In my life, I tend to figure out things by writing about them. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but for me, writing is a thinking process (as well as a form of therapy sometimes): I start with a concept that is troubling me, and if I write about it enough I can eventually understand how I feel about it. It is much harder for me to do this with spoken words.
One of the concepts that I write about quite a bit in my personal journal is my relationship with my faith. I am a Mormon person, and this relationship shapes quite a bit of my life. I cannot say it is an easy relationship, and sometimes I’m not sure it is a good relationship. But not always, and there are things I love about my faith. It helps me be a better, kinder, more Christ-like person.
I don’t blog about my faith very much, however (even though this is my second religion-based post this week!), because my relationship is so complicated. I think the non-Mormon part of society sees LDS people in two lights: weirdos or saints. I barely have the emotional energy to work out my own issues, let alone explaining how we fall somewhere in between that spectrum (as all faiths do; as all people do).
But I woke up this morning thinking a strange thought: not my church. In the same tone as the hashtag “not my president.” This is because of the Rob Porter issue happening in Washington right now, not because there is yet another example of trump-era squalor, but because Porter is also LDS. It really isn’t the White House I am upset with. Like draws to like; I am no longer surprised by the corruptness driving our nation’s leadership. Of course trump would hire a man who beat his wife, because trump is a man who sees women as objects, not as people; he would likewise be drawn to men who see women in the same light.
No, who I am upset with in this issue is the LDS church. My faith. Because both of Porters’ wives went to their bishops (which is the ecclesiastical leader we are closest with) and asked for help…but neither of them received it. The details of these conversations aren’t shared anywhere that I know of, but as an LDS woman I can surmise what the “advice” was. “Work harder at your marriage.” “Be forgiving.” “Pray more.” Even, I would imagine, “you might be overreacting.”
This, friends, is not help. This is abuse. This is shaming. This is prioritizing appearance—LDS churches are full of happy, perfect families!—over reality. This is saying that keeping a marriage together is more important than safety, calm, kindness, or love.
This is making a golden calf out of marriage.
These sorts of things happen because in the LDS church, the leadership is made up of lay clergy: everyday members who are chosen as leaders. There is wisdom in this practice—sometimes. But there is also the possibility for great folly here. Being called to be the bishop doesn’t impart all of the world’s wisdom. A bishop is still just a man with his usual knowledge. And unless that bishop also happens to be a trained therapist or psychiatrist, he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to help an abused woman. He can offer to pray for her. He could give her a blessing of comfort. But if his first piece of advice isn’t either “here is a list of therapists who might be able to help” or “what can I do to help you get to a safe place?” then he is perpetuating the abuse.
In my life, I have asked a bishop for help exactly one time. This was when I was a teenager, and my bishop also happened to be the principal of my high school. When I was deep inside my darkest and hardest years, I went to him and asked for advice. His answer? “You used to be a gymnast. Why don’t you join the cheerleading squad? You would be comfortable in those short skirts they wear.” No effort was made to explore why I was behaving the way I was. It was just assumed that I was a bad person, and that could be redeemed by…what? Encouraging the football team to win via flashing them my lovely legs? Those aren’t the words of a loving, religious leader. Those are the words of a man who has no clue how to help someone with mental health issues, and also a man who has no clue as to how damaging words can be.
That conversation was a form of spiritual abuse.
Nor was it, I have learned, an isolated incident.
Abuse isn’t a thing that can be “fixed.” The abuser’s actions aren’t caused by the abused person’s behaviors; they are the responsibility of the abuser, not the abused. Praying for it to end won’t make it end. Working harder to be a “good” wife won’t make it end.
Ending the relationship makes the abuse end.
I’m obviously not a trained psychologist. I’m no more equipped to help a woman who is being abused than my bishop is. Except for the fact that I am a woman. And I have friends who have been physically abused by their husbands. And also because I am not sure I have ever met a man who isn’t capable, in some form or another, of emotional abuse (not even my own husband). Except, the first thing I read this morning was Colby Holderness’s essay in The Washington Post. Even without that photo of her black eye, even with just her words, there is no doubt that Rob Porter is lying when he denies these accusations. The voice she writes with is the voice of a woman who has experienced abuse. You learn those intimate details only one way: by experiencing it.
And when she did experience it, her religious leaders didn’t help her get out.
Leaders of my faith tell us often that they value women. But this sort of story makes me ask: what are we valued for? As living, breathing human beings with purpose, ambition, goals, with the burning desire to live all of this life we’ve been given? Or as wombs?
If it is as wombs, then the church is no better than the president: it sees women as objects (albeit in a different light).
If it is as human beings, it is time for the church to act instead of just offer words. It is time for the church to listen to women and then to help them in functional, productive, healthy ways. I have no doubt that the Mormon church can do this. There are probably instances when it does. But Colby Holderness’s experience is the reality, not the exception.
And I know: I know some of my very closest friends might be cringing at this little post of mine. They might be thinking I am apostate, or I lack faith, or who are you to criticize the church? Who I am is a person with a conscious and a brain that God gave me, and a faith that is centered in Christ who said “do unto others.” I am a woman who believes with every ounce of my being that women matter as much as men. And I will not be quiet. I will not hush my voice or squelch my knowledge. And my knowledge is this:
The church must do a better job. It must stop being afraid to acknowledge the fact that abuse, both emotional and physical, happens. Even in the very “best” of LDS families it happens. Prayer isn’t action; faith without works is dead. When a woman opens up to a religious leader about abuse, that religious leader has a moral obligation to assist rather than to shame. To act, to serve, to do something.
Sometimes I write about my faith in order to figure out how to make sense of it. But I will not twist this into something sensible. It is something wrong. It is a symptom of a deeper problem: the belief that holding the priesthood makes a man into a good man. It doesn’t, just like becoming a bishop doesn’t make a man into a professional capable of helping people with emotional trauma. But it is also easily fixed; bishops and other leaders should receive better training, and a large part of that training should be the skill of listening and then acting.
If the church truly values women as people, it must change.