Thursday, December 18, 2008

Laundry

I'm officially on vacation, and Summer's been studying for a final exam, so I found myself doing a lot of household stuff this week. This includes laundry, which I find tedious but a step above cleaning the kitchen. But I do have a few rants on this chore.

First, I like my laundry simple. Cotton fibers that are machine dry. I hate all these fancy shirts that Summer (and, increasingly, Allyson) wears that are lay flat to dry or line dry. The other day Summer put a shirt in the laundry basket and, since it's a relatively new shirt, checked the instructions. "Machine wash cold, tumble dry low." My six favorite words. That and "Would you like some more pie?"

Second, we wear a lot of fleece. The load of darks yesterday was 80% fleece--kids' pjs, sweats, etc. A few weeks back I washed a full load of nothing but fleece. It's like a low-rent version of George Castanza's dream of being enveloped in velvet.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Heresy of my Faith

I suppose that title could be read several ways. Today I am focusing not on my personal heresies as a Mormon, but on the general heresy that is Mormonism. That too is potentially messy, as various parties will note a variety of aspects of my faith that of heretical--an open canon, modern prophets, temple work, etc. Today's comes from This American Life, in an episode called "Heretics," which never once mentions Mormonism.

(I post this knowing that not everyone is a big NPR fan, and that, even among NPR listeners, TAL is not always a big hit. But I love the show. As I said to my mother-in-law over our Thanksgiving visit, I would invite Ira Glass over for dinner.)

The episode tells the story of a big name in American evangelical Christianity, Carlton Pearson, who began several years ago to preach pretty radical stuff--that there is no hell and therefore all are saved through Christ. This may sound pretty extreme to active LDS folks, but that's what we believe too. Sort of.

Here's the story. In the late 1990s, our protagonist was watching the evening news coverage of the Rwandan genocide while his infant daughter sat on his lap. Pearson had a moment of epiphany as he realized that these dying children were, at the core, the same as his child, but that for some reason their lives would be short, painful, and full of misery and suffering, while his daughter's could be a long, healthy, happy life. Then, according to the faith he practiced and preached, the dying child on his TV screen would be thrust to eternal punishment, while his daughter could be saved in glory. It struck him, as it may strike you, as wrong.

At this point Pearson describes a conversation with God in which he questions the justice of this sort of eschatology. God's response is that the people he sees on his screen will not be thrust to hell, and that hell is man's creation, not God's. The message is, "This is hell, what you see here, and what comes after death is a release from this agony, not an eternal continuation of it."

From here, his ministry fell apart, as he preached what was deemed a heretical doctrine he called "The Gospel of Inclusion." Attendance at his worship services dropped, as some were offended by the word he preached and others found that, without the threat of hellfire, it was easier to go to the lake or the mall on Sunday.

(As an aside, Pearson radicalizes this idea to the point that all--regardless of their actions or desires in this life--will receive the same eternal glory, which is clearly not in line with either Biblical or modern revelation--just in case you thought I was declaring my own brand of heresy...)

But what interests me the most is that the doctrine of "inclusionism" is part of--and I argue, a central, indispensable part of--the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. That which we believe as Latter-day Saints is that salvation is available to all, regardless of when or where they live in mortality. Additionally, we preach that the term "salvation" has a variety of meanings, ranging from salvation from physical death (granted to all people who have ever lived or will ever live as mortals) to salvation from the second death (granted to all but the sons of perdition) to exaltation (granted to those who make and keep sacred covenants, whether in this life or the next). And we believe that those who do not enter into these covenants in this life will have an opportunity to do so in the post-mortal realm. That's a lot of salvation, much more than most Christians would believe in.

This Sunday my message is on Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and my plan is to explore this idea, that through the Savior's infinite Atonement we can and will be saved in a variety of ways. Even the greatest depths of human suffering are swallowed up in that great and last sacrifice. Our deepest sorrows and weaknesses dissolve in the face of God's grace, made manifest in His Son.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Forgive Me, or, How to Have a Happy Marriage

In previous work at the family blog I have mentioned one of my favorite podcasts, Speaking of Faith, a public radio show featuring a wide variety of religious and spiritual thinkers who probe insightfully into a range of interesting topics.

Today I listened to the first part of an episode on revenge and forgiveness with Michael McCullough, a professor of psychology in Florida, who Summer described as "ruggedly handsome." McCullough's research into different animals--including us humans--shows that both revenge and forgiveness are rooted in our evolutionary psychology, and that understanding our instincts towards both emotions--and their resultant actions--helps us with the deep spiritual issues associated with responding to violence. (McCullough also teaches in religious studies.)

The basic idea is that for self-preservation, we are wired to defend ourselves and those we love, but that in order to truly love others, we also have to forgive. In fact, counterintuitively, he argues that in our close relationships, those where trust exists, "you don't put any effort into forgiving. It naturally happens and you move on." Drawing from evolutionary biology, McCullough makes the case that a parent has to forgive its offspring in order for them to survive, and so, as parents, we look past a,lot of little slights from our children.

I think there's a great spiritual truth here, that we have two competing but ultimately complementary instincts to grapple with, and the tension between the two is the struggle of our lives--to protect what is valuable and nurture it at the same time. This is especially true in the context of marriage, where we see too many relationships lost when selfishness and pride collide and derail forgiveness. Again, McCullough's argument is insightful: "relationships that have value in them are ones in which we're naturally prone to forgive." There is an investment of time and energy in our relationships that makes us predisposed to forgiveness in order to preserve and enrich those relationships.

Returning to marriage, it seems that the cause of exploding divorce rates among baby boomers (and,increasingly, my own generation, although the trend here is to not marry at all, avoiding the relationship in the first place) is related to an unwillingness to invest that psychic energy into establishing relationships in the first place, making them easier to dissolve.

I am convinced that Summer and I have made it work because we had it tough early on--we were poor, busy with work and school, and we had a baby--and we had to circle the wagons of our relationship to keep any semblance of sanity. That unity, forged in those early days, makes us more likely to look past each other's flaws and focus instead on the good. (It helps that she's an immensely patient and naturally forgiving woman. My two rules of marital bliss: 1) Strive for unity early on so you can learn to get along [see above], and 2) marry someone better than you.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Gratitude

As I mentioned in an entry at the family blog last week, I am currently working on a talk for this Sunday on the theme of giving thanks. Earlier this week, with this topic on my mind, I noticed the following passages from the Book of Mormon.

In Alma 31 we read of Alma's mission to the Zoramites, and I have always been struck by how the prayers offered by the Zoramites and by Alma represent, respectively, attitudes of pride and humility, even though they use some of the same words.

In verses 17 & 18 we read the words of the vain prayer of the Zoramites, who once a week took turns reciting these same words: "O God, we thank thee[...] that thou hast elected us, that we may not be led away after the foolish traditions of our brethren, which doth bind them down to a belief of Christ, which doth lead their hearts to wander far from thee, our God. And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen."

Here thanks indicate a haughty and condescending attitude, much like saying, "I'm sorry if you were upset by my actions." It's shallow and insincere and trite.

Contrast this with Alma's humble expression of thanks: "O Lord, wilt thou comfort my soul, and give unto me success, and also my fellow laborers who are with me—yea, Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner, and also Amulek and Zeezrom and also my two sons—yea, even all these wilt thou comfort, O Lord. Yea, wilt thou comfort their souls in Christ. Wilt thou grant unto them that they may have strength, that they may bear their afflictions which shall come upon them because of the iniquities of this people. O Lord, wilt thou grant unto us that we may have success in bringing them again unto thee in Christ. Behold, O Lord, their souls are precious, and many of them are our brethren; therefore, give unto us, O Lord, power and wisdom that we may bring these, our brethren, again unto thee."

Note here that Alma, while never uttering the words "thank you" (or "thee," as the case may be), expresses gratitude for the gospel and for the work to which he has been called. And, more importantly, he does something with those blessings. He prays for others, not just for himself. He asks God to bless his fellow laborers and the people they are serving.

This gets me thinking that true gratitude is not only an attitude (to invoke President Monson's famous rhyme), but also an action. In fact, here's a tidbit from my crash course in Spanish (I'm speaking in the Spanish ward and, rather than use an interpreter, I'm translating my talk into Spanish). In Spanish, the term "thanksgiving" can be expressed as "dar las gracias" (a pretty literal rendering) or, as it is found in scripture, "accion de gracias," which implies that we do something. This is a nice concept.

