Sunday Thoughts

Yesterday, I went to Church with my boot on, having broken my foot.  The choir was singing, and my wife is the choir director.  High councilmen spoke, and as is often the case, my mind wandered.  So a wander-y post; please forgive.  There’s always a chance it will lead somewhere interesting.

The subject the speakers had been asked to address was ‘reverence,’ and as usual, the speakers emphasized that reverence isn’t just a matter of keeping small children from disturbing the meeting.  In fact, for the most part, the parents of small children in our ward are particularly punctilious about taking obstreperous infants out to the lobby.  But our speaker (a man for whom I have a particular fondness, because he’s from Kentucky, and speaks with the soft burr of a Kentucky accent, so familiar to this Hoosier boy) began speaking of reverence in lots of other settings; the music we listen to, the popular culture we consume, the clothing choices of young men and (especially) young women on dates.  We show reverence for Heavenly Father by eschewing hip-hop, by avoiding ‘certain movies,’ by dressing modestly; that seemed central to his thesis.  Rebutting it in my mind, I thought: ah, Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season and a purpose under heaven.” And modesty standards are ephemeral/cultural/patriarchal/anachronistic, not transcendent/eternal/reverent.  And what of irreverence?  What of comedy?  “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

But my wife had been thoughtful ever since the passing of the sacrament.  From time to time, we pass notes in Church.  We try to do it reverently, or at least, secretively, and I love it, love communicating with her in these tiny notes scribbled in the margins of the program.  “Why,” she asked, “is the sacrament a two-part ordinance?  Why body AND blood, bread AND water?”  “Because that’s what Jesus instituted, at the Last Supper.”  “But why?” she asked.  “Why should we remember both the body and the blood?  Could it be because our bodies can survive lots of difficulties, but not the loss of blood?”  I wondered about this.  “Perhaps because Christ’s atonement was meant to overcome both pain (body) and death (blood)?”  Could that be it?

The Last Supper is described in all four gospels, but as with many incidents, is more elaborately told in John; it gets four chapters in John.  But John does not really mention the Supper itself; most of it is given to what must have been his last great sermon to the Twelve, a great dissertation on discipleship.  ‘Body and Blood’ aren’t mentioned, but the whole talk is full of dualisms: Jesus as ‘true vine’ and Father as ‘wine dresser’ for example, ‘servants’ who are also ‘friends.’

So perhaps our speculation isn’t scripturally based.  I still think my wife’s on to something profound. The sacrament celebrates Christ’s victory over pain and death, both.  We don’t just resurrect, we recover.  We overcome too.

And that’s something to cope with reverently.  We finished our note: the high councilman sat down, we headed up to sing.  But on our way up to the stand, my knee gave out a little.  I had to gimp my way up, then stand awkwardly while catching my breath enough to sing.  The song we sang was lovely, and the arrangement my wife had made for it emphasized the text in beautiful ways.  And I thought about pain, and the overcoming of pain, the part of the sacrament service (maybe) relating to bread, the body.  The beauty of music is enhanced by the difficulty of learning it.  The real dualism isn’t pain and death, but pain and joy, neither of which can be experienced without each other.

And another way to overcome pain, another way of coping with the endless struggles of human existence really is comedy, it really is irreverence.  That’s why people in power can’t really be very funny, unless they’re also self-deprecating.  A joke by a white supremacist about silly black people isn’t funny.  A joke by a black comedian about his own people can be.  Humor exists to afflict the comfortable, as well as to comfort the afflicted.  That’s also why the atonement was given us; that’s what Jesus meant by ‘inasmuch as you have done it unto one of least of these, my brethren.’ Did Jesus want us to laugh?

(And the single most reverent event I have attended was a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Indiana University.  With rock music, and bad language, and a priest blaspheming.  And a child leading us towards atonement, and peace.  And there’s holiness in great comedy, there’s God in the details of theatrical performance, however secular.  I feel God’s presence, listening to Bach, to the Beatles, to Tupac, to Arcade Fire.  To every season there is a time.)

Also over the weekend, I re-read Anne Wroe’s spectacular Pilate: Biography of an Invented Man.  In the medieval passion plays and cycle plays, Pilate was always a leading character, and a comedic one.  A ranter and a drunk, he’d lay about him with a club, shouting curses to Mahmoud (Mohammed, and who cares about anachronism!).  Pilate was, as governor of occupying forces, the most powerful man in Palestine; Jesus as powerless as it was possible to be.  But, especially in John, the tables are turned on Pilate.  His conversation with Jesus is just strange enough to be plausible–Pilate asking what he must have thought were utterly straightforward questions (“where are you from?”) and Jesus giving answers as baffling as they were provocative. (Funny?  On purpose?  Comedic?) Because Jesus knew from the beginning that his body and blood had to be forfeit; he had to be killed, and in a specific way, and this Roman administrator had to order it.  But Pilate was just unsettled enough to see, with perhaps some genuine insight, how wrong his own role would have to be.  He nearly overcame his own limitations; three times, he declared that he could find no fault in this man.  But ultimately, his own weaknesses reasserted themselves.  And, finally, he affixed his seal to an order, and then ordered a basin, and washed his hands.

He did it because he was afraid.  He did it because he knew how Emperor Tiberius (pedophile and murderer and a Roman God, a vicious tyrant, and also believed to be divine) treated the bodies and blood of men under his command who did not handle the affairs of Rome perfectly.

So we all have the same choice Pilate had, the choice to behave courageously or cravenly, bow to authority or (at times, when prompted to) mock it.  And we’ll suffer either way, and die whatever we choose.  But we can honor that body and that blood, by the choices we make. But we have to make those choices.  And not let our culture, whatever it might be, dictate them for us.

The end of the Mormon Moment

Once again, cannibalized from my Sunstone talk.  The so-called Mormon Moment, and the way it ended.

The Mormon Moment was, at least initially, about seeming. Our world really did become a stage, it seemed, and we really did become players. We’re used to that anyway. From our first talk in junior Primary to Primary programs to the talks and testimonies we offer, we’re on display. We’re told to be good examples; we’re told to play missionary when in public. We’re told to testify to each other. We all know our lines, do we not? With Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, we felt it, the spotlight on our collective faces. We became a people defined by optics and soundbites, presentation and representation. The Mormon Moment was, in short, theatre.

