Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Puttin' on the Mitts

Oh my heck, is he back in the ring?
     (5/28/12) Our nation's most enlightened political commentators have, for the most part, said Mitt Romney's religion is irrelevant to his campaign for the presidency. I respect their position, but I disagree. Mormon doctrine -- a grand plan for global domination -- contains clear precepts that foretell an LDS president who would turn our nation into a theocracy.
    For nearly 50 years of my life, I have lived in Salt Lake City -- the world capital of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have been drenched in Mormonism. As a youngster, I felt that I was drowning in Mormonism. Everywhere I turned, my path was blocked or controlled by Mormonism. I was shunned by Mormons and humiliated by Mormons, but mostly -- as I grew up -- I was bored, outraged, disgusted and exasperated by Mormons -- or by their church, anyway. These days, I am enjoying a peaceful and respectful coexistence. 
(see extensive coverage of Romney's purported religious beliefs at

    As I grew up in The Land of Zion, it seemed particularly ironic to me that such a banal and mediocre people would regard themselves as God's "chosen ones." Jesus Christ!
    I don't regard Mormons as banal and mediocre anymore, but I don't believe that any religion is "chosen." And I definitely don't think Mitt Romney is "chosen," at least not for the presidency. 
"This is the place," Brigham Young told the pioneers.
    Latter-day Saints' blueprint for the future -- vividly imagined by the Church's founder and first "prophet," Joseph Smith, and explicitly restated  many times by his successors  -- is for a Mormon to become president of the United States. The breathtaking plan is that there would then be a swift transition into a theocratic form of government ("the Kingdom of God"), the implementation of a socialistic economy called the United Order (I'll drink to that), followed by the Second Coming of Christ. 
    Are you ready for this?

    America, they say, is "The Promised Land," and Mormonism is the "One True Church."
The massive, granite Salt Lake Temple was built over a 40-year period.
    Does Mitt Romney, who says he is a devout Mormon, believe in the theocracy-socialism-Second Coming scenario? If so, where does he fit in? I seriously doubt that he feels he could impose a theocracy on the country in the near-term, but does he regard his potential presidency as helping to lay the groundwork and pave the way for a Future Triumph?
    I was offended by the "One True Church" concept when I was just a kid, and it seems even more ludicrous to me now that I have been exposed to the great religions of the world, each of which contains such beauty, wisdom and love.
     But the LDS Church's elaborate and sweeping vision for America is by no means the most disconcerting aspect of  its tenets and its plans for Our March Toward the Godhead. It is easy to understand why a religion that has so many secretive, arcane, even blood-curdling rites and rituals is often called a cult. Mitt Romney has repeatedly participated in these rites and rituals.
    In the post linked to above, I explore the issue of whether he really is a True Believer, and how the answer might legitimately influence a voter's choice in the upcoming presidential election.
Romney "often seeks God's counsel."
    I want to say now, and I'll reiterate later, that "some of my best friends are Mormons." I have loved, admired and respected many Mormon people, and I believe that their religion deserves a lot of credit for their exemplary qualities. 
    There are even ways in which I love the Church itself, which I can't believe I'm saying. For example, when all sorts of charities nationwide are collecting funds for one disaster or another, I am most comfortable sending my donation to the Church. I feel sure they will use it with integrity and professionalism. I trust them. That may well turn out to be one of the stupidest things I've ever said, but I do.
    Still, my "life among the Mormons" certainly hasn't been a slice of heaven.

