Early in my mission (which was NOT, despite what my children will tell you, served in the “Cro-Magnon North” Mission), I first came across anti-Mormon literature (applying a very broad definition of that word) written by former members of the Church. I had the same kind of reaction that most LDS people do when they see such stuff, which is a feeling of betrayal. How could someone who had been a member of the Church say such ugly and untrue things?
My bigger problem was: How do I explain this to people looking into the Church?
My companion at the time had sort of a fallback question he would ask when someone presented him with material written about the Church by non-members: “If you were interested in a buying a Ford, would you talk to a Chevy dealer? Would you expect them to give you an honest answer about Fords?” But I had all kinds of issues with that approach. First, I just MIGHT ask a Chevy dealer about Fords, at least to try to get a balanced diet of information. I would be even more inclined to talk to a Chevy salesman who used to sell Fords. And I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t trust a Ford salesman to give me the unvarnished truth about Fords. I mean, as a lawyer, I suppose I shouldn’t cast stones, but car salesmen?
As time passed, I came to appreciate that we aren’t selling cars, so that probably isn’t the best analogy in the world. And if you want to use it, then the better question would be, “Why listen to anyone? Get in the car and take a ride and tell me if you like it.” After all, one of the most fundamental doctrines of Mormonism is that you don’t have to listen to anybody. You can ask God directly for answers and expect Him to provide them.
Still, I have always been troubled by the fact that when I read stuff from former members of the Church, including (especially?) those who profess that they have no ax to grind, I find that the material is riddled not just with technical falsehoods, but often bald-faced lies about what we believe, how we live, and how we treat other people. In most of these cases, the misrepresentations are so obvious that anyone who has had anything more than the most casual of contacts with Mormons would know that it was poppycock. Or rubbish. Or balderdash. (“Balderdash” is by far my favorite. It sounds like a lie told by a hobbit).
By way of example. I recently read an article about a former BYU professor (I’ll take that on faith) who left the Church to join a non-denominational evangelical church. She talked a lot about finding the doctrine of grace particularly appealing, and that she was particularly drawn to a more expansive reading of grace (if I recall correctly, she openly objected to all of the “rules” and “expectations” of Mormonism). Okay. I’m cool with that. I certainly understand the appeal of a doctrine that is more accommodating of how you want to live your life.
But, as is often the case, she couldn’t leave it at that. This lady went on to talk about how oppressive life was at BYU (not a completely irrational assertion…they once tried to sell me caffeine-free Mountain Dew there). Two things stood out as particularly “say what?” worthy. First, she said that when she was looking into other options for church, she had to drive several miles away from Provo because if she were seen attending another church, her standing in the LDS Church, and her job, would be in jeopardy.
Say what? This is the same BYU that invites ministers of other faiths, including people very critical of our beliefs, as guest speakers? The same Church that participates in ecumenical activities throughout the country? Just for the record, since I joined the LDS Church as a child, I have attended with at least the following groups: Methodists (very mellow), Baptists (some of the nicest people you will ever meet), Catholics (too much standing and sitting; I got tired), Jews (they let me teach a class), Pentecostal (too many drums for my taste), Charismatic (the speaking in tongues kind of freaked me out), Greek Orthodox (kind of like Catholic, but with WAY better dessert), and even the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (now called the Community of Christ). I’ve visited several nondenominational churches as well, but they usually have names that I can’t remember. I have a pretty extensive Buddhist library growing at home and only recently lost my copy of the Quran, although I never made it very far with that. And after 40 years of me sticking my toes in other doctrinal waters, the number of times I have had anyone in the Mormon Church tell me “boo” about it continues to hover at zero. But if I get excommunicated for this blog, I’ll make sure to let you know.
The second claim that jumped out at me was that she bought a necklace with a cross on it, but she made sure to wear it under her clothes because if she didn’t her standing in the Church and her job would be on the line.
Say what? Crosses are not formally used in the Church at present (although a reader helped educate me that they used to be more common within the Church…like I was supposed to know that). However, I can point to any number of people in the Church who wear crosses as part of their jewelry. Including at church. On Sunday. In front of God and everyone. My wife is one of them. She was Catholic growing up, and the cross holds a great deal of symbolic meaning to her. So I bought her a very pretty little silver cross. (Truth be known, the cross was the first symbol of Christianity that I knew as a child, and it is a powerful image to me as well. Despite the hints, no one has ever bought one for me. Such is life). Has anyone said a word to her about it? Absolutely not. And if they did, both she and I would tell them to go jump in a lake. We’d probably say a “Salt Lake,” because that would be funnier. But you get my point.
The answer to why you can’t rely on what former members tell you about Mormonism? I have no earthly idea. I just know that without fail, when I have read something from a former Mormon, I can’t get very far into it before I start wondering if the person was awake on Sundays, or if perhaps they had been wandering into the wrong building for all of those years. I won’t jump to the assumption that everyone who leaves the Church does so because they are evil and adulterous, and therefore can’t be trusted. That would just be silly. But for whatever reason, folks who leave Mormonism can’t leave it alone, even if they have to trade in their integrity in order to make a point.
As I said before, what former members of the Church say about it, or what I say about it for that matter, isn’t all that important. The doctrines of the LDS Church are easily available from official sources, like lds.org and mormon.org. If you hear those messages, and they resonate with you, then you owe it to yourself to kick the tires, drive it around the block, and check out the cup holders. No one can tell you how a car drives. You only know by getting behind the wheel and finding out for yourself. The simplest way to do that, in the case of Mormonism, is to read the Book of Mormon, listen to the introductory lessons from our missionaries, and ask God if it is true. In matters of faith, secondhand impressions can never be enough.