Raising Children Outside of Mormonism

One thing I’ve noticed since stepping away from religion is how many choices I allowed it to make on my behalf. One quote I heard while I was a teenager: “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” In other words, you’re free to make your own choices, but the leader of the church has already decided what you should do…so choose wisely. I didn’t need to spend a lot of time figuring things out on my own because God’s prophet had already told me what to think and how to act.

For most of my life, I believed that prophets were directly called by God. I believed they spoke with God and were given important advice for them to pass along to his followers on earth. This advice would find its way into talks given each week at church, manuals from which lessons were taught as well as magazines and videos published and produced by the church.

There are few topics which prophets and other church leaders haven’t covered such as what activities are appropriate on the Sabbath, why Coke was OK but coffee was evil, and how many earrings are appropriate for women (one pair) to wear. And as a parent, it was easy to default to church policies instead of discussing it to see if it made sense for our family. That recently changed when the topic of dating came up in our home.

Mormons are taught at an early age that 16 is the proper age at which boys and girls can begin dating. So when our oldest daughter, who is 15, mentioned that she was going to be asked to the high school prom, Kim and I had a decision to make. If we were still attending church, the debate would be over.

Instead, something really cool happened. Kim and I discussed how we felt about our daughter attending the prom. We gathered more details about her date, her transportation to the dance, and the post-dance activities. We talked openly about the evening with our daughter. In the end, we didn’t see a problem with her going to the prom before she turned 16 and gave her permission to do so.

This is just one example of how things have changed over the past couple of years. I don’t blame the church or its leaders because they are trying to be helpful and provide general guidance to their followers. I don’t plan to throw away everything I learned as a Mormon. I still feel that dating in groups at young ages is wise, even if I don’t believe there’s anything magical or sacred about the age 16.

But Kim and I know our daughter better than any prophet or church leader, and we are in the best position to advise and guide her through her teenage years. This experience has made me reconsider a number of topics on which the church takes a particularly harsh and vocal stance. One of those issues is the church’s stance on homosexuality. I was taught it was a choice and an abomination before God, and I’m happy our children won’t grow up hearing such harmful language in church.

The good news is that our nation is growing more accepting of groups who have been historically marginalized. We’ve got a long way to go, but I like what I’m seeing in our youth who hear about the church’s stance on some social issues and wonder what all the fuss is about. Of course, everyone regardless of their sexual orientation should have the same rights as everyone else. Of course, women should have as many opportunities to serve in leadership positions as men do. And no, God didn’t place a curse of black skin on a group he deemed unrighteous no matter how many prophets claim such nonsense or how many times the curse is mentioned in the Book of Mormon.

These and other social issues are non-issues to most of the kids I meet. They strive to be accepting and loving and inclusive. Maybe one day the church will be just as progressive. But it’s too little, too late for our family. We’ve found happiness working through a number of difficult and complex issues together. Topics we thought were settled by the church are back on the table and open for discussion. It’s interesting that leaving the church has brought our family closer together.

You Have a Choice

I was 10 years old when the Mormon church lifted its ban on African Americans holding the priesthood. I was happy yet very confused because I’d been taught at home and in church that God cursed them with black skin because they had not been as valiant before they came to earth.

Other people around the world also had dark skin, but only those of African descent were held to the ban. I don’t recall anyone mentioning what these people did to deserve this curse, but like a lot of other confusing Mormon doctrine, God would figure it out. Just have faith!

But the issue never really left me. I thought about it often over the next 20 years. And I would add a few more issues to this one. For example:

1. Why did we believe that Abraham was noble for being willing to kill his only son, Isaac? (I know this isn’t exclusively a Mormon belief, but it bothered me a lot.)
2. Why was pre-marital sex considered the sin next to murder?
3. Why was the role of women in the church so minuscule?
4. Why did Joseph Smith practice polygamy and polyandry?
5. Why did Joseph Smith marry a 14-year old girl?
6. Why was the LDS church on the wrong side of history when it came to social issues?
7. How did Mark Hofmann fool the prophet and apostles if they are in direct communication with God? Wouldn’t God give his prophet a heads up he was making major financial deals with a serial forger and killer?

These were a few of the issues I had with my church. But while they bothered me, I still felt I had to defend the church’s position and accept, that in time, God would explain it to me. When I asked church leaders about some of these topics, I came away feeling that the problem was with me. My mind was too small to fully comprehend the complexity of the issues. And even if I could make sense of of the doctine, it wasn’t required for my salvation. The church leadership counsels its members not to look too deeply into controversial topics like those above.

One major benefit that’s come from stepping away from the church has been the fact that I no longer feel the need to justify its positions. When the church released an essay detailing how Joseph Smith used a rock in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, I watched as a number of confused friends and family rushed to defend their church, even if they had never heard of the rock-in-hat translation method. “When the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” was a common theme.

