Abortion and Why We Believe



I have this memory when I was young, still a child, thinking about my politics and deciding that of course I was a conservative, mostly because I couldn’t fathom the pro-abortion argument. I was pro-life and that, if my memory serves me right, was the pivot issue that moved me firmly on the conservative side of the political ledger. Later, in my adult life I spent a lot of time working myself over and through the abortion issue to justify my democratic votes and eventual transition into the democratic party.

I’m not unique here. Trump won the presidency in large part because of that open Supreme Court seat and Roe v. Wade has been one of the primary animating issues organizing the religious right behind the Republican party. Abortion for many people is the pivot issue moving them into one political party or another.

Why We Believe

Is this universally true? I think it’s complicated. In a recent interview, Daniel Kahneman, author of the book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes the fundamental nature of the way we think. In his analysis, we have two systems at work, System 1 is intuitive, it’s the part of our brain that immediately answers the question 2+2. It’s what we use to get us through our commute every day without even thinking about it. System 2 picks up the 17×24 type of problems. It’s slower and more deliberate but it’s also lazy.

A completely different one, which occurs to me because you mentioned politics, is that one of the important realizations that come from thinking of the world in terms of System 1 and System 2 is that our beliefs do not come from where we think they came. And let me elaborate on that sentence. When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs.

So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

When I think about how I came to my abortion issue, it goes much further back in time than that memory in that kitchen in my childhood home. It’s rooted deeply within my Mormon heritage, which is rooted deeply in Christianity and in the Catholic’s pro-life stance. The Mormon church’s institutional decision to oppose abortion is a large factor in my early pro-life position. The tradition and culture I was raised in, planted a very powerful seed. As I grew older, the people I associated with, the pro-life arguments I read and heard over the years, over and over again, rooted a powerful pro-life position deep within my System 1 brain. I’ve had a life-long attachment to the pro-life position.

I think this gets to the heart of clustering, we join a political party or some other identifying group and automatically adapt much of the hot-button issues associated with that group. Our identity drives our ideology. Maybe not explicitly, but over time as we develop relationships, hear arguments and aim for alignment and acceptance, these ideas and positions embed deeply into System 1. And that’s why social media interactions can be so fraught. As we engage with people outside our groups, operating as they are within different frameworks, our interactions become both baffling and emotionally fraught.

Social media is a forum driving System One interactions. It’s all visceral and automatic. It’s System One all the way.

Back to Kahneman:

And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously.

Where I Stand on Abortion?

I think this article gets to both sides of the argument profoundly. It certainly drives home the powerfully emotional reasons why so many women felt Roe v. Wade had life or death stakes for women. The famous 1973 court case extended the right of a woman to have an abortion in the first two trimesters of the pregnancy but then gives the states the right to regulate in the third.

In the article Caitlin Flanagan describes her family history with abortion. First, her mother’s 60 years ago encounter with a botched abortion that happened in her apartment while her and her roommates were away. Or earlier, her grandmother’s likely death caused by an attempted abortion during the Great Depression catastrophe.

She spends most of the article citing the horror stories recounted in two books, The Choices We Made, detailing horror stories in the world pre-Roe v. Wade and The Girls Who Went Away, describing the horrors of forced adoption pre-Roe v. Wade.

She makes a point I’ve heard Jordan Peterson also make. There’s nothing more misogynistic than Mother Nature. It’s been only in recent history with the advancements of science and technology, that the roughest edges of nature have been smoothed over. Pregnancy is nowhere near the health risks it used to be, birth control has only recently become effective at significant unwanted pregnancy reduction.

Every month, a woman’s womb slowly fills with blood in anticipation of an event that she wants to occur only a few times at most, and that up until 70 years ago had a good chance of killing her. This is nature’s unkind way with women. The sort of man who knocks a woman up and then disappears is nowhere near as heartless as nature, which allows a fertilized egg to implant in a fallopian tube, or arranges a baby’s body in the womb in such a way that it cannot by any natural means escape through the birth canal, or spreads the placenta across the cervix so that it will rupture and cause a hemorrhage almost certain to kill the mother if no medical staff is on hand to stop it. The fact that modern medicine has so radically reduced the incidence of death in childbirth testifies less to the wonder of science than to the crudeness of the dangers at hand.


They reveal something about the eternal and dangerous nature of being female, and because of this, they merit a great deal of our attention. The way these stories begin tells us as much as we ever need to know about the profound and complex decisions women make when they decide to have sex.

I think the arguments for the legalization of abortion are still strong, but they have weakened since the 1970’s.

But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks. In it is much more than I want to know about the tiny creature whose destruction we have legalized: a beating heart, a human face, functioning kidneys, two waving hands that seem not too far away from being able to grasp and shake a rattle. One of the newest types of prenatal imaging, the three-dimensional sonogram—which is so fully realized that happily pregnant women spend a hundred dollars to have their babies’ first “photograph” taken—is frankly terrifying when examined in the context of the abortion debate. The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.

I don’t have a firm position on abortion. I love this fairly brief debate on abortion between Ross Douthat, a firmly pro-life Catholic conservative, Michelle Goldberg, firmly pro-choice liberal, and David Leonhardt a moderate who considers himself pro-choice but has concerns. I learned a few things that aren’t often discussed in our polarized, binary versions of the debate that often happen on-line today.

European-Style Compromise:

It seems like Europe has settled on a really nice compromise position:

In Germany, women seeking first-trimester abortions are subject to a mandatory three-day waiting period and a counseling session. Abortions after the first 12 weeks of pregnancy are forbidden except in cases of grave threat to the mother’s physical or mental health. The Netherlands mandates a five-day waiting period between initial consultation and abortion; clinics must provide women with information about abortion alternatives. Abortion is then legal until viability (legally defined as 24 weeks, usually interpreted as 22 weeks).In Belgium, where abortion was illegal until 1990, there’s a six-day waiting period and the woman must claim to be in “a state of distress” before receiving a first-trimester abortion.

