30 December 2008

Faith and Knowledge Conference- Accommodation Subsidy

As previously announced, the second Faith and Knowledge Conference for LDS graduate students in religious studies programs and related fields, entitled "Reconciliations and Reformulations," will be held at Harvard Divinity School on February 20-21, 2009.

The program has now been finalized and participants have been notified of their acceptance. The organizing committee is pleased to be able at this time to offer fully-subsidized accommodations (room plus breakfast and lunch Saturday) to THREE additional graduate students in order to facilitate their attendance and participation at this conference as well.

In order to apply for this subsidy, please send an email to the committee at org@faithandknowledge.org stating your interest and verifiable status as a graduate student in religious studies or another related field. Additional information about the conference can be found at the conference website, http://www.faithandknowledge.org/.

12 December 2008

Nuremberg it ain't

This week brought the latest development in the prosecution of five Blackwater private security guards for the shooting deaths of 17 civilians in Baghdad in 2007.  The development: the formal unsealing of the Justice Department's indictment of the guards and the surrender of the accused to federal authorities.

What's my particular interest in this case? The guards chose to surrender themselves in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Why Utah, you ask?  Great question.  Let's review the geography:

Venue ordinarily reserved for prosecution of crimes committed overseas: Washington, D.C.
Place where atrocities occurred: Baghdad, Iraq
Place where accused's employer has its HQ: Moyock, North Carolina
Homes of the accused:
  • Dustin Heard, Knoxville, TN
  • Evan Liberty, Rochester, NH
  • Nick Slatten, Sparta, TN
  • Paul Slough, Keller, TX
  • Donald Ball, West Valley, UT
Oh so there it is.  Out of all of the places a trial like this could be held, they picked the home state of one defendant.  I don't want to go into all the niceties of "minimum contacts" and personal jurisdiction, but surrendering and asking for trial in Utah is certainly legal, at least in the loosest sense of the word.

But why surrender in Utah? News sources are reporting that it is in order to be in a "more conservative, pro-gun" jurisdiction.  Puh-leeze.  Utah fits that description, clearly, but aren't Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina also full of hicks clinging to their guns? (Disclosure: I lived in NC for 26 years--and my entire family still resides there-- until I moved to Texas, so I do not think I am speaking from ignorance.)  And any of them would be closer than the place where the trial actually ought to be held- Washington, DC.

So it can't just be conservatism and "pro-gunness," right?  What else might there be?  From the AP, we learn that the guards wanted a jury pool "more likely to support the Iraq war."  In 2006, Utah was one of only three states (including its neighbors in Idaho and Wyoming- does anybody actually live in Wyoming?) where not-my-President Bush had a 50%+ approval rating.  In 2007, it became the only state with that lofty distinction.  However, at the same time support for the Iraq War (and Pres. Bush's handling of it) was only at 41%, right around the time that President Hinckley made some negative remarks about the consequences of the war.  Granted, at the exact same time, support for the war among the broader American populace was at 23%.  Behind.  The.  Curve.  Its part of that "dangerous culture of obedience" that former SLC Mayor Rocky Anderson identified that same year.  When Utahns are becoming sought for their propensity to side favorably with mercenaries and war criminals, we are in dangerous territory.  (And yes, I know that not everybody in Utah is Mormon.  But the 41% that still supported the Iraq War in 2007 definitely are, and those are the people that the defense attorneys are hoping will make it on the jury.  The rest of them just finished voting for Obama.)

Utah- now known for the greatest snow on earth, Sundance, Mormons, natural beauty, and a lack of accountability for "war crimes."

06 November 2008

The Passage of Prop 8 - Three Consequences

By almost all accounts, it appears that CA voters approved Proposition 8, which eliminates the right of same-sex couples to marry in the state, on Tuesday.  Opponents of the measure still have rapidly fading hopes that thousands of uncounted absentee ballots will reverse this outcome, but Prop 8's passage appears substantially certain at this point.  As has been noted widely, Prop 8's passage would not have been likely or possible without heavy involvement, both financial and otherwise, from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  From my own observations, here is what I see for California Mormons, and the Church more broadly, in the near future.

1.  A hollow victory- It seems fairly clear that Prop 8's passage will only delay the arrival of gay marriage in California, not prevent it.  In the eight years since Prop 22, which was similar in language but was only a statute, rather than a constitutional amendment, almost 10% of opposition to same-sex marriage has fallen off.  Furthermore, exit polls (which I know, incorrectly predicted a loss for Prop 8) indicated that the under-30 crowd overwhelmingly voted against it (67-31) while the retiree set voted in favor 57-43.  This means that in another ten to twenty years, a large portion of support for measures like Prop 8 will simply die of natural causes, ushering in a more tolerant electorate. 

Also, legal challenges against Prop 8's passage have already started.  Their merits and prospects are debatable, but it shows that this battle ain't over.  This could end up in SCOTUS, which does not look favorable for gay marriage advocates right now, but could look much more so in another four years.  I fully anticipate that a pro-gay-marriage proposition will be on the CA ballot at the next election, followed by a responding ballot proposition depending on who wins the first. (No matter what side of the SSM debate you are on, I think that we can all agree that the ability to amend the state constitution based on a simple 50%+1 majority is positively ridiculous.  A 2/3rds requirement I can get behind, but the purpose of constitutions is the protection of the rights of the minority.  If a simple majority can change the constitution, it is not doing its job.)  Which leads me to the second consequence...

2. A massive Mormon exodus from California- The next ten years or so are going to be quite expensive for California Mormons.  If, as I alluded to in the first section, we see a series of back-and-forth ballot propositions on SSM in California every two years or so, few members of the Church will be able to afford to live in California (as if it were not hard enough already).  They are facing: higher federal taxes on their $200K+ income (Obama), CA's already crazy-high state taxes (which may grow due to budget shortfalls), and a special "Mormon tax," which will end up being an extra ~$5-25K or more every couple of years to a "Yes/No on ___" campaign.  It may finally get to the point where opposing gay marriage prevents California Mormons from building their food storage, having more kids, sending those kids on missions/to college, and saving for retirement.  At that point, they will bolt for Utah and other points in red states.  That leaves CA church units in the hands of 1) less-affluent members of the Church who were not donating to the campaigns in the first place, and 2) those who did not donate because of their support for SSM.  Of course, this may end up being a boon to Utah and other "receiver" states since many of these members will be high-functioning members of society and the Church.

3. A brooding storm- The next few years are going to be very trying for members of the Church, both in California and elsewhere.  We can break this down into several headings:
Missionary work- As I alluded to earlier, the vote of the under-30 set was overwhelmingly in favor of allowing SSM.  In addition, people with any college education voted against Prop 8 by a wide margin.  I suspect that something similar is afoot in other states, to a lesser extent in the South and Midwest, but still true in urban areas and college towns of those regions.  Because the Church's crucial involvement in passing Prop 8 is so widely known (thanks Internet!), missionary work in this demographic is going to suffer terribly.  Affluent college-educated folks are your future mission presidents, bishops, stake presidents, etc. and a whole lot of them will never give the missionaries a sympathetic ear after this.
Getting things done- In the next couple of years, whenever the Church wants to accomplish anything that requires any kind of public approval (building a new building, etc.) in CA or any of the more liberal states, they are going to find a whole lot of obstructions put up by those whose approval they need.  I feel like most liberal-minded people looked at Mormons pre-Prop 8 and said: "well, they have some crazy beliefs but they seem to be genuinely good and kind people." Those days are over.  We have become a "hiss and a byword."
The opinion of others- this could fall equally under the previous heading, but I will elaborate further here.  The number of people I have seen on the Internet swearing an eternal hostility towards the Church, not because of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, an embodied God, etc., but because of our advocacy on Prop 8, is absolutely frightening.  I suspect we will see more of the attitude that this unfortunate commercial espouses.  In the mind of SSM advocates, because of our open and public involvement in this political issue, everything we do will be put under the most rigorous scrutiny, and any criticism is fair game.  We have already seen public protests at temples and meetinghouses, which is, in my mind, extremely unfortunate, but again, we are getting no more free passes ever again.
The membership- You might have read stories in the news or elsewhere on the Internet about people leaving the Church because of the Yes on 8 campaign.  I don't have any personal anecdotes, but it seems like Yes on 8 is really going to tear apart the fabric of families, wards, and neighborhoods within the Church.  My sense is that a lot of these people were inactive anyway, and while it is still a great loss, it is not likely to be felt in individual wards and stakes.  But there is a "ticking time bomb" out there of members who have been hurt, either on their own behalf or on behalf of friends, relatives, and neighbors, and this pain is going to fester and stew.  Some are just waiting for some other excuse to push them over the edge into inactivity or more direct measures to end their membership.  If the "Yes on 8" campaigns repeats itself in the near future (see my #1 above) that will likely be sufficient excuse for many. 
Also, any thawing on the SSA issue is over.  Members who struggle with SSA but are trying to stay active and chaste are going to sense the increased hostility towards those like them, not because of Prop 8 itself, but because of the sometimes hostile and inflammatory rhetoric used in the campaign.  They too are likely to bolt.

