Friday, July 27, 2012

Republicrat: Finding Middle Ground on Issues of Political Morality

I was going to write another heavy post, but I think my friends and husband would abandon me if I did. For the past few weeks I haven't been able to complete a conversation without the words "gay rights", "1978", "testimony" or "racial discrimination" creeping in, even if the topic of discussion is about effective weight loss methods or stylish hairstyles. In the last month I've somehow found a way to incorporate serious issues into even the most lighthearted exchanges. Wow. Way to be a buzz-kill, Steph. Won't be shocked if I don't get any birthday party invites this year... "Hey, should I invite Steph to my party?".... "No, she'll probably make fun of us for decorating the house with DIY Pinteresting crafts and talk about how lame we are for making a fancy cake, then eat it with her bare hands alone in a corner sobbing about how we're killing the environment by using plastic forks".

To be honest, I think everyone is a bit emotionally drained. I even bought an US Weekly magazine to balance the scale (by the way, did you hear that Kristen Stewart (Bella) cheated on Robert Pattison (Edward)? Shocking.) So, instead of delving into harrowing topics that turn me into a fun-sucking Dementor, this week I'm going to talk about the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare (yes, this is me being fun. Poor Rivs.) This isn't a religiously divisive issue, but to me, it holds as much moral weight as any other political debate.

I think one of the main reasons Mormons (and most other Christian religions) are expected to be Republican is due to the party's reputation of being the defender of morality. In reality, both parties defend ethical convictions but have differing views on what issues hold moral weight. In essence, it all comes down to the way morality is framed. In the political realm, the only issues defined as moral dilemmas are gay rights and abortion. Because Republicans generally oppose these movements, the party is deemed the defender of moral virtue. But isn't caring for the sick and poor a topic of morality as well?

We've become so consumed with differentiating between Republican and Democrat that agreeing with just one policy of an opposing party is seen as betrayal. This has narrowed the scope of possibilities available to the American people, as political polarity has led many to believe that politics is a zero-sum game; if your party wins, mine loses. If your party is the 'moral' party fighting to defend religious principles, then mine must be in opposition to your religious beliefs. And that's not the way it should be. I view health care reform as government institutionalized charity, and I think that both Republican and Democrat should share the title of 'Moral Party'.

It is my opinion (and you know I have a lot of those) that giving a portion of what we earn to benefit those who have less is a moral obligation. Whether its government-mandated or not, I think that sacrificing income so that those in need can receive the medical care they deserve is, in fact, charity. I know that many of you will argue that taxes and charity do not equate, as charity requires agency and taxation does not allow for it. Although "charity never faileth", it is an unfortunate fact that voluntary charity has failed to care for the millions of Americans who are left sick, dying and in debt without means to pay their exorbitent medical bills. I believe that it has become our moral duty to patch the void that should have been filled by unconditional charity. While having government implement a sort of 'forced charity' is not ideal, it seems to be the only way to ensure that every American can enjoy the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

One of the great things about the Mormon church is that it practices its own form of 'affordable care' through tithing and fast offerings. By asking church members to donate a portion of their earnings to benefit the church and its individual members, the LDS church has become a great example of charity through taxation. Among LDS members, this is seen as an act of faith and moral duty. Although governments are comprised of imperfect people, why not support a system that attempts to mimic that which Mormons believe to be good and moral?

What are your thoughts on this issue?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bearing a Testimony

I can remember my first day of grad school at the United Nations University for Peace in Costa Rica as though it were yesterday (and if that University name doesn't scream 'institute for the liberal hippie', then I don't know what does.) I walked onto campus 7 months pregnant, but it wasn't my giant belly and growing kankles that were weighing me down. I had a burning secret I was hiding as if I were Chris Cornel at a Justin Bieber concert: I was a Mormon. I understand how cowardly this sounds, as I am fully aware of the scripture Romans 1:16 that Christians are supposed to valiantly wear like a badge;

"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth..."

Believe me, this scripture has haunted me in my everyday interactions with non-Mormon friends, because the truth is that I am often ashamed of my Mormon identity. Before I expound on this, let me give a little context as to why I started grad school as an undercover Mormon.

