Mourning the 2012 Election

More than a month has passed since our president handily won another four years in the White House.  Obama succeeded because he united the concerns of social liberals, single women, young people, blacks and Hispanics, and lower middle-class workers.  Together, these voters created a powerful political tide that not only kept Obama in power but also took my Washington State to new, uncharted levels of liberalism.  Last week, gay marriage and recreational use of marijuana became legal in our state.

I voted for Obama in 2008 because he seemed an intelligent, good man with reasonable ideas.  I disliked his stance on abortion, but the most pressing social issue was gay marriage, and he and I agreed on that.  Furthermore, I didn’t like McCain’s philandering past or his VP pick, and I was fed up with a Republican Party that had retained power so long without addressing our country’s financial problems or fighting the erosion of traditional families.  Bush had led us into a questionable war, expanded entitlements with his Medicare Part B, and tethered schools to impossible goals in his No Child Left Behind Act.  On the eve of the election, it became clear that his reign had not prevented, and maybe even encouraged, the corrupt banking practices that were threatening our nation’s very stability.  So I decided to take a chance on a Democrat, reasoning that the efficiency and humanity of the government was more important than its size.  I hoped our nation’s first black president could raise national politics above partisan bickering to clean up Washington and solve the fiscal problems looming over our heads. 

Obama failed to realize my hopes.  He didn’t raise the tenor of our politics, and—though I know the banking crisis required extreme measures—he certainly didn’t solve our financial problems.  Instead of reforming our tax code or entitlement programs, he gave us a healthcare legislation so vast and complex that no one has a clue what its real cost or consequence will be.  That being said, he faced extraordinary challenges, even for a president.  And in some areas, especially foreign policy, he seemed to do as well as anyone could have.  All in all, I never hated Obama’s presidency, but I didn’t love it either, and I looked to Mitt Romney as the man who might be able to do what Obama could not.  Romney had the financial know-how and a record of bipartisan leadership that made him uniquely qualified to lead our country through treacherous economic times. 

As a Mormon, I’m sure I liked Romney more than your average conservative and felt his defeat more keenly.  When I see his picture in the news, I feel a pang of regret.  I think of what an exemplary and capable man he is, and I’m sad our nation passed up the chance to elect its first Mormon president.  If he had won, I believe he’d have gone down in history as one of our greatest.  So yes, I’m disappointed that Romney lost, but I’m not devastated.  Moreover, I’m not mourning that Obama’s still our president; I don’t hate him personally or politically, and that’s how democracy goes—sometimes you get what you voted for and sometimes you don’t.

What I am devastated by is the larger political drama that took Romney down.  For starters, I’m disappointed that our icon of hope and change resorted to vicious personal attacks to attain his goal.  I cannot imagine a man more earnest, diligent and wholesome than Romney.  His history couldn’t be any cleaner; his success in business and public service couldn’t be more glowing; his devotion to his family couldn’t be more obvious.  That Obama and his allies convinced millions of people to distrust him is disturbing.  My liberal Facebook friends disparaged him as “disgusting” and a “conspicuous consumer.”  One asserted that Romney wanted “dominion” over all women’s bodies.  Meanwhile, I didn’t see any personal attacks on Obama posted by a Republican Facebook friend.  This double standard was apparent at the National Conventions too.  The Republicans talked about the decent guy who wasn’t getting his job done, whereas the Democrats’ cheered people like Sandra Fluke, who asserted that Republicans want to take us to an “offensive, obsolete relic of our past.”   

How did this strategy work?  Was it simply because Romney’s rich?  Was it reverse racism?  Was it prejudice against Mormons?  Some Obama fans seemed incensed that Romney opposes gay marriage, even though Obama opposed gay marriage until just six months before the election.  Obama ran an ad that declared Romney’s “not one of us.”  Another of his ads said a girl’s first time should be with a man “who really cares about and understands women,” a guy who cares about “whether you get birth control”—a girl’s first time voting, of course.  And during the second debate, when Romney asked legitimate questions about the Benghazi fiasco, Obama looked at him with disdain and declared that Romney was being “offensive.”  I think Romney was as bewildered as I was.  He wasn’t ready for the tactic.  He lost the exchange. 

That debate moment became for me a microcosm of the election:  Romney earnestly challenging the president on legitimate issues and Obama brushing him off by branding him as offensive.  Voters were most concerned about finances, and they thought Romney was as competent as the president, maybe more so, in this area.  And so, the pundits said, Obama’s job was to “disqualify” Romney—a job he did well.  Last Spring, when he changed his stance on gay marriage, Obama turned the public’s gaze away from money. Though he didn’t campaign on his new stance, and though debate moderators never asked him about it, his flip was more than enough to rally the liberal base.  Gay marriage also served as the perfect opening for resurrecting the issue of abortion rights.  Romney and Ryan seemed clueless in combating this ingenious leverage of what they must have thought were stale culture wars. 

This is where the political drama became devastating for me.  I watched in frustration as nice people became irate that Romney and Ryan believe religious freedom is more important than free birth control.  I watched in sadness as they crowed about a woman’s right to choose, as though a baby’s life weighs nothing compared to a woman’s convenience.  Feminists renewed their war on Mother Nature: women are entitled to sexual pleasure without the bother of babies.  And then there was the gay marriage issue, which worries me to no end, not because gay men are inadequate as husbands and fathers, but because they’re inadequate as mothers.  My feeling that every child needs to know a mother’s breast, a mother’s voice, a mother’s touch, a mother’s instinct, a mother’s love—this is now an “offensive, obsolete relic of our past.” 

