An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for January, 2011

Tithing–an Unequal Law

Many Mormons argue for a flat tax because, like tithing, it asks the same of everyone. A close reading of D&C 119, however, reminds us that the law of tithing was a substitute for the law of consecration, a more perfect law which the Saints could not live. Section 119 calls for all “surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop,” after which “those who have thus been tithed shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually.” In a modern economy of salaried people “interest” and “increase” have been defined as income—with some disagreement about whether gross income or net income should be counted. Many Mormons of lower incomes struggle to pay tithing, but hardly anyone recognizes the inherent unfairness of asking the same percentage of income from rich and poor alike.

Take a look at a millionaire such as Jon Huntsman, Sr. whose annual income, I’ve heard, is $10 million. He can doubtless cough up $1 million without missing any meals. Now consider a beginning policeman or teacher making $32,000 and supporting a wife and two or three preschool-age kids. Under current tax laws, he won’t owe state or federal income tax—although some will be withheld—without interest—until he files a return. After Social Security and health care insurance are deducted from his paycheck, this guy may be lucky to take home $2,200 a month. Unless they live with relatives, rent or house payment will take almost half their paycheck—leaving a little over $1,000 for food, clothing, car payments, insurance and gasoline. They may also have student loans to pay off.

Do the math and tell me it’s as fair for this man to pay $220 a month tithing as for Jon Huntsman to donate a million a year. I know George and I can afford to donate more than 10% of our income at this time of our lives. Paying tithing when our family was young and our income low was a hardship. Our kids resented seeing our tithing check placed in the hands of the bishop while we drank powdered milk and shopped at thrift stores. Church lessons and talks are replete with stories of financial blessings bestowed upon those with the faith to place their last dollar in a tithing envelope, but monetary blessings eluded us.

D&C 119:5 tells us, “Zion shall be tithed of their surplus properties.” Defining surplus is tricky, but many young American families truly have little or no surplus income. And what about members in developing countries where the average income is below $2.00/day? To tithe on their below-sustenance income, these families must take food from their malnourished children. Brad Walker writes about the struggles of LDS families to provide adequate nutrition to their children in Ecuador and Guatemala. These people are the poor the scriptures tell us to care for.

 A wise person said, “Nothing is more unfair than treating unequals equally.” If one of the purposes of tithing is to increase spirituality through sacrifice, it certainly gives the poor greater spiritual blessings than the rich. Somehow I doubt that God thinks the poor need more spirituality than the well-off.

The law of tithing was a replacement for a higher law. As far as I’ve read, God never said it is a perfect law that couldn’t be improved.

Redistribution of Wealth

I hesitated to join my brother, Dooby, on a long road trip to visit an aging relative, knowing Dooby would bring up politics—not for discussion—but to prove he is right. Dooby is not interested in my opinions. I successfully changed the subject for a few hours, but when he railed against Obama as a socialist, I asked what he meant. “Redistribution of wealth!” “What do you mean by that?” “Social Security!” “So, you don’t accept your Social Security check?” “No, I earned it, but I’d be a lot better off if I’d had the freedom to invest in my own retirement.”

Since we were trapped in the same car for a couple more hours, I changed the subject although I chuckled inside. Dooby’s 401k is a disaster. He pulled his money out during the brief stock market downturn of the ‘90s and missed benefitting from the rebound. He then started reading stock market advice columns and reinvested on their hot tips. During the years of bull markets, while my own untouched 401k recovered nicely, Dooby’s investment growth was nil. He told me that he finally realized that following tips meant he was buying high and selling low. It’s hard to believe that Dooby thinks he’d be better off today if the money he’d contributed to Social Security had been invested and managed by himself.

When I started working, I was a bit pessimistic about Social Security being solvent by the time I applied for it. Still, I didn’t object to paying the tax that kept my parents and other elderly people comfortable.  At this time, I have reached the seven-year mark for collecting benefits—the time period when actuaries say the average person has received all she’s paid in. Unlike Dooby, I don’t believe my contributions were making astronomical interest for all those years and that I’m being gypped from the benefits of phenomenal, totally upward stock market profits. I’m grateful that current workers are keeping my check coming—and I’m well aware that if they’re allowed to pull out of the system, my benefits are jeopardized.

I’m also grateful for Medicare—but have to admit I think the system is backward. The people with jobs and families to support should be the ones covered by government health insurance, not us expendables.

Medicaid is a favorite target for budget cutters. A Utah legislator has introduced a bill to force recipients to perform community service for their benefits. This legislator probably doesn’t realize that Medicaid is primarily restricted to the elderly, the disabled, and children. My two elderly aunts—one with severe dementia, the other with a body too weak to allow her to move from bed to wheel chair without assistance—wouldn’t be in a nursing home if they had the ability to perform community service. Both have outlived their own resources and their family’s ability to care for them.

