Sarah Scoles| Longreads | June 2018 | 23 minutes (5,714 words)
It’s a summer day in Salt Lake City, and tourists are resting inside the Mormon Tabernacle, staring at the enormous, golden pipes of the Tabernacle organ, which are topped with carved wooden finials that appear to scrape the ceiling. These are the same pipes I stared at on a satellite feed from my hometown chapel in central Florida twice a year until I was 18. Although I’d remotely watched the church’s semiannual conference religiously as a kid, I’d never been inside the building until now, more than 12 years after leaving the church and becoming an atheist, and 10 after coming out as a lesbian. My parents have spent those years trying to come to terms with these shifts, but our détente has involved not talking much about any of it. This is the Mormon way.
It’s strange then to find myself in this Tabernacle, waiting for my mom’s plane to arrive in Salt Lake so that she and I can attend the Sunstone Symposium, a yearly gathering that includes liberal Mormons and ex-Mormons who are redefining their relationship with the church. But here I am.
Two young missionaries step up to the pulpit to demonstrate the building’s acoustics for those in attendance. One rips a newspaper, and I can hear the tear from my perch in the shadows at the back of the room. It sounds soft and wet, like the stories it contains might be smeared. The demonstration ends and the missionaries walk offstage, accompanied by a recording of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir: God be with you till we meet again. The harmonies burrow into my chest like they belong there, which in some sense they always will. The Mormon worldview shaped mine — I could speak in King James English at age 4 — even though the two now stand apart, like puzzle pieces where the outcropping of one is the cavern of the other. Only together do Mormonism and I make a full picture.
At the Salt Lake International Airport, I’m surrounded by a mob of parents waiting on kids who’ve been gone for more than a year on their missions, spreading the Gospel across the globe. They have bouquets of balloons and hold up signs with messages like WELCOME HOME, ELDER SMITH! I’m torn between two feelings: I don’t want these Mormons to mistake me for one of them, but I also want them to understand I know everything about them.
Amid the faithful, I see my mom. When she gets to the bottom of the escalator, she gestures toward the parents and their signs. “Check out those guys,” she says. “Utah is so weird!” We hug. After three decades of devotion, my mom stopped attending church earlier this year. She’d been struggling with the decision since November 2015, when a new church policy seemingly put gay marriage on par with murder.
The official Mormon handbook defines which transgressions require a “disciplinary council” that may lead to excommunication. The main sins: murder, incest, apostasy. Apostasy basically means “denying or opposing official church teachings in public,” and that November, the church’s First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — its 15 highest authorities — changed the definition to include being “in a same-gender marriage.” Authorities also edited the handbook to say that the babies of married same-gender couples couldn’t receive traditional blessings or confirmations and that older children of cohabitating queer couples couldn’t get baptized or go on missions — unless the child grows up,“specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage,” ceases living with their queer parents, and gets First Presidency approval.
My mom didn’t know anyone in her daily life to talk about this with, but she had started spending a lot of time on the internet, where a handful of progressive Mormon communities are beginning to change the church in profound ways. The once ultra-orthodox are loosening their ideologies, facilitated by Facebook groups, podcasts, websites, and meet-ups. They are reforming their own Mormon identity, even as headquarters won’t let them reform Mormonism.
Throughout its two-century history, the church has experienced numerous small schisms—and big upsets, like after the death of its founder, Joseph Smith, when a split-off group later went on to follow Smith’s son rather than Brigham Young, and like when the church banned polygamy and some members disagreed with that decision.
In the modern era, the internet spreads new ideas and ideologies wider and faster, bringing like-minded but distant people closer together and amplifying the voices of what is still a small minority of questioning, liberal types. At the same time, perhaps not coincidentally, church leadership has tightened the grip on its shepherd’s crook.
Sunstone is full of those lefty Latter-day Saints, who look at that crook with narrowed eyes. This annual conference of unorthodox Mormons began as a small gathering in 1979, and today it’s a physical manifestation of the increasingly powerful Mormon-maverick internet, whose discourse and digital diaspora have led some of its denizens to believe that they can stay Mormon while interpreting the church’s teachings in their own way.
