Church, Family and Extortion

If the LDS Church had a tagline, it would probably be “families are forever.”  As a Mormon missionary, our focus really was on the family: “All those other religions are until death do us part.  Become a Mormon and you can be with your children and husband/wife forever!” (admittedly, this probably would not have been a strong selling point with those in troubled relationships)

This emphasis on family attracted me to the Church.  When I went to meetings on Sunday, I escaped my own Jerry Springer-esque existence (kids who are traumatized by accidental discovery of acts of infidelity filmed by a parent, next at 10!) to a world populated by the Cleavers, the Brady Bunch and the cast of Father Knows Best.  Here were models for a happy existence!  (Later I learned that these families had their issues, including that of the physically abusive Stake President/respected city manager who was later ex’d for a long-term relationship with a prostitute.)

Over the years, my experience has reinforced that the Church isn’t about the family; the Church is ultimately about the Church.  Sure, the family’s in there, but it’s subordinate to the great family of Adam (never the “Family of Eve”).  Jesus himself said, “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law…He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:35&37). Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac kind of reinforces this God First, Family Second principle.  When I was disowned for converting, I was praised for placing the Gospel truth above familly and found great comfort in the promises that members of my family would eventually join.  Joseph Smith sent fathers from impoverished frontier families to proselytize overseas for many years at a time (fortunately, Joseph made good on his promises to take care of their lovely wives for them).  Church members make solemn oaths “before God, angels, and these witnesses at this altar…[to] consecrate yourselves, your time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion.”  This is heavy pressure in a mostly volunteer organization.  I have friends who feel like they were Church widows or orphans because of how much time their parents and spouses devoted to the institution.  Sister Cleaver doesn’t see much of Bishop Cleaver, who doesn’t have the luxury of spending his evenings with his feet up, smoking his pipe and dispensing fatherly wisdom to Beaver and Wally (who are at Scouting or Young Men’s anyway).

I acknowledge that for the many members who value both Church and family, this ordering of priorities isn’t felt as a strong conflict.  But for some of us this hierarchy can create massive dissonance and can, to put it crudely but appropriately, really fuck some of us up.  Take my case, for example: I grew out of my convictions in God and the Church in my mid-20s.  Because I was already married and had two children, what should have been a fairly straightforward journey of conscience and something that should have been worked out primarily between me and Jana was vastly complicated by feelings of guilt and shame reinforced by my environment: I felt unworthy, because my partner deserved to be married to a worthy priesthood holder; I was married to someone who for some time thought I was placing the her eternal welfare and that of her children in jeopardy (exacerbated by jabs made by Mormon extended family members); my primary sources of social and emotional support encouraged me to suppress my issues and to maintain a façade that further aggravated my cognitive dissonance.  I fell into depression and was a pretty sucky father and husband during much of this time.  As should be obvious, I’m still working through much of the anger and emotional damage sustained during this time.  My family history doesn’t fit into any sitcoms.

And there are many others who have similar stories.  A culture of sexual shame outside of narrowly prescribed marriage relationships hastens many people into getting married and starting families in their late teens and early twenties.  So what happens when a young Mormon mother or father comes to intellectual maturity as a feminist, atheist, agnostic, pagan, universalist, humanist, etc., and awakens to find that they are they are deeply embedded in an institution they now abhor (or at best harbor a profound ambivalent towards) and that the same organizaiton has a death grip on them is through their family?  The poor souls often find themselves torn between non-options: supress who they are and try to preserve harmony in the family they love and to which they are irrevocably bound; or risk losing or damaging their loved ones to find their own fulfillment.  I’m speaking in vague terms here, because I’ve seen so many manifestations: talented mothers who followed the prophets and gave up careers to stay home but who now wonder what they’ve lost, skeptic spouses who portray themselves as believers to keep their partners happy, married children who hide their inactivity from parents, parents whose conversion is as valid as their partner’s continuing commitment to Mormonism but who feel they must raise the children under offensive LDS principles.  These situations are varied and complex, and are often filled with human suffering.  And overshadowing this quiet desperation is the Church and its teachings on the family.

