not in Primary anymore

letter to a cultural doubter

By Hannah Wheelwright

*Please note: this blog post is specifically addressed to a particular group of people, namely, those who fully believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ and the LDS Church, but struggle with cultural issues. All are welcome to read, but be aware that the content is specifically directed towards this group.

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together

Dear Friend,

I’m writing to you because I may not know you, but I care about you, and I understand you may be struggling with cultural issues in the LDS Church. Maybe it’s how modesty is taught, or how women are put on a pedestal, or how working moms are forgotten or talked down to, or how women do not serve as ward clerks or other callings that do not require the priesthood, or maybe it’s any number of other issues. I hope I can share some things with you in this letter that might help you to stay LDS in spite of, or possibly even because of, those frustrations.

Before I say anything else, I want you to know that you’re not alone. There are thorny issues in the Church, and they are painful to realize when you perhaps once thought that the Church was perfect. It can be incredibly painful to confront these thorny issues alone, or when you had previously planned to serve a mission or get endowed soon, or when these frustrations seem to shake your faith.

But the Church is not perfect- it’s a hospital for sinners, not a paradise for the righteous. They that are whole have no need of a physician, especially the ultimate physician, Jesus Christ- and that includes members of the Church, at every level. And unshakable faith is faith that has been shaken.

I’m not an expert or anything, and I hope this doesn’t come off as sounding super condescending. I have so much more to learn- none of this is to say I never struggle with cultural issues in the Church myself. But I want to share why I think there’s good reasons not to leave the Church simply from cultural frustrations.

This does NOT mean that people who do leave over cultural disagreements or problems were or are in any way wrong. I share this only to speak to those who currently do believe and are looking for a way to stay. I hope that I can address this sensitive topic in a way that is helpful.

1. Acknowledging Cultural Problems

I’m not going to get into the proverbial doctrine vs. culture debate here, but I do want to make the point that oftentimes problems or frustrations Mormon feminists have with the LDS Church are actually with specific aspects of its culture. Almost always, those cultural problems do derive from something in the theology or practice of the Church, but they are still cultural nonetheless. That means that a Mormon feminist in Boston might have never experienced the same cultural issue that you are struggling with in Provo, Utah.

This can be jarring, since we hear so often how the Church is the same everywhere you go. But that’s a key point- the doctrine and essential truths of the gospel are indeed universal, but not necessarily how they will be taught or how Mormons in your area will act.

The fact that experiences differ is not necessarily a good excuse for why you should be okay with a cultural problem in your area. It’s still a problem, and just telling you “Other people don’t experience that!” is not necessarily going to make you feel better, right? It’s like telling someone who is struggling to pay their bills, “Don’t worry, other people are super rich and never have problems paying their bills!” It’s not necessarily helpful to point out how other people don’t have your woes.

But in the context of Mormonism, it might be helpful to remember that your experience is still temporary- thine afflictions shall be but a small moment. It may be extremely hard- feeling alone and ostracized in a community almost always is- but remembering that your negative experiences do not negate the truth of the gospel can be useful.

2. Why I think This is How It’s Supposed to Be

I’m going to explain my personal perspective on this briefly. There could be entire books written, but I’m going to try to sum it up:

I. If we really believe that

a.)   the purpose of being on the earth is to gain a body and then use that body to make good decisions and live worthily

b.)  because we need to make good decisions and live worthily, we must face temptation (there must needs be opposition in all things)

c.)   we must face that temptation at all times and in all things and in all places if we are to truly prove ourselves

That would mean that there are things to change, even in how the Church is administered in its policies, and in how cultural attitudes shape those policies and everyday interactions. Every trial, every struggle is an opportunity to prove ourselves, and revelation from the Holy Ghost can help make our efforts more meaningful. We prove through our actions that we can discern what is eternal truth and what is mortal flaw, that we can forgive the aggressor completely, and that we have the courage to speak up to promote dialogue and improvement on things important to us. We can be missionaries to promote the true gospel of Jesus Christ, helping those still inside and those who have left the Church to draw closer to their Heavenly Parents. Inadequacies and problems in the church can simply be an opportunity to exercise our agency to do this.

