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JUNE 13, 2012 9:20AM

Strangers in a Strange Land

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One cool evening in the fall of 2010, I walked along Florida Avenue with Michael, my boyfriend of three or four months. We were on our way to dinner, having an intense conversation about Mormonism, Mitt Romney, and Jon Huntsman. As I remember it, I was fretting about my ability to communicate what I found valuable about the Mormon church — of which I am a member — despite its many flaws, and how I would be able to describe it all to my new Jewish paramour. I knew how different our backgrounds were and the suspicion with which my people have historically been regarded. But if anyone could understand, I hoped it would be him —Jews are no strangers to such mistrust. I finally found the right words: “I just need you to know that I care about this, but I’m not trying to convert you, you know?”

My Bethesda-raised, philosopher boyfriend thought about this for a minute. Then he gave me the exaggerated eyebrow-raise he always makes before delivering a punchline and said, “It’s okay. We’re all Gentiles here.”

At that moment, he could have said nothing funnier. To Jews, a Mormon is a gentile. To Mormons, non-Mormons are. We cancelled each other out. We were, in an amazing improbable paradox, the same. It was the impossible dream, an immediate dismantling of every fear I had that we’d never understand each other. It was the best joke I’d ever heard.

He later admitted that he’d cribbed the idea for the joke from his dad, but it didn’t matter. I had already relaxed. I found my way in.

Of course, we were not actually the same. The Venn diagram of our respective young, middle-class, urban, bookish liberal-arts-graduate vocabularies left outstanding a significant number of specific words and experiences, which we spent a lot of time describing to each other: Nu, gin, seder; Adam-Ondi-Ahman, divining rod, Kolob. It wasn’t easy, but I was sure we could ride on kindness, mutual attraction, and curiosity right out to the other end. We could learn to see each other clearly.

I ended up being wrong about that. Moreover, I hadn’t realized that I was living a fragment of a much larger story. Looking back, I see these private conversations as a microcosm of a national hubbub that is only getting louder, carrying us into the Republican nominations, the election, and potentially, a new presidential term, as Mitt Romney bends over backward to convince everyone in America that he’s a real boy.

While the GOP would like to define Mitt Romney’s stiff, unemotional aspect as merely the affect of a man with a head for capital and sound fiscal management, the left has done its level best to find some other reason for his weirdness, and they look in the same places that the right did when trying to undermine Barack Obama: his personal story. The Washington Post hunts for “The Origins of Mitt Romney’s Corporate Worldview.” Alec MacGillis, reviewing a Harper-published biography of Romney for the New Republic, writes that the authors “all but admit that they are unable to deliver fully on their stated goal to ‘to plumb the many chapters of [Romney’s] life for insight into his character, his worldview, his drive, and his contradictions.’ The real Romney, some have suggested, may just be too deeply hidden, perhaps bound up with his closely guarded religious beliefs.” The review is titled — obviously, inevitably — “Unreal.

Particularly pernicious is the much-trumpeted idea that if he were President, Romney’s Mormonism would rub off on the rest of us:  Ian Williams, writing in the New York Times, says, “With no marriages outside the church, zero tolerance of homosexuality and very little coffee, the L.D.S. worldview would positively smother most Americans.” Writers and scholars have also exhumed the same accusations of cabalism and religious enforcement that dogged John F. Kennedy, whose Catholicism made some wonder if his chief allegiance would be to the U.S. or the pope. The Atlantic’s Brian Fung goes so far as to compare Romney to a robot, no doubt because that is what churches produce. And then there are all the magic underwear jokes. It’s hard to tell whether the prospect of a Mormon presidency is apparently supposed to be more terrifying or comical.

Is it possible that all this hand-wringing about Romney’s scary alien “worldview” can be read as mere shade-throwing on the part of a loose liberal alliance with an interest in winning the election? Sure. But if you’d like to talk about shrugging off one’s core values out of expediency, as Romney is frequently accused of doing, let’s start there. Let’s start with what the long cultural history of Romney’s faith is supposed to say about the man himself.

Since the early faithful left western New York, fled persecution in Illinois and Missouri and eventually found refuge in the wilds of Utah, the Mormon church has undergone multiple transformations. During the past century, defensive insularity slowly gave way to a philosophy of increased inclusiveness and social awareness that peaked in the in the 1950s and 1960s. During those two decades, church membership ballooned by nearly 50%, as adherents built hundreds of thousands of houses of worship across the globe and leaders met with foreign dignitaries in order to plan an elaborate network of congregations and develop a bureaucracy to support it.

