Chapter 3: Five More Causes of Trauma in the Mormon Church

Chapter 2 addressed three causal factors of trauma in the Mormon Church: Unsustainable History, Church Doctrine, and Unsafe Policies. This chapter addresses five more: Patriarchal Structure, Organizational Behavior, Cultural Behavior, Unrighteous Dominion, and Discrimination. Like Chapter 2, the discussion is just an overview and is not comprehensive. Further, not all causal factors of trauma are addressed in my thesis, as there are potentially several but I tried to hit on some of the main factors. If you have not yet read Chapter 2 or Chapter 1, it might be beneficial before or after reading this chapter.

Pictured below is the Church Trauma Tree that was referenced in Chapter 2.

Patriarchal Structure

In The Family: A Proclamation to the World, an official document by the leaders of the Church, there is no question as to the dividing lines of gender: “Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose” (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).  Based on this belief, the Mormon Church is built upon a hierarchical, patriarchal structure.  More specifically, the system is benevolent patriarchy, where women are “pedestalized” and decisions are made mostly by men for their best interest (Hawk, 2014).  The line of thinking is that women need to be protected.  By painting this “moral authority” pedestal, women are not allowed to be real people with flaws.  Rather, women are encouraged to be submissive, dependent on men, and to stay home (Hafen, 1990).  As a result, many women do not finish their education or develop leadership skills.  Men are also hurt by benevolent patriarchy as many feel burdened as sole defenders and providers for their families, and consequently, many do not develop teaching or nurturing skills (Hawk, 2014).

Indeed, a theological complementarian approach is adopted, which promotes definitive traditional family structure. Again, in The Family: A Proclamation to the World, it states that “by divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily to nurture their children” (www.churchofjesuschrist.org). Order in all things is stressed in a patriarchal structure with a man at the head of the family.  It is believed that God has chosen men, “for better or for worse,” and if it is not followed, “there is tension, trauma, and tragedy in the home” (Amelia, 2016).  Men are to humbly and sacrificially lead for the benefit of all.

Yet, despite even the best of intentions, outcome of these systems adversely affect those who are oppressed.  For example, abuse is found when bishops ask youth about their masturbation habits as a morality examination; it is found in teaching women that they must cover their bodies to avoid being raped, assaulted, or harassed; it is presented by barring persons full priesthood participation based on their gender; abuse is seen by condemning same-sex marriage as sinful; it is witnessed by only talking about a heavenly father and saying all, including females, must be like him (Ostler, 2018). 

It can further be harmful and oppressive when women and other groups are not represented in leadership and decision-making as it inherently creates blind spots in logic and thinking.  Research has shown the benefits of women leaders (www.religionnew.com), yet the Mormon Church is not yet open to such findings, perhaps believing God would not be pleased. Women who have made vocal stands on wanting equality have been excommunicated, creating a sense of fear and a need to be silent for those who desire to see more women with influence in decision-making positions (Kelly, 2018).

Organizational Behavior

Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are brought up learning principles like accountability, responsibility, repentance, unconditional love, and humanistic-centered belonging.  Members are taught that these principles are the tenets of their beliefs.  However, sometimes the leaders at the top are seen not following these behaviors, particularly when it comes to corporate and institutional dealings.  For example, some Mormons—and plenty of others—were appalled to witness the Church build a $1.5 billion mall in downtown Salt Lake City and hear the Mormon prophet proclaim, “Let’s go shopping” (Stack, 2017).  Many wondered why leaders seemed more interested in making money than about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked.  The City Creek enterprise did not quite fit the theology and many were left shaking their heads as they saw that the Church was unabashedly invested in corporation financing.

This is particularly concerning as members are required to pay 10% of their income in tithing in order to enter the temple and hold prominent positions in the Church regardless of circumstances, unless one is a general authority.  In that case, one is exempt from paying tithing (www.mormonthink.com) and is given a living allowance of $120,000/year (Dehlin, 2017).  Of additional concern is that the $42+ billion religion (Olaveson, 2016) lacks transparency about their spending and has not reported expenditures in General Conference since 1959 (Stack, 2017). (Added note: this thesis was written before the Church’s $100 billion reserve was leaked…) It is suspected that they are even invested in businesses that go against Church standards such as Budweiser and Victoria Secrets (Curtis, 2018).

Of particular interest are the progressive changes that have been taking place under the new leadership of Prophet and President Russell M. Nelson.  The changes have been coming in almost faster than can be comprehended, which Nelson foreshadowed would happen by saying, “Wait till next year and then the next year.  Eat your vitamin pills.  Get some rest.  It’s going to be exciting” (LDS Living Staff, 2019). 

