Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Can a Mormon really become president of the United States?

Can a Mormon really become president of the United States of America?
I converted to the Mormon faith in 1982 while living in Germany. I was working as a nanny and had been raised in England in the Anglican Church. A neighbor and friend casually mentioned to me that she would love to have me come to services with her. At that time, I was essentially not religious. Growing up in London seeing the daily mayhem leashed on English citizens for “the cause” left a bitter taste in my mouth. As a nanny in Frankfurt, Germany, the father in the home was essentially a refugee from his home country of Lebanon – another country torn apart by war in the name of God.
I was a devout Mormon for over 20 years. I married in the sacred temple ceremony in the Swiss temple and was “sealed” to my husband. My religion became my life. I faithfully attended church meetings for 3 hours every Sunday and served as a volunteer teaching in children’s Sunday school (Primary) and the Relief Society – the oldest women’s auxiliary organization in the country.
After a painful divorce, precipitated by the coming out of my sweet husband, Dan, I was surprised to hear the judgment that came from the people whom I had considered friends, indeed brothers and sisters in my LDS ward (congregation). One woman said that his penis should be cut off; another said that she would not let him anywhere near her children if she were in my shoes. The final straw came when his living arrangements did not work out and I invited him to come back to our home and live on our couch until his life stabilized. I had created a monster, by doing what I felt the Savior would have wanted me to do – reach out to another, and in this case, someone whom I had loved for 17 years and with whom I had 4 sons.
I moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, sight unseen after receiving a decent offer to work as a computer technical support specialist for Packard Bell/NEC Canada. My close friend responded that I would hate it (she attended Brigham Young University, a private Mormon University and is a devout Mormon) – “there will be too many Mormons and too many Republicans.” I laughed it off, having lived as a woman of color in during the resurrection of the Neo-Nazi movement Germany in the early 80’s and in the South – “How bad could it be?” I wondered inwardly.
I stayed in Utah for 7 years. Living behind the “Zion Curtain” as non-Mormons call it was thrilling, disappointing, fulfilling and disheartening. I worked as a political appointee to the Mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, a lapsed Mormon. One of my greatest personal and professional accomplishments was being selected by the Mayor to serve as co-chair for an award-winning community building effort entitled: “Bridging the Religious Divide.” Rocky is a former ACLU attorney, passionate, articulate, wonderful, an advocate and not bigoted in any way. When he shared with me that others (in the LDS Church) had privately shared with him that he should not undertake this effort, I was saddened, yet not surprised. There is a chasm in Utah – a chasm that is so deep and wide it creates disharmony and mistrust within seconds of meeting people, based on whether they will drink coffee if offered it, or whether they are wearing the sacred Mormon underclothing or whether they are wearing a CTR (choose the right) ring, or if they have lived “somewhere else” for 2 years, the standard time that a Mormon man spends serving a full time proselytizing mission for the LDS Church.
During that year and a half, I spent hours meeting with individuals from all faiths and even non-believers to discuss what we could do as a community to heal and bridge this chasm. It was clearly evident that not only was there a chasm, there was a huge elephant carcass on the living room floor of the state of Utah, flies swirling around, occasionally feasting on the decaying flesh, and not many people with the courage to address the issue.
The Alliance for Unity is a group that was organized and convened with many of the movers and shakers of Salt Lake, including M. Russell Ballard, an apostle of the LDS Church, John Huntsman Senior, the father of the present Governor, community advocates, an Episcopalian Priest and Rocky Anderson, among others. They held a press conference and read aloud a proclamation stating essentially that Salt Lake City is a great place to live and that we should all learn to live together in harmony regardless of religion and political affiliation among others. This proclamation was to be read over the pulpit of every Mormon congregation the following Sunday at church. In my own ward, some were offended that the Church would make a “political statement” such as this.
The LDS church maintains political neutrality. While the religion is relatively young, the history of the LDS people is a painful one of discrimination, to the point of the Governor of Mississippi, Lilburn Boggs issuing an extermination order – the saints (as they call themselves) were forced to flee from state to state until they were led by Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor after his murder by a mob in a prison, to Zion – Utah – a place far away from their enemies, where they could live in peace, practice their religion and prosper. All was relatively well for the saints until the territory of Utah wanted to become a state – the LDS Church would have to discontinue the long-practice of polygamy – that is, one man marrying more than one wife – in Brigham Young’s case over 40. The saints renounced this practice and even canonized the revelation in a book of scripture that is known as the Doctrine and Covenants.
Mitt Romney was raised in a Mormon home, but even his father realized that he did not want his children to be reared in a state that was homogeneous. They moved to Michigan where his father became the governor. They allowed their guests and visitors to imbibe in alcoholic beverages in their home and even allowed an exchange student to smoke cigarettes in his bedroom during his stay with the family. Mitt’s father found the chapel where religious services were held, and encouraged the student attend the church each Sunday, while his own family attended services at their LDS meeting house. Mitt Romney was elected to be the Governor of Massachusetts and served well, his economic prowess and tenacity helped create financial stability and health insurance for all Massachusetts residents. He then was tapped to take his amazing turnaround skills used to fix defunct corporations in America and fix the mess that was known as one of the biggest Olympic bribery scandals ever. He now has his sights set on the White House. He is a formidable candidate – he has been married for 38 years to his wife, a convert to the LDS Church (she was raised in another faith) – he has boyish looks, intelligence, and a desire to succeed where many others before him have failed. He speaks guardedly of his faith, which continues to be a mystery to many, even after the PBS series about the Mormons that had very high ratings this summer.
Utah is essentially a theocracy – yes, that is a strong word, and the people are represented by their leaders (majority rule), but it is a theocracy nonetheless. The Mormon Church wields considerable power in Utah, their members occupying over 90% of all political offices. The holdings of the Corporation of the Church are rumored to be in the billions (their financial statements are not public). They are spending ½ a billion dollars to revitalize Salt Lake City’s deteriorating Main Street. The headquarters of the Mormon Church is in Salt Lake. Great care is taken to ensure that all looks well from the outside, from the carefully tended gardens on Temple Square to the clothing worn by members of the world famous Mormon Tabernacle choir. 5 of the 7 city council leaders are either devoutly or peripherally LDS at this time. The LDS Church owns a communications franchise, one of the two daily newspapers one of the main TV stations as well as much of the real estate in Salt Lake City. It is a force to be reckoned with. While the Church is one of the world’s fastest religions, there remains a shroud of secrecy around practices in this fundamental religion.
Will President Romney be able to staff his cabinet with the best individuals, regardless of their religion? Will he not take advice or suggestions from the powers that reign at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City? That remains to be seen. The American people have some outstanding choices for our next president – be that a woman, a black man, a Jew running as an independent, or a Mormon – this is America – land of opportunity where anyone can advance to the highest office. I anxiously await the outcome.

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