I identify as a Progressive Mormon in part by default; I was raised Mormon and have spent most of my adulthood as an active member. Mormonism is and always will be part of my identity, even if that part of me shifts into post- or ex-Mormon. My identity will never not be informed by my Mormon experiences. It’s a huge part of my life’s foundation, and, though that foundation can feel shaky at times, it’s still there. Sometimes there’s a grief that comes up with this reality; I will never not be Mormon. I will never have not been raised Mormon. I will never know what it’s like to be raised outside the Mormon experience. Alongside the grief is acceptance and determination; I will do the best I can with the Mormon reality I’ve got. For me, being my best Mormon self means embracing progressive Mormonism.
When I say I am a Progressive Mormon, I mean the following: I am drawn much more to Christ and His example than to any other religious figure. I keep a narrow focus on Christ as a guide for how to live a loving and compassionate life. I do not feel drawn to Joseph Smith or any scriptural figure, nor do I feel drawn to follow the example of any prophet. I embrace all of Christ’s life and example, which means I value strong boundaries, social justice, and political advocacy right alongside soft-spoken words, gentle mannerisms, and generosity. I do not take scripture literally nor do I believe it is meant to be applied literally to modern life. I trust history as an academic field and respect its research-based findings. I embrace developments in all scientific, health, and social fields, and I see no worthy conflict between religious faith and empirically-proven realities. I value healthy discord, dissent, and disagreement within the church as part of the healthy evolution of a living, breathing system. I view the church as the imperfect manifestation of the aspirations of imperfect men. I let feminism and faith work together within me as I navigate my life and help those around me. I do not believe in exclusion, shame, or fear nor do I believe in worth as something changeable or negotiable, to be earned nor proven. I believe in personal revelation above general revelation, partnership over patriarchy, and fierce compassion over passive righteousness. I do not see conflict between any of these beliefs and the core tenets of Christianity. I believe, and all my hope lies, in the reconciliation of Christianity and social progress.
All that is to say this: Progressive Mormonism feels like an unnecessarily redundant term. Mormonism is inherently progressive. Modern Mormon history is rooted in new ideas and rebellion. Without dissent, curiosity, and openness, the church would never have been founded. More importantly, Christ himself was a progressive. He eschewed wealth and power, focusing instead on listening and relating. His relationships with those he encountered were rooted in his ability to see the humanity in everyone. This focus on kindness and compassion resonates with me in a way that worthiness-measuring and behavior nit-picking do not. We as members of the LDS church are encouraged to look to Christ as our ultimate example and strive to be more like Him in all ways. For me, that translates to letting fierce compassion be my guide.
Thanks to the work of trail-blazing researchers, we know that compassion for others cannot precede compassion for the self. In other words: Self-compassion first, other-compassion second. If I am rooted in compassion and that compassion informs every decision I make, I have more compassion at my disposal and am able to share it more freely with everyone around me. This is what Christ’s life shows us and encourages us to emulate.
I embrace the gray area and reject black or white, right or wrong, good or bad narratives. They feel like false dichotomies and oversimplifications. I am proudly a cafeteria Mormon, meaning I take what works for me and leave the rest. I have always done this, as have all members of the church, whether they want to admit it or not. No one is not a cafeteria Mormon, because no one has a perfect testimony and no one perfectly does everything that is asked of church members.
While I have always been imperfectly Mormon, I have not always been kind to myself about it. Most of my life was spent measuring my Mormon activity and shaming myself for falling short. Skipping a prayer, not wearing garments, swearing, watching a sexy movie, voting in favor of gay marriage or reproductive rights, leaving church early, not doing my visiting teaching, and on and on. It all led to shame and feeling less than, not good enough, a fraud. As I simmered in shame on the inside, I spewed it everywhere on the outside. I was keenly aware of other Mormon women’s bare shoulders, ward members who were rarely at church, whose car was in the grocery store parking lot on a Sunday, who smelled like coffee or kept a teapot on their stove. I had moments of extreme judgment and score-keeping. I felt like I was constantly falling short, and so I kept track of how everyone around me was falling short as well.
This cannot be how we are meant to live this life. Jesus doesn’t want this for us; whether He’s actually the son of heavenly parents or not, it seems very clear that He was a good person, and this is not what good people want for others. Moreso, it’s not how He lived His life, tabulating and gossiping. Checklists and performative membership cannot be the point.
Here’s what I think the point is: To learn and grow and love together. The Mormon way is one way to learn to do that, but I don’t believe it’s the only way. Thus one of my favorite tenets of progressive Christianity: Affirm that the teachings of Jesus provide but one of many ways to experience the sacredness and oneness of life, and that we can draw from diverse sources of wisdom in our spiritual journey. There is so much relief for me in expanding my focus and putting attention on my whole life and the whole world rather than narrowing in on my Mormon life and the Mormon world.
There have been moments when I’ve fantasized about how my life would have turned out if, instead of my dad converting to my mom’s religion of origin, my mom had joined his. They would have been a Catholic couple and would have raised Catholic kids. I would have been raised in a different Christian religion with its own challenges, advantages, and problems. It all would have been so far from the religious upbringing I did have. Not better or worse, just different. These sliding doors daydreams reveal a deep curiosity that I have learned to embrace: What could my life be like if I trust myself above all else? What could my religious experience be like if I operate from self-trust and self-compassion, first and foremost? What does it really mean to be Christlike?
These are the questions that guide me; these are the questions I invite you to embrace.
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