    When my family moved to Salt Lake City,  in 1953, the population was so white that it was eerie and kind of perverse, with a Twilight Zone vibe. It was chillingly inbred and uneasily quiet. It was all very beige and gray. It was so dull, and so oppressive, that it makes me feel queasy just thinking back to that "I Love Lucy" era. Thank god we had Lucy! We were surrounded by blandness and a plodding, humorless conformity. It seemed kind of like the Soviet Union, complete with the fear, the snitching, the shunning and the whispering. During their semiannual conferences, Mormons had to be reminded to refrain from all that "murmuring."
This Phil Douglis photo conveys the ominous foreboding of the '50s-era Church.
    At that time, the Mormon religion was cloaked in secrecy. My friends told me that the Temple, pictured above, was filled with wondrous, magical rooms of life-altering inspirational beauty, in which people were imbued with the fullness of the Gospel through various sacraments. There were also shadowy rooms -- I pictured the spook alley at the Lagoon amusement park -- in which echoed voices narrated rites of passage for the faithful, who were forced to wear inexplicably weird costumes, and agree to disembowel themselves if they violated their oaths. You had to prove your worthiness and secure a Temple Recommend just to get in. 

    Everyone took a vow of silence, my friends told me, and you could be killed if you told anyone about what went on in there. I was told there was a Mormon Mafia comprised of FBI and CIA agents who could make you vanish without a trace if you stepped out of line.
    These friends either truly loved their Church, or they were afraid to say otherwise.
    There were, of course, no cameras or recording devices allowed in the Temple. This was the most sacred spot on Earth. There were punishments that were meted out behind the closed doors of dungeon-like rooms. Did people get lashed, like they did in "Ben Hur," or stripped and trussed up for hours of interrogation? My friends didn't know the particulars, and of course they couldn't tell me if they did. But they were obsessed with the Mysteries Within, the beautiful ones and the terrible ones. I could never partake of the magic unless I converted, they said.
The temple's Garden Room is pretty, but it doesn't seem magical to me.
    (Since that time, much of the secrecy has been breached. Disgruntled members have smuggled out pictures of the sacred rooms, and recordings of the rites. They're all over the Internet, along with lengthy outpourings of anguish and betrayal by those who loved the Church and then felt compelled to renounce it.)
    I listened with glazed eyes to my friends' repetitive Temple scenarios, and then went back to reading the 16-volume Compton's Encyclopedia that I had won in fourth grade and felt obliged to plow all the way through.  (There is a cursory entry on Mormons, just before "Morning Glory," that devilish, invasive plant.)

    My mother responded to life in our uniform, colorless subdivision by painting our front door red and filling a big, long planter with red geraniums. She ripped out the chain-link fencing that was standard in most of the valley, and installed handsome stained wood. Murmuring ensued.
    She planted bamboo, poplars, yew and pussy willow. She had some boulders hauled in as part of her landscaping -- oh my heck! At that time, it seemed that the concept of landscaping hadn't arrived in Utah. It was "all lawn all the time." My mother planted flowers everywhere.
    She put modern art on the walls, flung open the windows, and turned on some Mahler. It was several years before I heard that the neighbors regarded her cultural leanings as Communistic.
When we moved here, Salt Lake City was one ugly town.
     My elementary-school classmates solemnly informed me that girls and women are expected to  be "sweet and humble." (Luckily, my mother was just the opposite, so my indoctrination in the parameters of femininity was fairly well-balanced). (Ironically, I am wishing, decades later, that I could become a bit more sweet and humble myself. It's starting to seem rather appealing.)
     The women's voices had a characteristic soft, airy, high tone (kind of a "murmur"). They sounded as if they were reassuring a kitten. 

    A "meek" woman, and one who submitted herself "with all her heart and soul" to service -- on behalf of her family, her fellow Saints and her Church -- was the ideal. She was also expected to have as many children as possible, and it wasn't unusual for my classmates to have six or eight siblings.
    All of this sweet, humble meekness resulted in a characteristic posture -- a painfully compliant, shrinking body language, eyes modestly averted -- that struck me as sad. They seemed like people who needed to be rescued and secreted to a safe-house, where they could kick off their shoes, yank up their skirts and have a good laugh.
Mormons were ordered to "multiply and replenish the Earth."
     When my elementary school friends invited me to their homes, their mothers did in fact seem to be "sweet and humble," until I gave the wrong answer to their very first question, "What ward do you attend?" Something changed in their eyes. Their jaws tightened in a way that was inconsistent with the word "Saints."