These prognostications are somewhat hyperbolic (and intentionally so), but not so far outside the realm of possibility that they should not be taken seriously.

13 October 2008

Why I Voted For Barack Obama

With the exception of various Mitt Romney-related posts, I have tried to stay away from explicitly political posts on this blog.  Now, anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE politics.  I could watch CNN all day; I could even probably watch CSPAN for....maybe a half hour.  I have been content over the past several months to let that little Barack Obama banner sit over on the side of this blog and speak for itself.  But I voted for Obama this morning here in Texas as soon as the polls opened, and now I am going to explain a little bit as to why. 
First, I think it is important to explain that I do not want to get bogged down in details about positions and issues.  Issues are hugely important and decisions on who to vote for should be determined by the sum total of a voter's feelings on many different issues, not just one or two that produce knee-jerk reactions.  No candidate is a perfect match.  Like I said, I don't want to go down a list of those here, but it suffices that I am comfortable that my own beliefs about most of the issues are much more closely aligned with Sen. Obama than they are with Sen. McCain. 

What I want to do here is give a couple more meta-reasons why I voted for Obama:

  • Because "dumb but likeable" (Bush) had eight years in the White House.  We can't give her (Palin) four or eight more.  Isn't it time to give "intelligent and thoughtful" a turn?
  • Because those who mock the idea of "community organizing" lack the compassion to lead a country as diverse and unequal as this one
  • Because we need leaders who understand that "citizen of the world" and "redistribution of wealth" are not naughty words
  • Because most of the people out there yelling "Marxist! Socialist!" at Obama don't really know what those words mean
  • Because while Sen. Obama may have one acquaintance or friend (I don't care which) who was a terrorist 30 years ago, when Obama was 8 years old, Sen. McCain has hundreds and thousands of bigoted and hateful supporters today in 2008
  • Because Sen. Obama has mobilized youth in this campaign like no candidate in recent history and his presidency will reinstill hope in those youth in a difficult era in American history ("the children are our future..."); McCain's victory may bring joy to a couple of dying old people
  • Because we need someone who understands that when asked, "When does life begin?", the only right answer is "that's above my paygrade."

12 October 2008

Mormon liberals, liberal Mormons, and the inadequacy of labels

Among all the insults that a Mormon might throw at you, few epithets are as damning (in their eyes) as "liberal." My goal in this post is specifically not to rehash the familiar and troubling political imbalance among Church members nor to decisively crush all criticisms that liberals can't be good Mormons. Rather, I merely want to examine my own (dis)comfort with the label.

On one hand, I am totally comfortable with being known as a Mormon. I suspect that most of my frequent readers will need no explanation on what that means, but for the sake of some others and in order to point out exactly where I stand, I will make it explicit. I believe that divine beings, including God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, are real and not merely mythological constructs of a particular culture or religion. I believe that human beings are offspring of these divine entities and possess divine characteristics and potential that are unique in nature. I believe that man, through (mis)use of a divine gift of choice or agency, is fallen from its noble potential, but that through the historically real sacrifice of Jesus Christ (the Atonement), men can be redeemed from their own errors. I believe that in 1820, Joseph Smith did in fact have a direct experience with the divine (the First Vision) through which he was called to set up an institution that continues to enjoy divine approbation. I believe that part of Joseph's role was the revelation of the Book of Mormon, which I believe has an inspired origin. I believe that another part of Joseph's role was the receipt of a power and instrumentality (the priesthood) through which we can experience part of God's power in the Church. I have tried to state the preceding in language that might be understood by non-Mormons, and is broad enough to bring me into agreement with most who claim to be Mormons. Obviously, we may differ on details, but I am satisfied that what I have stated above qualifies me as a Mormon, and excludes me from any other religious affiliation (with the possible exception of the UUs).

At the same time, I am very at home with being called politically liberal. Among many other things, that means that I am in favor of a strong and comprehensive social safety net, progressive taxation, civil rights, pacifism, abolition of the death penalty, protection of the environment, promotion of the interests of the impoverished and oppressed, adherence to international law, universal health care, increased economic equality, and generally the proposition that enlightened government has something positive to contribute to the life of humanity, and something that the raw logic of the market cannot offer. I am generally uncomfortable with platforms, statements of principles, and mission statements; however, I can generally sign on to many of the sentiments of the 2008 Democratic Party platform (which has been criticized, rightly IMO, here) or to the Euston Manifesto.

My comfort with each label in isolation is not matched by my comfort in their combination, at least as applied to me.  By my own discomfort, I mean no criticism of those who have adopted this label, such as this person (who happens to be a personal friend).  Your mileage may vary.

The convergence of "liberal" and "Mormon" has two possibilities, as alluded to in the title: liberal Mormons and Mormon liberals.

My discomfort with the title of "liberal Mormon" comes from the fact that it tends to imply, among Mormons, something more than simply my political leanings.  It suggests that there is something not-quite-orthodox about the way I practice Mormonism.  In particular, it suggests to some that I am less than "faithful"- that I have compromised some of the high ideals of Mormonism for my own selfish desires.  While the gory details of my testimony might differ from your average Iron Rod TBM, I attend church, hold FHE with my family, go to the temple, pay tithing, and obey the Word of Wisdom, etc. in what I imagine is the same way as 99% of the other active members of the Church.  I think I sin no more, and perhaps somewhat less, than those who consider themselves within the orthodox mainstream.  An objective observer, not seeing inside my thoughts, would be hard pressed to label my practice of Mormonism as in anyway liberal.  I am also uncomfortable with the way in which the label "liberal Mormon" seems to qualify my "Mormon-ness", either by asserting that I am not 100% Mormon, or that my identity as a liberal must take precedence over my Mormon self- like saying "Oh, I'm not a Mormon; I'm a liberal Mormon."

My discomfort with being called a "liberal Mormon" is matched by my unease with its mirror twin, "Mormon liberal."  The reasons behind my discomfort are also parallel.  Again, I fear that such a label implies that there is a special Mormon nature about my liberal political views.  While my personal belief is that my Mormonism is a complement to and support of some of my liberal positions, my liberal identity does not derive in particular from Mormonism and the development of that identity was largely independent (though simultaneous) of my spiritual growth within Mormonism.  You might have a hard time distinguishing my politics from a liberal Jew, liberal Protestant, or liberal Catholic.  To put it more succinctly, the two simply do not intersect on a frequent basis.  Also, I worry that "Mormon liberal" places a higher value on my Mormonism than on my liberal identity.  Some might question the sincerity of my liberal views, claiming that they are held merely to be "different," or to be "cool" within the Mormon circles that I travel.  But I believe that certain of my positions are currently as an inseparable and dear part of my self as my testimony. 

Of course, I anticipate growth and change in my political views over the course of my lifetime, but the same is true of the content of my testimony.  In neither case do I anticipate an imminent and radical departure from my current worldview, religious or political.

05 October 2008

Brief thoughts on the first day of Confererence October 2008

- Rome temple?!  SWEET!  (See one post below)  But where are they going to put it?  I don't know that it will fit too well in urban Rome.  Maybe in the suburbs like the rest of our temples?
- Greater Kansas City area- I did not catch on to this like some people did.  I don't read too much into it, but it seems like an odd way to announce a temple.  Maybe they have not found a spot yet?  On the other hand, as I mentioned above, all of our temples could best be described as in the Greater _______ area, since they are almost universally in the suburbs, with the exception of Manhattan.
- Big ups to Elder Perry for the Thoreau references.  Walden is one of my favorite books and I could listen to a whole session of talks focusing on what Latter-day Saints could take away from that.
- My wife also mentioned during Elder Perry's talk: do you think that Deseret Book will start stocking copies of Walden and we will see them flying off the Utah shelves at B&N, Borders, etc.?  Mormons have bought stranger and less valuable things after seeing them mentioned in conference, I suppose.
- Nothing about Prop 8 yet?  Really?  Given the kind of behavior that seems to be going on (and encouraged in California), I thought there would be solicitations from the pulpit this morning with the address of protectmarriage.com scrolling across the screen like a crawler on CNN.  Maybe those in charge realize that this really does go out all of the world and nobody in other countries wants to hear about our political crap.
- Elder Oaks talk- the "white shirt" comment- note that Elder Oaks only said that deacons, teachers, and priests should be careful to always wear white shirts during sacrament.  Elder Oaks was a lawyer so I suspect he will understand the following law Latin and how it applies to his statement: Inclusio unius est exclusio alterius- the inclusion of one means the exclusion of the others- which means I don't have to wear a white shirt ever, except to the temple.
- I think Elder Uchtdorf consistently gives the most solid talks of any of the General Authorities I have seen.  He steers away from anything remotely controversial (at least in my memory) and gives simple talks about faith, hope, and love for the Lord and each other.  
- Elder Wirthlin looked worse this Conference than last.  
- Isn't it ironic that the French guy got up and decried all the over-intellectualizing of the Gospel?
- Elder Corbridge's talk had a certain je ne sais quoi that I did not like.  The rhetorical style was just a little funny.  It was not the content, but I cannot exactly put my finger on what it is.
- Elder Christofferson's talk about building Zion- superb.  This is something I could hear about all day, and I wonder with the growing economic mess, if we won't be hearing a lot more about this sort of law of consecreation stuff.  Helping the poor, paying larger fast offerings, etc.  IMO its been too long already.
- Elder Scott said some things that I think the girls over at FMH would be delighted to hear.  
- Generally, I think that Priesthood session is consistently a let-down, especially after such good sessions earlier in the day.  Maybe I just get a little burned out as the day goes on, or maybe the GAs purposefully don't save the good stuff for last, just so the sisters don't miss out on something and scream bloody murder. j/k

From the WMoL Archives- The Vatican vs. Temple Square


Given this morning's announcement of a new temple in Rome, Italy, I thought it might be appropriate to republish one of my first posts, now updated.

