08.07.12

Exclusive: Brigham Young’s Great-Great-Granddaughter on Mormonism and Mitt Romney

A direct descendant of Brigham Young, Sue Emmett left the church because of the very values she says would make Romney a frightening president. She speaks exclusively with Jamie Reno.

Sue Emmett is Mormon royalty. Her great-great-grandfather was Brigham Young, the founder of Salt Lake City, first governor of Utah, and president and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) from 1847 until his death in 1877.

Emmett, whose grandmother was born in Young's historic Beehive House, attended Brigham Young University, where she walked past the imposing 7-and-a-half-foot bronze-casted statue of her great-great-grandfather every day on her way to class.

“Walking by that statue every day, I was reminded of my heritage, my lineage,” says Emmett. “That, plus going up to Salt Lake and walking through the Beehive House a couple of times and thinking of my grandmother, who I knew very well, all that pretty much sealed the deal for me being a very devout, obedient Mormon girl.”

But by the time she reached her mid-30s, she began to have doubts. Emmett started questioning the ethics and veracity of the church’s doctrine and its founders, including Young himself, and she grew increasingly concerned with the way, she says, the church treats women. She held these questions close to the vest for many years until, in 1999, at the age of 55, she finally made the hard decision to leave the church.

"There was a powerful mystique around me that I was special because of my heritage, so it was really difficult for me to leave,” says Emmett, now 71. “It was the only life, the only home I ever knew. But I just couldn’t stay any longer.”

Emmett, who still has dear friends and family members in the church—“You can be critical of the church and still be compassionate toward the people in it,” she says—is now president of the Exmormon Foundation, which was organized to give support and understanding to those who leave Mormonism. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, Emmett, who rarely speaks to the media, talks about what life is like in the church, why she left, and what she thinks motivates Mitt Romney to want to be president.

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Sue Emmett discusses her experience as a woman in the Mormon church.

"The church has astutely created a very benign image to the world. They spend millions of dollars a year doing this," says Emmett, who was born and raised in Portland, Ore., and still lives there. "But there are things that go on inside the church that are hurtful to women. There are many women still in the church who have complaints about not having any real say in what goes on, but they have nowhere to go with these complaints.”

Emmett says there is a lot of silent suffering among Mormon women, but she just reached a point where she couldn’t stay silent anymore.

“The church has astutely created a very benign image to the world. They spend millions of dollars a year doing this,” says Emmett.

Divorced from her husband of 34 years, who is still a Mormon, Emmett—the mother of seven grown children, five of whom are still in the church while two have left—says that “the one thing that finally put the arrow in me" was when she and her sister-in-law decided to start a retreat for Mormon women. Church leaders were not amused, she says.

“It was just a social and cultural thing," Emmett explains. "We made a vow that we would never have anything at the retreat that was anti-church, it would just be a place for cultural events and sharing ideas. We had artists and guest speakers, including one woman who spent her life traveling around the world taking pictures of women and their cultures.”

Emmett says the retreat, which was held in an Oregon mountain lodge and typically attracted between 60 and 70 Mormon women, had feminist overtones, “but we never talked about problems at church. We did nothing wrong.”

Still, the negative reaction among her church’s leadership was the last straw.

"We knew we'd get in trouble for doing it, but we did it anyway," she says. "From that point on, I was marginalized. I’d done everything a good Mormon woman could do in the church, including teaching children in Sunday school, but after we did the retreat I was treated differently.”

Responding to Emmett’s comments about the church’s treatment of women, Ruth Todd, a spokeswoman for the church, tells The Daily Beast: “Nearly half of the 14 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are women. To assert that my membership or participation in the church is based on compulsion or deception is both offensive and disparaging to me as a woman, and is patently false.”

Says Todd: “The right of every individual [Mormon] to make choices for themselves that determine their path in life and in the eternities is a fundamental doctrine of our faith. As a woman, I view my role in the church and in God’s plan as distinct and complementary to the efforts of men. Trying to characterize the role of women in the church in a purely hierarchical way misses the mark and is a flawed premise that demeans the role and value of women.”

Since she left 13 years ago, Emmett has become a leader of the ex-Mormon movement, which she says is not about bashing her former church but about helping former members make the difficult adjustment. “It’s such an insular world, and for some people it is really hard to make it on the ‘outside,’ so to speak,” she says.

Emmett has watched Mitt Romney very closely throughout his public life and has strong opinions about what shaped his personality and his character. “Mitt is a product not only of his wealth, but of an organization that gives men power when they are 12 years old,” she says. “That is when boys are ordained with the priesthood. It is a big moment in a Mormon male’s childhood.”

As for what pundits say is Romney's difficulty connecting with people, Emmett blames it largely on what she calls “the entitled Mormon male syndrome, where the leadership professes compassion and concern but leaves the manifestations of that to the drones. All male leadership is not this way; there are some wonderful men who do their best to exercise their power compassionately, but many do not.”

