Split Over the Mormon Church, but Maintaining Some Ties

New York Times/June 2, 2007
By Martin Stolz

Millville, Utah — Janet and Lars Bergeson recently held a prewedding lawn party for their son at their home, surrounded by farms on a bluff in sight of Mount Bergeson. The landmark, named for a Swedish Mormon who arrived in 1860, is a reminder of their ancestors' religion.

The couple left the fold long ago, so they knew they would not be allowed to attend the temple wedding and eternal sealing of their son, Nils Bergeson, 24, to Emily O'Hara, 25. The young couple are Mormons in good standing who hope to join the Peace Corps.

Despite years away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, being shut out of a family affair in the temple rekindled dormant emotions for Janet Bergeson, 52, as the rest of the family prepared for the wedding. Comfort came from users of a Web site that Mrs. Bergeson began participating in about six months ago, www.PostMormon.org.

"Just being able to discuss these things online, that's helped me shape where I am today," she said.

The Web site is the primary focus of the Post-Mormon Community, a nonprofit group founded in 2002 that tries to help those struggling after a loss of faith, said Jeff Ricks, the executive manager of the organization.

Some arrive at PostMormon.org shunned by family members or doubting a doctrine. Some PostMormon.org visitors are gay, many in heterosexual marriages and with children, Mr. Ricks said. A few have been officially disciplined or excommunicated. The common denominator, though, is that they seek an anonymous and confidential way to find support, he said.

The Web site is one of several that attract Mormons who have left the faith or are questioning it. Another, www.exMormonFoundation.org, additionally says its mission is to unveil the "harm" caused by the church and to provide a "countervoice on Mormonism." A third site, www.exmormon.org, provides support, though it also attracts "ex Mormons," a term that some say connotes anti-Mormonism. Indeed, exmormon.org has a large archive of arguments against the church and its doctrines.

Mormon authorities would not comment on the Web sites, but Kim E. Farah, a church spokeswoman, said the church's president, Gordon B. Hinckley, has told followers to be kind to those with different beliefs.

Ms. Farah cited a 2000 speech by Mr. Hinckley:

"Let us never act in a spirit of arrogance or with a holier-than-thou attitude. Rather, may we show love and respect and helpfulness toward them. We are greatly misunderstood, and I fear that much of it is of our own making. We can be more tolerant, more neighborly, more friendly, more of an example than we have been in the past."

Mr. Ricks distinguishes his group from the other Web sites, even avoiding the term "ex-Mormon," and insisting that it is strictly a volunteer support group focused on the "wounded and hurting," and not on challenging the church or its claims.

It finds a ready audience among people who have found that leaving the Mormon fold and culture can cause lasting family fissures, especially in the parts of the West where Mormonism dominates.

Mrs. Bergeson, a nurse who is now the chairwoman of the PostMormon board, knows members who feel ostracized from family members. "I see so much suffering," she said. Aside from writing about her own feelings, she has read postings from users on the Web site that prompted tears, and sometimes laughter.

Mrs. Bergeson said she appreciated reading about other people's philosophical approaches and humor, all of which help "sharpen my beliefs and shape them into something that has worked for me."

The PostMormon chapter in Logan has social events, as do chapters in eight Western states, Canada, Australia and three European countries. But the Web site, with its worldwide reach, is the centerpiece, averaging more than two million page views a month, Mr. Ricks said.

The group recently bought billboard space in Utah and Idaho. Other companies declined for years to sell them advertising space, Mr. Ricks said.

The church, based in Salt Lake City, says it has 12.3 million members, including 5.6 million in the United States. It estimates that 72 percent of Utah's 2.4 million residents are Mormon. The Cache Valley, where Millville is, is believed to have a higher percentage, with some placing the number above 90 percent.

The concentration of Mormons, along with unique elements of the culture and theology, can place pressures on disaffected Mormons and their relatives, Mr. Ricks said.

Claudia L. Bushman, a professor of American studies at Columbia University and author of "Contemporary Mormonism: Latter-day Saints in Modern America" (Praeger Publishers), said those who left the faith were viewed with suspicion or shunned when they deviated, for example, by not attending church, not tithing, questioning beliefs, drinking coffee or using tobacco.

"That polarization is very unfortunate, but it's because of the persecution mentality from the past," said Professor Bushman, a Mormon in New York City.

Elevated respect given to church leaders can prompt censure of those perceived to be criticizing them, said Philip L. Barlow, a Mormon who will lead a new Mormon studies and history program at Utah State University.

"When you speak publicly," Professor Barlow said, "there's a sense that you're harming the image of the church."

Mr. Ricks said a more important cause for sensitivity was the family's religious role, which "is in-built into the theology." Because the family is conceived of as eternal and bound to a complex belief system, he said, a wayward Mormon is "threatening to that family unit for all eternity."

At the Bergesons' party, Carolyn Bergeson, 85, the family's matriarch and a devout Mormon, sat in the shade as rambunctious great-granddaughters ran circles around her.

She said it was disappointing that her son, Lars Bergeson, 59, a doctor in general practice, and his wife do not have "temple recommends." The temple is open only to Mormons with proof of good church standing, said Ms. Farah, the church spokeswoman.

When asked about Janet Bergeson's advocacy for PostMormon, she removed her hearing aid.

Dr. Bergeson chuckled about his mother's attitude. But Carolyn Bergeson's comments have at times stung. He said she once told Peter, the Bergesons' youngest, now 17, that he would not see his family in heaven because he was never baptized.

"That was hard," Janet Bergeson said, abruptly cutting off a laugh.

Janet Bergeson, who converted to Mormonism when she married Lars, had a temple wedding. After years of longing to believe, she stopped attending services in the 1990s. But her son's temple wedding revived touchy feelings, eased, she said, by postings at PostMormon.org.

"Now I can see the wedding as ceremonial," she said, "and it doesn't mean as much to me."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.