Wednesday, December 9, 2015

We All Want the Same Things

It's a very common team building exercise. The group gets divided into three or four classifications: giants, trolls, dwarves, and elves or some variant. The rules are simple.  Some races have to run away from you some go after you. The objective is to capture everybody and bring everybody in the same wedge of the playing field. The end result is pretty predictable. After three or so rounds no one wins. And then the group facilitator has everybody huddle up and talk about real life applications. People throw out ideas like "we have to all be unified," or " we all need to know and fully utilize the rules." 

I suppose if a group had a skewed enough dispersion of athletic ability maybe one team might win but it's supposed to be one of those impossible games meant to teach lessons rather than to be won. I remember playing the game at a student government summer retreat. I started running around with everybody else but then in the second round it dawned on me: the group facilitator had said the objective was to have everybody inside the same wedge of the playing field, not necessarily my wedge of the field. I yelled a halt and remarkably people did stop and listened. We all moved into the same wedge because now everyone understood that to win, we needed to stop pretending in trying to fulfill some role and solve the problem right in front of us: just get everybody in the same space. 

Over the past couple of years, I have felt an increasing unease with the way we interact with each other. People get slandered or cut down because they don't believe the right thing or don't profess to think the right way. Some people make a big show out of "unfriending" friends because of differing opinions or thoughts. I've fought that mentality in myself and have never unfriend friends though I know many have unfriended me probably because they assume they know my kind. I'm one of those liberal socialists trying to take away your guns, aborting babies, celebrating same-sex marriages, and taking your hard earned money to feed the tax machine. The sad part about it is there are just as hurtful labels put on the right as well: you're conservative red necks who'd let the whole country go up in a blaze of oil drilling glory while shooting off your automatic rifles from on the backs of the poor and immigrants. 

Let's face it, though, folks. We all want the same thing. We all want to be loved, we all want to feel successful. I think deep down, we all want to make the world safer, better, and more peaceful if not for everybody around us at least certainly for our family and friends. There's a reason why we call people who don't have those ideals sociopaths. They are anti-civilization. 

I don't expect a whole lot will come out of this post but sometimes I feel so helpless. At least this message might reach a few thoughtful people who might give it a moment of reflection before "liking" or leaving the conversation. Because we are facing some earth shattering dilemmas: wars, terrorism, shootings, bombings, freak weather, starvation, droughts, genocide and so much more. There is absolutely no way we can win these exquisitely challenging battles for humanity unless all of the pro social humanity is in the same space, willing to suspend whatever political or ideological roles we feel we are playing for the sake of winning these fights. I challenge everybody reading this to pause an extra second before responding to that feed or posting that meme or unfriending that friend and answer this question for yourself: Will this help us solve the world's problems together? Give it a try. I'd love to hear of experiences good or bad in testing this out.

Friday, November 6, 2015

LDS Church's Stance on Same-sex Couple's Children Membership: Not a punishment nor unique

I know I've missed the 15 minute social media news cycle and all but I thought I'd throw a few thoughts into the cyber mix regarding the recent policy additions to the LDS Church's Handbook 1 anyway. 

I've struggled for years to understand why my faith has been directed to hold homosexuality under so much scrutiny. And I'm afraid I don't have profound explanations for it yet. But here are a few thoughts. 

Given the gravity that my faith gives to sexuality in general--sexual activity outside of marriage ranking just below shedding of innocent blood in the hierarchy of misdeeds--and juxtaposing that against my faith's belief in the extreme importance of family and family-level decision making, I can only imagine what a difficult discussion that must have been among the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that led to the generation of the additional language in the Handbook. 

As soon as I heard about this new policy I instantly thought back to an experience I had 11 years ago when I was privileged to teach a young family about my faith. One of the daughters, the oldest child who was 12 at the time, was eager to be baptized but none of the other family members shared that conviction at the time. The parents made the decision that their daughter would not be baptized. My faith doesn't believe in going against parent's decisions while they have legal guardianship, so their daughter wasn't baptized. That was hard for me because I felt how strongly this child wanted to be baptized. 

I've had other opportunities to teach other individuals in different situations but related in that my faith required them to go through additional steps before they could be authorized for baptism. I taught a gentleman who I grew to love so much who was in a legal partnership. He and his partner of 20 years, a wonderful lady named Cindy, had not been married but were considered legally bound through California state law. Before he could be baptized he had to be interviewed by a mission president and receive authorization from the First Presidency, the highest governing body of my faith. 

I also got to know a wonderful family whose wife and mother had been involved in a polygamous community some years back. She told me some of the additional steps she had to go through in order to be authorized to renew her membership in my faith. It took her some years and working with priesthood leaders. All that time, she participated in my faith's activities and worship services and considered her baptism all the more remarkable having had to go through these additional preparatory steps. 

