I grew up in a family of spiritual agnostics, many of whom have investigated one faith or another, attempted to embrace a life of structured worship, then eventually lapsed into our traditional comfort zone of heresy. My relatives have explored many religions including, Catholicism, most of the Protestant sects, Christian Science and Masonry. I lived with my mother and grandparents who collectively raised me. My mother and I attended a Congregational Church when I was a young girl in elementary school, then a Presbyterian Church when I entered junior high. However, true to her heritage, my mom grew tired of church-going and encouraged me to try out different churches on my own and find one I liked.
Consequently, it came as no particular shock to my family when, in 1972, I joined the LDS Church at the age of 14. I was living in a suburb of Los Angeles and had many nice Mormon friends. Like all ex-Mormons, I frequently reflect on the events surrounding my conversion, i.e. why on earth did I join? I really have no horror stories to relate from this particular era of my life. The Mormons I met in Southern California were actually pretty sensible, especially when compared to the array of LDS kooks Ive encountered since then. The Mormon clique in school was not exclusively LDS and religion was not the usual topic of discussion. I believe that if I had chosen not to convert, I would have maintained my friendships as other non-LDS kids in the group have. Im sure I was motivated by that adolescent need to belong or be included. At the same time, it was an opportunity to rebel against my family (most of whom were basically apathetic) and test my independence. But my decision was not a completely social one. I was impressed with the plan of salvation and the story of the pre-existence and "war in heaven." I liked the idea of having a father and mother in heaven. The concept of God and Jesus being separate appealed to me also (although the Holy Ghost baffled me.) In varying degrees I still believe these things. I also believe that Joseph Smith was an inspired manalthough certainly not a perfect one nor what the Church declares he is. Overall, I think my early years in the church were positive ones. I stayed away from the wild party scene to participate in LDS youth activities. In my particular ward, girls were encouraged to study and go to college. In fact, practically every one of the girls my age went on to obtain at least a bachelors degree. I dont mean to sugar coat my experience. I am, after all, talking about the Mormons. I was subjected to all the intrusive interviews with the Bishop, tiresome MIA Standards Nights, apocryphal stories about temple garments protecting someone who was hit by a bus, etc. But back then, I never felt pressured to accept doctrines or rules simply because they came from the lips of LDS General Authorities. I naively supposed that since the Church taught free agency and personal revelation, the freedom to question was not only a right but also a responsibility. I suppose the ward members were a little more patient with me because I was a new and very young convert, being raised by heretics and couldnt be expected to have the same "spiritual maturity" characteristic of a child born in the covenant. However, the leaders in that ward did seem to be more open minded than others Ive knownin part because of the low activity rate, but also because they werent Nazis. I have to digress for a moment to point out the perverseness of my argument and the Mormon mindset in general. The nature of this oppressive culture is made evident by the fact that Mormonsboth active and inactivewill go out of their way to give church members kudos simply for not acting like shit heads.
It is obvious to me now that had I spent any time in honest reflection on the nature and basis of my new found faith, I would have discontinued my association with the Church after high school. However, teenagers are not prone towards such deep pondering. Perhaps I was just having too much fun at those stake dances. At any rate, it was with little regard to my future and a distinct lack of common sense that I entered Brigham Young University in the Fall of 1976. One of lifes cruelties is that our most important decisions are thrust upon us at a time when we are the least prepared to make them. I could have gone to so many different universities where the academic and cultural possibilities were endless. Instead, I went skipping off to "Happy Valley" where I couldnt wear blue jeans and had to sneak off campus to buy a Coke! The real irony is that, in spite of everything that has happened, I still consider my decision to attend BYU to be (unwittingly) one of the best I have ever made.