My wife and I took a week-long trip to Rome this past October.  My wife had spent a couple of months in Rome several years ago as a student, and had been dying to go back (with me) ever since.  It was also one of our last chances to take a big European vacation before the birth of our first child.  Like any tourist in Rome, we had to make a stop at the Vatican.

If I had to guess, I would think that many Mormons feel a certain kind of secret and shameful envy of the Catholic Church (which they would never admit to, of course) due to its size, wealth, and power.  Not too mention competition, especially for any missionary who served in heavily Catholic countries.  I don't think that is necessarily an admirable character trait, but just putting that out there.  Being a Mormon visiting the Vatican, you cannot help but reflect on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Both are the physical and hierarchical centers of their respective faiths, and high-volume tourist spots to boot.  Plus, with this new development of a temple in Rome, you cannot ignore the tension and metaphor of plopping the perfect symbol of Mormonism right down into the heart of Roman Catholicism.

Here are some of my impressions about how they compare.

Temple Square is best described as an experience rather than simply a sight.  Everything about it is clearly aimed at impressing the visitor. From the sister missionaries in every conceivable language, to the visitor's centers, the carefully manicured landscaping, and everything around it, it is also a highly-managed experience (or at least we want it to be so).  Temple Square is beautiful, magically so, at almost any time of year (I am sure they have quite the budget for gardening).  For many of us, it is chiefly significant because of memories we have of it (first visits, weddings, etc.) and images that we see during General Conference. While one is aware that President Monson and other General Authorities occupy the huge office tower on Temple Square, your chances of bumping into them, or making an appointment to see them, are slim to none. If Temple Square is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because this is pretty and it makes you feel good.

The Vatican is also impressive, but more than this, it is overwhelming. This is the rhetoric and symbology of power, writ large. Everything is on a huge scale at the Vatican- the churches, the columns, the statues, etc. The sheer amount of art housed in St. Peter's and in the Vatican Museums is almost absurd. The art is beautiful, and the result of centuries of men's attempts to put God's (and the Church's) glory into some kind of visual representation. It is enough to make one feel small beside it (most likely an intentional effect). Famous pieces of art, like Rodin's Thinker (the original), are shoved off into some obscure corner where you would never notice unless you proceeded through very deliberately. Without the aid of sister missionaries (I don't think the Swiss Guard counts), most people will see the Vatican without the aid of a tour guide. Instead, you are left to yourself in awe of the riches and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience is almost tiring. If the Vatican is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because how else would we get all this stuff?

Temple Square, while beautiful, is anything but overwhelming. I remember on my first visit there, how disappointed I was in the size of the SLC Temple. I guess it always just looked bigger on TV. The Conference Center, while much larger, is far too functional to be great art. Even the Church Office Building, while large, is only comparatively large with other huge skyscrapers in downtown SLC (like the Wells Fargo Building). And it is hardly an architectural masterpiece. On the other hand, St. Peter's is, by law, the largest and tallest building in all of Rome. The visitor's centers and Church Museum house no art by anyone instantly recognizable as being from one of the great masters, like the Vatican's Rafael and Michelangelo.

For my part, I choose the beauty and simplicity of Temple Square. It avoids the oppressive and overbearing nature of the Vatican, as well as the unfortunate times when Catholic art and architecture slips into the realm of the gaudy and morbid (there aren't any bones or relics on Temple Square that I am aware of).  While the Vatican is all stone and cold, Temple Square exudes a much more human warmth.

As the Church sets about to build a temple in the Eternal City, tons of questions come to mind.  The ones that intrigue me here are questions of its design.  Will this be a small temple or a large temple?  Will the Church attempt to imitate an older style of architecture or will it look more or less the same as all of the other temples we currently build?  I think to build another cookie cutter temple in Rome would be to miss out on a great opportunity.  Plus, I cannot think of another city where we currently have a temple where such a high value is placed on art and the aesthetic, not to mention really really old things.  A gleaming white brand new temple would just look out of place.  And finally, will the Church put the same old 10 or 20 pictures in the Rome Temple that we use in every temple?  I mean, the temple is never intended to serve as a museum for the patrons, and we only let visitors in once, but our art compares so poorly with the masters of Europe that I think it would be another missed opportunity to stick with the traditional and safe.

I, for one, will be following the developments surrounding the building of the Rome Italy temple with great interest and cannot wait to take my family back to Rome at a time when we can fit in a trip to a new "Temple Square" along with the standard sightseeing.
 Image:St Peter's Square, Vatican City - April 2007.jpghttp://www.mrm.org/files/images/photo-album/temple-square.jpg

01 October 2008

The Unofficial 16th Apostle

Just in time for General Conference, a brief observation about a man from whom we will undoubtedly hear on this sacred biannual occasion: C.S. Lewis.
I have not done any kind of scientific study on this, but I am willing to go on record here as saying that C.S. Lewis is the most quoted non-Mormon non-scriptural person in the entire realm of LDS discourses. Hardly a month goes by when I don't hear his name at least once in a sacrament meeting talk or Sunday School lesson. And I am almost 100% sure that at some point this weekend, some GA will not be able to resist the urge to quote him. At this point, I almost giggle every time I hear it.

I must confess here that I have not read much of Lewis' work. I have not read his two most famous "Christian" works- Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters and only barely made it through two or three of the Narnia books as a boy. Nevertheless, even if Lewis is only deserving of half of his reputation, he would likely still rank as one of the great writers and thinkers of modern Christianity.

But none of this quite explains the acute Mormon affinity for quoting him. There are plenty of great Christian writers and thinkers that Latter-day Saints don't go out of their way to embrace.  Why other Christians like him is perfectly understandable- he is one of their own. He speaks their language and defends their cause. But what of ourselves? Do his works have a particular resonance with Mormon doctrine, either official or popular? (And if so, how has this point remained so well-hidden from the rest of "orthodox" Christendom?  I mean, if the Mormons like him so much, something has to be wrong with him, right?) What was C.S. Lewis' opinion of Mormons or Mormon doctrine, if he had one at all?

Perhaps C.S. Lewis puts the broader "Christian" cause so eloquently, and we therefore crave his words. This leads to the more troubling implication of this post, which is: why have we not produced a C.S. Lewis of our own, someone whose writings can articulate Mormonism so well for a broad audience? Part of it, of course is structural- no one outside of the Church leadership would dare to set themselves up as the go-to thinker on Mormonism and no one within the leadership is trusted enough by outsiders to give the story to them straight.  But is there anything else that is holding us back?  Especially after the year we've had (FLDS in Texas, Mitt Romney), we could use an eloquent and well-respected spokesman right about now.

30 September 2008

New Challenge to Politics Ban for Tax Exempt Entities - How will it affect the Church?

I saw the following story yesterday while reading the news: 33 Pastors Flout Tax Law with Political Sermons. Anyone who has spent long enough in the Bloggernacle, with the constant hand-wringing in some quarters over the Church losing its tax exemption due to interference in political issues such as Prop 8, is familiar with the basics. Section 501(c)(3) organizations, which are tax-exempt under federal law, may not participate in partisan political campaigns or risk losing their exempt status. What the above story reports is the next step in potentially eliminating this limitation.

This is a storm that has been brewing for some time in my mind. Religion and partisan politics have become increasingly intertwined in the last 20 or so years. (Duh) This years Republican primary process included one candidate who was a former pastor and did not seem to have completely left his old career behind him. The IRS has occasionally jumped on a church here or there for excessively politicizing its services (see the All Saints case from a couple of years ago for a particularly weak case that the IRS picked up), but to my knowledge such things are rare. But both pastors and politicians want to push this thing further. Hence, the above move to create a test case that would hopefully render the politics ban for tax-exempt institutions void by judicial order.

One can of course debate the merits of the politics ban. On one side, it is certainly an infringement of free speech- for many people, their religious beliefs both lead to certain positions on public issues, but also compel them to speak publicly about them. When individual members of a church do so, its OK, but when someone stands at a pulpit and does it, the IRS finds that unacceptable. On the other side, the politics ban insures that we are not giving a tax subsidy to organizations whose purposes are primarily partisan and political (501(c)(3) organizations include a wide variety of institutions). I can say that I have personally been grateful for the tax-exempt regulations on more than one occasion during my attendance at Church meetings.

