To the outside world Mormons can look a bit like Grenda’s shiny happy company employees. If the ‘I’m a Mormon’ advertising campaign were anything to go by it would seem that ‘we are all individuals’. It would also appear that despite our unique, and sometimes idiosyncratic life journeys, our common belief in Christ and our commitment to building a thriving and joyous church community rewards us with a sense of goodness and belonging in our lives. And perhaps in most cases this might be so.
But if we cast our eyes over the cultural history of our church there is an aspect of its development which has me deeply concerned. Now, nobody likes to have someone rain on their parade, the wet blanket doesn’t provide any comfort, and a sour puss can undermine the joie de vivre of any pleasant afternoon tea party – we all know that. Mormonism at the centre can give one a very pleasant ride. Nice clean cut people, saying nice things, being nicely in agreement with each other, being nice to each other, living in nice homes, carrying out the nice routines of Mormon life with barely a flicker of insolence can be very, very nice! There is nothing as inconvenient as the acerbic misanthropist lurking in the shadows shouting ‘stinky poo’ at all of the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ being played in crisp white shirts and ladder free pantyhose on the manicured lawns of large and spacious mansions. But what to do about it when you become aware of the cynic, the pessimist, the disgruntled, the skeptic?
What do you do about those who, following the prophet’s advice, got married in the temple, but the marriage fell over because despite the appropriateness of the venue, the choice of partner wasn’t great because all they had in common was church?
What do you do about the black or brown person who feels both the flushes of spiritual transformation that the church offers but also a deep commitment to their language and the struggle of their people, but can’t bring that to the Sunday feast because its not wanted on the trestle tables full of white folk’s casseroles?
What do you do about the single mother who despite paying a gross tithe on her meager benefit loses sleep as she struggles to think of ways to feed her kids without having to go through the humiliation of asking for a hand out that the bishop usually seems reluctant to give?
What do you do about the woman who has to sit through another Relief Society lesson about the blessings of the priesthood while her husband, the former bishop, currently has his manhood saluting some one else?
What do you do about the young person who with their no holds barred adolescent critique feels so suffocated by expectations of a kind of bubble gum goodness that they get their nose pierced just to show that they too can be an a#$! h*&!! – just not one of those!
What do you about the elderly woman who says at the end of her life, ‘This parenthood caper hasn’t been all that it was cracked up to be, having so many children is one of the biggest regrets of my life…. and my husband was a lazy twat!”
What do you do about the curious and the questioners who over the years have built up a huge resource of incredible scholarship which identifies some unflattering things about the church including some dodgy stuff involving teen gals and married women?
What do you do about the tithe payer who wants some answers as to where the heck her money is going after it leaves her hands but can’t get answers from any one at the local level, and is shut down by those in the Curia (a.k.a. COB)?
What do you do about the faithful woman who year in and year out was as chaste and as virtuous as chaste and virtuous can be (just like she was told to be in Young Women’s) but is fed up with having to watch sexy little flirts with their come hither ways, get to the temple with their quivering and eager grooms, before her?
What do you do about the woman who, armed with years of scholarship, thought, publications, public notoriety and a career which includes outstanding leadership in her field, gets tired of coming to church where she is made to feel like a naughty girl for not staying at home and producing babies and canned peaches?
What do you do about the non-Americans who simply can’t see in any way shape or form how the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were in anyway justified, and are stomach sick by the church in America, who for the most part wouldn’t have it any other way because a President stupidly said in conference, ‘I think we’ll go with the President (Bush) on this one’?
What do you do with the fury over yet another good Mormon kid lost because they were gay and were sent over the edge by a church funded political campaign that says, ‘You are not the same as me, so don’t expect the same as me’?
Here are some natty tried and true ideas that Mormonism has deployed over the years:
Ignore them: There is nothing quite like social isolation to make people sadly drift away. You can see it at ward activities. There will be the usual hustle and bustle of those ‘in’ the ward as they catch up in the cultural hall with each other. While the infectious sit quietly wondering how much longer they have to endure being a no-one. Even nice Mormons might say to themselves, ‘I should go over and say hello’, but look up without regret later to see the chair empty.
Send in the Henchmen: The message boards on the internet are full of them, and there’s usually an outspoken one or two on the high council, the Bishopric or the Stake Presidency! They tantrum and reprimand, they discipline and chastise and let those questioning communities know, in no uncertain terms that they are out of place. With their superior understanding of how things ‘should be’ they brazenly attempt to eviscerate difference with a ready arsenal of ‘is’ and ‘is nots’, and ‘be in’, or ‘be out’! You can hear them shouting – ‘What are you talking about, you foolish people – I don’t feel that way so you must be wrong!’ Or, ‘what you are saying is making me feel bad, so what you are saying MUST be bad!’ They are deeply loyal to the church and will defend it with all of their might. It makes them very reliable and great to have around leadership, but they can be unruly, explosive and damaging.
Discipline them: Mormons come a second only to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of the structures they have in place for disciplining their own. They deny temple recommends (or temple recommend interviews in my case), they threaten, convene church disciplines, they excommunicate, disfellowship and place on probation. It hangs over the aberrant like a meat axe, and those in power have in some situations wielded it with abandon. But that’s as old as the church has been around. For an organization born out of a heresy you’d think there would be some sensitivity to thinking differently? But we largely live with some kind of palpable intergenerational institutional fear – its part and parcel of the Mormon deal. We grew up on morality tales of this or that person being axed by Joseph Smith for questioning him and we’ve been taught to be fearful of that horror!
So I have a question: Is it always necessary to preserve the niceness at the core by using meanness at the periphery. Is all this shiny happiness we see at the centre dependent upon mean mouthed Mormon malevolence in the middle managing the mouthiness at the margins? Perhaps that’s why a certain orthodoxy is maintained and valorized, it creates a barrier between the ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Christ dealt to that when he condemned the inner circles of the religious elite for their proper attention to the law but their purposeful neglect of the marginalized. I have to take comfort in that – because to me – that’s the gospel!
I grew up with the analogy of the church being likened unto a wagon passing by yapping dogs on its journey to glory. But I’ve been thinking lately that the Christ I know would stop the wagon, jump out, pick up the dog and make room for it in his wagon by telling the well dressed toady sitting next to him to walk for a bit while he makes a new friend.