A friend of mine recently linked to a post from an online magazine taking “liberal Mormons” to task. It’s since been taken down and apologized for, and I never actually read it myself. Considering the effect it was having on others I saw no reason to subject myself to it. But one positive that came from it is a discussion about what being a liberal Mormon means in the first place. My contribution to the discussion was expressing my discomfort with labels in the first place, as they tend to divide and create opposition rather than encourage unity.
Since then my friend has posted a lengthy, thoughtful post of her own explaining what being a liberal Mormon means to her. It’s worth reading, though not necessarily for her attempts to define her terminology. What she provides (as do some of the links to other posts on the topic) is useful insight into those who feel like they are on the outskirts of the Mormon community–often because they feel they’ve been pushed there.
I know a little of what she speaks, though I won’t claim to have experienced anything close to what she and others experience. Me and my family are both vegans and health conscious, and Mormons love to eat. Everything we do for some reason has to involve food. That in itself doesn’t make us uncomfortable or feel unwanted. We’ll go to activities simply to socialize. We’ll bring our own food. It’s not a big deal.
What makes us uncomfortable some times is just how uncomfortable it makes everyone else. Some simply apologize for not knowing or remembering to providing something we can eat. We appreciate that, and the thought does count. We don’t expect others to go out of their way for us. But others seem to hear challenges that we never expressed. I can say, “I’m a vegan,” and they’ll hear, “I’m a vegan and I think you should stop eating meat or you’ll go to hell.” They immediately go into defensive mode, making it clear they could never stop eating meat. Some even figuratively reach for their scriptures and start pulling out verses that they feel justifies their meat consumption (while completely overlooking the verses that justify at least limited meat consumption).
That, too, doesn’t really bother me that much. People are people, and some feel threatened by anything that contradicts their own choices–especially when it’s something they’ve never really thought through before. They don’t seem to realize that they’re attacking my beliefs, while I never required them to defend their own. If it’s possible to be a moderate vegan, I just might be one (and trust me, there are plenty of vegans out there who would drive me with pitchforks and torches into the wilderness for not being more militant about it).
Unfortunately there are also those who, without realizing what they’re doing, imply that we are somehow ruining our kids and their lives (this may very well be true, but more likely because I’m their father than because of veganism), or that we don’t love them enough to give them treats (at least that’s the assumption; they don’t know what kinds of treats we make or they’d be jealous). Again, I suspect they’re really just trying to justify their own choices rather than attack ours, but it can be harder not to take it as a personal insult when you drag my kids into it and question my parenting.
So I can certainly understand that members of the LDS community can be even nastier when it comes to more visible, controversial issues, like same-gender attraction, priesthood for women, and so on. It’s not hard to imagine members saying and doing incredibly hurtful things in the name of their religion as they see it, completely failing to notice, let alone heed, the charge by our leaders to treat everyone with dignity and respect, and to offer support and love instead of criticism. It’s sad, unfortunate, and frustrating, but our religion is a vehicle for improvement, not an instant “extreme makover”, and you’ll find we have our share of jerks, bigots and hippocrits like any group.
That’s why we all need Christ’s atonement–both those who offend and those who fail to forgive those who have offended. We’re all going to fall short in some way.
But in reading the accounts of my friend and some of the others she links to, it does seem that there are far too many “unforced errors” in the LDS community. We could all use some work in being more tolerant, patient, and supportive of one another’s quirks, shortcomings and sins. Those who are striving to live the gospel the best they can in spite of obstacles both external and internal need our love and support, not our shunning and torment. We cannot consider ourselves disciples of Christ and behave in such a way. A teen struggling with same-gender attraction has at least as difficult a road as a teen struggling with opposite-gender attraction. We wouldn’t go out of our way to make it more difficult for the latter, so why would we for the former?
It may be true that some of the members “on the fringes” are there as much by their choice as by the choices of others. I know I’m not the most social of Mormons, and I frankly don’t care that much if I don’t have a many good friends in the church. That’s just who I am, and I realize that attitude puts me at risk. It will be harder for others to notice if I start to drift. I accept that as a consequence of my choices and temperment.
But while we don’t want to drive people away by being too concerned about those on the fringes, we don’t want to ignore them out of the community, either. Our recent General Conference contained many pleas for those drifting away or on the edges to come closer in. There was also many a charge to us all (including those on the fringes) to go bring each other closer in. We don’t have to agree with each other. We don’t have to feign common interests. We just have to care.
At the very least we need to not drive each other farther away. The church has been compared to a hospital for the sick–and we are all indeed sick with one spiritual ailment or another. We don’t see hospitals where the people with pneumonia try to drive away the people with heart disease. We don’t see the cancer patients persecuting the kidney patients. We don’t see those with emphysema exalting themselves up as being somehow superior to those who suffered from hypertension.
We’re all sick, and science has proven our chances of recovery increase with a strong support group. It doesn’t matter what the person in the next bed is there for. Cheer each other up. Help each other through the pain. Laugh, share memories, share tears–whatever it takes. In the end we all need healing well beyond our ability to provide for ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our part. It certainly does mean we shouldn’t exacerbate each other’s maladies.
So while my friend’s definition of what it is to be a liberal Mormon may cause me concern, the important thing is that she still considers herself Mormon. She wants to be part of the community. The last thing she needs is for me to focus in on and aggrevate where we don’t see eye to eye. I should be trying to find ways to let her know “Hey, I’m glad you’re here. You can always sit with me.”
To my friend let me just say this: Thank you for your contributions in a difficult world. That post was probably not easy to write, but I’m glad you did. It wasn’t easy to read, but I’m glad I did. I’m probably not as successful as I might think, but I’m trying not to be one of those members who make you reluctant to call yourself a Mormon.