I need to start this post with a little background. Although it should be clear from other blog entries that I’m sitting pretty far into the disbelief side of the faith spectrum, I still participate in my ward and hold a calling. A little over a week ago, my calling required me to take a couple vacation days from work and attend the stake Youth Conference. I went into it hoping this would be an opportunity to make a positive contribution into my Mormon community and do some real world good. After all, I have mostly fond memories of these retreats.
And it certainly started out that way. On the first morning of Youth Conference, the adult leaders chaperoned the youth to various local service projects. The service projects were organized through a Catholic organization, and so the recipients weren’t even LDS, which I liked (if we only ever do service for other church members, I believe it sends a wrong message about the purpose of service). For the youth I was chaperoning, this meant doing some yard work for a mildly eccentric older lady who lived alone. After the service project was finished, the woman expressed gratitude and asked me how long I had been “pastoring.” I stumbled through the answer a bit, but managed to convey the idea that we don’t really have divinity schools or professional pastors, and that my position was temporary and not based on any kind of training or credentials. A nearby youth watched this interaction with wide eyes, probably intuiting that this is supposed to be one of those fabulous missionary moments that we could share later in a testimony meeting. The woman told me she was happy to see different faiths working together and making a difference, and that we all serve the same God and want the same thing. I sincerely agreed, while noting to myself internally that her speech would have irritated me a bit when I was a missionary.
Later that day the kids played games together and attended a dance. I was actually feeling pretty positive about the weekend so far. These youth had an opportunity to perform meaningful service and to make friends in a safe environment with members of their faith community.
The next day was the day that the kids went through several “workshops” and firesides, which changed the atmosphere completely. It became apparent that many of the leaders envisioned this event as a way to “rescue” these kids from themselves and any doubts they might be having or would soon have. I had heard some hints of this in the meetings I had attended prior to the conference, and I had heard some grumblings that insinuated youth retention was very low. The mutual theme this year, “Press Forward,” certainly has elements of that. But now it had become quite clear. Now not all the workshops were bad. Some were positive and useful. But there was one in particular that instantly destroyed all the goodwill I had felt about the conference up until this point.
It began well enough. A bishop and his son (a youth) were running this workshop, and the youth started out playing a goofy but fun game that involved guarding a swim noodle from others who were trying to steal it. After the game was over, the youth in charge referenced Uchtdorfs “Doubt Your Doubts” talk (not the first mention of the conference, by the way) and asked the rest of the youth how the game might apply. Since there was no obvious parallel, the youth struggled to come up with answers, and offered several possible interpretations, all of which were huge stretches (it wasn’t their fault, I couldn’t come up with anything either). After not getting the answer they were looking for, the father/son combo explained that you must defend your faith, much they defended their noodle (“oh…”). Then the son launched unexpectedly into a diatribe while his father looked on proudly. The son related how his high school science teacher had really been pushing evolution “for some reason,” and told everyone that that’s stupid, that he didn’t descend from a “monkey or a fish.” He told everyone not to let these false ideas harm their testimony. He then paradoxically quoted Henry B. Eyering’s father that science and religion aren’t at odds, abut then followed it up by telling people not to believe everything scientists say. Ironically, I learned that this particular youth is named after a certain former Church leader, one that I still greatly admire, who is known for his advocacy for science and evolution in the church. His parents have evidently not informed him very well about his namesake’s legacy.
After his rant ended, his dad followed him by saying that there are people trying to attack your testimony, and you must not, at any cost, let them get anywhere near it. Then he had everyone quietly listen to a song based off the “Doubt your doubts” address, which included lines like: “You already know it \ You don’t have to fight what’s in your heart” and “You don’t have to know everything To know that you believe.” It’s written in the typical Mormon faux-pop style, and after a brief search on the internet, I was able to find it here. I also found the lyrics on the Church’s website, and learned that it’s apparently one of several youth mutual theme songs this year. I didn’t know that at the time. I just had a hard time sitting through it. I texted a friend while it was happening to vent my frustrations, describing what I was witnessing as “hard-core indoctrination.”
On the last night of the youth conference, discouraged, I attended the testimony meeting. Most youth testimonies have little to do with doctrine or the “restoration.” Most are some combination of how much they love their friends and leaders and how great it is to be a Mormon. Although I listened morosely as one youth described how enemies of the church are unafraid to lie to discredit the church, invoking the example of some quotes they read somewhere which were attributed to Brigham Young, that “don’t sound at all like something Brigham Young would say.” This girl is in for a rude awakening, I thought. She then relayed the experience of watching a bit on Joseph Smith on the History Channel, and saying aloud “that’s wrong” to several things she heard. She walked away convinced that “the world” is just plain making things up about early church leaders.
I frequently find myself hoping that the Church can modernize, or at least become a community where people at all stages of faith and belief are truly welcome. After all, I had heard about plans to roll out the semi-apologetic (but at least more historically accurate) church essays on difficult topics to the seminary curriculum. This youth conference was a bit of a reality check. I walked away wondering if I would ever feel comfortable sending my own children to such a camp. The kinds of messages I heard that weekend only serve to drive people away. There’s a good chance that girl at the testimony meeting is going to find out one day that the version of Brigham Young she heard in those quotes is much truer to his character than what she learned about him in church. There’s a good chance she’s going to find out that the History Channel did their homework on Joseph Smith. And there’s a good chance that many of those kid are going to go to college, and, much like I did, learn that the evidence in favor of evolution by natural selection is in an overwhelming consensus. And when that happens, all the church will have done up until this point is draw a line in the sand that they are now forced to cross.