The Best of All Possible Worlds

I remember once, as a teenager, asking my dad how he stayed in the church back when the church wouldn’t allow black members to hold the priesthood or attend the temple. I was probably 16 or 17, because I’m pretty sure I was driving. I don’t think I was asking an accusatory question, though I was 16 or 17, so who knows. And I don’t remember how my dad responded.

I do remember, though, that his response was complicated, both a bearing of testimony and an acknowledgement that the pre-1978 racial policies of the church were bad. It was messier than the black and white world a teenager craves.

Fast forward to today; I’m slightly younger than my dad was when I asked him that question. And the church has introduced a set of new discriminatory policies, policies that I unequivocally oppose. (Here I’m talking about the limitations on baptizing the children of LGBT couples, of course, but I’m also talking about the categorization of same-sex marriage as apostasy.) And yet I’ve stayed in the church, active and believing. Why?

My answer lies in two main directions, one inward- and the other outward-facing. I don’t present these as normative; they are, instead, deeply personal and deeply descriptive. In the end, though, in my complex balancing act, participation outweighs non-participation.

Inward-Facing

In the first instance, Mormonism is the religious language I speak. Yes, I have twinges of jealousy about other faith traditions, and I’ll try occasionally to adopt aspects of other religious practices. But in the end, Mormonism is the way I know how to approach God; it feels natural and it feels good. Moreover, I believe that my Mormonism helps me be a better person, and helps my family be better.

That’s not to say that I believe today’s Mormonism is a Panglossian best of all possible worlds. But I suspect that if I keep away from all institutions, including all religions, that aren’t the best of all possible worlds, I’ll be forced to huddle alone in a corner somewhere. No institution—not even the church—is perfect; moreover, none will be until at least the establishment of Zion (whatever that means), and probably until sometime after that.

In the meantime, we need to learn to navigate imperfect institutions, and, ideally, to leave them better for our having been a part. Which leads me to:

Outward-Facing

I believe that I can do more good as part of the church than as separate from it. And I don’t believe it solely in an abstract improve-the-church-from-the-bottom-up way (though I do believe it in that way, too). I believe I can do actual good in the lives of real-life people as a member of the church.

Which isn’t to say I can’t do good outside of the church. A couple weeks ago I went with my daughter to the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s monthly Kids Day to help repack food for those who need it. We went with her school; there was also a Girl Scout Troop and a couple other groups there.

But there is real tangible good I can do in the church, too, that people who stay are uniquely positioned to do, good for my LGBT brothers and sisters.

A little over 2 percent of the U.S. population self-identifies as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. While I don’t have any numbers specific to Mormonism, I assume our numbers are roughly the same. Some significant portion of our our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters leave the church, of course: it can be an inhospitable place for them. Still, not all do—at least some weigh good of the Mormon church in their lives outweighing the bad.

Moreover, some portion of our LGBT brothers and sisters are younger than 18, living at home. Presumably, a significant portion of them attend church with their families, some because they love church, some because their parents say they have to go, and some under different personal or social pressures. Some are out of the closet; others not. Imagine a world where everybody disquieted by the church’s treatment of LGBT members left. That, I suspect, would be a remarkably uncomfortable place to be.

I’m lucky on both my outward- and inward-facing reasons: my ward is, while imperfect, tremendously sensitive to the struggles our LGBT brothers and sisters face, and is, I suspect, among the more welcoming in the church. My public opposition to these policies doesn’t put me outside the mainstream of where I live.

Moreover, I’m a straight, married man; when I say that, on net, the church is religiously valuable to me, it doesn’t hurt that the policies don’t affect me directly.

All that said, though, I live in an imperfect world, one where I navigate between suboptimal choices all the time. And even if the church isn’t perfect, I believe that, like us, it can improve. I also believe that those improvements sometimes come in fits and starts.

Ultimately, though, I believe that my continued membership and participation both makes me better and makes the church better. And thus I stay.

Christian Harrison was generous enough to respond to this post.

Comments

  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I am at the decision point of deciding to stay or leave (at least go “inactive”). You give me something to think about, but it still does not make the decision easy.

  2. Yep, this. I often find that it is easier for me to stay than it is for me to explain why I stay. I feel very much in tune with you on this.

  3. “Imagine a world where everybody disquieted by the church’s treatment of LGBT members left.”

    Imagining this very thing terrifies me but also strengthens my resolve to stay. I still love and see too much that is good in Mormonism and the people in it to remove my voice as an insider, at least for now. Even if it means I spend my drive home on Sunday in tears a lot of weeks… And often feel too exhausted and inadequate to continue trying to awkwardly locate/navigate that space where what I say and do helps rather than turns people off. Thanks for this encouraging post.

  4. Interesting hypothesis. Have you actually tested it? By that, I mean have you actually spent a few years not actively being a practicing Mormon? If not, can you explain why so many who do this balancing test and decide to leave never return?

