cheesecloth and polygamy

November 14, 2008

I’m probably in the minority here, but I was raised Mormon.  My mother has been Mormon her whole life, and my dad did convert for a time while they were courting and for some time after they got married.  He got fed up with the church before I was born, though, and for as long as I remember, he has been atheist or at the very least agnostic.  If I were religious, I would thank God that at least one of my parents happened to be sane.

So, yeah, I went to Mormon church.  When I was a kid, my dad was still young enough that he actually cared that we listened to our mom and went to church with her because that’s what she wanted.   That’s what it seemed like at the time; in retrospect I’d say he just wanted his quiet Sunday mornings at home without other people.  Frankly, I’d be a little disappointed in him if this latter reason weren’t the real reason he wanted us kids to go to church with my mom.

While I was a kid, I didn’t think anything of going to Mormon church, because it was the only religious experience I knew.  I did think, though, that it was weird that we drove so far (15-20 minutes) to get to the church, and that no one I knew from school was at church.

Let me explain a little bit (though I went for 18 years, I definitely don’t know everything) about the Mormon church.  Please don’t take this as gospel, but these are my recollections and lessons that I learned at the church that I went to.

Mormons don’t believe in original sin.  They believe Adam did sin by eating the apple, but that each person is responsible for his/her actions, and so the sins of Adam are not visited upon anyone else.  So rather than baptizing children soon after they are born, the Mormons wait until children reach a supposed age of consent.  8 years old, that is.  I can’t speak for others, but I didn’t know anything when I was 8 years old.  But I was accepted as a member of the Mormon church, having made the “choice” to do so.  Nevermind my mother and grandparents pushing and pressuring.  Sure, my dad said that I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to do, but that’s not really possible when you’re 8 years old and people you trust are telling you this is what you should be doing.

The pre-baptism process involves an interview with the bishop of your local church (“ward” in Mormon parlance), if I recall correctly.  I’m pretty sure that I’m right on this, but I may be wrong.  In any event, it will be the first of many interviews that you are supposed to have during your Mormon life.  I have no idea what he asked me during this interview, and I’m certain that I was not qualified or competent to answer his questions on my own (no parents in the room).

Each baptism is its own event; occasionally two or three kids might get baptized together, but I think that’s not the norm.  It’s hard to celebrate the day as unique and special if there are multiple kids going at the same time.

The baptism process itself is probably fairly similar to other baptism processes, where there are some hymns and prayers and the baptism itself is only part of the ceremony.  Each Mormon ward has a big bathtub in it (the “baptismal font”) which is really quite large.  Or at least, I remember it being large, but then again: I was 8.  It’s large enough for several people to stand in it, this much I know, because the baptism itself has at least two people in it.  The baptizer and the baptizee both stand in it and the baptizer says some stuff and then dunks the baptizee under the water.  I don’t remember too much about this other than there’s something funky where your feet have to stay on the floor of the tub.  The ceremony is both before and after of course, with the after part of things celebrating the fact that you’re now a member.  Welcome to the club and all that.

Boys and girls attend Sunday School together until the age of 12, at which time the segregation begins.  At 12, boys are granted the “privilege” of obtaining the “Aaronic Priesthood.”  Amusingly, I initially thought it was called the “Ironic Priesthood” and I guess it wasn’t until later that I realized how much more appropriate that name is for it.  The Mormon church is a male-biased organization; while the boys were starting to become men, the girls were starting to learn how to become wives.

There are three stages to the Aaronic priesthood: Deacon, Teacher, and Priest.  These occur when you are 12, 14, and 16, respectively.  As a Deacon, you’re not really supposed to do much out of the ordinary except help usher the older people into the church for the service each week and help pass out the Sacrament (more below).  I have no idea what you’re supposed to do as a Teacher, but I didn’t do it.  As a priest, your main responsibility is to bless the Sacrament each week.  The Mormons only have one Sacrament (that I ever learned about, anyway), and that’s the one at the service on Sunday (Sacrament meeting).

For each stage of the Aaronic priesthood, there is yet another meeting with the bishop of the church (who may or may not be the same guy you talked to when you were baptized or even the last time you had to have this interview).  During this interview he will ask you about the “Word of Wisdom”: whether you’re looking at porn, whether you’re masturbating, whether you’re drinking coffee or tea, whether you’re engaging in homosexual activities.  Again, I can’t speak for everyone, but at 12, these questions were so far away from my reality that I can’t even imagine what I thought of them at the time.  I didn’t really go through puberty (insofar as I have to this day, even) until after I was 14; masturbation just wasn’t an issue.  Once it became an issue for my Priest interview, I sure as shit lied to the bishop about it.  My dad had maintained his “don’t say or do anything you don’t want to” stance, but it was just easier to lie and get on with my life.

