Wednesday, October 31, 2012


          We live in an era that is becoming more and more partisan by the day.  I am still young - perhaps this has always been the case.  All I know is that since I have reached adulthood, I have been watching this country slide into an us-vs-them mentality.  Liberals versus conservatives.  Christian versus non-Christian.  Theists versus non-theists.  Evolution versus creationism.  Citizens versus immigrants.  
          What troubles me the most is that people seem to accept these divisions as inevitable.  I acknowledge that working together in spite of differences is challenging.  I have strong opinions on many issues - in general I am quite liberal.  I support access to contraceptives, health-care reform that allows uninsured people with pre-existing conditions to obtain affordable insurance, increased funding for education, and the continuation of public programs that support people who are in tough circumstances.  At some point in our lives, we all need a helping hand, whether it be in the form of education grants, food stamps, unemployment benefits, social security benefits, or a myriad of other public services.  As valuable as private charities are in providing aid, these services have limitations - limited funding and geographic availability being the two main drawbacks.  
         I don't know what the future will hold but I do know that this election is making me very uncomfortable.  I have watched Mitt Romney change positions with an alarming regularity; his only consistency seems to be that he is inconsistent.  What worries me even more than his inconsistency seems to be the fact that his tactic is working.  What does this say about our society - that it is OK to change positions depending on the audience?  My only wish is that I knew what Mitt Romney believed in.  
          Obama isn't a perfect candidate.  But overall, he has consistently espoused values that I believe in.  He has worked to reform healthcare, to pass laws that provide a path to citizenship for the  undocumented youth in this country.  He has worked to increase funding for research and come out in support of gay marriage.  He signed the Lilly Ledbetter Act into law, which provides women with more options for fighting pay discrimination.  Even more than that, he has shown a willingness to work with the other side.  I am tired of watching ideologies and in-fighting stand in the way of practical solutions for this country.  From what I have seen over the past four years, he is a person who is working to make a better life for everyone in this country.  My vote for Obama - which I cast yesterday - was in support of what he has achieved as president, as well as the values he espouses.  
          I had hoped this election would be about the issues.  Instead, this election has been more about sound-bites and zingers.  In Mitt Romney, I don't see a candidate that understands the issues of low-to-middle income families.  He doesn't seem to understand what it is like to worry about paying for college or the challenges of finding a job without having connections or the challenges of finding affordable health insurance.  He doesn't seem to understand the value of public services that help people in need.  I have a huge respect for the private sector.  However, the private sector is a profit-driven enterprise and with this comes certain limitations.  I do not think disaster relief or educational enterprises (including public programming) are suited to the private sector.  Given the staggering costs of health-care in this country - which is primarily a private-sector enterprise - I no longer think that health-insurance companies should be a profit-driven venture. 
          To quote Jon Huntsman Jr, "When was the last time we sat down as a people and talked about solutions?"  

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy

          I just wanted to take the time to offer my condolences to those who are dealing with Hurricane Sandy.  I grew up in the Northeast; many of my friends and family are still in the region.  From what I can gather, they are all safe, although there has been quite a bit of flooding and power outages.  I am also grateful to see our politicians laying aside their campaigning to deal with this disaster, as this is an issue that transcends partisanship.  
          If you want to help out with disaster relief - either by donating time, money, or blood - the Red Cross is a good resource.  Anne-Marie, over at the blog "The Menacing Kitten", also offers some excellent tips for donating in the wake of a disaster.   

