Author’s Note: I hope readers will forgive the somewhat ironic tone. I thought skeptical readers might allow some latitude, enabling me to get by with a slight tinge of irony; in any case, it’s the way I both think and write, and there’s little I can do about it. If I have offended, however unintentionally, anyone’s sober sensibilities, I apologize in advance.
I don’t claim to be an authority on Mormon theology, but having grown up in a tiny town in southern Idaho dominated by the LDS Church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, popularly known to nonmembers as the Mormons), I did learn the basics of the Mormon belief system. I was one of the 10 percent of the residents of our little valley who were not members of the church-and, by the way, I should mention that there was only one church in town, so there was no real competition in the faith category; you were either a member of “the Church” or you were not; joining a competing denomination wasn’t an option. You could, of course, drive to one of the neighboring towns, which had churches of other denominations-Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, and so on-but doing so apparently was, for most people, more trouble than it was worth, because I was not aware of anyone ever actually having done that, at least not during the time I lived there! The woman who followed my mother as postmistress in town was about as “straight-arrow” a Mormon as it was possible to be, and she had the habit of asking new people in town, when they came in to rent a post office box, “Are you LDS?” Clearly, her intent was to immediately categorize everyone as either “one of us” or “one of them,” a tendency that my mother found both typical of small-town mentality and surpassingly annoying.
Having been baptized as a member when he was eight-the standard age for baptism in the Church-my dad was a nominal Mormon. However, if memory serves, he never actually “went to church” in the sense of attending worship services. He did often go to the church, because he had a clear, ringing tenor voice and was frequently asked to sing at weddings and funerals, which were invariably held in the church. All other members of his extended family, which included two older brothers, six older sisters, his parents, and my cousins on his side were all members. My immediate family never attended church, and only one of my siblings ever became a member: one of my sisters went to college at BYU (Brigham Young University) in Provo, Utah; it’s a Church-run school, and almost everyone there was LDS, so in order to “fit in,” she found it socially useful to become a member herself. However, when she left the local area and moved to the East Coast some twenty-five years ago, although she never officially relinquished her membership status-and I’m not even sure whether a mechanism for doing that even exists-she ceased attending services or participating actively in the life of the Church.
The same is true of many of my childhood friends, although some of them who never exhibited any particular interest in religious matters later became what I call “straight-arrow” Mormons-that is, they gave up alcohol, cigarettes, premarital sex, and other “sins,” and some of them even became deacons or bishops and participated quite actively in the ongoing operations of the Church machinery. I suppose some, perhaps most, of their increasing participation was inherent in their maturation process. Ironically enough, some of my “wildest” schoolmates, far more wild than I was, later became some of the most conservative members of the local congregation; perhaps what they say about God loving reformed sinners even more than those who have been “good” all their lives is true!
Several of my classmates also went on two-year proselytizing missions for the Church immediately after graduating from high school, either overseas or stateside. It was Church policy to send out the great majority of its missionaries right after high school; I always theorized that doing so was based on the Authorities’ experience that if these kids were allowed to go another way for even a couple of years, even if they chose to attend the “Y,” as BYU was normally referred to, or one of its satellite two-year schools, the chances of being able to persuade them to serve a mission plummeted precipitously. I thus assumed that the official reasoning was that if the potential missionaries perceived other viable options, they were much less likely to serve, period, either then or some years later. I think the situation was akin to that expressed in the old tune, “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm/After they’ve seen Par-ee . . .?”
My family of origin was a bit unusual, in that, whereas my dad was a nominal, if inactive, member of the Church, my mother came from a long line of rabid anti-Mormons! She felt very strongly that (a) baptizing a child at age eight was totally inappropriate, and (b) the entire religious orientation to life (not just that of the Mormons but of organized religion in general) was, as she quite succinctly put it, “a bunch of hooey!” She didn’t object to people in general, or even her own children, joining a religious organization, but she felt strongly that they should, at a minimum:
- Reach at least the age of majority before making such a decision. Growing up, all of us were free to attend classes in religious instruction, after school, during grade school, and during school hours, and in the evening during high school, and we did. When friends and classmates were being baptized, some of my younger siblings broached the subject with my mother, and she answered, “When you get old enough-and mature enough-to make such a decision, you can do so, but you’re simply too young to decide what you truly believe at this point.”
- If they decided to be baptized, they should practice what they preached and actually live as they professed to believe. Some people in the town did that, but, as in most mainstream religions, they constituted a minority. Most people in town segregated their religion into a category separate from the rest of their lives; there was Religion and there was Business, and the former wasn’t allowed to interfere with the naked self-interest inherent in maximizing profits in the latter. To my mother, this constituted garden-variety hypocrisy, and she preferred to have minimal contact with people who lived that way. In my humble opinion, she was right, but of course that doesn’t preclude most of the Western world from living hypocritically. When I was in high school, there was a common joke that said, “The same neighbor who shakes your hand, pats you on the shoulder, and calls you Brother on Sunday will steal your water on Monday!” This self-deprecating joke passed for wry humor in a farming community in the high desert (elevation 4532 ft., according to the sign on the railroad depot, long since abandoned even when I lived there) of southern Idaho, in which water was literally the life-blood of plants, animals, and people alike.
In the decades since I lived and attended school there, many of the members of my mother’s extended family-most of whom were not LDS members either, and who were either indifferent or fiercely antagonistic toward the Church-have joined. I’ve never discussed with them their reasons for doing so, or even asked them about it. I’ve learned that religious belief is such an intensely personal and emotional matter that people can easily became quite threatened by someone, even by someone they’ve known for a long time, querying their motivations about it. It makes no difference if the intent is merely to understand rather than to belittle. In short, it’s a touchy subject and I’ve learned to avoid it.
I don’t discuss religion with my sister-in-law, a classic straight-arrow Mormon. I know she’s a believer and she knows I’m not, and in the interest of preserving some semblance of family harmony, we’ve tacitly agreed to disagree about the matter but not engage in a head-to-head about it. Given that religion is not a topic that will submit to rational discussion, because it’s based not on reason but on emotion, psychological needs, and so-called truths learned at a parent’s knee that were internalized in the psyche and became so entrenched that they can’t be dislodged by objective reason, there’s little point in debating the matter, anyway. Quite frankly, I think the reason I don’t need religion to buoy me up, provide a “crutch,” or a shield against the “slings and arrows” of life, is that I was never taught to need it as a child. I never developed a dependency on it, and therefore never saw any reason to embrace it. In any event, that’s my background, which I believe legitimizes my feeling that I’m entitled to express an opinion about the Mormon belief system, based on at least a nominal knowledge of its precepts.