Latter Day Conversions: Divided Families and Reconciled Relationships

As a twenty-year old leader in my college youth group, I was asked one day to call a friend who had been active in our youth group but lately had been meeting with the Mormon youth group on campus. Her parents were quite concerned, as she also had begun meeting with two LDS missionaries who were set on baptizing her. And, she was romantically interested in an LDS boy. “Not good…not good at all,” I mumbled to myself.

Now, you should know that my youth group was affiliated with a church that was definitely NOT Mormon. We were former members of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), and we called ourselves “Restorationists.” We met in independent congregations away from the more liberal RLDS church who we saw as engaged in doctrinal apostasy. While we were religious and social conservatives, we strongly disagreed on doctrine with the similarly socially conservative LDS church—a group that we simply referred to as the “Utah Mormons.” We didn’t believe in multiple gods, the Book of Abraham, section 132 (the revelation on polygamy), or any kind of celestial marriage or ordinance for the dead. And, like all traditional RLDS, we all knew proof texts from the Bible and the Book of Mormon that we could whip out and wield against any Mormon missionary who called at our door. My friend who was talking to the Mormons knew better than to take them seriously, so I thought.

I dutifully called my friend, and we chatted for a few minutes. Then, she informed me that she did not want to talk on the phone again unless “the [LDS] elders” were present in the room with her. They had told her to do so, she told me. “Unless the elders were present?” I thought to myself. “What kind of manipulators are these guys, anyways?” The conversation ended. In the weeks that followed, my friend pulled away completely from my youth group and from her old church. She even cut off contact with her parents for months. Her family was heartbroken. And I was incensed at some nineteen-year-old Mormon missionaries whom I never met. “Didn’t they care about how they tore apart a family?” I remember wondering to myself.

 

The LDS church may promote family togetherness, but, time and time again, their missionaries have wreaked havoc on families, turning the hearts of children against parents and parents against children. However, the leaving and joining that LDS missionaries facilitate is part of a much larger cultural pattern. America is a nation of converts. This has been especially true in the last few decades. One recent study revealed that more than one third of all Americans “nowadays choose their religion rather than inheriting it.”[1]  This trend has held true in my own family. It ends up that I became a convert.

Five years after my friend joined “the Mormons,” I moved to Iowa City to study religious studies in graduate school. To the shock of some of my friends, I left the Restorationists and joined the “liberal ‘institutional church’,” also known as the Community of Christ (the new name of the RLDS church since 2001). This was the very church that my parents had quit in the late 1980s. I didn’t have to be rebaptized in the Community of Christ, as I had been baptized in the denomination at age eight, a year before my parents had left it. I simply “reactivated” my membership. This was a move away from my old identity, but there was no Restorationist congregation in my area, too, and the Community of Christ congregation in Iowa City was the closest thing to my old religion in the region. Perhaps I would come back, my parents had thought.

A few years later, my decision to leave the Restorationists became finalized in my parents’ minds during an awkward conversation between us. “I’ve been called to the office of elder in the Community of Christ,” I told my parents one evening over dinner. “And, I intend to accept that call.” My parents did not look at me. My dad asked my mom to pass the chicken. We went on eating. While this incident sounds like a clichéd scene out of a bad novel, it was dreadfully serious to me and my parents. “Who had gotten to me?” perhaps they wondered. “Why had I changed?” My parents were heartbroken.

How do families deal with the ruptures of religious conversion? Cultural historian Craig Harline answers this question in a highly readable, fascinating new book, conveniently titled Conversions. In it, Harline shares the stories of two families as comparative case studies. In one real-life narrative set in the seventeenth century, the son of a Dutch Reformed minister leaves home and joins the Jesuits. In the other story, a son from an evangelical family joins the LDS church in the 1970s. This latter story, though, becomes complicated further when the son comes to realize that he is gay. While I’ll not fully explain how the two stories play out (you should really read the book), I’ll summarize a few of the larger points that Harline makes about family relationships and conversions.

As Harline reveals, families may or may not recover from the rupture of a religious conversion. They may cut each other off from communication. They may try to (almost always unsuccessfully) reconvert the other. They may “tolerate” the other (meaning, a begrudging acceptance). And, in some instances, they may find ways of accepting religious differences. Here, Harline finds a sociological concept—that of a “master status”—a helpful way to explain the differences that families have over difference.

