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All the single ladies (and men)…the Mormon church is not “for” you

September 10, 2014

After my previous post asking why we can’t have a pro-women Mormon theology, I read and commented on a post by Hawkgrrrl contrasting a church of duty with a consumer church. My comment was as follows:

I’m not exactly driven to go to church, but it’s not because there aren’t rock concerts or small prayer groups. It’s because on any given Sunday, it will probably be boring and utterly irrelevant to my life circumstances punctuated with moments of absolute offensiveness.

I think there is conceivably a value to learning how to hear offensive things without even blinking…learning how to regulate internal blood temperature, as it were…but then i realize that baffling things happen in life without seeking it out in a church.

My thoughts really are that, for some folks, the LDS church experience can be very relevant and interesting to their lives. I mean, when it comes to building white picket fence families with husband, wife, and 2.5 kids (ok, let’s be real…there will be more kids), LDS church teachings are admirable. But when someone doesn’t fit that mold in any of a number of ways.

Over at By Common Consent is a guest post: Thoughts from a Mid-Single Mormon. And while I sympathize and hope that things can become more welcoming and inclusive, at the back of my mind is the thought:

This church simply isn’t for you.

In the post, Jennifer remarks:

I go to church to renew my relationship with God, feel spiritual and reverent, and sing hymns with moving lyrics—not to play musical chairs and have my singleness make me feel less than who I really am in this world. I know I am not alone in feeling it a challenge to be single in a family-oriented church.

However, the last few works I’ve quoted really say it all. The LDS church is a family-oriented church. This isn’t just a “practical” consideration, but a theological one. Renewing one’s relationship with God, feeling spiritual and reverent, and so forth, is altogether tied with seeking, building, and growing a family (and not just any kind of family at that.)

But even on a practical level, the LDS church’s practical ethics and politics are very much tied up with a view that families (and not just any kind of family) aren’t just a theological good, but a social one. So, all of the research on lowering fertility rates, children born out of wedlock, folks staying single longer, and so on are all seen as societal problems to be prevented or solved.

To this end, the church will not — unless something radically changes — “celebrate” singleness, as the author wishes. Whether by choice or by circumstances, singleness will be seen as less than because it will be seen as not fulfilling one’s reason to be on this earth. (P.S., this is something all same-sex attracted Mormons need to know.)

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20 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    Does the LDS Church really need to cater to or favor single adults?

    Doesn’t the rest of society already do that?

    • Seth,

      My optimistic view was that instead of “catering” to single adults, the idea would be that it would try to improve people, where they are.

      My pessimistic view is that they are actually doing exactly that. Except the idea of “improving people” translates to “get them married to someone of the opposite sex, and get them having kids” for everyone.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    Well, I have my own mix of optimism and pessimism here.

    On the optimistic side, I want to make church more welcoming for singles. I’d like to avoid scenes like the one we had in my own ward a few months ago where one of the bright-eyed (and perhaps naive) newlywed couples were giving Sacrament Meeting talks about the need for marital harmony, etc. and out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of my wife and I’s close female friends quietly getting up and exiting the back of the chapel with her head down to hide the tears. She’d signed the divorce papers that week and spent most of that Sunday in the foyer with one of her friends and our Relief Society president trying to comfort her.

    A little more cultural awareness could have made that less painful for her. And I’m very grateful that that same Relief Society president sent me a gentle private message later that week after I made a Facebook post without thinking on an article about problems with divorce. I immediately removed the post when I realized what I’d done and who was reading my posts that week. Kind of a right message, but lousy timing kind of thing.

    But… on the pessimistic side, I really do think we live in a fallen world where people only have so much to give, and so do organizations.

    Could it be that the tough reality is that someone is going to get thrown under the bus? And if we have to focus on something, it needs to be families, and others are just going to have to manage?

    I mean, I really do think the American family is in crisis and is on the path to becoming irrevocably broken. I see the LDS Church as providing a crucial last bulwark against the cultural tide. I also see our modern culture as celebrating and encouraging the detached single adult lifestyle so much that its just hard for me to see the LDS Church’s role as providing further encouragement.

