An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for June, 2012

A Great Inequality in the Land

In 3 Ne 6:10-14, the prophet Mormon attributes the downfall of the Nephite people to “a great inequality in all the land.”

In his 2012 book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray describes the increasing gap of values and lifestyle choices between the upper and lower classes in the US. As a Libertarian, Murray does not see the changes driven by economic inequality. See my take on his book here.

Decades of research have led sociologist Richard Wilkinson to the same conclusion as Mormon. Inequality rather than income make the difference in how well societies function. Check out his TED talk here.

Facebook Follies

Last week I posted a quote by Stephen Colbert on my Facebook page:

 “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

My post stirred my niece, Rudi, to righteous indignation:

“We should force everybody to be as righteous and charitable as we are, at the point of a gun. Because it’s what Jesus would do . . . . Your method of helping the poor is really just feeding a scheme of graft and corruption, without doing much to help the poor.”

A couple of minutes later she added,

 “The people of the United States already give far more to charity than so-called enlightened people of Europe,  so I don’t know why everyone complains that we are selfish. It really is quite offensive.

While I didn’t expect everyone to agree with Colbert’s thought, I didn’t think it was offensive. Since I don’t check Facebook religiously, my daughter Jaycee called to tell me about Rudi’s response and to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ve got your back covered.”

Jaycee’s comment on my Facebook page said she is now relieved from feeling selfish when she buys a latte’ grande instead of helping the poor. By taking care of herself instead of the poor, she’s not feeding schemes of graft and corruption.  That’s the most activity on my Facebook page ever. I hope it will boost the company’s stock.

I did not post a response to Rudi. Were we able to meet for a one-on-one chat, I might have assured her that I really haven’t proposed “a method of helping the poor.” Possibly Stephen Colbert has proposed a method which Rudi knows about and assumes I agree with it—more likely she is placing words in my mouth—a hazard of emotional argument.

Part of my reason for posting Colbert’s quote is in hopes it might stimulate thought and constructive discussion. In a constructive discussion, I would acknowledge the reality of graft and corruption (G&C) in government social programs. I would also point out that G&C occur in the programs of charitable organizations as well as those of churches. Even the Mormon welfare system is not without problems. I’ve seen able-bodied men receiving Church aid for their families because, “I can’t get a job in my field.”

G&C are hardly limited to aid for the poor—dare we say Wall Street and the financial institutions? Congress is rife with corruption caused by corporate campaign contributions. Why single out programs for the poor as potential sources of G&C?

Another thing I would point out to Rudi is that, in my mind at least, right and righteous are not the same thing. It is right to obey traffic signals and doing so makes us safer without necessarily making us righteous.  Voluntary obedience of traffic signals would create hair-raising adventures on every city street. Likewise, voluntary donations to help the poor won’t do the job.

Preventing hunger and disease for others is the right thing to do. Keeping my neighbors alive and healthy so they can work and pay taxes benefits me as well as them. There is nothing particularly righteous in trying to see that American children receive adequate nutrition, health care, and education so they can grow up to be productive citizens. We all benefit from that—and pay the consequences when it doesn’t happen.

Rudi is right about surveys showing that Americans give more to charity than Europeans. What she overlooks is that churches receive the majority of American charitable donations—and not all the donations received by churches are spent on charity. The lion’s share of Mormon tithing funds goes into three areas—temples, missionary work, and Church education. These areas of focus are important for the organization but could not be defined as charitable works.

I don’t have the answer to our modern social problems, but I wish we were having a constructive conversation about the issues instead of tossing barbs on Facebook.

Confession–Not So Good for the Soul

Mitt Romney’s famous apology for the bullying incident, “And if anyone was hurt by that or offended, obviously I apologize for that,” sounds like a speech from Fast & Testimony meeting. Public confession of sins has long been part of Mormon tradition.

The Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants both command confession as a necessary step in repentance. The 42nd section of the D&C lists fornication, adultery, stealing, and lying as sins needing public confession. “And if any one offend openly, he or she shall be rebuked openly, that he or she may be ashamed. And if he or she confess not, he or she shall be delivered up unto the law of God.” (D&C 42:91) And don’t you love the way the only Mormon scriptures that include feminine pronouns are for negative behavior?

