On a typical Sunday my Young Women are asked to imagine how they would act when a non-member encouraged them to participate in any one of the stock activities – drugs, underage dating, or parental disobedience – that we Mormons find outside our fold. These conversations are often surprisingly enjoyable, serving as moments when the Young Women solidify their bonds with each other as they contrast themselves to various others. But inevitably these conversations take a turn into the more disputed aspects of Mormon culture. From minor debates over a topic like the Mormon stance on Coke emerge spaces where a variety of Mormonisms emerge that disrupt the group solidarity our role-plays foster.
Out of these moments of rupture often comes the suspicion that our deepest threats to our “Mormon” identity come not from the world without but from within. What these stories of Mormons v. the world mask is that the deepest challenges to our faith, in other words, often spring from the members we wish to support us or assume censor the version of faith we practice.
It’s easy to repeat the standard complaints about how hegemonic Mormon culture discourages those who question and doubt. And perhaps there is strong reason to complain. Certainly Mormon culture does not discourage questioning; it does, however, often prescribe what types of questions are appropriate to ask. While practical questions that help us reach decisions or overcome obstacles are staples of the Mormon experience, questions that doubt the premise of Church authority rarely receive serious attention. And, yet, that said, it seems to me time to ask why we “dissenting” Mormons often take decided pleasure in playing up our perceived differences from normative Mormons and what our insistence on our difference means for our faith.
Which means it is time to stop using “we.”
I increasingly believe that I have allowed myself to limit my own spirituality and agency by allowing myself to believe that every Mormon I meet is a “representative” Mormon. Whereas I strongly cling to the idea that I practice a unique faith that is personally my own, I generally set my faith in opposition to the “representative” Mormon faith that I assume others practice. I have wondered whether I belong in the church and I have considered in the past leaving, because I felt that I could not conform to what everyone else believed.
These views, I now recognize, were deeply flawed. More importantly, clinging to these views curtails my potential to exercise agency, spiritually develop, and fellowship others. Through these views, I denied other people the same uniqueness I claimed for myself, refusing to look beyond the Mormon label I applied to them. And, more importantly, I outsourced my agency to other people by making decisions on the ground of what I thought other people believed, ceding responsibility for my choices to my flawed understanding of what others demanded of me.
The point I wish to make is that in order to take personal responsibility for our faith and to engage in real dialogue, friendship, and debate with other members, I believe we must stop considering other people as representative Mormons and begin treating them as people of unique experiences and evolving faiths. When people no longer feel the burden of being “representative” and instead claim personal responsibility for their faith, I suspect that a great deal of anxiety, confusion, and loneliness in church will be replaced with surprising friendships and plural beliefs. I believe that missionary work will flourish as people no longer face the anxiety of speaking for the church and can instead respond to a non-member friend (who, mind you, should be treat as a friend and not as representative non-member) with genuine thoughts that spring from one’s own beliefs and experience. I believe that we will no longer feel the immense stress to defend or dissent from church beliefs if we can cease to brand ourselves as Mormons first and individuals second.
But, in the meantime, I have a pointed question for the friend whose doubts have prompted me to write this series of posts: If you leave the church, are you doing it because it no longer speaks to what you personally believe or because of what you think other people think the doctrine is? Are you willing to let other people dictate the choices you make?