Two Mormon-related events in the past week have shaken me up a little. On one level, neither of them were particularly surprising—but on another, I found them both unsettling and at least a little unexpected. The first was the release of the Gallup poll which found that the Mormon approval of Trump was, at 61 percent, the highest of any religious group surveyed. The second was the decision of incoming church president Russell M. Nelson to move Dieter F. Uchtdorf out of the First Presidency and replace him with Dallin H. Oaks. I also found the comments made at the press conference about the leadership transition, especially the ones about women, to be quite jarring. And I’ve found myself asking: whatever has happened to my church? (Yes, I know that it’s not technically mine anymore, since I’ve found a new religious home. But it’s still the church I grew up in, the church that shaped me. I don’t feel all the way disconnected from it.)
I came of age in a church that was trying to convince the evangelical Christian world in particular of its commitment to Christianity. I remember lesson after lesson emphasizing that despite what certain people thought about us, we were in fact Christians. I was actually very confused about why anyone would think otherwise, as it seemed so obvious to me that we were. I felt like following Christ was the whole point of being involved in the church, and I really believed that Jesus was the core of Mormonism. That’s where my faith was located. It meant enough to me that I found ways to put up with other things that seemed just strange or sometimes downright offensive. But even though there was no shortage of those, there were enough other positive aspects of the church to keep me returning to activity even after periods of drifting.
Because I grew up in Utah, I didn’t really have a sense of how Mormons looked to outsiders. I didn’t know very many outsiders, for one thing, and the ones I did know were immersed in Mormonism whether they wanted to be or not (usually not). But I had the idea that we were known for being clean-cut, for being excessively nice, for sending out missionaries, for caring a lot about strong families. Those didn’t feel like terrible things. And yeah, of course the polygamy punchline was always out there—but polygamy didn’t really impact my weekly experience of church very much, so I could just roll my eyes when it came up on TV or whatever and figure that these people had no idea what the church was actually about. When I finally moved out of the Mormon Corridor for grad school, I was actually excited to tell people I was LDS. Sure, I felt like we were weird in some ways (Kolob, anyone?), but it was generally a good weird. My friends may have been just being polite, but they expressed admiration for the work ethic and the strong communities that they felt characterized Mormonism.
That feels like a long time ago now. Though I don’t want to romanticize the way things used to be. It’s too well-worn a move for someone to speak nostalgically of the institutions and situations that characterized their childhood, and then conclude that the world has been going downhill every since. The narrative is never that simple. There were things I didn’t know about when I was a young church member, like that gay people at BYU were having their brains fried in a horrifyingly misguided effort to cure them. My feminist consciousness emerged when I was a teenager, by which point the defeat of the ERA was a done deal, and I only had a vague sense of the extent to which the church had been involved in making that happen. When Ezra Taft Benson became the prophet, I had no idea that there were people with some real reservations about him. It seems somewhat inevitable that my perceptions of the church would become more complex as I got older; that’s just part of growing up. And to be fair, even looking only at the situation of gay people and of women, I feel like you can make a pretty strong case for ways in which things are actually better now (perhaps more strikingly in the case of the former) than they were a few decades ago. Not all the change has been for the worse, certainly.
And yet I still find myself with this nagging feeling that the church has moved away from the aspects of Mormonism that most spoke to me as a child and young adult. When I posed a question about this to some friends, one of them noted that she used to hear something offensive at church only once a month or so. Now, she says, it’s a weekly experience. That resonates with my own experience. Even though I was committed to feminist causes and intensely frustrated by certain church rhetoric when I was younger, I don’t remember those issues coming up all the time. As crazy as it all made me, I felt like I could at least see that stuff as peripheral to the aspects of the gospel which seemed to me to be more significant, more real, more enduring. I also think I can say that the teenage me, who was a volatile mix of idealism and cynicism when it came to matters religious, would never ever have imagined that Mormons would end up supporting someone like Trump. Sure, almost everyone around me was a conservative Republican and seemed to believe that that was what being Mormon meant. But being Mormon, I really believed, also involved a sometimes annoying but also admirable commitment to holding people to high moral standards.
Several people have suggested that it’s not that the church itself has changed much—it’s that American culture has changed drastically, and the tension between the church and the culture has skyrocketed as a result. That could well account for my increased feelings of dissonance over the years. And I realize that many probably see the church’s failure to keep pace with the culture as a feature, not a bug—as reassuring evidence of not being blown about by every wind of doctrine. But I find it personally painful to see the extent to which Mormonism seems to have become inextricably linked with a stance of opposition to the LGBT community. I’ve met people who barely know the first thing about the church—but they know that Mormons are anti-gay. That message has been conveyed quite clearly. I realize that it’s become a liberal cliché to accuse the church of worshiping The Family rather than Jesus. And the complaint may be overstated at times; I think there’s no question that Jesus is still around. But when Elder Oaks referred to the FamProc in his most recent conference talk as one the key tests for this generation, it’s hard not to conclude that he sees the church’s teachings about gender roles and its rejection of homosexuality as more than just a peripheral element that can be subordinated to teachings about Christ.
I don’t know where things will go from here, of course, and I realize that I might be surprised. I don’t think that Benson turned out to be the sort of prophet that either his supporters or his critics expected. But right now, I have to say that current trends look a lot like retrenchment, with some bleak years ahead.