August 23, 2012
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: From The Daily Show to CNN, Joanna Brooks has become a go-to voice during our national inspection of Mormonism in this presidential campaign. And as Mitt Romney makes history, we revisit a personal and revealing conversation I had with Joanna Brooks last year. She describes herself as unorthodox and passionately planted in this culture that is as much an identity as a faith. Mormons across the spectrum — from secular to unorthodox to devout — reach out to her on her Twitter feed and blog, “Ask Mormon Girl.” Through her life and voice, we experience the other end of American appraisals of the “strangeness” of Mormons. See, for example, the pain and confusion for Mormon families contending with a history of polygamy. Joanna Brooks opens a window on Mormonism as an evolving and far from monolithic faith.
JOANNA BROOKS: This is a tradition that doesn’t wash off. When you grow up Mormon, this is a huge part of your identity, and then you go through this pretty natural human process of maturation, of sorting out who you really are, and there are so many people who are hungry to claim a place that they can feel good about in this rich, robust, imaginative, very powerful religious tradition. And they’re starting to do it.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being — from APM, American Public Media.
Joanna Brooks is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. But I’ve discovered and followed her as a journalist. Politico has named her one of 50 up-and-coming voices of savvy to watch.
I’ve been especially struck by sophisticated, long-term reporting Joanna Brooks does on difficult issues. And “Ask Mormon Girl” is a remarkably reflective community of dialogue and questioning, where issues like family divisions over same-sex marriage are considered with an intelligence and compassion that elude the larger culture. On her bio, Joanna Brooks notes that the “Ask Mormon Girl” blog is housed at the legendary “Feminist Mormon Housewives” blog. And that’s just one of the facets of this tradition, which she knows and lives intimately, but which does not meet the traditional American eye on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
MS. TIPPETT: How would you start to talk about what it was like to grow up in a devout Mormon family? What would you describe?
MS. BROOKS: Every time I tell the story of my Mormon upbringing, I feel a very strong sense of obligation to talk about my ancestors. It’s a very traditional Mormon way of telling the story. Do you want me to tell it that way?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
MS. BROOKS: My ancestors, my grandmother’s — my mother’s mother’s side of the family, were Mormon pioneers. Some converted in England in the 1850s during a time of tremendous economic upheaval, depression, and boarded ships, crossed the ocean, traveled to the Midwest, and then either pulled handcarts or went with oxcarts across the plains to northern Utah and southern Idaho. My father’s side of the family converted in the 1930s. My father’s mother was an Okie who went to pick cotton in Arizona. His father was from a family of copper miners, and they found the church in Arizona where there’s always been a large population of LDS people. So they converted and everyone moved out to Los Angeles during the Depression. I was raised in an orange grove suburb of Los Angeles in a vibrant, very committed Mormon community. And we felt ourselves very much a part of what I call the Book of Mormon Belt.
MS. TIPPETT: OK [laughter].
MS. BROOKS: There were enough of us. We were at sort of the southern end of the Book of Mormon Belt. If you imagine this sort of geographic crescent stretching from Orange County through Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and north to Canada through Idaho, we felt like we were at the southern tip of that, and my world was entirely Mormon in all of its social dimensions, my best friends, what I do with most of my time, although we were a minority and, you know, lived in regular neighborhoods. But my parents lived a level of orthodox that their parents had not lived, were fully committed to the church as a way of life. My father served as the equivalent of the pastor of our congregation three separate times during my childhood. This is all volunteer. This is not his day job.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MS. BROOKS: My mother was a terrific genealogist and fully committed like my father to serving in the church. And Mormonism is my whole world, my whole imagination. Everything I wanted from the time I was a very young child profoundly shaped my understanding of what it was to be alive and what my goals should be as a human being.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, one thing that is really striking to me that I’ve known intellectually and I have delved into Mormonism a bit, but it really came through very dramatically to me in your writing, in your stories, is that on the one hand as you talk about — and many people talk about — this is a young church. It’s a young tradition and, for that reason, it’s evolving. At the same time, there is such a thick culture and identity and memory, right? This connection to history and, you know, how that history is kept alive, the genealogy that your mother is not alone in being completely and intensely committed to. It’s really interesting, that.