Emmett says Romney was a bishop, “a position where everyone defers to you. What a bishop says goes. People come to them to receive blessings.” He then became a stake president, she says, which means he presided over several congregations, and at that point bishops deferred to him.

“Mitt has had people defer to him and not challenge him his entire life,” says Emmett. “In the Mormon church if you challenge your priesthood leaders it’s a very bad thing to do, especially for women. As the world can now see, Mitt has a very hard time with being questioned and criticized; he’s had so little of this in his life."

Will he be more beholden to his church than to the American people? Emmett recalls that when Romney was stake president in the church, he was pro-life. But when he was running for governor he changed his position to pro-choice. A woman in the church who was a good friend of Emmett’s went to see Romney and thanked him for changing his position. “He told her that he had talked to church leaders in Salt Lake,” Emmett says, “and that they gave him permission to change his position.”

The Romney campaign did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

Emmett says she doesn’t think Romney has the ability to separate what leaders of the church want from what the country needs.

“Mitt has been groomed to become president from a very young age,” says Emmett. “The thing is, I think his father [George Romney, who ran for president in 1968] would have made a much better president. In many ways the church was more benign then than it is now.”

Regarding Romney and the presidency, Emmett cites a bit of Mormon lore called the White Horse Prophecy that has floated around since the time of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. It suggests that Mormons believe a time will come when the U.S. Constitution is eroding and Mormon leaders will save it and usher in a new theocracy with Mormons in charge. Emmett’s great-great-grandfather talked about it. In a discourse from 1855, Young wrote that "when the Constitution hangs, as it were, upon a single thread, they will have to call for the 'Mormon' Elders to save it from utter destruction; and they will step forth and do it."

Romney has said that he considers the White Horse Prophecy just a matter of speculation by church members. "I haven't heard my name associated with it or anything of that nature," he told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2007. "That's not official church doctrine…I don't put that at the heart of my religious belief."

But Emmett begs to differ. “I can guarantee you that there are millions of Mormons who believe this prophecy and see Romney as potential fulfillment of it,” she says. “As a Mormon, you grow up hearing about this prophecy. I think Mitt believes he has a mandate from God to become president so he can help move this along. I don’t know if it’s a conscious thought, but it's in his subconscious.”

Emmett says she thinks Romney’s biggest fault is that he has a “serious problem telling the truth. There is flip-flopping, which he has done more than any politician in modern history, and then there is out and out lying,” she says. “This kind of thing has sadly been a part of the church from the very beginning. Some modern apostles actually taught that it is not always the best thing to tell the truth if it interferes with preaching gospel.”

Emmett says the notion of “Lying for the Lord,” as it has been called, implies that teaching the whole truth about the church should be avoided. At a presentation on Lying for the Lord at the 2008 Exmormon Foundation conference, Ken Clark addressed the issue. Clark, who worked as a teacher for the LDS Church Education System (CES) for 27 years and also served as a bishop before leaving the church in 2003, tells The Daily Beast, “Lying has become an institutionalized method of administrative control with the church.”

“Every Mormon grows up with the idea that it’s OK to lie if it’s for a higher cause,” says Clark, who now works for a company that markets employment and labor market data. “But what happens is when this becomes a part of your ethical tool kit, you develop a condescending attitude toward people. Like Ann Romney saying 'you people.’ This idea of lying for the Lord gives you license to place people on an inferior level. It’s OK for Mitt Romney to ignore the principle of full disclosure because it’s in his DNA. Look what he’s doing with his taxes, and how he talks only in generic and sanitized terms about his religion.”

But church spokeswoman Ruth Todd says there is no merit to Clark's accusations.

“To assert that there is a culture of dishonesty or deception in the church is both woefully uninformed and ridiculous," Todd says. "The pursuit of truth is at the heart of who we are. Mormon women around the world participate actively in our church because we find value and truth in the doctrines, structure and deep meaning provided by the gospel of Jesus Christ that is at the core of our faith. All church members are encouraged to study for themselves and develop their own convictions about the church and its teachings.”

When Clark left the church, he says, Emmett was of "great help to me. She is one of best people I know. She is very courageous and compassionate."

And Emmett, despite her issues with Romney and the church, does not want to be cast as a Mormon hater. She says that while she strongly disagrees with many of the tenets and practices of Mormonism, most Mormons are kind, honest people.

“Many of my children and other family members are still devout Mormons, and I want to be sensitive to their beliefs and I have no desire to hurt them,” says Emmett. “It’s been hard for me. It was my entire life for 50 years. I was very sincere and devout for a very long time. But as a feminist and someone who believes that you should be allowed to say what you really feel, I had to leave.”