through the history of the idea of “truth,” through Renaissance thinking, to Enlightenment thinking…and finally, to Foucault’s postmodernist idea of discourse. Instead of looking as knowledge as something we can be master of, instead, we are situated and “stewed” in a particular discourse…absolute truth is a fiction (produced from a particular discourse, of course), whereas instead what we should be doing is searching for meaning within our situated discourse…for Mormons, disaffected or not, that would be Mormonism.

It’s interesting to see the way in which Mormons resort to postmodernism to try to defend Mormonism, even if Mormonism proper idealizes a different sense of truth. Runtu had a 6-part series relating postmodernism and Mormonism, but David Clark summarized the incompatibility in a single comment.

Should Mormons Undergoing Crisis Think of the Children?

At 1:58:10, Jeff brings up the fact that so much of the church content is focused on the LDS truth claims. He notes that he would like his children to have all other aspects of Mormonism (save a few: shame and guilt the way sexuality is taught), but is unsure about the content issue. He asks:

Can you experience the richness of Mormonism without believing literally?…recognizing that my kids will probably never go through the period that I’ve gone through…that is, of believing literally…given where I sit today. Can they still experience all the great things I’ve experienced?

The interesting part about this second part of the question is that Jeff seems to feel that his belief status will greatly impact his children’s belief statuses. Later on, he notes that it’s not necessarily about whether he can let his children believe literally or not, but that he doesn’t know if he can foster that literal belief.

A related point with children was brought up earlier (don’t know how I missed it when I was writing the post) at 1:26:46: The idea being that in developing as a person or as a child, you need to complete all the various tasks in the stages or else you’ll always have some kind of pathology or hang-up…so why not use Mormonism in that fashion and recognize the faith crisis process as a necessary evil, so to speak? Dan puts it this way:

If we want to protect our children from that pulling apart process that we’re going through that is painful,  somehow or another…eventually, they are going to have to wrestle with it…so it’s kind of nice…to do it when there’s a community of other people to do it with…and I would just love for Mormonism to have that expectation a little bit more than it does…for it to acknowledge that: “To be really grown up, you’re going to be pulling a lot of this apart, but I promise you that there’s peace on the other side.”

Brian bounces off at 1:33:07 with a similar idea: you can protect your children from having a bad experience at church, but eventually, it will be you as the parent who they will have to learn to pull away from for them to become their own person.

I fully recognize that children will have to deal with complexity, lies, deceptions, doublespeak, and all of these aspects of living in an imperfect world. And, to an extent, I understand the value of having a sandbox area to deal with these things (like the church). For the most part, the LDS church will not cause long-lasting physical, mental, or emotional damage (of course, this is not always true, unfortunately), whereas other aspects of life can.

…yet — and this is where the two parts of this section blend together — as I work through my issues with the church, the one major reason why I don’t blame my parents is because they actually believe in the church (it’s a nuanced way, but it’s not this cavalier non-literal way that I get from many of the podcast participants, and from the stay LDS/Open/Uncorrelated Mormon ideal in general. I’ll write more about that cavalierness in a future post.)

One thing I see in a lot of the frustrations of many ex-Mormon venues is a question of who lied to them and who simply was a fellow victim of the system, so to speak. They can often process the hurt of poor relationships with their families post-faith-crises because they can say at the end, “Well, it’s really not my mom and dad’s fault. They were deceived too.”

…But this doesn’t work for an uncorrelated Mormon who will thrust Mormonism onto his or her children. If those children have some kind of faith crisis, those children come to the rather different position: “My parents knew this could happen and they forced it on me anyway. They knew the church wasn’t what it claimed to be and yet they raised me in it — knowing every week, everyone else would be living and believing it is — anyway.”

I guess playing around with these personal relationships has many ways to backfire. I think a lot of uncorrelated Mormons say they will expose them to the good but inoculate against the bad…or “deprogram” or whatever, but then it’s a matter of whether the parents will be of greater influence than the church. What happens if your kid takes to the church wholeheartedly, and disassociates with the parent, seeing that he/she is apostate/uncorrelated/whatever? That will have been a source of heartache that the parent introduced.

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