Going Mormon

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Going Mormon

If you’ve ever wondered how a child of easygoing liberal intellectuals can rebel, let me explain it step by step:

Step 1: Convert to Mormonism.

There. That’s it.

I speak from experience, see. At the age of 16, I shocked my parents, friends, and Lutheran youth group by throwing in with my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. At the time, my older sister was away at college, my dad had a job 2,000 miles from home, and my mom and I were both working as much as possible to keep us afloat. Looking back, it’s pretty easy for me to understand how I was drawn to Mormonism’s aggressively familial environment. The members were really nice, the community was protective, and the desserts were fantastic.

For a young adult as preternaturally risk-averse as I was, the restrictions of the religion didn’t bring me down. The only thing I found distressing, really, was how much the church distressed everyone else. I was told, repeatedly and earnestly, that Mormons weren’t “real” Christians. I was presented with anti-LDS literature and films. I was taken aside by a friend for a heart-to-heart chat discouraging my conversion. At prom.

The most dogmatic of my acquaintances informed me, sadly but sincerely, that I was following a false prophet and, unfortunately, would go to hell for it. All I could think to do was thank them for their concern and let them know that, personally, I thought their path was just fine and we’d all be okay. It never left my awareness, though, that a large group of people – possibly a majority – was actively and adamantly against me because of my faith. And that sucked.

My time in the LDS church pre-dated September 11, 2001, so I can’t speak for whether the increasing cultural awareness of Muslims, a group even further outside the sphere of Typical American Christian, has lessened animosity toward Mormons. Based on the fact that two GOP presidential hopefuls, including the official Republican nominee, are LDS, however, it seems that enough people have set aside old biases and united behind new ones. The fear of the foreign, the unfamiliar, the misunderstood – these are still present and driving factors, but are now directed toward an “other” more easily identified. Over the last two weeks, fearful rhetoric has dominated discussion of Islam, and the most prominent Mormon in America (sorry, Osmonds) has fanned those flames. It’s hard for me to understand how anyone steeped in generations of LDS history, which is not free from its own violent and shameful chapters, could be dismissive of the idiosyncrasies and sensitivities of other faiths, or ignore the way small groups of fundamentalist outliers can ruin things for everyone.

After recently spending a week in Qatar, my friend Carma received an email from a medical resident she had worked with there. In it, he apologized on behalf of all Muslims for what had occurred at the American consulate in Libya, explained how the attack violated the basic principles of Islam, and stated that he and many other Muslims had sent apologies directly to the family of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. “I know you are not one of his family members,” he wrote, “but I made a commitment between me and myself to apologize [to] every single American whenever I get a chance to do that for that ignorant action.” This physician had no more a role in the consulate attack than my grandmother had in producing the film that sparked that day’s protests, but his faith moved him to action, to reconciliation, to peace.

I was officially baptized into the LDS church when I was 19. After becoming more aware and less comfortable with its doctrine, I left the fold three years later. I won’t claim that six years made me an expert on the practice or experience of being Mormon, but it did give me a peek at being a beleaguered religious minority. Reading the doctor’s email, I was reminded of all those times I felt I needed to explain or apologize for my beliefs, as well as the times I resisted the urge to say, “But you know, your stuff sounds kind of silly, too.”

Because taken at face value, it does seem silly, all of it, whatever beliefs we hold onto so tightly they make us dismiss common sense or the laws of nature, whether they’re simple superstitions or complex catechism. That silliness can go terribly, horribly wrong, or it can inspire amazing acts of kindness and compassion. Our country’s founders seemed to feel that, left to our own devices, we’d lean more toward the latter. Condemning insults and attacks against any faith isn’t apologizing for our values; it’s living up to them.

Oh, hey, would you look at that. I turned into my parents after all.

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