My last thought is that I recently renewed what my faith calls a temple recommend. The recommend authorizes me to enter our temple buildings that are only accessible to those among my faith who commit to living certain principles the best they can. The recommend interview includes a series of questions to gauge my level of commitment to principles like whether or not I believe in God and certain codes of conduct such as my faith's law of health among others. 

I know some people believe that the LDS faith requires its members to either be 100% "in" or else they're shown the door or at least ostracized by its "true believers." I felt I could honestly answer all the questions asked in that recommend interview, and holding a temple recommend is as good of a sign as any that one is an upstanding member of my faith community. 

Let me tell you some of the questions that interview did not include that some, I'm sure we'll-meaning, individuals must think are included given they're insistence in proclaiming the LDS Church as a hate driven organization. I wasn't asked if I hate gay people. I wasn't asked if I was willing to fund campaigns to take rights away from or refuse services for same-sex couples. And nowhere in that interview was it even mentioned I must be a Republican. 

I know it probably sounds extremely naive for me to say so among the intellectual communities I run in, but I do have faith in a religion that believes it is led by a prophet. And that prophet has a pretty stark responsibility: act as God's mouthpiece on earth and don't vary from what God wants him to say or else God will remove him from said office. I don't understand all the reasons why my faith's prophet has been directed in this way. I won't deny my difficulty in dealing with this new policy. But I love the fact that I can feel like I'm an upstanding member of my faith community while holding opinions that differ from the mainstream "Mormon Culture," on some of these matters that are not a core part of why I choose to continue believing in my faith. 

I'll admit that some individuals in my faith community say things on social media and other places that are sometimes very hurtful. But to label the entire community hateful is a gross inaccuracy. Case in point: I missed that 15 minute social media news cycle because I was chairing a city natural resources and sustainability committee meeting. One can definitely hold progressive views and a LDS faith belief system at the same time.

Friday, January 9, 2015

We're All Immigrants but that Applies to Mormons Double

I realize that there are complex issues at play with immigration, but a lot of the time I can't help but feeling like our Nation's approach to this issue that impacts millions of people in our country in a very intimate way is kind of like how the neighborhood tree house handles its membership.

One lucky kid has a Dad who knows a thing or two about carpentry so he is fortunate to have a tree house built in his backyard. All the neighbor kids realize the potential adventure and, to speak in economic terms, utility, they could gain from hanging out in the tree house, so they timidly ask to be allowed to come up after school. The owner kid determines who he likes and who he won't allow in, causing a scarcity of access, which drives up the neighbor kids' desire to be granted access to the now very cool tree house. But now there's tension in the neighborhood. The "cool kids" who the owner kid invited initially feel very special about their newly found glory. And the kids left out really want to be allowed in. So the kids in the "In Crowd" devise elaborate schemes to keep the kids not authorized to enter the tree house out. One kid suggests they pull up the rope any time they're occupying the space so they could control entry. Others devise tests to determine whether or not one would be found worthy of entry complete with secret codes. One particularly violent kid suggests they start carrying large sticks and sling shots to scare away people trying to sneak up doing so at their great peril because they would be doing so without the assistance of the rope.

Each proposal becomes more elaborate than the last until the kids have developed a series of whistles and hoots to indicate if the coast is clear or if an "illegal climber" is close by. They invest so much time, resources, and thought into protecting their turf that the tree house occupiers gain a very entrenched sense of ownership and a warped sense of why they needed to protect it in the first place. In the end, protecting the tree house becomes a good in and of itself independent of any potential good that keeping the club to an exclusive group might bring. And the protecting kids are far from the realization that letting the kids wanting entry up could bring many additional benefits like more treats, diverse conversation, or more intricate games.

This tale has a predictable end: the carpenter Dad finds out about his son's desire for domination from one of the other kid's Dads; one of the fathers of one of the kids who has scraped her knees and broken an arm trying to climb up the tree while under heavy sling shot fire.  The carpenter Dad grounds his son after having a very serious conversation about sharing, loving others, or at least making room for others to enjoy the same privileges.  And above the screams of "It's not fair!" and "How could you do this to me?!" from his enraged son, the carpenter Dad takes down the treehouse. After the 30th defiant, tear laden declaration for justice, the carpenter Dad quietly states a fact that his son has completely forgotten: "What do you mean it's not fair? You didn't build the treehouse. I did."

We are all so incredibly fortunate to have won the lottery of national origin being born in the United States where even the poorest are rich by comparison to many other country's situations for most citizens. How can we claim ownership of a thing we have done absolutely nothing to deserve? Almost all of us have immigrant ancestors coming to this Nation for a better life or new opportunities. The very existence of the United States is a story of immigration where immigrants came to escape religious persecution or a myriad of other reasons. But for the sake of this post, we'll focus on the strong under current of the desire for religious freedom that brought many of our ancestors to America, particularly converts to the LDS faith who immigrated between 1840-1932 to join the gathering of the early Saints (With the word "Saint" referring to the Latter-Day Saints and not the formal term used by Catholicism) to Zion.