This outreach was partly an effort to prevent a flood of newly converted members from immigrating to Utah, which could not hold them all. More important, it was meant to discourage what Mormon President David O. McKay foresaw as the very real possibilities of doctrinal disintegration, operational redundancy, and cultural misinterpretation to which the church would be prone as it continued to grow. Aiming for efficiency — and following the example of the cultural king of midcentury America, the corporation — the leaders of the church created policies that removed the independent operation of auxiliary organizations, streamlined worship services, stripped the hymnbooks of anything Gothic, esoteric, or merely hard to sing, and created Sunday School manuals that outlined the doctrinal lessons for teachers, practically verbatim. A tradition of spiritual innovation that had characterized the church for 120 years was discarded in favor of an abridged catechism and a hierarchical administration that connected a member in New Zealand all the way to the prophet in Salt Lake City. It was, in its own way, kind of democratic.

Today, though, this all seems rather authoritarian and repressive. What McKay envisioned as a great invitation to the people of the world looks, 60 years later, like a machine that takes in individuals and produces worshipful automatons. While Mormons who have attempted to understand the mystery beneath all the hierarchical trappings might feel that the fear of nametag-wearing androids on bicycles is, at best, silly, and at worst, insulting to their intelligence, the apparent ease with which Mitt Romney and other prominent Mormons inhabit corporate structures — including, most significantly, the private equity firm Bain Capital, where Romney made his name and his fortune — reinforces the perception that the church works tirelessly to eradicate personhood.

It’s hard to think of anything more frightening to today’s liberal, largely secular humanists. To refer to Romney’s “worldview” is to capture all of that fear and anxiety and attach it to an avatar. But what of Mitt’s personhood? To what extent is he required to declare his exact alignment with the popular conception of his people?

Poor guy, they keep making him recite “America the Beautiful” all the damn time, just to make him seem less a stranger. And here I am, writing this essay.

***

I’m an immigrant many times over. I grew up in a series of military-owned duplexes across eight states and three countries. My father was a fighter pilot with the U.S. Air Force, and we moved so many times that our bedside tables were often as not boxes of rice or books under a tablecloth. As we traveled, people treated me with the friendliness that children generally provoke. Every new town also meant a new ward where I would hear the same songs and the same Sunday School lessons, even if everything outside the church building was foreign. I loved growing up this way, and there was no reason to believe that the grand cities and wild places I saw didn’t belong to me as naturally as they did to any other person with the means to go there. The idea that I might be on the outside of any of this didn’t occur to me for a long time.

But by the time I was 12 or 13, every new move meant another perplexing set of social rules to learn and a fresh recognition that I had no idea what was going on. There was church, where the girls were getting engaged before they graduated high school, some having never even kissed their fiancés. And there was school, with its aggressive hallway PDA. In Scotland, where we had to wear school uniforms, you knew a nerd from a tart by the size and style of her tie knot. In Southern Virginia, you could be a hallway away and still distinguish the anime kids from the athletes. To me, these were all precious clues. Everything was Other, and the stories I heard about myself — typically the only Mormon girl in my school, and sometimes the only American as well — inflated this sense of difference. People thought it was against the religion for me to drink milk. I was told I wasn’t a Christian. The first time I drove myself to school, a boy looked at me and asked if I should really be doing that since Mormon women aren’t allowed to drive.

My experience isn’t unique. A Mormon friend of mine, as a child in Alabama, once felt something touch her hair, and when she looked around she saw a blushing girl, pulling back her hand. “I was just looking for your horns,” said the girl, refusing to apologize. Knowing that this sort of thing happens to members of other groups was only a minor comfort.

It’s just as dispiriting to realize that for the vast majority of adult Americans, the word Mormon signifies either Big Love or Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. In such light, it’s hardly surprising that the Mormon-apologetics field has been so sparsely populated — until now, that is. The church has recently spent millions and millions of dollars on its “I’m a Mormon” campaign, featuring single, Etsy-loving moms and skateboarding immigrants. Please, the ads say, can you stop thinking of us as the freaks with the dresses and the braids?

