Tag: Mormon

A not at all controversial rant about a totally bland topic…

Whew, okay. It’s been a while since my last religious hot take, but an article is making the rounds this week in the Mormon world and I have way too many thoughts about it to just add it to the next Weekend Links roundup. And since I’m trying to post more often, let’s have a very cool and calm discussion about a not-at-all-controversial topic: mormonism and polyamory. 

This is the article in question. And honestly? It irritates me. Admittedly I’m not an unbiased observer, but it lacks a self-awareness that I’ve spent entirely too much time thinking about.

Why, you ask? Let’s set some priors. I’m personally monogamous and have no interest in polyamory…but I am formerly Mormon, and Mormonism has a sticky, complicated history with “alternative” marriage structures. We’re kinda famous for it. In the nineteenth century we fled the then-borders of the United States in order to practice polygamy openly, fought a small “war” over it when the federal government tried to exert control over the territory, and only gave it up when it became a bar to statehood – and even then an awful lot of people kept up the practice on the sly, often with fairly senior leadership being party to it. Most of the more fringe LDS splinter movement (such as the FLDS group last headed by the horrific Warren Jeffs) broke away from the main church at this point because to them abandoning “the principle,” as they call it, was heretical beyond belief and they refused to do it.

Polygamy’s long shadow still informs politics in Utah, is still cited in changes to church policy (the infamous change which required the child of gay parents to “reject” their parents lifestyle before being able to be baptized in the church is based on an identical procedure for the children of polygamist parents), and I would argue still colors the patriarchal culture of the church from top to bottom. Sidenote, let me point you to the excellent public history podcast project, The Year of Polygamy which explores this topic from every possible angle.

Also, let’s be clear, while the church may have “banned” the practice in the late nineteenth century (and really only enforced it from the early 20th), it is still uncomfortably present in Mormon theology. And sorry, anyone who says otherwise is being disingenuous.

This all comes down to the Mormon view of marriage which includes a legal aspect and a spiritual one. It’s where these do and don’t overlap that things get complicated.

Let’s explain by an example: the current president of the church is currently married to his second wife after his first wife’s death left him widowed. Lovely and so far so normal, right? But according to Mormon theology, he will be married to both of them in the afterlife because he has been “sealed” to them in a Mormon temple ceremony which is considered the most sacred ordinance in the faith.

Oh. Okay, let’s dive into the details.

Men can be “sealed” to multiple women, but women can only be “sealed” to one husband. This has to do with the gendered and patriarchal structure of the church and is also a heritage of patriarchal polygamy where a man could have multiple living wives at the same time. But that was in the 19th century, right?

Well…that depends on a few other factors too.

Now if you happen to be legally divorced, your “sealing” isn’t automatically cancelled. You have to seek the church’s permission, much as you’d have to do with annulling a marriage in the Catholic tradition, and this was historically discouraged because of the value Mormonism places on a sealing. It is considered a binding oath and the glue that keeps a family together in the hereafter. Also, you can’t get into the highest levels of heaven without it. So if your temporal marriage breaks up, the church’s position was to keep the sealing intact to avoid allowing you to be doomed to a less exalted fate.

So to a believer…you’re still married to that person and can look forward to an afterlife with them, regardless of what caused your marriage to end in the here and now. I can personally name a half dozen women I’ve known for whom this meant a huge amount of heartache because to them because they were “sealed” to abusive partners and were afraid of being trapped with them forever.

And what if you want to get remarried? Well, then you’ll have an easier time petitioning the church to void your first sealing so you can immediately jump into a new one. IF YOU’RE A WOMAN. A man doesn’t need to have his first sealing cancelled and can be remarried and sealed to a new spouse without admin headaches. In other words, he technically can be sealed to multiple, living women at the same time, which I would argue is kinda…polygamous.

And finally, if you’re widowed and remarried there’s not a lot of info about what your afterlife with plural wives (or what your life AS a plural wife) is going to look like. I know I’m writing anecdotally, but again I know a lot of women for whom this causes fear and pain, and both men and women for whom it’s a stressful and confusing topic. What if you’re a believer married to a non-believer and therefore unable to be sealed, does that mean you’ll be separated from your partner in the hereafter? What if you’re a second spouse and think you’re going to spend eternity in a polygamous family after being taught that monogamy is the only acceptable relationship your whole life? What if you’re a widowed man, delighted to find love after loss but don’t want to be sealed to your second wife out of respect for your first, are you condemning this woman to a lonely, subpar eternity?

It’s messy and it isn’t grappled with honestly enough, in my opinion. In my experience if you press most believers to explain how exactly the afterlife is going to work for these families, the response is “We trust god to work it out.” Cool, good luck. But that makes your claims about the necessity of the ceremonies in question a little less valid, at least to me. It’s a thread that the more I pull on, the more the whole patriarchal construct, biological theology, and gendered teachings just unravel. I don’t expect everyone to have the same experience, but that was certainly mine.

And so finally, we get back to this article and why it irritates me so much. Because the authors decry polyamory but don’t tackle their own cultural history of it, and the fact that a version of it is very much still alive and well and causing heartache. This article laments relationship dynamics which mean that one partner is dependent on another and can therefore be coerced into a non-consenual poly relationship… without acknowledging that the official stance of the church is that ideally, women SHOULD be dependent on bread-winning male partners for all their worldly support. So…this imbalance already exists in Mormonism (and is already horrifically exploited in far too many cases).

You can’t square this circle. You cannot insist on divinely appointed heterosexual monogamy, except when it suddenly turn poly and is somehow fine and acceptable. You cannot insist on divine gender roles and patriarchal leadership, and then tsk tsk about unequal family dynamics leading to potential harm.

Writings by Mormons invoking a moral worldview informed by Mormonism that don’t deal with the default polyamory inherent in their system while still trying to stake out a moral position against it make me grumpy. Yes, it’s deeply uncomfortable to deal with, as are a lot of historical legacies, but if you don’t do this work, it’s just Prop 8 and anti-LGBT rhetoric all over again. You are advocating for a version of a family that doesn’t hold up to your own theological and cultural scrutiny.

And if that makes you uncomfortable – GOOD. Sit with it a bit and interrogate why. You might have to confront some interesting thoughts as a result.

