Journalist Lauren Larson has done a remarkable thing.
Writing for The Verge, a tech-centric publication within the Vox family, she has shown how it’s possible to treat both sides in a contentious issue with overall fairness. Much of her work in “The website that helps people leave the Mormon Church” simply involves following a journalist’s natural curiosity and then writing about what she has discovered.
To be sure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes the harder punches in Larson’s report. She quotes such remarks as “I suppose to her, families are forever, unless someone comes out as trans” and “**** bigoted old men.” The implication: Who could possibly disagree with such copper-bottomed examples of inclusivity and logic?
Larson takes the further step that’s becoming less common in journalism today: Actually daring to talk to the people who are taking shots from the cultural left.
The result is a report that shows occasional sympathy for both sides, and shows even some of the church’s stronger critics as conflicted in their emotions about leaving, or not yet leaving.
Starting near the top of the report, here’s a section that shows how the Web has made it easier for people to leave. Throughout the report, Larson’s references to the Church mean the body no longer known as “Mormon”:
In recent years, the Church has been embattled by the efficiency of the internet. It’s never been easier to stumble across information that contradicts the pillars of faith. That’s true for many religions but especially Mormonism, which has a very recent history. Where the unsavory specifics of an older faith’s origins may have been eroded by time, reduced to a handful of too-old-to-question texts and some shriveled relics, the early years of Mormonism are well-documented and easily examined online. The internet has also given Mormons new platforms, from forums to podcasts, where they can share their findings. The result has been a mass undoctrination.
That language about “too-old-to-question texts” and “shriveled relics” makes my teeth hurt, but I salute Larson’s coinage of the witty antonym undoctrination.
Along similar lines, here’s a passage featuring Elder Marlin K. Jensen, the designated historian of the church, on how it is trying to cope through — wait for it — search engine optimization:
[A dissenting woman at a University of Utah forum] asked Jensen whether he was aware that many Mormons were leaving the Church because of what they’d learned about Church history on Google.
“We are aware,” Jensen said, sounding defeated. “We do have another initiative that we’ve called ‘Answers to Gospel Questions.’ We’re trying to figure out exactly what channel to deliver it in, and exactly what format to put it in, but we want to have a place where people can go. We have hired someone that’s in charge of search engine optimization.” Salvation was suddenly a matter of clicks: it was up to Google’s algorithms whether a Mormon seeking answers found them on LDS.org or on an ex-Mormon blog. The Church began a 21st century crusade for its members’ attention.
LDS.org is now ChurchofJesusChrist.org, recently changed to encourage the use of the Church’s proper name: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (The update appears to have temporarily hindered the Church’s search engine optimization. Until June, the Church’s SEO was so good that LDS.org generally outranked Wikipedia in any Google search that included the term “Mormon.”)
Larson introduces Mark Naugle, an attorney who has taken on the time-consuming pro bono project of helping members leave the church through a website that forbids church bishops from trying to talk them out of it:
Sometimes users even include their real names in screenshots from QuitMormon.com, showing that they’ve submitted their resignations. QuitMormon is a pro bono service run by an unassuming T-shirt-and-jeans Utah immigration attorney named Mark Naugle. The 34-year-old has streamlined the process of resigning from the Church. When users are ready to have their names removed from Church records, they simply submit a request to Naugle that includes their name, date of birth, address, membership number, and whether they’re a minor. Naugle takes it from there, sending a form letter to the Church that requests the removal of the client’s information from all records. Crucially, the letter also forbids further contact between the Church and his client. Mormons never have to reach out to their bishops to explain their decision to leave, and they won’t receive well-meaning visits from their former peers.
Perhaps the most arresting remark in the story is Naugle’s argument in favor of calling the Latter-day Saints a “cult” — using that term the way that sociologists often use it:
“Any organization that tells you what to eat, what to do with your body, what to do on specific days of the week, and then ostracizes you when you actively disavow them, I think is a cult,” he says. “Any organization that requires a lawyer’s help to leave it so that they stop harassing you and stop hunting you down worldwide I also think is a cult. Having experienced it myself, having been in the organization and knowing the psychological damage it can cause, they’re a cult.”
Set aside the final clause about ostracism, which these days can be defined as broadly as a snub during refreshments after a worship service.
How much of Naugle’s definition of a cult apply to Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or evangelical Protestantism? How much of it would apply even to the teachings of Jesus, St. Paul, or the early Church, all of which had some things to say about, in Naugle’s words, “what to do with your body.”
If Naugle follows his logic far, we may eventually read of QuitMormon.com expanding to QuitYourReligion.com or, at the very least, QuitTraditionalReligion.com.
But let’s close on two wonderfully nuanced passages about people who find it no so easy to quit their lifelong church. The first is about vh65, a moderator on the subreddit r/exmormon:
vh65 still hasn’t removed her name, though she did request “no contact” from her bishop. (“I had moved, and I hadn’t had anything to do with Mormonism for almost a decade, and somehow people from my work showed up at my door.”) She worries that by removing her name from Church records, she would upset her mother. When I ask her if she ever feels disingenuous, moderating r/exmormon without being, officially, an ex-Mormon, she pauses for a second before answering. “Originally I just wanted to resign,” she says. “I want to be separated completely, but how can I do this without hurting my mom, who I really care deeply about? And then I realized that I spend all my time on this subreddit, and I’m fascinated with Mormon history. It’s my culture, it’s my tribe, and even if I resign, it’d still be part of who I am.”
Then there’s Joseph, whose slow exodus from the church opens Larson’s report:
In April, Joseph tells me that while he still wasn’t ready to remove his name from Church records yet, he was getting closer to submitting his QuitMormon request. “I think it’ll happen when I’m at peace with myself and the decision to leave. I think that’s also when I’ll unsubscribe from r/exmormon.”
A month later, Joseph emails me to tell me that he’s decided to submit his name removal request. He says he’s been spending a lot less time on the r/exmormon subreddit. “I went from looking at it daily, probably every few hours — and spending a long time in the chats — to a casual scroll through every few days,” he says. “I just went on vacation with my family, and it felt good to be there with them, and not speak a word about the Church or obsess over who has what calling.”
These are full-orbed human beings and not mere pawns in an ideological war. God bless Lauren Larson for showing them in their many dimensions.
Photo by Fuzzy Gerdes, Flickr