I entered a Masters program in Media, Peace and Conflict studies in the wake of California's Proposition 8, which deemed only marriage between a man and a woman as constitutional and valid. As I mentioned before, the University for Peace is an extremely progressive school filled with burgeoning world leaders and intellectuals (somehow I slipped in). Everyone knew what Proposition 8 was-and more direly for me-knew which institutions had vehemently supported the constitutional amendment. The LDS church's stance during the Prop 8 campaign has been the single most difficult issue for me to reconcile, and honestly I still can't say that I understand or support it. Being a new student in a liberal University, I didn't want my colleagues to automatically assume that I was prejudiced against the LBGT community upon discovering my Mormon identity, as portrayed by the media. I was indeed ashamed of being a member of an institution that had ardently opposed an issue that was, to me, a question of civil rights. I was even more ashamed to be associated with those few but loud members of the LDS church who misinterpreted an already confusing message to justify harassing the gay community.

Another issue that led me to keep my religious identity under-wraps was the LDS church's reputation for historical racism. I know that the present-day LDS church allows men of every ethnicity to hold equal rank and status, as in 1978 President Kimball of the LDS church finally received revelation that all eligible male Mormons were allowed to hold the priesthood regardless of race, lineage or ethnicity. I also understand that prior to 1978, many church members felt that withholding priesthood power from a specific ethnic group was unjust. Still, this does not negate that without a deep understanding of Gospel Doctrine, the LDS church appears to have been historically discriminatory against black people. The University for Peace had many students from African and Melanesian countries. I didn't want my friends to think that I would discriminate against them once they learned of my religious background.

One of the most heart-wrenching moments of my Mormon existence occurred 5 months into my grad school program when I discovered that I had been both right and wrong to conceal my Mormon identity. I had just recently "come out of the closet" in a class discussion on whether the burqa should be banned in Europe. I stated my opinion on the right to maintain religious tokens, mentioning that I wore sacred undergarments and would zealously defend my right to do so. As the words "I am Mormon and I wear sacred religious underwear" slipped through my lips, pangs of fear and relief washed over me. "Oh my gosh, they're all going to hate me and think I'm a bigoted racist homophobe!", I thought in concurrence with the release that comes after holding your breath through a long tunnel. "I don't have to keep it in anymore".

A few days later, my friend from Ethiopia approached me with tears in her eyes, calmly and sincerely asking whether I thought she was inferior because of her skin color. My friend explained that she knew only a little bit about the LDS religion, but she had learned that Mormons believe that black skin was a curse. With tears in my eyes I told her that I thought she was one of the most intelligent and beautiful people I had ever met, and that her skin color made absolutely no difference to me or the institution I was a part of. Later on, Rivs did his best to rationally explain the historical Judeo-Christian tradition of God consistently bestowing and withholding his authority based on lineage, birthright and promises. But the heart of the conversation was explaining that to be honest, we didn't know why priesthood powers were withheld, but when the 1978 revelation came about, most members of the church wept with joy. The entire discussion ended in tears and the assurance that we don't have all the answers.

After the discussion with my friend, many of my University friends began asking me to clarify their views on Mormonism. Much of what I was asked were the questions I was afraid of ("Do you think I'm going to hell because I'm gay?", "Are you a polygamist?" "Do you think black people are inferior?" "Do you think women are subservient to men?"). In that respect, I was glad that I had formed real relationships with my classmates before revealing my religious identity. That way, I thought, they would feel more comfortable asking me tough questions about my beliefs. Concurrently, I realized that had I come out loud and proud with my Mormon-ness right from the beginning, I would have had the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about the LDS church long ago.

When it comes down to it, belief in a religion with a somewhat negative reputation can be a burden to bear. This puts a whole new meaning to "bearing a testimony". I often think that this life would be so much easier if I didn't have to bear the weight of religious conviction, if I could just go through life believing what I felt was true without the occasional contradiction of religious creed. I wouldn't have to feel inadequate for being 'ashamed' of my religious culture. I wouldn't have to defend a religion that I often don't understand with the words "I can't really explain it, I just believe it". I wouldn't have to feel doubt and sorrow bubbling inside me when friends ask "how can you support an institution that opposes my right to love and marry who I want?" I wish that the burn of the spirit (as rare as the feeling is for me) didn't cut so deep to my core, making it impossible to shirk the burden of belief.

On the other hand, I wish my belief in the gospel was strong enough to disallow contradicting issues from rocking my testimony. I wish that my faith was so unwavering that I could ask scrupulous questions without the lack of answers causing severe doubt and bouts of unbelief. I wish my faith was strong enough to satiate my quest for truth, because I often feel as though I haven't found it in its wholeness.

If I could fill the holes in my testimony with liberal views, I wouldn't feel so tormented. I would be satiated knowing that both my worlds had been reconciled. But when it comes down to it, some things just don't add up. And I guess that's where my faith comes in, as meager and weak as it is.