Basically, I wish to hell that Mormonism would just stop worrying about other people’s marriages as much as they do, and focus on the very real problems they don’t do enough to address in their own community. Some wise man once remarked on motes and beams, or something.

 

I’m Not Trying to Convert Anyone Anymore

I’ve been thinking a lot about argument, discussion, debate and discourse lately. For obvious reasons. When I argue these days, it’s to stand up for a point I think is important or advocate for a value I believe in. But I no longer really try to convince other people that they’re wrong and I’m right. In many cases I’ve simply lost faith that it has much of an effect, but at a deeper level this is yet another callback to my Mormon upbringing and worldview.

Mormonism is a missionary faith – as is pretty well known. Most everyone has seen or had an interaction with the official missionaries out and about, or is familiar with them as a concept through pop culture. Missionary service is an expectation of young men, and increasingly encouraged for young women (which didn’t use to be the case compared to encouraging them to prioritize marriage). Not only that, there is a perpetual mission effort within the culture and structure of congregations, supported by messages and guidance encouraging all adherents to proselytize. “Every member a missionary,” as the slogan goes.

This attitude towards conversion comes from a place of genuine love and caring. The underlying premise is that if you have found Truth, you have an obligation to lead others to that truth. If knowledge of this truth is necessary to salvation, you do not have a right to keep it to yourself and deny others the opportunity. If you love something, if you believe it: you share it. Complacency about other people’s understanding is not allowed.

My observation is that this attitude remains intact even if one leaves the faith. I’ve written before how my Mormon-ness doesn’t “wash off,” even if I no longer believe in it. The cultural conditioning and in-built heritage remains. I don’t think I’m alone in this. I’ve noticed that a lot of people who leave the church seem to go through a period where they seem to try to replicate missionary work in reverse – having become convinced of the “truth” (in this case, the falseness of the faith), they want to “open other people’s eyes” to it. Whether knowingly or otherwise, I witness a lot of people try to use the same tools of conversion for deconversion. And for the same reasons! If you care about someone, you want the best for them. Ergo, if you think a belief system is bad, you are unable to be complacent about it and feel a responsibility for their welfare.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think it works.

No one “deconverted” me from my faith. It was the result of over a decade of intense internal debate and inquiry. Topic after topic was picked up, examine, interrogated, debated, researched, and – yes – prayed over. Gradually ideas, realizations, perceptions, and information combined and coalesced into something I could no longer deny: I did not believe the same things that the organization taught. I thought it was wrong, I didn’t trust or believe several of its key truth claims, I could not participate in the community and remain true to the things I did believe, and there was no successful path for a cultural participation in the heritage of the faith without also a full throated and genuine adherence to its beliefs structures.

And every time I have tried to explain this process to a believer – a misguided attempt to do “missionary work” for my experience and perspective – I have failed to do it justice. I have failed to explain it in a way that makes sense to them, or they have failed to listen. We are operating from two fundamentally different perspectives of Capital T Truth.

I was having a vigorous (but respectful) political discussion with a loved one the other day that centered on the protests against police brutality in the States. We do not agree politically, but are able to argue and debate fairly successfully. I love this person, and they love me and while our differences have caused friction, they have not caused rift. In this I am so much more lucky than many people I know and I’m grateful beyond words for it.

The most significant aspect of this conversation for me happened towards the end of the discussion. After debating philosophical differences between sides of the political spectrum, trading thoughts on what the manifestations of those differences are, and talking Big Picture concepts, I referred to my own (admittedly anecdotal) experience of working for a police department myself for five years and what I witnessed there. (For those who don’t know, this police department was affiliated with my alma mater and a religious institution.)

This person’s reaction was along the lines of, “That experience really ruined a lot of things for you.” The implication being, that my political and religious views were fundamentally changed during this period of my life – and not for the better.

My immediate reaction was a flash of white hot anger. It felt really belittling to be told, in effect, “Your reaction to your own personal experience and observations are wrong,” by a person who was not there, was not privy to my thought process, and in spite of these gaps, does not see some of the choices I’ve made as valid or correct.

But after a beat, calm reasserted itself because the truth is, this person is right. Working for a police department for five years did change my view of policing. Which is a perfectly rational progression of events. Most people with opinion on policing have never worked for PD! And working at an institution controlled and managed by a religious organization also informed my view of that organization. Which again, feels like a pretty sensible way to form a point of view. I know a lot of people with views on religion who have never stepped foot in a place of worship. Now, we can debate the rightness or wrongness of my opinions, but at least they are informed by years worth of first hand investigation and inquiry!

This person is at some level unhappy at how I went through certain experiences and I didn’t come away from them with the conclusions (politically or theologically) that I am “supposed to.”

And I was unhappy that my practical and personal experience seem to be so easily dismissed when I feel both have given me specific insights that should carry some weight.

We are operating from totally different perspectives on Capital T Truth. (Seems relevant to the protest situation of people of color and their experiences…and any other number of divides.)

We’re at an impasse of beliefs. I don’t think we’re ever going to get over it. That’s okay.

The best we can do is practice empathy and kindness, and stop trying to change the other person, or hoping they’ll “come around” to a more palatable (to us) way of thinking. I’m not going to convert this person to my way of thinking, they are not going to convert me back to their faith. We have to learn to find other ways forward.

I’m delighted to say that where once a conversation like this may have ended in tears, this one ended in jokes, story swaps, and expressions of love. We’ve had to practice kindness and respect for one another in new ways. We have to learn how to make our case and then move on, not get stuck in arguments as if life were a perpetual YouTube comment section or subreddit – what a ghastly thought!

I’m no longer trying to change minds. I don’t think I can. One has to convert, or deconvert oneself. Missionaries of all stripes may serve as catalysts to change, but all true change comes from within.

I’m not a missionary of any kind anymore, and I’m not really attempting to be. I’m simply doing what I think is right, and standing up for what I believe. I’m doing it with my voice, my vote, my money, my time, my attention, and my platforms. Perhaps it will serve as a catalyst for someone else’s introspection process, but if not, it doesn’t matter. I’ve done the internal work, and I am still doing it, and that is ultimately the only thing I am or can be responsible for. In a weird way, this is also a legacy of my Mormonism because of a bunch of other slogans and messages I picked up. Anyone who grew up in the faith will recognize perhaps the most famous,”Choose the right,” supplemented by a popular hymn called “Do What is Right.

