Friday, September 21, 2012

A Recovered Mormon’s View: Why We Don’t Want a Mormon President

This blog was never intended as a platform for politics (its aims are higher), but for this post I’ve decided to venture outside my comfort zone. And if you read all the way to the end, you’ll find the Writing Journey woven in, in what I hope is a meaningful way.

I’m qualified to say s
omething about the topic at hand because I was born and raised Mormon, a descendant of generations of Mormons on both sides, and spent many of my formative years in Utah’s ultra-Mormon heartland. I left that religion behind at the age of thirty, half my life ago. I’ve been actively “in recovery” ever since, and will be until I die. My spiritual/philosophical outlook has evolved toward what today is called Nonduality, in which the dualistic distinctions of conventional theologies are seen to be illusory, all aspects of the Whole (see additional links below).

I have not studied Mitt Romney nor his platform. I don’t need to learn about him as an individual, because I already know: there is no Mormon I would ever want as President. This is not because of some chip on my shoulder or hatred of Mormons. Many beloved family members and old friends are practicing Mormons and I respect their right to make that choice. I just don’t want any of them as a national leader. I’d prefer politics and governance to be free of ties to any religion, but since that is not the case, my civic duty is to speak up about the religion I know best.


It’s easy to point with well-reasoned skepticism at the bizarre fundamentals of Mormonism: angels, golden plates, Native Americans descended from Israelites, etc.; not to mention the LDS church’s historical/social difficulties: polygamy, racial discrimination, denial of gay rights. I’ll leave that task to others. My thoughts here have more to do with the psychology of being a Mormon, and come not from a science angle but from personal experience.

Mormon children are taught from the earliest age that they belong to “the only true church.” Only Mormons (men who have been ordained to the priesthood; no women) have the actual authority to act in the name of God Almighty on the earth. All other churches, Christian or not, are wrong to one degree or another, and possibly even evil. The worldwide Mormon missionary program is dependent on the deeply-held belief of young men and women that they have more spiritual wisdom than any non-Mormon they will meet. Faithful Mormons are certain that they are superior, anointed (perhaps due to valor in the spirit world before their birth), God’s chosen people. It’s easy to understand why a Mormon politician would refuse to talk about religion; he could easily make a slip that would betray the astounding arrogance that is part and parcel of his faith.

I’m not saying that arrogance is inappropriate for a President. While I’d prefer a combination of strength and humility, there is likely to be some arrogance in the mix of attributes that brought the person to the position. The problem is the worldview. To harbor a certainty of the inferiority of the Other, even diplomatically masked, is to put our nation in ever deeper danger from those who find it easy to hate us. Witness the terrorist recruitment program initiated by the G.W. Bush regime in the name of Homeland Security.

A Mormon who is a true believer will stand up in front of a congregation in Testimony Meeting and claim to have had a “burning in the bosom,” a form of personal revelation that gives them “sure knowledge” of such things as the nature of the Godhead, the truth of the Book of Mormon, the authentic prophetship of founder Joseph Smith or whomever is the current Mormon leader, or even the divine calling of the USA to be leader of the world. “Without a shadow of a doubt” is how they often put it, with no admission of the nearly irresistible power of emotion to convince us of things we wish to believe. Mormons are taught to parrot such phrases as a way of cementing their loyalty (as in ”I pledge allegiance...”). The things they claim to “know” are simply not empirically verifiable facts. I am not a strict empiricist, but I do expect an attempt to be accurate with language. The truth might be “I feel,” “I believe,” “it seems to me,” or “my gut tells me.” But to claim “sure knowledge,” as the best Mormons must, means one of two things: you are lying or you are deluding yourself. Those are not qualities I want in a President.


In Mormon mythology, they were a persecuted people, innocents tormented by sinners. But historical evidence plainly shows the dark sides of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and other early Mormon leaders, so it takes powerful denial to maintain that they were gentle, inspired saints. LDS history is not unique in being checkered with violent and illegal misdeeds, but rank and file Mormons are never given the whole picture. They are fed a whitewashed official story and are not to look elsewhere for a balanced view. Anything that indicates there might be holes in the official story is rejected as the devil’s handiwork. The sweet old grandfathers who run the church are, of course, unimpeachable, because they are in daily contact with heaven. This is the kind of authority-worship Mormons are conditioned with from the cradle. When I imagine a US President having such a high capacity to live in denial, I think of... well, Richard Nixon, who was “not a crook.”

Arrogance, denial, and the need for “sure knowledge” are all products of fear. When Mormon children are taught to “be in the world but not of it,” told stories of their ancestors’ persecution by wicked people, and sing hymns about the safety of their kingdom in the mountains, the coded message they receive is that the society “out there” is deeply threatening. We are all hardwired by evolution for fight or flight, so in civilized society when buried fear meets its object, aggression and defensiveness come out sideways. Primitive nastiness is masked as normalcy; truth goes blurry. Mormons are also taught that it’s a virtue to engage the world with shiny happy faces like the Osmonds, so they are often masters at dissembling. Beware the Chief Executive who fears, perhaps even hates, the very people he governs.

