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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- CBS has an app where you can view past broadcasts, which is where I saw this show. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