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Swiping for salvation: Why Mormon singles put their faith in a dating app
Benjamin Brown is a glasses-wearing lawyer who flavors his language with words like "heck" and "gosh." He has also been punched in the face in an altercation over dating, one of the few subjects that can rile Mormon men.
Growing up, Brown was taught that marriage was his raison d'être. "I had fantasies of being married since basically as young as I can remember," he said. Mormon doctrine holds that intrafaith marriage -- a union to another Mormon inside the church's temples -- is essential for salvation in the highest level of heaven.
Brown, 31, said he "often went on multiple dates a day" while a student at Brigham Young University. Nonetheless, he graduated single.
Six years ago, he began flying cross-country in search of a wife. On weekends, he created elaborate dating strategies for new cities, filling his calendar with singles events he heard about through the social media grapevine. On Sundays, Brown attended multiple church congregations called "Young Single Adult Wards" that aim to help Mormons ages 18 and up socialize and, ideally, get married.
"I literally flew all over the country to date. I was booking red-eyes just to attend church somewhere and meet new people. Some weekends, I would go to three, four, or if I was really ambitious, five wards in one Sunday," Brown said. "Singles wards often feel like meat markets. So much of church revolves around dating."
Inside these chapels, marital concerns and sexual frustration (Mormon doctrine prohibits premarital sex, regarding it as "second only to murder in its seriousness") figure prominently into the service. Curious eyes wander the pews, scoping out the well-groomed singles while hymns are sung and the sacrament is passed. In the pulpit, leaders announce upcoming social events planned to help teetotaling Mormons get to know each other. The latest in Brown's ward: "Pictionary with Pudding."
Now, however, singles wards could be considered a secondary social venue -- the place you may run into the match you chatted with the night before on Mutual, a dating app created exclusively for Mormons and monitored by members who ensure only faithful users participate. Mutual has collapsed the singles wards onto a digital platform, providing an alternative to the church-sponsored matchmaking venue.
Dating apps writ large have been blamed for tectonic social shifts, from delayed marriage to relaxed sexual mores. Vanity Fair hyperbolically credited Tinder as the source of a "dating apocalypse."
But Mutual contradicts this trope. To swipe through the app is to get a glimpse inside a cultural enclave antithetical to the modern dating landscape.
One user, Brandon, who is 28, captures the ethos of the app in his "About Me": "(I) would like to be married and raise children." Another, Kolton, 21, of Rexburg, Idaho goes even further, telling prospective matches, "If you're on here just for fun, unmatch me!"
Cooper Boice, the founder of Mutual, says that while some people are just on the app to date, he considers marriage to be the "ultimate success." In total, he says, more than 100,000 Mormons in more than 100 countries around the world have swiped through the app more than 250 million times.
Boice proudly cites dozens of marriages that have resulted from Mutual, including international unions from the UK to the Philippines.
In the face of declining millennial religiosity, Mutual, which is named after an old church program that brought Mormon youth together, may have another benefit: ensuring the longevity of Mormonism. One swipe at a time, Mutual is uniting the Mormon diaspora, perpetuating lineages, and addressing the anxieties of youth facing familial and cultural pressure, as well as a personal desire, to marry within their faith.
Growing up, Jillian Sewell spent Sundays dreaming of her perfect spouse. "In (church) we would do this thing where we would write down all the things we wanted in our future husband," she said. When she enrolled in Brigham Young University, Mormonism's flagship school, Sewell expected to get married right away.
"One of my friends got married in the year right after we graduated," the 23-year-old said. "Everyone had boyfriends. When I didn't, I thought I wasn't good enough."
Upon returning from her Mormon mission in New Hampshire, Sewell felt unable to break into the "competitive" dating pool at BYU, where appearance is paramount. After a semester, Sewell returned home to Arizona, where she prayed for help finding a husband.
Mutual was the answer to her prayers, she said.
"I felt like I was guided to go on Mutual that night. I feel like Heavenly Father, he has so many resources -- and Mutual is one of them."
Sewell met her husband on the app soon after joining and the two were happily married this year. "I never would have met him without Mutual because he was in a different city," she said.
For the majority of users, though, their endings aren't so neat.
Mormons today face longer tenures in singledom and a skewed gender ratio. There are 150 Mormon women for every 100 Mormon men, according to one study, creating a statistical dilemma that complicates church leadership's bold project to ensure all youth attain a temple marriage. In total, 51% of Mormon women over age 18 are single, according to internal statistics cited in a church public relations video, which leaked on the website "MormonLeaks." For these women, the dream of previous generations -- 87% of married Mormons have a Mormon spouse -- may not be statistically attainable.
In late July, local church leader Wayne Janzen held a conversation with women in a Washington, DC singles ward, asking them to air their dating grievances. He validated their frustration with what one woman said was a "lack of options." Janzen said the regional church leadership was focusing on "reactivating single men" to balance the gender ratio of faithful, church-attending singles.
Though you'll rarely hear about it from a pulpit, Mormon leaders are concerned with the continuity of their religion. While Pew reports that 64% of all people raised in the faith still identify as Mormons, the church's internal records reveal a bleaker picture.
