A Returned Mormon Missionary In The Radical 60’s

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It was 1966, and I had just returned home from living in Argentina for two years as a Mormon missionary.

It had been a good two years for me. Living in a foreign culture had caused me to develop a comfortable and confident attitude about living in the world.

Upon returning to the states, things were much different than when I left. The atmosphere was charging up for radical change. Anti-war sentiment over the Vietnam War was building up on college campuses, Mario Savio’s free speech movement was spreading, and Martin Luther King’s peaceful civil rights protests were turning more and more confrontational.

College and the Church

I entered California State University at Long Beach as a junior at this time. And even though I was very sympathetic toward the above issues, my loyalty remained first and foremost with my church. Thus, my attention was directed more toward serving the Church, than in becoming actively involved in the political world swirling around me, interesting and important as it was.

My religion had been good to me. And it continued being so during the time of my return and adjustment from Argentina. At this time, The Mormon Church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) had taken a very enlightened approach regarding its focus on trying to understand and meet the needs of returned missionaries who were college students.

I was so impressed with this part of the Church, I applied and was accepted to become a full time, professional teacher in its religious education system. I spent the greater part of the next fifteen years studying and teaching religion to Latter-day Saint college students at three different colleges in southern California.

Upon Reflection

As I reflect on those years, I have come to believe that the relationship I had with the Church was one of mutual benefit. What the Church gave me was very personally satisfying. Thus, anything that was uncomfortable for me, about the Church, was easily overlooked. Conversely, I have come to believe, that what the Church liked about me, was good enough to overlook what its leadership may not have liked about me. It was a win, win situation as far I was concerned.

It fact, I was so content and pleased with my situation in the Church that I gave it the benefit of the doubt on most every occasion. For instance, I supported controversial positions it took and policies it had created, not necessarily because I believed it was right, but because the Church had been good to me personally. In return, I wanted to be good to it, by giving it my support.

A good example of this took place during the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) for women in the 1970’s. The Church took an official position opposing the amendment, and openly campaigned against it. At the time, I was the Institute Director of the Institute of Religion serving Latter-day Saint students attending Los Angeles Harbor Junior College. Privately, I had absolutely nothing against the ERA, but I supported the Church’s position, because I was happy with my work at the institute of religion. Hence, I didn’t want to disrupt that work by disagreeing with the Church over a political issue.

I wanted the students to have the same experience with the Church as I had had. And, if there was one reality I had deeply internalized, it was that desire. To me, the Church was dedicated to helping college students have successful lives. It was about, above all else, personal progress. To me that was more profound than any political issue, even the ERA.

Upon further Reflection

As I think about it, I believe I used the same line of reasoning when it came to controversial doctrines of the Church. To me, the foundational doctrines of the Church were intricately tied to the early history of the Church. I made a separation between early Mormonism and modern Mormonism. To me, the early doctrines of the Church were secondary to the involvement of the Church with its members’ personal progress in the here and now.

For example, the doctrine of plural marriage (polygamy) was an artifact of the past. It happened, was discontinued, and in the present, had absolutely nothing to do with me or my little family.

I’m not one who believes I am obligated to have to defend anything in the past, just because it is tied by time to me in the present.

I’m simply dedicated to making the very best of the present. If the present isn’t working well for me, I work to improve it.

I do not have to argue from a platform of “first principles”. Everything does not always have to be consistent from start to finish. I am not uncomfortable with contradiction.

What Influenced Me?

I must admit, I wonder sometimes how I came to have such a view of life. Perhaps, I was deeply influenced by those days when I returned home from Argentina. With all that was changing, I felt the Church was very progressive as it became involved in helping college students meet their personal needs. By actively helping us reach our personal goals and aspirations, I can’t help but feel that a deep and lasting impression was made on me.

Indeed, my personal needs have been met beyond my wildest imaginings. However, I do have one regret. While my needs were being met as a returned missionary going to college, I wish I would have worked harder at helping others meet their needs. This is especially the case with African Americans, and by extension today, immigrants, GLBT folks, and women. I wish I would have raised a louder voice about how terrible war is. And, I wish I would have been more active in supporting people whose views differed from my own.

But, I am not inclined to look back too long. With regard to these issues, I’m trying to do a better job going forward.

In fact, I am doing a better job!!