Do Not Ever Slap or Poke an Elder

October 31, 2012

While I was doing a little homework on the article preceding this one, I found a delightful article from the Ensign (the LDS church’s official magazine) from 1972. At the end of the article is this list of suggestions for young women who are serving missions. I can’t decide if we’ve come very far from that or not.

Suggestions to Sister Missionaries


Exercise for a few minutes every morning; then eat a good breakfast and do not piece before lunch unless you want to put on weight.

In some places you can save a lot of time by eating your hot meal in an inexpensive restaurant or boarding house.

Make weekly menus and shop for as long a period as possible. This saves time and money and you will not buy as many high-calorie treats.

When cooking, make enough at one time for at least two meals.

Do not have a food fad where you eat the same things every day.

Eat at least one hot meal per day.

If you are one pound overweight, it is too much. Take it off!

Instead of stopping at a bakery for a quick lunch, stop at the store and buy a yogurt, some cottage cheese, or some such prepared, healthy food. Carry an apple or raw vegetable to tide you over until dinner. (We always carried a spoon in our handbags for meals away from the apartment.)

When invited to dinner you do not have to say you are on a diet; just take small helpings, no seconds, and cut down the next day. This way you do not offend the host, and you can still accept invitations to dinner.

Never, never eat late at night! When you come home late after a discussion and you have not had time for dinner, eat a little salad or fruit and then go straight to bed and think how much skinnier you will be by not eating a large meal until morning.

Chew gum only in the privacy of your apartment.


Elders’ most frequent complaints are about sisters’ hair. Have a neat and easy style—not too short or it will look like the elders’, and long enough so that it can be curled on Sunday and for special occasions.

Sleep on a satin pillowcase; this preserves hair style and also femininity.

Do not feel that because you are a missionary you cannot wear makeup. Do wear a minimum, but do not go completely without it.


Buy clothes that are easy to care for.

Whatever your wardrobe or climate, put on clean underclothes every day (even if it means taking five minutes the night before to rinse them out).

Do not carry one of those suitcase handbags that sister missionaries are so notorious for. Carry only the essentials in a medium-sized one, and put pamphlets or books in a separate plastic or leather case. (They will not get dog-eared this way.)

Carry a combination rain-wind bonnet, some tissues, and a couple of disposable, scented towels in your handbag. (The towels are nice for freshening up during a day away from your flat.)

Spark up those drab colors with scarves and bows.


Learn how to make those quick, no-bake chocolate cookies for branch picnics.

Do not ever slap or poke an elder.

Expect and then allow elders to open doors, help into cars, put on wraps, and start your motor bikes. Do not ignore their efforts, but do not be obnoxious if they should forget sometimes.

Have a BNTE Week (Be Nice to Elders Week) where you either cook something good or do something nice for your district. If you do this, remember that this week especially you must work like a whirlwind so no one can say that you borrowed the Lord’s time. Make it a top week in service and in work also.

Always participate with the elders on preparation day. If it is something you cannot do, then at least be there to watch or cheer. This does wonders for mutual respect between elders and sisters.

If you get depressed, set aside a little time that day to do whatever raises your spirits. For example, spend extra time on your hair, take a long shower, schedule a time for meditation, and then pray earnestly for help from the Lord. Lose yourself in the Spirit and work very, very hard.

NPR Heralds the Missionary-Age Change

October 31, 2012

I’m not sure why I haven’t commented on the change to Mormon missionary-age requirements, but hearing NPR’s take on it got me thinking about it, and as anyone who has read my blog knows, I rarely pass up an opportunity to express my opinion. (National Public Radio is the public radio service of the United States.)

Since 1960 young LDS men have been eligible to serve missions at age 19, while women had to wait until they were 21. As of the recent LDS general conference, the age requirement has been changed to 18 for young men and 19 for young women, so long as they have graduated from high school or its equivalent. This is a pretty big change for a number of reasons.

First the obvious difference is that young men can enter missionary service directly after high school, avoiding that strange sort of limbo between graduation and a mission, when you know you are supposed to be getting on with your life, but you can’t really do that until you know where and when you will serve your mission. As I mentioned in my book, Heaven Up Here, I graduated from high school when I was 17, so I had more than a year before I could leave on my mission. During that year, I worked two summers and attended three semesters of college, but I felt like I was just biding my time before my mission. My heart really wasn’t in school–and it showed in my grades–and I worked mostly to save money for my mission.

So in this respect, it’s a good thing for young men who are planning on serving missions. It will still disrupt education and work, but perhaps less so. On the other hand it will probably make it more difficult for some young men to save enough money to serve missions (they go at their own expense, with the church picking up the tab only for training and travel to and from the assigned mission), so less-affluent missionaries may have to delay their missionary service until they have the financial means to serve.

