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October 01, 2014 News » Cover Story

The Mormon Avengers 

“Actively inactive” members say their love of the LDS faith is the reason they won’t abandon the church

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Like multilayered Jell-O desserts and recipes for funeral potatoes, Mormons come in a variety of flavors. From Molly Mormons and Peter Priesthoods who wonder if “never seen an R-rated movie” counts as a résumé-worthy skill, to Jack Mormons hiding beer in the garage, Mormons self-identify in ways far more complex than the simple “I’m a Mormon” tagline.

And Mormons also create labels for those who share their faith—liberal or progressive Mormons referring to their orthodox mother-in-law as a TBM (true-believing Mormon), while she raises an eyebrow at her “fundamentalist” Mormon neighbor who homeschools all 10 of her children and never mentions the existence of dinosaurs.

The church-sanctioned labels of “active” and “inactive” are far from sufficient in describing the nuanced relationships individual members have with the church.

Some pursue unorthodox theologies within Mormonism, such as the Ordain Women movement. Others claim the title of “ethnic” Mormon to explain their adherence to cultural traditions or heritage, separate from literal belief. Many others could be described as “actively inactive,” participating in organizations and projects found on the “borderlands” of Mormonism, carving out a unique space in a faith that tries to push them away.

Many view these borderland Mormons as heretics, spreading dissent and doubt, and assume that their continued involvement in church affairs represents an attack or threat to believing members. And those outside the church wonder why they don’t simply leave and never look back.

“You can leave the church, but you can’t leave it alone,” said emeritus general authority Glenn L. Pace in a 1989 talk. According to Pace, the motives of former, inactive or unorthodox Mormons are clear: They’re simply “obsessed” with making “vicious” attacks on the church.

But for many unorthodox Mormons, it’s in fact their spiritual beliefs, formed through their LDS faith, that have led them to their unusual relationships with the church.

I currently identify as a “Frankenmormon.” I cherish the parts of my Mormon upbringing that taught me to stand up for my beliefs as I “try to be like Jesus.” Yet, these same teachings led me away from church activity, especially as the church intensified its opposition to LGBT rights and gender equality.

One of the most painful experiences of my transition out of orthodox Mormonism involved discovering that someone I loved chose to define my existence based on how far I strayed from traditional Mormonism. This Mormon “knew” I couldn’t possibly be happy or good without the guidance of the one true church. I may love my daughter, but not enough to bless her with gospel teachings. This person openly wondered when my husband, who remained active in the church, would leave me for someone capable of raising an eternal Mormon family.

When we had the same religious beliefs, this person admired my convictions and devotion to seeking answers, but without Mormonism, these characteristics represent nothing more than stubborn arrogance and a need for attention from strangers who read my blog or City Weekly columns.

It’s easy for traditional members to disregard the experiences of their non-believing or unorthodox peers; it’s a commonly held belief that people who leave the church have succumbed to the deceptions of the devil but still know, deep down, that the church is true.

“Once someone has received a witness of the Spirit and accepted it, he leaves neutral ground,” Pace said in that 1989 talk. “One loses his testimony only by listening to the promptings of the evil one.”

But many Mormons, including some members of church leadership, acknowledge that sources other than Satan may prompt people to question or leave the church.

“For the younger generation … everything’s out there to consume if they want to Google it,” said former church historian Marlin Jensen in a special report by Reuters. He also recognized that the manuals used to teach church history are “severely outdated.”

And as new generations of Mormons use online communities and resources to investigate both the history and current policies of the church, they’re finding new ways to identify with the faith that shaped their early belief system.

The following profiles represent a new ward directory, a guide to Mormonism outside literal belief or orthodox practice. And as far as I can tell, no one has Satan on speed-dial.

click to enlarge Michael Ferguson - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Michael Ferguson

Michael Ferguson

Michael Ferguson is deeply familiar with what goes through a person’s mind after they leave the church—both from personal experience and from his research as a Ph.D. student at the University of Utah, mapping the impact of religious activity on brain functioning.

