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(RNS) — The following is a guest column by Jaxon Washburn

On Thursday, David Archuleta, a former American Idol star and a celebrated singer, released a single titled “Hell Together,” which reflects on his journey out of his erstwhile Latter-day Saint faith. The lyrics capture his gratitude for his mother’s unwavering support for him, following years of tension and difficulty in reconciling his sexual orientation, religious convictions and sense of belonging.

Tenderly, confidently, yet provocatively, the chorus reads:

“If I have to live without you

I don’t wanna live forever

in someone else’s heaven

So let ’em close the gates

Oh, if they don’t like the way you’re made,

then they’re not any better

If Paradise is pressure, oh

We’ll go to hell together”

The lyrics, song title and Archuleta’s public reflections on his newfound identity as an ex-Mormon have prompted a range of reactions across the Mormon spectrum, spanning from celebration, encouragement and solidarity to hurt, outrage and pointed personal rebuttal. Many comments coming from Latter-day Saints communicate a sense of betrayal, anger or disappointment against what are perceived as attacks or critiques — both subtle and explicit — toward the LDS faith.

Archuleta is not the first high-profile musician to go public with a transition away from Mormonism. Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees, and others have done the same in previous years. The decision to leave often centered around the experiences of marginalized identity groups — such as the LGBT+ community. In all of these cases, their statements, the media projects they released in conjunction or soon after and the public’s reception of their transition elicit similar clashing celebrations and condemnations among former and current Mormons.

In a Popheads Reddit interview this week, singer David Archuleta discussed his mother's decision to also step away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, telling him, "If you're going to hell, we're all going to hell with you." Reddit screenshot.

In a Popheads Reddit interview this week, singer David Archuleta discussed his mother’s decision to also step away from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, telling him, “If you’re going to hell, we’re all going to hell with you.” (Reddit screen grab)

Focusing on Archuleta’s lyrics, I found myself very much moved by the sincerity of emotion, while being discomfited by the religious paradigm of a sad, exclusionary heaven that he and too many others feel harmed by and ultimately reject. Though some may read his sentiments as heretical, in my opinion, they deeply reflect emotional, social and theological themes native to the Mormon tradition. In singing about his preference to “go to hell together” with his family, David pays homage to his Mormon roots just as he powerfully subverts certain conceptions of the afterlife.

The basic thrust of this conviction — that heaven cannot be so if we end up separated from those we love — is a thoroughly Mormon one, with its roots in the faith’s earliest days. Joseph Smith once mused, “Let me be resurrected with the Saints, whether I ascend to heaven or descend to hell, or go to any other place. And if we go to hell, we will turn the devils out of doors and make a heaven of it. Where this people are, there is good society. What do we care where we are if the society be good?”

Mormonism’s obsession with a lively, populated and universal afterlife runs deep, attested by the scale and scope of its commitment to vicarious temple work on behalf of the deceased.

The tradition is so bold as to inherently ground the very being of Deity in social community, with families being sealed, exalted and brought into perfect sacred unity with Heavenly Father, Heavenly Mother, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost. The Latter-day Saint Godhead is characterized not by the unity of multiple persons within a single God, but plural distinct beings perfectly unified in divine relationship.

In our own times, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland similarly confessed that “I don’t know how to speak about heaven in the traditional, lovely, paradisiacal beauty that we speak of heaven. I wouldn’t know how to speak of heaven, without my wife or my children. It would not be heaven for me.”

Rather than an anthem of unrestrained hedonistic apostasy, Archuleta’s single strikes me as a deep-seated Mormon ethic that I have espoused since my teenage years. First instilled from my mother’s transition out of Mormonism, I find myself entirely and unapologetically disinterested in any eternity that lacks the continued presence of my family members and friends.

Just as I dismiss the eternal torment or predestination found in other Christian theologies, I dismiss any notion of a Mormon “sad heaven” in which temple ordinances, sealing power or the power of God as expressed through the priesthood become a means of separation, depression and anxiety as opposed to assured union, hope and ultimate comfort. My desire to support former members of my church in their individual journeys and their search for healing is not motivated in spite of my Mormon faith but expressly because of it.

I’m not always comfortable with those who leave, and I’ve received my share of wounds and unwarranted attacks because I choose to remain an informed, engaged and believing Latter-day Saint. But none of that trumps the incredibly rewarding, growth-inducing and love-saturated relationships I have with ex-Mormons, friends and family alike.

I’ve found over the years that olive branches, open arms of friendship, forgiveness, charity and even friendly discussion and disagreement go further than “musket fire,” stones and contention ever will.

Jaxon Washburn, RNS guest columnist

Jaxon Washburn, RNS guest columnist

“Friendship is one of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism,” said Joseph Smith, “to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease, and men to become friends and brothers.”

 

Guest columnist Jaxon Washburn holds a masters in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School and will be entering a Ph.D. program in the fall at UCLA. He specializes in Armenian studies and Mormon studies.

 

 

 

 

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