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Mormonism and race in 2014

I was having a conversation with a friend about a few lines from my previous post. (This conversation was in a relatively private location, so I’ll try to keep things anonymous). From my earlier post, I had written:

I think that if Mormons were to candidly have racial conversations, that sort of thinking would possibly come out — that is, if or when people could even admit that there is a racial dimension (rather than merely a “family” dimension). The basic system probably wouldn’t be criticized as unjust.

My friend wanted me to elaborate on what the “basic system” was.

I wrote:

The “basic system” is that criminal justice, meritocracy, etc., are basically “fair” and “accurate” systems. The basic system is that people get where they are, etc., primarily through their own actions.

As of right now, on issues like race (but also orientation, I think), I think a lot of Mormons don’t even recognize that there are some non-chosen aspects in play (e.g., race, orientation). But I think that even if Mormons were to say, “OK, being gay isn’t chosen, and it really does play differently in our social and theological system”…or, on race, “OK, being black isn’t chosen, and it really does play differently in our social system”, they probably wouldn’t say, “Well, our social system needs to be changed.” Rather, they would say, “black people need to be more respectable.” (Or, in the gay example, gay people need to be celibate.)

In 2014, most people wouldn’t say that a righteous black person will become white in the afterlife. But we do commonly see comments about LGBT people being straight, correct gender, having opportunity to marry, etc., in the afterlife, so, I’m not sure if Mormon theology actually really can cope with blackness except as something to be overcome.

The friend asked me if, within a Mormon context, the only way to reframe the underlying assumption (that blackness is to be overcome) would be through revelation.

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Mormonism and respectability politics

Over several past posts, I’ve come to increasingly reconcile and view my upbringing in the Mormon church as an upfront course in black respectability politics. I can contrast the descriptions and rationalizations and excuses made in recent police-involved shootings with the values that my parents and my church have taught me and come up with a few points of difference. I mostly share these points of difference in snark, in jest, in sarcasm (because I am not unaware of the injustices), but maybe a part of me shares these points of difference out of a hope that maybe one can be “respectable” enough. For example:

  1. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to follow the Word of Wisdom, I would have no need of cigarillos. No cigarillos, and I’m out of that situation.
  2. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to follow the Word of Wisdom, I would, again, have no need of loosies.

These are straightforward points of difference. But of course, I could synthesize specific implementations from generic principles. For example:

  1. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to “avoid even the appearance of evil,” I would make sure to dress in ways that would not even seem to be threatening.
  2. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to “avoid even the appearance of evil,” I would not carry objects in public that would seem to be weapons (regardless of my rights to do so, regardless of whether my state/city is open carry, etc.,)

The education in black respectability is something that I think Mormonism can and does teach well to black members of the church. Unfortunately, as story upon story has come out (and rationalization upon rationalization) has come out, I have realized a few things…about black respectability and about Mormonism.

Firstly, one cannot ever be respectable enough. There will always be someone arguing that the dead guy wasn’t sufficiently respectable. If the police suspected me of having a gun, then someone will argue that “I should have put the gun down, thrown it away from me.” If I did that, then someone else would argue that “I should not have reached for the gun in the first place.”

But I think the lessons about Mormonism (which I have strewn part and piecemeal through other posts on the subject) are more relevant to this blog:

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Describing the world I come from

Over the past few days, I’ve been browsing CollegeConfidential’s College Essays forums, looking for high school seniors to assist. On this forum is etched the ebb and flow of the annual college application season. If you view it now, you will likely (and accurately) guess that is the University of California system’s application deadline. As it approaches, so many students ask for help with UC Prompt 1 or 2.

After critiquing a few essays, I thought to myself: wouldn’t it be fun to write an essay as if I too were applying to the UC system?

So here in this post I will take a look at the UC system freshman application prompt:

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

I will follow a few rules for myself:

  1. I will limit the essay to 500 words. Students applying to the UC chain have a combined 1000 words to split between two essays. While theoretically, they can split these words however they want, I am only writing one, so I will only use 500.
  2. I am writing as if I were a high school student graduating in spring 2015. As such, I will refer to outside events that occurred after I actually graduated in 2007. However, I will not refer to things I did after I graduated high school if I would not or could not have done them before I graduated.

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Breaking 2 Analogies for More Accepting Mormonism

Over at Clean Cut, Spencer showcased Scott Hales’ strip of the Garden of Enid that expounded on a more accepting Mormonism as being more like an expanding grid than a big tent.

Expanding Grid Mormonism

Per the comic, the big problem with “big tent Mormonism” is that eventually, you do have walls. (I don’t necessarily think this is a problem — many folks criticize liberal Mormons by saying that if the definition of Mormonism isn’t limited, then it is meaningless. But my feeling is that liberal Mormons aren’t saying that Mormonism means anything, but that the current barriers so often perceived or enforced are the incorrect barriers.)

In a similar vein, Spencer addressed in an earlier post an analogy from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin likening the church to an orchestra:

“Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.

