The Mainstreamers, or How Not To Tick Off Everybody You Know

 Jaw clenches. Eyes glaze over.  You, a Mormon wondering if you even have a place in the Church, are being forced to listen to the same stuff that you feel has failed you.  You feel like Michael Scott as you hear the words:

In spite of everything you’ve said, I know that the Church…

Just hearing it brings back so many pleasant memories that you want to:

(Advance apologies for the language!)

To the Mormons reassessing their faith and relationship to the Church, this is for you, especially if you want to keep your friendship with active Mormons alive.

Why do I even need to read this, you ask?  After all, you get Mormonism.  Oh do you get it–all too well!  You’ve spent the better part of your life investing in a life system that you believe is not as advertised.  Why sacrifice your sanity to historical events that, at best, seem shrouded in mystery and perhaps are a complete fabrication?   There are better ways to spend 10-20 some hours of your week.

And what makes the disillusioning experience worse? It all happened in the house of your friends.  No wonder even thinking/talking/hearing “testimonies,” “apologetics,” etc. causes you physical pain. It’s not an academic debate you’re having; it never has been.  It’s a debate about the value of the last 20, 30, or 40 years of your life.  You’ve developed your

family’s identity, your social network, and the way you see the world all in the walls of that less-than-aesthetic chapel down the road.  You’re hurt, troubled, have lost a considerable amount of sleep reading/thinking/stewing, and feel this network you’ve cultivated for decades to be surprisingly obtuse to what you believe are legitimate concerns. Your old-school friends keep haranguing you about how “the church is perfect, the people aren’t” (groan) and about what your real sin is (“my sin is thinking, bro”).

But you–that’s right, you–Dialogue reader with Mormon Stories blaring in your headphones–can (and should!) still have conversations with believers.  For Saints in the throes of a faith crisis/transition, maintaining positive, conversational relationships (smiling and nodding in the hall doesn’t count) with the more “conventional” folks often is nerve-wracking. Perhaps you wonder why any of this is your responsibility; aren’t they the ones who hurt you? Yet if one still believes that “Friendship is the grand principle of Mormonism,” then bridging this divide continues to be vital in healing the wounds inflicted by a tumultuous intellectual journey.

Both believer and disaffected have roles to play in the healing process.   Salvation/happiness/love/charity have always been a family affair.

8726974-coffee-and-conversation-between-two-well-dressed-men

Original image here

1) Find “That One Guy”

It reminds me of when people try to talk about dating with me–especially with out-of-context platitudes better suited for a Reese Witherspoon flick than for my own life. I lived by the platitudes once.  “Love is just around the corner.” “Timing is everything.” “Any two people…” Yet I could think of dozens–no, hundreds–of instances where the platitudes collapsed under the weight of reality.  Dating conversations filled my soul with a kind of existential dread.  If it came up, I had to decide: “Ok, how combative should I be? Do I smile, nod, and lie? Do I respectfully disagree? Do I push back?” 

I had conditioned myself not to listen, if only as a defense mechanism.   Their statements were not hard to comprehend.  I still popped off on occasion, expecting people just to validate me. I told myself that they entertained these high-minded axioms. But I was wrong.  The dating narrative, the platitudes, the nonsense–it worked for them.  By all appearances, these people–often married–were in fulfilling relationships (though who knows but there was a skeleton in a closet somewhere).   But the effort required to prevaricate, engage, push back/not push back was emotionally exhausting.

Perhaps they disagree with you on dating/Joseph Smith/religion entirely.  Take my friend, Dave*, for instance. He was a family-man-in-waiting.  So on matters of dating, we saw eye-to-eye about as well as I did with most people.  But there was a difference: I was not Just That Single Guy.  We respected each other and had plenty to talk about that did not necessarily trace back to the Dating Rat Race.   We both knew there was more to life.  Getting to that place was risky.  I had to trust that he didn’t have an arsenal of Why-Aren’t-You-Married/You’re-Just-Bitter ammunition  But with time, it worked.  Even after he was married and was basking in the heyday of newlywed life, he never once exhibited self-righteousness or entitlement.

Find him, only Mo-history style.  Best thing that could possibly happen for someone struggling through a faith crisis.

2) Listen.  No, really.  Listen.

So you’ve had some time to vent your issues.  You’ve demonstrated that your concerns are founded in solid documentation, and your friend nods, saying: “Wow, I never thought of that.”  You ask: “So what do you make of it?

They’re probably not going to know the answer. Come to grips with that now.  And it’s okInsisting on hard answers right now, right away is unrealistic.  Entire volumes have been committed to answering the questions you (rightly!) crave.

So ask them a different question: “Why does this not bother you?” Maybe they’ve never thought about it.   Their parents, bishops, and stake presidents were mechanics, doctors, or financial consultants–not historians.  History was something to be used not understand.  The standard Mormon storyline served them well and yielded fruit.  Why would anyone want to change that?  It’s a logic that undermines what the study of history is all about, but since most people haven’t been trained in the historian’s craft (including self-proclaimed historians), it’s not fair to expect them to think like historians.

3) Mormonism isn’t one long big crap-fest that Nobody Knows About.

Everyone loves a secret history–especially Mormons.  The faith is built on a secret historical text, a “voice from the dust” teaching modern Americans about the how things really went down in ancient America. Howard Zinn and David Barton have made a killing off of it.  We get a strange buzz out of thinking that Everything Everybody Else Thought They Knew is Wrong.

