Mormon Temples and the Worth Of a Soul

The central theme of Christianity and Mormonism is that the worth of every single soul is great. There’s not a person alive that is not of value. The sole point of religion is to help each of us recognize the worth of others, no matter who they are, where they are from, what they look like, or what they do. Christianity really emphasizes the message through the life of its central figure, Jesus, whose life was anticipated in Old Testament scripture as someone coming from a place of little consequence.

For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.

He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

The story of Christ’s birth and life is obviously well known. A virgin birth in a manger, in poverty and obscurity to a people subjected to Roman rule who came not to bring political deliverance but rather living water with a promise that those who drink will never thirst again. Consistently, he hung out with the poor, the underclass, the sick, the afflicted and the sinner and saved his most severe condemnation not for those who are weak, but for those with power, authority and money.  His theology is both hyper-personal and revolutionary, proclaiming that the last shall be first and the first last. This is a challenging example to follow. To take it seriously means we need to take every single person on this planet as individuals with worth.

With that as a backdrop I recently finished the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”. Here the author describes individual lives in an Indian slum situated near an airport in Mumbai. The author goes out of her way to bring to light the poignant, beautiful lives of the people struggling to survive under severe poverty. Thousands of people crammed between a sewage lake and an airport, neglected, ignored and dismissed by the broader society.

This quote from the book is typical, but also remarkable in how it echos the story of the Good Samaritan only without the Samaritan and with the miserable backstories of each person passing by the injured man:

“One dawn in July, Sunil found a fellow scavenger lying in the mud where Annawadi’s rut-road met the airport thoroughfare. Sunil knew the old man a little; he worked hard and slept outside the Marol fish market, half a mile a way. Now the man’s leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he’d been hit by a car. Some drivers weren’t overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.

Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station. Thousands of people passed by this way every morning.

Two hours later, when Rahul left Annawadi for school, the injured man was crying for water. ‘This one is even drunker than your father,’ one of Rahul’s friends teased him. ‘Drunker than your father,’ Rahul retorted unimaginatively as they turned onto Airport road. Rahul wasn’t afraid of the police; he’d run to them for help when his neighbor dumped boiling lentils on Danush, his sickly baby. The man on the road was just a scavenger, though, and Rahul had to catch a bus to class.

When Zehrunisa Hussain passed an hour later, the scavenger was screaming in pain. She thought his leg looked like hell, but she was bringing food and medicine to her husband, who also looked like hell far across the city in the Arthur Road jail.

Mr. Kamble passed a little later, milky-eyed and aching, on his tour of business and charities, still seeking contributions for his heart valve. He had once been a pavement dweller like the injured man. Now Mr. Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and that he couldn’t have one.

When Rahul and his brother returned from school in the early afternoon, the injured scavenger lay still, moaning faintly. At 2:30 P.M., a Shiv Sena man made a call to a friend in the Sahar Police Station about a corpse that was disturbing small children. At 4 P.M., constables enlisted other scavengers to load the body into a police van, so that the constables wouldn’t catch the disease that trash-pickers were known to carry.

Unidentified body, the Sahar Police decided without looking for the scavenger’s family. Died of tuberculosis, the Cooper Hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handling the case, wanted to move fast, for he had business with B. M. Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required twenty-five unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.”

The nameless scavenger who lost his name and significance from birth. Shutoff from education off from an education and eventually even a home – his life is not told in this story. As an old man, he’s hit by a car and left to die on the side of the road. But then, even after death, he’s severed from all ties to whatever family he may have had, discarded and forgotten to history, forever.

And I get why this is so difficult. It’s easy to race on by a homeless man pushing a shopping cart slowly on the sidewalk. In India, more so. I spent three and a half weeks there, in 20001 and felt overwhelmed by the crowd of people and especially the masses of poverty. How do you consider the one individual when there were so many.

I’ve already described Christianity’s core mission. To offer hope, significance and worth to the poor, forgotten, diseased and sinful. That was Christ’s core message and mission. Mormonism  came along much later, founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith, an American Christian church. Among Mormonism’s innovations is its emphasis on familial relationships. Joseph Smith taught the eternal nature not just of our lives but of our relationships and built temples in which Mormons perform sacred ordinances and make sacred covenants to remember our dead – all of our dead. It’s one of the core missions of the church to bind and seal the entire global family to each other. Not one person forgotten, not one person lost.

But the only way for this to happen is if each one of us noticed just a few more people. And this is why Mormons are asked to do family history work. To bring out of obscurity those in our family tree who would be forgotten otherwise.

Big Tent Mormonism

It’s not news that more and more people are leaving organized religion. Mormonism is not immune, although I think the overall growth rate  trends upward, perhaps largely because of growth in Africa. Personally, I know people who have left Mormonism. And I get why some choose to leave the church, really I do, but I still believe religion matters. Nonetheless, here I’m not going to get into why people should stay, rather I want to dig into what type of person Mormonism is meant for. The answer is, and I hope this is obvious – that Mormonism is for every type of person, and we should want them exactly as they are.

