Wednesday, August 09, 2017

On Mormonism, authenticity, and spiritual epiphanies in Sin City

Mormons apparently settled Las Vegas a couple times. They came, built a fort, left, and then returned with the goal to make the arid desert bloom like a rose. When the Hoover Dam was being constructed, gambling was legalized and casinos built. Sin soon took over, as the story goes. I'll get back to Vegas later.


Theism, or rather, the ontology and metaphysics of traditional theism--and particularly of its Mormon counterpart--died a decade or so ago for me. Was philosophy to blame? Yes and no. It wasn’t that philosophy added anything detrimental to faith. Rather, in the Nietzschean sense of God already being dead and nobody realizing it, the banality of analytic philosophy of religion drew out the obvious. On the other hand, philosophy helped me regain my religiosity, but when it did it was something different. With the help of my ever-depressed philosophical brother, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and his second-generation protege, DZ Phillips, I was able to return to my religion as a participating “believer.” But my belief was never the same. I never returned to a belief in a bearded patriarch overlooking His creations from the heavens. Prayer thus had no celestial listening ear. The idea of a life after death not only lacked sense, it was something to be dreaded and feared. (My ultimate nightmare is to die and wake up, never to be able to cease existing.) Rituals had no metaphysical or ontological efficaciousness (at least not as they are supposed to). Scriptures were the tales of men, and the historicity of Mormon scripture only went back as far as the brilliant mind of Joseph Smith. And those 15 guys in Salt Lake, they were just that. Like all humans, they could be inspired to do and teach great things, but they mostly just tried their best as they clutched tight to antiquated traditions.

So then how was I a “believer” in Mormonism? In my return to religious faith my belief/worship/participation (which are all basically the same thing) reoriented from a list of propositional statements to ways of acting in communion with my brothers and sisters within and without my religious community. God/divinity is exemplified through how we treat the oppressed and downtrodden. (To quote the Schoenberg and Boublil adaption of Les Miserables, to love another person is to see the face of God.) Prayer is a meditative act to orient one’s will. (Next time you bless the food just think of all those who would be desperate to just nibble on the crumbs that hit the floor. You’ll want to quit praying.) An eternal life is a way of living that I would want to continue forever if I were forced into that hell. Sacraments are initiation rituals committing us to communities and to those beyond them. (This became obvious to me years earlier on my mission, where converts were frequently lonely individuals in need to loving and accepting friends.) Scripture is to be read /as/ history, and are thus inspiring guides for social justice. And those 15 guys, well, love ‘em or hate ‘em, they were family. Mormonism was my family.

A few significant things have happened since that time. I married an amazing woman and had two wonderful children. I did graduate work in religious studies, with a partial emphasis on Mormon Studies. I began and continue to manage perhaps one of the most influential independent presses in Mormonism. Oh, and I began to find active participation in Mormonism to be painfully unbearable.

For the past decade I’ve been wearing two hats (or rather one hat that I would occasionally wear backwards to prove my rebelliousness), none of which were authentic to who I am. In Mormonism, if you want to fully participate the hat you wear has to include all of those propositions that I could no longer claim. So, I faked it. This doesn’t mean lying, it just means coming up with different ways to rephrase things or redefine things in my head so as to make everyone--including myself--feel like I fully belonged. It’s possible to do this for a while--some are able to do this their entire lives--but it just became too damn tiring to maintain. So I’d take extended leaves of absence--sabbaticals /from/ church. After a 2-6 month break, I’d try again, but would eventually tire and need another rest. This game went on for a few years until my local leaders basically pushed me out the door for being unable to repeat the proper propositions in the way that they wanted them said. (I thought about returning one more time, but the Church’s hateful homophobic policy was announced a few days later and pretty much shut the door on ever returning again.)

