Like a Dog to Its Vomit

November 22, 2010

So, our friend Weston is back.

There’s a little story behind this. Almost 2 years ago, Weston started posting comments on my blog and referring to me as a “hater” of Mormons. Of course, other people have been saying that for a long time. I’ve been told I am a deceiver, a disingenuous fraud trying to destroy testimonies and souls, and a smooth-tongued snake. In short, I’m pond scum.

Weston apparently is upset that people criticize his religion; to him, that makes them Mormon-haters. No doubt there are people out there who hate Mormons (Bill “satanic mormon cult” Keller comes to mind, though Weston curiously ignores him), so Weston believes he has to combat hate with … hate.

My response to Weston nearly two years ago is here: I hate Mormons. I would warn you that, if you have a weak stomach, do not click on the link to Weston’s page, as Weston’s main page has a lovely photo of a young man who has vomited all over himself. I know, I am just giving him attention, but then I think it’s instructive to see his thought process.

I have to say that I’m pleased that Weston’s lead post is a positive one about possible corroboration of the gold plates story (I think he might have a point were the “scroll” not a 2.2-centimer-long piece of an amulet, but I digress). This change from attack to an attempt at evidence is most welcome, at least to this Mormon-hater.

But most of the site is an extended rant against Bill McKeever, James White, and other “cowards,” “fornicators,” and, of course, “Mormon-haters.” What I find interesting is that Weston’s targets are exclusively Evangelical and virulently anti-Mormon. What I think he is doing is using their tactics against them. Heaven knows, the McKeevers and Whites of the world are as in your face about excoriating Mormonism and Mormons as Weston is in attacking them.

But does this approach work? Honestly, when I read Evangelical criticism of Mormonism, it comes across as ill-informed and more than a little unhinged. But then that’s how Weston’s stuff appears to me, as well. I tend to dismiss both sides as being an argument that is completely irrelevant to my life and beliefs.

I guess that means I’m still a hater.


Benefits from the Prop 8 Campaign

November 19, 2010

Recently a BYU professor said that the LDS church, though unfairly targeted for its participation in the fight to restrict marriage rights to heterosexuals, reaped some benefits from the controversy: “The little-told story is how the church earned goodwill and built bridges with other religious groups.”

I called one of my contacts at the COB, and he sent me a memo he’d seen listing the top ten benefits the church received from the Prop 8 campaign.

10. At least people no longer think of polygamy first when they hear the word “Mormon.”

9. Our Evangelical friends think we’re now 5% less Satanic.

8. “No, we’re not here to rifle through your underwear drawer” has proven a highly effective door approach for missionaries.

7. People realize that we’re not just crazy people from Utah. We live in California, too!

6. We showed we can handle any kind of emergency, from a hurricane to two guys kissing.

5. Research shows a trend towards equilibrium between locks and keys.

4. Finally, we got some use out of our phone banks. Heaven knows nobody was calling in asking for free DVDs and scriptures.

3. It helped separate the wheat from the tares. After all, not every ward has a Will Schryver to sort them out.

2. It was the perfect set up for President Packer’s enlightening and inspired talk about in-born tendencies.

1. Persecution is the gift that keeps on giving.


Standing for Something

November 16, 2010

Growing up in the LDS church, we were constantly reminded that our ancestors were targeted and harassed for their religious faith. My own ancestors, the Williamses, were forced to leave Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois by hostile neighbors before finding their refuge in far-off Utah. Our church founder, Joseph Smith, Jr., was murdered by an angry mob of anti-Mormons. I don’t know if I was typical, but I concluded from these stories of persecution that those who stand for the right often are mistreated (and sometimes killed), and such firmness in the face of adversity is heroic. Our ancestors were heroes.

A similar mythos seems to be developing based on the LDS church’s involvement in the 2008 campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8, which amended the state’s constitution to add that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The church’s involvement in the campaign is well known: the church’s First Presidency sent a letter to be read in every congregation in California urging members to “do all you can” and donate “your means and time” to pass the proposition. This letter was just the beginning. Local church leaders set fundraising goals for their congregation, the church organized phone banks in California and Utah, and the leadership in Salt Lake held satellite broadcasts and training meetings.

