July 7, 2014

Confessions of a Jack Mormon.

I've just returned from a trip to the coast - Savannah and Hilton Head and Charleston (oh my!)  - and I have so much to share! But I turn right around and fly to Miami on Thursday, so my friend Brian has graciously stepped in while I throw bathing suits and sunscreen from one bag into another.

B + K in Hawaii, 2012
This is Brian

It's difficult for me to explain my relationship with Brian. We met when I lived in Dallas and have (just) a few years and life experiences between us, but his loyalty, adventurous nature, and ability to make me laugh like no other bridges any gaps. Brian is my (unbelievably patient) go-to guy for insight into the (according to him, simple) male mind, and I'm keeping him on speed dial for when I have kids one day - more than anything, I respect him as a father. I'm so thankful for this friendship and the many memories we have together.

So Brian used to be a Mormon. Now he's a Jack Mormon, but I'll let him explain all of that. When I originally reached out to him about doing a guest post, I said I was hoping for a quick "Mormonism 101" because outside a crush on a few of the Romney boys, I really don't know much about the faith.

He gave me so much more. Enjoy....

Is Elvis now a Mormon? Will Mormon underwear protect me from all manner of mayhem?
 A Jack Mormon answers Top 10 questions about Mormonism

By Brian Kagel

For a relatively new, relatively small home-grown American faith, Mormonism has been in the news a lot the last few years. The two biggest stories, of course, were the Broadway smash hit, The Book of Mormon, an irreverent musical send-up of the Mormon missionary experience. Then, closely at its heels, Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid.

These events and a host of others – Napoleon Dynamite is a Mormon! American Idol David Archuleta goes on a Mormon mission! Mormons excommunicate high-profile woman for asking about male priesthood powers! – all have led Time magazine and others to speculate that we are in the middle of The Mormon Moment.

Hyperbole or not, it’s probably worth taking a moment to understand who these Mormons are, scrape below the headline-grabbing news stories, separate out a bit of fact from fiction. To that end, the following are the Top 10 questions I get asked about Mormonism.

But first a quick disclosure/ disclaimer:  I’m a Jack Mormon, which qualifies me to pontificate some on many things Mormon, but also obviously colors my perspective. In short, I was born and raised in the Mormon faith, also known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). At 19 I went on a two-year Mormon mission to Sicily. At 23 I got married in a Mormon Temple. In the meantime I went to Brigham Young University, studied journalism (and co-wrote a book about some of my experiences there). More than a decade later, I drifted from the faith becoming the Jack Mormon I am today. 

1. What is a Mormon?
A Mormon is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Mormons baptize you into the faith when you are at least 8 years old (no infant baptisms) and do so only by immersion in water (no sprinkling or other methods). Latter-Day Saints are often called Mormons because of the Book of Mormon, a volume that Mormons consider sacred scripture. Today there are about 15 million Mormons world-wide, and it is the fastest growing religious tradition in the country.

2. Who was this Joseph Smith guy?
He’s the founder of Mormonism, the faith’s first ‘Latter-day’ prophet. In the early 1800s, he says he established the religion after a series of spiritual visions instructed him to do so (here is that infamous South Park take on the Joseph Smith story). A key thing to keep in mind is that Joseph Smith maintains he wasn’t really establishing a new church; he asserts he was actually ‘restoring’ the original church of Jesus Christ to the earth (the same church Jesus himself had originally established, with a Prophet and 12 Apostles). Today the LDS church has a living prophet at the head, Thomas S. Monson, and 12 Apostles.

3. Where did the Book of Mormon come from?
Joseph Smith says he was directed by an angel to a location in Western New York, where golden 
plates were buried (reproduction pictured here). The plates were said to contain writings from ancient prophets who lived on the American continent from circa 2200 BC to AD 421. A key thing to know about the Book of Mormon is that Latter-day Saints consider it to be sacred scripture, and use it along with the Bible. Mormons believe both books are important and distinct. For example, the Bible chronicles Jesus’ post-resurrection visits in the Middle East, while the Book of Mormon documents his post-resurrection visits in the Americas. Mormons say that if you want to know if the Book of Mormon is truly the Word of God, you should read it and pray about it.  

4. Are Mormons Christians?
Depends on who you ask. Mormons consider themselves Christians, as do some experts on religion. First and foremost, Mormons believe in the atoning power of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. They worship the Lord, not Joseph Smith or anyone else. They read and believe in the Bible. But here’s where it gets dicey:  in addition to the previously mentioned other book of scripture, Mormons don’t believe in the Trinity. They believe that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are three separate, distinct beings (not different manifestations of the same being). Another point of contention with traditional Christianity: Mormons believe in the existence of a Mother in Heaven as well as a Father in Heaven (although they don’t worship her, Latter-day Saints do believe she is our spiritual mother). 