I recognize that many, perhaps most members of the Church don’t experience it this way.  Their family life may vary as much as the Bradies do from the Simpsons, but I hope that we can realize too that there are those in the Church who feel their experience has more parallels with the Corleones of the Godfather than the Andersons of Father Knows Best.

I hope that some of you will share your experiences as well–I tried to give voice to a perspective rarely shared in the general Church environment, but there are so many nuances, so many variations that I’ve missed.


  1. It is really interesting to me that despite of the many different reasons people end up distancing themselves from Mormonism, I find that in the end, we end up feeling much of the same things, and experiencing many of the same experiences.

    It was, to some degree, easier for me because I wasn’t married, and was living on my own, but the repercussions are still pretty hard to deal with. My parents, aunts and uncles see me as a filthy sinner who could corrupt their children, and don’t want me to be around them or be honest with them about who I am. My family treats me disrespectfully not becuase they don’t love me or care about me, but because their church tells them I’m inherently inferior, that my life, the way I love isn’t as good as the way they do it.

    The huge irony is that the church does all this under the guise of “protecting” families, when all it is doing with it’s narrow definitions of love, happiness and family is tearing families apart and making parents and children miserable.

  2. It’s also so amazing that people currently in the church don’t see it, as if it’s invisible, but the second someone gets disillusioned, their eyes are suddenly opened to the dichotomy.

    My husband outed us to his parents a couple of weeks ago, and I was completely amazed by his father’s response. He said that he thought it was important for people to come to their own conclusions, rather than following a script, or doing what their parents pressured them to. When I spoke to my MIL the other day, church didn’t even come up, and she was the same as always. We had been so afraid to tell them because they are so hard-core, and thought she, especially, would have an aneurysm. I’m sure we’ll still get lectured when we go to visit.

    So far, the only people that have delivered any “you’re putting your kids’ futures in jeopardy” lectures were the Stake reps who came to visit when Derek asked to be released from the EQP.

  3. And then, of course, there is the actual extortion of money by the church (the requirement to be a “full” tithe payer) before one can go to the temple and do the ordinances in order to become that “forever family”. That seems a whole lot like actual blackmail, added to all the guilt heaped on to “be ye therefore perfect”, which is seen as the only way to actually claim those “blessings”.

    Sorry for all the quotation marks, but they just feel necessary as I write this.

    I didn’t feel a lot of the pressures that a lot of people feel when leaving the church, simply because while my mother was baptized into the church, she has never been an active member. Oh, she attended meetings every once in awhile, but she never had a calling other than as a visiting teacher and probably only got baptized because of the pressure from the missionaries after my dad passed away. Goodness knows that I tried to convince her it wasn’t necessary, even though I was pretty active at the time.

    But, I’ve seen that pressure put on others, not only to not leave the church but also the pressure on nonmembers in part-member families to be baptized, so as not to put the whole family in jeopardy of not being able to be together in the afterlife.

    People talk about Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt, but as far as I can see the biggest organized guilt-making machine among the religions belongs to the LDS church.

  4. Thomas

    As someone who has left the church for intellectual reasons I find most of what you say irratating. You make the church seem like an evil institution with a conspiratorial agenda, which it is not. The church has a set of beliefs which do not follow ours and they are zealously following those beliefs.

    “So what happens when a young Mormon mother or father comes to intellectual maturity as a feminist, atheist, agnostic, pagan, universalist, humanist, etc.,”

    This is not a very intelligent comment. So paganism is acceptable and mormism is not?

    Our personal beliefs are just as dogmatic as thiers. I have never encountered in my life or family a terrible church leader. I only hear stories from people like you guys trying to bolster thier case for leaving the church. You guys need to be comfortable with leaving without making faulty arguments. It is a the guilt that still grips you guys and make you angry. Let it go.