No, I’m not devastated by Obama; I’m devastated by liberalism’s new bent.  I’m devastated that a majority of voters see common sense as backward, family values as chauvinistic, wrong as right.  Thursday in Seattle, gay couples celebrated their new marriage rights and potheads gathered to rejoice over their “coming out of the marijuana closet.”  Just a few yards from our city’s seasonal ice skating rink, a Seattle Times reporter interviewed a father who had brought his young daughters downtown to witness “democracy in action.”  The man showed off his ounce of marijuana, but virtuously waited to smoke it, since public consumption is still illegal.  The crowd, perhaps encouraged by sheriffs who promised laissez-faire law enforcement, was not so high-minded, and the smell of weed wafted about our Seattle Center.  Call me a party pooper, but I’ll think twice now before taking my children to ride up the Space Needle.  I’m so old-fashioned I’d rather they learn about marijuana from a D.A.R.E. video than from inhaling Mary Jane on a family outing.  You see, I want to protect them not only from secondhand smoke but also from the idea that this addictive, mind-numbing, accident-causing, death-hastening substance is a normal form of recreation. 

As an adult, my paramount duty is to protect children.  Most Washington voters, on the other hand, think their paramount duty is protecting our right to act like children.  I keep wondering where all the grown-ups have gone.  Is it our turn to hide in the closet?

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Leaves on a Tree

 

When I was in 8th grade, my history teacher led my class through a discussion exploring the question of why study history.  She attempted to debunk popular ideas on the subject, such as “those who don’t study history inevitably repeat it.”  Finally, she told us the only reason we study history is simply because it’s an interesting story.  

Why a teacher would want to demean her subject, I don’t know, but I was wise enough not to believe her.  I intuitively knew history is important, and to this day I feel cheated that my public schools didn’t teach history more rigorously.  A few years later, I came across a quote by Michael Crichton, author of “Jurassic Park,” which I would put in the mail and send to my 8th grade history teacher if I could remember her name and knew her address.  Crichton explains exactly why history is crucial:  “If you don’t know history, you don’t know anything; you’re a leaf that doesn’t know it’s part of a tree.” 

I have known some leaves who were shockingly clueless about our tree, such as a teenager who couldn’t tell me what event we were commemorating on the Fourth of July.  This teenager was a good student and is now in medical school!

My husband—an educator who eats, drinks and dreams educational policy—tells me public schools don’t have a rigorous history curriculum because it has become too controversial.  Conservatives want to promote a glowing history of heroic founding fathers and liberals want to promote a critical history of suffering slaves.  I’m annoyed by this debate because it’s no reason to neglect something essential; we can and ought to teach both sides of the story.

In the mean time, I’ve seen no evidence that history curriculum has improved since I was in school, so I’m planning to supplement my children’s education at home.  I have enough grasp of history to teach my children a basic outline of America’s past from colonial times to the present, and I can offer them a few insights about Europe’s past and how it relates to our hemisphere, but that’s about all.  The rest of my knowledge is just tidbits I’ve gleaned from various sources.  I don’t even know enough to offer a basic outline of the rise and fall of the world’s great empires.  Considering that I’ve always been highly interested in the subject—I would have eaten it up if my school teachers had challenged me—this is a little sad. 

Not overly sad, though, because I can rectify the situation.  Sitting on my parent’s hearth is a book by Jacques Barzun, a leading historian of the 20th Century, titled “From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life.” The book was published in 2000, when the author was 93 years old.  About a week ago, I read the introduction and prologue, in which he describes how he was able to write this book because he’d spent his entire life studying history.  The introduction was riveting, and I wanted badly to read all night (if only my babies didn’t wake up so early!).  Barzun describes major ideas and themes he sees as shaping our history, such as Primitivism (desire to return to a simple, uncivilized life) and Emancipation (desire to be unshackled by the past and its constraints).  He makes the interesting assertion that boredom and fatigue have been major forces of change, and he promises that he will challenge the reader’s assumptions, explaining the merit of systems and ideas now universally despised. 

His introduction validates my belief that as we study history we become less provincial, less beholden to our own culture.  We see the world through a different lens; we hold present-day ideas up against centuries of experience; we recognize more readily a flimsy fad; we see more powerfully an enduring truth.  In my view, our generation seems to be suffering from two bogus concepts that Barzun mentions:  “It is a false analogy with science that makes one think latest is best” and (quoting William James) “Every thought and act owes its complexion to the acts of your dead and living brothers.”  These truths are obvious enough to even the most casual students of history, but in our day-to-day lives, how often do we assume that our perspective is more enlightened than our grandparents’ and that we deserve credit for our ideas? 

Love of history is probably in my DNA, but this DNA has been nurtured by my Mormon culture.  Like Jews and other Christians, Latter-day Saints spend a lot of time studying the ancient Israelites of the Old and New Testaments.  We also study the history of the ancient Americas, as recorded in The Book of Mormon, and the beginnings of our church in the early 1800s.  We study this history with the idea that all people who have ever lived are linked together biologically, culturally and spiritually.  The world’s inhabitants may seem vast and innumerable to us, but to God we are a small, intimate family.  He does not forget a single man or woman any more than a mother forgets her child.  History helps me see how each person—each leaf—has a small but essential place on our family’s tree.

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Discussing Gay Marriage with Seattle Times Columnist Danny Westneat

Yesterday morning, between handing out bowls of oatmeal, I read Danny Westneat’s column in The Seattle Times, which ran with the headline “The right is left behind by election.”  Dismayed by his lack of understanding of conservative objections to the gay marriage movement, I dashed off an email to him, expressing my frustrations.  A few hours later, when I came home from playgroup, I was surprised to see he’d emailed me back.  I responded; he replied; I answered; he retorted; we went back and forth until about the time I started dinner.