Black lives matter.

Systemic disadvantage exists, as does systemic privilege.

LGBT+ lives matter.

Trans women are women.

Trans men are men.

Nonbinary people are real.

Patriarchy is wrong.

Separate but equal is inherently unequal, no matter how to try and swing it.

Racism, sexism and homophobia are not “mean-ness,’ they are a collective system of traditions and institutions (many of them intentional, many of them not) that cause disproportionate harm and allocate disproportionate privilege.

Kind words and actions are welcome in overcoming overt hostilities, but do not make one any less racist, sexist, or phobic if your actions and beliefs continue uphold systems and structures that continue this disproportionate harm.

And everyone needs to do the work and learn the difference between being “nice” and “good.”

Do what is right, let the consequence follow.

 

Sunday Check In – Recognizing Racism and Doing Better

God, I hope I get this right because this is a difficult subject and while I want to write from my perspective, I want to also state clearly and up front that this is not about me. It’s peak white woman to try and make someone else’s struggle your own, but that’s not what I’m trying to do here, I’m trying to write about the only personal existence I’m an expert on and that happens to be my own. If I’m clunky about it, help me do better and make my actions and word better reflect my intentions. 

I was raised in a religion that denied ordination to the priesthood for men of color until only a few years before I was born. More than that, the doctrine of Mormonism requires participation in certain sacred ordinances – which in turn require those (male) participants to have been ordained. These rituals are necessary to salvation. In other words, I belonged to a faith that for a century taught that people of color couldn’t be “saved” in the same way as white folks. By the time I was growing up in the church, this was no longer true, but generational racism didn’t vanish from that community and it was a long time before I really confronted the history and teachings that had reinforced it for so long – and which have never been fully repudiated. The last time my husband and I voluntarily attended church services was the week that the church published an essay on its past racism and a white man who was teaching the lesson stood up in front of our predominantly black congregation and lectured people of color about how he had been taught “certain things” about race growing up and how the essay didn’t make sense to him. Of all the people in that room, we had the least right to anger, but we still felt it and it was still a transformative moment in our decision to leave the faith.

I spent large portions of my life as a racial majority and didn’t really think about how that impacted me. This included two stints in Virginia and one in Texas – not exactly places with an ambiguous history when it comes to America’s racial history. Luckily I also spent some important years on a Micronesian island where white folks were the minority which was instructive in ways I didn’t fully appreciate at the time but do as an adult. Everyone should experience being a minority. I was outrageously privileged given my family’s circumstances, but it was the first step in more self awareness that my experiences were not the norm.

This isn’t to big myself up, quite the reverse. I can look back on my life and cringe at comments I’ve made which I didn’t realize until much later were racially charged. I’ve never used racial slurs and would have reacted with outrage if anyone accused me of being racist, but I can see in retrospect that while I might have been innocent of malice, I was still ignorant.

One of my grandmother’s once told me that she and my grandfather would “have a big problem if [I] married a black man.”

University professors lectured me on how poverty was a self-inflicted wound.

Family members opined on how various communities could only experience tragedy or difficulty due to a lack of “virtue.”

Church leaders taught me that God had to wait for white people to be “ready” to accept black folks – as if other people’s salvation were dependent on my personal level comfort and that was a perfectly okay thing to believe.

I grew up swimming in racism, I just didn’t recognize it for a long time. 

You learn better, and you do better. I still screw up despite good intentions, I’m still unlearning assumptions and patterns that I didn’t realize I’d ever been taught, and I’m still unpacking where I may be part of the problem. Sometimes this means speaking up, sometimes it means shutting up, and other times it means using whatever voice I have to amplify other voices instead of my own. Because it’s not about me. 

Becoming anti-racist requires you check your assumptions, your privilege, and your power at the door and deliberately work to empower others – even and perhaps especially at the expense of your comfort.

Here are some resources to learn better.

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Happy Freaking Easter…

Happy Easter from a former-mormon-currently-agnostic-humanist-stillmormonfeminist-effective-altruistic-mess. For those who believe and celebrate, I wish you a blessed day in unusual circumstances. For those who don’t, I hope the more general spirit of seasonal renewal and hope refreshes you. I particularly appreciated the sermon from the Archbishop of Canterbury, and some comments from one of my former religious community’s leaders at their semi-annual gathering last week.

Malignant radicalism has led to a lot, if not most, of our collective problems as a species over my lifetime. Tribalism, performative politics, terrorism, homophobia, cruelty, misogyny, inequality, racism, and destructive hubris all seem to require it.

Whether religiously motivated or not, I would like to see that same fervor turned towards radical kindness over spite, radical collective care rather than radical self interest. The radical dismissal of selfishness that most faiths, at their best and most appealing, call for and encourage.

What kind of world would it be where we stopped trying to legislate others’ morality and focused more on living our own? Where we stopped using contractualism as an excuse to deny care to one another? Where we felt a sense of obligation to one another simply because we’re all specks of dust together on a slightly larger speck of dust hurtling madly and briefly through the void, and not just animals doomed to hunt or be hunted? Where care and community, or in other parlance salvation, isn’t based on transaction or complicated formulas?

Might be nice.

 

Sunday Rambles: Mormon or LDS?

“We should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.” 
― Joseph Smith

This is going to be relevant or interesting to only a small segment of the minion coterie, so feel free to skip this post if it’s not your cup o’ tea, but this news from the Mormon sphere puzzled me and I had nowhere else to really put these thoughts.

A history lesson in brief. Mormons have had a fraught history with the term “mormon” since the very beginning. It was used as a pejoritave since the earliest days of the church and as a slang term for the followers of Joseph Smith, who claimed to translate The Book of Mormon as a work of ancient scripture. Most of the early uses of the term from outside the community are obviously negative and it remained a sort of derogatory slang term for the faithful by outsiders for a long time. However, there are plenty of uses of it within the faith itself that were positive and show from an early date that the community claimed it (see the quote at the start of this post). As a child, I remember church lessons and family discussions coaching us to not use the term and gently correct usage of it wherever possible to the full title: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

To quote the musical, “Hello!”