The biggest problem with that plea is that it obscures the ways in which we’re actually freaks.

For a wild heyday, peaking in the 1980s, all Mormons were encouraged by the highest leaders of the church to have two years’ worth of nonperishable food on hand as preparations for whatever apocalypse might precede the Second Coming of Christ. (Like most Christian sects, we have an elaborate theory of the whys and hows the world will end.) My family dutifully complied. Like camels carrying weeks’ worth of water, we brought with us everything we would need for an extreme event every time we moved. We packed cans of powdered milk and bags of beans and oats. We had boxes of giant cans of hot cocoa mix, tomato sauce, rice and dried corn, and cases of jam, peanut butter, salsa, tuna, and tinned vegetables. We had four sealed plastic tubs of whole-wheat kernels. At one point, worried that all this wheat would go bad, my mother started grinding it and making bread, a task she hated and which produced a heavy, unappetizing peanut-butter sandwich that I had to break into little paste-glued pieces before I could chew it. Of course, then our stock was depleted and we had to go buy more wheat.

My aunt from Tennessee, who, unlike my uncle and my dad, doesn’t have pioneer ancestry, asked me if I knew why we were so “Holdaway-like,” a question to which I have absolutely no answer, being one myself. Related question: Can you ever justify stockpiled macaroni to a person without a theory for how the world will end?

If the purpose of impending doom is to scare a person into repentance, we were going about it wrong. My Sunday School lessons on the Second Coming often sounded less like a prod toward righteousness and more like a seminar on peak oil taught by someone with a chest freezer full of venison. I have been advised, quite seriously, to make sure to have a few spare bags of candy in my food storage, as well as civilized incidentals like hairspray and shoe insoles. The idea is that I’d be able to bargain for more food with neighbors who, because of their poor planning and ignorance, would be starved for such things.

But in the event that mountain ranges flip over on top of the valleys, as happens in the Book of Mormon’s when Christ first arrives on the American continent, I’m not sure how useful any of this would be. Looking at it logically, your ability to survive seems a function of your location and pure luck, not how many tins of food you have. Spiritual worthiness doesn’t matter either: In the Book of Mormon, the righteous died right along with everyone else. It’s not much of an inducement to holiness.

So if neither piety nor practical necessity is the reason for those hoards, what is? More and more, it looks as if my parents are holdovers from the church of 45 years ago, which did some strange things in combining millennial doctrine with American thriftiness. Both my parents were raised by Western men and women who lived through the Great Depression, as did the current prophet and leader of the church, Thomas S. Monson. Their experiences taught them that a stock-market crash could signal the end of the world as unequivocally as could famine, pestilence, or war. The end result is that you could start quite a nice little civilization from the contents of my grandmother’s basement.

Such lessons in austerity come less frequently now. The 30- and 40-year old Sunday School teachers of today were raised largely in prosperity. The church still runs a website on “Provident Living” that recommends a three-month supply of food and drinking water and an emergency financial reserve, but the panic-level exhortations I remember from childhood are mostly gone.

It’s hard for me not to feel that we haven’t lost something. Matthew Bowman, author of a new popular history titled The Mormon People (and a friend of mine), writes, “Mormons still cling to a determined supernaturalism … They believe that one day they might yet be asked to give up American capitalism and return to Joseph Smith’s vision of economic consecration.” He describes the angels of our scripture crashing through roofs into bedrooms and highlights the enduring and cherished Mormon idea that there are reasons to make choices that go far beyond the desires of the individual and instead lift an entire community toward a more connected and virtuous life. Reading Bowman’s history, where “Mormon fathers go home from their stolidly conservative occupations … and lay their hands upon the heads of their children and invoke the power of God to seal blessings upon their heads,” I wonder if Mormons can maintain the same ideal that many queer radicals have fought for: the strength of our difference rather than a capitulation to a life defined by the dominant community.

Then again, maybe purity of belief isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mormons number almost 14 million worldwide, but when was the last time you talked to a Shaker?

***

So when Romney is accused of flip-flopping, of playing the political game at the risk of his own integrity, perhaps the issue is not that he has no consistent convictions but that he has recognized his handicap. For him, to be too devout is as dangerous as accepting a beer for the sake of “likability,” so dodgeball rules apply: Stay small, keep moving, and don’t think about your dignity. It’s unfortunate that he never developed the ease and coolness that made Jon Huntsman so much less threatening. Being liked is a good way to stay unbruised, even if a certain amount of skin-shedding is required.

