Thriving in Mormonism

February 9, 2015

A friend sent me a link to Mormon apologist Daniel Peterson’s latest blog entry:

Active Latter-day Saints are manifestly inferior specimens of humanity

Heck, I’ll just repost the whole thing.


I readily acknowledge I haven’t read Kate Kelly’s essay in The Guardian (a left-leaning British paper), as I haven’t been following LDS news regularly. So, I have no idea whether the quote is out of context or not. But ever since I read the quote and Dr. Peterson’s response, I’ve been thinking about whether this is a fair characterization of the Mormons I know who “thrive” in the church. I don’t think it is. At least I don’t think that people who thrive in Mormonism are the “least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous” of its membership.

I have known many brilliant, thoughtful, articulate, talented people in the LDS church, and they are thriving. I’ve known leaders of immense talent and intellect. As Dan Peterson’s sarcasm makes clear, Mormons are not a monolithic group of unthinking automatons akin to North Koreans at a party rally.

What I see is that thoughtful, intelligent people who thrive in the church are those who can, when push comes to shove, subordinate their own beliefs and desires to the goals of the organization. I’ve mentioned before that I know an LDS man who was a bishop in California during the church’s efforts to pass Proposition 8. This man opposed the proposition and supported the right of same-sex couples to marry. But the church not only asked its bishops to organize members in actively supporting Proposition 8, but had bishops call in members and encourage them to donate money and time to the cause. This man was asked, as bishop, to set an example to his ward members by donating generously to the campaign, so he donated $5,000 to a proposition that he voted against in the election. When asked whether his obedience meant he was “weak,” he responded:

A libertarian’s view of things is not some sort of “ethical” opposition. Libertarians believe in a lot of things people would otherwise find offensive. But, just like a Catholic might oppose capital punishment merely because the Pope asks him to do so, so did I oppose gay marriage because my Prophet asked me to do so. I know enough about politics to know that my libertarian views might not be right for policy reasons important to the Church which would otherwise not be apparent to me. By voluntarily joining a group which engages in politicking, I surrender some of my libertarian notions. Libertarian philosophy teaches, for instance, that labor may organize into unions and should do so without restriction, even though their objectives may lead to reduced competition.

This is as good an explanation of what I mean as any. Voluntary membership in an organization like the church requires members to “surrender” their personal beliefs and desires in favor of the organization. It’s fine, even encouraged, to be thoughtful, articulate, and so on, as long as those personal attributes are used to further the kingdom.

I am not saying this to be critical of the church. Many times I did things as a Mormon that I did not want to do, whether it was keeping a commandment that conflicted with my “carnal” desires or was simply an administrative duty I didn’t feel right about. I can remember only one time when I told the church “no,” and that was when I was asked to assign as home teachers a couple of mentally ill, potentially violent ex-convicts.

In general, then, I believe that what leads people to “thrive” in the church is their willingness to subordinate themselves to the needs of the church. I suspect that a lot of Mormons would agree with me. Gordon B. Hinckley once said that members could think freely and critically before joining the church, but once they had joined, they were expected to conform and “find happiness in that conformity.”

So, does that willingness to conform make Mormons inferior people? Does it mean that the leadership of the LDS church is populated with untalented, cowardly yes-men? I don’t think so. I understand Ms. Kelly’s point, but I think it’s overstated. Perhaps a little more nuance is required.



A Top Ten List That Isn’t Mine: The Year in Anti-Mormonism

January 11, 2012

I’ve written before about MormonVoices, a group dedicated to tracking all mention of Mormonism and Mormons in the media and on the web so that they can quash misinformation and instead present the truth. Of course, that often means that they are seeking the negative and replacing it with the positive, no matter the truth thereof, but that’s a subject for a different article.

On occasion, I’ve done top ten lists, usually snarky humorous lists that tend to get a lot of Mormons angry with me. (Here’s a little insight into my psyche: I tend to post snarky humor when the LDS church is getting too up close and personal and is beginning to annoy me.) This time, our friends at MormonVoices have come up with their own, and it’s anything but humorous.