But NPR’s focus was on the lowering of the age at which female missionaries can serve to 19. In my view this is a much more momentous change, particularly because I know how Mormon culture has traditionally looked on “sister missionaries.”

When I was a college student and missionary back in the early 1980s, relatively few women served missions, as the church did not encourage them to serve, and most definitely did not create the expectation that boys had growing up that they would serve missions. The President of the Church in my youth, Spencer W. Kimball–whom we considered a prophet–made it clear that serving a mission was a commandment for young Mormon men:

“The question is frequently asked: Should every young man fill a mission? And the answer has been given by the Lord. It is ‘Yes.’ Every young man should fill a mission. …

“… Every man should also pay his tithing. Every man should observe the Sabbath. Every man should attend his meetings. Every man should marry in the temple” (“When the World Will Be Converted,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, p. 8).

Reading through President Kimball’s talk, I notice that there is not a single mention of women being involved in converting the world. That wouldn’t have crossed his mind, I would think, as it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me, either. In those days there were very few sister missionaries, and in my mission in Bolivia, most were serving nonproselytizing welfare missions.

The attitude a lot of people had then was that women served missions if they were 21 and had no prospects of marriage, for marriage was supposed to be the focus of young women, not missionary service. As the NPR reporter put it

At age 21, a woman is nearly finished with college, and historically there’s been pressure to marry rather than set out on an 18-month mission, which is optional for both men and women.

Sister missionaries were considered almost like old maids at 21. I know a sister missionary who despaired at 22 that she would probably never get married because it was getting too late. When I was in the Missionary Training Center, a sister missionary announced in our “culture class” that she was serving because she thought it would help her find a husband.

Over the last 30 years or so, it has become more socially acceptable for women to serve mission. No longer were sister missionaries considered spinsters-in-training at 21, but rather as a valuable part of the missionary force. Consequently, more young women had begun to plan on serving missions, and it became common to hear teenage girls talking about their plans to serve a mission when they were old enough. The shift in age requirements may reflect the church’s acknowledgment of this cultural trend.

National Public Radio (the public radio service of the United States) covered the story and rightly concluded that it signaled a big shift in attitudes towards women serving missions. It’s pretty clear to me that the church has decided that having more missionaries is at least as important, if not more, than marrying women young, and that is an unprecedented change.

In LDS theology, marriage between a man and woman is essential to exaltation in the highest level of the celestial kingdom (the Mormon expression for “heaven”). Indeed God is God because He is married. He is literally our Heavenly Father, who is married to a Heavenly Mother–together they are God and have spiritually begotten all human beings. For the leaders to  encourage young women to delay marriage in favor of missionary service thus has theological implications.

NPR interviewed a young woman, Hannon Young, who is a freshman at church-owned Brigham Young University (my alma mater), who was understandably emotional about the change.

“I wanted to go on a mission since I was 16,” she says. “And the thought of waiting two more years was really difficult for me. So, it was such exciting news.”

She is one of the rising generation that not only sees missionary service as a positive thing, but also has been planning on serving.  Her mother, Jane, opined

“I do think what it allows is for women — Mormon women — to have it all,” she says.

That may be a bit of an overstatement, but clearly the church’s view of the role women play in the church has changed.

Jane says the new policy represents a philosophical shift in how Mormon women are viewed by the church — and by themselves.

“I think women will see themselves differently,” she says.

Hannon agrees.

“I think I do, because it’s empowering to think that they want more women serving,” she says. “It feels like a call to really join the ranks.”

Yet the church has been careful to remind sisters that they do not have the same obligation to serve missions as the young men do. Current church president Thomas Monson said recently

A word to you young sisters: while you do not have the same priesthood responsibility as do the young men to serve as full-time missionaries, you also make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome your service.

The policy change suggests to me that the church is beginning to encourage young women to serve, rather than merely “welcoming” their service. But this does not signal a sudden movement toward equal status and treatment for LDS women. Only men are ordained to the priesthood, and women in the church are called and serve under the direction of priesthood leaders. That’s not going to change.

But what is the reason for the new policy? Perhaps some statistics will help explain. At the end of 1980, there were 29,953 full-time missionaries. By 1990, there were 43,651, an increase of 45%. By 2000, the ranks had grown to 60,784, or nearly 40% over the previous decade. However, in 2010, there were 52,225, a decrease of 14% in ten years.