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The American Dream And Mormonism

          The American dream – or at least, my interpretation of the American dream – is that if a person works hard enough, then that work will lead them to a better life. And by that standard, Mormonism is intrinsically American. I grew up with the idea that if I worked hard enough, then the blessings of Heaven were available to me. I grew up in a religion that placed an emphasis on good works and deeds. An oft-quoted scripture verse during my childhood, taken out of the Book of Mormon, was the verse 3 Nephi 12:16

          Therefore let your light so shine before this people, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven

          Within the Mormon faith, good works have adopted a very standard definition. As a teenager, good works meant following the Word of Wisdom, obeying the morality guidelines, and participating in all of the activities expected of the youth. As a teenager, I worked on projects for the Young Womens’ association, I attended a daily scripture study in the hour before school started, and I attended weekly youth activities. As a girl, my life’s path was drawn out for me – marriage in the temple to a worthy Mormon male, child-rearing, home-making, church callings, and regular worship. All of the lessons in church prepared me for the future I was expected to take up. The men also had parallel lives sketched out for them – college, full-time missionary work, marriage, church callings, career, and the day-to-day demands of Mormonism. When Mormons grow into adulthood, the idea of good works is expanded to include temple marriage, family, church callings, and tithing. When Mormons go through their endowment ceremony – an expected rite of passage – they swear an oath to consecrate everything to the Lord.
          The good works portion of Mormonism is time-consuming, more so than many people realize. Positions within the Mormon Church are staffed almost exclusively by volunteers, all of whom have their day jobs to perform. In addition to their volunteer work, members are expected to tithe 10% of their income, perform regular temple work, raise large families, pray and read their scriptures regularly, and attend a variety of church activities. In return for fulfilling all of these obligations, the leaders have promised many blessings. Growing up, my elders taught me that the only road to true happiness was found within the Mormon Church.
          There is both beauty and virtue in hard work. Hard work has led me to accomplish many things in my life. However, hard work cannot fix everything - hard work cannot change the fundamentals of a person’s personality or undo the random variations of luck. And sometimes, what is considered as broken is not, in fact, anything that needs to be changed. I grew up with the sense that I was flawed, simply because I did not conform to the ideals of Mormon womanhood. I was not gentle or motherly or sympathetic or good with household duties. The thought of a lifetime of homemaking and rearing a huge family filled me a sense of helpless terror. I did not possess any of the traits that were expected of a good virtuous Mormon girl. 
          The fact that I did not conform to the ideals of Mormonism meant that I grew up thinking that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I tried to be faithful, to prepare myself for a future that did not fit who I was but that I was assured was God’s plan for me. I acknowledge that I have many flaws; I am stubborn and oblivious to the social cues that other people navigate with ease. But working to change the fundamentals of my personality – the part of me that sensed that the future sketched out for me by my religious leaders was not the right future for me – is a battle that is both futile and unnecessary.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Great Unknown

                       It is said that –
                       Enlightenment appears dark
                       The progressive way appears retrograde
                       The smooth way appears jagged
                       The highest peak of revelation appears empty 
                         like a valley
                       The cleanest appears to be soiled
                       The greatest abundance appears to be 
                       The most enduring inner strength appears like 

                       And creativity appears imitative

                                    Excerpt, Verse 41, 
                                    Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu

          Sometimes, action requires heading into the great unknown, with no idea of what the outcome is.  I am the type of person that likes to think and research my decisions, making careful plans as to what my next course of action will be.  But there will always come a time when no amount of planning prepares you for what life throws at you.  As a young teenager, I never intended to leave the Mormon Church.  Then my questions started heading down a strange path, one that was both frightening and freeing, all at once.  Now, ten years and one major auto-pedestrian accident later, I am preparing to head down another unknown path, one that involves a career change and graduate school in an alternate subject.  I don’t know where this path will lead me.  But sometimes, when all the research is done, all of the questions answered, the only course of action left is to jump into the unknown, with the hope that everything will turn out all right in the end.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Grieving The Loss Of Community And Trust

