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.