Then, in my youth, the LDS church came out with a frankly smart PR campaign. It was an attempt to reclaim the term, which is a tactic used by minority and marginalized people the world over for many years. Referred to as the “I’m a Mormon,” campaign, it did exactly what it says on the tin. Adverts, videos, billboards, and all kind of platforms featured individuals telling their personal faith story and sharing highlights of their lives. Schoolteachers, scientists, and even a few celebrities would share a short glimpse into their life and, mixed in with other statements about their hobbies, work, and family would include the phrase, “I’m a Mormon.”

The church must have invested millions into this campaign. And it worked! Since my youth, I have referred to myself as a Mormon when practicing and even now when I’ve left the faith, I still consider myself part of the wider and more complicated Mormon family in a weird way. A lot of ex-Mormons or unorthodox believers of my acquaintance share this idea. Mormonism is a very prescriptive faith and if you don’t walk the fairly narrow path it requires, it’s easy to feel as if there isn’t a place for you. A lot of people I know consider it something of a rebellious act to still claim a bit of identity with a group that does not necessarily claim you back–I can think of several LGBT friends or unorthodox and even excommunicated members I know who still proclaim that they are Mormon even if they don’t believe the tenants of the faith or attend services. I personally don’t say that I’m Mormon any more, but I have no issues declaring that I was raised Mormon and still have a lot of affection for and interest in the welfare of the community. In conversations about Mormonism with Mormons, I still speak in terms of “we” and “us.” I still consider them my cultural heritage and tribe in many ways.

The word “Mormon” is not only shorter and easier to say, it is frankly the easiest and most common way to reference the group in a way that will be recognizable to a wide group of people. “Mormon” feels like an authentic term to me, and I was part of a generation during which the Church made a concentrated effort to claim the term. Therefore, this style guide change feels distinctly odd.

On the one hand, this feels a lot like trying to slam the barn door closed after the horses have bolted. The twitter handle and website where I first saw this story officially? @MormonNewsroom and MormonNewsRoom.com respectively. An official church website? www.mormon.org.  The massive outreach campaign to the LGBT community (with mixed feedback but I choose to believe fairly sincere in effort)? www.mormonandgay.com. One of their most effective cultural ambassador groups? The Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

For better or worse, this is a term that is intertwined with the community and has been since the 19th century. I think it was a smart idea to claim it fully and make the language work for the church rather than be used against it. I don’t understand this change back to trying to enforce the longer, official name of the organization, and think it’s something of a fruitless effort. I can only speculate as to the reasons for it.

I’ve noticed a common tactic withing the LDS organization is to try and try and take control of the narrative for a number of things by inventing its own language and terminology–usually for things that already exist. The best example of this is around homosexuality where the term that was in common usage when I was a teenager and young adult was “same sex/gender attraction.” The words gay and lesbian were almost never used, the justification I heard most commonly being that those terms connoted a “lifestyle” choice while the term “same gender attraction” explained the underlying issue. In other words, “same gender attracted” people weren’t “gay” unless they were physically acting on their sexuality. This is rot, but that was the explanation.

After the push to rebrand the word “Mormon,” I wonder if the backlash to the church’s high profile over the past decade or so has now tarnished the “Mormon” brand and this is an attempt to pivot to a different title to gain some distance.

We had the “Mormon Moment” in the media, which most people date from the advent of Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate. My longtime argument has been that this high profile attention was the first spate of media interest in the LDS church in a long time that was not explicitly antagonistic but rather genuinely inquisitive. What was this All American religious faith–what did they believe, and why?

My equally longstanding argument is also that this attention shone a spotlight on the church that it either wasn’t exactly prepared to deal with, or frankly didn’t handle well. Mormonism has an exclusive and tribal element to it. Because it is a demanding faith, it is not unusual for the congregation you attend to be your main source of social life and community engagement. If you are a devout Mormon, you probably spend a lot of your time around people who already believe and think the way that you do; you speak the same language, have the same underlying heritage and cultural assumptions. You probably have a shared persecution narrative as well as a shared testimonial language. You don’t often have to explain or scrutinized what is culturally shared with other members of the in group.

So when the world came asking questions, and not in the way that a potential convert would (after all, the LDS church has a famously well trained missionary force), but in academic or journalistic sense, I think the church was surprised when its usual, highly crafted answers to sensitive questions were not accepted at face value. In other words, I think the Church and the culture of the American Mormon community was used to be laughed at, ignored, or even sneered at by other faith groups, but the one thing it was surprisingly badly prepared for was mostly-respectful secular scrutiny.

Mormonism has a complicated history, with race and gender issues woven into its canon. “Because god said so,” is an acceptable answer to a (white) believer as to why people of color were denied full participation in the faith until 1978, but from the outside that answer is suspect. “Because god said so,” is an acceptable and even faithful response to the question of why women cannot be ordained to the priesthood and are therefore prevented for administering in almost every single ceremonial, administrative, and even fiscal aspect of church organization…but to an outsider it sounds like fairly run of the mill sexism and antiquated gender dynamics.

This scrutiny kicked off major and highly public internal debates around gender, sexuality, political, social, and doctrinal issues. These arguments sometimes played out in the public sphere. Scandals have come to light as a result of this attention that are embarrassing to the community. Pop culture in some cases did a better job of telling a historically accurate but less faith promoting version of Mormon history than Sunday school classes. Schisms within the church that would never have attracted attention before suddenly became interesting to wider audience. Policies have been enacted that don’t feel like prophetic edicts so much as clumsy bureaucratic lurches, kicking against the pricks of a changing society. Far from the tidy, united front the organized church prefers to portray to the world, the messy history of the Mormon movement (with its offshoot sects, polygamous practitioners, doctrinal argument, warts, and all) was on full display. As were some of its family feuds.

Add to this scrutiny the church’s choice to involve itself in certain (American) political issues the way it has, usually around gender and sexuality issues, and I wonder if the term “Mormon” still has more negative connotations than positive, in spite of the probable millions spent trying to rebrand it. And still, in many parts of the world, in spite of the effort put into the rebrand, the term “Mormon” is still perceived with active negativity according to many scholars.