As of 2008, only 25% of Mormon youth worldwide stayed active -- or attended church regularly -- into their "single adult years." As the "MormonLeaks" video reveals, top officials have held private meetings to discuss this problem, as well as the troubling gender disparity.
Their solution was to continue investing in singles wards, creating stronger nuclei for Mormon singles to congregate outside of Utah. They even created a church building in Arlington, Virginia exclusively for singles, a first for the faith. Today, the singles community in the DC metro area comprises its own "stake," the Mormon term for a group of congregations, similar to a diocese. It has grown to roughly 5,200 members.
Janzen is the stake president of this singles community. In his meeting with single women this summer, he said leadership became especially concerned by unmarried Mormons about a decade ago. "The trends they saw in the church weren't very encouraging, you know, delaying marriage, temple attendance, general activity, and the youth said the church wasn't meeting their needs."
Janzen said Mormon singles know they should be seeking a spouse, and professed faith that all who seek shall find. But he didn't say how. At the end of the conversation, he implored the women. "Don't give up -- don't think any of this is for naught."
The founder of Mutual says that while some people are just on the app to date, he considers marriage to be the "ultimate success."
'A whole other option'
For most of his life, Brown, the lawyer, felt he had three dating options. Ranked in order of preference, they were: a happy marriage to a fellow Mormon, an unhappy marriage to a fellow Mormon, or not getting married at all.
While the LDS church does not encourage loveless marriages, they present marriage as a choice between a church-sanctioned marriage or no marriage at all -- an attempt to dissuade singles from looking outside the faith for companionship. Mormon doctrine is clear that temple marriage is essential to enter the highest echelons of heaven, and leadership never encourages interfaith dating or marriage.
That messaging made an impact on Brown, who said he did not consider dating a non-Mormon until he was nearly 30, when he was at a low point in his life and was tempted to try secular dating apps. "I met a girl on Tinder who seemed to be ridiculously awesome."
"With this girl it hit me, there's a whole other option here," he said
Brown's realization is a radical idea within Mormonism -- one only found on the fringes of the faith. Some Mormons who flirt with dating non-members live in areas with scant Mormon populations or feel they have exhausted their options at church. For many, Mutual brought them back to the Mormon dating fold, providing an incentive to seek a temple marriage that rhetoric alone could not.
A recent convert to the church, Elle Bretherton said she faced loneliness as she adapted to a new life as a Mormon at Pepperdine. "My friendship circle got really small," she said. "I had quit my cross country team, I had quit my sorority."
Far from the nearest singles ward, Bretherton did something discouraged by leadership: She, like Brown, dated non-Mormons.
"It was just a complete crap show," she said. "Like it was a disaster because ... there is such a pressure to hook up. It just wasn't going to work."
After a particularly bad experience, Elle was drawn to download Mutual, which she had heard about through a friend. Within weeks, she had met her future husband.
Like Bretherton, Brown faced the prospect of decreased observance as he ventured outside Mormonism to date. He says he attended church less while dating his non-Mormon girlfriend. They eventually broke up, and he was left with a sense of foreboding about the prospect of being forced out of young single adult wards when he turned 30, after which he would be expected to attend a "mid-singles ward" for Mormons ages 30 and up. These wards are regarded as a dreaded marital purgatory.
Brown is determined to avoid this fate. He once skipped a flight home to extend a fruitless weekend scouting singles, buying a ticket on a last minute red-eye to visit a Mormon ex-girlfriend. Catching wind of his arrival, Brown said that his ex's previous boyfriend, who held a local church leadership position, came over to her house to disrupt their date. The night ended with punches thrown in the driveway.
The prospect of mid-singles wards offers fatigued Mormons minimal incentive to stick with the church, but the appeal of Mutual brought Brown back to regular church attendance. Now, he says he has faith again that he will be able to find a Mormon wife.
"If Mutual weren't around, I'd just feel defeated."
There's no data to prove that Mutual will ensure the continuity of Mormonism. Stories of marriages from the apps are powerful anecdotes, but their evidence is only qualitative.
Mutual also shares the criticism that has recently been levied at Tinder: that the prospect of infinite choice is making users lazier, and more selective. According to Pew, roughly 1/3 of online daters fail to convert on a fourth down -- they chat with matches on apps but say they have "never" been on a date with someone they met online.
Washington, DC matchmaker Michelle Jacoby called this phenomenon "dating ADD." The industry is trending "niche" in an effort to cater to more specific demographics.
In a sense, these apps support the claim that the Internet is funneling us into self-selecting echo chambers, affirming homogeneity rather than diffusing dogma. If this is true, then faith leaders with a vested stake in their religion's longevity have cause to rejoice. These apps have facilitated the connections and conversations their strategic planning, and investments, couldn't.
The subgenre of religious dating apps is growing -- with millions of users on apps like Minder (for Muslims) and JSwipe (for Jews). Most importantly, these apps have incentivized disillusioned users like Brown to buy into the project of salvation -- both their own and, in turn, their community's. What remains to be seen is whether they are simply faddish phenomena or long-term trends.
In the meantime, Mormon youth will continue to embrace Mutual as a source of hope that, through ardent swiping, they just might find their eternal companion.
"If I get married to a Mormon girl," Brown said, "it's because I'm going to be able to connect with them, I hope, on Mutual."