Magic Glasses and a Bunny Suit (saying no to perfection and yes to vulnerability)

by Emily Waite

bunny suitGrowing up in the Mormon church, the voice that narrated my life up until now was screaming of perfection. For as we know, though we will never reach it in this life, perfection is the goal – always. After leaving the church I had shed the rules and perfection of Mormonism. But recently, through the wonderful addition of a mid-life crisis, I’ve realized the framework of perfection was still very much alive and well in my life. If there were a patron goddess of “Emmy’s Identity” she would be living in a well-manicured mid-century home, never making mistakes, always saying the right thing, invariably polished, receiving an A+ every day which clearly leads to an A+ in life. Her mantra would be “There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep and shirk all other joy in our lives.” Otherwise known in the world we live in as “Having My Shit Together”.

This Patron Goddess was wrong and also annoying. But trying to shut her up is like trying to get my son’s cat out from under the bed when she doesn’t want to come (shoutout to Kitty-Kitty!). You can stare at her and coax her, coo nice things and promise treats. But in all reality you have two choices: wait until she is ready to come out on her own (which, let’s be honest, cats are laughing at how ridiculous we are 93.7% of the time) or face your fear, get a buddy to lift up the bed frame and grab that cat no matter how much she swipes at you with her sharp claws of doom. (I should be clear here in saying I’ve never done this myself but I’ve watched it happen and cats are SCARY.) And I wasn’t prepared to wait for her to waltz out from under the bed whenever she felt like it.

My buddy holding up the bed frame was my therapist Edna and I was gonna have to face the claws of fear and accept the fact that I did not, in fact, have my shit together. And that it was time to be open about that fact. Edna was quick to pick up on the fact that I love homework and will complete all assignments throughly as to get an A+ in therapy. (This is a paradox of course but I’m not perfect remember and we are all adults here I think we can handle it) My homework from Edna that week was to share my innermost insecurities and thought patterns with my two best gal pals. Oh boy.

I can’t quite adequately express the level of discomfort this brought me.

Once, when I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University, my roommate and I stumbled upon a house full of cute boys while out on a walk near campus. We decided on a whim that we would pretend that we were from England and promptly executed the accent and an entire back story of British allure. The evening was lovely and these boys were hooked. There wasn’t much (if any?) cultural diversity at BYU so we were a pretty big deal. At the end of the night we went on our merry way assuming that we would never see these boys again. We were wrong. A couple of months later I was enjoying my late night run to Hardees with some friends for a bacon cheeseburger and fries (Ah the metabolism of youth!). I was mid-story about an annoying girl in the apartment next door when I turned to face one of those boys from my night of UK deception. I was made.

The discomfort was kind of like that.

Don’t get me wrong here. I opened up to my girlfriends. They knew almost all aspects of my life. But what they didn’t know were the rules that I was playing by inside my head. What they weren’t aware of was the internal dialogue that had been plaguing me for as long as, forever maybe? Sure, I could share with my girls the tough stuff. But usually in reference to all the other people in my life. And quite consistently AFTER the toughest part was behind me. Less vulnerability that way. So much more comfortable. But just like the false eyelashes I wore for my wedding that felt like tiny barbells for my eyelids that I ripped off at the end of the day, it wasn’t working for me anymore.

Over the next few days I sat across from from friends and dropped my cloak of invisibility to reveal the naked truth. Through the bees in my belly, the restless leg shifting and the tears I managed to truly be myself. And you’ll never guess what happened. (Or maybe you will, you might be much further along in life than I was).

My friends loved me even more.

Those girls told me how long they have waited to be sitting “on the other side of the couch” with me after all these years. Those girls knew how hard I was being on myself and just loved me anyhow.

Have you ever seen the viral video of a young teenage boy who has been colorblind his whole life? His grandfather is standing next to him as he puts on these special glasses that will reveal the world of color that he has been unable to witness up until now. His visceral response to what he sees and experiences is full of shock and awe. He cannot believe it at first until his family starts asking him what colors he is seeing. He looks down at a bench to

reveal small balloons in rainbow hues. “Blue, purple, red, yellow, orange, green…” he says. At this point he starts to quietly sob, shoulders quaking at the moment he is experiencing. The beauty of what could have been this whole time and what he now sees is possible comes crashing into his heart. He is overwhelmed with love and appreciation and possibility.

Yeah, that's kind of how it went for me too.

So, I’d completed my first practice session and so far this openness and vulnerability thing was working out. Despite the extreme discomfort, I was seeing glimpses of what life could look like. A life in which I was really showing up and being seen was one that I knew I wanted. A life where I could be free to live “outside the box” without fear of judgement would let me let go of the measurements I had placed on my worth. I knew that the more vulnerable and authentic I could be, the easier I could shed the weight of perfection that I’d carried around all my life. But I had just put the seed of vulnerability into the ground and the little leaves were just barely starting to sprout. There was going to be a lot of watering, feeding, and tending ahead of me required to grow this new plant.

