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September 28, 2011 News » Cover Story

Choose the Radical 

The Alternative LDS Conference Issue

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It’s that time of year again when the more than 12 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints turn eyes and ears to Salt Lake City for the semi-annual General Conference. It’s a time when the faithful flock to the capital of Zion in their Sunday best to hear words of wisdom from their prophet, apostles and other church leaders, who dispense sage advice and wisdom like a kindly grandfather hands out Werther’s Originals.

While the conference is an opportunity for members to be reminded of valuable church lessons relating to current issues and old-time values, it’s also an opportunity for Mormons to define themselves. It’s likely a welcome opportunity for the faithful, as the media has recently been gripped by Mormon mania. Two contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, have brought their LDS faith with them on the campaign trail. Even the creators of South Park have their own take on Mormonism with their Broadway smash hit The Book of Mormon musical.

The world wants to know—what is a Mormon? Where did these pleasant people with their polygamist pasts come from? What’s with the green Jell-O? What’s with Satan being bros with Jesus?

While misperceptions and myths abound, what is known is that Mormons believe Jesus came to America, they believe in The Book of Mormon and they believe the church president is a living prophet with a direct line to God. But, as individuals, they believe more than that.

Despite stereotypes, you can’t place a name badge on a Mormon that simply says “White/Republican/Male.” The truth is that within the church there is a diversity of Mormon thinkers and members who find their faith also supports their beliefs in anarchy, feminism and protecting the environment. Unlike many conservative Utahns, these members find the lessons of their old-time religion completely consistent with radical or progressive beliefs. It’s not that these Mormons don’t fit the mold—it’s just that their unique beliefs make them the fruit cocktail in the jiggly green mass of the church’s membership.

Anarchy in the HK (Heavenly Kingdom)
The seven months that Mormon anarchist/socialist/pacifist William Van Wagenen lived in Baghdad during the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom were a lesson in power and destruction. While volunteering for a small human-rights organization in the suburbs of Iraq’s capital, a regular morning ritual for Van Wagenen was to awake at dawn to the sound of artillery explosions.

“In the morning, I’d climb to the top of the apartment building and see smoke rising usually four or five blocks away,” Van Wagenen says.

Life in Baghdad then was bedlam at best, as U.S. military forces, Iraqi security forces and myriad militias and resistance factions fought for power on the streets, while kidnappings and murders became routine aspects of life in the newly liberated Iraq.

The scene could be described as anarchy. But that’s not how Van Wagenen sees it.

“There are two different meanings to the word anarchy. There’s the pejorative usage, which in Iraq is like murders, killing and chaos,” Van Wagenen says. “But anarchy as a political philosophy is just the opposite; it’s a highly organized society, but one in which there is either no political authority, or at least a very decentralized, weak authority.”

Van Wagenen, who founded the Mormon Worker, a monthly publication touching on Mormonism’s radical anarchist and socialist roots, found in Iraq a horrifying example of the tyranny of coercive government authority. But the lifelong member of the church who grew up in Utah, attended Brigham Young University and later studied theology at Harvard, was first introduced to anarchy by, surprisingly, a friend from his LDS mission in the Frankfurt area of Germany.

Van Wagenen had been off his mission for two years and was in Germany touring Europe with the BYU soccer team when he went to visit a friend from his mission who was an anarchist. That friend had a message to share and a book that Van Wagenen needed to read—a German book about the Haymarket Square riots in 19th-century Chicago. Those riots resulted in a public bombing that authorities later blamed on German socialists and anarchists in the city. The anarchists were summarily imprisoned and executed, not because of evidence they’d committed the bombings, but because of their radical beliefs.

This introduction to anarchism was eye-opening for Van Wagenen, but it wasn’t the first time he had read about the anarchist way of thinking.

“It just seemed like these are ideas, in secular form, that are taught in Mormon books of scripture,” Van Wagenen says.

The roots of anarchy in The Book of Mormon and church teachings come in many forms and manifestations. Decentralized power is one the church still employs to this day, with its lay clergy and Mormon wards that bestow non-permanent callings of authority for ground-level operations of the church on people in the ward. Joseph Smith said, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves,” a mantra for many LDS anarchists who hearken to the idea of acting on principles rather than allegiance to authority.

