Making Space for Myself as an Uncorrelated Mormon–Part 3: Try This One Weird Trick

(Previous posts about making space can be found here, here, and here.)

A while back I listened to a podcast where Fiona Givens discussed the lovely book she and her husband co-wrote called “The God Who Weeps”. I highly recommend it–the God they describe is compelling, one worth seeking after, connecting with, and emulating. Anyway, I was struck by her confidence in her Mormon-ness, her self-assurance that her way of being Mormon was completely valid, even though it sounded quite different from much of the Mormonism that I experience in my ward and during General Conference.

I have struggled to share her self-assurance, although if I had written “The God Who Weeps” instead of stuff like this or this, I’m sure my confidence would wax stronger. But I feel it is crucial to my well-being as an uncorrelated Mormon to learn this one weird trick: to self-validate my legitimacy as a Mormon, rather than relying on validation from the General Authorities or my fellow ward members or my Facebook feed.

So dear liberal Mormon, let’s work through this together. Although you may sometimes feel that you do not fit inside the conventional Mormon story, that you are on the outside looking in, like at a party where you don’t know anyone, I would bet that in many ways you are actually a true believing Mormon (tbM), a fact I expect you will recognize when I get through with you. Rest assured, I’m not going to put you through liberal-conversion therapy. Besides, it’s already banned in 16 states. Rather, we’re going to reason together about the diversity of Mormon beliefs.

Below I’ve listed some common teachings that we hear or read about at church. At the risk of oversimplifying, those in red are more typically identified with correlated or conservative or TBM Mormonism, and those in blue are more typically identified with uncorrelated or liberal Mormonism. As you will see, some of the teachings seem at odds with each other (e.g., polygamy) whereas others simply represent different perspectives on a teaching, and are not necessarily at odds (e.g., lengthen stride but don’t run too fast). Of course, many Mormons believe both the red and blue sides of a lot of these teachings. (As an aside, my intent is not to claim that blue is better than red; in my case, the blue teachings simply work better for me,  they resonate better with my soul. I suspect that for many the converse is true–red works better for them than blue.)

As you read through the list, note that all the teachings, both red and blue, have a legitimate place in our theology, history, and scriptures.

Obedience is the first law of heaven vs. Seek personal revelation
Be careful of the “tolerance trap” vs. Practice tolerance
Polygamy is still a thing vs. Polygamy is not a thing
Eve is cursed vs. Eve made the right choice
Husband presides vs. Husband and wife are equal partners
I know vs. I believe
Scriptures have all the answers vs. Seek ye learning out of the best books
God is interventionist vs. God is not interventionist
Women cannot have unsupervised activities vs. Women are incredible
Follow the Prophet vs. Follow the Spirit
Lengthen your stride vs. Do not run faster than you have strength
Works vs. Grace
Be not of the world vs. Take all that is good from other churches
Spiritual and secular truths are different vs. All truth forms one great whole
Be a stay-at-home mom vs. Be self-reliant
Marry early, have lots of kids, only father works, pay tithing vs. Get out of debt 
Supporting the beggar can foster unhealthy dependence vs. Turn not the beggar away
Women, blacks, and gays are sometimes excluded  vs. All are alike unto God
Only true Church, fullness of the Gospel vs. Living Church, ongoing revelation
Don’t turn down callings vs. Family comes first
Prophet will never lead the Church astray vs. Do not put your trust in the arm of flesh

The problem for me, then, is not that my “blue” beliefs are not true Mormon beliefs. The problem is that other beliefs, including beliefs that are in some degree of tension with mine, are frequently emphasized and celebrated and held up as ideals in the modern Mormon church, the Sunday school manuals, the General Conference talks, and the latest temple liturgy.

This problem can cause much distress and alienation, where we may wonder where we fit and what we are doing in a church where we frequently hear things we don’t believe, things we can’t believe. Am I wasting my time? Am I compromising my integrity by continuing to affiliate with this organization? Am I supporting beliefs that I feel are unhealthy?

Perhaps so. And yet. And yet, is it really possible for any religious community, any large church or organization to contain and promote only beliefs that I agree with? I just cannot see how that would be possible. (Frequently I don’t even agree with myself!) Which then suggests that if I wish to affiliate with any such organization, I must weigh the beliefs I support with those I do not, deciding whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

But here’s the thing: as my list clearly shows, Mormon beliefs are diverse, a hot mess of contradictions. So what really makes Mormonism and its beliefs? I would argue that we do–the members, all of us–and thus the solution to the problem of alienation, of hearing beliefs I cannot countenance, consists at least in part of people like me deciding to emphasize, celebrate, and hold up as ideals those teachings that as a teenager awoke me to the life of the spirit, that got me out of bed each morning on my mission, that lit my soul on fire and kept it burning all these years. If I and others like me can do that, we do not change the doctrines of the Church–those doctrines were there all along–but we change the Church. It starts to become more diverse, bigger, more expansive. It starts to become what we make it, and perhaps it starts to become more like Zion.

