Today marks a milestone. Ten years ago today, I flew home from my LDS mission in California. I knew at that time that my faith was lacking, but I had no idea that within five years I would leave the church.
And as I approached the 10th anniversary of coming home, I had to write my exit story. At 6 p.m. on June 6 (6 o’clock on 6-6) — 10 years ago — I stepped off the plane at Salt Lake City International Airport. I was home from the “best two years of my life” (I hated almost every minute of it).
But my path away from Mormonism goes back much further. As a teenager, I attended church because it was expected. I went to seminary because it was expected. I was in youth leadership at church, because it was expected.
Most of my life had been charted for me. I was the fourth of six children and the second of four boys. I was the middle child in the “perfect” Mormon family in the “perfect” ward.
It was a charade. Every chance I had, I skipped out on church. But there are so many watchful eyes in the heart of Zion that I didn’t have many opportunities to play hooky.
Doing what was expected, I went on a mission. Not going would have been a black mark on my family. The expectation in generational Mormon families — especially those as hard-core as mine — is that the boys go on a mission. In my case, even my sisters went before me.
Even though I had become inactive when I moved away from home for college, I went back to church once I decided I was going on a mission. I gave it an honest effort. I read scriptures, prayed, payed and obeyed. I wasn’t going to be a halfhearted missionary.
All missionaries have their own set of challenges, and I don’t think mine were unique. As much as I tried, I didn’t “know” the church was true. Even 10 years later, my biggest regret from my mission is that I told many people that I knew the church was true. I told them I knew the Book of Mormon was true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet. But I didn’t know any of that. I lied. That’s where the breakdown began.
I don’t completely regret going on a mission. I learned Spanish and I learned a lot about my religion — and a lot of what I learned bothered me. But it wasn’t enough to make me give it all up. Yet.
It started with little things, like discrepancies within the Book of Mormon and the changing dogma. More than anything, as I learned about history, philosophy and science I could see the church for what it was: one in a long line of cults that claimed to have a superior world view. I could see that it was nothing it claimed to be. And of course, I was furthered along that path by dating and then marrying a woman who was a lifelong atheist and whose moral code more closely mirrored Captain Picard than Jesus.
I read a lot during those years — most of it online. Mormons would call some of what I read “anti-Mormon.” However, the most compelling and useful information came from sources I wouldn’t consider “anti,” like the church’s own records, “Journal of Discourses” and “Doctrines of Salvation.” It was disturbing at first, but in the end disgusting to see how leaders interpreted and altered church teachings over time. I read about blood oaths — which were gone by the time I went to the temple. I learned about Mountain Meadows Massacre and other atrocities that early Mormons committed. Much of what I had been told was persecution was significantly provoked by the church itself. Other church teachings and practices that helped me leave were treatment of women (as a lower class), gay rights (Prop 22 and Prop 8 in California), blacks and the priesthood, polygamy.
One of the biggest catalysts was the temple. To start, there were the changes to the ceremony and the magic underwear. Then there is the part where women can only get to heaven through their husbands. All the signs, tokens, names and other such secrets seemed just like the secret combinations in the Book of Mormon. How can a secret combination be OK in one place but not in another? Talk about hypocrisy.
One of the real kickers — though I didn’t really discover it until after officially leaving the church — was Joseph Smith’s disregard for the First Amendment. As a professional journalist, I find it unacceptable that in June 1844 — as a civic leader in Nauvoo and a religious leader within the church — Joseph caused the destruction of not just allegedly libelous printed material in the Nauvoo Expositor, but also the press where it was produced.
What follows is a sad chapter in church history and one where the church’s account of what happen diverges from virtually every other account of the next three weeks before the death of the Mormon prophet and his brother.
There’s a sick irony that the same group of people who claimed religious persecution would so blatantly violate this country’s tradition of free press. The First Amendment puts freedom of religion and freedom of the press in the same sentence. It’s impossible to reject one without rejecting the other. And it’s hypocrisy to claim a violation of religious right while at the same time denying the right of a free press. Order within society doesn’t allow individuals to pick and choose what laws they are going to obey or whose rights to violate.
For some years after returning to Utah, I stayed in the church despite not believing in it. I hoped to one day have a life-changing experience that would firm up my testimony, like what I read about in the Mormon magazines. I wanted it to be true. It would have been easier that way.
Eventually I had the realization that the path I was on meant living a lie for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be the kind of guy that gets married and has a bunch of kids only to walk out on them when he changes his mind.
So the decision had to be made: Was I going to live a life lying to myself and everyone around me? If so, would I consciously do so for the rest of my life — at the expense of my own personal happiness and integrity? That path was set. It was a mormon family in a mormon ward, a calling and a mini-van — just like my parents, just like my grandparents, just like my sisters had already chosen and just as my younger brothers would eventually choose.
Or: Was I going to live a life outside the church, even though that meant risking abandonment from friends and family and causing them heartache? That path was wide open. That was terrifying yet enticing.
I chose the latter. When it came to a head in early 2004, I knew my true friends would stand beside me regardless of what religion I was (or wasn’t). But there was still the question of family.
My older brother had been excommunicated in 2002 and his exodus from mormonism provided some insight into how my family would react. But his was a different tale and my own experience would be different. By 2004, my brother had landed himself in federal prison after a series of stupid choices. He was no role model and could not be the support system I knew I’d need outside the church.
Without the church, there was a lack of structure. Mormonism controls nearly everything members do. Without the church telling me how to live, I had a blank slate. That was fucking terrifying. For once in my life, I saw a world of possibilities. I could do or be whatever I wanted. I could be … me.
One of my (non-mormon) friends helped me understand religion and morality are not connected — though religions don’t want you to think that. I have since learned that without a religion I have more opportunity to discover the exact moral code that works in my life. I can live by my own beliefs, not by the beliefs of creepy-old, pasty-white perverts sitting on the 17th floor of the LDS Church Office Building.
It was in the fall of 2004, that I met my future wife. About the same time I took my first job as a journalist, working at the local newspaper. Without the Mormon church sucking everything from my soul, I poured myself into my job and my relationship. My girlfriend was supportive and patient during the process. No one who hasn’t been in Mormonism can fully appreciate what it’s like to leave, but she was there for me more than I probably deserved. I was a basket-case and anyone would have been within their rights to cut and run. But she stuck with me.
Eventually, I determined — with some prodding — that I wanted all the way out. So in 2006, I mailed my resignation. I specifically told the church not to inform anyone who didn’t need to know. The church was not to tell my family or announce anything over the pulpit. As a reporter in a small Utah town where much of my extended family lived, I didn’t want the church to fuck up my career. Though my parents didn’t say anything for some time, I later learned that they found out at the end of 2006 at tithing settlement. It was nearly three years later before I broached the subject with my parents and later with each of my siblings.
Mormonism turned me off to religion as a whole. In deconstructing the religion, I ultimately deconstructed any belief in a god. As an outsider, I see what religions do to their members. For what little good religions do in the world, there is so much more harm.
I left. It was the best decision of my life. In the years since, I’ve left Utah, also a good decision, since much of what I deplore within the Mormon religion has been ingrained into the cultural biases of Utahns. Today, I live in upstate New York, just a few miles from the founding-place of Mormonism. But there are few Mormons here. What little role Mormonism played in this area has long since vanished.