The once ultra-orthodox are loosening their ideologies, facilitated by Facebook groups, podcasts, websites, and meet-ups. They are reforming their own Mormon identity, even as headquarters won’t let them reform Mormonism.
I left the church in 2004 without consulting the internet at all, but my mom, whose suitcase I carry out to the rental car, has been part of these brain-bending groups for a few years. And it’s her internet friends we are both here to meet.
Aside from talking to my parents, I haven’t really had a meaningful conversation with a Mormon in years. I’m nervous they’ll think I’m an adherent — or a pariah. I’m nervous they’ll think I’m judging them for having the faith I don’t, or that they’ll judge me for not having it. I’m nervous that they — or my mom — will rip off scabs that I thought were long-faded scars.
“Do you want to get some wine on the way to the hotel?” my mom asks, opening the passenger door. Wine’s a novelty to her still, forbidden as it is within the religion.
“The liquor stores are closed already,” I say. “It’s Utah.”
Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830 in Palmyra, New York, after God revealed to him that the true Gospel had disappeared, corrupted following the death of Jesus and his apostles. It began, for the teenage Smith, in the 1820s when he went to the woods and prayed to know which of the existing Christian sects he should join. He claimed that God — who Mormons call Heavenly Father — and Jesus appeared to him as “Personages.” “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong,” he later wrote, “and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt.” Smith would be the prophet, he later learned, of a new church — or, rather, the resurrected true one. Mormons—among other religions—call the years between the church’s first-century corruption and Smith’s revelations the “Great Apostasy.” Smith’s revival is called the “Restoration.” Mormons believe in the Bible as well as the Book of Mormon, which Smith claimed to have translated from golden plates buried in upstate New York. It’s a supposed record from the indigenous people of the Americas, who are purportedly descended from Israelites.
The church is tightly structured, with a prophet always at the top. Smith was the first prophet, and today, that man —it’s always a man — is Russell M. Nelson, who was chosen by the church’s upper echelon of apostles, in January 2018 after the death of the previous prophet. Nelson, as prophet, talks to God and relays His will to Earth. This is what makes it hard to disagree with one tenet and ascribe to others, because if you don’t believe what the authorities say, you don’t believe their words are from God, which means you don’t believe the prophet is a prophet.
That’s what took me away from the church initially: I didn’t believe gay marriage was wrong, and the prophet said it was. I wasn’t willing to subjugate my opinion, end of story. For years, I was angry that I’d based the first 18 years of my life on what I now considered a lie, and that doctrine said my dissent would separate me from my family for eternity.
The Sunstone crowd has always rejected that simplistic view. They embrace a grayer perspective that can include bucking the black-and-white decrees from headquarters. More and more often, those perspectives come from information they found on the internet.
And all that internet information has led some people (a lot of people) to leave the church or alter their views, ushering in what some insiders call the “Google Apostasy.” It’s also ushered in a new action on the church’s part: In the past, dissenters mostly faced discipline if they spoke out publicly. Today, members get called into bishops’ offices because someone tattled about a private Facebook post. With more ways to communicate, especially in liminal online spaces that aren’t as personal as they seem, Mormons have more opportunities to share doubts — and more opportunities to meet with the consequences.
If you wanted to find a figurehead for the Google Apostasy, you could start with John Dehlin, a tall, dark-haired, religious-looking man in his late 40s who spent most of his life as a true believer. He started teaching the deep-dive religion class Mormon teenagers take, in the early 2000s, when he was an executive speechwriter at Microsoft. Dehlin decided he needed to study up, which he mostly did by burying himself in books. But then one day his cousin gave him bad news about the Book of Abraham: The church claims Smith translated papyri written by the biblical Abraham, but the scrolls actually date to 2,000 years after Abraham’s supposed death. Dehlin started to doubt, and his life, enmeshed so tightly in the church, began to dissolve. When he told his wife he didn’t think the church was what it claimed to be, she started crying.