Maybe I was wiser than I give myself credit for when I tattooed "Only Faith" to my wrist at age 16.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Born This Way?

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who has been following this blog. I'm moved by all of the support you've sent my way, and comforted to know that I am far from the only Mormon wrestling with paradoxical ideologies. To be honest, I was kind of expecting to receive an inbox full of hate mail, and maybe even a few cryptic letters written in cut-out magazine letters or blood. So far, I've only felt love and compassion. That gives me hope. High five everyone! And for those of you who disagree with every word I've written but continue to read (oh you gluttons for punishment), thanks for being open minded and accepting, and don't be afraid to insert your opinion in the comments..

I thought that it might be helpful to give a little background info on how I became (or was I born this way?) the rare breed of Mormon that I am, although after reading your comments, I'm coming to realize that we're not as uncommon as I once thought. If you really don't care about my life story, then just hold your horses. I'm planning on writing a "juicier" post sometime this week.

I was born in Montreal to a devout LDS mother and an agnostic but very supportive father who would drop us off and pick us up from church every Sunday. I never thought anything strange about him not attending with us, and laughed when he called us his "little Mormonites". My parents are to this day the most 'in love' married couple I've ever known. They were a prime example to me that there are ways to pursue happiness within our faith other than the traditional Mormon family.

I attended church with passion and zeal until I was 14 when the subject matter in Young Women's became devoted to-in my eyes-making me an obeisant wife and baby maker. I think my breaking point was walking into class one Sunday and seeing brown paper bags lined up with "How To Serve My Husband" written across them in perfect bubbly cursive. (By the way, have any of you ever noticed that there's a culturally Mormon script? You'd know it if you saw it...) I took one horrified glance at the beautifully crafted display (dang Mormons and their craftiness!) and walked right out the door. Now that I'm married I understand the merit in thinking of ways to serve your husband-heck, put those ideas in a brown bag if it helps-but as an adolescent I viewed the activity as a sexist tactic to mold me into a subservient wife. Despite my mother's coaxing, I began spending the hour of Young Women's waiting alone in the foyer.

Montreal has a very low LDS population, and I was the only Mormon in my high school of 2,000 people. As a result, I had no LDS friends and there were very few social activities for church members my age. These facts, mixed with the mind of an innately cynical teenager dabbling in punk rock culture, were a recipe for imminent religious skepticism. When I was encouraged to attend a church youth dance at the age of 15, I was denied entry for wearing ripped jeans. It was then I decided that an institution which, in my mind at the time, forced conformity and promoted subservience, was not for me. You might think that two small instances shouldn't be enough to shake religious devotion, but to me both experiences were indicators of something much more disturbing - sexism and exclusivity. And as I continued to view the LDS church (and religion in general) with a more scrupulous eye, there was-in my mind-too much hypocrisy and too many contradictions (the fact that I was concurrently watching my father die a slow death from cancer while I made hourly pleas to a seemingly deaf God didn't help my lack of faith or skepticism.)

I spent the next few years attending church only sporadically, if my mother asked (or bribed... thanks for letting me take the van, mom!) or if I had to fill in for the choir pianist. Looking back, I realize how cool our ward choir leader must have been to allow a girl with tattoos and a patched leather vest accompany the choir in an Easter Cantata.

The rest of my teenage years were lived outside of the church, where the more I distanced myself from it, the more agnostic I became. Still, if any of my friends would criticize the LDS church, I was quick to defend it and would feel a fire burning inside me when I did. I think deep down I always knew that I would return to the church but tried to repress the thought, because religion is so not punk rock.

The strange thing about a testimony is that once you have one, it's very difficult to completely extract from your being, no matter how much you defy and how hard you try. You may temporarily silence it, even deliberately suffocate it as I did, but I think there will always be a whisper of it no matter how far you run. This is perhaps the most difficult part of being a skeptical Mormon liberal; be completely immersed in faith with the incessant questions that come with a quizzical mind, or commit to agnosticism or atheism and never completely mute the quiet, gnawing presence of a testimony, as small as it might be.

And that's why I came back. Even though I was content in my agnostic life, I always felt a faint sense that something was missing. I'm not saying by any means that people who aren't religious are 'missing something'. My father, for example, was the happiest person I have ever known and had no particular God to cling-to. But for myself, I felt as though I was always reaching for something that was no longer there, like a phantom limb. Without the rules of Mormonism (dogmatic as they are at times), my life was headed down an ominous path. Some people have a strong enough will to live a productive and good life without a set of guidelines to follow. I learned that I am not one of those people. That is why I finally decided to take on the task of navigating my skepticism and faith, something that I never allowed myself to do before.