(And if any of my readers speak Spanish fluently, rather than get nitpicky with the preceding paragraph, how about you volunteer to proof my talk so I don't make a fool of myself?)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

I Swear, the Last Thing I Write on Proposition 8...

I’ve never really been one to be undecided on matters political. My presidential votes and my stances on issues have always come pretty quickly, based on both my interpretation of the facts and an emotive or intuitive inclination toward liberalism. So, in what has been an odd election season for me, previous entries here have chronicled my back and forth on the gay marriage issue as it relates to California’s Proposition 8. Logically, I saw (see?) this as troubling, primarily for the precedent of amending a constitution—state or federal—to limit rights, something that we typically don’t do, and that when we do, ends poorly (see Prohibition).

As the debate raged, I was upset, however, by the inflammatory and misleading rhetoric of each side. Those for the proposition resorted to fear-mongering about teaching kindergarteners about homosexual lifestyles, while those opposed to it painted their opponents broadly as intolerant bigots. And once a debate devolves to this level, it’s hard to feel good about any choice.

This has been even more evident in the days since the proposition passed, as the anti-Mormon vitriol has expanded from anger over the election results to attacks on the integrity of the Church and its members. (This reminds me—tough year for Mormons politically. The far right rejects our claims to part of their Christian voting bloc and sends Romney packing. Then the far left calls us bigots for our core doctrines. Rough times. At least both Udalls running for Senate won.)

And it’s here that I have to step back and reconsider what exactly the argument is. If marriage is sought for the legal rights its entails, or even for the public recognition of a meaningful relationship, then I am on board. There are very real rights that I enjoy and that another human being should not be denied simply because his/her most intimate relationship is different than mine. But if marriage is seen as validation of a relationship and grounds for assaulting beliefs that would resist that validation, then I am forced to question a radical agenda that seems to be reaching far beyond rights and toward something much uglier.

This is especially disturbing in the wake of the presidential election results. The gay rights movement has often presented itself as being modeled on the civil rights movement, but it’s clear that the differences matter. No one denies homosexuals jobs or the right to do business, to travel or have access to public facilities. Discrimination in any of these areas based on sexual orientation is illegal, and rightfully so. But to claim that a religion cannot define its beliefs and practices according to its theology is diametrically opposed to the model of the civil rights movement, which operated within a religious context.

In some ways I wonder if these events might result in a public opinion backlash against gay marriage, as people see the hypocrisy of arguments for tolerance from people who refuse to accept religious diversity as part of the pluralistic society in which we live. And perhaps the ugliness demonstrated by both sides of this debate will convince people that we need to step away from the emotionally-charged aspects of the issue and sensibly develop some sort of compromise that allows legal rights for couples while respecting religious freedom and preserving religious diversity. The question then is, “Can we do it?”

Thursday, November 6, 2008

GOP Goodbye?

I stayed home yesterday so Summer and Isaac could recover from their respective colds, and while driving, I caught some talk radio, both Air America style and the right-wing staple; the contrast was fun. Liberals exulted, but did so cautiously, aware that only 8 years ago the Republicans rode a similar wave to control over both the executive and legislative branches, and we all know how well that went.

Conservatives, on the other hand, were wringing their hands, fretting about how they let this happen. For them, this election wasn't about Obama and Democrats winning; it was a watered-down, moderated GOP losing its way. (It was especially fun to hear these folks participate in the sort of self-loathing usually reserved for those of us on the left.) To this theory, I say, "poppycock!" The results of Tuesday's election were due entirely to the self-defeating and short-sighted rightward track of the Republican party since their last huge defeat in 1968. Since then, every major move by the GOP, from Nixon to Palin, has been to move steadily to the reactionary extreme, based on a politics of fear and exclusion and name-calling, and that can only last for so long.

I've been thinking a lot since then about the Republican party, that odd marriage of big business, conservative Christianity, and random libertarianism (gun rights, especially). For years I wondered how that coalition worked, and now, in the wake of 11/4/08, it appears that it didn't really work that well. At the risk of hyperbole, here are some elegiac thoughts on the GOP.

It began with the market meltdown earlier this fall, as the Bush wing of the party called for increased government involvement in the markets, a sort of pragmatic approach, which was torpedoed by the fiscal conservatives, the small government crowd. In some ways this rift may indicate how the house of cards went into foreclosure, as it were. Being the only game in town, government-wise, for 6 years may have made that anti-government aspect of the Reagan-era GOP fade; it's hard to hate yourself (unless you're a liberal).

This was followed by the House republicans falling in line only after getting the requisite pet projects funded in the revised package. To rail against waste and stand for fiscal discipline is fine, but you gotta walk the line too, and hypocrisy has rarely been so evident as with 21st-century congressional Republicans.

After the first bailout plan failed, Timothy Noah of Slate wrote this piece on how this schism might well mark the death of the modern GOP. His argument seems all the more solid after Tuesday's Democratic victories underscored the national discontent with Republican policy toward the economy. It does little good to hate the government when the private sector, left to its own devices, can be so fallible.

A second piece, this one from the new issue of the Alibi, makes a similar case. Ortiz y Pino, who is often a bit of a blowhard, makes the case that, both nationally and here in NM, the GOP fell because it, in his words, "hitched its wagon to a single engine, the Conservatism Express, and rode it close to the top." The idea that the GOP limited its scope to such a narrow ideological range should serve as a warning to Democrats not to let a mandate turn into a suicide run to the left.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

President-Elect Barack Obama

Just a few thoughts from last night. First, I don't think I appreciated the historical significance of what might happen until it happened. I'm part of a generation that is removed from the turmoil and intensity of the Civil Rights movement; the race issues of my formative years had more to do with OJ Simpson than Martin Luther King Jr. But seeing people--black and white--my parents' age and and my grandparents' age shed tears of joy over something that not long ago was literally impossible brought it all home. I am immensely proud of the progress we as a nation have made over a few generations.

I was also touched by Senator McCain's concession speech. His first mention of Senator Obama was met with a round of boos, which he silenced with the most eloquent speech I have ever heard from him. His love of country is something to be proud of, and the dignity of his words meant a lot to me.

I didn't stay up for the President-Elect's victory speech, but I caught bits of it on the TV and radio this morning, and what I first thought in 2004 after his DNC speech rings true again today--this is a man who can inspire, a man whose words make me want to be a better person. Few politicians can do this, and he does it consistently.

My next few entries will address my hopes and fears for the next 4 years, but for today, I will simply reflect on what this momentous event says about this great nation.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Religion & Politics

Two pieces:
  • A devoutly religious student at the local university woke up this morning, excited to vote for the first time, but undecided regarding the presidential race, prayed, "God, give me a sign from above," then walked outside and saw it, a small plane circling the area pulling a sign that read, "Vote Obama Today." (I saw the plane pass by several times a few minutes ago. The rest of the story, however, is fictional.)
  • A prayer for election day--May good people give thanks for the right to vote and vote their conscience. May those entrusted to oversee the voting do their duty justly and fairly. May the various means by which votes are recorded work better than this highly fallible system would dictate. May the results come quickly and be accepted as legitimate. May we as a nation unite, both supporting and opposing the winner as needed to check power and ensure equity. May those elected to offices both high and low execute their duties well. And may we forgive each other and ourselves for the rancor and discord of another long electoral season, finding wisdom and goodness in each of us, rejecting that which is base, mean-spirited, duplicitous, or erroneous, and striving to acknowledge, address, and right those things that ail us.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Is It Still Election Eve If You've Already Voted?

