Defending the Leadership

After the last General Conference, where Dallin Oaks and Russell M. Nelson (the two most senior leaders of the Mormon church) continued their rhetoric against LGBT+ people, using outdated ideas of gender and sex that are scientifically unsound, I hear progressive Mormons arguing that we can still believe that God speaks through these men and that there is still authority in the church. They say that the leaders of the church are flawed mortals, that they are men “of their times,” and that we can’t expect them to see things as clearly as scientists, activists, or anyone who has been raised without their historical prejudice does. From this perspective, the church is still good, the restoration continues, and God is still revealing His will on an ongoing basis.

These are familiar arguments. I said these kinds of things for a long time. I believed that I could sustain the leaders of the church in many ways, even if I couldn’t sustain their policies toward LGBT members or their sexist ways of looking at women and authority. And then, it seems quite suddenly, at the end of 2018, I gave up these attempts to defend the Mormon church leadership.

I don’t really know how or why it happened. I’m sure those faithful members who don’t question anything the leadership does, those who scramble for excuses and justifications for the policy of exclusion (POX) and accept the argument that it was done out of love “for the children,” would say that I had headed down a slippery slope as soon as I started questioning the leadership in any way.

And you know what? They are right. I headed down a slippery slope of trusting myself, science, and what I would call love and inclusion over the words and prejudices of those who style themselves prophets some years ago. I didn’t realize that was what I was doing at first, but it was. And it led me here. It led me first to make categories of things I didn’t trust the leadership on, then to wonder in what sense God was leading them at all, and then to give up the idea that they had any kind of authority beyond that given to anyone who attempts to listen to God — which is to say, none.

I think this is the biggest difference between progressive Mormons and ex/post-Mormons, this need to defend the leadership even if they are flawed. But it pervades everything. When I was trying to stay in, I looked at the history of the Mormon church with a kind eye. I tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. I stretched things, hoping that Joseph Smith wasn’t a con man and a sexual predator, that he was just confused, trying to find God and doing it in strange and sometimes outrageous or self-aggrandizing ways. That same hope of being confused I lent to the leadership of the church who were so vicious (it seemed) to LGBT members who were literally dying in an attempt to stay in and follow the strict and life-sapping rules they are required to follow to be given even scraps of acceptance.

But when I let go of that one thing, the idea that the leadership of the Mormon church have any special authority, any special connection to God — the house of cards fell. I didn’t need to defend the church anymore. I didn’t need to twist myself into knots making any parts of the history make sense. I didn’t need for pioneers who massacred innocents at The Mountain Meadows Massacre to be “good people who made some mistakes.” I didn’t need to see the current prophet as misguided, but inspired. I didn’t need to wait for younger leadership to come into power. I didn’t need to wait for every little sign that things were changing, that it was going to get better soon and that my faithful attempts to stay and look for the good mattered.

Instead, I could just call things as I saw them. I could look at the history of the Mormon church, the history of misogyny and racism, the history of being fifty years behind the times (and being proud of this fact) and ask is this really the way that God would be? Would God really wait for social pressure to change what had been previously proclaimed unchangeable doctrine?

When I said no to that, then I could say no to a lot of Mormonism and its teachings. I could let go of my community, even though that was incredibly painful. I could let go of my heritage and I could say — this is bad. This is harmful. This is wrong. This is ungodly. This is cruel. This is unscientific. this is backward. This isn’t divine. This isn’t love. This isn’t God.

I think I can still see good in the Mormon people and even in the much maligned Mormon culture (funeral potatoes, anyone?). There are so many good Mormons who are giving their all to this organization, and I think it’s corrupt. But that doesn’t take away their goodness or their hours or service. It does make me sad, though, when they make excuses like I did for so long. You can also just let go.

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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