Mormon progressives in Arizona talk about being a part of the minority

By Joe Jacquez 

The Mormon religion has been around for a long time, but conflicting views, feelings of discomfort and/ or a feeling of misunderstanding has caused millennials and liberals to leave–creating a potential issue for the Church’s future.

According to CNN, about 1,500 Mormons resigned from the Church in 2015 to protest policy labeling same-sex couples apostate and banned children of same-sex relationships.

Also, a Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014, which examined changes and trends in the religious beliefs of Americans, has helped connect the dots between the changing views of young Mormons and retention problems.

Eric Whitemyer, a progressive leaning Mormon from Phoenix, said he has a number of liberal friends that left the Church because they felt uncomfortable with some of the Church’s stances. Whitemyer thinks the biggest issue for Mormon liberals is the ability to question some of the Church’s teachings.

“You can love the sinner but you cannot love the sin,” Whitemyer said. “Because of God’s teachings, we cannot condone gay marriage for example, but we still love them. But then if you’re someone that has a gay friend, it is tough.”

Jana Riess, author of the “The Next Mormons Survey,” asked former Mormons why they left the Church. Among millennials, an inability to trust the Church’s teachings was a popular choice.

Whitemyer said he has friends that have left the Church for various reasons, but he said they felt uncomfortable going to church because they had different views on a variety of issues.

Broader Context

According to Mormon Newsroom, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) started 187 years ago with 50 people and six official members in Fayette, New York.

Today, more than six million people across more than 14 thousand congregations have membership in the Mormon Church in the U.S. alone.

According to the Pew study mentioned earlier, Mormons are the most reliable religious group for the Republican Party in the nation. The study said that 70 percent of Mormons in the U.S. either identify or lean Republican. However, the same study said 19 percent identify or lean with the Democratic Party.

Arizona has 423,000-plus LDS members across 890 congregations, according to Mormon Newsroom. 

Furthermore, political science professors Chris Tausanovitch and Christopher Warshaw of UCLA and MIT respectively wrote a paper in 2014 titled “Representation in Municipal Government.” After examining the political leanings of cities and towns with 20,000 or more people, they named Mesa as America’s most conservative big city.

Mesa, which was settled in part by Mormon pioneer Daniel Webster Jones, according to Visit Mesa, is home to the first temple built in Arizona, according to Temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Despite these facts, liberal Mormon communities exist in Arizona. Kev Nemelka, project space coordinator and designer at the Arizona State University Art Museum in Phoenix, is one of them.

As an arts major at ASU, Nemelka said being involved in the art community partly influenced his open minded political and religious beliefs because he said they are more experimental. But, he said there was more to the story.

“One of my mom’s best friends is gay and we grew up with him,” Nemelka said. “He was always one of my favorite people and so it was never weird to me. (In addition,) being biracial, being Mormon, playing volleyball, which is not a popular sport for dudes to play, listening to the music I like to listen to, not necessarily the popular stuff, I think that is why it was easy for me to take a step back and actually think, what do I actually think about the left and what do I actually think about the right,” he said.

While Nemelka still believes the Church does a lot of good, including teaching people to serve others and put family first, he said his strong belief in “agency,” a concept of Mormonism that says God gave people the privilege of choice to act for themselves, helps explain his progressive views on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage.

“As someone who believes in agency, which is a very important part of Mormon religion and theology, I think it is ok to think whatever you think, but you shouldn’t tell other people what to do,” he said.

In addition, Nemelka said because the Church teaches agency, but at the same time has pro-life views, is one reason why he struggles to identify solely as a Mormon.

Maxx Fischer is not a registered Democrat, but said he leans with the party. As someone who has always questioned the status quo, he said he feels conservative members are set in their beliefs and never question why they believe in certain things. Fischer said this is not as big of an issue at church in Phoenix. However, when he returns home to Salt Lake City, Fischer said he has often felt uncomfortable.

“When I go back home, in my parents congregation, it is full of old people. If you’re liberal, you definitely stick out like a sore thumb.”

Whitemyer, who goes to church with Fischer in Phoenix, said he considers himself independent, but tends to lean Democrat. He said getting his master’s degree at Cal Poly helped him become more open-minded because a lot of his classmates were liberal.

While some, including Fischer, have considered leaving the Church themselves because they felt uncomfortable, others said it would be counterproductive.

“I do have faith in the basic doctrines,” Nemelka said. “But if real positive change is going to come about, people that are inclusive and are progressive should consider sticking around.”


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