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.

Thoughts on RFRAs and Nondiscrimination

Renewed interest in Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (e.g., Indiana, Arkansas) has arisen because everyone knows the US Supreme Court will okay gay marriage for the country in a few months. Conservative religious people and entities want to be in a comfortable position when this uncomfortable reality hits — they want to still feel like this is “their” country, too. For example, the LDS Church’s push for compromise in Utah, which lead to last month’s nondiscrimination bill with religious exemptions, was likely timed to settle the Utah battlefield so that once the Supreme Court ruling is issued, the Church Newsroom can basically convey measured disappointment yet assurance that the Church’s legal and cultural boundaries are still largely in tact.

Other parts of the country are having trouble creating compromise because conservative legislatures have said “no” to nondiscrimination laws such that RFRAs appear as mere wholesale licenses to discriminate. In fact, without nondiscrimination laws, a right to discriminate is already present anyway, so a RFRA is not necessary — it’s symbolic. The symbolism (AKA legal ambiguity) gives the impression of the state codifying particular religious beliefs even as RFRA supporters argue that they are actually protecting themselves from a “state religion” of nondiscrimination (e.g., upcoming national gay marriage).

The idea that gay families are morally neutral could arguably qualify as a kind of “belief,” as illustrated by this libertarian cartoon:

When a nondiscrimination law passes, it generally always includes the separation of “church religion” and “state religion”; that is to say, the Utah “compromise” was really just a continuation of the tradition of civil rights to always include freedom for religious entities to discriminate.

As such, the LDS Church doesn’t actually support nondiscrimination against LGBTs in housing, employment, etc, but rather the “balance” in the law that allows the Church to continue to discriminate against LGBTs and anyone else, actually. (Mormons might be tempted to argue that the Church does, in fact, support nondiscrimination, but one need look no further than BYU’s policy on same-sex sexual conduct.) On the surface the Church might seem to have gotten what it wants (its cake and eat it, too), but I think internally, things are far less stable than they might seem.

Sunday in Outer Blogness: Response edition

The big news this week is that Kate Kelly has appealed her excommunication.

In her appeal, Kate wrote:

I am, and have always been, a faithful Mormon. My only “sin” elucidated by you has been speaking my mind and pushing for gender equality in the Church. Far from being wrong, I believe I am following the pattern of revelation taught by Christ in the scriptures: ask and ye shall receive, knock and it shall be opened unto you.

Kate’s husband also wrote a letter, questioning why he was not excommunicated when Kate was. My emphasis in bold below:

As a Melchizedek priesthood holder your failure to discipline me regarding my actions with Ordain Women demonstrates the inherent sexism in the disciplinary process taken against my wife. Neither you nor Bishop H* have contacted me or spoken to me about my involvement in Ordain Women. Therefore, I formally request you overturn Bishop H*’s excommunication decision regarding Kate and I request you reinstate her to full fellowship in the Church.

He has a point. Others have pointed out that the process seems flawed – Kate is publicly excommunicated but John Dehlin is not. At least, John hasn’t been excommunicated yet.

The feminists at fmh are wondering about a lost and tired generation. Truthfully, I left around the same time as the 1993 excommunications, but for different reasons. Yet I understand the frustration of wanting to remain in the community, and knowing that change was not going to come (if ever). It’s been a difficult few months for many believing mormons, particularly feminist mormons.

Rock has advice for those who may soon be ex’d – he will be at Sunstone next weekend – and he has a new book out What to Expect When You’re Excommunicated. His brief synopsis is:

designed this book partly with your mother-in-law in mind. If you have friends and loved ones who don’t ‘get’ you, who are convinced that you can’t be a faithful member of this church without displaying the requisite deference to modern Church leaders, this book may help those close to you come to understand that Jesus Christ does not require anything like that from members of His church.

I wish I could attend Sunstone this year, my cousin John Hamer is presenting on a panel titled “A Diversity of Faith: A panel on Heaven and Hell”, one titled “Project Zion: Pulling forward key threads of the restoration for a post-modern world”, and “Mormonism and the problem of heterodoxy”. I will be missing out! Hope everyone has a great time and can fill those of us in who were not able to attend the symposium this year.

In other news this week, Runtu was wondering if missionaries are leaving. Froggie had photos published.

It was pie and beer day – although dooce points out that you can’t buy beer in Utah on Pioneer day. Donna attended a pioneer exmo gathering. Knotty is moving. And I agree with Alexis that nothing is ever routine, ever.