That was always my tactic: Over time, I acquired a near perfect geniality, a jokey eagerness to explain, justify, defend, and disarm what made me different. I was charming, I was direct, I was fun: I was everyone’s favorite Mormon.

My efforts were only part performance. I was also honoring what I saw as a crucial tenet of the gospel, and one of the ideas I carried over even as my faith began to erode: the mandate  to welcome and care for others as if they were literal, sacred children of God. In my mind, I’d come out of a decade-long spiritual crisis with an unorthodox but forgiving version of Mormonism, one that took the sweet and left the bitterness of those years, one that allowed me to worry less about marrying in the covenant and more about making my own promises. I knew it might not be totally possible to communicate any of this, but by God, I tried. Soon after I met Michael, he said of my apparent reconciliation with my religious past: “It seems too easy!”

“That’s just your timing,” I replied.

And I was happy. I’d done the impossible. I’d broken the game. I was myself as surely with Michael as I was at home with my family. I felt like an acrobat, a daredevil fresh from the wing of a plunging airplane, whole and flushed. I had my peace with the church, and I had him: his gruff interjections, his endless delight over puns, the best and most warming smile I’d ever seen. The very smallness of the traits that set a person apart from you can be dizzying.

Then one winter morning, I woke up grim and hollow, roused early by the wan sunlight. I went into the kitchen and drank cup after cup of once-forbidden coffee while I waited for him to get up. We’d been awake until 3 a.m., and I needed something sharp in my mouth to cut through the haze of fatigue. Our history seemed so much a lie that I wondered if there was anything left in the relationship to mourn. He’d said he didn’t love me anymore and hadn’t for quite a while. He’d said that he thought he’d become a worse person in the year and a half he’d been dating me. He’d said my religion was a problem and that my worldview was just “not that interesting.”

As break-up strategies go, that last one is spectacularly effective. A wholesale dismissal, as if my entire nature could be collected, examined, and discharged on the basis of … what, exactly? That word again.

When anyone uses the word worldview, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s just as much about the speaker as the person its addressed to. I still have no idea if he meant to say that I was too religious or something else entirely, but it hardly mattered. Caught between my past, my ideals, and his words, I was primed for a near-total collapse of my sense of self. Everything I owned and did was a mark of the beast — my books, my music, my thoughts, my religion, my writing, my friends.

Where, went the inescapable question, was the alien in me?

***

The original mandate of progressivism remains the same, even as the concrete goals have fluctuated. Maybe those of us who have represented at various times the collective face of need and disenfranchisement — immigrants, women, queers, the working-class, the poor, racial minorities; those with the most historically troubled relationship to the language used by those who would no longer be their oppressors — have something to offer beyond the demands for rights and the promise of bloc voting that have characterized our politics in the past.  Maybe somewhere in our more nuanced view of the difference between what we are assumed to be and what we ourselves think we are lies the foundation of a new way to think about identity politics and public governance. After all, who takes the spirit of inclusivity, tolerance, and robust progressiveness so aptly captured by Obama’s “Yes we can!” and turns it into “Your underwear is silly”?

It may seem absurd to tag Romney, a Big Industry scion and a Big Finance luminary, as a victim of an identity-political backlash. But as the rancorous Tea Party summer of 2010 demonstrated, reactions to stress can produce plenty of collateral damage. I would guess that precise self-expression is listed significantly below accomplishment on Romney’s list of ideal virtues, if it’s on there at all. Call it New England reserve, call it shallowness of personality, call it religious defensiveness. It doesn’t matter: He’s just looking for a job, and nothing in this day and age would be more illiberal than to deny it him on the basis of anything other than his policies. The phrase E Pluribus Unum requires from all of us a lot more than rhetoric.

Think of it this way: What if I told you that the story of me and my boyfriend was fabricated, that he didn’t exist and that this breakup never happened? Would that undo the point that every time Romney’s difference, his upbringing, and his religion is highlighted, it subverts liberal position about free thought and individual choice? Do I have to be Mormon to make that argument?

If there’s a mistake I made, it wasn’t thinking it was my job to build the bridge. It was to think that this is not always everyone’s job.

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