One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, has done extensive research and studies of the concepts of authenticity and vulnerability. Her TED talk –The Power of Vulnerability – is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with over 35 million views. That’s what I call “hitting a nerve” in the collective consciousness if you ask me. A favorite quote from her book “Daring Greatly” addresses this new practice of vulnerability I was trying out. She says, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

My own experiences with vulnerability are time markers of my life that started young. One of these was during my 8th grade year in school. We all know Junior High School is the pinnacle of insecurity, self-doubt, and adolescent hazards. And, to be honest, if you don’t agree, had a wonderful 7th and 8th grade experience full of friends and fun and have no idea what I’m talking about…..well I’m not sure we can be friends. My Jr High experience was a simply dreadful one. Being my true self wasn’t really something on my radar. What I wanted, as most pubescents do, was to be liked and accepted. I wanted to feel a sense of belonging and was going to do pretty much everything I could do to make that happen (within limits you guys remember I am a rule follower, goody-two-shoes). I wasn’t popular and didn’t have many friends. I had a couple friends from church but they weren’t especially “ride or die” when we were out in public. The others were mostly acquaintances that I’d been in school with since 4th grade. This is all to say, I was thrilled when I received an invitation to a Halloween party at the house of one of the most popular boys in the school. It was in the “rich” neighborhood and would take place in his garage with a DJ and dancing and endless snacks and no parents. Everyone was talking about it!

I didn’t have much time to figure out a costume and we didn’t have much money. But still my mother dutifully and enthusiastically pulled out the tub from the hall closet containing what we had available. I knew I needed a real costume. I couldn’t just show up with a half hearted attempt to such a major event in my life that would most certainly catapult me into popularity and therefore solve all of my problems. Sounds perfectly logical.

Wait, it gets better.

It was determined the best costume option we had was a giant bunny suit my older brother had worn in a local theater production. Think Bugs Bunny with a hint of Eeyore. Not only that but my sweet mom and I decided it would be even better if we stuffed some pillows into it to make me a fat bunny. Here is the point in the story where I remind you that I was NOT cool in 8th grade. Just in case that wasn’t obvious.

The time arrived and my dad dropped me off outside the house with a “have a good time!” and plans to return in a few hours to collect me again. So there I went, by myself, following the balloons and the sound of Depeche Mode around the side of the house to my future. I nervously walked out of the sunlight, through the open door and into the darkness of the garage. I don’t know the exact number of seconds it takes for ones eyes to adjust from full sun into darkness, but that’s about how much time I had to realize that every single other female at that party was dressed as every possible version of Madonna or Cindy Lauper. My whole world tilted. I may as well have been standing there naked. (I look back now and laugh as I imagine the silhouette of a giant obese bunny walking through that door and how that must have looked).

This vulnerability was so fierce I could almost taste it in my mouth. There wasn’t pointing and laughing. I won’t pretend it was that awful. But there was staring, awkward half smiles, and whisper giggles from various corners of the room. The way I saw it I had two choices: 1) run outside to a neighbor’s house and ask to use their phone to call home and hope that someone was there to come pick me up again right away — no cell phones people, I’m old — or 2) accept the situation and try to survive the discomfort

I chose to stay.

I wish I could say that my 12 year old self saw the power of showing up and confidently saying “This is me! I’m here and I’m worthy!”. In reality, my choice was to stay because it was overruled by my fear of how much worse it would be if I ran out of there wiping away tears with my giant carrot. (this is a true part of the story. I was actually carrying a large carrot as a costume prop). So I stayed. I am currently squirming in my seat just recalling my fragile pre-teen self who turned a bright shade of red and felt her armpits squirt violently. I want to hug little Emmy who shuffled around in a corner so as to be obscure about whether she was actually dancing or just fidgety. I want to put my arm around the young lady killing an obscene amount of time at the soda station trying to “decide” which can to grab. But I also shed a tear for that awkward looking girl who said “yes” when a nice boy asked her to dance a slow song (it was Eternal Flame by the Bangles for those who want a lovely little shot of nostalgia) and who laughed along with him when her fat pillow belly kept bumping him around. I want to do a happy dance for the girl laughing, by the end of the night, near the donut table with a few of her schoolmates.

That girl was brave, even when she didn’t want to be. That kid survived and she showed up. She was one tiny baby step closer to recognizing that she deserves to be here; ALL of her.

She is my inspiration as I fertilize and water and put out into the sun my plant of authenticity. That little badass is reminding me that it’s time to get it together and show up right now. Even when it’s scary. Even when I’d rather not, but thanks.

Even when I quit my job and tell my boss — and good friend — the true reason.

Even when I speak openly about my gay son to my very orthodox family.

Even when I answer honestly to a close friend’s question of “What’s going on with you?” despite the fact that we are in the middle of lunch rush hour at my favorite cafe and I have a 98.3% chance of crying.

Even when I choose to speak out loud, for the first time, my fears and insecurities with no guarantee of the outcome.

Scary, scary, scary.