And speaking of pioneers, if you haven’t listened to any of the year of polygamy podcasts – I highly recommend them. I particularly liked the recent one about Heber C. Kimball and his wives (and children), as well as the one about polygamy in public and private. It leads me to wonder more about how polygamy worked among my own ancestors in early Utah.

I’m sure I missed lots of what’s been going on – I hope everyone is well and enjoying their last few days in July!

Congratulations to 2013 X-Mormons of the Year: J. Seth Anderson and Michael Ferguson!!!

It’s an inspiring and exciting story! Couples in California right around Proposition 8 learned that if you don’t get married in the window of time when it’s legal, you might have a long wait before your next opportunity. Failure to block same-sex-marriages legally was apparently an error on the part of the Utah DA’s office, so Seth and Michael didn’t know whether they’d get the formalities done in time to be married in their state.

But they did!! And so Seth and Michael became the first gay couple married in Utah — and consequently became the first joint winners of the William Law X-Mormon of the Year award! (Well, we couldn’t very well just give it to one of them, could we? It was a joint project. 😀 )

Here are some more fun facts about Seth and Michael (credit to Seth):

They are both graduate students at the U. Seth is a social historian working on my masters in US History (specifically the American West, history of sexuality, lgbt history, Mormon history and that all comes together) and Michael will finish his PhD this semester. He’s a social neuroscientist and studies neuro pathways of the brain. They own a tea company called The Queens’ Tea (soon to be called The Queens’ Leaf—long story.)

Seth served a mission in Samara, Russia and Michael served his mission in Seth’s hometown of Phoenix, Arizona — so they both easily qualify as X-Mormon.

Also, Seth wrote a book about downtown Phoenix (published by Arcadia Publishing in 2012) — see the sidebar of his blog for details. He also won a Brodie Award in 2011 — and you can too, if you get yourself nominated in the next week!

Congratulations Seth and Michael!!! May you have many happy years together! 😀

Utah State Legislature drafting Nondiscrimination Bill

The Utah State Legislature is currently drafting a bill for housing and employment nondiscrimination for LGBTs statewide after months of closed door discussions.  Good, right?

Well, here’s the scary part:  one of the sticking points is whether churches as institutions should be exempt from the discrimination ban, or if adherents to faiths should be, as well.

If that’s a sticking point, that does not bode well.  Has such a thing ever been done before, where individual adherents of faiths have been made exempt from civil rights laws, as opposed to just religious institutions?  Basically, that would mean any and all private property would be exempt — say, a business or apartment complex owned by a Mormon.  That’s a shockingly major step backward from what passed in Salt Lake City in 2009.

Let’s be clear here about the Church’s goals.  The Church only supported the SLC law because it explicitly made the Church exempt.  The Church does not support nondiscrimination in employment or housing, as it will fire any BYU teacher who has a same-sex relationship.  The Church only supports nondiscrimination in the sense that it supports others’ beliefs in the public sphere (as per Article of Faith #11); the ultimate goal is to “spread the Gospel” and, frankly, a gay-friendly public sphere is an impediment to that.  So, if you can’t fight the gay-friendliness (the plurality), then you fight the publicness and expand the private sphere (and call it “religious freedom”).

Sure, there would still be nondiscrimination if you work for the city park or live in state-subsidized housing, but the private sphere (where most jobs and housing exists) would be exempt.  The entire private sphere, mind you.

I seriously hope this sticking point does not stick because if it does, it would be a travesty.  I assume what we’ll probably (hopefully) see is an expansion of the SLC model to the state level, or something along those lines.  But I just want folks to be clear about what the Church (or at least, some Church representatives) are aiming for.

Weirdest Mormon Story Maybe Ever

Links to a very strange Mormon-related story have begun appearing in my Facebook feed, and I must share here. The SL Trib Headline reads “LDS branch leader booted after sexual assault charge.” Turns out that Efrey Guzman, a 46-year-old president of a Latino branch in Sandy, “allegedly groped girl, attacked her mom, bit her brothers penis.” As one of my FB friends put it, here’s a sentence I really did not expect to read today:

As the son was trying to pull Guzman off his mother, Guzman attacked the son, grabbed his penis from his boxer shorts and “bit his penis, causing severe damage that required surgery,” according to charging documents.