Van Wagenen likes the story of the prophet Abinadi in The Book of Mormon who criticized the wicked King Noah for his cruel taxing of his people and corrupt regime. Abinadi was burned alive by Noah, but his bravery inspired a member of Noah’s court, Alma, to convert to Christianity and lead a group of followers from the kingdom and into the wilderness. His followers wanted Alma as their king, but Alma was not fond of crowns.

“He basically said that if you can always have someone righteous as king, that would be great. But since that’s not always the case, you shouldn’t make me your king, and you shouldn’t make anyone your king,” Van Wagenen says. This political equality, he says, goes hand in hand with economic equality that was enacted early in church history with Joseph Smith’s collectivist United Order program. And, in Utah’s early history, Van Wagenen points out, Brigham Young allotted land as needed by the saints, and that the territory held water, minerals and other resources under public ownership—all in living with gospel principles.

You May Be a Mormon Anarchist If …
You like the sound of: “And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi Verse 3)

Van Wagenen understands that people could interpret scriptures how they want, but if 4 Nephi from The Book of Mormon speaks to you, it may be because you’ve got the itch for anarchy.

“People say you can find whatever you want in scriptures, and that’s right—but only to some degree. There are things that are just there,” Van Wagenen says. “In The Book of Mormon, it clearly says that people had all things in common, there were no rich and no poor and that was the most righteous the people ever were. And when they became wicked, they had a society divided up into classes.”

Mo’ Feminists Still Making Waves
For Tresa Edmunds, a self-described Mormon feminist and founder of Women Advocating for Voice and Equality (WAVE), being a Mormon feminist is more about speaking up for LDS women than it is about speaking out against the church’s patriarchy.

“We sustain our leaders,” Edmunds says. “We just want to contribute to the kingdom by offering our voice, our talents and our experience—and leave the big revelations up to the prophets.”

WAVE operates mainly as a think tank for LDS women who want to learn more about the role female members have had in the church and what day-to-day impact a pronounced female voice can have in the church. Unlike some Mormon feminists, WAVE does not agitate for women to receive the priesthood authority, which is reserved for male members. Rather, her organization takes a more diplomatic and grass-roots approach to remind the brothers and elders of the church that the sisters should have a say in basic issues, as well.

“I really do believe [church leadership] are doing God’s work,” Edmunds says. “But we have to serve each other, and I also believe that God isn’t going to send an angel to Thomas S. Monson [when] he can just ask his wife what she feels about something.”

Since the group’s launch in 2010, it’s completed Words of Wisdom, a quote book that’s a compilation of sayings from female leaders in the church that can be downloaded for free from the group’s Website. WAVE’s next project, Edmunds says, is to create another quote book of the church’s references to Heavenly Mother, a female deity often discussed in the 1800s and early 1900s.

For Edmunds, a Mormon feminist is not so controversial.

“Feminism is the belief that men and women are equal. From a Mormon perspective, what that means to me is that each of us should be allowed equal access to develop our talents,” Edmunds says, “and, especially from a Mormon perspective, to contribute to the kingdom.”

You May Be a Mormon Feminist If…
You’ve ever said, “I’m not a feminist, but …”

To Edmunds, that phrase is a pretty big indicator: “You’re a feminist! Just embrace it!” Edmunds understands that labels can get in the way of discourse and action, and says that a Mormon feminist understands that men and women should not be confined to gender roles, but rather valued for their contributions. She points out how the stay-at-home dads she knows feel stigmatized for not being the breadwinner in the family, even though they’re better suited to stay with the family.

“What difference does it make?” Edmunds asks. “If someone is nurturing in the family, why does it automatically have to be the woman?”


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The Latter-day Liberal
Being a Mormon and a Democrat is not unheard of. But an LDS, Democratic legislator who actually gets stuff done is a unique Saint indeed. Sen. Ben McAdams, D-Salt Lake City, however, sees no contradiction or anomaly between his politics and his faith.

“People ask me how can I be a Mormon and a Democrat, and I think for me it’s very simple—I’m a Democrat because I’m a Mormon,” McAdams says.

McAdams is proof that not only are liberal Mormons not outcasts from some lost tribe, but that they exist and can, in fact, be effective policy leaders.

McAdams joined the state senate after working as a senior adviser to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker. He served his first session in the 2011 Legislature and passed the most bills for his party—11 out of 19 proposed bills.