I had a similar feeling a couple of weeks ago when the church announced a change in policy for children of same-sex couples. Going forward, these children would not receive a blessing nor could they be baptized until age 18, and only after disavowing same sex relationships and marriage. To say that the new rules haven’t been met with excitement, would be an understatement, with the news of the changes hitting every major news outlet.

In years past, I would have lined up to defend the church’s position because that’s exactly what members are supposed to do. Members are asked to pray to confirm the marching orders the leaders give on behalf of the church. If you pray and receive an answer that contradicts, the prophets, guess who wins that battle? But I no longer feel the need to defend the church or any of their policies. I feel no pressure to explain away their racist policies of the past or their discriminatory policies of today.

I don’t want to minimize the hurt these policies have caused so many people, some of which I consider good friends, but remaining part of an organization that’s causing you pain is a choice. It’s seldom an easy choice. It can break marriages and tear families apart. I understand why people go through the motions and keep the peace for many years. I did the same for well over a decade until I could no longer take part in the charade. Reasoning and common sense were at war with the church teachings and something had to give. I decided my sanity came before any threat of missed blessings of assignment to a lower kingdom of glory.

I made a choice to remove myself from a church that was hurting people I care about. But mostly I stepped away from a church that was hurting me. I was getting dizzy from the number of mental gymnastics required to justify so many extraordinary (some might say, outrageous) truth claims. I was finally able to step back and ask myself, “Does that sound realistic?” or does that sounds like an organization using subterfuge?

There is one part of the same-sex marriage policy I do agree with and it’s the part where children must wait until they turn 18-years of age to be baptized. That sounds like a rule that should be in place for all children, not just those of same-sex couples.

My Early Years As A Mormon

I don’t remember a time when my parents told me I was a mormon. It was like being American or caucasian. I didn’t choose to be either of those, and being a mormon wasn’t a choice either. My parents were mormon, so I was mormon.

Most of our neighbors in Ogden, Utah were mormon as well. I did have a good friend named Ken whose family wasn’t mormon. I believe they belonged to the Catholic church. In church I was taught that it was best to stick close to people who believed the same things I did. When I was 10-years old Ken invited me to his home to play, and I was surprised when my mother said that was fine. Other than the coffee maker, I thought Ken’s home looked like any other I’d seen.

My parents made it clear at an early age that as long as I lived under their roof I would attend church each week. It was a non-negotiable. As I got into my teens I often used this rule as a way to stay out past my curfew by promising to get up for church the next morning. I got really good at balancing my chin in my hands and falling asleep during sacrament meeting.

I didn’t like attending church very much until I got into my teens. I didn’t understand why we had to hear the same stories over and over. I guess they figured repetition eventually wears down our minds to the point that anything they told us sounded true after a while. Around age 16, I viewed church as a place to socialize and looked forward to attending.

During this time I never gave much thought to whether what I was learning was true or not. The idea of a loving god made sense to me. Jesus sounded like a good guy, although the idea of him dying for my sins made no sense. But god and Christ are almost an afterthought in the mormon church I remember. Most of our lessons centered around the teachings of Joseph Smith, who was told by god in a vision that he shouldn’t join any of the churches in the early 19th century. Eventually Smith was shown the location of a set of golden plates which, once Smith translated, become the Book of Mormon. Every doctrine and truth claim of the mormon church hinges on the Book of Mormon being an authentic translation of the word of god. It’s the lynchpin of the church.

One summer our youth leaders challenged us read the Book of Mormon. Those of us who read it from cover to cover were taken to a fancy dinner in Salt Lake City. I would have been 15 or 16 at the time, and this was the first time I finished a book that wasn’t required for school. My favorite story of the Book of Mormon is when Ammon cuts off the arms of the thieves attempting to steal the king’s horses. I read that story over and over.

My mother was raised in a devout mormon family. My father was not, and became active in the church after meeting my mother in high school. My mother would often ask me what I learned at church which lead to discussions. My mom read from her Book of Mormon each day, as instructed by the church leaders. She seemed to know a lot about the church, although I don’t recall having many doctrinal discussions with her. I had no doubt she believed the church was as its leaders stated: the only true and living church on the face of the earth. I don’t remember my mom ever complaining about church.

While my mother was devout in her beliefs, I felt like my father gravitated to the church because he admired the organization and the structure. I felt the church provided a sense of duty in my father, and it’s one he took seriously. The church is also a patriarchal organization which suited my father well. I’m sure I had conversations about the church with my father, but I don’t recall any details from those conversations.

My parents expected me to take part in the major milestones of the church. I recall my father telling me how he and his friends would break into the church gym to play basketball, which I thought was cool at the time. I think he also talked to me about the church around the time of these milestones. I felt my parents encouraged me to be involved in the church, but never really forced it upon me. I mean, I had to attend church each week, but once I was home I could watch NFL football or whatever other sporting event was on TV. We were not an orthodox mormon family. Two sports I was not allowed to play on Sunday were tennis and swimming. But I could ride my bike or play kick-the-can with the neighbor kids. Once I began mowing lawns for money I would sneak over to McKay Dee hospital and purchase a Coke and Butterfinger.