Dehlin’s doubts came in analog form — talking to another person about a historical fact that didn’t match doctrine. But when web pages and forums became dominant sources of information in the early aughts, it was even easier for Mormons — who are taught to eschew anything about Mormonism that doesn’t come from the church itself — to find that information just by searching.
It’s easy to stumble across the anti-Mormon while looking for the Mormon. If you Google “Joseph Smith,” an official LDS newsroom article shows up on the first page of results, but so do articles called “The False Teachers: Joseph Smith” and “Mormonism: A Racket Becomes a Religion.” With the rise of social media, findings spread like wildfire. If one Mormon mom finds out that Joseph Smith married other people’s wives and teenagers or that the church built an estimated billion-dollar mall in Salt Lake, that information propagates rapidly through her social sphere.
For older religions, whose records and origins reach back thousands of years — and which even many devotees admit have lived through an epic game of cultural and translational telephone — this might not be such problem. But a religion founded just under 200 years ago is much more easy to undermine.
Dehlin’s doubts surfaced before the Facebook era, so he took them to another outlet, a company email list called “Mormons at Microsoft.” Dehlin started sharing his findings, and people replied-all to tell him to stop with the disturbing questions. But off the email chain was different. People wrote to thank him, to confess their own uncertainties. The struggle wasn’t just his, and yet every struggler thought they, too, were alone. Dehlin wanted to change that. And he wanted to do it from within the church.
Because he’s kind of a Sunstone celebrity, Dehlin meets me off-site, before the conference starts at the nearby University of Utah campus. At 8 a.m. he shows up at the Hampton Inn, a foot taller than me and wearing cargo shorts. We say our hellos and Dehlin introduces a friend he’s brought along. “You know Tyler,” he says. I do. This is Tyler Glenn, the lead singer of the band Neon Trees. Glenn is also gay, and newly a former Mormon. But unlike me, he came out as gay in Rolling Stone.
At the café, Dehlin scrunches his long legs into our booth. Glenn, more slight, in the wan way of rock stars, slides in beside him. I set my recorder in the middle of the table and give the abbreviated version of why I’m here with my mom. When the server comes, Dehlin orders iced coffee. Caffeine is still a novelty for him; he was only excommunicated in 2015. Stirring the ice cubes, he recounts his early struggles in Mormonism.
The church tells members to read religious texts, ponder, and pray for their own answers. They’re supposed to develop a personal relationship with God. The religion is based on inquiry and individual revelation, but there’s only one kind of answer you’re supposed to come to.
“When you try and talk about these issues at church, there’s immediately this chill that goes over the group,” Dehlin says. “People start fidgeting in their seat. They start looking away from you. It’s a place that really lacks authenticity, that lacks vulnerability.”
Dehlin came across Sunstone’s webpage in the early 2000s. The organization was in the process of digitizing video interviews with the “September Six,” a half-dozen feminists and intellectuals that the church excommunicated or disfellowshipped (meaning they could attend church meetings but their active participation was limited) in 1993 for vocally contradicting the church. Whoa, Dehlin thought, there’s a community.
That’s what took me away from the church: I didn’t believe gay marriage was wrong, and the prophet said it was. I wasn’t willing to subjugate my opinion, end of story.
Sunstone began as a student-run scholarly magazine in 1975, and four years later, the organization held its first Sunstone Symposium. Its early journal issues and gatherings represented a spectrum of Mormon thought, from conservative to moderate to liberal. But that liberal element — and perhaps any independent analysis at all — threatened leaders in Salt Lake City, who began to issue vague warnings against the organization.
In 1991, church leaders wrote a “Statement on Symposia,” which said, in short, stop talking about things you shouldn’t talk about. “We believe that Latter-day Saints who are committed to the mission of their church and the well-being of their fellow members will strive to be sensitive,” they wrote, “to those matters that are more appropriate for private conferring and correction than for public debate.”
Shadow-warnings in place, those who wanted to keep their standing in the church withdrew from Sunstone, leaving it largely to the liberals who cared less. Today, Sunstone is striving to reincorporate a broader range of perspectives — lots of liberals, sure, but also the ultra-faithful and even the fundamentalists, and also more people from outside the Jell-O Belt, the western states that Mormons heavily colonized. Internet outreach — through Facebook pages and podcast announcements — helps with that diversification.