Which brings me to the point that I really wanted to make here- if the politics ban on tax exempt entities disappears in a couple of months, what happens with the Church? Will it abandon its policy (pretense) of political neutrality or does it not depend on the threat of losing the tax exemption? Is there a doctrinal foundation for political neutrality standing apart from the preservation of the Church's tax exemption and if so, what is it?

As a final note, as someone who has studied the tax exempt issue in some depth, I do not buy into the arguments that the Church's tax exemption is already at risk due to its participation in campaigns such as Prop 8. So lets steer comments away from that and towards addressing the questions I asked above.

11 September 2008

The irony of Glenn Beck

Again, I give you all my sincerest apologies as my aforementioned bar-exam-related "brief hiatus" suddenly morphed into a new-baby-related break which ran into my new-job-related break and thus almost two months without a serious post.

I guess I was excited back in 2006 when I heard that an active Mormon was going to get his own prime-time news show on a major cable news network.  I mean, since we lost Jane Clayson in the morning and Ken Jennings in primetime, major national television was relatively Mormon-free.  Unfortunately, it only took a couple of episodes for the shine to wear off.  I mean, I understand that bigotry and igorance is acceptable and practically de rigueur for talk radio these days, but on CNN HN.  I mean, isn't Lou Dobbs enough for the Ted Turner media empire?!

Of course, he is obviously attracting some viewers since his show is still on the air, and based on conversations I've had, I think that a number of Mormons find his really-conservative-but-not-Republican shtick to be attractive. Which brings me to what is the somewhat confusing irony of Beck's notoriety: he is a terrible public example of a Mormon, and yet represents so many Mormons all too well.  I think that his views on immigrants, Muslims, and climate change (among other issues) are perfectly appalling, but I fear that too many of my co-religionists hold similar sentiments.  So do I lament Beck's fame as an public Mormon figure because I do not want either myself or my church to be painted with his brush, or rather do I lament the fact that he is so shockingly typical?

01 September 2008

Seen August 2008 in the parking lot of the Raleigh NC Temple

Oh, the horror....

And yes, where I come from, they (but not I) still call it "The War of Northern Aggression."
More substantive post(s) coming very soon...

19 July 2008

Faith and Knowledge Conference 2009 - Call for Papers


"Reconciliations and Reformulations":
A Conference for LDS Graduate Students in Religious Studies
Harvard University, February 20-21, 2009

Many Latter-day Saints experience their scholarship and their religion as clashing cultures, each with its competing values and contradictory conclusions. Religious studies students especially struggle to reconcile their faith and the knowledge they acquire in graduate school. The forms this reconciliation takes (including the failure to achieve reconciliation) become crucial episodes in a student's life history. The purpose of the Faith and Knowledge Conference for 2009 is to provide a forum for exploring these attempts at reconciliation.

We invite paper proposals from graduate students in religious studies and other related fields in the following four categories:

I. Gender and Sexuality
The academic discipline of religion is interacting more and more with methodologies and theories borrowed from gender and sexuality studies. As LDS scholars, to what extent do we engage in or disregard these methodologies? Can we take more expansive views of homosexuality, feminism, and other related issues than Mormon theology traditionally does without compromising our faith? Can feminist theology, queer theory, and similar approaches be useful to LDS scholars or must they be rejected altogether? How do more traditional viewpoints inform our academic scholarship, and how may the more expansive contemporary views of such issues inform both our academic scholarship and our understanding of the Gospel? Is reconciliation possible (or even needed) between these academic paradigms and the faith of the LDS scholar?

II. Scripture
LDS scholars commonly perceive a tension between "academic" and "devotional" approaches to scripture. Can scholarly methodologies (the historical-critical method, literary criticism, etc.) be usefully incorporated into the study or interpretation of LDS scripture, both ancient and modern, or must they be abandoned or subordinated to faith-based understandings? What investments do LDS scholars of scripture bring to the academic table and in what ways do they manifest themselves in productive or unproductive ways in LDS scholarship? Can academic approaches to the Bible be helpful in the study of revealed scripture, and if so, do they require some kinds of reconciliations or transformations? Is there and/or should there be a unique LDS scriptural hermeneutic, and what would it look like?

III. Pluralism
The approaches of religions to their own truth-claims may be divided into three categories: exclusivist religions, which assert that theirs is the sole bearer of truth and salvation; inclusivist religions, which recognize that other traditions possess enough truth to qualify them for salvation; and finally, pluralist religions, which hold that all traditions are equal paths to God. In a time of globalization, Latter-day Saint interactions with other religions, both Christian and non-Christian, raise questions about our view of ourselves. As we learn to appreciate the depth of other religious traditions, we wonder if our exclusivist view on truth is sustainable and defensible. How do we react to the theological and political dilemmas that exclusive claims to salvation through Jesus Christ or through Mormon rituals entail? Can a Mormon pluralism exist, or must we take on the burden of exclusivism?

IV. The Place of Religious Scholarship in the Church
Religious scholars and scholarship occupy an ambiguous role in the Church. Religious scholarship is cited when it supports Church teachings but rejected when it suggests that Church positions may be problematic. Moreover, the scholar who raises questions of this find falls under suspicion. Given current Church culture, what can an LDS scholar of religion bring to the table? Can a scholar utilize his/her tools and scholarship in a pastoral role? Can LDS religious scholars work to remove the stigma in the Church associated with the academic study of religion, and especially the academic study of Mormonism? Specifically, in what ways can areas of religious scholarship contribute positively to the spiritual and cultural life of the Church?

Panelist papers or presentations should last approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Short proposals (no more than 250 words) should be submitted via the conference website (http://www.faithandknowledge.org/submissions.php) by OCTOBER 1, 2008.
Presenters will be notified by December 1, 2008. Conference participants will be eligible to apply for financial assistance with travel and lodging expenses.
Please send further inquiries about to the conference to

16 July 2008

Brief hiatus- be patient

I'm taking a two-week break from blogging while I prepare for the Texas bar exam.  I have a couple of post ideas on deck in the ol' noggin but I don't want to get too involved in writing while I have the biggest test of my life coming up in less than 13 days.

Wish me luck...

14 July 2008

Profile of Elder Christofferson in Duke Law alumni magazine

This came in the mail last week.  See page 43 for a profile of Elder Christofferson.  There is not a lot of new information here, but it was still cool to see an article devoted to an apostle in a publication from my school.

08 July 2008

Humble About Our Certainties

NOTE: This post is NOT about gay marriage.

We are a very certain people.  To tweak the old saying, among Mormons you could cut the certainty with a knife.  After all, we are the folks that infamously exalt "I know" over "I believe."  Or, as my friend Brigham would say, Mormons like certainty.

But is all of our certainty healthy or justified?  In Isaiah, we read, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord."  Naturally, we are so certain that this scripture applies perfectly to others, but never to ourselves.  "That's the way the world thinks, but in the Church we know better." or "Bro. So-and-So believes that the Gospel requires us to do X, but I know that what the Lord really wants is Y."  Any of this sound familiar?  Sadly, these kinds of statements reveal very little about God, but incredible amounts about our own character, as I illustrate below...

I believe that I am a good and rational being, doing the best I can according to the light I have been given (which, I am certain, is more light than anyone else has).  If I did not sincerely believe that, I would change my thoughts and behavior, right?  Believing that God too must be good and rational (like me) and furthermore possessing all light and knowledge, he must act, feel, and think the same way that I do.  In the end though, this logical move constructs God in my own image rather than mandating that I conform to his.  In spite of my own certainty, the belief in our own individual goodness and rationality has lead members of the Church (among all others) to behave and think in different ways and to build gods to our own taste and specifications.  Living as a Mormon in a predominantly Protestant nation and region, as well as observing and participating in discussions in the Bloggernacle, are ample evidence of that proposition.

Another illustration: Joseph Smith said, "Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive; and at the same time more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect in every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be..."  Some folks (like me) grasp quickly onto the first half of this statement, embracing God's "liberality" (ignoring that this word would have lacked its modern political connotation for him) and open-mindedness as models for our own behavior.  Others (like so many of the anonymous commenters who have recently graced this blog with their presence) would likely latch onto the second half of the statement, emphasizing God's justice (always inflicted on others) and impeccable morality (which would of course conform to their own morality).  My point here is not to point fingers at any one group or way of thinking.  Blame for such hypocrisy is to be spread widely here.  Which part of the quote we prefer, as well as the types of scriptures that we prefer (from the title of this blog, my own preference is clear), ultimately tells us who we are and where we stand but does not further illuminate the nature of God.

I suspect that at some future day, when we "know as we are known," we will see that the true God is quite different than the small gods we have built for ourselves.  That goes for all of us.  I suspect that what He will reveal at that time will show us that His thinking and His plans have always been a mystery to us, seen only through a glass darkly.  And I suspect that He will care about quite a few things that we have forgotten, and likewise not give a fig for many of our most cherished certainties.  Should we not then be humble in our contemporary assertions of God's thoughts and our determination that we do know His mind and will?

26 June 2008

Mormon woman appears on "30 Days." Hilarity does NOT ensue.

