on the cover:
In the eyes of their church they are lost sheep. They have fond memories of church, but they have reasons for leaving—which James Ure discovers in these remarkable interviews with eighteen high-profile Mormons. The surprising and revealing commentaries are as varied as the people themselves.
Politics of gender and politics in general, guilt over unachievable perfection, and an inability to accept the basic tenets of Mormonism are among the thoughtful, often touching expressions by people who left active Mormonism to find their own personal path to salvation and meaning in life. It is Ure’s hope that this work will help “active” Mormon neighbors better understand their “wayward” friends.
“I wish with all my heart right now that I had a testimony. I envy people who do … the mind is at ease on a matter that it might be troubled about.” —former Utah governor Calvin L. Rampton
“I consider myself a spiritual person. I do not consider myself a religious person. I think that adherence to form and structure doesn’t allow for one’s own sense of connection or growth.” —Shauna Adix, former director, University Women’s Resource Center
“There are an awful lot of Mormons for whom guilt is a problem.” —Levi Peterson, author and university professor
about the editor: James W. Ure is the author of two non-fiction books, Hawks and Roses and Bait for Trout, Being the Confessions of an Unorthodox Angler. He has written for the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News, as well as for national magazines. He is the recipient of several writing awards; for this book he received grants from the Utah Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts. A University of Utah graduate, he lives in Salt Lake City and works in advertising and marketing.
Leaving the Fold
Candid Conversations with Inactive Mormons
James W. Ure
Signature Books • Salt Lake City
Cover design by Ron Stucki
© James W. Ure 1999. All rights reserved.
Preparation of this work was funded in part by a grant from the
Utah Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Published by Signature Books. Signature Books is a registered
trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Leaving the Fold: Candid Conversations with Inactive Mormons
was printed on acid-free paper and was manufactured in the
United States of America.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Leaving the fold : candid conversations with inactive
Mormons / by James W. Ure.
1. Mormons—United States—Religious life. 2. Ex-church
members—Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Interviews. I. Title.
ISBN 1-56085-134-1 (pbk.)
Acknowledgements [see below]
Overview [see below]
01 – Calvin L. Rampton
02 – Loneta M. Murphy
03 – William Mulder
04 – Levi S. Peterson
05 – Business Woman
06 – Stewart L. Udall
07 – Scott Burton
08 – Met Johnson
09 – Helen Bowring Ure
10 – Betty Condie
11 – Richard Brown
12 – Paul Rolly
13 – Shauna Adix
14 – Civic Worker
15 – Rod Decker
16 – Ardean Walton Watts
17 – Edwin Brown Firmage
18 – Government Administrator
[p.vii]Graciously supporting this project were a number of men and women whose efforts are reflected on every page.
To my wife, Susan Luxton Ure, goes the grand prize for patience and insightful inquiry. Susan lived this book with me, asking the most probing questions. As a result, I came to see certain elements in a different light—a light which, I believe, resulted in a better book. Her demanding honesty ended any thoughts I had entertained about easing through this project with minimum introspection.
My brother, Joseph McCune Ure, measured the book’s progress and provided comments on our own upbringing in Mormonism. Many of our conversations took place on some of the West’s finest trout waters, which seem to have a particularly keen effect on clarifying memories.
The book was honed by my longtime friend Jim Woolf, who agreed to interview me so that I might know what my subjects were undergoing, and so that I might also improve the questions I asked. We discussed the style, approach, and progress of this project on many occasions, and his contribution was significant.
William C. Bailey provided important clarification of LDS church doctrine and terms that arose from my interviews. Bill was especially helpful in providing an active Mormon’s view of some of the questions posed in the process of preparing this book. Douglas (“Duff”) Clawson provided cogent observations and suggested some persons who provided excellent interviews.
Richard Kagel, professor of marketing research at Brigham Young University and president of Kagel and Associates, helped me frame the approach to this book, since originally I was thinking of a statistical work in combination with a study of attitudes. As it turned out, Dan Jones of Dan Jones and Associates had ready numbers due to his vast [p.viii]experience in Utah; I am grateful to him for sharing this knowledge.
Peggy Fletcher Stack, religion writer at The Salt Lake Tribune, was instrumental in helping me arrive at the scope and voice of the book. I came away from our conversations with a satisfied sense of knowing what to do next.
