Whether you’re a believer, an atheist, a conservative, or a liberal, the problem of orthodoxy is difficult to escape today. I first encountered this problem when a private Christian school in a nearby city closed down during my high school years. Many of the students came to my small charter high school. One of these new students was in my science class, and we became friends. One day she said, “But you’re not really Mormon … not like actually Mormon.” I replied, “Yeah I’m actually Mormon!” She was so surprised, and so was I! What had given her the impression that I wasn’t actually an orthodox member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by which I mean a faithful, believing, active, and obedient member?

Years later at Brigham Young University, a cousin confessed to me that my family had always been seen as the jack Mormons of the bunch. What on earth had given him that idea? All of my siblings and I are active members of the Church! Sure, we watched The Simpsons and “didn’t stay in our church clothes all Sunday,” but I still considered us thoroughly orthodox.

A few years ago, I was in the waiting room outside the sealing rooms in the Los Angeles Temple. I asked the head sealer why women were not allowed to act as witnesses. The old man was very kind. He just shrugged his shoulders and said “I don’t know.” I appreciated that answer. The man who lunged across the room to jump into the conversation was not so tactful. He whisper-shouted (I had no idea that was possible), saying, “We’ll never have answers to those questions, so stop asking them and accept it.” Was I asking inappropriate questions? Did I just need more faith? I’d like to point out that a few short months later, the church changed its policy on women (and children) acting as witnesses. Huzzah.

Then just a few months ago, my mother confided in me that she was concerned that I was on the road to apostasy. Apparently, I get too riled up (read: angry) about Church history issues. I care too much about women in the Church, etc. To be honest, this confession was less of a surprise, but it still stung. How on earth could my own mother not see that I am a thoroughly orthodox member of the church? I’ve taught early morning seminary for four straight years! I told her, “Mom, if you think I’m unorthodox, you should meet some of my friends in my ward. Compared to them, I’m a thoroughly entrenched traditionalist.”

Better yet, she should sit in a family book group discussion with my husband’s family. Of the five children in his family still living, he is the only one who is not an ex-Mormon and committed atheist. Now there is a place where I look thoroughly backward. In every discussion and gathering, my status as an active and orthodox member of the church hangs over me like a dark rain cloud.

The one consistency in all of these stories is that orthodoxy is a very difficult line to walk. How can one side think you’re basically a fundamentalist and the other side think you’re a near apostate? Truly, it’s paralyzing.

How To Speak and How to Write

All of this leads me to the idea of SquareTwo. At our most recent board meeting, V.H. Cassler, our intrepid leader, bemoaned the lack of submissions from both the public and from board members. That number included me. As it happened, I had submitted an article to her on Heavenly Mother just earlier that day. It had been a long time coming. I sent the introduction to the article in March of 2019, and it took me until July of 2020 to send the rest. I didn’t spend the whole year perfecting the article: I was just paralyzed by the anxiety of the project. Never have I experienced such anxiety writing a piece. I just completed my dissertation on a rather controversial subject. I’ve written op-eds and journal articles about American politics and political theory. None have caused me such grief. Why? Because writing about religion is so very hard when you’re orthodox.

It must be easier to write about religious topics when you’re not orthodox. You’re less concerned with the fraught balance between questioning and apostasy. My problem is toeing the line between pushing too far, questioning too much and writing a piece so watered down that it would fit nicely in the Ensign (a publication produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). That is, how do you walk the line between Sunstone and LDS Living?

The pressure is two-fold. First, I feel the institutional pressure from the Church itself – and, of course, from family. How do I write an article that doesn’t alienate my orthodox family members and yet still makes the argument that more revelatory knowledge on Heavenly Mother is needed to defend Church doctrine on the eternal nature of gender? How do you write a piece on racism in the restored Church while not destroying faith in the concept of living prophets? I’m not looking to get pulled into the stake president’s office for being too critical or inquisitive. I’m not looking to destroy testimonies. I’m looking to build them. Pushing back on cultural assumptions dressed up to look like doctrine, for example, can clear the ground for testimonies to grow. Admitting that I think Brigham Young held racist views and that I believe church policy on race reflected that bias is different than saying Brigham Young wasn’t a prophet. It’s actually easier to believe Brigham made a culture-oriented mistake than to believe that God discriminated against Black people until 1978. Questions and discussion don’t destroy orthodoxy; they make living an orthodox life as a thinking human being possible. Yet it’s in these most difficult subject areas that we feel the most pressure to say nothing for fear of destroying faith.