The Bible also demands confession of sins to God and/or others. James 5:16 tells church members, “Confess your faults one to another.” Most Protestant religions believe sins should be confessed directly to God. Catholics confess to a priest who assigns penance. Mormons confess serious sins to their bishop—an untrained lay person who may be released from his calling and replaced the following week. Mormons generally don’t do public confessions other than the, “If I’ve offended any of you, please forgive me” rhetoric. (In most cases I suspect this phrase is code for “If I’ve said or done something you don’t like, tough sh__.”)

 In Fast & Testimony meeting, I have seen unwed pregnant girls make public confession and even a woman in her thirties confess sexual transgressions from her teen years. I don’t understand the point of public confession. Is there any evidence that it deters people from repeating the transgression? I also miss the point of confessing trespasses from years ago.

Some parts of the past are best left buried. In Levi Peterson’s novel, Aspen Marooney, the protagonist marries a returned missionary in the temple, not telling him she is pregnant with a former boy friend’s child. Somehow, she manages to carry off the deception and the child is raised as her husband’s own. Years later she meets the old boy friend and wonders if she should tell the truth.

Of course, she should not tell the truth. Her conscience might be temporarily relieved, but her confession would destroy her husband and the son he has raised. God could surely not be pleased at causing so much harm.

Our youngest son joined an evangelical church several years ago. He got a lot of mileage with his new friends by telling stories of his youthful escapades—prefacing with, “Before I became a Christian.” A pastor’s wife in our son’s church uses her past to teach young people about faith and repentance. She describes pulling herself from a spiral of sexual promiscuity by accepting Jesus as her Savior and receiving His help in rebuilding her life.

Somehow, I can’t imagine a Mormon leader’s wife encouraging sinners to reform by telling about a past shoplifting offense—let alone rehashing a drunken episode that resulted in waking up in bed with a strange man. Mormons may no longer make the analogy of repentance to pulling a misplaced nail from a board—“The nail has been removed, but the hole is still there.” Still, the feeling persists among Mormons—those who have sinned and repented are not equal to those who never sinned.

Confessing to God may be good for the soul. In most cases, confessing to humans is not.

Helping My Sister Find Faith

Find today’s post at 

Healthy Visions for Teens

To see an innovative, private program that builds self-esteem in teens while teaching basic values and providing honest information about drugs, alcohol, and sex—check out this segment of Religion and Ethics Newsweekly: 

Farmers’ Market–a Community Microcosm

Since we have a summer garden and I’m not into crafts, I don’t regularly shop at farmers’ markets—much as I love them. Farmers’ markets are one segment of American commerce that fosters local differences. The FM in my Bountiful, Utah neighborhood is small town. I buy radishes and beets from my daughter’s neighbors and cookies from my yoga instructor.

When I visit our son in Seattle’s University District, I join the throng of health-conscious retirees and yuppies choosing fresh seafood and organic milk, cheeses, and vegetables at the local FM. I carry home a gorgeous bouquet of seasonal flowers arranged to order while I wait.

Cedar City, UT has a tiny but thriving FM where recent arrivals to this high desert valley buy zucchini and potatoes grown by descendents of the pioneer stock who mastered the art of coaxing hardy vegetables from barren soil.

Besides fresh vegetables, farmer’s markets offer wonderful people-watching opportunities. For that purpose, my favorite is at Salt Lake City’s Pioneer Park. I spent 3 ½ hours there last Saturday—manning the League of Women Voters’ booth to register new voters. People who believe Salt Lake City is 100% Mormon should visit this FM. Tattoos, bare shoulders, and Starbucks cups are living proof that Zion’s capital city is home to many gentiles.

Parents with small children stopped to buy balloon animals from a clown on stilts. Older kids danced, and gray-hairs clapped in front of a blue-grass band.  Impatient middle-aged women pushed through the crowds—anxious to get their spinach and asparagus home and into the refrigerator. Dog lovers walked their well-behaved pets through the crowds. A less confident dog owner wheeled her Shiatsu in a dog-stroller.

