Thoughts about #Exvangelicals

Image from the 12/01/2018 CBS special “Deconstructing my Religion”

On Saturday CBS aired “Deconstructing my Religion,” a special on the #Exvangelical movement. Exvangelicals are a set of diverse folks who have left Evangelical Christianity and wish to highlight the problems with that particular culture. 1 Because it is easy to misread Exvangelical as Evangelical, I will refer to former Evangelicals as Xvangelicals in this post.

It was an interesting watch for me, since members of the Church of Jesus Christ have had their own struggle with former members of the faith who have raised strikingly similar critiques. Perhaps because of the similarities, it was obvious to this viewer that CBS’s focus on Xvangelicals was because Evangelical Christians are reportedly the only religious community where Donald Trump is still supported by a majority of adherents.

For better or worse, former members of the Church of Jesus Christ can’t accuse members as a group of embracing President Trump with uncritical enthusiasm.

The culture associated with the Church of Jesus Christ resembles Evangelical Christianity in many ways, but there are key differences.

The Rapture

A friend of mine who was raised with Evangelical beliefs once spoke in Church. Though I’ve forgotten what her topic was, I vividly remember the personal tale she told at the beginning of her comments. She was raised in a deeply religious family which had no examples of married spouses. Therefore she was raised by her grandmother, aunts, an uncle, and a parent.

One morning she awoke to find no one in earshot. As the only path to the bathroom would have required her to step on her grandmother’s bearskin rug, my friend did the “obvious” thing and climbed out the upper-story window. She slid to the ground along the rain spout and walked inside to do her business. But as she cried out and continued to hear nothing but silence, she became increasingly convinced that the rapture had occurred. And she had been left behind.

Weeping openly, she wandered into the fields around the farmhouse. After a time she felt herself being lifted up. It was her uncle.

“Honey, calm down! What’s the matter?”

“Jesus has come and caught up everyone into heaven!” She sobbed.

“Nonsense. I’m here, ain’t I?”

“But Jesus wasn’t going to gather you anyhow…”

We all laughed. But the fear my friend had experienced had been all too real and all too terrifying.

In the Church of Jesus Christ we sometimes talk about the terrible events that will occur in conjunction with the return of Christ. But we see the return of Christ as occurring at the beginning of a glorious millennium of peace. Therefore there is no parallel for the terror Xvangelicals describe experiencing as children, taught to expect an imminent and arbitrary Rapture.

Purity

The special starts with a discussion of the cult of purity, that which is unfortunately often referred to as “virtue” by many members of the Church of Jesus Christ. The attractive woman who speaks at the beginning of the special describes the deep body shame she was taught to embrace, the feeling that she could not, should not, allow herself to be sexual or arouse any sexual feelings in others.

Despite the strenuous teachings regarding purity amongst Evangelicals, surveys such as the 2014 Relationships in America indicate that a majority of Evangelicals surveyed had engaged in pre-marital sex. On the other hand, members of the Church of Jesus Christ stand out as being significantly unlikely to engage in sex prior to marriage. 2

There is a slight mitigation to the body shaming within the culture of the Church of Jesus Christ, however. We consider that God has a physical body. We consider that we, as premortal spirits, so desired to share this privilege of having a physical body that we were willing to fight on the side of God. We see production of children as a blessed activity within the bounds of matrimony. Starting in the 1970s, leaders were also proactive to ensure intimacy within the bounds of marriage was understood as appropriate. Therefore sexual abstinence or purity before marriage isn’t as likely to be misunderstood as an end in itself, but a gift to the child of parents who have saved themselves for the other parent of that child.

Male Privilege

The Xvangelicals highlighted in the CBS special commented several times about the way men are considered better than women.

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ, as well as critics, have noted a similar tendency in the culture of Church members.

However, the Church of Jesus Christ has implemented numerous changes in the past year which have made the male and female experience of most members strikingly parallel. While it is true that priesthood keys are still only held by men, President Nelson openly spoke this past October of his persistent answer to why he chose to become a doctor. “I chose to become a doctor because I could not choose to become a mother,” he explained.

