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?


Funeral Lessons from Emma Lou Thayne
The Liberal Soul, by Richard Davis
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
On Doctrinal Authority
  • Meghan Read

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve recently discovered Joanna Brooks, and she is captivating! I welcome this change of perspective; as I see it, there are no good Mormons or bad Mormons, there’s just Mormons.

    As a side note, I can not stand the “us” and “the world” perspective. Not only is it arrogant and wrong, but it also downplays the world, which is a beautiful place filled with so many good and beautiful people.

  • Conflicted

    How are we suppose to be be better, more worthy and ultimately entitled if we do no otherize? Next you will be blogging that we cant invade other countries, take their resourses, and treat them worse than animals because they are sons and daughters of God. If we invited Christ into our brand of Christianity we would lose our superiority!

    • Agnikan

      We feel your pain.

  • Joan Foord Low

    One must continue to hope that Mormons will center not only their belief but also their feelings in the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we/they can do this there will be no “other,” just beloved children of God.

  • Wyoming

    Very good questions. I think one of the core questions is who speak for us? I cringe a bit when John Dehlin (and other self-appointed spokespeople) speaks as Mormons – representing axe-to-grind issues – to the public as if that is a fair representation of us. For example, which represents our core better – an expose of 19th Century polygamy or the NBC presentation of our modern social services and the Bishop’s storehouse. It makes as much sense as a foreign journalist seeking to understand modern American society and spending all of their time on slavery.

  • QT

    Great post! I haven’t been to the LDS church in years and it broke my heart to see how they got involved the section-8 stuff. It’s great to have someone like Joanna Brooks making it clear that not all Mormons are the same. Whether or not you agree with her, all should appreciate her for representing a different kind of Mormon in the media– because Mormon’s biggest problem is how everyone puts them all in a one box.

    • Jim

      But my problem is that the way Joanna presents herself and Mormons is to put all Mormons, except her, in a box as well. I stress that I like what she has to say, but that she undermines her message with the way she says it.

  • Seth

    When you speak of “good Mormons” and “bad Mormons”, have you forgot the parables of the ten virgins, the wheat and the tares, and also Christ’s own declaration that at the great judgment, there will be many who will say to Him (i.e., to His appointed representatives in judgment): “We have served in Thy name, prophesied, done miracles, and done good?” Christ said rather definitively that He will not acknowledge those people and they will be cast off. The five foolish virgins will not be allowed into the feast. Those who live as tares will be burned. That is the doctrine of both the Bible and the Book of Mormon. The issue of “good” vs. “bad” Mormons is real in the sense that there are those who attend Church–or don’t–who delude themselves into thinking that they will receive the same blessings as those who’ve given their heart to the Master, along with outward shows of discipleship as well. The doctrine is what it is. Those who leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints only do themselves a disservice. “The stone” rolls on. Oliver Cowdery and others like him found that out many decades ago, no?

  • Margo

    I teach a Sunday School class each Sunday – 13 year old youth – and teach from the heart. When I hit a lesson which I do not accept as truth, I ask a fellow ward member to teach that lesson, and I take a vacation. I am a member of the ACLU (and yes, I told my bishop that he gets quite the interesting package if he calls me as a teacher), a Democrat who applauded Clinton’s speech last night – and a mother of female American soldiers who did not choose the military life in defiance of me but with my heartiest blessing. As I explained to my bishop in a conversation, this is MY church, and my relationship with the Saviour is a rich and wonderful one. My heart is full of thanksgiving every day for the love, forgiveness, protection, and blessings which rain down upon me daily. But do not expect me to bend to any man. Hell, NO! Do not expect me to be a door mat for those who are criminally manipulative. Hell, NO! I’ll love you as a fellow soul with one major test to pass in this life, but don’t expect me to trade my indominatible spirit for a shattered one. Uh uh! If someone sees me as “Other,” that is fine by me…I’m too busy celebrating, working, loving, laughing, struggling, hoping, breaking and rebuilding to worry about someone “othering” me.