I first heard the term “church broke” in October 2002. I was a twenty-one-year-old Mormon missionary in Burley, Idaho, listening to one of the Church’s top leaders give instruction from Salt Lake City. I had just been given the highest leadership position a young Mormon missionary can hold—Assistant to the President—which meant I was responsible for more than 180 young men and women proselyting in a territory covering hundreds of square miles of southeastern Idaho.
I was deeply invested in finding out what message he had for us. Mormons believe their church is led by a prophet and twelve apostles, men who have a direct connection to God and are His representatives on the earth. The prophet at the time was a 92-year-old man named Gordon B. Hinckley. He was the ultimate authority on doctrine and policy in the Church. We would be blessed with greater missionary success—i.e., more converts—by learning what God wanted us to do and then going out and doing it.
I was also keenly interested in learning what it took to be a leader in the Church. Before I left home, a senior leader told me of a strong spiritual confirmation that I “would be among the pillars on whom the Lord will build his Church.” I felt that my elevation to the top position in the region signaled that God saw something in me and this would become a stepping stone to even more responsibility.
I was surprised by the message Elder Ronald J. Loveland gave about being a better Church leader. He mentioned love and serving those in need but the heart of his message was that God demands absolute loyalty to the current leadership. We needed to be church broke.
Loveland explained that senior leaders use this phrase to bring to mind a horse who is so obedient he has lost his will. Not only will the horse do what it is told, it won’t even question why or doubt you are right. For a typical Mormon unquestioning loyalty means attending three hours of church weekly, fulfilling a responsibility in the congregation, missionary evangelizing, donating 10 percent of your income to the Church, and following whatever is taught from Salt Lake City. The restrictions on sex before marriage, alcohol, coffee, and tea are the bare minimum. What the Lord really wants is total and enthusiastic devotion. I vowed to be church broke.
I recently heard the term again while watching a “Mormon Leaks” video on YouTube. The clips show a group of Apostles with other top leaders in Salt Lake City receiving briefings from academics and other prominent people. One video recorded in November 2008 featured former Senator Gordon Smith, a Mormon from Oregon who had just lost his seat in the U.S. Senate. He professed that his loyalty to the Mormon Church leadership was a higher priority than his responsibility to constituents in Oregon. The head of public affairs for the Church in Washington, D.C., praised Senator Smith, describing him and even his Senate staff as church broke. Smith has since been trusted with a senior leadership position within the church.
True believers should trust whatever the Lord’s prophet decides. Never mind that the entire senior leadership consists of white men, virtually all with deep connections to the same homogeneous and politically conservative part of the United States.
The Mormon Church broke on November 5, 2015. At least, it did for me. That was the day a new policy became public which formally declares being in a homosexual marriage to be apostasy, requiring local leaders to hold a disciplinary council which could result in excommunication. This puts gay marriage in the same category as rape and murder.
Further, the new policy says children of gay parents are not allowed to be baptized and thus cannot participate fully in church life until they are eighteen years old, and even then only as long as the child “specifically disavows the practice of same-gender cohabitation and marriage” and “does not live with a parent who has lived or currently lives in a same-gender cohabitation relationship or marriage.”
Gay people may remain in good standing in the church as long they follow the same standards as everyone else who is not married. They must commit to a life of celibacy in a church that heavily emphasizes the eternal significance of marriage and family, but without even the hope of intimate companionship. Their children can only participate if they formally “disavow” a parent.
I believe unequivocally that this policy is wrong. It is cruel and harmful. The irony is that for many years the Church encouraged gay people to marry someone of the opposite sex, promising that their homosexual feelings would be removed. Many of these marriages were predictably unfulfilling and ended in divorce. Now their children are being punished for decisions made by parents who trusted and were trying to obey direction.
The explanations given by Church leaders in the weeks after November 5th only made things worse. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, one of the Twelve Apostles, participated in a hastily staged media event trying to soften the blow by saying this policy “is about family; this is about love.” Children of gay parents shouldn’t have to deal with the dissonance and so we won’t include them. Another Apostle, Elder David A. Bednar, did not help when he tried to say that God loves everyone regardless of their orientation, but actually said that “There are no homosexual members of the Church.” President Russell M. Nelson, the man next in line to be prophet when the current leader dies, defended the change, emphasizing that this was not just policy but doctrine. This was the result of divine revelation and was the “mind and the will of the Lord.”
The November 5th policy does not just affect gay people and their children. Nelson’s comment raised the stakes for everyone in the Church, making it a test of loyalty and faith. True believers should trust whatever the Lord’s prophet decides. Never mind that the entire senior leadership consists of white men, virtually all with deep connections to the same homogeneous and politically conservative part of the United States. Nelson further warned that doubters and dissenters would try to convince the faithful that the leaders are wrong. He described people who speak against the Church and its policies as “servants of Satan.” This hyperbolic rhetoric seems easy to dismiss with a little distance, but consider the trauma that comes from hearing one of the men you have most looked up to in your adult life describe you as a servant of Satan.