This is great and valuable work, in my opinion–building our faith community into something more lovely, more praiseworthy and of good report, by refusing to accept Mormonism as something that is narrow, restrictive, or exclusionary. But I’ve found that it is hard work because it must be preceded by the stressful and scary striving of inner development, of becoming a person with the strength to self-validate in the face of strong voices that do not validate me, that even contradict me. I must stand up and be me.

Obviously, there is no quick path to this inner development. For me meditation has been key, but many strategies teach and give me strength to self-validate. One of these is to practice continuous positive self-talk, reminding myself that the Church is as much mine as it is anyone else’s, including my leaders, all the way up to the apostles and prophet. “…for the preacher was no better than the hearer, neither was the teacher any better than the learner; and thus they were all equal…” (Alma 1:26) Preach it, Brother Mormon!

I’ve also found that it helps to remind myself that it is natural that I don’t believe like others–even my fellow Mormons–and that they don’t believe like me. Our belief, our inner sense of right and wrong, is inevitably colored by our individual lived experiencesMy fellow ward members have not lived my life, they are not coming from the same place as me. They come by their “red” beliefs honestly, and often those beliefs work for them. Why should I presume that my related but somewhat dissonant beliefs should replace theirs? Similarly, why must I feel threatened or “less than” because of their beliefs or the beliefs of some of my leaders or even the apostles?

We all have a tremendous capacity for being wrong—Elder McKonkie made mistakes, Elder Uchtdorf admitted that Church leaders made mistakes, heck, even I’ve made mistakes once or twice. And yet we forget this, so we drive each other crazy, and sometimes, without meaning to, we drive those “different” Mormons out of the Church. Perhaps all of our beliefs are imperfect and we could just become more comfortable with a messier Mormonism, one that cannot be neatly placed into a small box, tied up with a cute, uncomplicated, and uncontroversial bow.

Seems like a good place to start, anyway.




  1. I really like this, Mike. I love the idea that all (or at least most) of the beliefs we like are already in our scriptures and teachings, and just need some judicious emphasizing. I can’t remember who said it, but a commenter at BCC once said something like that they couldn’t shake the feeling that by wanting to emphasize these more “blue” ideas, they were going against the “true” Mormonism. I remember the comment because that’s my experience entirely. I think I just read too much Mormon Doctrine and the like as a teen, but I really have a hard time getting past the idea that the anti-intellectual sexist fundamentalist approach of people like Bruce R. McConkie and Joseph Fielding Smith is Mormonism. Of course, this probably just means I need to follow your approach even more. 🙂

  2. I love this post. Thanks, Mike, for writing this and the other posts in this series. I live in a ward where discussions seem to emphasize the “red” ideas, and being more drawn to the “blue” parts of Mormonism, I often feel like I’m on the fringes. Even though I really do think that the blue parts are perfectly valid, and my way of being Mormon is valid, I struggle with really *feeling* that way, especially when the most vocal people in my ward lean red. I guess that’s similar to what Ziff is saying above. And why your tips and reminders are so helpful. Please keep it up!

  3. Well, I relate way more to the blue comments, than the red and I totally consider myself TBM and faithful. I’ve not really experienced what you have described, except maybe in passing from time to time. But then again, I’ve lived in the mission field most of my life. (Not sure if that’s relevant or not, but it seems to be). I feel like many of the red are not what the general authorities preach or they are not complete without the blue answer as well. (Yes obedience is important, but so is listening to the spirit. They are BOTH needed) And many of them are not mutually exclusive. (I can be self reliant and still be a stay at home mom.) And while it irritates me that women have to have priesthood present for activities, I don’t think it has anything to do with people thinking women aren’t incredible. It’s more of a safety issue, I guess. That one kind of baffles me, but I have never felt like they don’t think I can’t handle things or I’m not incredible. 🙂

  4. A couple more things: the “eve is cursed” meme is totally NOT taught by the church. It’s taught by protestant and catholic churches, but not by ours, ever. Anyone who believes that is not basing those beliefs on church teachings.

    I know some things and I believe others. Knowledge, as Alma taught, starts with faith, but then as that faith is exercised and one experiences the fruits, it become knowledge. Some things I do know, but others I just believe.

  5. I think the “Eve is cursed” thing is kind of complicated in current church teachings. Genesis 3:16 says that because she ate the fruit, (1) Eve will bring forth children in sorrow, and (2) her husband will rule over her. We don’t say that women have to bring forth children “in sorrow.” But we do say that men “preside,” and women “hearken.” So it sounds to me like we’ve kept at least the second half of the curse (even if we don’t explicitly say “Eve is cursed.”)