                I lost my faith when I was sixteen.  I lived in secret for a full year, afraid of the consequences of leaving.  When I did muster the courage to leave Mormonism, the fall-out was even worse than I feared.  The activities and obligations of Mormonism are all-consuming; between the restrictions that publicly marked me as Mormon and the time-intensive church activities, Mormonism was an identity, a community, and a way of life.  Where I grew up, Mormons were a minority; at school, I was the non-drinking, non-swearing Mormon girl who woke up at 5:30 every morning to attend an early-morning seminary class.
                Then I left and the community I was raised in crumbled around me.  I grew up with Mormons; they were my family friends, my school-mates and comrades.  I saw them on a daily or weekly basis; we shared the common bond of being a minority group.  I knew that leaving would cause a rift but little did I know just how much.  My conversations with people I had known for a lifetime suddenly became missionary-based.  In spite of a lifetime of faithful church attendance – and being respected as a good teenager – the conversations became about assessing my level of knowledge and my worthiness.  The perception is that members only leave because they are sinful, prideful, deluded by Satan, or ignorant of the Gospel.  After leaving, the questions I was asked indicated that members were trying to assess which category I fit into.  I was never asked my reasons for leaving; I was merely asked to come back into the fold.  
                Sometimes I miss being a part of a community.  Mormonism, for all of its flaws, has the benefit of being a strong community.  Members look after each other; if someone is in trouble, people will volunteer their time and effort to help out.  When my brother was building a house, the missionaries and members were there every Saturday, volunteering their time to help out.  I have seen my brothers volunteer their time to help members move.  I have a lot of respect for the hard-work and dedication of Mormons. 
But leaving – and dealing with the associated consequences – has left me with a slew of trust issues.  I never dreamed that I would lose lifelong relationships so quickly after leaving.  I never dreamed that the people who had known me a life-time would make such quick assumptions about my character, simply because I left.  I never dreamed that I would lose the respect of my parents so quickly, in spite of an abundance of evidence that indicated I was a good kid.  Mormonism is an all-consuming identity; you are either all-in or all-out.  Issues are phrased in black and white – you are either pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon.  By crossing that divide, I was forced to abandon Mormonism altogether.  This experience has left me skittish about communities at large.  Perhaps this fear is logical.  Perhaps it isn’t.  Either way, the fear is still there. 
There is a grieving process associated with losing a community.  At first I was angry.  On some level, I still am, as Mormon teachings have an “us versus them” mentality that makes interfaith relationships tricky, if not impossible.  But most of all, I am sad.  I am sad that I no longer have anything in common with the people I grew up with.  I grieve that there is a divide between us that I cannot cross.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Perfect Mormon Girl

          When I was nine years old, I had a friend named Laura.*  Laura was a year older than I was; her parents were friends with mine. Between church and ward activities, Laura and I were thrown together a lot. I worshiped Laura; she was a year older than me, which to a nine-year old meant that she was wiser. She had silky brown hair, clear skin, and was very attentive about her clothing - boys and adults alike seemed to like her. Laura graced me with her friendship and I responded eagerly. We would skip sacrament meeting together and wander the halls to talk. She was a boy-crazy girl; most of our conversations were centered around the boys that she liked and her philosophy on life. 
          In hindsight, I now recognize our friendship to be toxic. Laura was older, yes. She was pretty, yes. But she was also extremely insecure. She needed someone to make her feel good about herself. As a shy, chubby girl with hero-worship shining in her eyes, I fit the ticket. Anything I would do, Laura would claim to have done better. If I was excited about getting an A on a test, then she would tell me about the A+ she had gotten on her latest test. If I swam a lap in sixty seconds, she would say she swam it in thirty. I say ‘claim’ because there was never any evidence that she was telling the truth. At that age, however, I lacked the cynicism to challenge her assertions. 
          Laura moved away the following year. Years later I met Laura again only to find her exactly the same as before. We met up at her parent’s house in Utah. Laura had married at seventeen, to a guy in the Army. She had a young child. She showed me picture after picture of her husband, trying to impress upon me just how wonderful he was. After saying hello to her family, we left to go visit some of her friends. 
          Once we were in the car, Laura said “OK, I have to ask before we do anything. Do you still go to church?”
          "No, I haven't gone in years." I said. 
          “Oh good.” she said. “We can have fun then.”
          “Why did you stop going?” I asked.
          “It was too hard.” she said. “I just couldn’t be the perfect Mormon girl.”
          And for a moment, I understood her completely.

