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...