That’s not to indict the carefully crafted ‘I’m a Mormon ads,’ nor, certainly, the people who appeared on them. But like reality TV, reality advertising consists of narratives carefully shaped and edited and presented. There’s a falseness there, right next to the sincerity and reality of the testimonies themselves. I’m a Mormon we said. I’m a painter, I’m a sculptor, I’m lead singer for a rock band, I’m a biker, and also, I’m a Mormon. We’re not all businessmen. We’re not who you think we are.

But theatre isn’t just an exterior art form. We offer carefully constructed simulacrums of reality that somehow also manage to dig under the surface of what we’re portraying; it’s representation, but at times it can become revelatory. Hamlet doesn’t exist; he’s a construct of language, given flesh by an actor, in a space. We see a production of Hamlet, and we marvel over the cleverness of the design, the careful blocking by a director, the specific line-reading choices of the actors.

But I remember sitting on a train in London after seeing a particularly fascinating conceptual approach to Hamlet, engaged in a spirited discussion with a group of students. One girl sat quietly, by herself. To draw her in, I said, “what did you think of it?” “I hated it,” she said, quietly. Taken aback, I said, “really? I thought it was fascinating; the period, the setting, the acting chops on display. Why?” “I didn’t care,” she said. “I should care. He’s trying to decide whether or not he should kill himself, and I should care a lot. And he only decides not to because he’s terrified that what comes next might be worst. Life sucks so much for him, he wants to off himself. And you’re all, ooo, the design, ooo, the acting and concept. And I didn’t care. Hamlet’s too important for aesthetics.” She said that, in that train, and in a flash I realized that she was right. I didn’t care either, and I should have. Form without substance should leave us indifferent. It’s the substance that harrows.

So the Mormon Moment was, in very large measure, about Mitt Romney’s campaign for President of the United States. And there’s no foodstuffs with more empty calories than a Presidential campaign. Really; it’s all about optics and sound bites, stump speeches and media manipulation. And so so many balloons. Slogans, carefully tested. Hope and Change. Change we can believe in. What was Romney’s campaign slogan? I had to look it up: “Believe in America.” In his first run for President, Barack Obama briefly chose not to wear a flag pin on his lapel, a refreshing moment of rebellion from the handlers and managers. Then that became a thing, and now the pin is ubiquitous. Romney changed costumes, losing the suits as too corporate. We started seeing him in Dockers and checkered shirts. Even when he wore a white shirt and tie, the sleeves were rolled up. “I’m ready to get to work fixing America,” the outfit loudly proclaimed. Mostly we saw Obama in suits. “I’m a black guy executive,’ the suits announced. “A black guy you can trust.” And weren’t both as bogus and phony as Rick Perry’s new glasses? As the ‘oops’ guy poses as an intellectual.

And so, we can look at the whole enterprise cynically, and say, ‘they’re both the same, what does it matter, they’re both phony and the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t believe in Obama or Romney, any more than I believe that Axe body spray will make me more appealing to women.’  And part of you would be right. It really is all semiotic manipulation. We’re all good post-modernists, and share, as Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity to metanarrative.’ The presidential campaign as performance art strikes me as a particularly rich field for that incredulity.

But that’s not all that’s going on. Under the outward form, we had to keep reminding ourselves, there really was substance. Let’s say you’re a young working mom, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and your daughter is sick, feverish and headachy, plus her neck hurts. And you don’t have health insurance. And right then, right there, you’re faced with it, sick child, middle of the night, and you have two choices, and both of them suck. Both of your choices are completely, totally irresponsible. You can decide to take your child to the emergency room of a local hospital, and rack up a huge bill you have no possible way of paying, throwing already fragile home finances into even greater confusion and disarray. Or you can hope she gets better on her own. Maybe it’s just a late night kid’s fever, no big deal. Couple of Bayer children’s aspirin, and in the morning she’ll be running around same as always. Or it could be meningitis. And you don’t have health insurance. Two choices, and they’re both awful.

And that reality, that decision faced by millions of working poor families across the nation, that was what was at stake in the 2012 Presidential election. It wasn’t about slogans and balloons. It was about sick kids in the middle of the night. It was about cancer patients denied coverage because they’d been treated for acne when they were teens. It was about differences in policy with real world consequences. It was about that Mom, and that sick kid. It was as real as a punch in the gut. And one of the two candidates had gotten legislation passed that helped that Mom, and helped that child. And the other, it suddenly seemed, opposed it? And, of course, the irony is that the program Obama had enacted had originally been Romney’s idea.  But, Romney, after slogging through that Bataan death march of endless debates with insane people, had so compromised himself that the needed swivel to the left (which he executed with some dexterity), didn’t reassure.  And, of course, health care wasn’t the only issue in the campaign. It was about lots of things; Keynesian economics, foreign wars, regulation. But when it came to issues of equality? The choice was pretty stark, was it not?

The Mormon Moment had its ironies, not the least of which is that the media’s go-to person for explanations of all things Mormon tended to be progressives, most especially Joanna Brooks. In previous years, they’d gone to Jan Shipps, the ultimate inside outsider. And Jan did Mormonism a great service—put her name on the statue next to Colonel Kane and General Doniphan. But with Joanna Brooks, we had something even better than a inside outsider; we have an outside insider, bright as hell and articulate and insightful. I don’t, obviously, have the faintest idea who Joanna Brooks voted for. But does her writing not suggest a progressive?

But looking back at that campaign, I can think of two turning point moments above all others. The first came when President Obama made the appalling rookie politician’s mistake of telling the truth. “If you’ve got a successful business, you didn’t build that alone.” In other words: someone helped you, someone provided advice and capital, lots of someones pitched in to build infrastructure. What Obama dared suggest was that the Ayn Randian protean solitary genius, the Howard Roark or John Galt so loved by the libertarian right, is as much a figure of fantasy as Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore. His heresy was particularly resented by the likes of the Koch Brothers, rugged individualists who built their corporation entirely through their own hard work and enterprise, after inheriting a billion dollar company from their John Birch society founder Daddy, Fred Koch. Who got his start-up capital from Josef Stalin. True story. Still, they did it on their own! And bankrolled TV ad after TV ad showing President Obama tell businessmen that they didn’t do it on their own.

