Proposition 8 made me quit the Mormon church

I have been a Mormon my whole life. But after the church's campaign of hatred to ban gay marriage, I finally renounced my membership.

Published November 13, 2008 11:11AM (EST)

I cried with joy when I heard that Barack Obama won the election, but that joy didn't last long.

If not for the Mormon church and its campaign of hatred, California's Proposition 8 -- which would take away the right of men to marry men, and women to marry women -- wouldn't even be on the ballot. And without the millions of dollars it guilted and coerced its members to donate, the proposition most likely would not have passed on Nov. 4.

I blame it all on the Mormons.

Look at the database that the San Francisco Chronicle published. Look at all the money that came from out-of-state. Mormon Alan Ashton, one of the founders of the processing system WordPerfect (with its humble roots in Orem, Utah), donated $1 million just days before the election. One million! To be fair, his co-founder, Bruce Bastian (who is gay), donated $1,010,000 for the opposition. All this for a ballot initiative affecting a state in which neither of them even lives.

It seems like lifetimes ago, but I used to be Mormon. My mother converted to "the church," as they call it, when I was only 7. My father, a devout Catholic (despite being excommunicated when his first marriage was annulled), opposed her conversion. As a child, he had some sort of religious experience that left him in awe of the pageantry and the symbolism of Catholicism. When he saw that Book of Mormon the missionaries had given my mother (way back in 1968), he was rightly threatened -- first by her interest and then by her eventual conversion. Some 40 years later, they are still married, despite this major incompatibility. She is a true believer, and he isn't.

I suspect that my father's opposition to the church made me want to be part of it even more. It was forbidden! It was odd and exotic. I longed to go to church with my mother. It was mysterious, secret and possibly wonderful.

I think what happened is that, when my dad was faced with having to baby-sit us on Sundays while my mom went to church, he finally relented. My brothers and I were then introduced to the weirdness -- the strange "hymns" ("Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him each day!," which might sound familiar to fans of Nirvana) and the doctrine, which I have to admit made me feel special. We had the Truth. We had the Secret to Life and the blueprint to return to Heavenly Father (God) after death. Again, I was only 7. Mormons believe that when you reach the age of 8, you are accountable. Eight is when you're smart enough to know what's right and wrong.

I've thought about this a lot over the years. I adored my mother. She was beautiful. She was my teacher. She taught me how to eat with a spoon, to drink from a cup, to walk, to talk and even to wipe my own ass. When she told me about God and Jesus and Joseph Smith, who was I to question or doubt?

After a few years, when my youngest brother was about to turn 8 (the age of accountability, and thus the age at which you can be baptized), my father finally relented. He interviewed each of us to make sure we knew what we were committing to. By this time, I was 11. I wanted to get dunked (baptism by immersion to wash away your sins).

I stayed with it all until college. (Brigham Young University, of course -- was there any other option?) I even spent 18 months as a Mormon missionary. The "prophet" called me to go on a mission to São Paulo, Brazil, so I was sent to the missionary training center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, to study Portuguese. Two months later, when my Brazilian visa still hadn't arrived, they sent me to San Diego to wait -- and, of course, proselytize. After three months in San Diego, teaching in English (translating the rote lessons we had learned in the MTC from Portuguese to English), they decided to reroute me to Uruguay. I never thought to wonder why the prophet got my calling wrong. Never mind that I'd spent five full months studying how to convert people to Mormonism in Portuguese. When my group finally got to Montevideo, they gave us two weeks to learn the missionary lessons (complete with handy flip charts) in Spanish. My poor brain was tripped up trying to translate the lessons from Portuguese to English and then to Spanish. I was so confused. After just two weeks of Spanish training, they sent us out "into the field," as they call it. Two months later, they made me a senior companion and gave me a "greenie" -- a brand-new missionary, who happened to be the niece of Gordon Hinckley,  a man who eventually became the prophet. She knew even less Spanish than I did. We were so lost. Still, I eventually converted 35 people. (Cringe.)

The reason I went on a mission gets to the heart of my failure to marry. I had a boyfriend in high school whom I introduced to the church. He wanted to marry me. I thought I loved him but wasn't really sure. I was worried I was too young, that I didn't really know what love was -- so I fasted and prayed about it, which is what you're supposed to do to get an answer from God. But I didn't get an answer. Absolute silence.

So I fasted some more and went to the rooftop of my dormitory. I prostrated myself on the roof, under the stars, and begged God to tell me what I was supposed to do.

Still, nothing.

I took that "nothing" as a "no." So I turned my boyfriend down. He then did what good Mormon boys are supposed to do -- he went on a mission. While proselytizing somewhere in Ohio, he died.  Scott was born with a heart defect and had had open heart surgery as a child. When I knew him, he seemed healthy. He had a thin, wiry build. He surfed and ran. Before he left on his mission, he went to a Mormon cardiologist, who proclaimed him fine; I don't think he was fine. After he died, his mother shared his journals with me. He was out running when he had a heart attack. A congenital weakness. He was only 23.

I know it wasn't my fault, but I felt responsible. What made it worse was that I had I convinced myself that we were going to get back together when he got home from his mission. We were writing love letters. This all seemed part of the eternal plan -- he was supposed to go on a mission, all good Mormon boys do. Marrying someone who wasn't a returned missionary meant you were somehow defective or unworthy.

The only way I knew how to deal with my grief was to sublimate it. I decided to finish his mission for him. (Can you see the brainwashing?) So I became a missionary, too.