These are the types of laws and restrictions pro-life advocates have been seeking with enormous pushback from the pro-choice crowd worrying, justifiably about slippery slopes and end-goals that extend far beyond this.

Even Pro-Lifers Make Moral Distinctions between early term abortions and late term abortions

Perhaps this is an obvious point with the righteous fervor they bring to the late-term abortion debate, but I think the point is still an important one to make again.


Even from a pro-life premise, there is a particular horror to third-trimester abortions. The pro-life view of abortion is always a form of murder, but there are various forms of murder and murdering a more conscious, a more sentient form of human life is worse than doing it in the first trimester.

Goldberg in response:

Most pro-choice people will say if that’s the compromise we’ll take it. We would happily take a situation which abortion is free, widely available, and uncontested in the first trimester in exchange for these sorts of restrictions.

The reason pro-choicers don’t except the restrictions is because an increase level of restrictions ends up pushing pregnancy into the second trimester where most of them currently happen in the US.

Goldberg gets to the heart of it, the level of social trust between the two sides on this (and many other) issues is so low that compromise is impossible and both camps are pushed to extreme positions – on one side, abortion is illegal except under extreme circumstances, on the other, abortion should be legal under all circumstances.

I’m uncomfortable with either of these extreme positions and it’s why I dislike the abortion argument binaries that inevitably unfold when fought with our System 1 brains as they so often are on-line.

Third trimester abortion is gut-wrenchingly horrifying because it is way too close to outright infanticide. Locking up women and doctors for first trimester abortions seems equally horrifying especially considering the risks and consequences still at stake especially in the weakening social safety nets in the US. Really, I don’t feel comfortable locking up women or doctors for any but extreme cases. Abortion restrictionists usually are vague when discussing punishment.

For me, finding a European style compromise of some sort seems like the end-goal we should try to get to, but it’s also the sort of compromise that seems impossible given our current political environment, which is why the status-quo seems like the most likely outcome for the foreseeable future.


Systemic Misogyny, Shame and Free Speech


I listened to Kate Manne on the Ezra Klein show on Saturday. First of all, I’ve been a fan of Ezra Klein since his days writing for the Washington Post. He’s liberal. He’s also a really smart, deep, articulate thinker and writer. I was particularly attracted to this show because in the summary they said they were going to talk critically about Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, a pair that have also influenced my thinking quite a bit in recent years. I’m always interested in hearing what good ideas and thinkers intelligently challenged.

This interview did not disappoint. They talk in depth about the consequences of living in a deeply patriarchal society. In the interview, they take this mostly as a given, and so discuss the deleterious effects it has on everyone, including, ironically men. They also talk about all the ways it’s enforced, including, ironically by women.

There were some golden nuggets in this conversation, of which I’ll describe one section at a time.


They regret the way many invoke shame as a way to pushback against patriarchal excess. Not that shame is not deserved but that too many, rather than to sit with and learn from shame, react defensively. This talk on shame opened me up a bit. If society is deeply inflicted with something systematically problematic then we need a way to talk about the ways bad behavior arise naturally by those operating with good intentions within them. In this context, I thought about Brene Brown’s very useful and very important work on shame:

Based on my research and the research of other shame researchers, I believe that there is a profound difference between shame and guilt. I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

They didn’t get into what I thought would have been an interesting conversation – about how trying to produce change through shame is probably not the best approach. Instead, they went down another equally, productive path – how the Trump phenomenon, ironically the most shameless public figure we’ve ever seen, can be seen as a natural reaction to shame. It’s impossible to knock Trump down because nothing seems to bother him. From her book Down Girl, she puts it this way:

But then I realized that Trump’s was the face of shame turned inside out – it’s exterior wall, as it were – shame refused, with fury substituted, since he and his ilk are accustomed to being treated with the greatest respect on all occasions.

That Trump was able to even so much as sniff the presidency I think has to be at least partially be explained by the shame-based way these tense conversations tend to occur and the reactions they inspire.

Systemic Misogyny

Kate Manne repeatedly said she is not interested in calling out specific people as sexists or misogynists. She does call out sexist or misogynistic behavior – she makes a distinction between the two words I won’t get into here. In particular, it’s not really about intention but more about how people are made to feel. This is important because in order to resolve this problem, we need to care more about the systems and the consequences those systems have on those victimized by it.

Girls in a classroom, for example, will be called on less than boys, even by women teachers. And these disparities in grow larger in STEM-oriented classes.

Can You Explain Everything By Misogyny?

I hope it’s not controversial to say the answer to this question is obviously no. I would expect if Kate Manne got this sort of pushback, she would readily agree with it. She’s a professional philosopher and spends a lot of time researching misogyny in culture, so I get that she’s particularly focused in this way.

But it was frustrating for me to hear her explain fairly complex phenomenon as if misogyny was the only explanation for it, realizing though that the likely reason for this was to make the conversation easier.

They spend a lot of time describing the 2016 presidential election through the lense of misogyny. There is no doubt that when a blatantly sexist incompetent man defeats a far more experienced, capable woman, sexism has got to be a major factor. But there is also no question Hillary Clinton’s flaws were much more significant than the examples cited in the podcast. Voting for Hillary had the problematic effect of putting someone credibly accused of rape back in the White House. Isn’t this not a reason for reasonable people to pause? Not to mention the blatant schilling for cash while she served as Secretary of State, the uninspiring play it safe campaign, the failure to even attempt to reach swing voters in the midwest hurt by globalization, etc. There were a number of reasons people did not want to vote for Hillary that had nothing to do with her gender. I know this viscerally because I spent a lot of time trying to convince these people otherwise.