Top Ten Anti-Mormon Statements of 2011

First of all, let me say at the outset that I agree with Scott Gordon’s statement that “religious bigotry is unacceptable. Statements which distort and belittle Mormon [or any other religious] belief in order to marginalize Mormons [or any other believers] are evidence of such bigotry.” The United States has a long history of discrimination against small or fringe religious groups: Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and others have in the past been targeted in many ways. Clearly, it has become unacceptable to ridicule Jews or Catholics (well, there are exceptions, of course), but it’s clearly still socially acceptable to go after Mormons.

MormonVoices managing director John Lynch is quoted as saying, “This isn’t about good-natured jokes or legitimate questions. We’re not concerned with comedians who make good-natured observations about Mormons, or responsible journalists who have reported on Mormons and their beliefs. Instead, this is a list of statements that should be offensive to everyone, and are so disrespectful that their only effect will be to increase bigotry against Mormons. Just as with other minority groups, it should no longer be socially acceptable for public figures to incite such prejudice against Mormons or their faith.”

Pretty strong stuff, indeed. Let’s look at their examples.

10. “The Christian coalition, I think [another candidate] could get a lot of money from that, because Romney, obviously, not being a Christian …” Ainsley Earhart, Fox and Friends, July 17, 2011.

A lot of people believe Mormons are not Christians, though I obviously disagree. Ainsley Earhardt, bless her soul, most likely was not hired for her knowledge or intellect, so you can chalk this up to ignorance on her part, or she may be one of those fundamentalist Christians who don’t believe Mormons are Christian. In context, she was talking about how the Christian Coalition probably would not support Romney because of the shocking fact that most members of the Christian Coalition probably don’t believe Mormons are Christian. So, ignorance, maybe, but anti-Mormon? Not so much.

9. “Can you name the candidate that’s running for president that believes that if he’s a good person in his religion he will receive his own planet?…Would you vote for someone for president who believes in their religion, if he’s a good person, he’ll get his own planet?…Do you want to get your own planet?” Ben Ferguson, Fox 13 News, Memphis TN, July 6, 2011.

Here are Ferguson’s remarks in total: Local Memphis TV News Reporter Mocks Mitt Romney’s Mormon Beliefs

This one is obvious bigotry and fits Lynch’s definition of anti-Mormonism. The guy goes out on the street and presents a ridiculous caricature of Mormonism and shows people reacting appropriately. Of course, had it not been for MormonVoices, I would never have heard of this guy.

8. “Mormonism is not an orthodox Christian faith. It just is not…it’s very clear that the founding fathers did not intend to preserve automatically religious liberty for non-Christian faiths.” Bryan Fischer, Focal Point radio show, September 2011.

Here’s Fischer’s rant.

Yep, that one fits, too. The guy says that the First Amendment applies only to Christians, which ought to give any non-fundamentalist pause. What kind of Constitution applies only to some people? Yikes. Also, his description of the end of polygamy is completely wrong, and of course, he’s playing the polygamy = gay marriage card. Dirtbag.

7. “Yes, it is my opinion that an indoctrinated Mormon should never be elected as President of the United States of America.” Tricia Erickson,, July 7, 2011.

OK, this woman is an angry ex-Mormon Evangelical who wrote an anti-Mormon, anti-Romney book called “Can Mitt Romney Serve Two Masters? The Mormon Church Versus The Office Of The Presidency of the United States of America.” I fault CNN more than anyone for giving air time to an obvious nutjob. And no other word but nutjob would describe someone who said this: “Indoctrinated temple Mormons (as Romney is) have experienced years of brainwashing and indoctrination and also have made covenants and oaths that they plainly cannot disobey.” For God’s sake. I’m an indoctrinated temple Mormon, and last I checked, I’m not suffering from brainwashing. Hold on a second, I have to check in with the Overlord before I continue.

6. “I believe a candidate who either by intent or effect promotes a false and dangerous religion is unfit to serve. Mitt Romney has said it is not his intent to promote Mormonism. Yet there can be little doubt that the effect of his candidacy—whether or not this is his intent—will be to promote Mormonism.” Warren Cole Smith,, May 24, 2011.

