Monday, December 15, 2008

Ideas Man and the Mormons Act V Scenes i and ii

I am supposed to be grading but choose to recount the following drama instead.

Scene i

As my hordes of loyal readers know, I am a wildly partisan Democrat and was particularly geeked about Barack Obama as was the whole Ideas clan, so November 4 was a pretty great day at Ideas HQ. I went out with the Students for Barack Obama at the university I teach at and had a great time doing that and seeing all the energy that the kids were bringing. I didn't get to watch the election returns with Ideas Woman, Esq. because she was stationed on the front lines of democracy, working as a precinct judge and keeping (let's be frank) somewhat incompotent pollworkers from inadvertantly disenfranchising people and she ended up having to help 3 other precincts do likewise so she didn't get home much before 11 EST (so at least she was home when they called the election, but we had known that it was a done deal ever since they had called OH an hour and a half earlier). The Ideas Kids were obviously in bed by the time returns started coming in earnest (I did let Ideas Girl, who is one of the younger members of the Obama Nation stay up and do a States puzzle with me while we watched some of the returns). But my little brother, Ideas Brother IV was there and we were having a grand old time. I was loading the laundry in the basement when Ideas Brother IV yelled from upstairs "The called OH for Obama") and I started doing an involuntary circular jump dance (words cannot describe the dance so you'll have to visualise it.  But suffice it to say it involved all of the many moves that I can bust).

Ideas Woman (especially Ideas Woman) and I were tired so we went to bed early, after champagne and Obama's Victory speech. Things were grand.

In the morning, I didn't have time to go and start looking at in-depth county by county maps of my favorite races like I wanted to, but I did manage to ask Ideas Brother IV what happened with the remaining Senate seats and with Proposition 8. And these things did take the wind out of my sails a bit. At this point, we didn't yet know that Merkel would beat Smith, Begich Stevens and (hopefully) Franken Coleman. So I had been hoping for 59 or 60 seats, and it looked like the number would be more like 56 or 57.

But it was really Proposition 8 that was devastating, especially when it became clear what a large role the Mormon Church had played in passing it (for real and as opposed to the fictional notion that blacks' record turnout for Obama had actual been responsible for the passage of Proposition 8).

Again, my avid readers will know a little about my Auseinandersetzung with my former religion, but for now I'll just say that although I haven't been a practicing Mormon for 9 years and have had a problematic relationship my whole life, I grew up in the Mormon church and remain closely tied to it through family and friends.

I am both a little narcissistic (and only a little...) and massively prone to guilt, so it became difficult for me to shake off a personal feeling of responsibility, if in no other way than as one part of the faceless mass that the Church invoked to give popular weight to their financial. But over and beyond that, I do think, philosophically, that we bear some responsibility for groups we are a part of even if we are not "on board" with all of their decisions (don't even get me started on my guilt over everything America's done during the Bush years). And over and beyond even that, and apart from any guilt, I felt angry: angry at the hordes of my erstwhile co-religionists who had poured money and labor into a bigoted cause, and one that didn't concern them, angry at the self-satisifed old men who run the church, who know full well their moral and intellectual bankrupcy but who distract themselves and their followers by indulging in the occasional pogrom, angry at a media that gave them a free pass in the name of freedom of religion while ignoring their own obligation to free speech, angry at various facebook psuedo-friends whose statuses had made clear that they were actively working for a hateful cause, angry at the facebook for reconnecting me with these folks, angry at my parents for giving me an easily recognizable name so that these folks could find me on the facebook, and angry at myself for having wanted to cut the Church some slack just a few months earlier.  I'm pretty sure I was angry at lots of other people for similar reasons, but you get my point.  Oh, and I was angry that all those aforementioned jackasses (myself included) were being such killjoys in what should have been a week of unalloyed joy.

Scene ii

Beneath the anger was, I suppose, a certain dis-ease with myself.  When I was younger, I had imagined a certain kind of struggle with Mormonism as central to my identify (this was confirmed for me by the perceptions of other facebook friends from my earlier life who I have been much happier to reconnect with --- see, the facebook isn't all bad...)  Explaining why this was or what this meant would take us much further into earlier acts and I'm supposed to be grading, so we don't have the time to go there.)  But the less I believed in the Mormon religion at all and the further I got from day to day involvement with it, the easier it was to simply drop that whole Sturm und Dranglich scene.  So that's pretty much what I did; this made life much easier for me and allowed me to maintain a certain detached familiarity with the inner life of the religion that made interacting with my still largely religious extended family and with my (actual, as opposed to psuedo) Mormon friends much easier.

The dis-ease was, I think, motivated by the realization that this compromise of indifference was, at least to a certain extent, a pose, and one that allowed me a certain comfort which might have been unwarranted.  And after the anger subsided, the dis-ease remained.  A few days later (when I probably should have been grading, just like right now,) I wrote the following letter to the Mormon church, asking that my name be removed from the Church Records.

Dear President Monson,

I am writing to ask that my name be removed from the membership lists of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  Although I am a lifelong member of the Church, I cannot in good conscience continue my association with the Church after the damage it has done by working to pass Proposition Eight in California.