The President took a hit in the polls after that gaffe. But the more revealing incident came later in the campaign, when a Youtube video showed a clandestine recording of a speech Romney gave at a fundraiser in Boca Raton; the 47% speech. And the optics of that were particularly damaging. In the video, you can barely see Romney at all. Mostly, you see the backs of four people sitting in chairs. From time to time, we see a bartender in the foreground. The sound quality is patchy. And that all gives it the feel of authenticity. This, we think, is the straight scoop; this is what Romney really believes. Ignore the campaign; this is the real Romney.

It was devastating. It killed his chance of being President, I think. Because it felt real. Because it was real. There was no way to spin that video, no way to contextualize it to reduce the damage. And in a sense, the Mormon moment ended there, as the 47% video made its way from bartender Scott Prouty to David Corn at Mother Jones to Rachel Maddow to every major news outlet in America.  Mitt Romney lost control of the campaign narrative. From ‘sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work to fix what’s wrong with America,’ the narrative became, ‘I don’t care about nearly half the country, especially working class people.’ From ‘competent techocrat,’ to ‘arrogant rich plutocrat.’ The actor’s artifice revealed; it was that backstage moment when you discover that the magic castle is nothing but flats; painted canvas. It was devastating.

The 47% video was the beginning of the end to the Mormon moment. The Kate Kelly excommunication was the final death blow. No longer would the national conversation about Mormons be about Romney and all those nice grandkids and Jabari Parker and ‘gosh, did you know that Imagine Dragons and the Neon Trees are Mormon!” It became about excommunication, an old-fashioned, even medieval Catholic word, and how dismayingly oppressive it sounded to post-modern ears. What’s fascinating about the Kate Kelly case is the degree to which it became a battle between Ordain Women and Church Public Relations. It was, it seems, at least in part a fight over who would control the narrative regarding women in the Church. Ally Isom, from Church Public Relations, came on Doug Fabrizio’s show, and Fabrizio asked: “If women are raising that question, instead of being disciplined for raising that question, shouldn’t they be engaged in a conversation about it.” Ally Isom’s reply: “The conversation is not the problem. It is not what is being said. It is how it is being said.” In other words, it was always about style, about word choice, about presentation. It’s about the theatrics.

And it doesn’t matter who won. No one won. And that’s the reality under the theatrics: pain. Serious, debilitating pain. It hurt the Church. It hurt Kate Kelly. It hurt Hannah Wheelwright. It hurt a lot of us here. Here, on Mormoniconoclast, I imagined two women. One, a young professional, accustomed to being treated as an equal, who looks at Church culture and is overcome with cognitive dissonance. Result: pain, disillusionment, anger and frustration. The other, a woman who has never felt disrespected in the Church, but does feel disrespected by Ordain Women, who feels that her own life of faith and sacrifice is being slighted. Pain. Someone responded by positing a third hypothetical women, torn apart, sympathetic to both sides, pained at having to take sides, caught in the middle. Pain, and more pain. And civility erodes, and it turns out nobody controlled the narrative, the narrative became collateral damage. Families shredded, pre-mature faith transitions. People all over the Church writing The Letter. It was, and remains, awful.

So what’s next?  How will the next narrative read?  Is it time for retrenchment?  Time to double-down on engagement?  I wish I had something more profound to offer than ‘we will see.’

Preaching false doctrine

The preaching of false doctrine in Mormonism has been much in the news lately, what with the disciplining of Kate Kelly and (possibly) John Dehlin.  But that raises an issue, does it not?  What exactly is true doctrine, what constitutes false doctrine, how can we tell them apart?  And to what degree are our talks and thoughts and lessons and ideas the products of the larger culture that surrounds us, and to what degree are our thoughts genuinely inspired by God?

As I worked on my address for Sunstone last weekend, this idea, of the influence of culture on our theology, has been much on my mind.  So, if you’ll forgive me, I thought I would cannibalize my talk over the next few days, and give, over time, a truncated version of it here.  So here we go, with some really really obvious, undisputed, false doctrines that I have heard, either from the pulpit in General Conference, or in regular Church leaders, or in official materials published by the Church or by BYU.  Call it a ‘catalogue of cra-cra’ if you will; I tried to go for the really obvious ones.  Let me be clear, though; these are all doctrines that were once preached in our Church, but aren’t anymore.  Because they’re not true:

The all time champeen:  Black people can’t hold the priesthood because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence.

No, it was because, unlike Adam, who was created by God and placed in the Garden of Eden, and whose children subsequently were all born with white skin, black people descended from monkeys, like Darwin said.  So they aren’t entirely human.

No, actually, in the pre-existence, there were three degrees of glory, three rankings of pre-mortal spirits, just as there will be a telestial, terrestrial and celestial kingdom in the eternities.  So celestial spirits were born into LDS families, and their test in this life is to prove that they (we) deserve to stay celestial. And terrestrial spirits were born into Gentile families, and most will just stay where they are eternally, but a few will embrace the gospel and move from terrestrial to celestial, and a few will make less good choices and end up telestial, but mostly they’ll stay where they are.  And telestial spirits are born into black families, and its barely possible that some of them will work their way up to terrestrial, but that’ll be it for most of them, except for a very few who’ll work their way up to celestrial, by joining the Church and being blessed by other peoples’ priesthoods.

The missiles that hit Iraqi targets, programmed by a guy in my ward, were inspired missiles; he was led by the spirit to program them that way.

The Ten Tribes of Israel are hiding in a cave, a really really big cave, located under the North Pole.  And one day, they’ll return, climb out of the cave, and they’ll have their scriptures with them, and guess what; they’ll compare them to our handbooks and manuals and, wow, perfectly correlated.

Masturbation leads to communism.

Space aliens are real. Of course they are.  If ‘many worlds have I created and redeemed by my only begotten son,’ then it stands to reason that there would be aliens.  And Earth would have to be a major tourist attraction.  The only planet wicked enough to crucify our savior?  They’d have to see that.

