It’s the Doctrine, Stupid!

The recent patriotic month here in Utah turned my thoughts to the subject of parades and patriotism.

As a resident of Davis County (just north of Salt Lake City) for a number of years, my former wife and I took our children to the Centerville 4th of July parade every year and to the Bountiful Handcart Days parade, which was always a day, or two or three or four, preceding Pioneer Day.

I didnt grow up in Utah, nor did I grow up in the LDS Church. I am from the Midwestern United States, I have a long (non-Mormon) pioneer heritage that extends back hundreds of years in virtually all the original 13 colonies, and prior to converting to Mormonism, I considered myself just as patriotic if not more so as the next person.

Then, I was exposed to a different sort of patriotism during the 10 years I lived in Canada. During those 10 years, I observed that Canadians are, as a general rule, much more reserved than their American cousins. They dont wear their love of country on their sleeve; this is considered by most as a private thing that becomes tawdry when shared with others. And their love of country is, if I may be so bold to assert, a love of a set of values and the society that embraces and shares those values.

Fifteen years ago, we moved to the United States, to Utah. My first experience with a Utah parade was the Centerville Fourth of July parade. This is when I was first introduced to the Utah custom of staking out a position on the parade route with lawn chairs, blankets, ropes, etc., well before the start of the parade. I later witnessed the same thing in Bountiful, which got to be such a competition that people started staking out positions at least two days before the parade. The City finally had to adopt an ordinance that prohibited this practice prior to the morning of the day of the parade.

Then there was the candy that was thrown from floats, causing kids to rush out into the street, scrambling to collect as much as they could. At first, I thought this was fun, but it got to the point where I found the practice demeaning of my children.

Then there were the huge squirt guns fired into the crowd, which Centerville City finally had to ban.

Then there was the overly-showy displays of “patriotism.” It seemed to me that people were in a competition to see who could stand up first when the color guard was at least a block away. This and other practices were very foreign to me. As time passed, I became increasingly disturbed by what I came to view as the “Nazi patriotism” that is evidenced here in Utah by many people.

People made a show of their patriotism, not – so it seemed to me – out of genuine love for their country, but out of an ingrained sense that they not only had to demonstrate their patriotism for others to see, but consciously or unconsciously entered into a competition to be more patriotic than then next person. It got to the point where I was just disgusted by it all and refused, for example, to put my hand over my heart when color guards passed at Cub Scout and Boy Scout events (held at our LDS ward building) or in parades. (Canadians dont do that. When their national anthem is played, they stand with their hands at their sides.)

All of this was very much in evidence at the recent Bountiful Handcart Days parade. I didnt go last year, but I was going to have my kids that day, so I decided to take them, not only because I thought it might be fun for them (not me), but also because I had potentially two sons marching with the Sons of Helaman in the parade (a topic for another post).

Well, the first irritation I faced was trying to find a place for us to sit. It seemed that every square inch of Main Street had been saved, through the spreading of blankets, the setting of chairs or, in a number of cases, cordoning off large sections of grass (particularly the spots that would be shady). But we finally found a place to sit.

Then, more and more people arrived. Even after the parade started, more and more people. We were sitting on a narrow neck of land, and I for one was starting to feel extremely claustrophobic. Then some Boy Scouts came by and handed out American flags to all the children. Then the parade started. I kept waiting to see the Sons of Helaman, but they failed to make an appearance. (It was later that I learned that they were the last entry in the parade.)

Finally, I got to a point where I simply couldnt take it anymore, i.e., that increasingly oppressive atmosphere, and the kids were also ready to go. So we left.

Now, I dont mean to rag on the Handcart Days Parade. But that parade is what stimulated some thought.

For years, I struggled with being a member of the Mormon Church. There were a lot of things I didnt like about it, but I told myself it was the culture I didnt like (particularly that found here in the heart of Zion”), not the doctrine.

