I spent months working through a revision of my Mormon-setting novel with my non-LDS writing group. I was anxious for their response. I hoped honest fiction about the tensions of a married couple working with a problem their church barely acknowledges would strike a universal chord and interest a mainstream publisher. My fellow writers surprised me with their antipathy toward the devout Mormon wife and their sympathy for her less religious, but pretty irresponsible spouse. As the wife wrestled with the difficulty of trying to create an ideal LDS family life with a non-ideal husband, my group kept hoping her solution would be to leave the church.
I was puzzled at this reaction until I realized that this is exactly how I respond to church/protagonist conflicts in non-LDS faiths. Reading Angela’s Ashes, I want Frank McCourt’s mother to leave a church that insists she can neither divorce an alcoholic husband nor use birth control to prevent the birth of children who will die of malnutrition and disease. Reading The Chosen, I want Danny Saunders to break away from his oppressive Hasidic upbringing and live his own life. Reading the news, I want FLDS women and children to flee from that heavy-handed theocracy.
Now, I don’t find myself wishing for a protagonist to abandon a religion that is peripheral to the story. The foolish clergymen in Jane Austen’s novels provide comic relief and do little harm to the main characters. And religion that contributes to happiness is also palatable. I enjoy escaping to Jan Karon’s idyllic, church-centered village of Mitford and following Father Tim, the Episcopal priest whose life revolves around his church and parishioners. But a serious work requires conflict and tension. And while conflict and tension make for good reading, they’re lousy PR.
Plenty of tension exists within the LDS Church and fuels the writing of wonderful novels that never get published. Most of the conflict seems to be with enshrined traditions that may have little or no doctrinal significance and which may be changed in the future—priesthood for those of African descent comes to mind. Currently, the LDS position on homosexuality is mellowing. President Hinckley acknowledged scientific evidence that homosexuality may have a genetic basis. And in 2009, the church spoke out for full civil rights for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
These examples make me wonder if the church couldn’t officially change policy on other existing traditions without causing doctrinal harm. Traditions causing the most angst for devout Mormons include: The subservient role of women, emphasis on attaining (or appearing to attain) an idealized standard of family perfection, the busyness that reaching this goal entails, and not allowing non-temple recommend holders to witness sons’ or daughters’ weddings.
When Mormons privately speak of what Church membership means to them, they usually talk about the love and sense of community they feel with one another and the concept of eternal families. I suspect these are the core values for most Mormons and I think these core values would be enhanced by de-emphasizing some of the practices which set us apart from the world in a negative way. Reducing angst in members would also make the church more attractive to outsiders. The downside would be drying up Mormon culture as a potential source of serious literature.