Today, as part of our continuing series on Mormonism’s Many Images, we are pleased to welcome Erin Anderson as a guest blogger. Erin left the LDS Church in her early teens, along with her parents and siblings; her extended family is still active. She holds degrees in religious studies from New York University and Boston University, and works as an administrator at Harvard.
The last time I set foot in an LDS building, more than a decade ago, I spent the entire day in the foyer. It was an ideal location. Like the rest of my immediate family, I had come to welcome these in-between settings: close enough to see friends and relatives, but removed from problematic religious spaces. My uncle’s wedding at the temple? We’ll volunteer to watch the kids outside. Visiting grandparents? Let’s fly in on Sunday afternoon, to spare them from asking us to church. We kept the peace by finding comfortable gray areas, neither embracing nor rejecting our heritage.
My parents, sisters, and I had withdrawn from a tight-knit congregation two years earlier, resulting in this “betwixt and between” strategy. Even in Massachusetts’ progressive Mormon community—surrounded by the lovely women of Exponent II—it had simply become too difficult for my mom and dad to raise three liberal, feminist daughters. And so I twiddled my thumbs that Sunday outside the chapel doors, already a veteran of living between two cultures at fourteen.
Now that we’re past much anger and anxiety, our decision to leave the Church has deepened my empathy for anyone caught in these liminal situations, including my former coreligionists. No group, to my mind, better exemplifies a dichotomous social posture than contemporary Mormons. As Ben P noted, it is both the most American of religions, and a perplexing “other.”
The Church has tried to square these two characteristics for decades, striving for balance between assimilation and idiosyncrasy. Armand Mauss hypothesizes that LDS history is marked by periods of cultural integration, followed by ones of retrenchment. Members assert their distinctiveness as soon as Mormonism looks too mainstream, to preserve their sense of being specially chosen—but not so much that they will lose all social respectability.  The needle swings between those two poles, and believers generate a range of expressions reflecting the desire for equilibrium.
I feel a great deal of appreciation for those who manage to walk that line with panache. My mother recently sent me a link to “Just Say Amen Already,” a Tumblr whose GIFs both celebrate and satirize the author’s singles’ ward adventures. “Just Say Amen Already” perfectly straddles the divide between insider and outsider: almost anyone would recognize the Disney films, network sit-coms, and Simpsons episodes she samples, but only someone well-versed in LDS habits would truly “get” every implied punch-line. And the Tumblr would be less humorous to those-in-the-know if it appealed to a broader base. Members are privileged, but without alienating newcomers.
Or consider this panel by Calvin Grondahl, editorial cartoonist for the Ogden Standard-Examiner and lifelong Latter-day Saint.  The Mormon soldier is immediately identifiable—his upright, obedient demeanor is a stark contrast to the others—but it is precisely that difference that makes him the ideal U.S. soldier. He is at once the most, and the least, American of his peers.
However, the whole point of the cartoon is to poke fun at this impression. It ridicules outsiders for buying into LDS stereotypes (and for being sloppy, inattentive, and unhealthy) while also lampooning Mormons, accentuating their squeaky-clean reputation. Everyone is a target, member or not, but in such a way that anyone can appreciate the humor without too much offense.
Such strategies for thriving within an interstitial space have kept me linked to a faith I have otherwise abandoned. Apostles, inactives, and apostates alike, I am confident that each person connected to Mormonism has confronted the strain between assimilation and peculiarity. When should I gloss over my unique background, and when should I highlight it? When the public talks about Mormonism, should I respond by stressing its conventional or exceptional qualities? Should I respond at all?
These are the same questions I’ve wrestled with for a lifetime, and my approach to dealing with them has not changed much since leaving the Church. Americans are fascinated by Mormons’ distinctiveness, as this blog has mentioned frequently; I’m never too far from a conversation about it. (This past electoral cycle made it impossible to avoid. “Oh, you’re from Belmont! Did you know the Romneys?” If I had a nickel….) And, almost every time, I’ll ride out the tension by trying to make my audience more comfortable. I rush to reassure onlookers that, while unusual, I am not that strange. As a kid I knew it was “weird” that I couldn’t drink iced tea, but I would point out that all kids have rules. It’s the same today. Yes, I used to be Mormon, and isn’t that intriguing! But here I am, drinking a beer. See? I’m just like you!
Just as it’s been for the Church, my own juggling act is never-ending. External factors will upset this delicate balance, forcing me to find new footing. Am I truly just like you if my face burns when a coworker says something ignorant about Mormons? Am I appalled by the Jodi Arias trial as an average citizen, or because the media has sensationalized its LDS connections? Why do I take offense when the New York Times implies that BYU’s straight-laced graduates are boring?  Each time, I am compelled to grapple with dual loyalties. These moments remind me that I have not severed all ties to the Mormon community, though I have long since given up any religious investment. They have taught me how to live both within and without, neither here nor there.
 Armand L. Mauss, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994) 8–9, 77–78.
 Image from Calvin Grondahl, Freeway to Perfection: A Collection of Mormon Cartoons (Salt Lake City: The Sunstone Foundation, 1991).
 Jon Mooallem, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, it Goes to Mormon Country,” The New York Times, (May 23, 2013).