Mormonism and Shunning by P. Brannock, May 28, 2013
P. Brannock discusses Mormonism, shunnning, and the complex social dynamic that arises between Mormon apostates and their true believing family members.
The accusation of shunning seems to be popularly associated with Mormonism, both by critics and disaffected Mormons. I have been asked about shunning regularly in interviews, as, I’m sure, have many other ex-Mormons. A special request was passed to me through the contact forms on parkromney.com to write something on the subject of Mormon shunning by a former member of the Church. I’ve been interested for some time in taking on the subject matter a bit more thoroughly anyway. So, now is as good a time as any.
In the 2012 BBC Documentary, The Mormon Candidate, the topic got a fair amount of attention and I, personally, was framed as a critic who felt he had been shunned as a result of leaving the LDS Church. In actuality that’s not exactly how I see it. When John Sweeney, of the BBC, asked me about shunning and if I believed that the Church engaged in that practice, my actual response to the question was more thoughtful and involved than what it was edited down to. I am seen responding, “I am alienated from my family”. (At that point in the interview, I firmly declined to comment on or discuss my family relationships any further than that statement. The discussion shifted to shunning in general.) That portion of my actual response is seen out of its original sub-context and is easily misunderstood. I explained that I don’t think anyone in the Church will admit to such a practice as official protocol and I don’t think what actually goes on is that simple.
I don’t have a major problem with how the BBC interview was edited, however, it is somewhat misleading. The question about shunning was raised, and a portion of my response was reported accurately and within the general context of other discussion that revealed a problem with the general dynamic between Mormons and disaffected Mormons. There is a problem with the dynamic. It is a serious and offensive social problem. Some believe the label “shunning” applies. I’m not so sure. That portion of the debate is one of semantics. The actual problem, however it is labeled, is very real, very offensive, and shameful.
Shunning, per se, in my view, is not an intended practice of the Church and I am a bit uncomfortable with the pervasive re-reporting of that BBC interview by those who represent that I said I was shunned by my family. I did not. That is not really a fair characterization of how I was treated by my family. Branding the typical Mormon attitudes and behaviors towards apostates as shunning is an oversimplification of the actual dynamic that occurs. The use of the term tends to obfuscate the real problem and its severity. I think I would have preferred being “shunned” by certain members of my family as an alternative to how I was actually treated. I am aware that there are a number of ex-Mormons who share this view.
On the subject of shunning Wikipedia reports:
"Shunning can be the act of social rejection, or mental rejection. Social rejection is when a person or group deliberately avoids association with, and habitually keeps away from an individual or group. This can be a formal decision by a group, or a less formal group action which will spread to all members of the group as a form of solidarity. It is a sanction against association, often associated with religious groups and other tightly knit organizations and communities. Targets of shunning can include persons who have been labeled as apostates, whistleblowers, dissidents, strikebreakers, or anyone the group perceives as a threat or source of conflict. Social rejection has been established to cause psychological damage and has been categorized as torture. Mental rejection is a more individual action, where a person subconsciously or willfully ignores an idea, or a set of information related to a particular viewpoint. Some groups are made up of people who shun the same ideas."
The Mormon leadership will and has denied that they, as an institution, engage in the practice of shunning. There is some truth in this denial. That partial truth is utilized to serve the ends of deception, manipulation, and obfuscation of the larger truth of the matter. This is why I don’t like accusing the Church of “shunning”. The accusation of shunning takes the discussion right down the path that leads to their denial, without engaging the reality of the problem which is far more subtle, serious, harmful, and insidious than open social rejection.
The Church of Scientology is widely reported to ask all members to quit all communication with “suppressive persons”. An individual deemed to be antagonistic to Scientology is understood to qualify as a “suppressive person”. By this standard, I think it would be fair to say I would be considered a suppressive person from the perspective of the Mormon leadership. I am, perhaps, among the most outspoken critics of Mormonism.
It is not my understanding, nor do I have any reason to believe that my family members have been asked to quit all communication with me. As a former high priest of the Mormon Church and a counselor who served two bishoprics, a former stake mission president, and former Melchizedek priesthood group leader, I had access to and was personally aware of the written policies and protocols regarding apostates that were made available to bishops and other church leaders. I am not aware of any standing instruction to “quit all communication” with apostates.
