In defending Rob Porter, the disgraced Trump White House staffer who resigned last week amid published reports he had physically abused his two ex-wives, his backers have bizarrely cited his professional resume as a sort of bulwark against the allegations: two degrees from Harvard, a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, and work experience for two U.S. senators. Some have also noted his “exemplary character” and religious faith as a devoted member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a former Mormon missionary.
But this last point, his affiliation with the LDS Church, may not so much provide the character alibi his defenders intend as much as it helps us understand the deeper patterns of abuse in his two marriages.
Both Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s two ex-wives, have stated that Mormon bishops had long ignored or minimized their reports of domestic abuse. As Holderness explained to The Daily Mail, after months of speaking to her religious authorities about the abuse, it was a “secular” counselor at her workplace “who told me what was happening was not okay.” In a separate interview with The Intercept, Holderness drew a starker contrast between her secular counselor’s response and how her church leaders had reacted. “When I explained to him what was happening,” Holderness said, “he had a very different reaction from the Mormon bishops ... He was very concerned to hear Rob was choking me.”
Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, explained to The Intercept that a Mormon leader had cautioned her to consider how going public about the domestic abuse would affect her husband’s professional life. “Keep in mind, Rob has career ambitions,” Willoughby claims the church official said to her.
It’s important to note that the LDS Church declared it had “zero tolerance” for abuse immediately following the news of Porter’s resignation. Church teachings also clearly and repeatedly instruct that abuse of any kind is not permitted. Mormon policy prevents those who abuse others from being able to enter the temple or serve the church. The “Church Handbook of Instructions,” a document provided to the bishops who run the church at the local level, emphasizes the church’s prohibition of abuse and lists hotline numbers to contact legal advisers and professional therapists in such cases.
But official policy may not be enough to thwart the larger cultural, institutional and theological forces at work in Mormonism that can aid abusers and discourage victims from getting out of abusive marriages.
“There’s a strong cultural and religious shame in Mormonism around divorce that puts particular pressure on women to keep marriages intact and preserve the eternal family.”
Unlike most other religious organizations, the LDS Church, except at the highest level of the organization, is run by a network of lay volunteers. That means that the bishops whom Holderness and Willoughby confided in were not professional clergy trained in ministry leadership or counseling, but fellow church members who had received a temporary assignment to help run the church. Despite that lack of training, bishops are powerful figures for the LDS faithful as Mormons are taught to consult their bishops in all matters, spiritual or otherwise. Only men can serve as bishops in the LDS Church.
This all-male leadership reflects the LDS Church’s patriarchal culture and theology. It may also undermine Mormon women’s ability to have their stories of abuse taken seriously.
Mormon bishops are far more likely to be closer to the accused men than they are to the wives who report abuse thanks to the church’s habit of sex-segregation in many of its operations. As Julie de Azevedo Hanks, a Mormon and professional therapist in Utah, explained to the Salt Lake Tribune, because bishops attend church classes with other men and often serve church callings together, “it is more likely that the bishop will sympathize with the male.” And in a religious setting where church members seek to exhibit personal holiness and upstanding character to each other, it’s often hard for a Mormon bishop to imagine that the pious, churchgoing man he knows could be the abusive monster at home his wife has described.
A deep commitment to male authority, repeatedly emphasized in the theology and culture of Mormonism, can also reinforce behaviors and patterns that foster abuse and prevent women from coming forward. “Priesthood authority functions in both the family and the Church,” church leaders frequently remind, meaning husbands have authority over their wives in the home and male bishops over Mormon women in the church. It also means some Mormon women feel wifely submission requires them to endure domestic abuse and that religious faithfulness calls them to defer to their bishops’ counsel.
Mormon women are also in a theological bind when it comes to leaving their marriages. LDS theology teaches that exaltation to the Celestial Kingdom – the highest form of Mormon salvation – comes from entering into a temple-based marriage with a fellow Mormon. That’s a powerful incentive for women to stay in abusive marriages. As an LDS website on divorce reminds Mormons, “The kind of marriage required for exaltation ... does not contemplate divorce.” Although LDS leaders have said divorce is permissible in cases of abuse, there’s a strong cultural and religious shame in Mormonism around divorce that puts particular pressure on women to keep marriages intact and preserve the eternal family.
“The remedy for most marriage stress is not found in divorce. It is in repentance,” said former LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley in 1991, in a still widely-circulated address on marriage. While this would seem to be a reproach to abusive husbands, many Mormon women who have been in abusive marriages have recently come forward to say that church bishops instead placed the obligation for repentance on them. One LDS woman told BuzzFeed that her bishop said she had “forced” her husband “to act this way” and that she “needed to repent” for the abuse to end. On the popular Mormon website By Common Consent, the comments thread for an article about how the church handles domestic abuse filled up with similar accounts from other Mormon women.
On top of all this is a general Mormon hesitation to seek help from outsiders and a habit of separation from the secular world. Given the history of prejudice and discrimination Mormons have faced historically, particularly in the 19th century, that instinct toward separateness has been reasonable, even advisable. But it can also keep Mormon women isolated from the very resources they need in order to identify, escape and recover from marital abuse. Recall that Holderness only sought divorce from Porter after a “secular” counselor validated she was being abused, something her trusted Mormon bishops had downplayed or ignored.
It’s worth recognizing that no existing research indicates higher rates of domestic abuse in Mormon marriages than for other religious groups. Still, the unique religious culture and beliefs of Mormonism may make LDS women particularly vulnerable to abuse and especially unable to find necessary relief.
Of course, a patriarchal system that reveres male authority, unbending loyalty to the community and a heightened distrust of outsiders is not exclusive to Mormonism. But it’s striking how those same characteristics structure the workings of the Trump White House, where Rob Porter was not the only official to have to resign over allegations of domestic abuse in recent days. In fact, Porter’s high standing among his former White House colleagues may owe to the way he exhibited these Mormon traits on behalf of Trump.
While the Trump White House is unlikely to fret over why so many alleged domestic abusers have filled their ranks, the LDS Church ought to seriously consider how male abusers have been protected and hidden within Mormonism. For a church that has repeatedly justified its political activism against feminism and gay rights on behalf of “defending the family,” they should recognize that the greatest defense it can provide of the family is by protecting Mormon women from any abuse they might encounter.
Neil J. Young is a historian and author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”