Dehlin quit his job at Microsoft in 2004 and moved his family to Logan, Utah, about an hour outside of Salt Lake, not knowing exactly what would come next. Soon after the move, he attended his first Sunstone Symposium, and the next year, Dehlin founded Mormon Stories, a podcast featuring hours-long interviews about the Mormon experience, good and bad, doubting and faithful, critical and apologist. In 2005, people downloaded the podcast more than 12,000 times. By 2017, Dehlin was up to 5.2 million downloads and views per year. In the 13 years since Dehlin started recording, his podcasts have grown into a mini media empire called the Open Stories Foundation, and listener donations now pay his salary and keep the site operational.
“There was this huge water balloon of pain in the sky,” says Dehlin, pushing his breakfast plate away. “I feel like Mormon Stories punctured that balloon.”
After we pay the bill, Glenn says, “You and your mom should come to karaoke tonight.”
Dehlin drops me off back at the hotel, I grab my mom, and we drive to the conference at the University of Utah.
“You’re in the first fifty to arrive today!” Lindsay Hansen Park, executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, says, greeting us from the registration table, her hair swishing as her eyes dart around. She hands me my door prize — a book called Mormon Mavericks. Papers plastered to the walls proclaim the official hashtags to be #sunstone and #funstone. The theme of the conference is “Many Mormonisms.” My mom peers behind Hansen Park at T-shirts that say i’m famous on the bloggernacle and feminist mormon housewives is my relief society (Relief Society is the official Mormon women’s organization).
These shirts refer to the rebellious Mormon media that predate Dehlin’s podcasts. The “Bloggernacle” is a collective of Mormon-centric websites that began in the early 2000s. Feminist Mormon Housewives is a blog where I lurked for a few years after leaving the church. I liked knowing that the religion I’d abandoned contained people a little like me — a little too analytical, a little too pedantic, a lot too feminist.
Hansen Park is a contributor at Feminist Mormon Housewives, which got about 220,000 visits in the past five months of 2018, and she runs their Year of Polygamy podcast, which has 11,000 followers on Facebook. The blog also runs a private feminist Facebook group, so people can speak without censoring themselves but do so under their own names. On the blog itself, comments are public and people often anonymize themselves.
In the secular world, blogs turned everyone into a pundit. In the spiritual realm, online media allow non-prophets to become clerical authorities.
“For a long time I thought that I had to accept the church’s narrative, which is ‘You have to believe what we say, or you’re not one of us.’ But history has taught me otherwise,” Hansen Park tells me later. The church likes to present itself as monolithic, but in the religion’s brief lifetime, many sects have broken off. The largest of them, today, has around 250,000 members. They have all called themselves “Mormon” without headquarters’ permission.
That was enough to turn Hansen Park into the kind of Mormon who frequents fundamentalist towns, writes about race on Facebook, doesn’t go to church, and wears sleeveless shirts. It’s a “big-tent” Mormonism that accommodates orthodoxy, progressivism, cultural Mormonism, and break-away sects. “Whether the institutional church recognizes it or not, the reality is there are many Mormonisms,” Hansen Park says. “They can pretend that it’s not there, but that doesn’t make it not there.”
“I’m going to claim that as an act of resistance to people who tell me Mormonism is one thing, because the reality is it’s not. We know it’s not. It never has been,” she says. She sits up tall. “They can excommunicate me,” she continues. “They can reject me. My family can reject me. But that doesn’t make me not Mormon. And that’s just the truth of it.”
Later, my mom and I meet up for dinner with her old friend, a Mormon who lives in the area but isn’t attending Sunstone. At the Red Butte Café, the friend shows up with her husband. I want to order a margarita, but I am afraid of judgment. In fact, I’ve been afraid of Mormons ever since I stopped being one of them. I know what they see when they look at a queer person — that God gave them queerness as a “challenge,” that the only good queer person is a celibate one waiting to be turned straight when Heavenly Father perfects their flawed physical body in the afterlife. And I also know what they see when they look at someone who disbelieves and drinks — that Satan got them. But then her husband orders a margarita, so I do the same.