The timing was ironic, a little spooky even. Just last week I posted about one of my favorite TV shows, "30 Days," and imagined only briefly what a "Mormon" episode might look like and whether anyone would care. This Sunday, as has been reported elsewhere, the Church will formally announce the mobilization of its members to advocate for the passage of an amendment to the state constitution of California that would clearly define marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. If I was really into conspiracy theories, I think this week's happenings would probably set me off.

This past Tuesday night, a Mormon woman appeared on "30 Days." The theme of the episode was same-sex or gay adoption. Our Mormon mother was assigned to live with a gay couple who were raising four children that they got from foster care. It was, in a word, awkward. Extremely awkward. When Morgan Spurlock, the show's creator and narrator, announced a few minutes into the show that this lady was "a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons," my wife audibly groaned. I thought about reaching for a big tub of popcorn and a cold root beer. Fireworks- like the Fourth of July come early!

The Good- Kati (this sister's name), to her credit, did not explicitly lay the responsibility for her beliefs about same-sex adoption on the Church. More importantly, she did not lay the responsibility for her stubbornness and lack of charity on the Church either. In fact, if it were not for Spurlock "outing" her (oh, the irony) as part of introducing the cast, it is likely that nobody would have known that she was Mormon. From what I saw, she could have been a member of any conservative Christian denomination. (First, consider the implications of that.) In one instance, she did tell the couple that she knew her beliefs were true because she had prayed about them and received an answer. In another scene, she attended the couple's gay-friendly church, and could be seen to be holding a standard Quad. However, while setting off our Mo-dar, either of these two things would have completely eluded any non-Mormon watchers. I was thankful that her affiliation was kept on the down-low, not only for my own peace of mind, but, as I will further explore below, because I am not sure that opposition to same-sex adoption can be considered a Church position or doctrine.

The Bad- Kati would feel right at home with the maxim "When the prophet speaks, the thinking is done." When asked to explain her opposition to same-sex adoption, she constantly fell back on the refrain of "I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman" or "I don't believe that two gay people should be raising children." It was obvious to both my wife and I that this is not a subject about which she had reflected very much prior to this experience. In part, this fits well with the goal of the show, which is to expose people to new experiences, new ways of life, and new thoughts. However, it could not help but trouble me to see her be incapable of marshalling any better argument for her opposition than "I believe it's not right." Exclusively moral-based arguments, especially those rooted in subjective spiritual experiences (and by subjective I mean individualized, not false), tend to be unconvincing to those who do not share those beliefs or have not had those same spiritual experiences. My concern is that I believed she treated a general dislike of homosexual activity in the Church as a blanket license to not think seriously about the relative merits of our public policies and moral judgments about activities involving homosexuals, but which are not intrinsically linked with their homosexuality.

The Ugly- Completely unrelated to any Mormon elements within the show, what really made my blood boil was the attitude and behavior of the biological relatives (mother, aunt, uncle, sister) of one of the boys that the gay couple had taken in from foster care. Yes, they are alive. No, they were not in jail. The whole clan had a (temporarily) nice backyard cookout at the gay couple's home, at which the family which had abandoned this child proceeded to berate Kati for her opposition to homosexual adoption, which would have deprived their little boy of a loving home. As my wife's mission companion used to say, "Hey kettle, you black!" I understand that some people, despite their mistakes and failures, have the momentary clarity to recognize that a child, while biologically theirs, might be better off being raised with just about anybody else. I applaud that foresight, but doubt that the voluntary abandonment of a child, even if wise, gives one much moral high ground from which to cast rocks at others.

Does the Church's opposition to SSM, as expressed in their recent letter to CA congregations, demand that we oppose same-sex adoption with equal vigor? This is far from obvious and to my knowledge, such a position has never been expressed clearly in any official Church publication, including a First Presidency letter. (I am open to being proven wrong on this point though. Same-sex adoption is clearly illegal in the state of Utah.) Indeed, I think there are strong arguments why same-sex adoption is deserving of our support and admiration, regardless of what we think about SSM or homosexuality in general. The foster care system is a mess, in spite of the best efforts of well-meaning social workers and generous families. There are simply not enough willing permanent home providers among the straight population to take in all the kids that might need it. Also, gay families (yes I said it), because they are generally not first-choice adoptive parents, don't get the "cream of the crop" and end up taking more kids with disabilities, and other "un-adoptables." And thus, we open up the opportunity to adopt to same-sex couples. Further, far from simply being a kind of "last resort," gay parents have not proven to be demonstrably less capable of raising well-adjusted functioning children to adulthood in our society. It does not have a long enough history and the data are still out there. If they are able to do so, it may be even more laudable given the general opposition they face from the rest of us despite their best efforts.

25 June 2008

New look for WMoL

WMoL is almost a year old, so I decided it was high time for a major makeover to the blog's layout. I would have liked to have done the new layout in mid-July, which would be closer to the blog's actual one-year anniversary, but I will be about a week away from taking the bar exam at that point, and I am guessing I will have some higher priorities around that time. Anyway, I am not sure whether I really believed last year that I would still be going at this a year later, but it feels good. I am still committed to keeping up with my blogging into the foreseeable future (even if you don't hear much from me for the next month or so). I continue to enjoy what others in the Bloggernacle are writing, and I still feel that I have something to add to those conversations through my own blog. My friend Brigham got me obsessed with checking my Google Analytics stats and that has me even more excited to keep writing.

I hope to add a couple more things to the new layout in the next couple of days. For instance, I want to put a written comments policy on the front page. I have recently had to delete a couple of comments here or there that I did not feel were appropriate to our conversations here. I think that if I develop a publish a written comments policy, that will at least put all commenters on constructive notice, whether or not they take the time to read or observe it. In addition, I would like to put up a brief annotated link list in the sidebar, like you find on other major LDS blogs like BCC and T&S. I am constantly finding things all over the Internet, LDS-related and not, that I would like to post here, but which don't merit a full blog post. So look for that too.

19 June 2008

Thank a Third-worlder for those pills - part II

Just an update: my article just went live on the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law website here.

An abstract follows: The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most important players in the field of clinical research on human beings. Increasingly in recent years, "Big Pharma" in the United States and elsewhere has turned to foreign populations to test its new products. The purpose of this note is to examine how existing sources of quasi-legal and ethical regulation address the troublesome issues raised by this increase in international human experimentation. First, the note gives a brief history of human experimentation and its regulation, giving special focus to the events of the twentieth century that have most affected the development of the bioethics movement. Next, it describes and compares several instruments of international regulation of human subject experimentation. Finally, it examines some of the difficult ethical issues associated with international research on human subjects. In this discussion, the greatest amount of attention will be given to clinical trials performed by the pharmaceutical industry. Other types of international research on human subjects exist, but research by the pharmaceutical companies poses its own special regulatory and ethical problems. (18 Duke J. Comp. & Int'l L. 181)

For those who were wondering, yes, as a matter of fact we do publish the Fall 2007 issue in the middle of summer 2008.

18 June 2008

"[T]he best hour of television you're ever going to see in your life"

The title captures precisely how Morgan Spurlock, the auteur behind the well-known documentary Super Size Me, described the third episode of the third season of his FX show "30 Days." For those unfamiliar with the format, it essentially follows the formula of Super Size Me, placing a person into some unfamiliar or extreme living condition for 30 days. Past episodes have included requiring a worker from an abortion clinic to live at a pro-life women's shelter, requiring an atheist to live with a Christian family, and following Spurlock and his wife as they lived on minimum wage for a month. Last night's episode found a red state, red-meat-eating redneck from my own home state, NC, going to CA to live with vegan PETA members and work on in an farm animal rescue operation.

While Spurlock's self-assessment is clearly hyperbolic, "30 Days" has become one of my favorite hours of television ever. I love "Lost" and "The Office" as much as the next guy, but in my opinion, few shows on television have the ability to be as thought-provoking and interesting, instead of pandering to our hunger for simple, don't-bother-me-with-those-"idea"-things entertainment. Spurlock certainly has a poorly-concealed liberal bias (which, incidentally, I don't mind), but the primary message of the show seems to be the promotion of tolerance and inclusiveness, rather than something overtly political.

I tried to imagine a Mormon episode (either a Mormon going to live with an Evangelical family or vice versa) but frankly, despite what you might think, I doubt it would be very interesting. The groups have far too much in common as far as everyday living habits and values for there to be much friction, which is what the show thrives on of course. An episode devoted to someone living among polygamists has been suggested on the show's website, and while that would definitely be worth watching, I seriously doubt that the FLDS would be willing to voluntarily endure such heavy and constant scrutiny and exposure at this particular moment.

You can learn more about the show here.
If you want a short list of particularly strong episodes, my personal favorites are the following: Immigration (season 2, episode 1), Straight Man in a Gay World (season 1, episode 4), and last night's Animal Rights (season 3, episode 3).

Other thought-provoking television I enjoy: Frontline- pretty much the gold standard as far as TV documentaries in my opinion, but sometimes a little hit-or-miss as far as subject matter (I'm a little tired of the war on terror- related episodes). They were, however, co-sponsors of last year's The Mormons.
Also, if you need a book for your book club, try The Trouble with Diversity.