When I was around 12 years old, I had told my mom that I didn’t really believe and that I wanted to stay home from church on Sundays.  That didn’t go over so well; I ended up going to church until I graduated from high school.  I’ve always resented her for this, and now I wish I had all that time back to do something else, even sleep, on all of those Sunday mornings.

My mother tried bribery on me several times to get me to participate in more church activities.  When I was around 11, she bought me a Nintendo game (Mike Tyson’s Punchout) to get me to participate in an Operetta that was being put on by a local ward (it was “Amahl and the Night Visitors”).  I went for a bit and then dropped out, but I still kept the game.  She tried to get me to go to Seminary, too, which is the Mormon pre-school-day class that high school-aged Mormons attend pretty much every morning before school (yes, this means it starts at like 6am).  Other than the time of day, which totally sucked, and the fact that it was every day, it wasn’t the worst experience of my life.  I had friends there, and we made the most of the crappy situation we were in.  Me, I got my mom to buy me a 5-disc CD changer for my troubles (this was in 1992, when CD players were still fairly expensive…I remember it being $200).  For that, I went for one full year, when I was a freshman in high school; that would end up being the only year I regularly attended.

My favorite bit of bribery, though, was when I was a Priest and of age to bless the Sacrament.  I had no interest in doing this, of course, but my mother, always willing to make it worth my while, agreed to do the chore I hated most to do: wash dishes after Sunday dinner.  While I lived in my parents’ house, the only dishwasher we had was always a human.  Sundays were the one night a week when my mom or dad really cooked and made a shitload of dishes, so it was really getting the shortest straw to have that as my dish night.  So blessing the Sacrament seemed like a pretty easy trade on my part.

The process of blessing the Sacrament involves first breaking the bread (just regular white bread) into pieces for people to take, and to fill little cups with water (the body and the blood…similar to Catholicism, but (I gather) tastier and non-alcoholic).  Then, during the Sacrament ceremony, one of the priests (there are 3 generally) will bless the bread, and one will bless the water.  It’s important that the blessing be word-for-word correct; any small slip-up will cause the blessing to be repeated.  The priest giving the blessing will look over at the bishop to get a nod that indicates the blessing was a success.  Doing this made me think that maybe radio was the right way for me to go (anyone who sees me would agree it’s not television); I used to have people come up after the meeting to commend me on my reverence and reading and ask whether I prayed before the meeting to have “the Spirit” with me.  It was all I could do not to laugh and to instead say something semi-reasonable.  I guess being well-motivated put me in the mood to give the blessing.  For my mom, looking like a good Mormon with good Mormon children was far more important than actually being so.

One of the most disturbing things I’ve ever experienced happened when I was about 16.  There was a beautiful girl at church who got pregnant.  This really should have come as no surprise to anyone; she was unbelievably beautiful.  After she became pregnant, we didn’t see too much of her anymore.  I’m sure that she was pressured into staying away from the church, because pregnant teenagers don’t give off that vibe of listening to church teachings that they’re going for.  So at a time in her life when she probably wanted to rely on the institution that was supposed to help her and the relationships she had built there, she was shunned.  I found this to be weird and contradictory.  I didn’t believe in any of their teachings anyway, but this experience solidified things for me.

Once I went to college, I stopped going to church.  I knew it wasn’t for me, and other than a few times when I was home on break when my mom harangued me enough, I haven’t been back since.  In the years since, as my other siblings have also stopped attending church, my mom has become more and more religious.  I would swear she didn’t wear the funny underwear when I was a kid, but she does now.  The clothes are made out of a cheesecloth-like material and are like an undershirt and boxers, even for the women.  It creeps me out if I see it while doing laundry at my parents’ house.

My experience at the Mormon church does have a positive note, though.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without having gone to the Mormon church.  I met a few people (who are now non-Mormons as well, with a little help from me) who helped me get into the computer field and helped me find jobs during college as well.  They are close friends that I’m glad I met, even if it was at the Mormon church.