5. Are Mormons racists or anti-women (the media and others sometime seem to think they are)?
Again, it depends on who you talk to. Many would say no to both, while others would say yes. In any event, there are definitely some problematic aspects to Mormon history and current church practices. For example, it wasn’t until 1978 that LDS church leadership changed a long-standing policy banning blacks from receiving the priesthood (a rite that all worthy white LDS males can receive starting at age 12). Still today LDS church leadership is disproportionately white and male. In terms of women, the church has long been an opponent of feminism, excommunicating from the church and firing from BYU a handful of high-profile feminists and other vocal dissenters over the years. These well-publicized cases can cast the LDS church in an unfavorable light, prompting questions about the faith’s commitment to equal rights. Also worth noting:  the LDS church has recently worked to be more transparent on topics like these, through a series of published articles.

6. What’s with all these Mormon kids in white shirts and ties, riding bikes?
Today there are over 83,000 missionaries for the LDS church – many in short sleeve white shirts, ties and bike helmets.  In the past there were significantly more male missionaries than female missionaries, but that’s changing. Many go on missions right after high school or following freshman year in college. Men typically serve for two years, women for 18 months. LDS church headquarters decides which of the more than 400 worldwide missions you go on. Missionary families fund the entire experience, sometimes with help from the LDS church. While serving, you can’t date, listen to contemporary music, or read books that aren’t religious in nature. You aren’t permitted to travel outside of mission boundaries, but you can call home twice a year and write letters to loved ones once a week. Another hard and fast rule: never be apart from your mission companion.

7. Why can’t I go into the Salt Lake Temple (or any Mormon Temple)?
There are over 140 Mormon temples around the world today. Mormons believe temples are sacred, and stipulate that only worthy members of the LDS church can attend.  There are sacred ordinances performed there, like marriages and baptisms (even proxy baptisms for the dead, a controversial practice that has resulted in the Mormon baptism of Elvis, Hitler, Gandhi, Princess Diana and others).

8. If I get baptized Mormon can I have a bunch of wives?
Not anymore. There was a time, early on in LDS church history, when some men – often high church leaders – took multiple wives. That practice officially ended in the late 1800s, but lingered into the early 1900s. Today Latter-day Saints in good standing don’t have multiple wives, but there are some fringe Mormon sects that still practice polygamy.

9. Can you tell me about that magic underwear rumor?
They are called garments and men and women receive them after certain rites are performed in the LDS temple. Garments are considered sacred reminders of promises Mormons have made to God. They look like a white T-shirt and knee-length white boxer shorts and are to be worn under your clothing in place of traditional underwear. Mormon garments have several symbols sewn into the fabric, designed to help turn one’s mind to God throughout the day. There are internet rumors of garments protecting Mormons from bullets, fires and other calamities – but those are just that, unsubstantiated rumors. And yes, you can take garments off to shower, exercise, have sex, go to the beach, etc.

10. Are Mormons allowed to drink Coke?
Sort of probably. In the early 1830s Joseph Smith said he received a revelation from God instructing that his people not use tobacco, drink alcohol, or partake of ‘strong’ or ‘hot’ drink, interpreted as coffee or tea containing caffeine. Today that clearly leaves a few gray areas like Baja Blast Mountain Dew or Red Bull. BYU has eliminated temptation by banning the sale of caffeinated beverages on campus. And LDS church headquarters has declined to address the Coke conundrum directly, leaving Latter-day Saints to sort through that moral dilemma on their own.

Has this prescriptive Mormon health code worked? In many ways, yes. BYU is annually ranked the most bone dry campus in the country. Utah consumes the least amount of alcohol in the nation and is frequently named one of the physically healthiest states in the U.S.

Overall, is there a less cheery side? In other ways, yes again. Utah leads the nation in online porn subscriptions and nearly 1 in 5 women in Utah are on antidepressants. Plus the state overall has the highest rate of mental illness in the U.S.

But even more troubling? Utah consumes more Jell-O per capita than anywhere else in the world, with legislators even naming it the Official State Snack.

I’m not kidding. Good luck figuring that one out.

Have other questions not addressed here? Got other points to make? Feel free to comment and we'll have some fun with this. Thanks for reading.

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