A few days ago, the light went on. I was doing some reading about, among other things, the so-called White Horse Prophecy, in which Joseph Smith prophesied that the day would come when the Constitution would be hanging by a thread and the Mormon elders would rush in and save it (and other variations to the same effect). Suddenly, and with great clarity, I realized that many Mormons do consider themselves more patriotic than the next person because they have been taught since infancy that they have a special role to play in the future of America not so much religious America, though there is that, but civic America.

This realization was closely followed by another one: Mormons believe that America has a special role to play in the world, particularly in the future of the world. Mind, there has always been an element of this in the American psyche ever since the Puritans arrived, and it is this element which is perceived as arrogance by the vast majority of the rest of the world among others, that makes so many people in other nations refer to the ugly American.

But the point I want to get to is that it is the doctrines of the Church that have directly contributed to the culture of the Church. I chose for many years to believe that the culture of the Church was what alienated me, all the while tenaciously clinging to the doctrine. Now, I know better.

And, by the way, I dont intend to attend any more parades (Pride parades excepted).

*NOTE: This is my maiden post after a long period of not blogging. For any readers (which would be most) not familiar with me and my story, I was an orthodox Mormon, married with children, until Boyd K. Packer’s October 2010 Conference address, which blasted me out of the closet. I am no longer an orthodox Mormon or married, though I still have children – and a partner with whom I am finding fulfillment as a gay man.

22 thoughts on “It’s the Doctrine, Stupid!

  1. Our neighborhood has the Boy Scouts come by and charge $25 each spring to put up a large U.S. flag on your lawn 5 times a year. I’m one of the few holdouts that have said no thanks to the flag on my lawn. We look like the @ssholes of the neighborhood and maybe we are. I don’t want a huge flag on my lawn and I don’t want to support the Boy Scouts even if I’m one of only two or three in the neighborhood and surrounding streets. I’m sure peer pressure is a pretty big motivating factor for a lot of people buying the flags, as a lot of these families already have flags that they mount to their houses in addition to the big one on the lawn. How many flags does one home need?

  2. Although I would always say that I think that Utah Mormon culture is different than Mormon culture (because, as a decidedly non-Utah Mormon, I still feel like a Mormon culturally…), I think I have come to a similar conclusion…Mormon culture and Mormon doctrine aren’t all that separable, because in my case, the same thing (correlation) fuels both.

    However, you bring up a good point that was mentioned very early on in the first Mormon Expositor podcast episode — folk doctrine and folklore and culture is nearly inseparable from actual doctrine and actual church belief, because in some sense, actual doctrine in the church is just that from the universe of folk doctrines that gets institutionalized.

  3. That’s why I’ve always simply invoked my own pioneer spirit and seen myself as simply taking Mormonism in directions I want it to go. Being an activist for what I saw as a better brand of Mormonism was an outlet for me to channel feelings of frustration at culture and the status quo.

    And just because you’re from Canada, and I can’t resist:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lcH12g9P25c

  4. I wasn’t raised in Utah, and except for a disastrous three months, I haven’t lived there. I have considered myself lucky to have been raised in a mixed political orientation home, that allowed me to be interested in politics, without feeling like I had to choose sides.

    I spent a summer in Washington DC, working for US PIRG, doing some outreach and some lobbying, and some making trouble. I was seventeen, and it was a blast. Of course working for any public interest research group would have put me on the outs with my Utah LDS cousins, actually lobbying for a liberal group was high treason. Several of them did extensive “research” on all the harm that was done when people lobbied for something so unpatriotic. At the time I took a quick peak at the literature, but seeing that the top one was a print out of something Rush Limbaugh said, I shred it without actually reading it, and then bought those cousins a two year membership into UPIRG. (They still complain about that. 😉 It is always nice to get in a dig that is still going almost 20 years later.)