To the contrary, it is my experience and understanding, based on personal knowledge, that the Church encourages continued limited social interaction with apostates. They encourage loving supportiveness of all family members. I am personally aware, as an apostate, of one particular bishop’s outgoing kindness and supportiveness toward me, personally, on certain levels. Generally, I don’t think this behavior is a-typical of the attitudes of Mormon Bishops on certain levels nor do I think it is out of sync with the instructions they receive from the senior LDS Church leadership.
What was unusual, however, was that paradoxically, on one occasion, this particular bishop abruptly confronted one of my siblings, interrupting them in the act of an illegitimate assault on my character behind my back. He explained that he had read my book, understood where I was coming from, loved and respected me and considered me a friend. He stopped my sibling cold and explained he would not abide such talk about me. This was later confessed to me by the sibling in a rare moment of honesty and candor about family efforts to discredit me. On another occasion, I learned this same sibling had approached a roommate of mine and argued that they should seriously reconsider our roommate status on the basis of my apostasy and alliance with Satan. The roommate showed me copies of excerpts from writings of the Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, addressing my alleged alliance with Satan as a matter of Mormon doctrine about apostates. The excerpts were left with the roommate by the sibling for their "thoughtful consideration".
Conversely, family members have, since my apostasy, invited me to Thanksgiving and other gatherings. They have attempted to reach out to me in various other ways. There has been no “shunning” that consisted of complete social rejection that has manifested itself in the form of a definitive end to all communication. Generally, I am the one who has declined invitations to participate or communicate beyond certain levels, for what I believe to be very good reason. They might argue that I am guilty of shunning them. I think neither this accusation, nor the reverse would be true in the strictest sense. The actual realities of the problematic dynamic that immerges between the Mormon apostate and his or her former Mormon friends and family is a complex matter involving the religious view of apostasy, its ramifications, and the social, cultural, and philosophical view of the Mormon family.
The religious view of “apostasy” from the perspective of the Mormon faith was taught by the founding Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and others, to frequently involve a false quest for moral superiority by the apostate, whose spirit is now dominated by satanic influence. According to Mormon theology, the notion that a former Mormon might profess to seek a higher moral or philosophical plane by leaving the Church is conclusive evidence of Satan’s power over them. Among other things, Joseph Smith is reported to have taught, “That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy…” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 156. Joseph Smith is also reported to have said, “Strange as it may appear at first thought, yet it is no less strange than true, that notwithstanding all the professed determination to live godly, apostates after turning from the faith of Christ, unless they have speedily repented, have sooner or later fallen into the snares of the wicked one, and have been left destitute of the Spirit of God, to manifest their wickedness in the eyes of multitudes.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 67. As it turns out leaving the Mormon Church, according to the Mormon view, constitutes “turning from the faith of Christ”. They view themselves as Christ’s exclusive agents.
This view of apostasy contributes to corollary conclusions that have an impact on the social dynamics in the apostate’s family. The Mormon view of heaven, for worthy candidates, is inextricable from their notion of “eternal families”. Mormons believe that the “Celestial Kingdom” or highest degree of “glory” attainable in the afterlife is comprised of a continuation of family relationships between members of families who individually demonstrate worthiness for such relationships in the afterlife, while in this earthly sojourn. The family member who does not demonstrate worthiness in this life is believed to be consigned to a lesser “kingdom”, in the afterlife, where family relationships do not continue. Accordingly, Mormons, believe in the effective eternal segregation of the unworthy from the worthy and the eternal disjoining of families on that basis. This ultimate, final and permanent segregation of the “worthy” from the “unworthy”, in Mormon theology, takes “shunning” to the level of an eternal plight.
