An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for March, 2011

Religion–A Weighty Matter

A new study shows that religious Americans tend to be more overweight than their less devout neighbors. The news source I saw attributed the weight problem to the foods served at church potluck dinners. While I agree that high fat/high carb food is generally served at church socials, even the most faithful church members still eat most of their meals at home. I think the answer is not in the meals dished up at church, but in the guilt.

Popular media gives the religious guilt award to Catholics, but I think Mormons outdo Catholics in this contest. Do Catholics receive monthly phone calls asking if they’ve completed their visiting or home teaching assignments? Those calls require a brownie—maybe with a scoop of ice cream—to ease the feeling that not only God, but your church leaders mourn because you couldn’t bring yourself to visit Sister Crabbee and her houseful of dander-ridden felines this month. And what about being called into the bishop’s office and asked to accept a calling for which you have no aptitude or interest? Any variation of, “I’d really love to help you out by serving as Primary President, but I hate all kids except my own—and sometimes I’m not too sure about them” is not acceptable.  Both accepting a calling you will hate or lying to get out of it will send you home to the pantry. And since low-cal substitutes like cigarettes and black coffee are not available to Mormons, chips and dip fill in—literally.

General Conference can really send Mormons on a food binge. Warnings about what might happen to you and your family if you aren’t diligent about Family Home Evening, daily prayer, scripture reading, Sabbath day observance, fasting, temple work, and sharing the gospel would push anyone less spiritual than Gandhi to seek solace in the box of Ding Dongs purchased for the kids’ lunches.

On the other hand, Evangelicals who are already saved probably don’t do Mormon and Catholic level guilt, yet plenty of them are portly. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe chubby church-goers are the result of spending Sundays sitting in church instead of biking and hiking with the svelte secular crowd.

Where the Deer and the Antelope Starve

I live in Bountiful, Utah where deer roam throughout the city. Beautiful as Bambi and friends are, nobody appreciates hungry deer barking trees, chewing off tulips, and devouring vegetable gardens. The deer in our area look pretty healthy—apparently our suburban landscaping sustains them. Not so the deer that enter our daughter’s yard in Evanston, WY. With no natural enemies, these animals have increased beyond the capacity of nature to feed them. We watched a gaunt, pregnant doe cross the fence into our daughter’s yard through deep snow to nibble the prickly branches of an Austrian pine—a pine showing the effects of a cold winter and too many hungry deer.

Like deer, we humans have the potential of reproducing ourselves into starvation and misery. Nations already fight over scarce energy resources. Parts of Asia and Africa currently face critical water shortages. Many Americans criticized China’s one-child policy as an assault on a basic freedom. Yet even with that drastic measure, China’s population swelled to over a billion and continues to grow. Which is more unkind—mandating birth control or allowing children to be born to starvation and disease?

The U.S. Congress—depending on which way the power plays—frequently holds up funding for voluntary birth control in foreign aid grants to developing countries—a hypocritical policy since few American couples of any religious persuasion opt to do with no form of birth control.

Mormons like to quote D&C 104:17, “For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare,” as evidence that the earth can provide for current and future population growth. In 1834, when that revelation was given to Joseph Smith, world population was less than 1.5 billion. World population is currently projected to reach 7 billion by 2020. Maybe it’s time for the prophet to ask for an update—particularly in light of the admonition in D&C 59:20 that God gives the things of the earth “to be used with judgment, not to excess.” God’s idea of excess may be far lower than our own.

Shutting our eyes to the real situation of a too large population on a finite planet is a recipe for disaster—and surely not what God expects of us.

If You Want My Advice . . . .

My brother, Dooby, is torn. His daughter Goldilocks and her husband bought a house four years ago. Son-in-law wants to enter graduate school, and they can’t sell their house for close to what they paid for it. Dooby thinks they should get rid of the house before it and neighborhood values slide further.

“Should I write and tell her what I think?”

“Sure. She’ll welcome your advice about as much as you welcomed Dad’s.”

