A Journey From Mormon Orthodoxy

Children in a religious program
Children in a religious program

A non-Mormon friend recently thanked me for speaking so openly and honestly about my change in religious beliefs. She told me that there are people in every religion who have similar experiences with those who are closed-minded and rigid in their approach to worship and who struggle to continue to believe in God after life's tragedies. This made me think more carefully about my own journey to God and to remember more clearly who I once was and how I have changed.

I was born to a very devout, strict Mormon family. With 11 children, it's pretty clear my parents did not believe in birth control. They believed it was their duty to multiply and replenish the Earth, as God originally commanded Adam and Eve in the Bible. My parents lived by every word that came from the mouth of the prophet of the Mormon church. When Spencer W. Kimball called for Mormons to throw away their playing cards, my parents did this immediately. We got rid of many of our old family habits and took up Uno instead.

My father struggled to buy clothing for eleven children and we often relied on big garbage bag donations of hand-me-downs from neighbors. We never starved, but we often ate very simply, rice and homemade wheat bread and vegetables we grew in our own garden. On Sundays, we traveled over an hour to attend the closest Mormon church services in our big, orange van. We wore our church clothes all day Sunday because that would help us remember not to do anything that was inappropriate on that day.

My parents followed traditional gender roles to a T. My father was always the breadwinner and my mother had to ask for more money from him when she ran out of groceries to feed us. My parents always paid a full tithe and a fast offering for the poor--which we never accepted for ourselves. In fact, we prided ourselves on our charitable acts of service to others in our community, including a special tradition of secretly delivering gifts on Christmas Eve.

Growing up in New Jersey with hardly another Mormon for twenty miles, my friends taught me to curse at a young age. When I used a "bad word" in front of my father once, he washed my mouth out with soap and I never did that again. Spankings for disobedience or talking back were common and were my father's duty--not my mother's, who waited until he got home to carry out punishments. My parents watched carefully what we watched on television, banning such personal favorites of mine at that age: Star Trek and Three's Company--both too racy for a Mormon home. We never watched television on Sunday and we always held Family Home Evening on Monday nights.

As a teen, I was encouraged to plan to marry a Returned Missionary and then to have a big family of my own. My parents supported me getting a good education, including a PhD at Princeton, but they expected that I would eventually be a stay-at-home mother. Though I spent a few years in college thinking of myself as a "feminist" and even considered keeping my own name at marriage, I mostly fell into traditional gender roles when my children were young.

As we had five children in the course of eight years, my husband became the breadwinner. I was called to be in the Primary Presidency in our ward and when I yelled at my kids, I heard my mother in my voice. I became a defender of strict, orthodox Mormonism. I made lists of things that our prophets asked us to do in General Conference. My life was centered around a strict adherence to my religion. And I was happy. I don't think I was just faking it. I was happy as I was. I wondered why I had ever questioned anything.

If you had talked to me then, I suspect I would have sounded like the people who feel too rigid to me in their understanding of Mormonism now. So how did I come to such a reversal? Was it a choice I made? Was it simply the way that life events forced me to change? I honestly don't know. I ponder sometimes what it would be like to have a conversation with that younger version of me. Would we like each other? Hate each other? Find common ground somehow?

I feel strongly that everyone has a reason for the way they act and think. I struggle regularly against the temptation to label certain people I have regular contact with as "not worth my time" or as "simply unable to think carefully." I feel like my unique ability to see things from multiple perspectives at the same time is what makes it possible for me to build bridges between different groups, Mormons and non-Mormons, traditional Mormons and less traditional.

But it's not a pleasant or easy balancing act. It takes considerable effort to do the mental gymnastics it takes to hop from one point or view to another. It can produce anxiety to see myself from the perspective of others who perhaps judge me as falling short of their own standards. If I cut myself off from communicating with those people, I experience less of that anxiety. It's certainly easier to live in a world where you are not constantly being challenged by people whose thinking is in opposition to yours. Or easy to dismiss them as "kooks."

Every time I am tempted to do this, I am reminded I need to try again. My role is not to judge others nor theirs to judge me. I need instead to try to go back to that younger version of myself and remember that she was doing her best. I can't simply dismiss that part of my life as something that I have learned better than. It was another mode of being.

But most of all, I need to be reminded that in labeling others as judgmental, I become as judgmental as they are. This is, indeed, my worst failing. I judge too quickly, too harshly, and on shaky grounds. I need to love better and to listen more carefully. Even to people I think are wrong and who judge me as wrong in turn.