I’ve commented on this, too, so I’ll just let my previous comments stand: Those Scary Mormons

5. “That is a mainstream view, that Mormonism is a cult…Every true, born again follower of Christ ought to embrace a Christian over a non-Christian.” Robert Jeffress, Values Voter Summit, October 7, 2011.

Same for this moron: The Smiling Face of Bigotry

4. “The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as ‘prophet, seer and revelator,’ is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy…” Harold Bloom, The New York Times, November 12, 2011.

This one I’m not so sure about. Here’s the quote in context:

However, should Mr. Romney be elected president, Smith’s dream of a Mormon Kingdom of God in America would not be fulfilled, since the 21st-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has little resemblance to its 19th-century precursor. The current head of the Mormon Church, Thomas S. Monson, known to his followers as “prophet, seer and revelator,” is indistinguishable from the secular plutocratic oligarchs who exercise power in our supposed democracy.

Bloom is contrasting Joseph Smith’s vision of a Mormon Kingdom (exemplified in Zion and the law of consecration) and the current church administration. It’s clear to me that one of the main goals of the modern LDS church is preservation of the institution, which requires growth in membership and in income. Daymon Smith has written a terrific book, The Book of Mammon, about how much the LDS church as an institution has been overtaken by American corporate culture.

Despite the grandfatherly persona at general conference, Thomas S. Monson is a businessman entrusted with growing and safeguarding the LDS church’s business and wealth, although, as Bloom notes, he is guided by “religious sanction.” Intelligent readers understand that Bloom is not so much critiquing (let alone attacking) Mormonism as he is speaking of a broader culture that is “obsessed by a freedom we identify with money,” and he is quite right that Mormonism is a great example of that culture. That the folks at MormonVoices read it simplistically as a broadside against their religion does not mean it will or was intended to “increase bigotry.” That is a shallow reading, indeed.

3. “The theology comes across as totally barmy. We can become gods with our own planets! And the practices strike me as creepy. No coffee and tea is bad enough. But the underwear!” Michael Ruse, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 30, 2011.

Here’s Ruse’s article: Voting for a Mormon

This one I find ridiculous. Ruse writes an article about how he has come to realize that, even though Mormon beliefs seem ludicrous to him, it is the person’s position on issues that matters: “But the social and related issues are very important, and it is legitimate to involve these in your assessments and decisions. The Mormon Church on the matter of homosexuality is troublesome and it is clear that it is willing to use its vast funds—don’t forget the 10-percent tithing—to achieve social ends it thinks desirable.”

In other words, the LDS church’s position on social issues concerns him far more than coffee or underwear, and that is a legitimate concern because “the trouble is of course whether and how one can be certain that the person’s personal views will not translate into action.” He then says that “while anti-Mormon prejudice may be wrong, I don’t think that being an anti-Mormon is necessarily being wrong.” I should note that he’s not using “anti-Mormon” in the usual pejorative sense of spittle-flecked fanatics who hate Mormons. He’s talking about disagreeing with the LDS church’s goals and positions. And only the most defensive Mormon would think there’s something wrong with that.

2. “[Mormonism is] one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.” Christopher Hitchens, Slate, October 17, 2011.

Hitchens’s piece, Romney’s Mormon Problem, is essentially a polemical listing of some of the–shall we say–esoteric beliefs, practices, and history of Mormonism. But here’s a news flash: Hitchens disliked all religions and was not shy about mocking and ridiculing institutions he thought were not only ridiculous but harmful. But, once again, the MormonVoices folks miss the point yet again: Hitchens says, “we are fully entitled to ask Mitt Romney about the forces that influenced his political formation and—since he comes from a dynasty of his church, and spent much of his boyhood and manhood first as a missionary and then as a senior lay official—it is safe to assume that the influence is not small. Unless he is to succeed in his dreary plan to borrow from the playbook of his pain-in-the-ass predecessor Michael Dukakis, and make this an election about “competence not ideology,” he should be asked to defend and explain himself, and his voluntary membership in one of the most egregious groups operating on American soil.”