McAdams, who grew up in West Bountiful, says as a lifelong church member, his formative days were apolitical, but that he did hearken to the progressive call—ironically, while serving an LDS mission in the slums of Sao Paulo, Brazil, one of the world’s largest and most impoverished cities. It was there that the disparity between education access for poor and wealthy Brazilians struck an idealistic Elder McAdams as fundamentally unfair.

“Really, on my mission in Brazil is when I became more socially conscious of the opportunities that good public policy could afford people—and that bad public policy could close off to people,” he says.

McAdams hit the Hill strong in 2011. He passed a package of bills aimed at thwarting various forms of securities or investor fraud that so often strike Utah. McAdams drew upon his legal experience in securities law to draft legislation that, among other things, enhanced penalties for those who use common religious or fraternal affiliations to help part investors from their money. Besides his background in securities law, McAdams’ motivation was drawn from outrage at how LDS communities are so often plagued by con men who dupe investors by using their common faith to lubricate their deals.

“I’ve chosen to raise my family in Utah,” McAdams says. His family lived in New York for several years, but he and his wife were ultimately drawn back to Utah. “People here are friendly and welcoming. They’re quick to see the good in others, and I think it’s outrageous ... that so often people will turn that against us and use our trust and willingness to see the best in others to take advantage of people and rob them of their savings.”

It was a series of bills that enjoyed widespread support among his conservative colleagues on the Hill, but not every bill got such a shot. McAdams was unable to move a bill to extend nondiscrimination protections in housing and the workforce for LGBT Utahns past the Senate Rules Committee. McAdams feels that with polling showing a majority of Utahns supporting statewide protections for LGBT Utahns, his bill may have better traction in the next session.

A sensitivity to LGBT issues is another attribute that McAdams says is uniquely tied to his faith. It’s another that goes back to his days as a bright-eyed missionary. He recalls a missionary companion who mentored him when he was new to the mission and struggling to adjust.

“The successes I think I had on my mission—and I’m not talking about baptisms necessarily, but in terms of moral growth and becoming somebody respectable—a lot of those values he taught me,” McAdams says. Years after he left the mission field, McAdams stayed in touch with his former companion and remembers how touched he was when he came out to McAdams and his wife, admitting that he was gay. Having had struggles with the church, he eventually left the faith.

“That was really a big moment for me when he came out ... realizing that it didn’t change anything,” McAdams says. “I still view him like a brother and look up to him and support his decision to be who he wants to be.”

You May be A Mormon Liberal If …
Doctrine & Covenants Section 93, Verse 36 (“The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.”) is underlined in your scriptures.

If you’re familiar with LDS theology, there’s a statement by Joseph Smith that the glory of God is intelligence,” McAdams says. “That speaks to a core LDS value: We value knowledge and learning. Joseph Smith said we should seek learning from the best books, and not just books that support my point of view. If you value learning and education, you may be a Mormon Democrat.”

For McAdams, that’s a principle lost on members who disavow the near global consensus in the scientific world on climate change or evolution. He also points to sermons of King Benjamin from The Book of Mormon who called on his people to serve one another, the sick and the needy.

“If you think that it’s a moral value to care for those who don’t have the opportunities and financial means … that’s a democratic value.”

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A Green-Meetinghouse-Designing-Machine
For architect Jonathan Kland, LDS scriptures and environmentalism go together like Lego building blocks. A young Kland learned the joys of building as a toddler Lego prodigy, building everything he could think of, including a miniature Noah’s ark. As a young LDS kid growing up in Southern California, his parents also taught him something else that would leave an impression on his future—good old-fashioned Mormon cheapness, er, thrift.

“My parents are very conscientious about not wasting—I think that’s a Mormon trait,” Kland says. “Making use of the things we have and not getting something just because it’s new if what you have is useable and still workable—those are the principles I was raised with.”

Kland received his undergraduate degree in construction studies at BYU and a master’s in architecture from the University for Florida before working in architecture firms in San Francisco and Portland. He believes his church’s teachings about being a “good steward” to the Earth mean that conservation is the key to honoring one of God’s greatest creations.

“I think the greatest gift we have been given is the planet—this Earth,” Kland says. “I think that’s where religion plays a role. It says the creation of the Earth is sacred and it helps motivate us through a love of the Earth and a love of God and a love of all living things.”

