Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Nothing in the world lasts save eternal change.
—Honorate de Bueil, Marquis de Racan
[p.243]This formerly active Mormon holds a position of power and responsibility in government. As you read this interview, it becomes clear why he wishes to remain anonymous.
He’s a scientist. We meet in his office. The morning light pours in as the red October sun filters through the pines outside. He wears an open shirt. His mustache and dark hair are streaked with gray. He lowers his glasses as we talk.
You’ve been on a lot of television and in a lot of magazines recently.
The place where I work attracts a lot of attention, and I guess I’m still dumbfounded by the fact that the smallest possible decision we make here can make it in the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, or the New York Times. People just look at this place as sort of an American icon.
And those of us who are workers here just have to get used to that kind of attention. Anyway, being thrust into that, I’ve been on shows and in magazines and met with people who amaze me. I have to say this: It’s a very boastful story, but it’s also humorous. Our director called me a couple months ago and said, “A good friend of mine, the [p.244]Israeli ambassador to the U.S., is coming your way, would like to see your operation, and I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d show him around.” Great. We do a lot of that. So I took the ambassador and his wife around, and we had a very pleasant day, and I think that they enjoyed the hell out of it. Well, a couple nights later the ambassador was at a cocktail party with Barbara Walters, and he said, “Barbara, you’ve got to get this guy to take you on a tour; it’s just wonderful.” So Barbara Walters called me and asked if she could spend a pleasant day with me touring. I said, “What day is that, Barbara?” She said, “Friday, this week; is that possible?” I said, “Barbara, this kills me to say this, but no. I’m going to be with the president that day.” And I don’t say that as some ego trip or anything. It’s just that kind of a place. You don’t ever get used to it. You’re just thrust into it by being here.
Let’s go back to your childhood. Did you attend church regularly as a child?
Yes, I attended every Sunday. Went to all the meetings. I went right on up through the hierarchy. It was the dominating force in the life of myself and my family.
You went to Mutual, as it was called then?
Was that fun for you? Boy Scouts, for instance?
Boy Scouts was a lot of fun. It was a very positive experience in my life. And, of course, all the Boy Scout troops were sponsored by the church, so you got sort of a double dose. You not only learned how to use a pocket knife, there was a strong dose of religion associated with it, but that was a pleasant … I have fond memories of the Boy Scouts; I have fond memories of Mutual. As a very young man, the church was a good influence on me and I enjoyed it.
Were your parents active, too?
Very active. Devout.
Did you at any time rebel against their activity in the church?
Yes. And that grew with time. I think the first memory I have of wanting to be some place else other than in that pew, I must have been [p.245]about eight years old. It was a beautiful day, much like today, and I was in there in a wool suit, and it was just scratching the hell out of my skin. You know how uncomfortable that can feel at certain times? I remember thinking, Why am I here? This is torture. That was the first recollection I have of not wanting to be there. Then I had another experience with a group of people, young boys. I don’t even remember who these pals were, but we vandalized the ward house. It wasn’t serious vandalism. We sprayed aerosol shaving cream on the walls— didn’t even break a window. But I remember feeling so guilty about it that I contemplated suicide. I mean, overpowering guilt. I’d just done the most heinous thing to vandalize this house of the Lord. I was probably ten or eleven at that time. I recall lying in bed that night just knowing that I should go over and get that .22 and do myself in. It was that bad.
So an enormous sense of shame came with that act?
Yes, overwhelming guilt and shame.
Do you think that’s part of growing up Mormon?
Yes. I think the whole concept of the Holy Ghost looking after your every move is something very powerful to grow up with, because that means any time you’re in any kind of mischief, no matter how harmless, then somebody’s looking over your shoulder. Someone’s always watching. I certainly felt that growing up.
Did anyone ever tell you you’d get black marks in heaven if you behaved improperly?
Oh, yes. Doesn’t everybody believe that? You know, I mean there’s a dossier being assembled up there in heaven, and you get good chips and bad chips, and the sum total is going to affect you when you arrive there.
At what point did you begin not attending church regularly? Were you still living at home?