If nothing else, the LDS church is highly organized, and the organization paid off in this case. According to the New York Times,

Jeff Flint, [a] strategist with Protect Marriage, estimated that Mormons made up 80 percent to 90 percent of the early volunteers who walked door-to-door in election precincts.

The canvass work could be exacting and highly detailed. Many Mormon wards in California, not unlike Roman Catholic parishes, were assigned two ZIP codes to cover. Volunteers in one ward, according to training documents written by a Protect Marriage volunteer, obtained by people opposed to Proposition 8 and shown to The New York Times, had tasks ranging from “walkers,” assigned to knock on doors; to “sellers,” who would work with undecided voters later on; and to “closers,” who would get people to the polls on Election Day.

Suggested talking points were equally precise. If initial contact indicated a prospective voter believed God created marriage, the church volunteers were instructed to emphasize that Proposition 8 would restore the definition of marriage God intended.

But if a voter indicated human beings created marriage, Script B would roll instead, emphasizing that Proposition 8 was about marriage, not about attacking gay people, and about restoring into law an earlier ban struck down by the State Supreme Court in May.

“It is not our goal in this campaign to attack the homosexual lifestyle or to convince gays and lesbians that their behavior is wrong — the less we refer to homosexuality, the better,” one of the ward training documents said. “We are pro-marriage, not anti-gay.”

So, members used the ward organization to recruit volunteers, assign them to a specific area, and train them with detailed “talking points.”

The article goes on to say that Mormons contributed financially, as well: “In the end, Protect Marriage estimates, as much as half of the nearly $40 million raised on behalf of the measure was contributed by Mormons.” Also, roughly 45% of donations from outside of California came from Utah, a relatively small state.

In the months leading up to the election, many Mormons I talked to seemed proud of their efforts, as if a small group of dedicated and organized people could have a major effect on the world around them. One LDS blogger called Proposition 8 the church’s “last stand” and compared it to Book of Mormon prophets Mormon and Moroni, who fought to “resist growing immorality” at the risk of their lives. He also suggested a parallel to the American Civil War’s Battle of Stone’s River, where a small Union force defeated a Confederate force “three times their size”:

Similarly, with Mormon and Moroni–and with us, today, God requires our presence where we face overwhelming opposition. Though He wants us to fight to win, our personal victory at that point is insignificant, because our presence at where He places us makes it easier for God to win a smashing victory in the war. God is utterly uninterested in whether we can beat legions of men or devils; He could do that by Himself with a flick of His Finger. What He is interested in is whose side we are on. If we answer that the right way, He will redeem us, though we personally are overwhelmed.

But a strange thing happened after the election: Mormons began minimizing their church’s role in the passage of Proposition 8. On November 8, 2008, just after the election, the church issued a statement that “It is disturbing that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is being singled out for speaking up as part of its democratic right in a free election,” asserting that church members were only a few among “millions of others from every faith, ethnicity and political affiliation who voted for Proposition 8.” (I shouldn’t have to say this, but I believe it was wrong to harass Mormons and vandalize church buildings as a response to the defeat of Proposition 8.) And thus a meme was born: “It wasn’t just us. We were just a small part of the process. Singling us out is just persecution, plain and simple.”

To be honest, I hadn’t thought about Prop. 8 in a long time (not being a California resident anymore, and knowing that the issue is working its way through the courts), but then the Deseret News refreshed my memory with an article titled, “Mormon church was unfairly targeted over Prop. 8, BYU professor says.”