    In a somewhat rushed fashion, I was ushered out the door with a falsely cheerful, emphatic goodbye. The way they clenched my shoulder as they scooted me out of their sanctified homes didn't match their voices. I was clearly The Other. I was a form of pollution.
    (I was surprised to learn, 30 years after I was kicked out by all those mothers, that my current non-Mormon friends' children were experiencing the same isolation, rejection and suspicion that I had in the 1950s, despite the considerable increase in religious and ethnic diversity that had occurred here. I hope it has changed by now.)
    I would eventually realize that a lot about my friends' mothers didn't match their voices. Their religion crams them into a mold that can be very painful to bear. They often complain about the imperative of "perfection" that is imposed upon them.
    Since their religion's "Word of Wisdom" prohibits the use of coffee, tea, alcohol and cigarettes, Mormons medicate themselves primarily with can after can of caffeine-laden Pepsi and lots of sugary, fatty food -- and it seems to be the women who need the most medicating. Salt Lake City has the highest rates of prescription drug abuse and  use of antidepressants in the country. It's not such a "Happy Valley" after all.
Many Mormons acknowledge an "addiction" to caffeinated sodas.
   All the overeating and the doping represent a sad, ironic way of getting around a document -- the "Word of Wisdom" -- that was intended by Joseph Smith to keep them healthy and was actually quite forward-thinking in that regard. "Your body is a Temple," they are constantly reminded. Like Americans in general, most of them don't treat it that way.
   (Four of the finest women I have ever known, and two men, died of obesity-related causes in their late 40s and early 50s. They were very bright, honorable people, devoted to their LDS beliefs. Was their faith too much, or too little?)
      Mormon husbands, I learned as a child, were the "lords and masters"of their homes. Men were instructed, during their weekly "priesthood meetings" to wield this authority with a firm hand, but with love and patience. Thanks a bunch for your love and patience, my Lord and Master!
"As God is, man may become," said Lorenzo Snow, the fifth LDS prophet.
     There was a sing-song atmosphere to the culture, and yet there was a bunker mentality as well. Families clung to one another. Evil temptations were everywhere. 

    But if they were "sealed" in Temple rites, and remained "chaste and pure," they would be together for all Eternity. Men would evolve into Gods, with their own Universes to administer (and to populate with their own offspring), and they would receive a bevy of additional wives, who would be "Queens and Priestesses." Celestial sex would be essential to the Grand Design.
     During my childhood, I faced discrimination because I wasn't LDS, and it wasn't just from my classmates' mothers. The public schools were a virtual subsidiary of the Church, and so were the  Scouts. It wasn't unusual for a teacher to ask, on the first day of class, "Is anyone in here not a Mormon?" Like a fool, I raised my hand. One or two others did as well.
    This is a rather alienating experience for an eight-year-old. The neighborhood Scout troop was so thoroughly Church-oriented that my mother launched a secular troop that was dedicated to enjoyable, horizon-broadening activities and nutritious snacks, rather than religious indoctrination and junk food.  
    I should make it clear that my peers expressed so little bias toward me that it isn't even worth mentioning. Kids who were fat, economically disadvantaged, effeminate, or had red hair and freckles got far worse treatment from fellow students than I did. 

    It was primarily the adults who discriminated on the basis of religion.
    In a sense, I'm grateful to have experienced prejudice, although I should stress that even the worst of it  was minor compared to what we normally regard as bigotry.  My experience did scar me, but it also created in me the habit of reaching out to those around me who are being ignored or intimidated.
    I also learned to be defiant, instead of being cowed by the judgmental attitudes of others. 
    I decided not to care what others thought of me, because I got sick and tired  of trying to blend in. The defensiveness it created in me helped me to understand why other "out groups" -- wherever they may be -- retaliate  in angry, in-your-face, extreme ways to express their rage and pain.

