Toward a Theory of Spiritual Abuse and its Abolition


January 15, 2011 by tristan savage

Mormon authorities regularly take sincere questions and re-frame them as unfaithful attacks, putting the blame for confusion and inconsistency on the believer rather than on the church. By re-framing issues of ‘obedience’ as issues of ‘faith’, I hope to challenge and reverse that process, and contribute to the preparatory discursive work that helps people grapple with their own psychological and spiritual trauma more effectively, and then move more wholeheartedly to the difficult projects of dismantling hierarchy, resisting violence, and building egalitarian alternatives.

posted simultaneously on Feminist Mormon Housewives


Soulforce and Police at BYU

In March of 2007, while I was a student at Brigham Young University, I was invited to speak at an LGBT rights rally in a park adjacent to campus. I wanted to speak: I was fed up with hearing fellow students joke about beating up gays, and emotionally drained by stories of suicidal depression from “same-gender attracted” friends, and I felt that if the Christian mandate to “bear each others’ burdens” applied anywhere, it must be here. But I was afraid: BYU’s honor code specifically banned any kind of what it called “homosexual advocacy,” “implicit or explicit,” “sexual or non-sexual in nature,” and I certainly wouldn’t be the first student expelled on those grounds. The previous summer, a professor was fired the day he printed a newspaper editorial defending same-sex marriage, a clear message to other potential dissenters.

So I called up a BYU vice president and asked her whether I would be breaking the university’s honor code if I spoke at the rally. She whispered with unseen colleagues, put me on hold, and eventually returned with an answer: “we don’t know.” That didn’t stop her from advising me not to speak, explaining that it could be grounds for expulsion, and observing that it would be much safer not to be at the rally at all. It was their parting advice that stuck in my mind: “Use your judgment.”

My judgment, of course, was not the question. I was trying to figure out her judgment (since it would be her role to choose whether to begin an honor code proceeding against me), to get some better understanding of whether she would punish me. Instead of acknowledging her power, she deflected, re-framing my question as an internal struggle rather than an external one (between me and her). She had suggested, innocently, that it was ‘up to me’ (or, we might surmise, a matter between me and God), erasing her role as judge and executioner.

Like many people in this situation, I internalized her suggestion. I couldn’t trust my own coherence or even moments of fleeting intuition. Confidence could be pride; moments of insight could be temptation, logical argument could be shoddy intellectualism. I was no longer a lone student with ideas different from hers; I was at war with myself, and increasingly, wondered if I was wicked or insane.  Was my stubbornness a failed obedience test, the screen that God uses to sift out the weak-willed?  Was that failure why God wouldn’t answer my prayers?


In his psychiatric practice, Gregory Bateson noticed that schizophrenics seem to have trouble distinguishing one kind of communication from another –that is, they don’t catch the signals that usually tell (most of) us what sort of message a message is. For example:

A patient comes into the hospital canteen and the girl behind the counter says, “What can I do for you?” The patient is in doubt as to what sort of a message this is –is it a message about doing him in? Is it an indication that she wants him to go to bed with her? Or is it an offer of a cup of coffee? He hears the message and does not know what sort […] of message it is (Bateson 194).

Those signals (which help us know whether a message is a come-on or a threat) are what Bateson calls “metacommunication”, or communication about communication. They could be winks, tones of voice, wild brandishing of weapons, or even the constant background communication of context –say, the fact that the speaker is the President, an inmate, or family.

Bateson calls the general situation that he thinks induces schizophrenia the “double bind,” and it goes as follows:

  1. Two or more persons. Of these, we designate one, for purposes of our definition, as the “victim”[…]
  2. Repeated Experience. We assume that the double bind is a recurrent theme in the experience of the victim. […] The double bind structure comes to be an habitual expectation.
  3. A primary negative injunction. This may have either of two forms: (a) “Do not do so and so, or I will punish you,” or (b) “If you do not do so and so, I will punish you”[…]
  4. A secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level, and like the first enforced by punishments […] Posture, gesture, tone of voice, meaningful action, and the implications concealed in verbal comment may all be used to convey this more abstract message […] Verbalization of the secondary injunction may, therefore, include a wide variety of forms; for example, “Do not see this as punishment”; “Do not see me as the punishing agent”; “Do not submit to my prohibitions”; “Do not think of what you must not do”; “Do not question my love of which the primary prohibition is (or is not) an example”; and so on […]
  5. A tertiary negative injunction prohibiting the victim from escaping the field […]

(Bateson 206-7)

Bateson suggested that schizophrenics may learn, through repeated experience, not to understand (or not to let on that they understand) metacommunicative messages. Over time, they internalize the problem, and can’t successfully discriminate between the types of messages they themselves are speaking, or (eventually) even those messages that they are forming in their own minds. This is because there is one remaining element of double bind situations that seals off escape: “the individual is unable to comment on the messages being expressed to correct his discrimination of what order of message to respond to, i.e. he cannot make a metacommunicative statement” (Bateson 208). If the victim does ask a clarifying question (i.e. “should I obey God or the prophet?”), they will be punished, and often more harshly than for any other infraction.

Bateson further describes the double bind in a series of essays, elaborating on family dynamics and genetic implications, but I don’t want to dwell on clinical specifics (or really on schizophrenia at all- Bateson’s Freudian theories of schizophrenia have since been discarded by most psychologists). I’m primarily trying to draw attention to the striking similarities between Bateson’s “ingredients” for the double bind and how individual faith relates to (some might say ‘is traumatized by’) hierarchy and authority in the Church.