*name has been changed

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Does My State Have A Law Preventing Me From Holding Public Office?

Texas Longhorns

                I have never considered politics as a serious career option.  I have always held an optimistic view of what public servants can accomplish and given my diverse background, I’ve always thought I could add something to the public sphere.  I am an agnostic with a Mormon family and Hindu in-laws; respecting religious differences is a part of my day-to-day life.  I understand what it means to worry about paying for college and what it means to grow up in a family without money or connections.  Watching my husband – a very remarkable individual – navigate the murky immigration system of this country has given me a deeper sympathy for the realities of immigrant life.  I have a deep respect for education; I believe no individual should be held back from pursuing educational opportunities because of an inability to pay.  I am a wife, a daughter, a neighbor, an intellectual, and a dreamer.  I am, at my core, an American; I believe that people should be given the opportunities to work hard and succeed in life.  However, there is the reality of being elected; I have never considered myself to be a serious candidate for public office. 
Why then, does it hurt so much to find out that the state I live in has a clause in their state constitution that bans a person like me – a nontheist – from holding public office?  Article 1, Section 4 of the Texas Constitution states “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State; nor shall any one be excluded from holding office on account of his religious sentiments, provided he acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.” 
So, in theory, if I were to run for public office in Texas and win, I would be required to acknowledge the presence of a Supreme Being.  I am an agnostic; I don’t know if there is a higher power or not.  I do, however, believe that lying is wrong.  I cannot see myself acknowledging something that I do not believe to be true.  In my mind, that is a lie. 
Throughout my life, there have been many obstacles to becoming the person that I am today.  As a girl being raised in the Mormon faith, I was told not to dream of higher education or a career; as a woman, becoming a mother and a housewife was my duty in life.  As someone who decided to leave the Mormon Church, I ran up against the many prejudices against people who make the decision to leave.  As the seventh child in a lower middle class family, I had to fight to make it through college without financial assistance from my parents.  This fight was ultimately successful through a combination of hard work and the generosity of scholarships. 
For every road-block in life, there was a solution available to me.  I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was and what I believed in; when I figured out the answer, I acted in a manner that was true to who I am as a person, in spite of the negative consequences.  But never, in all of my years, have I come up against a law that specifically bans someone of my beliefs from a career choice.  And that is what hurts the most; that the state I have chosen to reside in has taken the official stance that, as a non-theist, I am not capable or worthy of holding public office. 
I may never be in a position where this law becomes an issue.  However, I can verify that there are many other non-theists out there who can contribute to the public sphere in a valuable and lasting manner.  Why is my state banning them from holding public office?  

Thursday, October 4, 2012

When Will The Mormon Church Stop Labeling Historical Fact As "Anti-Mormon"?

          A couple weeks ago, I reported on the pending excommunication of David Twede, managing editor of the website MormonThink. I am happy to say that his excommunication hearing for September 30th was postponed, although authorities reserve the right to re-schedule the hearing for a later date.  