Kland says many Mormons tend to see natural resources in terms of timber to chop and oil to drill coming from Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 5, where God gave man “dominion” over the Earth. Kland has a hunch for why the scriptures informed his beliefs differently than they did some of his LDS brethren.

“I think it had something to do with not growing up or living in Utah,” Kland says. Growing up LDS outside of Utah was a learning experience for Kland, who became aware of the energy drain homes have on the environment when studying architecture in Florida. He took that passion and now, with a missionary-like zeal, has taken on the crusade of green building that uses few resources and leaves as tiny a footprint on the environment as possible.

Kland worked for the church between 2008 and 2010, during which time he helped draft designs for clean, green and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified meetinghouses.

In 2010, the church built a prototype meetinghouse in Farmington that attained LEED Silver certification and was lauded for its solar-panel energy system and its special plumbing fixtures, which reduce water use by 50 percent. During that same time period, Kland worked to develop a model for smaller LDS meetinghouses outside of Utah. He helped design modular energy-efficient meetinghouses that allow the option of building onto the meetinghouse in energy-efficient ways as the congregation grows over time. Construction on the prototype is expected to begin on a site adjacent to the Kansas City Temple later this year.

You May Be An LDS Environmentalist If …
You have a garden.

For Kland, once you get past debates about climate change, LDS principles of thrift and self-reliance make it easy to understand why it’s easy being green … and Mormon.

“As recently as the ’80s, [former LDS Church President] Spencer Kimball always said. ‘Plant a garden.’ He’d say that over the pulpit,” Kland says. Families who grow their own instead of relying on restaurants or the agriculture industry, he says, help themselves out, as well as the planet. “You don’t get more local or sustainable than that,” Kland says. “That’s a huge step to living off the grid, if you will, and a lot of people do that. Not only is it cheap, but it connects you with your environment.”

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Jack-Mormons Unite!
Jeddah Carrell was an active member of the LDS Church growing up in New Mexico. She served a Spanish-speaking mission in Fresno, Calif., and seven years ago moved to Salt Lake City. That’s when she discovered the church.

“I call it culture shock,” Carrell says, “because I wasn’t exposed to that kind of church in New Mexico.” Carrell went from being one of a small group of Saints in her New Mexico hometown to being one bee lost in the beehive. The expectations and cultural pressure of attendance at church activities were heavy, but Carrell says her “funk” with the church really set in over the church’s anti-gay marriage campaigns.

“I live downtown, and it’s cool to be right next to Temple Square, to be at the hub of this giant organization. But, at the same time, it’s been a little disenchanting to see the church’s stance on gay marriage and Proposition 8 that went down when I got here,” Carrell says. This was when she converted ... to being a Jack-Mormon. Jack-Mormon is slang for a lapsed Mormon, but Carrell soon found that it could be its own identity.

“I don’t feel like I fit, but I know I’m not the only misfit around,” Carrell says.

Later, Carrell and a friend attended a meeting of local atheists out of curiosity. Instead of finding comfort with the godless, Carrell says, she was turned off by all the Mormon bashing.

“It seemed like a lot of angry kids that maybe didn’t get hugged enough by their youth leaders,” Carrell says. Leaving that group, Carrell decided Jacks needed their own, so she founded a Jack-Mormon meet-up group in October 2010. It’s more of a social club, where inactive Mormons can meet and mingle.

“We’ve all come to terms that: ‘I like these parts of the church, but I don’t want to go to church every Sunday, but it’s still a part of me and how I make my choices,’ ” Carrell says. While that discussion inevitably comes up when a new member joins the group, activities are more about being players than haters.

Since the group has started, it’s had house parties and bowling excursions, toured a brewery and gone to a demolition derby, among other activities. Ultimately, Carrell says, it’s been encouraging to see the group, which has over 100 members, grow in size and to see people discover that there are other Jack Saints just like them.

You May Be a Jack-Mormon If …
You’re in the middle of the road.

Being Jack is difficult to identify sometimes. But the important thing, Carrell says, is to own the identity and not feel like an incomplete Mormon. For Carrell, it came down to a middle path.

“I want to meet people, but not at bars and not at church—somewhere in between,” she says. The middle ground, while hard to define, is where Jacks can really find themselves, and Carrell says it can be a fun journey of discovery.

“Its been a fun social experiment learning about myself and where I stand with the church in trying to put a label on being in the middle of active and disgruntled,” she says.

Twitter: @EricSPeterson

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