Like most Utahns, I’ve been devouring news of the Susan Powell disappearance this month and suspect her husband of foul play. Naturally, a news item about their relationship caught my eye. According to the report, the husband had stopped attending LDS meetings and the couple had sought counseling. The counselor told Susan to set goals for herself and she set a goal that her husband would start attending church and preparing for a temple recommend or she would divorce him and take the kids. I hope the report erred—that a counselor would not fail to make clear to a client that she can only set goals for herself.
I fell into the trap of thinking I could coerce George into church activity when we were first married. Like many new wives, I saw my spouse as a work-in-progress. It didn’t hit me how counter-productive and even unrighteous my attempts were until a well-meaning bishop asked why I didn’t make my husband attend his priesthood meetings. Having our bishop assign responsibility to me for George’s church attendance awoke me to the futility of trying to manage another person’s spirituality—at least until we had children.
I took the responsibility to teach our children the gospel seriously—too seriously. When our daughter, Aroo, rebelled against church, I feared loss of testimony would be followed by moral transgression and a lifetime of heartache. I pleaded, ordered, and punished to force church conformity on Aroo. She finally told me she had never believed any of the stuff she’d heard at church. I berated myself for bad parenting—but my bad parenting wasn’t in failing to teach my child religious doctrine. My bad parenting was trying to force her to believe as I did. Curiously enough, several girls in her age group committed moral transgressions, and all changed direction, married in the temple, and conformed to the Mormon lifestyle. Maybe sin wasn’t the dominant factor in happiness and success as I had believed.
In an ironic twist, after 35 years of marriage George became the more faithful member while my belief in Mormon history and doctrine dwindled. When I no longer believed that God cared what kind of underwear I wore, George reacted with panic. I was jeopardizing our chance to be together with our children as an eternal family. In the context of Mormon theology, my personal loss of belief affected George as much as myself. The second Article of Faith says man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression, yet George’s hopes for an eternal family depend on my belief and activity.
The doctrine of eternal families unifies a family of believers, but divides those with one or more non-believers. The Book of Mormon promises that everyone who earnestly seeks will gain a spiritual confirmation of its truth. Therefore a person who doesn’t believe must not be trying or must not be a righteous person. In practice, this justifies divorcing a spouse who cannot accept Mormon teachings. I doubt many LDS marriages fail only because of religious differences, but church inactivity and adultery tend to be socially acceptable reasons for Mormon divorces.
We Mormons would do well to adopt a teaching of Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh: “Do not force others, including children, by any means whatsoever, to adopt your views, whether by authority, threat, money, propaganda, or even education.”
The best advice I’ve heard for dealing with family members of differing beliefs comes from a wise LDS woman who says, in essence: We must love others for who they are, not for what they believe.