Jana Riess: I became a Latter-day Saint 30 years ago with both eyes open, and that has made all the difference

On three decades of belonging and not belonging to the Utah-based faith.

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess, speaking in 2019, says she converted to Mormonism — and sticks with it — because she believes it is where God wants her to be.

It’s a strange thing, joining a church at precisely the time it’s busy excommunicating people who think and sound a lot like you.

That was the case for me 30 years ago. For many people in the Mormon world — and for six people in particular — September 1993 is known for the high-profile censure of half a dozen scholars and writers. All of them lived in Utah. Most of them had in some way criticized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, particularly for its teachings on gender.

For me personally, living far from Utah in New Jersey, September of that year was memorable for another reason. After much study and prayer, I was getting baptized as a Latter-day Saint.

This was awkward, to say the least, since I was a divinity school student preparing to be a pastor. I had over the course of several years quite inconveniently fallen in love with the Book of Mormon. I later joked that I went to divinity school to become a Protestant minister and graduated three years later neither Protestant nor a minister.

It wasn’t funny, though. Becoming a Latter-day Saint not only upended my career plans but also caused tension in my family. Painfully, I lost several friends over the decision. What sustained me was a strong conviction that God had called me to take this step, as weird as it sounded. I had many questions and issues with Mormonism, particularly around race and gender, and yet there was this call. I couldn’t ignore it. I also couldn’t ignore several spiritual experiences I had at that time — events that might individually be dismissed as coincidences but that collectively served as confirmation I was on the right track.

My timing was spectacularly awful. I was baptized Sept. 25, 1993, exactly in the middle of the firestorm of excommunications that constituted the September Six. I was aware of the unfolding purge because it was covered in The New York Times.

As I went down into the water, I knew that some people in this newfound religion probably wouldn’t want me there. But God apparently wanted me there, and I decided to trust in that no matter how bananas my conversion seemed, even to me.

Through the intervening years, there have been occasional external confirmations that this was the right choice, including a bizarrely powerful experience when I had my patriarchal blessing. I’ve never regretted my decision to be baptized. So many aspects of the person I’ve become are thanks to the church — the deep friendships it has brought into my life, the ways it has challenged me to be a better parent, even the fact that I obeyed prophetic counsel in my 20s and started putting aside a little money for my retirement. (As retirement is a whole lot closer now than it was then, I’m grateful that the church prodded me to save for the future even while I was still struggling along in graduate school.)

It’s because of the church that I can make freezer jam and keep the attention of a class of 3-year-olds for more than two minutes. (Sometimes.) It’s because of the church that I discovered that the glory of God is intelligence, and that any knowledge and wisdom we acquire here on earth, will follow us into eternity. Since learning has always been a major part of how I connect with God, that doctrine has been life-giving to me. Mormonism has taught me I’m a beloved daughter of Heavenly Parents, that every member of the human race is my brother or sister and that I will continue progressing and growing after my death. All of those teachings have blessed my life.

But my faith is not the same as it was 30 years ago. I have more love and forgiveness now for individuals and less understanding for the institutions they serve. I’ve witnessed people contort themselves in terrible ways to try to fit the mold the church was selling. Some learned to hate themselves for being born gay, absorbing church leaders’ messages that homosexuality was an abomination in God’s eyes. Others, particularly women but also some men I know, denied their God-given individual gifts to comply with the church’s mandates about what was acceptable behavior for their gender.

While many members are happy with those prescriptions and proscriptions, the ones who aren’t can be severely damaged if they allow other people to dictate their identity, goals and desires. I’ve never yet seen lasting happiness result from denying one’s core ontological essence. I believe there is such a thing as healthy self-sacrifice to benefit others, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking here about the kind of self-destruction that can occur when your religion tells you early and often that, say, only a limited palette of options is available to you because of the way you were born (e.g., gay, female, Black — historically, there are far too many ways the church has marginalized various people).

A growing number of people are leaving the church today, and as part of my research, many of them have told me why. Much of it has to do with a crisis of authority, of finding themselves deeply at odds with what the church taught them they had to be. I am sometimes surprised by who leaves Mormonism and why. I think they, in turn, are surprised by the fact that I’ve stayed and continue to find meaning in it.

In part, I’m able to do that because of my social location as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle-class American woman. Also: I’m an incurable extrovert, which definitely helps. There’s privilege to acknowledge here. The church is simply easier for people who tick those boxes. Latter-day Saints like to say the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, and I believe it is. But the church can be a difficult and lonely place for many, and their stories are painful to hear.

I’m also able to stay because I went into this decision 30 years ago with both eyes open. There’s something clarifying about knowing, even as you’re being immersed in those waters, that your presence in that community could be temporary because of your feminism or your scholarship or your refusal to simply shut up. When you emerge from those waters, cleansed and dripping, you do so knowing six others who should be part of that community have just been cut off from it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)