          As with most of these situations, the details that emerged added a further complexity to the story. David was new to his role as managing editor; the previous editor, one of the founders of the site, was forced last month to resign his church membership under threat of pending excommunication. In support of David, this editor has decided to share his story on MormonThink. In his statement, he discloses a letter he wrote to the local stake president, stating his intention to resign rather than face excommunication. In this letter, he makes the following point
          “You said that MT (MormonThink) is “anti-Mormon, anti-Joseph Smith and anti-LDS Leadership”. However, you never said it wasn’t true. The majority of the source material comes from the Church itself, so how can publishing true, historical facts be considered anti-Mormon?”
          The official reasons for David’s excommunication hearing are murky. The letter that was delivered to David cite apostasy as the reason for his pending church court trial. David describes the interrogation by local leaders to be concerning articles he published between the dates of September 11th and 15th. One of these articles was a piece about Romney’s faith. Although Romney was never mentioned in the meeting between David Twede and local ecclesiastical leaders, the leader did state “I’m not a political man…”, indicative of the idea that the unspoken issue is likely connected to David Twede’s commentary on Romney’s faith. The reason cited for David’s excommunication was David’s e-mail to another member in the ward, where he provided links to Mormon history, one concerning the controversial subject of the Book of Abraham. However, although this was cited as a reason for disciplinary action, it should be noted that the link that David provided another member was written by the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR). The person who identified David Twede and forwarded David's writing to Church headquarters was Scott Gordon, president of FAIR.
          I have been watching this situation unfold, from David’s first post on September 11th detailing his experience at church; to his post labeled “The Hammer of Laban”, where he indicated he was facing an unidentified disciplinary action; to the removal of his personal blog; to the news discussed on ex-Mormon forums of his pending excommunication hearing; to the media coverage of the situation; to the post-ponement of the hearing.
          Last month, I had a conversation with my mother about my reservations concerning the actions of church leaders. When I cited the September Six - and explained who they are – as a reason for my reservations, my mother told me that I couldn’t hold past actions against Church leaders. But here we are, twenty years after the September Six, and once again Mormon authorities seem quick to punish any members whose actions don’t conform to the standard script, provided that this punishment doesn’t lead to bad PR. Once again, the authorities seem loathe to confront the murky history of Mormonism.
          MormonThink is a valuable resource, as the website provides information about Mormonism that is not discussed in church. There are so many aspects to Mormonism that I only learned about after leaving – their link with Freemasonry, the fact of Joseph’s multiple wives, the multiple versions of the First Vision. There are also many aspects of Mormon history that Mormon authorities downplay or ignore – the historical reasons for the priesthood ban on blacks, the teachings on blacks by previous authorities, the supposed translation of the Book of Abraham. MormonThink strives to discuss all of these issues. These are all issues that Mormons need to know; the decision to support a religious institution is one that should be made with full knowledge.
          For now, the David Twede story is closed. The true test will come after the public eye is off the actions of Mormon authorities. When that happens, what will their actions reflect? Will the authorities continue to punish anyone that does not stick to the faith-promoting script? Or will they confront their history – all of it – in a manner that leads to a more tolerant, more human religion?
          When will the Mormon Church stop labeling historical fact as anti-Mormon?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Book Review: Mormon Diaries

The Mormon Diaries traces the journey of the author Sophia L. Stone through her life as a Mormon woman to her eventual abandonment of Mormonism for a broader interpretation of Christianity.  Written as a challenge to write daily about the author’s life experiences and expanded into 28 chronological essays, this book explores the reality of being a woman within the confines of Mormonism.  As with all good memoirs, this story is about a journey, a period of time where the author challenges her thoughts and arrives at a new understanding. 
Stone details her life growing up in a Mormon family; the challenges and comforts of growing up in a religion that provides a complete road map to life.  As she writes “Everything important was drawn out for me through living prophets.  All I had to do was use the thick, black marker of my choices to trace the lightly penciled sentences that were written by those with authority, who’d lived longer and knew better about my life’s purpose.” 
Stone details the realities of life as a Mormon woman in a way that is very intimate and real.  She relates her anxiety surrounding her baptism and testimony, the challenges of finding the right husband, as well as the manner in which her identity became wrapped up in being the nurturer, at the cost of her own needs and desires.  There is a list of Mormon “Thou shalts” – starting with “Thou shalt keep the Sabbath day holy” and ending with “Thou shalt not doubt, ever” – that spans a full four pages and serves as a brilliant reminder of what the realities of living a Mormon life is like. 
The author also tackle the thorny issue of leaving the Mormon Church – the dismay and confusion of loved ones, the strain that her journey left on her marriage, the delicate navigation of religion with her children.  There is a deep thoughtfulness in this book, along with a lot of love for family and friends.  Towards the end, the author bears her new and expanded testimony:
“I believe God loves me and that he can save everyone.  I believe there’s light and goodness in all religions, in all traditions, and in all people.”  

Mormon Diaries is available on both Kindleand Nook for $0.99, as well as in paperback form for $8.99