I’m not going to argue with the professor, Joel Campbell, about whether Mormons were “singled out” unfairly, but rather, I think it’s instructive to see how the Proposition 8 narrative has evolved in two years. The elements of the meme are all there:

  • Minimizing the church’s efforts: “In June 2008, Proposition 8 had qualified for the November ballot and on June 29, 2008, the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked that a letter be read in LDS congregations across California stating their support for the proposition and requesting that members support it, too, said Campbell.” If that’s all you knew about the subject, you would think that the church’s sole contribution was a single letter read from the pulpit.
  • Emphasizing the efforts of others: “Campbell pointed out the criticism was disproportionate given the number of other pro-proposition groups involved, many much more so than the LDS Church.”
  • Framing opposition as anti-Mormon persecution: The backlash against the church is described in the article as “anti-LDS,” a “‘gays versus Mormons’ mindset,” and “defamation and abuse.”

It really is a puzzling narrative. On the one hand, Mormons ought to be proud of what they accomplished. As the New York Times reported, it was indeed Mormon involvement that “tipped the scales” in passing the proposition. But rather than letting their light shine for standing up for the right, there’s been a conspicuous “who, me?” attitude, as if church members were just passengers on the train while others operated the locomotive and shoveled the coal. Disproportionate or not, the backlash targeted the church because the church was the most visible and organized of all the organizations that worked to pass Proposition 8. I’m convinced that the backlash would have been the same had it been AARP or the Elks club or the Promise Keepers who had involved themselves as heavily as the Mormons did. Right or wrong, the LDS church was, organizationally and financially, the single largest group that contributed to the campaign.

But you wouldn’t know that from the DesNews article. I think this idea of disproportionate hostility is at the core of the Mormon persecution narrative: The church, which is merely a small group trying to practice its religion, is singled out for harassment simply for standing up for the right. This is the basic structure of the Ohio-Missouri-Illinois story of anti-Mormon persecution. Take, for example, the Battle of Crooked River in October 1838. Mere months after church leader Sidney Rigdon vowed in a July 4th speech to bring a “war of extermination” to enemies of the church, a group of Mormons led by Apostle David Patten attacked a unit of the Missouri militia, putting the spark to the Mormon War that ended with the expulsion of all church members from Missouri at the risk of extermination. Patten was killed leading a charge against militia positions. Provoked or not, the attack led to a terrible backlash, and yet Mormon history casts the battle as an attempted rescue of church members from a mob, with one church writer describing Patten’s death a “murder.”

The same memes are at work in this story: Minimizing church members’ roles (Patten is murdered by a mob rather than killed while attacking the state militia) while casting the event as a disproportionate response targeting a small minority.

My intent isn’t to place blame on the Mormons for the Missouri mobs, but rather to illustrate that a disputed event with complex causes has become incorporated into a specific narrative about Mormonism’s relationship with the rest of the world. I think that’s what’s happening with the Proposition 8 battle.


The Good, the Bad, and CleanFlix

November 15, 2010

Friday night as I was waiting for a takeout order in a downtown Salt Lake sandwich shop, I read a fascinating article in the City Weekly paper about a UVU professor’s dismay at prevailing attitudes in Utah toward “inappropriate” movies and, in particular, his disgust at the existence of movie-editing businesses, such as CleanFlix.

He wrote of how difficult it is to teach a class on media and communication when half of your class refuses to view the material you want to discuss. As an outsider to Mormon culture, he tried to understand his students’ perspective, with predictable results:

I try and try, and fail and fail, to take their perspective. “So, what are you afraid is going to happen if you watch an R-rated movie?”

“Those images go in and you can’t get them out. It affects the way you think. It will desensitize you to the real thing.”

“The real thing?”

“Sex!”

“Do you all read romance novels and watch romantic movies?”

Oh, yes, they do!

“Does that desensitize you to romance?”

“It’s not the same thing!”

But, to argue about the reasons for fearing R-rated movies is to miss the point.

But the “death of the author” also implies that the meanings of words and images are in people, at the moment and in the context of their interpretation, while clean-movie editing is based on the idea that the meanings of words and images are in the symbols themselves, fixed and stable across time, context and audience members. Thus, some words are good—here, there, now and always—and some words are bad—here, there, now and always. That’s why they call them “bad words.” The theory is that certain words and images have bad meanings and create bad thoughts, regardless of their contexts. They must, otherwise, the whole enterprise, of allowing this word but excluding that word (yes to “Jesus,” but no to “penis”), would be entirely absurd!