With this in mind, many Mormons take the “sins” of their family members somewhat more personally. For a Mormon, a violation of the “commandments of God” in the absence of repentance is not only an affront to God, but an affront to the continuity of the eternal family. Fairly minor spiritual infractions are taken in stride. They are considered things that can be worked out on a personal level. More serious infractions, most typically matters of a sexual nature, need to be confessed to the bishop who will proscribe the course of remediation required by the Church for redemption from the sinful behavior. In the absence of such priesthood guided repentance, such matters are considered an obstacle to celestial worthiness in the afterlife. Being somewhat ubiquitous in any cross section of the human family, such matters are still easily looked at with loving and forgiving eyes and encouragement designed to reclaim the sinner, as long as the sinner acknowledges the infraction to be a spiritual detour from which repentance is required. This is not a time in Mormon culture for shunning. Here, an increase in love and supportiveness with the object of the candidate’s repentance is more typical. An unapologetic attitude about one’s sins is a different matter and seen as an offense to the continuity of the eternal family. For this reason many Mormons find it hard not to take unapologetic attitudes about serious infractions personally, as if some willful slight or insult is inherent in the sinner’s attitude about the offense.
I recall a true story of a particular situation in which a man who no longer believed in the Church or its doctrines had an extra-marital affair with the full knowledge and willful consent of the wife. The story continues in substance as follows, although I may be remembering some minor details incorrectly.
The couple had suffered years of difficulties in a marriage that was being held together solely for the sake of the kids until a plan of divorce was agreed to follow the youngest daughter’s graduation from high school. Not only was the wife knowledgeable and approving of the affair, she actually recommended it to his surprise. She participated in pre-planning discussions including secrecies and planned management details before the affair actually began. It later became convenient for the wife to precipitously disclose the affair to members of the husband’s family, misrepresenting her knowledge and consent. It turned out she was threatened by the planned future divorce and what she believed to be the eventuality of uncomfortable disclosures about her own personal behavior, known to the husband. She felt a need to prophyilactically destroy his credibility in anticipation of that eventuality.
Ultimately, knowledge of the affair came to be the attention of the eldest daughter. At a certain point, she confronted the father vociferously. He attempted to point out that their perspectives were different and that her judgment of him over the matter was not well founded. He explained that there was no betrayal and that he didn’t share the Mormon view of the sinfulness of the matter since betrayal was not an issue. The daughter, a true believing and somewhat self-righteous Mormon at the time, could not accept his actual sincerity and honesty in the handling of the situation and evaluate it with that in mind. From her perspective, a serious violation of God’s commandments had occurred. It was a serious affront to the continuity of their eternal family. She was personally offended and insulted and felt personally rejected, as a daughter, by a father who, from her point of view, had chosen this tawdry affair over eternal life with the family.
The additional complication of the father’s apparent apostasy was revealed in his disclosure that he no longer believed in the Church or the Church’s view of the afterlife. This exacerbated the problem of the daughter’s condemnation. Clearly, from her perspective, it could now be reasonably ascertained from Mormon doctrine that he must be a follower of Satan, the father of lies. So his defense that there was no betrayal was suspicious, at best, and completely incredible when viewed in light of her Mother’s representation that she was not a completely willing participant in the matter and only manipulated into keeping it a secret after learning that it was going on.
The daughter thought the mother, a temple worthy Mormon, must be the one telling the truth. The father’s “obvious” lie added insult to injury. The existence of a written document entitled “Suspension of Marital Covenants”, bearing the wife’s own handwriting, evidenced the legitimacy of the father’s defense. It wasn’t factored into the daughter’s confident condemnation of her father. She had a "spiritual feeling of confirmation" that the mother was telling the truth, as is consistently an example of Mormon epistemology. This was enough for her to confidently condemn her father as a liar and a cheat and blame the subsequent alienation in the relationship on him for the rest of their lives. The existence of the expository document was easily overlooked by the Mother in her calculated deception. She knew all too well how Mormon epistemology would serve her deception and obviate the need for any thoughtful and careful examination of the matter as part of the ethics of judgment.
For years prior to their ultimate divorce and the exposure of this controversy, the wife had been involving the father’s siblings in secret discussions of his “indiscretions” and her “disappointment.” Obviously her spin served its calculated end, his prophylactic character assassination. It did not include convincing reports of her ownership of the idea of the affair and her complete collaboration. The siblings were carefully led to the conclusion that he had betrayed and manipulated her and that if they revealed what they knew he might “abuse” her. They had observed that some of his annoyances with her had bubbled over into heated and passionate discussion. They had no idea what the full contextual perspective of their marriage would have revealed. They were not aware of the degree to which he patiently endured her physical and verbal abusiveness, calculated manipulations and dishonesty. They agreed to and promoted the pact of secrecy with which the wife’s reports of her husband’s indiscretions would be revealed. This afforded the wife a complete absence of accountability for her deception.
