I recently presented on a few panels at the Salt Lake City Sunstone 2013 Symposium. This is essentially the blogged version (same ideas, slightly different articulation) of my presentation at the panel on the pants quilt. Recordings of all the panels will be made available shortly.
I do not speak for my generation- this is my personal opinion. What follows is a very over-simplified and generalized framework for understanding some of the differences between younger and older generations and how they handle faith crises. I started Young Mormon Feminists with the feeling that there was a difference in the way that younger Mormon feminists approach questions about the church, and perhaps it’s just confirmation bias that I think I was right, but I’m going to share my thoughts anyways.
There is first and foremost one undeniable difference between my generation and those older, and that is how the September 6 excommunications in 1993 have affected our perceptions of Mormon scholarship and church discipline. Many people who had been plugged into Mormon scholarship and research particularly on issues like Heavenly Mother and female ordination saw the excommunications take place and became scared to speak up again for fear of similar retribution. The September 6 cast a shadow on openly speaking up and discussing Mormonism from a critical perspective for at least a decade.
However- I was born in 1993; I found out about the September 6 my freshwoman year of college. It has not played the same role of warning and source of fear that it has played in so many other older progressive Mormon’s lives. The same is largely happening with the rest of my generation. We do not have a memory of people who speak up about the church being expelled for their beliefs- we’ve only heard rumors or interpreted various warnings at our own discretion. In my opinion, this factor- along with the internet- has emboldened my generation to speak up on issues that concern them when past generations may have felt more trapped to silence their doubts.
The second difference is more subjective and thus I will do my best to flesh out my thoughts as best I can. Through my participation with Feminist Mormon Housewives, I’ve noticed that group and blog to be filled with women with reasons to stay. They were raised in the church or joined it of their own volition, many of them attended church schools and many of them attended seminary and dedicated many hours to church attendance and service; they married in the temple, they have raised or are raising beautiful children, and they now look back on their life as being inseparable from their connection to Mormonism. But they start to discover things, study them, and have been disturbed by reasons to leave that appear before them. They find themselves hurting and struggling, and despite all the reasons to stay- childhood, family, faith, others- they find themselves on the lookout for the one reason big enough to leave.
But I see the opposite situation happening in the Young Mormon Feminists community. YMF is filled with younger people who have not yet dedicated many years or decades to church attendance and service; most have not yet made covenants in the temple or married an eternal companion, and most have not had any children. They are thus relatively unencumbered by these other considerations, and at a time in their life when they are making other major decisions (“What do I want to do with my life?” “Where in the world do I want to live?” “Who do I want to marry?”), the decision of what they believe in is just another major aspect of self-discovery with which they are already grappling.
And they have many, many reasons to leave.
Why should young people, who increasingly have realized that gay people are not evil and that being gay is not evil and that to deny gay people the same personhood and respect as straight people is morally wrong, stay in a church that continues to defend bigoted practices and attitudes towards the LGBT community? Why should young people stay in a church that continues to not only speak selectively about its history but actively ignore or hide uncomfortable events and statements? Why should they stay in a church that continues to be led by elderly white men when the demographics of the body of the church do not reflect that? Why should they stay in a church that has excommunicated scholars and intellectuals who were simply speaking honestly about their studies? Why should they stay when the corporate nature of the church fails to be transparent on how it uses its funds, when it builds a temple to consumerism in Salt Lake City, when it does not allow many women in their employ to keep their jobs once they have children?
But more specifically- why should young women stay? I’ll speak only for myself here. Why should I stay in a church that seems to place my worth as an individual on my virginity, on how much I cover my body, and on whether or not I use my body to create another human being and raise it in the church? Why should I stay in a church where my leaders will always be male and where a patriarchal order implying women’s relatively lower station in terms of spiritual authority is preached as the order of the heavens? Why should I stay in a church that, for all its praise of motherhood, is complacent to be silent on our eternal Mother? Why should I stay when I will be constantly pressured to marry with undertones of my incompleteness without a man? Why should I stay when to marry a man in the temple will result in me making covenants to him that he does not return to me? Why should I stay in a church that seems to care more about whether I get a third piercing in my ear than in whether or not I have a testimony of the teachings of Christ?
There are so many reasons to leave, and for the most part, I see younger Mormon feminists looking for that one reason big enough to stay. That’s why it’s the opposite problem. Many at FMH have all these reasons to stay and just need one big enough to leave, whereas many at YMF have all these reasons to leave and are looking for one big enough to stay.
But the problem is- reasons to stay don’t come on one person’s timeline. On rare occasions, someone stays because they have a single powerful experience. But for the vast majority of people, they stay because they have invested and benefitted from that investment. They stay because they have discovered or decided that the church helps them find spiritual nourishment. They find beauty in doctrines, community, potential for progress, family, service structure, and spiritual nourishment. They find ways to cope or even come to peace the hierarchical nature, the gender imbalances, the 1950s rhetoric, the historical concerns, etc. But I see young people all around me trying desperately to find that one reason big enough to stay, not finding it on their time, and under such a barrage of reasons to leave, they do it.
I am in NO WAY pronouncing judgment- I myself intended to leave the church for a while. Thanks to the fact that I was still at BYU and thus had no true escape, I was able to still be open to the idea of God and came back to believing through my own experiences. I’m grateful that it worked out for me that way, though I would never have been able to say that when I was going through the darkest times of my faith transition. But my point is that at least for the community of YMF and generally my generation that participates in online progressive Mormon discussions, I see this trend towards not finding good enough reasons to stay and deciding to go ahead and leave.
It has never been my M.O. to get people to stay Mormon; I want whatever is best for individuals, emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually. But I worry that many younger Mormons are going through a very difficult and at times traumatic break from the Mormon church without resources and support that might have better informed their decision about staying or leaving or anything in between. I don’t think that the majority of progressive Mormons and definitely not the church leadership understand what it is like to be a young person going through a faith transition right now, with the internet at our fingertips and an increasingly conservative, orthodox, and hardline religious community clashing with values and beliefs that we develop and hold on to on our own.
My message to younger Mormons who are grappling with questions about staying in the church is this: I feel you. There are so many reasons to leave, and if you decide to, I respect that and I’ll always support you in whatever way I can. But if there’s something, anything, that makes you pause on your way out, I want you to know that you are not alone in your indecision. It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy of orthodoxy vs apostasy. You are your own individual full of complexity, unique life experiences, and a powerful sense of self, and you can make whatever choice you feel is best for you- including a range of options like being fully active and believing, being active but disagreeing, inactivity but maintaining a connection, leaving, resigning your membership. There are so many people in all those situations and more who can be a lifeline for you to help you find your truth in this messy and messed up world. You have tools- online communities, many good books, perhaps even people in your everyday life- and you can be empowered to figure out what you believe on your own, and to discover if that includes the Mormon church and gospel of Jesus Christ.
But please remember that you’re not the only or the first one to discover these things, and it’s okay if it takes some time to figure things out- we have our whole lives ahead of us. I hope you don’t feel like you have to settle this score right now or on a timeline, and I’m so sorry that there are overwhelming pressures for you to figure it out before missions, marriage, college, etc. I’m here for you, there are a lot of people here for you, and we will support you no matter what. Just keep us in mind, friends.