15 June 2008

On Leaving One's Church in Protest - some context

As many of you might have heard or read, a couple of weeks back, presidential candidate Barack Obama resigned his membership in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Some have criticized the candidate's move as either too long overdue or too politically expedient to be sincere. I think that this type of move is ripe for misunderstanding by Mormons (who I acknowledge are not likely to vote for Obama in the first place, but this won't be my first time tilting at windmills), so I will try to add some context. These observations come from lots of places, most notably my own upbringing as a Protestant, in an area where most of the churches and churchgoing folks were Protestant (few Catholics and Mormons, zero Jews or Muslims, etc.), and in a family that has experienced more than one church-swap.

From time to time in the Bloggernacle or in personal encounters with others, one is likely to encounter someone who has left the Church for "political" or religious reasons. I am not talking about those who claim to have “discovered” that the Book of Mormon isn’t authentic or who believe that Joseph Smith was a total fraud, and therefore leave the Church. Rather, I am talking about those who learn about the injustices of the priesthood ban, or will take exception to the treatment of some group within the Church (gays, women, singles, etc.), and subsequently decide to leave the Church in protest. In the minds of many, the kind of person who leaves their church over some controversy or misunderstanding is one of "those people"-- apostates, infidels, etc.

First, the context. Mormons consider their Church to be TOTAL- The Only True And Living (no I did not make that up). Few Protestant Christians that I know would claim the same for their own congregations or denominations. Most Protestants identify primarily as Christians and only later, if at all, as members of a particular denomination. They recognize members of other Protestant denominations as fellow Christians and as members of some common thing they call "the Church," the boundaries of which are never quite explained or brought up in polite conversation. For most, this obviously excludes Mormons and for some, Catholics as well. But overall, it casts a pretty wide net. Choosing a denomination or a church within a denomination (which can often vary as much as churches in different denominations) is a matter of personal preferences for style of music and preaching, personnel, and the demographics of the congregation. For this reason, changing congregations or denominations, which frequently requires little more effort than sending a letter to the congregation's secretary, is completely acceptable to your average Protestant. The difference between most of these denominations (particularly in the South, which has its own religious culture completely apart from any denomination) is like the difference between vanilla, French vanilla, and maybe some chocolate/vanilla swirl- after all, it's still vanilla.

Mormons frequently sneer when it is suggested that a Protestant would change churches or denominations simply because "they (don't) like the preacher there." After all, isn't that what Barack Obama did? Nevertheless, people within my own family, good Christians all, have changed churches for reasons far more mundane than this. In my own childhood, my parents left the first church I ever attended (a Southern Baptist congregation) to take our family to the local Methodist church, simply because they had a better youth program (ward-shopping anyone?). My grandparents recently left their Baptist church because of serious problems with their preacher (too dictatorial). My uncle and aunt also left their congregation over some undisclosed conflict with something going on at the church (which certainly did not rise to the level of anything doctrinal). In all of the moves I have seen, the split is reasonably amicable- people will still call you, talk to you when you run into one another at the grocery store, have dinner with you, etc. In other words, it's NOT a big deal!

I hope that this will explain Senator Obama's move, at least a little bit. For most of my Mormon audience, I imagine that abandoning one's church, especially one to which one claims to have such a strong emotional bond and history, seems to be a drastic and shocking move. However, for the average American Protestant, switching congregations is completely ordinary, and something that he/she may do several times during their life.

Next, a defense of the sanctity of conscience...

27 May 2008

Thank a Third-worlder for those pills.

The Mormon-Utah-depression-prescription drug use meme seems to be everywhere these days. In some cases, it appears as a legitimate and serious concern, and occasionally as a farce (see second paragraph, third line).

My own issue in this post is not Mormons and prescription drugs, by prescription drugs in general, and more specifically how we come to obtain them. I recently wrote a student note for a forthcoming issue of the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law on the international ethical codes which apply to pharmaceutical companies and CROs (contract research organizations) as they conduct human clinical trial all over the world. Most of these codes and the principles contained therein are inspired by the Nuremberg Code that emerged from the Nazi War Crimes trials following WWII. I will not go into further detail about the codes, but will point you to my forthcoming article if you want to know more. However, the most important of these codes has historically been the World Medical Association's (kind of like an international AMA) Declaration of Helsinki.

Earlier this month, the FDA announced that it would no longer follow the Declaration of Helsinki. The likely effect of this change will be to push more pharmaceutical clinical trials abroad, to areas with large populations of the poor and sick, such as Eastern Europe, Africa, and India. Anyone who has seen the movie The Constant Gardener is probably familiar with this phenomenon. Americans are notoriously unwilling to undertake the risk of clinical trials, even though the drugs produced are primarily for their consumption. The pharmaceutical companies and researchers are being given more leeway to self-regulate the conduct of these trials with very little oversight either at home or abroad. The FDA does not conduct its own ethical review of such studies, and medical personnel in foreign countries are generally not equipped or educated to conduct such a review; further, the financial incentives given to them by the drug companies and CROs puts the objectivity of any such review seriously in doubt.

More specifically, any tests of improved treatment protocols may now be tested against a placebo rather than against the best existing treatment, which is what the Helsinki Declaration would have called for. That means people in the Third World who believe that they are receiving treatment for serious illnesses may in fact be receiving...sugar pills. The use of a placebo is designed to make the comparative results of clinical trials clearer and more impressive. But at what moral cost? All this so that Americans can enjoy the fruits of such research. (Pharmaceutical companies are under no obligation, and generally do not, provide the tested drugs to the former test subjects once the clinical trial is concluded.) The moral distributive economics of this situation are unacceptable to me- one party bears all the risk (primarily chosen because of their poor health status, poverty, and accessibility) while another enjoys all of the benefit.

As Latter-day Saints, we acknowledge that all of us are God' children. The life of my American neighbor ought not to be preferred over that of an African, Indian, Pole, Czech, or Vietnamese. The use of these people to provide members of rich and privileged societies with life-saving drugs, while the risks and long-term consequences to their health are ignored, is a moral outrage and a sad continuing legacy of imperialism. It needs to stop. So, at the very least, Mormons (and everyone else) should say a prayer for the Third-worlders when you pop those pills tonight.

If anyone is interested in learning further about this topic, see Sonia Shah's book, The Body Hunters, which was a major jumping-off point for my own research and writing. Ms. Shah posted on another blog about this development here.

22 May 2008

Content analysis of a Deseret Book catalog

Finally! It has been a long month+ indeed but I am back. Since my last post, I have been swamped with exams, graduation, vacations, and the beginning of bar review, with nary a moment for blogging. But I have a much lighter schedule now, and should find time for more regular posts.

After that aside, I would prefer to jump right into the meat of the post. Of course, it turns out that the intro to the post really is the meat so here goes...

I've been meaning to write this post for about six months now. I wanted to analyze your typical Deseret Book catalog, which I receive approximately every month or so, to see what was in it, how the items were placed relative to one another, and in what proportion. I kept putting it off because I would get the Christmas issue and say, "well the Christmas issue is going to have a little more kitsch than a normal catalog, so it would hardly be fair to judge them on that basis." Then you get a Conference edition, and then its Mother's Day, and it would really be unfair to judge a company on the basis of what is essentially the catalog version of the sappiest Hallmark card ever. Hence my delay.

Earlier this week, the summer issue of the catalog arrived in my mailbox. By this point, my patience is nearly exhausted and so I forge ahead. In the final analysis, what I was missing all along is that Deseret Book does not just put out bad holiday catalogs....they are ALL terrible! Like raze it to the ground and let's start from scratch terrible.

The title and first page of the summer catalog feature a new book by everyone's favorite motivate-a-Mormon, John Bytheway. His most recent book carries the unfortunate title Golf: Lessons I Learned While Looking for My Ball. My wife finds this funny, since it tends to bring to mind musings by Brother Bytheway on his testicular integrity. Pages 3 through 11 run the gamut from really bad Mormon historical fiction through really bad Mormon adult fiction all the way to really bad Mormon youth fiction. On pages 12 and 13, we stumble upon the first items that might endanger us with actually learning something- a book on pornography (in the shape of an iPhone no less- now you've reminded me that I can get porn on one of those, I really have learned something!) and an audiobook on Mormon perspectives on C.S. Lewis. If I am not mistaken, catalogs ought to lead with something that a well-adjusted intelligent person with disposable income might actually want to purchase, kind of like that "hook" that sucks you into the latest novel, but here Deseret Book makes us wait until we are nearly halfway through the catalog. Not good business, people, not good business. It might be time to call Sheri Dew back into the Relief Society presidency as a third counselor.

Next we find a solid six pages of videos and music, more or less LDS-related. I don't listen to Mormon music (other than a little Mo'Tab on Sundays) or watch Mormon movies, so I can hardly have an informed opinion. However, I do hang out with Mormons in and out of Utah all the time, and I have never even seen one of these CDs, much less heard them (except of course Mo'Tab) so I don't think that Jenny Phillps qualifies as either a "highly requested recording artist" or worthy of a greatest hits album. And if you think you need six CDs to contain all of Michael McLean's best songs, let's talk another time.