While there are too many men in the Church of Jesus Christ who may misunderstand themselves to be better than women (and too many women who feel they are considered inferior to men), it does not appear that the doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ supports such an inequality.

It will be fascinating to see how the 2019 changes to worship in the Church of Jesus Christ further impact cultural habits regarding male primacy. They pending schedules continue the changes to put male and female worshippers on parallel footing in both worship and ministry, despite the continued assignment of “keys” to a limited few, all male.

White Privilege

As a person of mixed race myself, I am familiar with the way culture within the Church of Jesus Christ can seem to care more about White believers than believers of other racial identifications.

Here doctrine is key. The doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ is clear that all members of the family of mankind of equally sons and daughters of God, even if they don’t believe in a God. Every person, no matter their physical form, is an eternal being of infinite worth.

LGBTQIA

One of the notes hit by the Xvangelicals was the dismay they felt regarding the rejection of those who don’t adhere to heteronormative identifications and behaviors.

In a way, some things can be a bit more harsh for non-heteronormal folks within the Church of Jesus Christ than they are for Evangelical Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ has consistently taught that marriage between man and woman is not only ordained of God, but potentially of crucial eternal continuance in the highest heaven. Eternal marriage between man and woman is seen as the highest form of godliness, inasmuch as we belief the God who brought each of our spirits into being was both God the Father and God the Mother (with Jesus Christ as God the Son, who performed the sacrifice required to permit us to return to God, our parents).

The mitigation for any harm caused by this focus on an eternal heteronormative ideal is the doctrine that each individual is co-eternal with God and spirit children of God. The Church of Jesus Christ teaches that we are of royal birth, no matter what we choose in this life.

Hell

Several of the Xvangelicals talked about the trauma they felt regarding the Evangelical doctrine of Hell. At least one Xvangelical asserted that they don’t belief hell is real.

The afterlife taught by the Church of Jesus Christ is far more complex than simply heaven and hell. As expressed in D&C 76, the post-Judgment realms fall into at least four categories. The “hell” 3 taught by the Church of Jesus Christ is mainly a place where God is not, an absence of glory which an individual has to work hard to earn, refusing Christ after having known the fullness of the glory of Christ.

Every other eternal realm is portrayed as a degree of glory. Joseph Smith explained that even the least of these “kingdoms” was so clorious that we would yearn for the peace and joy of even this lowest state of glory.

The culture of the Church of Jesus Christ can sometimes lead members to think, however, that anyone who falls short of the highest glory (where marriage matters) will be eternally severed from the society of those in that highest glory.

An interesting alternate view arises, however, from a vision Heber Q. Hale was asked to share in 1920. Heber described a visit he had in the eternal realm, where individuals from mortality all lived in the same physical plane, even though they were at differing levels of righteousness. Though this vision has not been canonized as scripture, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ asked Hale to share the vision at a Genealogical Conference in Salt Lake City.

It suffices to suggest that the Church of Jesus Christ does not teach of a bleak hell into which insufficiently “good” people will be thrust.

Pressure to Proselyte

The CBS program touched on the pressure Evangelicals feel to convert individuals to the correct Christianity, as all beliefs (including other forms of Christianity) are perceived to be wrong. Though Evangelicals feel pressure to interact with the world, the world is seen as a dangerous place filled with enemies of God.

No one could claim that the Church of Jesus Christ hesitates to proselyte. However there are two mitigating factors compared to the evangelical expectations regarding proselytism that were decried by Xvangelicals.

First, the Church of Jesus Christ teaches that the effort to convert souls to Christ can continue after death. D&C 138 describes this post-mortal ministry in detail. Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ are used to facilitate administration of saving ordinances to the living, but also to proxies on behalf of the deceased. The vision of the Church of Jesus Christ is that non-binding proxy ordinances will have been performed for every soul ever born into mortality, so that all of the tens of billions of individuals who have ever lived may have the opportunity to choose whether or not to accept Christ before Final Judgment.

Second, the world is seen to be populated by the children of God, individuals who each covenanted before mortality to accept Jesus Christ. So even when a “child of God” is behaving in a terrible fashion, we see them as fundamentally divine.