MS. BROOKS: I always grew up with a powerful sense that my ancestors were profoundly connected to my everyday life, and it’s not unusual in a lot of Mormon families. We have stories about, you know, people popping in from the other side of the veil, as we call it, to protect, watch over, guide, comfort. I grew up with the sense that my ancestors were present and especially the ancestors that I knew through family stories had made great sacrifices to pursue this distinctive, you know, spiritual way of life. They were there and they were invested in my choices and my mother’s choices and my father’s choices. They were there for us.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, one of the things that you write about — I mean, you are a scholar, but really you’re a journalist too. I think of you as one of the most active journalists out there now in places like Religion Dispatches, in the blogosphere, in the online world, really reporting on not just Mormon issues, religion in public life, but with a focus on Mormonism and also providing perspective from the inside that’s very, that’s very hard to get elsewhere. And one of the things you write about a lot, you name as a Mormon, is that Mormons are aware that they are considered to be weird and that this word, weirdness and strangeness and, I don’t know, parody, certainly is out there when you have two Mormons running for president.
And what impresses me also is that you’ve done some pretty sophisticated self-reflective thinking about, you know, where this came from and also the difficulty Mormons have in kind of addressing it forthrightly and directly. So I wanted to go through some of that, you know some of those things that keep being brought up. I don’t actually want to start with polygamy.
MS. BROOKS: [laughter] Why not?
MS. TIPPETT: But we’ll get to polygamy next because that’s the big one. I want to start in a little bit bigger place. You know, when you explain Mormonism, you begin with the fact that it was founded by restorationists, it’s a Restorationist tradition. And I just want you to explain, you know, what you mean by that and why it’s important in even starting to understand this tradition.
MS. BROOKS: It’s important to understand that the roots of Mormonism are firmly imbedded in America Protestantism. During the early 19th century, especially in frontier areas, which at that time meant Ohio and the Midwest, an entire class of people who had evacuated New England, who had been sort of — New England had pushed them out. They weren’t able to hang on and make it work, for whatever reason. They were seeking their fortunes further west, also realized that they were being pushed out of traditional Protestantism by an ever more technical theology and an ever more articulated sense of organizational divisions, sectarianism, you know, some Presbyterians were fighting Episcopalians and Methodists over theological minutia.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. BROOKS: And these people found themselves on the frontier with this strong sense to make it new. What an American impulse. So the Restorationists believed that all of this accumulation of technical theology can be swept aside and sort of washed out by a return to the powerful primitive energies of the early Christian church and that the gifts of the spirit could stand in for a proper theological education as a guide to how to live a proper Christian life.
MS. TIPPETT: And we think of all of this as part of the Second Great Awakening, the umbrella term.
MS. BROOKS: Absolutely, absolutely, and it spawned a number of Christian denominations that remain today, including the Disciples of Christ. So we were an especially innovative strand of this desire to restore and revitalize Christianity.
MS. TIPPETT: And so you talk about, you know, the fact that you have — the words you use often about your encounters with people who don’t consider you to be Christian is that, for you, that is a strange experience and a strange idea that people have.
MS. BROOKS: It is, and it’s — I’ve been encountering it since I was very young. I was born in the early ’70s, and when I was in junior high school, it became clear to me that there was an organized anti-Mormon movement. The term anti-Mormon is abused quite a bit within the community, but there was actually an organized movement in some very conservative Christian churches and seminaries to expose Mormonism as a cult or as a fraud, as a deceptive religion that tried to convince people it was about Christianity when it really wasn’t. I encountered this from classmates and in social settings, these sort of, you know, a desire to correct me and tell me I wasn’t really Christian.
A local church had a billboard out front. They were screening a movie called The God Makers, which was circulating at lot in the 1980s, a produced film exposing elements of Mormon belief that were esoteric and therefore considered anti-Christian. You know, it broke my heart — I cried. We’d drive by the church and my mom said, “Yeah, they’re showing the movie. A lot of your friends go there.” Sure enough, there were notes in my locker and notes in my yearbook and, you know, people would go to their Presbyterian church down the block on Sundays and I knew that the pastor was displaying Mormon undergarments and sort of making fun of them. As if the age of 12 isn’t just humiliating enough, that felt pretty awful.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MS. BROOKS: It always just profoundly baffled me when people said, “Well, you’re not Christian. You worship a different Jesus.” I remember my sister actually, who was 10 years old at the time, had been invited to a child’s activity at a local Christian church with a friend, and they confronted her. I mean, she’s 10 and they confronted her and said, “You don’t believe in the same Jesus.” And she said, “Well, I believe in the one that was born of Mary and who died on the cross. Which one do you believe in?” You know, but as an adult now, as someone who’s studied theology at little bit along the way, I can appreciate that there are significant differences between Mormonism and mainline Protestantism. I mean, let’s be candid. There are.