To summarize, one of the unexpected side effects of the Mormon Moment was within the Mormon community itself. A whole generation of the faith had to deal with media scrutiny, mixed in with the triumph of the internet age and rise of social media all at once. To use my professional language, as a result of this, I think the Mormon “brand” became more confused and awkward to manage.

I have no idea if this PR reasoning is the case for this latest attempt to pivot to a “new,” preferred title, but it’s my best working theory. But I also think that as the last 250 years of history shows, attempting to enforce the full name of the church will probably not be picked up very widely outside the community itself. We–and I’m including myself here, for all the reasons I rambled about above–have always been “Mormons.” I suspect the outside world will continue to think of us/them as “Mormons.” The church itself saw value in claiming the term for years. Why the shift? If, as I suspect, a reason for the shift is because the perception of Mormonsim isn’t popular or tidy enough, there needs to be deeper conversations and introspection as to why that is because a style guide change won’t solve it.

Incendiary Saturday: Religion and Immigration

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
– Constitution of the United States of America

Two posts in one day, you lucky darlings. But the news of the Executive Order issued by President Trump banning access to the country from several (Islamic) countries has broken and rather consumed our day here at SDS headquarters. He’s not calling it a #MuslimBan (though General Flynn’s son is, for what that’s worth)…but it’s a ban on Muslims. You know how we can tell? Because President Trump also directed that priority for immigration should be given to people from the Middle East…who are Christian. But let’s set that aside for a moment.

I’m not going to go into the minutia of whether or not the President excluded other “problematic” countries from this ban because he has active or prospective business holdings in them.

I’m not going to speculate on how much ammunition this will give to terrorist groups, some of whom have already apparently used the EO in recruiting efforts. Or how this might affect my brother and countless others currently serving in the armed forces.

I’m not going to touch the fact that this EO, steeped in racial tensions and fearmongering, was issued on Holocaust Memorial day.

Instead, I want to talk about some personal background, some legal realities, and the question of motive.

To recap.

On my father’s side, his mother was the daughter of immigrants from Slovakia. They were Roman Catholic at a time when Catholics and immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were viewed as suspect and fundamentally Un-American. My grandmother married a WASP from New York and bore three children, one of whom is my father who served most of my life in the US Air Force. One of my brothers has followed him into service.

On my mother’s side, I am descended from religious converts who came from Scotland and elsewhere to the deserts of the American West to join in a small and somewhat persecuted religious movement–Mormonism. This movement had an extermination order issued against them as a group at one point and were eventually driven out of what then constituted the boundaries of the country. My mother descends from this religious minority, now considered one of the most conservative and patriotic subsections of the country. My dad later converted to this faith and this heritage. I’ve left the former, but carry the latter with me always.

That’s my immigrant and religious minority legacy. Why do I repeat this? Because I’m not special. Most Americans have some kind of story like this in their background, this intertwining of minority and immigrant stories goes right back to our founding myths and has been our day-to-day lived reality for the better part of three centuries. Cracking down on immigrants, especially when you are using religion as part of your reasoning is fundamentally counter intuitive to our national history and story.

Years later, I’m now an immigrant in a Western nation at this very moment. I followed all the laws to legally enter this country and work here, and I have the paperwork to prove it. That is how international immigration and laws work. I’m lucky. I’m white, educated, English speaking, but I’m still an immigrant. My life is here and it is dependent on the goodwill of two governments. If I boarded a plane in the US and arrived in London only to be detained at the border because the Prime Minister had decided that in defiance of laws and regulations in two countries, my right to entry (again, documented in two countries) was suddenly invalidated, I have no idea where I’d be. Catatonic in a corner perhaps. Propublica estimates that up to half a million people are potentially in this situation now. The Washington Post is reporting that the language of the recent executive order that has brought this mess about also applies to people with dual nationalities…aka…citizens of the US. Huffinton Post reports ditto for Green Card holders. Representatives of the government under which I currently live are also reporting that they could not access the US under this EO, which doesn’t make me overly optimistic for continued operational goodwill across borders.

Why do I bring all this up? Because, like me, we are talking about people who have already passed multitudes of tests and requirements to gain access to the country.

There a lot of genuinely necessary conversation and work to do to create a safe, viable immigration network in the 21st century world. But do you know what really is pissing me off? It’s that the basis for this EO is due to fears and anxieties concerning illegal immigration and religious backgrounds. People who have the paperwork to get into this country have, in many cases, already passed a vetting process far more grueling than anyone currently being considered for a position in Mr. Trump’s cabinet! And freedom of worship was one of the first things the Founding Fathers enshrined.

And so, people who voted for this–including some of you who told me that these kinds of actions or bans would never come to fruition: do not tell me that the problem is illegal immigration, and then turn around and start detaining or denying entry first to those who already legally live and work in the US, including citizens. Do not tell me you consider the constitution sacrosanct but then impose a religious litmus test on entry in violation of the Bill of Rights. Do not cite the 9/11 attacks or recent lone wolf actors as a basis for this ban and then apply it to countries who citizens didn’t participate in those atrocities.

You’re either delusional about your motives, or you’re lying.

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Baby’s first second piercing

“Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!”
― James Oppenheim

When I was in New York over the summer, X and I got second piercings together–an extra hole in one lobe each. We decided to do it almost from the moment we started planning the trip and even picked out the piercer we wanted to use.

So much, so high school, you may be thinking. Why is this, the tiniest of body modifications worth a write up? Well, a third hole punch in my frame may be a rather dinky example of self actualization, but it’s important to me.

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Body modification was not an option growing up. LDS teachings place a high amount of reverence on the human body and care of it, which is also why there are the famous dietary restrictions Mormons are often noted for: no coffee, tea, or alcohol, and (supposedly) meat in moderation. Raised LDS, I grew up with a lot of presentation expectations around hemlines, sleeve lengths, hairstyles, tattoos (hard no), and piercings. The formal advice, though it can be enforced in some circumstances, being none for boys and one hole in each ear permissible for girls. There were a lot of rules for girls.

You can find this referenced and cited multiple times in official church literature. I went looking for a link reference for this blog post and ended up with the following, which is instructive in its own right.