II. Beyond just this logical possibility for the Church to need improvement (the institutional church, not the doctrine of Christ), there is also a strong logical basis for why it’s okay for Church leaders and members to need improvement. If the Church is a perfect gospel administered by imperfect people, why are we expecting perfection? Why do we so easily forget that our doctrine insists that our leaders are fallible?

III. And beyond simply the logical and doctrinal basis for why it’s okay that our Church leaders and members are imperfect, we have the historical proof. Perhaps some of the history also bothers you. But if nothing else, we do see an incredibly strong pattern of improvement in the Church- it might take a long, long time, and it might not come soon enough for many people- but it does happen, and it is beautiful. It is beautiful to see people change and to see institutions become safer and more welcoming spaces.

IV. It can also be helpful to remember how much specifically LDS doctrine encourages us to actively improve our lives and our communities- I’ve repeated it here many times, but we really are so often encouraged to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and not to be slothful servants that need to be commanded in all things. We can take those admonitions as a reminder to speak up about cultural problems in our communities. I believe that as we speak up and take action to improve our communities, our examples will bless the lives of those around us who had the same silent frustrations but were struggling to articulate them and possibly even to stay active in the Church.

V. If you believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ (who was pretty radical in his treatment of women, the poor, sinners, and pretty much every single oppressed group) is true and that it is the core doctrine of the LDS Church, it makes a lot of sense that we simply aren’t doing a good job right now in the Church of living the gospel. And we need to do better! We need to keep preaching repentance, love and acceptance, and the importance of doing better everyday, to ourselves first and then to everyone else.

No one is perfect, but we sometimes act as if just acknowledging that is enough. As if just bearing a humble testimony on Fast Sunday will absolve us of our consistent lack of engaging in meaningful service and personal study. We preach the importance of the Atonement and marvel at its beauty, at its redemptive power to save us even when we thought we were beyond saving- and yet we do not claim access to it, and we do not know how to encourage others to use it in a 21st century respectful and thoughtful way. We have our scriptural examples of Samuel the Lamanite on the wall, we know of Ammon preaching repentance, we know of Christ simply asking people to pick up their cross and follow Him- but we flounder in these modern times in understanding how to encourage others to use the Atonement, especially when we are asking them to acknowledge how they might be hurting people by participating in harmful cultural practices.

I don’t have any specific answers for this. I wish I did; we need action, not just recognition. But I think the first step is to acknowledge that we cannot express gratitude for a gospel that at its core is about learning from our mistakes, but not have the patience to help other people acknowledge their weaknesses as well as ourselves. Perhaps you didn’t know you were participating in a harmful cultural practice until someone pointed it out to you. We can’t just stomp our feet and wish that everyone would stop doing annoying cultural things when we are unwilling to take the action to help them see.

The day we are willing to take people by the hand, to open our hearts to them and to prayerfully show them how things in the Church could be improved, is the day we start to make actual progress. Top-down progress comes, but not often, and in small doses. The power of helping your own community become more egalitarian, more welcoming, and more focused on the doctrine of Christ is immeasurable.

3. YOU

I want to stress for a moment how important you are. I want what is best for you. I want you to be happy, to have good self-esteem, and to be emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. I want you to know you will always have worth, your Heavenly Parents will always love you, and no matter what happens, your actions will speak to the strength of your determination to do what is right.

If ever you feel that as much as you believe in and love the gospel of Jesus Christ and the LDS Church, you cannot healthily participate in the institution, it is okay to take a step back. It is also a good idea, long before that breath of fresh air is needed, to counsel with your family and friends, your spiritual leaders, your Heavenly Parents- to enact smaller changes, to pursue other paradigms. But if ever you feel that it is too much- it is better to take a step away, in my opinion, than to inflict long term emotional and spiritual damage by forcing yourself to stay. Many people (myself included) find that taking a time-out to discover for yourself what you really believe and how you want to live your life can sometimes unexpectedly lead you right back to where you started, but with fresh eyes and a new perspective on Mormonism. Not everyone follows that pattern of course- but it might be helpful for you to keep as an option.