On the next two pages, we find that from last month's Mother's Day issue, almost entirely female-oriented, Deseret Book is going to remind women of their place this summer. You get two pages full of motivational material, but don't worry, nothing that might require you to open your scriptures. It's nearly June, so its the men's turn, right? Father's Day, as in your average ward sacrament meeting, is a small footnote in this catalog, relegated to page 26. The contrast with the previous women's material could hardly be greater. The men's pages are dominated by historical and biographical literature (but not of the fictional kind), featuring LDS heroes such as Brigham Young, Hugh Nibley, and Henry Eyring, and other notable figures such as US Presidents, the Founding Fathers, soldiers and pilots. None of that sissy namby-pamby emotionalism for the Priest....oh wait, never mind. See page 28. The Holy Secret by James L. Ferrell. Is that like Oprah's The Secret? And more importantly for Mormons, will it make me rich like Oprah's The Secret? Finally, no good catalog for Father's Day would be complete without a half page of the one gift that every dad already knows that he doesn't want -- TIES, especially the ones that are good to wear to the office or the courtroom, like ties with Captain Moroni and the Stripling Warriors.

I wish I could say that this was a particularly poor example of Deseret Book's offering, but in the end it may be the least pathetic catalog in recent memory. Even so, if you are looking for something edifying or thoughtful, with the exception of a small speed bump on pages 12 and 13, do not pass GO and do not collect the latest Mo'Tab CD, go straight to the Father's Day pages, four of the LAST SIX PAGES in the catalog. Everything you need from Deseret Book in four pages in a 30+ page catalog. Unfortunately, while I scan the horizon for someone to blame, I realize that it's US and no one else. The old law of supply and demand, biting us in our rears at the gas pump and at Deseret Book. And so in the immortal words of the late Jerry Falwell, I say: "I point the thing in [the Mormons'] face and say you helped this happen."

13 April 2008

Holy scripture, holy myth (part III- the politics of the Bible)

This will be my final post in a three-part series about the way the Old Testament is, and perhaps ought to be, interpreted in the LDS Church. Here I will explore possible reasons why the Latter-day Saints and the Church have been slow to embrace new scholarly theories about the Bible and why this fact is not likely to change in the near future.

Keep your friends close...
My Hebrew Bible/Old Testament professor often refers to the "politics of Biblical studies." This concept does not refer to American partisan politics (though it certainly may have some application there), but is equally if not more vehement in its division. The politics of Biblical studies has to do with how various parties use and interpret the Bible to (dis)establish its authority. On one side, you have the stalwart Bible fundamentalists, fearlessly defending biblical inerrancy and the God-given authority of the Bible to resolve all of our concerns in the modern age. On the other, there is another group, mostly secular academics, who are more willing to give naturalistic explanations for the Bible's content and any number of justifications for why its authority on us today ought to be limited, if not eliminated completely. Of course, rather than simply being two camps, these groups form two extremes on a spectrum.

My question is why have Latter-day Saints been so slow to adopt new theories about the Bible and, in spite of a lack of belief in biblical inerrancy, tended to side with the Christian fundamentalists on issues of the Bible's history, and therefore its authority in our individual and communal lives? My own answer is to say that the club that Mormons most want to join is the "mainstream Christian" club, not the secular intellectual club. The Mormon angst over the constant refrain of "Mormons are not Christians" echoing from the South and Midwest is practically palpable. The folks holding the veto power over our inclusion are of course the Southern Baptists and Evangelicals, precisely the people who want to maximize the Bible's modern authority. Adopting new theories about the history and content of the Bible almost invariably tends to limit its authority (though I hope to have shown in earlier posts in this series why that is not absolutely necessary). Therefore, embracing any such theory would simply give the "Bible-maximalists" that much more ammunition to say "Just as we thought! We knew you weren't Christian!" Accepting both the Book of Mormon, other modern scripture, and continuing revelation as sources of doctrinal authority on par or above with the Bible means that we already have two strikes against us. Any kind of rhetoric that would denigrate the place and the authority of the Bible among our people would, in the eyes of those so eager to make nice, be the final straw. This is, of course, what Elder Ballard's talk at the April 2007 GC was all about. In my mind, that talk was entirely aimed at redressing an imbalance in scriptural emphases that had started with Ezra Taft Benson's increased emphasis on the Book of Mormon in the 1980s. The pendulum had swung too far towards the Book of Mormon and the membership of the Church was neglecting the Bible. Our tenuous membership in the "Christian club" would be in serious jeopardy unless we gently coaxed the pendulum back in the direction of the Bible.

The BYU Connection

The foregoing was an example of the ideological reasons why I think that the way that ancient scripture, and in particular the Bible, is taught and interpreted in the LDS Church is unlikely to change in the near future. What follows is a related, but more practical, reason.Another facet of this issue is how the Bible is treated by Church educators. In my own mind, the most important sources for our doctrine on the scriptures and their interpretation are: 1) the General Authorities, 2) the Religious Education faculty at BYU, and 3) the Church Education System. (In one of my early posts on this blog, I explained how the BYU faculty and CES serve as separate loci of doctrine-making authority within the Church, alongside the General Authorities) What we receive in classes in individual wards and branches is almost certainly filtered in some way through one if not all of these sources.

Why the General Authorities do not adopt these secular theories is a no-brainer: most, if not all of them, are completely unfamiliar with such theories. Running the Church does not exactly leave a lot of time for "light reading" in scholarly journals and manuscripts in ancient languages. Besides, from a market-oriented perspective, demand for pure scriptural "knowledge" is quite low in the Church. We generally expect GAs to help us "feel" something rather than teach us facts. The same can generally be said of CES personnel, who in general are not required to have much if any training beyond a bachelor's degree and some Church-sponsored courses.

However, we could expect more of those who teach in Religious Education at BYU, who presumably ought to have the advanced training and skills to learn and impart this information. First of all, as a general matter, this matter of their superior qualifications and training may not be true. Reviewing the qualifications of BYU faculty shows that not all have advanced degrees in relevant fields (OT, NT, other ancient studies fields), and fewer have those advanced degrees from institutions other than BYU (after all, you can't teach what you don't know). Further those who do receive advanced education from institutions other than BYU return to Provo and are routinely socialized into an environment where their secular qualifications and methods are devalued, if not looked at with suspicion and mistrust. Their fellow BYU colleagues are their most significant peers and since BYU Religious Ed faculty do not, as a rule, tend to move on to other colleges, they begin teaching and writing to the expectations of the Provo clique rather than to those of the scholarly world at large. Also, the College of Religious Education is currently directed by someone with a CES background, and thus he and the department he leads can be expected to embody the biases of that institution. Therefore, it may be unreasonable to expect that the members of the faculty will offer content that differs significantly from the CES-Correlation orthodoxy.

In my personal opinion, the ideas about the historical or mythical nature of scritpure that I have laid out in previous posts in this series are worthy of analysis and discussion by members of the Church, even stopping short of outright acceptance. (If I did not think so, I would not have written about them. I am emphatically NOT doing this simply to stir up unnecessary controversy.) But we don't, at least not currently in any Church-sponsored forum with which I am familiar. Furthermore, those forums where such discussions might take place (Sunstone, Dialogue, the Bloggernacle, etc.) are looked down upon by those most in a position to change the status quo. I think that there are reasons, good and bad, for this, and I have laid out a couple of them here. I would be interested to see whether anyone else sees any merit in changing the way we teach ancient scripture and what the prospects are for such change in the near future (say, our lifetimes).

Post-script: I had this post half-formed in my mind as of last weekend's General Conference, and I have left the above part as it was at that time. However, Elder Holland's talk "My Words...Never Cease" would seem to refute some portion of my hypothesis. Here we have a General Authority, no less an Apostle, making direct or indirect references to two very scholarly ideas (albeit ones in no way antagonistic to LDS claims) in his address: Markan priority and Q (sayings of Jesus). For those who were previously familiar with such ideas, like myself, it was quite shocking to hear them over the pulpit, primarily as a result of my own deflated expectations. However, in the long run I doubt that it changes much. Those who were not familiar with those ideas previously may have simply ignored it. A couple of intrepid and curious souls may have the audacity to ask questions in Church settings or look up something on the Internet or at a nearby library. Hardly a revolution...

04 April 2008

Women Kan't stay home

Will feminists in the Church begin counting time in terms of AJBT (After Julie Beck's Talk)? In commemoration of the first General Conference after the now- infamous "Mothers Who Know", I offer the following:

I will admit that I am no expert on Kantian moral philosophy. Somebody out there in the Bloggernacle is bound to have done some serious graduate-level studies on his philosophy. If so, feel free to help out here (that goes for all the rest of you too). However, I think I probably read Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals no less than a half-dozen times during my undergraduate years. So I hope I learned something...

It seems to me that the Church's counsel that women (and particularly mothers) should remain in the home is grounded primarily in a utilitarian ethic. Utilitarianism (a branch of consequentialist ethics), in short, views the moral quality of an act based on the consequences of that act. Women are asked to stay home because the consequences of that act, the better rearing of children and a higher quality family and home life. On the other hand, it might also be grounded in a theory of virtue ethics, which would view the decision to stay home as evidence of a desirable character trait, such as selflessness or charity. (I am not sure that a virtue ethicist would see obedience qua obedience as a virtue.)