Those who helped ferret out information were Steve Purhonen, U.S. Navy (retired), and Larry Smith, professor of social work at the University of Utah. Purhonen also undertook the daunting task of transcribing three of the more difficult interviews from tape to computer disk, and I grew to trust his judgments implicitly. Jeanene Anderson also lent a hand on some research.
At the LDS Church Office Building, Don LeFevre was gracious and helpful, and we both looked back with wonder and laughter on our days together at The Salt Lake Tribune.
Suggestions for interviews flowed from many sources, including the interviewees themselves. Brent Cameron was especially helpful in directing me to some interviews.
Many thanks to Sandi Olson, who bore the brunt of transcribing the interviews. Her intelligence and cheerfulness made the editing go smoothly. Susan Coon transcribed many of our interviews with dedication and perseverance, in spite of the burdens of a new baby.
Moving from idea to published book requires resources of many kinds. John Netto and J. Lynn and Diana Lady Dougan provided support that enabled this book to come to fruition, as did the Utah Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. They helped fire the confidence necessary to complete a work revealing such varied opinion.
Journalism is an extraordinary and terrible privilege.
[p.ix]If you were raised Mormon in Utah, most likely the church is at your very core, whether you’re active or inactive. You are part of the culture, and no matter how you may try to escape its influence, it’s always with you—like a kid sister or brother tagging along.
Through family and friends, Mormonism shaped your life, insisted you make choices, brought you joy and conflict, estrangements and communion. If you are devout, you know the church has all the answers. If you aren’t, you must find your place in our unique cultural landscape by following another path. Sometimes that path presents uncomfortable footing and struggle, as you’ll recognize when you read the personal stories that follow.
Living in Utah almost demands that you choose sides on religion, and it’s difficult to convince some believers that there is no harm in a thoughtful examination of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon).
This work is an exploration of the LDS church as seen by well-known Mormons, most of them Utahns, all of them inactive (nonpracticing or infrequently practicing) in the church after being active at one time in their lives. This is not an anti-Mormon work; its purpose from the beginning is to create and foster understanding.
You may find criticism in these interviews: no institution with the worldwide profile of the Mormon church is immune to it. But it is also interesting to note that many interviewees articulate honor and respect for the church and individuals in its leadership and its membership. Their views most often reflect thoughtful consideration. And in almost every one, there’s a hint of disappointment and longing, as if [p.x]they’re searching for a promised ideal not yet achieved, perhaps ironically the result of the idealization and perfection taught them by the church.
It is fair to ask, “Do some of these interviews misunderstand the LDS church?” In some instances years have passed since an interviewee was last active. Changes in the church during intervening years may have removed or altered certain factors that escorted an individual from involvement. However, reading will indicate that an individual’s reasons for leaving active participation are usually layered and complex.
Selecting Interview Subjects
There’s no reference available to the public that indicates a person’s level of activity in the LDS church, so I established three criteria interview subjects had to meet.
1. They had to be members of the church (not excommunicated or disfellowshipped and not having asked to have their names removed from the official roles).
2. They once actively attended church functions.
3. They don’t regularly attend church at the present time and don’t pay tithing.
Avoided were those whom Peggy Fletcher Stack calls “Evangelical Jack Mormons,” those who regularly and vigorously foment against the church. I also avoided those transitioning out of the church. This isn’t the place for their stories.
Sought were men and women of intelligence who offer thoughtful commentaries as a result of life experience within the LDS community.
This sampling is not a representative reflection of the attitudes of inactives, but you’ll find recurring themes: repulsed by the zeal of an individual; intellectualized rejection of doctrine; an inactive parent; the politics of gender; and politics in general.
Arranging and Conducting the Interviews
At the outset, I sketched a list of about seventy-five individuals who were thought to meet the above criteria. If you’ve lived in Utah all your life, and if you’ve been part of the Mormon milieu, it isn’t difficult to identify the activity status of a fellow Mormon.
[p.xi]The next step required a certain delicacy, since I was encroaching on the most personal of psychic space. The individual would receive a call which offered an overview of the project, including my criteria for interview subjects; they were then asked if they felt they fit my criteria.
If the answer was no, I thanked them for hearing me out. If they answered yes, an appointment for an interview was made in the setting of their choice, usually in their home or office. If they agreed to consider an interview, they were sent a printed overview of the project. A few I called were not Mormon. Three calls turned out to be to active Mormons.
