Shortly before my first marriage began to crumble, I started making my way out of the Mormon church. It was a slow, arduous process. I was quiet about it for months, even as I left my husband and our Bishop attempted to ex-communicate me for his infidelity. I was quiet about it as my parents kept pushing for me to attend a new ward. I was quiet about it as friends and family sent missionaries to my house, despite the fact that I had clearly stated that I was no longer interested in going to church. Politely, I kept telling them, “I’m not going to church.” The more I repeated this, the more fervent their attempts.
The rhetoric in the church doesn’t allow for respect in regard to those who leave. The parable of the Prodigal Son is driven hard and fast into the minds of members. The story may seem harmless, but at best, we should be aptly uncomfortable with a translation that relates to loving someone, and letting them go only so they can return to your belief system. For a church that is so focused on having the agency to choose, they are ironically obsessed with making those who leave, come back. It appears as though free agency only extends within the realm of Mormonism, and beyond that, it’s fraudulent.
I was heartbroken, isolated, feeling misunderstood and no one within the Mormon faith could find it within themselves to have any sort of empathy when I left. It was as though I was the only one to ever question and to decide that it just wasn’t the right fit for them. There was an air of offense taken by those who were still devout, as though my choices were a personal attack. Friendships were broken. I didn’t speak to my family for a year because they began sending me religiously abusive text messages. The friends who did stay? They stayed only as long as they believed it was possible to bring me back to Mormonism.
Another form of this legend was modernized by Brent H. Nielsen in his talk, “Waiting For The Prodigal”. He tells the story of Susan, a family member who leaves the church. He focuses only on the heartbreak that it was for him and his family. There’s a hint of self-righteousness when he describes how they “supported” this successful woman through her life. They loved her at a distance because she chose to leave the church only really focusing on her when they could interject their faith into her life somehow.
No fairy tale is any good if it doesn’t have a happy ending, and Susan’s story was no different. She miraculously returns Nielsen proudly boasts because of family members harassing (though he calls it “promptings from the spirit”) her to attend church meetings. I’m skeptical of the authenticity of this story mainly because it plays into the idea that if you love someone enough, and bug them enough, they’ll come back to church.
Image Credit: Rubens Rayó
A collective groan was heard among Ex-Mormons because we know that our families and friends are going to increase their plights to recover us. We know what we’re facing because we likely delivered those plates of cookies, and passive aggressive notes to houses who had requested that we stop. We brace ourselves for more difficult conversations about our status in the church, arguments with spouses, children who will tell us we’re a bad example, and the general faux love that oozes from any Mormon we know who feels entitled to change our mind.
It’s not surprising that there is no discourse or teachings in the church regarding what it’s like for those of us on the outside. Most of us stay longer than we wish because we don’t want to cause any harm or heartbreak. We’ve heard those talks, we know exactly how our family is going to react. It paralyzes you to a certain degree. Personally, it was only a few years ago that I came to the realization that my family would never accept my life, unless I was Mormon. I could be everything in this world but so long as I refused to attend their church, or subscribe to their belief system, my successes would mean absolutely nothing. Only then did I allow myself to finally, officially break all ties with this religion I’d been raised in.
You think it’s heartbreaking to see someone lose faith in your faith? Try realizing that your family’s and friends love is conditional, that it has barriers, and that your life is literally meaningless to them without that faith. That’s an emotionally shattering life experience.
There is a self-righteous superiority in “loving” someone this way. However, those of us who “chose” to leave see what you are doing, and besides being offensive, it actually hurts, deeply. Doing that, loving someone with entitlement to their life choices, is dehumanizing and horrifying.
It’s not an accomplishment to keep a family member in your circle when your end goal is to have them return to your faith. It simply showcases a complete lack of understanding of what love really is, and what it means to be a family. If you can’t love me without a clause, without reward? Please, do us both a favor and don’t love me at all.