I’m pleased that a columnist at our region’s largest newspaper found my criticism compelling enough to begin a discussion (I assume he doesn’t debate every disgruntled reader).  And while I’m thoroughly tired of the subject of gay marriage, I found it refreshing to have an intelligent exchange without any name-calling.  I’ve participated in many Facebook debates on the subject, in which my opponents have responded to my sincere arguments by calling me “hateful,” “horrible,” “F-d up,” and “offensive.”  Almost invariably, these ambassadors of tolerance attack my religion and argue that my belief in right and wrong renders me unable to see the issue clearly. 

I feel a moral responsibility to stand up for my convictions, especially when it seems that common sense is being smothered by political correctness.  Fortunately, I have a thick skin, and I’m willing to be the punching bag.  I know many people who agree with my views but have told me they will never state their opinion publicly for fear of retaliation.  I can’t say I blame them! 

Anyway, below is my discussion with Mr. Westneat.  I’m not sure how he feels about my publishing it, but as a journalist he knows that, unless he negotiates beforehand, every conversation is on the record.

Dear Danny,

I am discouraged that someone of your intellectual capacity has succumbed to the groupthink of our generation.  Marriage between a man and woman is an institution invented by nature, not the government or church.  Every society ever known to man has practiced it, suggesting that it’s a biological necessity.   In other words, no community has survived without employing marriage as a fundamental social unit.  Your argument that we ought to let gays do what they want suggests that gays are not already free to do what they want, but that is not the case.  Gay couples can live however they choose, and their friends, neighbors and churches can even call them “married” if they choose.  Furthermore, gay couples already had all the legal rights of married couples.  The reason religious people are so discouraged is because gay marriage laws actually violate our religious freedom; they force us to use a word to mean something it has never meant, coercing us into the notion that gay relationships are on the same moral and social footing as heterosexual relationships.  Look up the word “marriage” in the dictionary; we’ve changed the definition.  Since when did the state have the right to engineer our culture by redefining words?  People like you are forcing their secular religion on me.   

Lara

Danny:  Thanks for your note. You wrote: “The reason religious people are so discouraged is because gay marriage laws actually violate our religious freedom; they force us to use a word to mean something it has never meant, coercing us into the notion that gay relationships are on the same moral and social footing as heterosexual relationships.”

I disagree. In your church you are free to continue to define marriage as one man and one woman. It is in the arena of civil marriage that things have changed. It is not a religious freedom issue what happens in the civic space. At least it shouldn’t be. Personally, I feel that when church and state are separated, completely, it strengthens both the church and the state. They are not good for one another.

Also, what happened in the election is that the community decided, as a group, that in the civic space, gay relationships ARE “on the same moral and social footing as heterosexual relationships.” To me that is a good thing. But it’s also true that you don’t have to agree, and you certainly don’t have to honor this at your church.

I appreciate the feedback,

Danny

Me: You write “that the community decided, as a group, that in the civic space, gay relationships ARE ‘on the same moral and social footing as heterosexual relationships.'”  You neglect to acknowledge, though, that gay couples were already on the same legal footing, which is the only civic space the government should be concerned with.  It’s not government’s job to dictate popular culture, especially when doing so means altering the English language.  If you look up marriage in the dictionary, you’ll see that we’ve embarked on a strange road of redefining words in order to avoid hurting people’s feelings.  It reminds me of Orson Orwell’s “1984,” in which the government changes the language in order to manipulate people’s understanding. 

I know this is a lost cause in our state, but I am disappointed in you–and all of the The Seattle Times staff for that matter–for failing to report conservative arguments.  If all I read was The Seattle Times, I would think there was no conservative argument.  

Danny:  They are not on the same legal footing. Quick example: They can’t file jointly on their income tax return.  There are countless examples like that. They won’t be on the same legal footing until federal laws are changed. Which is coming.

The government is not dictating popular culture. The people endorsed a change because the people want it. You can’t really blame the government when the people voted for it and support it.

Me:  Your example is a federal one; so why not change the federal law to grant them the same legal rights as a married couple?  Why redefine an ancient institution?  In our state, it was the government who first decided to restructure society, and now the majority of our state’s voters have supported the government.  However, we must remember that the law won by a slim majority and only in a few counties.  In this instance, we have liberal cities forcing their values on the more conservative rural counties. 

But let’s pretend for a moment that it was voted for by the majority in all the counties; it wouldn’t change the fact that government is forcing on everybody (especially future generations) a radical social experiment without any historical precedent. 

We’ve taken the concept of individual rights to a crazy extreme.  What next?  Do I, as a woman, have a right to be called a man?  Women have all the legal rights of men, but in practice we fail to obtain the same political and economic status?  So should we outlaw the concept of gender?  Maybe we should keep that in the Church too, especially since transgender people don’t fit traditional definitions. 

Danny:  We could try to change federal law to grant them separate rights, but a number of courts have already ruled that separate isn’t really equal. Separate never is actually equal. So the movement is to just  let them get married. It’s real equality.

This ancient institution of marriage has been redefined many, many times.

Lara:  The legal benefits and obligations of marriage have changed over time, but marriage has never meant anything besides a social/sexual union between a man and a woman.  Furthemore, marriage has always served a vital societal need in that it secures a father to his children by tying him to their mother. Gay marriage does the opposite: it encourages the notion that two men or two women are a normal replacement for biological parents.  This is troubling, considering the body of research that supports the natural, common sense notion that children should be raised by their own parents.