Howard Zinn.  His book was voted one of the two least believable history texts ever printed.

Howard Zinn, like David Barton, became a national success by catering to the readers’ craving for “privileged information”

It’s not a new impulse.  During the Revolutionary War, Ulster immigrant Charles Thomson served as a secretary to the Continental Congress.  He witnessed what he called the intrigues and severe altercations” of Congress; some urged him to write the “secret memoirs to the American Revolution.” He eventually did but couldn’t bear publishing it: “I could not tell the truth without giving great offense.”  He wanted the “world to admire our patriots and heroes.”  His account would surely “contradict all the histories of the great events of the Revolution.”

But it doesn’t take a scholar to know that 1765-1791 wasn’t just an orgy of leaders and soldiers engaging in orgies of evil.  Whatever one thinks of the Revolutionary War (I have a special affectation for the Quakers–many of whom were targeted for their pacifism during the war), good people as well as bad people still walked the streets of Boston.  George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and myriad others had the talent to do both wonderful and awful things.

I remember the days when I could barely set through a testimony meeting without blowing a gasket. Of course, those days are long, long past–they never happen anymore.  When I hear a bad testimony, I just think about making cookies for the local rest home.  Nothing cures bad history like sunshine and roses…

So polygamy bugs you.  Mormon corporatism troubles you.  Joseph Smith, you think, was a scoundrel. Fair.  All of it.  But for every awful story of murder and violent rhetoric in Utah, there are stories of humanity and compassion–sometimes coming from the same people who authorized the murder.  The same Brigham Young who suggested that an adulterous couple deserved a javelin through the heart also told a soon-to-be excommunicated adulterer that he wanted to eventually re-baptize him; church leaders, Young said, had the responsibility to make “the plaster as big as the sore” (Meeting Minutes, January 4, 1848). The same Brigham Young who ranted about the depravity of the black population had once acknowledged that he didn’t “care about the color” of one’s skin and that “one of our best Elders” in the Church is “an African.” (Meeting Minutes, March 26, 1847).  The same Joseph Smith who deceived his wife in taking plural wives also instituted a systemic death theology meant to convince the Saints of the unity between the dead and the living and the eternal nature of sociability and friendship.

Seek to intellectually empathize with your believing friends.  It’s what historians do all the time–try to recapture another person’s worldview.  Making a moral judgment is part of the equation, but it’s the end result–not the founding assumption. Doing so will require that you seek out the well-documented good things that Joseph Smith did alongside the less-than-flattering  Leave nothing out of your search except for your preconceived expectations.  No whitewashing or “faith-promoting” allowed here–we all know exactly where and how to find Joseph Smith’s legitimate flaws.  Start out fresh.  Forget what you learned in Sunday School.  Become acquainted with Joseph Smith anew, and maybe you’ll find the complicated figure that still appeals to your believing friends.

4) Be good

I’m a fan of having people live as close to Zion as they can.  And I’m not talking about living in downtown Salt Lake City The down-the-line Saints are afraid that they’re going to over-church you just by hanging around.  Prove them wrong. Can’t do the temple thing because you really don’t think that the Church is The True Church?  Doesn’t mean you can’t hit up the Cheesecake Factory.  Can’t be active? No worries.  Come to my (hypothetical) son’s basketball game.  Hopefully, we’ve all become close enough friends that we don’t need Church to hang out.  If we haven’t succeeded in that, then either we’ve failed Mormonism, or it has failed us.

5) Speaking the truth with love

Friendship can endure authenticity, including the authentic expression of one’s feelings.  Your feelings about Mormonism are legitimate.  And your anger is bound to reveal itself in conversation at times.  How does one speak uncomfortable historical truth in love (which is not to be confused with condescension)? It’s a tough gig.  But one thing is certain: love’s ultimate end goal is to build something beautiful.  So when you do tell your believing friends about your solidly-documented research discoveries, it’s done out of the interest of enlightenment and edification–not recruitment.  You’re as willing to let them form their faith as you form yours.

Know how annoying it is when down-the-line Mormons over-proseletyze everybody?  For example:

On the Bus:

Guy: “How ’bout them Yankees?”
Mormon: “Joseph Smith was a Yankee!”

Original image here

Original image here

It’s just as taxing when all roads lead back to Faith-Crisis-ville. I’m going to read for you a transcript for my mind during a typical Sacrament meeting as I plunged into the depths of The Far Side of Mo-landia.

During Testimony Meetings

Believer: “Even though I’m still single, I believe in eternal marriage!”——>”Uh oh! I hear Emma’s not a very fun sister wife.  Don’t let the stairway hit you on the way out!!

During Elder’s Quorum

Believer: “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God”—->”And he built one heck of a For-Profit Organization of God, didn’t he? Ha!”

Remember how believers shouldn’t follow the Good Will Hunting model for intellectual discourse? No different here.  In fact, since the disaffected have likely read more Mormon history, you’re going to be in a better position to drown your “friends” in Mormon history knowledge.  However, I wouldn’t recommend that if you want to keep them around.  Maybe you have a “special relationship” with them that allows you to attack their cherished beliefs openly while they just laugh it off and rib you back?  But you probably don’t.

A faith crisis doesn’t need to mean the end of your Mormon network unless you want it to.  You have choices.  You can navigate this faith crisis to wherever it leads.  You might lose some of the more shallow relationships along the way.  But that’s ok.  I’ve been there. Others have too.  And we Mormons know how to protect our own.  We hope you’ll let us do it.

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