Another example was in their critique of a statistic Jordan Peterson quotes all the time, namely that in Scandinavian countries, considered the most egalitarian societies in the world, the data suggests that the occupational gender discrepancies are wider than in societies that are far less egalitarian. Peterson’s worry is that if the goal is equality of outcomes, individual preferences will be overruled by the need to reach that goal, preferences be damned. Manne’s belief, however, is that you can’t trust these sorts of outcome differences because even though these countries are more egalitarian, sexism is still a deep enough problem to adequately explain occupational differences. I found that willingness to ignore data that runs counter to her narratives problematic.

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson Were Clearly Straw-Manned in this Conversation, Especially Sam Harris

First Peterson

Vox asked Jordan Peterson for an interview and was refused, but they did interview Kate Manne about her critique of Peterson.  To be fair, Manne’s critique of Peterson is substantive. I would really love to see Manne and Peterson go head to head, but considering Peterson sued Manne for libel, the chances of that happening is about zero. It feels like the problem is that they’re operating within different contexts. The world is big and complicated and there are many systemic veins running through it. If someone is hyper-focused on misogyny and patriarchy, they’ll see everything in this way. Peterson just has a different focus. He’s much more looking at the individual journey, the way each of us create order out of the chaos in our lives. How no matter what context we operate within, we should, individually, take responsibility to make the most out of it.

Peterson is a clinical psychologist and I think comes into this kind of framing naturally. There is something that can be invigorating about this type of individual responsibility that doesn’t quite fit within Manne’s focus on group identities and problematic systems that make individual responsibility more muted.

In other words, I think both people can be right here. They don’t have to collide head to head. It would be far more productive to engage with each other generously, in good faith and see how one person’s view could force the other into richer analysis.

Just one particularly egregious straw-man, though, and that is in Manne’s critique of Peterson’s use of the phrase “enforced monogamy”. They clearly knew what Peterson meant by this phrase. Ezra Klein even explained it – that there are ways society organizes itself to incentivize monogamous relationships, relationships which society non-controversially has a desire to promote. Even though they showed they understood it, they attacked it as obviously misogynistic.  Now, maybe monogamous relationships are a sign of the patriarchy and need to be dismantled, but that’s certainly not obvious.

The Sam Harris straw-man was far, far worse

This criticism is fully on Ezra Klein. Last summer, Klein had a crazy back and forth with Sam Harris culminating in this podcast exchange that I think is worth your time. By the way, that debate had a lot of the same frustrating, circular back and forth that showed up in the Peterson/Harris exchange the first time they got together. The point of disagreements were different but I think the fundamental reasons neither could really find consensus had some of the same fundamental properties.

First of all, Harris kept trying to make, what I thought an obvious point that sometimes the data will challenge your narratives and that rather than ignore the data, you need to modify your narratives. Klein refused to concede here because he felt that the biases in the systems inevitably bias the data and when the data backs up problematic biases, you have to question the data. There’s no way, in Klein’s view, that you can trust data without fully factoring in the biases and that it’s impossible to fully do so. I feel like there’s a bit of nihilism in this reckoning, but I also felt Harris has trouble owning up to these possibilities as desperately he seems to try.

That was the crux of the two hour debate. And that, kind of also describes the Peterson/Harris debate as well, ironically enough at least if you squint.

But that’s not the way Klein presents it to Manne. Rather, he claims Harris has massive blind-spots. He hides sympathetic racial biases around free-speech arguments and even jaw droppingly accuses Harris of hiding from racism attacks by virtue of the fact he has a black friend – something I can’t even imagine Harris ever doing.

Free Speech

One point Harris and Peterson both harp on and why I think Peterson sued Manne (ironically), is their concern for free speech and their sensitivities toward mob-shaming campaigns that infringe it. They both claim freedom of speech as core principles and the only way to work through complex ideas.

Where they get into trouble, and in my opinion shouldn’t, is that Peterson, especially, is willing to dive straight into taboo areas, pushing into them, looking for flawed assumptions. Any attempts to do so appear suspect to those caught up in feminism, however, so I think it’s difficult for liberal critics of Peterson to see what he’s doing clearly.

Both Manne and Klein (and many others) scoff at the idea that Peterson and Harris’ speech has been infringed, given their massive platforms and enormous popularity. That is true. I also think they are careful, well reasoned and operating mostly with integrity. I think that mostly helps them.

I don’t think Manne or Klein properly factor in the social consequences accusations of racism or sexism can inflict on someone. People can and have lost jobs and can and have been deplatformed over something they’ve said.

They, rightly, criticize Peterson and Harris for trafficking in ideas, that may be thoughtful, but could be used by hate groups to further bad objectives. But neither Manne or Klein fully own up to all the ways they are equally vulnerable to the same problems.

In Summary

Kate Manne is clearly smarter than I am, in every way possible, so it’s a little funny for me to be digging into her interview this thoroughly. This interview definitely informed my understanding of feminism.

My concern is that feminism as a whole seems to be marching down an interesting intellectual path, though with significant blind-spots. There’s too much righteous fervor, too much assurance of the rightness of their cause. Not enough concern and care for conservative criticisms. The movement dismisses its critics far too casually and caustically.

I think feminism has a tendency to be overly self-important, too self-assured, too willing to self-righteously shame others who fall short of its high-minded principles. It’s become, ironically, a bit too Victorian.

I make this criticism with tons of caveats. I need to read her book. I can certainly do more work to immerse myself more fully in the ideas offered. I am thankful for feminists. We need them. They just need to be operating more within conversations rather than shouting down the man at every opportunity.

