My Religion Has Defined Me

Religion casts a powerful spell over most people’s lives. I’m not immune from that for sure.

However, when growing up in southern California, I didn’t think religion was that big a deal. I thought I was doing more for it, than it was doing for me.

At its core religion is culture. Not just everyday culture, but culture that evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. Maybe even one million years ago. Religion emerged out of our deepest fears and pain.

There is nothing worse than evolving a brain that understands the enormity of death. Death of loved ones, death of little children, death of mothers and fathers.

Without the emergence of explanations and stories to sooth this pain, evolution of the brain may have been choked off. No, that’s wrong. A better explanation is that our brains demanded to evolve, so an explanation for death was demanded. Thus cometh God, heaven, everlasting life. Religion was born when humans settled down into communities. God and religion co-mingled as permanent arteries within the community.

After a while, God-religion-community were equivalent terms.

Growing up, people in my religious congregation were gentle. They were family people. I can’t remember them getting mad.

They accepted me even as I discounted them.

I never let play and experimentation get in the way of obedience. The only time this caught my attention was when some of my non-Mormon peers would joke (I think) and call me “hoodlum priest.”

Good At What I Did

Going on a two year mission for the church at nineteen changed me. My naturally inborn confidence took permanent root. Learning a foreign language, living full time in Latin culture, and talking to strangers everyday brought out what I was to ultimately be the rest of my life. I was good at what I did. Probably better than just about anyone else.

I came home and became a teacher in the church’s educational system. I started out teaching high school students for two years. I didn’t like doing that. It’s hard for me to remain ever patient with kids that age. It’s not my strong suit.

But when I started teaching college students I hit my stride. I taught college and university stunts for eight years. These were my glory days. Building institutes of religions next door to colleges and universities, teaching LDS students religion courses, organizing these same students to be activists on campus was what I was born to do.

One time we filled up the Long Beach Arena with thousands of LDS students for a special gathering where the president of the church talked to us. I was responsible for security for the event. I met President Harold B. Lee and his wife as they were driven into the back of the arena. As President Lee exited the car, I greeted him and introduced him to one of my students who was running for student body president. The very first thing I noticed about President Lee was that his glasses were thick making it look like his eyes were bulging out.

President Lee looked at me, then looked at the student. I felt he greeted the student awkwardly. At that point he took my arm, pulled me into him, and said, “tell him to get his hair cut.”

“WHAT?” I yelled to myself inside of my head. “This kid has naturally red curly hair, he’s busting his pick trying to be the LDS student candidate, and all you can say is, get his hair cut?”

“That’s it?”

I had a flashback at that moment. It reminded me of the time I was interviewed by one of the church leaders when I applied to go from teaching high school kids to teaching college students. At one point the leader stood up, walked around, stood behind me, and pulled the back of my hair, indicating it was too long.

“These guys are obsessed with hair,” I thought as President Lee started walking toward the podium.

A few years later when I was serving as a mission president in Chile, I started becoming obsessed with hair length. That is my fifteen year old son’s hair length. It was a constant tension between the two of us.

It didn’t bother my wife. “There are only so many ways you can show your independence. In the long run, hair is a small thing.”

Another wife of another mission president said that she was in bed a year worrying about the appearance of her teenage children. “It’s not worth it,” she said.

I had become like those church leaders. I had become obsessed with hair and its length.

Of late, I have started growing my hair out.

Anyway, with the exception of these blips, I was more than just a little content teaching college students within the context of The Church Educational System, I was at peace with myself. I had reached a level of self actualization that left me calm and satisfied with my niche in life.

Another World

But after graduating to administrative roles in CES, I decided to leave. I became a management consultant, radio commentator and writer. It took about two years to put everything in place.

In between all of this, I served in a bishopric, high council, stake presidency; as a bishop, a mission president, and a trustee for two of the church’s corporate entities.

Being in a bishopric was tedious and the high council was boring. Being in a stake presidency was a satisfying time of personal progress for me. Being a bishop was stressful: my consulting business was taking me out of town a lot, I was asked to do a second church calling as public communications director for southern California, and I had five children. I swore I would never let that happen again. I found out that priesthood leaders above you will let you take on as much as you can handle. If you can’t do the work, they don’t say much. They simply release you.

Being a mission president is like nothing I have ever experienced. You have unilateral authority to take the church’s valuable resources and go out and preach, teach, baptize, help form wards, stakes, and work with hundreds of church leaders in a position of strength and authority. There is nothing quite like it in the world.

Just before I was ending my time as mission president, I was tipped off that general authority, Elder Loren C. Dunn, was going to call and invite me to be an area authority seventy in southern California. I was unable to accept the calling because I had decided to move to Salt Lake City. I took turns flogging and blessing myself for that decision. But we’ll never know because we never got past Elder Dunn’s question, “I have something in mind for you, but first will you be returning to southern California?”

A few months later the President of the church asked me to be on two of the church’s corporate boards. I was on one of the boards for eighteen years and was the Chairman of the Audit committee for sixteen of those years. We started out overseeing $250 million, which grew to over $8 billion by the time I was released. I loved it because I was able to ask any financial and economic question to some of the most competent professionals in the world. As a trustee I was a legal fiduciary and they had the obligation to answer me. With this particular company, the client or contributor received investment returns to be used at their discretion, while at the same time naming the church as the beneficiary upon their demise. It was a win, win situation. I loved what I was a part of. Honestly, I miss it terribly right now. Having fun while doing good. These trust company professionals managed through 9/11, the high tech bubble, the Great Recession, and cyber espionage. They did it with cool professionalism. The trust company continued to grow through all this, and continued to keep its financial commitments to those who had entrusted their money with them. Remainderman benefits to the church steadily grew throughout this entire time.