Now this sounds obvious, but I think we are too often terrible at this. There are aspects of our religion that make this kind of openness challenging. For one thing, the first Sunday of every month, we have what basically is an open-mic meeting we call “Fast and Testimony”. For about 30 to 35 minutes of this meeting, random members of the audience, at their own discretion, get up to extemporaneously share something of themselves. Needless to say this can be interesting and beautiful and strange and everything in between. We also rely on lay leadership. Nobody except for, I suppose, the very top leadership, gets paid. In congregations throughout the world, men and women give up precious hours of their own time to pitch in to the church congregation to make it run. Additionally, you cannot choose your congregation, you attend based on where you live. And then every member is asked to visit and serve and befriend other members in that congregation. This all requires some number of highly-functioning, engaged, committed enough to spend hours of their own time individuals to make this all work.

But it’s challenging to accept everyone because everyone is difficult, some more than others. We naturally want to be with people just like us. And church is not a building, it’s made up of people and relationships, working and serving each other. Sometimes we simply do not fit in to the ward we’re assigned, for all sorts of reasons. Perhaps we find that we’re politically liberal in a congregation filled with nothing but Glenn Beck listeners. Or we can’t quite accept polygamy was ever of God and wonder how a prophet could have introduced it over his wife’s objections. Or we’re upset that women don’t have more of an equal seat at the table. Or we have a gay brother who will have to fight and work and demand acceptance. Or we struggle with employment or poverty in a congregation filled with those with more success. Or when we’ve been down, we’ve looked at pornography and can’t stomach the shame and the guilt that can come attending church after having done so. Or we just can’t kick the cigarette habit and are afraid others may smell the smoke on us. I could go on and on and on.

But Mormonism needs every one of us and our messy lives and our imperfections and our crazy ideas and our diversity. We all need each other. A few quotes:

“Let me say that we appreciate the truth in all churches and the good which they do. We say to the people, in effect, you bring with you all the good that you have, and then let us see if we can add to it. That is the spirit of this work. That is the essence of our missionary service” President Hinckley (meeting, Nairobi, Kenya, 17 Feb. 1998).

“If you experience the pain of exclusion at church from someone who is frightened at your difference, please don’t leave or become inactive. You may think you are voting with your feet, that you are making a statement by leaving. [Some may] see your diversity as a problem to be fixed, as a flaw to be corrected or erased. If you are gone, they don’t have to deal with you anymore. I want you to know that your diversity is a more valuable statement.”
-Chieko N. Okazaki

“Engaged in this work, theology has only one strength: it can make simple things difficult. Good theology forces detours that divert us from our stated goals and prompt us to visit places and include people that would otherwise be left aside. The measure of this strength is charity. Theological detours are worth only as much charity as they are able to show. They are worth only as many waylaid lives and lost objects as they are able to embrace. Rube Goldberg Machines, models of inelegance, are willing to loop anything into the circuit – tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Democrats, whatever. This is their joy. Here, the impromptu body of Christ is a Rube Goldberg Machine. In charity, the grace of a disinterested concern for others and the gratuity of an unnecessary complication coincide. Charity is a willingness to have our lives made difficult by people we did not have to help, objects we did not have to save, thoughts we did not have to think. Theology is gratuitous because theology is grace, and grace, by definition, is unearned, unwarranted, unnecessary, unconditional, gratuitous. Theology is free. Theology isn’t gratuitous because it receives without giving but because it gives without thought of return.” – Adam Miller from Rube Goldberg Machines

And finally, the baptismal covenant:

8 And it came to pass that he said unto them: Behold, here are the waters of Mormon (for thus were they called) and now, as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people, and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light;

9 Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life—

10 Now I say unto you, if this be the desire of your hearts, what have you against being baptized in the name of the Lord, as a witness before him that ye have entered into a covenant with him, that ye will serve him and keep his commandments, that he may pour out his Spirit more abundantly upon you?
Mosiah 18:8-10

So, let me offer a caveat. I think the one general condition is a willingness to participate in good faith in a way that’s cooperative and faith-promoting. I get why the church would not tolerate those who are disruptive or dangerous. But beyond the most extreme examples, yes, we need each other…

3 Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work;

D&C 4:3

And that’s it. Mormonism at its core requires desire, a desire to serve God and that’s basically it.  A desire to serve in our imperfections.

How Ashamed Should Trump Supporters Feel?