But as someone whose faith and whose Mormon-founded faith has centered a great deal around Jesus Christ and thinking about the Atonement and the power of forgiveness and grace in everyday life, it still is strange to encounter the notion that Mormons aren’t Christians. Christian then reveals itself to become a word that’s used instrumentally perhaps to authorize some forms of belief and not others, but not to actually describe the way an individual relates to the notion of Jesus Christ.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Mormon Demystified” with scholar, journalist, and “Ask Mormon Girl” blogger Joanna Brooks.
MS. TIPPETT: So let’s keep going on the attributes of Mormonism that seem weird. And polygamy is clearly the first thing that comes up. In fact, a couple of years ago when I did an interview with an Mormon scholar, with Robert Millett actually, really just trying to get an orthodox basic view of Mormonism, I said we’re just not going to talk about polygamy because polygamy gets so much airtime, not to mention TV drama time. I think what I get out of your writing that was a little bit new to me is how much a source of tension and discussion it is among Mormons.
MS. BROOKS: Absolutely. I think the words ambivalence and shame are actually very powerful words for describing how many Mormons feel about our polygamist history. Even in my own family tree, I have one great-great-grandmother who threatened to cut off her husband’s ears if he took a second wife. And I have one great-great-grandmother who was, you know, a plural wife. One of the things that makes polygamy very complicated for Mormon people is not only its presence in our history. And if you look at American visual culture from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, it is not surprising that polygamy continues to be the number one image associated with Mormons today. It was so prevalent in turn of the century visual culture and so sensationalized.
MS. TIPPETT: What do you mean by visual culture? Photography that was out there or …
MS. BROOKS: Newspapers. I was just in an archive of Mormon print and visual artifacts over the weekend. You know, greeting cards that showed old maids with their suitcases packed and the sign, “Utah, (with an arrow) dead ahead,” covers of popular newspapers like Frank Leslie’s illustrated newspaper which circulated very widely showing hundreds of women from Europe entering Utah through like the mouth of a skull and all of them marked as polygamist wives. I mean, just massive amounts of American political and popular cultural imagery just fastening the notion of polygamy to the notion of what it means to be Mormon. So I’m not surprised the imagery remains. But for Mormons, it’s a much more intimate question as well.
I mean, the fact is that, although the church abolished the practice of polygamy in 1890, the doctrine of polygamy remains very much on the books. And there are even sealings done. Sealings is a technical term for an eternal marriage in Mormon temples where it continues to be the policy that a man can be sealed. Let’s say a man is widowed. He can be sealed for the eternities to a second wife. If a woman is widowed, she can’t be sealed for the eternities to a second husband. So it is a live issue. I have women I’m very close to who absolutely believe that — I mean, these are perfectly assimilated, normal, everyday kind of folk who absolutely believe that polygamy is the order of heaven and that they very well may be asked to live it and they’re prepared to make that sacrifice. I have other women I’m very close to who have sworn to their husbands that you will never do this to me. So the question still …
MS. TIPPETT: So it’s a discussion people still have, that Mormon couples have.
MS. BROOKS: Absolutely, and a lot of private pain is carried about it and there are jokes we make to diffuse it. You know, Mormon women are always joking. “Yeah, couldn’t you see the sense in polygamy? I’d love to have a second wife to help me out right about now,” you know. It was just like the old Ms magazine article, “I Want a Wife.” Right? Just classic feminist. Yeah, I want a second wife. You know, in fact, when I was visiting with some, you know, polygamist families about a year and a half ago in southern Utah, you know, childcare was never an issue. There was always someone around.
MS. TIPPETT: I know. That is enviable.
MS. BROOKS: You’re right. So Mormon women make these jokes all the time, but it cloaks for a lot of observant men and women a tremendous tension over an idea they find repugnant.
MS. TIPPETT: So, you know, that kind of leads me, I think, in a way to something that’s also very unusual in Mormon theology and certainly a departure from the other monotheistic traditions about God as a male-female couple, that there’s a mother and a father, that there is a heavenly mother as well as a heavenly father. Is that correct? Is that how you would describe it?