Cousin La La regards Obamacare as un-American. La La has a granddaughter with serious medical conditions and no health insurance. La La told me she heard of a man whose mother needed expensive surgery which she couldn’t afford. On a flight across the country, the man told the woman sitting next to him about his mother. The woman opened her checkbook and wrote him out a check for the amount of the surgery. La La just knows there are people out there who would pay for her granddaughter’s treatment if only she could find them.

I really don’t have a problem with the haves sharing with the have-nots. To me that’s not redistribution of wealth. It’s common decency. And while government is not always efficient, it’s probably more cost-effective than buying first class airline tickets in hopes of finding a rich donor to cover medical costs for a needy relative.

She Wouldn’t Have Your Life

While attending BYU, our daughter Lolly lived in a non-BYU-approved basement apartment several miles from campus. The upstairs was rented to a single mother of four pre-school to elementary-age kids. Mindy, the mother, was friendly and took good care of her kids. In other ways she fit the welfare mom stereotype. She had a succession of boy friends who often stayed overnight. The pizza delivery truck brought dinner several nights a week, and beer bottles filled her garbage can after a boy friend’s visit.

Mindy couldn’t pay her phone bill and for several months borrowed the phone in the basement apartment to make calls. I criticized Mindy for setting a bad example for her kids and wondered why she didn’t pull herself together, get rid of the boy friend, stop spending her money on beer and pizza, and get a job.

Lolly shook her head. “Even if she gave up her boy friend, beer, and pizza, Mindy wouldn’t have your life, Mom.”  Lolly was right. Mindy had no car and the nearest grocery store was two miles away. She probably couldn’t get a job that would pay enough to cover baby sitting. The boy friend provided transportation and probably cash for the beer and pizza.  

Living my Mormon values of Word of Wisdom and chastity would not improve Mindy’s life. I had an education, a good job, a house, a car, a husband—none of which Mindy had. Mindy was trapped in poverty from which she couldn’t escape without help with childcare, job training, and transportation.  Mindy was surviving a difficult situation, not as I would, but in the best—probably the only way—she knew.

I don’t know how to help the Mindys of the world. Churches can offer guidance and emotional support, but few have the resources to help destitute people gain financial independence. Of course, not everyone in need is inclined to organized religion—and God doesn’t seem to help people of one faith over those of another. Government programs which provide job training and assistance work for some but not all. There will always be people willing to shift their responsibilities onto others, but does that mean we shouldn’t provide help for any? I don’t have the answers, but Lolly opened my eyes to the fact that it is arrogant to judge people who lack the advantages I’ve had and who may be doing the best they can within their limited circumstances.

To Share or Not to Share: That Is the Question

I wonder whether bishops look at Fast & Testimony meetings with relief—since they don’t have to line up a speaker—or with dread since any nut in the congregation has access to the mic to make uncensored remarks. Generally, I find listening to unrehearsed personal experiences preferable to listening to prepared Sacrament Meeting talks which regurgitate General Conference addresses. Similarly, I have enjoyed the spontaneity of thoughts shared when I’ve visited Quaker meetings. Friends have the distinct advantage of being comfortable with many minutes of silence. Nobody feels pressured to stand up and speak “to keep the time from going to waste,” so fewer, but more spiritual, thoughts are shared.

But back to F&T meetings. The variety of speakers really helps. In any ward in which I’ve lived, Sacrament Meeting talks are given by trusted members of the ward and stake leadership—a group of perhaps 30 individuals. On Fast Sunday, overlooked members have a chance to speak their piece.

Illness and accidents frequently provide topics for testimonies. For several months following his tragic electrocution accident while working as a utility lineman, Frank shared his rescue, treatment and recovery with our ward. His upbeat attitude and sense of humor as he described his near-death experiences and the challenge of living minus his right arm inspired me with his courage, his faith, and his gratitude for the kindness he received from medical personnel, family, and ward members.

Many members share family problems while bearing their testimonies—a practice that, while entertaining to the congregation, may cause problems at home. A memorable testimony was born in our ward by Sister Sterril, a mother of two teens, who urged us all to pray for her to get pregnant. Her kids slunk down in their seats during her plea. Her husband, sitting on the stand as a member of the bishopric, had no such option. Despite the prayers of ward members, Sister Sterril failed to conceive. She and her husband eventually divorced—whether because of lack of productive intercourse or too much sharing of personal information, I can’t say.