    I don’t know that I have ever equated parades, the number of flags someone flew, or church culture or doctrine, as a litmus test for patriotism. I personally would define patriotism as loving your country, and the people in it, to fight for policies and practices that are in the best interest of the country that I (mostly) love. My ex used to say that he served in the military so that everyone could be free to say what they want, when they want to, even if I think everything they say is a load of crap.

    So, for me, being patriotic starts with looking at the US and then looking at what the rest of the world does, and figuring out how to “steal” the great ideas that make citizens of other countries taken care of in ways I think would be good to have here in the US. It is always kind of bewildering for me to run into someone who says they want to “go back” to the Constitution. The Constitution was a conglomerate of ideas, that were pulled from the successes and failures of other countries, that was written to make the best compromise to hold together states that needed each other, but did not want a king, or anyone, who could force something onto them that wasn’t essential to keeping the union together.

    We are very far away from those times, some are good, some are terrible. I think what you saw in Utah’s “patriotism” is the epitome of the downside. Instead of looking to the world to see what we can learn, we see instead people who are so sure they are right that they never even do a regular inventory of their own lives to see if there might be things they could learn from other people, other religions, other political views, or other countries. It becomes a blind patriotism when the focus is all on the outward signs of patriotism, with the deep reflection of whether we, as a country are living up to the larger global community we could live in, but generally don’t.

    I wish that we would build a healthcare system that had preventative care as its priority. A friend, who was living in Sweden at the time, and I both had out first child about three weeks apart. As I was fighting my insurance company to cover a lactation consultant, she had a nurse who dropped by every two to three days to check on mother and child. Until Sam was four months old, the doctor came to their house for well child check up, on the Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, that were set aside for house calls. There is a much lower rate of infant illness becausr they get to stay home and not be exposed to the kids are at the doctor’s office because they are sick.

    Several very simple things meant that the whole country saved money, not paying for treating diseases that are spread at a doctor’s office. The nurse, stopping by every few days, helped my friend adjust to motherhood, and had an easy forum to ask questions and find help when she started having a pretty severe post-partum (sp?) depression eight days after Sam was born. The nurse was the one who understood the signs and symptoms, and got her help very early on in the process. (Oh, and the psychiatrist had two days a week of office hours, but spent most of his time doing house calls so that he could get a better sense of how the patient and their families were coping, both in hid initial assessments and when medications were started or changed.)

    There are so many countries that have some pretty wonderful things that they have been doing it for long enough to have the bugs worked out, or conversely, they have proven that there do not implement well on large scales. Federal or state governments could simply encourage communities (matching grants, start up money, to borrow from several that are working out well, and might be a good fit for their’s.

    This comment became longer than I realized. I have a couple more ideas, but will save those for when I am not so tired, and not in as much pain. (If you need to have spinal surgery, don’t believe them when say the recovery is really not very painful around 14-20 days out.)

    @ Invitcus Pilgram – Nice to meet you! My two dearest friends growing up (both not married and no kids) came out of the closet about five years apart, one three years after his mission and the other 8 years later. One is in a happy and loving relationship with his partner. The other has come out, but has chosen to be celibate because he considers the gospel more precious than a sex life. I know I wouldn’t survive 36 years of having deep personal needs for love, affection and sex.

    Even though he is an active church member, since he came out, he has very little contact with any of the people we grew up with. The last time I ran into him when he was visiting his parents, I asked him if he wanted to be better about staying in touch, even if it was mostly one-sided. His response is that there are too many people who know that both he and his twin came out. And he doesn’t want to answer questions about HIS choices, and he is afraid that people will want to “enter his bedroom,” in ways that no one would think about doing if he hadn’t come out.

    In the end I gave him my contact info, and he has chosen not to use it. I miss him. I still have a picture with me, the twins and our other (female) best friend, all smiling after we win the ward talent show when we were in 4th grade, that is the book mark for my scriptures. Out of the four of us, two left the church, and two are still members. I can’t speak for my friend who has decided (at least for now) to remain celibate, but each of the three times I have seen and talked to him, he seems to carry a very heavy burden, that only lifts when he talks about his job, or the vacations with all four of the brothers that they do once a year.

