For a while there, Mormonism was the fastest growing religion in the majority of the country. Its growth rate has slowed since its peak in 2012, however, it remains a surprisingly common theology considering its restrictive cultural practices and notably mythological lore — today, roughly 63 percent of Utah, and two percent of the general U.S. population is Mormon. When it comes to Christianity, it truly is the other, other white meat.
Yet, for a faith plagued by the negative image of its more extreme members (cough, Warren Jeffs) Mormons have been making a concentrated effort as of late to relax the long-clenched anus of conservatism in the hopes it’ll attract new members. Last week, we were treated to the uplifting story of a Mormon church who welcomed a transgender 12-year-old, and this week, it rolled out a new paid maternity leave option for women. Also, Mormon women who work for the church can finally wear pants, you guys. Pants.
However, these increasingly “progressive” edits to Mormonism’s conservative culture aren’t convincing everyone, least of all Mormons themselves. While many are flocking to the religion because it offers things mainstream Christianity doesn’t, it's also hemorrhaging members left and right as it struggles to stay legitimate during a time where secularization is more seductive than sacrament (even although its members are legendary at basketball).
Austin Russell is one of Mormonism’s lost members. Now a musician and actor, Russell grew up Mormon in Salt Lake City in a devout home where it was ingrained in him from birth that it was his duty to spread the word of God. But, after becoming exposed to secular life in college and discovering that his church had a much more morbid past than he’d been taught, he realized that for him, Mormonism had become a toxic modality. That realization was only the first step, though. Much like the inmate released from prison only to wind up in an unfamiliar world, Russell had to learn to acclimate to everyday life, all while reconciling the two disparate realities he knew — his past in the church, and his future without it.
We talked to him about what it was like to grow up Mormon, what made him leave the church, what it was like for him to navigate a brand new world and why that church's welcoming of a trans kid might smell of bullshit.
Quite recently, Mormonism was the fastest-growing religion in the United States. Why do you think that was? What does it offer that Christianity, or other major religions in this country don’t?
Mormonism was one of the first Christian sects to offer “complete” and compelling answers to what Mormon missionaries like to call the “Questions of the Soul.” Specifically, those are:
1. What is the purpose of life?
2. Was there life before this?
3. What happens after death?
It further answered these questions in a way that aligned with the transcendentalist way of thinking of the early 19th century in which it was born, by promising continuous individual growth and evolution, as well as the opportunity to maintain all relationships with family and friends, for eternity.
What was your experience growing up Mormon like? Any Colorado City, Warren Jeffs-style moments?
I was raised in a very traditional Mormon household in a relatively affluent suburb of Salt Lake City. Everyone I knew was Mormon, or had been Mormon at one point or another. In fact, the most intelligent, financially successful people I knew were Mormon.
We did not practice polygamy, as Mormonism did away with it at the end of the 19th century in response to a federal mandate. Those that still practice are condemned by church leadership, and not considered part of the church.
Other than that, my parents were completely devout, following Mormon rules (known as commandments) to the letter. In addition to abstaining from coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and any form of illegal substance, my parents held family prayer and scripture study every weeknight, took our family to church every Sunday, and had my siblings and I participate in every church extracurricular youth group and family activity that was available (there were usually three to four per week).
When I was 14, I was enrolled in seminary, a church education program that is integrated into all public high schools across Utah. Additionally, as the oldest of eight children my parents taught me that I owed a duty to my seven younger brothers and sisters to set a good example for them, explaining that God had chose me to be born first, because he trusted me. After graduating high school, I worked twelve to fourteen hours per day for a year, so I could save up enough money to serve a voluntary two year proselyting mission. At 19, I was sent to Honduras, and for the next two years I did little more than knock doors, and teach Mormon doctrine.
Through that time, did you legitimately believe the magic plates and the Joseph Smith lore, or were there parts of the Book of Mormon that made you suspicious?
I believed in it with all my heart. At the time, I had no doubt that everything my parents were teaching me was true.
When did you start questioning your faith? Was there anyone you could talk to about this?
Immediately after returning to the states from Honduras, I took the LSAT and applied to law school (having skipped high school and gone straight to college when I was 14, I had already completed the pre graduate school education requirements).
I decided on George Washington University in Washington DC. Over the course of the next three years, my studies, coupled with my first real intimate friendships with non-Mormons, challenged many of the foundational assumptions I had been taught. By the time I graduated law school (at 24), I had decided that I no longer believed that the church was “true” (in Mormon theology, Mormon doctrine is either entirely true or not — a point church leadership stresses continuously. There is no “picking and choosing”).
I had a couple close friends who were not Mormon. They were extremely supportive and encouraging.
What specifically made you decide to leave the church?
A large tenant of Mormon doctrine is that an individual can receive confirmation directly from God that mormonism is “true.” Members are encouraged to pray and ask God if what is being taught is true, and promised a “confirmation” in the form of a “warm feeling” inside one’s heart.
Obviously, the potential for confirmation bias is inevitable, especially if one “wants to believe” enough. And when you’re raised by seemingly loving and selfless parents, why would you not?
My first “confirmation” of the truth of Mormonism came when I was 4 years old. I prayed, and believed that I received an answer from God, and when I asked my parents, naturally, they confirmed it. I continued to have similar experiences as I grew, and each one built upon those before, so that my belief became more and more unbreakable — like adding fibers to a rope.
These “spiritual experiences” overcame all of my natural intellectual concerns with church doctrine (of which I had several). It was not until I learned how to think critically in law school, that I was able to reflect on my experiences, and understand how I, as well as my family and community, could have deceived ourselves.