The second pressure is far, far greater. This second pressure is the one I feel pressing down heavier on my shoulders with each passing day. Let me give you an example: A recent issue of SquareTwo included a Reader’s Puzzle on the issue of transgender women in Olympic sports. When I saw the subject—and that Cassler was seeking responses from board members to publish in the issue—I thought she was trying to get us all fired. How on Earth could I respond to something so nuanced in an age that is so radically black and white? How could I be so stupid as to admit that I believe in two genders? I did send in a response in the end, but only after giving myself a major pep talk on courage and asking myself “who wants a job anyways?” Sometimes when I’m thinking about a future academic position, I remember my admittedly benign response to the reader’s puzzle, and I shake my head at my career stupidity. Why not just keep my mouth shut a few more months until I get a job? A few more years until I get tenure? A few more years until I retire? Safest yet, why don’t I just sew my mouth shut permanently? That way everyone can just assume that I’m on their side.

You likely know the anxiety that I am writing about. My nurse friend has felt it as she has frantically posted content from Black Lives Matter. She is actually a supporter of the movement, but that’s not why she posts. No, she posts because she is afraid of the backlash from coworkers and friends if she does not. She senses that her silence is punishable, even if that silence includes a heart that really wants to change her own unconscious biases and commitment to vote in the next election and do more for her wider community. That’s not enough. She must speak the words she is given to speak. Repeat the creed or be excommunicated from society.

My engineering friend has felt the pressure as he walked into the office in the middle of a discussion about the evils of having children while the very Earth is dying. He did offer his belief that humans are commanded both to be stewards of the Earth and to have children … the following Sunday at a private dinner in his own backyard.

In truth, I do not think there is a single soul in America, apart from the most ardent far right supporters and the vanguards of history on the left, who do not feel this suffocating pressure. It comes into your head before your every comment—it either stops or compels you to like or retweet or repost, and it teaches you how to react to others’ unorthodox statements. That is, every American is now dictated by orthodoxy, and not just not the religious type. The problem is that I belong to a different sort of orthodoxy. I’m an apostate of the new American religion. Unlike a religion in which the greatest punishment that can be doled out is excommunication, apostasy from the American religion can cost your job, your friends, your reputation, your home, and your very safety.

Solzhenitsyn gave a wonderfully controversial speech at Harvard in the 1990s titled “A World Split Apart.” In this speech, he mocked the West for its felt superiority. We claim to have freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of religion. These are delusions, he responded. The East had the Party to enforce the Party orthodoxy. The West has the media and the culture to enforce the orthodoxy. That orthodoxy is decidedly unfriendly towards the orthodoxy I espouse.

Between these twin pressures—the pressure of orthodoxy in the Church and the pressure of orthodoxy in society—how can anyone write about anything meaningful, much less religious? How can anyone breathe at all? I’m tempted by many answers. Supporting classical liberal ideals such as free speech and religion and Straussian esotericism—that is, writing and speaking between the lines—are two of the most tempting. Cassler gave the best answer, though, at the end of the board meeting: courage. We cannot remove our voices from the public sphere. We must continue to engage. There are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are in spiritual agony. They seek answers, or at least conversation, about topics they care dearly about but cannot find at church. They want to discuss polygamy, the former priesthood ban based on race, the existence of a Heavenly Mother, institutional patriarchy, etc. Without places like SquareTwo, and writers willing to submit pieces, they will find weighted platitudes from the Church or answers from outside the Church that lead them to a new orthodoxy altogether. Moreover, there are those who seek light who are not of our faith—or any faith at all! If we darken our small lamps, what will they do? They will continue to be “kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.” The point of apologetics is not to convince others of the truth of the gospel. I can’t give you a testimony. The best that apologetics can offer is proof that another argument exists, proof that faith is reasonable and defendable, proof that thinking human beings can be orthodox believers.

If we stay silent, how will we be judged by God? I do not believe He will look kindly upon those who refuse to acknowledge the cultural pollution so often piled upon Church doctrine and yet who simultaneously refuse to open their mouths to defend the Restored Gospel to an unbelieving world. How will we judge ourselves in the final day when we look at what we could have been, should have been, and were promised to become in the premortal realm, if we had only had a little courage. Surely C.S. Lewis was correct that the chief of all virtues is courage. Indeed, courage was one of the defining characteristics of Jesus Christ. If I am truly a Christian, then I must be courageous. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great Protestant theologian who lived in Germany during World War II, wrote shortly before his execution by the Nazis that “Silence in the face of evil is still evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Full Citation for this Article: Johnston, Savannah Eccles (2020) "Orthodox," SquareTwo, Vol. 13 No. 2 (Summer 2020), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleJohnstonOrthodox.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 100 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 0 Comments