Danny:  Well, I don’t want to re-debate this in its entirety, not after nine months of it. But the comments about gay parents are wrong, in my view. Plus, gay parents are already raising children all over the place. My fifth-grader has three gay parent families just in his one class. That train left the station long ago, regardless of the issue of marriage. So why not let them marry? If anything it will make their families stronger, which seems like a good thing.

There’s nothing troubling about these families by the way …

Lara:  The train of gay families may be on its way in liberal enclaves, but it’s not common anywhere else, and the fact that the train has left is no reason to encourage its going.  I have no problem with gay parents adopting children if there’s a shortage of adoptive parents.  I do, however, have a real problem with sperm and egg banks. Donating an egg or a sperm amounts to donating (or selling!) children.  This reminds me of another of my high school reads, “Brave New World,” in which children are created without the use of sex. 

The research on children raised by gay couples is controversial, but if we take divorce or formula-feeding as historical lessons, we must admit that our past, brave new notions about what is healthy for children have harmed children’s well-being.  Nature knows best, and I find it a stretch of reason and common sense to think that the process of falling in love and sexual intercourse between a man and a woman is only incidental to the reproductive cycle.  Sometimes biological parents are not available, and we must find substitutes.  But to intentionally deny a child the right of being raised by his or her mother and father is immoral.

This is the point where Danny became tired of me, but because this is my blog, I can add one more counter-argument:  the idea that separate cannot be equal in the case of marriages and civil unions is based on a false analogy with racial segregation in schools.  School segregation involved different locations, different buildings, different staff, whereas this issue is only about a different word.  Surely we can write a law that says gay couples have the same legal rights and obligations as married couples and expect judges to enforce that.

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Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part Five – Sunday is the Sabbath

Our last day at the cabin was Sunday.  Before packing up and driving back to Salt Lake, we had a family sacrament service (my brother-in-law had received permission from his bishop).  We gathered in the living room where we sang a hymn and said a prayer.  Some of the men broke bread, blessed it in the name of Jesus and passed it around for each person to eat.  Next they blessed water and passed that around.  After this essential part of the meeting, my husband gave a short talk and the children sang “I am a Child of God” before we closed with another prayer. 

All of my siblings and their families are active members of the Church, and all of my husband’s family is active in the Church too.  The majority of our aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents are also active church members, and so family reunions usually include some religion.  If a reunion falls on a Sunday, we have a little church meeting of our own, but even when there’s no Sunday, we usually have a gathering with religious overtones, such as a Christmas program or a tribute to a grandparent who’s having a birthday.

After our Sunday service, I asked people to post for pictures. Not everyone was thrilled at the idea of appearing on my blog.

Just kidding! She's too beautiful to hide. It's hard to believe she's five months pregnant in this picture, but it's true.

My husband's sister and her husband.

My niece and son playing with toys after our sacrament meeting.

 

It’s hard for me to articulate the feelings I have when practicing religion with family.  As a wannabe-anthropologist, I love the overt display of culture, connection and shared values.  I also feel a strong connection to our ancestors who were bold enough to adopt an obscure, unpopular religion, and then brave enough to travel to a barren wilderness to practice it.  The sacrifices they made were huge, and their faith, charity and work ethic were heroic.  

In our church we talk about these pioneers quite a bit.  We even have a holiday in their honor (July 24th is Pioneer Day, a state holiday in Utah and a Mormon holiday around the world).  But when we study our pioneers in church, while my admiration for them increases, they still feel like an abstraction to me, a school day lesson.  On the other hand, when I’m sitting on a river bank in a desert canyon with a hundred relatives, listening to my grandfather share how he gained his faith from his mother, my ancestors are amazingly knowable.  I discover that I am more than just a recipient of what they built; I am, very literally, an extension of who they were.  I look into the freckled face of a cousin and see not a middle-class American trying to raise a family, but a Danish farmer trying to settle a wilderness.  I look at my father’s unwavering commitment to his beliefs and I see an Italian Waldensian living high in the Alps to escape the bloody persecution of his neighbors.  And when I wonder how those Danish farmers or Italian heretics felt about the Utah landscape or The Book of Mormon or preparing their children for the future, I realize that my own thoughts and feelings about these things are but echoes of theirs.  

At family reunions I discover my ancestors:  they are my dirty blonde hair, my round face, my blue eyes, my sturdy body; they are my citizenship, my patriotism, my English language, my Mormon dialect; they are my attitudes, my ideas, my convictions; they are my moral courage and my work ethic; they are my faith.   The world has changed incredibly since my ancestors emigrated in the mid-1800s to the Rocky Mountains, but the church and culture they established have stayed remarkably the same.  All things considered, six generations, 150 years, is barely a stitch in time, and I feel this fact profoundly when we’re singing hymns they sang and using a priesthood they passed down to us, father to son.  

Our strange little Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, now has more members outside of the United States than inside.  Our strange little Church is becoming known as a world-wide religion and a powerful force for good.  This is only possible because the faith of those first pioneers survived in their children and then their grandchildren and on and on.  In our Church’s history, each rising generation has accepted the torch of faith and continued to build on what their forefathers established, spreading the gospel to more and more families.  While religion and faith in God seem to be losing ground in many parts of the world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is thriving.  Modernization has not diluted the potency of our religion.  Our meetinghouses are full of beautiful youth and prosperous young families because we find in our Church an identity, a purpose and moral footing.  When I look at my peers outside the church, it’s plain that those without religion often lack identitiy, purpose and a strong moral compass.  

My church and my family are intertwined, which I consider a tremendous blessing.  I am raising my children within a framework of love, respect and defined values that connect them to their forebearers and to me.  I love the faith of my fathers and feel so blessed that I can offer that faith to my children.

