Until my eighth birthday, I thought every single person in the world was Mormon.
Justin Bieber had just released “Baby” and Bieber fever was sweeping the nation. I remember being dazzled by “Never Say Never” — a documentary about Bieber’s rise to fame that was showered with love from my elementary school and slander from IMDb. But as I left the theater, a burning question stayed in my mind. “Never Say Never” was supposed to be an all-encompassing window into Justin Bieber’s life, right? But not even once had it mentioned him going to church. How could that be? I asked my mom. When she told me he wasn’t Mormon, I was floored.
In my home state of Utah, Mormonism is more than just a religion — it’s a lifestyle. Wards — local Mormon congregations — are centers of community and social life. Growing up, I met almost all my friends through my ward. Many of my parents’ close friends were ward members as well, and all of my parents’ friends were Mormon. My ward would celebrate birthdays together, host group barbeques, and take regular camping trips into the Utah wilderness. Church was just as social as it was religious.
While my initial revelation was fueled by Bieber, my eyes were fully opened to the world outside Mormonism two years later. When I was 10, I transferred out of my neighborhood school to attend a school for gifted students. While my old school was composed almost completely of children from my ward, my new school was much more diverse, and I was now one of only four Mormon kids in my class. We didn’t learn about the Church’s founding in history or say prayers before eating lunch.
As I glimpsed a world outside the Church, I began to question parts of life I had simply accepted. I had always opposed the Church’s stance on social issues but, until then, had never been presented with an alternative.
The Church has yet to fully grapple with its history of racist rhetoric. It continuously condemns gay marriage. Its enforced gender hierarchy and history of polygamy perpetuate misogyny. The rest of my family was able to compartmentalize, separating their faith from their unease with the Church’s complicated practices and legacy. I could not.
The more I learned, the more restless I became. I questioned Church doctrine constantly, often to the point of contention. I struggled for years to reconcile the Church’s views with my own. I never could. Eventually, I decided to leave Mormonism altogether.
Fully leaving the Church has taken me years, and has completely transformed my relationship with my community. My family doesn’t understand my decision. Though they have become more supportive over time, they still look for every possible opportunity to convince me to rejoin. During the pandemic, I moved in with my grandparents in order to attend school in person. Each week, my grandfather would invite me to church with him. When I chose not to go, he’d spend hours writing speeches about doctrine to deliver to me himself.
Throughout high school, all I wanted was to get away from Utah, away from Mormonism. But being on the East Coast has yielded mixed results.
Living in a place with so many different types of people and belief systems has been incredibly refreshing. Yet even 2,000 miles away from home, it’s difficult to avoid being associated with Mormonism.
Because I’m from Utah, most people assume I’m part of the Church. I’ve been asked all sorts of questions: Am I barred from attending public school, like Tara Westover writes about in “Educated”? Does everyone in my family really get married by 20? When I met one of my best friends at Visitas, the first thing she told me was that she’d just watched a Netflix documentary on religious cults and was dying to know if I was neighbors with polygamists.
I still don’t know what to think when the Church comes up. Sometimes, I feel it shouldn’t matter at all if others think I’m Mormon. After all, I’ve left the Church. The assumptions people make about me seem completely benign, and even when they do rub me the wrong way, I know my discomfort means little in comparison to the experiences of those who face more harmful forms of stereotyping. Still, being associated with Mormonism can be frustrating. I’ve worked for years to distance myself from the Church. It’s upsetting to think that no matter what I do, that perception of me may never fully go away — that Mormonism will keep pulling me back.
A few weeks ago, I flew out to Utah to attend my sisters’ baptism. I stared out the window on the plane ride there and wondered why I was going at all. I pictured myself at the baptism. A speaker would say something about the wonders of joining the Church. My family would give me a pointed stare, and I’d pretend not to notice. Afterward, they’d encircle me and ask all their tired, well-meaning questions. Did I know Harvard had a fantastic student ward? They’d heard the Church was way different on the East Coast — much less conservative. I felt out of place in Utah, sure, but I wouldn't feel that way there. They’d mailed me a Book of Mormon a few weeks ago. Had I had the chance to read it?
I have no idea why I chose to go back to Utah. When my parents called me a few weeks earlier and asked if I wanted a ticket, I said yes on autopilot. Later, I felt dishonest. I was embarrassed to be flying home for a religion I was supposed to have completely disavowed. I told my friends I was going home for a family reunion.
At the baptism, my grandfather gave a speech about how proud he was that my family had chosen to become official members of the Church, and sure enough, he started to look over at me. His eyes met mine. He broke down crying.
After the baptism, my grandfather came up to me. He told me he hadn’t been sure whether I would fly out at all. Now that I’d left the Church and was living thousands of miles away, would I even have time for my family? He told me that no matter whether I was a member of the Church, deep down, all he cared about was that I was there and that I knew my family cared about me.
It had been so easy to write this baptism off. To dread the pointed remarks my family would make and forget about everything else. But I knew they were only asking because they cared about me. I looked at all the people surrounding me — I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen this much of my family in one place. Later that day, they swarmed me just like I expected. Some of them asked targeted questions. Some didn’t comment on things at all. But every single one of them, without fail, told me how happy they were to see me there.
I wish I could hate Mormonism without reservation. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to. Although Mormonism is responsible for policies and doctrine I despise, it’s also the genesis of communities I care about. Its focus on the importance of family and emphasis on serving others are values I will always cherish. It deeply matters to so many of the people I love. Looking ahead, I’m trying to remember that the Church is more than its worst parts.
Identity is not something I can chop up and compartmentalize as I see fit. Although I am no longer a part of the Church, having grown up Mormon will always shape who I am, and as difficult as it is, I’m coming to terms with that.