    I was told throughout my youth, by peers who were genuinely trying to help me, that I would burn in hell if I didn't get baptized into their faith. 
    It is ironic that when I was at my loneliest and most alienated, at the start of junior high school, the person I chose to reach out to was Janna Faust, whose father would, many years later, become second counselor to the first presidency of the Mormon church. I didn't want to eat lunch alone in a bathroom stall anymore. Janna stood out to me as the nicest person at our school. When I asked if I could eat with her and her friends, her warm reply was, "Of course -- you don't even need to ask!"
James Faust: Nice job raising Janna, sir.
     Janna was the first in what would become innumerable examples in my life of Mormons living their faith and being open-hearted, generous people.
    My education was proscribed by censorship in what we could read, write, wear and perform. Mormon doctrine formed the basis of the criteria. "Fast dancing" was prohibited, even though the conventional dancing that was permitted involved full-frontal physical contact. I was accused several times of saying or doing things that were "sacreligious" that had nothing to do with religion and were simply misinterpreted by overly sensitive, defensive people.

    My best girlfriends in high school were almost all non-Mormons, and we took up smoking, drinking and swearing, just to let everyone know how non-Mormon we were. That turned out not to be a very good way to rebel: I was still in the clutches of  the first two bad habits 30 years later, long after rebellion had become inappropriate and unnecessary. 
At the time, it was totally delicious, and seemed kind of bohemian.
    I'm still having a problem giving up swear words. In fact, I wish someone would invent some new ones. The old ones lack the intensity and shock value I occasionally need.
    My high-school male friends and boyfriends, by contrast, were mostly LDS. How did that happen? They were big, smart and gorgeous, that's how! They were conscientious, goal-oriented guys. They glowed with the awareness of their healthiness and handsomeness. It was a very interesting experience for me to know people who were so profoundly, ardently devoted to their faith. Their love was so intense that sometimes it seemed like anguish. Their self love wasn't far behind.
The agony and ecstasy of the Mormon priesthood.
    One very effective tool the Church uses to generate these feelings is to give every "worthy" male extraordinary spiritual powers as a lay "priest." The priesthood "is nothing more or less than the power of God delegated to man by which man can act for the salvation of humanity." 
    My friends claimed to be "humbled" by this, but they were obviously exhilarated as well. Their self-esteem was off the charts.
    They had entered into the Aaronic priesthood when they were only 12 years old; at age 18, if they had displayed adequate faith and obedience, they would be ordained into the Melchizedek priesthood. In exchange for living lives (purportedly) of integrity, chastity and obedience, they would be imbued with the power to "officiate for God," to baptize others for "the remission of sins with the sanction and blessing of Almighty God," to "hold the keys" to exaltation, to use the "laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost," to give blessings, to administer the ordinances that offer salvation, to preach the Gospel and "to govern the Kingdom of God on this Earth."
    It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it.

    It's all very intoxicating, to say the least (and it makes you wonder why Mitt Romney would want to bother with being president of the country, which seems like quite a comedown from his powers as a High Priest). My friends looked forward to idealized lives of spiritual ascendance and prominence, followed by "unimaginable riches" in the Hereafter.
     They were breathless with anticipation. They were positively radiant. It seemed that they could already sense the God in themselves. It was all a bit Third Reichy for my taste.
    Even then, I saw a paradox in all of this, which I notice  even more in adult Mormon men. The Church seduces them with visions of grand earthly and celestial status. These ordinary males become fulsomely inspiring, uber-masculine leaders within their circles of influence. Their "calling" is to set an example, pass judgment upon others, and inspire those who have strayed to "return to the flock." 
    There are few places on Earth that you can gain as much veneration as you receive simply by being a well-meaning man in the LDS faith.

