Last week, White House aide Rob Porter resigned from his position after it emerged that both of his ex-wives had accused him of domestic abuse. But his ex-wives’ accounts, shared in the media, don’t just tell the story of two abusive marriages. They also reveal the structural and institutional failure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (or, the Mormon Church) to protect women from toxic and abusive relationships.
Both Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby told CNN this week about how they’d shared their experiences with Mormon bishops, who only downplayed the severity of their accusations or encouraged them to be mindful of the consequences to Porter’s career if they came forward.
Willoughby said one bishop discouraged her from filing a protective order in order to preserve Porter’s reputation. Likewise, Holderness recalled being consistently turned away by the Mormon bishops she sought guidance from. “For years I would go to Mormon bishops and I would try to find the words to explain what was going on, but I was at a loss. … It wasn’t until I went to a secular counselor … [that somebody] told me that what was happening was not okay,” Holderness told CNN.
Holderness and Willoughby’s stories have prompted a number of Mormon and ex-Mormon women to share stories of their own to BuzzFeed, Jezebel, and other news outlets. Judy Dushku, writing for New York magazine’s the Cut, estimated that she’d heard at least 40 similar stories directly from Mormon victims of domestic abuse, as well as countless others from concerned third parties. In many cases, victims report that bishops have treated domestic abuse as the woman’s fault, or else a problem to be solved with prayer and faith, and have discouraged divorce or separation as options, even in cases of physical abuse.
There are a number of factors in Mormon culture and theology that have led, in many abuse survivors’ minds, to a culture that glosses over domestic abuse. One issue at play is the distinctive Mormon doctrine of eternal marriage.
In the Mormon tradition, only couples who have been married in a Mormon temple are capable of reaching the highest echelons of heaven. Moreover, a family that has bonded in this way will remain in heaven together.
Divorce or separation, in this theology, thus threatens a Mormon woman’s chances at heaven, not just for her but for her entire family, including her children. As a woman identifying herself only as Rebecca told BuzzFeed, “I was told by my bishop, ‘You’re ruining your family for eternity.’”
Another element at play in the normalization of domestic abuse in Mormon communities is the focus on female submission as a virtue — something Mormons share with other Christian groups, including Protestant evangelicals. As Dushku notes, the modern Mormon Church draws a direct line from the preacher Cotton Mather — who coined the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history” to exhort women to stick to the sidelines — to its present theology of femininity.
“Righteous women are gentle, mild-mannered, and meek particularly in the company of men of authority,” Dushku writes. This point has been made publicly before — last year, 14 years after her notorious kidnapping, activist Elizabeth Smart critiqued the way in which Mormonism’s “purity culture” had made her own recovery from her ordeal more difficult. “People need to realize there is nothing that can detract from your worth,” said Smart, adding“when it comes to rape and sexual violence and abuse, that can never retract who you are.”
The LDS Church released a statement to Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 following Porter’s resignation clarifying that it has “zero tolerance” for abuse.
Still, in the aftermath of #MeToo, the clarion call for reform in church practices has gotten stronger. #ChurchToo has already made inroads among evangelicals. But, Dushku points out, the culture of silence in the Mormon Church is so strong that even many women who privately shared their stories with remained reluctant to speak publicly. Still, she said she finds that the number of women who have shared their stories in the aftermath of the Porter case is heartening.
For women like Dushku as well as Willoughby and Holderness, Porter’s fall from grace represents permission to finally speak out.