Over that nearly 100-year span, over 90,000 Mormons immigrated to America from across the Atlantic Ocean alone. And among those 90,000 individuals stem the vast majority of today's American LDS members, tying their roots back to European ancestries (

Though he had ancestors who could boast five generations of American heritage before him, Joseph Smith's great-grandfather's grandfather immigrated from England in 1638. If Joseph Smith's ancestor hadn't decided to cross the ocean or had been barred from entry into our country, and had Joseph Smith never been in the situation he was in, a situation that could truly only have been experienced in the United States, the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may have looked very differently and the modern Church today would have been in a different situation.

With gifts that come without us having to work for them, there comes a need for a sense of humility sufficient to lead one to extreme gratitude. I can't claim any right to have earned my place as a white male in the 21st century when medical advances are such that I survived health challenges that had taken the lives of thousands of others before me. But I can be grateful. I didn't deserve to be born to parents seeking graduate degrees which led me to desire higher degrees that have further led me to my comfortable and fulfilling life I live now. But I can be grateful. And I certainly have not earned my place in the United States by any of my own merits; those merits I owe to my courageous ancestors who braved sea voyages to an unknown land. But I can, and must be grateful. And I think it's a natural human tendency that when one is deeply grateful, one tends to be more in-tune with ways of helping others to have the same blessings one enjoys.

I am deeply grateful for my LDS faith. It has given me so many opportunities for growth and learning that I doubt I could have had in any other way. And the very fact that Joseph Smith was born in the United States, the one place on Earth in 1820 where he could test out different doctrines, hear the contests of various religions, pray to determine which Church to join, and, being directed to restore one instead, establish a church with protections backed up by the very foundational documents that created the Nation, is thanks to liberal immigration regulations. For that reason alone, any faithful LDS member who believes the story of the Restoration of the Gospel should be deeply grateful for immigrants.

Now today, more immigration is coming from other directions, but the same principles hold true. Whether we have ancestors who sailed into Plymouth Rock with the Pilgrims in 1620 or parents who crossed the border so that their children could be born in a country that would provide more opportunities, we have that same need for that deep, abiding gratitude that against all odds, we are American citizens; not because of any merits of our own. And realizing this extreme debt of gratitude, we should seek for ways of helping others enjoy the same blessings that we enjoy.

That tree house of opportunity, fortunately has not been torn down in the sense that our country is still alive and thriving, but many, a lot claiming to share my own faith, are passionately seeking for ways of keeping the neighbor kids away from the opportunities the treehouse would provide. And just like the tree house owner's son, we can't cry foul against those interested in our situation, because we didn't build this Nation: we can only be grateful for those who did.

Among the many thousands of immigrants traveling to America, lie the families and individuals that make up our grandparents.

“Thursday, January 18, [1900]. . . The Anchor line steamship ‘Anchoria’ sailed from Glasgow, Scotland, with 37 Saints on board, bound for Utah. The company consisted of 23 emigrating Saints (18 Swiss, 2 Scandinavian, 1 German, 1 British, and 1 Dutch emigrants) and 14 returning Elders. . . The company arrived in New York Feb. 5, all well" (

That ship's log could describe many of our own ancestors landing in the New York harbor. The faith I hold dear was founded by a man whose ancestors traveled to that same harbor as an immigrant. For this reason alone the LDS community should be the first to decry the atrocities that are now taking place in our Nation against immigrants: families being torn apart, being forced to work jobs for extreme hours that even those most desirous of work would hesitate to take, or risk deportation, living shorter much less satisfied lives simply because they are the first generation to enter our country instead of the second. I know there are more complicated issues at play, but before I post my passionately felt opinion about the issue, I have sought for the necessary gratitude that my ancestors were among the lucky ones who could come to America and build a new life here without always being nervous when there was a knock on the door. That's why I am, gratefully, a Mormon and Liberal.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Being a Wise Steward Doesn't Make you a Tree Hugger

I remember from as early as 4th Grade looking at the front page in the local Ogden, Utah newspaper and seeing the red stoplight in the upper-right corner indicating a red burn day. At that age, I had a hard time understanding what red burn days were for and was puzzled to see some of my friends with asthma issues stay in at recess on such days. At eight years old, kids usually have a hard time drawing the connection between having a fire burning in their fireplace and their friend's health. It wasn't many years later, however, that I realized that when inversion settled in over the Wasatch Front, even I developed a wheezy cough even though I thankfully haven't had any asthma issues and if I paid attention to others around me, I would hear the same chronic cough.