“Religious Exemption” in Sexual Orientation Nondiscrimination Law

I’ve been thinking about how a couple leaders of the LDS Church have vocalized how they wouldn’t mind the 2009 nondiscrimination laws in Salt Lake City (in housing and employment, on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity) be expanded across the state of Utah. Specifically, what they’re interested in is duplicating how those laws include “religious exemptions” that let Mormon and other religiously-owned institutions be exempt from the nondiscrimination laws altogether. The leaders don’t bring attention to this, of course — rather they just voice their support for the “balance” in the laws — but you can bet your breeches that if the exemptions were removed, the Church would not support the nondiscrimination laws whatsoever.

Not all Mormons are convinced these laws are good, regardless of the exemptions. Many Mormons continue to believe that such laws are a sign of “death by a thousand cuts” to traditional family culture. This is because it’s possible to imagine the phrase “religious exemption” as a temporary placeholder for when everyone will eventually have to follow the same law, rather than the language setting in stone a divide between “civil society” and “religious institutions.” When it comes down to it, no Utahn is a member of a religious institution and not also subject to civil society. I can understand why the dialogue hasn’t moved much in the Utah State Legislature, even as a few more individual cities have followed Salt Lake City’s lead since 2009.

There’s an angle of why the Church feels its exemptions are necessary that I think is worth examining in order to move the dialogue forward. Let’s take, for example, a teacher at BYU in a same-sex relationship. Currently, if the school finds out about the relationship, the teacher will be fired on the basis of breaking the honor code: namely, the rule that students and faculty are not supposed to have sexual relations with anyone other than a married spouse (“married” as defined by the Church must be an opposite-sex spouse). If that teacher were able to sue BYU for “discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation,” then that would open up BYU’s honor code to legal scrutiny (as it is applied to everyone, gay, straight or otherwise). Is it possible to protect people from being fired on the basis of sexual orientation/gender identity at BYU, but also not affect BYUs honor code? I can’t think of how. Still, does an individual citizen’s “right” to privacy trump a religious institution’s “right” to have knowledge of private affairs and discipline accordingly for the sake of religious assembly? Perhaps this isn’t the way the legal world would frame the issue exactly, but hopefully I’ve made the contention clear.

Recently, I asked an orthodox gay Mormon (who thinks same-sex intimacy is a “sin”) who supported the SLC nondiscrimination ordinances what is more important to him: protection in housing/employment, or preventing same-sex couples from being allowed in Mormon spaces. He told me that he would rather deal with Mormon homophobia than bring “sexual orientation law” into Mormondom. He feels such law would limit the Church’s right to discriminate on the basis having sex with someone you’re not married to. He casually added that same-sex couples are allowed at church, “everyone is allowed,” which, well…I’m slightly curious about the current cultural dynamics (that is, how my local ward would respond to a same-sex couple…though my partner isn’t interested in carrying out such an experiment with me, understandably).

Anyhow, I’m not sure how to resolve this protection and/or privacy vs assembly issue other than the exemptions that are in place. On the other hand, I’m not a fan of the exemptions because I see them as wiggle room for the Church and individuals in the Church to continue to be as homophobic as they want, and not have to be subject to the same law everyone else is.

Negotiating Mormon Identity – In the Airport

My wife and I just flew to Utah with our 2 year-old son to spend the holidays with family. Having lived the last 10 years outside of Utah, we’re quite familiar with traveling to Utah for the holidays. The many trips over the last 10 years have developed what is probably a stereotype, but as a sociologist, I’d like to believe it is a “generalization” based on my “participant observations”: planes flying to Salt Lake City just before the holidays are largely filled with Mormons and typically have lots of kids. I don’t mean to imply anything negative about the Mormons traveling back to see family over the holidays, I’m just pointing out that these individuals – if, indeed, they are Mormon – tend to have lots of kids.

This year we had an interesting experience. At our origination airport, which is my favorite airport ever, there are play areas in every terminal for kids. And they aren’t like the really crappy play area in the Salt Lake City terminal. We’re talking padded slides, cars, planes, and tunnels in massive glass enclosures with plenty of seating around the edges for parents. They are really, really nice!