But there is a risk assessment that our wise vulnerability researcher, Brene, reminds us we need to make. We can either let go of what people think or we can let go of who we are.

Well I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.

Does the Second Anointing Explain Mormon Support for Trump?

by Johnny Townsend

I am baffled that so many Mormons support Donald Trump. At one point, the percentage of Mormon Trump supporters was the highest of any religion (61% according to a 2017 Gallup poll). While some Mormon opposition has existed from the start, the vast majority of Mormons heartily endorsed a man who admitted groping women, who mocked a disabled reporter, who called on followers to assault his opponents, and who, by anyone’s definition, was a great big creep.

I speak Italian, as a result of my time as a Mormon missionary in Rome, and I’ve studied French, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and American Sign Language. I also took a translation course in grad school. When I hear so many Mormons say, “No one’s perfect. But Trump has good policies,” I’m able to translate that pretty easily.

What they’re really saying is, “You can commit any sin as long as you are serving God while doing so.”

Almost all Mormons are fine with Nephi killing and robbing a drunk, sleeping Laban.

Too many Mormons are fine with covering up sexual abuse “to protect the name of the Church.”

And an uncomfortably large number are fine with a history of racist prophets because those prophets “were only human.”

While people in general have the capacity to excuse the abuse of others as long as they themselves aren’t abused, Mormon theology has a specific teaching that makes accepting bad behavior part of God’s plan. Once a person receives “the Second Anointing,” that person has their Calling and Election made sure and is guaranteed a spot in the Celestial Kingdom, no
matter what sins he or she may commit after that. They are like international diplomats who can’t be prosecuted for crimes they commit in other countries. They have permanent amnesty.

Mormons who’ve had the Second Anointing can literally get away with murder. Or with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. They possess a “Get Out of Judgment Day Free” card.

Perhaps this also explains why two Mormons were among the top contributors to the U.S. military torture program.

Many Mormons in the U.S. honestly don’t care about any of Trump’s “personal” failings because, even if he isn’t a member of the Church, the principle is the same. He’s lowering taxes, he’s banning transgender folks from the military, and he’s Making America Great Again. That’s more than just a campaign slogan for Mormons, whose theology insists that America is the Promised Land, reserved for the righteous and the righteous alone. If Trump can get rid of some of the undesirables, he’s doing God’s bidding. If he must be cruel and oppressive and criminal to do it, well, they can live with that.

The Second Anointing basically teaches Mormons that those at the top are not subject to the same rules and laws that the rest of us must obey. So when Trump says he’s exempt from prosecution for absolutely anything, Mormons have been trained to accept that declaration as reasonable.

“Lying for the Lord” is a common Mormon practice, so why shouldn’t “Imprisoning Legal Asylum Seekers for the Lord” be an acceptable practice as well? And “Oppressing Workers for the Lord” and “Bankrupting Farmers for the Lord” and “Befriending Murderous Tyrants for the Lord”?

“Denying Healthcare to Millions for the Lord” and “Labeling the Free Press an Enemy of the People for the Lord” are just friendly fire casualties in the ultimate battle between Good and Evil.

When my mother was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 43, the doctor discussed the diagnosis with my father, and together, they decided not to tell my mother, deeming her too emotionally fragile to handle the news.

When a newly assigned nurse met my mother for the first time, she said cheerily, “Oh, you’re the leukemia patient.” When confronted about his deception, the doctor still refused to give my mother a prognosis, so she asked me to go to the library and report back to her.

The doctor and my father started my mother on chemotherapy without her consent or even her knowledge.

But they were able to form a “righteous” secret combination because their lies and plotting were all for my mother’s own good.

She was dead two and a half weeks later.

Far too many Mormons are okay with Trump as the nation’s doctor. They just offer their arms for the IVs and do what they’re told. After all, Trump’s only cleansing the country of people that Jesus would have to eliminate later anyway.

“We thank thee O God for a Second-Anointed One.”

Sing along!

With saints like these, who needs sinners?

Climate Crisis Threatens the Mormon Church

by Johnny Townsend

While the devastating effects of the climate crisis will help fulfill prophecies about the terrors of the “last days,” that’s about the only benefit the Mormon Church will receive from them. Virtually every other effect will weaken the Church.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often feel they are given special protection by Heavenly Father, despite scriptures claiming God is “no respecter of persons.” In almost every account of natural disaster, we hear about how “the chapel was miraculously spared,” “no missionary was harmed,” or some other such claim. The truth, though, is that Mormons are increasingly impacted by the effects of worldwide climate crisis, both at home and abroad.

Scientists have determined that as global temperatures rise, so does sea level. Storms become more frequent, and because upper level steering currents are disrupted by climate change, even small storms can linger over an area and cause widespread devastation. In 2017, flooding impacted roughly 1400 Peruvian Latter-day Saints.

That same year, Hurricane Harvey dumped over five feet of rain and flooded six LDS meetinghouses in the Houston area, causing minor damage to another twenty. 800 homes of church members were damaged, with 2800 members displaced. Even the Houston temple was flooded.