Most Mormons I know call Scientologists weird and consider Scientology to be a cult, and I don’t expect many Mormons would enthusiastically support a candidate who is a Scientologist. And that’s because most people think that reasonable adults would not believe and accept the teachings of Scientology; that is how Hitchens and much of the rest of society views Mormonism.

1. “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion.” Bill Maher, October 15, 2011, George Washington University, as reported by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times, October 18, 2011.

Finally, we come to the worst statement of 2011. Really? That’s it? Again, Bill Maher dislikes religion, such that he made a movie entitled “Religulous” that was dedicated to mocking different faith traditions. (By the way, I thought that film was rather snide and self-serving and could have been done much better.) We don’t have Maher’s quote in its entirety, just a summary from Maureen Dowd. Fortunately, we have video of Maher from October 14, 2011, the day before the reported remarks at George Washington University.

Religion (and Mormonism) Is a Con

Yeah, we get it. Maher thinks Mormonism is silly (but then he thinks that about all religions). He gets some of the stuff wrong, but if we’re going to learn something from this, it’s that this is what a lot of people think about Mormonism. He’s doing the church a favor by saying it out loud, whereas most of our non-Mormon friends will not say to our faces, “I think your religion is stoopid.”

A few years back, I worked for a company in Texas that developed complicated mathematics and statistics software programs. I worked with a lot of people, lots of PhDs. When I was a believer, they uniformly treated me and my Mormon beliefs with respect. But when I left the church, suddenly people began telling me how they had been so puzzled at my involvement in Mormonism because it was so ridiculous. One colleague said, “I always thought you were too smart to hang with that crowd.” I was shocked, not because I think I’m smarter than Mormons (I’m not), but because when they felt comfortable telling me how they really felt, they described the LDS church as strange and cult-like and its beliefs as ludicrous.

Smart Mormons will realize that the proper response is not to complain about these terrible attacks but to use this exposure to start a conversation about what Mormons believe and who they really are. I think the LDS church is doing this, to some degree, with its ubiquitous “I’m a Mormon” ads and its attempts to get more media exposure through local papers and through columns like the WaPo’s “On Faith” panel, but to me, this kind of stuff from MormonVoices does nothing but feed a persecution complex in some people.

And it goes without saying that life is far too short to be spending one’s time looking high and low for reasons to be offended.

Ask a Mormon Apostate: What About the Gays?

September 6, 2011

Today’s question:

“Are openly gay people welcomed at church or are they excommunicated? I read in the Salt Lake Tribune this morning an openly gay man was appointed a bishop’s executive secretary in a San Francisco LDS Bay Ward. Yet they (the church) actively supported Prop 8. I’m confused.”

Excellent question, and one that requires some explanation of Mormon theology. The LDS church teaches that every human being has the potential to become like God, with all His attributes and power. Our Heavenly Father sent us to live on earth to learn how to become Gods, for that is how He became God. Church founder Joseph Smith taught:

God himself, who sits enthroned in yonder heaven, is a man like one of you. That is the great secret. If the veil were rent today and you were to see the great God who holds this world in its orbit and upholds all things by his power, you would see him in the image and very form of a man. …

I am going to tell you how God came to be God. We have imagined that God was God from all eternity. [That he was not is an idea] incomprehensible to some. But it is the simple and first principle of the gospel-to know for a certainty the character of God, that we may converse with him as one man with another. God himself, the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth the same as Jesus Christ himself did. …

Here, then, is eternal life–to know the only wise and true God. And you have got to learn how to be Gods yourselves–to be kings and priests to God, the same as all Gods have done–by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.

But according to Mormon teachings, one cannot become a God alone but must be “sealed” in eternal marriage to a spouse. A revelation given to Joseph Smith and recorded on July 11, 1843, explains:

And again, verily I say unto you, if a man marry a wife by my word, which is my law, and by the new and everlasting covenant, and it is sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise, by him who is anointed, unto whom I have appointed this power and the keys of this priesthood; and it shall be said unto them—Ye shall come forth in the first resurrection; and if it be after the first resurrection, in the next resurrection; and shall inherit thrones, kingdoms, principalities, and powers, dominions, all heights and depths—then shall it be written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, that he shall commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, and if ye abide in my covenant, and commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood, it shall be done unto them in all things whatsoever my servant hath put upon them, in time, and through all eternity; and shall be of full force when they are out of the world; and they shall pass by the angels, and the gods, which are set there, to their exaltation and glory in all things, as hath been sealed upon their heads, which glory shall be a fulness and a continuation of the seeds forever and ever.