    I also think that if we start focusing on singles in a big way, we are inevitably going to throw families under the bus, acquiesce to the tide of anti-family cultural shift in the US, and become a church without any unique or useful message at all – just like the rest of the liberal Evangelical and Protestant denominations out there that are losing membership in droves.

    • Thanks for your implication that single people aren’t worthy of God’s or the church’s attention.

      • Seth R. permalink

        I don’t think whether they are worthy or not had anything to do with my point above.

  3. Seth,

    Responding out of order…I think that re: modern culture encouraging the detached single adult lifestyle, I still think you’re missing what I was saying. I don’t think we can talk about one “single adult lifestyle” (and then say that that is all “detached”). So, I could see Mormonism as encouraging/promoting a not-so-detached active single adult lifestyle, which would still be against your hated cultural trends. In other words, I think there’s a way to stand apart from mainstream culture while still being different than status quo.

    I think that a better example of this is on LGBT issues. As it currently stands, I simply don’t think the church has much to offer LGBT folks. This is not to say that I think that the church’s options are to 1) completely disavow LGBT issues forever or 2) kow-tow to secular laissez faire sexual liberation. At my optimistic, I think it is simply very easy to take the heteronormative white picket fence model and then transpose it onto LGBT relationships. Of course, you still alienate the radicals who have a problem with the model to begin with (and would rather not see it exported to LGBT folks), but I think that LGBT folks who are already *growing up in the church* and *learning those values* would already be amenable to that. So, the church probably wouldn’t convert secular radicals. But 1) most folks are actually ok with white picket fence marriage and don’t agree with the radicals, and 2) even if we just look internally at Mormons growing up, they would probably be more amenable to white picket fence anyway.

    Instead, people get pushed out…and into what?

    Re: your final paragraph, I wonder why it has to be such a zero-sum game. Maybe that’s just The Way It Is, but I wonder if it’s instead that we just aren’t creative enough.

    Re: your optimistic paragraphs, I wonder if some efforts to be more welcoming to singles (not saying if that’s yours or not) are just to keep them in the church…so that they can get on track with the status quo. In other words, it’s hard to corral them into white picket fence families if instead they are storming out of the church.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    My hurt friend later mentioned that she didn’t want people to stop talking about families in church – because it was something she believed in too. She said she just had too much going on and couldn’t deal with it that day. She hated the idea that people might stop advocating happy marriage just to spare her feelings.

    Nonetheless, I do think that something could have been done for Mormon culture to make that tough period easier for her in some small way.

    I’m not going to touch the LGBT issue because I’ve already spoken on it here and it always seems to bring out the white hot rage in a couple of your other readers. I’ll just stick to the divorce example I guess.

    I think the Church could take some steps to improve on this. Whether we encourage biological family models or not, there are simple steps that could probably be considered and taken. For instance, adding a simple teacher’s note to the lesson manual asking them to be sympathetic to possible divorcees or singles in the audience. That alone might go a good way. Or just issuing letters to bishoprics to encourage Sacrament Meeting speakers to be sensitive to the diversity of experience in the congregation. I don’t see that as being so terrible to contemplate. I doubt that would really reduce the family slice of the pie that much.

    Part of my concern is that we overreact and realize my divorced friend’s worry – that people will just stop talking about happy united families at all for fear of making her sad. Part of life is just sad sometimes, but can sadness always rob happiness? Should we stop preaching the ideal just because some people don’t have it? Seems defeatist to me.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    I think you’re right that we just aren’t creative enough. I also think that too often we just aren’t compassionate enough, or even just aware of the other people in our ward and where they are in life.

    • Tonu Nuusila permalink

      That is what the single ward is for. We have to be creative and find other ways to help those in sensitive predicaments. There is so much hope for those who are single or choose to be single for not settling for less. HF will bless you n make things right as long as you persevere n choose the right the best u can. This is the true gospel of hope for every one, where all will receive their due reward. Have a little faith in God’s plan for you..

      • Tonu, your comment basically captures what I was thinking about earlier.

        The singles ward exists to hopefully make them not single. Being single is seen as settling for less.

      • stacer permalink

        Yes, just stay content in your little singles ghetto, and someday you might get to be married and not be cursed with singleness anymore.