Anyone on Facebook should know the obvious about me by now. I am not a Donald Trump supporter. We’re approaching two years now, when he threw his name into the ring to run for the Republican party nomination, I assumed it was a publicity stunt that would soon flame out and die quickly. When he started to rise in the polls, I assumed as had other fringe figures in past elections, he would say or do something stupid turning off would-be supporters and be replaced by someone more presidential and acceptable. He did say, do and propose plenty of stupid things, but nothing hurt him. His popularity in the primary rose quickly and just stayed there, no matter what he did. Probably only Trump understood that he could literally say or do anything, perhaps even  shoot someone and not offend his supporters.

The Republican field seemed to have some relatively heavy-weights, at least on paper – Jeb!, Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio. But watching the debates unfold, none of them had the presence or the charisma or the ideas to really excite the base. They all seemed to be reciting the script Ronald Reagan wrote meant for the problems of the 1980’s. Only Trump sounded like someone who believed what he was saying – no matter how idiotic the content of his message – at least he was sincere and authentic. Trump wasn’t afraid to criticize Bush’s Iraq war while everyone else not named Paul defended it. Trump promised to preserve social security and medicare, while other Republicans were promising to gut them. Trump consistently and with passion promised to reverse trends by massive global market forces – trade and immigration – and return America to the glory days of… when exactly? 1950? He never said how, but people believed he could do it.

Meanwhile Donald Trump made horrifying campaign promises, made horrifying comments, and over the course of his life was involved in numerous scandals. Never believing he could actually win the presidency, most people until after the fact, never anticipated the scale and extent of his conflicts of interests and how he’s now in the position to enrich himself through the power of his presidency. Not to mention, his attacking, divisive style guarantees he’ll use his office to push the country into an even harsher, more divisive political environment.

A big part of me kind of gets how Trump resonates with a segment of American voters. A big part of it was that he ran against Hillary Clinton, who was not a good presidential candidate. Everyone had their own reason to vote for Trump or to opt out of this election entirely (many stayed home, others voted for people who had no shot of winning). Some saw the rise of political correctness and saw moments of liberal speech stifling. Hate speech seemed to cover and ever-broadening list of topics now considered off-limits. Others saw threats to religious liberty and the rapid acceptance of gay marriage as a threat to Christian values. The first black president with a Muslim sounding name (and likely a secret Muslim) who once attended church services of the America-hating Jeremiah Wright, who couldn’t even bring himself  to call out the global sins of extremist Islam.

But a bigger part of me is horrified. How could a rational voter consider the span and scope of American successes and problems and think for an instant that Donald Trump was the best person of the available options to address them? Given his obvious misogyny, his racism, his bigotry. Yes, I said it. The man is a racist bigot. There’s no getting around it.

And part of the reason this fact did not sink him was because many Americans just cannot stomach to come to terms with the racism in our country that brought Trump to power, nor do they even want to talk about it.

And even beyond that, Trump’s utter idiocy, in terms of policy and substance.

Let me pause right here. Donald Trump is a great marketer. His business is primarily branding. People pay him to put his name on their stuff – that’s the core of his post-bankruptcy business. He’s good on television. His show, the apprentice, where he could present himself as a successful and wildly rich – the extent of the truth of this is something no one knows for sure because he keeps these facts hidden. But he was unprepared and inarticulate in all three of his presidential debates with Hillary. His schtick worked better in the primary debates when he had to share the stage with far more people and had far less time to defend himself or explain his policies.

But he was never, ever good gaining support beyond a pretty narrow base. He is the most unpopular person ever to win the presidency and he barely won at that. Many people who voted for him, did so for reasons that did not include adoration or support. So, Trump was an obvious, transparent idiot when it comes to running a country and most people could see it plain as day. He was good at marketing, but to be good in business you need to be good at finding a niche. The country is large and diverse, no business needs every citizen to be its customer to be successful. A company just needs a big enough base of support. Trump was good at capturing a loyal base even as he turned off and offended many, many others. You can’t run a country this way, not successfully.

But none of this ultimately mattered. Trump squeeked out a narrow win and I find this horrifying. I find this difficult to understand. I fear for a country that could decide what are country needs is one of the most divisive, hateful, ignorant candidate we ever had. And I’ll say this over and over again, this election just wasn’t rational, but that’s par for the course. Voting is just not rationale.

So let me just say this one more time and hopefully I can stop saying it again and move on to more specifics. History will look back on this election and mark it as a shameful moment in American politics.

I don’t believe Donald Trump will be a disaster in everything. I’m sure he’ll have successes and good ideas mixed in with the regular disasters that will crop up again and again. He has good people on his staff and he has Steve Bannon – among other frightening, unqualified people. The country is a behemoth and a bureaucracy. It’s not easily controlled by a single person and it will largely move along on cruise control. It’s likely we’ll survive Trump. But we shouldn’t have had to.



Can Atheists Be Religious, Can they Be Mormon?