A few months ago, my dad sent me a link to a Daily Beast article about Utah’s relative success through our nation’s Great Recession.  The author describes Utah’s prosperity and attributes it to the Mormon heritage.  As an insider who knows this to be true, it’s nice to be appreciated by an outsider.

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Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part Four: Mountains and Mastitis

A few days after our temple outing, we stuffed the children back into our van and headed north and then east up Parley’s Canyon toward Park City (of ski slope fame).  Our excursion being in July, the hills were brown, not white, but I know from experience that much of the year the Wasatch Mountains resemble white chocolate chips pointing at the brilliant blue sky.

Continuing past Park City, we entered a picturesque valley with grassy pastures and rustic houses.  Every mile seemed cooler and quieter than the last, a wondrous relief from the hot, bustling city.I was surprised how green this valley was in the middle of summer.

I didn't think to pull out my camera until we were a few miles past Park City where these mansions are.

A large house near the highway a few miles from Kamas

Utah's terrain is incredibly varied, which is one reason it has become a popular place to shoot movies.

 

I didn't have to read the sign to know this is a Mormon church building; our meeting houses all have a similar architectural plan that makes them easy to spot.

Our destination was near the town of Kamas where my brother-in-law’s aunt and uncle have a cabin, which they generously loaned to us for a five-day reunion.  Built beside a birch forest about a mile from the Heber River, it’s a peaceful place. 

The cabin where we stayed five nights.

The three bedroom home was just big enough to accommodate my husband’s parents, their four children and spouses, and eight grandchildren.  Some people had to sleep in the loft, and those some people happened to be me, my husband and our four children.

I spent a few nights here before I earned my upgrade.

I wasn’t satisfied with this sleeping arrangement, though, so on the third day I contracted mastitis, which earned me an upgrade.  If you do not know what mastitis is, ask a nursing mother near you.  My mother- and father-in-law graciously gave me their room and slept in the loft with our older children so I could have a more comfortable and private space to recoup.

Compared to the loft, this bedroom felt like a five-star hotel.

The funny thing about mastitis is that in half an hour’s time one goes from feeling fine to feeling absolutely miserable.  Unfortunately, it takes much longer than 30 minutes to return to fine.  As a mother of four, though, I’m a mastitis veteran; I recognize it quickly and can usually solve the problem without antibiotics.  Lots of nursing, pumping, hot compresses, water and rest are usually all that’s needed.  

 Before crawling into bed to sleep off my misery, I asked my husband and father-in-law for a priesthood blessing.  They poured a few drops of consecrated oil onto my scalp, then laid their hands on my head and gave me a healing blessing.   Priesthood blessings look and sound somewhat like a prayer but are based on a different concept.  Prayer is a way for anybody and everybody to send messages to God, while priesthood blessings are a way God sends messages and blessings to us.  They are given by a priesthood holder, someone who has authority from God to act in His name. 

 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to the Catholic Church in that we believe a man must hold the priesthood in order to officiate in God’s kingdom, to establish doctrine, to administer ordinances, etc.  We differ from other churches, though, in that we have no professional, paid clergy.  Instead, every man in our church who is keeping the basic commandments receives the priesthood—no special degree or status is required.  The first purpose of the priesthood is to serve one’s own family.  For example, I was baptized and confirmed not by the leader of our congregation, but by my father.

 All my life, I have received blessings and ordinances from the important men in my life.  Growing up, at the beginning of a school year, my father usually gave me a blessing to encourage, guide and protect me through the coming year. Also, when I was sick or in need of special help, I could ask him for a blessing.  One blessing I remember well was one my father gave me when I was a teenager and worked as a bank teller.  At the end of my shifts at the bank, I had to count all the money in my drawer to see if it matched the amount my computer said I should have.  It sounds simple, but taking in and handing out cash all day without making a single error is harder than it seems.  Shift after shift my cash drawer did not match my computer.  My boss warned me that I needed to improve, and I tried harder, but I still kept coming out wrong more often than was allowed by the company’s standards.  

Finally my boss put me on official probation.  I went home from work mortified that I might lose my job because I couldn’t add and subtract correctly.  I needed help, so I asked my father for a blessing.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember that after that blessing, I never had any trouble with balancing.  I went an entire month without any errors and even received an award for having the best cash-balancing record of all the tellers.  

The blessing my husband and father-in-law gave me in the mountains helped too.  The next morning I was better, and by the end of the day I was well enough to join in the fun again.  We filled our days with volleyball, hiking, four-wheeling, water-skiing, hot-tubbing, watching movies and playing board games. 

My favorite cabin activity is volleyball.

My daughter and her cousin watch volleyball and blow bubbles.

My cute little nephew wants to play too.

   

We prepare to launch the boat for an afternoon of waterskiing on a mountain reservoir

My daughter has changed into her swimsuit and is ready for the boat.

 

Everybody loved riding the ATVs.

Hamburger joints in Utah offer fry sauce, a mixture of ketchup and mayonaise. Is fry sauce unique to Mormon Country? I don't know.

It’s almost time to wrap up my photo tour of Mormon Country.  I have just one post left, which I will publish soon:  Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part Five:  Sunday is the Sabbath.
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Recovering from Brutal Mormon Roadtrip

If I had time and wanted to help you feel satisfied with your station in life, I would tell you about my fifteen-hour roadtrip to Salt Lake City.  Last week, I rode 15 hours each direction with four children under the age of eight in order to attend my sister-in-law’s wedding in the Salt Lake Temple.  While the wedding and related events were highly enjoyable, I’m still in a state of shock from what I experienced on the road.  Both during the long, grueling day on which we drove 1,000 miles south, and the long, grueling day on which we drove 1,000 miles north, some of my young children were suffering from diarrhea.  Enough said.