Which leads me to the present.  Once you’re a member of the Mormon church, you’re a member.  Even if you stop attending, they never really stop tracking you.  Since college, I’ve lived in Texas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and now California.  At each location, the Mormons have found me.  I’m pretty sure my grandmother has been forwarding my address information to the church so that they can track me.  Usually it’s the missionaries who come out to see me, but sometimes it’s a more official visit.  I’m always nice to them, and more than anything, I pity them for spending so much time and money on an organization that I see to be morally bankrupt.  But that’s gotten old.

Then Proposition 8 came along, and while I knew the Mormons also funded the fight against gay rights in Alaska years ago, I hadn’t really given them much thought.  Until Prop 8 passed.  I voted No on Prop 8, for the record.  The passage of Prop 8 with the backing of the Mormon church really makes me mad and I decided that I really didn’t want to be associated in any way with the Mormon church.  So I sent a letter to formally resign from the Mormon church.  I haven’t heard back yet; I’ll post again when I do.

There are two ironies of Proposition 8: who voted for it, and church history.

The Mormon church seems to have been the predominant funder in favor of the proposition; the black vote was the one that favored Prop 8 more than other demographics.  The Mormon church has a terrible history of being racist — they didn’t allow black men to hold the priesthood until 1978.  That the black vote bought into the fear tactics of the Prop 8 campaign is saddening.

Also, the Mormon church has its own history to contend with: they believed (until it was necessary to abandon it so that Utah could get its statehood) in polygamy, which is a very liberal system of marriage.  Mormons were progressive 140 years ago, but not today!

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2 Responses to “ cheesecloth and polygamy ”

  1. MrOink on November 14, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Very interesting story. Thanks for sharing.

    I’m impressed that you finally quit the church. Interesting that you have to officially quit. In fact, I once heard that you had to send a notarized letter to quit the Mormon church — any truth to that? I grew up going to a pretty liberal Presbyterian church. They just eventually took you off their membership rolls if you stopped attending for long enough — a few years probably. In any case, they certainly never sent anyone to your house if you stopped going.

    I’m not sure I’d agree that Mormon polygamy was progressive. Because it was apparently the sort of polygamy that only includes men having multiple wives, but not women having multiple husbands. In any case, I think that sort of polygamy historically has favored men more than women. I’ve yet to ever see an example of polygamy that is the other way around: where only women can have multiple husbands.

    Nonetheless, your point is well taken that Mormons at one time had their own “redefinition of marriage” with which to contend. And so it’s not the least bit ironic that they should now be leading the charge against gay people “redefining marriage.”

    Also, I think it’s in some ways fair that people are blaming Mormons and the Mormon church for Prop 8 more than they are blaming African Americans (who, taken as a group, voted more overwhelmingly in favor for Prop 8 than any group other than religious groups like Evangelical Christians or Mormons).

    First, I think this is because of the institutional support for Prop 8 from the Mormon church. Though black people have great power when voting as a block, there is no leader of black people and no institution of black people. The black vote was about individual decisions. On the contrary, Mormon support was very much an institutional decision to encourage and coerce congregants into giving time and money toward Prop 8. Not only is it more practical to go after an institution (the Mormon church) rather than just a collection of individuals (black people), but it’s also fairer, in my opinion. Although many black people voted for Prop 8 because of their religions, it’s much harder to define “black church” than it is “Mormon church,” the former having no real working definition and the latter surely so.

    Second, I think it’s in many ways worse to have advocated Prop 8 than to have merely voted for it. Mormons organized and funded much of Prop 8 (the majority, according to some estimates). And the vast majority of black people voted for Prop 8 — though obviously not enough to win Prop 8 alone. But I think the advocates here carry more moral culpability. I think the advocates of Prop 8 purposefully tried to stir up old prejudices and spread intolerance. The voters bought into it, sure, I admit that. But they weren’t the ones committing fraud — the voters were the ones defrauded.

    All this is not to say that there aren’t more parties to blame for Prop 8 than the Mormons. Fundamentalist Christians also gave a great deal of money toward the passage of Prop 8. And indeed protesters were at places like Saddleback church last week and will be back there this weekend.

  2. RustedJesus on November 14, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    Great post, JDL. I enjoyed it.

    There are studies and theories that link African-American homophobia to the hypermasculinity forced upon black males because of the violent oppression and dehumanization processes of slavery and culture in America. I’ll see if I can find some and whip up a report on it in the next week or so. I think it would be interesting in regards to the voting demographics of Prop 8.

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