Two quick thoughts for today:
  • I did some surfing around blogs by family and friends today and found several intelligent entries in defense of Proposition 8 in CA. I expected to read blog posts about the issue, given the demographic of the people to whom I am related and with whom I interact. but I was pleasantly surprised with how considered and considerate their thoughts were, and how well they were expressed. Having blogged--poorly, I believe--on the topic a while ago, and having some sense of the vitriol that must characterize this sort of debate in a place so polarized as the Golden State, I have come to expect the vicious name-calling that is floating around. So to read opinions by people I love and respect was nice. And after some soul-searching, I think I would vote for the Proposition, while acknowledging that it is far from a panacea for social ills. But sometimes you do something you don't like because, ultimately, it's the right thing to do.
  • One last observation on the presidential race. The thing that has stood out in my mind over the past few days is the difference in how the two campaigns have been run. McCain's is messy, undisciplined, and marked by extremism. It's a campaign of chaos and passion. Obama's is efficient, inspiring, and organized, with a sense of purpose that transcends policy without neglecting it. It's a campaign of effectiveness and innovation. All of this makes me think that, if a campaign is an indicator of leadership, the choice here is pretty clear.
Let's hope tomorrow goes well, and that the results of the elections, local and national, lead to greater equity, opportunity, and peace, both individually and collectively.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Pennsylvania State of Mind

Good times in the Keystone State. Between the Phillies winning the World Series and the presidential race tightening up in important swing states, primarily PA, it's quite a time back home. (I call the commonwealth "home" because that's where I lived as an impressionable teen, even though it's been nearly a decade since I set foot there.)

Pennsylvania was an odd place to live. Our home was 45 minutes from Baltimore, but a world away from anything even slightly urban. The ward we lived in covered a big area geographically (similar to our current ward, but much more rural) and consisted of a pretty even mix of locals and transplants from the mountain west area; when we went to a BYU-Penn State football game in State College, the ward members represented both schools. Our small town was pretty politically conservative, but there was also an FDR-style liberalism under the surface.

I say this because I recently read a piece in Slate about how both presidential campaigns are redefining the politics of PA with their late burst of visits and rallies. Even though all the polls I see show a huge Obama lead, the 27 votes in Pennsylvania could dramatically alter the race, and the numbers there are getting tighter. Kerry and Gore both won PA, but by narrow margins, and the fact that rural voters, regardless of party affiliation, have very real issues with race makes this a very important piece of the electoral map this year.

This all began percolating in my mind on Sunday, while I was driving to a stake priesthood meeting and listening to "This American Life," which I usually hear via podcast, on the radio. The episode focused on various elements of the presidential race in PA, including Democrats for McCain and labor union organizers converting voters to Obama. Check out the show.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Movie Review

Every two weeks I send out a professional development newsletter for our academic unit at work, and one of my favorite parts is a recurring piece I call "What to Read," a brief synopsis of an article about higher education that I found of interest. I'm thinking of starting a similar feature here, with this as the pilot version.

On of my favorite things is alternative newspapers, the free weekly or biweekly publications found in most mid-to-large cities. ABQ has two, the Alibi and Local IQ, both of which are swell. But I also pick up the Santa Fe Reporter. Much of what one finds in these papers is useless (but the crossword puzzles are quite good, and I often find ads for or reviews of good local dining establishments), but there's the occasional gem.

Such is this piece, a review of "High School Musical 3." Now, to get into the spirit of things, you must know that a) I have no idea what these movies are about and b) I give thanks everyday that we don't get the Disney Channel. My loathing for this sort of movie is intense, but mixed with a dash of indifference, with some haughtiness thrown in for good measure.

So the argument that the (hopefully) final installment of the series is actually a bit of propaganda for alternative lifestyles made me giggle. (I was reading it on the bus while listening to my iPod; I love laughing in that context.) So I shared it with Summer, who laughed heartily. I hope it brings joy to your life as well.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Fun Stuff

Three quick thoughts:

  • The headline in the print version of today's local paper about the conviction of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens on corruption charges reads: "Sen. Stevens Found Guilty of Corruption: Conviction May Risk Re-Election Bid." May?! You can't make up this stuff.
  • On Saturday, both presidential candidates visited ABQ. McCain rallied at the state fairgrounds in the morning, drawing around 2,000 supporters. Obama's event at UNM that evening drew over 40,000. And we're a tight congressional district in a swing state. My argument about cool seems relevant here. Anytime you draw 20 times the supporters (there were estimates that put Obama's attendance closer to 50,000, by the way), you win the cool contest.
  • I stopped by the early voting site on campus the other day and was dismayed that a) it didn't open until noon and b) the line was a good 50 people deep. I despise waiting in lines for anything. I'll try again today.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Big News!

So, as I have mentioned before, I am registered independent, even though I have yet to cast a vote for a Republican. My partisan affiliation, though unofficial, runs deep; in 2004 I left blank the space for a local race in which the Republican incumbent was running unopposed, simply because I could not bring myself to vote for anyone with (R) next to his/her name that year amidst all the Rovian politics of the day.

What a change 4 years can make. I now blog about my concerns with an overwhelming Democratic majority in Congress. And I'm looking for a good Republican. All the big races are out of the question--Obama will make a much better President, Udall's immensely brighter and better than Pearce, and Heinrich, while unappealing, is certainly better than White.

(That reminds me of something we saw over the summer driving to Utah. In a small town in Colorado was a sign that said "Vote White." I hope that was the last name of a local candidate and not a race-based appeal.)

Anyhow, I may have found my man, err, woman. The local DA race pits incumbent Kari Brandenburg against Republican challenger Lisa Torraco. Here's the deal. The criminal prosecution system in ABQ is a mess. Too many people who are arrested never see court because the DA's office doesn't get everything done in time and the defendant is released on a technicality. And while I'm not a big law-and-order guy (either the TV shows or the "tough on crime" shtick), I think this is a problem.

Furthermore, I think the problem stems from the idea of the Big Sort I referred to recently. Anytime one party is consistently in charge, the potential for abuse, waste, and ineptitude arise (Google "Manny Aragon" sometime for a local example). In Bernalillo county, the historical edge by Democrats has created an environment in which power is abused and things go wrong when there is no strong GOP influence to check things (the same thing happens the other way around in, say Utah county).

So--here is comes--for the first time in my life, I'm voting for a Republican. Now maybe I can have some credibility when I speak of transcending partisan politics (but probably not). But Torraco seems smart, and I liked her answers to the local League of Women Voters questions.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Unity

In a comment earlier this week, Stew accused me of replacing rants with thoughtful dialogue, which would seem completely out of place in the blogosphere. Perhaps it's age and wisdom acting up. Maybe it's the mellowing that comes in the autumn. Or it might be that my candidate is ahead.

Or maybe it's General Conference. This morning I listened to Elder Eyring's talk from the Sunday morning session of conference. Like Elder Christofferson's address, which I discussed previously, this seemed a timely message, this one about the need we have to create unity among our families, neighborhoods, and wards. Like several other messages from conference, this spoke of the need to focus on the fundamentals of our faith, that which we share, that which brings us together, rather than the embellishments of faith, the things that make us disagree.

I think this message, which can be captured perhaps best with these words from Elder Eyring: "The miracle of unity is being granted to us as we pray and work for it in the Lord’s way. Our hearts will be knit together in unity. God has promised that blessing to His faithful Saints whatever their differences in background and whatever conflict rages around them."

This is especially important in the context of my earlier comments about how we--both as a nation and as a church--suffer from the sort of homogeneity that comes when we both seek and demand that those with whom we interact most often share our political and social beliefs. As Elder Eyring says, as the Church grows globally, the membership of the Church becomes more diverse, in terms of native language, ethnicity, nationality, and background. If we expect every new Saint to look, act, and live the same way we or our grandparents have lived is not only folly; it is the highest of pretentiousness.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Zion

The next General Conference address that I would like to comment on is Elder Chistofferson's "Come to Zion," a thoughtful and intelligent sermon on how we can become what the Lord wants us to be. As a preface, since his call to the Twelve, Elder Christofferson has impressed me with his focus on basic Christian doctrine as understood through the lens of the Restoration, and he makes insightful points about our faith.

This talk was especially interesting to me in light of my speaking assignment this past Sunday. The topic was consecration, particularly in the context of our Stake Day of Consecration at the temple this Friday; we encourage all members of the stake to attend as many endowment, initiatory, sealing, and baptism sessions as possible, making sacrifices to spend as much time as possible in the temple.

I spoke of three ways in which we consecrate actions, things, or, ultimately, ourselves. The first is through the authority of the priesthood in an ordinance, as in the dedication of a temple or meetinghouse. The second is through sacrifice, as with the early Saints and the temples in Kirtland and Nauvoo, or with many today who sacrifice to attend distant temples or go on missions. Those sacrifices render those actions and those people holy.