    Ironically, men tend to become feminized by this process as well, and when people ask, "Doesn't he seem Mormony to you?" I know what they mean. 
   Faithful men become part of a hierarchy in which, on the one hand, they are looked up to, sought out, confided in, beloved by their underlings. On the other hand, they are expected to submit themselves, to be meek, to surrender to their church superiors without question or complaint, to prostrate themselves before their Heavenly Father and plead for guidance. 
    Many tears are shed in these anguished interchanges. A "worthy" Mormon man is obliged  to keep his "dear bride" (they remain "brides" forever) on a pedestal, and to "humbly serve as her helpmate." The men are constantly referring to "tender feelings" and "heartstrings" and to the "sweetest moments." The Dude does not abide here.
    The young men I knew launched their "priesthoods" with a virile, barechested Fabio mentality -- hunky warriors for the Lord -- but many were reduced, within a few years, to soft, dutiful husbands and fathers who suited up and trudged to their weekly priesthood meetings, those covert pep rallies that would inoculate them yet again against disobedience and dishonor.    

     In high school, my friends were still in the romanticized phase: They seemed to live in a constant downpouring of light. They loved the whole God thing. 
The Mormom priesthood is dazzling.
    Their relationship with each other -- as fellow "priests" -- was so solemn and secretive -- and intimate -- that it was unsettling. I said to one of them, "You guys love each other more than you'll ever love any woman," and he didn't dispute it. In fact, he said he and his friends regarded girls as temptations and distractions -- as "unclean." Contact with them constituted a "taint." 
    I said, "This is all sounding pretty sick," and he said "I know, but it's not." He and his friends cleaved to each other with something akin to desperation, determined to remain pure.
Satirical poster shows casual affection between Church leaders.
    Teenage-boy lust won out, thank god, and there were many extended, rapturous kissing sessions that kept us girls delightfully busy after we'd finished our homework. I don't know how the Church defines "chastity," but I think we must have come pretty close to the line. 
   The Church didn't put as much emphasis on excellence back then -- fitting in was the priority -- but these young men went ahead and were excellent anyway.  
    One summer, I spent two weeks at the Church-owned Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, for a debate convention. I expected suffocating prudishness and sterile quietude. Instead, what I experienced was the most highly charged sexual atmosphere I've encountered before or since.

    My male friends and boyfriends in high school and college tirelessly tried to convert me. By then, I was good-natured about it. I loved these people, and I knew they were just trying to save me. They all served two-year missions, knocking on doors in their dark suits and trying to enlarge the Church's growing membership. 
    I found the concept of missionary work to be arrogant, insulting and predatory, even though I realized my friends were just trying to "save" people. I was particularly offended by one friend's mission to Japan, where they already had such a beautiful culture and religion. Leave them alone! 
    I was also disgusted that these privileged white guys were dispatched to places in South America, Africa and the Caribbean, where people were poor and uneducated, and therefore vulnerable. Easy marks, I guess. It made me wonder what other friends had done to get sent to some of the most beautiful cities in the world, such as Paris, Rome and Berlin.
Tens of thousands fan out across the globe.
They work 12-hour days promising salvation and heavenly riches.
     I have never known anyone who made more than a handful of converts during his entire two years, and it's well known that a high percentage of these slip away once the missionary gets out of town. Mission work is regarded as "humbling," since they are rejected time after time, sometimes with slammed doors. 

    My friends' accounts sound more humiliating than humbling to me, but it has become a rite of passage in the Church, a broadening, life-changing immersion in another culture before the return to the "hearth and home" of the LDS community. 
    In preparation for their missions, they are also taught many strategies that will serve them well long after their missions are over. They acquire savvy sales training -- the seduction involved in changing a mind or clinching a deal -- and pragmatic (actually quite manipulative) interpersonal techniques as well. Mormon Stephen Covey's perennial best-selling book "The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People" is basically an edited excerpt of the Missionary Training Manual.
    The positive aspect of trying to convert everyone -- even those who don't meet the Church's ideal of "white and delitesome" -- is that Mormons finally had to confront the racism inherent in their founder's "vision" and reverse their 150-year ban on admitting black men (or "anyone with one drop of black blood") into the priesthood. The reversal occurred thanks to a conveniently timed "revelation" that was received by then-prophet and President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978.
"C'mon, man -- it's really cool, and it's the only path to salvation."
    The once virtually all-white church is becoming more multiracial and multinational all the time, as it extends its missionary tentacles around the globe. The Spanish-speaking membership has skyrocketed.