Later on, I met a boy who offered me a pickle in Anthropology class. Game over, Rivs. You had me at "hey, I have this pickle in a Ziploc in my backpack. Do you want it?" We were married in an LDS temple 4 years ago, and now I really wish I hadn't walked out of that class with the brown paper bags. Although I still don't agree with the heavy 'marriage and mommy' prep young women get fed in the church, I now realize that there is a difference between service and subservience.

This is Rivs. He's my man. He can navigate the waters of liberalism and Mormonism like he owns them. I can bounce all of my deepest, darkest cynical questions off of him without judgement. I don't tell him enough, but in so many ways, he's my hero (yup, I guess those bags really would have come in handy after all...) This is a photo of Rivs in Mexico after he got a henna tattoo. That's probably the 'worst' thing he's ever done, and I love him for it.

Then we made a baby. We cried with sorrow when we learned that I was pregnant. We didn't want kids for a loooong time. When Harper was born in November 2009, my life was forever changed and all of those lame mushy things mothers say about their babies became my vocabulary. Although I will still pursue a career, I would hands down choose being a mother over anything else. It's just a wonderful thing. I get it now.

That's my story so far. I definitely don't have it all figured out. I still lose and gain my testimony on a weekly basis as I try to sort through faith and logic, but it's always there, even when I don't want it to be.

From now on I'll be posting once a week, hopefully on Thursdays. See you then!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Faith and Logic

One of the things that inspired me to start this blog was a nonchalant suggestion from my awesome husband. Thanks, Rivs. If I ever write a book, I'll definitely put you in the acknowledgments, somewhere after God, Lady Gaga and Donny Osmond. Love them.

A more recent event that moved me to write on the topic of Mormon polarity was reading about last week's mass resignation of Mormons from the LDS church. If you want the full story, you can access it at">.

If you want the Sparks notes version, I'll give you a quick summery.

In a move of solidarity, 150 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints gathered in Salt Lake City to sign "A Declaration of Independence from Mormonism", effectuating their renouncement of membership from the church. Their main reasons for resignation were "the church's political activism against gay marriage and doctrinal teachings that conflict with scientific findings or are perceived as racist or sexist."

When I read about this event, I felt conflicting senses of sorrow and relief. I'm pretty used to conflicting emotions, although they normally occur at the same time each month and are thus easier to detect and deal with (well, easier for ME to deal with. For Rivs, I'm sure it's a different story...) However, the mixture of contrading emotions I experienced after reading this article were much more difficult to dissect.

I feel sorrow for the former members of the LDS church who must have felt ostracized enough in their worldviews and so pressured to fit the 'Mormon mold' that they needed the comfort of like-minded people in order to muster the courage to resign their membership. Mormons tend to have a very cohesive group identity which often causes those on the fringe (like me) to feel isolated. Having grappled for years with some of the tenets of the church within the blessing and curse of my skeptical and liberal mind, I feel empathy for the 150 people whose deconstruction of religion overrode their testimony. Believe me, I've been there. And I'm not just talking about the Chinese Mind-trap questions like "Who is Heavenly Father's Father?" (come on, I know you've all asked that question) or "Were Adam and Even cavemen?" (maybe I'm alone in that one...?). When I speak of deconstructing religion, I mean wrestling with deep moral issues that resonate with me nearly as much as my testimony of the gospel they contradict. When my mind goes into academic mode, I'm grateful that I have had one or two spiritual experiences in my life that were strong enough to pull me from my existential downward spirals (and for me, these happen on a daily basis). When it comes down to it, no matter what moral or scientific dilemmas I encounter in contrast to my faith, I have those few moments of spiritual certainty to anchor me to a religion that sometimes makes little sense. I'm sure that those who left the church had similar spiritual experiences in their lives, and I can only assume that the reasons they had for leaving were so intrinsic to their identities that no ethereal feeling could hold them.

And I think this is why I felt a sense of relief. When you spend your life in liminality-straddled between faith and logic-you begin to feel inadequate in both spheres. I've often seen myself as a lousy Mormon because I don't need tissues during Fast and Testimony meeting (this happens at church once a month, where members of the congregation get up and talk about their testimony); I just haven't been blessed with a heightened spiritual sense. I feel guilty when I find myself saying "oh come on, you haven't even reached the pulpit and you're already sobbing like a toddler who dropped their ice cream cone", but really I think I'm jealous that my faith rarely brings me to tears. On the other hand, in the academic world the phrase "I can't prove it or explain it, I just believe it" rarely gets you anywhere.