I started typing in the words “women should” in the website search bar, and the auto fill in immediately supplied “stay home” on my behalf. Thoughtful of it. But there, right beneath the advice of “women should be women and not babies” (a baffling admonition), and “women should follow their husbands and he follows the counsel from god” (to which, no), is the statement, “women should only wear one pair of earrings.” It’s a bit hard to read, but it’s there, right above “women should avoid paid employment.”

 

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This direction about earrings is something I heard specifically and multiple times growing up, and I experienced dress codes enforcing the one earring rule (among other requirements) which are in place at most church activities, and at its institutions like universities. I adhered to these expectations and didn’t think too much about it. I wasn’t particularly bothered about strictures on earrings and didn’t even get around to having my ears pierced until I was 13; I believe my sister still hasn’t at 19 simply because she doesn’t care to.

But as time went on and my opinions developed, I came to see this rule as a very minor cog in a much larger and troubling context of women’s and gender issues in the church and its culture. These eventually led (through a long and complex route I won’t bore you with again) to me deciding to leave the church and renegotiate my relationship to its organisation and teachings. I’ve since felt the need to review a lot of my notions about my body and what I choose to do with it. It’s not in my nature to be impulsive about my corporeal form, a lot of the reverence I was raised with still lingers, but getting a second piercing was something I’d wanted to do for a long time–since my early 20s and then largely due to a misguided belief that it would look “rebellious.” Oh, youth.

And so, I made a decision to get another hole punched, and plotted and planned with my best friend–who has written publicly and far more eloquently than I have ever managed to about her own faith transition–to do it together. We made a girls day of it, shopped, got bespoke lipsticks, sat next to each other in the piercing studio, had a long and winding talk about faith journeys afterwards at brunch.

It’s tiny but it was a gesture that made me feel as if my body was really mine in a way it didn’t before. Not a loan from on high, not a meat house for the soul, but genuinely something that belonged to me in my own right.

Having the unexpected experience of seeing how many other gender admonitions are connected to such a trivial thing during a website search on jewelry was just reconfirmation that the issues I found so upsetting are still there. Possibly getting worse as strict concepts of bodies and purity and gender roles continue to be emphasized in the way that the organization does, and in some cases such as LGBT issues, is doubling down on.

Out of interest and fairness, I decided to check the auto fill on the site again more recently in drafting this post. The mention of earrings was not longer suggested. However there are now two references to women “hearkening” unto their husbands, one to dressing modestly with two about specific dressing standards, three references to either “staying” home or not working outside of it, and the most troubling suggestion which seems to be a variation on a statement on rape from a book by a prominent former church leader published in 1969–that it’s better to die fending off rape than live through it. I myself heard variations on this theme throughout youth and young adulthood and though I don’t believe it’s claimed as a public position anywhere in the church today, the fact that mangled versions of this idea are common enough to still being generated by algorithmic search suggestions is pretty disheartening.

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I also checked again today, out of morbid curiosity at this point. An auto fill suggestion about earrings is back–the problematic suggestion about rape survival remains.

My piercing has healed now and I don’t regret it in the slightest. In a twist of fate, the same piercing studio has now set up shop on the ground floor at Liberty and has begun singing a siren song to me to get another. I’m probably going to give in eventually.

 

The Church of Brunch

“Bloodies are the centerpiece of the Sunday Brunch–they are also, perhaps, the #1 Prep mixed drink…..
1. Place ice cubes in a large glass
2. Pour in two fingers of vodka
3. Fill glass almost to top with V-8
4. Season with: 2 drops Tabasco, 4 drops Worcestershire, 1/2 tsp. horseradish, 1 tsp. lime juice
5. Add wedge of lime, stir and drink
6. Repeat as needed”
― Lisa Birnbach, The Official Preppy Handbook

Starting from when I went to university and getting increasingly worse as time went on, Church attendance had pained me for years. There was a particularly memorable length of time where I came home from every single service either in tears or enraged by something that had been said over the pulpit, taught by a teacher or leader, or even just discussed in the classes that follow the main communion service in Mormonism which is the central part of Sunday worship. I started taking breaks from attendance when we still lived in the States, a week here or even a month there, believing that if I gave it some time and space, the next time I went to services would be better. Almost inevitably it was not and often it was worse. A sermon would be preached proclaiming things to be true that I believed deeply to be false. A teacher would cite centuries of Church leadership stating a position I thought fundamentally wrong. Stances I held because I felt them to be right and good were decried as dangerous or even evil. Meanwhile, my own research into history was complicating the many, more simple stories I had been taught about my faith all my life.

This wasn’t a one-time thing, it had lasted the better part of a decade. It was spiritually and emotionally draining, and the cognitive dissonance was strongest on the weekends. I came to dread the Sundays when we did attend services as the results were usually bad, and Sundays when we didn’t I spent at home whipping myself into a mass of Puritan-descended guilt. I felt for years that something was wrong with me for thinking and feeling the way I did and having the questions I had. I felt ashamed that I had not been able to find the same answers within the faith that almost everyone important in my life had, and embarrassed to be struggling with a problem that, as far as anyone else could tell (whichever side of faith divide you fall on) was entirely in my own head. To a lot of outside observers who shared their thoughts on the matter with me, it should have been easy to decide either to stay or to go. It wasn’t.

I'm also making brunch dates with my husband a priority. For obvious reasons.

The last time I attended services was here in London.

In news which is not in the least groundbreaking, Mormonism has a major problem with racism in its history and in ways that affect it right up to the present day. Black men could not be ordained to the lay priesthood until just eight years before I was born, and both men and women of African descent were excluded from the most important parts of worship in Mormon temples–which is, by the way, fundamentally necessary in the LDS view of salvation. Meaning it was a valid theological question whether or not black people even got into heaven, and if they did, in what capacity. There are decades of recorded statements on the matter that black men and women did not qualify to enter heave except as “servants.” Cringe.