A few years back I wrote a blog post expressing a literal(ish) belief in Santa Claus. In summary, Santa is real because we all collectively, cooperatively make it so. There’s a lot of magic in this shared sense of cooperation and good-will. There’s a spiritual power that’s in it. I believe in it. I have faith in it. It’s religious for me.

I’m obsessed with community and relationships, partly because they are so difficult, so fraught with trouble. We’re too easily envious, too easily offended, we can be difficult for each other, too prone to gossip, too prone to find fault, difficulties with miscommunication. Sometimes it’s easier to just be by ourselves. To reach out and participate with others is risky, but the rewards are too great not to try. I’m obsessed by them because relationships have always been so difficult for me, and I’m assuming for most of us. And I think it is a religious practice to drive directly into one’s difficulties. I think this is what it means to repent. I’m also obsessed by them because I recognize the power of networks and relationships. We’re all stronger together. We do amazing things cooperatively. We learn quicker. We’re happier in healthy, balanced relationships and communities.

And it’s central to why I believe religion matters.

It’s a point central to Samuel Brown’s book, The First Four Principles and Ordinances of the Gospel, where he takes the principles of faith and repentance and the sacred ordinances of baptism and confirmation and emphasizes the relational power of these practices, principles and rituals. Its through a religious practice we learn to get along with others.

I’ve heard some people complain that we Latter-Day Saints stay too busy to think deeply, as if church leaders conspire to give us callings and three-hour weekly church services to keep us from ever pondering the truth about Mormonism. That perspective misconceives faith, which is a principle of action, of experiment, and experience. Faith is a conscious commitment, often tedious, stretched over the course of our lives. Our participation in the church community is an expression of our faith rather than a distraction from it. Faith does not live in the echo chamber of an isolated mind. Faith grows in strength as we enact it. This close connection between faith and action explains why as we immerse ourselves in the work of the kingdom our faith burns more brightly.

Later in the chapter on the Holy Ghost and the confirmation ordinance required to receive it, Samuel Brown describes a process of committing oneself to the sustaining power of the church community

Confirmation is in its literal sense refers to making hard or strong or firm. At confirmation, you are well and truly a member of the church….

Through confirmation we bring our own lives – our bodies, our aspirations, our wisdom, and our failings – into the community of saints. In that community, we find strength – firmness – that allows us to resist the many miseries that can be inflicted upon us when our brokenness is not yet healed by Christ.

In his book, The End of the World, Plan B: A Guide For the Future, Charles Shiro Inouye calls for compassion as a solution to injustice. In it, he talks about how to find peace. Too often we choose peace through isolation:

We are simply who we are, and we celebrate our own ways of doing things. We are justified because we live alone and are alike. This is the peace of isolation. Peace of this kind has us living with ‘our kind’, free from the dangers and complications that strangers bring. This is the peace of ‘us’ without ‘them’.

Whether in actuality or in our imaginations, many of us dwell at least partially in this kind of isolation. Some of us live far from the highway, deep in the woods, away in the desert. Others of us keep strangers at a distance by setting up gates and fences, or by employing guards and doormen. We have many ways to isolate ourselves. We join clubs, churches, associations, societies, political parties. Avoiding those who are different is one of the easiest ways to find peace in a world that would otherwise trouble and threaten us.”

Here, Inouye talks about isolation from people generally or just people who aren’t like us. Trying to find safety in conformity and sameness. Instead Inouye calls for a different kind of peace, through diversity and this demands compassion:

It manifests itself as an appreciation of difference. Is there a clearer, simplier definition than this? Peace is a cultivated appreciation of the ways we are different. You and I are not alike. But precisely because we are not, we contribute to each other’s well beling.

The fulness of the Plan B paradigm, which requires us to push through sorrow to discover compassion, eventually brings us the third kind of peace. Beyond the reflex of retreat and isolation, beyond the demand for uniformity, beyond the call for justice, comes an expanded capacity to appreciate difference, including the ways each of us is different from all others.”

Adam Miller walks on more abstract but similar grounds in his book, Future Mormon, in the chapter entitled “Network Theology: Is it Possible to be a Christian but not a Platonist?” In this chapter Adam Miller makes a compelling case for an inter-connected theology where among other ideas Christ’s grace and power comes to us through this relational network.

In network theology, an understanding of grace as an external, sovereign intervention is out of place. The model of a transcendent, sovereign power would be apt only if God were a king perched at the top of a cosmic hierarchy rather than a servant whose power resides in his solidarity with the poor and the outcast. What, then might be an immanent notion of grace appropriate to a flat, network cosmology?

Here, grace can be understood as a systemic excess produced by a complexity of a network’s ongoing, local interactions. In other words, grace is an emergent property of a self-organizing system. Or again: it is the unintended remainder of an unbalanced equation. This kind of ‘free’ emergent excess – an excess that cannot be wholly accounted for by any individual relations or locally intended consequences – is essential to the success of any truth. Truths overwrite banked knowledge by bringing into play the excess of grace.”