In 2018, Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas flooded the homes of 20 members. Cyclone Gita seriously damaged a ward meetinghouse in Tonga as well as the Liahona high school there. Over in Samoa and American Samoa, Gita flooded the LDS Service Center and damaged the stake center in Pago Pago.

Just a few years earlier, Typhoon Haiyan destroyed the homes of hundreds of church members. According to the Deseret News, “In one Mormon congregation alone, 95 percent of the members saw their homes destroyed. Scores had lost family members, many carried out to sea with the current, never to return.”

At least two ward meetinghouses were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many displaced members in Louisiana and Mississippi moved out of the area permanently.

In 2016, an LDS stake center in Denham Springs, Louisiana was submerged when a storm stalled over the Baton Rouge area for days.

In 2008, Nauvoo was threatened by floods in the American Midwest. In 2019, the town was flooded. The Mormon Bridge connecting Nebraska and Iowa was washed away.

Extreme weather events caused by global warming are becoming more common around the world. They affect everyone, and since Mormons are part of “everyone,” they affect members of the Church as well. Even those who don’t lose their homes (or their lives) are impacted when FEMA and other government agencies use billions in taxpayer dollars to address disaster after disaster after disaster.

In 2017, members of the Mormon Church lost 150 homes in 16 California wildfires in Santa Rosa, Napa, Ukiah, Auburn, and Coffey Park. A mission home, a meetinghouse, and an Institute building were threatened. They survived the fires that year, but the Church will need to deal with more and more losses as wildfires in the west worsen in the coming years.

In 2018, 20 member families lost homes in the Carr fire near Redding, California. One can look up stark images of wildfires burning behind the Payson temple in Utah.

And who can forget the devastation wreaked upon members in Paradise that year? Two meetinghouses burned to the ground, the fire so intense that a metal beam supporting the roof of one of them melted. Almost every member in town, over 60 families, lost their homes.

These are no longer isolated incidents. This is the future of life on Earth as the climate crisis worsens and we continue to refuse addressing it.

It bears remembering that all these disasters also impact the missionaries serving there at the time and disrupt missionary work in the area for years afterward.

Of course, nothing is all bad. Even climate crisis has a silver lining for Mormons. Temple work, in those temples that survive, will receive a boost, given the increased opportunity to perform baptisms for the dead.

Kinda gives “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” a rather different meaning, doesn’t it?

Woe unto Them That Are with Child

by Johnny Townsend

If you were a Jewish couple in 1938 Berlin, would you choose to bring a child into the world?

Groups like Conceivable Future and Birthstrike are among several that have formed recently as more and more young people watching weather reports every day face a question most people in the U.S. have not had to ask themselves before. It’s a touchy subject for couples who chose to have children before they fully understood the seriousness of the climate crisis or for those who want to be parents anyway.

Many Christian religions forbid contraception. It was common in my hometown of New Orleans to ask a new acquaintance with six or seven siblings, “I take it you’re Catholic?” When my Mormon aunt and uncle lived in South Carolina and people would comment on their large family (three children at the time), they’d smile and say, “We’re practically newlyweds. We’re just getting started.”

Mormons have a particular theology that adds reproductive pressure on couples. They believe they were assigned a quota in the “Pre-existence” committing them to producing a minimum number of bodies for spirits waiting for their chance to come to Earth.

While working as a Mormon missionary in Rome, I became good friends with an Italian sister missionary, Nicla. We wrote regularly after we returned home, and when I came back to Italy to study in Florence, she caught the train from southern Puglia to spend some time with me. A month later, we were engaged.

In Mormon culture, engagements often last only a few weeks, at most a few months. Ours lasted three years. Part of the issue was my decision to wait until I’d graduated college before marrying. Another was to wait until I’d finally managed to stop being gay.

I eventually realized the latter was never going to happen. While it was a moderate loss for me to realize I’d never have any children, it was emotionally devastating for Nicla. We managed to remain friends for the next few decades until her death from breast cancer. She regularly worried she wouldn’t be able to marry in time to have children of her own. I remember once quoting Matthew 24:19. “Woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days!”

While not the comforting message I’d hoped it would be, I think it’s a message every Mormon alive today must consider.

June of 2019 was the hottest June ever recorded by humans. Every day, higher record highs are recorded around the planet. It’s hardly even relevant anymore to mention “breaking records,” as the new records stand for such a short time. Who knew that temperature readings were only going to have fifteen minutes of fame?

If you knew your child would face Huntington disease or another serious genetic disorder, would you willingly bring that child into the world?

Whatever our religious beliefs, we all have a genetic imperative to reproduce. It’s difficult to choose childlessness no matter what extenuating circumstances might suggest it’s the better decision.

But wouldn’t we be performing a greater service to mankind, to the children already here who face a devastating future, if we devoted the time, energy, and carbon emissions necessary to raise children into addressing the climate crisis instead? If such a decision led to a precipitous decline in human population to a mere one billion, we could always encourage people to start procreating again.