MS. BROOKS: Yeah. There’s a wonderful hymn written by one of Brigham Young’s wives, Eliza R. Snow, who wrote a hymn that we still sing today and the lines go, “In the heavens are parents single, know the thought makes reason stare.” And she talks about she knows she has a mother there. You know, it’s just logical. Mormons view the family as the model for the eternities. This is a very distinctive element of our theology, and we understand parenting as being modeled on the work of heavenly parents. Unfortunately, if you went to your average Mormon congregation, you wouldn’t hear heavenly mother mentioned like at all in the course of a regular Sunday.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So, I mean, this is something I hear in your writing as a feminist, that for you this is a really positive image for women, that you want them to have a comeback.
MS. BROOKS: It can be a very positive image for women. I mean, inclusive liturgy has been very important to a number of religious traditions, you know, in the 20th and 21st centuries. And the fact is, we do believe it is an orthodox belief that the lives we lead on earth are preparations to share in a kind of Godhood, you know, what comes after this. God in the Mormon universe likes peers. And that as we gain experience here on earth, the goal is to learn enough and understand enough, hence again the importance of knowledge, to become peers with God. And women are entitled to that same path of progression, and so, you know, the notion that God is male and female is very positive for me.
MS. TIPPETT: And again, you know, from the outside looking in, you’d say this of every religious tradition too, but women have had struggles in Mormon tradition in many particular ways to seem as peers to men. And then at the same time, I think there’s a really vivid image that actually you don’t have to look very hard to start seeing everywhere of the strong, powerful Mormon woman. I mean, was it Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who’s a Mormon woman, who coined this phrase, “Well-behaved women seldom make history”?
MS. BROOKS: That’s right.
MS. TIPPETT: And she’s a great intellectual at Harvard and she’s very — there’s nothing strange about her and all those things about her in the Mormon cultural universe. Is that correct?
MS. BROOKS: I wouldn’t say that any of us who attain the kind of profile that Laurel has live without a number of contradictions. Just to be very plain, the church’s political and institutional history has been openly anti-feminist, and yet at the same time, there is so much strength women draw from our tradition. We have the example of our pioneer foremothers who made incredible sacrifices, which required tremendous physical, emotional, spiritual strength to participate in this amazing innovation, this amazing building of a Zion community out on the frontier. You know, we have the example of the early women leaders of the church who claimed a fuller share of authority than women today claim. So, you know, there are contradictions and each woman in the church manages them in her own way.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean, this is a part of your story too having had that wholehearted, that whole body, world of Mormon belief and culture that you grew up with, that you described when we first started to speak, and then going to college and in your early 20s experiencing a real rift with the tradition.
MS. BROOKS: Yes. I grew up in a very conservative, you know, part of southern California, Orange County, Republican Valhalla [laughter] and went away to Brigham Young University and there met for the first time in my life intellectuals, liberals and feminists right there at BYU. The university had wonderful feminist faculty and wonderful progressive male intellectual faculty who were tremendous role models to me and who opened up to me this entire world of Mormon liberal thought, this intellectual tradition, that I’d never really had any access to until that point.
And then in the early 1990s, just about the time I was graduating from college, tensions within the Mormon community and within Brigham Young University came to a head and several faculty were essentially fired from Brigham Young University for reasons — the university had its reasons, but it was very clear that the feminist faculty were being targeted. A significant number of feminist faculty left voluntarily sensing the terrible climate for academic freedom, BYU was censored. And that same year, one of the high-ranking leaders of the church gave a speech declaring that feminists and intellectuals and gays and lesbians were the three greatest dangers to the church. And that fall, six feminists and intellectuals were excommunicated.
And watching all of this as a 21-year-old who had just come into this sense of herself as a Mormon and a Mormon feminist and a Mormon feminist on a path towards a career as a scholar, it was devastating. I’d done — I’d made all of my choices within the framework of Mormonism and it was everything to me. In the time I was a little girl, you know, the idea of Zion, you know, as a place for the pure in heart and a chance to renew the earth meant everything. I still get emotional talking about it. How crazy. It was 20 years ago. You know, Zion was our ideal and I didn’t know how I could be a danger. I just couldn’t figure it out. So that was hard. That was hard and it took, you know, 20 years to sort it out.