What is the Good News of the Gospel as Taught by Jesus of Nazareth?


This question is harder than I expected. There is the Sunday school answer, that Jesus died to save us from sin and death.

I hope this is true. I’m having trouble with it in my day to day my life. I seem to make the same mistakes over and over again. Those who have to live with me are well aware and have mostly learned to worked around them. There have been consequences but most people are gracious and forgiving or else they keep their distance. I’m also very limited, though I’m not sure that is the same thing. It’s possible Jesus could eventually save me from these sins, but I’ve mostly tried to learn how to work with more compassion within them. This kind of living in sin doesn’t seem to be that scriptural, but it’s the only way I know how to get up in the morning, to live with my regrets and to face a future knowing more mistakes are coming.

I know I’m going to die. It could be soon, but it feels like I’m going to live forever. My dad’s death is the closest thing to it I’ve come, almost seven years ago now. It was a pretty close encounter. At the time, my dad was living in a group home. Previously he had suffered from a pretty serious stroke, had spent weeks in a nursing home trying to recover before graduating to a group home. I still had hopes he was immortal, thinking he would eventually recover to where he was before. He made progress, but there were a lot of setbacks, repeated trips to the emergency room. He broke a hip, he required a pacemaker. I was the decision maker everytime, or more accurately, they made me think so, couching my decision within a framework where he either would die or they would intervene.

When he finally collapsed for the final time in the group home, I was the first one called. I rushed to the hospital and found his lifeless body in the hospital bed surrounded by doctors trying to resuscitate him. I held his hand for a moment before telling the doctors it was ok to stop trying. These years later, he still feels very much like my dad. I still remember his deep love he expressed in a number of ways when he raised me. That love very much is present now. I hope I’ll see him again but I can’t even fathom what that would be like now, his dead body decayed in the earth.

What’s front and center for me right now, isn’t sin or death, it’s connection and belonging. I think more about my mom now than my dad. She lives alone, with few friends but a very caring ward. I’m her only close relative nearby. I know she feels lonely often. She calls me often, usually confirming when I’ll be there again. It seems like loneliness is often the biggest challenge of old age.

Or maybe of any age.

I think most people just want to be heard, understood, loved and cared for. They want to feel like they belong and have a purpose in their life. The saddest times in my life were always those times when I felt disconnected, lost or alone. My biggest worry now is that I’ll be disconnected, cast out, forgotten and left alone.

What does this have to do with the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Jesus was born in a cave, grew up obscure and uneducated and disconnected from power. His ministry focused on those even more marginalized then him – the sinners, the affirmed, the sick, and the poor. When he lost his temper, it was always toward the powerful. His central message was love, a kind of love so radical that it extended even to his enemies, even, in his case, to the people who were crucifying him.

I think this is the good news of Jesus of Nazareth. This is something I can sink my teeth into in my day to day life- that we are loved, that we belong, that we matter, irrespective of accomplishments, positions, or talents And that as I try to live the good news, it is my job to help others feel like they belong as well. And truly embodying the good news means I should frame everything I do into helping others feel this deeply, either directly or indirectly.

My Praise for Middle Way Mormonism

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There’s been a lot of talk among “progressive Mormons” about how to walk the path known as “Middle Way Mormonism”. Here is a recent article on the topic. There are other words for it, New Order Mormon, for example. Cafeteria Mormonism is sometimes used to describe this way of being in the church, somewhat pejoratively. Some of those who have already left the church believe those that self-identify as  “Middle Way Mormons” are merely there temporarily, before they eventually leave the church.

Others believe those living this way have been rebuked by scripture, in Revelation 3: 15-16:

15 I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

16 So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Or  they say, it’s impossible to play both sides, pick one already, Matthew 6:24:

24 ¶ No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.

Quotes from a recent prophet, President Hinckley doesn’t make this any easier, on Joseph Smith:

PBS: Our film [features] a very strong statement you made. You are talking about the foundational story of Mormonism and why it must be taken literally, that Joseph Smith had the vision he described and obtained the plates the way he did. You said there is no middle ground. Other churches are approaching their foundational stories and turning them into metaphor at times and going perhaps for the essence of the meaning. But that isn’t true for you or for this church. I’m wondering if you can develop that idea: Why can’t there be a middle ground in the way those foundational stories are understood?

President Hinckley: Well, it’s either true or false. If it’s false, we’re engaged in a great fraud. If it’s true, it’s the most important thing in the world. Now, that’s the whole picture. It is either right or wrong, true or false, fraudulent or true. And that’s exactly where we stand, with a conviction in our hearts that it is true: that Joseph went into the [Sacred] Grove; that he saw the Father and the Son; that he talked with them; that Moroni came; that the Book of Mormon was translated from the plates; that the priesthood was restored by those who held it anciently. That’s our claim. That’s where we stand, and that’s where we fall, if we fall. But we don’t. We just stand secure in that faith.

Another Way of Looking at It

Could Middle Way Mormons be another way of saying “the Narrow Way Mormons”. In Matthew 7:13-14:

13 ¶ Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad isthe way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat:

14 Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.

Or Simply “The Way”, in John 14:6:

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

Mark Crego, in a recent Sunstone presentation, describes being a Middle way Mormon in exactly these terms.

Being In the Middle Way is Hard

Middle Way Individualism

Certainty has a definite appeal. There’s something satisfying about being part of a faction or tribe. We need each other and being in relationships is the only way to survive and thrive the brutality of existence. The US prison system’s use of solitary confinement is known as torture for a reason. However, drawing strength from our relationships quickly devolves into cliques at a small scale or into tribalism at a larger scale whenever we elevate dogma or define hard borders between us and the other. Walking in the middle way requires courage, courage to include and accept, to listen and to recalibrate. It requires a willingness to say or do things that might be unacceptable to one’s peer group. It requires a balance between individualism and loyalty to our groups.