Police officers watched the crowd and encouraged homeless persons who had spent the night to pack up their earthly goods and move on. A young Latino man stopped to read my poster about voting. I asked if he was a registered voter. “No, I can’t vote.” “You don’t have your citizenship yet?” “No, I’m a felon.” “You’ve given up a lot.” “Yeah, I can’t vote, can’t own a gun, can’t leave the country—but it’s still a good country.”  He extended his hand, “I’m Carlos.” I shook his hand and wished him well.

I’m a fixer by nature. When I meet people like Carlos or see the homeless or handicapped, I want to make them whole. Of course, I can’t. I can volunteer time to teach ESL to immigrants. I can donate to charities that help the less fortunate. I can support government programs to help those in need. But I can’t change the world. I can’t make everyone whole and perfect. And while we would all like wholeness and perfection for ourselves and loved ones, do we really want to live in a world as uniform as the look-alike patrons of the farmers’ market in our younger son’s Microsoft-suburb community?  Maybe the uncertainty of this world is part of its charm. I mean, does anyone really want to die to go to Heavenly perfection and freedom from pain and suffering?

I’m not suggesting that pain and suffering are good or that we shouldn’t try to prevent and alleviate misery. Still, when our turn comes to experience the negatives of this world, maybe we should recognize that the potential for a change of fortune makes our good times even more precious.

Luck, Grace or Reward?

In his graduation speech at Princeton last week, successful author Michael Lewis raised eyebrows by telling graduates that luck is a major component of success. Naturally, successful people prefer to attribute their good fortune to their brains, talent, and hard work. Of course, effort and ability play a key role in achieving success, but much can be said for being in the right place at the right time.

Lewis told Princeton graduates that with luck comes obligation: “You owe a debt, not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” He cites corporate greed as evidence of a sense of entitlement by those fortunate enough to attain leadership positions.

Now, a religious person might substitute the word “blessings” for “luck” in Lewis’s discourse. I think a Protestant who believes in grace as unmerited, undeserved blessings from God would go along with Lewis’s admonition for the lucky (or blessed) to help the unlucky.

Mormons, however, generally do not use the term “grace.” In Mormon culture, blessings are rewards for righteous living—even extending that to the pre-existence where some of God’s children were more valiant than others and earned birth into more advantageous circumstances.

Non-Mormon Christians believe God should be loved and served out of gratitude for His grace, freely bestowed. Mormons tend to cite the need for blessings as their reason for keeping commandments. I suspect the concept of serving God out of gratitude rather than as a way to merit blessings makes other Christians less inclined to be judgmental than Mormons.  I’ve heard many harsh judgments against the poor from good Mormons: “I’ve worked for what I have. People who don’t work shouldn’t get free food.” “If people want health insurance, they should get a job that provides it.” Even, “People on Medicaid should have to work for it.” (Lots of luck getting those in nursing homes to earn their keep.)

Sure, some people bring some of their misery onto themselves, but how do we know we wouldn’t do the same had we been born into their circumstances? In the Book of Mormon King Benjamin tells his people not to judge the poor:

  “And now, if God, who created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right . . . O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another. And if ye judge the man who putteth up his petition to you for your substance that he perish not, and condemn him, how much more just will be your condemnation for withholding your substance, which doth not belong to you but to God, to whom also your life belongeth . . . .” (Mosiah 4:21-22)

From what I’ve seen, many Mormons ignore this scripture. As a people, I think we would benefit by following King Benjamin’s advice—recognizing that most of our blessings are unearned, and we have no right to judge the less fortunate. We could also learn humility from Michael Lewis who attributes much of his success to luck—and we could heed his call for noblisse oblige. As the saying goes, “Where much is given, much is expected.

The Government Has No Business

Predictably, New York City Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to curb the obesity epidemic by limiting sizes of soft drinks has people screaming that the government has no business dictating the amount of sugar we pour down our gullets. And health care reform bill opponents argue that the government cannot force people to buy health insurance.  Of course, motorcycle riders fight laws to force them to protect their craniums with helmets.

Obviously, government should not restrict the freedom of its citizens without justifiable cause, but does government have a legitimate interest in citizen’s health? Historically, our government has justified laws impacting health for issues of national defense. When the draft was inaugurated at the beginning of World War II, many young men were physically ineligible to serve due to poor nutrition. This caused the federal government to mandate that all white flour be enriched with the vitamins and minerals lost in milling. Fortunately, no one at that time claimed a constitutional right to eat nutrition-free food, and millions of American children escaped rickets and other diseases of malnutrition because of that law.