The BYU of the late 1970s was a different place than it is today. It was a little bright window between the oppressive reign of Ernest L Wilkinson with his anti-Communist spy ring of the 1960s and the anti-intellectual purges of the 1980s and 1990s. Mormon liberals still gush about this period as being some sort of LDS renaissance. I believe this to be a gross exaggeration and further illustration of the "shit head argument" I have already proposed in a previous paragraph. But I did have a good time at BYU. I majored in English and was given, I think, a good solid education in the classics. I studied history also, and had the privilege of taking a course from LDS historian Marvin S. Hill who recommended I read (of all things) Fawn Brodies No Man Knows My History. Hill, a devout Mormon, disagreed with the ex-Mormons appraisal of Joseph Smith but admired her research and recognized that her book was considered amongst academics to be the definitive biography of the Mormon prophet. He hoped a faithful LDS scholar, perhaps one of his students, would write a better one. In these days before the current "report your neighbor honor code," I read it for the first time in my room at my student apartment on 9th East. Leonard Arrington was Church Historian at this time and I believe he inspired many young church intellectuals to study and write an accurate history of the Latter-day Saints. Brother Pace was my religion teacher and I always made a point of arriving early in order to get a seat in his packed lecture hall. He told Book of Mormon stories in a style that seemed to combine evangelism and cowboy poetry. In 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that the priesthood would be conferred upon blacks. I remember sitting in an emotionally charged Stake Conference at the Joseph Smith Field House, blinking back tears, as I watched one black man stand among some 100 whites to be sustained a member of the Melchezidic Priesthood. Even Dallin Oaks, in his role as BYUs president, seemed to be a kinder, gentler version of himself back then. He allowed Dialogue and the fledgling Sunstone magazine to be sold on campus. Donny and Marie Osmond were belting out "It takes two, baby " every week on their national television show, filmed at their studio in Orem, UT. Danny Ainge was ripping up the basketball court while the very irreverent Jim McMahon commanded the football field. Sometimes on the sidelines BYU fans smiled at the sight of the feisty old LDS Apostle, LeGrand Richards, who took the full length of the Cougar fight song to pull himself up on his cane to "rise and shout." But perhaps best of all, was the back page of the Daily Universe where everyone turned first to read and sometimes be "appalled" by the hilarious cartoons of fellow students, Pat Bagley and Steve Benson. I suppose if the Mormons were to have a renaissance, this would be as good as it gets.
While the Church was lumbering ahead at the pace of a sloth, it did seem to be moving in the right direction. Those of us who considered ourselves liberals and feminists were encouraged by these small advances. We were young, idealistic and incredibly na´ve. Of course, we were college students who thought we could change the world, or at least the Church. Like most Mormon liberals, then and now, we focused on the elements of Mormon doctrine and culture we approved of while either ignoring or making light of the many negatives. We would tactfully point out the erroneous opinions of a General Authority, then quickly follow up with, " but I know hes inspired." Fortunately we felt far less reverence towards the student life at BYU which provided the makings for some very funny conversations. I remember coming back to the dorm or apartment and swapping dippy experiences with my roommates. This was my best contribution:
One day, I was sitting in an English class and noticed a good looking young man eyeing me across the room. As I headed home after class, he caught up with me and we started to chat. I believe I was a junior at the time, with a declining social life. Consequently, the prospect of a date was encouraging and I responded to him in a friendly manner. We introduced ourselves, exchanged the usual pleasantries, and then he cut to the chase. I held my breath and hoped hed take me somewhere off campus. He began with, "You know I really hate this dating game everyone plays here." I responded, "Uh huh," while racking my brain to remember which movie was playing in town. He continued: "All this fuss just to find your eternal mate. Well I dont see the point and I feel very inspired right now, will you marry me?" On just about any other college campus in the world, the woman would now pause with surprise and then laugh, realizing that the man was making some kind of a joke. But I was a BYU coed and he was a returned missionary with a receding hair line. I immediately knew he was serious. After making some sort of flustered response, I ducked into the crowd and escaped through the bookstore. I hoped to God he wasnt following as I darted in and out of students, tripped over toddlers, and finally bolted out the back door to flee the campus. Finally free, I wandered breathlessly into a small bakery on the way home, bought a cookie and collected myself. As I left, I was all ready snickering about the whole thing and couldnt wait to tell my roommates. Suddenly there was a loud whisper behind me, "PSSST!" I swung around to see another young man standing in some large shrubbery motioning for me to come over. Well, I certainly wasnt going to pass this up! He showed me a disheveled cream puff and said, "I want to propose to my girl friend. Ive hidden the ring inside here!" "Ah!" I said, and nodded my head, as if this were completely normal. Her name was Amy and she lived in the house on the other side of the shrubs. I was to be the delivery person. She had Farrah Fawcett hair, big blue eyes and the final stages of braces on her teeth. "This is from Rick," I said, "be careful when you eat it." I gave Rick the thumbs up as I left, and watched him creep stealth-like towards her porch. Now I was part of another "O.C. Tanner Great Engagement." As I walked home, I reflected on my poor, disgruntled suitor from English classperhaps he found another fiancee in the bookstore.