Middle Way’s Devotion to Truth

Middle Way Mormons are not afraid of truth, no matter the source. This means finding a balance between religious faith and a devotion to empirical evidence. Being willing to evolve and adapt one’s view of things as one encounters new evidence.

Listen to this brilliant interview with David Bokovy, here and here. Bokovoy’s academic background is in Biblical studies. Through his deep study of the scripture, especially his use of “higher criticism” of the scripture, which means reading the scripture from the point of view of the writer, trying to take seriously what the book is actually saying, treating the scripture as it partially is, as an historical document. Doing this, Bokovoy found scripture filled with anachronisms, contradictions, and other problems. He also found scripture filled with beauty, depth and writings from a people in a deep wrestle with big issues. This deep encounter with scripture did not destroy his faith, but rather forced him to re-calibrate his understanding. It moved him into greater depths of understanding.

On the cusp of entering this course of study, his advisors told him to avoid Biblical studies because no one survives such a study with their testimony in tact. Bokovoy further claims that most evangelical leaders pursues academic studies in topics tangential to Biblical studies so they don’t have to confront the problems head on. This kind of testimony preserving avoidance is not part of the middle way. It devalues a testimony that cannot survive deep study of scripture.

Middle Way Testimony

What does a testimony start to look like when forced to walk the middle way? Adam Miller gets to the heart of a testimony in his book, Rube Goldberg Machines.

There is an irony, then, to the kind of certainty proper to the sincere clarity of a testimony. The certainty of a testimony depends on purifying it of the actual in favor of the previously impossible. Against the tyranny of a world broken by sin and sorrow, a testimony must unwaveringly maintain the certainty of its own foundationless restoration of possibility. A testimony, in order to be true to its unmitigated reliance upon the Atonement of Jesus Christ, must accept the indefensible weakness imposed upon it by its own boundless certainty.

Find the middle way, being able to absorb empiricism while preserving faith, requires a recalibration of what it means to have faith. It requires a certain kind of purifying, distillation process of what it means to have a testimony. We must remove aspects of a testimony that do not belong there.

How can I have a testimony of Joseph Smith’s near infallibility when I deeply struggle with polygamy. “Who would be more horrified by the idea of people having a testimony of Joseph Smith than Joseph Smith?” asks Adam Miller in Rube Goldberg Machines. How can I have a testimony in the Book of Mormon’s historicity? This is a historical, scientific claim that must live or die empirically.

My testimony can only be founded within God and grace. Joseph Smith taught this:

“The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”

And even here, testimony is not empirical, rather it’s transcendent. Atonement and resurrection deal with fundamentally religious concerns – death, dying, sin, mercy and grace. Being forgiven even when we don’t always deserve to be. Being transformed when our best efforts fall to be good fall short, time and again.


I don’t think walking the middle way is being luke-warm, complacent, or avoiding difficult doctrine. It requires a constant balance, being willing to wrestle with difficult ideas, having the courage to face problems head on, being as honest as we possibly can, being true to our inner-callings, while being humble enough to listen to mentors, teachers and those with earned authority. Being willing, at times, to speaking truth to power. Perhaps it’s impossible to walk the middle way completely. It takes time and maturity and many mistakes and skinned knees along the way.

We can work our whole lives to purify our testimony, to rid ourselves of our prejudices, to be true to our inner voice, to forgive others, to love our enemies, to know when to speak up and to know when to forgive quietly graciously.

Finding the Middle Way is difficult and it looks different for everyone. It can be a lonely and isolating experience at times. But I think we’re all called into it. Our churches and institutions, at their best, are structured to support us in our journey along the Middle Way. The church is built for us, not us for the church.

What Happened to Bill Reel?

I really don’t know. I wasn’t a consistent listener to his podcast and didn’t carefully follow his online ruminations.  My understanding of his journey is flawed at best. When he was still a Mormon bishop he came onto Mormon Stories and provided a fairly standard orthodox defense of the Mormon church if I remember it correctly. Shortly after John Dehlin’s excommunication, he started his own podcast, Mormon Discussion, to try to fill the void Dehlin left of someone offering a faithful perspective while digging into the tough issues.

I remember early on listening to his podcasts and thinking that I found a kindred spirit, someone whose relationship to Mormonism is similar to mine. His testimony shared on an early podcast episode, for example, echo some of the same elements of my own. I didn’t listen to his podcast regularly though. Perhaps I should have, looking at his archives, he’s had some interesting ones – great guests, interesting topics.

That is why it’s so sad to hear that he’s about to be excommunicated. I listened to him describe the events that led up to it on a podcast interview on Radio Free Mormon. Scanning his recent posts, it’s easy to see that he’s gotten a lot more negative.

What to make of this? First of all, Adam Miller teaches that “if your religion falls apart in your hands, don’t without further ado assume that this is because your religion doesn’t work.” Rather, the “disintegration may itself be the clearest manifestation yet of the fact that your religion is working.”   In the same article he continues to say that “Mormonism cannot bear the weight of itself. If you ask Mormonism to be about Mormonism, the weight of that inward turning and the redoubling of that self-regard will stifle it.”

In some sense I think this is what is happening here. Bill Reel’s extra-careful scrutiny into Mormonism caused the religion to fall apart in his hands as he realized that Mormonism is incapable of bearing the weight of itself.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately on what seems to be the collapse of our political systems. Newt Gingrich deserves a lot of the blame. Gingrich took what was a shared responsible between two political parties at tension with each other to still govern the country and turned it into a winner take all, us versus them zero-sum game. The problem is the legislative branch does not work this way and because of that Gingrich has had very little legislative success. He was able to get elected by vilifying the democratic party. But the beast he created eventually turned against him.