Yes. I was fifteen or sixteen and then I started to seriously rebel. My father’d come and get me up early Sunday morning to go to priesthood meeting. From time to time, I’d feel strong enough to rebel against him and say, “I don’t want to do this.” But it wasn’t very often, and so I’d go as a prisoner, in essence, because I didn’t have the nerve to go [p.246]against my dad. So I’d go at sort of a gun point—not literally, but figuratively. Then I’d just hate it. I’d just sit there in church and seethe. That’s a complex feeling. Not only was I being forced to do something I didn’t want to do …How would I put this? I mean, you’re put into the situation where you’re angry at your parents, and you’re also angry about the thing that they feel most strongly about—that being religion and the church. I think a lot of guilt and shame came up in me for having that feeling. Knowing all along as an underlying force that also the Holy Ghost was looking at these feelings.
So you still believed, but you were beginning to rebel against the outward trappings of it?
It must’ve been very conflicting.
Oh, yes. Ripped me apart for many years.
You were in high school when this started. What other events were in your life at the time that seemed to feed this rebellion? Girls, peer group, …
Yes, all of that. I met in priesthood meeting a guy—I don’t even remember his name—who was in the exact same boat as I was. His dad was, you know, taking him to priesthood meeting at gun point. So we became soul mates. We’d show up there in our coat and tie with our dads, and then we’d meet, and then we’d leave and go have coffee. Then show back up at the end of the meeting and connect up with our dads and go home. I don’t know if our dads ever knew we were doing that, but they probably did.
He was your first reinforcement toward your mutiny?
Yes, the next stage in the rebellion. You’ve acceded to your dad’s wishes by going to priesthood meeting, and you show up to the chapel and then you duck out, you play hookey. There were stages to all of this.
What was the next stage?
The next stage was to leave home. I couldn’t break that cycle without leaving home, so I did that, again, in stages, starting at about eighteen. I started spending summers away from home, and that was just [p.247]great. The freedom of that feeling, not having that constant pressure to be the good, solid Mormon child. That just grew with time, so that eventually I abandoned Utah. Part of that was getting out from under that constant Mormonism oppression.
It’s the constant pressure on inactives by active members of the ward. The ward teachers always trying to bring you back into the fold. I just couldn’t deal with it. I wanted to erase it from my mind and suppress it. In Utah that’s hard, because they all know. Everybody in your community knows you’re an inactive, and so all of your interactions with your neighbors and your community, and even friends, are oriented towards pulling you back into the fold. And ultimately I said, I can’t deal with this. So I looked for things that would remove me from the culture altogether. That’s how I ended up far away from Utah.
But while it removed you from external pressures, you still carried an ingrained cultural Mormonism with you wherever you went.
How did you deal with that?
In a variety of ways. I certainly brought with me the traditional Mormon role of the male and had expectations of my young bride that were very Mormon-oriented, and over the years caused a lot of strife because she wasn’t that kind of woman. I mean, she was and is a great mother and a great homemaker and all of that, but she wasn’t going to take the traditional Mormon woman role—the mother and subservient role. We’ve resolved that over the years, but I had those kinds of expectations about women, mothers, and family. Despite the problems that it caused in my marriage, it still produced some good kids who are very squared-away and happy with life. I went through a period in my thirties when I was anti-Mormon, still trying to extract myself from this guilt and the shame. During this phase I bought everything anti-Mormon that I could, read it, studied it, all of that. That’s part of that incremental separation that’s taken me my whole life fundamentally to deal with that guilt and that shame from abandoning the church.
There was a seminal experience. When I turned nineteen, they [p.248]called me on a mission, and the bishop took me into his office, and I just dreaded that. I knew it was coming and spent a lot of time worrying about what I was going to do. I mean, that was the thing I think my parents wanted from me more than anything else—to have a missionary son. So we sat in there and I didn’t have my mind sufficiently made up. I told the bishop that I wanted to think about it. I said, “I don’t want to give you an answer today.” In retrospect, I think I just didn’t have the guts to say no, because I certainly didn’t want to go on a mission. But I made one request of him. I said, “I don’t want you to tell my parents that I’ve received this call while I’m thinking about it.” He said, “Okay.” I went home from the meetings that Sunday and walked into the door of my house, and my parents were as joyous as … I mean, they knew. They’d told them. They were so excited, and I was just angry as hell. I felt like I’d been had. They’d set me up. Not only did they ignore my request, but they turned my parents into people who were as happy as I’d ever seen them in my entire life. I was just furious, because I guess I knew deep down that I was going to have to give them the biggest disappointment of their life, which I hated. Nobody likes to do that to their parents. So I let everybody down, in essence, when I said no to the mission. It’s a very, very vivid and unpleasant memory of mine in the whole scheme of things.