For the most part, no longer needing to wear that hat on Sundays has been nice. However, my academic and professional interests have forced me to wear it on the other days of the week. While not necessary, the hat benefits those who participate in Mormon Studies--and particularly in philosophical theology. (Why *do* theology if one doesn’t subscribe to the standard propositional claims?) Wearing the hat eases the stalwart. Even among academics and scholars, it ensures the faithful that your work isn’t aggressively hostile or unnecessarily critical. And when you are the face and flesh of an important Mormon publisher, for obvious reasons, it’s a hat that you want above that person. With these groups I could at least alter the hat, wearing it backwards to signify that I still *believed* but was a Liberal Mormon (™) or some other signifier of nonconforming belief.

I’m tired of wearing that hat. It doesn’t fit. It’s uncomfortable. It’s too heavy. And when it’s on my head it’s a lie.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love my involvement in Mormon Studies. In some ways, if I have ever felt a calling in my life it is to to do the work (both personal and professional) that I’ve been engaged in. While I’m not a big fan of the ecclesiastical institution run by an overwhelming bureaucratic beast in Salt Lake with 15 [figure]heads, I love the study of Mormon history, culture, scripture, etc. I love being able to utilize these subjects for the betterment of my brothers and sisters within and without the faith. Never have I felt that the hat I was wearing dictated, controlled, or limited my work. On the other hand, I similarly felt that my authentic lack of belief did not affect my work either. If an author ever felt that my editing lacked sufficient orthodoxy or institutional loyalty, they did not tell me.

The problem with the hat is that it just wasn’t me. Since my mutual exclusion/leave from participation in the institutional Mormon community, I’ve no longer felt the need to live by the communal rules of that community. In other words, I drink occasionally, swear frequently, wear colored boxer briefs (and sexy shoulder-revealing tank tops in summer), and wake up most mornings to a cup of coffee. I like doing these things. In fact, I quite enjoy--even love--doings these things. (I’m sure several reading this are surprised by this revelation. Others, perhaps, not surprised. Some, maybe family, disappointed and saddened.)

This, however, was a part of me that I was constantly having to hide under a disguising hat of orthodoxy. Ironically--and perhaps the opposite experience of many faithful--Sundays became the only day that I didn’t have to play the role of a righteous Mormon. (Except when I had to put it on [along with a t-shirt in the summer] and hide the alcohol and coffee to avoid uncomfortable discussions with visiting family.)

Of course, the hat wearing wasn’t absolute on weekdays. While I wasn’t always honest about the hat with my sweetheart (she wasn’t initially amused when I told her that I did not believe in an afterlife at the time of our marriage), for the last several years she has lovingly accepted me for every bit of who I really am, and has shared many of my same views. (As I sometimes put it, while we might not always be on the same paragraph, we are usually on the same page with things.) I also had a close group of friends that I could share varying degrees of authenticity with (though I’m not sure if partial authenticity is actually a thing). But even with them, the hat was always in my back pocket, something that was either ready to be equipped (backwards) for emergencies or something that had to be annoyingly explained (or explained away). What people rarely ever saw was /me/.

As you could expect, this lack of authenticity and public disguising has created a lot of tension in my soul. Putting on, taking off, turning around, sitting on, packing, displaying, pocketing, and quickly slipping on the hat has tired my arms, neck, and head. Hiding the goddam alcohol and coffee is annoying. Worrying about someone seeing me sipping a beer during dinner or getting my caffeine hot on the train has become too much. To make things worse, Mormon culture has suddenly began to require everyone to use acronyms, tags, and short descriptors to define your relationship to Mormonism. At Sunstone a couple weeks ago the introductory line between strangers became “So, how Mormon (or what kind of Mormon) are you?” Name badges literally had a fill-in-the-blank section for this. TBM, Liberal, Believing, Nonconforming, Remnant, Agnostic, Progressive, Post-, Ex-, Gay, Trans, Democrat, etc., etc., etc., etc. Fuck this. Why couldn’t I just be Loyd? Then, of course, a week later I was at the FairMormon annual apologetic conference, where the hat was back on firmly in place.