Wikipedia’s report on shunning includes this paragraph on “stealth shunning”:
"Stealth shunning is a practice where a person or an action is silently banned. When a person is silently banned, the group they have been banned from doesn't interact with them. This can be done by secretly announcing the policy to all except the banned individual, or it can happen informally when all people in a group or email list each conclude that they do not want to interact with the person. When an action is silently banned, requests for that action are either ignored or turned down with faked explanations."
Suddenly and for years after this plot was in full bloom, the husband, once lauded in the family and community as an exemplary father and a man of outstanding character and integrity was treated as if he were a scoundrel who deserved no respect. Siblings and in-laws picked inexplicable fights with him. He was presumptuously subjected to unfounded accusations for which he was routinely denied a fair hearing. Close and dear friends in the community stopped returning his calls inexplicably. Sharp and noticeable behavioral changes were obvious in the way he was now being treated. When he inquired about clear evidence of a widespread shift in the social attitude toward him his wife, daughter and others stonewalled his questions and passed it off as his own paranoia and obsessive social preoccupations.
Years into the perplexity of this situation he learned that certain of his siblings and children had each been a party to spiritually justified gossip, typical in Mormon communities. Completely illegitimate lies and rumors are spread under the auspices of spiritual concern for the victim of uninvestigated and exaggerated abuse. Prayers were solicited for the wife’s emotional and spiritual well being under the oppression of the husband’s “cavalier” and “reprehensible” behavior. Obtuse and implausible explanations were routinely offered when he inquired about the obvious clues to the attitudes that now prevailed. For seven years his sister ignored specific and repeated requests to discuss what the problem between them, as reported by another family member, was all about.
During this time she served as a Mormon Relief Society president and spoke in large gatherings of LDS members. She and her husband were celebrated members of their stalwart Mormon community. They ignored the passages from the Sermon on the Mount calling upon Disciples of Christ to deal with the “ought with their brothers” before considering themselves worthy to partake in other religious rituals and offerings. They thought his “hypocrisy” and “abusiveness”, punctuated by his apostasy from the Church, now exempted him as deserving of the common courtesy and respect that any normal human being would consider them-selves obliged to grant a brother.
“Gee, bro…,” would begin any normal phone call from a sibling under such circumstances. “I’ve heard some really awful things about you from your wife. She wanted me to keep them a secret, but I owe it to you to tell you what’s being said and hear you out in all fairness.” It wasn’t until five years later that he learned they were talking amongst themselves and others about his “guilt” and the “hypocrisy” that they attributed to him every time they heard him express concern over another person’s dishonesty. Then he heard reliable reports of discussions in which people were encouraged not to do business with him by family members, and equally reliable reports of the insistence on family secrecy in concealing such discussions from him. An active Mormon brother in law was caught openly cheating him in a business deal. His complaints were dismissed, together with photographic evidence and written acknowledgments of departures from contractual obligations, as over-reactions unworthy of thoughtful consideration. He was now easily dismissed as a chronic complainer and Satan follower.
To this day, one sister, the Relief Society President, who ultimately confessed in open confrontation to being a party to such illegitimate gossip, has not contributed meaningfully to help with mitigating the damages of her gossip. He suspects such an endeavor would open up an uncomfortable can of worms and social embarrassment for her. This would be hard to justify for the comparatively trivial objective of re-establishing in some small measure the credibility that her own gossip served to unfairly diminish for her brother, the apostate. He, after all, was no longer a part of her eternal family.
A Mormon temple-recommend holding daughter was caught in a shameful misrepresentation, by the father, about her knowledge of the sincere reports of the consent of the mother in the affair. She was confronted for having been guilty of passing along gossip of the adultery of her father, while omitting the fact of her awareness of the mother’s consent. She had discussed the mother's consent at length with the father prior to her offensive disclosures. Instead of apologizing and offering to assist with mitigation of the damages, her father’s questions about her behavior were met with obtuse and evasive dismissiveness and a self justifying refusal to communicate with him any further.