Raised in an active LDS home, Ferguson—who now calls himself “Mormon by default”— describes his Mormon upbringing as “idyllic.” He did temple-ordinance work as a young adult, and spent years participating in “conversion” and “reparative” therapy until his acceptance of his identity as a gay man dramatically disrupted his faith. He moved away from orthodox Mormonism, marrying his partner, Seth Anderson, in 2013. They were the first gay couple married in Utah.

He says it’s OK to not be a “cool and collected” ex-Mormon who no longer feels pain from leaving the church. He sometimes has “spooky Mormon hell dreams,” he says, but, like many unorthodox Mormons, Ferguson takes comfort in maintaining the semiotics of Mormonism, the cultural practices and rituals that ease the pain of transitioning from one’s origin religion.

Ferguson, who’s also a research fellow with the Human Neuroscience Institute at Cornell University, uses his findings from the Religious Brain Project to explain why people maintain relationships with Mormonism even when they stop believing the claims of absolute truth that are central to the religion. A part of our brain known as the default-mode network, he says, helps monitor the social attachments that are created by interaction with family and community. An individual who’s part of the close-knit community fostered by Mormonism would struggle to “detach” from the social network hardwired in their brain.

For some, Ferguson says, detaching from one’s primary community of family and church might feel physically painful and trigger a survival instinct commonly associated with a traumatic event. By “using a little biological imagination,” Ferguson says, it’s feasible to suggest that this survival instinct is what causes some Mormons to remain in a faith they no longer believe.

Though he’s distanced himself from mainstream Mormon doctrine, Ferguson credits LDS theology with helping him accept his decision to live as an openly gay man. Ferguson realized denying his sexual orientation caused him to break his temple covenant to “fill the measure of his creation,” a promise encouraging members to live their faith in every aspect of their lives. Ferguson believes it isn’t a sin to be openly gay; drawing on the lyrics of the hymn “Redeemer of Israel,” Ferguson says that hiding one’s authentic self is the true transgression, and LDS policies regarding homosexuality force LGBT Mormons to feel like they are “wandering as strangers in sin” in their own church.

Ferguson sees Mormonism as a microcosm for the general populace, as well as more established religions. As the LDS Church learns to accept its LGBT members, he says, it’ll set a template the rest of the religious world can follow.

“Older religions are often set in their ways, but Mormonism is still molten lava,” he says. “There is still time to create our origin story.”

John Dehlin

Ten years ago, John Dehlin was working as a seminary teacher, instructing high school students in church doctrine before school each morning, when he began delving into LDS Church history to prepare his curriculum. His findings on the Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham and polygamy shook his faith. Since then, Dehlin and his family have struggled to remain in the church.

In 2005, Dehlin founded the Mormon Stories Podcast (, an online community that addresses Mormon experiences outside the norms of LDS culture. The podcast and sites like Stay LDS are designed to help LDS members navigate through difficult faith transitions while remaining active in the church. But, Dehlin says, some members should leave the faith.

“Coming from a place of privilege—I’m white, heterosexual and male—clearly makes it easier for folks like me to remain within the church,” he says. “But I am absolutely supportive of those who feel the need to leave for the sake of their own mental health. For those people, members should exhibit tolerance and compassion.”

In June 2014, Dehlin and Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly received letters from local church leadership threatening excommunication.

Kelly was excommunicated, but Dehlin currently remains a member of record in the church and identifies as “culturally and socially Mormon,” though neither he nor his family currently attend church, and Dehlin is unsure if he will ever return to full activity.

Despite distancing himself from the church, Dehlin still believes that “so much of what is good about me comes from the church.” He credits the church with helping to raise him, and providing him with a framework to raise a successful family.

