Inhuman Swill : Mormonism

The articles are beginning to pile up in my queue again, so it's time to clear them out and fill you in on some of the fascinating things happening in the world of Mormonism...


What do Utah Mormons have in common with the Orthodox Jews of Brooklyn? According to this fascinating Time article by Jon Birger, both religious communities are in matchmaking turmoil thanks to an excess of single women.

The wide-ranging piece is excerpted from Birger's new book Date-onomics: How Dating Became a Lopsided Numbers Game, and it explains how the gender imbalance has arisen in both populations, and what unexpected consequences have followed.

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Mormon's Secret Men's Magical Mesh Top
Not many people outside of Utah may be aware of it, but a controversy is brewing—and it has to do with Mormon underwear.

Specifically, it has to do with the portrayal of Mormon underwear on network television. As reported by Scott D. Pierce of The Salt Lake Tribune, next month's premiere episode of the new ABC series "Quantico" will feature a scene in which a young FBI recruit appears on screen in only his "garments," the sacred underclothes that many Mormons wear next to their skin.

Why is this controversial? It's not like garments are very racy, since they're meant to cover the body from the shoulders to the knees. (I, in fact, find them downright offputting, though I'm sure garments have their fetishists.) The problem is that most Mormons consider garments—which are stitched with arcane though unobtrusive symbols meant to remind the wearer of covenants made in the temple—to be sacred, and not intended for the prying eyes of outsiders.

This apparent secretiveness and sensitivity about garments has made them ripe for mockery. Most people, even if they know nothing else about the church, "know" that Mormons wear "magic underwear" to protects them from physical and spiritual harm. One of the most frequent questions I get, in fact, when someone finds out I'm a former Mormon, is: "Is it true about the magic underwear?"

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As I was working through the very final set of revisions on The Accidental Terrorist, I had to hunt down the original source of a well-known Joseph Smith quote on the topic of the accuracy of the Bible. I found what I was looking for in his History of the Church, but I also found a nearby paragraph that was equally interesting.

Joseph was obviously frustrated by the persecution he and his people had been suffering, and was perhaps even more frustrated by his inability to get protection or redress from the courts, or even much sympathy from President Martin Van Buren in a face-to-face 1840 meeting. In Volume VI, Chapter 3 of History of the Church, he wrote:

The Constitution should contain a provision that every officer of the Government who should neglect or refuse to extend the protection guaranteed in the Constitution should be subject to capital punishment; and then the president of the United States would not say, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you," a governor issue exterminating orders, or judges say, "The men ought to have the protection of law, but it won't please the mob; the men must die, anyhow, to satisfy the clamor of the rabble; they must be hung, or Missouri be damned to all eternity." Executive writs could be issued when they ought to be, and not be made instruments of cruelty to oppress the innocent, and persecute men whose religion is unpopular.

Think about that for a minute. The death penalty for failing to protect everyone's rights under the Constitution. Can you imagine the irony had Joseph's fancy become an actual amendment? Can you imagine the implications for the attorney generals and county clerks who refused to issue marriage certificates to same-sex couples? Can you imagine the implications for district attorneys who failed to indict white officers for shooting black civilians?

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To Young Men Only by Boyd K. Packer
A handful of links have been accumulating in my to-be-posted queue over the past couple of weeks. Time to toss them out there for consumption.


First, longtime Mormon apostle Boyd K. Packer died last Friday at the age of 90. To many of us who grew up in the church, Packer was the "scary apostle," the one most likely to give talks on uncomfortable topics, and to do it in frightening ways. He was the closest thing we had to an old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone preacher.

Packer will long be remembered for his influential talk (later published as a pamphlet) called "To Young Men Only," which could have been subtitled "Why You Should Feel Like an Evil Dirty Shit If You're Weak Enough to Masturbate." And this is the same talk in which he unconvincingly pretends not to endorse violence against men who make passes at other men. "I am not recommending that course to you," he says with a broad wink, "but I am not omitting it. You must protect yourself."

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The Falcon and the Snowman: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack In 1985, I was a far bigger fan of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny than just about any other musician. The album that infected me was 1982's Offramp, which sounded unlike anything else I'd ever heard. I became a hardcore consumer of any and all vinyl featuring either Metheny or his compositional partner in the Pat Metheny Group, pianist Lyle Mays. (My friends and I could and did spend hours debating the meaning of the 20-minute title track from As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls. Yes, we were not normal.)

Thus it was inevitable, thirty years ago, that I would buy the new album from the Pat Metheny Group as soon as it appeared, even if it was the soundtrack to a movie I had not seen. I had a vague understanding of the true-life espionage case behind The Falcon and the Snowman (based on the book by Robert Lindsey), which told the story of Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee, two young men from southern California who were arrested in 1977 for selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union. (Boyce was a falconry enthusiast and Lee a cocaine dealer, which is where their sobriquets came from.) I always meant to see the film, but never did.

But that didn't affect my enjoyment of the soundtrack. In fact, it might have enhanced it, as I could listen and try to imagine what was happening on screen during each passage. It wasn't my favorite Metheny album by any means, but parts of it I liked quite a lot. I even grudgingly came to enjoy the collaboration with David Bowie that kicked off side 2 of the record, "This Is Not America"—though I disliked the way the credits on the single made it seem like the Pat Metheny Group was just Bowie's backing band.