Biblical Inerrancy

One of the articles of faith of the Church of Jesus Christ is “We also believe the Bible to be the word of God, insofar as it is translated correctly.”

Though a significant segment of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ adheres to Evangelical beliefs regarding creation, those within the Church who believe in creation still are taught a healthy respect for truth.

This is exemplified by the teachings of Henry Eyring. By 1978 Henry Eyring was noted as an “internationally prominent Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University of Utah, a former president of the Association for the Advancement of Science, and recipient of many scientific honors.”

In Henry Eyring’s 1978 address, he recounted the advice he received from his father as the young Eyring was about to begin college: “…in this Church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is a part of the gospel.”

No member of the Church of Jesus Christ should feel pressured to reject demonstrable truth because of a perceived conflict with the Bible.

Being Whole versus Being Holy

There is hardly a culture in existence which hasn’t managed to damage some of its members. The Xvangelicals to whom CBS gave a voice continually returned to the theme that their former religion and culture had damaged them. They sought to be whole, even if that was perceived as a rejection of the holiness they had been taught to seek within the Evangelical faith.

I know there are those who feel they have been damaged by the Church of Jesus Christ and its associated culture.

To this I would offer an analogy. In September I managed to damage the rotator cuff of my left arm. I didn’t initially realize when and how I had damaged my arm, I just knew that I was in excruciating pain. And for weeks I was certain that the pain was due to an arthritis that would progressively advance for the rest of my life.

When I finally got in to see a physician, they said I would indeed face pain for many weeks, even months. But the damage to my shoulder could be corrected, whether by surgery, injections, or simple physical therapy.

I thought I would never be whole again, that I would endure pain for the rest of my life. But less than two months since seeing the physician, I hope for a future where my arm is free from pain and fully functional.

The Church of Jesus Christ exists to make us whole, to help us heal and become more thoroughly the precious and divine children of God we are by nature. That will take effort, just as strengthening my arm has taken effort. And sometimes it takes rest from certain activities. But we need not lose hope that we can someday be both whole and holy.

To All the Exes

May life be kind to all, including those who feel a need to distance themselves from the faith community of their youth.

May you someday be able to appreciate the God who inspired your forebears to achieve great things, because of their hope in a Messiah who would save mankind.

May you someday feel no shame in embracing belief, even if it isn’t as unthinking or orthodox as you thought was required when you were young.

Most of all, may you someday find that the Christ you once worshipped is worshipped by others who accept you where you are, who embrace you as a friend, who honor your experiences as a fellow member of the human family.

Notes:

  1. CBS has an app where you can view past broadcasts, which is where I saw this show.
  2. The 2014 Relationships in America study finds fewer than 20% of “Mormons” reported engaging in pre-marital sex. This low rate is borne out in other surveys, such as The Crimson‘s survey of incoming Harvard freshmen.
  3. The actual term, hell, is understood within the Church of Jesus Christ to be a state of mental torment endured by the wicked prior to Final Judgment, rather than the final destination of the most rebellious following Final Judgment. Here I use “hell” to refer to the final post-Judgment state of the children of Perdition, or the lost children.
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About Meg Stout

Meg Stout has been an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ (of Latter-day Saints) for decades. She lives in the DC area with her husband, Bryan, and several daughters. She is an engineer by vocation and a writer by avocation. Meg is the author of Reluctant Polygamist, laying out the possibility that Joseph taught the acceptability of plural marriage but may have privately defied the commandment for love of his wife, Emma.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts about #Exvangelicals

  1. Really informative contrasts. Thanks for writing. Couple small areas that raised my eyebrow…

    “that which is unfortunately often referred to as “virtue” by many members of the church”

    It’s not as if we’re not following the lead of the way God’s servants discuss the issue.

    The difference between virtue and purity is important. Purity within the covenant brings an endowment of power.

    Virtue implies not just purity, but the power that accompanies it. Think about power in the priesthood.

    “potentially of crucial eternal continuance in the highest heaven.”

    Potentially? You’ve been to the temple right? The promises are quite clear. The teachings are clear. We don’t need to water it down. There’s no debate on the issue. It’s like saying potentially Christ can forgive sins.