What is a good Mormon to do if they are told to do or believe something that conflicts with their conscience? The Church sends mixed messages.
What is a good Mormon to do if they are told to do or believe something that conflicts with their conscience? The Church sends mixed messages. On the one hand, we are encouraged to pray for ourselves and find our own answers directly from God. On the other, we are told repeatedly that the Lord will never allow the prophet to lead the Church astray. Pray and think for yourself, but doubt any answer that is not perfectly consistent with official declarations from Salt Lake City. Suppressing one’s conscience thus becomes the ultimate act of faith. Complicating the dynamic further is that there is a history of dramatic policy change such as ending polygamy and giving black men the priesthood and therefore them and their families access to the most important rituals. Progressives who are informally or formally punished might turn out to be on the right side of history.
I first experienced the tension between conscience and faith in 2008 when I was troubled by the Church’s involvement in California’s Proposition 8, where Apostles encouraged members to give their time and money to fight a gay marriage ballot initiative. Thousands did, believing this to be an edict from God. They wrote checks and went door to door in their neighborhoods. I did not live in California and so was not directly affected, but this was the first time I remember seeing the Church take such a public stand on a politically charged issue. Talking about public policy had always been taboo but was now institutionalized. I was overwhelmed by the dissonance.
After Prop 8, I decided to trust the promise I made hundreds of times as a missionary that God would give direction if I examined an issue and then went to Him in prayer (Doctrine and Covenants 8:2, 9:8-9, Moroni 10:8-10). I extensively studied the peer-reviewed literature on issues such as the effects on children of being adopted by gay parents. I read scriptures. I studied the words of church leaders. I asked God: “Is gay marriage wrong? Should I participate in blocking it?” I had what I could only understand as a spiritual confirmation in which I trusted my conscience to decide the Church was wrong on this issue and I support gay marriage. I felt in my heart and mind that denying gay people the ability to marry the person they love is unfair and inconsistent with Christ’s message.
I was concerned about the theological dominoes that fall if the prophet and apostles were so blatantly wrong on such an important issue. Was Joseph Smith really a prophet? Is the Book of Mormon really scripture? Are there really any eternal implications of the temple rituals and the unique Mormon underwear I wore?
Mormonism does not make it easy to live with this dissonance. There are five Sundays a year in which every member is asked in a worship service to raise their right arm to the square and publicly affirm that they sustain the prophet and apostles. This is technically a vote fulfilling a scripture which says that “all things shall be done by common consent in the church.” Dissenting votes are allowed, but there is never a notice and comment period as there is in public policy, and the result is almost always unanimous in favor of whatever is announced from the pulpit. In 2015, when five people voted no among the 20,000 people attending the church’s semi-annual conference, that number was considered high and provocative.
Every member also has to pass a series of personal interviews once every two years in which they are asked multiple questions about their loyalty to the church leadership and standards. For example, they are asked whether they “support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints?”
The Church had drawn a line in the sand and I was on the wrong side
Full participation in the church is not allowed for anyone not giving the right answer to these questions. This includes most leadership positions within local congregations and access to rituals considered necessary for salvation. These interviews were painful for me after 2008, but I rationalized that the wording of the question asked if I “sustain” the leaders, not whether I agreed with them. I could respect that they were the ones in charge even if I felt they were wrong. I once jokingly asked if being a registered Democrat counted as supporting a group opposed to the Church. My leader was not particularly comfortable with the question but chuckled and passed me.
This dissonance became too difficult in the summer of 2012 when I was asked to continue volunteering as a Cub Scout leader for our congregation’s young boys at the same time as the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) national organization was defending its ban of gay youth and gay leaders. Leaders from the Mormon Church have historically had a particularly prominent voice on the BSA board of directors and I worried they were using this position to slow, rather than advance, progress. I could not stomach the thought of being asked to enforce this policy and so I did something very un-Mormon—I resigned from the position out of protest. My Bishop took it well, allowing me to change roles without losing my good standing. I wasn’t asked, but I felt the need to tell him that I would not talk publicly about my decision on Facebook or to the media.
The last time I had a “worthiness” interview was April 2013. My local leaders encouraged me to come in when my status expired two years later, but I turned them down. I was upset over the public excommunications of critics, most notably Kate Kelly who led a movement advocating for the prophet to ask God whether women could be allowed to hold the priesthood and thus join the highest levels of leadership, and John Dehlin who ran a popular podcast in which he interviewed both believers and doubters.
