The Dangers of Personal Accounts

I read with great interest the following piece by Maren Stephenson in Salon, in which she details the process by which she and her husband lost their faith in Mormonism. (You will note that Ryan just wrote on this same piece here. If the fact that two Mormon brothers who blog together can’t coordinate posting topics doesn’t convince you that Mormons aren’t capable of some grand and shadowy conspiracy, I don’t know what will).

Had Salon been running “How I Lost My Faith in Mormonism” stories for many years, I wouldn’t wonder whether publishing this particular one was motivated by their opposition to Mitt Romney’s candidacy and a related desire to cast the Mormon Church in an unpleasant light. But since they haven’t, I do.

I want to tread carefully with regards to Ms. Stephenson and the experience she recounts. I know plenty of people who have found themselves in similar situations, caught between their doubts on one hand and their cultural identity as Mormons and their family and social relationships on the other. I in no way wish to criticize or invalidate Ms. Stephenson’s experiences or those of her husband. I do, however, wish to strike a cautionary note when it comes to publishing and reacting to these kinds of accounts.

It’s easy for those who aren’t familiar with Mormonism and Mormons to read such an account and leap to generalized conclusions.  And in the case of Salon, it runs the risk of confirming the preconceived notions of liberal readers who are suspicious of religion in general and Mormonism in particular. While I don’t doubt that Ms. Stephenson has accurately reported what occurred in her life, she is, after all, just one person. Her experience is similar to others who have left, but it’s quite different from many others who have stayed. And so if Salon, and anybody else, is genuinely interested in getting at the reality of what it’s like to be Mormon, it needs to hear the experiences of at least a few different Mormons. It’s a big church, with a lot of people, and publishing the story of just one – which happens to nicely correspond with liberal notions of Mormonism – doesn’t really reveal all that much, as tempted as readers may be to believe that it does.

A few particulars:

  • Regarding her friends who are active in the Church, Ms. Stephenson states, “I waited anxiously for them to mention my heathen family, wondered if they’d heard that my eternity with my husband was now in jeopardy, that in the hereafter I’d likely be pawned off to some other righteous man as a plural wife — probably my ex-boyfriend; hopefully not Brigham Young.” While Ms. Stephenson apparently knows Mormons who speak and think this way – or perhaps she was exaggerating in an attempt at humor – all I can say is that I’ve never heard anyone call a former Mormon a heathen, or talk about a former Mormon man’s wife being pawned off to a current Mormon man as a plural wife. And if she was exaggerating for humor, I fear many readers who aren’t as familiar with Mormonism will likely take her statements at face value.
  • Of a friend who assumed that Ms. Stephenson’s husband’s crisis of faith was due to serious sin she says, “Her questions were so off-base that they seemed absurd. She was sincere, and trying to help, but she believed what the Church teaches — that a man would only leave because he’s disobeying the commandments. She couldn’t understand this was a rational inquiry. She saw everything as the result of sin.” This isn’t terribly hard for me to believe; I would, however, quibble with the idea that the Church teaches that a “man would only leave because he’s disobeying the commandments.” I’m trying to think of official church teachings that fit that description, and none really fit the bill. I think many members of the Church hold that view, but I know that many others don’t.
  • Ms. Stephenson asserts that, “Our prophets had made it clear that anything written outside church documents was suspect and anti-Mormon, fabricated for the sole purpose of destroying faith.” This is, I think, vastly overstated. It’s true that some Mormons believe that one should avoid delving into Mormon history; however, they are, it seems to me, decreasing in number. It’s also true that some Church leaders have discouraged members from exposing themselves to the work of known anti-Mormons (i.e. folks whose life work it is debunk the faith). However, it’s been quite some time since I’ve heard anything like that, and I’ve only ever heard it applied to explicitly anti-Mormon sources, as opposed to, say, serious scholarship. And there are plenty of Mormons who consult Mormon and non-Mormon scholars as they learn about the Church’s history.

In other words, my experience as a lifelong Mormon has been quite different from Ms. Stephenson’s, which is bound to happen in a Church made up of 14 million people. The size of the Church, and the diversity of experience of its members, highlights the importance of consulting Mormons of all stripes, and more important, relying on data as opposed to anecdote.

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