But not only the number of missionaries has declined, but also the number of baptisms per missionary, which has dropped by half from a high of 8 per missionary in 1989 to between 4 and 5 in the last few years. Together, these two statistics show that missionary work in the LDS church has not kept up with membership growth as a whole. (Church membership increased from 7,760,000 in 1990 to 14,131,467, or nearly 100%.)

What has caused the decline in missionary numbers? I don’t have any idea. My guess is that a lot of young men have been dropping out of the church in that year between 18 and 19, which would make sense because it’s the first time most of them will have been on their own, either going to college or making money. Perhaps two years of unpaid missionary service seems less attractive. I honestly don’t know. Whatever the reason, the numbers are down, and I am assuming the church did some internal pilot programs to see if sending missionaries out at 18 decreased the number of young men opting out.

Given the decrease in baptisms per missionary, it seems logical that the church would try to increase the number of missionaries serving, which is where the young women come in. Most LDS young women will not get married before age 19 (the average is somewhere above 22 for women), so the pool of potential missionaries has increased significantly, and indeed, the article notes:

Some 4,000 young women applied in the two weeks since the announcement. Overall, applications have quintupled — and fully half of them are women. Until now, only about 20 percent of missionaries have been female.

Given the total number serving in 2011, there were 11,000 young women serving as missionaries, or 20%.  Assuming that the number of young men stays the same, and I would bet it will increase, if young women constitute 50% of missionaries, that would add some 33,000 missionaries, for a total of around 88,000, or a 60% increase.

In the end, the new policy doesn’t so much reflect a change in status for women but simply indicates a need the church has for more missionaries. And who knows? Maybe young women make more effective missionaries than do their male counterparts, so we may see an increase in converts per missionary.

I’m happy for those young women who wish to serve as missionaries. My daughter is thrilled, though I have reminded her that this means she has less time to save up for her mission. Unlike the stake president the article quotes, I don’t envision a big increase in mission “romances.” Of course, I married a sister missionary, so who am I to talk?

Bolivia’s Big Brother Is Watching

October 26, 2012

I admit that when Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia, I was hopeful. After centuries of being marginalized and disenfranchized, Bolivia’s indigenous population finally had some real representation in government, and at long last change could come.

Unfortunately, much of the change has been in the government’s consolidation of power at the expense of freedom and openness. Bolivia’s press has long been threatened by a hostile government, but now the government is going after social media.

“I am always going online, and I am writing down the first and last names of the people who insult him on Facebook and Twitter,” Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera said in remarks widely reported in Bolivian media this week.

The message is clear: watch what you say because the government is watching you. Not so, says a government spokesperson:

Constructive criticism is fine, said Franklin Garvizu, a congressman from the president’s party. But officials have seen something more nefarious, he said.

“We are very worried because this is a case of systematically using communications mechanisms to plant hatred against the government, to harm the image of our president,” Garvizu said.

So, as long as you say nice things about the government, you have nothing to worry about.


Obama’s Plan Revealed

October 22, 2012

Not to be overshadowed by the recent unveiling of Mitt Romney’s first-term plans, the Obama campaign released their own outline for a second-term agenda. Obama spokesperson Stephanie Axelrod-Plouffe explained the campaign’s thinking: “We have decided that releasing our position papers through E.J. Dionne isn’t getting our message out as broadly as we had hoped, so we’re spelling it all out. Voters can decide for themselves which is the better plan.”

1. Unemployment: When President Obama took office in 2009, unemployment was a dismal 7.8%. After four years of focus on job creation, the rate is now at an encouraging 7.8%, indicating that remaining unemployment is a result of Bush-era policies. Going forward, we intend to highlight the damaging effects of these misguided policies on employment. The president doesn’t believe it is prudent to offer a details jobs plan, as that would only deflect attention from blaming Bush.

2. Deficit: This administration inherited a terrible deficit of $1.5 trillion from the Bush Administration, which forced us to continue trillion-dollar-plus deficits for the next three fiscal years. The president has a one-point plan to continue these deficits indefinitely: invest in America. The Romney campaign, on the other hand, would continue to run deep deficits and leave onerous debt to our children and grandchildren. We just can’t afford that.

3. Education: A second Obama administration would invest in education through expanded grant and student-loan programs, research grants, and tax credits. We hope that a majority of Americans will be able to attend college and be prepared for the lack of jobs that awaits them. At least we can keep them busy for the next four years or so.

4. Welfare: As part of our educational assistance, we will increase the amount of unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other welfare programs to ensure that college graduates will not starve because they are unemployable. Governor Romney would bankrupt the country by giving breaks to businesses, who add far less to the economy than do the unemployed. Given the number of young adults who are returning to live with their parents, we will institute a new program called Aid to Families with Dependent Adult Children, which will make it easier on families saddled with debt and unemployed children.