From this particular father’s perspective, to have been completely isolated and denied all further communication with his family, however illegitimately based, would have been far preferable to the treatment that was measured out and continues to this day in the form of obstinate refusals to own up to the reality and illegitimacy of the behavior in question. As an alternative to such an “unreasonable” expectation, he is further condemned as being unwilling to forgive, by a family that has never truly owned up to the behavior they would so much like to pretend doesn’t continue to this day. Apparently, his apostasy obviates the very spiritual requirement that some of them have referred to in their own Sunday school lessons and congregational sermons that would consist of simply acknowledging, “We did those things. They weren’t fair. We’re sorry.”
Imagine you are one of this guy’s siblings and are personally guilty of the behavior above. Imagine now inviting him to your home for Thanksgiving dinner, on the condition that he accept your condemnations quietly and avoid any discussion of your behavior towards him and its injustice and pervasive ramifications in his life. No fair hearing. That’s a non-negotiable condition of all future contact.
I have some idea about how this guy feels. Many ex-Mormons do. If there is anything we can do to be helpful to any member of our families we remain hopeful that we will be afforded the opportunity to at least try to be helpful if we can. We love our families… but some of us might be disinclined to accept Thanksgiving dinner invitations from some of them. We may not be very comfortable now with the use of the hypocritically “gracious” social interaction tactic calculated to displace their unapologetic attitudes toward their own offenses and guilt over time with the accumulation of “normal” interactions. We think there are things that deserve attention now, as a pre-requisite to “normalizing” the relationships. Many apostates feel this way, for good reason. A reluctance to forgive is not the real problem here. The unwillingness to own up to very legitimate concerns over an established pattern of unfair condemnation and hurtful gossip is now the larger issue. Unfortunately, Mormon epistemology does not lend itself to self reflection on such levels where apostates are concerned.
Now consider if you will another aspect of the painful dynamic between Mormon apostates and their true believing families. Let’s consider a situation in which none of the forgoing drama is part of the equation. Let’s just simplify it down to the basic and fundamental reality that Mormonism is a patently obvious fraud and its origins are based on a pack of insincere and exploitive lies masquerading as truth and religion. From the apostate’s point of view, he is marginalized for applying the highest aspects of the Mormon faith, which are the pursuit of truth and Godly intelligence through a sincere quest. This quest, for the most sincere and thoughtful Mormons, will inevitably end up with the discovery that the roots of their faith are patently absurd and demonstrably false. This discovery is disturbing enough on its own, but it is invariably complimented with unwarranted spiritual and moral condemnation from the apostate’s former family members, who embrace the spiritual darkness demonstrated by accepting the lies about Mormon origins as truth, as opposed to rejecting the obvious lies and insidious exploitation of faith that is the object of those lies.
Hubris is defined by some as a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one's own competence or capabilities, especially when the person exhibiting it is in a position of power. Mormons believe that their unique spiritual “Gift of the Holy Ghost” empowers them with superior insight and, accordingly, wisdom. It follows, consistently, that their communications with their apostate relatives tend to reveal certain conversational tones that reflect their spirit of condescending charity and patronizing kindness toward the darkened spirit of the apostate in extending their well wishes and perfunctory graciousness.
The dynamic between Mormon apostates and their true believing family members is a very complex social quagmire. Hypocrisy, hubris, and defamation are the larger problems. It seems almost any assault on the credibility of the apostate is justified in the spirit of marginalizing any challenges or challengers to the legitimacy of Mormonism. Shunning, in my view, is a relatively minor part of the dynamic, but it does show its ugly head on certain levels. The Mormon leadership now, under political pressure, has increased its call to encourage members to reach out to their apostate family members. However, it still must require that they stop short of acknowledging the legitimacy of many of their concerns and complaints. Meanwhile, under the direction of the Mormon leadership, it seems the marginalization of apostates is actively pursued, while honesty and fairness are all too often sacrificed without reservation.