Hat on, hat off, flipped, off, on, on, pocketed, explained, on, written on with marker to define for everyone else. Always the hat, never me.

Wanna know something? I have great hair. Amazing hair. Thick, dark brown hair.


So this brings me back to Las Vegas, the City of Sin, the Mormon settlement turned into sleepless electric lights, the place I had a spiritual epiphany a few nights ago.

You all know the standard, boring, cliche line about Vegas: what happens there stays there. I prefer to think that what is outside of Vegas stays out of Vegas. Last weekend my sweetheart and I drove south for a nice relaxing and fun three-night date there. I made sure I left my hat at home. I was going to be me. On one of the nights there we ended up in a fun and occasionally deep conversation with a complete stranger. During the chat I said something. The details of what I said are unimportant and rather trivial. In fact the stranger would have thought nothing significant of this short line. But to me the saying of it was absolutely liberating. It had nothing directly to do with Mormonism, but it was something I could never say because of the hat (whether on, flipped, or in my pocket). It was one of the most insignificant but most authentic things I had said to another soul (who wasn’t my sweetheart).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this moment the last few days. While driving to seven hours today to Colorado to pick up our kids, it was the epicenter of all I could think or talk about. I want to--need to--be my authentic self. I can’t wear this hat anymore. I need to my family and friends to be in a relationship with the real me, not the guy in a hat. I need to do my scholarly and professional work as I am, sexy hair and all.

I need to be me. The real me. The authentic me. The me that only the love of my life, a few friends, and a stranger in Sin City have ever experienced.


  1. You know we love you no matter what right? We all have friends who drink alcohol and coffee, so we are not exactly making an exception by allowing ourselves to associate with you. We associate with you because we like you for who you are, Mormon or not!

  2. That's a lonely path, compared to the Fake Hat Mormonism you described. Authenticity is overrated. It seems like the new approach you are describing is also about simplifying and clarifying. It is certainly the case that modern life has become increasingly complex in terms of our social commitments, covering family, work, church, government, real life friends, social media friends, and so on. Social complexity and competing obligations breeds stress. Simplifying those commitments and clarifying one's priorities can prune away some of that complexity and reduce stress. That ought to allow for a little more happiness in life (human flourishing, as a philosopher might put it).

  3. Incredible post here. I wrote a post on W&T a day or so ago that was nominally about excommunication, but what I really think it ended up being about (especially in the ensuing comments on the blog or on various other platforms) was about the *hat*. That is to say, the fear of disciplinary action is the fear of what happens if one takes off the hat, isn't it? And this actually extends beyond disciplinary action -- as you say: the hat is a signal to other folks even outside of a purely institutional standing context.

    My questions are...why still wear the hat (even backwards)? Especially when, as you note:

    On the other hand, I similarly felt that my authentic lack of belief did not affect my work either. If an author ever felt that my editing lacked sufficient orthodoxy or institutional loyalty, they did not tell me.

    There's another thing I want to say, though...Like, I feel like the Sunstone name tags aren't meant to confine people to one particular hat or another. Rather, the Sunstone "more than one way to Mormon" is an attempt of rupturing the "standard" hat...However, the labels serve as a bridge or shorthand -- a bridge from the old narrative (in which there is one way to be Mormon) to the new. It's not that you can't "just" be Loyd. To borrow terms that I think I first heard here on this blog, I think of it as being that "Loyd" is too much to handle at a glance, because "Loyd" is an infinity (and appropriately so), so other labels, while inevitably flawed because they try to contain the infinity of an individual into a totality, do help us to try to handle those infinities.

    But I mean, maybe we're not there yet (and I mean, I can't know of any major skeletons that may be in anyone's comments that would just be beyond the pale), but I think the goal is that by legitimizing all the hats, we're trying to point out that the hats don't really matter as much.

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