        This is a huge blind spot in our culture.

  6. Seth,

    I don’t think there would be any need to stop emphasizing happy marriages. or even to stop *advocating* for happy marriages. Ultimately, I’m wondering two things:

    1) if one can emphasize productivity/fulfillment/growth in a variety of life situations,

    and/or

    2) if one can advocate a single preferred model of fulfillment (e.g., “happy marriages”) without explicitly or implicitly putting down folks who don’t fit that.

    Like, preach the ideal, sure. But what (1) is getting at is there may be different ideals for different folks, and currently, that’s not being addressed (as the same ideal is applied to everyone) and what (2) is getting at is that even if it’s ultimately concluded that there is only one ideal, there can be a lot more done to not make the environment actively painful for those who don’t fit it.

  7. Right at the start, you made me think of Stephen Fry’s Big Think interview, where he said:

    I remember [when] I was expelled from a meeting of Latter-day Saints when I first went to Salt Lake City. I just literally, as a tourist, was wandering around and this person in a grey suit came up to me and said, “Would you like to see around?” And I said, “That’s very kind.” And then she started gathering others and then I realized she was a Mormon who was doing a tour and presumably there was a little bit of a recruitment going on because they are very proselytizing sect as you know, the Mormons.

    Anyway, she gave us a good tour […] and then at one point she said, “I just want to tell you a little about the church of the Latter-day Saints.” And we all politely stood and then she said how in the afterlife all families will be reunited. You’ll be with your families forever, so I put my hand up and said, “What happens if you’ve been good?” And she said, “Could you leave please?” Because everyone started laughing.

    But I mean — what a ridiculous idea. How is that supposed to be attractive that you’re going to be stuck with every aunt and every cousin and every…? Good gracious, every you know alcoholic or slightly deviant uncle. I mean Jesus, it’s just the most awful destiny imaginable and they think that’s a USP. That’s a… Yeah, that’s what our church promises. Good Lord.

    Well of course, what it does, you don’t have to be that smart to spot is what it does, is that the church focuses entirely on women the d’un certain âge as the French say, woman of a certain age and who have lost their children because they’ve grown up and have lost their parents because they’ve died and they’re lonely and they’ve still got that family queen bee mother nesting instinct and they’re the ones the Latter-day Saints hone in on and say, “You follow us and we promise you that you’ll be your family all around you again in heaven.” And they think that’s a cool thing. Everyone else would go yuck.

    It’s a long quote, I know, but the tl;dr version would be that we have a message that is presumed to be universally-appealing [“families can be together forever” and all that] — but, for many people, it’s simply not that appealing [and for many people, their idea of “family” varies so greatly from what we mean when we say “family”].

    I think what I’ve written elsewhere applies to what you’re saying here — that the church, as presently organized, is a gerontocracy — so leadership today represents a 1950′s era, American-style Mormonism from a Utah-centric, cis-, hetero-, anglo-, middle-class privileged lifestyle point-of-view. And so, with power concentrated in the hands of those few men, we get a gospel presented in those terms only — and there’s not much they have to offer people whose narratives differ either slightly or greatly from that.

    • Seth R. permalink

      Part of the reason why what Stephen Fry writes about families is so funny is because it’s irreverently reprehensible.

      And we all know somewhere that it’s reprehensible. That’s where the humor value comes from.

  8. I left the Church, largely due to the “problem” of my singleness. Yet, though the singles wards were a joke, I didn’t feel mistreated in my family ward. In fact, I very much liked many of the members there. They did not focus on my marital status, which I appreciated (I do know it’s a frequent phenomenon).

    Lately I have read several posts in the blogosphere concerning the issue of singles– but most, I think, miss the point completely. It’s not just about fostering a sense of community regardless of marital status– that may be important. But I feel that the larger problem has as much to do with singles/LGBT members’ inability to meet their critical needs for emotional and physical intimacy as much, if not more than the need to belong.

    Yes, it is possible to be happy without a partner. And being single is far better than being in a toxic marriage/relationship. But the need for love, companionship and sex is powerful, even if you’re not part of a culture that glorifies it.