I request this with a heavy heart.  Although it has been nine years since I have had any active involvement with the Church, I have always considered my Mormonism to be one of the core elements of my identity.  It has been hard to convey this sense of identity to my non-Mormon friends.  Less than an ethnicity, my Mormonism is nonetheless more than just how I was raised or the beliefs that I grew up with.  In some ways, it is more than an ethnicity, more intimate, more familial.  My family’s history is deeply steeped in the history of the Church.  My ancestors were with Joseph Smith in Nauvoo.  They were his advisors and bodyguards.  They were the farmers who settled Utah and Arizona and the immigrants who came from England and Scandinavia in search of Zion.  My grandfather’s grandmother was the third wife of my great-great-grandfather.  When Mormonism agreed to end the practice of polygamy as the price for becoming a state, my family experienced the tragedy of loving families being forced apart for political reasons.  Ancestry is important to us Mormons, and these experiences have shaped my family’s sense of itself. 

More recently, my family has lived through the trauma of Mormonism’s move towards the mainstream of conservative religions.  My mother, my aunt and my uncle saw themselves as part of a tradition of intellectual inquiry and dissent that used to be important to Mormonism’s sense of itself.  They saw themselves as Mormons, but found themselves marginalized when that tradition vanished, a casualty of Mormonism’s move to the mainstream.  When they were excommunicated, they lost this sense of belonging.  As you know full well, this sense of belonging is fundamentally linked to the Mormon sense of family.  My mother who, despite her heterodox beliefs, is deeply devout did not take this loss well.  All of my family members have had to deal with the transition from the large traditional Mormon family we were born into to the more fragmented family that we have had to become.

The truth, though, is that I would have never left the Church over that.  My reasons for not believing in the Church are my own and only relate to tangentially to this family drama.  The truth is that these events have shaped my sense of myself as a Mormon; if anything, they form one of the main reasons I did not think I could fully shake Mormonism from the core of my identity.

But I hope that you will appreciate why I am nonetheless telling you about these things.  These are stories of families that have been damaged and torn apart for outside political reasons.  My sense of my Mormonism depends deeply on my sense of family values, on the belief that we are shaped by the families that we are given.  My sense of my Mormonism depends on the belief that families can persist despite the forces that the outside world brings to bear on them and against them.  It breaks my heart to see the Church being that outside force.  I was able to bear the difficulties my own family went through with the Church without it shaking my sense of belonging because of the knowledge that our difficulties were part of the meaning of Mormonism.  But you know full well that this is not the case with the difficulties the Mormon Church has worked to impose on millions of California families, gay and straight, who are not part of the Mormon Church.  You know full well that the legality of gay marriage as a civilly recognized institution does not threaten the Church’s own definition of marriage.  And yet you have used this shameful excuse to justify intruding in and trying to break apart perfectly good and loving non-Mormon families.

Although it breaks my heart to see the Church doing this, I know better than to be too surprised.  I expected as much.   But even so I was still shocked.  I suppose I hoped that the Church would show more wisdom.  I don’t need to tell you that the Church’s history of persecution is deeply important to our sense of who we are.  Because I had only personally experienced the other side of this persecution (the satisfied Mormon Church persecuting its own members in its move to respectability), I had come to discount this persecution.  Although I did not support Mitt Romney in his run for the presidency, what I regarded as the media’s unfair treatment of him and misunderstanding of his Mormonism made me far more understanding of and sympathetic to the Mormon Church’s sense of its own persecution than I had been in some time.  I think that’s why I am so shocked by the Church’s willingness to behave so callously towards others just a few short months later.

There are two things that I had always been taught were important lessons to be drawn from our history of persecution.  The first is the lesson of tolerance.  In the 19th century, our sexual practices lay far more outside of the mainstream than homosexuality does today.  And not just our sexual practices:  our economic practices and our spiritual practices, in short, our communal practices.  I had been taught that it was wrong for others to interfere in our honest and sincere attempts to live righteously simply because we were a “peculiar people,” as we used to call ourselves.  And yet that is precisely what the Mormon Church is doing.  You ought to know full well the forces of hatred and bigotry that American fundamentalism can harness against those who it deems its enemies.  And yet you chose to ally us with them.

This brings me to the second lesson that I had been taught, and that was the importance of American constitutional freedoms.  Despite the persecution to which we were subject in American in the 19th century, I had been taught that we regarded the shape of American history as being shaped by God and that we saw the Constitution as divinely inspired.  I learned that the successful history of the Church depended upon these freedoms.  Whatever suffering we endured, our history would have been impossible without the history of freedoms and civil rights that was engendered by our Constitution.  And yet, by forcing the California Constitution to be rewritten to ban gay marriage, the Church has succeeded, for the first time in American history, in using a constitution to restrict a civil right that had already been legally recognized.

I cannot help but feel that with this final injustice, the Mormon Church has irrevocably severed itself from what is good in its own tradition.  And I cannot help but feel that by severing itself from its own history, it has done fatal violence to itself.  Despite no longer believing in the doctrines of the Church, there are many things that I treasure about my heritage.  Because of this heritage, I have up to now chosen to remain at least nominally Mormon.  Because of this heritage, I feel that I now must choose to sever that final connection.  I could not continue to affirm what I value in the Mormon tradition if I continued to stand with the Church instead of with my gay brothers and sisters.  I could not share my heritage with my own children if I told them that, when the Church began to persecute the families of homosexuals in the same way that earlier religious bigots had persecuted them, I stood idly by.

It is for this reason that I ask you to remove my name from the records of the Church.

Sincerely,


Ideas Man, Ph.D


(Coming up in scene iii:  A Knock on the Front Door of Ideas HQ)