The Church had drawn a line in the sand and I was on the wrong side. There was no way I could in good conscience answer that I did not support or agree with individuals not accepted by the Church given that I agreed with people the Church had just kicked out. I should be clear that many people I admire interpret the question differently and feel comfortable giving the right answers to these questions even though they agree with me on specific policies. I do not judge them, but I couldn’t do it.
For the first time in my adult life, I considered disaffiliating myself with the Church. Despite my anger and disappointment, the idea of leaving seemed too drastic. My kids loved going to church and we loved the wonderful community and network of friends. My extended family members are mostly devout Mormons and would take it very hard if I stepped away. One of the core Mormon doctrines is that heaven isn’t heaven without all your family there, and that the only way to get there is to be a faithful Mormon. The decisions my wife and I make thus have eternal implications for parents, in-laws, siblings, grandparents, cousins, and other loved ones.
Yet going to church on Sundays was overwhelmingly frustrating. People were kind and pleasant, but I did not feel safe sharing my true feelings, either because I would be shot down or because I felt bad at the thought of complicating someone’s faith. I also resented that people felt comfortable sharing homophobic and insensitive comments.
The experience on Sundays was particularly disappointing because I was simultaneously enjoying the satisfaction of having a voice and advocating for policies I believed in with respect to health reform in the U.S. I had just completed a dissertation on federalism and the creation of health insurance exchanges as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). This research gave me unique insights which I brought to bear on a major Supreme Court case. I co-authored an amicus brief submitted to the Court, wrote an article in The New England Journal of Medicine, was quoted by The New York Times editorial board, and was lead author on an op-ed in The Washington Post. I was outside the Supreme Court as the ruling was announced that the Obama administration had won in King v. Burwell. It was exciting and gratifying to publicly play a role in a debate that I believe maintained access to health insurance for millions of people.
I went back to the Supreme Court the next day to celebrate the ruling that legalized gay marriage. It was a moving experience to see families embracing and men proposing to their boyfriends. But I felt shame over my silence on this issue. I was also worried about how my church would respond.
The Church a few months before had led negotiations over a bi-partisan bill in the Utah Legislature which protected gay people from housing and employment discrimination. But the religious freedom side of the compromise allowed the Church to continue discriminatory practices at Brigham Young University without repercussion. The first reaction from the Church to the Supreme Court’s ruling came within a week in the form of a letter from the prophet to be read on Sunday in every congregation in the United States and Canada. The letter called for respect and love, but cited the Book of Genesis to affirm that God does not approve of gay marriage. “Changes in the civil law do not, indeed cannot, change the moral law God has established.”
It was hard for me to take this letter too seriously given how much it reminded me of an exchange I had read between an academic and the Church’s prophet in 1947, President George Albert Smith. Dr. Lowry Nelson—a professor at the University of Minnesota who had just spent time doing preliminary missionary work for the church in Cuba—suggested that the ban on black people having the priesthood or participating in the highest rituals would make missionary work very difficult in many parts of the world. The prophet responded that this was God’s will. Dr. Nelson then asked if even on the heels of World War II the prophet was affirming that white supremacy was central to God’s plan. The prophet effectively responded yes. The message from the prophet and his counselors was in “all kindness and in all sincerity,” but “we therefore prayerfully hope that you reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.”
It does not inspire much confidence in the concept of a prophet if he is consistently decades behind social policy rather than at the fore.
The response from the Church’s prophets in these two instances echoes how the Church dealt with polygamy in the nineteenth century. It fought all the way to the Supreme Court in 1879 in Reynolds v. United States for the religious freedom to continue polygamy. It lost the case, but church members were encouraged by the leadership “to obey God rather than man.” Congress passed multiple anti-polygamy laws throughout the 1880s in response, prompting the prophet at the time (Wilford Woodruff) to go into hiding and senior apostles to be imprisoned. President Woodruff received a revelation in 1890 in which the Lord instructed him to end the teaching and practice of polygamy. However, Church leaders continued to practice polygamy well into the twentieth century.
This recent history over polygamy was at the heart of a major national controversy after Utah received statehood and elected Apostle Reed Smoot as one of its U.S. Senators. The Senate held hearings between 1904-1907 over whether to expel Senator Smoot—who himself was not a polygamist—for his leadership position in the Church. This tension was also rooted in teachings that are not common today that the Church is not only a religious organization but the foundation of a political body through which Jesus Christ would rule his Kingdom when he returned to earth. Joseph Smith in the 1840s was not only prophet and head of the Church, but the mayor of its most prominent city (at the time Nauvoo, Illinois) and Lieutenant of its militia. Smith established a separate body called “The Council of Fifty” to be the Lord’s political kingdom on earth and was a candidate for President of the United States when he was killed later that year. His successor, Brigham Young, took a similar approach to mixing church and political leadership, serving for seven years as the first governor of the Territory of Utah.
