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In what quickly became one of the most popular opinion articles recently written for The Washington Post, Carrie Sheffield, a former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, lists her many grievances with the church of which she once was a part. Her title, “A Mormon church in need of reform,” makes clear her thesis and end goal.
I understand the grievances she shared, and know many who feel much like Ms. Sheffield. I’ve seen many an “amen!” in social media in recent days as sympathetic former members of the Church, and many heading in that direction, have circulated this article far and wide. Despite that understanding, I believe that this article is misguided and unproductive.
In addressing her remarks, I’ll first respond to a few specific and problematic portions, and later offer more general commentary.
Sheffield first draws the reader in by couching the Mormon question in terms of the current political climate. She draws this connection to conclude that “the church isn’t exactly welcoming of outsiders.” To support this statement, she writes:
Mormons account for 57 percent of Utah residents yet some 91 percent of Utah state legislators self-identify as Mormons. The state that’s home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has elected only two non-Mormon governors in nearly 116 years and has sent just one non-Mormon to Congress in the past five decades.
Because Mormons are disproportionately elected to political positions, Sheffield believes that the LDS church is not welcoming of outsiders—also claiming in the next paragraph that the church has a “distrust of outsiders.” How such a conclusion can reasonably be made is beyond me. It’s like claiming that Americans are sexist because Congress is comprised of mostly men. Perhaps this perceived imbalance can be attributed to the fact that members of the Church are consistently counseled to become involved in civic matters, or perhaps it simply means that a high percentage of non-members trust their Mormon neighbors and consider them worthy of public office. Sheffield’s twisting of logic to arrive at such an assertion does not stop here, but permeates the remainder of her piece.
Sheffield then seeks to succinctly dismantle the pro-family aura that surrounds members of the faith. “Yes, Mormons love families,” she writes. “But the family-values facade applies only if you stay in the fold. Former Mormons know the family estrangement and bigotry that often come with questioning or leaving the church.” It is the height of arrogance, in this author’s opinion, to claim that Mormons’ love of family is merely a “facade.” Sheffield is essentially arguing that this family shtick is a mere ruse which masks a less credible and flowery reality underneath. Mormons are not perfect, and therefore our families are not perfect. Some are violent, others are short-tempered, and many (myself included) have not yet internalized the counsel to love unconditionally. So while in some select cases there may in fact be a family “facade” which hides an uninviting and unforgiving environment, Sheffield’s qualification-free generality should be rejected as far too broad.
In the next few paragraphs, she discusses her personal problems as she attempted to reconcile her beliefs with what she perceived to be conflicting historical and scientific data with which she was presented. This she does under the allegation that the LDS Church “values unquestioning obedience over critical thinking.” Again, a generality—one which is true in some cases, but certainly not all (or even most). Elder L. Tom Perry summarizes a host of other teachings by church leaders: “We have never been encouraged to be blindly obedient; it is an intelligent obedience that characterizes members of the Church.” That intelligence comes in part by intense study and questioning, seeking “out of the best books words of wisdom” (D&C 88:118). Mormons are neither commanded nor counseled to avoid difficult questions. While Sheffield may have encountered some members and leaders of the church who could not satisfactorily answer her questions, her anecdotal experience (even though many others have experienced likewise) does not imply a institutional preference of “unquestioning obedience over critical thinking.” This simply is untrue.
Sheffield claims that the Church “stifles efforts to openly question church pronouncements, labeling such behavior as satanic.” I have never once encountered such an effort, nor the corresponding “labeling.” While obedience is encouraged, both institutionally and culturally, reasonable dissent is not considered satanic. Even with the Church’s involvement in Proposition 8—a large stumbling block for many moderate members of the Church—the First Presidency noted that members “may become involved”—compliance was not required, nor were those who disagreed with the proposition deemed to be on Satan’s side.
So as not to drag this on too long, I’ll comment on one final detail. In her conclusion, Sheffield expresses her hope that increased media scrutiny on the Church “will help break down the church’s fundamentalist trappings: secrecy about its finances, anti-women doctrine and homophobia, to start.” This critical casting of essential doctrines (setting aside the finances issue) as something “fundamentalist” (and thus anachronistic and strange) illustrates much of the standard “ex-Mormon bias” that permeates Sheffield’s opinion piece. It reminds me of the following quote by Elder Neal A. Maxwell:
Church members will live in this wheat-and-tares situation until the Millennium. Some real tares even masquerade as wheat, including the few eager individuals who lecture the rest of us about Church doctrines in which they no longer believe. They criticize the use of Church resources to which they no longer contribute. They condescendingly seek to counsel the Brethren whom they no longer sustain. Confrontive, except of themselves of course, they leave the Church, but they cannot leave the Church alone (see Ensign, Nov. 1980, 14). Like the throng on the ramparts of the ‘great and spacious building,’ they are intensely and busily preoccupied, pointing fingers of scorn at the steadfast iron-rodders (1 Ne. 8:26-28, 33).