Unfortunately, it seems like many Utahans, and often Mormons in the US generally, have either not made or have refused to make the connection between the exhaust being cranked out by the hundreds of thousands of cars milling around Salt Lake City and the surrounding communities and kids' breathing and coughing. Many communities in Northern Utah get ranked consistently as having some of the poorest air quality in the country, ranking up with cities with enormous industrial activities where people expect to see smoke stacks spewing toxic pollution. Most people probably don't think about Logan or Salt Lake City or Bountiful, Utah when thinking of pollution-ridden communities, but yet these Utah communities rank beside cities like Pittsburg. And it's not just driving cars that leads to this extreme air pollution situation. The State's air pollution standards for industrial activities encourage high emitting companies to pass along the externalities of air pollution to the public to pay for and deal with. 

But air pollution isn't the only issue where many LDS folks seem to show a surprisingly small regard for sustainable land management. It has been largely LDS members of the Utah legislature that have been pushing for years for State and National Parks to be privatized so as to allow oil exploration, mining, and private land ownership, which could lead to some of the most treasured parts of the State be closed to the general public.  I hear from my US Forest Service colleagues stationed on districts around Utah that their recent work geared around restoring habitat and protecting streams and fish populations have been strongly opposed by most local residents, being much more in favor of the old forest management techniques of clear cutting and channelization of rivers.

The LDS faith, as an organization, strives to be as politically neutral as it can be, believing that its members should make their own decisions in matters of politics. However, it is enlightening to see the consistent opinion that Church leaders have voiced in terms of stewardship for the Earth. 

“The earth is very good in and of itself, and has abided a celestial law, consequently we should not despise it, nor desire to leave it, but rather desire and strive to obey the same law that the earth abides,” said President Brigham Young, the LDS Church's 2nd Prophet in modern times.

More modern leaders of the LDS faith have been even more clear in God's expectations for wise stewardship of the natural resources available to us.

“We ought to take care of Mother Earth. She groans under the weight of our actions,” said Elder Vaugh J. Featherstone of the Quorum of the Seventy. 

Elder Marcus B. Nash, a member of the 1st Quorum of the Seventy further describes our role as stewards of the Earth. “Behold, the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.”[20] Nevertheless, LDS doctrine is clear: all humankind are stewards over this earth and its bounty—not owners—and will be accountable to God for what we do with regard to His creation" ( 

Elder Nash's explanation of what our relationship to the Earth's resources really is based on--stewardship not ownership--is the crux of the issue. Stewardship implies taking care of something owned by someone else. The scriptures are very clear about who really owns the Earth. "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof . . ."(Psalms 24:1). 

I'm not going to go into further arguments about this except to encourage everyone to read Elder Nash's talk at the 18th Annual Stegner Center Symposium quoted above. He outlines the argument much better than I ever could. And really, the purpose of this blog is not to convince people that a liberal view is the correct view to have, but rather, to explain that being Mormon and having a left leaning view on things is totally acceptable. When it comes to how we should be taking care of the Earth, conservation of natural resources is not just something that the Democratic Party adopted into its platform in the 1960's when it became popular to be concerned about saving whales. LDS theology from the beginning has espoused the idea of us being held accountable for how we take care of the Earth. 

For me, my faith and political views often run hand in hand. I've been a strong advocate for environmental activism and natural resource management from a very early age, starting out speaking at city council meetings against building huge parking lots in the foothills for fear of flooding to meeting with US Congress members advocating for climate change legislative measures. Feeling the way I do about the Earth--that it is God's creation and a gift for us with expectations for wise management--has motivated my liberal view on the environment. I can't see how allowing mining practices that not only denude huge swaths of former forest and leach out deadly chemicals can be seen as wise stewardship, nor can I see how it could please God in anyway to see His creations be exploited in anyway.

I know that many well-meaning folks get turned off of modern environmental management practices when they see the extreme view being shouted in the public arena that nature should matter more than human life. For most people, the lives of their children are more of a priority than a frog in the Amazon. But when it comes to local environments, which concerns everybody because everyone is a part of some local environment, environmental concerns can be very impactful on the very children who parents consider top priorities. 

I was getting a check up in a Dentist's office when my dental hygienist starting talking about two of her children. She expressed her great concern about the air quality's impact on her children. I told her I was interested in working for a government agency that addresses those concerns and she pulled the tool she was using on my teeth out of my mouth and looked at me with startling intensity. She said, "When you get into those agencies, you fix this for my kids." She said this with eyes close to tears. Beyond it being somewhat awkward consoling anyone with half of my mouth numb and the other half having apparatuses protruding out of my mouth, I promised her I would do my best. I've never forgotten that experience and it has motivated me to stick with the sometimes maddening protocols of the federal government. That dental hygienist, I'd imagine, is a staunch Republican. She probably nods her head when she hears Rush Limbaugh demonize the EPA's efforts to regulate air toxins. But this woman unknowingly bridged the concern of poor air and her kids health. That's why I keep going into work: because environmental health leads to human health. My religions back up this belief and even adds a commandment for us to take good care of the Earth. That's why I am happily a Mormon and Liberal.  