Five days later, I’m still recovering and haven’t had a chance to finish any of the posts I’m working on, so today I’m referring you to another of my favorite blogs, joshweed.com.  Josh Weed is a therapist and blogger who is Mormon.  He’s been married for ten years and has three little girls.  A few months ago, he and his wife decided it was time for him to come out of the closet so he could be more authentic with his family, friends and readers.  He published a post about his sexual orientation, which attracted way more attention than he dreamed it would and led to appearances on several talk and radio shows. 

Josh Weed has never practiced homosexuality, but has, since he was very young, felt sexually attracted to men, not women.  However, because of his faith, non-judgmental support from family and close friends, and because of his desire to have a biological family, he chose not to pursue his homosexual instincts and instead to marry his best friend, a woman.  

Not only is his story interesting and inspiring, Josh Weed is a good writer.  He’s witty, funny, insightful and incredibly honest and open.  I’ve never seen another writer share his experiences and feelings with such transparency.

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Bewildered by Secularists

My blogging software allows me to see how many people are reading this blog, but not who they are.  I’d be thrilled to learn that some are secularists because one of my goals as a blogger is to help people who are uninformed about religion generally and Mormonism specifically to understand my perspective.  I also want to learn from such people because I don’t understand their thinking.  From my viewpoint, secularism seems unreasonable, and so I would love to hear a secularist explain his or her reasoning.  Here are some of my questions:

To atheists:

Religious people believe in a God who created us and has expectations for us.  We have ideas about what is right and wrong, and we believe those ideas came from God.  But the atheists I have known also seem to have a sense of right and wrong.  Where does this sense come from, if not from God?  If we believe people are only a part of nature, not accountable to anything above nature, then are people only subject to natural laws, not moral laws?  What about people who do despicable things like murder, steal or rape?  Are they not violating a moral law?  If they are violating a moral law, why not call that law “God?”

To agnostics:

If God might exist but isn’t knowable, is morality knowable?  Assuming we cannot discover God, can we still discover morality?

To people who believe in God and/or absolute morality but are opposed to organized religion:

I’ve known people who believe God exists but churches aren’t good because they divide people and cause them to be narrow-minded.  I can sympathize with this thinking because history is full of religious wars and churches that thwart scientific discovery.  But history is also full of governments, political parties, universities, businesses, associations and clubs that are divisive and oppressive. 

As an example, when my husband was a missionary in Russia, now and then people he approached would tell him they weren’t interested in his message because they were “communists,” which meant they were atheists.  During Russia’s Soviet era, God was pushed out of the picture, but it certainly wasn’t the end of divisions or oppression.  So how can a secularist believe that avoiding organized religion will prevent divisiveness and oppression?  Aren’t institutions such as governments and universities necessary?  And aren’t birds of a feather going to flock together whether they do so in the name of God or in the name of something else?    

Furthermore, if we believe God exists and right and wrong exist, isn’t it important to talk about that?  Isn’t it important to promote right and fight against wrong?  And aren’t we going to be more effective at discovering and committing to right if we meet up with other people who want to be moral too?  This is all that religious groups are: birds of a feather that meet together in order to better understand and apply what is good and true, to work together to accomplish moral projects.  Sure, they can be wrong in their ideas and goals, but so can anybody.

In my observation, people who are “non-religious” still have moral leaders and moral teams.  They may have the illusion of being independent, but really they are following cultural leaders such as artists, politicians, journalists, marketers and friends.  The example that’s on my mind lately is pro-choice advocates, many of whom are secularists.  Pro-choice advocates believe each woman has a moral right to choose whether or not to carry a child in her womb, even if the child was conceived through consensual sex.  In my mind, this is contrary to nature; if a woman chooses to have sex, she is choosing to risk getting pregnant, and I find it unnatural for her to end the life of her unborn child.  For pro-choice advocates, though, the right of a woman to control her body trumps the rights of the unborn child and even the right of a father to protect his offspring.  This thinking may not be a religion, per se, but it’s a moral philosophy that other people of various backgrounds disagree with.

I’m not trying to begin a debate about whether abortion should be legal. I’m only contending that people who are pro-choice have a specific idea about what’s moral and that they group together with others who share their ideas in order to promote them.  Is this not just another form of religion?

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Mormon Politics 101: Glenn Beck, Boring Sermons and Political Neutrality

The day after last week’s presidential debates, conservatives across the nation were celebrating that Mitt Romney had been deemed the winner by the majority of viewers and pundits.  I’m sure no one was more pleased than my dad, who is an ardent conservative, a Fox News viewer and a Glenn Beck follower.  That morning my dad showed me a snippet of Beck’s radio show, in which he exulted that his prayers had been answered.  Beck had prayed that the scales would be removed from people’s eyes to see clearly that Mitt Romney is the better man.  Beck then suggested that Obama’s sour looks during the debate may have been caused by Jesus punching him in the face.

Next up was the funny part; Beck said it would be wrong to boast and celebrate at another’s expense . . . but they were going to do it anyway!  His screaming/singing sidekick belted out “Mitt Romney kicked Obama’s ass!” to the accompaniment of a heavy metal band.  Beck stopped him, gave a mini-sermon about how it’s wrong to boast, and then again said they were going to do it anyway.  The singing/screaming resumed.

It was funny—and inappropriate.  The Mormon inside me wanted to run for cover.  Jesus punching Obama in the face?  And did he really, just a few seconds later, use the a-word?  My dad, despite being a loyal fan, agreed it was “a little weird.”