This leads me to my general observations about Sheffield’s scorn-ridden article. As I noted at the outset, some of the concerns raised by this woman are understandable. Knowing others who have left the faith, I can sympathize with some of the negative feelings and behaviors of which they’ve unnecessarily been a victim. It’s a very real problem, and one which needs correction. In that simple sentence, Sheffield would agree with me.
Yet we diverge drastically in our diagnoses and prescriptions. Ms. Sheffield points her ire at the institution from which she recently separated, claiming that the problem is the “church” along with its teachings, mandates, and practices. She therefore concludes, as noted in her title, that the church needs reform.
I beg to differ. In reviewing some of the valid complaints and concerns Sheffield lists, I see the problem as an individual, and not institutional one. In other words, it is not the leaders of the church and the organization they manage which is root cause of what Sheffield objected to. It is us.
Critics such as Sheffield often object that they were not taught correct church history growing up, with all its warts and bruises. They claim that the Church offers only a sanitized, approved version which is far from reality. While I generally agree, I again differ in the conclusions drawn from this circumstance. Where critics see nefarious collusion and an attempt to win converts by hiding a supposedly troubled past, I see a global church having to craft its curriculum to the lowest common denominator such that the constant wave of new converts can come to understand and implement gospel basics.
Paul’s counsel of milk before meat applies here. He told the Saints in Corinth: “I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able” (1 Corinthians 3:2). In other words, he had to set aside the more complex issues in order to get the basics down first. For a Church continually recruiting new people, a consistent offering of milk therefore becomes necessary.
But what of the more seasoned members of the Church—those of us which grew up in the faith, and have long been accustomed to a diet of milk? Should we not be given opportunities within the organized curriculum of the Church to chew on meat? As is common with growing in years and moving around, I have attended various wards. In most of them, Sunday School was an underwhelming experience; while the teacher would often do their best to prepare, the questions were dry and the presentation not too intellectually nor spiritually stimulating. Participation, in my experience, has often been low—the same few people raise their hands, while the rest stare at their iPhones or scriptures. Sometimes an energetic discussion will break out, but often the class is very basic. Whether this can be attributed to time constraints in class, lack of preparation on the part of the teacher and/or students, or otherwise, this has been my general experience (albeit with welcome and exciting exceptions from the norm). I share this to suggest that again, it’s not the “church’s” fault, but ours. Critics want Church leaders to provide platters of juicy, tender doctrinal and historical sirloin, but I personally feel that most members are not ready for it. And with people in class who are definitely at the milk level, would it really be fair to impose such a diet upon them? Thus I believe that the meatier subjects should not be hidden or avoided, but relegated largely to personal study and more appropriate venues for their discussion.
But the prevailing argument in Sheffield’s post appears to be not that the Church is wrong doctrinally, but that its members do not handle with compassion and love those who end up disagreeing and leaving. What Church leader has ever advocated treating such people with derision and alienation? None. We as members are counseled to love, forgive, understand—to do just as Christ would. Thus, Sheffield’s call for institutional reform is misguided. She should instead be calling for individual reform. Ironically enough, that’s exactly what Christ did, and what his Church does.
I said earlier that I find this opinion piece both misguided and unproductive. I believe it is misguided because it takes otherwise legitimate concerns, saturates them with critical ex-Mormon bias, and then misses the mark on where correction is truly needed. I believe it is unproductive because rather than generating discussion that will help resolve the listed concerns in the future and help both sides come to better understanding and compassion, Sheffield’s work serves only to put Mormons further on the defensive, or lead them to dismiss her diatribe as the angry rantings of an apostate. This is unfortunate.
I know many people who are in Sheffield’s shoes, or are at least growing into them. This is a very real concern, and one which should be addressed directly, in my view. Yes, the Church as an institution can improve, respond, and offer direct counsel or programs that may better deal with these circumstances. But the onus is (and always has been) on us as individual members of the Church to study, learn, grow, love, embrace, and welcome.
President Uchtdorf recently taught:
Developing Christlike attributes in our lives is not an easy task, especially when we move away from generalities and abstractions and begin to deal with real life. The test comes in practicing what we proclaim. The reality check comes when Christlike attributes need to become visible in our lives—as husband or wife, as father or mother, as son or daughter, in our friendships, in our employment, in our business, and in our recreation.
In her experiences shared, Ms. Sheffield evidently encountered many members who had not yet sufficiently developed these attributes, and who perhaps were not practicing what they proclaimed. We each have this personal challenge, and a higher bar of behavior to which we must aspire. We’re not perfect, nor should perfection be demanded of us in the short term. We are, and ever have been, a Mormon people in need of reform.