Even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which claims to have 14 million members, is one of the fastest growing religions in the world—reportedly converting over 200,000 souls in 2009 alone—the 182 year-old American-born sect has, until just recently, been largely ignored by pop culture’s cool kids.
In part, the recent emergence of shows such as HBO’s Big Love, TLC’s Sister Wives, and the Broadway smash, The Book of Mormon, is due to the rise of republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, a member of the mainstream Mormon Church, which considers polygamy a violation of civil and religious law, and the fall of Warren Jeffs, president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FDLS), a proponent of plural marriage and convicted sexual predator.
It also doesn’t hurt that the religion was founded by Joseph Smith, a larger-than-life, outlaw prophet with multiple wives. After all, society has an insatiable appetite for the sensational and taboo.
Given that Romney remains the odds on favorite to win his party’s nomination, it’s a good bet that both the LDS and FDLS will be increasingly scrutinized over the coming year. But according to Jennifer Sinor, a creative writing teacher at Utah State University, even this sort of intense media attention will only begin to scratch the surface of the faith’s social implications and deep allegiances, especially in her chosen home, where the Mormon Church is headquartered.
“Mormons themselves who come to live in Utah from other parts of the country make the distinction between Mormons and Utah Mormons. The climate is different here,” Sinor, who is a devote nonbeliever, writes in The American Scholar (Autumn 2011). “In this theocracy, in a place Mormons refer to as Zion, I will always be an outsider, but I have made a kind of peace with the state. You have to if you want to remain. The peace is both hard earned and uneasy, tested continually. And it has been the stance of the LDS Church on homosexuality that has most recently challenged any goodwill I have fostered over the years.”
Sinor’s incisive, first person essay—which includes a collection of expertly crafted, haunting scenes—begins and ends powerfully with anecdotes from her classroom, where gay Mormon students dare to write and talk about their homosexuality, despite the risk of banishment, ridicule, and memories of verbal and physical assault when others suspected they might be gay. She also revisits the LDS’s financial commitment to passing California’s Proposition 8 in 2008, which deems that only marriage between a man and woman will be recognized by the state; considers the sexual repression and prudishness inherent in Utah’s dominant culture (fashion magazine like Vogue are covered in opaque plastic in local supermarkets while the state has the highest Internet pornography subscription rate in the country); and honestly examines her rage regarding Mormonism’s anti-feminist doctrine and missionary zeal.
What makes the essay particularly salient is that it ultimately pivots on the power of fear and the importance of tolerance, subjects citizens must take more time to debate and consider this election season, no matter their religious heritage or political affiliation.
“It begins at the kitchen table where your father cracks gay jokes,” Sinor writes. “It is furthered at school where the teachers allow kids to call each other fag. It grows into a hot flame in the church pew on Sunday where you are told that the door to eternity is narrow and policed, where the lines between lost and saved are engraved into your skin. All of that fear must go somewhere. It cannot be contained. And so it erupts in ignorance and baseball bats.”
The American Scholar
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