    So what do you do if you’re gay (or hetero with no options) and part of a social institution that demands celibacy? Some choose to stay and are fine. Others stay and resent it. Still more go back and forth. But many choose to leave when it becomes painfully apparent that the Church simply cannot meet their needs for intimacy and waiting until the “next life” is no consolation.

    • Seth R. permalink

      I don’t know what you do.

      But I’m pretty sure what is being looked for is not being offered elsewhere in society either. It reminds me of that article in the NYT a few years ago by a Mormon girl in New York area who was unable to find an eternal companion within a church context, and when she expanded her dating to non-members, she found that none of them were supportive of her choice to forgo sex until after marriage. All the guys she met required premarital sex to remain interested.

      Rather than stopping to think that maybe something was irrevocably broken about these guys, she gave in, dropped her hopes and ideals, and turned her back on Mormonism and decided to have sex.

      She didn’t mean it to sound that way – but the entire story was just so pathetic in a way and sad. I seriously doubt she found what she was looking for – even once she dropped the sex ideals. Because the truth is – a man who is coercive of you in that way and witholds intimacy on sexual grounds is not the sort of man you’re ever going to find real intimacy with.

      • I am very familiar with Nicole Hardy’s NY Times piece. In fact, I read her memoir. But, perhaps because I found myself in a similar situation, I did not see her decision as “sad and pathetic.” After all, to say she left soley to satisfy non-Mormon men with regards to their sexual preferences and value systems completely misses the point. This is the story of a 35-year-old woman who can’t reconcile her own very real needs for sex and companionship with the reality she faces as a single woman in the Church. So after years of isolation, she makes the excruciating decision to leave.

        Also, I think it does men in the secular world a disservice to imply that because their value system includes sex before marriage (which is the norm), they aren’t capable of intimacy or true commitment. Sure, some men may be like that. But there are plenty of great men who value marriage, family and intimacy regardless of when they have sex in a relationship.

        Since I made the same decision as Hardy, am I also “sad and pathetic”? Or is it possible that I am a complex human who found herself in an impossible situation and had a difficult choice to make?

        I’m in the field of psychology. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that a person’s choices are highly influnced by biological, environmental, situational and sociocultural factors. So when one decides to stay and another decides to leave– who are we to really say why each made that decision?

        • Seth R. permalink

          I found the story sad and pathetic. Which is all I had to go on. I don’t know her in real life. But she published in the New York Times. She put a story out – why should I be responsible for reading more into the story than she published. If I met her in real life, I very well might have a very different opinion of her. But instead, all I’ve got is a newspaper article. And the article’s story was, in my judgement, as I described it.

          And actually, the dysfunctionality of the ability for intimacy among young adult males is something being fairly well documented at the moment.

  9. Jettboy permalink

    “who are we to really say why each made that decision?”‘

    Saints of God given, no demanding, to judge the world by His standards.

  10. ESO permalink

    I am a single parent and sadly, the Church is the one place in my life I feel my family is unsupported and viewed as something less-than; outside of church rhetoric I am universally considered a kick-ass parent, but at Church, no matter what, I am simply a failure. When my kids realize this, I am going to have to wrestle with the idea of finding a different faith community (this year’s primary themes came mighty close, but thanks to deft handling by local leaders, we persist). I am a fairly regular attendant of other churches, and I am always interested to see how they simultaneously support families and do not ostracize those of us who lack picture-perfect ones. I wonder why Mormons think it impossible to do the same? I have actually asked people, and they seem to think they cannot possibly sustain a child for 8 years of primary lessons centered more around essential questions of “How can I be a good person/friend/follower of Jesus?” rather than “What do Mommys do?”

    If we actually focus on becoming more charitable, compassionate, and honest, those values WILL support families. They will also contribute to people being better friends, neighbors, and employers.

    If we actually BELIEVE that God is going to make everything alright for the faithful singles in the hereafter, then let’s put our money where our mouth is and make it alright for them in our congregations. There is NO NEED to make people cry in Sacrament meeting (or any other) because they feel they have failed their spouse, or kids, or parents. People who feel that way WILL feel that plenty of other places. Why can’t church be a soft landing?

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