But Earth isn’t the only planet.  The Garden of Eden was on another planet, and then transported all its people here.  All the evidence for organic evolution (including dinosaurs) is real, it’s just irrelevant, because we humans came from a different planet.

Noah didn’t just have to find two of every kind of animal, he had to find the two most righteous of every kind, ‘cause, see, the animals were wicked too. So Noah had to find the two most righteous tigers and crocodiles and squirrels.  The ones not stealing acorns, presumably.

If you’re a really really good missionary, you’ll be blessed with a super-hot wife.

When we die, we’ll go back to our pre-earth offices, and the in-box will be full.  (I can’t imagine a more depressing vision for the after-life).

Cain still lives.  He’s Bigfoot.

American Indians who join the Church end up with lighter colored skin than their non-LDS-but-still-Lamanite relatives.

People born when I was born, say around 1956, were a special generation, saved for these the latter-days.  We’re meant to prepare the way for the second coming.  We’re Saturday’s Warriors, we children coming down, coming down like gentle rain through darkened skies.  With glory trailing from our feet as we go . . .

Except maybe not, because my kids, born in the 80s, were told exactly the same thing about their generation.  So I think my generation probably blew it.

San Francisco is ripe for destruction, like Sodom was, because of all the gay people who live there.  San Francisco is only being spared because of all the righteous Latter-day Saints who live there.  But not for much longer.

San Francisco and New York.

San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles (Hollywood).

And we’re getting pretty worried about Salt Lake City.

But reparative therapy, involving large amounts of basketball and also electro-shocks administered while watching gay porn, will help, if you suffer from same-sex attraction.

God wants you to turn in your roommates, BYU students.  If your roommate is doing something he or she isn’t supposed to be doing, the sin will be on your head.

Playing cards inevitably leads to much more serious sins.  Like coffee drinking.  And tobacco chewing.  And even, maybe, s-e-x.

Polygamy is, let’s face it, an eternal principle.

Polygamy is necessary because, let’s face it, women are naturally more righteous than men.

No, polygamy is necessary because a lot more men than women died in the war in heaven.

No, polygamy is necessary because a lot more men were unrighteous in the pre-existence, because women are inherently more righteous than men.

President Obama is the anti-Christ, here specifically to destroy America.

And Kate Kelly is off the res?

Here’s my final point, though: we’re all human beings, and therefore, to some extent, crazy. The cultures we live in tend to be tribal and tend to be suspicious of outsiders, the other.  The gospel exists to help us all overcome cultural biases, embrace the genuine brotherhood/sisterhood of all of mankind.  I undoubtedly hold to prejudices ever nuttier than some of these.  So let’s move forward, embracing the all-inclusive love and forgiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Two big political questions for Mormons

Today, we Utahns enjoyed the edifying spectacle of seeing our last two Attorneys-General hauled off in handcuffs for political corruption.  Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, who between them were Attorneys-General in Utah for sixteen years, both charged with multiple counts of receiving and soliciting bribes.  Chatting with an old friend from Indiana, he asked the obvious question: what’s going on in Utah?  Why are all your attorneys-general crooks?  And the best answer both of us could come up with is this: Utah’s a one-party state.  With veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, the Republican party rules untroubled by any thought of electoral consequences.  And that lack of voter oversight can lead to, well, corruption.

That’s the first question, and the first attempt at an answer.  Here’s the second question: why do Mormons hate President Obama so much?  A recent gallup poll asked people if they approved or disapproved of this President, but also broke down the results by religion.  Turns out, Mormons hate him more than any other religion.  He got a 18% favorable, 78% unfavorable.  So why do we Mormons hate this President so much?

I’m just going to discount the possibility that it’s because he’s a terrible President and Mormons, with our powers of spiritual discernment, saw it before anyone else did.  Or that we’re all conservatives because only conservatism is compatible with gospel values.  I’m ignoring both those possibilities, because this is my blog and I can say anything I want to on it.  And also because that’s silly.  Neither political party has any kind of monopoly on truth or values or good policies, and no objective look at Obama’s Presidency could possibly fail to notice that he’s had some successes and some failures, like every President ever.  I’m a Mormon, and I think he’s an excellent President.  I have also, on this blog, called for his impeachment.  I think NSA spying on us violates the Constitution, and that drone warfare is an abomination.  I also think Obamacare is a big success story (the evidence for that is pretty well overwhelming), and that he’s been an effective advocate for sensible economic policies. And for the poor, which is my number one issue anyway. So Obama’s a mixed bag.  Add it up, and he’s been a good President. Top-tier.

But conservatives hate him, and Republicans tend to froth at the mouth at how much they hate him, and that’s weird.  Mormons tend to be conservative Republicans, hence his bad poll numbers. Plus, he defeated a Mormon hero, Mitt Romney (an estimable man, I think.)  Plus he’s black.  That’s all gotta be in the mix.  But mostly, it’s because he’s a liberal and Mormons really really aren’t.

Here’s one theory about why Mormons tend to be Republicans.  Mormons disproportionately live in the western states, especially Utah and Idaho.  And those states tend to be very conservative.  Utah and Idaho are very conservative, and have large Mormon populations, but Wyoming and Montana also tend to be very conservative, and don’t have majority Mormon populations.  Western states tend to have large amounts of federally owned land, which is a constant source of friction. We fancy ourselves independent loners, who enjoy wide open spaces.  Rural Americans tend to be more conservative than urban Americans, and Utah is really quite rural.  Except for Salt Lake City itself, which is also Utah’s one enclave of hard-core liberals.  So Mormons are conservatives because Mormons are rural Westerners, who tend to be conservative.  It’s entirely demographics; has nothing to do with doctrine or beliefs.

But I live in Provo, and Provo/Orem is really pretty urban, with two major universities, and lots of suburbs. And Provo/Orem are, like, majorly conservative.  Democrats are outnumbered in my town at least 10-1.  So the ‘independent right-wing rancher’ theory doesn’t entirely hold up either.