The GOP’s impeachment crusade backfired with voters, Republicans lost seats in the House—and Gingrich was driven out of his job by the same bloodthirsty brigade he’d helped elect. “I’m willing to lead,” he sniffed on his way out the door, “but I’m not willing to preside over people who are cannibals.”

The great irony of Gingrich’s rise and reign is that, in the end, he did fundamentally transform America—just not in the ways he’d hoped. He thought he was enshrining a new era of conservative government. In fact, he was enshrining an attitude—angry, combative, tribal—that would infect politics for decades to come.

This is the crucial problem with becoming a crusading critic of an organization. They are all unjust to various degrees. Everyone lies. Everyone is corrupt. We all have shadow work to do. If you want to find problems in a church, political party, politician, prophet or other leader, you will. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” If we don’t do this carefully, out of love, full of compassion, we’re at risk of being consume by it ourselves because realistically, we largely no better than those we criticize.

There is a balance here. We need our critics. Our institutions need to be held accountable. I understand and honor the impulse. In the liturgist podcast, Michael Grunger talks about how Christianity needs protest. Religion needs some people to walk away from it. For Christianity to survive and thrive, those faithfully within need to listen to those who faithfully leave. Those of us who remain in the church need to be fearless in our thinking. We need the type of “resistance that refuses to allow the enemy to be the enemy, that refuses to allow the enemy to be positioned as what must be excluded or opposed.”

Something is happening in our society right now and it isn’t good. We’re sorting ourselves, online and geographically. Right now a terrible candidate can squirm his way into the presidency behind an enthusiastic base using the quirks of the electoral college map to propel him into the office despite deep objections from the other side. This isn’t good and it’s a sign that we’re no longer getting outside of our echo chambers. Worse, that more of our institutions are becoming our personal echo chambers.

This isn’t good.

Religion comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. To the degree that church becomes an echo chamber it fundamentally stops performing this vital role. Mormonism needs all types of adherents – the orthodox, the conservative, the liberal, those struggling with belief, those firmly rooted in belief.  We need big-tent Mormonism. The only fundamental requirement to belonging should be, as it says in D&C 4, a desire to serve God.

So, what happened to Bill Reel? I have no idea really. In the interview I heard he was obsessed with truth, honesty, integrity. He had a list of questions and he wanted answers to them. He kept pushing them. He called Elder Holland a liar and devoted an entire podcast explaining why. I’m not sure what to make of this approach. Perhaps this sort of accountability is good. I don’t certainly don’t have good answers to his questions. I don’t expect the institutional church to spend time answering these questions. Maybe someday it will, I don’t honestly how it can right now.

I’m sad he couldn’t make it work and it seems he’s about to be firmly rooted in the ex-Mormon community. Again, I think that Mormons need its critics. I hope that criticism comes from a desire to strengthen and make better rather than a need to “burn it down”. There are far too many people in the world trying to burn things down. The world is already burning. We need to put out fires not start new ones.

It’s Not About Me


A Little Personal History

Growing up timid in an obscure corner of the Arizona desert in a marginalized family –  a father in a life-long employment struggle and an Asperger mother who preferred to spend most of her time inside her house, left me feeling shall I say, a tad vulnerable, isolated, ignored and forgotten.

My goal, then, was to find a way into the center of other people’s attention.


From a young age, I wanted a bigger voice, a bigger platform – I wanted people to notice… me. I had hoped sports might provide that. I played youth football, basketball and baseball, the sports my friends were playing and the professional sports I followed most closely growing up. Athletes garnered the greatest respect among my peers. I authentically loved sports, so my motivations were complicated, but feeling like I had to use sports to worm my way into glory and adulation is not a good reason for competition.

Of course it didn’t work. I wasn’t a good enough athlete. I worked pretty hard and I did reasonably well in the recreational leagues I participated in, but I was never good enough to get off the bench on the school teams nor did I make varsity teams as a senior.


I’ve had a life-long struggle with social anxiety. Day to day, I think I make everything higher stakes than the normal person. On top of that, I’m a bit weird, a little off, slightly unorthodox, I don’t always present myself well. It takes a lot of confidence being me and confidence wasn’t something I was born with. I’ve gotten more confident over the years.

A two year religious mission in Alabama was the most significant thing in my life that actually got me to step into myself. I felt the urgency of what I considered to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I talked to everyone, worked as hard as I could, tried to follow every mission rule precisely, and annoyed many of my mission companions along the way. Most of this was just what I needed to do, even if it wasn’t exactly a recipe for missionary success in terms of finding Mormon converts.

And it was especially difficult for my companions who had their own ideas, their own way of doing things. I was senior companion in my second area. I trained brand new missionaries four times. I think my mission president recognized I needed these two years being in control. It was my first significant effort to find my voice, to find my place. I wanted control over that. I didn’t really know how to calibrate myself with another person. I was a solo act and had no idea how to perform in a band, or even a duet. I just needed someone to tag along, so my Mission President largely accommodated me – giving me very young companions mostly, who could spend a couple of months with me to get a feel for how things could be done, then could go off on their own direction.

It’s Not About Me

These experiences were prelude for the central thesis of this blog post – that it’s not about me. It has never been about me. It will never be about me. Never. From Adam Miller:

Consider an analogy. Say that I’m concerned about my own life, about whether this life is good, whether I’m being true to the things that matter to me, and whether I’m on track to finding real happiness.

In this case, I’ll be tempted to fall into the assumption that if I’m worried about my own well being and happiness, I should put more and more time and effort into making sure that my own happiness is secure.

