Speaking to a group of women at the YWCA this week, I was surprised at how many of them were non-Mormons who nonetheless were having some of the same struggles with their church doctrine, hierarchy, and culture that I was having. One of them said that she was “in the middle space” of her church and I thought it was an apt phrase. Being in the middle isn’t the same as being on the fringes. Being in the middle is being in the midst of everything. It means digging in with your whole heart and mind, engaging with others, being open to being taught as well as to teaching, and remembering you are not above hard work and getting your hands dirty.
There are things that I love about Mormonism: the doctrine of Heavenly Mother, the rejection of original sin, the universal resurrection and heaven, the focus on happiness and on living here and now in our physical bodies in a godly way. There are things I don’t love about Mormonism: the idea of eternal gender roles, male-only priesthood, the lack of space for singles and LGBT+ people in our universal heaven, the continuing specter of polygamy, the strict hierarchy and near worship of apostles and prophets, the lingering racism of the past. But I choose to continue to engage in my religious heritage and I think many others in many religions are the same way.
One of the difficulties with living in the middle space is that people on either side want to push us one way or the other. Mormons who claim to have no doubts call Mormons like me “cafeteria Mormons” or “buffet Mormons.” They claim that we are picking and choosing between God’s laws and that this is not allowed. I’ve been told I’m not a real Mormon and that I should just leave if I can’t embrace every part of Mormonism.
And yet I would claim that these same Mormons are themselves “cafeteria Mormons” by their own definitions, because I could find plenty of quotes by prophets and apostles of the past that they would reject as not doctrinal and that means they are also picking and choosing. No Mormon can possibly follow all the prescriptives of Mormon church leaders. While you may be perfect at following the Word of Wisdom, modesty rules, and accepting church callings, there are so many talks calling us to do so many things, from weekly temple attendance and genealogical work, to gardening and canning, to joining charitable organizations outside the church, missionary work, and on and on. I can find a way that any Mormon is rejecting some of the counsel offered by church leaders. None of us is perfect, of course, but some of us are a lot more imperfect than others.
Just as eagerly, ex-Mormons like to push those in the middle space out to where they are. They claim that I can’t remain a Mormon if I disagree with the church about LGBT issues or if I don’t hold to all the truth claims of the church. I should take a stand and walk away from the church in order to prove my true allegiance to LGBT rights. I can’t be a member of a church that has a stance in direct opposition to my own on equality and same-sex marriage. And yet, here I am, in the middle with others standing next to me.
I choose to define my Mormonism my way, just as I define feminism in a different way than other feminists, and I define my Republicanism in a different way than other Republicans. I’m an American and I can sing The Star Spangled Banner and recite the Pledge of Allegiance without agreeing with our history of racism and segregation, without thinking every war America has ever fought was justified, and every President of our country was a hero. I think there’s space for me to be proud of parts of America without endorsing all of them. In fact, I think it’s important to acknowledge the shameful parts of our past in order to help build a better future.
One woman at the YWCA asked me if I thought that the middle space was sustainable. She pointed out that she had tried to occupy that space for a few years and had eventually fallen out of it. I admitted that I don’t know how long I will remain in this space. Maybe I will fall out, as she did. If that happens, I hope that it won’t be because I feel pressured to leave by those who are made uncomfortable by my positions on either one side or the other, but because I have decided for myself that I have changed my mind. But for now, I remain in the middle space. I close my eyes, step onto the tightrope, reach for God’s hand in the darkness, and hold to my faith to get me across one step at a time.