We’d like to believe that voters are well-informed and thoughtful and make their decisions based on reason and evidence.  I don’t think that’s all that true for most people. There’s a lot of social science research on this; most people respond viscerally and emotionally to political questions, which they’d otherwise prefer not to think about much.  In Utah, a Republican named ‘McKay’ is going to do very well in most elections, because LDS people have really positive associations with the name ‘McKay’ and a great many voters will just vote the straight Republican ticket anyway.  That name and that party affiliation will generally be enough to win any race that guy enters.  Not caucuses, though, because caucus voters tend to be very well informed and passionate, and of course also really majorly conservative.

So why are Mormons such hard core Republicans?  I think it’s about one issue above all others.  I think it’s because of abortion.

Abortion evokes very powerful emotions for social conservatives, and for Mormons.  The argument that ‘The prophet has spoken on this’ is a winning argument in almost any setting, and there’s no question that the Church has taken a strong stance against elective abortions.  And it’s an emotional issue. One the one side of it are people who believe, with all their hearts, that women absolutely should be the ones to make the most essential medical decisions regarding their bodies.  On the other side of it, you’ve got the ‘baby-killer’ argument. So you can demonize the other side as either ‘anti-women’ or ‘baby murderers.’  Strong stuff.

Of course, it’s a far more complex and nuanced issue than either of those formulations would suggest.  While the Church is certainly strongly ‘pro-life’, it does also say that morally defensible abortions can be performed when the pregnancy places a mother’s life at stake, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.  And in those situations, the person who should have ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy should be the woman.  That’s one reason that some evangelical Christians protest against the Church at General Conference; we’re soft on abortion, in their view.

And to criminalize abortion would be a catastrophe.  We’ve seen it before; young women so desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy that they’ll go to any extreme, including medically dangerous procedures performed by back-alley charlatans.  The brilliant Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days captures the agonized desolation of a young woman who will go to any extreme to terminate her pregnancy. Historically, women have always known ways to end an unsustainable pregnancy, secrets passed down by midwives and other older women who know the secret.

As a Democrat, I support Bill Clinton’s formulation: abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I also love this reasoning, from one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace:

The only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-life and Pro-choice.

Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.

At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.

Abortion is, in other words, a highly emotional issue that isn’t simple and isn’t black and white, but which easily be framed in black and white terms. Especially when we’re talking about something as absolute and fundamental as killing babies.  Or denying women basic human rights.

But this isn’t about me being torn.  It’s about why Mormons are Republicans.  And the emotional power of the abortion issue trumps every other consideration.  And as long as the Democratic response to the issue of abortion is ‘it’s a nuanced and complicated question, not a black-and-white one,’ which is perfectly true, we Dems are going to lose a lot of elections in Utah.  For a very long time.

 

 

 

 

 

Pain

I’m feeling it, every day, in my small corner of the internet.  We’re hurting. We’re troubled.  We’ve lost something we fear we may never get back.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “the eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.”  With Kate Kelly’s excommunication, some of us feel as though the Body of Christ just suffered an amputation.  And pain lingers.

Imagine a young woman in the Church, happily LDS, bright and ambitious.  I knew many such women in my twenty-plus years teaching at a university.  Let’s suppose she goes to college, graduates, finds a job in her field.  At work, she’s treated professionally, as an equal to others in her group or team or company. Occasionally, she may experience casual sexism, but there are places to lodge complaints, and complaints are taken seriously.  Perhaps she marries, and with some dexterity performs that delicate balancing act between work and family.  But then there’s Church, where empowerment seems more distant, even unattainable.  Why do men, only men, make the key decisions?  Is a biological imperative, reproduction, really equivalent to institutional governance, as the rhetoric suggests?  Why cannot mothers hold their babies when they’re blessed?  Why doesn’t the Relief Society President sit on the stand, with the other ward leaders? And boy, does modesty rhetoric grate on the ear. Petty complaints, perhaps, but suggestive.  And so this: Is this what God wants for her?  This can’t be right, can it?  And in that cognitive dissonance, there’s great discomfort, shading in time to pain, shading further into outrage.

But this hypothetical young woman is from the internet generation.  She’s used to social media; she’s used to organizing on-line, she’s used to chat rooms and Twitter and websites and Facebook, and Facebook groups. And she discovers other people who share her discomfort and pain and outrage.  There’s a forum for her.  There’s Segullah and Exponent II and Feminist Mormon Housewives.  And there’s OW.  And she makes friends (“I’m not alone!), and meets new heroines.  And the institutional church has no equivalent space for the kinds of conversations she longs for.  And those on-line communities are empowering.  And one heroine, for many, is Kate Kelly.

1 Corinthians 12 has been a scripture oft-cited over the last ten days, those wonderful words about the body of Christ, and our interdependence and when “one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  And Kate Kelly’s excommunication feels like the unnecessary excision of a crucial body part, feels like a misguided institutional effort to silence a voice that may be heterodox, but that has provided great comfort to many.

And it hurts.  Oh, my gosh, it hurts.

But Paul also wrote this, in the same epistle, to the same Corinthians, right there in the previous chapter to the one I just cited:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.  Every woman that prayeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head, for that is as if she were shaven. . . .

For a man ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Corinthians 11: 3-9)

 