The LDS church has been attempting to formally address some of the troubled or troubling aspects of its past through a series of essays over the past few years, and I give it a lot of credit for confronting many of these issues head on using good scholarship and historical citations. It has not always done so. One of these essays concerns the history of what has been come to be called the “Priesthood Ban,” though I find this problematic since women are not ordained to the LDS priesthood at all and as mentioned women were just as excluded from what are considered saving ordinances. In some academic circles the more accurate term of “Racial Ban” has gained traction, and it’s the one I use. This essay goes on to explain that a number of folkloric justifications for the Racial Ban developed in the LDS community over the years (quite true) and that church leaders today disavowed those previous statements and reasoning (this essay was the first disavowal I have ever seen, and is fairly weak, but I’m willing to take the intention in good faith). It’s a long overdue piece of writing, and doesn’t go far enough in clearing up the decades and centuries of racially tinged folklore and official teachings of the church, in my opinion, but it’s a step forward.

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It was after this particular essay had been released that Jeff and I made the decision to give LDS services in London a real shot. We’d only attended church sporadically for the first few months of living here because I was frankly burned out from leaving services crying or ranting, and Jeff was not far behind me in exasperation, though he was much less vocal about it. Nevertheless, it was worth a shot recommitting ourselves to regular attendance, we decided, and so off we went one December Sunday with a renewed sense of dedication and a quiet uptick in hope. Perhaps all the frustrations were mostly our fault and if we shut our mouths more often and tried listening instead, we’d notice the things that bothered us less and the things that uplifted us more.

Plus, we were a bit lonely. Growing up in the military meant that the Mormon congregations we attended were a massive part of my family’s social structure. No matter what country we moved to, we were assured of finding an instant community of people ready to welcome us with open arms. As adults and expats in our own rights now, Jeff and I were missing that community, having found nothing to replace it with. The congregation we were assigned to at the time was in South London and almost entirely made up of first or second generation African or Afro-Caribbean immigrants to the UK. There seemed to be a couple of expats and a lot of people from “somewhere else” as we were so I was hopeful we’d find a group of people with similar experiences to us who would have a lot of wisdom to share.

The day in question, just before Christmas, it so happened that the Sunday school teacher was a visiting white American man who, rather than teaching the lesson topic he had been assigned, decided to expound to the congregation (of, again, almost entirely black members) his feelings about the recently released race essay. They were not entirely positive and the main gist of this speech was that he was puzzled that leaders had “disavowed” the teachings he had always “known” to be truth. I could have felt more sympathy for him if he had not gone on to lecture the members as to why “you people” were not able to be ordained to the priesthood, citing the very folkloric teachings the essay tried to distance itself from as truth, and growing more animated in the defense of those racist theories as he went on.

I sat there for as long as I could but at some point I got up, found the bishop in another part of the church, apologized profusely for what was about to happen, and burst into tears. After first assuring himself that the teacher got back on track to his appointed teaching topic, that kind bishop sat and listened to me as I sobbed for an hour about how for years, every single time I had entered a church building, I had heard a lesson like this. Racist, sexist, politically tinged in a way to make me wince, anti-LGBT in ways that violated my conscience, and so on. I was (and remain) deeply conflicted that as a white, admittedly privileged woman, I had felt offended where clearly people who had far more cause than me to be were not, but as I explained to that patient man, my reaction was not the result of that one hour, but the years proceeding it. Church did not feel safe for me, and I genuinely felt that there was no place for me in the organization I had been raised in. I fundamentally disagreed with too much of it, and as time went on the disagreements and dissent were getting bigger and bigger.

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He listened. He acknowledged the social/political/historical divides I felt (even validated a few of them as being genuinely hard to reconcile with the faith). He didn’t try to cite quotes from leaders or scripture at me as previous bishops I had spoken to on the subject had done. There was genuine love and sincere care in the way he spoke to me; it was the kindest encounter I had had with church leaders in years.

And as I said, it was the last time I attended services, unless staying with family or escorting visiting friends. Jeff and I decided to take another break after this particular Sunday, this one intentional and for as long as we needed; guilt was not allowed. We found other things to do on weekends: museums, walks, markets, exploring the city, and just generally being with one another. It was spiritually restful. A few months later, a spate of high-profile excommunications took place that cemented for both of us that the LDS church was not where we wanted to be nor aligned with what we support and believe. We did not believe several of the key truth claims, we could not in good conscience support the leadership on the many public stances they had taken, and neither of us were comfortable with the idea of raising a family in the structure–particularly daughters. Even to keep the peace with friends and family, there was no point in even going through the motions of attendance or participation. We were done.

These days we attend what I only semi-satirically call, The Church of Brunch. On Sunday mornings we now usually go to one of a handful of venues that do a proper Yank brunch–or occasionally get adventurous and try to find a new joint famed on blogs or social media for its protein and carb heavy concoctions. We linger over food. We debate, argue, joke, talk news, gossip about work, and plan for our future. We’ve had some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations of our marriage over pots of tea and avocado toast (sausages and waffles on his side). We often include friends, growing the new community we are trying to build for ourselves as proverbial strangers in a strange land, but more often we use it as a time to reconnect after long weeks focused on careers.

It’s not a global network or system of belief, and I suspect most people would probably laugh about it if I tried to explain it to them, but the Church of Brunch has done me and us a lot of good. It’s filled a gap and created a safe space in a time slot that was previously dreaded and painful. It’s reliable, uncomplicated, and good in the way that simple, basic things often are. We plan on including future friends, children, and even strangers (we strike up the oddest and best conversations with our co-diners). And it’s delicious. We expect to be devotees for a long time.

*all images from my Instagram

Year in Review: The Heavy Stuff

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”
― John Milton, Paradise Lost

2014 was the year that I officially stepped away from the religious community of my youth. The break really happened long before but a lot of things happened this year to confirm to me that it was the best decision I could have made for me. The reactions to this decision have run the gamut but the only ones that have confused me have been people who felt it necessary to offer their hearty congratulations for my choice.

As if the decision were not the most wrenching and difficult of my life. One that took a solid decade of increasing frustration, heartache, painful doubt, and baffling alienation to accomplish. I was fortunate to actually have a supportive partner along every step of the way for the second half of that decade and I still managed to feel desperately lonely in the crumbling I felt going on internally and externally. There was nothing heroic about my decision to leave my religion. It signified that I had run out of any other options–faithful, emotional, cultural, or otherwise–and to be in that position is the most angry and emotionally exhausted I have ever been in my life.