Adam Miller is obscure here, but I’d like to tease this idea out more and unify it with the ideas presented earlier. Also, I’d like to return to the originating question of this blog. Can atheists (or at least agnostics) be Mormon? I think the answer should be yes, because Mormonism is fundamentally, in my opinion a religion of relationships that builds its power through a web of connections unified primarily in a shared commitment to one another. It’s true there are specific propositions about God, Jesus, the atonement, the restoration, scripture and part of our membership is predicated open declaring our testimony of these truths. But even in these truths, if there are ways to tease out the relational power of faith as commitment to a community, atonement in finding at-oneness with God through service to others, being able to find God in each other, these truths are inherently more about commitment and relationship, then they are about specific ideas of who or what God precisely is.

In other words, someone could be agnostic about the existence of a God (as an all-powerful king reigning and ruling in heaven) while still feel a commitment toward the daily work asked for when we feel called into Mormonism. Someone may wonder about the literal historicity of the main events of Christ’s atonement, while still find the power of Christ’s grace in our relationships.

Mormonism I feel can, does and should make room for people who find nuance in these beliefs even as they remain unsure or uncommitted to a literal declaration of belief in a white-male all powerful God in heaven.

Can one be an agnostic Mormon? I say yes.

My Name Used to Be Muhammad – Islam, Modernity, and Liberalism

Donald Trump ran a fairly ideology-light presidential campaign. He made a handful of incredible promises with precious few details on how he’d actually accomplish any of them other then to just trust his ability to get deals done. On one point he was consistent, on his willingness to call out Islamic extremism for what it is. He promised to crush it, and the first step in his plan I guess was to name it. Second step is anyone’s guess.

Sam Harris and Shadi Hamid in their latest podcast, make a reasonably convincing case that there was some meat on this Trump bone. That radical Islam does have to be reckoned with as it does present a threat to Western liberalism, that the democratic party generally, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically have not adequately addressed this fact, and so far, they haven’t even been willing to talk about it honestly.

Shadi Hamid is a liberal Muslim thinker and a thoughtful critic of the religious tradition he belongs to. He makes two points that resonate: First, unlike other religious traditions, the Quran is written with God as the narrator, making the reading of the Quran a reasonably direct interaction with God. The book is also old, a product of a different time and place with cultural norms far different than the ones we take for granted today. Modern day believers of Islam have to wrestle with the tension of bringing God’s words from a place 1500 years ago and finding application for it today.

The Bible, by contrast, is a historical narrative of a people and their prophet and how they struggle to connect with God through their trials. This scriptural indirection allows a greater degree of freedom to find nuance as Christianity has been more successful in its shift into modernity.

Second, Islam was never just a political movement, but a religious one as well. Muhammad  and those that succeeded him, used the unifying power of Islam to unite the Arab world and extend its reach and influence into Europe, Africa and Asia and now, of course, worldwide.This history of a God-ordained political movement carried out by a prophet sanctified a set of behaviors that fit nicely within a first century world.

By comparison, Christianity was born from weakness, poverty and suppression. Rather than revolt, Christ taught peace, meakness, submission and then ultimately submitted himself completely, submitting himself to an unjust mob culminating with his crucifixion Christ came not as a ruler but as someone who was ruled and ultimately overcome. His victory and his kingdom was never part this world.

Given the out-sized importance Islam is currently playing in our world and politics and the threats many feel it imposes to western, liberal values and the recent trends to pre-world war European nationalism and tribalism, there seems to be something interesting going on here worth exploring.

With this as context, I finally got around to reading a recent birthday present given to me last summer, “My Name Used to Be Muhammad, a true story about a man born in Nigeria, raised to become a Muslim cleric, who eventually risked his life and lost his freedom converting to Mormonism while attending university in Egypt. The author of the book was born Muhammad Momen, but eventually changed his first name to Tito upon leaving the religion of his youth. The book describes a life of intolerance, brutal misogyny and horrifying abuse.

He was his father’s favorite son to his second wife. Although polygamy was common, his father didn’t practice, he had re-married after his first wife passed away. “It wasn’t unusual for women in northern Africa to die before middle age. Conditions were rough, and women were perpetually pregnant. Plural marriage was also common, so the loss of one wife didn’t work a hardship on the husband. His children were simply raised by his other wives.” But his father saw in him something special and felt like he was destined to be a powerful Islamic cleric and groomed him for it. Starting at age five, he was forced to begin to memorize the Quran, and although his education was broad, his focus was always Islam. And this straight path was enforced with violence, suffering beatings whenever he strayed, banned from anything that could be a distraction – soccer, art.

