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'Cultural Mormons' Adjust The Lifestyle But Keep The Label

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The spires of the historic Salt Lake Temple on April 2, 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah.

On a recent evening in Manhattan's Upper East Side there is a group of women gathered to chat. They're seated in the living room of a cozy one bedroom apartment.

"I consider myself a cultural Mormon," says Christy Clegg, who grew up active in the church. "I don't attend regular church services on Sunday but I very much identify with my Mormonism."

The group is called Feminist Home Evening. It's a play on words. Mormon families are encouraged to have Family Home Evening — a night at home — once a week.

Like Clegg, these women represent a spectrum of belief, but it is their Mormon background that unites them.

"The thing that's interesting is I can see another person that grew up Mormon and no longer attends or whatever their level of connection is and there's that automatic connection," Clegg says.

This group was started about two years ago in response to some high profile excommunications within the church. Specifically, Kate Kelly, a prominent feminist advocate.

"I think at that time we had to talk and process," says Ashley Groesbeck, who has coordinated many of the group meetings. "It is a safe place to be connected to your Mormonism."

The meetings are held monthly and the number of women ranges from 10 — the number present this evening — to about 20. Occasionally there's a guest speaker, but most often a member of the group will begin the meeting with a short welcome and they'll jump into a discussion.

The topics of conversation can be serious at times. Like the recent change to church policy which prevents the children of gay parents from being baptized. As a therapist, this change really affected Groesbeck.

"I was still working for the church last November when the inclusion policy, or the exclusion policy rather, for gay members of the church came out," Groesbeck says. "I knew I could not stay. I couldn't live with it anymore and I quit."

Other topics aren't quite as heavy and might even seem trivial.

"Coffee is a complicated relationship," says Heather McGee Teadoro, who is 25 years old and grew up in Utah. She admits she loves coffee and always has.

As a teenager, McGee Teadoro drifted away from the church, and her coffee habits weren't an issue, but she's recently decided to return. Now, that craving is more problematic.

Mormons don't drink coffee. At least, they're asked not to. They're also asked not to drink alcohol or smoke or shop on Sunday.

Traditionally being called a "Mormon" means you live by these standards. Not doing so raises questions about your faith.

"I'm self-conscious among Mormons holding a cup of iced coffee," says Kate Cowley, 34, a film producer who lives in Manhattan with her husband and three young children. "I would feel, you know, I would feel uncomfortable."

Cowley and her family still pray together, read scriptures and attend church pretty frequently.

"I feel like when we're walking down the street in New York City and I have three kids all on a stroller, I look very Mormon in this community where [with] three kids, I might as well have a million," she says.

But Cowley doesn't agree with much of what the church teaches. For example, she is deeply unsettled by the fact that women are not ordained to the priesthood. Over the past few months she's become more honest and open with her disagreements, but she doesn't want to leave her faith behind.

"I am determined," Cowley says. "I am like hellbent on sticking around and being like, yeah, deal with me."

Others at this Feminist Home Evening feel liberated by their decision to leave.

Stacey Woodward remembers a pivotal moment for her. It was on a Sunday morning. She woke up in time to go to church.

"And as I was getting ready, I just had this really clear thought, voice in my head that said. 'What is your intention behind this? Why are you doing this?' " she says.

Woodward felt uncomfortable with the answer.

"I didn't want God to withhold blessing from me," she says. "I didn't want to bring shame on my family that was so well respected."

Woodward gave herself permission to walk away, but admits it wasn't easy.

"I'd never navigated this course. I'd never seen anybody navigate this course and it was a very painful, lonely place to be," she says. "There is definitely an expected kind of culture in the church and it can be painful when you don't meet those kinds of norms."

This loneliness makes sense to Jana Riess, a senior columnist at Religion News Service. Riess is also Mormon, she converted to the church in her twenties, and she knows all about the expected lifestyle that comes with membership in the church.

"It can be painful when you don't meet those kinds of norms," Riess says.

She says it's common for religious minorities — like Mormons — to feel that one member represents the church as a whole. And that creates pressure.

"More orthodox members of that minority faith will say we need to have boundaries," Riess says. Those orthodox members might say, "We need to more firmly declare who we are and what we stand for."

For the past six years Riess has written about her struggles with Mormonism in an online column aptly named "Flunking Sainthood." Initially she got a lot of flack from her Mormon readers. More recently, she's noticed a shift.

"We're a little more accepting than we were six years ago," she says. "And now we're seeing maybe a bigger umbrella, a bigger definition of what it means to be Mormon."

What it means to be Mormon is beyond belief for these women. It's family, it's culture, at times it can even seem like its own language. Ultimately, it's about where you come from.

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