5. Same-Sex Marriage: President Obama has been consistent in his approach to same-sex marriage. In 1996, he said he would “fight” for same-sex marriage rights; in 2004 and again in 2008, he said he believed that marriage is between a man and a woman, based on his religious beliefs. He reaffirmed his unchanging beliefs in May 2012, when he publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage. Governor Romney, on the other hand, has changed his position so often that it’s hard to pin him down.

6. Taxes: President Obama is concerned that too many Americans are not paying their fair share of the tax burden. Nearly 98% of federal income taxes are paid by the top 50% of income earners, while the bottom 50% pays slightly more than 2% of the total. This grievous inequity, besides being inherently unfair, has led to a situation in which inordinate power is vested in the wealthiest Americans. The best way to remedy this situation is to repeal the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which, although having a minimal effect on federal revenue, will at least make it seem a little fairer. Of course, we would not be in this situation if George W. Bush had not single-handedly decreed a massive tax cut in 2001 that the Congress has been powerless to resist or repeal.

7. Abortion: President Obama opposes imposing one person’s values on other people. For this reason, he is against forcing people to have babies they do not want and is in favor of forcing religious institutions to provide insurance for procedures that violate the institutions’ religious beliefs.

8. Foreign Policy: President Obama supports reaching out to our nation’s enemies, such as Iran, to help resolve the issues between our countries, which are largely products of our own belligerence. The administration favors punishing those who attack our country, unless it is a government that attempts to plant a bomb in Washington, DC., but with whom we are trying to overcome years of mutual resentment. We face great foreign-policy challenges, but these are left over from George W. Bush’s administration. Oh, and we killed Osama bin Laden, effectively ending any threat from al-Qaeda.

9. Media: President Obama supports a free and open media that works hand in hand with the administration to promote its goals, policies, and public image. The media must be kept balanced and unbiased, which is why the president supports reinstating the “fairness doctrine” and abolishing talk radio and Fox News.

Romney’s Plan Revealed

October 18, 2012

A source in the Romney campaign today leaked an internal memo, entitled “Solutions Statement” designed to outline in broad terms a Romney administration’s approach to the nation’s problems. The source, who wished to remain anonymous, stated that voters do not yet understand Romney’s exciting vision for the future, but he hoped this document would help.

1. Unemployment: Each week we see more applications for unemployment benefits, and this cannot continue. A Romney administration would eliminate all unemployment benefits effective January 20, 2013, which would have the dual benefit of reducing dependency on the government and allow us to save the money previously spent tracking and paying for unemployment.

2. Deficit: We are spending too much money, and though the sequestration agreed upon in Congress is a step in the right direction, it comes at too high a price in decreased national security; currently, the sequestration would require cuts of $109 billion a year, divided evenly between defense and entitlements. A Romney administration would not accept such a drastic cut to our military, which would place all Americans in danger. Rather, we propose making 100% of the cuts to entitlements. We cannot allow our fiscal, economic, and military security to be held hostage by the greed and selfishness of people who feel they are “entitled” to other people’s money.

3. Education: Each year the federal government gives billions in grants and guaranteed loans to help families pay for college. The average student today graduates with more than $26,000 in debt, but 50% of graduates cannot find work, and many more are underemployed. This calamitous situation must be remedied. The Romney Student-Debt Elimination and Job Recovery Act would immediately cease all grant and loan programs, which would at a stroke reduce wasteful government spending and keep millions of young Americans out of the bondage of debt. Rather than working jobs they are overqualified for, young people would be better prepared to move into today’s job market. College graduates shouldn’t have to work minimum-wage jobs, so this program will reduce the number of graduates, reducing the unemployment rate for graduates.

4. Food Stamps: This misnamed program essentially puts a free gift card in the hands of people who haven’t earned it, so they can buy extravagant meals of caviar and Kobe beef. Ending this program immediately would encourage millions of Americans to take responsibility for themselves and learn to live on a budget within their means, just like everyone else. Lest food-stamp recipients feel unfairly singled out, the WIC program will also be phased out.

5. Same-Sex Marriage: Marriage is a sacred institution that has been unchanged in thousands of years of human history; it has always been between a man and a woman. except when it has been between a man and more than one woman. Governor Romney strongly believes that we do not need new laws about marriage, but that we need to enforce existing laws against sodomy and cohabitation.