I had lots of fun dating during my freshman year at BYU. Since the boys were all going on missions, nothing could be serious. But as an upper classman, I had fewer dates (most of them "first dates") as the prospects were exclusively returned missionaries looking for wives. It was amazing the change in these fellows from before to after their missions. I dont know how the Church did it, but in two years it turned perfectly normal, happy, carefree young men into scripture quoting Amway salesmen. I couldnt imagine actually marrying most of the ones I met, although I did develop some very nice platonic relationships. I concluded that if I got married, it would be after college to a very unconventional or non-member. Then I met Mark in my senior year. He was quiet, thoughtful and suited me perfectly. He was a life long member of the Church and a descendant of Mormon pioneers. Yet, he was comfortable with my outlook and opinions, as I was with his. We were married a year after we met, giving me time to graduate and become certified to teach school. For this reason, I will always consider my decision to attend BYU to be one of the best I have ever made. I look back on the years I spent in Provo, UT and think of the great friends, the funny experiences and my first real introduction to Mormon intellectuals. But most of all I am reminded that I met Mark there, and he is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
We lived in a married student ward at BYU for about one and a half years while Mark finished his studies. Then we headed to Northern California where jobs were more plentiful, but the cost of living was very high. We moved several times, in a quest for the cheapest, most habitable rental situation and a shorter commute for Mark. Our son was born before we left Provo, then our second (and last) child, a girl, was born in San Jose, CA. What I remember most from this period is the extreme materialism of the Church members. The high cost of living forced all Bay Area residents to focus on money. But the LDS seemed to take it to a new level. With all our relocating, we lived in two different cities and four different wards, but the climate was the same in each. Typically, when we moved in to a new ward, we would be greeted with a handshake, a hello, and then the question: "Do you rent or own your house?" Sometimes this question would be followed by: "How much is your rent there?" or "What are your car payments?" or "How much do you earn?" Never in my "gentile upbringing" had I experienced such flagrant nosiness! When one church member described another there was always some mention of the subjects financial status such as, "he just got a big raise," or "theyre a very nice couple but they rent." At the time, I was pretty indignant about being called a loser because I couldnt buy a house. Today I think being on the "winning side" is perhaps more annoyingthat is, to have all the ward members singing your praises because you have a few more dollars in the bank.
The most aggravating aspect to the Mormons emphasis on material success was the qualifications the Church put on its acquisition. A young couple was expected to marry right away and have children. Once the first child arrived, the wife was told to stay at home. Now the husband had to support a family when, in most cases, he hadnt even finished his education. At the same time the couple was admonished by the Prophet to pay tithing, avoid debt and continue to have more children. No wonder everyone in the ward was obsessed with money! How was such a feat accomplished, especially in a place like San Francisco at a time when interest rates were in the double digits? I remember being so frustrated by such bad advice coming from someone who was supposed to be Gods mouthpiece. While I wouldnt have admitted to it at the time, I lost my faith in the Prophet over this issue. I still thought he was a nice man, but he wasnt going to run my life. I wanted to be at home with my children, but I resented being told that I had to stay home. Besides, we needed the money! I finally got a job at the public library where I began socializing with non-Mormons for the first time since high school. I found them so refreshing. I ended up requesting to work on Sundays so I wouldnt have to do the church thing. I told Mark that I had no choice in the matter. This was the beginning of a deceptive game I played for the next ten years.
When Mark was offered a good job in Dallas, TX, we jumped at the chance. Finally we could afford a home in this much more reasonable housing market. We purchased our first home in a suburb outside of Dallas where I was happy to quit work for a while to stay home and care for our two pre-schoolers. I began to attend church again with renewed enthusiasm. Since the children were approaching Primary age, I felt it was my duty to raise them in the Church. After all, they were descendants of Mormon pioneers! Moreover, I was now a full time mother and homemaker and the Relief Society seemed like the perfect place for me to find friendships and seek advice.
The new ward was much larger with a high activity rate. I made a real effort to get to know some of the women, particularly my contemporaries with children. I guess I was hoping for more relationships like those I had enjoyed at BYU. But we were all approaching 30 now and had been out of college for a while. The LDS women I met in Texas were nothing like the active and intelligent girls I had known at school. They had, in a few short years, become obedient Relief Society matrons who were much too busy with Church to read, think, develop friendships, orand this was the most shockingeven be good mothers! Their days were packed with various Church assignments requiring them to either find a baby sitter or drag the kids along to engage in unsupervised play while they worked. I was carting my kids to story hour and signing them up for swimming lessons. I didnt have time to spend an entire afternoon making personalized place mats for the Relief Society dinner or whatever else the Mormon mommies had in mind. They, in turn, thought I was wasting time and money on unnecessary activities. After all, the children have Primary on Sunday and during the week they can run around the meeting house while we quilt, etc. I wanted to make some good friends, but these ladies only had time to be friendly with whomever they were assigned to work with or visit teach. With very few, but precious, exceptions, I could not make friends with Mormon women. Even though I tried very hard, as did they, to find a common ground, we usually ended up in a state of mutual resentment. While I had chosen to stay home to care for my children, these women were at home because the Prophet had commanded it. While I had decided how many children I was willing to bear, these women were letting the Lord (and their husbands) decide. While I was a full time mother who did Church work in her spare time, these women thought their Church callings were their full time jobs.