“So what are you doing in Utah?” she asks my mom.
My mom glances at me. “We’re at Sunstone,” she says.
“Sunstone,” her friend repeats, her tone implying knowledge of its connotations.
After some conversational twists, my mom admits that she doesn’t go to church anymore. Her friend sighs, and she confesses she doesn’t either. A veil lifts.
“So,” says this person who last saw me before I got braces. “Why aren’t you married yet?”
Caught off guard and not wanting to propose psychological hypotheses, I blurt out, “I’m gay,” although the Supreme Court has decided this is no longer a valid excuse.
My mom cuts in before anyone else can respond: “She has very good taste in girlfriends.”
This is a thing she has never said to me. She goes on, while I sit semi-stunned, about how much she liked the poetry professor I broke up with seven years ago.
It is one of very few times that we’ve had a conversation that acknowledged my sexual orientation. And I realize from my elevated cortisol level that the silence has been, in part, my fault. I had legitimate reasons to fear judgment and conflict, but I realize I was acting just like Dehlin’s church peers: looking away, lacking authenticity and vulnerability. For years, my mom and I have both been replicating the dynamic Mormonism taught us: Steer clear of the tough stuff.
The next morning, I sneak in to the end of a screening of a documentary called Where We Stand, about the group Ordain Women, which has petitioned the Mormon church to give women access to the priesthood — God’s power on Earth. Lawyer and founder Kate Kelly leads a post-film Q&A. When it’s over and the audience rises, fans flock to the stage before I can talk to her. Eventually, though, we find a little table. Kelly leans across it, her straight-across bangs accenting her big-frame plastic glasses. “So,” she says, “the internet.”
It’s where Ordain Women started. They initially used a Google form to collect interested members. On average, Kelly says, there’s at least one person in a given congregation who feels similarly — about feminism, about social justice. “And it’s impossible to find out who they are because there’s never a good time to say, ‘Let’s talk about women and the priesthood,’” she says.
The church likes to present itself as monolithic, but in the religion’s brief lifetime, many sects have broken off. The largest of them, today, has around 250,000 members. They have all called themselves “Mormon” without headquarters’ permission.
In general, people just don’t. “The pressure is so distilled and acute, and you feel it so intensely that you know what you’re not supposed to talk about,” says Kelly. The candid conversations happen only online, where identities — and therefore one’s standing in the church — are protected. “That connects the one person in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the one person in Duluth, Minnesota, to the one person in Mexico City who all have these same ideas, and they can come together,” she says, then pauses for a laugh. “I feel like I’m explaining the internet. The beauty of the internet is manifest.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disagrees. Headquarters declined to talk specifically about how gatherings on the internet have affected Mormonism, but spokesperson Eric Hawkins provided this statement: “The Church recognizes the powerful potential of the internet and online groups and communities for both good and bad. It neither endorses nor discredits these sites and their influence.”
But they definitely don’t like everything that happens online. That’s why they excommunicated Kelly in 2014.
For those who remain in the church but attempt to “navigate the Borderlands” — Sunstoner lingo — there is safety in secret Facebook groups, assurance in the anonymity of WordPress profiles, security in indecipherable Reddit handles. Because if you say too much too loudly, you’re likely to find yourself cast out.
The church’s early digital problem was that people could find anti-Mormon information on webpages, but today, its bigger problem is that through social media, people can easily find like-minded others around the world to discuss and share that information with. So now even non-bloggers, non-podcasters, and people who aren’t inviting polygamists to symposia are called in for discipline— just for comments they make on Facebook.
In that way, the church has walked back even its recent pseudo-tolerance of public dissent. It put up with Dehlin’s controversial podcasts for a full decade before anything happened. And for a few years — from around 2008 to 2013 — Dehlin felt hopeful about the church’s direction. Headquarters actually asked him to analyze why Mormons leave the church. Because if anyone’s finger was on the malcontents’ pulse, it was Dehlin’s.