MS. TIPPETT: Kind of.
MS. BROOKS: And it’s not all sorted yet. You know, we have a very long view of time in Mormonism [laughter].
MS. TIPPETT: And to that point, what’s so interesting about you is that you are also insisting on this experience of yours, the way you would describe yourself as unorthodox in comparison with that little girl, it’s still something that you live out inside the tradition, that you are part — you and others like you are very much a part of the unfolding and growth and evolution of this young tradition.
MS. BROOKS: Absolutely. This is a tradition that doesn’t wash off. When you grow up Mormon, this is a huge part of your identity. You’ve given a great deal of your life to it already by the time you’re 21, and then you go through this very natural human process of maturation, of sorting out who you really are. You know, the choices have been stark in the last few decades for people who aren’t orthodox. Family rejection, institutional rejection, labeling, and there are so many people who are hungry to claim a place that they can feel good about in this rich, robust, imaginative, very powerful religious tradition and they’re starting to do it.
[Sound bite of hymn: “Come, Come, Ye Saints”]
MS. TIPPETT: My full 75-minute conversation with Joanna Brooks includes much more on the inner life of modern Mormon people and families, including how Mormons distinctively wrestle with issues of sexuality and marriage because of their emphasis on the family as eternal. Find that whole conversation on our website at onbeing.org, as well as my 2008 conversation with a leading orthodox Mormon scholar, Robert Millet. Again, that’s onbeing.org.
Coming up, Joanna Brooks on the truly hard question she’d like to pose of a Mormon presidential candidate, and how she considers the notion of eternal Mormon marriage with her Jewish husband.
I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
[Sound bite of hymn: “Come, Come, Ye Saints”]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today we’re demystifying what it means to be Mormon with scholar and journalist Joanna Brooks. She tweets and blogs at “Ask Mormon Girl,” a reflective, compassionate 21st-century online community of questioning for Mormons of many stripes. One of the most prominent recurring themes there is what Joanna Brooks calls “faith transitions” — people young and old asking new questions and growing in new directions, often while remaining faithful to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Joanna Brooks herself became feminist while a student at Brigham Young University. More recently, she opposed the LDS church’s official activism to pass California’s Proposition 8, against legal gay marriages.
MS. TIPPETT: It’s very widely known that the Mormon Church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was, um, got really active in the Prop 8 drama in California where you live. And, um …
MS. BROOKS: Yes.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think we know that story. I mean, I think that story has been told. What I have gotten from reading you this past year is this very human struggling, wrestling, with these issues, discussing them. You know, you wrote a piece for Religion Dispatches about a meeting after Prop 8 was over, a really powerful piece about a meeting between a prominent member of Mormon leadership and 13 gay and straight Mormons. It was a place where, at the very least, people got to express their pain and you had a sense — I had a sense from your report, which I think was from somebody else’s report, but as close as you could get, that the pain was registered and taken seriously.
MS. BROOKS: Yes, it was painful [laughter]. You know, my own experience was that, after the excommunications in the early ’90s, I continued to attend church and try and really, really make it work for me. And there came a point in the year 2000 when the church became actively involved in Proposition 22, a ballot initiative to prevent same-sex marriage from becoming legal in California. It kind of broke something inside of me. I stopped attending church for six or seven years, and I got up the courage to sort of go back to church about three months before Proposition 8 was announced in California. So I spent the next six months back out sort of crying again. What the heck? [laughter] Great timing.
But, you know, Mormons are very well organized people, and obedience has emerged as a major dimension of institutional Mormon preaching in the last decade and a half to two decades. Obedience. And I know many active orthodox Mormons who really wrestled with the church’s involvement in Proposition 8 and continue to. It shattered many relationships in California between Mormons and their neighbors for us to take this leading, very visible role in a very divisive and very personal political battle.
And there’s been a lot of second thinking about it. And I am gathering from things I hear in Mormons and other places across the country that the church is not becoming involved in state-by-state battles anymore the way it once did. And that is a tremendous relief to many people because the pastoral issues raised by the presence of LGBT Mormons are enough for us to deal with. The political issues are a whole other level and how wise it is. Well, I won’t say any more on that, but we have enough to deal with, taking care of our own.