The third means by which consecration occurs in when priesthood authority and sacrifice intersect, through covenant. We vow to give all we have and all we are to the Lord's work, and as we live this covenant--doing what Elder Christofferson calls for in living lives of holiness and caring for the poor and needy--we make our lives holy.

Summer and I have been talking about this a lot recently. How can we live the gospel more fully and make more meaningful sacrifices. We need to attend the temple more often, more regularly. We need to set a better example for our children. I need to focus more on teaching my sons to prepare for missionary work. I need to set a better example for Allyson of what a priesthood holder is so she will expect that in her life. I need to be more worthy of the amazing woman I am married to, appreciating more fully her work and sacrifices on behalf of our family, which she often does so quietly.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Called to Serve

Just a quick thought. Our ward primary program is tomorrow, but I'm out of town on a speaking assignments, so I went with the older kids to the practice today. It went well, but here's what stood out to me. At one point, the kids sing "Called to Serve," which is always a tingle-inducing hymn, but I've been thinking more about my mission since the temple was announced in Rome. The other night Summer and I looked through some old mission pictures.

Anyhow, the following thought ran through my mind as the kids sang. In 12 years Ryan will leave for his mission (and I thought I was nervous about him getting baptized next summer!). Now, 12 years might sound like a long time. But here's the scary part--12 years ago I was on my mission. And the years since have gone by quickly.

(As an added bonus, due to their ages, Allyson and Ryan could both be on missions at the same time. My head is now spinning...)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Odd Thought

According to all the polling data I'm seeing (Electoral-Vote.com, Pollster.com, and RealClearPolitics.com), not only does Obama have a good lead, both nationally and in the electoral vote race, but the congressional races also are tending Democratic. And, oddly enough, I'm unsure how I feel about this. The bitter, resentful part of me wants a huge Dem majority with a Democratic president as payback for the 2000-2006 GOP travesty. I'm practicing my smirk already.

But at the same time I'm uneasy about such a monolithic possibility. I'm not afraid of some awful policy decision by a Democratic Congress; I believe that if America is strong enough to survive 8 years of W, we can escape just about anything. But I am afraid that, politics being politics, Congressional Democrats will be bitter and resentful and do something horribly stupid (see health care reform, circa 1993).

So, I'm thinking that it would be wise to vote for GOP congressional candidates. But both of our races--the Senate seat that Udall will win and the local House race--feature such lousy Republican candidates that I can't do it. Steve Pearce is another slow-talking, unintelligent oil man with a drawl, and Darren White has done a lousy job as sheriff because he's so set on imposing and supporting a conservative ideology in a place where that won't work that he would clearly be a poor congressman.

My plea then is to all my out-of-state readers who live in swing states with close congressional races to vote for the GOP candidate and give us a more balanced Congress (Wait, who reads my blog and doesn't live in ABQ, UT, WY, or NY? Nevermind...).

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On the Big Sort

One of the purposes of this blog is to find a way to express my views on issues political and religious in a forum that I am comfortable with. Around the time we moved to this ward--a few months before and a few months after May 2003--I had a bit of a personal crisis. The impending and then actual start of the Iraq War was for me the last straw in many ways. I had just finished 6 years at conservative BYU, broken up with 2 years of a mission. I had endured the 2000 election and its attendant frustrations. We had moved to a rather wealthy and very conservative area of town where a large portion of the ward was involved in the military--either at the Air Force base or Sandia Labs. I was 27 and had spent my entire adult life surrounded by people whose political ideologies were, in many ways, repugnant to me.

This was embodied by the sense of isolation I would often feel, both at church and at UNM. In the former, I was the only left-leaning PhD student in the humanities I knew, while in the latter I was the only LDS returned missionary father of (at the time) two children that I knew. I did not really fit in anywhere.

That got better in this ward, in part because it is more diverse than the previous ward, and in part because I was more involved. I served in the Elders Quorum presidency, and service makes you more caring toward others. (In our previous ward I had "calling immunity" because Ryan was just a baby and Summer had a big calling. Plus, I simply wasn't needed as much.) It was still hard at times, but I found myself getting less and less upset at some of the irrational actions and words of others; when a counselor to the bishop based his spiritual thought in PEC on something W did, I winced, but it was less painful than some testimony meetings in April 2003.

Anyhow, I share this (admittedly too soul-baring) experience to make a larger point about how we segregate ourselves according to our beliefs and ideologies. A book on my wish list these days is The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop, who also writes a blog based on his sociological theory at Slate. The basic idea is that over the past 30 years, Americans have formed new group identities based on their politics, both partisan and issue-based, and often both. This results in the sort of homogeneous communities we see in places like Eagle Mountain (on the right) and Albuquerque's North Valley (on the left). We decide to live near and associate with those who share our politics. And the result, according to Bishop, is the extreme polarization we see today.

My intention here is not to discuss the validity of Bishop's ideas here, but rather to apply this idea to my experience and LDS culture more generally. In the Church we often speak of the importance of supporting and sustaining each other's faith--the idea that the coals stay warmer closer together. But we often struggle to differentiate between building up faith and reifying conformity of thought. This is a common critique of the Church, and one that I find weak, but there is a very real risk. It would have been very easy for me to dismiss the importance of my membership in the Church in March of 2003, and it would have been very easy to not go to Church every week. In fact, we lose a lot of people simply because they don't fit the cultural mold and feel unwelcome.

The key, I believe, is to realize that a testimony of the restored gospel does not equal or require political or ideological orthodoxy. In the lead-up to the 2004 election, a priesthood lesson focused on the importance of being involved and informed in the political system; this quickly deteriorated into a discussion of what political issues Latter-day Saints "ought" to hold. Someone (who has since moved from the ward) referred to a commonly-seen bumper sticker that reads, "You can't be Catholic and pro-choice." He then said the same applies to being LDS. I was carrying baby Isaac at the time, so I was able to conveniently slip out and not say what I was thinking, which was certainly for the best, because I wouldn't have said it with much charity.

But here's what I could have (and should have) been able to say. It's entirely possible to be LDS and pro-choice (or anti-war or pro-drug legalization, though that last one is less likely). There is no temple recommend question about any of these issues. We are asked if we are honest and live the commandments, none of which include voting a certain way. (I recognize the fine line related to California's Proposition 8.) And to expect everyone with whom we worship to share our political beliefs--or worse yet, to demand it--is to participate in both the exclusionary group definition of the hypocrite and the religion-as-commodity mindset of the contemporary megachurch, both of which are antithetical to the gospel of Christ.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Simplicity

My next General Conference report is on Elder Perry's message on simplicity. I listened to this on the way to work this morning and found it timely, both because of world events and my own recent thoughts on the need to simplify our lives. I also dig anything that refers to Walden.

(This was the only illicit book I took on my mission, and while I never read it while I wore the black name tag, I felt better about life just knowing it was nearby.)

I also liked how Elder Perry linked Thoreau's four necessities (food, clothing, shelter, fuel) to gospel principles. Understanding the link between the temporal and the spiritual is at the heart of welfare, which itself means not just well-being, but well-doing. If my needs are simple enough, I can meet those needs and be more able to help someone else. If, on the other hand, I am insatiable in my search for a bigger home, a nicer car, and more toys, I will never be in a place to do good for others.

On a related note, we have decided to keep xmas simple for our family this year (we were a bit extreme with gifts for the kids last year), and with FHE tonight I intend to present this idea to the kids in the context of being grateful for what we have and our responsibility to help others. We will then explain that they will each get only a few gifts and that we as a family will spend more time and energy doing things for others this year.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Conference Thoughts

I'm beginning a new series here as I listen to messages from this past General Conference. Periodically I will comment on a talk that caught my attention. This likely will be less rant-like than most of my entries, but that may be a good thing...

The first message that stood out from the Saturday morning session was by Elder Oaks. He emphasized the importance of the sacrament and sacrament meeting. As I speak in sacrament meeting once a month, I am more aware than ever of the role this event plays in our spiritual lives. And the more I speak the more I realize that what we say matters less than I might like to admit.

As elder Oaks said, "the ordinance of the sacrament makes the sacrament meeting the most sacred and important meeting in the Church." It is not the preaching, but rather the ordinance, and the sermons are secondary. As such, what we say ought to be simple, heartfelt, and presented in such a way as to not distract from or upstage the most important thing we do each week. That is why we are taught to keep our messages short, simple, and based on the teachings of prophets, both ancient and modern. Testimony counts; charisma less so.