Paul, for all his wisdom and insight and inclusive vision for a Church open to all, was also kind of a sexist jerk. I mean, of course he was.  He lived in the first century CE.  He was a Roman citizen.  People from the past pretty much always look like sexist jerks to us.  Unrighteous dominion is a universal temptation, especially, as Joseph Smith pointed out, for Priesthood holders (D&C 121: 33-39).  Sexism, institutionalized sexism, is our heritage and our burden. We’re making some progress.  We have a long way to go.
That’s one way to see it.
But look at this another way.  Another hypothetical woman, another perspective.  This second woman is every bit as smart, every bit as tough-minded, every bit as thoughtful as my first hypothetical woman.  But she’s not troubled by LDS sexism.  She doesn’t even see it; she’s not convinced it exists.  She’s been active in the Church her whole life, and it brings meaning and peace and fulfillment to her. Her husband treats her as an equal, and from her point of view, so have all the men in the Church with whom she’s interacted. She’s had leadership positions in the Church, and remembers those experiences with great fondness and affection.  She feels at home in the fellowship of the saints, and in the sisterhood of the Relief Society.  To her, Ordain Women is home to malcontents, to troublemakers. Doubt is something to be overcome, not voiced.  Stop complaining, and do your visiting teaching.  And to her, the very existence of OW, or of other manifestations of Mormon feminism are laden with disrespect, not just to LDS men, but also to women like her.  When you say the Church is manifestly sexist, you’re calling her entire worldview into question.  You’re essentially saying she’s stupid. Or weak. Or unperceptive.  It’s an insult, finally.  God has spoken; we’re a church built on revelation, so follow the prophet, and you’ll be happy.  Again.
We’ve heard those voices too, haven’t we?  And if we’re Christians, if we’re genuinely trying to be disciples of Christ, can’t we see that second perspective is not just subjectively legitimate, but that it also comes from a place of pain?  That women who oppose OW feel disrespected, belittled, that they are as legitimized by the pain they’ve endured as the women who support it? 
We all need to forgive.  We all need to repent.  The way out of pain is Christ’s atonement, freely offered and freely accepted.  
This is tricky, because we’re talking about two different perspectives, two different world-views even, and one seems supported by the institutional Church, and one seems to have just been categorically rejected by it.  If you’re a liberal Mormon (and I am), and you live in Utah (and I do), you know how much of a minority you are.  I love my ward, but I can’t pretend that they regard me as anything but an amiable eccentric.  It’s a role I’m happy enough to embrace.  But without the internet, I don’t know how many real friends I would have locally.  So it’s easy to feel like a persecuted minority. And there’s unrighteous pride in embracing that label too enthusiastically.
But Jesus knew rejection. Nazareth was a poor village, a couple of miles from one of the richest cities in the world, at the time, Sepphoris.  As a carpenter, he probably got work in the big city–the poorest of the poor, working for the richest of the rich.  He knew rejection, he knew inequality, he knew disrespect.  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” was not just a put-down, it was a deliberate, contemptuous insult.  He was Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody, from nowhere.  And he called for us to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile.  To forgive.  Unconditionally.  
My grandmother was a BYU faculty member back in the 60s, and one day, she discovered, completely by accident, that her assistant was making more money than she was.  She went to her Dean with this news, and he told her that it was because he was a man, supporting a family.  My grandmother was a widow, with five children at home.  She protested, and then he smiled at her condescendingly and said ‘women’s libber.’
She suffered that insult, and I know she found it devastating.  And she had four daughters, and all of them earned advanced college degrees, and worked professionally.  But she never considered herself a feminist, and would have found OW troubling. Nobody fits perfectly any template, and life’s always more complicated than we can suppose.

History is a battlefield, as is the term ‘feminist’ itself.  For some of us, Nauvoo means ‘The Beautiful’, cradle of revelation, home to the first sealing ordinances and a great vision of eternal progression.  For others, Nauvoo means a place of secretive, immensely creepy polygamy.  And for still others of us, Nauvoo means. . .  both.  Both/and.

We’re trying to find our way, as a Church, as a worship community, as participants in an immensely rewarding and frustrating trans-cultural conversation. Can we still find a way to press forward?  To forgive, to admit we don’t know all the answers, and to confess to ourselves that we’re in pain, and that pain is perhaps the one thing our Savior knew most intimately.  Let’s embrace Jesus.  Of Nazareth.  A nobody from nowhere, and Savior of the world.  Both/and.  And move, perhaps, a little ways towards healing.

My favorite calling ever

The Mormon practice of lay ministries has come under scrutiny lately, because of what we’ve been referring to around here as, ahem, the recent unpleasantness.  Still, callings are a fairly unique part of Mormonism.  Pretty much everyone gets to serve.  We get ‘called’ to do some job or another, called by our bishop, usually, or occasionally by our stake President.  I’ve had callings since I was a kid.  Some of them were really interesting, callings where I was asked to do something I thought I might be good at and others where I struggled. That’s true for most of us, I think.

Once, for example, I was called to be ward membership clerk.  It’s an exacting calling, requiring a certain level of computer literacy, meticulous organizational skills, and a laser-sharp attention to detail.  Any of you out there who know me: does that sound like me?

At all?

There was one sister who I transferred in and our of our ward four times, entirely by mistake. The bishop got copied on all my transactions, and he finally called me and asked what I had against Sister (?).  Of course, I didn’t have anything against her.  I was just trying to tell the computer that she’d had a baby.  That computer program didn’t like me, and I didn’t like it, and that’s all I’m going to say.

The one benefit the calling had was that I got to look up my own records, where I learned that I’d died in 1991.  There I was, listed as ‘deceased.’  I informed the bishop of this, and he told me that it didn’t get me out of speaking that next Sunday.  Nor was I excused from paying tithing.  Being dead didn’t seem to confer any benefits at all that I could see, so, reluctantly, I informed the computer that I had not, in fact, passed on.  It asked me if I was sure.  Yep, pretty sure.

But by far the awesomest, funnest calling I ever had in my life involved my one and only time in the Primary.  I was called as Primary Temple Coordinator.  This was a calling unique to our ward, the brainchild of the Primary President, but an exceptionally good idea, in my opinion.  My job was to prepare a weekly presentation on the temple for the kids, during something called Sharing Time.  Sharing Time was for learning Primary songs (all of which are amazing, especially “Hinges,” the best song ever about elbows, vertebrae and knees.  “I’m all made of hinges, ’cause everything bends, from the top of my neck way down to my ends.”  What a great song.)  Sharing Time was also for stuff like recognizing kids who’d had birthdays. Stuff like that.  Well, in my ward, they carved out five minutes for me to do a temple spiel.

What I did was go in with a picture of one of the 143 LDS temples world wide, plus a globe of the world. I would point to the picture, and ask the kids which temple it was.  Then we’d look on the globe for where it was.  Then I’d show them where we were, in Utah, on the globe, and we’d make a big deal of how far it was to that temple.  And then I’d give a little lesson about temples; just very short and to the point.