MS. TIPPETT: So I want to ask you what’s going on inside the Mormon world, the Mormon psyche, in this what some people are calling the “Mormon moment.” And very much out in front of that is two candidates in the Republican primary: Mitt Romney, who has been very strong from the beginning, Jon Huntsman, who are Mormons. You wrote somewhere — oh, you said on Talk of the Nation, “A lot of us are white-knuckling it through the campaign.” And you know again, I don’t think that’s a story that gets told. So tell me what this feels like. What does it feel like inside the “Mormon moment” as a Mormon?
MS. BROOKS: [laughter] Well, you know, I hear things from my, you know, my sweet Jewish in-laws and friends of theirs who, oh, yeah, everyone commits, the church is really rooting for Romney, and that’s not what I’m hearing from people who are more connected to the hierarchy. And even, I was with a gathering, a small gathering of Mormon scholars last weekend, and there was a point at dinner when folks from a range of places on the orthodoxy spectrum were sort of relating these stories: “Oh, my gosh, I heard The Boston Globe is getting ready to do this story and The New York Times has lined up this story.” I mean, the fact is, as a fairly young religious tradition, Mormonism’s history is very accessible and the humanity …
MS. TIPPETT: Right. We know things about Joseph Smith that we didn’t know about any of the other prophets before [laughter].
MS. BROOKS: About Abraham, you know? If Abraham went to court — got taken to court for being a money digger, we don’t know. We know this happened to Joseph Smith because we have modern public records that tell us. And the church has documented its own history.
There is an infinite amount of cherry-picking of embarrassing family secrets that could happen if Mitt Romney gets the nomination. And there are some major theological problems that the church has chosen just to sort of deal with by stepping beyond them rather than addressing them openly. For example, the segregation of the priesthood, which was implemented really in the late 19th century and maintained through the 1970s.
There were African-American Mormons in the 1830s who held the priesthood and, by just a series of historical leadership changes, circumstances, that was discontinued in the later 19th century and then the priesthood was reopened to everyone in the 1970s. But the church has never dealt with the accumulation of, you know, pretty much racist folk doctrine that happened over the years in Mormon communities to legitimate priesthood segregation, and there are a lot of feelings about that in the African-American community at large and among Mormons. That sort of truth and reconciliation process has never happened with race, it’s never happened with polygamy and, you know, there’s still of course, a very contested relationship around LGBT issues. And people are really nervous that all of these issues are going to be put front and center.
MS. TIPPETT: So the white-knuckled experience is what will they say about us and what will you have to defend or deal with?
MS. BROOKS: And will we have to sort through in public things we’ve barely sorted through for ourselves? And you know, then again, how many jokes will they make about, you know, Mormon underwear on late-night television [laughter]?
MS. TIPPETT: Let’s talk about the underwear [laughter] because you’re so …
MS. BROOKS: It had to come — the moment had to come, didn’t it? Everybody wants to know [laughter].
MS. TIPPETT: What I like about you is that you seem to be so tired of it being a joke that you want to talk about it [laughter].
MS. BROOKS: You know, it’s just so funny to me because I could write something anywhere and don’t ever read comments online. There’s not a lot of good spiritual practice happening in comments online in big public venues. But, you know, write anything about Mormons for the public and at least 30 commentators are just going to say, “Underwear, underwear, underwear!” It’s so fascinating to people. I grew up with garments. It’s just like what Mormons wear. It’s really not that weird to me, so …
MS. TIPPETT: You could have compared it to other traditions have — I mean, Sikhs have turbans. Well, there are a lot of garments you can think of, but they’re mostly not underwear. They’re headdress or …
MS. BROOKS: Well, I mean, Orthodox Jews will wear, you know, um, oh, I forget the name, but the — will wear ceremonial, I mean, some will wear, you know, tzitzit under their clothes. You know, there are comparables. You know, I think what makes garments — and, you know, just for clarity, orthodox observant Mormons wear very plain, very modest underclothing under their street clothes basically every day, you know, as a reminder of promises they make when they go to the temple, sort of a ritual covenant to live a life of chastity and devotion to the church. The garments are there in this sort of foundational way. They’re the first thing you put on to remind you, you know, who you are underneath it all basically. But I think what makes them so curious to people is that it’s this layer of difference that’s worn very close to the skin, right, so it doesn’t confront you head-on. So there’s this sort of are they or aren’t they? And, also, there are so few religious cultures in America where there are dimensions that aren’t shared with outsiders.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, that’s right. There’s a secretiveness and a hiddenness about really essential things in Mormon tradition that does lend itself to this kind of speculation, right? And this kind of suspicion?