Anyway, it was late in 1985, when I was 18, after I'd been living with the album for eight or nine months, that a close friend of mine, whom I call "Andy Kilmer" in The Accidental Terrorist, came to me with a request. This passage is from the book:

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A previous outtake from my memoir The Accidental Terrorist ended with these lines:

Women wield a strange power over the male missionary—even women who don't exist. Perhaps especially women who don't exist.

There's another scene in the book that addressed what I was alluding to there—at least, I thought there was. When I went looking for that scene, I couldn't find it. I had to dig way back to the second draft of the book to locate it, and now I'm not sure what possessed me to take it out. Believe me, it's going back into the latest draft.

Names, of course, have been changèd.

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In a message exchange a few months ago, a friend and former colleague from my missionary days reminded me of a funny story from 1988 involving the elder who was then my companion.

I didn't immediately recall the incident, but then when I was rooting around the other day in a very old draft of my memoir The Accidental Terrorist, I found that I'd remembered it well enough a dozen years ago or more to include it.

Here's that deleted excerpt. My friend who reminded me of the incident is the "Sister Evans" who appears below, by the way, and the Word of Wisdom is the strict Mormon commandment against using alcohol or coffee.


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I've always believed that I have a pretty good memory—in particular, that I can recall formative events and conversations from years or even decades ago in reasonably good detail. When I started work on my memoir The Accidental Terrorist, I made a list of incidents, events, and bits of lore from my mission that I wanted to include. The more of these that I wrote down, the more others I started to remember. My notes ran pages and pages and pages.

I'm now working my way through a revision of the book with notes from my editor, Juliet Ulman. The occasional query scrawled in the margin questions details I seem to recall clearly. I've started wondering how much I can trust those old memories, especially the smaller moments I could easily have misremembered or invented. I've started looking for bits I can actually confirm.

Last night I came to the passage below, which seemed like it should be eminently verifiable. The scene is southern Alberta, October 1986:

On Friday of that week, we were talking heavy metal when I mentioned that the only band I liked of that sort was Rush.

"Ah, so you're one of those," said Fowler. "Same as every other missionary in Canada. You know last winter they had a concert scheduled up in Edmonton?"

"That was the Power Windows tour. What a great show. I saw it in Salt Lake."

"Well, I was serving in Edmonton at the time. I swear half the elders in town must've had tickets."

I gaped. In my civilian life, I had the right to choose to see a rock concert if I wanted, whether or not the Church or my father approved. But for a missionary, ordained and set apart as a representative of Jesus Christ, the rules were different. No music, especially not rock music, and especially not live rock music. That was just handing Satan the keys to your soul's front door.

"Including you?" I asked.

"Naw, Rush ain't my thing. But anyways, the day of the show this massive blizzard hits. No joke. Shuts everything down. No planes in or out. Concert canceled."

"Whoa."

"You're telling me. You think God wanted all those missionaries rocking out in clouds of dope smoke? No way. It would have killed the Spirit dead in Edmonton for a month."
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Mormon Stories Podcast
As reported yesterday in the New York Times, Mormon podcaster, critic, and activist John Dehlin faces excommunication at a church disciplinary hearing later this month. Dehlin runs the Mormon Stories family of podcasts, which cover topics important to members struggling with doubt, identity, mental health issues, and more. The charges against him essentially boil down to teaching "false doctrine," but there's of course more to it than that.

Dehlin is a Ph.D. candidate in psychology and counseling who has researched the effect Mormon teachings have on gay members. And despite his embrace of those whose beliefs and/or lifestyles clash with Mormon doctrine, his default stance seems to be to help those folks find a way to stay in the church.

I'm sympathetic to the effort, though it's pretty foreign to my own experience with Mormonism and doubt. My response, when I could no longer deny the overwhelming historical evidence that the claims of the church were false, was to get the hell out. When I started writing about my questions and conclusions, my goal (besides venting a lot of anger) was to help people who were miserable in the faith or damaged by its oppressiveness to realize that they could leave. They didn't have to stick around and hide their true selves and feelings. They could just walk away.

Of course, I also learned that this isn't so easy, or even possible, for everyone. Some of those who come to have crippling doubts about the church must choose between following their consciences or losing their families. Some value the sense of community they get as church members, or their cultural identity as Mormons, too much to want to give it up. And why should they, really?

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The Accidental Terrorist (charity auction edition)
I never expected it would take so long to make this announcement, but my Mormon missionary memoir The Accidental Terrorist will be published by Sinister Regard in 2015.

Although it might end up with a different title. And the cover definitely won't look like the one below. And Sinister Regard is actually me.

I'm very excited, nevertheless.

It's hard for me to pin down exactly when I started work on this book. The events it chronicles took place mostly between September 1986 and March 1987, when I was a Mormon missionary serving in Alberta. But before that time span had even ended, I was already learning to tell bits and pieces of the story to an audience. In 1988, I told the full story to a few fellow missionaries—with a tape recorder running. Here's an excerpt, in which you can hear me at age 20 with my Utah accent still fully intact:

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