'Cultural Mormons' Adjust The Lifestyle But Keep The Label

Aug 28, 2016
Originally published on August 29, 2016 9:36 am

On a recent evening in Manhattan's Upper East Side, a group of women have gathered to chat. They're seated in the living room of a cozy one-bedroom apartment.

"I consider myself a cultural Mormon," says Christy Clegg, who grew up active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "I don't attend regular church services on Sunday, but I very much identify with my Mormonism."

The group is called Feminist Home Evening. It's a play on words. Mormon families are encouraged to have Family Home Evening — a night at home — once a week.

Like Clegg, these women represent a spectrum of belief, but it is their Mormon background that unites them.

"The thing that's interesting is I can see another person that grew up Mormon and no longer attends or whatever their level of connection is, and there's that automatic connection," Clegg says.

This group was started about two years ago in response to some high-profile excommunications within the LDS church — specifically, Kate Kelly, a prominent feminist advocate.

"I think at that time we had to talk and process," says Ashley Groesbeck, who has coordinated many of the group meetings. "It is a safe place to be connected to your Mormonism."

The meetings are held monthly, and the number of women ranges from 10 — the number present this evening — to about 20. Occasionally there's a guest speaker, but most often a member of the group will begin the meeting with a short welcome and they'll jump into a discussion.

The topics of conversation can be serious at times. Like the recent change to church policy that prevents the children of gay parents from being baptized. As a therapist, this change really affected Groesbeck.

"I was still working for the church last November when the inclusion policy, or the exclusion policy, rather, for gay members of the church came out," Groesbeck says. "I knew I could not stay. I couldn't live with it anymore, and I quit."

Other topics aren't quite as heavy and might even seem trivial.

"Coffee is a complicated relationship," says Heather McGee Teadoro, who is 25 years old and grew up in Utah. She admits she loves coffee and always has.

As a teenager, McGee Teadoro drifted away from the LDS church, and her coffee habits weren't an issue, but she's recently decided to return. Now, that craving is more problematic.

Mormons don't drink coffee. At least, they're asked not to. They're also asked not to drink alcohol or smoke or shop on Sundays.

Traditionally being called a "Mormon" means you live by these standards. Not doing so raises questions about your faith.

"I'm self-conscious among Mormons holding a cup of iced coffee," says Kate Cowley, 34, a film producer who lives in Manhattan with her husband and three young children. "I would feel, you know, I would feel uncomfortable."

Cowley and her family still pray together, read scriptures and attend church pretty frequently.

"I feel like when we're walking down the street in New York City and I have three kids all on a stroller, I look very Mormon in this community where, [with] three kids, I might as well have a million," she says.

But Cowley doesn't agree with much of what the church teaches. For example, she is deeply unsettled by the fact that women are not ordained to the priesthood. Over the past few months she's become more honest and open with her disagreements, but she doesn't want to leave her faith behind.

"I am determined," Cowley says. "I am hellbent on sticking around and being like, yeah, deal with me."

Others at this Feminist Home Evening feel liberated by their decision to leave.

Stacey Woodward remembers a pivotal moment for her. It was on a Sunday morning. She woke up in time to go to church.

"And as I was getting ready, I just had this real clear thought, voice in my head that said, 'What is your intention behind this? Why are you doing this?' " she says.

Woodward felt uncomfortable with her answer.

"I didn't want God to withhold blessings from me," she says. "I didn't want to bring shame on my family that was so well-respected."

Woodward gave herself permission to walk away, but she admits it wasn't easy.

"I'd never navigated this course. I'd never seen anybody navigate this course, and it was a very painful, lonely place to be," she says.

This loneliness makes sense to Jana Riess, a senior columnist at Religion News Service. Riess is also Mormon; she converted to the church in her 20s, and she knows all about the expected lifestyle that comes with membership in the church.

"There is definitely an expected kind of culture in the church," she says, "and it can be painful when you don't meet those kinds of norms."

She says it's common for religious minorities — like Mormons — to feel that one member represents the church as a whole. And that creates pressure.

"More orthodox members of that minority faith will say we need to have boundaries," Riess says. Those orthodox members might say, "We need to more firmly declare who we are and what we stand for."

For the past six years, Riess has written about her struggles with Mormonism in an online column aptly named "Flunking Sainthood." Initially she got a lot of flack from her Mormon readers. More recently, she's noticed a shift.

"We're a little more accepting than we were six years ago," she says. "And now we're seeing maybe a bigger umbrella, a bigger definition of what it means to be Mormon."