“The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.”

I don’t want to be so cynical on Clean Cut’s blog, so I’ll be cynical here…even if the big tent analogy can be broken, these other two analogies can be broken just the same.

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President Henry B. Eyring at the Vatican Summit on Marriage

Two weeks ago, it was announced that LDS First Counselor of the First Presidency Henry B. Eyring would speak at a colloquium on marriage and the family held by the Vatican. Like some others, I wasn’t inclined to be all that optimistic about this colloquium, as its subject — the complementarity of man and woman in marriage — excludes many folks from the get-go.

Per Pope Francis, this conference is needed because:

“In our day, marriage and the family are in crisis.” The “culture of the temporary” has led many people to give up on marriage as a public commitment. “This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” The Pope said that the crisis in the family has produced a crisis “of human ecology,” similar to the crisis that affects the natural environment. “Although the human race has come to understand the need to address conditions that menace our natural environments, we have been slower to recognize that our fragile social environments are under threat as well, slower in our culture, and also in our Catholic Church. It is therefore essential that we foster a new human ecology and advance it.”

To do that, the Pope said, “It is necessary first to promote the fundamental pillars that govern a nation: its non-material goods.” He noted that the family is the foundation of society, and that children have the right to grow up in a family with a mother and a father “capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”

OK. I can theoretically be on board with this (although I suspect that really, what’s happening is that our economic and socio-political reality is evolving, and our ideals about social constructs to support this reality is lagging behind). So, what about President Eyring’s comments? Well, the transcript is now up on the Mormon Newsroom. Read more…

Modal, Model, Mormonism

In the wake of all of the essays being released concerning Joseph Smith’s polygamy, Kristine Haglund has offered a confession and an apology over at By Common Consent.

From the post, it seems there is backstory that I am missing (since I don’t find Kristine to be a particularly offensive or dismissive person), but the basic gist of the apology is this: in the past, she has dismissed certain others who felt betrayed by the church when they found out certain facts about church history. As she puts it:

I have been one of the people who has thought and said that it’s unreasonable for members of the Church to feel betrayed when they discover facts about Church history that they hadn’t encountered in the official curriculum. I’ve thought that such ignorance reflected intellectual laziness for not having done a little bit of homework to learn about our history, and/or emotional immaturity for “flying off the handle” in the face of the belated discovery.

I was wrong and I am sorry.

Having (for once) been smart enough to sit back and watch the reactions to the new essays on polygamy rather than diving into the discussion right away, I think I may have finally understood something that I had managed to miss for a few decades. Despite the Church’s monumental effort and achievement of Correlation, lived Mormonism is largely undomesticated. It changes in both temporal and geographical iteration.

(I think it’s worth pointing out that the response for which Kristine now apologizes — thinking that ignorance reflects intellectual laziness — is alive and well at conservative blogs like Millennial Star. But that is not the point of my post.)

This post is instead about a sentiment that I have been hearing hints of from several liberal or progressive Mormons. I don’t think Kristine carries this sentiment (in fact, a followup comment suggests she doesn’t), but still, here was the part that gave me pause:

We all assume that our experience is normal, and since we so often hear “the Church is the same everywhere you go,” we are quick to generalize from our experience of “normal” to a prescription for what should be normative for everyone. When we are wounded by a policy or its ham-handed implementation, we extrapolate the certain wrongness of the policy for all times and all places. When, on the other hand, the Church has helped us to flourish, we readily believe that all good-hearted and right-thinking Saints will flourish similarly.

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4 Spiritual Practices for An Atheist Ex-Mormon

One of the reasons I often hear/read people give for being religious is that religion gives them opportunities to become better people. In fact, arguendo, religion in some ways demands that we become better people by prioritizing service, community responsibility, and so forth in a theological narrative. No longer is it just something “nice to do”, but it is an obligation. A calling.

And so, even if the factual claims that any religion (but especially Mormonism) preaches don’t necessarily check out, that’s ok because people can say that they have become a better person by being religious.

This argument doesn’t even have to apply to any religion in specific. In more general terms, it can be phrased in terms of maintaining connection with spirituality. (I am reminded of a thought I had a long time ago: it seems like ecumenism can easily become, “Well, we’ll put aside our religious differences, because at least we aren’t atheists.”) From a long conversation online with Dan Wotherspoon (first in the comments to my “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtains~!” but then it migrated to the comments of his podcast on negotiating adult faith within a developing institution), there was something in particular that struck me. I was trying to express to Dan (and pastoral apologist types in general) that there are many reasons why many folks don’t necessarily want to stick with the Mormonism — especially if they don’t think it’s true. Dan wrote the following:

…More than anything, I’m not overly stressed when anyone decides to leave Mormonism if they still are open to spiritual journeying and exploring themselves beyond just the sorts of things that our senses and rational minds can work with.

Dan recognizes that leaving Mormonism might not be the end of the world…if an individual is still open to spiritual journeying.