Think it’s easy to walk away from your religion? Trust me, it is not. In one big go I opted out of a community, a culture, a language, a heritage, and a legacy precious to almost every member of my family and a significant chunk of my friends. I disappointed and confused a lot of people who’s good opinion I value deeply. I put peculiar strains on my friendships and my marriage that took holding on tight and communicating hard to navigate thoughtfully and intelligently. I turned my back on an entire cosmology and worldview without really having much solid in place to replace it with, and now have the task of building a new one after nearly 20 years of certainty and 10 of crippling doubt.

I don’t want to be congratulated. Honestly there are days that, in thinking about it, all I want is a hug!

I’m lucky I came out on the other side of my decision feeling as little damage as I do. I’ve had friends and acquaintances make similar decisions in the same or similar religious communities and pay horrible prices for it. But in spite of that laundry list of angst above this, I am actually in a more calm and steady place than I’ve been in years, emotionally or spiritually speaking. Uncertainty is not nearly has bad as I had been made to feel for most of my life. For years now I’ve felt like I was clinging to a rope desperately in the dark, knowing that the drop would kill me if it happened. The more my grasp tightened in panic, the more numb my fingers got, the more the strength gave out in my arms, the harder and harder I would cling, but still I would slip. Several months ago, the last slip happened and the final strands slid out of my clutch. And it turns out the floor was just inches beneath my feet the whole time.

It’s disorienting, to find your worldview gone but your own feet steady beneath you. It feels oddly like peace.

Writing hard things.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
― Oscar Wilde

I’ve been close to radio silent on the blog for the past couple of weeks, it feels like, but there’s been a reason for it. I’ve linked to the story when it broke in the New York Times, but the truth is I’m much more intimately connected to it than that.

I am a Mormon feminist. Or I was one? I’m not sure, it’s been a baffling few weeks on top of an already baffling decade. In one way or another I have been publicly and outspokenly at odds with the religion I was born into for a decade now, beginning when I arrived at university to find local leaders trying to organize volunteers in support of the LDS church’s Prop 8 campaign, which I staunchly refused to do. My personal religious experience has largely gone downhill after that.

I disagree vocally with the faith’s stance on LGBT people and issues, I’m unabashedly supportive for ordaining women to the currently male-only priesthood, I reject the teaching about gender and gender dynamics I was taught as not just often wrong but in some cases dangerously so. But in recent years (topped off by Kate Kelly’s experience, a woman I know, in addition to many other women in Ordain Women), my experiences with the faith and the people in it have gotten increasingly disheartening and even ugly. Things I thought I believed have been tested and found wanting, things I never believed have been proved. It’s been a decade of vertigo and unbalanced experience. I have longed to write about them, but felt utterly unable to express myself except to my husband or a few friends.

I’ve certainly never found a way to write successfully about my religion in this space. Perhaps it is because it’s so personal and I am not brave enough. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t want to reveal how deeply troubled I have been around it for so long – usually that only leads to people offering unsolicited advice one of two ways: to silence my doubts or to just leave. Neither of which are helpful, by the way. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been so conflicted myself and have not been able to settle my own thoughts to my satisfaction and so could not organize them for anyone else. But I think at it’s base, the problem is I don’t know how to write about my Mormonism honestly.

I don’t know how to express what it is to love something and be ashamed of it at the same time. I can’t explain the feeling of wanting to be loyal to something that you feel, deep in your gut, is doing the wrong thing. I cannot describe what it is to belong to a people and a tradition that I disagree with in fundamental ways. I cannot usefully or concisely shrink 200 years of history into a cohesive narrative for the outsider yet. I cannot turn nearly 30 years of lived experience, 10 of it increasingly hard and painful to reconcile, into a blog post. I’m afraid that anything I write will be fundamentally inadequate.

Also, I am a coward. Typing this now, I’m terrified to think what the reaction of a number of people whose good opinion I value might be. Every time I have been open about my struggle with faith and relationship to it, I have paid a price for it. Friends have deserted me, leaders have punished me, and I have even worried about a job because of it. I am frightened to lose more than I have lost by being honest. Not only that, as followers of the news story have seen, there are other prices to be paid. Kate Kelly, a woman more faithful than I probably ever could be, has been cut out of the religion by excommunication. There is a long and troubled history in Mormonism of excommunicating feminists and for a long time I was silent because I feared the same fate, though I fear it substantially less these days.

I am tough but my struggle with disbelief and estrangement from my community over some very big disagreements has left scars. If you were to metaphorically strip me of my coverings, yes you would see a few deep gashes of massive religious doubt. But you would also see a thousand pinpricks of hurtful comments, ugly gossip, insinuation, and spite from members of my own community, for being “other.” You would see the shrapnel wounds from when a friend standing next to me was targeted with death threats for her feminism and I was too close to not feel some of the blast. You’d see friction burns from when people who loved me tried to apply pressure (lovingly, of course) to “fix” or correct my unorthodox opinions. You’d see a brow furrowed by a million doubts and shoulder grown round with the heavy weight of fear pushing down for 10 years. You’d frankly see some marks left from self-harm as I have punished myself for not believing hard enough or hoping strongly enough. I don’t want any more markings on my invisible skin and so I have often tried to cover it up by simply not speaking of it. I’m losing my capacity for silence.

There is so much I want to say about the religion of my youth, most of it good, but I cannot speak about it unless I can say all things, and some of it is bad. Some of it is quite bad. I cannot talk about one half of my spiritual experience without including the other. I want to be able to write why I stayed LDS so long in spite of massive misgivings and conflicts of conscience, and I want to write about how compelling the thought is of completely walking away – without having anyone weigh in on the matter. I want to write about the feeling of being caught in the middle. I’m not sure how to do so, but for the first time I’d at least like to attempt it.

Perhaps finally, I am learning to write hard things. I hope so, because I need to, everyone who writes does. I do not want to do it all the time, I admittedly prefer humor and lightness and think I’m better at those. But I am learning the painful lesson of the value of the hard things and though it’s difficult, I’m glad for it.

Weigh in, writers. What made you able to write about the painful, the rough, the unappealing, the unbelievably personal, and the hard?