Nicla married in the temple after her childbearing capacity was over and enjoyed an intimate, loving relationship the last years of her life. She died with the comforting belief that when she was resurrected during the Millennium, she’d have an opportunity to bear children then.

Some Mormon politicians, like Senator Mike Lee, claim that the solution to global warming is to have more kids. But that’s like saying Paradise, California is blessedly immune from wildfires for the foreseeable future.

The doctrine of many religions allows for the choice of childlessness, or at least the choice of limiting the number of babies we bring into the world. Perhaps a more righteous and caring decision is to work as hard as we can to make life conceivable for all those impatient spirits still waiting for their turn on Earth.

Or at least postpone childbearing until Jesus takes care of it himself.

A War on Religion

by Johnny Townsend

Religious conservatives often accuse secular or inclusive people of conducting a “War on Christmas!” or “War on Religion!” or “War on God!” I would rephrase that. I and many others are anxiously engaged in conducting a war against ignorance, a war against bigotry and selfishness and greed and short-sightedness, a war against oppression and cruelty. I’ve certainly never protested altruism and compassion and love. If religious conservatives feel threatened by the sins I do address, hiding behind the name of God is like hiding inside a Trojan horse.

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” certainly takes on a different meaning in that light.

I admit that religious conservatives and I see the same actions quite differently, and this is unfortunately the biggest part of the problem. As a Mormon missionary working to convert apostate Catholics in Rome, I was taught (and therefore believed) I was “helping” people.

It wasn’t until I returned home and learned about Baptist missionaries trying to convert unsaved Mormons in Salt Lake that I began to understand the concept of cultural imperialism and different points of view. I resisted my heathen professors at the University of New Orleans as they tried to pry my mind open with their liberal, decadent ideas. But—“Danger! Danger, Will Robinson!”—some of those ideas did eventually seep in.

Why did I care if someone chose not to have children? The species was hardly at risk of disappearing through lack of reproduction.

Why did I care if someone chose not to marry?

Why did I care if someone preferred watching a movie over going to church? If they liked tea or coffee? If they wanted a tattoo?

What did I care if someone chose a different course of study, a different style of clothes, a different career, a different life?

The more I thought about it, the more diversity of thought and action I did want.

If Mormons could moan, “What would happen if everyone were gay?” I could just as easily ask, “What would happen if everyone sold insurance? What would happen if everyone became an apostle?”

Society could not function with that kind of homogeneity.

Even as a die-hard, faithful Mormon, I spoke up for gays. If they were sinning, they had every right to do so. When a friend in Elders’ Quorum said he thought gays should be put in prison for sodomy, I asked, “And what do you think they’ll do there?”

Even as a dedicated Sabbath-day observer, I thought it wrong to enact “blue laws” that forbid businesses to remain open on Sunday. That meant Jews couldn’t do any shopping on Saturday, their Sabbath, and were also denied the opportunity to shop on my Sabbath. Same for Seventh-Day Adventist Christians.

Even as a believing, active Latter-day Saint, I assured a young woman in the Single Adults group that her decision to pursue medical school and marry a man who preferred to stay home and take care of their children was a perfectly good decision and not to let priesthood leaders tell her otherwise. As if she needed me or any other man to validate this or any other decision in the first place.

Once I left the Church in my mid-twenties, my views shifted dramatically, and my former “open-mindedness” proved insufficient to the task of battling oppression in all its cultural, physical, financial, and religious forms.

When my ex-Mormon husband became a Trotsky socialist, I resisted many of the ideas he brought home. I still do.

But one thing is clear—some form of socialism is necessary not only for relieving the oppression waged against billions of humans but also for preserving life itself as we face the ultimate global battle for survival.

As a missionary, I learned to take good wherever I found it. Some aspects of Neapolitan culture were good and some bad. Some aspects of Roman culture were good and some bad. When adding the good I found in Italy to the good I found in New Orleans culture, in rural Mississippi culture, in Mormon culture, in gay culture, I surrounded myself with the best set of ethics I could.

I find some good in Jesuit culture, in the culture of Reform Judaism, in Buddhism, in liberation theology, in the Unitarian philosophy, and elsewhere in religious traditions from around the world.

But when religious conservatives leave our “salvation” to an invisible god, they not only give up their own obligation to act but also impede others from acting as well. They are, in effect, conducting a “War on Humanity,” a “War on Climate,” a “War on Life Itself.” When they continue to promote behaviors resulting in an accelerated progression of the current mass extinction event, they have chosen a position I can’t ignore.

Yes, this is war, a devastating civil war, where we end up fighting lifelong friends and beloved aunts and nephews, our favorite bishops, sometimes even employers and leaders of our own political parties.

But it’s essential that those of us fighting oppression and exploitation prevail. Let’s not shy away from labels like “Liberal!” “Socialist!” “Godless!” or anything else religious conservatives might throw at us. We cannot abdicate our duty, our responsibility, and our opportunity.

The Book of Mormon tells us that starting a war is never justified. So let’s remember—we didn’t start this war. Religious conservatives did.