    You can probably see where I’m going with this. For 5 years post Prop 8 I also believed I a was better person and the church was a better institution if I stayed in. Now, 3 years after I “took a step back,” I firmly believe I am a better person and the church will be a better institution if more people voted with their feet.

  5. Adam, if you’ve found you’re a better person away from the church, more power to you. This isn’t an inquiry, though, for which the scientific method makes a lot of sense (there’s no control group, for one).

    And honestly, my leaving the church would have precisely as much effect on the institution as my vote has on the presidential election. My continued participation, though? Like I said, I can actively make the church more hospitable, whatever its institutional predilections.

  6. With all respect to those who see it differently, for me personally, my decision to stay in the church despite the disagreements that I have sometimes had with church leaders has less to do with whether the church makes me better or whether I can make it better, and more to do with the fact that I feel called by the Holy Ghost to be here because of (1) my conviction that the priesthood real and that church leaders, despite their mistakes and my disagreement on given issues, are the successors of Joseph Smith, and (2) my belief that that conviction is inspired by the Holy Ghost. I do believe that the church makes me better, and that the church is better off with people who see things like I do in it, but even if I didn’t think my continued presence in the church made any difference on the church, I would still stay, if for no other reason than this is I would be untrue to what I feel is my call if I were to leave.

    YMMV. I’m also convinced that there is much goodness and truth outside the church, and there are some who can better fulfill their mission in this life outside of it. I don’t rule out the possibility that others may be called to be somewhere else.

    But for me anyway, the decision to stay is more about a sense of calling than anything else. The weighing of benefits doesn’t work for everyone; it wouldn’t work for me.

  7. Jason K. says:

    That’s it for me, too, JKC.

  8. Which makes total sense, JKC. Like I said, I’m not trying to be prescriptive here. And sometimes that sense of calling is enough for me. But other times, I personally need to weigh the good against what’s not good.

  9. I respect that, Sam. And don’t worry, I didn’t read your post as trying to be prescriptive. I just thought I’d share the approach that works for me.

  10. Thanks, JKC.

  11. orangganjil says:

    I appreciate this post and have struggled with this myself. I do not support the policy and have often wondered if this is my “racist pre-1978” moment of decision. I waffle on whether to stay or go, but honestly, the thing that has pushed me toward the “leave” decision is the effect all this will have on my children, for despite the wonderful ideas of support and inclusion discussed in this post, the message our youth hear over and over is how important it is to obey our living prophets. From the Primary children singing “Follow the Prophet” over and over, to the youth curriculum’s constant reminders that our leaders are living prophets who should always be heeded lest the youth go astray, there seems to be a subtle yet ever-present message that the things taught by our leaders, especially regarding the family, are God’s will, and to disobey is to place one’s eternal salvation in jeopardy. Our attempts at inclusion fly in the face of official teachings, official policy, curriculum, and expectations of our membership. It often feels like I’m battling a tsunami with a bat.

    At church we hear that our leaders’ teachings are the only valid conclusion a good Mormon can come to, and it is a difficult message for me to see delivered to my children by well-meaning people, made worse when those leaders declare it as God’ will. I tell my children (who hate going to church due to the mind-numbing meetings) how critical it is for them to attend church, only to have them taught these kinds of messages.

    If other perspectives were viewed within our community as valid, it would be much easier to stay, but the brainwashing (sorry if that is a charged term, but that’s what I feel it is) and cult of personality within the church only reinforces that the only valid perspective within the church is that held by our “living prophets”, which makes the decision to stay seem like I’m inflicting spiritual harm upon my children.

    I apologize for the long message, but I just felt like I had to get that off my chest. It’s quite the crap sandwich which we are trying to eat, and I often feel alone in my concerns.

  12. orangganjil,
    Yes! I have had disagreements with the institutional church since I was about 10 years old and it was never too much for me to stay. Then I had children. Now the thought of sending my three year old daughter to primary where she will constantly be reminded that she is not as important as the boys in her class. I just can’t have her believing that from the time she is three years old up. I know that not all primary classes teach that, but mine does. Our stake primary president often comes in to give a message in primary. No matter the subject, she finds a way to make sure to insert something about how women can’t be gods like men, or how women shouldn’t try to make decisions for men. Yes, this is in primary sharing time. It’s horrible.
    It’s one thing for me to make this decision to put myself through this. It’s a different matter entirely to inflict it on my children.

  13. I did enjoy the post though, and it made me want to stay more than I’ve wanted to in months.

  14. Michael Kiser says:

    I very much agree with you, Sam, and I am sharing your thoughts with several disgruntled members. The church is experiencing an increasing problem of retention, and its LBGT position is a very significantly driving members away. As a married father with children, I am greatly concerned about retention.