David Archuleta on leaving the Mormon church, coming out and 'living a meaningful life'

After coming out as queer in 2021, the former “American Idol” star is reinventing himself with new music, an upcoming memoir and a more authentic life — with his Latina mom’s support.

NBC News/June 2, 2024

By Raul A. Reyes

For most of his life, singer David Archuleta was a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — until inner turmoil over his sexuality nearly drove him to self-harm.

“The church is very much emphasized on family; you’re supposed to get married and have babies, create family, and that is your ultimate purpose in life,” the “American Idol” alumnus said. “You have to get married and have children in order to receive the highest form of heaven. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get that. So I thought it would be better to take my life than to strip myself away from the highest heaven.”

Now, Archuleta, 33, is reinventing himself with new music, a memoir in the works and a more authentic life. After coming out as queer in 2021, he left the church (widely known as the Mormon church) in 2022. In March, he won a GLAAD Award for outstanding breakthrough music artist, and in April he made an emotional return to “Idol” as a guest performer.

Of Honduran and Spanish descent, Archuleta came to national prominence in 2008 as the runner-up on “American Idol.” It was a heady experience for the Utah teenager. “At that time, there were, like, 30 million people watching every week, so I thought, ‘Who am I supposed to be for everybody?’ I didn’t really know,” Archuleta recalled. He described the experience as “overwhelming,” although “it taught me to keep pushing myself past my limits.”

After releasing several albums, in 2012 Archuleta took time off from his music career to serve a two-year stint as a missionary for the church in Chile. “I took it very seriously, my religion and my faith,” he said. “And I really enjoyed it; I loved it. But there are parts that are very tricky and challenging.”

As a young adult, Archuleta began to face issues he had wrestled with for over 20 years, which led him to depression, anxiety and despair. “In the church, they say homosexuality is a sin, it’s of the devil. I would think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t want to be of the devil. So let me keep praying and fasting and trying to be obedient.’” At his lowest point, Archuleta believed that God would be more forgiving of him if he died by suicide than if he were gay. “I thought ending my life would be better than becoming evil for allowing myself to fall in love with the same sex.”

Once a poster boy for the church who performed with the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square (formerly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), Archuleta initially kept his faith crisis to himself. But he came to feel, after praying, that God wanted him to come out publicly. Once he revealed to People magazine that he was “stepping away” from his religion, he dreaded speaking with his mother, a church member. “I thought, she’s so mad at me for offending her religion by leaving it.”

His mother’s reaction shocked him: She told him that she had decided to leave the church, as well. “She said, ‘If you’re going to hell, then we’re all going to hell with you,’” Archuleta recalled. It was this revelation that inspired him to write his latest single, “Hell Together.”

In an essay last year for QSaltLake Magazine, Archuleta’s mother, Lupe Marie Bartholomew, explained her decision to leave the church, writing, “I did not teach my children their whole lives to serve and love a God who is not accepting of them. God is Love.”

NBC News requested an interview with a spokesperson for the church; while it did not make one available, the church provided links to its teachings, which state that sexual relations are proper only between a lawfully married man and woman and that acting on same-sex attraction is a sin.

Archuleta’s journey out of his faith illustrates a challenge facing the church. U.S. Latinos are a growing part of the church’s ranks — and at the same time Latinos are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to identify as LGBTQ.

“We applaud parents like David’s ‘Mama Lupe’ for doing the work to understand and support their sons and daughters for living authentically,” said Fred Bowers, president of Affirmation, a worldwide group that helps support people as they define their spirituality and intersection with the Mormon church. Many of the parents in his group have taken actions similar to Archuleta’s mother’s after their sons or daughters came out.

Bowers said there is no one type of LGBTQ Mormon. “There isn’t, because we are all so varied and different that we have this widespread space spectrum in which we make decisions about our relationship with the church,” he said. Those who are questioning their faith just need to be supported wherever they are in their spiritual process, Bowers said, adding: “Some LGBTQIA Mormons still attend church, some enter into traditional marriages, some stay in the closet, and some leave. We are truly not monolithic.”

Ignacio Garcia, a professor of Western and Latino history at Brigham Young University who is a member of the church, said church leaders’ attitude toward LGBTQ people has gradually shifted from hostility to worry to not knowing what to do. “They are concerned because LGBT people present a fundamental challenge to Latter-day Saint theology.”

LGBTQ issues matter not only to U.S. Latinos in the church, Garcia noted, but also to its increasing Latin American membership. One church elder has estimated that by 2025 there will be as many members in Latin America as there are in the U.S. and Canada.

Church members believe in both a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother and that families can be bound together in the afterlife for eternity. Some LGBTQ people who are in the church, Garcia said, look at these concepts and wonder how — or whether — they can fit into them. Many Latino converts to the church, like other Americans, have family members and loved ones who identify as LGBTQ.

“We haven’t yet reached a point where the church deals with these issues, because, theologically or scripturally, the basis for saying LGBT people are not fully acceptable in receiving the highest blessings and opportunities is very thin,” Garcia said.

Church policies toward LGBTQ people are not based on scripture or what are called prophetic pronouncements, Garcia added. “The church encourages its members to be kind and welcoming to all people, including members of the LGBT community, but it has yet to tackle what some see as its own theological limits.”

Because he was an observant church member, Archuleta had never had a cafecito (coffee) or tasted alcohol until 2022. His first kiss with another man came when he was 30.

“Now, I just want to show people that I left the church and I’m happy,” he said. “A lot of times, when you’re in a more closed-off community, people try to make you feel like if you leave, you’re not going to be happy. But I’m happier where I am. I’m a lot happier.”

Looking ahead, Archuleta hopes to do a Spanish-language album and a dance music album, and he will be performing at several Pride events this summer. “For me, things really feel like another chance at life — because there was a point where I almost thought not living was the answer.”

Coming out “was very scary,” he said. “But for me, it was worth it. ... There’s a community even outside of your first community, and it’s very beautiful. And you can feel like you have a family and support and live a meaningful life.”

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