Mark was equally put off by the sisters in the ward. When we were first married, we had a hard time finding couples to socialize with. I could usually find a female friend at Church, but Mark wouldnt be able to tolerate her husband. The newly married men still retained that zealous missionary persona that turned both our stomachs. Now the reverse was true. Working and paying the bills had mellowed the Mormon husbands (at least the ones not serving in leadership positions) while a steady diet of diapers and homemaking lessons had left the wives with no source of intelligent conversation other than ward gossip. Wed get together with some couple and it would be a three way conversation between me, Mark and the other husband until, the wife would finally pull me aside to ask some scintillating question like: "Sister so and so just got called to be the new Homemaking Leader. Do you think she can HANDLE it?" I would make some polite response, all the time thinking, "whats there to handle, stewardship of the glue gun?" At the end of the evening, I would be shaking my head, thinking about how in the male dominated LDS Church women have no opportunity for any real leadership. Consequently this devout, obedient woman who wanted to feel worthwhile in the "kingdom" compensated by making a big deal out of these little nonsensical assignments and competing over them like a participant in a blood sport. Mark would be shaking his head for another reason. He had seen that her husband found her as boring as we did. She was working at her marriage, but doing all the wrong things: making crafts for the house, trying new recipes, dieting, finding a cute outfit or hair style and so on. When really the most appealing thing she could have engaged herself in (as Jane Austen has been reminding us for almost two centuries) was the improvement of her own mind.
After five years of unsuccessfully trying to "fit in," Mark and I finally concluded that the Church was driving us nuts! We werent ready to leave, but knew we had to do something. I had slipped back into my pattern of finding excuses not to go to church on Sunday and not being completely honest with Mark or myself about it. Mark admitted that he knew I was doing this and didnt blame me, as he was equally disgruntled. He just didnt know how to approach the subject with me. He had always gone to church and couldnt comprehend life without it. We decided to carve out a place for ourselves in the ward and Church as Mormon Liberals. We read Sunstone and Dialogue, and enjoyed the writings of LDS intellectuals. We told ourselves that the existence of these publications demonstrated that the majority of the Church members were sensible. We were just in a bad ward! I gave up trying to make friends with the other sisters. Now that our youngest was in first grade I decided to return to work and took a job at the public library. We continued to deceive ourselves by clinging to that over used axiom: "The Gospel is perfect but the people arent." We decided to speak up and be ourselvesafter all, it was our Church too! Maybe if we had tried this tactic in California, we would have been able to sort of pull it off, at least for a whileassuming , of course, we owned a big house. But our ward and stake in Dallas suburbia was run by ultra conservative men intent on controlling every aspect of the members lives. Without realizing it, we were setting ourselves up for one of the most frustrating and disappointing experiences of our lives.
For a woman to become a successful Mormon Liberal, she needs to meet a few essential requirements. First, she has to totally buy into the previously mentioned "shit head" argument.I did. Second, she needs to attend a ward that isnt run by shit heads.I didnt. Third, she cant really be a liberal. Mormon Liberal is an oxymoron. What she needs to be is "liberal for a Mormon," i.e. she drinks herbal tea or she plays with face cards or she watches CNN, etc.I was really a liberal. Fourth, she needs to have connections. This is very important. Having a husband with an important Priesthood calling is best, but she could also come from a prominent LDS family or at least have prominent LDS friends.I was a convert, raised by heretics, with hardly any LDS friends and a husband who could barely stand to sit through a Priesthood meeting. While the cards were stacked against me, I insisted on giving it my best effort.
At the beginning of this experiment, the current Bishop was extremely conservative and bent on following every letter of the handbook. For example, during one of my recommend interviews, I asked him to explain what "supporting and sustaining" the Church authorities meant. He answered by saying that if his Priesthood leader told him to jump off a building, he would comply. He reported to an even more conservative Stake Presidency, who might actually issue such an order. Our bishop liked to speak his mind on just about every social issue, but focused on movie ratings and potentially dirty books. It seemed like every Sunday we were reminded of the evils of "R" rated movies and the general smut in the media. The leaders of the ward auxiliaries followed suit. In Relief Society we were told to keep our children away from the TV because even if the show was wholesome, the commercials were questionable. Another cause for concern was what the world considered good literature. The sisters in particular, were cautioned to "consider the source" on book recommendations. After all, book reviewers and librarians didnt necessarily have our standards. This was problematic for me, since I worked at the library, made such recommendations, and helped to order and catalog popular "R" rated video titles. Add to this, I had made a conscientious effort to separate myself from the other ladies in the ward. It seemed I was the embodiment of everything unworthy in the Churchs eyes. I hardly had to speak to be controversial. Walking into the room was enough.