    I have more contact with his twin brother through Facebook, an occasional card, or lunch when he and his partner are visiting his parents. I see the love and commitment in the way they take care of each other, day in and day out. The saddest parts for me come because he still has a testimony of the Gospel and he and his partner read the Book of Mormon along with the bible. They are both deeply spiritual, and if given the chance to be part of the LDS church, without having to leave each other, I have no doubt that they would do it.

    I am glad you have found peace and happiness, and I am sorry you had to leave the church to find those things. There are times when I look at LDS culture, and a pervading over zealous members who seem like cattle being herded along, and I ask myself, Is this where I need to be? Even when I find myself being at odds in my thinking to the Establishment. I know it is a cliche to say that I believe in Christ and personal revelation, and so I live my life in the way I feel inspire to. I don’t know if that will be the answer all of my life, but while I believe in the doctrine and teachings of Christ in the Bible and Book of Mormon, I find myself fairly often on the “wrong side” of my Utah Mormon cousins.

    Julia
    Poetrysansonions.blogspot.com

  5. IP – my experience has been different, but not in Utah. I attended a parade in Moscow (in the mid- 90s). No candy was thrown, but there was certainly a lot of patriotism. Quite a few grandmothers protesting their pensions (actually). Flag waving and outright patriotism are nothing new.

    Not necessarily the white horse prophecy, but I was taught by my Mom (born and raised Canadian) that it was God (HF’s) hand that created the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc. The theory was that only in America could the freedom of religion be established for Joseph Smith to establish the church. I think that is also doctrinal – not necessarily just folk doctrine (didn’t the founders appear to Wilford Woodruff in one of the temples)?

  6. Andrew, if you want an example of diversity within Mormonism, try this one on for size:

    One of the most vocal proponents of an uber-patriotic Mormonism linked to American nationalism is Rodney Meldrum. He’s an advocate of a North American theory of the Book of Mormon geography. He organizes paid tours of Book of Mormon locations, buys into the Cleon Skousen/Glen Beck model of the United States of America being the promised land and the force that will bless the world, etc. White Horse prophecy, the works. He organizes regular seminars and exhibits in Utah shopping malls and conference centers.

    And he and FAIR have been having an ongoing feud for the last few years. Ever since he tried to assert that anyone who disagreed with his geographic theories “didn’t believe” in the prophet Joseph Smith, he and FAIR have been trading blows extensively. There was even an entire issue of FARMS Review dedicated to tackling the problems with the North American theory.

    Kind of hard for outsiders to predict who is going to be on whose side, isn’t it?

  7. re 9,

    Seth,

    This is a really great point. I would go further…it’s not just hard for outsiders to predict who is going to be on whose side; it’s difficult for insiders as well. That’s because the “inside” isn’t as solidly defined for anyone — outsiders or insiders. Hence, you have FARMS/Maxwell Institute claiming they are insiders and John Dehlin is not, Ralph Hancock claiming he’s an insider and Joanna Brooks is not, and as you mention, FAIR vs. Meldrum.

    The reason why each of these groups believes themselves to have some sort of institutional imprimatur is because the church is actually very coy (or inconsistent) on these things…the church doesn’t say which theory of the Book of Mormon is right, or it vascillates on which hypothesis it will implicitly support, and so various groups/individuals can believe mutually exclusive theories and hypotheses and each believe that their hypothesis is the one correct and supported hypothesis.

    This is the origin of speculation and folklore, but it is also the source of doctrine.

  8. aerin@8- *bad joke coming* In Russian parade, candy throws you!