The temptation here is to think that my life is about me.

But I think this is a fundamental mistake: my life is not about me. And the more I focus my life on my own happiness, the worse off I’ll be, the farther from happiness I’ll be, and the more fraudulent I’ll feel (and be).

This move is a bit counterintuitive, but a willingness to swim upstream against the flow of this natural assumption – the assumption that my happiness is best secured by aiming directly at my own happiness, the assumption that my own life is, of course, about me – is crucial. Our willingness to swim against the flow of this assumption is the lifeblood of faith. It’s what keeps the heart of a religious life beating.

As Jesus puts it, I can only save my life by losing it. If I try to save my own life, then that life will inevitably be lost.

Famous People

The other day I was thinking about some of the books I’ve read, some of which have really meant a lot to me. In the moment, I realized how little I knew or cared about the lives of the author of those books, they are really just names. Many of those authors are dead and gone. I know nothing about their lives. I have no relationship with them at all. I enjoyed their books, but they are not their books.

Of course, we are all more important than the work we produce. We have families, people who value us for who we are, even if we do nothing of significance. When we die, people morn, even if it’s just a few people. Someone cares, or should care. No one should die alone.  . As human beings we are bright stars in a flat, complicated relational network, each human just as important as the other.

But the work we do is different. A famous author writes a book and if the book is good enough and recognized enough, it continues long after the author dies. The book lives independent of the author.

Steve Nash

Steve Nash was a famous point guard for the Phoenix Suns when they were good. He won two MVPs. He was small and quick and among the best shooters and passers in the world, among the best in NBA history.

I heard him give an interview once about his propensity to over-pass. His coach told him he was being selfish by not shooting. He was among the best shooters in the world and he was hurting his team by not taking more shots. It wasn’t about Steve Nash, it was about the Phoenix Suns. But not really, it wasn’t about the Phoenix Suns, it was about the NBA. But not really, it’s not even about the NBA, it was about the millions of people worldwide. Fans who love watching great teams compete at the highest levels. He was only going to be able to play at an elite level for a few years. He was blessed with a combination of very unique skills that just happened to be extremely useful in this particular way. He was at his best when he was able to serve humanity in this capacity. For the good of mankind, Steve Nash needed to shoot the ball.

A Night in a Cafe

Last week my wife and I went to a cafe to play some chess and Go (my latest obsession). This cafe tends to have live music and I thought it would be nice to play some brain-stimulating games, listen to music and enjoy each others company.

That is exactly what happened. A random couple, a man and a woman, maybe they were married, who knows, I’ll never see them again, came into the cafe, set up their sound systems, got out their guitars and started playing. There were just a handful of us in the cafe. We mostly forgot to clap after she finished a song. When one of us remembered, no matter how soft the clapping was, she gave an appreciative and enthusiastic thank you. Her voice was beautiful, the songs were good, and she made the evening more pleasant. But she didn’t really do it, well not directly. She made the choice to be there, to sing,. Earlier, she practiced and learned an instrument. She learned music, learned how to sing well, learned how to tune and control her voice. She was able, in that moment, produce a performance. The performance lives on in my memory. I don’t even know her name.

A Personal Experience

I recently had the honor (and I love this podcast so it was an honor) to be invited on a Mormon Matters podcast about the October session General Conference. It was a last minute invite, so I had no time to prepare. I only had the opportunity to watch Sunday’s two sessions. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the first choice. He actually had two other very dynamic, outgoing women on with me. The women’s session was emotional, the two women guests spent a large portion of the podcast discussing the session of conference I hadn’t watched. I didn’t get much time on that podcast. They were Steve Nash putting up shots. I was a role player hanging around the rim trying to get rebounds in case one of them missed. They rarely did. The resulting episode was great, a gift. It wasn’t about me, at all.


Where does that lead me now. I often see someone doing something and thinking, dang it, I wish I were doing that. But why? Why does it matter if I do it as long as its getting done. Its my job to figure out work that’s not getting done and do that. Some of that work is of such a nature that I’m the only one on this good earth that can do it. And when the work is finished and I move on to the next thing, if I’ve done it right, it might last a while, living in the world in such a way that no one quite remembers who put it there.

Meanwhile, I do have people who care about me. I have people I care about. That matters no matter what.

My Sample Ballot for the 2018 Election


Office Candidates My Vote Arizona Republic’s Choice Commentary Debate
US Senate Kyrsten Sinema, Martha McSally Kyrsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally are both credentialed, qualified, moderate and pragmatic. McSally has taken a hard turn in Trump’s direction especially in her campaign. That’s enough for me. AZ Senate Debate
US House Dist 9 Greg Stanton, Steve Ferrara Greg Stanton Greg Stanton was a good mayor for Phoenix and as far as I can tell a pragmatic, get things done moderate lefty in the mold of Kiersten Sinema. Ferrara was a little to partisan right for my taste. Congressional Debate
Governor Doug Ducey, David Garcia David Garcia Doug Ducey Both are quality candidates, but education is the most important job in state government, taking about half of the budget. David Garcia has more experience in education and understands the issue deeply because of it. He’s veered too far left for my taste and I worry about his effectiveness, but I trust he’s competent enough to work thorough the political and economic constraints that will act as a real damper to his progressive leanings. I think the state could use some democratic leadership at the top after a long drought. Governor Debate
State Senate District LD26 Rebecca Speakman, Juan Mendez Juan Mendez I’m still open to Rebecca Speakman, but I wasn’t impressed with her debate performance. She did not make a case (at all) why she would be a better choice for the position than Juan Mendez, the incumbent. I needed to hear something. Debate
State House District LD26 Raymond Speakman, Isela Blanc, Athena Salman Isela Blanc, Athena Salman Isela Blanc is the best of the bunch by a large margin. She’s experienced, passionate and articulate. She expresses her positions as if she’s dipping into deep knowledge of the issues, something I don’t see quite as much from the other candidates. I was open to voting for the Republican here, but Rayond Speakman was less than inspiring. Debate
Secretary of State Steve Gaynor, Katie Hobbs Katie Hobbs Katie Hobbs The AZ Republic makes a great case for Katie Hobbs. I refer you there. Debate
Attorney General Mark Brnovich, January Contreras January Contreras Mark Brnovich Update, this seat has become politicized and Brnovich has politicized it. Given my personal politics, I’m voting partisan here. And Contreras is certainly qualified.