Sister Prim was another ward member who enjoyed sharing personal experiences. When she and her husband divorced after a long marriage, Sister Prim informed us in F&T Meeting that her divorce was a great relief to her as Brother Prim had made her do things which made her feel unclean. On the way home from church that day, our teen-aged son, Techie, remarked that he had new respect for Brother Prim. Techie had never imagined the old boy could think up anything creative enough to make his wife feel unclean.

Alas, one Fast Sunday last year, members of our ward were handed a printed card as we entered the chapel. The card listed five things that should be included in a testimony: 1) Heavenly Father lives. 2) Jesus is the Christ. 3) Joseph Smith was a true prophet. 4) The Book of Mormon is true. 5) Thomas S. Monson is our living prophet. The card urged members to testify to the truthfulness of these doctrinal points and to keep their remarks brief. The meeting was predictably tedious. I have not returned.

Good Reads

The cold, dark days of December and January prove God intends for human beings (at least in the northern hemisphere) to hibernate in winter. My definition of hibernation includes reading and eating as well as sleeping. For anyone looking for some winter reading, here are my favorite reads of 2010—by category. With one exception, these books were not published in 2010. I’m seldom quick enough to read a book the same year it was published.

Entertainment: The Evolution Man:  or How I Ate My Father by Roy Lewis. A romp through pre-history as the patriarch of a conservative family of pre-Adamites tries to move his relatives into the modern world with such innovations as fire and marrying outside the clan.

Environment: Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal by Joel Salatin. Salatin managed to tell me far more than I thought I ever wanted to know about organic farming. His descriptions of USDA inspection of meat processing plants made my stomach queasy and my mind uneasy about food safety.

Memoir: A tie, not surprising since this is my favorite genre. In Life and Death in Shanghai ,  Nien Cheng describes her life as a sheltered member of the business community in Shanghai until she was arrested during Mao’s Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s.  Because she refused to incriminate innocent friends, Cheng was imprisoned for seven years. Her survival of the harsh conditions—she was in her 50s with serious health concerns at the time of her arrest—is a remarkable story of human courage. Sattareh Farman Farmaian’s Daughter of Persia: A Woman’s Journey from Her Father’s Harem through the Islamic Revolution provides an equally riveting view into 20th century Iran—from the time of modern reforms of the 1920s through the corrupt dictatorship of Reza Shah Pahlavi  to the Revolution of 1979. Both books provide a window into major political events of the 20th century through the eyes of women who survived the excesses of the events.

Mormon Lit: The reviews, both Mormon and national, of Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist enticed me to read this book in hardcover. I’ve reviewed it here

Spiritual: Big Mind/Big Heart by Dennis Genpo Merzel is a wonderful guide to understanding our own mind and dealing with our often militant egos. You don’t have to convert to Buddhism or spend hours in zazen to practice these common sense meditations.

Travel: Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux is hardly a tourist guide, but provides a lot of insight into the problems of modern Africa. Theroux served in the Peace Corps in Malawi 30 years ago, and later taught at the university level in Uganda. In 2003, he traveled by land from Cairo to Cape Town and recorded the change—and lack of change—three decades have given the continent.

It’s Not My Fault, Dammit!

George woke up in a brown funk this morning—as we all do on occasion. I shared an amusing item from a blog I’d read earlier and George attacked the writer as a trouble maker. (Over the years, he’s learned not to attack me unless he wants his life to escalate into something far worse than a brown funk). I laughed his remark off, but began silently berating myself. I shouldn’t have brought up a subject with which George might potentially disagree—something that might set him off on a tirade against a person he’s never met. I searched my mind: Had I said something last night that brought on this mood? (This event took place at breakfast, so I couldn’t distance myself from George without distancing myself from my oatmeal with blueberries and sunflower seeds—a sacrifice I was not prepared to make). I tried to tune George out, but my ears wouldn’t cooperate. I built up a fair amount of resentment before he finally released enough steam to come back to earth and say, “I don’t know why I got up feeling this way.”

Of course, I get up grouchy on occasion and take it out on George—but he has a major advantage. He never takes my bouts of irritability personally. Men are not trained from childhood to take responsibility for relationships the way women are. Are men ever told they are the “heart of the home,” that they set the tone for the family? Are little boys told, as I was in Primary, to greet the day with a song? That their smiles and cheery dispositions make everyone in the family happier—and by extension—their fits of crankiness destroy the harmony of the home?