A “master status” is “one of your reference groups, or identifiers, [that] shapes you more than all others you may have.” [2] An individual may have many identities, but a master status trumps all other identities in a given relationship. Individuals tend to get along better with those who share the same identities, too. “We don’t have to agree on everything to have a strong and equal relationship with someone,” writes Harline, “but we do have to agree on what matters most.” When what matters most is an exclusionary religious identity, a family keeps fighting. In the case of the Reformed family that Harline chronicles, “they could not give up their separate identities for a new one they shared, such as loved family member.” [3] Instead, the son always “was Catholic more than he was brother or son or family member, while his parents and his sister were above all else Reformed.” [4]  The conversion of the son and his absence from the family became “perpetual wounds,” in the sad words of his sister [5].

In contrast, when families could prioritize another master status (no less religious) over the divisive status, the family could find some measure of relationship and reconciliation. A Reformed husband could see Christian love and devotion in his Mennonite wife. Conservative evangelical parents could love their gay son and his partner by hanging onto a proof text about “God is love” and “one cannot love God and hate his brother” (I John 4:20). The point is not that a secular identity defanged a harmful religious identity. The point is that one religious master status could replace another.

This last scenario has been true with my family. We attend different churches. We read the Book of Mormon in different ways. We employ our religious values to vote for different political parties. Despite these differences, we’ve tried to prioritize our relationships as family members over claims that could divide us. This does not mean that we never argue over religion. We do. And, occasionally, we still try to slip one another an article or book that will help the other see the light. My mom, for instance, recently read a copy of Conversions that I loaned her, and I read a book that she gave me on an evangelical Chinese leader. Both of us probably hoped that the other would gain something from the book that the other did not. But both of us demonstrated our commitment to one another by our act of reading–my mom perhaps more than me. She actually finished my book! I’m still working on hers.

Of course, the religious identities of individuals, just like religions themselves, are never static and are constantly renegotiated. Consequently, this change necessitates an ongoing kind of conversion in my family—not conversion in the evangelical sense of a permanent, instantaneous alteration, but conversion in the old Puritan sense of a slow, gradual life-long process—where we must claim and reclaim our relationships as loved brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, father, and mother above potentially divisive counter claims. With a lot of hard work and grace, this final act of conversion will continue for the rest of our lives together.

 

[1] Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012), 137.

[2] Craig Harline, Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America (Hartford, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2011), 249.

[3] Harline, Conversions, 250.

[4] Harline, Conversions, 250-251.

[5] Harline, Conversions, 206.

  • Bev Lindburg

    David,
    I enjoyed your article very much. It is reflective of my own coversion experience from Methodism to what is now known as Community of Christ. I remember my own father’s disappointed and somewhat distressed look when I told him I was joining the church in which my husband had been raised. Then he shared how he, a product of the Evangelical United Church of Christ, and my mother, a conservative Lutheran, decided to start fresh together and joined the Methodist church. Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing.

  • Saskia

    Thanks for the post. It explained to me why my own conversion didn’t really faze my (non religious) family: our master statuses still align. The post also reminded me to put the American Grace book on my Amazon wishlist, so thanks for that ;-)

  • Yoyo

    For an atheist, this is a very strange discussion that tends towards farce. It’s like the very old joke about two baptists – punch line “burn in hell heathen”. However families have been rent by all sorts of strongly held beliefs that to outsiders seem to be doctrinal niceties, most commonly political or religious. I think this is good to discuss but would appreciate more attention into how to walk it back when families fragment in this way. A second point to cover is when you can’t find common ground, at what point do you pull the plug? Should your grown child become an overt racist, member of a cult, supporter of the GOP (joke) etc. when do you say enough?

  • http://www.religious-diplomacy.org Randall Paul

    This was an important post for our changing social world here in our country and abroad. Master status that appropriates religious justifications for interpersonal cohesiveness is a very helpful way of describing integrity amid multiple claims on our allegiance, time, talents, and love. You mention the fluid aspect of life change too. In relation to your comments, I am thinking of Jesus’ claim that we can only serve one master and Kierkegaard’s admonition to ‘will one thing’ only. I observe that conflicts over the master status we grant to one vs. another are the most interesting in our lives. William James also said conflicts over the highest ideals are the most important and interesting aspects of a person or a society. It is the tension or conflict itself that yields the value to the master status or highest ideal or most loved person. And to ever eliminate that tension would be to eliminate the “feeling of value” that we desire to enjoy by granting master status to one compared to others.


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