    I don't know if my circle of devoted LDS friends from my youth is representative, but here is what happened to them: All served missions. Three remain upstanding Church members, with good marriages (as far as I know) and successful careers. One of these three converted the daughter of  a Methodist minister before marrying her, breaking her family's heart.
   Another friend could not "cure" himself of homosexual feelings and committed suicide at the age of 20. 
    One fervently LDS young man was married in the Temple, divorced a few years later, and has been smoking, drinking and womanizing ever since. 
    One charismatic, super-religious acquaintance was convicted of massive fraud -- the "affinity fraud" that is now more widely known.
    Two dedicated Mormon friends had years-long Temple marriages, then got divorced and married substantially younger non-Mormon girls.
    One -- whom so many of us loved so much -- became a physician, kept his inner torments under wraps, and has been stripped of his license in three states "for not being able to practice medicine safely and with reasonable skill due to his drug addiction."

    One guy, an acquaintance rather than a friend, showed up at my door less than a week before his Temple marriage, gave me a volume of Dylan Thomas poetry (nice touch) and then tried quite aggressively to have sexual relations with me. (We had never had a real conversation -- just flirtatious banter -- much less any romantic or physical involvement). I didn't know his fiance, but I had seen her. She was a beautiful, petite girl with short blonde hair and tiny pearl earrings. I couldn't believe he thought he could use me as his "bachelor party" -- my virginity was as valuable as hers. And I couldn't believe he would betray the love of his life for a few seconds of relief. 
    I saw him on the local news recently. He's a corpulent, anti-immigrant bishop.
    In college, I continued to have close male friends who were devout Mormons.  We talked about many things, but topic number one was the need for me to convert to their faith. These were appealing and highly regarded student leaders, but by then I was really getting bored with the subject.  
    Before I knew it, the University's executive vice president was on my case, trying to persuade me, based on intellect, that his was the One True Church. This was Neal A. Maxwell, who became a member of the quorum of the twelve apostles just over ten years later. Despite all that dang churchiness, Neal was a delightful and chivalrous friend.
Neal A. Maxwell used intellectual appeals.

    Another former high-school classmate -- a very charismatic, successful man who had never taken religion seriously --  petitioned to have his name removed from the Church roster. He was told that the only way to get out is to be excommunicated. He didn't want that taint, which is akin to having a dishonorable discharge from the military on your record, so he filed a lawsuit. The Church backed down.
     A dear friend, who was a true intellectual and loved the Church to the core, was coldly excommunicated for raising controversial issues that he passionately believed needed to be addressed. He continued, until he died a few months ago, to consider himself a Latter-day Saint. His roots went back to the beginning.
    Here is the marriage room in the Salt Lake Temple where couples are "sealed" for Time and Eternity:
I expected something more mind-blowing after all the hype.
     A man who was a friend of mine years ago confided that he had sealed me to him as his wife for all Eternity in the Celestial Kingdom. He already had one wife, whom he had loved for 25 years, but he would be allowed to have more in the hereafter. I was offended  and said he had no right to do this, even though there is plenty of precedent for it. I knew that Brigham Young had done the same thing to a non-Mormon actress who had failed to respond to his Earthly advances. (When I asked my friend how I could be "sealed" to him since I wasn't a Mormon, he said someone had performed a "secret proxy baptism" for me many years ago.) These sweet, humble people have some gall! Get my damn name out of there!