Our dad—the guy who worked 16 hours a day seven days a week; the guy who took thrift to embarrassing lengths; the guy who made a miserable second marriage after our mother’s death. We loved our dad, but taking his advice made less sense to Dooby and me than basing our decisions on soggy tea leaves or the position of the stars.

Not that making our own decisions worked terribly well for either of us. We’ve both pretty well blundered our way through life—making insane financial decisions and churning up marital discord along the way. No way do our kids want to repeat our mistakes—and no way do they think we’ve gained wisdom from a lifetime of spontaneous—often fun—but irrational choices.

Our grown kids don’t want coaching from us. They want cheerleading. And our kids are lucky. They’ve learned from our missteps and are free to make their own—outside the shadows cast by highly successful parents.

Unsocial Networking

I hate Facebook for all the usual reasons—the cuteness, the trite messages, the hubris of thinking someone out there cares. While I have found people I’d lost contact with through Facebook—in all honesty, if they were close friends, I wouldn’t have lost contact. And my interest in photos and news of other people’s grandchildren is limited.

Facebook devotees no doubt benefit from features like birthday reminders, but they don’t help me since I don’t log on regularly. Sending “Hope you had a great birthday three weeks ago” does not convey a message that I’m a thoughtful, caring person. Receiving information about friends’ successes on Farmville makes me wonder how they keep their jobs—or if their complaints about their demanding work, family, church, social life, etc. have much substance.

What I hate most, though, are the uninvited friends who show up on my wall. I never friended Desperate Housewives, although I did post it as a favorite TV show on my profile (a profile which needs updating). Until recently there was no way to hide promotional comments from Bree, Gabby and all the Wisteria Lane gang or from government officials I never friended.

My biggest concern with Facebook is privacy. I entered the required amount of personal information when I signed up. The rumor that the Facebook execs plan to sell this info has me worried. Had I thought a bit, I would not have disclosed my actual date of birth.

Many people enjoy contact with their grown children on Facebook. Obviously, I don’t know the rules for family friending. My daughter unfriended me after I made a clever comment on her newsfeed. Despite my gripes, I maintain membership on Facebook. This morning my wall boasts a photo of our gorgeous 6-month-old granddaughter. My son would not think to send us that photo, but he did put it on Facebook for all his friends to enjoy. Hope he doesn’t unfriend me until the baby is old enough to send me her own pictures.

What’s in a Name?

The Mormon tradition of calling each other Brother and Sister puzzles and amuses those outside the faith. But for Mormons, this nomenclature serves an egalitarian purpose—effectively reminding us that we are all children of the same Heavenly Parents. Of course, even in the best of families, children often resolve disagreements with insults and fists. But, for the most part, seeing ward members as siblings has a unifying effect. We contribute fast offerings to keep our sisters and brothers from going hungry. We sacrifice the comforts of home and hearth on cold nights to visit and home teach our sisters and brothers. We attend sometimes tedious meetings and socials to support those in charge. And we turn out in force to offer food, child care, yard work, house work, and other services as well as prayers when tragedy strikes members of our ward family. That’s what brothers and sisters do.

Would the world change if I saw people beyond my ward and stake boundaries as my sisters and brothers? Am I willing to pay a few cents more for fruits and vegetables so Brother and Sister Migrant Worker can earn enough to feed their families and send their children to school? Can I forego chocolate from companies that buy cocoa beans from Ivory Coast plantations which use my 11-year-old sisters and brothers as slave laborers? Will I lobby Congress to enforce the law banning electronics from manufacturers who use rare minerals from the Congo mining industry which supports the armies that regularly rape my African sisters?  Will I actively protest my country’s involvement in wars that kill and mutilate innocent civilians? Taking these actions may not alter the world significantly but will change one person—myself.