Our fanatical bishop was a good and sincere man who took the Churchs teachings literally and was determined not to stray. Even though we disagreed, we shared a mutual respect. He made some pretty loopy decisions, though, and had me hopping from calling to calling. When I was a Relief Society teacher, he released me for using materials outside the lesson manual. In his cheerfully arrogant, "its not personal" tone he explained, "Sister Banta, the Church has prepared the lessons, if the sisters are bored, its their fault." I moved on to the Homemaking Committee where I was assigned to organize the making of a quilt. This hand made quilt was to be our wards contribution to a stake service project benefiting recent flood victims. First I suggested we have a clothing drive instead, since freezing flood victims needed more than a few quilts and surely didnt care if they were home made. The Bishop responded with a look of horror I doubt even Jim Carrey could reproduce. So I went about making the quilt. One sister donated a pre-made quilt top. I was very grateful to her as this would take hours off of our task. Oops! I was in trouble again. Our Bishop certainly wasnt going to allow his Relief Society to look lazy! Nothing but a hand made piece would do and so ended my career on the Homemaking Committee. Meanwhile, the remaining sisters obeyed dutifully by cutting the quilt top into pieces, then stitching them back together. Primary was a safe haven for me until the Bishop received a letter from Salt Lake instructing all bishops to cut down on activities. He cracked the whip again and called me on the carpet for planning a class party. With the same annoying affability, he explained that our inspired leaders in Salt Lake City had issued a command which he carried out according to his inspiration. Was I to defy the Lords wishes? Its hard to explain how I felt at this moment. It was kind of like being trapped inside a Stanley Kubrick film God was canceling my Sunbeam Messy Party? Not even Dr. Strangelove was this demented. I think if I could have obtained a piece of Church letterhead and Id had Mark Hoffmans forgery skills, I would have created another directive instructing my Bishop to go ahead and jump off of that building.
I told Mark that I would attend Church, but wouldnt accept another calling. It was clear to me that the "liberal" experiment couldnt work in this church where ecclesiastical authority was allowed to go unchecked. After all, just about anything we suggested was vetoed by the hierarchy who claimed to speak not only for themselves, but also for God. Mark understood my reasons, but wasnt comfortable with my decision. We continued to dance around the issue. Now when a member of the Bishopric asked him for permission to call me to a position (another Mormon custom that made me puke) Mark would say something like, "Well, its OK with me, but let me talk to her about it." Hating to offend either me or the Church, he would then turn to me and say, "Wont you please do this? I promise Ill help you with it." I would agree grudgingly, then usually made up some excuse to miss church, leaving Mark to pass out the Primary rolls or run copies of the Relief Society newsletter. We began to resent each other and argued more about silly thingsnever about the Church as neither of us wanted to approach that subject. However, most of our arguments were on Sunday. Mark began to get angry at church. He even blew up a couple of times and yelled at some of the members. This upset and embarrassed me greatly. While he still maintained that it was the local members who were ruining our church experience, I was beginning to see the leaders in Salt Lake City as the culprits. I read about the excommunications of Mormon intellectuals and the repressive policies enacted at BYU. When I listened to the General Authorities speak, I realized that my faithful bishop was truly following his leaders. Boyd K. Packer was admonishing church historians not to tell all the truth. Dallin Oaks was advising members not to criticize their leaders, even when theyre wrong. All of them held the media in contempt and warned members to avoid it. Our bishop and other ward leaders were doing their best to follow the Prophet.
Things were becoming intolerable for me, but I still believed in the Gospel (at least in my version of it) and I still felt that I should take my children to church. Our son was enjoying scouts and our ward did have an excellent program for him. Our daughter was happy in Primary. So I dragged myself there on most Sundays and sat through boring lessons, peppered with debates over things like: "Is it OK to iron on Sunday?" or "Is The Little Mermaid appropriate for children?" (Because she wore a two-piece.) I suffered indignities like having the Elders Quorum President call Mark to report complaints about my naughty behavior in Relief Society. (As if I was his daughter, not his wife.) I went to work and was assaulted by Mormons who objected to many of the librarys materials. (One prominent LDS woman stormed up to the reference desk, slammed a book down in front of my supervisor, and declared: "This is FILTH!") I avoided talking about the Church with my non-LDS friends as I was now embarrassed by my connection with it. One Sunday I totally lost my cool. I had just endured a particularly insipid Sunday School lesson about "the three Nephites" when Mark caught up with me and asked, "Would you mind being the new den mother? The Bishop just asked Ill help!" I screamedsomething, I dont remember what (except that it was highly negative and included the word "fuck")then stormed out of the building. I walked home in my two inch heals muttering and cursing the whole way while cars filled with other well dressed church goers slowed down to offer me rides. I hollered "NO THANKS" at some well meaning Presbyterian who quickly sped off.