    @IP- I don’t think that extreme patriatism, or what you’ve described as such, is strictly a Mormon thing. I think it’s more of a ‘anything conservative’ thing. I grew up in a rural (at least as rural as you can get and still be in Washington County, Oregon) area. I spent a lot of my time around horses and cows, and events which use horses and cows. I can tell you that every parade, every rodeo, every dance, every trail ride, and every camp out had, if not an abundance of patriatism, at least heavily patriotic overtones. These activities had nothing to do with Mormon culture, and perhaps only a light touch of religeous overtone. I have certainly done my share of participating in the ceremony of it all.

    That is just the way that America is. If there is something wrong, or creepy, about it, then we just aren’t aware of it. Competitiveness creates its own reason for going over-board on things, and at that point you are going beyond the actual patriotism and going more into the realm of one-upping your neighbor.

    It’s like that flag spat between the US and North Korea a while ago. It started with two flags, one from either country, which could be seen by either side from across the DMZ. Then, one day, one of them decided to put up a bigger flag. The other side couldn’t have that, so they put up a bigger flag. That continued until, if memory serves correctly, North Korea put up a flag that was the equivillant of 3 football field in area. This wasn’t about patriotism, it was about being better than the other side.

    Mormon culture certainly has its own competitive aspects (Stake basketball tournament anyone?), so competition at a parade shouldn’t be that big of a shocker. The problem is when it goes past good natured competition and into the realm of contention. Once you bring anger into it, then it goes beyond what gospel loving people should be participating in. Since even the most righteous members of the church are flawed, we often loose sight of that, a lot of times without even realizing it.

  9. Thanks for all the comments.

    @1 – Wendy, I can relate to the Boy Scout flag thing. The YM/YW did that in my old stake, and it was a good fund raiser that went to pay for summer camps for the kids. What I really resented was the annual Friends of Scouting drive where we were strong-armed by the stake presidency and bishopric to “donate” $45+ to support the Scouting organization in the Greater Salt Lake area.

    @2,3,9 – You’re right: what I described in my post is not folk doctrine, but actual doctrine of the church. True, the “White Horse Prophecy” is pseudo-folk doctrine, but it has been endorsed by a number of GAs over the years. But the role and destiny of the church and its members vis-a-vis America starts right in the Book of Mormon and permeates the D&C.

    @7 – Julia – thanks for your lengthy comment and your kind words.

    @11 – I would agree with you that super-patriotism is not just a Mormon thing, and I certainly agree that it’s a conservative thing. If one conducted a poll among staunch Republicans, I feel quite confident that the overwhelming majority would say that Republicans are more patriotic than Democrats. But, of course in Utah, this all gets bound up with religion. I remember our bishop a few years ago making a presentation at a combined PH/RS meeting in which he said, among other things, that a member of the ward had commented to him that they didn’t see how a Democrat could get a temple recommend!

    What I think is particularly toxic is the whole “civil religion” thing, mixing religion with politics and civic affairs. And I think no other religion or denomination can come close to the Mormon Church when it comes to mixing religion and patriotism.

  10. Then, I was exposed to a different sort of patriotism during the 10 years I lived in Canada. During those 10 years, I observed that Canadians are, as a general rule, much more reserved than their American cousins. They dont wear their love of country on their sleeve; this is considered by most as a private thing that becomes tawdry when shared with others. And their love of country is, if I may be so bold to assert, a love of a set of values and the society that embraces and shares those values.

    I had kind of a similar culture shock visiting the U.S. (since I usually live in Europe). I’m sure many readers scoffed and recoiled from your use of the term Nazi patriotism (yes, it’s an exaggeration). Yet part of the reason people in Europe are more reserved about patriotism is because they have a very real experience with the dangers of nationalism that has a religious fervor to it.

    I think there is a very real danger when we have more fervent loyalty to symbols and words than to the values those symbols are supposed to stand for. I wrote about the problem a few years (during the GWB administration): Be the good guys (and I unfortunately have not seen the hoped-for change in policy since then…).