What it means to be Mormon is beyond belief for these women. It's family, it's culture, at times it can even seem like its own language. Ultimately, it's about where you come from.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For most people, it's not a simple thing to walk away from the church they grew up in. That might be particularly true of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Those who leave are in many ways still connected by deep-rooted beliefs and community. And while some attempt to shed that past entirely, others embrace it. They see themselves as a new brand of cultural Mormons. And, as NPR's Lee Hale reports, they're seeking some kind of relationship with a faith with which they're still at odds.

LEE HALE, BYLINE: On a recent evening on Manhattan's Upper East Side, a group of women gather to chat. They're seated in the living room of a cozy one-bedroom apartment. One of them, Christy Clegg, says she considers herself a cultural Mormon.

CHRISTY CLEGG: I don't attend regular church services on Sunday, but I very much identify with my Mormonism.

HALE: The group is called Feminist Home Evening. It's a play on words. Mormon families are encouraged to have family home evening, a night at home once a week. And although these women are united by their Mormon background, like Clegg, they represent a spectrum of belief.

CLEGG: The thing that's interesting is I can see another person that grew up Mormon and no longer attends, and there's that automatic connection.

HALE: The topics of conversation can be serious at times, like the recent change to church policy which prevents the children of gay parents from being baptized. As a therapist, this change really affected Ashley Groesbeck.

ASHLEY GROESBECK: I was still working for the church last November when the inclusion policy - or the exclusion policy rather - for gay members of the church came out.

HALE: It made her feel conflicted about both her church and her livelihood.

GROESBECK: I knew I could not stay, like - I just couldn't live with it anymore, and I quit.

HALE: Other topics aren't quite as heavy, and Heather McGee Teadoro realized that they might even seem a little trivial.

HEATHER MCGEE TEADORO: So, personally, I love coffee. I just do, and I always have.

HALE: It sounded a little bit like this is like a coffee drinkers anonymous...

(LAUGHTER)

TEADORO: Coffee is a complicated relationship.

HALE: This complicated relationship might seem strange to an outsider, but within the church, the decision to drink coffee is a big deal because Mormons don't drink coffee. Well, they're asked not to, and they're asked not to drink alcohol or smoke or shop on Sunday. Traditionally, being called a Mormon means you live by these standards, not doing so raises questions about your faith.

KATE COWLEY: I'm self-conscious among Mormons holding a cup of iced coffee. I would feel uncomfortable.

HALE: This is Kate Cowley. She, her husband and their three young children still pray together, read scriptures and attend church pretty frequently.

COWLEY: I feel like when we're walking down the street in New York City, and I have three kids all on a stroller, I look very Mormon in this, you know, community where it's like three kids. I might as well have a million kids.

HALE: But Cowley doesn't agree with much of what the church teaches, for instance, the fact that women are not ordained to the priesthood, and she's becoming more honest and open about it.

COWLEY: I am like determined. I am hell-bent on sticking around and being like, yeah, deal with me.

HALE: Others at this Feminist Home Evening, like Stacey Woodward, feel liberated by their decision to leave. She remembers a pivotal moment for her. It was on a Sunday morning. She woke up in time to go to church.

STACEY WOODWARD: And as I was getting ready, I just had this real clear thought, voice in my head that said what is your intention behind this? Why are you doing this?

HALE: She felt uncomfortable with her answer.

WOODWARD: I didn't want God to withhold blessings from me. I didn't want to bring shame on my family that was so well-respected.

HALE: Woodward gave herself permission to walk away, but admits it wasn't easy.

WOODWARD: I'd never navigated this course. I'd never seen anybody navigate this course, and it was a very painful, lonely place to be.

JANA RIESS: There is definitely an expected kind of culture in the church, and it can be painful when you don't meet those kinds of norms.

HALE: This is Jana Riess. She's a senior columnist at Religion News Service. She's also Mormon, and she says it's common for religious minorities, like Mormons, to feel that one member represents the church as a whole and that creates pressure.

RIESS: More Orthodox members of that minority faith will say we need to have boundaries. We need to more firmly declare who we are and what we stand for.

HALE: For the past six years, Riess has written about her struggles with Mormonism in an online column aptly named Flunking Sainthood. And initially, she got a lot of flak from her Mormon readers, but recently she's noticed a shift.

RIESS: We're a little more accepting than we were six years ago, and now we're seeing maybe a bigger umbrella, a bigger definition of what it means to be Mormon.

HALE: What it means to be Mormon is beyond belief for these women. It's family. It's culture. At times it can even seem like its own language. Ultimately, it's about where you come from. Lee Hale, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.