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The Mormon Avengers

“Actively inactive” members say their love of the LDS faith is the reason they won’t abandon the church

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Lindsay Hansen Park - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Lindsay Hansen Park

NO ONE'S A PERFECT MORMON
Lindsay Hansen Park

Lindsay Hansen Park has all the qualities of a “good Mormon”—except church attendance.

While she says she adheres to the “Mormon lifestyle” and values often associated with a “good Christian life: integrity, kindness, compassion and working toward peace,” she feels troubled when those values are not reflected at church, and finds it difficult to attend regularly.

Many fellow Mormons might accuse her of “choosing to be offended,” but Park says that isn’t the cause of her inactivity. “I find it difficult to attend not because I find conflict or differing values as something I can’t tolerate, but because it hurts my soul to see those values as endorsed by God,” she says. “I don’t see those values as endorsed by God and I will not ‘actively’ participate in a system that claims that they are.”

Still, Park considers herself to be “a very active Mormon even though my church attendance doesn’t fit the cultural requirements of that label,” she says. And like many Mormons who question whether the LDS Church’s position on LGBT rights or gender equality comes from God or culture, Park’s heard the “just leave” response before. She understands the urge to react this way: Mormonism is a culture based on close-knit communities, where outlier positions can be perceived as threatening, and members feel justified in “policing outward appearances and actions,” Park says.

“We have a lot of signaling in Mormonism, especially in Utah—wearing tank tops, having a tattoo, things like that,” she says. “These become cultural signals to other Mormons about the level or orthodoxy a Mormon subscribes to, but things like a person’s heart can’t be measured by outward appearances.”

Park says that no one, no matter how devout, “adheres to the tenets or beliefs exactly or perfectly.” Though many members tell other Mormons to “just leave” based on individual and arbitrary standards for Mormonism, “just about every Mormon could be accused of doing Mormonism wrong,” she says.

After experiencing firsthand some of the trauma associated with leaving full church activity, Park sought opportunities to work with members outside the mainstream church in what she calls the “borderlands of Mormonism.” She runs counseling services for the Whitefield Educational Foundation, which offers professional counseling and resources for Mormons struggling with a disruption in their faith identity. Park also blogs for Feminist Mormon Housewives and does outreach for the Sunstone Education Foundation, working to introduce a younger demographic of Mormons to the Sunstone community.

She sees deviations from the norm as a sign of faith rather than as a sign of wavering devotion or spiritual weakness. “There’s an underlying assumption that there will be a tension with what we know, believe, and do, and what we hope and believe and do,” Park says. She identifies her faith as the tension between what she knows—the church has a long way to go to fully recognize all its members—and what she hopes for: a future of Mormonism where members allow themselves to be “more authentic with one another.”

Holly Welker - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Holly Welker

AN EXAMINED MORMON LIFE
Holly Welker

Holly Welker grew up in a small Mormon community in Arizona, and eventually served a mission in Taiwan. But instead of strengthening her testimony, working as a sister missionary was a traumatic experience, and drastically altered her view of Mormonism and its status as the “one true church.”

She says she “became convinced that it was wrong to try and convert perfectly happy Buddhists and Taoists to Christianity in general, or Mormonism in particular” and began to believe that she herself was damned. She “couldn’t shake the sense that missionary work was fundamentally immoral, because I thought God should just accept and love everyone as they are,” she says.

Believing that everyone is entitled to God’s grace while trying to preach conversion to Mormonism was “the most traumatic aspect of my mission,” Welker says. “It meant I was destined for a life of torment and could not partake of the supposed joy and possibility in the message I was preaching.”

Welker stopped attending church in 1989 and now identifies as post-Mormon. Yet she still feels compelled to examine the faith that shaped her childhood and early adulthood. She turned to writing as a form of navigating her Mormon experience, editing and publishing articles in Sunstone Magazine, and working as a freelance writer for Religion Dispatches.

“Mormonism is just plain old interesting,” Welker says. “Why shouldn’t I care about the religion that produced me?” Welker points out that while Mormons are quick to urge inactive or former Mormons to “leave the church alone,” they rarely follow that advice in their relationships with former Mormons.

The request to “leave the church alone,” Welker says, is also a request to “simply acquiesce to all the ways it won’t leave you alone, and live like a Mormon when you’re around Mormons.”

If Mormons truly wanted unorthodox members to stop interacting with Mormonism, Welker says, they would adapt and change policies that seemingly target former or non-members. Non-believing family members are barred from witnessing the temple marriages of loved ones, and Mormon couples who choose to marry civilly in front of family and wait a year to seal their marriage in the temple are faced with social and spiritual stigma. And by trying to influence secular laws, like the legality of same-sex marriage, Mormons refuse to leave their non-believing or unorthodox members “alone,” yet feel “flummoxed and angry,” she says, when a non-believer challenges their paradigm.

Welker says that despite her negative experiences as a member, denying her connection to the church would prevent her from living an authentic life. “Socrates said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ ” she says. “In my case, an examined life will involve a consideration of Mormonism and its effect on me personally and on the communities I have inhabited. I’m trying to approach my own life with integrity, and I truly could not care less that it seems strange to others.”