Were tobacco and alcohol ever outward signs of your rebellion?
Yes, they were. My rebellion interested me in both tobacco and alcohol. I thought for a long time that they were the primary reason, but I don’t believe that anymore. I think they were just peripheral. When you’re going through that kind of separation, you have to identify with some peer group. That’s probably natural for people who are trying to step outside of their religion. Rather than being the reason, they’re a by-product because of the peer groups that you want and need to associate with. You want people who understand how you feel.
Did you ever feel that, in spite of those outward symbols of your pulling away, you weren’t accepted by non-Mormons either? That they still considered you Mormon, no matter what?
Yes. I’ve always thought and still feel that it’s almost a racial thing, that being born and brought up a Mormon puts you into a kind of race. I had a lot of Jewish friends. In the Utah society they felt that they [p.249]were sort of racial and I felt I was sort of racial. Yes, there were always some barriers there, especially because teenagers and young people can be so cruel about other people’s beliefs. When you’d get angry at somebody or wanted to get under their skin, then that was always a good place to start, you know, with your politics or your religion. Though it was kind of mean-spirited in a way, it got to the truth of that fact. Does that make sense?
Yes, it does. Does your Mormonism tag along with you sometimes?
All the time.
Can you give me any examples?
I can give you 10,000 examples. I live right next to a chapel, and when they have services there every Sunday morning, I’m reading the Sunday paper and drinking a cup of coffee or something like that, and I hear the choir. It’s an immediate transport back.
“Come, Come Ye Saints.”
Yes. And organ music. I still like organ music. Actually, choirs and organ music and so forth are a very positive memory. I still like it. I still like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Got most of their CDs and tapes and play them.
You’ve talked about the relentlessness of ward teachers and of actives in your ward and your community. What about after you left? Did they find you?
I was forty years old before I told the ward teachers to quit coming to my house. I said, You know, I’m not interested in this. It took me that long to be able to openly express my true feelings.
Ever think about requesting excommunication?
No, I couldn’t do it.
You couldn’t do that today?
Do you ever think you could become active again?
[p.250]You can’t foresee any circumstances? A deathbed need or anything like that?
No. Why can’t I? Well, I’d like to think it just isn’t worth the time to go through, but I think it’s deeper than that. And regarding your question about asking to be excommunicated: I think that in the small chance that I’m wrong, that I want that insurance policy—I think that that’s the real answer. Yet I don’t know why I’d want that insurance policy, because by the theological rules I’ve already done everything wrong that I could possibly do. So I’m not going to be saved in the afterlife, if there is an afterlife. It’s something I haven’t sorted out, that I haven’t resolved in myself. I couldn’t become active. I’m adamant about that. I have a knee-jerk, negative response not only to my own religion but to every other religion. I just don’t like organized religion, whether it’s Catholicism or any of them. Yet I’d not take my name off the roll. Isn’t that curious?
It’s honest. Do you consider yourself in any way a spiritual person in spite of your feelings about organized religion?
I think I’m a very spiritual person.
I think that my spirituality is what brought me into the profession that I’m in, the love of nature and all things in it, and I have spiritual experiences in nature almost on a daily basis. But I can see a god or a higher power in nature, and that’s an important part of who I am. I just don’t think you need to sit in or on a pew in order to appreciate. You know, I see a lot of value in the teachings of Jesus and especially of love and how you treat your fellow man and so forth. I haven’t walked away from that stuff. The way I view my separation from the church is having walked away from organized religion.
How many children do you have?
I have three boys.
Are they in any way religious?
No. But they’re spiritual and they abide by what we could loosely call the Ten Commandments. They’re very moral and ethical young men. There’s another Jack Mormon in this town—a woman. Every once in a while, generally after the third glass of wine, she and I will [p.251]talk about our Mormon culture and so forth. One evening she said, “I don’t understand this. Your sons …” This is a small community. We all know each other’s kids. She says, “Your sons are the most moral, the nicest, the most polite, the best students.” She says, “How can you do that without religion? How can you do that without Sunday school imbuing the Golden Rule and the Ten Commandments and stuff like that without religion?” I said, “I don’t know, it must be their mother’s fault.” I just dodged it. I don’t know how you do that other than being a good parent.