So he conducted a survey, which revealed that the largest leave-taking took place when members discovered true-but-damning historical information about the church — information that they felt the church had hidden from them. Partly in response to that revelation, the church published a series of essays online, addressing thornier parts of church history, like how DNA studies show Native Americans aren’t of Middle Eastern descent, or how polygamy really went down. The thinking goes like this: If you acclimate people to troubling information, they’ll mind it less, especially if you preempt them.
Then there were church-created sites like MormonAndGay.org, where members can find out that the church embraces its congregants with a “same-sex attraction.” and connect with gay people who love their opposite-sex spouses or who remain celibate and alone. Or they could visit the Mormon Channel. With radio, podcasts, videos, and daily quotes, it’s the church’s own version of the Dehlin’s Open Stories Foundation.
But around 2013, the church started ramping up its homophobic rhetoric. Dehlin, whose psychology Ph.D. dissertation is about LGBTQ LDS people, knew that obedient gay Mormons had a low quality of life. “The extent to which I am silent and give money and time and my name to this church, and they are literally causing young kids to hang themselves from the rafters in the garage or shoot themselves in the head … I realized that I couldn’t hold back from throwing punches,” he says, referring to Utah’s high suicide rate of 10 to 17-year-olds, nearly three times the national rate per 100,000.
He gave a TEDx talk about being a Mormon ally for LGBTQ people. He started criticizing the higher-ups on Facebook. In 2014, he was called to his bishop’s office and then the stake president’s office. “The only way I could keep from being excommunicated was to take down Mormon Stories,” he says, “to stop being a public supporter of same-sex marriage and women’s ordination, and to never again speak out publicly in any way that caused people to doubt,”
He declined. “For me, it was a very un-Mormon thing to say, ‘Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek truth. Keep it quiet. Shut it down. Know your place,’” he says. The church excommunicated him on February 8, 2015.
Eight months later, on November 5, the church came out with the “November policy,” in which people in committed same-sex relationships were declared to be apostates. The church had always said same-sex relations were sinful, even excommunicable, offenses. But making “married queer” the worst thing you can be — codifying the breakup of families, banning kids from baptism, and requiring them to reject their parents — this was a different story.
I didn’t talk about the policy much with my parents. Not speaking about such things was part of our unspoken familial deal. But what I didn’t really know was that my mother was already struggling with reconciling her personal beliefs with the church’s. And she had taken her cognitive dissonance to the internet even before the policy, and with more fervor after. I knew she had been posting ally-like things on Facebook, shared from Mormon support groups.
‘For me, it was a very un-Mormon thing to say, ‘Don’t ask questions. Don’t seek truth. Keep it quiet. Shut it down. Know your place.”’
The biggest group was “Mama Dragons” — protective Mormon mothers of gay kids. Mama Dragons began as a private message thread between about seven mothers. Today, its closed group has around 1,700 members. After the November policy, the Dragons began breathing fire. And in mid-May 2016, six months after the policy was announced, my parents called. With little preamble, they said that they believed the policy wasn’t inspired by God. They wanted to see me happy with a partner. They would not be attending church anymore.
I barely responded, unsure how to convey my relief, because that would have revealed how much their affiliation with the church had hurt me. I know I said thank you; I think I said it meant a lot. Whatever I said, it was platitudes.
“Will you go to another church?” I asked, deflecting. “Unitarians are nice.”
“We’ll go to the church of hiking on Sunday,” Mom said.
When you disagree, do you stay or do you go? Some people, like me, leave Mormonism — behind. Others stop attending church but still consider themselves Mormon. They may connect to the religion only as a heritage, or hang on to certain doctrines and values — like doing service or some of the tenets in the Book of Mormon — and not others.
Some of these leavers try to transform the church from the outside, so that they can eventually come back into the fold, or so that family and friends can have more open lives. But a lot of people stay, quietly espousing non-standard Mormonism. Dehlin told me the motivation is often “tribal”: They care about their community, and when a person leaves the church, their relationships often fall apart. So they exist on the margins, or, as Sunstoners call it, the borderlands.