Responsibility for the happiness of others is a tremendous burden. Just providing clean clothes and adequate nutrition strained my personal resources when our kids were small, but I still fretted over their happiness or lack thereof. Not that I had any solutions to the fact that their teachers didn’t always appreciate them and their friends didn’t always like them. Heck, I didn’t always appreciate them or like them either. But I did feel responsible—and apologetic: “Yes, I know it’s embarrassing for you to be seen in our old station wagon with the ‘Please steal me” bumper sticker, but we can’t afford to replace it now.” It was my job to make everyone in the family happy and most of the time I failed—somebody was always in a snit about something.

It’s time I and many other women realize that people are responsible for their own happiness. So, the next time George wakes up with his underwear in a knot, I’m taking my oatmeal to my desk—being careful not to dribble it onto my keyboard. That’s my own responsibility.

Guys Just Don’t Get It

When our son’s firstborn arrived in Seattle, two years ago, Wort wanted us to fly up immediately to see the baby. I demurred, saying we’d wait until his wife, Cookie, felt like having company. “But her mother’s here with us,” he said. Wort couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that mothers-in-law are not the same as mothers. Cookie didn’t extend an invitation, so after two months we solved the dilemma by staying in a hotel when we came to see the baby. Since that time, we’ve gotten better acquainted with Cookie. I spent ten days helping her after the birth of baby number two and I think she enjoyed my stay. But George and I still limit our visits to a long weekend—respecting the old adage, “Company like fish, smells after three days.”

When I help out with my daughter’s children, I know Lolly will forgive me if I put the dishes away in the wrong places—I’m her mother. She has to forgive me. When I use my haphazard methods of child control rather than her psychologically-correct methods, Lolly doesn’t expect any better. But a daughter-in-law probably has higher expectations of competency and a lower level of tolerance for mishaps during a visit.

Contemplating a worst case scenario, Lolly and Doc have considered who they want to raise their children. (Of course, the answer to that is, “No one else”—but we’re talking worst-case scenario). Since they descend from families of late-bloomers, Lolly and Doc realize the grandparents would likely not live long enough to see the kids through high school, so their logical choice is siblings. Lolly opts for her sisters who are childless and who both adore her kids. Doc opts for his brother’s family because they are active Mormons and would take the kids to church—something they couldn’t expect from Lolly’s sisters. Doc fails to understand that even a woman with the best of hearts would feel overwhelmed with four more kids dropped into her family—and that his brother’s wife couldn’t be expected to feel the same about these nieces and nephews as her own children. Children taken to church every Sunday but who are raised without love will not grow into healthy adults.

My 86-year-old aunt, blind and suffering from advanced dementia, resides unhappily in a nursing home. Her only son lives six hours away. After Aunt Lucy’s bishop took her to their ward Christmas party, he advised my cousin to take his mother home and enjoy her while she’s still alive. This good bishop has no idea of the care Aunt Lucy needs 24/7 or the burden her care would place on the daughter-in-law Aunt Lucy has never liked. Taking Aunt Lucy to a party provides no window into what Aunt Lucy’s care would do to my cousin’s marriage.

Most American husbands help with child care and household tasks, and most American wives work outside the home at least part time. Still, the major responsibility for care giving falls on the wife. And even the best of husbands fails to understand what a burden that can be—especially if the care giving extends to relatives by marriage. Guys: Before making statements or decisions about care giving, check with the woman who will shoulder the responsibility—or better still, spend a week as sole care giver in the situation.

When Egos Collide

Our sons are both Libertarians. I enjoy sharing their takes on politics and economics and they listen respectfully to my questions and differing opinions. (We raised them well.) But I have two relatives, Dooby and Mama Grizzly, with whom I try to avoid political topics—not because of their right-wing views, but because of their rudeness when I can’t agree with statements like: “Obama is not a natural-born citizen,” or “Global warming is a conspiracy perpetrated by the science community.”

I finally realized that Dooby isn’t actually speaking to me when he insults my intelligence if I question his sources of information. Dooby lives in a blue state where his conservative views are viciously attacked by his liberal neighbors. When he brings up politics with me, Dooby is trying to make the points he wishes he’d made with acquaintances who probably insulted him.

Since her retirement a few years ago, Mama Grizzly spends her free time listening to talk radio. Mama G. latches onto pundits’ opinions as tenaciously as a stray dog defends a bone. Armed with her favorite talk-show host’s sure knowledge of the source of our national evils (Democrats and big-spending socialists),MG seeks to share her wisdom and perceives any attempt to offer a differing opinion as a personal attack. Possibly MG is trying to replace her lost career identity with a new persona—political guru.