Generally, we Mormons keep civil discourse in our interaction with each other. What if we could extend that courtesy to those outside our group? Referring to a person on the opposite side of our political fence as Brother Obama or Sister Palin might calm our rhetoric. But of course, extending family terms to others has a flip side. It’s entirely possible that the person I address as Sister or Brother might be thoroughly insulted at the thought of being related to me.

Which Mormon Church?

I’m becoming aware of two Mormon churches in the 21st century:  The traditional church and a newer model. The traditional church features leaders like Julie Beck extolling ideal motherhood and general authorities like Boyd K. Packer condemning gays. This church defines gender roles rigidly. It emphasizes sexual purity, stresses modest clothing for girls, and obsesses over young males who masturbate to relieve sexual tension. This church insists Ezra Taft Benson’s 14 fundamentals for following the prophet are essential for salvation. (See Elder Costa and Elder Duncan’s October conference talks). This church harbors devotees of Glenn Beck-style “last days” and conspiracy theories.

The newer model Mormon Church seems to be led by the PR department, especially it’s “I’m a Mormon” series which recently included a segment of Irene Caso, a Spanish sister with a radio/TV career and a stay-at-home-dad husband. This church spotlights–and apparently approves of–testimony-bearing celebrities who follow their own conscience—career women like Marie Osmond and Gladys Knight—sports stars who play on Sunday like Steve Young. This church took a pro-active stand on humane immigration reform and is currently building environmentally-friendly meetinghouses.

Which church will dominate the 21st century? Of course, I’m hoping for the new, improved model. I suspect that if the traditional church continues, membership will continue at its current flat growth rate or even decline.

Turn Down the Fear Rhetoric!

A recent newspaper photo of a Utah legislator sitting at his desk in the state capitol with a revolver strapped to his side says it all. This year the state legislature repealed the law prohibiting carrying guns within 1000 feet of a school so as not to interfere with a law-abiding citizens’ constitutional right to bear arms. A resolution to allow any citizen the right to carry an unconcealed weapon without a permit was proposed. Utahns worry a lot about the federal government taking their liberties. They rushed to purchase guns and ammunition as soon as Obama’s election was announced in 2010 knowing that Obama would take their guns away.

This paranoia extends beyond state borders.  The controversial Arizona immigration law was written by a Mormon legislator. Although the Church officially takes moderate positions on both gun laws and immigration, Mormon political views do not reflect this moderation. I can’t help believing that the fear rhetoric heard in Mormon meetings creates a culture of fear that makes Mormons tremble for their personal as well as moral safety whenever they open their front door. It also feeds the perception that people of different color, religion, or even political parties are enemies.

Mormons hear on a near-weekly basis that Satan’s power is increasing and that the world is at near terminal wickedness. Boyd K. Packer opened his October 2010 conference address with this remark: “This General Conference was convened at a time when there is such confusion and danger that our young people hardly know which way they can turn.” If I took Pres. Packer seriously, I would probably stash a revolver in my purse even though I’m not one of the young people he worries about.

I doubt the Church wants members to be running around armed to the hilt or spouting wacky conspiracy theories. Leaders know this kind of behavior does nothing for Church PR. But I hope they will realize that fear rhetoric from official as well as grass roots sources feeds this problem. Plenty of positive reasons exist to motivate Mormons to keep the commandments and support the Church. Turn down the fear rhetoric!

And the Truth Is . . .

I accessed the March First Presidency Message online so I will be prepared for what our home teachers throw at us this month. President Uchtdorf caught my attention with his story of a family checking out schools before buying a house in a new locale. The first potential neighbor they questioned raved about the wonderful neighborhood school with its caring principal and competent teachers. The second person they interviewed described the same school as totally inadequate. The principal and teachers were rude and uncaring. They wished they could change schools for their children.

Having taught in both elementary and secondary schools for most of my adult life, I have no problem believing that both parents in this story were right. A school or teacher may be absolutely perfect for some children, but not meet the needs of others. Children’s needs vary and expecting one person or one school to meet the needs of every child is unrealistic. The same is true of churches. The reason we have thousands of different religions and sects worldwide is that throughout the course of history, some people found the belief system of their culture didn’t meet their needs, sought inspiration elsewhere, and shared their insights with other disaffected people.