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Navigating Same Sex Marriage

I served a LDS mission largely in the downtown area of San Francisco, the city with the highest percentage of LGBT couples (according to the Williams Institute: and covered the Castro District which has an even greater concentration of LGBT individuals than even the general San Francisco population consists of. And I was blessed to teach a few of these individuals. And at that time (10 years ago), the "Mormon Culture,"--the residual societal side effect of having too many like-minded individuals living too close together for too long without questioning or considering outside views that has resulted in some pretty off-base ideas that certainly are not always in alignment with the official doctrine of the LDS faith--was trying to convince, largely conservative folks, that one's sexual orientation was a choice or nurtured into people and had no biological basis.

But one night while I was speaking with a fellow interested in learning more about the LDS faith, who was also openly gay and was at that time in a relationship with another man, said something that has stuck with me ever since. He said in a quiet, intense voice, "I'm feeling like this faith is true, but I don't know if I can bear the thought of being alone for the rest of my life." I didn't have a good solution for him then, and I don't think I've discovered one since. I know a very select group in the LGBT community have entered into heterosexual relationships and have raised families, but I've seen that this isn't a solution or a viable option for very many people. So, I will never say that I know how challenging that prospect must be for a member of the LGBT community interested in the LDS faith. But I think I might have a bit truer perspective despite the fact that I'm heterosexual given my experiences working at such an intimate level with many of these incredible individuals.

It's from this context I wish to describe how I've navigated a way to be true to both the doctrine of my faith as well as my political ideology. It is clearly defined from the Old Testament and every canonized book that the LDS faith accepts as being scripture that marriage between a man and a woman is of great importance. The LDS faith holds that God himself married Adam and Eve and told them to raise a righteous posterity. In more recent times, the First Presidency (apostles who work closely with the current prophet) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (a group that works in tandem with the First Presidency in leading the affairs of the LDS faith) have signed their names behind a document entitled, "The Family: A Proclamation to the World." This document further defines roles of men and women and reaffirms the importance of marriage between a man and a woman for the establishment of families.

In fact if we draw attention to the very first sentence of this proclamation, it states, "We the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children" (  The LDS faith is a very family-centric organization. Nearly all of its efforts are designed to help families learn how to develop faith in Jesus Christ, accept commitments that we believe will lead us to being prepared for greater happiness in this life and new opportunities to learn and develop in the next life as families. In fact, my faith believes that in the next life, there won't even be a need for a church organization at all, but rather families will progress together through the eternities.

In order to be in a position to take advantage of these great opportunities in the next life, my faith believes that we need to be married under the proper authority. We call it "sealing power." Essentially, sealing is an act where people who have been given the authority to bind what is done on Earth in such a way that it can be accepted in Heaven (as we read about in the book of 1 Kings 17-18 where Elijah seals up the heavens so that no rains come for three and a half years) bind a couple together so that the marriage contract extends beyond the bounds of death.

Given this piece of doctrine I think it makes sense that the LDS faith takes marriage very seriously. It's more than just a legal agreement. It's more even than a religious rite that commits a couple to live under certain guideline for a lifetime. We're talking about a religious ceremony that we truly believe has the power to bind the heavens to accept the contract forever. So given all of this extreme gravity given to the principle of marriage between men and women, how can I possibly say I've found a way of navigating this principle with my liberal political view?

Religious belief is a choice we make as individuals. We may, as was the case with me, grow up within the construct of a certain religious faith or we might discover faith later in life, but regardless of when or how we discover it, we choose to believe. I'm certainly not going to say that parents don't put pressure in the form of punishment and reward on their children to encourage them to believe what the parents believe. My parents certainly rewarded me with praise when they saw me living under the standards they had chosen to live and with expressed disappointment when they saw me break away from those standards. I know my own parents did this because they believed it would lead to better decision making which would lead to greater happiness. But ultimately, and certainly now that I'm 31 years old, having one parent decide not to continue in the LDS faith, and living nearly 800 miles away from both parents, I've chosen to believe in the LDS faith. My faith has grounded me in a similar fashion to the way a ground for an electrical appliance protects me from having the electrical current leak out of the wiring. I believe it not only protects me by providing me with parameters but it also makes me more useful to people around me just in the same way that an appliance is more useful turned on and plugged in than otherwise. But I am very aware of the fact that not everyone agrees with my religious point of view. And in the United States of America, this diversity of religious belief is not only tolerated but celebrated as it absolutely should be. My right to worship in LDS temples and other meeting houses is protected just as much as someone's belief in spirits of the Earth and a belief in no divinity whatsoever are.

