A few weeks ago, a woman named Maren Stephenson posted a forthright essay at Salon.com documenting her journey from believing member of the LDS Church to skeptic leaving her faith behind. The Salon piece was titled “But I’m a Good Mormon Wife,” and did a fair job of considering some of the difficulties that arise in the lives of the faithful– coming face to face with difficult facts or doctrines, maturing in a spiritual environment where you came of age. Whether Ms. Stephenson intended it or not, there was a hook in the story that lured the sensationalists across the pond. In the hands of the UK’s Mail Online, Ms. Stephenson’s leaving-the-faith narrative became “From Sacred Underwear to Victoria’s Secret: The Devout Mormon Woman Who Chose Love Over Faith When Her Husband Became and Atheist.” Who knew that you could dress up a story about lost faith as a super-sexy odyssey of love? Clever Brits. (By the way, don’t miss the Mail’s photographic portrayal of “true love” in the Stephensons’ marriage- posed by models).
That headline is riffing on a moment in Ms. Stephenson’s piece where she talks about other “benefits” of leaving the Church: “When I shed my garments for slippery Victoria’s Secret panties, my self-esteem skyrocketed, and our late nights shifted to other things. We were finally adults, taking our firsts together, learning about each other without barriers.” The Mail piece goes out of its way to illustrate by posting a photo of the sacred Mormon garment, which stands in stark contrast to some of the lewder images attached to the celebrity gossip pieces adorning the sidebar.
Ms. Stephenson knows her own story, and its details are hers to tell as she wishes. But her piece, and its titillating re-making by the UK media, leave a number of mis-impressions that deserve clarification:
- First, what were this husband and wife doing all those late nights before they left the Church? The elliptical wink with which Ms. Stephenson hints at her sensual new lifestyle implies that her marriage in prior years was an abstinent desert of religious strictures. If Ms. Stephenson and her husband never enjoyed a complete sexual relationship, including, yes, even lingerie, late nights, and “learning about each other without barriers,” it’s not because they were Mormons. LDS couples are free to enjoy sex as they please. Nothing in the Church restricts the normal practice of sexual activity within marriage; in fact, it is strongly encouraged. Assuming a couple isn’t pursuing some adventure outside of the confines of their own two-person relationship, there is no new sexual freedom for a married couple to gain from leaving the LDS Church. As a group, LDS couples generally report higher rates of marital satisfaction than do members of other religious groups. I find it troubling that Ms. Stephenson didn’t consider herself and her husband to be “adults,” while they were in the church. The only “firsts” they might have experienced together once they left would have had to do with coffee, alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes. If these substances are the true signifiers of adulthood in modern America (or maybe it’s the sexy underwear?), our culture has become more infantilized than we thought.
- Members of the LDS Church faced with a spouse leaving the church don’t have to choose between “love” and “faith,” as the Daily Mail’s headline implies. The range of LDS experience in this situation runs the gamut. There are plenty of Mormon couples, including in my own congregation, that part ways in terms of their religious life, remaining happily married and otherwise unified. Admittedly, this raises a number of challenges, as in any marriage where the two spouses choose inconsistent world views or lifestyles. The tension can be heightened in LDS families, where the emphasis is to build toward a family that is eternal– i.e., will remain united after this life. Still, no one ever forced Ms. Stephenson to choose between her church and her husband, unless it was her husband.
- Finally, perhaps the most troubling impression that arises from Ms. Stephenson’s story is the implication that once a person takes a serious look at LDS history, the whole story unravels and belief becomes impossible for reasonable minds. The Religion News Service ran one well-reasoned response to this issue yesterday, which pivots on the difference between Christmas lights and sourdough bread (trust me, it works). Again, Ms. Stephenson gets to tell her own story. But believing, thoughtful Mormons have a very different one. The summary is that Mormonism withstands all kinds of scrutiny, and has for almost two centuries. There have been attacks of every kind, but many Mormons continue believing after confronting these arguments, not in ignorance of them. There will be time over the coming months of the presidential campaign to deal with many of the specific historical, theological, or social challenges that have been raised against the LDS Church (a partial list of posts I put together on several of these issues, in a past life, is here). But for now, it bears emphasizing that Ms. Stephenson’s experience is not universal. One can fully appreciate the complexity of Joseph Smith’s life and still believe firmly that the church he founded remains pure, truthful, and sacred. Among the thousands of people walking the path of the inquisitive and faithful Mormon, this page highlights several impressive examples.
Photo from Salon.com