Primary kids are between 3-12 years old; wonderful ages.  Kids that age are so amazingly, alarmingly honest.  For one lesson, for example, I brought in my wedding pictures; me and my wife standing outside the Oakland Temple.  I asked the kids “who do you think this is, in this picture?”  Answer: “It’s you and some lady!”  Another kid chimed in “you were a lot skinnier then!”  Sadly true.  Then I said “the lady in the picture is my wife, Annette.  Sister Samuelsen.”  “She’s a lot skinnier in the picture too,” said the kid.

The Primary Presidency kept a list of which kids had gotten to do things in Sharing Time, and they gave me suggestions about who hadn’t been called on for awhile and should therefore be recognized.  I worried a little that the kid I was supposed to call on wouldn’t volunteer.  No need.  Kids are basically narcissists; every kid could be counted on to volunteer for everything. I’d say “who wants to show me where this temple is?”  And every hand would go up: “me! me! me! I want to!”  Of course, they never had the tiniest clue.  And then you’d say “see, this is the temple in Switzerland.  Where is that on the globe” and they never had a clue about that either.  You’d work with them.  You’d show them where Switzerland is, and where Utah is, and, wow, look, how far apart they are!  But I’m not sure if the kids put it together.  One kid did.  I said “see how far away Korea is,” and he said, “how long would that take in an airplane.”  “A very long time,” I assured him.  (Like I knew!)  “How many days?” he asked.  The kid sitting next to him gave him a contemptuous look.  “Four,” he said confidently.  “It takes four days to get to Korea.”  All the other kids went ‘ooo.’  I decided to just let it go.

But of course kids are also the non-sequitur kings of the universe.  Once, I remember, I asked where the temple in the picture was, and one tiny little girl was jumping up and down, waving her hand, ‘me, me, call on me.’  She was, in fact, next on the Primary list, so I called on her.  And she said, proudly, loudly, confidently, “I just got new shoes!”

I loved the kids’ energy.  Of course, they’d just come from a 75 minute sacrament meeting, an endless time of just excruciating boredom, I imagine.  At least, that’s how I remember it, when I was in Primary. So Sharing Time was a time to get out the wiggles a little.  Getting to spin a globe probably looked comparatively fun.  Not as fun as singing and doing the motions for “Hinges,” but not half bad either.

I was Primary Temple Coordinator for about a year, and I loved every second of it. I think that any calling involving working with little kids is pretty awesome.  My wife and I also shared a calling once as Nursery Leaders, which was also pretty fun, if a little more meltdown-intensive.  Nursery is for kids aged 18 months-3 years.  There were lessons we were supposed to teach, and the Church manual for the Nursery lessons is amazing.  We taught lessons like “Trees show how much Heavenly Father loves us,” which is completely true, and good for all of us to contemplate.  The kids never paid attention, of course, but they got to draw leaves with crayons, which their parents were required, on pain of excommunication, to display with magnets on the fridge.  So we had something tangible to show for our efforts.

Of course, let’s not sentimentalize the kids involved.  I love children, but let’s get real: six-year olds are narcissists, and 18 month olds are sociopaths.  So you have to stay endlessly alert. But they’re also amazing, with an incredible capacity for love and affection, and also unrelenting selfishness. They’re us, in other words.  Human beings, in miniature.  Whose heart wouldn’t be captured?

 

 

Excommunication, Republican-style

Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles.  It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention.  The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America.  I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation.  I get that.  But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly?  Why is that a national story?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.

When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear.  It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee.  It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching).  We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream.  And because we excommunicate.

That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it?  I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility.  Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it.  Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives.  And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.

Boy, not any more.  I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy.  Nobody gets excommunicated for it.

I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books).  John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.

Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore.  But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically.  It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia.  But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated?  Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?

Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader.  He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it).  He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat.  Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount.  Polls showed him winning by a wide margin.  But he lost, and lost badly.  It was a huge upset.

Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’  So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist.  In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration.  It wasn’t an important issue to them.  Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over.  The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high.  He wasn’t popular in his district.  He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district.  And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.

In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me.  He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’  If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’  He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’  Liberalism isn’t an ideology.  And conservatism is one.

Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election.  In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues.  I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy.  It’s satire.  Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works.  And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.

But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them.  Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–’we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’  There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed.  He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe.  He was an opportunist, a political calculator.  He wasn’t ideologically pure.  And so he got fired.  Excommunicated.

The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008.  She had voted for the war in Iraq.  To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema.  Barack Obama had not supported the war.  That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal.  And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency.  So yeah, liberals can do it too.  But the war in Iraq really was important.  It really was defining.

And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long.  You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare.  You have to be against immigration reform.  You have to oppose the minimum wage increase.  Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial.  Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide.  Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.

Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier.  He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline.  But I also get why he won.  He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about.  He comes across as sincere.  And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.

So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity.  What a weird world we live in these days.  In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.

What now?

It’s been a rough couple of days. I am absolutely heartsick.

Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women, and John Dehlin, of the Mormon Stories podcast series, were both sent letters recently informing them that they will face Church disciplinary councils.

I don’t know Kate and I don’t know John–I have never met either of them.  I do know people who know them, am Facebook friends with both, and have read their writings.  These are two incredibly important voices in Mormon culture.  John is a psychologist, who has spent his life working with LDS people who doubt, and especially with LGBT Latter-day Saints.  Kate not only advocates for female ordination (an issue about which I hold no strong position), but has also been a voice for LDS women who feel marginalized by LDS patriarchy.

For me, an organizing metaphor in the Church is that of a tent; we live in ‘stakes,’ outposts to which tent lines are tethered.  So how big is that tent?  Is it big enough for voices calling for female priesthood ordination?  Is it big enough to make room for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters?  Is it big enough for doubt, for questioning, for non-correlated lessons and non-orthodox conversations?  And the question I’m hearing over and over is this: is it big enough for me?

Fourteen.  As I write this, I know of fourteen young LDS friends, male and female, who have decided, based on this news, to terminate their membership in the Church.  I know of fourteen letters written, fourteen formal requests for excommunication.  ‘Good riddance,’ some may say.  In fact, many people are saying precisely that. ‘Go away.’  The on-line comments to the Deseret News article about this number nearly 200, nearly all of them saying some version of ‘get lost.  Leave.’