    This kind of absurdity and insult does become awfully tiresome. I could take some action, I suppose, but it's not worth the energy.
Who jumped into the water and made me a Saint?
    As soon as I finished college, I got the hell out of town. It was wonderfully refreshing and heartwarming to be in a city that brimmed with diversity. I was ecstatic that I was able to know people with all kinds of religions -- or no religion -- and from all over the world and within all sorts of crazy subcultures. It was a constant buffet of delicious variety.
    Ironically, the whole time I was away from Utah, I found myself defending Mormons. I had spent much of my life lashing back at the Church's condescending policies and right-wing politics, but now I was coming across people who thought the Mormons were much more weird and oppressive than they really were. I had heard that people back East thought Mormons had horns, but I didn't believe it. They really did ask me that, and it was only 40 years ago.
I had to debunk so many myths -- it was quite exhausting!
    Without wanting to, I became an ambassador for the Church. There's much that can be said which is positive, and I said it.

    After I returned to Salt Lake City from New York and Denver, I asked the editor of the Church-owned newspaper, the Deseret News, if I could write a twice-weekly op-ed column for the publication. I disclosed that not only was I not a Mormon -- I was sometimes even anti-Mormon, and my political and social positions were diametrically opposed to his.
    He gave me the job anyway.
    I later moved to the copy desk, where I was an editor for 15 years.
    So after having fled this culture more than 10 years ago, here I was, immersed more deeply in it than ever.
     My bosses and other colleagues were great people. Most of them were very devout, but they didn't treat me, or any of the other non-Mormon staffers, as interlopers. I felt accepted and respected. I appreciated so much the decency and kindness that was shown to me. 
    I was particularly honored to be entrusted for many years with handling the articles about the semiannual conferences, in which Church leaders expressed their most relevant, profound positions and policy changes. I was the only copy editor who worked Sundays, so it was a big responsibility. I very consciously treated every word with the greatest of care. 

     Many years after I left the Deseret News, industry-wide financial pressures inspired it to become an explicitly Mormon publication, rather than the bona fide general newspaper with a special interest in LDS issues that it had been. It now targets members of the faith across the country and around the world.
The semiannual LDS General Conference is beamed by satellite around the world.
    After I left the paper, a Church-owned book publishing company asked me to draft summaries of speeches by then-President Gordon B. Hinckley for a book compilation. Why did they ask me, instead of one of the many qualified Church members? Were they trying to trick me into being so amazed by their trust in me that I'd convert? I don't think so, but I am still mystified. It was an assignment, though, that I will always treasure. And I grew to love more than ever their huggable "prophet."
President Gordon B. Hinckley was a darling man.

    The Church remains a dominant force in Salt Lake City, but it's not like it used to be. When we moved here in the 1950s, the "theocracy" really did pretty much run everything. Church leaders were dour, pallid, humorless, creaky old guys who seemed kind of like tired-out vampires or rejects from the Soviet Politburo. Life here, as I have said, seemed colorless and constrained. It was kind of a gulag.

    Over the decades, the Church has lost its iron grip. People from all over the country and all over the world have moved here -- colorful, vibrant, ambitious people (and other kinds too) with many talents and contrasting perspectives.
City Creek Center is a new downtown development owned by the Church.
     The Church could have decided to batten down the hatches and become even more paranoid and controlling. They could have ordered their flock to steer clear of all those people in outlandish outfits, who had such disturbing body ornamentation, and had turquoise mohawks and some habits that were surely not pleasing unto the Lord. They could have damned, and even battled, this unruly influx into their Homeland, but they didn't.
Thank goodness for those who do their own thing!
     The Church chose to adapt, and it has done so quite gracefully. Losing its overarching power has, paradoxically perhaps, strengthened it. Mormonism seems more dynamic, modern, approachable and likable.  I believe it was in part a pragmatic decision -- a survival mechanism (or a deal with the devil?) --  and in part an evolution that was inspired by leaders' genuine effort to be Christian. In my experience, they had never made this effort until they were feeling quite overrun by Gentile hellions, and it was either wage war or make peace.