6. Taxes: Governor Romney is concerned that too many Americans are not paying their fair share of the tax burden. Nearly 98% of federal income taxes are paid by the top 50% of income earners, while the bottom 50% pays slightly more than 2% of the total. This grievous inequity, besides being inherently unfair, has led to a situation in which half of Americans do not feel invested in their government and are more likely to shirk their responsibilities as voters and citizens to participate in our republican democracy. A Romney administration would broaden the tax burden by adjusting the tax code so that the bottom 50% pays a fair share: 50% of the total. This can be accomplished by reducing marginal rates above the $250,000 income level and eliminating deductions such as education and mortgage deductions, as well as eliminating the Earned Income Credit and the Child Tax Credit.

7. Abortion: Governor Romney opposes abortion, except in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to the mother’s life. With that in mind, he is proposing a new sub-cabinet-level board that will meet quarterly to approve applications for abortions. Congressman Todd Akin has agreed to head a task force to determine the makeup of the board, as well as its procedures, in order to ensure that requests are processed in a way that safeguards the lives of the unborn.

8. Foreign Policy: Around the world, millions are caught up in violent conflicts, from Colombia to Syria to Somalia. Governor Romney believes that the United States cannot be the world’s “policeman,” but should focus on protecting and defending our own states. With that in mind, Governor Romney proposes sending peace delegations to these regional hot spots to invite these countries to apply for statehood. These delegations will be accompanied by a sufficient armed force to protect them, which will of course require securing peace and law and order in each prospective state.

9. Media: Governor Romney believes in a free and unfettered media, which is why he will implement “fairness and standards” boards. These panels will seek to expand the boundaries of free speech by defining those boundaries strictly. A Romney administration will discourage pornography, inflammatory political speech, and violence in the media. By contrast, the administration will encourage the portrayal of wholesome values in the media, as well as promoting satire, such as this list.

Circling the Wagons

October 15, 2012

Over the weekend I had a conversation with a friend who has served on several committees for the LDS church putting together instructional manuals for priesthood and auxiliary manuals. We talked about how the Joseph Smith presented by the church has always been like George Washington, Superman, and Jesus rolled into one. He agreed with me that the portrayals of Joseph Smith have been far too slanted and unrealistic.

We discussed how a lot of people are shocked when they discover that the real Joseph Smith bears little resemblance to the correlated Joseph, and a number of people end up leaving the church because of the disconnect. He said that he’d worked with “probably more than a hundred people” who had come to him for help, but he gave them the same answer he gave me: Joseph Smith was who he was, but the church he founded is good and benefits the world.

I suppose that’s the only answer an honest person can give because Joseph Smith wasn’t a particularly truthful or moral man. When I said I thought the church should at least acknowledge Joseph’s humanity and make him less of a figure to be spoken of in awe, my friend said he had tried many times in his committee assignments to make that same point and get the church to open up a little about who Joseph Smith was. But he said that he got absolutely nowhere with the church or the committees.

So, for the time being, the church appears to be taking the Boyd Packer approach: “Some things that are true are not very useful.” In my view, this is a mistake, but then I don’t imagine the church cares what I think. At some point, more than a few Mormons will be confronted with their church’s real history, and a lot will be shaken in their faith, perhaps enough to leave the church.

To me, this circling of the wagons suggests that church leaders do not yet understand just how completely they have lost control of their message. Several leaders mentioned “exaggerated or invented” information on the Internet, presumably as a warning to members not to believe what they read (this is the Chico Marx defense: “Well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”). Of course, the problem is that a great deal of information is neither exaggerated nor invented; worse yet, I can imagine that more than a few people who heard those talks will be thinking, “Hmmm, I wonder what he’s talking about,” and venture out into the demonic recesses of the Internet.

In the long run, the LDS church has no choice but to open up if it wants to survive as a belief system and not just an institution. For the time being, however, it seems to have chosen to circle the wagons and pretend that the official, squeaky-clean version of itself is the correct one.

Fearless Predictions for LDS General Conference

October 3, 2012

10. Richard G. Scott will stare soulfully into the camera and plead with you to do (or stop doing) something.

9. During choir numbers, the cameras will focus on minority choir members in an attempt to show diversity.

8. Someone will refer to the podium being made out of Gordon B. Hinckley’s walnut tree.

7. Boyd K. Packer will say something bizarre about sexuality.

6. Henry Eyring will get choked up with emotion at least once.

5. A female speaker will express her gratitude for a religion that reveres and exalts women.

4. A general authority’s relative will be sustained as a new general authority.

3. There will be at least one talk about the church’s political neutrality, and it will not be given by Craig Zwick.

2. Dieter Uchtdorf’s face will be the brightest object in the conference center.

1. Thomas Monson will use a passive triplet, mention a widow (bonus points for including canaries), talk about a funeral or a visit to a hospital, and tell a story from his childhood about a model train or a dead sailor.