Because of questions that a number of people have asked me, I’ve decided to set the record straight as to why I don’t go to church anymore. This is not going to be an easy read for my believing Mormon friends, but I hope it will be worthwhile and thought-provoking. Let me start by saying that most of what the LDS church does is wonderful. I especially love its emphasis on family and service. My local congregation is a group of wonderful, supportive, loving people. That said there are a few doctrines that the institutional church teaches that are discriminatory and harmful. As well there are uncomfortable episodes in the church’s history that are glossed over or misrepresented by the church.
That most in the church have never heard of Joseph Smith’s marriages to other men’s wives while they were still married to their first husbands is scandalous. Polygamy makes members of the LDS church uncomfortable enough, but if they knew that he married 9 other men’s wives that would give them pause to think (some married with and some without the other husband’s consent). I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Zina and Henry Jacobs when Joseph Smith asked Zina to marry him less than a year after they themselves were married.
I don’t know how church leaders and other members of the church who know about these marriages justify them in their minds. True, Joseph Smith a number of good things during his life, but not all the fruits he produced were sweet. Most of the Book of Mormon is inspiring, but the doctrine and Joseph Smith’s practice of plural marriage was as abhorrent when he was practicing it as it is to us today. To get a feel for what it must have been like for people in his day we need look no further than Warren Jeffs the FLDS prophet (from the summer of 2007) and how he and his church currently practice polygamy. I’m sure we feel at least as uncomfortable at the accounts of him pressuring young girls to marry older men as people in Joseph Smith’s day did about his match making.
Here are the LDS doctrines and practices that I can no longer support or justify:
- The church’s separate but equal policy with regards to woman and the priesthood. That women cannot hold leadership positions such as Bishop is patently unfair no matter what faithful LDS women say. Ask any 8-year-old child, who is more important in the church, men or woman, and you’ll get a more objective and accurate answer. I put this doctrine in the same category as women’s suffrage and blacks and the priesthood. It will change, it is just a question of when.
- The church’s discrimination against gay people and opposition to gay marriage. Most scientists today agree that gay people have not made a choice to be gay, but sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex interaction of environmental, cognitive and biological factors. In other words this is the way god made them. Active members of the church who are gay are regularly exposed to a virtual hell on earth at church meetings when marriage and the law of chastity are discussed. Their god given sexual drive is described as evil, and they are told that to be exalted they must enter into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex. In many cases, this leads to severe depression. In some cases substance abuse is turned to as a way to escape the depression and unfortunately others turn to suicide as a way out. Just think of what a gay person must think when their bishop tells them that it is better off to be dead than to commit sexual sin. For an insightful look at this topic see this Sunstone article.
- The church’s longstanding discrimination against black men and women (that ended in 1978). Withholding the priesthood from black men, and not allowing black woman to enter the temple, was just wrong, and are excellent examples of how the Old Testament can be used to support doctrines that make no sense in our modern world.
- I don’t feel good about polygamy in general and particularly with Joseph Smith marrying nine other men’s wives (in addition to the twenty other single women he married). I am inclined to agree with William Law (editor of the Nauvoo Expositor), that if Joseph was a prophet, by the time he started practicing polygamy he was a fallen prophet. This is another example of how the Old Testament can be used to support archaic doctrines.
- The teaching that the prophet of the church can never lead us astray (see above for polygamy as one example of this). I suspect this is where the “cult” accusation against the church comes from. I’d like to think that the prophet would not lead anyone astray, but to say never is unwise given the history of the church. To have an organization tell you that they cannot lead you astray, yet not let you question its teachings is a bad sign. In the short run it does however make it easier to lead an organization when no one challenges or questions your decisions. I believe that the leaders of the church are for the most part well meaning men who act based on their consciences and the needs of the organization.
- The church’s aggressive proselytizing and focus on baptismal goals. This practice antagonizes other churches and can lead to depression in missionaries, when mission goals are not met. I think I personally would have had a much more fulfilling mission, and done much more good if the focus of my mission had been on service to the needy. I will encourage all my kids to take time off school to go do meaningful service in other parts of the world, but will actively discourage them from LDS missions for the above reasons.
- The church not being accountable to members for how tithing monies are spent. As a matter of principle, the church should report its receipts and expenditures to the tithe paying members of the church. It should also report all salaries and stipends given to general authorities of the church. I would be surprised if there was anything greatly amiss, but we currently have no way of knowing.
- The teaching that one can know that the LDS church is Gods’ one true church by saying that it is true (the “get a testimony by bearing it” method). Studies show that the more often you say something you don’t believe, the more you begin to believe that thing. Not a good foundation for a spiritual practice as I’ve found out. Having a testimony of the institutional church or “the church” places faith in a man made institution rather than with god and in higher spiritual things. Whether this has been encouraged maliciously or unintentionally I do not now. I do know that it does not feel right.
- The church’s only true church doctrine. I think it is more important to god that I be a good, charitable person rather than to simply be a person who has been baptised and participated in priesthood ordinances.
Recently one LDS church leader quoted me the scripture “by their fruits shall ye know them” to me, hoping that I would think of all the good things the church does and want to come back into full fellowship. As I said there are a lot of good fruits produced by the church (service and its community for example), but there are also some rotten fruit on the vine, that no one in authority seems to doing anything about. To me this is one of the strongest evidences that the LDS church is a man made organization that is led by well meaning, but not divinely led men. Most religions in the world teach many good things… That the LDS church teaches many good things is not remarkable in that context. Joseph Smith took a more enlightened position many of the things that were being debated by the Christian denominations of his day. For that we can be thankful.
I believe that if current members were more mindful of the effects of the church’s harmful doctrines, and became fully aware of the history of the church that they have not been taught in Sunday School, that they would demand changes. The church as become rigid, hierarchical and bound to tradition, the very opposite of the radically inclusive, and open church that Joseph Smith founded.
I am at peace with the direction I am currently taking. I also have no regrets about the time and energy I’ve put into the church over the years. I still attend church meetings and activities periodically, and make sure that my children know where the pitfalls are in the church’s doctrine and practice for when they attend. To be honest to myself and to those closest to me, I feel I had no other choice. In my view the church is on the wrong side of a number of important moral issues, and to occupy a leadership position in the church with that knowledge, was hypocritical. If I felt that there was any chance to reform from within, that might have changed the course I’ve taken, but the church’s organizational and disciplinary structure is such that unless you are at a very high level in the leadership of the church, the opportunities to influence church policy are almost nil.
There is much good in the LDS church. It is a loving service-oriented organization. The church needs to build on the good and reject the discriminatory, hurtful and unjust doctrines. Members of the church need to be vocal about what they believe in their hearts and not just object in silence when harmful and uncharitable doctrines are taught. If there is a just god, then living a good, moral, service-oriented life should be all that is required of us. That is what I am trying to do, and it is what I teach my children.