MS. BROOKS: Well, that’s right. You know, and it reminds me of, you know, I spent some time in New Mexico over the summer. My husband’s a professor of American Indian studies, so we spent some time in native communities. Look, there’s rules when you go to pueblos about where you go and where you don’t go. You don’t go into the kiva if you’re a tourist. That is such an unfamiliar dimension of the experience of the sacred to, you know, 21st-century American culture, that there are things that aren’t to be talked about except for in sacred settings. So that really adds to the mystery that Mormonism is vested with.
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. How do you think about this appearance of Mormons in political life, in a very prominent, serious, at the highest level? What part is that playing in the unfolding Mormon story?
MS. BROOKS: For the past 50 or 60 years now, there’s been a pattern of out-migration from the Wasatch Front, from the Book of Mormon Belt to cosmopolitan centers across the United States, of Mormons seeking education, entertaining professional advancement. So, you know, the rise of figures like Mitt Romney is sort of like the rise of the Marriott Hotel chain, which is also Mormon-owned. I mean, this is sort of a natural consequence.
MS. TIPPETT: I didn’t know that.
MS. BROOKS: Oh, next time you check into a Marriott, open the bedside drawer. There’s a Book Mormon there, in every Marriott around the world. It’s very handy for us. So, yeah, next to Gideon’s Bible, there’s a Book Mormon. The Marriotts are Mormon. I mean, this is what happens when, you know, highly disciplined, highly motivated people go out with a sense of mission and ambition and purpose and move out of the theocracy of the West and take over the rest of the world. But in some ways, the entrance of Romney and Huntsman, especially, into the presidential race has highlighted the difficulties Mormons still have in telling a candid, articulate story about ourselves to folks who don’t belong.
I’M KRISTA TIPPETT, AND THIS IS ON BEING — CONVERSATION ABOUT MEANING, RELIGION, ETHICS, AND IDEAS. TODAY: “MORMON DEMYSTIFIED,” WITH SCHOLAR, JOURNALIST, AND “ASK MORMON GIRL” BLOGGER JOANNA BROOKS. WE SPOKE IN LATE 2011.
MS. TIPPETT: So polygamy is not really the interesting question, underwear is not really the interesting question.
MS. BROOKS: Oh, it’s interesting; it’s all interesting.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, what — for you, what would be a genuinely hard, revealing question to ask of a Mormon candidate for president or a Mormon president?
MS. BROOKS: You know, obedience and conscience are issues that every thoughtful Mormon has to deal with. What do you do when the pressure of institutional power is on one side and your heart leads you another way? How do you manage that conflict honorably with dignity, without resorting to easy black or white answers, all or nothing, in or out? That’s really been a defining dimension of Mormon experience in the late 20th century. You know, again, as we’ve become more assimilated, and as we’ve tried to live a distinctive spiritual world view in the context of a broadly secular society, you know, how do we deal when our leaders ask us to support legislation in the case of — or you know, ballot initiatives in the case of Proposition 8 that might jar against our conscience? How do we do that with dignity and honor? That’s the pertinent question, I think, to ask. So I would be really interested in having that kind of a conversation.
MS. TIPPETT: So I want to just ask you as we wind up, I’m just really curious about how you hold all these things together. So one question would be that you’ve written that your mom is a professional Mormon [laughter], very devout.
MS. BROOKS: She’s really good at it [laughter].
MS. TIPPETT: So what happens back in her world when you write what you write, when you put this expansive worldview into so many media?
MS. BROOKS: No one ever asks to have a writer in their family, no one [laughter]. You know, and I think Mormonism is a community in which it’s an insular community. There’s a lot of talk, there’s a lot of we look out and look after one another and try and figure where everyone’s kids are landing, if they did it right. I think my parents have handled themselves with a lot of calm and dignity as I’ve lived a publicly unorthodox or, you know, voiced publicly an unorthodox way of being Mormon. But, you know, we’re coming to a very different place. My father has Lou Gehrig’s disease.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, gosh. I’m sorry.
