Are You a Good Mormon or a Bad Mormon? How Exclusive Language Might Just Lead to Apostasy

Like many liberal Mormons, I looked forward to Joanna Brooks’s interview with Jon Stewart, like a teenage girl looks forward to a Justin Bieber concert. It’s not just that I’m a long time fan of Jon Stewart, though I am. I was also excited to hear from a Mormon feminist who is still active in the church and for others to hear from her. Sometimes it seems that the only Mormons who get air time are men who are active in the church and women who left years ago and only wish they’d left the faith sooner.

But as I discussed the upcoming interview with other Mormon friends, the conversation took a surprising turn. One friend said he wasn’t looking forward to the interview because he didn’t recognize her as being Mormon the same way he is. The particulars of why he felt that way aside, our ensuing conversation – combined with watching the actual the interview – left me wondering what damage we cause when we divide ourselves into good Mormons and bad Mormons, or real Mormons and people we don’t recognize as Mormon, no matter what they call themselves.

As with all matters of inclusion, the issue is complicated. First off, most members of The Church spent years trying to convince people to call us something different (not sure how any of us were foolish enough to think our friends would call us “a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” when “Mormon” is so much easier). Mormon is a name that was created as a way of taunting us, so we wanted to escape it, and then there was/is the real concern that “Mormon” is not a name that points to Christ the same way our true name does. But in recent years we seem to be reclaiming the name and making it our own, perhaps feeling justified by The Church’s creation of

But who is a Mormon? On the extreme end of this debate there are other groups that have no direct connection to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as polygamist groups. Those groups represent a stigma we willingly cast off more than 100 years ago, so I think it’s understandable when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deny those groups even the once-offensive nickname of “Mormon.” But past that point, it all gets murkier.

Take Terry Tempest Williams for example – as a Utah feminist writer who is descended from Mormons and who was raised Mormon, she still calls considers herself Mormon even without attending church. When I first learned that fact, my gut instinct was to refuse her that name, to disown her the same way I disown Ryan Gosling, whom I’ve heard was raised Mormon. “They’re not really Mormon,” I used to say about famous inactives. “They just used to be.”

But during this conversation with my friends before watching The Daily Show, and as I listened to Brooks’s story of leaving and then returning to the church, it finally hit me just how wrong that attitude is. People leave the church, and we call them “Jack Mormon,” or use them as cautionary tales. And yes, we may have good intentions, but aren’t we just Othering them? Aren’t we pushing these children of God into a different camp? Because look at Joanna, at Sister Brooks – she left and then came back. Someday I could leave. I don’t intend to, and I’m not suggesting that if I did it would happen through anything but my own fault. But if I did – would that make me any less a daughter of God who was baptized in The Savior’s name and raised Mormon and who has made sacred covenants? Even if I fell away – wouldn’t I be of great worth – enough worth to come back?

And from there, my thought process spiraled out to all the people we routinely Other in Sunday School, an Othering process that has bothered me for years. How often, for instance, do we talk about “The World” as anyone who is not an active member of the church? We might not mean to suggest that they have any less potential and  worth than we do, but when we aren’t careful we suggest that very thing.  In fact, I once sat in an institute class where the teacher suggested to us that God cared more about us than about President Obama. The irony was that the teacher was trying to make a point about how God cares about everyone.

But if we are all children of God, every single human being on this planet – then we must remember that even people we strongly disagree with (in my case, that group includes curmudgeonly Mormon chauvinists) are still children of God and thus people with limitless potential for growth. The only real enemy is Satan, and we are each and everyone one of us in need of the Atonement of Jesus Christ – doesn’t that put humanity on the same side of this battle?


  • Rachelle

    Emily this is so true! In the past few months I have heard several people make comments to the extent that someone wasn’t really Mormon because they didn’t attend organized meetings. Also, I don’t believe that all Mormons have the same beliefs on many things. We share some main religious beliefs, but then we believe and interpret other points and standards quite differently.

  • Glenn Thigpen

    People get caught up in labels. It makes it easier for them to categorize others. I dislike the words, conservatist, liberal, Mormon, Christian, etc because it is attempts by some to either put themselves in an elite category, or to put others in a lesser category.

    I don’t think of myself as a mormon or a christian. I don’t think of others in those categories either. I’d rather deal with individuals rather than labels.


  • Michael H.

    I tend to like the Church’s qualification for its members, evidenced by how it counts them: the baptismal interview questions at baptism, and thereafter until death or renunciation. Whether former members can still receive the “Mormon” label -if they claim it without some qualification- is a little bit more a question (such as in the case of the FLDS church, for example).

    • Emily Belanger

      Michael thanks for this comment. You brought up a point I wanted to touch upon – the fact that a) it’s silly for us to refuse to claim anyone as Mormon when church leadership has deemed them members – especially when leadership has also deemed them worthy to enter the temple and b) the fact that temple worthiness is not necessarily a prerequisite for being Mormon

  • Amy

    What you have written has been so much on my mind lately. I don’t know what so many devout LDS feel the need to measure every other member’s worthiness and “Mormon-ness”. Christ has given us the most beautiful example of how to live and serve free of judgement.

  • Jim

    And what of the use of “curmudgeonly Mormon chauvinists”? And what of the fact that Joanna repeatedly emphasizes supposed uniformity to Mormon caricatures and that she is an anomaly within the church? You, and she, are otherising those with whom you disagree.

    I really like what Joanna has to say, and agree with most of it. I do, however, disagree sometimes with how she says it or portrays members of the church.

    • Emily Belanger

      Jim, you’ve caught my point exactly (but perhaps without realizing you’ve caught it?) I pointed out that I, like everyone else in the church, have groups of Mormons that I tend to Otherize. And I, like everyone else, need to work on that.

      • Jim

        Just making sure

  • Todd

    Interesting thoughts. I have been having an ongoing discussion with my wife about this very subject ever since Joanna’s interview with Jon Stewart aired. My thought is, if the church wants to tout a number like $13M at every General Conference, then that is an umbrella that covers me, Joanna, and many other Mormons that are at myriad points in their mortal progression. Are any of us less of a “real” Mormon than anyone else, really?

  • Carolyn

    I certainly don’t like internal categorizing, but what bothers me even more is how we talk about other people. There is a lot of “He’s not a Mormon, but he is a good person.” or “He already follows the standards! He should be a Mormon.”

    Mormons act sometimes like we have a monopoly on holiness. It’s like if someone isn’t Mormon, or doesn’t follow all of our standards perfectly, they can’t possibly be as “good” as we are. This bothers me since I know plenty of people from other faiths who are often more loving / charitable / Christlike than many, if not most, Mormons.