Then shall they be gods, because they have no end; therefore shall they be from everlasting to everlasting, because they continue; then shall they be above all, because all things are subject unto them. Then shall they be gods, because they have all power, and the angels are subject unto them.

Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye abide my law ye cannot attain to this glory.

Thus, the highest, most exalted kingdom of heaven is reserved for those whose heterosexual marriages have been performed by priesthood authority in the temple and sealed by the Holy Spirit of Promise. In this sense, God is male and female, sealed together for eternity.

Given the status of marriage as crucial to our exaltation, there is no place in LDS theology for homosexuality. Late church president Spencer W. Kimball called homosexuality “that sin against nature”: “‘God made me that way,’ some say, as they rationalize and excuse themselves for their perversions. ‘I can’t help it,’ they add. This is blasphemy. Is man not made in the image of God and does he think God to be ‘that way’?” Apostle Boyd K. Packer stated, “If a condition that draws both men and women into one of the ugliest and most debased of all physical performances is set and cannot be overcome, it would be a glaring exception to all moral law.” In short, if God’s “great plan of happiness” is for all humans to enjoy eternal, heterosexual marriage, then homosexuality is in direct opposition to God’s plans.

This theological position explains why the LDS church has been so active in the fight against legalizing same-sex marriage. Its organization and funding were crucial to the campaign for Proposition 8 in California. But there has been a backlash against the church because it was highly visible in that campaign and others. The church has sought to mend some fences and repair some of the PR damage caused by the Prop. 8 campaign, hence the recent appointment of an “openly gay” Mormon, Mitch Mayne, to be the executive secretary to his local bishop. The Salt Lake Tribune explains, “He also was chosen specifically to help build bridges between the Bay Area’s Mormon and gay communities, a gap that was widened by the LDS Church’s overt support of Proposition 8, defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.” Mayne’s stake president calls Mayne’s assignment a “tremendous opportunity to show gays they’re welcome at our church.”

One could quibble with the idea that the position of executive secretary is a “key local LDS leadership post,” as the Tribune describes it, but what is more important is how far the church’s welcome mat extends for gays. In one sense, the church’s standards for homosexual members are the same as those for heterosexuals: “Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage” (Church Handbook of Instructions, 1.3.2). Obviously, if same-sex marriage remains illegal, gay Mormons are expected to remain celibate, as the church recognizes that “marriage should not be viewed as a therapeutic step to solve problems such as homosexual inclinations or practices.”

However, the church has made it clear that sexual abstinence is not enough for gay members to remain “worthy.” For example, the BYU Honor Code contains the following statements about homosexuality:

Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or attraction and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards. Members of the university community can remain in good Honor Code standing if they conduct their lives in a manner consistent with gospel principles and the Honor Code.

One’s stated same-gender attraction is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings.

Thus, even activities that would not cause even a small problem for heterosexual members, such as kissing or holding hands, are potentially grounds for dismissal from church-sponsored schools. Indeed, it was just such a display of same-sex affection that led to the arrests of two men at the church’s Main Street Plaza in 2009.

So, are gays welcome in the LDS church? Yes, if they are willing to abide by the church’s standards. Mitch Mayne was called after he broke things up with his partner: “Mayne was in a committed, monogamous relationship with a man, but that ended a year ago. Since then, Mayne said, he has lived by LDS standards, and his ecclesiastical leaders found him worthy to serve.” Presumably, if Mayne becomes involved in a homosexual relationship again in the future, he will not be found worthy to serve. Significantly, he did not promise “a lifetime of celibacy,” which to my mind means he’s serving on his own terms, which I find somewhat praiseworthy.

However, it’s just a bit disingenuous of Mayne to say, ““No one is going to ask you to give up your partner before entering the door.” In essence, by asking you to give up all intimacy, sexuality, and even expressions of affection, the church is asking you to sacrifice your relationship with your partner. That seems to work for some people, including Mitch Mayne–at least for now.