    They ordered their members to make this a more "welcoming" place. I believe that their exposure to all this roiling interplay of cultures and colors has nourished the Church and loosened it up. Its leaders aren't waxy-skinned sourpusses anymore. They seem more good-humored and approachable, although there remain major strains with both disgruntled ex-Mormons and the gay community. Crazy evangelicals show up to harass Church members at conference, but the Mormons have gotten pretty good at ignoring them.
There have been gay several kiss-ins at Temple Square.
     President Gordon B. Hinckley was, of course, the epitome of this change. I feel that he inspired his flock to lighten up. Don't feel besieged or threatened, he implied. Our truths and our destiny are indestructible. 
    The Church launched a $4.6 million PR campaign earlier this year, to coincide with a primary season that involved two Mormon presidential contenders. The campaign's television, billboard and Internet ads, designed by a top N.Y.C. agency, use the tagline, “I’m a Mormon.” 

    They feature Mormons who aren't like any Mormons I've ever come across -- they're definitely "outliers," who challenge legitimate stereotypes of Church members. The New York Times cited several examples: a Hawaiian longboard surfing champion, a fashion designer and single father in New York City and a Haitian-American woman who is mayor of a small Utah city. By contrast, the only Mormons I ever come across are white and middle class.
    Some people's discomfort with Mormonism stems from its history, which includes polygamy, and the exclusion of blacks from full membership for its first 150 years.

    Some say Mormons aren't Christians. I can see their point, but I don't see the relevance. 
Who the hell cares?
    The fact that the Church has a "living prophet" who is "God's man on Earth" continues to cause uneasiness among some analysts.
    Others are alarmed by the Church's aggressive expansion and its goal of global dominance. The Mormon church currently has missionaries in 162 countries and claims to have a worldwide membership of some 14 million. Critics say its claim to be the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is false, but the 2012 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, released in early May, said it is the fastest-growing religion in half of the counties in the country. It does have the highest growth rate of any Christian religion in the U.S.

    Many regard a Romney victory as another step toward the fulfillment of the Church's stated goals: to win the presidency, establish a theocracy and prepare for the Second Coming. 
    Those who are familiar with the Church's less well-known doctrines and unsettling rituals see it as a strange cult, and it's not hard to see why. These critics -- many of them former Mormons -- say a True Believer can't be trusted to disregard his highly controversial loyalties and beliefs while holding a secular office. Even as the Church has poured resources into changing its image -- reaching out, opening up and putting on a happy face -- it has not extricated itself from this "dark side."

    The Internet abounds with attacks on the Church, many of them petty or immature. But the writings of former Mormons powerfully reveal what it's like to be under the thumb of a church that can be as intolerant as any of its critics. 
    I was astonished at the number and size of anti-Mormon websites that are by and for ex-members, most of whom have loved the Church deeply and then felt betrayed or appalled by it. Some offer to help people "recover" from Mormonism. Some have message boards that have hundreds of topics and tens of thousands of posts. They publish articles, offer links, post videos, provide reading lists. They are extraordinary undertakings and reflect, I think, the hold that the Church has had on these people. Some sites try to use humor, but most are all about rage and grief. People are heartbroken.  
Ex-members lost their faith in this magical moment.
     I am glad that we are becoming a more tolerant country, and that we are coming to accept people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.
    But when people are running for office, I maintain that their religious beliefs  -- and their roles and loyalties within the religious  sphere -- can be as pertinent as their political beliefs. I don't agree that it's bigoted to take religious beliefs into account when choosing the so-called Leader of the Free World. It is absolutely fair, as far as I'm concerned, to grill candidates about their core principles.
   Is Mitt Romney really even a Mormon? Does he believe in it? Does he live it? 

     Elderly Girl saves America from a Romney presidency by putting on a blue dress and behaving devilishly. 

    My neighbors were "Nazi Mormons," but I (being half-Jewish) loved them anyway. 

    Missy Morrison was a typical Mormon girl: She was open-hearted, totally adorable, and she smelled delicious.