In the Mishnah, Rabbi Tarfon tells us that, “It is not [our] responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but [we] are not free to desist from it either.” But the stakes are higher now than perhaps ever before in the history of our species. We cannot accept slow, incremental change. If the side of reason and compassion doesn’t prevail, both sides of this religious war will lose.

Latter-day Saint Leaders Can’t Understand Why Teenagers Have Trouble Converting People to Their Church

Although the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints spent decades instructing their official teenage representatives to rush to challenge everyone they meet to be baptized, they are apparently baffled as to why their official teenage representatives have for decades rushed to challenge everyone they meet to be baptized:

Church leaders don’t know where these practices began, but “it was never our intention to invite people to be baptized before they had learned something about the gospel, felt the Holy Ghost, and had been properly prepared to accept a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus Christ,” said President Ballard. “Our retention rates will dramatically increase when people desire to be baptized because of the spiritual experiences they are having rather than feeling pressured into being baptized by our missionaries.”

The paragraph occurs in an article from The Church News about a talk President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave in June “to 164 new mission presidents and their companions” (companions meaning wives, since mission presidents are always male and married) about how to get missionaries to be more “Spirit-led,” or inspired by God, when asking people to be baptized.

The first thing I learned in the Missionary Training Center in the mid 1980s was the baptismal challenge, “because you’ll use it more than anything else.” It began, “When Joseph Smith and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, translated the Book of Mormon, they learned that everyone must be baptized.” As it turned out I didn’t use the baptismal challenge more than anything else, because I felt it was unethical to ask people to commit to joining a church they didn’t know much about. However, I certainly knew it was the expectation:

Some missionaries have felt pressure to invite people to be baptized during the first lesson or even the first contact. “These missionaries have felt that inviting people to be baptized the very first time they meet them demonstrated the missionaries’ faith and supports their thinking that inviting people to be baptized early is what is expected,” [Ballard] said. “Other missionaries have felt that an invitation to be baptized early allowed them to promptly separate the wheat from the tares. In this case, some see the baptismal invitation as a sifting tool.”

Missionaries are typically exceedingly young—still in their teens or barely out of them. The virtues they are told to cultivate are obedience and orthodoxy, not innovation and invention. If missionaries have taken the first opportunity to challenge the people they’re teaching to be baptized, it’s because they were told to. Sure, we were told to listen to the Spirit about when to pop the baptismal question—but we were also told that the Spirit would likely lead us to do so sooner rather than later if we were doing our jobs properly and relying on inspiration about who to teach.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out the church’s website featuring the very first bit of text in the very first lesson for missionaries to teach: it’s all about preparing people for baptism.

Preach my gospel baptism 1

Scroll down for instructions about how to give someone an “Invitation to Be Baptized,” also in the first lesson:

Preach my gospel baptism 2

As explained in a history of Preach My Gospel, the church’s curriculum for missionaries since 2005, this emphasis on baptism was a deliberate, considered decision by Ballard, who became the chair of the Missionary Executive Council in 2002, and those he oversaw:

When Preach My Gospel was published, one of the main goals in a missionary’s teaching was to connect the baptismal interview questions with the content of what was being taught. Consequently, each of the five lessons in Preach My Gospel has the baptismal interview questions right at the beginning of the lesson.

Asking people to commit to joining the church shortly after they’re introduced to it is indeed problematic: it’s aggressive, confrontational, and creepy, and, as the article from the Church New notes, it makes people “feel like missionaries are more interested in the baptism event than in what they are really experiencing spiritually.”

But also problematic is claiming that adolescent missionaries turned people off from joining the church not because they were following flawed instructions but because they failed to hear and heed divine inspiration. You’d think, if nothing else, that Ballard et al could have asked for more inspiration in devising the missionary lessons, so the missionaries wouldn’t have screwed things up so badly.

For Ballard to feign ignorance of the role of his own work in this situation is a dodge and a deception so craven and contemptible that you have to be embarrassed for him. It would be so easy for him to say, “Our efforts didn’t work as well as planned, so we’re trying something new,” instead of blaming the crappy results on woefully inexperienced missionaries who were doing just what they’d been taught.

As things stand, M. Russell Ballard is gaslighting a bunch of kids who’ve believed that one way to receive inspiration is to listen to him. Clearly, he’s as lost and confused as anyone else.

Eyes in the Back of My Head

by Johnny Townsend

In the life of every atheist raised in a religious household, there comes a moment when we encounter our first question that can’t be answered. For me, it was when as a young Mormon teen reading lots of science fiction novels, I encountered aliens with amazing abilities. I’d think, “Wouldn’t it be great if humans had that feature?” Nature programs added non-fiction traits other species already had, species inferior to God—according to God—yet obviously superior in some of their physical attributes. If God was the ultimate being, how could that be?

Why, for instance, didn’t humans display more attractive coloring? Blue, red, green, purple? We were mostly drab beiges and browns. We colored our hair and tattooed ourselves and wore flashy clothes because we understood the need to improve upon nature.