  11. @ Chanson – Yes, perhaps “Nazi patriotism” was a little over the top. I was using the word much like some people refer to “Nazi Mormons” which brings to mind people who are extremely dogmatic, zealous and close-minded. But I also appreciate the nuance of meaning that you have described, which I think is accurate. People would probably recoil from the term “nationalistic,” but it is, in my view, appropriate.

  12. Modern Germans are typically wary of nationalism. A German colleague once told me that after a World Cup football (soccer) tournament, the media was wringing their hands over the fact that many people who’d displayed German flags on homes and cars (in support of their team) weren’t taking them down fast enough after the tournament ended. I imagine that many who visit the US and see the degree of flag-worship are pretty freaked out by it.

  13. I was already complaining about the display of flags two weeks after the World Trade Center collapse.

    I got chewed out by my mom for that.

  14. @16 That’s kind of the problem. Patriotism is unquestionably seen as a virtue, and any attempt to analyze it (even out of genuine desire to aid one’s own country and hold oneself up to high standards) is viewed with suspicion.

  15. Your experience is quite inteiestrng. Thank-you for sharing it with us.My only comment regarding writing your book is the subjective nature of your experience. While the gospel is universally the same for all, how the Spirit interacts with each of us is certainly unique. Personally, I receive revelation as Joseph Smith indicated, like pure intelligence flowing into me as I study. As such, your characterizations of Spirit interaction may be illustrative only, and not exhaustive as it applies to all.

  16. I missed this discussion the first time around. I can confirm what chanson says about Germans. My mom was German (born in 1933), and she often made negative comments about American “patriotism” when I was growing up.

    She found the whole thing rather sinister. More than once, she said that the only people besides Americans who make elaborate displays of the national flag (and have elaborate rules for how to do it) are Nazis and Communists.

  17. As a veteran of the Army, I have been indoctrinated with a sense of patriotism and procedure when dealing with the flag and nation. To this day, it still bugs me when people don’t properly display the flag (the most common one that is a pet peeve of mine is when people display a flag at night without a light source).

    The thing is, I realize that patriotism breeds contention (on the level of being a full fledged believing member of the CoJCoL-DS), but I’m not sure I can help myself. I realize that patriotism is a bad, because it creates a sense of “other”, as in “that person is a different type of person, who is other than me”, and when you are capable of labling people as an “other”, then you are capable of treating them differently than you would someone who fits your ideals. I don’t think I’ve succumbed to treating people differently because of who they are. Even while I was a believing member of the church, when I came accross someone of a different faith, I usually had an attitude of “I don’t believe that way, but whatever floats your boat”, with the possible exception Catholics, with their wonderful bits like “Gay people aren’t fully developed humans” and “I don’t care if the 9 year old girl who was impregnated by her raping incestful father was not developed enough to cary the fetus to term, we’ll excommunicate the girl and her mother because they had an abortion”. Of course, that is more about the organization than an individual.

  18. @20 I don’t think that having a protocol for handling the flag is a priori a problem. I think the problem is that when displays of patriotism take on a religious fervor, there’s a danger of becoming more attached to the symbol than to the values that the symbol is supposed to stand for — and consequently a danger of sacrificing the underlying values in attempt to protect the symbol.

    My post be the good guys kind of hits on a related theme.

  19. Just when I thought that Oregon was on the sane end of being conservative, this happens.

    This is the kind of crap that I was in the Army to prevent. Although, one could argue that, because you are chosing to use the public school system, then you must abide by the rules set up by the system that maintains that school, in this case, the state. I would answer though, that it is the law to educate your children in America, and that if you are going to make something manditory, then you must make certain provisions which, not only enable those who can’t afford to pay for it, but also do so in such a way that doesn’t hinder their constitutionaly protected freedoms.

    I’m all for saying the Pledge of Allegiance, in schools, boy scouts, or wherever, but I believe that it should be voluntary. Forced patriotism isn’t really patriotism; it is actually a characteristic of Fascism.

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