My dad says Beck has more paid subscriptions to his website than CNN has viewers.  I’m too lazy to confirm those numbers, so I’ll simply agree that Beck’s an influential guy.  He has a large and faithful following.  What I am curious about is how many of those followers are members of our church.  My dad’s a fan, and I can think of three other Mormons who have mentioned to me that they like Beck.  I can think of more who have mentioned to me they don’t like Beck.  I hypothesize if members of our church were surveyed about this, the majority would say they are not Beck fans.  I make this hypothesis because Beck’s style is highly un-Mormon, maybe because he was not raised in the Church but joined as an adult in 1999, well after his public persona was developed. 

I bet if Beck was an ethnic Mormon, like Romney and me, he would not be over-the-top and incendiary.  We Mormons are staid people.  Our church services are boring by design.  We have no paid ministers, so lay members who have no particular talent for entertaining give straightforward “talks.”  An occasional joke is okay, so long as it’s simple and kind.  In between these mini-sermons, we sing hymns accompanied by an organ.  Sometimes we hear a musical number performed by singers or instrumentalists, also lay members of the congregation, who might play a flute or string instrument.  Rock bands can make it into our gyms for a ward party on a Friday or Saturday, but they are never allowed into our chapels or Sunday meetings.  In fact, the Church’s Handbook—a guidebook that explains to our lay ministers how to run the church—says “Instruments with a prominent or less worshipful sound, such as most brass and percussion, are not appropriate for sacrament meeting.”

One might guess that our worship habits are rooted in Puritan ancestry, but they’re more deliberate than that.  I’m not sure how much Puritan ancestry American Mormons have, anyway, since many of the early Mormons (including most of my ancestors) came to Utah directly from Europe without ever settling on the Eastern seaboard.  Even when the Church was young, and Puritan values were still strong in many parts of the U.S., Mormons were exceptionally devoted to music and dancing.  We have nothing against the performing arts, rock, rap or jazz.  We just don’t think rock music is the right way to approach God.  Entertainment is one thing; worship is another.

We also like to keep religion separate from politics, adhering to a strict code of political neutrality.  Talking politics in church meetings is a big no-no (though now and then someone can’t help himself—I’ve heard Romney’s name mentioned three or four times in the last year).  Each election season we hear the policy repeated by our local leaders when they read a letter from the Church president telling us we should become informed and vote, and also that the Church does not endorse parties, platforms or candidates.  The Church has said in official statements that principles in accordance with the gospel are found in the platforms of all major parties.

According to a Gallup poll conducted last summer, 70% of Mormons lean Republican.  But that leaves 30% who don’t lean Republican, a fact underscored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who is a Democrat and a faithful Mormon.  Like Beck, Reid joined the Church as an adult.  If Romney is elected president and Reid retains his position, we may have a lot of Mormon influence in Washington—but divided between two parties.

Mormon commentator Joanna Brooks, who is quoted in a Wikipedia article on Beck, claims that Beck’s anti-communism, connect-the-dots theorizing, and overt sentimentality are rooted in his Mormonism.  I find her assessment odd.  Mormons are not cynical conspiracy theorists.  Sure, some Mormons may be paranoid, and from her memoirs it seems her parents fit that description, but the majority of us are not.  In fact, I believe we’re counter-cultural in our non-cynicism.  We believe in old-fashioned civic virtues, in being courteous, in voting, running for office, serving in the military, obeying the law and honoring elected officials even if we don’t agree with them.

Brooks’ idea of men crying as a sign of male power is also absurd to me.  Women cry from behind the pulpit more than men do.  Occasionally an 80-something-old prophet sniffles when he talks about his deceased wife, and I’ve seen apostles get a little choked up in talking about their faith.  But Mormon leaders, both local and worldwide, don’t openly cry, and they couldn’t be farther from showmen.  As my mom says, “We’re the NPR among the churches.”  We are subdued, polite and reasonable in our communication. 

As one of our apostles recently explained, civility and seriousness should be the norm in our lives.  In describing how to increase one’s communion with the Holy Ghost–in other words, to draw close to God–he said,  “Another principle is to be cautious with humor.  Loud, inappropriate laughter will offend the Spirit.  A good sense of humor helps revelation; loud laughter does not. . . . Another enemy to revelation comes from exaggeration or loudness in what is stated.  Careful, quiet speech will favor the receipt of revelation.”

If you are interested in seeing just how boring we really are, now is an opportune time.  Last weekend we had our semi-annual General Conference, which consists of five two-hour meetings broadcast from Salt Lake City into 93 languages.  Members and non-members alike can watch these proceedings on the Internet.  While our usual Sunday meetings are more intimate and less polished, General Conference is our cultural standard.  The tone of these meetings is the ideal we strive for in our weekly local meetings and even in our personal lives.  It’s a tone entirely at odds with Glenn Beck TV.

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Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part 3 – I Get Married for Dead People

A few days after I came home from Utah, I got together with a friend who is not Mormon.  She knows that my husband and I try to date regularly, and she asked me, “Have you been on any dates lately?”  I thought for a moment.

“Well, yeah, actually we went on a date while we were in Utah.  My husband’s younger sister and her fiance watched the kids while the married couples went to the temple.” 

“What do you do at the temple?” she asked.

“Uh, we did temple sealings, which are . . . vicarious marriages . . . for dead people.”  The look on her face was one of shock.  She was so taken aback, I had no idea what to say.  I felt like the little boy in The Sixth Sense when he whispers to Bruce Willis, “I see dead people.”  This friend has known me for five years, and we’ve talked about religion many times.  Apparently I never mentioned to her before that, from time to time, I get married for dead people. 