The genius of the Mormon notion is continuing revelation, which means that whatever the prophet speaks is the mind and will of God (Riess, 2018b; D&C 1:38).  So in essence, members have been prepared for all of the recent policy changes, which God is apparently behind, despite the theology that “God is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Mormon 9:9).  Thus, just a day after hearing that Church services would only be two-hours instead of three, Nelson announced that Jesus is offended and the devil is pleased when members use the term “Mormon” (Stack, 2018). Members were instructed to only use the full name of the Church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—and to correct others when it is said incorrectly (Nelson, 2018).  Such directive indeed seems like curious organizational behavior as the prophets before Nelson have repeatedly endorsed the name “Mormon” (Hinckley, 1990); and also due to the fact that for every time the official church name is searched on Google, “Mormon” is searched between 75 and 100 times (Riess, 2018b).  It is speculated that this change was to separate the Church from dissenters who speak out against the Church.  It separates the Church from such movements as Protect LDS Children, Mormon Stories Podcasts, and the Mormon Trauma Mama, which all shed light on abuse in the Church.  These can now be deemed “anti-Mormon” and are not to be trifled with by those who are true followers.

Further, due to the doctrine of “continuing revelation” (D&C 42:61), the Church is a system of absolute authority.  Because of this doctrine, the Church makes very few attempts to reign in its power, few attempts to understand the damage it does through its power, having almost no institutional safeguards against misuse of supremacy, and instead teaches absolute obedience to that power (Miscellanea, 2018).   In fact, Dallin H. Oaks, a current member of the First Presidency, stated that the leaders do not apologize; they only move forward (www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org).  As such, there seems to be a moral disengagement from the policy changers, which then leads to unethical behavior (Valle, Kacmar, & Zivnuska, 2016).  Further, not helping people understand systemic changes and working toward healing the past in unethical all by itself (Welfel, 2016). 

This is concerning.  The wounded LGBTQ community, in particular, was desperate to hear anything healing about the policy reversal during the recent bi-annual General Conference, which was held only a week after the announcement but leaders wielded their power irresponsibly (Parker, 2019).  The conference was held as if nothing monumental had even occurred. Due to the cold and impersonal way the policy was changed, rather than it feeling like an act of love, many members of the LGBTQ community felt the policy was only overturned because it made the church “look so bad” and yet ironically, there is still “no place for active LBGT members in the church” (Ventura, 2019).

Finally, un-Christlike behavior has been witnessed by those who have been victimized and abused in the system.  Predators have been protected and abusers enabled (Colvin, 2018).  It is painful and astounding to see doublespeak, hypocrisy, victim-blaming, and highly unethical activity from a Church that claims to believe in the Savior’s example.  It is disturbing to discover that the bishop’s abuse hotline has been used to conceal and cover abuse, protect predators, and show no concern to victims of this monstrous behavior (Meier, 2019; www.mormonleaks.io). 

Cultural Behavior

Another traumatic root is cultural behavior.  In the Mormon Church, it can be hard to differentiate between church doctrine and cultural behavior.  Groupthink often occurs, which is when well-intentioned members make irrational or non-optimal decisions that are spurred by the urge to conform to expectations set before them (www.psychology today.com).  A dependency on the group and its leader is developed for problem solving, solutions, and definitions without meaningful reflective thought (Reel, 2016).  Such problematic or premature consensus may be fueled by particular agenda such as desiring to fit in with the right group.  It can also occur simply because members value harmony and coherence above rational thinking.  There is a cultural mindset of not questioning leaders which is enhanced by doctrinal teachings (D&C 1:38).  In these pressured situations, Mormons will often refrain from expressing doubts and judgments or disagreeing with the consensus so as to avoid being viewed as less faithful.  In the interest of furthering the cause of “truth,” members may also ignore any ethical or moral consequences (www.psychologytoday.com).  Members are taught that if the prophet says to do it, even if it feels wrong, they will be blessed for their righteousness (Nelson, 2017). 

A historical example of this type of disastrous groupthink is the Mountain Meadow Massacre, which is considered one of the top ten mob mentalities in the United States (Grant, 2013).   According to historical records, in 1857, Utah Mormons discovered a wagon train of families on their way to California.  For whatever reason, church members felt threatened by this group, and so with the Prophet Brigham Young’s full awareness, the Mormons unleashed attack.  Not wanting to take the blame for the assault, they disguised themselves as Native Americans and enlisted the help of some Paiute “Indians.”  The emigrants defended themselves for five days—until the “Mormon Militia” approached them with white flags signaling a truce.  Low on water and provisions, they gladly accepted the truce and agreed to be escorted into Mormon protection.  However, as soon as they left their fortifications, they were murdered and buried in shallow graves (Grant, 2013).

There is also a bit of a caste system found within the cultural behavior of the Mormon Church.  People are categorized by many standards such as “pioneer stock versus convert,” “rich versus poor,” “served a mission versus did not,” “single versus married,” “large families versus small families,” “served as a bishop versus never held a position of significance,” etc.  Additionally, members frequently idolize leaders as more than men (www.mylifebygogogoff.com).  Members are supposed to be modest and clean cut (Hartline, 2018a); leaders are not to have beards and are to only wear white shirts and are even penalized if they are not (Reel, 2014).  Such behavior fosters a strong “us versus them” mentality that prompts members to accept group perspectives, even when these perspectives do not necessarily align with their personal views, habits, or preferences (www.psychologytoday.com).

