If It’s Your Fault, I Don’t Have to Change

I spent some time replaying a conversation in my head with some more orthodox family members, conjuring up as I went my past self, who was also very orthodox. I’ve done this several times and have found it extremely useful for getting at both what I’m afraid of in my attempts to forge new relationships with people I care about and for revealing why people believe what they do.

In this case, I was imagining what my orthodox family members and friends thought about my decision to stop attending church this year. I swear I could hear their real voices speak this almost at the very moment.

“Poor Mette, she lost her child and she never got over it. Now she doesn’t come to church and has ruined her life.”

“Let’s take a note from Mette. She let her views on LGBT issues take over and then she couldn’t see anything good left in the church.”

“Mette couldn’t learn the lesson of humility God meant to teach her. She couldn’t repent and so she’s become an apostate.”

“She wanted to criticize the church more than she wanted to be a part of it.”

“She was corrupted by the ideas of the world. She loved Mammon more than God.”

All of these comments have one thing in common. It’s my fault that I stopped attending church. And this is a reflexive response to criticism. It has nothing to do with religion, really. It happens all the time in all sorts of situations.

There’s a reason for it, which I felt as I voiced each of these arguments in my own mind. It relieves the speaker of any need to change. I felt it over and over again, that blessed sense of relief. No matter how connected I had been to my orthodox family and friends, it is easier for them to blame me for my problems with the church than it is to examine whether or not the church (or they themselves) might be wrong and need to change.

After all, if you were to accept any of the criticisms I leveled at the church, ultimately it’s going to cost you a lot of either emotional pain or work to try to correct those problems. And why would you want to do that if you can just blame me for not being good enough not to make those uncomfortable criticisms in the first place?

If you consider for a moment that the church’s teachings about homosexuality are wrong and harmful, then that means you have to consider that the prophets and apostles aren’t always right. And that means that every time they speak, you have to do very careful work deciding for yourself what you’re going to listen to and obey. It’s a lot easier to just nod your head and agree — even if you don’t actually do what they’re saying.

If you wonder why the church isn’t transparent with their finances, and worry that perhaps your tithing funds aren’t always being used in the best possible way (far better than any organization like United Way, which does have transparent finances, for instance) then you’re going to have a bunch of really uncomfortable conversations with your bishop at tithing settlement time and when you want to renew your temple recommend.

If you find yourself rejecting the idea that Mormonism is the one, true church, and believe that other churches are also finding ways to hear God, then you begin to wonder about the need to do temple work, about the insular culture of Mormonism that encourages people to not have relationships with anyone who isn’t virtue signaling, and a host of other cultish behaviors.

If you start pushing back on the idea of your Mormon bishop being able to decide if you are worthy before God, then you reject a lot of the rules of Mormonism, from the Word of Wisdom to the For The Strength of Youth Pamphlet to mission rules and university Honor Codes, and you’re left wondering why the whole church is spending so much time making up rules when we could be loving each other more fully.

If you hear the prophet say that God’s love is conditional and find yourself saying that isn’t your experience with God, you may begin to think that maybe there’s a reason for those in leadership to tell you that it’s always your fault, that you need to be working harder, and that you need a hierarchical church to stand between you and God and tell you what God is like.

I get it. I really do. I was there. I felt so safe as an orthodox Mormon. I remember thinking how much easier it was to follow the rules than to try to figure out what the rules for right and wrong were supposed to be. I saved a lot of energy skipping that important step. And I spent many years happily and safely and self-righteously assured of my place in the kingdom.

There are still times now when I wish I could go back because I miss that (false) sense of safety. I don’t want to take that away from anyone. I’m not so sure of my own “truths” that I’m trying to convert people to the existential angst that I live in every day. This is why it’s so easy for me to have these conversations in my head, and to understand why I’m blamed for the church’s problems. If I was just quieter, people could stop worrying about those things. But if you’ve had these conversations in your head, too, just know that I see you. I know how it hurts and why it doesn’t matter how much better your arguments are. You’re not offering the safety they want, and that’s your fault.

Written by

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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