  6. I find Armand Mauss’ The Angel and the Beehive very comforting in this regard–he shows pretty clearly that the rise of JFS/McConkie/Packer-ism is a historical phenomenon that was not inevitable and need not be definitive of Mormonism.

  7. A while back I listened to a podcast where Fiona Givens discussed the lovely book she and her husband co-wrote called “The God Who Weeps”.

    Mike, I’m curious to know what the podcast was.

  8. Thanks everyone for the kind comments.

    Ziff, I grew up in Madison which is very liberal (I know some people call Berkeley the Madison of the west 🙂 ), and I wonder if that is why I never felt the Church to be that JFS-McKonkie-Packer strain. I wonder how much our sense of Mormonism is influenced by local effects.

    DeeAnn, thanks for your comments. I think you are correct that the dynamic is more complicated than I painted it to be. I’ve heard a lot of the “blue” stuff over the pulpit and in GC, and I realize it’s not so easy a red/blue divide for most issues. For example, sometimes I think that the “women are incredible” and “women need to be cared for” is two sides of the same coin, where women are pedestalized rather than treated as peers by men.

    Kristine, I’ll have to get a copy of The Angel and the Beehive. It sounds intriguing.

    Katya, I can’t recall for sure whether it was Mormon Matters, Mormon Stories, or FMH. It was an older one, not the recent one from MS with Maxine Hanks, et al. I will try to see if I can figure it out for you.

  9. Thanks for this post. One of my least favorite designation sets is “orthodox”/”unorthodox,” because those terms etymologically assert that there IS one right way of belief and that it belongs to those who might identify with your red list here. I’m all for blowing up the labels, and just sticking with “children of God,” which will become more possible as diverse interpretations (and interpreters) grow in confidence.

  10. I find it illuminating, and a little frustrating, to see that you invoke political ideals in an article about personal spirituality. Red? Blue? How much more closely can you say Republican or Democrat? I do not believe that invoking the Red and Blue in such a list gives the reader a chance to interact with the list absent an immediate bias. This is unfortunate.

    I appreciate the heart of your discussion, and your list gave me a space wherein I could evaluate my own standing in my own beliefs. I am grateful for a lifelong journey that has enriched my understanding of my relationship with God, as a Mormon. Moving around the world, participating in many congregations, and seeing many different people in many different situations has strengthened and tempered my faith and broadened my knowledge. I have experienced bad choices, painful consequences, and the sweet joy of a forgiving Father. I believe your message would have carried further had it not seemed to promote liberal democratic Mormon beliefs at the expense of conservative republican Mormon beliefs. I am left with a feeling that you had a great opportunity to share insight that has taken me years of spiritual shaping to obtain, but framed it in ideology unbefitting such a powerful topic.

    To close, I am grateful for your article. Thank you. I am grateful for the personal and close relationship I have with God, and for the experiences that brought that about… and a chance you gave me to contemplate that relationship yet again.

  11. RyanT, thanks for your encouraging words. I can see how my use of the colors could be taken that way and possible invoke a reaction up front. I purposefully used those colors because they are now commonly associated with conservatism and liberalism, so I thought it would make the conceptualization easier to understand and remember–red for conservative church ideas and blue for liberal church ideas. (I also thought they livened up the text. :-)).

    However, I did take pains to try not to privilege one above the other at several points in my post. That being said, the target audience for my post is liberal, uncorrelated Mormons because I am trying to help them find space within a currently more conservative Mormon culture. So yes, I definitely have a liberal bias and am trying to promote liberal Mormon beliefs, although I hope in a way that is respectful to those with more conservative beliefs.

  12. See this is why I feel odd sometimes in the church. I am fairly conservative politically, but I have a lot of theologically liberal ideas. Discussions like this tend to focus on the dichotomy even things are much messier (like you said, this post simplifies a lot of things–hard to avoid that).

    I am not complaining; I just thought that was interesting. Either way, this one weird trick will work for me, too.

  13. Joe, thanks for your comment. I see what you and others are saying. Perhaps I could clarify by adding that by increasing the range of possible beliefs that are culturally acceptable for Mormons to espouse, it is my hope that the Church will become more welcome for people with various combinations and permutations of “red” and “blue” beliefs. Then the dichotomies may become less prominent and more diverse views will become the norm.

    If this were to happen, I think more members would feel like they could stay within the fold. As an example, last night my son came home from his BYU Pathway class where he had been assigned to give a lesson on the Proclamation on the Family. Even though he did not raise the topic, he said the class discussion devolved into a lengthy criticism of gay marriage. He then wondered aloud to me about whether he could stay in a Church where he just believed so differently from so many other members. He said he knows there are members with beliefs like his, but also feels that they are so hard to find, so far and few between, that he often feels deeply out of place at Church.


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