I was also impressed by Elder Oaks' emphasis on how we act as we administer and receive the sacrament. The importance of concentrating our thoughts on the Savior was timely for me as the father of children who are learning to develop a relationship with the Savior; my behavior ought to model for them this kind of spiritual focus.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Debate Part II

I'm halfheartedly watching pieces of tonight's debate while halfheartedly grading essays and wholeheartedly eating a bag of chips. And here are some random thoughts:
  1. John McCain strikes me as a genuinely good human being. You can't say that about most politicians, and this may be the first time in my life that a GOP presidential candidate has met the human decency test. I disagree with a lot of his policies, but if he wins, I won't want to move to Canada like I did in 2000.
  2. The town hall format seems to have run its course, no? Isn't it time for a new debate format? Town hall setups seem very 1992.
  3. I just read this at Slate.com: "Even before the credit crisis, the next president stood to inherit more problems from George Bush than he could hope to solve all at once. Now the next administration's burden will include a global financial crisis beyond what any one president, party, or country alone can address." Besides being a severe condemnation of the Bush administration, it also reinforces what I like about Obama--he seems more able to build broad consensus, especially on the international scale, to address not only the issue of terrorism, but also the financial catastrophe.
  4. One last thought from last week's VP debate--I solemnly vow to never vote for anyone who says "nucular." Ever.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Weekend Rant

Wasn’t the VP debate fun? A colleague and I spent all day Friday riffing on the “not answering the question you were asked” theme. Me: “John, what is your family doing this weekend?” John: “I’m really concerned that unchecked climate change will be disastrous.”

But my main topic here is the bailout bill. I am very unhappy that the bad bill defeated in the House earlier in the weak was made worse and then passed. Every nice thing I said about principled GOP representatives is out the window (as is any nice thing I may have ever thought about Pelosi). The congressional mindset of accepting a distasteful piece of legislation only because it includes some “bridge to nowhere”-style pet project is obscene.

(As an aside, this is one of the things I hate about incumbent Senators seeking re-election; my freshman year at BYU I attended a debate between Orrin Hatch and his hapless Democratic rival. Hatch made it clear that his seniority in the Senate made it a terrible idea to vote for the other guy, simply because Utah, as a small state, would get a lot less money without his weight. And he then accused his rival of being a “tax and spend” liberal.)

I know I sound a lot like a Ron Paul supporter, but the only way out of this financial crisis and the ridiculous debt we have as a nation is, as President Monson taught last night (I skipped Conference, but I read up on it here), to live and spend prudently. Here’s how it goes—we need higher taxes, especially on the wealthy, but also on gas and other nonessentials; we need to cut spending, especially on defense, which can happen with troop drawdowns in Iraq; we need to encourage job creation by taxing corporations at a responsible rate, especially the unregulated financial markets and the oil companies that are still making record profits; and, above all, we need to rethink our culture of consumerism.

It is this last idea that interests me the most. We live in a smallish home in a working-class part of town. We have one car, no cell phones, no cable or satellite TV (and a 10-year-old, small TV at that). We send the kids to public school and try to do homemade or inexpensive gifts for birthdays and Xmas. But we still have too much stuff. We eat out too often and make too many unplanned trips to the grocery store (“Oops, I forgot the butter; I may as well pick up some ice cream while I’m out”). My point is that we could do a lot more good—increase our fast offerings, donate to the Church’s Humanitarian fund, give back to those in need in our community—if we were less selfish with what we have.

The topic for my speaking assignment this month is consecration, particularly as it pertains to temple worship. I will be reflecting on this idea for the next week or two, especially in terms of how my ample leisure time and less ample expendable income could both be spent more wisely for the blessing of others.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Some Quick Thoughts on History

As with last week's presidential debate, I caught about half of tonight's debate, so I don't know if I missed any big stuff. What I saw was pretty smooth and unexciting. But one thing caught my attention.

At one point, after Biden had accused the current administration of fouling up national security, the economy, education, etc., Palin jumped in with a point that was very interesting. She claimed that the Democratic ticket focuses too heavily on the past, railing against Bush/Cheney instead of talking about the future. I caught myself nodding in agreement.

Then I thought about a piece I have my students read by David McCullough, who argues that as a nation, we are historically illiterate. He goes on to contend that not knowing history--failing to learn from the past--is not only foolish, but arrogant, a declaration that nothing matters but ourselves.

I see a gospel truth in this, that the most important things we do as Latter-Day Saints deal only obliquely with ourselves. We focus much of our attention (or, at least, we ought to) on the future via our children and posterity and the past through family history and temple work. I think much of the current financial mess comes from a lack of this sort of perspective, that wealth is not a result of our efforts alone, nor is it for us alone.

So I find Palin's (and McCain's, and Bush's, for that matter) unwillingness to reflect on the past and learn from--or even admit--mistakes in Iraq in particular to be very dangerous. If we cannot see where the past 8 years have gone wrong, we are all too likely to make the same mistakes--or greater ones--in Iran or Pakistan or North Korea. So I think this election must be about the past, not just the old "are you better off now than you were 8 years ago" question, but a deeper one of will we be a better people if we continue to follow the current administration's policies.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

In Praise of the Bicameral System

I like the word bicameral. And bipartisan, which usually means nothing and accomplishes even less. But yesterday's vote on the bailout got me to thinking (Warning: The following contains praise of Republican congressional representatives! If that is too much for you to take from me, stop reading now!) about how much the lower house in the US Congress is worth. A large body of politicians, all of whom are constantly thinking about reelection, has made me livid over the years. The impetuous nature of the House drives me crazy. But on Monday, we saw the wisdom of having that body balance out the Senate.

I am very pleased the the House defeated this bill. It gave too much protection to investors who made bad decisions, took much too much from taxpayers, increased an already outrageous debt, and gave virtually no independent oversight to an obscene amount of money. House Republicans who fought their own administration and congressional leadership showed some real spine (millions of outraged taxpayers and a national sense of distrust for an incompetent president helped too...).

I'm not sure how much of the House Republican opposition to the bailout derived from principle and how much came from political expediency (have we ever seen a big, unpopular piece of legislation being pushed by an unpopular lame-duck president 6 weeks before an election?), but all I know is that a cushy deal for Wall Street failed. I'm even less sure how many Democrats voted against it to avoid criticism from their opponents, but I like to think that our Senate race embodies this situation.

We have two congressmen running for Pete Domenici's Senate seat in New Mexico: Republican Steve Pearce and Democrat Tom Udall (disclosure: I support Udall, both because I think he's smarter and more honest and because I like LDS Democrats; there, I said it). Both voted against the deal, possibly to negate any chance that the other would benefit from the unpopular nature of the bill. (Lame duck Republican Heather Wilson, who lost a primary race against Pearce for the Senate seat, voted for the bill.)

Electoral-Vote.org has a good analysis of the vote; read it here.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

That’s Debatable

Just some quick thoughts on last night's debate. I watching ~half of the proceedings, so I welcome comments from those of you who saw the whole ordeal. Actually, this was the least terrible presidential debate I've seen in a while (ever?). No one looked awkward or uneven, and both candidates made a good case for themselves. In a lot of ways, this seems to validate a general sense of what political debates do today: reiterate talking points and energize a candidate's own supporters.

What interested me the most was the exchange over Iraq, which in my mind is the single most important issue, even more pressing than the current economic train wreck. Having opposed the war since it began (and earlier), I feel very strongly that the invasion of Iraq has been the greatest foreign policy mistake of my lifetime, and that the best option at this point is to change course. Even if this is a slight and gradual pullout, it needs to happen, and I'm convinced that a McCain presidency would not be able to accomplish that.

The comments regarding the surge were especially telling. McCain seems to believe that because violence has decreased since the escalation last year, a reduction in combat forces in Iraq will result in more violence. Here's how I see it. The war began without enough planning, thought, or resources. For several years, troops operated in insufficient numbers with an insufficient objective. Petraeus, who for all his faults is a thoughtful and intelligent military leader, was given the authority to make significant changes, not only with the number of forces, but also with the scope of the operations, and it made a difference.