MS. BROOKS: Oh, yeah. It happens in every life. My father and I didn’t really speak. I mean, we interacted, you know, on family holidays and got along, but I don’t think my father really knew what to do with me. He’s a very loving man and a very wise man, but I think having a daughter like me was very difficult for him and has been. But we have this view we share as Mormons of eternity. You know, when it comes down to it, we know that God is merciful. Things may take a while to iron themselves out, but those bonds of family are forever. So, sorry, emotional again. Mormons cry. I’ve mentioned this all the time. People need to know we cry [laughter]. There’s like a stack of six Kleenex boxes under the pulpit at my ward. My father …
MS. TIPPETT: [laughter] I saw something where you were speaking and you reached for a Kleenex and said, “Oh, I guess Unitarians don’t cry.”
MS. BROOKS: Yeah, and I should be fair to the Unitarians. Like afterwards, in a nice little cabinet down to the right, they did have boxes of Kleenex, OK so, but Mormons, just really waterworks, really waterworks. That was one of the jokes. Mitt Romney, some Mormon, he’ll cry during his inaugural address. But in the last few months, my father and I have come to a much more peaceful place that’s just based on this loving acceptance that, you know, Mormons believe that families chose to be together on this earth. We knew each other before this life and we came to earth to have experiences that would stretch us and challenge us. And I’m sure that being my mother and father, you know, being the very orthodox parents of this writer, has stretched my parents as, you know, as it has stretched me.
MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know if this is a hard question, but your Jewish husband, I mean, how does he figure into this view of eternity?
MS. BROOKS: See that’s another one of those questions. We’re just referring to eternity. God’s merciful. You know, I made important choices about how to live my life at a time when the church was undergoing a lot of internal struggle, you know, with feminists and I knew I needed a marriage that would keep me safe. And I married outside the faith, where, you know, whatever struggles I went through as a Mormon wouldn’t impact the shape of the marriage. I’ve seen that happen to a lot of Mormons who come to a faith transition, and so I feel really fortunate I have a partner who can help me, be patient with me, and be a source of calm for me. He’s done a great job, you know. He’s an anthropologist, which always helps.
MS. TIPPETT: [laughter] That’s right. That would help.
MS. BROOKS: Analyzing this foreign culture he’s joining. So, we have a great sense of humor together and he’s a tremendous ally and I’m referring all the other questions to God.
MS. TIPPETT: OK [laughter]. And you’re raising your daughters with a lot of this tradition that you grew up in, right? Is that true?
MS. BROOKS: Yeah, it’s true. I badly wanted to pass down to them the most robust and positive sense possible of Mormonism. That’s what we’re trying to do.
[Sound bite of hymn: “Now Let Us Rejoice”]
MS. TIPPETT: Joanna Brooks is chair and associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She’s author of The Book of Mormon Girl, she writes often for Religion Dispatches and blogs and tweets at “Ask Mormon Girl.” And since we spoke last year, Joanna Brooks’ father, James Clayton Brooks, passed away earlier this summer.
On our website, at onbeing.org, you can listen to a Web-only interview I did with Joanna Brooks more recently as the Republican Convention approached. She says Mormon culture continues to be stretched in interesting ways, deeper than politics.
MS. BROOKS: We’re coming of age. You know, we’re 180 years old as a distinctive religious tradition. For a century of that time, we were geographically and culturally very isolated. But only with the Internet are we moving beyond our cultural isolation in many respects — encountering frank accounts of our own history from sources friendly and unfriendly, and Mormons are sorting it through amongst themselves right now and reacting in different ways.
MS. TIPPETT: Listen to this show again, share it with others, and find my unedited interview with Joanna Brooks at onbeing.org. That’s worth the time, to hear a beautiful illustration from her childhood using a hand in a glove to explain spirit, body, mortality, and eternity. Also, Joanna Brooks’ account of a 24-hour marathon of jokes on what she calls “the Mormon Twitternacle.” This came in response to an evangelical pastor’s question, “Is Mitt Romney Mormon enough?” Again, that’s at onbeing.org. And you can follow us on Twitter too — our handle, @Beingtweets; find us on Facebook at facebook.com/onbeing.
On Being, on air and online, is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Susan Leem, and Stefni Bell. Our senior producer is Dave McGuire. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. And I’m Krista Tippett.
Next time, we explore the deepest meaning of intelligence in life and work of all kinds with educator Mike Rose. Please join us.
This is APM, American Public Media.