Bio: Mel is a queer woman in her late 20s who was raised in the LDS church. She now identifies as Post-Mormon, but isn’t yet public about this label for fear of backlash.
Mormonism breeds violent men.
This statement given by Allen Lafferty in the series Under the Banner of Heaven has caused quite a stir online, with many members of the LDS church – and progressive Mormons in particular—decrying the line as false and harmful. Most Mormons aren’t like the Lafferty’s, they insist; your friendly Mormon neighbor has no secret propensity towards vengeful acts of bloodshed.
And while it may be true that your average Mormon has no greater chance of becoming a murderer than any other human being, I would ask those objecting to Allen’ statement to please expand their definition of violence.
Because while I have never, to my knowledge, met a Ron or Dan Lafferty in the pews, I have seen how violent rhetoric and a culture of abuse is accepted—and at times encouraged—by your run-of-the-mill, average Latter-day Saints. And even “progressive members” are not immune to it.
I grew up in a suburban stake in Colorado in the 2000s—far enough away from the “Mormon Belt” that I mostly hung out with non-members but close enough that there were always other members in my school classes. From the start, my family were sometimes treated like outsiders in our stake. My parents both have PhDs and profess liberal politics, and my mom worked part-time outside the home once my brother and I were old enough to attend school. My mom got pointed comments in Relief Society about how wrong it was for women to work outside the home. Both my parents heard ward members talk about how crazy it was that any good Latter-day Saint could be a Democrat and about how intellectualism and public education were great evils of the world. I grew up knowing about these comments and at times overhearing them myself, so I knew from an early age that I would never truly fit in with the LDS church, even though I had pioneer ancestors and relatives who were general authorities.
I am very close to both my parents and I believe that they did the best they could in raising us. But they also instilled in me a notion that our family was isolated from the rest of the world—non-members thought we were weird for being Mormons and Mormons thought we were weird for being liberal and educated. As such, we could only ever rely on each other and we definitely couldn’t talk about family issues with anyone else. This attitude contributed to feelings of loneliness and worries of never-belonging that I still struggle with to this day. And because problems had to stay in the family, I began to shoulder my parents’ burdens at far too young an age. I felt like if I talked about family issues with my friends, let alone a therapist, I would be deeply betraying my family and committing a serious sin.
The rhetoric within both my family and my ward got a lot worse after Barack Obama was elected president and the church faced public scrutiny for its role in California’s Prop 8. We all overheard violent comments and threats directed at President Obama and other Democrats. We heard that Obama was “the anti-Christ”. That he needed to be assassinated. Even nice young Mormon women my age would post on social media about how we needed to *literally* “kill him with kindness”, whatever that entailed.
My dad, burdened with over a century of trauma from the violence his ancestors faced as early Saints, would talk about how a civil war was bound to erupt at some point and that we would be under threat from both non-members and right-wing Mormons. Supposedly, some members of our ward would event want to shoot and kill us. Imagine me, as a teenager, going to church every Sunday believing that some members of my ward would someday want me dead. No wonder I struggled with anxiety, depression, and self-harm during my teenage years.
Generally speaking, I still had an easier time of it in our stake than the rest of my family. My brother got bullied and ostracized by the other boys his age for being neurodivergent and not enacting proper Mormon masculinity. Meanwhile, I didn’t have many close friends in the ward, but I got along just fine with most of my fellow youth and ward leadership tended to like me even when they didn’t like the rest of my family. I also had excellent Young Women’s leaders as a Miamaid and Laurel who I keep in touch with to this day. Of course, I still got the message that, as a woman, my main goal in life was to get married in the temple and have kids, but at least it was okay for me to seek an education and a career on the side.
