By Michael Farnworth
A Family History
Imagine growing up in a family whose members are not fairly represented. The father has unlimited power, does as he wants, and rarely listens to anyone’s concerns. Being a spirited child, you have the idea that the family would be happier if it were run more democratically. Your father completely disagrees. His father treated him the same way he’s treating you, and he turned out fine. As long as he remains the father, this will be how the family will run.
After many attempts to make things better, you finally conclude that there is only one way to change the system: leave it. So you declare your independence. You try to move out. But your father insists that you have no right to leave and brings all his brutality to bear on keeping you home. A series of hostile encounters follow. The family is torn and hurt. Rage grows.
But you succeed. You leave in spite of everything your father does to stop you. Though you feel responsible for the pain you caused other family members in the process, you are convinced that gaining freedom from your father’s tyranny was worth the collateral damage.
The foregoing account is the story of the United States’ Revolutionary War told as if it were a family history. The American colonies are the spirited child, Great Britain is the family, and King George III is the authoritarian father. The story of the American Revolution is told frequently at patriotic gatherings in the United States, the tellers reveling in the principles of freedom and the Constitution. But there is an aspect of the story that is rarely voiced: America’s wounding. America the adult has never quite come to grips with its childhood wounds of family intolerance and parental domination.
Another Family History
Imagine living in a family whose children have quite a bit of latitude for self expression and the pursuit of their own interests. Using this freedom, you put together some very interesting ideals and practices that resonate deeply within you, giving you nourishment and life. However, the more you explore these ideals and practices, the more suspicious your family becomes of you. You feel that you are working well within the family rules, but your parents begin to get angry with you for “going off the deep end.” Your siblings begin to attack you, accusing you of turning against the family. You try to explain yourself, but your family eventually gives you an ultimatum: either cease your unacceptable behavior or be ejected from the family. But the behavior is who you are. The behavior is what you believe. You know that you can’t win a confrontation with your family; they are too numerous and powerful.
Eventually, painfully, at great cost to yourself, you leave the family. But only for a while. You are, after all, only a child and can’t quite make it on your own. You back down on some of your beliefs and behaviors. You find ways to be “good.” The family accepts you back into the fold, but they remain suspicious of you. You are safe again, but wounded.
The foregoing account is the Mormon Church’s interactions with the United States told as if it were a family history. Even though the “family” of the United States was built on the ideal of freedom and tolerance, Mormonism became too different to tolerate. The Saints were rejected in every state they tried to inhabit. One state even tried to exterminate them. If they wanted to remain a part of the United States, the only option was to renounce the practices the U.S. deemed threatening, such as polygamy. After running away to the Utah Territory, Mormonism finally acquiesced and became a model child. But wounds from being threatened by the family remained and would resurface as Mormonism grew to maturity.
Still Another Family History
Imagine growing up in a family that bears a respected name. Your parents are attentive, benevolent, and run an orderly household. As a child you feel loved and accepted, but as you grow older, it dawns on you that even though they insist that they love you for who you are, your parents’ love actually seems to be contingent on your external behavior. You realize that the family’s rules and expectations exist primarily to promote a particular image of the family to the rest of the community—an image your parents seem very preoccupied with. You watch as a few brothers and sisters break rank and how the wrath of your parents comes down on them.
You love your parents and want to understand them better, so you approach them with some questions about why your brothers and sisters were dealt with as they were. But instead of giving you an open response, your parents seem to feel that your questions are an affront to their authority. They suggest that it is best to silently support them. God, after all, has appointed them to preside over the family and they are only doing what God directs them to do. You find it strange that they are unwilling to even consider your opinion. In fact, you feel as if their reaction to you is calculated to keep you in a child/dependent role rather than to help you grow and learn. But you decide to get back into line since you have seen what happened to the siblings who didn’t. You know that the family will reject you if you are not loyal.
The foregoing account is the history of many a member of the LDS Church who has raised questions but eventually dropped them in order to stay within the Church. As you can see, it bears a great deal of resemblance to the previous two histories. Though it tries to do so benevolently, the Church is as guilty as Great Britain and the United States of using coercion to keep its children in line. Why would this be? Take a look at the following family tree.
“The Black-Sheep-Turned-Hero Child”
You & Me
(and the roles we play)
As you can see, there is a strong theme of unconscious authoritarianism in this lineage. The American colonies found Great Britain’s heavy-handedness intolerable, so they rebelled. Having felt its autonomy violated as a “child,” it would seem that the United States would have been understanding when its own “child,” the Mormon Church, didn’t actually rebel but merely generated a unique culture (polygamy, the United Order, etc.). So why did it threaten the Church with its very life if the Church would not conform to its wishes? Why would it act in the same way its parent, Great Britain, did? It seems that the United States cared more for conformity than for the freedom it fought for as a rebellious adolescent.
Of course, we can ask the same question of the Church. Having so recently been rejected by its “parent” for being different, why does it threaten its own children with a similar rejection? Why would it make its children suffer the same way it suffered?
Alice Miller answers this question in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child where she suggests that, left to their own devices, parents will do to their children what was done to them in their family of origin. So the United States was wounded in the process of finding its independence from Great Britain. But rather than learning about the importance of allowing a child to grow and find his or her own independence, the United States unconsciously followed the script Great Britain gave it. When the Mormon Church was old enough to decide to do things differently, the United States blindly followed the behavior of its parents, and the wounds were passed from one generation to the next.
If we view the Church today as a descendant of Great Britain and the United States, there is little wonder it tends to act the same way they did. Unorthodoxy threatens the Church in the very same way that Mormonism threatened the United States or the American colonies Britain.
The question is, what can we do to stop this cycle?
The first step is to recognize the situation. The Church’s story very much fits the story of a family’s black sheep doing a 180 and becoming the family hero. Mormonism has become a well-behaved, productive, mom-baseball-and-apple-pie-type religion. This behavior, however, hasn’t arisen from the Church’s own soul, but from its desire to be accepted by the United States.
The Church is the institutional parent we were born to. We can see the dysfunction in Church’s inability to act in a soul-rooted way toward the culture surrounding it. It is still trying to be the good child, rather than be itself. We can see that it is passing its dysfunction on to us, telling us that we must not talk about our problems (it may make the Church look bad), that we shouldn’t feel particular emotions (it throws a monkey wrench into the system), and that we shouldn’t trust ourselves (because the Church doesn’t know how to trust itself). It knows that if it gives us too much leeway or too much information, we are more likely to go off on a path the Church has not yet explored, groomed, and approved. And then it would have to deal with some type of rebellion—so important to growth, but so difficult for a wounded parent to deal with.
Of course, we must also ask ourselves the same question: are we following the wounded-parent script? Are we deforming ourselves to gain approval and then passing that dysfunction on to our children? Are we as bad at dealing with rebellion as our institutional ancestors are? We need first to confront and surrender to our own wounded histories and then courageously suffer those wounds instead of numbly passing them on to those more vulnerable than ourselves. The best legacy we can leave our children is one of healing.