On January 30, 2014 an article authored by Hannah Miet appeared in Newsweek titled “When the Saints Go Marching Out”. The article had been anticipated by some in the online ex-Mormon community as a way to more fully explore some of the issues faced when one leaves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, the author instead chose to lead off by focusing on ex-Mormon efforts to actively proselyte Church members. Some of these activities included stuffing hundreds of “pass-along” cards into lockers and books and vandalizing Books of Mormon in Marriott Hotels by writing ‘Lies! All Lies!’ inside the cover. Ms. Miet concluded that, “Some former adherents act like soldiers for an ex-Mormon liberation army, seeking out the doubters within the church, extracting them, and bringing them to more tolerant territory.”
Ms. Miet then chose to describe in painstaking detail what she called “Preaching the Liquor Gospel.” This involved a detailed description of how new ex-Mormons attend a class called “Liquor 101,” in which they learn how to order and consume alcoholic drinks. The drinks are consumed in “official” LDS sacrament cups obtained on E-Bay, illustrating a subtle mockery by ex-Mormons of things which Latter-day Saints consider sacred.
The resulting article seems to confirm and reinforce the existence of the stereotypical ex-Mormon who “leaves the Church, but cannot leave it alone” or the member who leaves the church because they “want to sin.” Indeed, there is little in this article to discourage such a perception.
Unfortunately, the author of the Newsweek article missed an opportunity which might have benefited both believers and non-believers. No, I am not referring to an opportunity to produce a “laundry list” of items which are claimed to cause one to lose one’s faith. That is what some ex-Mormons had hoped for in this article. Such lists have appeared in news publications before, and they no doubt will again. I am referring to the lost opportunity to treat an issue which affects both the persons leaving the faith, and their family members who remain in the Church. The Newsweek article briefly alluded to some of these concerns, but not in any significant way.
When someone leaves the faith, either individually or with their family, their friends and relatives are affected in a variety of ways. Some are able to quickly adjust to the new family dynamic. Others take some time to adjust and adapt, but eventually find a way to move forward. Unfortunately, some treat those who have left as if they were dead, and they cease contact with that person.
Believers go through a mourning process for their “spiritually dead” loved ones in much the same manner that one grieves the physical death of a relative. The difference is, of course, that in this case the relative is still with them, and is still fully capable of communicating their concerns and influencing others. In fact, they may be actively attempting to persuade other family members to follow them down the same path. In addition, someone who has left the Church may be mourning their own loss of belief, and attempting to readjust and fill a void that has suddenly appeared in their life.
The most unfortunate outcome, which sometimes occurs even though it is directly contrary to the counsel given by Church leaders, is that the person leaving is cut off from their extended family, either physically, emotionally or both. Ex-Mormons refer to this as “shunning.” One of the first reactions of a believer when a loved one rejects the Church is to attempt to protect the rest of their family from this new, unwanted influence. This may lead some to take an extreme approach: They attempt to isolate the non-believer from the family. Some new non-believers, on the other hand, sometimes wants to share their new-found “truth” with those they love in order to “get them out” of what they now mockingly refer to as “the cult”; in the process, they place unneeded stress and pain on family relationships by mocking the Church and Mormon beliefs during family gatherings.
One should not cease to love a relative because they change the way they believe. Likewise, one should not attempt to rip away the beliefs of family members simply because one’s own views have changed. The key is having mutual respect for one another’s ability to choose. It requires understanding on the part of the believer that their spouse is still their spouse, their child is still their child, and their friend is still their friend. It also requires the non-believer to respect the wishes of those who still believe, without classifying them as “blind followers” who are now perceived to be incapable of logic and reason. We all have our agency, both believers and non-believers alike, and we must respect each other’s ability to choose. It isn’t always easy to do, but it is what we must do. I once asked the father of a man who left the Church many years ago how he dealt with the situation. His response: “We decided that we just needed to keep loving him, regardless of what he believed.”
Unfortunately, the article “When the Saints Go Marching Out” propagates the harmful stereotypes that all who leave the Church want to immediately get drunk and actively recruit others out of the Church. The author didn’t make those details up: She got them from her interviews with a specific group of ex-Mormons. There were, no doubt, many additional things discussed in the interviews which didn’t make it into print. The interviewee cannot select which details from an extensive interview the reporter will choose to feature in an article. The author apparently selected those details which she perceived would have the most entertainment value for a non-Mormon audience. Perhaps in the future we can hope to see an article on the social aspects and interaction between believers and non-believers which would actually move both sides toward a greater mutual understanding.