Never knowing how long it will take to get through security with our son in tow, we arrived almost 2 1/2 hours before our flight, which left us with lots of time to for him to play in the play area. We’d been in there maybe half an hour when another young couple arrived with a child about our son’s age – right around 2. As we were the only people in the enormous play area and our kids started interacting, we struck up a conversation. One of the first questions was where we were traveling. It turns out the other couple was going to Utah, too, and we were going to be on the same two flights. They live in Utah (Lehi; they are BYU alums, which is where they met) and were in our neck of the woods for a wedding. Once we told them we were from Utah and visiting family there, the negotiation of Mormon identity began.

I don’t mean to come across as either arrogant or demeaning, so bear with me if I do. But what ensued was fascinating. They started dropping hints and using language that is only understandable by Mormons. They mentioned their ward. We acknowledged that we knew what a ward was by nodding our understanding and asking for details. They mentioned their nursery and noted that there were 5 nurseries in their ward, but virtually no young womens – all the people in the ward were young couples like they are. Again, we illustrated our “insider” status by commenting on how remarkable 5 nurseries and no young women was in a ward. We even prompted them with several questions that reflected our “insider” status by asking about how many “old” men were in the High Priest Quorum and asking about various other aspects of their ward.

But here’s where things got weird: We didn’t reciprocate. They talked about their callings. We nodded our understanding and asked the appropriate questions, but we didn’t do what they were expecting – talk about our callings. They talked about the oddities of their ward. Again, we expressed our understanding and asked the appropriate questions, but we didn’t describe the oddities of our ward.

It took the other couple a little while, but they eventually realized that there was something different about us. Since we didn’t come right out and tell them that we are former Mormons, they had to try to figure it out. Our lack of reciprocation gave them a clue. But we don’t think they quite figured it out. We think they eventually concluded that we were inactive Mormons. And once they arrived at that conclusion, the conversation became even more interesting.

As we continued chatting with them in the first airport, on our flight (they were in the seats directly behind us), in the next airport, and finally in Salt Lake City waiting for our bags, various topics came up. One was the TV shows we watch. We mentioned that our current favorite is Dexter. They had heard about it, but obviously didn’t watch it – it’s on Showtime and clearly R-rated, but they didn’t say that. Since they believed we were inactive Mormons, they simply said, “Yeah, that one seems a little too gory and violent for us.” When the husband volunteered that they like Modern Family, here’s how he said it, “We love Modern Family. It took us a while to get into it. The hardest part was the homosexual couple. We have a hard time with homosexuality…” At that point, the husband looked at us to see how we would respond. By this time, my wife and I were having so much fun with this that we just stared at them blankly, waiting to see what he would say. We gave him no indication of where we stand on homosexuality (obviously we are sympathetic and advocates for equality). He continued, “I mean, given my beliefs about homosexuality, that was hard. But we eventually got over it and now we think they are the funniest couple on the show.” Since we haven’t seen the show, we really couldn’t comment, but we loved how he extended us an invitation to indicate our beliefs but floundered when we didn’t accept the invitation and do so.

A little later the husband and I were talking and I asked him about his parents and his wife’s parents. His wife’s parents live in the southeastern U.S. As he started describing them, he made another attempt to gauge our “Mormonosity”. He said, “Well, my wife’s parents aren’t good Mormons… Er… I mean… they are inactive. They are good people, they just aren’t, you know, good… um… They don’t go to church anymore.” I was eating this up. Again, I gave no indication of where I stood on this, but since we hadn’t told them about our callings and ward, they had to assume we were inactive and therefore couldn’t speak to it. So, when he started calling inactive Mormons “bad Mormons” it was all I could do to not laugh my ass off.

In retrospect, we probably should have made their lives a lot easier and simply told them that we are not Mormons. But the opportunity to watch them negotiate Mormon identity – both theirs and ours – was too good to pass up. I’m obviously writing about this here, in part to remember it, but also because it was so interesting. I’m also wondering what they thought of the encounter. Were they as aware of what was happening? And are they going to tell their LDS friends that they met an inactive Mormon family in the airport? I can only imagine how that conversation will go…

Grow where you are planted

As difficult as it may be for some to believe, this is a statement I can agree with. It is/was an LDS statement originally said by David O. McKay**. From my understanding, it was meant to encourage Mormons not to feel as if they had to “move back to Utah”.

My own ancestors flouted this doctrine, but it was common prior to David O. McKay becoming President of the LDS church. A person might convert to the Mormon faith, and then attempt to move to Utah, Idaho or Alberta. It’s part of the reason many people came to Utah from the British isles and Scandinavian countries. Continue reading “Grow where you are planted”