Taking inspiration from Judaism, which evolved from orthodoxy to include a variety of beliefs, Dehlin hopes that the church will someday offer all members “a place at the table” instead of pressuring members and former members to “leave the church alone” after a change of faith.

His belief in inclusion represents his “love affair with the expansive promise of Mormonism,” he says. He relates personally to Joseph Smith, who, he believes, founded Mormonism out of concern for his family and their place in the afterlife. In developing the doctrine of eternal families that leave no soul behind, Dehlin says, Smith saw himself as continuing a tradition that Christ began when he sought the lost sheep.

Dehlin believes the excommunication of Kelly reveals a possibly disturbing trend within the LDS Church, but he remains involved with the church in the hopes of championing the cause of Christ-like love among members (and beyond). “Christ shamed the stoners, not the adulterers,” he says. “Christ was always with the people society said he shouldn’t be hanging out with. Love is the tradition of Christianity, and of the LDS Church, even if it doesn’t always exist in practice.”

Dehlin says he hopes that the church notices the membership crisis within its ranks. Even when not excommunicated, many dissatisfied members are choosing to leave Mormonism. The first step toward solving this, he says, is transparency from church leadership, a willingness to say “We disagree, but we love you, so join with us anyway. There is a place for you here.”

Until then, Dehlin intends to use his voice as a “cultural Mormon” to encourage greater inclusion within Mormon culture.

click to enlarge Lindsay Hansen Park - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Lindsay Hansen Park

Lindsay Hansen Park

Lindsay Hansen Park has all the qualities of a “good Mormon”—except church attendance.

While she says she adheres to the “Mormon lifestyle” and values often associated with a “good Christian life: integrity, kindness, compassion and working toward peace,” she feels troubled when those values are not reflected at church, and finds it difficult to attend regularly.

Many fellow Mormons might accuse her of “choosing to be offended,” but Park says that isn’t the cause of her inactivity. “I find it difficult to attend not because I find conflict or differing values as something I can’t tolerate, but because it hurts my soul to see those values as endorsed by God,” she says. “I don’t see those values as endorsed by God and I will not ‘actively’ participate in a system that claims that they are.”

Still, Park considers herself to be “a very active Mormon even though my church attendance doesn’t fit the cultural requirements of that label,” she says. And like many Mormons who question whether the LDS Church’s position on LGBT rights or gender equality comes from God or culture, Park’s heard the “just leave” response before. She understands the urge to react this way: Mormonism is a culture based on close-knit communities, where outlier positions can be perceived as threatening, and members feel justified in “policing outward appearances and actions,” Park says.

“We have a lot of signaling in Mormonism, especially in Utah—wearing tank tops, having a tattoo, things like that,” she says. “These become cultural signals to other Mormons about the level or orthodoxy a Mormon subscribes to, but things like a person’s heart can’t be measured by outward appearances.”

Park says that no one, no matter how devout, “adheres to the tenets or beliefs exactly or perfectly.” Though many members tell other Mormons to “just leave” based on individual and arbitrary standards for Mormonism, “just about every Mormon could be accused of doing Mormonism wrong,” she says.

After experiencing firsthand some of the trauma associated with leaving full church activity, Park sought opportunities to work with members outside the mainstream church in what she calls the “borderlands of Mormonism.” She runs counseling services for the Whitefield Educational Foundation, which offers professional counseling and resources for Mormons struggling with a disruption in their faith identity. Park also blogs for Feminist Mormon Housewives and does outreach for the Sunstone Education Foundation, working to introduce a younger demographic of Mormons to the Sunstone community.

She sees deviations from the norm as a sign of faith rather than as a sign of wavering devotion or spiritual weakness. “There’s an underlying assumption that there will be a tension with what we know, believe, and do, and what we hope and believe and do,” Park says. She identifies her faith as the tension between what she knows—the church has a long way to go to fully recognize all its members—and what she hopes for: a future of Mormonism where members allow themselves to be “more authentic with one another.”

click to enlarge Holly Welker - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Holly Welker

Holly Welker

Holly Welker grew up in a small Mormon community in Arizona, and eventually served a mission in Taiwan. But instead of strengthening her testimony, working as a sister missionary was a traumatic experience, and drastically altered her view of Mormonism and its status as the “one true church.”