Please remember you are not alone.  I remember the day after the first emotionally painful and somewhat traumatizing experience of my Mormon feminist faith transition; I was sitting at my kitchen table in my apartment at BYU (pretending to) do my homework. I remember twiddling my pen in between my fingers, thinking about my questions about women in the Church. I suddenly squinted my eyes a little as I looked at the screen on my laptop in front of me, as the thought went through my head- “I CANNOT be the first Mormon woman to ask these questions!” and so I opened up Google and typed in “Mormonism feminism.” And sure enough, Feminist Mormon Housewives was the first thing that popped up. It was such a relief to see right there that I was not alone. I don’t know how to help you have a similar experience- I know that sometimes even after finding like-minded people, we can still feel aloof, like people don’t fully understand us and our stories and our hopes.

But I hope, and I’m praying for you. If I’m being honest with myself, my personal belief in deity can best be described as hope. I don’t KNOW- I can only hope and believe- what is Up There. But I care about you very deeply, and so I will pray. I will pray that you will feel the love our Heavenly Parents have for you, that you will see opportunities when challenges arise and will be able to move forward with confidence, and that you will be a friend and a confidante to those around you who may be suffering silently from the same questions you have.

I have sprinkled this letter with statements from my own patriarchal blessing, because I believe in the importance of personal revelation, and because if I could give you a blessing instead of just a letter, I hope I could speak words of comfort from the Lord to you in the same way that the blessing I received from my patriarch has given me so much comfort.

I don’t know if any of this helps. I hope that you have been able to glean something, anything from it that might be helpful.

With love,

Hannah

The idea for this post and its title were shamelessly borrowed from Terryl Givens’ Letter to a Doubter.

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8 Responses to “letter to a cultural doubter”

  1. kari

    I think your message ought to be shouted from the rooftops. I’m going to share it with as many people as I can. Thank you for taking the time to carefully shape your words and share them.

    Reply
  2. vicvic

    This is wonderful. It was about 9 months ago that I first typed in “Mormon feminists” myself in Google, hoping that I wasn’t alone. Amazing how much my life and perspective has changed since.

    Reply
  3. Jami

    Hannah, this is really inspirational. My daughters wrestle with this. My oldest son does as well. There are so few places for cultural doubters, so few options for conversation. “Just leave” comes from one group. “Just sit down and shut up” comes from the other. “Here’s how to work it through” is a rare and important offering. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Marcello Jun

    The problem with the hospital metaphor is that most members believe they can will themselves into being physicians to other peoples’ patients.

    The “lay leadership” structure ensures that there are two distinct classes of members: one that leads (heals) and one that is lead (patients). Even though such class system is theoretically fluid, in praxis it’s just not quite so.

    I imagine that in a more egalitarian structure, with career professionally-trained inclusive (i.e., women, gays, etc.) ministry, members would feel more at liberty to allow themselves to be the spiritual patients (and co-patients) at a hospital of the Healer.

    Great post, Hannah.

    Reply
  5. Andrea

    THANKYOU. Church was very trying for me today as I fought my way through crowded hallways with two kids and baby in tow. I thought to myself, what a cliche’ I am right now. As a Mormon feminist I have struggled with the church culture and this post was what I needed!

    Reply
  6. LDSMominWA

    So much truth in this post. As a reflective 40-something mother of 2 grown children and 2 still at home teens, I can now look back and see that the times I subserviently “followed my husband because he ‘presided’ in the home” are the times our family made dumb choices. And not that my husband wanted me to be that way, it was stupid Mormon culture that made me go against what I knew was right through the Spirit. I hope young women don’t make these mistakes, and that young men don’t buy into that piece of non-Gospel principles.
    I love Jesus, I received a witness of the Book of Mormon, and I will continue to kindly question things that don’t seem right and support all who do so along their journey. If we never question, how can God give us answers?

    Reply
  7. Janan

    Hannah thanks for this post. It’s something I’ve been struggling with for sometime and I really appreciate you being open about a very real issue some face as members in the Church.

    Reply

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