Shortly after my profane tantrum, the Bishopric changed. The new Bishop was an easy going, likable guy who was immensely popular, especially with the youth. He had come through some major marital and financial crisis, but was now successful and settled happily with his wife and children. While the previous Bishop had been a cheerful authoritarian who could recite the General Handbook of Instructions from memory, this new guy was a sensitive, sympathetic populist who "felt our pain." I have to admit I was surprised when he asked me to teach the teenagers in Sunday Schoolconsidering the previous leadership couldnt trust me to make a quilt! I accepted, with Marks usual promise to help, and we embarked on what would be our last good Church experience. The curriculum was Church Presidents and as usual, the manual sucked. We had a large class of very bright kids who were easily bored. I bought a copy of the Church Institute of Religions manual for church history. It was much better. The kids were receptive, and asked tons of questions, requiring me to be very prepared every week.
For the first time since college, I explored objective sources on Mormon history. I read books and articles by D. Michael Quinn, Janice Allred, Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery. I was excited by their work and more convinced that the General Authorities were not inspired. This group of church historians, who had been so widely criticized by LDS leaders, were believing Mormons who simply wanted to correctly report the history of their faith. Unlike the ex-Mormon, Fawn Brodie, these intellectuals were aware of the foibles and failures of the Church, but still accepted the doctrine and actually presented an argument that promoted rather than detracted from the LDS faith. Church leaders, on the other hand, wanted these historians censored so they could present their own revisionist version of things that amounted to nothing more than a collection of attractive lies. Why would God want his Prophet to lieespecially about events that were documented and easily recounted accurately? For that matter, why would God want His Prophet to be a senile dysfunctional who, according to his grandson, was incapable of feeding himself or recognizing his family members. While Gordon B. Hinckley was telling the members that he just had a lovely chat with President Benson, Steve Bensonby then a Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonistwas describing him very differently: as an incoherent, infirm man whom Church public relations propped up for pictures. Obviously this man couldnt speak for God. Why would God want us to think he could? Why would God want us to believe the Book of Mormon was a true historical document when there was a plethora of scientific and archaeological evidence proving the contrary? Why would God want to make Himself look ridiculous by promoting a pack of lies that could be so easily exposed? Why would God lie at all?
I finally saw what the Church leaders were doing. They were controlling our lives by filling our time with endless taskschurch callings, temple work (as if God cant take care of the dead), genealogy, food storage and missionary work. They were discouraging us from reading or thinking or associating with people outside of the Church. They were strapping us financially, through tithing and the promotion of an impossible lifestyle of huge families with one wage earner. They made us feel guilty if we questioned or disobeyed by telling us they spoke for God. By doing all this, they kept the members from discovering the truth. I read the Doctrine and Covenants again. This time I saw it for what it was: a collection of supposedly inspired selfish commands such as, "Give Joseph Smith his money," or "Emma stop complaining," or "Joseph, you may have sex with whomever you choose." Good grief! Joseph couldnt even get his story straight half the time. I cringed now when I read the different versions of the First Vision. First he saw one personage, then he said he saw two along with a bunch of angels, then a third time he said there were no angels sheesh! Who would forget an event like that? I am reminded of my grandmothers saying: "Tell the truth, its easiest to remember." I saw that the General Authorities had been deceiving the members since the beginning and with amazing success. The Mormon Church didnt drug or confine members in a compound, or attempt to seize their assets in the manner of destructive cults. It tempted members to obey of their own free will by claiming exclusive rights as Gods only true church and then promising eternal salvation to those who followed. They had certainly duped me! It had taken me over twenty years to discover this, even though I was an unconventional and seemingly intelligent member who didnt buy into the lifestyle or culture.
I never repeated these feelings to the Sunday School class or even to Mark. I was careful to only teach the Church version of things. Mark and I enjoyed the class and loved the stories of the hard working Mormon pioneers who contributed to the settlement of the West. Mark was proud of his heritage and I was too. I realized that while I no longer had any testimony of the LDS Church, I needed to maintain some activity for Mark and the kids. I began to be very depressed. I had terrible headaches and recurring nightmares of being trapped inside of a box. When the new year rolled around we got a new group of kids in our Sunday School class. They were nothing like the mature, intelligent youth wed taught previously. I knew on the first day that I couldnt teach them the way I wanted to. One of the kids piped up with, "Hey, youre not using the right manual!" I smiled, picked up my belongings, marched out of the class to find the Bishop. I told him, "I cant do this anymore, Im sorry." He was very kind and told me it was "OK." He thought I was talking about the Sunday School class, when really I meant much more than that.