Being a missionary was a very convenient way of not having to deal with my grief. Being a missionary was all about serving others. I wasn't supposed to really exist; I was just a vessel through which the Lord worked. I was supposed to find the worthy people who were ready to hear the gospel. I started to have doubts, though. One of my converts was a black woman who had been living with a man for years. They had four children together. (Back story: I got my conversion numbers up by cherry-picking people in situations like this.) He had been baptized but was "inactive." If I could convince her to get baptized, and she stayed faithful for a year (and he got reactivated, duh), they could all be sealed together in the temple as an eternal family, which is the ultimate goal of all Mormons. Plus her baptism and the baptism of their four children? Bingo! Five baptisms! Very impressive on the weekly reports.

This woman (I wish I could remember her name) was intrigued. Our lessons were all about the happy proposition of being in the True Church and obeying the commandments so that she and her entire family could get back to God eventually. But there was a snag. She wanted to know why the Mormon church had discriminated against black members until the 1970s. White men could hold the priesthood (the power to perform rituals like baptisms), but black men were only granted that right in 1978, well after the civil rights movement. Why?

I told her I didn't know why, but I would find out. So I searched the scriptures. I looked in the Book of Mormon. What I dug up was not pretty. The Book of Mormon talks about righteous people having white skin and sinners having dark skin. When the dark-skinned evil people repented, their skin turned white. How was that supposed to help me explain things to her? Digging, researching and investigating is not a good idea if you're a Mormon. You tend to find out things that don't make sense. All I could come up with was that either God was racist or that Joseph Smith (who supposedly translated the Book of Mormon from the mysterious golden plates, which the angel Moroni had given him and then conveniently taken away) was a racist. Why did it take until June of 1978 for God to tell his prophet that all worthy men (of course, only men) could have the priesthood? We're talking 10 years after the civil rights movement! Not finding anything helpful, I used the basic argument on her -- that there were things we didn't know but that they would be revealed to us eventually, if we were worthy. We had to have faith. It worked for her, and she was baptized.

When I got home from my mission, I got a high-profile calling. I got to teach the Gospel Doctrine class in Sunday school in my BYU ward! This meant that I was anointed, spiritual, chosen. The lesson books handed out to all teachers come from church headquarters. Every Gospel Doctrine teacher is supposed to teach the same lesson, on the same subject, on the same day. You follow the manual. Period. Being the budding intellectual, starting to learn to think for myself, I wanted to add to my lessons; I wanted to supplement the simplicity with profound tidbits I found on my own. So I’d start with the planned lesson and do a little research. And week by week, I researched myself out of that calling. After a couple of months I resigned.

I tried to stay under the radar for the next 18 months, until I could finish my course work and graduate. I moved every semester, trying to keep them from discovering that I was an apostate. If discovered, I would be expelled. Not exactly what the college experience is supposed to be.

So many times, I’ve wished that I had "come out." I have a good friend who was expelled a few weeks before graduation. Her roommates turned her in to the Standards Office because she was sleeping with her boyfriend. By that time, I was also sleeping with my boyfriend. I no longer lived the Word of Wisdom. (OMG, I actually drank.) And I certainly didn’t believe that the president of the church was the prophet of God. I cowardly hid out to keep my status and finally get my B.A.

After I graduated, I went to work for a local company, Novell, so that I could be near my boyfriend. (I still had that hope that I would get married!) Still, I didn't have the courage to tell them that I no longer believed in the church.

Year after year, when seeing their impressive membership numbers -- 7 million members! 8 million members! 9 million members! the fastest-growing religion in America! -- I cringed but didn't have the courage to stand up and say that I was no longer One of Them.

The day after the election, I wrote my letter of resignation.  I sent it to the membership office of the church, telling them that I am no longer One of Them. They have to take me off their rolls. I can’t stomach being counted as One of Them. I despise what they have done in Hawaii, in California, in Arizona, in Florida. They are actively working to strip gay people of their rights. They want to define marriage as a union that can only take place between a man and a woman.

The Sunday evening before the election, I took part in a candlelight vigil in Salt Lake City.  About 300 people gathered peacefully to listen to three Mormon mothers speaking out against the hatred of the proposition, and of their disappointment in their church's influence over its members, who donated millions of dollars (estimates put the total at at least $15 million). Members all over the country sent contributions for a ballot initiative in another state. On Wednesday, the protest became larger, with thousands of Utahans carrying signs and walking around Temple Square.

In Los Angeles,  where my gay cousin lives, protests at the Mormon temple drew larger, more angry crowds every day. When I spoke to him on Sunday night, my cousin could barely talk after days of shouting. He sent me text updates from the protests, like, "No more Mr. Nice Gay."

Proposition 8's passage has invigorated the gay community, culminating in a national day of protest this Saturday in cities in every state. Join the Impact details the events.

I spent much of the '90s as a lesbian, in committed relationships with women. It doesn’t matter that I'm now in love with a man. I support the rights of gay couples to define their relationships in the traditional sense, if they so choose. I despise what the Mormon church has done to restrict the definition of a family. Love should be celebrated where it is found, whether it's between a man and a woman, or a woman and a woman, or a man and a man. Period.

My dad says I need to get over my anger toward the Mormon church. I wish I could. Maybe if it someday becomes inclusive, and stops hating, I will get over my anger.

By Jodi Mardesich

Jodi Mardesich is a writer and yoga teaching living in Cedar Hills, Utah. A former staff writer for Fortune and the San Jose Mercury News, her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Yoga Journal, The Advocate and Slate.

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Gay Marriage Proposition 8 Religion