Fourteen.  Fourteen, that I know of, so far.  Some of them, to be sure, are from people who were pretty disaffected anyway.  But not all.  One young woman I know was, until this week, very active in her ward.  She served in her ward’s Relief Society Presidency.  But this is too much, she thinks.  This is unconscionable. So she’s out.

Mormonism is my spiritual home.  Mormonism is the well from which I drink, the roof over me, the bed on which I lay my head.  I love the Church.  I love its leaders.  I also believe that they are men, expounders of truth, but capable of error, men of  a courage which sometimes falters, sensible and senseless, as are we all.  I doubt; I also believe. And the authenticity of my faith journey requires both doubt and belief.

So is there room for me in the tent?

The right words, spoken at the right time, by the right people, can make a huge difference.  And so, today, I listened to this. John Dehlin and Kate Kelly, on a Salt Lake Tribune podcast.  And they’re in pain, clearly in pain, and in mourning and fearful and at times, inarticulate.  But what should we do about it?  What should we do?  John Dehlin:

Do whatever makes you healthy. . . I do not want anyone resigning their membership because of me–please don’t do that.  At least a hundred people have suggested that they’ll do that; please don’t.  I don’t think people should put themselves in jeopardy or harm by being open in public, if they’re not in a life position where that would be good for them. I think people should tap into their center, to their soul, to their core, to the safety issues that surround them.  If people want to leave the church because it’s not healthy for them, then by all means do that.  But I’m not asking for anyone to fall on their sword, or protest, or march, or storm the castle.  I just want people to be healthy and happy, and to live the life that’s good for them.

Kate Kelly:

The day that I launched OrdainWomen.org was March 17, 2013, and I went to Church, and that was the most joy I had felt going to Church basically since my mission. . .  I felt like I could be my true self.  I felt liberated.  And I felt the Spirit.  So you should do whatever makes you feel like that.

I don’t want to speak for the Church, or impute ill motives to Church leaders, or attack anyone for anything.  I prayed last night, most of the night I prayed, and towards morning, I felt some relief, some love, some peace.

Let’s pray together, counsel together, mourn together, hope together.  Let’s push back the tent poles a little.  John and Kate, thank you.  And let the Restoration continue.

 

Jesus: A Pilgrimage, book review

Every day, just after breakfast, for the past few weeks, I’ve enjoyed a morning devotional with this lovely book, Jesus: A Pilgrimage.  It’s by a Jesuit priest named James Martin, who also works as a ‘spiritual director.’  I’d never heard of that particular calling before, but essentially, a spiritual director is someone who works with people to help them understand the specific ways God may be working in their lives.  In any event, I can see how his work informs this book.

A few years back, Father Martin went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In each of this book’s twenty-five chapters, he talks about a place in the Holy Land that he visited, his experiences there, the insights he gained, contemporary Bible scholarship about those places or the events that took place in them, and a quiet meditation on the larger themes suggested by the New Testament.  He writes with such good cheer, humor and optimism that he’s a delightful companion for this kind of spiritual journey.  But the emphasis is always on the scripture itself, on his own prayer-life, and on both the historical Jesus, and his own personal encounter with Jesus-the-divine.

What I found was that this wasn’t a book that’s meant to be read straight through, like most books.  It’s rather a book meant to be savored, a chapter at a time, quietly meditating and praying each morning. As I read it, I found myself remembering my own visit to Israel, back in the late 90′s. I remember visiting the Garden Tomb, and the Garden of Gethsemane. I remember the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Palestinian vendors, and their good cheer and kindness, and how fun it was to bargain with them.  It came rushing back, all of it.

And I love Father Martin’s insights.

Consider his words “Blessed are the poor.” Not every poor person is grateful or generous.  And grinding poverty is an evil. But Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in a poor village, knew that we can often learn from the poor.  Jesus comments about poverty are frequent in the gospels, so it’s always surprising when professed Christians set them aside.  But Jesus is saying that more than helping the poor and more than combating the systems that keeps them poor, we must become like them, in their simplicity, generosity and dependence on God.  We are to become poor ourselves, to strip away everything that keeps us from God.

Naive?  Possibly.  But in an America where so much rhetoric is focused on the poor as ‘takers,’ it’s refreshing to see this modern King Benjamin, focusing on the way we all of us must rely on the bounty of God.  And this is an earned insight; Father Martin spent years working with the super-poor in Kenya.

Anyway, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  At the time I was reading it, I realized that I was, unaccountably, angry.  A lot. I don’t have a lot to be angry about, honestly.  I’m comfortably enough off financially.  I have a wonderful family, and a wife who loves me and who I adore. But years of chronic illness had begun to drain my patience. I was tired of constant pain, tired of being unable to walk more than fifty yards at a time, tired of feeling exhausted and without energy.  And so even the most minor slights began to feel like major insults.  And I woke every day, and went to bed every night, tensed with anger and resentment.

But as a Christian, as a Mormon, as someone who genuinely would like to live by the Sermon on the Mount, I needed to find some perspective.  I needed to cultivate gratitude, as the Beatitudes urge us to.  I needed to say “I believe; help thou my unbelief.”  I needed to embrace the richness and joy of life, and let minor tribulations go. I needed to continue to see my illness as a great blessing, and not as a limitation.  I needed to pray again. I needed to worship.

And then this book fell into my hands.  And I read it, one chapter a day, for a little shy of a month.  And it led me back to works I consider scripture.  And it led me back to a deeper relationship with my Father and my God, who I so often neglect, but who will never cease to love me.

And as I was reading it, my parents came to visit, and to be honest, my relationship with them hasn’t always been as good as it should be.  But this was a good visit, a joyful visit.  I found myself seeing them differently too.

Sometimes the right book comes to you, as a special gift.  This has been that, for me.  And so I humbly recommend it to you.  And it’s for everyone, I think, for believers and non-believers, for Bible scholars and for neophytes, for Mormons and Christians, and probably also for my wonderful, kind, gentle atheist friends too, because we can all learn to love our brothers and sisters more completely.  Or maybe it’s just the right book for me, and one that doesn’t mean anything to you.  If that happens, then that’s fine too.  We all find our own ways towards forgiveness, charity, compassion.  We all find our own path toward love.