My outlook changed dramatically. Now I totally blamed the leaders, not the members for what was wrong with the Church. I began to sympathize with the large body of believing members, especially the women. Most of my contemporaries had four or five kids by now. While I had little in common with them, I began to admire their faith in God and their church. I felt guilty for my former patronizing attitude and vowed to make an effort to serve rather than criticize. Some of the sisters were risking their health to become pregnant one more time. So I spent lots of time cooking extra meals for bed ridden expectant mothers. I dont suppose the Mormon sisters, while appreciative, ever felt more comfortable around me. But I became more comfortable with myself. The Bishop ignored much of these womens suffering. After all, his wife had been continually pregnant for years and managed on her own. Their last child was born in the parking lot of the "Taco Bueno." Even more frustrating was the way the Bishop handled the many incidents of marital and financial strife. While the previous Bishop was a pragmatist who told unemployed husbands to get a job anywhereeven the 7-11just to bring in some money, the new Bishop drew on memories of his own financial and marital struggles. He counseled distraught couples to focus on the husbands self esteem. "Stop worrying about finances," he told a friend of mine in public. "Managing the money is your husbands stewardship, not yours." The Bishop made these remarks in front of me and a couple of other people, adding to this sisters embarrassment. My friends husband was a sweet man who was unable accept that his business was failing. Instead of helping this poor man face facts, our "inspired" Bishop advised my friend to stop nagging about things that werent her concern like their two lapsed house payments or the medicine she couldnt afford to buy for their baby.
Some of the LDS couples our age were getting divorced. Of course, this was not a unique phenomenon in American society. I had friends outside the church in the same situation. Only, my non-LDS girlfriends were getting back into their careers, going back to school or continuing in jobs they had maintained all along in order to manage their new role as single mother of a sensibly sized family. This was not the case with the Mormon divorcees. Many of their husbands had left them for younger, prettier and more interesting women they met in the work force. Consequently, the LDS ex-wife was left feeling humiliated, unloved and inept as a wage earner since all her skills revolved around homemaking. She had no experience, very little education and at least four children to support. She had relied on her husband for everythingI heard of one sister who couldnt figure out how to connect a garden hose. She had no authority in the Church. If she needed a blessing or an ordinance performed for one of her children, she had to call a Priesthood holdersomeone elses husbandfor help. I used to laugh at the marriage hungry, airhead coeds at BYU. It wasnt funny to see what they had turned into, though. Now their teenage daughters were being groomed to accept the same fate. Naturally, our compassionate Bishop continued to reserve his sympathies for the men by counseling women to be patient while their wayward husbands worked through their mid-life crisis.
As our daughter approached her teens, Mark and I became increasingly concerned about subjecting her to the Young Womens Organization. We were unimpressed with the manuals and activities, finding some of their content detrimental to her growth and self esteem. Our Stake President was extremely rigid in his interpretation of the program. For instance, at Girls Camp he insisted that the girls forego the typical camp activities such as hiking and swimming so they could spend the better part of a day studying the Churchs "Proclamation on the Family." "Now girls," one pert leader explained, "what this proclamation is saying is you can go to college if you wantbut remember you must never use your education for anything other than motherhood." The following year the Stake President insisted the girls make uniforms for camp, claiming that local retailers no longer sold shorts in a modest length. Our Bishop was one jump ahead of him. A few months prior to this he had instated a new youth dress code that targeted the girls, restricting them from wearing shorts above their knees or leggings with long shirts. Adopting his usual role as male apologist, he explained that there had been an unusually high number of young men in his office confessing to sexual transgressions and thoughtsall because the girls went around so scantily clad! He also attempted to impose this rule on the women. In one ward correlation meeting, a young attractive member of the Relief Society Presidency challenged the dress code, saying that she frequently wore things that did not meet his criterion and felt they were modest. The Bishop replied that he was familiar with some of her outfits and noticed that when she either sat down or bent over, he could see the hem of her garments. Mark was furious. While I was usually upset by his angry outbursts, I had to smile when he yelled at the Bishop: "This Church treats women like SHIT!" We agreed that we did not want our daughter involved in any part of the Young Womens program, but, as usual, differed on how to carry things out.
One Sunday I begged off going to church with one of my many excuses. Mark came home looking distressed, took me aside immediately and said, "Our Bishop has been excommunicated." He had confessed to committing adultery, not (thank God) with anyone in the ward, but with an old girl friend. We hardly had time to absorb this news, when we learned that another prominent ward leader and good friend was arrested for sexual abuse with two young girls. While the ward was in shock, the Stake Presidency continued to preach misogynist doctrine, blaming the women for the mens transgressions. At one Stake Womens Conference, the Stake President told the sisters not to go back to school and prepare for a career because to do so might endanger their marriage. Many divorced sisters, including our excommunicated Bishops former wife, sat in the audience to hear our Stake President counsel: "Dear sisters, if you prepare for the worst, the worst will happen."