The degree to which the Church emphasizes its U.S. patriotism and avoids taking prominent stands on most political issues has to be seen in context of this history. As does the way the Church responds to dissent. It does not inspire much confidence in the concept of a prophet if he is consistently decades behind social policy rather than at the fore. Nor does the attitude that forward thinking people should be put in their place and critics are a cancer that should be purged. Is there room for dissent in a church that requires loyalty? I don’t think so. Not right now. Am I brave enough to speak up anyway?
Three weeks after the Court’s ruling on gay marriage and the Church’s letter, I was in Atlanta visiting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. I had the privilege of shaking Congressman John Lewis’s hand while standing in the same spot where Dr. King’s casket had been during his funeral. Contemplating all that these men had sacrificed to fight for a better world moved me. I was struck by a Dr. King quote I read on the way out that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension but the presence of justice.” I was particularly inspired by this quote, given that one of my favorite scriptures to share with people in Idaho was John 14:27, that peace was the reward that would come to Christ’s followers. I vowed to be more courageous in speaking up for justice, for true peace.
I have since spoken up in my own small ways. I have devoted attention on the website I run, www.publichealthpost.org, to the public health implications of LGBT policies. We ran an entire series focused on the illegality of homosexuality in West Africa and its effects on access to HIV screening and treatment for gay men. I am not afraid to criticize Church leaders or Church policy on Facebook. I am writing this essay.
I can’t help but wonder if I will face repercussions. I was allowed to baptize my daughter a year ago in May 2016, even though I am considered “unworthy” but was not allowed to perform another ceremony usually done by fathers because I was not willing to give the right answers to the interview questions. My Bishop had discretion in the first case but not in the second because of the clear wording in the Church’s Handbook of Instructions. The Handbook is effectively the codified statute stating how the church should be governed. The Handbook is actually two volumes, one available to everyone online and the other dealing with more sensitive issues only available to leaders. The public outcry about the Church’s policy change about gay marriage and the children of gay parents erupted on November 5th because that was the day the new wording to section 16.13 of the leadership Handbook was leaked to the public. In Mormonism one cannot simply change congregations to find a pastor whose values match your own. Leaders around the world have some flexibility to apply guidelines to local circumstances, but are obligated to follow the Handbook.
An Apostle is widely quoted as saying that it is okay to disagree with the Church over gay marriage, even on Facebook, just as long as you don’t attack the Church or its leaders. A few people have recently been excommunicated after sharing critical comments on social media and refusing to stop. I have been warned by a friend in a leadership position that Salt Lake City has asked that all dissenting comments on social media be tracked and reported to headquarters. I don’t know if that is true, but I would not be surprised.
I have great respect for my local leaders and feel bad at the thought of putting them in a difficult position. But the stakes are simply too high to remain silent. A well-known activist in Utah says that nearly three dozen families approached her in the three months after the Church’s policy change in November 2015 to report the suicide of a gay Mormon between the ages of fourteen and twenty years old. This is unverified with official statistics, though data from the Utah Department of Health show that the state’s youth suicide rate is more than double the national average, and that it has nearly tripled in the seven years after the Church’s prominent involvement in Proposition 8. There is compelling research published in JAMA showing a strong relationship between state policies on homosexuality and adolescent suicide attempts. It is difficult to attribute these suicides to the Church or any individual policy—and in fact it might be dangerous to talk about suicide as the natural outcome for someone traumatized by church policy—but these trends are tragic and need to be addressed.
I want to be part of the solution but am not sure how. Being able to talk honestly about disappointment and dissent feels like a healthy step, for me and the Church. I wish the Church would reverse the November 5th policy and would apologize for the incalculable damage done to individuals and families. The Church has an opportunity to be a worldwide leader in promoting diversity and inclusion. It needs to stop the mixed message that celebrates tolerance and love while simultaneously calling gay marriage a “counterfeit” perpetuated by Satan. Unfortunately, when a senior apostle was asked about these issues he said the word “apology” does not appear in the scriptures. I support the concept of religious freedom the Church regularly calls for, but do not believe the Church should use this freedom to discriminate or to intimidate those who disagree. For example, BYU students should not be kicked out if they convert to another religion or disaffiliate with the Mormon Church. And I am disappointed by the Church’s recent amicus brief to the Supreme Court over transgender access to bathrooms.
I have accepted that public dissent may disqualify me from serving in the leadership positions that would allow me to influence the church from the inside. But I am not willing to stay quiet. I am unbroken.
David Jones is Assistant Professor of Health Law Policy & Management at Boston University. His research examines the political and policy issues surrounding the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Public Health Post, a forum for discussing and advancing public health.
Image from Flickr via denebola2025.