She says she “became convinced that it was wrong to try and convert perfectly happy Buddhists and Taoists to Christianity in general, or Mormonism in particular” and began to believe that she herself was damned. She “couldn’t shake the sense that missionary work was fundamentally immoral, because I thought God should just accept and love everyone as they are,” she says.

Believing that everyone is entitled to God’s grace while trying to preach conversion to Mormonism was “the most traumatic aspect of my mission,” Welker says. “It meant I was destined for a life of torment and could not partake of the supposed joy and possibility in the message I was preaching.”

Welker stopped attending church in 1989 and now identifies as post-Mormon. Yet she still feels compelled to examine the faith that shaped her childhood and early adulthood. She turned to writing as a form of navigating her Mormon experience, editing and publishing articles in Sunstone Magazine, and working as a freelance writer for Religion Dispatches.

“Mormonism is just plain old interesting,” Welker says. “Why shouldn’t I care about the religion that produced me?” Welker points out that while Mormons are quick to urge inactive or former Mormons to “leave the church alone,” they rarely follow that advice in their relationships with former Mormons.

The request to “leave the church alone,” Welker says, is also a request to “simply acquiesce to all the ways it won’t leave you alone, and live like a Mormon when you’re around Mormons.”

If Mormons truly wanted unorthodox members to stop interacting with Mormonism, Welker says, they would adapt and change policies that seemingly target former or non-members. Non-believing family members are barred from witnessing the temple marriages of loved ones, and Mormon couples who choose to marry civilly in front of family and wait a year to seal their marriage in the temple are faced with social and spiritual stigma. And by trying to influence secular laws, like the legality of same-sex marriage, Mormons refuse to leave their non-believing or unorthodox members “alone,” yet feel “flummoxed and angry,” she says, when a non-believer challenges their paradigm.

Welker says that despite her negative experiences as a member, denying her connection to the church would prevent her from living an authentic life. “Socrates said that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ ” she says. “In my case, an examined life will involve a consideration of Mormonism and its effect on me personally and on the communities I have inhabited. I’m trying to approach my own life with integrity, and I truly could not care less that it seems strange to others.”

Amy Isaksen Cartwright

As a graduate student in music performance and theater studies at Brigham Young University, Amy Isaksen Cartwright quickly learned to accept a degree of gender fluidity as she researched “pants roles,” the practice of women playing men on stage. Her research revealed a history of gender as a social construct, not an eternal identity. This contradicted the lessons she had heard at church that focused on gender as an “essential” component of the soul, with accompanying gender roles dictating behavior and purpose.

Nevertheless, during her second pregnancy, Cartwright felt determined to fulfill her destiny as a Mormon woman and embrace her role as a mother in Zion. She received a priesthood blessing that promised, she says, that through her daughter’s birth, she would feel “as a woman among women.” But when medical complications resulted in an emergency cesarean section and post-partum depression, Cartwright says, she felt like a “failure at being a woman,” bedridden and unable to care for her children. She experienced terror and heartbreak at her inability to see God in the gender structure emphasized in Mormonism, which identifies motherhood as women’s strongest connection to God.

“In church, we were taught that motherhood and the ability to give birth is equivalent to the male priesthood,” Cartwright says. “But what about everyone else? There is no real place for LGBT people, or women who don’t fit the mold. Mormonism’s view of gender and womanhood is insufficient.”

Eventually, Cartwright’s “social-justice conscience,” as she calls it, could no longer support a belief in divinely appointed gender roles. “What I believe won’t matter if it doesn’t make me a better person,” she says. “I have to have a faith that makes me a better and more compassionate person.”

