I begin with an experience that doesn’t paint me in the best light, religiously speaking.
The year was 1986. All of my Mormon friends had fled Los Angeles for Provo, Utah and Brigham Young University, and I, since I considered myself too “sophisticated” – i.e. arrogant – to subject myself to a Mormon majority experience, remained in the City of Angels to attend the University of Southern California and pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre. I prided myself on my ability to live the gospel in a more hostile environment, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to call attention to myself, so I rarely said a word about my faith to any of my classmates.
The BFA program brought me into closer proximity with my classmates than most university students experience in more traditional programs. There were about twenty-five of us, and we all took the same classes with the same professors, and, when the day was over, we all participated in the same extracurricular theatrical productions. These people were essentially the only people I saw, day in and day out, but I still didn’t connect with them all that well.
Why? The Mormon thang, naturally.
Because I was unwilling to talk about my faith, I was holding back a huge part of myself in ways I didn’t fully realize until much, much later. I was frightened to share my opinion on subjects where my religion would be an issue. I also ducked out of cast parties and other social occasions where I would be forced to account for my non-imbibing of adult beverages. I therefore created an artificial distance between me and some very good people, and I refused to provide an explanation for why I was doing it.
This came to a head when another Mormon classmate attended one of my classes shortly after an area conference in which Ezra Taft Benson, then President of the Church, addressed the faithful. “Wasn’t it inspiring to see the Prophet?” he asked me – in full view of other people who had no idea what he was talking about. Yes, I thought – but can’t we talk about this someplace else? I hemmed and hawed and tried to make little jokes, which disappointed my Mormon friend and confused the other ones.
“What does he mean, you saw the Prophet?” one of my genuinely curious friends asked. I don’t remember what my mealy-mouthed, weasel-worded answer was, but rest assured that you probably won’t be finding it quoted in the Ensign anytime soon.
I mention this because the Washington Post has a fascinating piece today where Republicans are telling Mitt to “own” his Mormonism. Now that he’s the presumptive nominee, he doesn’t have to worry as much about evangelical resistance to his faith, so he shouldn’t shy away from it. Right now, Mitt’s treating his Mormonism the way I did in 1986 – it’s important, yes, but can’t we talk about something else? The result, as it was twenty five years ago, is artificial distance, awkwardness, and a sense of strangeness that Mitt really doesn’t deserve. Some mistakenly interpret that distance as “richness.” Mitt’s so out of touch because he spent all his days at the yachting club eating caviar and sipping Chablis.
No, he didn’t. While he was a bishop and stake president, he spent all of his days visiting widows, going to Scout Camp, ministering to the poor, counseling troubled youths and troubled adults and fixing troubled marriages, and, above all, conducting and presiding at gazillions of really boring meetings.
19th century Mormon weirdness looks pretty strange in the plain light of a 21st Century day, but the practical aspects of Mitt’s faith hold up very well under scrutiny. It would help Mitt immensely if 60 Minutes or some such were to take a tour of Welfare Square in Salt Lake City and see just how remarkable the Church’s humanitarian efforts are, for example. Or perhaps they could attend a Mormon sacrament meeting, where volunteers, not paid clergy, provide the inspirational and (usually) unloony messages every week. Real life contemporary Mormons are actually quite boring, but it’s a good boring – a reassuring, kindhearted sort of boring. See? Mormons don’t spend all day sacrificing goats and perfecting their voodoo skills – they fall asleep in their pews and bring really bad-tasting red Hawaiian Punch to a never-ending series of potluck dinners. More importantly, they also look out for each other, spiritually, emotionally, and temporally. Seeing that side of the Church would go a long way toward diffusing explosive misconceptions, and they would also provide valuable insight into a man who has purposely been holding the best part of himself in reserve.
The nasty anti-Mormon pieces have already started, and more are undoubtedly on their way. Will there be a commensurate amount of positive press? Well, that’s largely in Mitt’s hands. If he chooses to “own his Mormonism,” then the press will pay attention, and it will likely be a net positive both for both Mitt and the church.
If not, well, he might end up like me. Believe me, nobody wants that.