Imagine you were born into a religion that espouses that it above all others, is the one true church of the living God upon the earth. Now imagine as you grow up in this religion, in its accompanying culture that you have decided you no longer want part of it. The reasons vary from never having wanted to be part of it to begin with, being born gay; coming across information claiming the church is wrong or coming across information of its history less than flattering. Now imagine the horror of realizing that leaving this church potentially means losing friends, family, respect from your neighbors in addition to being effectively kicked out of its culture and being shunned as an apostate by those who loved you. For those who leave the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this scenario is all too real.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints more commonly known as the “Mormon Church” is a relatively young Christian denomination church founded by Joseph Smith J.R. on April 6th 1830. From its humble beginnings in a small log cabin in upstate New York totaling 6 members it has now blossomed into a global organization with congregations everywhere from Utah to Uganda. As of the end of 2017 the church membership has grown to over 16 million members, 30 thousand plus congregations, 159 Temples, has helped over 189 countries through humanitarian efforts, and has over 67 thousand missionaries throughout the globe in search of that newest convert.
From a doctrinal standpoint, the LDS church stands out with additional books of scripture known as the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ, a book about a couple of different groups in the Americas awaiting the birth of their Savior and the history after. There is the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price which collects revelations given during the churches early days and other inspired translations of Egyptian text. The LDS church believes in building Temples for families to be “sealed” forever and proxy work for the deceased also being performed. The church also claims to have a Prophet, and a current formation of the 12 Apostles, rejects a Trinitarian view of God, claims to receive revelation directly from God, and that they are the only true church on the earth today.
Because of these different beliefs in addition to its pioneer heritage, members of the LDS church have very strong ties to their families, their congregation known as a “ward”, and generally to other members as a whole. Because of these strong ties there is a culture that surrounds the religion that can be perceived as being exclusive, weary of outsiders who don’t show interest in joining, and even judgmental of those whose values don’t match those within the religion. These issues within the culture surrounding the religion are perceived by members and non-members in addition to another group for which these issues can especially effected by. This other group would be those who decide to leave the church, but just because you leave the church, doesn’t mean you leave its culture.
When someone who belongs to the LDS church decides to no longer participate they are labeled as a “less-active” or “inactive” member. This demographic is included in the churches 16 million member count though it is unknown how many of the 16 million falls into that inactive category as the church does not release that information to the public. In addition to members who become inactive, there are those who decide to have their official records removed from the church all together. Those who do so are no longer members of any category and would have to rejoin at a later date if they changed their minds.
The reasons why someone would choose to go inactive or remove their records are as varied and different as it is for those who choose be part of the religion. Some of the more common reasons seen are conflicts of faith that come due to “Anti-Mormon” literature, videos, and websites. For others it is due to doing research into the history of the religion or looking into doctrine and finding points of disagreement. Others leave because their sexual preference differs from that of which the church considers appropriate. Some just leave because they grew up in the religion but never really wanted part of it. Regardless the reason behind why someone leaves the LDS church, the journey to get to this point is often very arduous and spiritually taxing. The reason for this is because when someone leaves the LDS church they are often doing so at the risk of losing everything they know and love.
In an interview with a former member of the church who asked to remain anonymous, we are given a glimpse as to what it feels like to take such a giant step. “I felt terrible. My personal beliefs no longer matched my religious beliefs. The dissonance of that tore my soul apart. But I knew I could not keep going to church when I felt the way I felt. Not because I didn’t want to go to church, but because I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It sounds weird but I didn’t go to church because I believed in God. I couldn’t falsify the representations of my convictions. Going to church would signal that everything was ok. And everything was not ok.” The sentiment of this former member is common among those who are born into and grow up in the church. But often when one leaves the church it not just a separation between them and a religion, but it can also strain their belief in a God altogether. The person I interviewed went on to say, “the separation caused some hard feelings between me and God. That lasted for a year, maybe two before it actually dawned on me that there might not be a god. The jury is still out on that for me. But actually contemplating that was one of the worst feelings of my life…I did a lot of praying, a lot of soul searching. It felt like God might not be there…. But mostly it felt like God was there, but He didn’t care about me. I had some experiences that, if God did have a hand in them, signaled to me that He didn’t care about my problems, or concerns, he just wanted me to get back to work for him. That was not something I was capable of doing as things stood so I threw up my hands and walked away.”
When someone walks away from the church it often strains the relationships they have with friends, neighbors, and their own family. When I asked my interviewee about how his family dynamic since leaving, he went on to say, “Now I feel like the church has all my family and friends hostage, and if I ever want to have anything to do with them again I have to keep my mouth shut about how I really feel. They don’t really ask me about it anymore. Not sure what that means, but it hurts I guess… that I don’t matter enough to even have a conversation about it.” With the author being a member of the church himself, he has seen the social repercussions for someone who leaves firsthand. I’ve seen people who leave no longer even acknowledged by members of their congregation, the very people who claimed to be friends and neighbors showing that their friendship hinged on the whole idea that they shared the same religion. Others the author has known were disowned by their family because they came out as gay, or came home early from a mission. The authors own sister-in-law never feels comfortable at family gatherings because she’s decided her own path and because of this, feels judged and unloved despite that not actually being the case. The thing about the culture that surrounds the LDS Church is that when you leave, it’s expected that you are going to be looked down upon and shunned by everyone you’ve ever known. This sometimes creates an ironic situation where the person who leaves the church shuts themselves off from everyone in hopes they can escape the perceived outcome. This makes friends and family uncomfortable or unable to reach out to that person to maintain a relationship.
There needs to be a drastic change in the culture surrounding the LDS church because in the end, it is the influence of this culture that is creating rifts between friends and family. There are expectations ingrained in the minds of members when someone leaves the church. This same culture also influences how a person feels they will be looked at if they leave. More often than not, if these cultural expectations didn’t exist, the rifts we see between family and friends would never occur. Someone doesn’t become a horrible person because they leave the LDS church. When you leave the church, it doesn’t mean that everyone you love will judge and shame you for it. The toxic nature of the culture needs to be eliminated in order to make sure two of the core principles of the religion is maintained. The first principle is that family is the single most important institution on earth, and the second one is that members of the church are to love their neighbors as themselves. There is not supposed to be a limitation to our love or to our devotion to others. It’s time to stop being afraid of your neighbor for leaving the church. It’s time to make sure to remember that family is more important than the church and the culture around it. It’s time to truly live your religion, even when someone you know and love decides not to.
(Anonymous friend of author, personal communication, 04/01/2018).
Deseret News: “Local writer delves into why LDS members become inactive”
LDS Living: “Why I Left the Church Is Also Why I’m Going Back”
Mormon Women Stand: “Inside The Mind of An Inactive Member”