Language codes (like Carlin’s famous list of the seven dirty words you can’t say on TV) don’t work because language doesn’t work that way. The meanings of words don’t stand still long enough for us to put them into boxes with their meanings affixed like postage stamps. When a would-be verbal prison guard attempts to lock up a word, he doesn’t touch its meaning. Put a word in a box and its meaning leaks right out. Can’t say “sex”? Let’s just call it “rock & roll.” Can’t say “sexy”? I’ll just say, “that girl over there, she’s got it.” Are they going to banish the word “it”?

Above all else, CleanFlicks presents an attempt to police sexual expression and desire organized around the “clean/dirty” dichotomy. But, the idea of “clean movies” and “dirty movies” is a fairy tale for children. It is as real as the Easter Bunny. There is no objective or moral science there. Words and images don’t have objective or scientific meanings. They have subjective, cultural meanings. They are contextual. People, with particular values, histories, vocabularies, patterns of cultural taste, etc., interpret them, in relation to a whole range of elements, inside the texts and out.

Language is a messy business, to be sure. Context is everything, and context is random, beyond our control. We invent these language codes to impose stability and order so we can sleep at night. A world where things mean what they say is quite comforting to a lot of people, and these codes of acceptable language and images contribute to that sense of well-being. But how strange is it that a religion as large and diverse as the LDS church would adopt the American film industry’s rating system as an arbiter of acceptable images and language? The MPAA determines ratings by checking off a list of words, images, and actions–and then quantifying their occurrence in a film. Say the word “fuck” once, and it’s a PG-13 film; say it again, and you’re in R territory. And what distinguishes the bare-breasted woman in Oskar Schindler’s bed from, say, the bare-breasted woman who literally pops into the frame of Airplane!?

In short, the codes themselves are random, subjective, and contextual, yet they give the illusion of hard-and-fast boundaries. And thus we remove meaning from where it is rightly created (within ourselves) and invest it in symbols. We effectively censor our ability to “read” and interpret by adopting the limits and biases of some other reader who has determined in advance what we should and should not experience. We surrender to the idea that words and images mean something fixed, with a stark line separating the good from the bad–we stay safe and clean by staying on the right side of the line.

Terry Eagleton suggested that Mormonism has evolved from a once-vibrant and revolutionary movement to one in which you aren’t allowed to say “fuck.” But it wasn’t always that way. Early Mormonism seems rooted in possibilities: creating a Zion on earth, building the kingdom, redeeming the House of Israel. But the same impulse to impose order and structure on a random and often frightening universe drove the early Mormons just as much as the CleanFlix folks. Early Mormons sought for reassurance that what they did mattered, that there was some sort of cosmic significance in even the most mundane activities in frontier America. The Mormon community sought from the beginning to separate itself from the Gentile world; they set up cooperative economic and social structures and called for converts to gather to places of refuge from the world. Latter-day Saints were constructing their own dichotomies, seeking to establish something “fixed and stable across time, context, and audience.”

In the 21st century, Mormons are far less separated from the rest of the world geographically or culturally, so these dichotomies become much more important for many as cultural markers that delineate the borders of what it is to be a Latter-day Saint. Not surprisingly, these markers almost always appear as dichotomies. Thus, Boyd Packer warns that we should not allow “inappropriate” thoughts to remain on the stage of our minds (they can be driven out with a hymn), and Thomas Monson insists that faith and doubt cannot exist in the same mind, thus “doubting, agnostic thoughts” must be banished from our thoughts.

But, like language, life is rarely lived within the black and white. Joseph Smith seems to have recognized this with his emphasis on a more situational and relative morality. But trying to live a black-and-white life not only causes us to miss the gray areas, but it also prevents us from seeing all the other colors of the spectrum.