When Denisa and I were looking at where we wanted to go after BYU, we both agreed we wanted to shoot for the northeast. Maine, if possible, but we’d settle for anywhere north of DC. This was for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones was, perhaps ironically to non-Latter-day Saints, we felt that Utah just had too many members of our church.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I have many, many family members in Utah. The vast majority of them, actually. But I’d grown up in the northeast, and I’d always observed a stark difference between the experience I’d had growing up in the church and the way the church functioned in Utah. I wanted my kids to have an experience closer to what I’d had than what I observed living in Provo, Orem, and Lindon.
Of course, now that I’m even older, I’ve come to doubt there’s any such “uniform” experience to be had anywhere. Latter-day Saints like to talk about how universal the church is. How you can go across the world and attend a meeting anywhere else, and you’ll still see the same church functioning. No difference! And at first blush, you’d be right. The ordinances are the same. The way church meetings are put together are the same (at first glance). The beliefs espoused from the pulpit are (often) the same.
But the experience we each have as members of this church can be very, very different. Not just from continent to continent, country to country, or state to state, but even within the same stake or even the same ward. So much of what “the church” consists of depends on the friends you have within it, the way you live it, the way others around you expect it to be lived, etc. For example, within my congregation in Maine, you have people who are quite liberal and people who are very conservative. Surround yourself with all of one group or the other, and the sort of conversations you’d have about “the church” and the direction it’s going might be very different.
Yet I still believe the overall sentiment of my earlier opinion (that I wanted to get away from so many church members) was the right one for me. There’s a certain amount of groupthink that begins to emerge when too many people share the same assumed beliefs. Here in Maine, I might have a very different take on some church practices than my neighbor, but we get along, because neither of us assumes what the other believes, and we each give the other the room necessary to live within those belief discrepancies.
Is this making any sense? Maybe some specifics will clarify what I’m talking about.
I could use any hot button topic as an example. Abortion. Gay marriage. Women’s role in the church. But as soon as I trot one of those out, it’ll warp the conversation away from my central point, so let’s use something much simpler, instead. We could use playing cards, or R-rated movies, or caffeinated soda. (To non-members: yes, these each inspire long debates among Latter-day Saints, depending on the crowd.) I’m feeling dangerous today, so I’ll go straight to R-rated movies.
There are many members who believe it is wrong to view R-rated movies. They cite President Benson’s talk in General Conference in 1986, where he admonished young men to specifically not go to R-rated movies. They cite the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which advises youth to avoid movies that depict good as evil and evil as good.
Long time readers of my blog will have no doubt observed that I watch many movies, many of which are rated R. And I’ve been criticized for the choice at times. (I do, in fact, have standards for what I will and won’t watch. My standards allow for artistic license and quality, though. I also believe some movies aren’t appropriate for people based on age. But I won’t get into the nitty gritty.) But I have only been given a hard time about the choice when I lived in Utah. Not since moving to Maine. There are definitely some who have disagreed with my choice (in fact, there have also been occasions when I’ve been criticized for watching PG-13 movies), but there’s no critical mass of members believing the exact same thing, and so it doesn’t feel nearly as oppressive to me.
Now imagine that same debate, but with one of the previous hot button topics I listed.
But again, I don’t know if that’s been my experience because “that’s how it is in Utah” or because “that’s how I experienced it in Utah.” I’ve brought up issues in the past that have elicited very different opinions. One good example is a post I wrote about how women are treated in the church. I had a number of women object, saying they had never experienced what I was describing some of my friends had gone through and what I had observed. That was eye opening to me. I didn’t doubt they hadn’t experienced it (or at least noticed it), but nor did I doubt my own experiences and the accounts of my friends.
Same church. Different realities. All dependent on what each person had lived or observed.
I continue to feel that the church culture in Utah is too homogenized, but I haven’t lived there in 12 years. I base that opinion on my past experiences, my observations of news items coming out of the state, and my interactions with people who still live there. So I recognize that I could be wrong. But I prefer living in a place that’s more of a melting pot. Where I come into contact with beliefs that are extraordinarily different from my own. One thing I don’t like about my corner of Maine is the uniform whiteness of the area. I’d love there to be more diversity of race and religion. But no place is perfect.
I’m not sure what else I have to say about the topic. Basically, it’s an observation about how different church members can be, despite the general outward appearance of uniformity. I don’t believe any one flavor of church member is necessarily superior to another, but I do believe they all should be respectful of each other, realizing we’re all on our own path to perfection, and that includes people not of our faith.
And I suppose that’s all I have to say about that for now.
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