Marriage Is for Procreation Only

December 7, 2010

This little tidbit from yesterday’s appellate court hearing regarding California’s Proposition 8 caught my eye. The following statement was made by attorney Charles Cooper, who represents the pro-Prop 8 folks:

“Society has no particular interest in a platonic relationship between a man and a woman no matter how close it might be, or emotional relationships between other people as well, but when the relationship becomes a sexual one, society has a considerable interest in that. Its vital interests are actually threatened by the possibility of an unintentional and unwanted pregnancy.”

This position is hugely problematic. If the state’s only concern is sexual relationships that involve the “possibility” of procreation, then the state has no business marrying heterosexual couples who are infertile, past the childbearing years, or simply uninterested in having children. If this attorney is correct, such heterosexual couples have no more right to marriage than do homosexual couples.

But the state sanctions heterosexual marriages, whether childbirth is possible or whether the marriage is nonsexual and platonic (those types of marriages do exist). My uncle, for example, was widowed in his sixties and remarried to a woman roughly the same age. By the logic expressed by the two attorneys, the state should have denied them the opportunity to marry, as the state has “no particular interest” in such a relationship where no procreation is possible.

The state does have an interest in stable, committed, nonprocreative marriage relationships; otherwise instead of a blood test, couples would be required to submit to fertility tests before becoming eligible for marriage.

If this is the best they can come up with, I’d be surprised if they prevail in court.

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.

Politics and Apostasy

June 2, 2010

Yesterday I was reading an analysis of why liberals have made better use of the Internet as a political tool than have conservatives. The author, a political science professor at UC Irvine, cites a Harvard study that shows that political ideology shapes a group’s approach to community and discussion.

“Liberals, the research finds, are oriented toward community activism, employing technology to encourage debate and feature user-generated content. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more comfortable with a commanding leadership and use restrictive policies to combat disorderly speech in online forums.”

If this is true (and the Harvard study suggests it is), it’s no wonder that political discussion on the web skews left, as the Internet is tailor-made for a more anarchic style of debate and activism. And, though the article doesn’t mention talk radio, it’s easy to see that a mediated talk show, such as Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, provides “commanding leadership” and maintains orderly speech and practices.

Thus, liberals tend to be more comfortable with activism, such as joining public demonstrations or boycotts, whereas conservatives generally work within established political structures. I think, for example, of my parents, who are deeply committed conservatives and Latter-day Saints. They had a Prop 8 sign in their yard, and they have donated generously to conservative candidates. However, they would never dream of demonstrating; my mother once reacted in horror when my brother suggested that, given the right cause, he would take to the streets. (Obviously, with the advent of the Tea Party movement, conservative activism is changing.)

It occurred to me that this same affinity for hierarchy and order might also be one reason Mormons tend to be conservative. I had always assumed that church members adopted conservative positions because they saw them as more compatible with the church’s doctrines, and that’s clearly true for such issues as abortion. But the link between Mormonism and, say, laissez-faire capitalism seems less clear. Maybe it is just that, as a whole, conservatism is more hierarchical and less anarchic, and that works well for people whose religion reflects that structure.

Some people around here have mentioned that people tend to move left in their politics upon leaving the LDS church, and though I don’t have any data to support that belief, that’s true for at least some people I know. The default assumption from some people is that, having abandoned the truth and turned their back on the Spirit, apostates are simply being drawn toward wicked political beliefs, such as supporting gay marriage. See, for example, the attack on Seth Payne for his support of gay marriage, which is seen as the ultimate in “open hostility” toward the LDS church; never mind that many believing members hold identical beliefs on this same issue.

But perhaps the reason for such gravitation left has less to do with joining the great and spacious “politically correct” world than it does in the loss of hierarchy. Simply put, leaving the LDS church requires walking away from the hierarchy and rejecting its authority. Without leaders to constrain the debate and shape opinion, the apostate is left to ponder what he or she really believes, not just in politics but in everything else. And as we’ve seen, liberalism tends to be a more welcoming place for those who don’t follow a hierarchy.