You teach morality.
I guess so.
As you now look with some degree of detachment on active Mormonism, what are the positive things about it? What sorts of things do you look back on with fond memories, both for yourself and for the community?
My quick answer is their music. They bring good music into your daily life. I mean maybe it’s as simple as learning how to play a trumpet. They foster that. There is substance to that answer even though it’s a quick answer. I think that their views about family and community are stellar. Probably the best in the land. My substantive answer is that this whole notion of community-motivated spirit and the family and the essence of the family, it’s the best. I think that’s why they’re so damned successful in growing their numbers. It certainly can’t be the theology.
You’re not a believer in the gold plates?
No, can’t deal with it.
What do you think happens when you die? Can you go to the Celestial Kingdom or …
No, I don’t think I’m going to be there. In fact, I don’t believe in an afterlife. You have to have faith in order to buy into that one, and I don’t. I’ve seen nothing outside of faith, nothing in my entire experience, that would suggest that I’m wrong on that. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—that’s it. Recycle me back into nature.
It’s kind of nice, though, isn’t it? Returning to be part of nature?
Yes. The way I’ve put it together in my own mind is not unlike reincarnation.
[p.252]The Buddhist or Hindu view of reincarnation.
Perhaps. You’re being recycled into trees or bugs or birds or whatever. I can see something that’s very much like what they call the soul as going on after you die. Certainly your elements. The elements—the calcium, magnesium, and the potassium, and all of it—they go on. Nothing’s wasted in nature.
I don’t know if I have any more questions for you.
You haven’t asked me the fundamental one.
Why did I rebel and leave the church? It’s taken me fifty some years to figure that out. Why? I’ve got two brothers, and they did the exact same thing I did. Now how does that happen in a devout, loving family? Here’s my answer. I think that my siblings and I all rebelled and left the church because we felt like our parents loved their church more than us. Now I’ve sorted that out with assorted therapists over the years. After my anti-Mormon period, I sought psychiatric therapy to help me straighten these things out, because I could see how debilitating it was to what I wanted out of life, which was joy, love, and happiness. That’s what everybody wants, right? The peace and so forth. Both of my parents were from—as a result of deaths—broken homes. Neither one of them had good mom and dad role models, because they both grew up in a house where one of the parents was absent as a result of these deaths. I truly believe my parents did the best that they could, but they just didn’t have the skills. So when they put their primary interest and love into their religion and made their children feel that they were second best, that there was nothing more important than the church, then I think we quit playing with the church. I mean, we started to separate ourselves from the thing that we couldn’t compete with.
That’s quite an observation.
It took me a lot of years to figure that out. Which is why I want to be anonymous, because my mother and my stepfather are still alive, and I can’t hurt them at this stage. They’re eighty-six years old, you know. I can’t hurt them that way.
I simply don’t talk to them about religion anymore. When I was [p.253]about thirty—my father had died by that point—my mother was still after me. “Come back into the church.” I’d married a non-Mormon. “These little boys have to have an anchor in their life; you’ve got to get them involved in the church”—and stuff like that.
I was the first in our whole lineage to ever get a master’s degree, and that was I thought at the time a real achievement. Nobody in either my father’s or my mother’s family had ever got a master’s degree, very few of them even a bachelor’s degree. So I was rather pleased with my achievements. She told me during this angry exchange that I’d always be a failure in her eyes as a man, as a father, as a human being, because of my rejection of the church. We’ve never spoken about the church since then. It’s been twenty-five years.
You still carry that thought with you, don’t you?
Oh, I sure do. That was the most hurtful thing that anybody has ever said to me.
She’s never spoken of it since?
She’s never retracted that statement?
No. Now we have a very loving relationship. I mean, I make sure her children and her grandchildren are around her and that we have happy times together and that we visit each other and all of that. But it’s just we don’t talk about it.
Are you able to accept her without condition today?
It comes to that finally, doesn’t it? You get a divorce and then you finally reconcile and just understand.
Yes. It’s a perfect metaphor.
That’s what I had to do.
Divorce your mom … and dad, if he were still alive. Anyway, to the extent that I’ve sorted any of this out, that’s my story.