‘It just hurts my heart’ — How COVID dissent pushed some Latter-day Saints away from their church

When the fellowship they yearned for turned to bickering, doubts arose and faith crises ensued.

It was six months into the COVID-19 pandemic when things became most frightening for John Davis.

His grandmother, who was 82 years old, had tested positive for the virus. Her symptoms were mild, at first, but she couldn’t go back to her nursing home and had to stay at a COVID care center in Salt Lake County.

Davis, who lives in Spanish Fork, was relieved when his grandmother was released. But a few days later, he got the news that she was in the hospital. Her kidneys were shutting down. Her brain, too. The doctors told his family COVID had caused too much damage. She died two days later. Davis was devastated.

That wasn’t the worst of it.

To Davis, it was clear that his grandmother had died of COVID. To other family members, though, that wasn’t just a matter of debate; it was part of an international conspiracy.

Since she wasn’t positive for COVID at the time she was readmitted, the family members were angry when the hospital put “complications from COVID” as her cause of death. They said the hospital was just trying to boost its COVID numbers so it could bill the government for more money.

At the funeral, they didn’t mention the virus. And a lot of them didn’t wear masks.

Feeling unable to mourn alongside his family, Davis turned to his faith community. He expected fellow Latter-day Saints to comfort and support him. Instead, they also argued with him about what had killed his grandmother.

“Well, she was old,” one congregant said. “Was it really COVID?”

That, Davis said, was the peak of his faith crisis — a crisis other Latter-day Saints have run into after they became turned off when they saw how fellow believers turned on one another over pandemic responses, ranging from mask-wearing to physical distancing to vaccinations.

When fellowship turned to infighting

(Photo Courtesy John Davis) John Davis encountered a faith crisis when he saw how fellow Latter-day Saints reacted to COVID-19 restrictions.

The 40-year-old Davis was born and raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was baptized when he was 8, and he loved the church because of the community it offered. That fellowship, he said, was usually enough to make him stay, even when at times he had doubts.

When he began to struggle to come to terms with his church’s legacy of discrimination — Black members weren’t permitted to hold the faith’s lay priesthood or enter its temples for more than a century — he still wanted to be a part of the religion because he felt that while the church couldn’t escape its past, members were trying to make amends.

When he faced another faith crisis over a now-discarded policy that barred the children of gay couples from receiving certain blessings in the church, he stayed to be an ally from the inside and hoped other members would follow his example.

In March 2020, though, soon after the pandemic began, the way Davis’ church community behaved changed his perception.

“It was just people reacting to the pandemic and not actually trying to do the right thing for each other,” he said. “People didn’t care if they got COVID and didn’t seem to understand they could spread it to someone more vulnerable to the disease. People were fighting mask orders.”

Up until then, Davis thought Latter-day Saints had one another’s backs. When he saw how many members around him were handling the crisis, cracks started to form in the foundation he had left.

“It broke the idea I had of the community a church can bring,” he said.

Davis stopped logging on to the virtual church services for a while. He said he still had faith in his beliefs but not in the institution and the people.

“When a faith crisis happens, there’s a disconnect between the two,” he said. “For me, it’s that your beliefs want you to stay, but the flaws of the institution push you away.”

He’s not alone in that feeling. During the pandemic, other Latter-day Saints also have been troubled by the behavior of fellow members, prompting them to view their church in a different light.

‘What really got me in a spiral’

(Photo courtesy of Bryan Mortensen) Bountiful resident Bryan Mortensen became dismayed that fellow Latter-day Saints did not support the church's COVID-19 restrictions.

Bryan Mortensen has seen fellow Latter-day Saints wishing for a chance to prove their faith — just like the pioneers who came before them did when they were forced to flee to the West.

Then, Mortensen said, he saw those same members acting as though wearing masks and staying home were burdens too big to bear.

At first, the Bountiful resident said, it seemed to him as though the Lord had prepared the church for the pandemic. The faith had shifted toward home-centered, church-supported worship and study. Members had access to technology like Zoom. And church President Russell M. Nelson, the man they consider to be a prophet, seer and revelator, had been a renowned heart surgeon. So, initially, Mortensen felt proud of, and confident in, his church.

His confidence waned after seeing members’ actions.

“What really got me in a spiral was watching all these people I’ve grown up with and all of these leaders who taught us to care about and serve the communities we live in,” he said, “and then to hear those same people kind of say, ‘People are gonna die? Oh well.’”

Usually, Mortensen said, he can see other people’s perspectives. This time, though, he couldn’t.

“It’s really hard to put myself in the shoes of a lot of these members who are saying the church is wrong,” he said of those who have continued to deny the dangers of COVID even as top Latter-day Saint leaders instituted sweeping preventive measures from suspending in-person services to shuttering temples and reassigning missionaries. “It’s pretty destabilizing to hear from people who my whole life have said the church can’t be wrong. I was like, ‘Oh, I thought we couldn’t pick and choose?’”

When church leadership started urging members to wear masks, Mortensen said, many Latter-day Saints acted like it was a decree from King Noah, a wicked monarch from the church’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon.

“There’s a mismatch of being taught so specifically about how we’re supposed to treat people in our communities and follow the advice of the brethren,” he said. “Here we are being asked to do some of the smallest things church leaders have ever asked us to do, and yet people’s attitude was, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’”

Mortensen still considers himself a “fully engaged member” but said his worldview has shifted.

