A non-Mormon friend asked me recently if Mormons did “shunning” in the way that the Amish or the Jehovah’s Witnesses do to those who have left the community. I told her they didn’t, but that it was complicated. It’s not a part of Mormon doctrine to “shun,” but there are a number of things that can feel like shunning. I think some can be prevented, and others perhaps cannot.
If a Mormon leaves the community, family members are encouraged by church leadership to continue to love and support the former member. Sometimes this “love” takes the form of reminders about what they are missing out on. Some family members send quotes from church talks to encourage a return of the prodigal, as they see it. Ward communities continue to send “visiting” and “home” teachers to the home of an inactive person.
While the intentions are probably good, the effects aren’t always. I know a number of former Mormons who have asked to have their name removed from the official records of the church solely for the purpose of escaping the well-intentioned ward members who continue to bother them about their attendance at church and who seem less interested in friendship and more interested in numbers of active members on the rolls. This ought to be handled by a simple request to not be contacted that should be respected. Unfortunately, it seems that the Mormon church, which is excellent at record-keeping, doesn’t have a box on records to place a permanent hold on anyone, so when leadership is changed (or new missionaries come into the area), the whole process starts all over again, and the “yes, I really mean no contact” conversations begin again.
Then there are the subtler forms of shunning that take place. Mormon families are tight-knit and encouraged to do church-related activities to hold the fabric of family together. This means that if you’re not interested in the church, you may be forced into a position of simply declining family activities for long stretches because there aren’t any that don’t focus on General Conference or temple service. And what about family conversation? If your family members’ lives center on their ward callings, you may find yourself listening to a lot of talk about church service you’re not interested in—or even find offensive. And uncomfortable silence when it comes to talking about your own life.
If you no longer have a valid temple recommend, family weddings will be a difficult time for you. You not only won’t be able to get into the temple to see the wedding itself, but you will also likely have some uncomfortable conversations about why you’re not “worthy,” which might be anything from a refusal to pay tithing to a doctrinal dispute. Asking your children to marry outside of the temple instead is a dicey business, since that means they will have to wait a year to be sealed in the temple in the United States, and the protection of a temple wedding will be postponed during that time.
If you’ve been disciplined by the church officially, either disfellowshipped or excommunicated, and still choose to attend, you are asked to never speak in church and to refrain from taking the Sacrament. The latter makes sense, but the former seems a way to muzzle dissenters that is akin to shunning. While church leaders are supposed to keep details from a church court private (and usually do), the results of the church court are often seen as institutional shunning and tacit permission for members to treat those as “less than.”
LGBTQIA Mormons face a kind of shunning, as well. In addition to the new policy of 2015 that labels those in a same-sex marriage as apostates and excludes their children from baptism and other activity in the church (the closest to shunning I can find that is mandated by the leadership), there is doctrinally little place for the non-heterosexual in the Mormon celestial kingdom. For LGBTQIA teens coming out now, there are still parents who think that being gay is a “lifestyle choice,” and may be “catching” from those who are open in their sexuality. This means that kids are encouraged to remain in the closet for far longer than is healthy in order to keep their social relationships intact, and this goes for adults, as well.
Then there are the questions about whether you are considered a good role model for the younger generation. Do your siblings keep their children away from you—and possibly your children? If you (and they) have chosen not to follow the Mormon health code and you drink, or smoke, or even just have coffee for breakfast, this may be reason enough to keep you away because your bad example could easily spread to their children.
Many Mormon parents also refuse to let their children play with non-Mormon children, or do more subtle things like refusing to allow sleepovers at non-Mormon houses or refuse to let kids go to birthday parties there. And what about dating when your kids become teenagers? If you live in a highly concentrated Mormon area, your teen may be refused dates because they aren’t deemed worthy to date Mormons who have certain rules about dating you don’t believe in, from waiting until age sixteen, to not going on any one-on-one dates til after a mission, to modesty rules and no R-rated movies.
It’s a tricky business, this question of shunning. On the one hand, there are things Mormons could do to improve. Having an apostle give a talk that suggests parents should refuse a gay partner access to family events as a way of expressing disapproval formally doesn’t help. We can do better. But perhaps there were always be ways in which we can’t stop ourselves from the very human impulse of wanting to keep our community ties tight, and our boundaries set.