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The crux of the pastoral Mormon testimony

My last post was a critique of Adam Miller’s thoughts in “Mormonism is not Mormonism” — but also a larger critique of something I’ve seen more and more often that has sometimes been called “pastoral apologetics.” Unfortunately, Adam’s last post got picked up in the disaffectosphere, so many disaffected Mormons also gave their criticism. Adam has written a post that I guess addresses the criticism, entitled “Mormon Weakness.”

There’s one part I want to discuss (emphasis added)

If my position on Mormonism takes its own weakness as a virtue, then it is only fair that my honest working assumption should be that this position is, plain and simple, an act of self-deception. I’m too scared or too comfortable or too privileged or too lazy or too invested to come clean and see the truth. Self-deceived, I adopt a slave morality and then rationalize like crazy from there.

Now, granted, this may well be true. Certainly, it’s the simplest explanation. And, certainly, it’s most soundly in keeping with what I know about myself: I am, myself, weak and afraid. I should have gotten off the bus with Nietzsche but didn’t because I was chicken. And now I’m tangled up in escalating feedback loops of dubious, pseudo-philosophical, paper-thin rationalization. The emperor has got no clothes.

This may well be true. Even likely.

In fact, it may well be true because it feels false (even to me) to think that, of the two options, my position is weak because that weakness is (surprise!) actually a virtue in disguise.

It’s too convenient by half. It smells like dead fish.

But still.


If I sit still and I’m really trying to be honest, I would also have to say that it would feel even more false to deny that something bigger than me, something truer than me, something better than me, is at work here in all this Mormon weakness: in all this Jello, all these manuals, all this hypocrisy, all this self-congratulation, all this politics, all this confusion, all these pews, all these meetings, all these visits, all these faith promoting rumors, all these bureaucracies, all these failures, all these scriptures.

At least in my case, denying this weakness, denying that this weakness is in fact exactly what Paul claims that it is — the power of God made manifest — smells even fishier. Denying it would be even less honest.

The smell of self-deception is, while pungent in the first case, even stronger in the second.

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Pay no attention to the man behind the curtains~! Lived and Living Mormonism

There is something fairly remarkable occurring that I don’t quite know how to put my finger on. It has something to do with pastoral apologetics, and how pastoral apologetics is seeking to override base facts. But let me back up.

If I were to summarize the history of Mormon apologetics, I would broadly describe it in two phases. The first phase was the phase of traditional apologetics. This is your FAIR (at least, your old FAIR) and your FARMS. This phase was about showing how the objective claims of the LDS religion were factual (or at least factually possible, given certain interpretations.) This phase was about showing how various strikes against the church were not factual (or that, even if they were factual in part, that critics missed important details or distorted the facts — that there was missing context.)

The basic problem with the traditional apologetic approach is that it’s trying to play a secular epistemological game by secular rules and it simply is not doing (can not do?) this well.

So, some time, we moved into a different phase. And maybe it isn’t correct to describe it as a phase, seeing as its proponents have been around as long as the traditional apologists have. But maybe it’s safer to say that this form is entering ascendancy?

This is the apologetics of care or pastoral apologetics. Read more…

Is the LDS Church even the body of Christ?

Adam Miller has an interesting post at Times and Seasons that discusses moving away from the question “Is the church true?” to a question like “Is the church the body of Christ”.

I like that Adam is addressing how the sort of question like “Is the church true?” creates the all-or-nothing mentality that so often drives people out of it. As he says:

In this respect, it doesn’t have the feel of a question that’s meant to be used as a question. It feels, instead, like the kind of question you’re meant to ask when you already know the answer. It feels inherently rhetorical. It feels like the kind of question a missionary is supposed to ask Mr. Brown, a Boolean question meant to force a binary response.

The problem with these vast institutional machines of deduction and inference is that they tend to be super fragile. One cog comes loose, the whole thing groans and grinds to a halt. The wagered “all” of its “all or nothing!” risks, without further consideration, simply returning “nothing.”

It’s in this sense especially that the question seems to me to be much too thin to dependably accomplish real religious work.

Instead, he advocates a different set of questions that are thick enough to accomplish said “real religious work”:

Ask the thick question: “Is this the body of Christ?” Is Christ manifest here? Is this thing alive? Does it bleed?

This is a load-bearing question. This is a question properly fitted, by Christ himself, to address the existential burn that compels its asking.

This is a question that is big enough to not only address issues of veridicality, but the whole of the head and the whole of the heart. And not just these, but the arms, legs, feet, fingers, toes, spleen, bowels, and loins. The body of Christ includes them all. It includes the beautiful and the ugly, the public and the private, the desirable and the foul, the lost and the found.

Inquire into the body of Christ itself.

And then say:

“Though I may not even know what it means to ask if the church is true, I’d stake my life (and the lives of my children) on the fact that Christ’s body is manifest here and that we are its members.”

Very well, Mr. Miller. The only problem is…what does it even mean for the church to be the body of Christ?

Read more…


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