  2. Virtue, of course, rightly applies to much more than simple sexual abstinence outside of marriage and faithfulness within marriage. I enjoyed a past speech talking about the “ity” virtues, like humility, charity, etc. Sometimes, however, the culture associated with the Church of Jesus Christ reduces virtue to mere abstinence and too often to a responsibility borne disproportionately by females.

    As to the potential, no marriage is guaranteed to endure throughout eternity. But the potential exists for any given marriage to so endure.

  3. Intereting article with many great ideas. The Church’s increased emphasis on being family-centered seems to marginalize women who are never-married, unable to have children, or who are divorced or widowed.

    “I chose to become a doctor because I could not choose to become a mother,” he explained. Childless women are hit really hard when the church marginalizes them. Leaders may not intend to do so when they emphasize families but it is happening, nonetheless. Perhaps a greater emphasis on the Savior would ease the broken hearts of those unable to have children.

  4. Hi Jan,

    As parent to a daughter with autism, I certainly have faced the distress associated with seeing someone yearn to be a mother and wife when that is not realistically possible.

    Meanwhile, my child’s challenges mean I will continue to function as mother to an dependent child for the rest of my hopefully long life – a blessing some might consider less than blessed.

    Just to say that being childless is not necessarily the only life challenge. As a woman who was battered by a man during childhood and then in my first marriage, I could claim that any requirement to honor men is searing. As someone who has endured want and sees others struggling under dire financial burdens, I could claim that any unnecessary expenditure by the Church is damnable. We could always find opportunities to criticize and otherwise dismiss the good the Church does or that God offers.

    Or we could focus, as you suggest the Church do more, on Our Savior and how God and Christ love all of us. For my part, I see this emphasis existing already.

  5. The virtue doesn’t come from mere abstinence.

    But from choosing to abstain.

    That choice makes all the difference.

  6. Hi wec,

    I agree that choosing to abstain from sexual intimacy outside the bonds of marriage is a virtue. I just meant to indicate that it is unfortunate when people think that is the only kind of virtue a child of God can possess.

    But it may well be that emphasizing sexual restraint as a key virtue and even the sole attribute associated with the term virtue may contribute to the relatively low rate of extramarital sexuality practiced by members of the Church.

    If you are familiar with my other writings, you may be aware that I see an extended history reacting to sexual misbehavior that is more proactive and pervasive than existed in other Christian denominations.

  7. Meg, Your use of “the Church of Jesus Christ” to describe the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints really doesn’t work in this posting. It seems to me it would be better if you used the full name, at least maybe for the first time.

    If you’re speaking specifically, in the U.S., “the Church of Jesus Christ” is a registered trademark belonging to another church — it isn’t our trademark, and we don’t want to infringe on someone else’s trademark. If you’re speaking generally, well, we have to admit that many people of differing persuasions like to think of themselves as part of the Church of Jesus Christ. So for clarity, it seems to me that you will want all of your readers to know that your mentions of “the Church of Jesus Christ” really meant the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  8. I think all religions and denominations are subject to pretty much the same human frailties. (And of course culture comes into play in addition to human nature.)

    All four of our canonized scriptures warn us of these frailities: pride, selfishness, unrighteous dominion, neglecting to properly train and prepare children, failure to keep proper perspective of the relative importance of things (eg, fanaticism or scrupulosity). Neglect or failure in any of those areas can cause disaffection among the upcoming generation.

    All religions seem to have similar tensions that need balancing. Such as that between isolation and integration with outsiders. Too much isolation, and many in the next generation rebel against it; too much integration with non-believers, and the subsequent generations pick up more and more of their ways.

    The presentation or delivery method can often be of more influence than the truthfulness of what is being communicated — arrogance or unrighteous dominion can give even a true message a bad feeling. The attitudes and tone of preachers and parents likely has more to do with whether their message is accepted and internalized than whether the principle being spoken is true or not.

