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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mormonism and American Politics

by May Jones (bio)

Image via here.

This past weekend, Columbia University hosted an event called "Mormonism and American Politics: A Conference." Since Columbia is just up the street from me and the conference was free, I felt compelled to go check it out. Plus, two of my fellow ward members, Richard and Claudia Bushman, were presenting.

Upon arriving at the conference, I was struck by how many people were there, and I only recognized a handful of them. As the sessions progressed, I became aware of the fact that the presenters and audience were made up of almost equal parts members and non-members. At one point, a guy who was asking a question of one of the presenters introduced himself as non-LDS, and said he was studying Mormonism. I was intrigued. I was also appreciative of the overall feeling of respect for our religion that permeated the conference. Everyone was there to learn and to explore the many aspects of the LDS faith.

I was almost brought to tears by Sister Bushman's account of the oral history project she worked on in Claremont, California (Being that Claremont High is my Alma Mater, I might have been a little bit more sensitive to the subject matter.) She collected oral accounts of LDS women living in California during the Proposition 8 campaign. As she recited their stories, I could sense the anguish they felt at being torn between obedience and their personal feelings. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been, and I'm grateful that Sister Bushman had the wisdom to record their thoughts.

At another session of the conference, there was a rough cut screening of the film "The Religious Test" which is a documentary based on a Gallup Poll statistic stating that one in five Americans said that they would not vote for a Mormon for President. The filmmakers discussed their efforts in making the film to actually find a person who would fit into that one in five category. My friend raised her hand and said, "I know where the one in five are. They're right here in New York!" She went on to say that she has met many people here who don't know anything about the Mormon church, and has even been asked if she was a Mennonite. I had to agree with her. When I'm interacting with New Yorkers, I always assume that people know I'm Mormon because I have four kids and we moved here from Utah, but that is not the case. In fact, I was chatting with my neighbor from France the other day and the topic of religion came up. I mentioned that we were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and she looked at me quizzically, then asked, "Oh, Protestant?" to which I replied, "The Mormons?" and her face lit up and she said, "Oh yes! Wait, aren't you guys kind of famous now?"

The filmmakers also brought up an observation they had made while making the film that there seem to be two different schools of thoughts and opinions within the modern LDS church. You have the pre-blacks-in-the-priesthood era school of thought and the more modern, progressive generation of Mormons. Having been born in 1977 myself, and having noticed the differences in opinions between myself and those of my parents and grandparents, I have to agree that it's a valid point and an important one going forward in the church.

In the last session, I got a kick out of Peggy Fletcher Stack's presentation on "Mormonism in the Media" which focused on how and why journalists and reporters just can't seem to get it right when it comes to writing and/or reporting pieces on our religion. She shared some pretty funny examples of the press completely messing up our confusing lingo, but she also cited a few cases where the journalists made an effort to do their research and write thoughtful pieces about our faith.

In the end, the main point that I took away from the conference is that it's not Mitt's responsibility to educate the masses on his religious beliefs. That is our job. As members of the church, we need to be approachable and willing to discuss our beliefs candidly. We shouldn't be afraid, because people want to know. And who better to tell them than us? In our blogs, in social situations, at work, we can help people understand who we are. Richard Bushman, in testimony meeting on Sunday, encouraged us to let people see our problems and let them really get to know us. Befriend others, don't stand off. That's the best thing we can do for our religion right now. For me, personally, it will take a great deal of courage, but I recognize the importance of making sure our voices are heard. Instead of someone else telling me what I believe, I'd rather tell them myself first.

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