Throughout the years, I had remained close to my family. We traveled to California to visit many times and talked on the phone at least once a week. My mother passed away in 1988 and my grandfather died in 1992. Then in May of 1996, I lost my grandmother. It was painful for me to part with her, as she was the last of my close family to go. I was overcome with emotion when we went to her home for the last time and performed the sad task of going through her belongings, each one evoking a forgotten memory. She had saved everything. There were boxes of photographs, old report cards, and even unfinished sewing projects I remembered her working on. My mothers old Bible was on a shelf in a closet. I had never seen her read it, but knew she had at some point because she knew all the Old Testament stories and occasionally quoted a verse or two. I found my grandfathers Masonic temple clothes in the bottom of a trunk. It was so odd to imagine him wearing them, since in my lifetime, he had never attended a Masonic ceremony or any kind of church. All of the sudden it came to me. I had a heritage! I was raised to believe I could attend any church I wanted. My ancestors were spiritual agnosticspeople who wanted to be close to God, but could not accept the constraints of organized religion. All this time I had been so worried about preserving my childrens Mormon heritage, that I had denied them of mine! Was I going to let them go out into the world believing they had no other option than the Mormon Church? Absolutely not!
I saw how convoluted my reasoning had been. I thought that I needed to stay in the Church to preserve our marriage, when the Church was actually hurting our marriage. We were dragging ourselves to Church, then coming home and arguing about dumb things every Sunday when we should have been spending that precious time together as a family. I thought I needed to attend Church for the sake of my children, when the Church could potentially damage my children by influencing them to make bad choices about education, family and career. Besides, what was I going to tell them later when they reached these conclusions themselves"Gee, I never really believed it either, but thought I should make you go anyway?" How would my daughter react to that if she ended up like so many LDS women: an uneducated, financially strapped, clinically depressed mother of five? How would my son feel about his mother who lied to him about the Churchespecially if he ended up sacrificing his education and career for a mission and premature marriage? I saw that I still had a narrow window of time to teach my kids about the other options for their future. While I worried how Mark would react to my decision, I felt that to go on as we were would be more damaging to our relationship. I prayed that he loved me enough to understand, then told him that I was never going to Church again. I started to hold my breath, but in the length of a heartbeat he replied, "Its OK, and of course I still love you!"
Ill never forget the rush I felt at that moment, I was free I was as light as air! All the resentment I felt towards Mark melted away. Of course he still loved me and I loved him. It was a little strange at first, staying home by myself on Sunday. But truthfully I was too happy to care. I celebrated my first church-free Sabbath by going to the mall and buying a coffee pot whoopee! We moved out of the suburbs and into Dallas shortly after my heresy. Then our daughter decided to stay home with me, much to my and Marks relief. Mark never was any more comfortable with the Young Womens Program than I was. While my daughter and I had lovely Sundays together, my two guys went to Church in the new ward. Our ward in Dallas was much like the one I first encountered in Southern California when I joined the Church. That is, it had a low activity rate and sensible leaders. But neither Mark nor I bought the "shit head argument" anymore. A couple of weeks ago, Mark told me he wasnt going back to Church, he had had enough. Our son said he no longer cared to go either.
I am constantly reflecting on this experience. Why was it so difficult for me and Mark to accept the truth about the LDS Church? Why are there so many members who continue to attend and support the Mormon Church even though they know in their hearts that its leaders are liars and its claims are false? Not long ago I came about a quote from George Orwell: "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." How appropriate! I believe Orwell would have had a good time writing about the Mormons! But not all of my reflections are negative. I am glad that I joined because I met Mark. I had a good time at BYU. I also thank the LDS Church for bringing me out of my Protestant mindset and introducing new concepts to me about the Godhead and the after-life. I am still a spiritual person who loves to explore different faiths and ideas. But I doubt Ill ever join another Church. To paraphrase Joseph Smith, Ive learned the correct principles, now Ill govern myself.
Donna Bantawrite to that author at: email@example.com
I recently read the following in the September, 1999 edition of the Mormon Alliances newsletter: "By Common Consent": "The three members of the Relief Society general presidency each personally donated a hand-made quilt to officially start a series of quilt shipments to Kosovo, via the Churchs Humanitarian Service Center. Smoot commented that they chose not to merely donate blankets because a hand-made quilt expresses love and concern in a personal way." ("LDS Relief Society Sending Quilts to Kosovo," Deseret News, 1 Sept. 1999)