Being as I am-committed to my faith but unable to relinquish my skeptical post-modern mind-I feel like William Wallace in the final scene of Braveheart when his limbs are being pulled in opposite directions by a medieval torture device (wait, Braveheart is rated R. No, I take that analogy back. I've never seen the movie...) It's tormenting to feel your identity divided between two seemingly irreconcilable ideologies, which is why completely committing to one side would be, in a sense, a relief. I'm not saying that resigning from the church would be a relief to me, but I think I can understand the feeling of respite that might come from relinquishing the war.

Well, that is all I have to say about that (for now). Let me know what you think about the mass resignation of Mormons. I'll be interested to hear your take on it. As far as the reasons the 150 people left the church (gay marriage, scientific contradictions, racism, sexism), I'll be spending plenty of time on those topics later. I don't want to scare you off. Yet.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hi, My Name is Steph C. and I'm a Mormon Liberal

Hi. I'm Steph. I'd like to think of this blog as a more cerebral spin-off of my personal blog , which chronicles the traveling circus act that is my small family. As a member of the LDS church, my liberal ideological views have often been at odds with Mormon culture. "Liberal Mormon!?", I hear you ask your computer screen with surprise and skepticism. Yes, we are a rare breed, but we do exist-unlike the Jackalope, which I was much too recently informed is, in fact, a fictional animal invented to fool children and gullible adults (me).

Firstly, I think it's imperative to make a clear delineation between LDS doctrine (AKA the doctrinal basis for our religion) and Mormon culture (AKA Jello-loving, fetchin' awesome homemakers). What is often taken as "True" and "moral" in Mormon culture is not based in gospel doctrine but is instead a set of cultural norms and traditions that have come to define our religion.

Hugh Nibley, an ardent democrat and one of the most acclaimed LDS academics, was openly critical of Mormon culture while maintaining his steadfast faith in the LDS religion.

"The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism... the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances." (Hugh Nibley, 1973)

So, for my "non-Mormon" readers (no, I don't think you're going to hell. Phewf, right?), let me first clarify some myths about the LDS religion.

1) I am not a polygamist. My husband and I will never acquire any Sister Wives (unless HBO offers us a lucrative deal. Sorry, bad joke.)

2) I wear special underwear. There, I said it, and it's true. Even though I'm sure you're curious, I won't be discussing them anymore in this blog. Although my choice of undergarments is unusual and therefore the brunt of many-a-media-jokes, they are in fact sacred, as is any religious token, and I revere them as such.

3) I don't hate people because they're gay. In fact, 3 of my dearest, closest friends are gay and proud. I love them, accept them and support them. End of story.

4) I'm not crafty and I'm a pretty bad homemaker. If you've ever read other Mormon mom blogs, you might ascertain that we are all super-humanely able to bake, DIY everything, keep our homes immaculately organized and pop out 4-6 kids while, like, totally looking fetching hot all day long. I, unfortunately, am not that way. I think the last craft I successfully completed was composed of construction paper, stale popcorn and Elmer's glue. So sorry, but you won't find any tasty recipes or inventive organizational tips here.

5) I'm a Mormon liberal, and it has taken some work to reconcile my religious and ideological views. I don't think of myself as loyal to any political party, although I tend to lean to the left, to the left (Beyonce, anyone?) I often encounter opposition from those few members of the LDS church who think that to be a "good" Mormon means to be conservative and republican, but over the years I have come to not only embrace my political ideology, but to become proud of it. So suck it, Glenn Beck. I'm liberal and I know it.

The purpose of this blog isn't to push my subversive liberal ideology onto my conservative LDS counterparts, nor is it meant to persuade you heathens (ha ha) to convert. I'm not going to use scriptures to back my political views, because both democrat and republican beliefs can be backed by scriptural text. I don't want this to turn into a tug-of-war. I'm not even trying to convince you to shave your head or try a mo-hawk like me (but seriously, you should at least try it. Nothing says "I'm rejecting Mormon cultural norms" quite like a woman with a mohawk) What I'd like is for this blog to serve as a platform for political discussion and, well, just a place for me to be able to write about my personal views on various issues.

So, I hope you will follow along while giving me some healthy criticism and hearty debate. If you're Mormon and conservative, don't think I dislike you. I may just disagree with you, as I will disagree with liberals and democrats on some points.

Here is my latest family photo. I just realized that the only photos I have of the three of us together are back shots. I guess we're either really proud of our bums or pretty self-conscious about our faces.