It’s a long story and I’m leaving plenty of details out, but he eventually makes his way to Egypt to attend college in Islamic studies. There he meets who in a different set of circumstances, would have become his wife. He describes what sounds like a beautiful, authentic romance. They were soon engaged. But his life, his training, his culture was deeply problematic. He was on a path he did not choose. Their love was strong and the relationship survived his neglect, his alcoholism, his infidelities, but was split in two when he converted to Mormonism.

His conversion happened by chance, a friend of his introduced him to it but only when pressed. He want to church, saw and felt some things missing from his own life experiences. And this may not have been enough but he had also discovered cracks within Islam that caused him to questions life-long assumptions.  Conversion to Christianity in a deeply Muslim world was a risky thing to do. Not only did he lose his fiance, he eventually lost his freedom, receiving a life sentence but eventually serving ten in prison.

The book did not fully address Tito Mommed’s current feelings of the religion of his birth. For him, it was obviously excruciating and tragic. But Islam has 1.6 billion adherents or 23 percent of the global population. It’s a religion that’s not going away, not now, likely not ever. And for good reason, there are plenty of healthy, strong, committed, good Muslims through out globe. Muslim communities thrive in many places. It’s a deep, thoughtful, beautiful religion.

How much of the real damage Tito Mommed both experienced and witnessed can be blamed on the religion? How much of it is cultural, historical or just deeply human. Tito’s father had a dream that his son would one day grow up to become an important cleric in the community. He drove him hard to achieve that goal. How different is that from say Andres Agassi’s father, who drove him to tennis excellent in ways that were similarly obsessive and abusive.

I was disappointed when his relationship severed after his conversion to Mormonism. I thought it was a tragic result. It would have been legitimately beautiful for the path he was walking to have completed successful. A beautiful marriage, a wonderful family, a committed spiritual journey as a respected leader in a major world religion. I understand why it couldn’t happen, it simply was not a path he wanted. Suffering life-long abuse to stay on a path, no matter how potentially good it may have been, is really no life at all.

At the end of the book, in what sounded like a real miracle and after Tito spent ten excruciating years in prison, he meets his dad on his dad’s deathbed. Here his dad apologizes and expresses regret for all the damage and pain he inflicted. It’s easy, I can imagine, it the last moments of one’s life, in a moment of reflection and regret, to free yourself of the real drag this world places on one’s soul and think higher, deeper, more compassionate, generous thoughts. It was tragic and sad this moment couldn’t have come sooner but it was a precious gift it came when it did.

I personally believe Islam can reform and make a significant and important  contribution for good in this world. In fact, it already is in many places and in many ways. What’s not needed are not national databases to track Muslims in this country, a war on Islam generally in foreign lands, or excessively restrict immigration restrictions on Muslims seeking to come here.










When Conservatives and Liberals Debate – My Thoughts


VOX has a nice summary of a recent discussion between Trevor Noah of The Daily Show and a conservative lightening-rod Tomi Lahren of the Blaze. Watching the debate, I found Tomi Lahren articulate and passionate even as she found herself falling into self-contradiction, and logical dead-ends. The obvious example is when she tried to conflate the rioters with the entire black-lives matter movement but refused to accept that this is equivalent with conflating the KKK support of Donald Trump with Trump himself.  Or when, in the context of Colin Kaepernick’s choice to kneel during the national anthem, refusing to explain how should a black personget their message out there.

I’m nowhere near as articulate as Tomi Lahren but I have tied myself into my own logical knots trying to defend deeply, emotionally held positions using rational logic alone. The reason why liberals lose democratic elections even when it seems they have the better argument and when they have, what seems like the expert consensus from academics, scientists, economists and the “mainstream media” is because they are coming at these debates from a decidedly secular point of view without having a deeper emotional, religious narrative to really drive it home and to inspire passion. The movement has been largely data driven, evidence based, reasoned and logical approach to government. The expectation is that the American people will be reasoned their way into the correct position.

Liberalism has become the movement of reason and rational thought. 2008 Barack Obama is an interesting exception. His presidential race had a decidedly religious, even evangelical feel to it. His campaign slogans included “know hope” and “yes we can”, even as it was mocked by his critics for being too messianic in tone. This video is a really great example of this:

But when the realities of his presidency hit, many of his followers felt let down. He transitioned from messiah to convention democratic politician fitting into the same government grooves carved out by his democratic predecessors.

Conservatism has always been a little more illiberal and a lot more rooted in old ideas and a lot more dependent on churches for its authority, guidance and power. The conservative elites are largely religious.

And conservative rhetoric, as a result, is more emotional, more earnest, at times thicker and more difficult to explain. It’s why the gay marriage debate was so difficult for conservatives. Liberals found a broadly appealing and sympathetic narrative, made their case over and over again, logically, rationally in ways that were difficult if not impossible to refute. The conservative counter relied more and more on religious appeal. When the gay movement started to make a religious case for marriage, it became a matter of time. Ross Douthat made a late valiant effort and in that debate, hit on something that describes much of what goes on in conservative circles still.