I rather believe that if God ordained one pure church, and its precepts and ordinances were the only way He wanted people to live, He would have made it a bit more clear which denomination had his sole approval. Obviously, similar truths such as variants of the Golden Rule are found in many different religions. We live in a world where honest, upright people exercise faith and come to different conclusions about where and how to worship. If a church motivates us to live good lives and provides comfort, surely that is the true church for us although it may not be for our neighbor who needs a different approach.

 Somehow I can’t believe God cares more about belief systems and ordinances than about behavior.

You’ve Got Mail

When I scooped a pile of recyclables from our mailbox yesterday, a letter to our next door neighbor was included. “Must be a new mail carrier,” I thought. But under that letter was a Victoria’s Secret catalog and that puzzled me. I couldn’t really imagine the wife next door who struggles with a tight budget, five kids and 40 extra pounds from her last pregnancy ordering lacey things from VS.

I turned the catalog over and read the name—our cute, trim bishop’s wife who lives around the corner. When we got through laughing, George said, “No wonder the bishop always has a smile on his face!”

But now I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I return the catalog and possibly embarrass Mrs. Bishop? Do I toss it, figuring she can go online to order if she needs something the Distribution Center doesn’t stock? Or do I keep it, just in case I need a favor down the road?


Monday drizzled in, gray and gloomy. The kind of day to curl up with a book in front of the fireplace. I almost wished Rosa, my ESL student, would call and cancel our morning session—not that I wanted her or her baby to be sick. I just didn’t want to go anywhere. I forgot to turn my phone on when I drove to the ESL Center in Salt Lake. At the Center, the room I normally use was occupied by a group, so I went into the computer lab and arranged a spot where I could work with Rosa. A middle-aged African woman was the only person in the lab. While waiting for Rosa, I spoke to the woman who was working on the Mavis Beacon keyboarding program. She introduced herself as Sarah from South Africa and spoke with a British accent. She asked me about my student and when I told her I was helping Rosa prepare for the citizenship test, she said, “I want to do that. Can someone help me? How much does it cost?”

Sarah had been in the U.S. for twelve years and spoke fluent English, so I explained that she just needs to learn the basics of U.S. History and Government that will be on the test. The citizenship application costs about $600 now, no refund if the applicant doesn’t pass. I showed Sarah how to access an online citizenship preparation site which I’d used with Rosa last week. Sarah had not had any study materials, but she was getting more than half the answers right on the practice test. The instant feedback thrilled her. Finally, she was on the path to her goal.

When Rosa had not arrived after ten minutes, I remembered to turn on my phone and checked messages. She had called to tell me she had a bad chest cold and wouldn’t be coming. I spent the remainder of the hour helping Sarah. She had not used a computer before and coordinating the mouse and cursor challenged her, but she persevered. She thanked me over and over. At one point she kissed my hand, looked upward and thanked God for bringing her and me together at this moment. She thanked her mother for making her go to school and learn English.

Now, I’ve taught school for over 25 years, but I’ve never had a student kiss my hand before. Sarah had learned about the ESL Center from others and had dropped in to learn to use a computer She was unaware the center could help her prepare for the citizenship test. She asked me to come back and help her again, but she needs more than the online program to prepare. I’m already committed to helping Rosa twice a week, and I doubt Rosa would be willing to share her tutor during our sessions. ESL students bond with their tutors.

I’m not able to add more sessions to my schedule at this time, so I introduced Sarah to the staff member who works with citizenship applicants. He will find either an individual tutor or a class for Sarah. I don’t know if God had a hand in my being in the lab at the time Sarah was there, but I am glad my phone was off. I’m glad my regular classroom was occupied, and I’m especially glad the ESL Center, its staff and volunteers, exist to help immigrants like Sarah and Rosa.

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