A WOMAN'S ROLE
Amy Isaksen Cartwright

As a graduate student in music performance and theater studies at Brigham Young University, Amy Isaksen Cartwright quickly learned to accept a degree of gender fluidity as she researched “pants roles,” the practice of women playing men on stage. Her research revealed a history of gender as a social construct, not an eternal identity. This contradicted the lessons she had heard at church that focused on gender as an “essential” component of the soul, with accompanying gender roles dictating behavior and purpose.

Nevertheless, during her second pregnancy, Cartwright felt determined to fulfill her destiny as a Mormon woman and embrace her role as a mother in Zion. She received a priesthood blessing that promised, she says, that through her daughter’s birth, she would feel “as a woman among women.” But when medical complications resulted in an emergency cesarean section and post-partum depression, Cartwright says, she felt like a “failure at being a woman,” bedridden and unable to care for her children. She experienced terror and heartbreak at her inability to see God in the gender structure emphasized in Mormonism, which identifies motherhood as women’s strongest connection to God.

“In church, we were taught that motherhood and the ability to give birth is equivalent to the male priesthood,” Cartwright says. “But what about everyone else? There is no real place for LGBT people, or women who don’t fit the mold. Mormonism’s view of gender and womanhood is insufficient.”

Eventually, Cartwright’s “social-justice conscience,” as she calls it, could no longer support a belief in divinely appointed gender roles. “What I believe won’t matter if it doesn’t make me a better person,” she says. “I have to have a faith that makes me a better and more compassionate person.”

Though she identifies as an “agnostic theist universalist” who would probably “fit better in a different congregation,” Cartwright says she feels called to stay in Mormonism; she made a promise with God when she first returned to activity as a young adult. Still, she no longer feels obligated to sustain the rigid gender roles emphasizing motherhood as a woman’s most divine calling.

Cartwright is now on Ordain Women’s leadership committee, working with Mormon feminists to educate members on the need for female ordination. She says that though there has been improvement in female roles and participation in the church, progress isn’t happening fast enough, especially for the Mormon feminist matriarchs she so greatly respects. “They don’t have a lifetime to wait for things to get better, and I don’t want them to die without ordination,” she says.

As part of Ordain Women’s April priesthood action event, Cartwright joined hundreds of other Mormon feminists in asking for admittance to the all-male priesthood session. “Standing on Temple Square, I felt a distinct impression telling me that ‘Right here, right now, you are a woman among women,’ ” she says. “Despite the negative response from the church, I knew my blessing was fulfilled. I now understand the role of women in the church: to advocate for equality for women in the church.”

J. Seth Anderson - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • J. Seth Anderson

RIGHTEOUS NON-CONFORMITY
J. Seth Anderson

J. Seth Anderson’s parents raised him in an “unorthodox” Mormon home, though he didn’t realize it growing up. He refers to his parents and grandparents as “peculiar” Mormons, the type who value individuality and personal spirituality over the “correlated” doctrine (standardized church teachings) of the Jell-O Belt. When Anderson announced his marriage to Michael Ferguson, he says, his temple-worker grandmother responded happily with, “That’s so cool!”

A graduate student studying history at the University of Utah, Anderson believes his family is a reminder of Mormonism’s history of “peculiar people,” those willing to embrace community and hardship in the Utah wilderness. Accordingly, Anderson believes his calling as a “queer Mormon” involves “revealing the queerness of Mormonism to itself,” and abandoning the current church emphasis on convention in order to return to the roots of Mormon non-conformity.

“Integrity is having a cup of coffee when I want to,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of breaking some bizarre rule that doesn’t work for me.”

Anderson first experienced what he calls the “unethical conformity” of some members during his church mission to Russia. The senior missionaries enforced the mission rule to only speak Russian as a way to torment new elders who felt afraid and lonely in a new country, he says. Technically, the elders were just following mission rules, but Anderson quickly realized how easy it was to use rules to hurt and exploit people who feel out of place.

“Why would this happen when we are all on the same team?” Anderson says he wondered at the time. “I realized that there is a hierarchy of politics within Mormonism, and it jarred me.”

After returning from his mission, Anderson stuck with the church and attended LDS Institute classes—until 2004, when classmates passed around a petition to strengthen the ban on same-sex marriage. Anderson says it felt like another example of Mormons using their faith to “discriminate against their neighbors.”

He resigned from the church in 2008, which coincided with a birth of activism within and without the church. Anderson longed to be in Salt Lake City in the aftermath of Proposition 8, but instead began blogging about being a gay Mormon, using his full name and refusing to cloak his experiences with the feelings of “shame and sadness” that he says were prevalent in gay Mormon online communities during those years.

Anderson continues to identify as a Mormon “when I want to, on my own terms, and on my own agenda.” His connection to his “peculiar” ancestors motivates him in encouraging others to face the “fear and unknown territory” of unorthodox Mormonism, he says, and “reappropriate” Mormonism and restore its nonconformist legacy of “queerness or peculiarity”—a phrase cherished by the pioneers.

“I won’t give up Mormonism just because some CEO usurped the Mormonism of my grandparents and turned it into a corporation that opposes women and gays,” he says.

But he’s quick to point out that his writings aren’t intended to encourage people, especially women and gays marginalized by the church, to stay. Instead, he says, he wants to motivate people to “let Mormonism work for you … be a Mormon on your own terms.”

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