But why don’t the leavers and the liberal stayers band together to schism — make a Reform Mormonism — instead of waiting around? After all, one person’s heresy is another’s new religion. When Martin Luther didn’t think the Pope had control over purgatory, he kicked off the Protestant Reformation. When King Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce, he separated the Church of England from papal authority. But the thing is, not everyone feels like they need validation — from Mormons headquarters or from anyone else.
The internet has helped people feel comfortable personalizing religions. In a 2012 review of research on religion and the internet, digital religion scholar Heidi Campbell said, “Religion online encourages religious experimentation in ways that may lead to alternative, highly personalized narratives of faith.” In the secular world, blogs turned everyone into a pundit. In the spiritual realm, online media allow non-prophets to become clerical authorities. Some Mormons are okay with doing that— and are still staying Mormon, at least in their own minds.
Today, no matter how Mormons tailor their spirituality, they find others doing the same. On MormonSpectrum.org, visitors can find hundreds of groups sorted into “orthodox,” “unorthodox,” “exploring,” “post- and ex-,” “apologetics,” and “LGBTQ” categories. The very existence of these communities — the knowledge that there’s someone else out there — can validate off-script spirituality. And the digital groups spread IRL. Members help each other move to new houses. They visit sick members in the hospital. They sit outside LDS temples with apostate parents banned from their children’s weddings. It’s all very Mormon.
My mom and I decide to go to karaoke. I map the Park City address Dehlin sent me, assuming it’s some kind of dive bar. But onto my screen pops a humongous house. When I Google the address, I see the words “North America’s largest ski-in-ski-out homes.”
“Oh, shit,” I say, and stare at my suitcase. My mom sits on the bed while I throw deeply uncool cardigans around.
Out of nowhere, she asks, “How did you decide to leave the church?” I freeze, a shirt swinging in my grasp.
I want to make a joke, to half-ass an answer so I don’t have to share any actual emotions. But I push down the years of conditioning, and I tell her:
In college, I’d read about the first gay couple to get married in California in 2004, and I was happy for them, but I knew I shouldn’t be. That night, I was reading A Passage to India, in which the female British characters question and push back against the social norms of colonization. These women are braver than me, I thought. They trust their own takes on a situation they think is wrong. And here I am, a 21st-century woman in a dorm room at a women’s liberal arts college, and I trust what an old man in Utah says, even when all the cells inside me say something different? I closed the book, started crying, and told my roommate I didn’t think I was Mormon anymore.
I tell my mom this, and I also tell her that becoming un-Mormon tore my teenage life apart for a while. She didn’t know because she didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell her because I thought she was busy worrying about how I was maybe going to Outer Darkness. We’d both been busy fighting and, more often, silently feeling our feelings hundreds of miles apart.
“We kind of left church for the same reason,” I conclude.
She nods and smiles. “I guess we did,” she says.
The karaoke mansion turns out to belong to the founder of headphone maker Skullcandy, also a former Mormon. When we get to the karaoke room, it’s already crowded; Tyler Glenn is handing microphones to the coleaders of a pro-choice group. Drinks are on the table — Diet Coke and water in cartons.
My mom and I stand in the throng, but not too far in where someone might think we actually want to sing. Glenn cues up the next selection: “Sexual Healing.” He probably never imagined himself in a room full of Mormon heretics and apostates who met on the internet — who were watching someone else sing openly about sexuality, who were happy with him as he is.
The Sunstone Symposium had opened with a prayer. “There are some things, Lord, that we need to wrestle with like Jacob wrestled with the angel,” the speaker said. “Whatever faith we had, we are asking that it be no more. So that our tomorrow has much less of what is abominable.” Looking around this living room, I see for a second what it is that these New Mormons want to hang on to. Which is, mostly, each other.
My mom leans over and repeats what she’s said several times this weekend: “These are my people.” For the first time since I left the church, I don’t mind if someone mistakes me for one of them, too.
Sarah Scoles is a freelance science writer, a contributing writer at WIRED, a contributing editor at Popular Science, and the author of the book Making Contact: Jill Tarter and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.