For a Mormon President, the statement of ultimate responsibility Harry Truman is known for, “the buck stops here,” would not apply. No Mormon President can be his own master, because he is subject to the rulings of the latest in a long line of elderly white businessmen, the “Prophet” who leads the LDS church by direct revelation from God. It might be said that this is no different from electing a Catholic President, a servant of the Pope. I would have to agree; I don’t want a Catholic President either. But I also speculate, based on observations of Mormons and Catholics throughout my life, that most Mormons have a deeper, more complex father/child relationship with their prophet than most Catholics have with the man in the fancy hat. For faithful Mormons, it’s an infantile love, like a four-year-old girl who adores her daddy, trusts him implicitly, will do anything he asks. Make no mistake: electing a Mormon President means electing his shadow boss.

A favorite story in Mormon Sunday School, taken from the Book of Mormon, is a first-person account by the young hero, Nephi, of how he beheaded a drunken man in the streets of Jerusalem, in order to obtain the book of law he needed as his family fled (eventually to land in the Americas). He justifies this murder by claiming that God told him to do it, for the good of his people. The clear lesson being delivered to the children in Sunday School is that God’s will in the present overrules the laws from the past, and is not to be disobeyed no matter the circumstance. A faithful Mormon can justify absolutely any behavior as long as he is convinced, by himself or an ordained authority, that he is acting with God’s blessing. If Mitt Romney feels in his heart (or hears a voice in his head whispering) that God has called him to lead the nation, any manner of lying and manipulation is perfectly okay, it’s God’s will.

Essentially, the Mormonism program is aimed at dismantling people’s ability to be true to themselves, to their own innate moral code. The recompense is the warm, fuzzy feeling of having easy answers to difficult questions. This is true of all organized religion, but the LDS Church has a unique, sentimental insularity, a sweet “family bond,” that makes its brand of conditioning more difficult to disentangle, and few people choose the long hard road to awakening.

Mormons will no doubt claim that I am over-generalizing. Of course I’m aware that there is a sizeable contingent of Mormon progressives (I was once among them), and that there are even dissenters risking excommunication for liberal ideas. I recognize that every Mormon is an individual who comes from a family with its own unique dysfunctions; that each is thus susceptible to a different degree to indoctrination that poses persuasively as love. And who knows, maybe Mitt is not the faithful Mormon I’ve described above. Maybe he’s his own man, a free thinker who chooses Mormonism as a religious community without actually believing in its principles. If so, I find that disingenuous, evidence of an underdeveloped consciousness, and I still don’t want him anywhere near the Presidency.

Here’s a brief aside before a minor shift in gears. All the above is not to say that I am a supporter of Obama. In my opinion, the current manifestation of the two-party system is nothing but empty spectacle, gladiators battling in the Coliseum to keep the bloodlust of the masses pumped so high they forget their own minds and hearts; so they forget to demand what they really need. Viable third and even fourth parties are an absolute necessity before this false Us/Them duality, this rabid team-think, can be unseated from its ruling position in the psyche of Americans.

As a fiction writer, I am, among other things, working out my childhood issues through my literary creations. It can’t be otherwise. In my collection of linked short stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility, Mormonism is a sub-theme that I explore through several characters. It is most prominent in “Baptism,” a story narrated by a Mormon teenager about the death of his adopted brother, a Navajo boy (or, to the Mormons, a “Lamanite”). It’s a coming-of-age tale, but also looks at the ambiguous nature of good deeds: is Daniel’s religious businessman father a kind patriarch, and/or was his dedication to profits the cause of the death of Willy’s mother?

In “The Saxophone,” there is a “fallen” Mormon character, the young male protagonist’s mother. Her response to a failing marriage is a raging religious hysteria made extra crazy by her alcohol addiction. Substance abuse in Mormonism is a secret, but by no means non-existent.

At the end of “Echoes,” a five-part, five-narrator story, we learn that a character who had been introduced in a previous story has met a pair of Mormon missionaries and has been baptized. In a family crisis, his son in a coma, Sid has apparently discovered that Mormonism fits his need for religion. We learn about that need earlier, in the story “This Handful of Pebbles:”

As the gas station attendant fills his tank, Sid swipes a squeegee across the windshield, through which he can see Marv waiting. He needed to get out of the cramped space of the car for a moment to unfog his mind after Marv's babbling. He feels a flutter of regret that he had, on an impulse motivated by loneliness, invited Marv to come along.
But now, clarity is beginning to come: he knows what he wants and doesn't want. He doesn't want stupid explanations of God that are like poetry, all murky and ungraspable. He wants plans, structure, bullet points. It began to dawn on him when he saw the Exxon sign and felt himself pulled to stop in front of this pump. The only God he can believe in is like a CEO, a topnotch executive at the pinnacle of an efficient hierarchy, who disseminates knowledge like memos down through an organization of worthy managers, and whose laws and promises are well-defined, unquestionable, and so very comforting.
Before getting back in the car, he dials Emily on his cell phone, hoping she'll be okay with a visitor. She doesn't answer. He decides to head for the hospital anyway, with Marv tagging along.
Driving, one of his unpredictable rushes of inner quivering begins to arise, but he steels himself against it, fists firm on the wheel. There must be no doubt, only sure knowledge. How could God be God without a solid program, repeatable processes, reliable metrics? Obscurity is unacceptable when everything is falling apart, his son on the edge of death, everything shattering. He has to have answers, lucid and concise. Like the windshield, now that it's clean: clear glass through which he can see anything coming. How else can he know that he's safe?