But for McCain (or Bush) to say the surge worked and needs to continue is mistaken. The surge was a correction of a mistake made at the onset of a mistaken war. With violence down and order increasing--and with chaos on the upswing in Afghanistan--it is time to change the focus of the military efforts back to where they should have been all along.

None of this, however, is as important as this fact: Obama will represent a significant change in American foreign policy, from unilateral and impetuous engagement to thoughtful diplomacy and measured military action. McCain will continue the "Bush doctrine" (I love that phrase now); Obama will see it for what it is (fatally flawed) and replace it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ownership Vs. Debt

One of the most annoying aspects of the housing crunch and the negotiations over the proposed Wall street bailout has been the language used when discussing how foreclosure affects the average citizen. The phrase "people losing their homes" gets a lot of play, but no one seems to question what that means. If I am paying a mortgage that I cannot afford and subsequently go into foreclosure, I am not losing my home, I am defaulting on a loan I entered into. But the home was never mine to lose. I have simply lost my investment toward owning that home over the period of several decades.

(As an aside, this is why most demographic surveys bother me. They ask if you own your home or rent. I don't rent, but I also don't own my home; I owe a bank the balance of the mortgage we entered into several years ago. The bank owns the home, and I make a monthly payment--which is still largely interest--as part of a 30-year process of paying off that loan.)

I don't mean to sound unfeeling toward those affected by foreclosure, which harms both the lender and the borrower, but I feel that this inaccurate language is at the heart of the current financial mess. We mistake physical possession with ownership, debt with asset. This seems to be the core reason for the failure of big financial institutions--they take on risky investments, overvalue those investments, and rack up impractical debt.

The same seems to be the case at the federal level. The big financial debate of the 2000 race was what to do with the budget surplus (can you imagine, a budget surplus?): saving for big future expenditures like Social Security and pay down the debt or make reckless tax cuts that favor the wealthy? In hindsight, the correct decision is obvious, no?

Along these lines, Scott, in a recent comment, argued that presidential policy has little effect on the economy, and, while I agree that blaming or crediting a particular president for the overall economy is fallacious, I think the administration does affect the economy. Fiscal issues like taxes are an obvious part of that, but so too is the general attitude toward the budget. Spending money on a war of choice without appropriating for those funds is an example. So too are smaller unfunded mandate issues like NCLB. In each of these cases, the administration has played fast and loose with fiscal responsibility, which has in turn created a culture of financial recklessness that has permeated both Wall Street and individual consumers.

I think we need to change our cultural mindset away from possessions and toward value, both in terms of material goods and our spiritual well-being. Summer and I are talking about Xmas gifts for the kids, and we both feel that they don't need more stuff (and we don't really have room for more stuff--maybe we should have gotten a bigger mortgage and bigger house when the debt was flowing like honey), so we're thinking about gifts that carry more meaning, like the hand-made books Pat has made for her children's families the last few years. That's the sort of thing with real value.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

On Hypocrisy

I've been thinking about this idea ever since Palin was announced as McCain's running mate and made her utterly transparent stab for disaffected Hillary supporters. The ensuing "respect" for Senator Clinton from the right was unabashedly insincere, as was much of the following week's RNC, with its odd calls for "change." But the last two weeks have pushed this rant to the breaking point.

Here's the big one--last week's Wall Street debacle and the proposed bailout. $700 billion to prop up financial institutions that had made incredibly bad business decisions, paid obscene CEO bonuses (to what does obscene apply more readily in that phrase--the bonuses or the CEOs?), and in essence reaped what they had sown over the past 20+ years with rampant deregulation and the Bush II administration's gradual undoing of the major advancements of the New Deal?!

When I first heard about this proposal I thought, "wow, that's a serious move by the federal government." As I've thought about it over the past few days (and read pieces like this one in Slate and some insights from my favorite ESPN writer), I've become convinced that this is the apex of the current administration's reckless approach to spending, the sort of thing stereotypical "tax & spend" liberals would do, only here the philosophy is "tax cuts & spend," a disgusting approach to fiscal policy.

If Obama or any other Democrat were to suggest nearly one trillion dollars in spending for the poor, "conservatives" (Can they really be called conservative if they favor this kind of radical approach to government intervention in the free market? Could it be that conservatism has finally died, and is taking Wall Street with it? Who would have thought that I'd miss it?) would call for their old standby, impeachment (apparently fooling around with an intern is the greatest misdeed of all time, but completely undermining both the Constitution with abuses of executive privilege and the market-based economic system of capitalism is okay?).

I am convinced that this sort of favoring of the rich is not only financially inequitable but also spiritually iniquitous, and that this sin is far greater than most of the things social conservatives care about so much.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Old is Just a State of Mind

No, this is not a dig at McCain. In fact, this rant isn't even political.

I've decided that Summer and I are the oldest people our age out there. Here's why.

  1. We recently subscribed to the local newspaper. I can't think of anyone under the age of 40 who gets a paper delivered to their home. Actually, I only know a few people who get the paper, and no one under the age of 50. Most people our age get all their news from the Internet. New-fangled contraption...
  2. We don't have cell phones. Do you know anyone who's not a) in prison, b) Amish, or c) over the age of 70 who doesn't have a cell phone? Summer's lobbying for one after her most recent trip (short version: she got bumped from her Seattle-to-SL-to-ABQ flight and went through Denver, getting in at 11 pm instead of 9. Had I a phone, she could have informed me.), but I'm being stubborn.
So, here's the challenge. Do you know anyone under the age of 40 who subscribes to a newspaper and does not have a cell phone? Betcha can't find anyone...

Saturday, September 13, 2008

On Job & Other Interviews

Last year I had an interview at my current place of employment for an administrative position for which I was woefully underqualified. When I got a question about my experience administering budgets, I replied, “I don’t really have any.” It was kind of a relief, and the rest of the interview was quite relaxed, as everyone in the room knew I was not the right person for the job and wouldn’t be getting it. And I think they appreciated my honesty.

Having served on several hiring teams and being on the interviewer side of the table, I believe that frankness and directness in answering questions like that one are invaluable. I loathe the applicant who tries to fake an answer and insults my intelligence in the process. It is better, I think, to say honestly, “I don’t know” than to try to fake it.

I say this because my first thought after watching part of Palin’s interview on Thursday night was, “Wow, she’s immensely underqualified and she thinks she can bluff her way out of it.” The repetition of non-answers, the constant use of her talking points with no elaboration, the stalling tactics (how many times did she say, “You see, Charlie”?)—it was all painful to watch. It was like the worst job interview performance ever. I just hope the American people are as good at hiring as that interview team a year ago was, because I could do a better job as Associate Dean than she could as vice president. And I have no budget experience…

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A Local Piece

This semester I am back teaching some classes at UNM, which I greatly enjoy. This also means that I am reading the campus paper, the Daily Lobo, regularly again. This article on the front page yesterday caught my eye. Here's the skinny. A UNM student saw a booth for a campus-based Christian fraternity and asked about joining. Easy enough. But no good, as the student in question is LDS. To quote Summer, "really?!?"


Now, as a BYU alum, I don't know much about fraternities, and I work under the assumption that they can invite/accept who they want, but this seems like pretty overt discrimination. But that's not the interesting part. To me, what's fascinating is the theological issue: what does "Christianity" mean?


My take is this. To be a Christian is to profess faith in and seek to live by the teachings of Christ. Doctrinal differences have marked the (often ugly and violent) history of Christianity, but that's the basic definition as I understand it. Even in the midst of 19th-century anti-Mormon persecution, the claim was not, "They are not Christian," but "They practice a weird form of Christianity."


But in the past few generations we have seen a gradual narrowing of that definition based on a very limited interpretation of both Biblical texts and the history of Christianity. I find that immensely troubling, especially in light of the marriage of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and the politically extreme right. It seems that theology exists for many only as a means of excluding others, not to seek a deep, meaningful relationship with deity.


It's this sense of exclusion that bothers me the most, on both a theoretical level and a practical one. Let's start with the latter. Imagine if visitors at an LDS service or social event were told that they were not welcome. That would make missionary work grind to a halt, wouldn't it? And in terms of what that sort of approach would mean philosophically, how pretentious do you have to be to claim the right to determine what another can call him/herself?