“I’m really disappointed by how the membership of the church reacted,” he said. “I know this sounds overly sentimental, but it’s less about anger. It just hurts my heart.”

‘I did not fit that culture’

(Courtesy photo) Liz Morrison and her children.

Liz Morrison remembers when she first put on her church’s sacred garments.

“I started wearing them right in 2004, after I went through the temple to get my endowment,” she said of the underclothing that Latter-day Saints wear as a physical reminder of their relationship with God.

But in September, the single mother of four from Ogden tossed out her garments.

She’s had problems with the church for a while, but events that happened in the past year magnified her disillusion.

“My perception of Christ and God is full of love and compassion and generosity,” she said. “What I was seeing through COVID and the summer and the election, it just became very apparent that I did not fit that culture.”

Morrison remembered reading an article on how to reach perfection within the church. The steps included paying a tenth of her income in tithing, making covenants and building a firm foundation. Those requirements confused her. Why would God require her to pay to get into the heaven he already promised her? Why should she give herself — and her children — expectations of perfection that she can’t reach?

She now believes that God accepts the basics, which Morrison said are to show compassion and love, do your best, personify Christ and be a good person.

Morrison was aghast after seeing members comment on social media when the church posted a photo of President Nelson getting his COVID-19 vaccination.

“The amount of vitriol that was poured out about that,” she said, “I was shocked.”

On Facebook, the post about Nelson’s vaccination received thousands of comments. Some were supportive, but many — even from Latter-day Saints — criticized his actions.

“Taking a vaccine is an individual’s decision and anyone who takes it just because the prophet does is not following their own belief system,” one Twitter user wrote. “I live and follow the prophet in most things but have (to) disagree here!”

Other posts were more contemptuous. The church posted a comment saying it did not approve of profane, crude, insensitive, off-topic comments or personal attacks. That comment also received hateful replies.

After Morrison decided to leave the church, she said her house seemed to sigh with relief.

“All the sudden we just relaxed into our own sense of godliness,” she said. “...We are who we are. We’re doing our best. We’re good people and it’s enough.”

‘Churches are also communities’

(Jeremy Harmon | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) Patrick Mason speaks while recording the 100th episode of the "Mormon Land" podcast in 2019. Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, says members experiencing faith crises as a result of fellow congregants is common in religion.

Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said people usually think of faith crises as dealing with doctrine and history, but there can be social and cultural elements.

“It’s not a bunch of people who come around because they have the same ideas,” he said. “Churches are also communities.”

Experiencing faith crises as a result of other members rather than doctrine is common, since churches are full of people being people.

“Those people bump up against each other and you’ve got all these personalities and perspectives and worldviews,” Mason said. “There’s a lot of things that the people share, but sometimes those ideas or that heritage isn’t strong enough.”

In 2020, Latter-day Saints witnessed other members’ opinions on the pandemic, masks, vaccinations or politics. For many, the core doctrinal beliefs weren’t enough to ignore the jarring differences.

Mason called this type of crisis feeling “squeezed out.” When congregants feel like there’s not room for them, or that their church community isn’t living up to its ideals, they disaffiliate.

Believers nowadays, especially those belonging to younger generations, tend to be less loyal to institutions that don’t fully represent them or their ideas.

“If they’re going to affiliate with them, they want those organizations to represent their values,” Mason said. “When they see the people around them not mirroring or practicing the values they have or they expected, then they start to wonder, ‘Well, what’s the point of being a part of this community?’”

‘A serious test for everyone’

(Photo courtesy of Alin Spannaus) Alin Spannaus is the bishop of a Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saint ward, or congregation, in Salt Lake City.

While for many the pandemic exposed problems within the membership, others view the past year as a way to appreciate the church in different ways.

Alin Spannaus is a Latter-day Saint bishop of a Spanish-speaking ward, or congregation, in Salt Lake City. He said the pandemic brought unexpected blessings.

“A simple, silly example would be to [once again] be able to sing in church without a face mask, for instance,” he said, noting that such joys were seldom seen as privileges before the pandemic. “Then we can start adding to the list. The blessing it is to be able to see each other twice a week in family home evenings or sacrament meetings.”

Spannaus acknowledged the year was full of “serious tests for everyone.” He said some ward members haven’t been coming to church, although he’s unsure if these absences are caused by faith issues or problems with other members.

If it’s the latter, he said, Latter-day Saints should remember that relationships with other members aren’t the most important part of the church.

“If your reason for being in the church is to be social or because you feel involved socially, that’s a good thing to have, but it won’t be enough,” Spannaus said. “Perhaps it sounds like a cliche, but in reality is the truth. It is about your relationship with God.”

Spannaus doesn’t contend that there is no cruelty among some members, but he said that behavior is not tolerated in his ward and needs to be talked about.

“When I was called as a bishop of this ward, I said, ‘Listen, this is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s not my church. It’s not your church,’” he said. Members should act as Christ would, and be friendly and welcoming rather than cold and divisive.

“We need to eradicate those behaviors,” he said. “It’s bad and wrong and against the gospel.”

And it’s chasing away some Latter-day Saints. For Davis — who first lost his grandmother and then his connection to fellow members — this faith crisis might be the last. He said he is “barely active” and feels ready to leave.

“The ideas of religion are basically no longer being applied to the community, and it’s just a dog-eat-dog world,” he said. “That isn’t what I signed up for.”

Karcin Harris is a student in the Department of Journalism and Communication at Utah State University.