Given this wide variety in belief system, the U.S. Government does not pick winners or losers nor does it establish any state religions because doing so would make other faiths be marginalized, undervalued, or threatened. The Government's role in marriage in the United States is merely and yet significantly a legal contract. Enforcing contracts is one of the most vital and fundamental roles our Government plays. Just as in entering into a contract with a retailer for the retailer to provide a good or service and the consumer to provide payment for that good or service, a marriage contract provides couples with certain rights and benefits and certain obligations. There is much debate about the perceived benefit to society that comes from having individual bind each other to these legal marriage contracts. But beyond these controversies, there is one thing that I think stands clear: the Government shouldn't choose winners and losers or side with one religious faith's interpretation of marriage. If two people are interested in entering into a legal contract that binds them together and holds them to certain parameters and provides certain perceived benefits then the Government is a suitable broker of that agreement so long as the said agreement doesn't infringe on another's rights or do harm. I use the phrase "two people" very specifically. The Government shouldn't determine the morality of the union between two men or two women or one woman with one man. It should focus on enforcing the contract that is agreed upon between the two people.

Having said all of this, it is important to distinguish between a legal, civil marriage contract and a religiously-based marriage. There's a reason why couples are made to get a marriage certificate on top of the religious rite of the marriage ceremony. If a couple enters into a marriage contract with the State, they are legally married. If the same couple wishes their marriage to be sanctified by a certain religious custom or by God, they enter into a religious contract with other responsibilities and believed benefits. In the case of a LDS couple wishing to be sealed together by that believed authority that Elijah used to seal the heavens, there are certain expectations, only one out of the many of which is that the contract can only be entered into by a man and a woman. Some of the other obligations include fasting, donating 10% of their income to the building of God's kingdom on Earth, being completely faithful to their spouses, keeping their trust and faith in God, Jesus Christ, and the Prophet vibrant, fulfilling Church assignments such as leadership roles and teaching other members of the congregation, and many, many other  things. If a couple is living in accordance with these principles and are willing to commit to continue to do so together as a family unit, they can enter into this additional contract which my faith believes binds the couple with God forever. If they are not living according to these obligations or if they are not interested in keeping these commitments moving forward as a family, then they don't have to enter into this addition religious contract. Religions do and should seek for people to enter into these additional agreements if the said religions make it as a part of their doctrine that marriage is an important part of life which needs to include certain ceremonies for couples to receive what these religions believe will help them progress, but if people choose not to believe in a religious view, they are not obligated to enter into any addition contracts other than the one offered by the State which legally binds couples together through the State's contract.

I know all of this talk about contracts and sealing is fine and good, but I realize I still haven't answered my friend from San Francisco's concern of his facing a life without companionship. I don't know why, according to my faith's theology, God established that marriage can only be sealed between a man and a woman. And again, I have no way of understanding the depth of difficulty that must come in accepting a religious doctrinal set that establishes that LGBT individuals can't be intimate with a partner in this life.  I know it might seem callous of me to put this matter on the shelf in a similar fashion to how I approach the unanswered portions of issues with abortion I explained in my previous blog post.  But my shelving components of issues does not correlate with my amount of concern about the issue. I spent many sleepless nights feeling some degree of the sadness my friend in San Francisco may have felt when contemplating joining with the LDS Church. I put these issues on the shelf because I realize I don't have all the answers at the current time, but these questions don't stop me from believing what makes up the core of my religious conviction: that God lives and loves us; that Jesus Christ lives and established a Church; and that same Church has been restored today through Joseph Smith. I know that many of my friends disagree with these three core beliefs as much as they disagree with my faith's stance on same sex marriage, but I'm so grateful to live in this country because I can believe these principles, some of my friends can disagree with these principles, and neither I nor they need fear retribution or marginalization for believing either way. That's why I can say I'm a Mormon and a Liberal.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The A Word

I've got to preface this post with an experience I had this week. I love my family very much, and I consider all of my sibling dear, dear friends. They are also all very intelligent with the older two being a teacher and a doctor respectively. And they are all quite liberal leaning. My poor step-dad is the only Republican in my immediate family, and he bears that cross remarkably well. 

I was chatting with one of my sisters about my plan to address abortion in my next blog post. An hour and a half later, I hung up the phone worried. If my sister, a very intelligent, liberal, independent woman has a hard time accepting my view on abortion, how will someone who doesn't love me no matter how annoying I can get and who is less left-leaning than my sister take this blog post? I introduce this topic with this preface because I know there are very well-meaning people with very different views about the issue of abortion and those views are often extremely passionately felt. I also need to be transparent in saying that I am a single man, so I obviously have't had, what I would imagine would be an incredible experience, the experience of having children nor have I held my own new born baby in my arms. I don't know how that experience might change my view on this issue. For better or for worse, we all live in the reality we have built for ourselves based on the context through which we view the world. This is my view as a single, 31 year-old LDS male. Take it for what it's worth.