I'm interested to hear what others have to say about both the specific event and the larger implications, especially in terms of an exclusionary ethos. What does it mean to define someone else for him/herself?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Big One

There are a million reasons why I am glad I don’t live in California: the traffic, real estate costs, Santa Ana winds, Disneyland, Californians, etc. But the number one has to be the bizarre role of voter initiatives and proposals, which exist in many states (not much in NM, though) but seem to have their roots in the most populous state in the union. To me, voting on laws is, to use a term that gets too much play by the right, un-American. In a three-branch government, we elect legislators to enact laws, an executive branch to enforce them, and a judiciary to ensure the constitutionality of laws. Skipping the whole process seems narcissistic of voters and an abdication of the duties of the legislature. It just bugs me.

The good folks in the Golden State seem to have taken this to the extreme by making constitutional amendments a matter of electoral politics, and the new big issue is this year’s Proposition 8. (I’m on the outside looking in, but will a simple majority make this part of the state’s constitution? Is it that easy to amend the constitution of California? Doesn’t this freak everyone else out?) Here’s why I oppose the proposition, and why, if fate had me in California, I would be torn on what to do in November.

I believe in the separation of church and state written into the Bill of Rights and espoused by the founders of this nation. The tyranny of state religion in Europe, as well as the early history of what would become the first 13 states in this nation, convinced Jefferson, Madison, Adams, et al that there could be no freedom without freedom of religion. That initially was meant to permit a narrow band of orthodox Protestant faiths (and in some places tolerance of Catholicism), but, being what it is, America soon invited new religious expressions.

Even with the constitutional protection afforded to religious expression, the early founders of my faith were the objects of immense and indefensible hate and violence. Brigham Young is rightfully acknowledged with having created one of the most religiously tolerant political atmospheres of the late-19th century, in part, I believe, because he and his contemporaries had seen too much of religious intolerance to permit it in the Salt Lake Valley.

But I also believe that both church and state—when operating ethically—must permit both expression of faith and expression of doubt, that the non-religious (and even the irreligious) must have the same rights to conscience as the ardent believer. To act otherwise is to invite hypocrisy and scorn, the polar opposites of faith and love.

In our day this also translates to an acknowledging of diversity regarding sexual orientation. The leap may seem big, but here’s how it goes, in my mind. I believe that marriage between a man and a woman, solemnized by the authority of God’s priesthood in a House of the Lord, binds husband and wife together through the eternities. Most people on the earth do not believe this, and, as such, do not live the lifestyle I have chosen to follow. I have no legal right to deny them the right to marry simply because they do not marry the way I do or live the way I do. And to pretend to have such a right would make a mockery of the faith I profess.

Among those who believe differently from me are those who believe that a consensual sexual relationship between two adults of the same gender is moral and acceptable. To deny them the legal rights I enjoy as a married man is, to me, no different than denying that right to a non-Mormon couple, or a non-sealed Mormon couple. My belief is different than theirs, but in a political sense, no more or less valid.

Recently, the church published a document explaining why it supports—and asks it members to support—Proposition 8 in California. (Full disclosure--I have thought about this issue for years, and this is the first piece that made me consider the argument against same-sex marriage to be more than blatant homophobia--my first read was a profound experience.) The document makes some solid claims and presents some true concerns with the widespread legal recognition of same-sex marriage. It largely amounts to a slippery-slope argument: if same-sex marriage is legally recognized, then institutions that do not recognize those unions face government prosecution and the repeal of tax exempt status. To me, this is a fallacious argument. That is not to say that such efforts would not happen, but they seem separate from the immediate issue; to me, marriage and religious freedom (which must be protected, and if threatened, must be defended), while related, are not inseparable issues.

As an aside, I am very disturbed by language such as this, from the Protect Marriage website: “earlier this year, four activist judges based in San Francisco wrongly overturned the people's vote, legalizing same-sex marriage.” This issue, like many, seems to rely entirely on demonizing one branch of the government. Judges should be activists; their job is to ensure that laws are enforced equitably and that such laws do not violate the higher law of the constitution. That’s activism by nature

The right seems convinced that the only way to fight a ruling they don’t like is to call out, intimidate, and threaten judges. Or, ala Bush administration, ignore and disobey the courts of the land. It’s a dangerous mentality, one that I hear too often in church. For example, at a recent Stake Conference, a visiting Area Authority—with no background in law—spoke on this issue and referred to the 5-4 decision in California permitting same-sex marriage as judicial activism against the will of the vast (61%) majority of California voters from the 200 initiative. In the judiciary, a 5-4 decision is as valid as a unanimous one, at least in legal terms. To denigrate the judiciary, rather than fighting for intelligent legislation and the sane crafting of legal positions, is a real threat to American democracy.

So, what would I do if I lived in California? I’m not sure, which may sound odd, given the rhetoric of the preceding paragraphs. I believe strongly what I have said, but at the end of the day, would I vote against the proposition? I can’t say for sure. I also believe that prophets and apostles lead this church for a reason—namely, that they have wisdom and inspiration that I lack. It would be a much harder decision in practice than in theory. So, for the time being, I’ll rant, link to sites such as this, and be thankful I live here, not there.

Friday, September 5, 2008

A Thinking Conservative

After my last post, it's easy to read me as more liberal than I am (although the unexpected agreement from the in-laws is nice), so here's another voice. My wife's former roommate's husband, a die-hard conservative, blogs about his concerns about Palin. Good stuff. Note too Becky's comment--among the best stuff I've read online in some time.

Here's my beef with Palin. It's easy to dismiss the VP candidate as irrelevant, but haven't we had 8 eight years of an angry, far-right, ideological, stubborn, gun-toting, hard-headed, stiffnecked #2? I'm just sayin'...

Another time I'll explore in more detail the hypocrisy of this past week in the McCain camp (here's a preview--the Hillary love-in that was last Friday's announcement of Palin on the ticket--what was that?!?).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

My First Purely Partisan Piece! (Here, at Least...)

I've tried to make this blog pretty neutral so far, but it's time to pull out my bias. I'm voting for Obama (no big surprise, right?). What is surprising is how many other people are too. We are a traditionally conservative people, but a lot of members of the church are at least considering voting for the Democratic nominee. Some are doing this because they don't like McCain, either because he's not conservative enough (they call themselves "suicide voters," which is awfully macabre) or because of how the anti-Mormon mess of the GOP primary went down, or because of growing anti-Bush sentiments across the board. But here's my thinking.


To me, Obama represents a real chance to move beyond some of the most divisive issues of our day. Some see this as simply a reinvention of Clinton-style triangulation, but it seems to me that we have a sincere sense of rethinking the big issues, from government spending to abortion to foreign policy. This transcends simply opposing the Iraq war and speaks to a deeper desire to address the things that haunt this country. How do we cope with a history of racism? How do we best combat threats to national security? What is the relationship between government and individuals?

I also like the thoughtfulness embodied in what Obama is doing. When he speaks, I don't hear the sharp barbs of much contemporary political discourse, nor do I hear the lofty but empty rhetoric ascribed to Obama by both the right and some disaffected Hillary supporters. Instead I hear a level of intelligence that, to be blunt, has been decidedly absent from the executive branch (and I don't mean that simply as a jab at Bush; I feel that the entire administration has been defined by recklessness, from tax cuts to foreign policy). I happen to like my politicians smart; I like when they weigh issues and seek solutions.

This definitely seems to be missing from McCain. His maverick persona is fine, but he says and does too many reckless things to earn my trust. From the infamous "Bomb Iran" karaoke number to his stuporous look when asked to define "middle-class" to the erupting mess that is Palin, I get very nervous when I imagine someone of McCain's temperament with his finger on the button. The "experience" angle notwithstanding, I find McCain unnerving.

There's one last issue: my faith. I believe in the power that resides in all of us to change, and I believe that this message is at the core of the life I seek to lead. Mormonism itself is based on the doctrine that we can, through the grace of God, become better, but only by acknowledging the need to abandon what doesn't work and to then adopt what does work, to repent and change. And I believe this applies not only to individuals, but to families, communities, and nations. If a war is unjust, you end it. If economic disparity leaves millions poor while a few live in wasteful wealth, you seek reform. If a great nation is viewed by both its allies and enemies as reckless and short-sighted, you reconsider your vision of the world and your place in it. I don't expect that 20 January 2009 will be the end of these woes (I'm still jaded enough to be a bit cynical), but I believe that it can be a step in the right direction, and I believe that is worth my meager vote.

