Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why Mormons Matter

Utah is a very odd place, and lately its oddness has been standing out in a particular way: as a bell weather for the Bush Presidency. Last weeks naughty language inspired revolt at BYU aside, Utah is still one of the last strongholds of support for President Bush. This has allowed the media to portray Utahans as unusually conservative, ignorant, or even stupid and the local populace hasn’t exactly helped with quotes like these. But that is a very shallow understanding of the culture. The real root of the matter is a reverence for authority that emanates directly from the structure of the Mormon Church, and is so deeply engrained it Utah society it permeates everything from politics to basketball.

Every religion thinks God is on their side, but virtually all must rely on ancient texts God gave to someone else long ago to figure out exactly what he was saying. The problem of course, is someone else’s words are always open to interpretation; especially if that person is um…dead. Because their sources are “existentially challenged”, when most religious leaders claim the will of God, they have to reference it, explain it, justify it. Argue over it. This can’t help but create a culture with at least a minimum tolerance for debate. Hell, even Osama Bin Laden has to site passages in the Koran

Not so the Mormons. Their founder Joseph Smith was a pretty smart dude. When you start a religion it’s always handy to give yourself a direct line to God. In fact, face time with Yahweh proved so much fun, he let other people in his flock take out the power for a test drive. That quickly proved a bad idea as God developed an unfortunate habit of saying different things to different people and much squabbling ensued. So Joseph took his God phone back, and ever since then it’s been the exclusive property of the current Prophet of the Mormon Church. Joe never made a smarter decision.

Seriously, can you imagine a better trump card? It’s the ultimate in dispute resolution. Can’t decide whose turn it is to take out the trash? “Hold on, let me call God…he says vacuuming the rug doesn’t count, it’s still totally your turn.” Game, set, match. God has literally spoken: you lose. Thank you for playing.

How many other religions give the exclusive right to talk to God to one living being? The Pope? That’s really it. And the Catholic Church is simply too large, diverse, and bureaucratically unwieldy for the power to be truly effective. The Mormons however, are just small enough to move as a single organism and their uber centralized structure has allowed them to pivot on a theological dime in ways that are truly impressive.

I ended up smashing head first into this anti-analysis brick wall during my own “coming out” story. I was fourteen years old and just beginning to realize that I knew everything. I proudly expressed my ever so impressive theological doubts to my Mormon Bishop, arguments that I had passionately believed in for at least ten minutes. His response? “I don’t think it’s your place to question the Prophet”. That was it. Not “You are sorely mistaken for reasons, x, y, and z.” No theological shoot out at the O.K. Corral in which my finely honed rhetorical bullets would win the day. Turned out my sin of apostasy was pretty meager in comparison to my sin of thinking the subject was up for debate in the first place.

But look at the situation from his point of view. What’s the use of even discussing a controversy when we have a direct conduit to the big guy? Why argue about what is right and wrong when we’ve already have the answer, the Ultimate Answer. What purpose could debate possibly serve? Mormons aren’t particularly dumb or ignorant, but they have been taught from a very young age that critical thought is something that is simply unnecessary in certain situations. Mormons can be brilliantly analytical in many areas of life, but some subjects are simply walled off in their brains.

This sanctification of not questioning authority has been hugely influential on Mormon (and thus Utah) culture. Utah has always been the most fertile ground for pyramid schemes in the nation. The local basketball coach can make personnel decisions so inexplicably bizarre they’ve actually earned there own nickname from national sports writers. But no local reporter has even written a single story on the subject over the entire season. In any other market, it would be an on going saga endlessly quibbled over in the media, but in Utah, the coach is THE COACH, and so whatever he’s doing must be the right decision.

So despite my heckling of them last week, the BYU students protesting Dick Cheney may well have produced a watershed moment. When the most authoritarian presidency in history can no longer count on the most authoritarian community in the nation for unconditional support, the jig may well and truly be up. After all, if the Mormons are starting to doubt you, you must have done some serious bullshitting.

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