The particularities of heterosexuality are very particular, and only a thick understanding of wedlock, I suspect, can hope to do the kind of important cultural work that Tushnet is describing, and push heterosexuals not only to think about their behavior within marriage, but also how their entire sexual lives fit into the marital ideal. (This thickness issue also helps explain what often sounds like tongue-tiedness and/or desperation from social conservatives when they’re asked to explain what, exactly, it is about marriage that makes it distinctively heterosexual: the whole “well, it’s about love and monogamy and complementarity and fertility and sex differences and childrearing and …” refrain, which seems unconvincing to many people, should be understood in part as an attempt to grapple with just this complexity.)

I suspect, though, it was never really about a complexity too difficult to explain so just trust us. It was more that opposition to gay marriage has always been fundamentally rooted in religious tradition. Liberals were making mostly secular, rational arguments while conservatives have traditionally relied on a more religious rooted  arguments that fundamentally “defied all understanding.”

Getting back to Tomi Lahren’s apparent anger that Colin Kaepernick would dare defy the flag, I wish that instead Trevor Noah would have invited David Brooks who could have explained it this way.

Sitting out the anthem takes place in the context of looming post-nationalism. When we sing the national anthem, we’re not commenting on the state of America. We’re fortifying our foundational creed. We’re expressing gratitude for our ancestors and what they left us. We’re expressing commitment to the nation’s ideals, which we have not yet fulfilled.

If we don’t transmit that creed through shared displays of reverence we will have lost the idea system that has always motivated reform. We will lose the sense that we’re all in this together. We’ll lose the sense of shared loyalty to ideas bigger and more transcendent than our own short lives.

If these common rituals are insulted, other people won’t be motivated to right your injustices because they’ll be less likely to feel that you are part of their story. People will become strangers to one another and will interact in cold instrumentalist terms.

Both David Brooks and Ross Douthat are gifted conservative writers and thinkers who also happen to be employed by the fairly liberal, definitely “mainstream” NY Times. They constantly confront and wrestles with liberalism while maintaining their conservative (though in both cases, moderate) sensibilities.  And they have a rather rare ability to wrestle out of what is inherently emotionally and religiously held view, the underlying deeper logic. In other words, they understand conservatism but they speak liberal – and as a result, they have been transformed by the process and are now largely (and unfortunately) mistrusted by the movement they claim to represent. And it’s no accident that both have been among the most passionate critics of the Trump presidency.

The Problem

The problem here is that not only are both sides talking past each other, they aren’t even speaking the same language. But it’s more than that. They have completely lost trust in each other. It’s not just that both sides disagree, it’s that they both claim moral superiority. When Trevor Noah asked Tomi Lahren what she wants people to understand, she responds by saying that she’s just saying stuff that needs to be said and by saying this stuff, by believing this stuff, she wants people to believe it doesn’t make her a bad person. Fundamentally, she and her listeners want a voice, they want a platform and they want respect.  And liberals want the same thing. In fact it’s what we all want. We want to be heard. This is human and natural.

A Possible Solution – A Conversation

Is it possible to talk our way through this?  I think it’s possible, but most people don’t have the time, willingness or inclination. Which is fine, but if we’re not willing to engage, then we should at least hold onto our position with a lot more humility. Before you point your finger my way, know that I agree. Humility is a goal for us all. In fact, this is a prerequisite for thoughtful conversation – where you always leave yourself open and vulnerable to a conversion to the truths presented by the person you are talking to. And if we choose to skip the conversation, it’s even more vital to recognize our fallibility. The less often our views are challenged, the more likely they are to be wrong (or at least shallow).

The way forward is to recognize we’re each trying to solve the same problems using different set of tools and approaching it from different perspectives. Religious arguments tend to be more emotional, spiritual and rely more on tradition, spiritual authority and scripture. Their power is driven more from the heart than the head. Rational, secular arguments rely more on reason, logic and data.

Both points of view have value, both are important but both have significant flaws. An over-reliance on reason can feel like hubris in our own ability to understand a universe that really is beyond all comprehension. An over-reliance on emotion, feeling and religious sentiment can leave us stuck in old prejudices and traditional thinking based on bad information.

We need both points of view in the discussion. A religious appeal, at its best, connects with the inherit goodness and generosity within each of us, aspires us toward something beyond ourselves, and helps us to connect with each others. A healthy loyalty to our religious tradition roots us to the wisdom of our past and keeps us from pushing too far, too soon. Rational argument keeps us tethered firmly to the realities of this world and grounds us in our capacity to learn and discover and helps to evolve into new truths.

We need each other.