Along those lines, I recently found a piece that, while several months old, is compelling, and captures many of my own thoughts about the junior Senator from Illinois.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

A Slow Day, But a Great Site

I'm back to work today, so I will blog briefly to pass along this site, called Electoral Vote, which provides statewide poll results and aggregates that with electoral data to give a red/blue national overview. Really interesting; according to the most recent statewide polls, Obama wins the electoral vote, picking up Iowa, Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico. And Virginia's a dead tie. There's also a run-down of the Senate and interesting house races. Some of the polling data is old, but on the whole this is good enough that I've subscribed to the RSS feed...

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Me and My Veeps

It’s interesting how the past two weeks have made the presidential race intriguing, especially in terms of who the candidates have tapped as running mates. This has got to be one of the most bizarre decisions one would ever make, as a candidate is choosing not only a good potential vice-president (and maybe even president, right?), but also someone who can help make a campaign successful. Traditionally regional implications came into play, but since Clinton/Gore in ’92, this seems to have gone by the wayside. But energizing the base or attracting swing voters or covering a weakness at the top of the ticket can be a big deal, and I think we’re seeing that this year.

So, here’s my take. In the lead-up to Obama naming his #2, I was afraid he would choose Biden, who always seemed a bit phony and stilted; maybe I just disapprove of old men with slicked-back hair. I hoped for Richardson, but the way he’s let himself go after dropping out of the presidential race (what a terrible beard!) probably did him in. Hillary seemed logical, but the baggage she would bring was too much of a risk. I kind of hoped for a black horse candidate, but I sincerely hoped it wouldn’t be Biden.

I’ve since warmed up (a bit) to ole Joe, especially after hearing parts of his speech at the DNC. He’s more down-to-earth than I expected, and I like that he takes the train (I love trains…). But I’m still not crazy about how such a DC insider fits with the Change idea, and Biden may be too much of a Senate institution. (I’ve got a second theory about parties nominating the elder statesman from the Senate for President, ala Bob Dole and John Kerry; the short version is “bad news for McCain.”) Ultimately, he’s probably a safe pick, and I guess I was trained to think of Obama as eschewing the safe route.

Palin, on the other hand, is anything but safe. She may energize the evangelical base (but I still see a lot of those voters staying home because they don’t see McCain as one of them; this may not hurt him much on the red states, but it may make a difference in tight congressional races there), but I doubt how well she can attract the Hillary voters. I’ve read some stuff about Hillary supporters who wept for joy on Friday morning and will take any woman on the ticket, but I don’t see that being widespread enough to make a difference. Maybe I’m being na├»ve…

Here’s what I find interesting about the Palin choice. She seems to represent a new generation of conservative, religiously-oriented, post-feminist women politicians who skew right; think of W winning a majority of married women voters. I don’t know what this means, but Roe v. Wade seems to factor very little into these voters’ minds, and I think it’s fascinating.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

The word “convention” comes from Latin roots for “together” and “to come,” meaning that a convention is something—be it a gathering or a system of standards—that facilitates interaction and mingling. Wow, that was as boring as I thought it would be…


You see, I watched very little of the DNC last week, and I plan on watching very little of the RNC next week. I remember watching intently in ’88 and ’92, and even in ’00, but I can’t take it anymore.


Here’s my issue with conventions—the speeches. Despite my earlier praise for cool candidates’ ability to speak rousingly to people, I have come to despise political speeches. The main issue to me is applause. I know that to be in politics requires a certain level of self-importance, but I would much prefer a politician who said at the onset of a speech, “Okay, hold your applause until the end.” To me, that would be the ultimate in political cool.


Instead, what we get is a world in which every stump speech, acceptance speech, concession speech, State of the Union address, and county fair pie baking contest results announcement is punctuated by ridiculous amounts of wasted time. If you have something to say, in my mind, you don’t have time for sycophantic clapping. That’s why I prefer the post-State-of-the-Union rebuttal. One person, a camera, and no applause. For me, that is much more meaningful.


This brings us to the real issue I have with both political conventions specifically and contemporary politics generally, one that in some ways counters yesterday’s rant on coolness. Style over substance. To me this was epitomized in the primaries by Romney and Edwards, whom I find entirely devoid of substance, but who can talk slick and wear their hair even slicker. This is certainly not a new complaint; people have argued this angle for a long time. But in a postmodern world a sound bites, YouTube mash-ups, talk radio, 24-hour cable news, and, of course, insipid bloggers, we seem to expect this.

Here’s my hope. I see a lot of intelligent dialogue among all the inane drivel in new media, and as young people raised online come of age, they will expect not just slogans, but accomplishment, not just attacks, but action. I think you’re seeing a glimpse of this in the campaign, as both candidates have gone out of their way to say nice things about the other (McCain’s ad Thursday night was radically different than the GOP strategy of ’00 and ’04, and if I hear one more nice thing about McCain from Obama, I might adopt the AZ senator as my grandpa). I’m sure the gloves will come off soon, but for now, it’s been refreshing, and I think at least part of that is due to a changing electorate.

Friday, August 29, 2008

It Begins With Cool

I’ll start by easing into this blog. My background is not horribly important, but it may be worth a moment or two. I’m generally left of center, but less so than I was 10 (or even 5) years ago. I’m a bit disillusioned, but not completely cynical. I was against the impeachment of Bill Clinton on the grounds that perjury is not “high crimes and misdemeanors.” I’m (somewhat) pro-choice because I can’t accept the idea of politicians deciding over the consensus of medical professionals, and as a man I find telling a woman that her reproductive decisions will be made by (mostly) male politicians to be the epitome of crassness and pretension. I have been against the Iraq war since day 1 because I find wars of aggression to be indefensible.


At the same time, as I slide into my 30s (I’ve been at work on this for a few years now), I find my views on gun control, taxes, and health care sliding to the center (or, in some cases, the right—at times I think the 20-year-old version of me would not like the current me much…). Perhaps I’m slowly becoming a libertarian more than anything else.


So, with that out of the way, here’s my first rant. Most of what will appear here over the next few weeks will focus on electoral politics, particularly the presidential race. Here’s my new theory of presidential campaigns: coolest candidate wins. That’s it. At least since I was born, every presidential race has been won by the cooler candidate. (Admittedly there are some outliers, such as Carter in ’76 and HW in ’88, neither of whom was really “cool,” but both faced even less cool opponents, so the theory still holds, even at the low end of the spectrum.) Reagan, Clinton, and, to a lesser extent, W all won by being cooler than Carter and Mondale, HW and Dole, and Gore and Kerry, respectively. There’s a reason the cool ones have been two-termers.

Here’s why, I think, this theory holds. It’s one part high school politics—people like people who are cool and poised. As much as we bash celebrities and famous folk, we admire those who have “it.” Perhaps we hope to see ourselves in them, and perhaps we hope that they will fall once they ascend to such heights.

It’s also one part spin. Cool candidates overcome scandal; they’re called “Teflon” and “slick” for a reason. They spend less time on the defensive and more time framing their arguments for themselves. They don’t get ugly under pressure (think JFK vs. Nixon in the famous ’60 TV debate). And due to their coolness, when they speak to people, they inspire them; even if you don’t agree with the candidate’s platform, you find his words both moving and reassuring, ala “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” or Clinton post-OK City, or W in NYC days after 9/11.

What does this say for this year? In some ways, it’s a bizarro 1976 or 1988, with a high cool quotient. Obama has been able to overcome Jeremiah Wright, the fist bump New Yorker cover, and the 3 am ad. None of it has stuck well. And his 2004 DNC keynote is one of the coolest political speeches of my lifetime.

On the other hand, McCain came back from a dead campaign a year ago, which is pretty cool. And his maverick shtick is certainly cool. His age works against his overall coolness, but the POW experience is cool in ways that other veterans-turned-politicans’ backgrounds typically aren’t.

Ultimately, however, I think that Obama wins a head-to-head cool duel, and here’s why. I saw a piece from his trip to Europe and the Middle East last month when, visiting troops at a military base, Obama drilled a three-pointer. With cameras rolling and (likely) dubious troops filling the gym, the kind of condition that rattles pros, he nailed the shot. Very cool. Maybe presidential contests would be best conducted as a game of horse or poker, to see who holds up under pressure and stays cool. It'd at least be better than the "debates."