There were a number of possible subjects who for various reasons were not interviewed. One woman declined as she was in the process of being called in by her local church authorities for questioning. One former beauty queen was about to become active again. Two members of the gay community who were still on the rolls agreed to interviews, then backed out due to possible repercussions. Interestingly, a number of inactive women and one man who are involved in the Utah arts community declined after first accepting interviews. Follow-up conversations indicated they feared the economic consequences as a result of revealing their status. Some turn-downs had to do with possibly hurting active family members. One famous athlete simply said, “It would kill my mother.”
In two instances, interviews were completed before I learned my subjects had been excommunicated, and I reluctantly decided not to include them. I thank these two women for their courage and stories, but they too belong elsewhere.
One interview went for over an hour before my elderly subject revealed he was currently active in church affairs. This in spite of the materials I’d sent ahead.
In total, I taped forty-two interviews. After transcription, I set aside ten who did not fit the criteria. The initial manuscript ran to more than 800 double-spaced pages, and would have been excessively expensive to publish. A decision had to be made: fewer complete interviews or excerpts from all? In looking at the manuscript, I saw that the interviews fell into two distinct categories: those who’d left active LDS membership when they were older and those who’d left as adolescents or young adults.
[p.xii]With the support of the publisher, I decided to feature in this volume mostly the interviews of those who left activity when they were older. A second volume may follow, which would include the interviews of those whose decision to leave came in their younger years.
All interviews took place during the last half of 1996 and the first half of 1997. Each interview was transferred from tape to computer disk. Printed transcriptions were checked against the recordings. Each interview was edited in draft form and all were returned for a final view for accuracy by the interviewee. This was to make certain of names and spellings, and to avoid mistakes that may have occurred in the transcription process. (I frankly don’t trust my own ears sometimes, having recently heard radio commercials offering what sounded like Chili Flavored Rolaids and another product containing a Mickey Mouthwash Ingredient). Most interviewees made few corrections; some made none.
The question of anonymity arose early in the project. Before I began, I was uncertain how many subjects would agree to use their names. Surprisingly few did not want to be identified.
Statistics Relative to Inactives
Utah politicians have long operated on the assumption that the state is “one-third active LDS, one-third inactive, one-third gentile.” At the turn of the twenty-first century, is this an accurate representation? I asked noted Utah pollster Dan Jones to summarize the statistical status of active and inactive members of the LDS church in Utah, figures which his company, Dan Jones and Associates, has developed as a result of long-term research for politicians, businesses, and institutions:
• 69 percent of all Utahns are Mormon.
• Of that number, 55 percent claim to be “very active.”
• 20 percent claim to be “somewhat active.”
• 25 percent claim to be “inactive.”
Jones’s figures differ from those generated by the Mormon church, he says, which claims that 75 percent of Utah is Mormon and that 60 percent of those are “very active.” However, “tithing receipts don’t match those claims,” says Jones, adding that Brigham Young Univer-[xiii]sity’s Department of Sociology has independently confirmed his 69 percent figure. In addition, 75 percent of all LDS call themselves Republicans. Inactives are “definitely more liberal,” Jones adds. Perceptions of the “very active” are that they pay full tithing, attend church regularly, and have current temple recommends. According to these figures, 45 percent of all Mormons in Utah are what the church itself calls “less active.”
Let’s look at Jones’s percentages as numbers: of the state’s roughly 2 million population as of 1997, approximately 1.4 million are Mormon— 770,000 are active, 280,000 are “somewhat active,” and 350,000 are inactive.
The church now counts on its rolls 10 million people; if Utah’s figures represented members everywhere, some 2.5 million Mormons world-wide are inactive.
Many of interviewees used “Jack Mormon” to describe their status within the LDS church, while others objected to this name. It is a term that has risen to popular use and is often applied to those less active. It has an interesting history. One of the first references to “Jack Mormon” comes from B. H. Roberts’s Comprehensive History of the Church, volume 2, page 322, in a footnote. Apparently, Thomas C. Sharpe, editor of the Warsaw Signal, an anti-Mormon newspaper of the 1840s, was one of the first to use the expression “Jack Mason” to refer to anyone who refused to take part in the anti-Mason activities of the 1830s. Sharpe later used the term “Jack Mormon” to refer to people who were not members of the Mormon church but sympathized with the Mormons and refused to terrorize and punish them. For many years thereafter, the term referred to anyone who supported or sympathized with the church who was not Mormon.