This is a toss up for me and I reserve the right to change my mind. They are both imminently qualified. I hate some of the partisan ways Brnovich used the office and that is almost disqualifying for me. I kind of feel like challengers to an incumbent, especially an incumbent with a single term, should be thrust out by a better candidate. Tie goes to the incumbent in this case.

Attorney General Debate
State Treasurer Kimberly Yee, Mark Manoil Kimberly Yee Kimberly Yee Yee is smart, driven, experienced and hard working. That’s enough for me. Debate
Superintendent of Public Instruction Frank Riggs, Kathy Hoffman Frank Riggs Kathy Hoffman I think Frank Riggs has a good approach to the position, he has a more well rounded experience, that includes political experience. I think he would do a better job at the position. Debate
State Mine Inspector Joe Hart, Bill Pierce Joe Hart Some Good Information I was going to vote for Bill Pierce because Joe Hart refused to participate in the debate, but then I heard him in the interview on PBS… Probably safer to stick with the incumbent. Mining Inspector Debate
Corporation Commissioner Rodney Glassman, Justin Olson, Sandra Kennedy, Kiana Sears Rodney Glassman, Sandra Kennedy Olson, Kennedy I think we have four quality candidates for this position. I think Rodney Glassman is credentialed, confident with unique perspectives and expertise. Kennedy has been there before and has a record of challenging the utilities. The commission has a record of corruption. That and a move to alternative energy is high priority. Corporation Commisioner Debate
Clerk of the Superior Court Jeff Fine, Roberta Miller Jeff Fine Fine has a really good record with relevant experience. Some good info
Justice of the Peace Kyrene Bob Robson, Sharron Sauls Sharron Sauls Sauls has more relevant experience and education to the position. Reasons not to vote for Robson – looking to boost his pension perhaps.

Reasons not to vote for Sauls, a domestic violence related felony conviction in her past.

Constable Kyrene Brandon Schmoll, Kent Rini Kent Rini He’s the democrat. There’s not much at all in this race except their respective websites. Brandon Schmoll is the incumbent but not much on his website except this. Kent Rini has been a real estate agent and a volunteer silent witness for Paul Penzone.
Central AZ Water Conservation District Ronald Sereny, Rory Vanpoucke, Chris Will, Frank Archer, Lisa Atkins, Jim Ballinger, Alan Dulaney, Kerry Giangobbe, Terry Goddard, Jim Ainnuzo, Heather Macre, Jennifer Martin, April Pinger, Daniel Schweiker Atkins, Goddard, Macre, Dulaney, Martin Atkins, Goddard, Macre, Dulaney, Schweiker Going with the incumbents and two of the remaining with the most water experience.
Maricopa County Community College At-Large Roc Arnett, Kathleen Winn Roc Arnett Arnett’s experience seems deeper and more relevant for the position he’s running for. In his answers to the questionnaire, he seems more passionate about growing the effectiveness of junior colleges. Winn, however, seems more concerned about tax payers. I’d like a junior college board member to negotiate for funds rather than conceding. Allow the legislature to balance Junior colelge needs with other competing claims on government funds. A good questionnaire of the two candidates
Tempe Union No 213 High School Governing Board Andres Barraza, Don Fletcher, Brian Garcia Andres Barraza, Don Fletcher Brian Garcia is a law student with obviously less life experience. I’ve heard great things about Don Fletcher. Andres Barraza has a unique perspective to provide a different perspective on the board. Good info
Tempe Elem No. 3 School Governing Board James Lemmon, Patrick Morales, Charlotte Winsor Patrick Morales, Charlotte Winsor I happen to know Charlotte Winsor personally and she would be excellent at this position. I watched the debates in person and all three candidates are solid choices, I preferred Patrick Morales of the remaining two.
Proposition 417 Yes I’ll vote for funding for the arts all day everyday.
Proposition 418 No The criteria listed for removal is far too vague. What does due process mean in this case? A council member will already be removed if the due process of the judicial system convicts a member for a crime. What more do they want? There are ways voters can recall a council member, or just vote the person out in the next election cycle. This seems sufficient.
Judges No for Arthur Anderson, Warren Granville, Howard Sukenic, yes for the rest. Use the www.azjudges.info to make the selection. Using the www.azjudges.info, I’m voting no on any judge who received a “Does not meet” vote. See here
Proposition 125 No
Proposition 126 No No Removing an entire segment of the economy from paying taxes is the wrong approach. We need to fund our government as efficiently as possible, that requires broadening the tax base as much as possible with as low of a tax rate we can muster. More revenue should come by broadening the tax base not narrowing it as this does.
Proposition 127 Yes No I want to vote yes on this, but 50% of all retail energy of utilities from renewable energy that excludes pre-1997 hydropower or any kind of nuclear???? Why exclude nuclear from these percentages? Ok, global warming is a huge problem, I’m voting yes anyway.
Proposition 305 No I think both candidates for superintendent of schools were against this for different reasons. I think both reasons are valid, I’m voting no.
Proposition 306 Yes Seems like a reasonable thing to me.