Though she identifies as an “agnostic theist universalist” who would probably “fit better in a different congregation,” Cartwright says she feels called to stay in Mormonism; she made a promise with God when she first returned to activity as a young adult. Still, she no longer feels obligated to sustain the rigid gender roles emphasizing motherhood as a woman’s most divine calling.

Cartwright is now on Ordain Women’s leadership committee, working with Mormon feminists to educate members on the need for female ordination. She says that though there has been improvement in female roles and participation in the church, progress isn’t happening fast enough, especially for the Mormon feminist matriarchs she so greatly respects. “They don’t have a lifetime to wait for things to get better, and I don’t want them to die without ordination,” she says.

As part of Ordain Women’s April priesthood action event, Cartwright joined hundreds of other Mormon feminists in asking for admittance to the all-male priesthood session. “Standing on Temple Square, I felt a distinct impression telling me that ‘Right here, right now, you are a woman among women,’ ” she says. “Despite the negative response from the church, I knew my blessing was fulfilled. I now understand the role of women in the church: to advocate for equality for women in the church.”

click to enlarge J. Seth Anderson - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • J. Seth Anderson

J. Seth Anderson

J. Seth Anderson’s parents raised him in an “unorthodox” Mormon home, though he didn’t realize it growing up. He refers to his parents and grandparents as “peculiar” Mormons, the type who value individuality and personal spirituality over the “correlated” doctrine (standardized church teachings) of the Jell-O Belt. When Anderson announced his marriage to Michael Ferguson, he says, his temple-worker grandmother responded happily with, “That’s so cool!”

A graduate student studying history at the University of Utah, Anderson believes his family is a reminder of Mormonism’s history of “peculiar people,” those willing to embrace community and hardship in the Utah wilderness. Accordingly, Anderson believes his calling as a “queer Mormon” involves “revealing the queerness of Mormonism to itself,” and abandoning the current church emphasis on convention in order to return to the roots of Mormon non-conformity.

“Integrity is having a cup of coffee when I want to,” he says. “I’m not ashamed of breaking some bizarre rule that doesn’t work for me.”

Anderson first experienced what he calls the “unethical conformity” of some members during his church mission to Russia. The senior missionaries enforced the mission rule to only speak Russian as a way to torment new elders who felt afraid and lonely in a new country, he says. Technically, the elders were just following mission rules, but Anderson quickly realized how easy it was to use rules to hurt and exploit people who feel out of place.

“Why would this happen when we are all on the same team?” Anderson says he wondered at the time. “I realized that there is a hierarchy of politics within Mormonism, and it jarred me.”

After returning from his mission, Anderson stuck with the church and attended LDS Institute classes—until 2004, when classmates passed around a petition to strengthen the ban on same-sex marriage. Anderson says it felt like another example of Mormons using their faith to “discriminate against their neighbors.”

He resigned from the church in 2008, which coincided with a birth of activism within and without the church. Anderson longed to be in Salt Lake City in the aftermath of Proposition 8, but instead began blogging about being a gay Mormon, using his full name and refusing to cloak his experiences with the feelings of “shame and sadness” that he says were prevalent in gay Mormon online communities during those years.

Anderson continues to identify as a Mormon “when I want to, on my own terms, and on my own agenda.” His connection to his “peculiar” ancestors motivates him in encouraging others to face the “fear and unknown territory” of unorthodox Mormonism, he says, and “reappropriate” Mormonism and restore its nonconformist legacy of “queerness or peculiarity”—a phrase cherished by the pioneers.

“I won’t give up Mormonism just because some CEO usurped the Mormonism of my grandparents and turned it into a corporation that opposes women and gays,” he says.

But he’s quick to point out that his writings aren’t intended to encourage people, especially women and gays marginalized by the church, to stay. Instead, he says, he wants to motivate people to “let Mormonism work for you … be a Mormon on your own terms.”

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