There's something about the good 'ole days that people tend to talk about when they are reclining on their couches after eating a large Sunday dinner. The "good 'ole days" so labelled were when supposedly traditional values were kept and believed in. When young women and men still courted prior to marriage, where the family was the focus of society, where people prayed in public, including kids in schools--stay tuned for a blog post coming soon--and overall, life was better. Enter the upheaval of the 60's that ripped those traditional values apart and paved the way to today's godless, irreverent society. 

I could go on for some time explaining how the good 'ole days weren't nearly as good as these rosy-tinted depictions like to convey them. I guess it was a decent time for Caucasian, middle-class, Christain men. It certainly wasn't all peaches and cream for people from minority backgrounds. People with moderate to severe disabilities were often sent to special institution, those with psychological disorders were sent to asylums, people of color were horribly marginalized and often violently oppressed, and women, who had kept America afloat during the Second World War found that the roles they had stepped up to fulfill were being given to men. There are several very well researched books which document the targeted marketing that took place to convince women to relinquish the roles they had filled very well while men were fighting in the War. 

I don't claim to be an historian, however. I simply outline the history to juxtapose it against the unfair and false reality some folks like to create before they explain how bad things are now. In calling attention to the fact that things weren't perfect way back when, I don't mean to say that everything is necessarily better now or that society has just always been bad so we should just accept that. I just believe that things are more complex than that.

And my goodness, am I glad that we've progressed as a Nation. It wasn't until 1967, within the past 50 years, that an African American man could officially, nation-wide, legally marry a Caucasian woman. It wasn't until 1968 that most of the rights given to Native peoples were sanctioned and officially enforced by Congress. And yes, women have continued to get closer to equality in terms of professional and family roles within that same 50 year timeline, which is something that has proved to be of immeasurable value to our country today. The landmark case, Roe v. Wade, struck down all state laws that had previously made abortion illegal. There were many reasons for this ruling, but one reason I'm thankful for the ruling is that with abortion made legal, abortions could then be performed in sanitary clinics instead of the wide spectrum of settings were women previously resorted to conduct them. 

So abortion is a very available option today. There are groups advocating strongly for and against its future. There's a lot of debate on when a fetus becomes human: is it right at the time of conception? Is it once the heart starts beating or when the brain is more developed or when fetuses develop fingernails or eyes that can be distinguished in ultrasounds or any range of asserted weeks or trimesters of the pregnancies? These questions are considered in depth in the insightful web article found here. One thing I know for certain is that abortion kills living cells regardless of when they become truly "human" cells, and I'm a vegetarian specifically because I don't like the thought of my choices hurting a living thing. I carry out ants when they find their way into my house rather than killing them, for goodness sake! So the thought of ending those living cells' lives bothers me for moral reasons. However, in most cases, I prefer it when government stays away from moral issues.

The phrase separation of Church and State gets thrown around with cheers or shouts of disdain. There have been supreme court justices who are divided on this issue, so that means that my meager understanding of legal processes do not make me an authority on the matter, but being a man of faith myself, I am so grateful that I live in a country where there is at least an attempted separation  between religious belief and politics. In doing so, the United States is not belittling religious fervor nor is it endorsing it. Political leaders should not be asked to decide what God wants His children to do. At least not in our country. Freedom of religious expression means that we need to allow that which we personally consider holy AND that which we consider profane to be practiced as long as that practice does not take away others chance to life or liberty. What a horrible thing it would be if a large caucus of radical fundamentalist Christians took control of Congress and declared that Christianity is the only religion that would be tolerated in our country and therefore only Christain values would be allowed. By giving room for all beliefs to be given space in the public square, it makes it so that all religious beliefs are safe from persecution. All we have to do to see what happens when the government dictates and defines morality would be to look at Spain during the Inquisition or England during the Reformation or Russia under Stalin's dictatorship. 

I think Jesus Christ actually said it best. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 22:21). It's not the government's place to tell a woman that a fetus is a child of God therefore must be carried to full term anymore than it is it's place to tell the country that citizens shouldn't watch rated R movies or get addicted to caffeine because some people in Congress might believe that that's a commandment from God. One of the greatest things about the American experiment is that no one way of believing is necessarily "right" in the government's eyes meant exactly so that no one person's beliefs are marginalized. In so doing, all of our healthy expressions of religious belief or non-belief can be expressed safely and free of governmental attack or interference.

Bottom line, people can teach families and religions, like my own, can preach that abortion is wrong and, at the same time, a woman can choose to end a pregnancy and both beliefs and actions are protected. The place where I think the government should focus is incentivizing wise decision making. I've always agreed with President Clinton's statement that "abortion should be rare but should be legal and safe" (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton, 1995). Given the current reality, my Mormon faith can and should teach that abortions should only happen under extreme circumstances such as rape or incest given the fact that that is the doctrine it teaches, and, at the same time, it should, and it does, give me free reign to vote my conscience when it comes to political matters. I can vote for a pro-choice candidate if she/he possesses qualities, skills, and other attributes I find appealing because I can trust that my belief system will still be protected, my membership in my faith will remain intact.  