  5. John

    Thomas, if you read this post carefully, it’s not a rational argument condemning the Church and its approach to family–it’s an argument from experience, and it’s intended to give voice to a those who encounter the church and the family in a manner that is rarely acknowledged in the prevailing discourse. I’m saying that many of us experience the church as “an evil institution with a conspiratorial agenda,” which is not the same thing as saying that it is. This ain’t no philosophical argument, this is a kind narrative therapy. Each is valid in its own place, and one does not discount the other. You tell us to let it go. You’re watching the process taking place.

    I acknowledge that you didn’t experience the church this way, and am genuinely happy for you that you didn’t. I hope you’ll respond to this post in the spirit in which it was intended. I have other posts (most of them are older, when I was struggling with those questions) in which I engage in more philosophical and rational arguments against the existence of God. But that said, I’m a storyteller first, philosopher second.

  6. Thomas,

    In my personal experience, it is not the guilt about leaving the church that causes some anger, or a desire to speak about these things, but rather it is seeing the way others are continuing to be treated and being angry that such injustices occur and are being propagated by a church which makes such lofty claims of the importance of families and love and understanding.

    I believe, and I think that John is saying the same, that family ought to be the first priority, not adhering to some hateful doctrine, or spending every night fulfilling your calling, or shunning those in your family who don’t believe the same as you do.

    I find it quite offensive to be told that the only reason I am allowed to be angry at the actions of the church and some church members is because I have some sort of pent-up guilt over my actions, as if I were in the wrong for promoting universal love, understanding and tolerance, no matter what your religion or lack thereof.

  7. The “Extortion via Family” Mormon thing definitely resonates with me. My mother is Mormon, and she always felt very connected to the church (she had an abusive family, and she felt loved and accepted at church). My dad–who was sort of vaguely Methodist if he was anything–rarely accompanied her to services, and once my sister and I got old enough to protest, we didn’t go either.

    My poor mother was constantly criticized and told she was a failure by her “friends” at church because she wasn’t able to bring her husband and children into the Mormon fold; she would often come home in tears. We would attend services with her occasionally just so she could show she was making an effort to convert us.

    Mormons definitely use family relationships as a lever to keep members in the church. It’s reprehensible.

  8. In spending time with my family this weekend, I realize how much time my family’s Church takes up—we even have a letter from the bishop to my father thanking him for his ongoing work on prolife & “profamily” causes. Even though he was rarely at home to live his life or spend time with his family.

    I remember well the guilt trips about not being Catholic when I left the church, it was definitely couched in terms that made me feel like I had failed as a daughter, sister, and aunt. Many also indicated to me that I was putting DH’s soul at risk since I had not yet successfully converted him…

    You’re absolutely right: it’s Church first, not family.

  9. Extortion, yes. Only real explanation for not seeing it as such is Stockholm Syndrome.

    And is there a greater trick of the human mind than the tendancy to think that perceived grace and benevolence makes right and just and worthy of 7 x 70?

  10. When I converted to envangelical, radical, pentecostal Christianity, and my mother had a real problem with it I took comfort in those versesn in Matthew when we would argue about religion, but then I converted her. So now that I have kind of strayed I wonder if she takes comfort in those verses and it makes me kind of sad to think about.

    Yet another characteristic of God that I cannot believe in is that he doesn’t want us to be in close relation with others especially our family. But again that might just be me being all picky and choosey about how I think God would be.

    I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do know that if I did believe in God there would be certain things about him/her that I couldn’t believe and the will of a divine power to separate one from their family just doesn’t sit right with me.

  11. “When I was disowned for converting”

    Isn’t the fact that your own family disowned you for converting to Mormonism a demonstration of them using the “God First, Family Second principle.”?

  12. oh god, johnR. thankyou!

    “complicated by feelings of guilt and shame reinforced by my environment: I felt unworthy, because my partner deserved to be married to a worthy priesthood holder; I was married to someone who for some time thought I was placing the her eternal welfare and that of her children in jeopardy”

    yep, that is a lot of what i am going through right now. well… not the worthy priesthood holder part, but the guilt that I have betrayed my husband.

    very good post. very helpful.

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