Governments also have an economic interest in the health of citizens. Sick people are a drag on the economy. Life-saving medical interventions are available in modern America, but they are not free of cost. Our social conscience prevents us from denying emergency care to those who refused to buy health insurance when they were still healthy.  People with obesity-related illnesses and helmet-free motorcycle riders with head injuries cost insurance companies, employers, and public health services money.

Where do we draw the line? Does the fact that my poor health impacts others give government the right to insist that I buy health insurance, limit my soft drink consumption, and protect my brain when engaging in hazardous activities?

For that matter, should my neighbors be free to burn their garbage in their backyard and stink up the neighborhood rather than pay the garbage-hauling fee? And what if said neighbors want to dig an outhouse in their yard rather than pay the city sewage fee?

Living together in a complex society provides many advantages—but close proximity to neighbors means nearly everything we do impacts those around us—and potentially needs regulation.

Aged to Perfection

My younger brother introduced me to a collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories back in the ‘60s and I became an instant fan. When I taught junior high English classes, of course I found Bradbury’s short stories in most anthologies. “There Will Come Soft Rains” about nature restoring cities where the people have been destroyed, presumably by nuclear warfare, was a special favorite.

I loved teaching ninth graders Bradbury’s dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451. It made its way onto the district’s approved list before the current fundamentalist trend sent the morality police checking books for blasphemous terms like, “Oh God!” Unlike the tacky YA novels currently approved by parent committees, Fahrenheit  encouraged my students to think.

Ray Bradbury died June 5 at age 91. The PBS NewsHour  showed clips of interviews with Bradbury. I enjoyed the interview from the ‘70s when Bradbury was a robust, middle-aged man. The recent interview, with Bradbury’s face and neck bloated from the effects of an age-impaired body, troubled me. His altered appearance reminded me that my own once firm body is losing the battle with gravity. Why would he let himself be filmed when he looked so bad?

Listening to Bradbury’s interview, I realized that although his body was impaired, his brain was not. He answered each question thoughtfully, giving insight into how and why he wrote. My more mushy brain had been focused on Bradbury’s puffy body rather than on the beauty of his spirit weathered by years of experience and wisdom.

I realized that what Bradbury had left—a brilliant mind and wisdom from a long lifetime of experiences—far outweighed a body surrendering to time’s ravages.

The human body does not age to perfection, but the human spirit can.

Custom Dressed

In a recent discussion with some Mormon women, reasons why women should wear pants to church were noted:

  •     Pants are warmer in winter.   
  •     Elderly women can’t manage pantyhose—and their legs are too awful for them to go bare-legged. 
  •     Women who don’t own dresses are discouraged from attending.
  •     Pants don’t show your religion when you cross your legs or bend over.

Someone asked, “Why can’t the Church change the rule about wearing dresses to meetings?” Sorry, Sisters. The Church can’t change the rule because there isn’t one. Mormons are encouraged to wear Sunday best to church meetings. A strict dress code exists for men and boys—white shirts and ties. Custom decrees that women wear dresses, but I have yet to see a written rule. I can’t recall a General Conference address telling women to wear skirts to church.

Wearing pants to church won’t get a woman kicked out. It might cause her to be overlooked as a potential Relief Society president—reason enough to don trousers. Women wear pants to funerals and week night programs held in the chapel. I wore pants to sacrament meeting several years ago when I needed to catch an overseas flight right after the meeting. No one asked me to leave.

Last winter, I decided to make one of my increasingly rare appearances at the ward and dressed in my nicest pants outfit. George was horrified. “You’re trying to make a statement. You’re going to make people uncomfortable.”

Not the first time George has misread my mind, but anyone who has been married a long time knows it’s best to yield on trivial matters. Conflict should be saved for truly important stuff—like whether or not the dog sleeps in the house.

Eventually, younger women will start wearing pants to church—at first because they’re working in the nursery or teaching Sunbeams. They will be followed by young mothers who have to retreat babies and toddlers from under the pews while a high councilor recites the joys of raising children in the gospel. Once the young lead the way, my age group will gratefully join the ranks.  

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