Hmm... Sid will make a good Mormon, but his marriage to Emily may not survive.

From my childhood, there is much that I am grateful for. And there is no way to separate out the strands of Mormon influence. But there is a long, thoughtful process of learning to be self-aware, and that is the trek I am on: a human journey first, that happens also to be a writer’s journey. It means many many hours of talk therapy, plus a great deal of attention paid to the Observer inside, who teaches me that I am not my baggage. If Mitt Romney were on a similar path, I’d have more respect for his ability to govern.

Next, beyond the psychology and the writing, is yet another trek, one short step into the nondual Now. Religion and politics fall away, no more important than the breeze or a drop of rain. But I’m focusing here on the 60-year journey that has brought me to where I am today, and that’s how I know that whatever this nation chooses as its future on election day, I will at least have carefully considered, and spoken, my personal truth.


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More about Nonduality:
Science and Nonduality (a yearly conference)
One: Essential Writings on Nonduality (a good book)
Nonduality.com (all things nondual...)

12 comments:

  1. Also, here's an excellent article on HuffPost: "Mormons and Mitt: The Myth About Separation of Church and State" by Derrick Shore:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/derrick-shore/mormons-and-mitt-the-myth-about-separation-of-church-and-state_b_1898659.html?ir=Religion&ncid=edlinkusaolp00000009

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  2. Really enjoyed reading this Brent.

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  3. Brent,

    Nicely done and I appreciate your insight. A friend gave me a book last year you might find interesting, The Chosen Few by Eddie Scott: http://www.sandalwouldpress.com/

    Hope all is well!

    Later,

    Greg Windley

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  4. Greg, thanks for the comment and the link. The author is shedding light on an issue that is so important I wish I'd written about it too: the man to whom we give the nuclear trigger should not be one with a religious apocalyptic mindset.(!)

    Things are good here in the Catskills... best to you and the family.

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  5. "Rabid team-think" seems to be a global problem. I don't think it will be solved by our current religions, our weekend warriors, our iphone fetishes, or even...our stories, though those might prevail as the best compass for exploring. We might need an orgy of the soul, everyone is invited, to really get to pith of what's next and most humane for all people on our planet. Ultimate Indivisibility is an enjoyable way to spend some time in the interim for certain. Thanks for so much engaging material!

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  6. Great article Brent. Found your blog via your sis Vicki.

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  7. Thanks for suggesting this link - this brought back many uncomfortable memories of testimony meetings and the pressure to believe in the "one true church" at all costs, along with the attendant mindset that non-believers were to be pitied. If we are to be a nation where government makes no laws respecting any religion, then we need to make sure that our leaders are willing to uphold these ideals.

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  8. Brent, this is an important contribution to the paucity of intelligible writing on Mormonism. In many ways our progressive cultural bias toward political correctness has prevented frank, inside-view discussions of the actual world view and thinking of faithful Mormonism. No doubt, criticism will be seen as an attack by some and not so ironically, this seems to be the continuing basis for a religion that developed out of a siege mentality. I grew up under the big "C" and heard first hand from the pulpit the "war against the church" rhetoric regularly conflate terrorism, immorality, the newspaper business and foreign wars with the self-centered perception of a war on the Church. The solidarity that can be gained from this is frightening.

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  9. Thanks for the invite, Brent! Everyone above has already commented my own feelings, but I have one more -- how the mysteries of life continue to surprise us: from Utah, back to within walking distance of where Joseph Smith's revelations began! Too strange. NY has quite a history of utopian inspirations. You may want to cross the river and go on up to Mount Lebanon near Kinderhook, some time, to see the Shaker community there. Imagine: a new world order of worship where no one reproduces.

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  10. Hello Brent,

    We met in your LLI class a spring or two ago. I appreciate your thoughtful blog post and your insights and I agree with you. I admire your courage and strength in leaving your childhood faith with all its indoctrination and supposed certainty.

    Recently I've read several fascinating relevent books that may be of interest to you and your readers:

    Leaving the Saints, How I Lost The Mormons and Found My Faith by Martha Buck.

    Secret Ceremonies, A Morman Woman's Intimate Diary of Marriage and Beyond by Deborah Laake.

    Under the Banner of Heaven, A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer.

    God is Not Great, How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.

    Unorthodox, The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, A Memoir by Deborah Feldman.

    Why I Left the Amish, A Memoir by Saloma Miller Furlong.

    Salvarion Boulevard, A Novel, by Larry Beinhart.

    Brent, Please let me know if you read or have read any of these books. Betsy

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  11. Here it is weeks later, and I'm never sure if anyone who responds here subscribes to future comments... but if you're reading now, thanks for your note! I really do appreciate readers and each of you gives me a new slant on my own thoughts.

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