I believe my parents thought that raising their children in the church would make them better individuals. For much of the time I’ve had children of my own, I could relate to this feeling. Today I have some major issues with the truth claims of the mormon church, but I have no doubt that it provides opportunities to grow and serve.

When I began dating, my parents never told me I had to date girls who were mormon. At church that point was hammered home though. My father was a teacher and coach at my high school from grade 9 thru 12 which made dating awkward at times. But my father was well liked by students, and he gave me space to enjoy that part of my life without any interference.

My parents didn’t put pressure on me to serve a mission when I turned 19, but I knew that not serving would disappoint them. My father didn’t serve a mission so I didn’t grow up hearing mission stories from him, and I commend my parents for allowing me to come to my own decision about serving a mission.

I’ll save details about my mission for tomorrow.

Feeling Truth

Two nights ago, I sat in a small auditorium waiting for my daughter to perform in her end-of-the-school year dance program. I don’t know much about dance. If the dancer’s movements are in sync with the music I’m satisfied.

My daughter’s group finally strolled onto the stage and began their routine. As they began dancing I noticed a smile grow across the face of my daughter. She was in her element, beaming ear-to-ear. As the rest of the girls stood back, Anna came to the front of the stage and performed while the spotlight shined on her face. She twirled, spun and floated across the stage and then faded back in with the rest of her group.

I felt a surge of pride inside my chest. But it was more than just pride. I felt immense joy watching my daughter do something she loves. Although I didn’t understand every technique or action she performed, I was moved to tears as the routine ended.

I’ve thought about this experience for a couple of days now and compare it the feelings I had when I was active in a church where I was told that feelings can confirm the truth of anything. Have questions about the Book of Mormon? Pray and ask god and he’ll tell you it’s true through a feeling. The same goes for any question I might have. Or so I was taught.

I spent two years in Germany as a missionary challenging people to join my church because they felt “good” when we visited their homes. I manipulated their feelings for my own benefit. Any feeling an investigator had, I attributed to the spirit confirming the truth of our message.

While in Germany, I studied many aspects of the church that I hadn’t been taught before. The story of god commanding Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, disturbed me. What kind of god would do that? I discovered that early Mormon prophets practiced polygamy, several taking as many as 50 wives, some as young as 14-years old. I wrote my grandfather and asked him to help me understand. I prayed that I might understand the reasons behind these actions that seemed cruel and immoral to me. But I never received an answer. If anything, pondering my concerns only made me more depressed and confused. There’s little patience inside a church that claims to be the only true church on the face of the earth.

What does all this have to do with watching my daughter dance?

Well, I no longer believe that feelings confirm truth. The good feelings I had while attending church or the temple were no different than those I had while watching my daughter dance. I feel good listening to my spouse play the piano or while skiing down the mountain with my son at my side. Good music, a play or even a good movie can bring feelings of joy. But those feelings don’t mean what I’m doing or hearing is true anymore than having a good feeling while reading the Book of Mormon means it’s true.

Today, I don’t dismiss my feelings, but I’m aware of what they represent and what they don’t. I no longer attempt to justify the behavior of early Mormon prophets or worry about why a god would command a father to kill his son or why this same god would flood the earth, killing every man, woman and child.

With a wonderful spouse and five kids, I appreciate opportunities to share in their passions and feel of their love and warm spirit. I’m thrilled when they are willing to share their talents with me.

Maybe the “truth” lies in those small moments.

May the Search Set You Free

Our garage door was acting up today. I know very little about them, but I know how to Google for answers. This lead me to a YouTube video of a man discussing a few popular problems, including how to recalibrate the door sensors. I followed his instructions, and had the door working within 10 minutes.

When I blew a main fuse on our Honda Odyssey, a Google search took me to forum where a Honda owner described the same problem I was having. A mechanic responded on the forum, and mentioned which two fuses to inspect. I had checked one fuse but neglected to check the other. Sure enough, the second fuse was dead. A $4 fuse later, the van was running.

This is the magic of the internet. I don’t have to be a mechanic or electrician to make basic repairs. Knowledge is power, especially when it’s a search away.

When I began researching the early history of the LDS church, I was stunned at the amount of information available to anyone with the curiosity to search and to learn from it. A lot of this information did not sync with what I had been taught by church leaders.

For example, I was aware that Brigham Young practiced polygamy. But I had no idea that the prophet Joseph Smith practiced polygamy and polyandry. Those are details I wish I had known earlier.

This information is available to anyone. It’s not hidden in a mountain cave or behind a firewall. You can choose to disgard it, but you can no longer say it’s impossible to know.

Just as I no longer have to immediately call a mechanic, I no longer have to take the word of ecclesiastical leaders when it comes to church history. Today, I get to determine when I’m ready for the truth rather than allow someone else to determine that for me.

Google is to the LDS church as the Gutenberg printing press and Martin Luther were to Catholicism.

May the truth set you free.