Credit, Blame, and the Influence of the Church

Think about these scenarios.

—A man expresses gratitude that his experience serving in various callings in the church has given him leadership skills that have helped him in many areas of his life.

—A teenager navigates high school without trying drugs and alcohol, and credits church teachings.

—Two young adults marry in the temple, after years of hearing how important that is.

—An LDS woman is asked how she survived a very difficult situation. She says that the teachings of her faith were what sustained her.

—A couple is recognized for their humanitarian efforts. They explain that this came from the values they got from a church which emphasizes service.

And then think about these ones:

—A man asserts that he is the head of the house and has the final say, and expects his wife to comply with his counsel.

—A gay person seriously questions whether it is worth it to stay alive, after being told that her/his most basic relational desires are sinful.

—A woman finds herself spiritually devastated and wondering about her relationship to God after going through the temple.

—A young man who didn’t go on a mission feels socially ostracized at church.

—A single woman goes inactive, feeling that there isn’t any room for her in a church which places so much emphasis on families.

The first set of stories frequently show up in church literature. The second set are the kinds of scenarios that get a lot of airtime in various internet spaces. But both of them illustrate a basic point: if you are LDS, the church has a huge influence on your life. That might seem to be so basic as to not be worth saying. Why would we bother with a religious organization that had no effect at all on our behavior or beliefs?

But my point here is that you can’t credit the church for the positive situations, but then dismiss negative ones as not the fault of the church but rather of isolated members, or the individual herself. To say that a gay Mormon questioning the worth of his life is unrelated to church teachings on the subject makes about as much sense as saying that the decision of a couple to marry in the temple is unrelated to church teachings on the subject—neither of these things happen in a vacuum.

Of course we have agency. And it would be unfair to hold the church accountable for every crazy thing every Mormon has ever said or done. But agency is always exercised in context of some kind—and I do think it’s fair to hold the church accountable for the context it creates with its teachings and practices, and the way these influence members in both positive and negative ways.

In a nutshell: if you don’t think it’s fair for people to blame the church when they get hurt by certain teachings and practices, fine. But don’t then turn around and cite something like an article showing that LDS teens are less likely to use alcohol, or talk about how particular church teachings have transformed your life, as evidence of its power for good.

6 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Part of me wants to simply comment with, “Preach it!”

    But another part of me wants to question this.

    Isn’t it possible for there to be things associated with an organization that are nevertheless not intended by that organization? For example, one might say that the teen avoiding drugs and alcohol is exercising agency in a context that is actively promoted and approved by the church. We might say that those ostracizing the young man who didn’t go on a mission are also responding to a context that the church has set, but anyone could also reasonably assert that even though the church did create that context, that’s not really what they are actively promoting and approving of. That is a negative byproduct of the context.

    To try to flip the argument around doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, though. Like, it wouldn’t make sense to say, “Well, maybe that teen who avoided drugs and alcohol is just a byproduct that the church didn’t actively promote and approve of.”

    To me, the more interesting thing here is that it’s not always easy to tell what the church actively promotes and approves of. Like, the example of the man who expects his wife to comply with his counsel — it would seem a lot easier to argue that that is something the church REALLY believes in despite all the language about “equal presiding” and whatnot.

  2. Andrew:
    That’s an interesting point. When can we judge a person or organization on the purity of their stated intentions, and when should we insist on gauging their results?

    Certainly I would often prefer to have my failings excused as accidental! I suppose the price that my judges ask for that grace is measured in humility: as my trespasses are forgiven, I am required to reciprocate this forbearance.

    Which makes sense. So the Church has good intentions. Do not even the Catholics, Samaritans, publicans, and Pharisees the same? If we judge the Church strictly by its stated intentions, we have no ground to elevate it over other well-intended groups.

    And the Church does rather seem to want to be elevated above others, doesn’t it.

  3. False prophets in the latter days are to be known by their fruits. Should the Mormons be worried? =)

  4. Good point, Lynnette.

    Andrew, I think that’s a good question about how clear it is(n’t) what the Church is actually trying to promote. I think even if it’s not their intent to promote, say, gay people to consider suicide as a reasonable “solution,” it seems clear that they’re willing to accept this outcome as collateral damage, so I think they’re still blameworthy, even if their original intent wasn’t to cause this.

  5. Ziff,

    Yeah, I think there’s definitely something to say about blame when it comes to responding to new information — such as the information that existing theology and policy on LGBT issues is massively psychologically harmful — but I actually think the church *is* trying to be responsive in their own way. It’s not that they are ok with suicide as collateral damage, but that the church is essentially still asking: “what’s the nicest way we can frame our beliefs and policies to avoid suicide?”

    For progressives, it seems clear that it’s not how the message is said, but the message itself. So it also seems clear to us that not changing the message itself is implicit acceptance of suicides for the sake of ideological purity. But I don’t know if socially conservative groups will be amenable to changing their beliefs and practices. At the end of the day, there’s a fundamental divide over whether rejecting same sex relationships is inherently harmful or only incidentally so.

  6. Thanks Lynette for capturing my thoughts and robing them with words.

    As a gay man in a mixed orientation marriage, I thank God and Mormonism for my awesome family. (I would not have married a woman if I weren’t striving for a celestial life.) Watching my children grow really is an amazing blessing.

    But at the same time I blame the Church for robbing me of experiences which would have fulfilled some of my most basic desires. And it’s way more than just sex. It’s companionship and even friendship. I can’t tell you how many times I avoided friendships with other guys because I was afraid I would want more than friendship or I was afraid they’d find out I was gay and be weirded out or because I just didn’t know how to have guy friends. Reconciling a gay identity is hard enough, but a gay Mormon identity? What a mess.

    And I blame the Church for the pain my wife has felt (probably still feels sometimes) because she knows that I don’t love and want her in the most basic ways that heterosexual women should be loved and wanted. It really isn’t fair to her. In so many ways, getting married to my wife was the most selfish thing I’ve ever done.


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