A frequent bi-product of Mormon cultural behavior is perfectionism.  We find within the Mormon communities people who feel unconquerable amounts of pressure to always appear perfectly happy, perfectly functional, and perfectly figured (Goldman, 2018).  It affects every corner of the Mormon culture, infecting everyone who tries to walk the Mormon way, which only keeps people from being real about the truth of flaws and insecurities (Pearce, 2010).  Such pressure encourages burnout, disbelief, and dissent.  In fact, 33% of those who left the Church found the cultural behavior within Mormonism toxic (Dehlin, 2012).    

Unrighteous Dominion

There is a special name for spiritual abuse within the Mormon Church that comes from its canonized scriptures.  In Doctrine and Covenants 121:39 it states, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (emphasis added).  Spiritual abuse can be extremely damaging and abusive when church leaders perpetuate this abuse upon members.  By engaging in this behavior, abusers effectively elevate themselves to the role of God.  Abusers expect their victims to be entirely submissive to them and will exact punishments for anything less than compliance. 

Missions are places where this kind of abuse can be particularly prevalent in the Mormon Church.  One young “elder” was so depressed that, in the middle of winter in dreary Finland, he wandered the streets at night, which was against the rules.  Then the missionary finally ended up at the mission home, the mission president chide him by telling him that he was a disgrace to God, to the Church, and to his parents.  The young man was shocked, and meekly asked the president if he could go to another mission, where English was spoken and the climate not so stark.  The president exclaimed matter of factly, “If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it anywhere!  I am going to send you home!”  (Hartline, 2018b).  This cruel consequence haunted this young man for the rest of his life; it was something he never was able to overcome and he eventually killed himself, adopting the mission president’s belief that he was indeed a disgrace to all.

Unrighteous dominion is used to silence, intimidate, coerce, and manipulate others and does not foster a safe leadership structure, which is often found in religious homes.  Victims of domestic violence frequently experience spiritual abuse if they are involved in a religious system that teaches and practices power-posturing (Bilsky, 2013). Abusers will use scriptures regarding wifely duties to manipulate their partners into having intercourse; they will also use scripture referencing subjection to guilt partners into obeying everything they are commanded to do.  Victims attempting to resist are met with rants and accusations about being a failure as a partner and parent to their children (Thomson, 2017). 

Abusers are powerful in convincing everyone around them of their righteousness and are thus able to conceal the abuse.  One victim of domestic violence experienced decades of being beaten, drugged, locked in closets, and tied to beds, all while her husband held high church positions and was praised by all who knew him for his righteous living.  He even convinced a bishop to remove his wife’s temple recommend, even after the bishop had promised he believed the victim and would not turn on her (Hartline, 2019a).  There is little safety to be found for victims in these situations because in a male dominant religion, the abuse is undermined, often unacknowledged, and the traumatized are left without voice, advocate, or professional attention (Thomson, 2017).  As such, spiritual abuse remains a major deterrent to the overall safety and well-being of women, especially those trying to escape an abusive male partner (Miles, 2014).  Experiencing this specific type of abuse can be extremely bewildering, devastating, and debilitating as it affects an individual’s ability to feel worthy of God’s love.

Discrimination

Marginalized groups exist in the Mormon faith, most notably are persons of color, those who identify with the LGBTQ community, women—as formerly addressed—and many others, such as the unofficial caste system as discussed above, etc.  We have a lack of diversity among leadership, which contributes to insensitive and even harmful policies that affect these groups profoundly (Stack, 2017).  Members on the perimeters often feel cast off, discarded, and discounted for circumstances they cannot control. These issues are causes of many people becoming disaffected by the Church.  Statistically, 47% of former members rated the Church’s stance of race and women to be a major factor for leaving; with 48% of those who have departed noted homosexuality to be a major contributor (Dehlin, 2012).

In regards to race, too often we see an absence of people of color being included in conversations of important issues.  We may use/hear terms and cultural appropriations that are offensive to racial groups and do not foster or promote inclusion or even respect.  Historically, the Priesthood Ban prevented the integration of black men from holding the priesthood until it was lifted in 1978 (D&C: Official Declaration 2). Prior to that time, the curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions.  Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than valiant in the pre-mortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings (www.churchofjesuschrist.org).  Church leaders and members advanced these theories as doctrine to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions.  One example was when the Church wanted to place missionaries in Cuba but did not want to give Cubans equal rights.  A man named Lowry Nelson combated this initiative (and was told the Church’s stance on blacks was doctrine, not theory).  He was severely chastised by the First Presidency who told him to “reorient [his] thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God” (Matt, 2015).

The Exclusion Policy, which discriminated against children of parents living in same-sex relationships, was recently lifted in the spring of 2019 (www.newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org).  When the Exclusion Policy was instituted in 2015, it changed the doctrine found in the Second Article of Faith which stated, “We believe that men will be punished for their own sins and not for Adam’s transgression” (Articles of Faith 1:2).  The reversal of this 2015 policy was a great step forward but, as mentioned previously, because of the lack of apology or explanation for why this policy existed in the first place and also why it was suddenly removed, no real feeling of redemption from discrimination from the LGBTQ community was felt (Riess, 2019b).

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