Guest post by Adrienne Harreveld, who also wrote this post for YMF.
Recently, Duke Chronicle columnist Ellie Schaack published an article titled “Confessions of a cultural Mormon” where she outlines her experience growing up in an area of Colorado with a many members of the LDS faith. In the column she argues the reason for Mormons’ general happiness comes from their community and their church attendance. In addition to highlighting the predictable gamut of criticisms of the religion including “regressive social policies,” “general lack of tolerance,” and “doctrines erring on the side of ridiculous” she offers some consolation by stating we are also known “strangely, for kindness.”
Unlike Schaack, I grew up in South Florida, distant from the “Utah territory” and I identify as Mormon. But the most striking difference between the columnist and myself is how we recognize our relationship to the Mormon faith. I consider myself a “everything, but the culture” Mormon. I’m sure I speak for many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when I say 1) Mormonism has over 15 million members worldwide, I hardly doubt there is anything close to a homogeneous Mormon culture, and 2) rather than providing me with happiness, the Mormon community has caused me significant heartache and grief. Unlike what Schaack claims, my happiness, kindness, progressive social views and general tolerance of everyone and everything comes more so from those “ridiculous” doctrines than from going to church every Sunday.
Of course there are many reasons for Schaack to make these wide-sweeping claims. From my own personal experience I can attest that many members of the LDS faith are under the impression that a lot of social and cultural ideologies find their roots in doctrine. I don’t denounce the community Schaack is referring to or anyone who has felt comfort and strength because of it. I instead reject the notion of making broad, generalized claims about an incredibly diverse group of people. After discussing the article with a friend and former Mormon, she articulated that she identified with Schaack’s claims, saying what she missed most about the religion was the community and going to church every Sunday. I felt exactly the opposite way.
It wasn’t until high school that I began feeling distanced from the Mormon community. I was the only Mormon in my middle school and one of three active Mormons in my high school including my younger sister. Yet somehow all of the Mormons within an eight year age range and within a 30 mile radius became friends with each other. My best friend throughout high school was Mormon, but once we were in a group of more than just the two of us, I felt isolated. I felt like my identity as more than a Mormon, but as a feminist and as someone who wanted to organize for social change could never mold or mesh with the expectations that community had for me. My friends would go on group dates, shop for modest prom dresses on the same websites, go to Brigham Young University, put Mitt Romney bumper stickers on their cars, talk about the same books and movies, and dream of getting engaged if they weren’t already. I felt like I wasn’t living up to what cultural Mormonism expect me to be. Despite my temple attendance and Personal Progress medallion, I felt inadequate. Close friends have told me they “wished I had different political beliefs” or that I would “fall away” for being different. I recognized the same feelings of inadequacy within my mother who often suffered from depression because she didn’t live up to the perfect Mormon wife and spouse image. Then I realized I had fallen victim to the same trap as Schaack- I began to view my own religion within the confines of a stereotyped box.
Soon thereafter I realized I wasn’t alone and that a “Mormon culture” was not at all representative of my faith. Members of my faith protest for the ordination of women, they denounce sexism and racism, they are radical, they can be pro-choice, they are pro homosexual marriage, they are homosexual. Their happiness and strength is based on their own personal relationship with God. They value our freedom to make our own life choices and don’t let a culture define their spirituality or their happiness.