Today the term has taken on a different meaning, but no one seems to be able to offer a fully satisfactory explanation of how it evolved. Suggested as analogues for current usage are “jack salmon” and “jack pine.” For Washington state fishermen, jack salmon are young, undeveloped salmon which attempt to spawn. In northwestern timberman’s parlance, jack pines are small pines, not yet big enough to harvest (there is also a separate species of pine called jack pine). This usage would hint that Jack Mormons have yet to fully effloresce, perhaps an intimation that they will mature, see the light, and become full members, an implication many inactives would find objectionable and condescending.
[p.xiv]The LDS church’s historical department in Salt Lake City says the term now refers to anyone who is “a member of the Mormon Church who may not keep the Word of Wisdom or other Church commandments, who doesn’t live his religion, who isn’t valiant in promoting the church.”
No one term can accurately characterize all of the interviewees, since all are different. “Unorthodox” doesn’t really describe them, since many active, tithe-paying members of the LDS church fit that category. Neither does “liberal Mormon,” which implies politics. “Backsliders”? Too pejorative. “Mormons off the beaten track”? Depends on one’s point of view. Official church language calls inactives “the less active.” “Lapsed Mormon” is occasionally used, but it is deficient as well, meaning falling away from a moral standard, or, as the dictionary puts it, “a falling or slipping into a lower condition.” None has the same meaning as “Jack Mormon.” The term feels just right, even a little jaunty. Jack Mormon is in popular use and has a meaning that virtually everyone in the mountain states understands.
A Personal Note
I undertook this book to help determine my own place in our unique social landscape. Complex feelings of exclusion came early to me, and I didn’t feel I could live up to the standards of perfection articulated by church leaders. These feelings were further amplified by acts and comments of active members in both my family and in my local ward (or congregation).
With a head full of Mormonism and a heart empty of faith, I found rebellion replacing a sense of unworthiness, and soon I sought like-minded friends—many of whom were inactive Mormons.
I’d chosen a path that took me away from active Mormonism, and as I looked back years later, I was haunted by a sense of guilt. I felt lonely, disoriented, and without a cultural community wherein once I’d known everyone in every house within a half-mile radius, thanks to my active Mormonism.
My life had become painful. Feeling hostile and bereft of soul, I embarked on an exploration of my feelings. As an outgrowth of this, I developed a new spirituality, deeply personal, firmly rooted, satisfying in its delivery of answers and serenity. But unresolved questions lingered. I wondered about others who’d left the active practice of Mor-[p.xv]monism. Had they found their way? Were they carrying baggage from the past? How did they deal with their feelings, their lives?
This book was a journey to find those others. As I located them and encouraged them to talk, I recognized that for many our interviews were acts of courage. In recognition, to my interview subjects I offer small honoraria in the form of the epigraphs at the beginning of their interviews. Some reflect the character of the person, some contain messages. They are my thank-yous, and the process was delightfully like selecting little gifts.
As we talked, each man and woman provided me with another small piece of myself. I came to recognize the conflict created by some individuals during my early immersion in the church. I remembered feelings of disdain, hostility, arrogance, and defiance. But across forty years, I recalled and felt the love of many active Mormon friends and relatives. Oddly, memory recalls fragrances more than words. At times during the writing of this book, I smelled the freshly mowed grass of my childhood ward, the acrid odor of burning box elder branches in an old stove in a cabin at Tracy Wigwam, the mothball scent on the Sunday suit of my bishop, tomatoes hot from the noon sun of August.
On my journey I renewed ancestral links to those who accomplished so much in settling Utah. The process brought me to respect the lofty goals of the LDS church and created an appreciation for the integrity and unconditional acceptance residing within the hearts of those active Mormons with whom I worked during this project. We can all study the concept of acceptance from truly spiritual men and women, and it’s this quality more than anything else that attracts me to an individual, philosophy, or theology.
After a dozen or so interviews, I observed a change within myself; I reached a state of comfort with myself and, in a shower of realization, concluded that it was no longer important if I was active or not. No one can force me to choose sides. Belief in doctrine is not a prerequisite to giving or receiving love and respect. A feeling of contentment came over me as I realized I had in my own way returned to my tribe, my comforting neighborhood, remingled my blood with that of my great-grandparents who first arrived in Utah in 1849. I realized that all of us—active Mormon, inactive Mormon, former Mormon—must pursue our own paths to salvation, and above all we must respect that in each other.