Where I faced the worst experience of violence was in seminary. With the exception of my sophomore year, seminary was hell for me. My freshman year seminary teacher in particular was an awful woman, even though she was beloved in the stake and by my fellow students. She was the most virulently homophobic person I’ve ever met, which is saying something since I heard homophobic remarks every Sunday. She would rant about “the gays” daily during class (even though we were studying The Book of Mormon, which mentions homosexuality zero times). Once she concluded a lesson by asking us “how disgusted were you when you first learned about homosexuality?” I don’t remember the other students’ answers, but I do remember how uncomfortable and upset I felt. It didn’t help that I was struggling with feelings of physical attraction to other women and had felt deeply guilty and afraid of such feelings for several years running. (I wouldn’t come out as bisexual, even to myself, until my 20s).
This woman also brought politics into every single lesson. She told us all about how Obamacare was causing “the constitution to hang by a thread” and how we Mormons would have to rescue it. She said we all needed to support the death penalty because that’s what Joseph Smith taught. We needed to support our military and the prolonged wars in Afghanistan and Iraq because Mormonism required patriotism and the United States was God’s country. Once, I skipped a week of seminary because she started the week by hanging up a poster that said “What does the Book of Mormon teach should happen to people who refuse to fight for their country?” when we got to the war chapters in Alma. (Spoiler alert: they should be executed for treason).
When you picture a conservative Mormon woman, my seminary teacher isn’t who you would imagine at all. She had short, spiked blonde hair and looked very much like a modern woman. She didn’t look like a Lafferty, but she espoused violence all the same. Eventually, she became the head of the stake’s seminary program. I had graduated by then, but I was unfortunately home on break from college to hear the announcement. I felt sick.
This verbal violence was very detrimental to my mental and emotional health during a time when I was already suicidal and suffering from religious OCD. Additionally, while I was never the victim of physical violence, I did witness it throughout my time in seminary. Every year I was in the same class as an autistic kid, David (not his real name). The other boys in class would constantly pick on David, hitting him, throwing things at him, or calling him names until he retaliated. Then, when he had hit them back or understandably thrown a fit, our teacher would side with the other boys and join in the verbal abuse of David. Only one year did we have a teacher who stood up for David; every other year the teachers would allow or even encourage the abuse.
I also once witnessed an event wherein another autistic boy, who was in a younger class, was jumped by a boy in my class because he threw a dodgeball at him after a game had ended. The boy from my class threw the other boy to the ground and began punching him. Teachers forced them apart, but nobody told the aggressor off. In front of our teacher, he stated that the younger boy had deserved it and that he needed to know what was coming to him if he didn’t “behave” once he entered the priest quorum. My teacher just smiled. Only one of the other teachers even checked on the boy who had been assaulted. Nobody else seemed to care.
There are other instances of verbal and physical violence that I witnessed growing up in the church, but these are the moments that I have never forgotten. In all, the adults in my stake cultivated and encouraged a culture of violent suppression—both verbal and physical—for members who stepped out of line or were marked as “different”. In turn, violence was at times encouraged against non-members who were seen as agents of Satan, like Democrats and college professors. Though I never witnessed any extreme acts of violence, these events had a deep impact on my psyche as a youth, and I’m sure that the other victims also bear emotional scars from the verbal and physical violence they endured.
I know some people might still try to claim that my stake was an anomaly. After having attended wards in several states and countries, I can assure you that it is not. I admit that my church experience was certainly worse in suburban Colorado than in other places, but I have witnessed extremist thought, conspiracy theories, and violent rhetoric in every LDS ward I’ve been a part of. I have heard justifications for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Brigham Young’s teachings about slavery and Black people, and the church’s fight against gay rights from many self-professed “progressive members”. Even in the most liberal stake I’ve been in (in eastern Canada), a man was called to be my YSA’s branch president who openly espoused far-right conspiracy theories and made antisemitic and racist remarks during church. When I tried to complain about him to my liberal LDS friends, I was told that I was the problem for gossiping and that he was a “good man”.
So, yes, Mormonism breeds violent men. And violent women. And worst of all, it breeds people who let violence happen, who silence the ones who dare to speak out instead of the ones who engage in violence.
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