    Meg, I’m glad that you posted this. I’ve long said that Evangelicals and Pentecostals are the Christians who are closest to LDS doctine, because they already believe in personal revelation, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit; and not just for a few, but available to everyone. Of those, personal revelation is the key, because that is how receiving a testimony of the Restoration comes about. The crux is: how do we persuade them to ask the right question in prayer? They KNOW that they _could_ get an answer “if” there were such a thing as God’s official/true church.

    In the eyes of Evangelicals and Pentecostals who I used to know, they used to look down a bit on mainline Protestants/Catholics as “not true” or at least not “fully” Christian because of their general non-belief in personal revelation, miracles, and gifts of the Spirit being available to everyone. But yet LDS believe those things, and end up receiving more actual disdain from today’s Evangelicals/Pentecostals than do the mainline Protestants/Catholics, mainly because we have pre-Nicean doctrine, and the Evangelicals, Pentecostals, mainline Protestants and Catholics all have mostly post-Nicean doctrines.

    There should be some sort of missionary opportunity in the Evangelical disaffection that you describe. Maybe not if someone’s issue is worldliness versus the gospel. But if the issue is that some evangelical preachers and parents have given the gospel of Christ a bad taste, maybe we can offer it from a tastier, more pleasant source.

    There are some very Evangelical/evangelical types of passages/scenes in the Book of Mormon: 2 Nephi 31:13 speaks of shouting praises with the gift of tongues. In Alma 18, Lamoni “gets saved” and is “slain in the Spirit.”

  9. Hi ji,

    As Wikipedia is happy to explain, there are numerous different groups that refer to themselves as the Church of Jesus Christ. I think you’re referring to the 20,000 member church that followed Sidney Rigdon after Joseph’s death, also referred to as the Bickertonite church. There’s also a standalone congregation in the DC area with a couple thousand members that calls themselves the Church of Jesus Christ.

    I googled “Church of Jesus Christ” and one of the instances that came up on the first page was a Washington Post article citing President Nelson. Like many they were too lazy to add on all of the name, so they curtailed the name at “Church of Jesus Christ.”

    In the style guide for how to refer to the church, “Church of Jesus Christ” is one of the options.

  10. Hi Leo,

    I get that the CBS piece was one-sided. And I think CBS would have had much more to work with had they done a piece on the folks leaving (or excommunicated from) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They tried to make the fact that the Xvangelical Facebook page has ~3000 members seem impressive. Heck, the exmormon Reddit gets over 1 million views a month (not sure if those are unique viewers or not).

    That said, the exmormon folks got the ear of the New York Times a few years ago and managed to stage long articles about how messed up the Church was. Notably, the paper didn’t allow comments to the online version of the articles.

    I was even personally approached by a NPR affiliate that wished to do a piece where they contrasted me or a conservative friend against what I figure they thought would be right thinking liberal-minded folks. They lost their enthusiasm, perhaps because I talk too much (and am smart) or because my friend didn’t wish to participate (as she’s a mother to around ten small ones) or because they realized that leading Democrats (This was before Harry Reid retired) are members of the Church. So it no longer seemed a great opportunity to contrast a benighted conservative looney religion against right-thinking liberals.

    The GetReligion.org piece lets us know that not every Evangelical has dealt with the silliness the talking heads of the Xvangelical movement recounted. But body-shaming and fear of an arbitrary Rapture aren’t made up. And socially conservative folks tend to make their more liberal-minded co-worshippers and associates uncomfortable. So there was enough truth in the assertions of the talking heads that they ought not be entirely dismissed.

    That said, it’s always silly when only one side of a story is told. And the “Deconstructing my Religion” piece didn’t attempt to portray why there is tension. It would have been interesting to see what leaders in the Evangelical movement have to say about the Xvangelical suggestion that those who have left be welcomed as stakeholders.

  11. Great post! During my time living outside the ‘Mormon bubble’…err, the Restored Church bubble, I made friends with several Evangelical Christians. We had a lot of things in common and were able to support each other in following Christ against a cultural current that wanted us to conform. I feel a kinship to the Evangelical church.
    I also appreciate how you show compassion to people who feel hurt by LDS culture/teachings. I may not agree with their perceptions, but I can acknowledge them and listen to them.

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