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.
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:
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.