The BBC’s recent documentary on Mormonism highlighted the powerful feelings of ostracism that are frequently felt by those who leave the Church. These feelings are not unique to those who leave a religion but are often felt by those who join a tradition as well. In fact, large identity transitions of any kind can have similar consequences. Yet, with that caveat, I want to offer some reflections on this phenomenon as it applies to leaving Mormonism and why I believe exclusion is felt at times by those who leave and by those who stay. In particular I would like think about how and why this occurs within families.
Based solely on anecdotal data I assume that this is not an uncommon experience. Yet, my experience also suggests that members of the Church are actively encouraged to love and care for those who are left the faith. This is especially true of those within the family.
Why then do families which had previously been close, or at least not antagonistic, slip all too easily into practices that feel exclusionary? Because these families have once experienced rewarding emotional ties I believe that this is rarely intentional. In most cases this gradual alienation is quite unconscious although surely there are times when those who remain and those who leave are both guilty of unkindness toward the other. These shifts highlight both the fragility of our relationships and also the way in which we rely on a shared language to communicate in the context of this fragility.
Mormonism, like most other religions, fosters ties that bind people together. But, living together is incredibly difficult. We are born into families that we did not choose (or if we did, we do not remember choosing) and who are often distant from the interests, thoughts, and feelings which constitute our personality and subjectivity. Yet, these stark differences are mediated by a socially normative and (I would argue) evolutionary driven commitment to care for those who are our kin. At root we are alienated individuals seeking to survive in a hostile world by relying on kinship networks that we were born into to protects us from this hostility. As we mature we develop a place in this network which is organized by various social and religious narratives. There is a steady accretion that stabilizes these relationships even as they shift through the life course.
In short, religion, and Mormonism is no exception, provides a powerful set of narratives which shape the connections and ties binding families together. Religion provides obligations, rules and rewards for family life. Mormonism’s emphasis on the eternal structure of these associations perhaps make the force of the LDS narrative particularly salient. For many Mormon families, daily activities are performed and negotiated within the context of a religious practice that often brings us into regular contact. Mormonism compels us to work together to meet the competing demands of our shared faith. Busily arranging family schedules to accommodate mutual, seminary, primary and other Church meetings feels like it is the work of eternity.
When someone leaves the Church they rupture this social fabric. This is not to say that they should not leave (or that they should be blamed for leaving) but there is an almost inevitable feeling of panic and chaos which results from such a change. The social world of that family is no longer the same and it is often felt, at least so I am told, as a death. Not that those who remain somehow wish this person was dead or that they are somehow incapable of communicating with the person who left; but the pain and grief involved in managing this rupture is akin to what is felt when someone does actually pass away. This metaphor is apt because the person that was once known has radically shifted their position, roles and identity in relation to the other members of the family.
In such moments, the ties which previously provided shape to the family are thrown into disarray and they are all left with the difficult work of trying to reestablish those ties. The painful reality is that very often once that religious tie has been severed we may find that we do not have as much in common with each other as we thought and that we may not need each other in the ways that we previously felt. This realization is profoundly difficult. What makes it worse is that we can lose the ability to communicate with each other about what we are now experiencing and feeling.
Because, as I mentioned earlier, the Church is such a massive part of everyday conversation Mormonism, when it becomes (or is perceived to become) taboo it can be very difficult for some people to find new conversations. Kristine Haglund once observed that language is vital to how Mormons live their faith. The right words matter. We speak of ordinances and not ritual. We talk of the sacrament rather than communion or the Lord’s supper. Words, for Latter-day saints, provide an ontological certainty in an otherwise contingent and deeply unsettling world.
Leaving the church often involves developing a different vocabulary with which to articulate a new sense of self, a new faith etc. As a result, those who remain members of the Church may find it very difficult talk to about faith (those things that matter most) in ways that do not use the rhetoric of Mormonism. At the same time, those who have left feel dissatisfied with that language because it does not capture this new life and identity that is being forged. Rather this language serves to reinforce their old (and potentially painful) persona. My suspicion is that there might be a few who are able but unwilling to move between these discourses. Most people, I suspect, are merely unaware and/or unable to see how these different ways of speaking clash against each other.
This is part of the reason people drift apart and why they feel ostracized: they have simply lost the words to talk each about the things that matter most.
1. Those who have moved on from Mormonism will surely remember the many meetings during which Latter-day Saints are encouraged to care for and bring back those who have stopped attending Mormon worship services. Such efforts to reach-out are very often predicated on certain assumptions that the person who has left may find distasteful or unsatisfactory. Yet, my experience has been that such rhetoric and action is most often based (at least in part) on love and charity.