Did technology (the internet, cell phones, etc.) have any influence on your secularization?
Absolutely. Upon realizing that my “spiritual experiences” were not communications from God, but actually just a mix of emotion, imagination, and confirmation bias, I began researching the history of the church online. I realized that the history of the church I had been taught, disagreed wildly with secular accounts.
For the first time, I learned of the church’s dark history (i.e. marriage between church leaders and children, Joseph Smith’s destruction of a printing press as mayor of Nauvoo, etc.) I also learned that church leadership, whom I had been taught worked as lay ministers (without pay) actually received “living stipends” of $150K per year, as well as sat on boards, and received pay for numerous for-profit organizations owned by the church.
What happened when you left? Were you ostracized?
Only by my parents. They told me that they didn’t trust me alone with my brothers and sisters who were under 18, and to this day insist on chaperoning our interactions.
It hurts, but if I could go back, I would have done the same thing.
When you left the church, what were some of the more surprising things to you about the lives and culture of non-Mormon people? Were you blindsided by technology or the ways people socialized?
I was most surprised by how similar everyone is, regardless of religious beliefs or practices. We’re all just trying to be happy. Some find that happiness through religion, others through their career, others through “vices,” etc. It doesn’t matter, as long as we treat each other with love and respect.
I was surprised by how easy it is to hold vices without becoming addicted; I had been taught that if you didn’t drink, you were probably a drunk, if you smoked weed or cigarettes, you were probably addicted, etc.
The most difficult part of adapting to Mormon culture has been changing my perception of women. I have had to train myself to take them off of the pedestal I had put them on, and view them as equals. More than anything else, it has forced me to learn self respect in my romantic relationships, and consider my own wants and needs, rather than just doing whatever my romantic partner wants.
How did growing up in a very, very patriarchal religion where polygamy was accepted affect your views on women and their value, worth and capabilities?
The church’s views on women and their "place" in society has shifted wildly over the last century. I was taught that women were to be respected and protected, and if ever there is 'sexual transgression’, it is the fault of the man, because it is his role to lead. Women are given a bit of pass, and taught that very little, if anything, is their responsibility. Their job is to love themselves and be happy and, ‘if’ the opportunity presents itself to have children, be the most loving mothers they can be. Women are also encouraged to professionally pursue and explore their artistic and recreational desires, because they will not be responsible for providing for a family.
When did you start playing music? Mormon to rock star is not necessarily the most common transition.
I have always been interested in music, but my parents taught me that it was a poor use of my time, and that I needed to find a profession that would allow me to support a family. By the time I left Mormonism, I thought I was too old to pursue music, so I continued to suppress those desires. Finally, last year, I took an honest look at my life, and realized that, if I never pursued music, I would regret it forever.
Mormons seem to be (begrudgingly) becoming more accepting of people of different sexualities, gender identities and races. Is this a marketing tactic to appear less bigot-y, or do you think people in the Mormon church are genuinely becoming more accepting?
It is all marketing; church policies have actually become stricter in the last two years. There are some local leaders that are lax in their enforcement of those policies, but that flies in the face of church leadership.
None of this sounds very cool … What are some of the more redeeming parts of Mormonism?
It teaches its members not to murder. Kidding. The belief that all humanity is connected as one giant family fosters a strong sense of social responsibility.
What would you recommend to young Mormons who are questioning their faith, or who find themselves at odds with the principles they were raised by? Or, what advice do you wish you had gotten when you were in that position?
Correlation is not causation; the fact that people often experience things they cannot describe is not evidence that any one specific church or belief is true. Skepticism is healthy. Doubt everything.
Now that you've lived in both worlds, how accurately would you say the general public perceives Mormonism?
More charitably than it deserves. The psychological damage and trauma inherent in teaching a child to confuse their emotions with God cannot be understated.
Religion is a tricky topic because reality is subjective. It's not really for you, or me, or anyone to say what is true. As long no one's being damaged by those beliefs, it's okay to believe in something that defies all logic and scientific possibility if it makes you feel happy and safe. However, you mentioned that conflating emotions with God can actually be psychologically damaging. How do you reconcile that? If you could alter Mormonism to be more of a healthy thing, how would you do that?
While human perception is subjective, and no one can judge the intent of another, objectivity it a necessary part of living in a civil society (#AlternativeFactsAreNotAThing). That being said, people should be free to believe whatever they want, insofar as those beliefs do not infringe on the rights of others. This presents a problem if we are going to allow parents to raise their children within extremist religions/cults. Ultimately, modern society does not have the technology or means to regulate parental behavior in a way that would assure the safety of children (indeed, often times, government intervention creates more trauma than it prevents), so for the moment, we’re turning a blind eye and deferring to parents. It is my hope that, eventually, this changes, and governments play a greater role in raising children. In the meantime, more and more Mormon members are beginning to ignore the more extreme parts of Mormon doctrine (just as most of my Catholic and Jewish friends do with their religion), and treat it less like a religion and more like a community organization. This is a healthy step in the right direction.
What are your religious or spiritual beliefs now?
Agnostic. I choose to believe in the continuation of the “soul” or individual consciousness after death, and reincarnation. Beyond that, I got nothin’, and frankly, I don’t care anymore. I am my happiest when I am living my life in a way that betters myself, and those around me, so that is what I focus on.
Austin Russell is a musician, actor and lawyer. You can find out more about him by gently caressing this link with your mouse.