Often when I was trying to nail or tape or cut something, I’d think, “Boy, wouldn’t it be great to have an extra arm or two?” What if we could tell ourselves, “Put your finger there so I can tie this”?

When bullies crept up behind me at school, how could I not wonder why humans, made in the image of a perfect God, didn’t have eyes in the back of our head?

Why did we have unprotected shins?

If shivering generated heat when we were cold, why did people who still had adequate stores of fat freeze to death before burning up their reserves?

Why couldn’t we breathe in both air and water?

Why couldn’t we fly?

Why couldn’t we regenerate lost appendages?

Why didn’t we have a mouth on the end of some new appendage that we could manipulate more freely than we could move our head?

I had lots of questions, but the biggest was why a being that clearly didn’t have the best of all possible bodies was still able to label itself the Supreme Being in the universe. And if we as Mormons had the opportunity to become gods ourselves, with the same bodies we had on Earth, only “perfected,” wasn’t it a bit unfair that we beat out other species that scored so much higher on any objective evaluation of overall traits?

Something wasn’t right.

Of course, I would eventually decide that the issue of physical attributes was the least of the problems most theologians created.

Why, for instance, did other animals and insects need to suffer when their moral character wasn’t being tested to determine if they qualified for godhood? They just suffered.

Why was suffering the only method for helping humans progress to the next level? The most intelligent being in the entire universe couldn’t come up with anything better than that? If God himself is bound by “natural” laws, who made up those laws? Atoms and molecules did that all by themselves?

The questions didn’t stop there. After reaching a certain threshold, though, there wasn’t much point even asking anything else.

Despite the dangers of unregulated genetic manipulation, I now accept that our fate is in our own hands, and we have to be proactive in ensuring our advancement. Perhaps soon we can create features to turn us into the superior beings we want to be. More intelligent, more compassionate, more altruistic. Maybe we’ll be able to individually choose specific genes for ourselves. On the issue of sex alone, I can think of quite a few improvements I could make to my body.

Don’t tell me you don’t have a fantasy wish list, too.

The possibilities are as endless as the number of people out there.

But no, we’re stuck with two eyes, two arms, two legs, and—sadly—just the one penis.

If God is the most intelligent, most powerful being in the universe, why can’t he figure out safe genetic engineering?

I don’t need Noah’s flood to make me doubt. I don’t need anachronisms in the Book of Mormon. I don’t need any of the vast multitude of theological issues debated regularly to open my eyes to the implausibility of God’s existence. The eyes in the front of my head are enough for that.

America’s Greatest Mystery Novel

Once you strip away all the Book of Mormon’s pretenses of scriptural import, what you have is nothing more nor less than a lusty tale of America’s favorite subject: families and murder….

Murder and ruin are written across the breadth of Joseph Smith’s pre-American panorama, and because violence always demands an explanation or a solution, the Book of Mormon’s unexamined greatest revelation is a truly startling one: As Moroni looks at the blood-reddened land around him, and as he reviews the full reach of the history that led to this mass extinction, it is plain that the force behind all these centuries of destruction is none other than God himself. It is God who brought these wandering people to an empty land, and it is God who established the legacies that could only lead to such awful obliteration. God is the hidden architect of all the killing at the heart of America’s greatest mystery novel, the angry father who demands that countless offspring pay for his rules and honor, even at the cost of generations of endless ruin.

The single strongest instance of blasphemy in the Book of Mormon occurs when a charismatic atheist and Antichrist named Korihor stands before one of God’s judges and kings and proclaims: “Ye say that this people is a guilty and a fallen people, because of the transgressions of a parent. Behold, I say that a child is not guilty of because of its parents.”

For proclaiming such outrageous words, God strikes Korihor mute, and despite Korihor’s full-hearted repentance, God will not allow him forgiveness. Korihor is left to wander among the people of the nation, begging for mercy and support, and the people take him and stamp upon him, until he dies under their feet. –Mikal Gilmore, Shot in the Heart

You’ve never read a book quite like Shot in the Heart. Even if you’ve read The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, which deals with some of the same subject matter, you’ve still never read a book like SitH, which is a lot shorter and far less boring than The Executioner’s Song (which I am convinced went to press without any serious editing, because it’s such a bloated mess). People admire TES because of the power of Gary Gilmore, the person at the heart of the story, not Mailer’s sloppy thousand-page account of Gary’s life, crimes, death, and notoriety.

Gary Gilmore, in case you didn’t know, murdered two young Mormon men in Utah County on subsequent nights in 1976, for no reason but meanness. He was swiftly tried for one of the murders, convicted, and sentenced to death. He then refused to appeal his death sentence, which enraged people. The most devoted supporters of the death penalty had no interest in killing someone who wanted to die, because that was no punishment; they only wanted to execute people who wanted to live. On January 17, 1977, Gilmore was shot to death at the Utah State Prison in Draper (if you’ve ever driven from Salt Lake City to Provo, you went right past it; it’s just to the west of I-15), and became the first person executed in the United States in almost a decade, after the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty in 1976.