A few months ago, a 16-year-old home teacher visited and offended us by demanding to know why we seldom attend meetings. He offered his conviction that we need to improve our lives with a rigorous application of church attendance. (We think we’re fine the way we are). Because young Brother Fervent is only 16, we smiled politely, thanked him for coming, and hoped he wouldn’t be back. I recently learned that his active Mormon parents have split up. Now I understand Bro. Fervent’s fervor for preaching the gospel. He needed to clutch at a source of permanence in his life as he watched his family disintegrate.

I’m always glad on the occasions when I keep my ego in check (i.e. my mouth shut) while dealing with the defensive egos of others. A wise person said that nearly everyone we meet is dealing with all she can handle at any given time. Extending compassion to others is less stressful than defending our own egos.

Being in the World, but Not (Aware) of the World

When our neighborhood book group discussed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn recently, one woman expressed amazement to learn of the poverty that existed in American slums in the early 20th century. How could she have lived for over 70 years without learning of the world beyond Utah? Unfortunately, this neighbor is not unusual. Mormons often isolate themselves from outside influences. Our son-in-law, Doc, a very bright guy, said he’d had no idea until he read Alex Haley’s Roots that African-Americans had suffered the kind of persecution Mormons had in the 19th century. Was his teen reading limited to Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites?

Utah Mormons are often criticized as insular by those living outside the state, but in my experience, Mormons everywhere tend to limit friendships to Church members—possibly because Church activity leaves no time for other people or organizations. Reading material is also often restricted to Deseret Book sources.

Devoid of outside contact, our vision of the world becomes skewed. A visiting teacher told me her domino group had invited a nonmember to join them. “She has high standards,” Sister Small told me, “and we set the example for her.” This kind of hubris—the notion that we are the only righteous people—may have been the failing President Ezra Taft Benson warned against in his 1989 address, “Beware of Pride.”

My sister’s loss of testimony began on her mission when she encountered, for the first time, good people with strong testimonies of their own faiths. Would Pelly have left the Church had she been prepared for the reality that good people, devout in their own faith, exist outside of Mormonism?

Joseph Smith counseled us that, “One of the grand, fundamental principles of ‘Mormonism’ is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.” Contemporary Mormons frequently dismiss anything outside our church as unworthy of our time if not downright suspect. Case in point: Our neighborhood book group was formed from our disbanded ward Relief Society book group after the RS president tried to restrict the reading to Church titles. Locking ourselves into cultural insularity does not prepare us to live in the real world. Neither does it further the growth of the Church as a worldwide organization.

Book Review

My neighborhood book group chose Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn this month. It was fun to reread this book after 15 or 20 years because although the book has not changed, I have. I remembered the coming of age story about Francie, growing up in an impoverished family in Brooklyn 100 years ago. But I’d forgotten—or ignored on my previous reading—much of her mother’s story.

 Katie, the mother, has the wisdom of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird. Katie grieves that she feels closer to Neeley, the younger brother than to Francie—still, most of  Katie’s mothering skills and wisdom are far beyond those of us mortal moms.  At age 17, Katie marries a handsome, fun-loving boyfriend who turns out to be a chronically underemployed alcoholic. When Katie tries to reform Johnny by keeping him away from liquor, her sister, Sissy, sneaks a bottle of whiskey to relieve Johnny’s DTs.  Sissy tells Katie that she knew Johnny drank and had no steady job when she married him. Reforming Johnny is not a choice. She can either leave him or love his good qualities and compensate for his weaknesses.  At our group discussion, we all admitted trying to change our husbands—unsuccessfully. “If we could change them, we might not love them anymore,” one wife commented.

Katie does not let poverty define her family. She allows Francie to pour out unwanted coffee and milk just so she won’t feel destitute. She insists her children stay in school even though the family needs the income they could provide. Education will liberate her children to a better life than their parents had. Katie’s wisdom extends to not calling foolish behavior sinful and to not instilling guilt in her children. When she finds a pack of cigarettes in 16-year-old Francie’s purse, she says there are worse things she could be doing—so Francie throws the cigarettes away.

It’s hard for people born in the latter half of the 20th century to realize that people living at the beginning of the century had no social network in place. No Social Security for children whose fathers die or for an elderly grandmother, no paid sick leave or maternity leave for a woman who cleans buildings to feed her children, no unemployment insurance for laid off workers.

I was surprised to read in a journal, that my grandmother had read this book in 1945. Grandma, who could not bring herself to tell me how babies got inside their mothers’ tummies, apparently enjoyed this book with its frank (for its day) portrayal of human sexuality.

A question young Francie asks herself is why everyone calls Aunt Sissy a bad woman when Aunt Sissy is the kindest person she knows. This is the same kind of question we should be asking ourselves today. At 500 pages, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not a short read, but it is entertaining as well as insightful.

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