But what about a deontological theory, one based on duty? Can a rule of "women should remain in the home" be grounded in deontological moral philosophy? Probably the most famous of the deontological theories is Kant's categorical imperative. In its first formulation, Kant said "Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." Can we will that our notion that women ought to stay home be universalized? As a practical matter, I am not sure that the removal of all women from the market economy is even possible. Furthermore, I don't think that such a thing would be desirable. Many women (perhaps most women) make valuable and essential contributions in their workplaces, including such formative areas as medicine and education. Also, are we sure that all women would make more valuable contributions in the home? From personal experience, I doubt that very seriously. On the other hand, I think that the opposite rule, that "all women should work outside the home", fails the first test of the categorical imperative as well.

The second formulation of the categorical imperative is as follows: "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end." This is diametrically opposed to a consequentialist ethic, and, as I noted above, I think that is the primary ground in moral philosophy for the Church's counsel. It would be difficult to see how asking women to remain in the home in order to improve the quality of their family's home life and to raise children does not treat them as means to those ends. However, the second formulation says that we should not treat others "merely as a means to an end." Is there some way in which asking women to remain in the home treats them as an end-in-themselves? For some women, perhaps this is true. But for many, such as those who overtly objected to elements of Pres. Beck's last Conference talk, they do not feel as though they are being taking seriously as individuals apart from their families and children (this was my primary interpretation of the backlash to that speech in my earlier post on that subject). Again, another rule that demands that all women enter the workforce, presumably in order to increase the GDP or to push the cause of feminism forward, would just as easily fail this rule.

The third formulation is "Therefore, every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends." This third formulation seems to simply run both the first and second together. We must ask whether we can will a rule that will treat all those under that rule as ends in themselves. I won't analyze this separately, since the rule already failed both of the first two rules.

Where does this leave us? As you might have guess, Kantian moral philosophy is all about how you define and delimit the rule. While we might more readily accept a rule that some women or my wife/sister/daughter/etc. ought to stay home, Kantian philosophy would reject them all, since they must in the end be universalized. What Kantian ethics might support is a rule that allows individual women and their families to choose their own situation. Leaving women an open choice as to their situation is a rule which can (and in my opinion ought to be) universalized (it is essentially the rule that operates outside the Church), and furthermore it treats women as ends in themselves (though whether it treats their children as means only is an open question in my mind).

I want to know people's thoughts, especially those who might have a little more background in moral philosophy who can help me work out the kinks in this admittedly under-developed and cursorily-described hypothesis (or if necessary, shoot it down altogether).

20 March 2008

The Incredible Shrinking Endowment

My wife and I went to the temple last night. Another change to the endowment ceremony was announced. Due to explicit instructions by the First Presidency in the announcement, I won't discuss details (though I have registered my frustration with this non-essential secrecy in another post). Safe to say that it is nothing serious, and I am not sure anyone can argue with me on that.

However, it got me thinking about temple ceremony changes in the future. Looking across the ordinances, baptism takes about 30 seconds, confirmation about the same, initiatory takes about 5 minutes, and the sealing takes about 2 minutes (at least when doing vicarious ordinances). But the endowment takes a whopping hour and a half, maybe longer. I have always felt like as temple work accelerated in the Millennium, the ordinance itself would get much shorter. What do you think?

Since we can't talk about it, I won't ask what you think the "irreducible core" of the endowment ordinance is, but it is worth thinking about.

05 March 2008

How Gary Gygax made me a Mormon

The creator of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), Gary Gygax, died yesterday. I was a HUGE D&D nerd in high school, no matter how much my friends and I tried to hide it from girls that we liked. I spent countless hours (not one of which I consider misspent) serving as Dungeon Master for a close couple of buddies, not to mention hundreds of dollars in materials and supplements (some of which, I will now admit, may have been misspent). Once, the week before I graduated from the 8th grade, my friends and I convinced our teachers to let us out of class so we could go play D&D in the teachers' lounge. Since I left for college and was subsequently separated from those friends, I have never picked up the dice again, which I regret from time to time.

But you are probably interested in how Gary Gygax made me a Mormon. I will confess that I have never met Mr. Gygax in person, and knew almost nothing about him until he died yesterday. However, his most significant invention, D&D (or rather AD&D, 2nd edition), has profoundly influenced the course of my life.

It was through D&D that I came to know my best friend ADW (full name withheld). ADW and I had very little in common aside from D&D. Come to think of it, we had absolutely NOTHING in common other than D&D. He was a ladies' man; I had only one girlfriend in high school (and that for only two weeks). He was strong and athletic; I was anything but. But for D&D, I am confident in saying that we would never have associated in any meaningful way.

We had one other important difference- ADW was Mormon; I was not. We grew very close over the 4+ years that we played D&D, even as the rest of our group shifted and changed. We spent the night at one another's house almost every weekend during the school year and every day during the summer. If it was 1am in the morning on a Saturday, you could find us in the living room with a d12 and d20 in our hands. When we were sophomores, ADW gave me a Book of Mormon and explained to me about patriarchal blessings. I admit that, at the time, I did not think much about such things. I put the Book of Mormon in a drawer, only pulling it out occasionally to marvel at the unfamiliar names assigned to each book.

When we were seniors and anticipating our imminent separation (he to a mission, I to the university), he got more serious. Now he spoke in earnest of the missionaries, the plan of salvation, and the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. For whatever reason, now I was interested. Even as we each moved away from our D&D games, we grew closer together in more significant and eternal ways. As soon as I was out from under my parents' roof and safely in the confines of the university, I looked up the local LDSSA president and got in touch with the missionaries. I was baptized in early October, just two weeks before ADW left to serve a mission. He performed the ordinance.

So in a funny way, I have Gary Gygax to thank for my membership in the Church. So I take this time to bid the Dungeon Master of all Dungeon Masters farewell.

And for the record, I have never participated in any blood sacrifice (other than the Atonement), nor any Satanic ritual. I saw a Oujia board once (in another context), but never played with one. And while I can probably name all of the deities within the Forgotten Realms pantheon for you, I have never worshiped any strange or foreign gods.

02 March 2008

Holy scripture, holy myth (part II- the Book of Mormon)

My wife tells me that the previous post was too long and that the lack of comments doesn't mean it wasn't interesting, only that people were too exhausted by reading to the end in order to comment. So I have chosen to break up the promised Part II into several sub-parts which should appear in the next few days/weeks. For those of you who missed it, in Part I, I discussed how there is a school of OT scholarship that holds that several narratives in the OT are not in fact historical, but rather mythical. I am primarily interested in how this affects LDS and our particular beliefs about these narratives and their value. Now I intend to address how the Book of Mormon might address these issues.

The first thing to point out is that the Nephites obviously believed many of the challenged narratives that I discussed in part I, namely the story of the Exodus and Joseph in Egypt. I guess that it all goes back to exactly what was on the plates that Nephi got from Laban. I don't want to burst anyone's bubble but chances are it was not the OT as we now have it, or even our present OT + a couple of new books like Zenos and Zenock. First of all, many of the later prophets did not even live until during and after the Babylonian Captivity (think Ezra, Ezequiel). Second, even the extant OT "books" would have appeared in some other form at that time. Some of Isaiah might not have existed (Deutero-Isaiah, and the possible Third Isaiah). In the Pentateuch, the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) sources would be present, but the Deuteronomist (D) source would be quite recent, and the Priestly (P) source is not composed for another two hundred years after Lehi and his family leave (though the P source contains lots of genealogy and the brass plates evidently had some of that). As a side note, I think that the later "pride cycle" organization of Mormon's recompilation of the Nephite sources shows familiarity with the Deuteronomistic History, so I think that a good deal of the D source is on the plates. The Joseph novella was its own distinct source and probably was composed early enough to make it onto the plates. So I do not believe that there are any problems believing that the OT stories referred to in the Book of Mormon could have been on the plates at the time that Nephi got them from Laban.

Nephi and Lehi obviously believed these stories, since they are cited extensively as evidence of God's existence, his power, and his concern for the people of Israel. The Exodus, and particularly God's mighty acts in delivering captive Israel from Egypt and bringing them into Canaan, are frequently used in this way. Joseph's prophecies (later received by Joseph Smith alongside the materials that would become the Book of Abraham) are said by Lehi to be among the greatest ever. However, just because Lehi and Nephi believed that these events occurred is not irrefutable evidence of their historicity. Neither would have lived until at least 600-1000 years after either event, and the narratives and their place in Jewish lore would be well established and settled by the time Lehi and Nephi came about. To paraphrase another blogger, just because Pres. Monson tells a story about Jean Valjean in conference does not mean that Jean Valjean really existed. As I alluded to in my previous post, I don't think that this fact either destroys the OT or the BoM as a useful source to gain knowledge about the Gospel or our Heavenly Father. These possibly mythical narratives arise as a method to teach deeply-held spiritual values, and they do that just as well as myth as if they were historical. Incidentally, if Lehi and Nephi believed that the narratives were true and taught them as such, it goes without saying that succeeding generations (i.e. Alma) would feel free to quote them as such.