If you too are uninformed about this Mormon practice, let me inform you: 

We Latter-day Saints participate in ceremonies that are a physcial expression of the promises we make to God and the blessings He gives us in return.  We call the ceremonies “ordinances.”  One of these ordinances is baptism, which is a symbol of having one’s sins washed away and beginning a new life as a follower of Jesus.  Our baptisms are always followed by confirmation, which is a symbol of receiving the Holy Ghost.  These ordinances probably don’t seem strange to you because most Christians do something similar.  But we Latter-day Saints don’t stop at baptism.  Baptism is only the gateway into God’s kingdom; in order to make it all the way back to God Himself, there is more to be done. 

This is where the temple comes in.  When we have reached adulthood, if we are living a life in accordance with the teachings of our church, we can go to the temple and receive more ordinances.  The sealing ordinance is the last of these.  It’s basically a marriage ceremony performed by someone who has priesthood authority to “seal” the marriage to endure beyond death.  We also call this “eternal marriage.”  

Now, you may be asking, what does this have to do with dead people?  Jesus said that no one can enter his kingdom without having been baptized.  This is a disconcerting notion when you consider that billions of people around the world die without ever having been baptized, many of them knowing nothing about Christianity.  A passage in the New Testament mentions people being baptized for the dead, and Joseph Smith, the founder of our church, introduced his followers to the practice.  In the temple, we perform baptisms for the dead, and we perform the other temple ordinances for dead people too.  First someone finds the names of deceased ancestors and brings those names to the temple.  Then someone can receive the temple ordinances on behalf of the deceased person  The idea is that the dead person can decide if he or she wants to accept those ordinances, much like we living people must decide if we want to accept what Jesus did for us when he atoned for our sins. 

If you are thinking that Mormonism is strange, you are certainly right.  But I have learned that being strange isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  For example, my date night at the temple was lovely.  My husband and I, his parents, sister and brother-in-law, loaded up into our van and drove to the newly constructed Draper Temple.  We all wore church attire–suits for the men, dresses for the ladies.  Once inside the temple, we met up with my husband’s brother and his wife and went into changing rooms to put on our ceremonial temple clothing.  After we were dressed, a temple worker led us to a sealing room where a sealer was waiting for us–a cute, old Hispanic man. 

As the exterior suggests, the inside is bright and beautiful.  The atmosphere inside the temple is unlike anywhere else I’ve been, but the place most like it is probably a library.  It’s organized and industrious, and everyone whispers. 

We stayed for about an hour in the sealing room, each couple taking a turn kneeling across the altar as stand-ins for some other couple that lived a long time ago.  Dressed in the same clothes I wore on my wedding day and hearing the same words, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own marriage.  When it wasn’t our turn, my husband and I sat quietly on a sofa, watching the others.  The sun streamed through the windows, words about eternity and the names of dead people rolled off a Spanish tongue, and I tried to fathom what it all means.  It was a beautiful hiatus from the rush and clamour of visiting relatives.  It was a beautiful evening.

My husband's sister and her husband

My husband and I pose for pictures after our temple visit

Almost everyone who enters the temple carries a little suitcase full of temple clothes. After our temple visit, we head to an ice cream shop for dessert.

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Photo Tour of Mormon Country Part 2 – Everything’s Cuter in Utah

When I was a college student, I took a trip during summer vacation to visit my roommate from Flowermound, Texas.  As she showed me around her hometown, she repeatedly explained, “Everything’s bigger in Texas.” 

Now Utahns might take issue with that statement.  When it comes to the size of families and the size of houses, they’ll tell you they have the largest in the nation.  Take a drive in the mountain bench neighborhoods on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, and you’ll probably believe the Utahns.  Here are some enormous homes under construction in Draper, about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City.  My in-laws’ home, which has around 5,000 square feet, is a quaint cottage compared to these mammoths.

I’m not brave enough to pick a fight with Texans, though, so I’m going to let them keep their saying and invent a new one for Utah–“Everything’s cuter in Utah.”  If you love to strap giant flowers onto your baby’s head or wear color-coordinating outfits with your in-laws, Utah is the state for you.  Sunday school teachers in my home state sometimes put a vase of flowers on the table, but Sunday school teachers in Utah are often mistaken for scrapbooking demonstrators.

Check out these pictures from the 4th of July pancake breakfast hosted by my in-laws’ congregation in Sandy, Utah.  Handmade napkin rings.  A choo-choo train for the children.  Bubblegum centerpieces.  You would be crazy to wear anything that wasn’t red, white or blue!

After our pancake breakfast, we headed to a party in my sister’s neighborhood in the city of Bountiful.  We congregated on a patio next to a creek that runs through a ravine between their giant homes.  The parents laid out food and set up a slip-and-slide and volleyball court.  To my shock and horror, this party didn’t have darling napkin rings, but you’ll still believe that “Everything’s cuter in Utah” when you look at the children and teenagers. 

Of course, there are cute young people in every town and every state, but there’s an extreme concentration in Utah.  Why?  First of all, because their moms strap giant flowers on their heads.  Second, because Mormons are especially devoted to childrearing, and we are often successful in teaching our children to dress and behave appropriately.  For example, these cute kids’ idea of a party is doing backflips across the lawn while Aunt Lara cheers them on. 

Back-flipping Utahns

More back-flipping Utahns

And a few more cute Utah relatives.:

That concludes part two of my Photo Tour.  Coming up next is Part Three: “In Which I Get Married for Dead People.”

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