Mormonism is in the news a lot, lately – because of Mitt Romney. I have a strange fascination or attraction to Mormonism, for a constellation of reasons, not just one.
Foremost, my parents had no idea when they picked an obscure Old Testament patriarch's name for me at my birth, that they would be setting me up for decades of being mistakenly taken for a Mormon. You see, although "Jared" is only an obscure Old Testament Patriarch, it's also a book in the Book of Mormon, and there are Jaredites in the book of Mormon, and Jared is a very, very common and typical Mormon name.
Starting in the fifth or sixth grade, I remember constantly being assumed to be Mormon – by neighbors, peers, teachers. Partly, it was because there was a relatively high proportion of Mormons in my home town – I suspect the percentage may have been as high as 10% of the local population. Further, I grew up in a house basically across the street from the Arcata Ward meetinghouse, with its brick facade (uncommon in rural northern California) and crossless spire and immense parking lots (because Mormons seem prosperous and they all have cars). I played at the Mormon church throughout my childhood.
Even the Mormons seemed to think I was Mormon. They probably suspected I was somehow lapsed, or rather that my parents were lapsed. And thus I always was in for special evangelical attention. So by the time I graduated high school, I'd received maybe a half-dozen copies of the Book of Mormon, and, what's more, I'd actually read it – because I'm a curious person and it struck me as the fair thing to do. I read the Book of Mormon before I read the Old or New Testaments, given my parents were not practicing Christians and never exposed me to the Bible except that it sat there on the shelf in our living room. I was a senior in high school when I found out my mother wasn't an atheist – I'd just assumed she was. And my father… I still don't know what he believes. He maybe doesn't, himself. He seems to be a Unitarian mostly out of habit, at this point.
My impression of the Book of Mormon was that it was patently absurd. I remember long conversations with one of my best friends in high school, Wade, about Mormonism, faith, the existence of God. He was Mormon, but an odd one – he was rather abandoned by his natural parents, but somehow some Mormons had taken him in and he was therefore kind of an adoptive Mormon. Mormons do this a lot, actually.
And that's the flipside of my finding the Book absurd – I found most Mormons I met to be profoundly kind, decent, caring people. I was very impressed by that.
Recently, I found online an interesting little memoir by Walter Kirn at The New Republic. It was one of the most rivetting religiously-themed memoirs I've read recently. Because what he's doing is – from a position as a lapsed Mormon – he's pointing out that Mormons aren't that "weird." They're really quite remarkable, and not just in cultish ways, but in the most positive way immaginable. He writes: "Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country's longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences."
This concept of religion as being about not doctrine but community made a profound impression on me. And it was utterly lacking in my own upbringing and life. I was fishing around for something. In college, I began to solve this problem by groping around for my own religous roots – my father was a non-practicing Quaker and my mother's mother had converted from Quakerism to a rather Calvinistic Episcopalianism primarily out of deference to her husband. So, I argued to myself, I was three-quarters Quaker. My increasing political radicalism also drew me to Quakerism, of course, and I occasionally attended meeting for worship.
And then, a series of coincidences put me in the center of an essentially religious community in Mexico City – the Casa de los Amigos, which was the Quaker mission there, where my own uncle (my father's brother) had worked several decades before. I became a practicing Quaker.
Nevertheless, I struggled. Because the fact was that I found the more conventional Christian narrative that most Quakers hold to to be just as absurd as the more esoteric Book of Mormon. I was then as I remain, today, an uncompromising materialist, philosophically, and an atheist and skeptic, though it would be another decade before I "made peace" with my atheism.
I still tried. I told myself I would overlook the mythological or cosmological absurdities, and focus on the community. And here, I find Kirn's memoir reflecting a very similar process. Speaking of his own youthful enthusiasm for his Mormon faith, he says, "My time in the ward had shown me at close range that God doesn’t work in mysterious ways at all, but by enlisting assistants on the ground." This is nigh identical to how I viewed my time among the Quakers in Mexico City. I thought it mildly ridiculous, talking about the light of Christ speaking through me, as I sat in meeting. It wasn't what I believed. But I thought just like Kirn:
The “sacred underwear”? It was underwear. Everyone wears it, so why not make it sacred? Why not make everything sacred? It is, in some ways. And most sacred of all are people, not wondrous stories, whose job is to help people feel their sacredness. Sometimes the stories don’t work, or they stop working. Forget about them; find others. Revise. Refocus. A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.
OK. Where am I going with this, now?
Two points, the first about politics, and the second about myself and my faith.
I dislike Romney intensely. But not because he's a Mormon. On the contrary, if Romney were a "good" Mormon I'd be deeply impressed by him. In fact, I despise him mostly because he seems to be a pretty crappy Mormon: he's a hypocrite. He changes and adjusts his "faith" to match his political and business ambitions. The evidence is incontrovertible. Hypocrisy is a thousand times more reprehensible, in my book, than sincere belief in absurdities leading to genuine kindness and peace of mind. Ultimately, as Obama is revealed to be a similar sort of hypocrite, I am forced to say I will not be able to vote for either of them.
On a personal note: at some point, I began telling people I was a Buddhist. Not because I believe the particular Buddhist absurdities over and above those Christian or Mormon or Muslim absurdities, but rather because Buddhists have a tendency to react differently to my skepticism: when I tell a Buddhist that I'm an atheist, they say, "that's ok," and not, "Oh no, you're going to hell!" as a typical Christian tends to do. Which is to say, Buddhists don't make a big deal over compliance with doctrine, and they do this explicitly – rather than the sort of behind-the-curtain winking of Quakers for the materialists among them, or the hippy-dippy believe-what-you-want-it's-all-true of the Unitarians (which frankly always turned me off). Buddhists don't say "it's all true" but instead that "truth is impossible to determine." That's something I can get on board with. But I retain a deep respect for committed, non-hypocritical members of all faiths, including the "strange" ones, such as Mormonism or Scientology or whatever.
And that… is perhaps as close as you're going to ever get from me, as a statement of faith.