Gilmore was in Utah because he had family there; his mother was born in Provo. Gary was never Mormon, but his mother and his younger brother Mikal both were, though Mikal went inactive as a teen–he was asked to stop attending when it became obvious just how much he loved girls and rock & roll. (Mikal wrote for Rolling Stone for years and has published a history of rock & roll entitled Night Beat: A Shadow History of Rock & Roll.) Mikal’s insider knowledge of Mormonism makes his analysis of it all the more compelling. He gets a few details wrong (for instance, misremembers some of Mormon lingo across three decades), but he really nails some things, as when he describes his Utah cousins as “prissy and mean at the same time–in the way that only well-bred Mormon children can seem.”

Shot in the Heart is both a Utah story and a uniquely Mormon book on the one hand, and, on the other, a harrowing tragedy that transcends place and religion. Like the Book of Mormon, it is about love and loyalty and devotion and murder and intergenerational violence and children punished for the sins of their parents. It’s a ghost story and a family history. It’s scriptural exegesis and true crime. It’s an elegy and a polemic about the US prison system. it’s grim and despairing–it’s really hard to be cheerful when your brother is the most notorious murderer in the country–and still somehow uplifting. It’s a work that should help inform the mission and scope of Mormon Alumni Association Books.

It was made into a crappy TV movie in the early 2000s. Skip that and just read the book, even though it’s long. It’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius in ways Dave Eggers’ work can only hope to be.

Call for Submissions

Mormon Alumni Association Books is seeking LDS-themed novels in all categories, including literary, commercial, and genre fiction. We will also consider short fiction and poetry collections.

We are looking for completed manuscripts that explore the unique Mormon experience. Works may be critical of or sympathetic to the LDS Church and its members. However, we are not looking for books that focus on whether or not “the Church is true.” We are interested in stories drawn from across the greater LDS community, featuring convincing characters tackling real-life challenges.

If you have completed a book that seems a good match for us, please send your first 20 or so pages along with a query letter that includes a synopsis of your work to: mormonalumniassociation@gmail.com

A Mormon By Any Other Name

by Johnny Townsend

A Mormon by any other name would smell as sweet. Or, more accurately, a Mormon by any other name would smell as saccharine.

I don’t mean to sound offensive. That’s always the trick, isn’t it? Not sounding offensive.

It’s perfectly okay to be offensive, though, right? “I love you but I hate your sin of homosexuality, so you can’t bring your ‘friend’ to dinner.”

Granted, we should be happy when Mormons use the word “homosexuality.” Just as they tend to bristle when people label their religion a “cult,” gays and lesbians don’t like being called “people suffering from same-sex attraction.”

LGBTQ folk shouldn’t feel singled out, however. Black skin used to be “the mark of Cain.” For over 150 years, “pure and delightsome” characters in the Book of Mormon were described as “white and delightsome.” That particular book of scripture used to be a record of the Lamanites, indigenous people known by most others as Native Americans. And it used to be about all Native Americans, but now Lamanites are considered to be “among” the original inhabitants of the Americas, and the book is definitely no longer a “history.”

Speaking of scriptural adjustments, the Book of Abraham until recently was a “translation” of the papyri Joseph Smith purchased. Now, with evidence that the actual translation is vastly different, Church leaders say Joseph’s version was merely “inspired” by the Egyptian funerary text.

Words matter. That’s President Nelson’s reason for insisting we no longer use the word “Mormon.” What used to be a proud nickname embraced by the “I’m a Mormon!” campaign, and reflected in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, mormon.org, Mormon Newsroom, and countless other official Church terminology, is now a “slur.”

It’s that insistence on “correct” usage that is so maddening both for Mormons and those who interact with them regularly. When a Disciplinary Council is labeled a Court of Love, when enabling sexual predators is described as “protecting the name of the Church,” when gender discrimination is explained as “we all have different roles,” people are not fooled.

“I say people. You say apostate.” Come on, sing along.

After “anti-Mormon lies” are verified, Mormons change their claim to, “The Church has always taught that.” When embarrassing facts are hidden on the Church’s website, often only decipherable if one looks up the references in the footnotes to see the actual information, Mormons call this “transparency.”

Words matter. They can be used to illuminate. They can be used to obfuscate. And they can be used to oppress.

Kicking out one’s gay child isn’t “tough love.” It’s heartless cruelty. Keeping non- member family away from a temple wedding isn’t a matter of “worthiness.” It’s both a form of punishment and a means of control.

The list of deceptive and manipulative terms used by leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could go on and on. The “Church,” by the way, is actually a corporation. That’s not a slur. It’s a fact. Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Some people like roses. Others like Shakespearean plays. And some prefer Bible fan fiction.

That’s all fine. People like what they like. They believe what they believe. But let’s call a spade a spade. Mormonism by any other name would smell like nutrient-rich fertilizer. Oh, who the frack are we kidding? You know what it smells like.