The 2016 Election – A Recap

I am not artistic. I’m not visually creative. I’m not picky about my surroundings. I can live nearly anywhere. I’m not picky about food. I can eat nearly anything. But I’m surrounded by artists and over time, slowly, I’ve come to appreciate how vital art and beauty is. My older sisters are artists, my oldest a writer, my second oldest a painter. I married a musician. Through them, I’ve been able to rise above myself and have come to appreciate and enjoy art, music, good food, good architecture. I’m still too willing to settle, but I’ve improved.

As I visited my sisters, I have experienced with them art in all of its forms, Broadway shows, Shakespeare in a parking lot, fine art at the Whitney or a something more gritty and raw at a small at studio. I met my wife during her masters degree in piano performance. We attended recitals and concerts together, listened to lectures and spent time with her friends who were spending hours at a time trying to eek out small improvements playing music composed centuries earlier.

I say that because through these experiences, I feel like why can’t more people produce art, and the more art that’s produced, the more common it becomes, the more people will have it around them. It’s an insight shared by John Adams long before my time:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

I think for the most part this has born itself out. We are starting to grapple with a world without work, at least not the type of work we’re used to. As technology continues to advance, as the world shrinks and our ability to share goods and services globally improves, as robots are able to do more and more of the work humans previously could do, we no longer need to work to survive. But we still need work to thrive.

What if this sort of stuff could be democratized. Why should all of the best art be concentrated in just a few coastal cities? Why shouldn’t I be able to walk down the street and visit my neighbor playing Bach Etudes? Why can’t every house be custom designed with beautiful gardens. The fact is that we should never really be a world without work. There is always something more that can be done.

And this is why the results of this presidential election feels like a giant step backwards to me. Donald Trump’s primary campaign promise was that he would “Make America Great Again” and the way he would do it, well he didn’t spend a lot of time explaining it. Just trust him that he alone could make it happen. That it would be easy. His policies were shallow and barely explored. When they were explained, they amounted to finger pointing and exclusion – from his plans to deport all 11 million of our illegal immigrants to his proposals to increase the barriers for  legal immigration and his support for stop and frisk. He plans to bring manufacturing jobs back by making it more expensive for foreign countries to trade their goods in our markets and as a result he reflexively opposes trade deals like NAFTA and TPP without really explaining why these deals are bad or why good people may disagree. I’ve never seen him in a thoughtful debate with someone who could defend TPP intelligently. Does he even understand NAFTA or TPP? I have no evidence that he does.

And this is not to say Trump is universally wrong. While watching the Republican debates in particular, I found myself agreeing with Trump at times. I also saw how much freedom he had in these debates especially compared to the other candidates. Trump seemed more authentic and sincere, willing to say it like he saw it. And this passion and freedom could resonate at times – especially when he unflinchingly condemned George W. Bush’s Iraq war, both the decision, the deception and its execution. And many of his favorite topics are worthy of scrutiny, discussion and debate. He goes where no one has gone before and in some cases, we probably should. What should our relationship with Russia be? Is NATO still relevant and if so, in what way? Should America be shouldering the lion-share of the world police responsibilities? Underneath the bluster, there are legitimate questions about our trade and immigration policies, the manner in which we’re dealing with global, radicalized Islam and the war on terror.

The problem isn’t so much that I blatantly disagree with Trump on every policy proposal. The problem has always been his temperament, his approach, his superficiality, his lack of curiosity, his corruption. And so it was in this campaign. It was more about scandal and temperament than it was about policy. It was more about the candidates than it was about their party, their ideology, or their ideas.

With Trump now preparing to take over the most powerful position in the world, I think  Americans should unite. For me, the message I heard most consistently from those around me was dissatisfaction in both candidates. If that is really true, then I look forward to a fairly broad and united Trump skepticism from my friends across the political spectrum. None of what Trump will try to do should be automatically supported, rather it’s on Trump to defend and explain everything he does. There should be bi-partisan skepticism and scrutiny. Trump opposition must be the default. And anything he does that harms America, should be blocked and opposed.

Because the world that Trump describes is a world I just don’t experience. It’s a world with limited and shrinking resources and Trump’s response is to lay claim to it before others can. In his view, it’s America first, and the rest of the world should be left to pick up the scraps of what’s left.

But Mormonism provides a refutation of this view. In the Mormon scripture, D&C 104:17, it says:

 17 For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.

This is also my vision of the world. On election day, I happened to be in San Francisco attending a software conference. I love this city, and I get it, the nerds have ruined it. But it’s still teeming with energy. I love walking down the streets soaking it all in. With the election decided I sat in a room surrounded with talent and energy in a city filled with it. And even though you probably could not have fabricated someone in a lab that I would be more opposed, I still felt and still feel optimism.

The world is filled with abundance and this abundance is found in the people everywhere. And America and many other countries around the globe have built up an infrastructure of sharing and collaboration and trade. My hope is that one person will not be able to tear this down no matter how hard he tries. We just can’t let him do it, none of us.