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The On Being Project

The Unorthodox Spectrum of Mormonism Explained

I’ve had a sense of déjà vu as the discussion about Mormonism has heated up as of late, with exactly the same dynamic occurring in the last presidential election season. But the discussion this time is more serious.

It’s not just the fact that two Mormons — Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman — are viable presidential candidates. It’s a Broadway musical. It’s more than one successful TV drama. We’re in, we’re coming to say, a “Mormon moment.” Joanna Brooks, giving just one of the many helpful pieces of perspective in this conversation, compares the rise of Mormons in politics and culture to the rise of the Mormon-owned Marriott Hotel chain. A highly disciplined, highly effective frontier culture grows up and migrates back out into centers of power. It’s a classic American story. But there’s also some kind of religious and cultural coming of age here, for Mormons and the rest of us.

I couldn’t have found a better person than Joanna Brooks to shed some distinctively informative, candid, and meaningful light on it all. She’s a literature scholar and a journalist. Her Ask Mormon Girl blog and Twitter feed is a remarkably reflective, compassionate community of questioning with Mormons of many stripes. And Ask Mormon Girl, as she notes on her website, is housed on the “legendary Feminist Mormon Housewives blog.” That is just one of many things that does not meet the traditional American eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — but which we engage through the voice and life of Joanna Brooks.

She grew up, as she tells it for starters, at the southern tip of the “Book of Mormon Belt” — Orange County, California, that is, which I’d associated more vividly with evangelical Christianity. Her father was “bishop” of their congregation several times growing up — a volunteer position that Mitt Romney has also held in his communities across his lifetime. Her mother is a “professional Mormon,” as she affectionately puts it — with, among other things, a serious avocation for genealogy. Joanna Brooks uses words like “rich,” “imaginative”, and “robust” to describe this faith that formed her and that she continues to love.

She has also struggled mightily, suffered disappointment and heartbreak, with this tradition she loves. She became an intellectual and a feminist at Brigham Young University, and then watched the university and the Church for a time condemn and disown the very Mormon mentors who’d inspired her. She was vociferously opposed to the proactive role the LDS Church took in California’s Proposition 8 referendum. But she is a probing force inside the Church’s wrestling with pain and confusion over this issue. Her blog is a model of compassionate presence, both to LGBT Mormons and to parents struggling to reconcile their religious beliefs and their love for their children. She honors the human confusion here that is not exclusive to Mormons and the added complexity that their theology of the family and eternity gives to subjects of marriage and sexuality.

Most of this conversation, though, is not about hot-button issues or presidential politics. It is an informative, energetic, and often moving journey into life on the other side of the American perception that Mormons are weird at best, a cult at worst. Joanna Brooks does not defend her tradition in any simplistic way, but she does make it three-dimensional and far harder to parody. Consider, for example, as she helps us do, the ambivalence and pain that Mormon married couples feel at their church’s legacy of polygamy. Hear her explanation of her sense of the “strangeness” of accusations she’s heard since she was a child, that she — a follower of Jesus Christ, a serious thinker about notions like atonement and grace — is not Christian. On a lighter note, but with just as much illumination for the listener, she is candid and corrective about a lingering obsession out there with ritual Mormon undergarments.

The most classic American story in this Mormon moment, perhaps, is how Joanna Brooks and other faith-filled and “unorthodox” Mormons are claiming their place in the unfolding story of this young frontier tradition. It is evolving from the inside in ways more meaningful, perhaps, than its outer rise to prominence in politics. Maybe in hindsight, we’ll see this Mormon moment as an occasion for this increasingly influential American phenomenon, composed after all of human beings, to become more articulate about itself and more comprehensible to the rest of us in its complexity.

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