Double bind theory can help us understand how profoundly affected we have been by the LDS Church’s punitive orientation. Mormon history and doctrine present us with a cornucopia of paradoxes, a topic which many other people have eloquently explored –for example, the stunning contrast between the many well-regarded Mormon millionaires and the injunction that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another” (D&C 49:20). But this is not just fertile paradox for developing personal insights; these are tensions with a background of coercive power. We often don’t recognize this as coercion, because leaders spend so much time crafting metacommunicative messages that interfere with our understanding:

I am not punishing you (God is)

Excommunication is not a punishment (It is a way to repentance and eternal life)

Firing you from your teaching position is not my choice (It is policy)

Your personal worthiness is an issue between you and God (and I am God’s agent)

“The counsel against speaking evil of Church leaders is not so much for the benefit of the leaders as it is for the spiritual well-being of members who are prone to murmur and find fault (Oaks, “Criticism,” Ensign, Feb 1987).”

This is not power

This is not power

Use your judgment


I want to turn from a religion of fear to a religion of faith. One of the most crucial elements of this project is to reclaim the right to ask clarifying questions. This could be exactly what Joseph Smith did in the founding episode of Mormonism: rather than choosing within the authoritative constraints of his day and joining the church of one of his parents, or perhaps converting to yet another church whose leader had some particularly charismatic claim to authority, he asked a clarifying question (to god) and received an answer that would typically not be admissible: none of the churches are true. Many of those around Joseph Smith had suggested, of course, that he read the Bible and follow its teachings, but they were also sending the counter-message that he would be punished if he ‘misread’ the Bible’s teachings and that he would be crazy if he actually got a response from god. Thus his metacommunicative step was to call the bluff and question the source directly, temporarily sidestepping the traps of kinship networks, local habit, social stigma, ecclesiastical authorities, and the crippling doubts of his own hesitant mind.

Many Mormons have taken this step, and subsequently, most radical Mormons seem to feel obligated, because of the internalized nature of Mormon authority (and because of the immense pain it caused them), to surrender their religious identity entirely, handing back “Mormonism” to “the Mormons” and striking out on their own. This is certainly not always a bad thing –how wonderful, really, to strike out on one’s own! But (and this is the key that I think many people miss, causing them to feel ‘leaving Mormonism’ as a great loss) it is not the only possibility.

In his first Lecture on Faith, Joseph Smith describes a very different sort of faith:

If men were duly to consider themselves, and turn their thoughts and reflections to the operations of their own minds, they would readily discover that it is faith, and faith only, which is the moving cause of all action, in them; that without it, both mind and body would be in a state of inactivity, and all their exertions would cease, both physical and mental […] Would you exert yourselves to obtain wisdom and intelligence, unless you did believe that you could obtain them? Would you have ever sown if you had not believed that you would reap? Would you have ever planted if you had not believed that you would gather? […] Or may we not ask, what have you, or what do you possess, which you have not obtained by reason of your faith? Your food, your raiment, your lodgings, are they not all by reason of your faith?

This is a faith that all people have access to, one that is daily, and practical, and free. I think it is also the foundation of Mormon anarchism, a belief in free moral agency that applies not only to rejecting despots that sit in thrones and oval offices but also those who dictate from pulpits and through press release proclamations and over live satellite feeds.


  • Bateson, Gregory. Steps to An Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Smith, Joseph. Lectures on Faith: Delivered During 1834 and 1835 to the School of Prophets at Kirtland, Ohio. American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2004.
  • The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1989.
  • The Doctrine and Covenants. Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1989.

5 thoughts on “Toward a Theory of Spiritual Abuse and its Abolition

  1. mormongandhi says:

    Excellent post. Thank you for sharing! Reclaiming Mormonism… ah.

  2. Jason Brown says:

    A very eloquent post Tristan, as usual.

    I think the double bind is an excellent starting place for continuing the deconstruction of spiritual violence that so easily passes for warmth within the Mormon authority structure. Interestingly, even many self-proclaimed Mormon anarchists are so deeply inculcated in Mormon authority structures that they refuse to hold Mormonism to the anti-authoritarian rhetoric they flaunt in patches and bumper stickers.

    The question is, does Tristan’s Mormon anarchism immediately render the Mormon portion irrelevant. Perhaps it is a question of first principles. We are certainly familiar with the first principles of Mainstream Mormonism, and part of the spiritual abuse of which Tristan speaks is the persistent vocalization of how deeply one has always already know them to be true.

  3. Ron Madson says:

    Thanks Tristan! Much to ponder and discuss.
    I would add that I do not consider and find no scriptural authority that the common saying that the “First law of Heaven is Obedience.” Rather the first principle and controlling principle or one might say “law” is “Faith in Christ.” In other words, we are invited first and foremost to emulate Christ the ultimate anarchist who simply invites us to follow his example which includes exercising no compulsion or force of any sort—just the persuasion of virtue.

    thanks for sharing and opening this line of discussion

    • RB says:

      There is plenty of scriptural authority for obedience.

      Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul. and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. Matthew 22:36-38

      If ye love me, keep my commandments. John 14:15

      • RP says:

        RB, it’s true that there is scriptural authority for obedience, but there doesn’t seem to be any direct prioritization of obedience that makes it “the first law in heaven.” Perhaps the closest you could get to that is in two parts: 1) according to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love God, and 2) John 14:15. Whether that makes obedience ‘the first law in heaven,’ though, is perhaps another matter. I think the bottom line, though, is that Jesus made it very clear that the most important things are love for God and other people (which may mean that obedience, and even faith, Ron, are really only secondary imperatives).

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