There are no perfect candidates anyway. In fact, I always find it extremely suspect when I see candidates trying to project an "I'm everything for everybody" campaign because it makes me worried that: 1) the candidate really doesn't have convictions just a desire to win the office or 2) the candidate is just doing whatever it'll take to get into office and then once in, she/he will do whatever she/he wants. I personally don't find either very appealing. 

So let me pull out of the weeds and end with a philosophy I have found to be very helpful when it comes to complex issues like these. I don't have all the answers. The experts on prenatal development are not certain of when human life begins. There are many other stances that qualify or disqualify a candidate's privilege of receiving my vote. And I like looking at each candidate as holistically as I possibly can. While I can understand, to some degree, one's decision to not vote for a candidate merely based on their stance on abortion, I feel doing so is actually cheapening our incredibly valuable right to vote. Hearing that a candidate is pro-choice often leads to many Mormons blacklisting her/him before they know much of anything else. This is dangerous because the opposite then holds true: I grew up in Utah where getting the Republican party stamp of approval is almost a surefire way into office. And that's why you get politicians who approve of the State taking over National Parks and National Forests and proposing the Great Salt Lake be drained. Democracy requires more vigilance than that. 

So when things are uncertain, and when the issue is not at the core of why I believe what I believe, I put it on the shelf as a thing I need to go back to periodically, revisit it and reevaluate it based on whatever new information I might have gained in the interim, and, if it is resolved and I feel peace with my view, that's wonderful, but if not, I put it back on the shelf. The act of shelving an issue does not mean for me that the issue doesn't matter or warrant attention. It means that I don't have all the answers but I'm going to continue to live my life the best way I know how given what I know at the present time with the hope that, over time, I'll gain greater insight and more information that will help me make an even more informed decision in the future. Until then, I feel comfortable with my somewhat left of center view on abortion and being a Mormon.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Where is "Thou Shalt be a Republican," Written in Scripture?

When people think about Mormons they probably do so in reference to Mitt Romney running for president, or the Book of Mormon Musical or any number of historical or recent political conflicts stemming from usually the rather conservative view of the Mormon people. The more frames of reference one has to view a concept or organization, the more complex and multi-faceted they become. However, since most people view Mormons from a limited context, they often label Mormon folk as ultra conservative, with huge families, little social conscience, and non-Coke drinkers. And it's not society's fault, entirely, that the general public has such a limited and unclear view on the religion and its people. I'll admit that the Mormon faith has traditionally been somewhat insular in nature with its members focusing most of their attention on their families and leaders being somewhat cryptic in answering public inquiries. There has been a noticeable shift in this regard in recent years, however, and I think it is easier for people not familiar with the Mormon faith to find accurate information.

I'm going to come out right here and now and state that I am a Mormon. And when I say that, I don't mean that I'm on the extremes where most of the people who feel motivated to write about their religious experience within the Latter-day Saint (LDS) church typical reside: where one is either fighting violently against the Mormon church, or, on the other end, wholeheartedly accepting every doctrine, every teaching, and every statement from every leaders that has ever lived at face value and without question. I find myself somewhere between these two poles, as I think most members of the LDS community do.

In an attempt to add at least one more face to contribute to the context the general public has on Mormonism, I'm a very strong Democrat as well. I've pushed for social campaigns ranging from environmental justice to healthcare reform. I believe in strong public schools that teach based on science rather than mixing philosophy with the scientific method and that using an evolutionary lens to view the creation of the Universe doesn't necessarily remove God from the sequence, but in fact beautifies the elegance and majesty of His abilities. I believe that nearly all Americans have immigrant ancestries within just a few generations, and so our country should be extremely supportive of immigration programs. And I am a huge advocate for community involvement in grassroots efforts.

Bottom line: the core Gospel message is universal. And that core message is by far the reason why I'm a Christain and why I'm a Mormon. The Good News that Jesus Christ provided a way for me to learn what I need to learn so I can return to God is the central component of nearly all Christain theology and it is center to my own belief. So though some might have you believe through their behavior and occasionally their word that only Republican Mormons are going to Heaven, I certainly haven't seen that written anywhere in canonized scripture.

And the best part about all of these beliefs is that I feel like these liberal views are actually reinforced in my religious faith rather than contradicting them. I see no contradiction between Jesus Christ's teachings in the Bible to be running in opposition to my political views. This blog will be a story of exploration of how a Mormon who is very much entrenched in the faith both in belief and activity, can also lean far to the left on almost every political agenda item. We'll discuss the hot button issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, Creationism, the stewardship of the Earth and why I'm comfortable saying I'm even a vegetarian and a Mormon. I hope you'll come along with me on the journey. I'm sure it'll be a learning experience . . . at least for me.