Return From Chile

I returned from Chile and over time resumed being a management consultant, radio commentator, writer and entrepreneur. Over the past thirty hears I have started four businesses that are still in operation.

I’ve had a lot of church experience, as well as professional experience. And still, I was surprised when I read that Joseph Smith not only lived the law of polygamy (I knew that) but polyandry as well. I started a new chapter in my life, learning about the history of the church that I had no knowledge of, even while I had been a full time CES teacher.

Some of the stuff is a head turner.

My sources started with Richard Bushman and his book, Rough Stone Rolling, then graduated to what used to be called FARMS. I also sourced FAIR, Mormon Stories, Mormon Matters, Mormon Curtain, Mormon Think, and Mormon Expression. Lately, I have been reading the essays the church has been putting out on difficult and controversial church history issues. No one signs them, but they are on I take for granted they are supported by the church’s leading councils. These essays give clarity to sticky issues in the church’s history. For example the one dealing with blacks and the priesthood is excellent. Basically the essay says there has never been a doctrinal basis regarding denying blacks the priesthood. It was a personal preference of Brigham Young to withhold the priesthood from black male members.

Rough Stone Rolling and Mormon Stories have been the sources I came to trust.

Mormon Expression is a hoot.

Mormon Matters is earnest. You would want to be judged by these guys at the judgment bar.

FARMS deserved to be discontinued. It was mean spirited.

FAIR deals in too much double talk and obfuscation for me.

Mormon Think blew me away with Tom Phillips.

Mormon Curtain is edgy and angry. Essays are worth reading and dissecting. Some essays are more direct and clear than others.

My Position

My position is that I’m not bothered by the controversies swirling around the church’s history as long as I know them. It only bothers me when they are withheld from me.

I believe the Mormon Church is unique among all American churches. It is not only a religion, but a government as well – priesthood government.

As far as the government part is concerned, when Brigham Young established Mormonism in the Utah Territory’s “Great Basin Kingdom” he was motivated to set up a theocracy.

Remember at the beginning when I didn’t take the religion seriously, and I thought it was full of nice people, and that because of this I discounted it. I was dead wrong. Mormonism is very serious business. Having set up a government, you would expect the same kind of operation you would find in any government. Concealing as much as revealing, a stern penal system, an intelligence gathering network, etc. All governments make mistakes; the priesthood government of Mormonism is no different.

I get that. I accept that.

I also expect that when governments are wrong, they admit it and ensure that robust reform takes place. Over time we should expect our governments to improve.

That’s what I think is going on in Mormonism today. Our skeletons are coming out of the closet. Reform in our operations is taking place. Our secrets are being revealed.

One of the criticisms leveled at high church leadership is that reform is not coming fast enough? I understand why the church moves slowly to reform. Its backbone of support is made up of a membership which is intrinsically and reflexively conservative. You have to bring these people along slowly, and make them feel that change is not happening. Most all cultures I’ve experienced are conservative, and change is more the exception than the rule.

Speaking of penal systems, the church has a powerful one. It can expel members from the congregation. It’s called excommunication. Today it is considered to be a blunt tool that enacts a painful punishment. This is especially true in today’s society where civil liberties are held in such reverence. Excommunication is perceived to be every bit as violent as a good old fashion lynching.

Why? Remember my earlier comments about religion and god and culture being equivalent. An excommunication is not only about losing your religion, but your god and your community too. It’s death. In the case of apostasy it’s used for two purposes, one, to punish, and two, to purify the flock of members who sit at the margins, and enlist a following. Priesthood leaders call it courts of love. I’ve been in enough disciplinary courts to have developed an ambivalent feeling about that expression.

It’s been written that stake presidents have been released because they would not hold a disciplinary court on someone. As a mission president I decided about six to seven months in, that I would not excommunicate or disfellowship missionaries under my charge. I talked to the priesthood leader above me, and he agreed with me. From that time forward, I was forced to make that decision only once. I broke a promise to myself, but the conditions were extraordinary. It was my decision alone. No one above me demanded it of me.

However, in 99.9% of any other disciplinary issues I had with missionaries, had I been directed from above me to excommunicate any, I would have refused. I was ready to be released had that occurred.

By that time, I had had enough experience with disciplinary courts from being in a stake presidency and a bishop and a new mission president to last me one thousand life times. I no longer believed that disciplinary courts were effective. They’re too brutal for the person going through them. This is especially the case with young single adults. It gives me a headache writing about it.

The excommunicated member can return after repenting and ceasing the activity that caused the excommunication. It has become rare that the expelled person returns.

It’s been documented that there was a stake president who excommunicated three hundred members while presiding over one of the stakes adjacent to the University of Utah. He did this over an eight year period. That to me is more about culling the flock than healing the sick.

Yes, religion is very powerful in my world. How wrong I was to think otherwise.

Will that power dilute? Not for those who believe.

The question is, how many will be left who believe? Only ongoing evolution can answer that.