Monday, December 17, 2018

Captain Moroni's Gritty Reboot

Captain Moroni is a fascinating character to me, so I decided to give a novel treatment to one episode from his career—when the exiled Chief Judge Pahoran recruits his help to reestablish the Reign of the Judges while the Nephites are still under Lamanite attack.  I wrote it because I think Captain Moroni is a badass who needs to be properly depicted as a monster and because I think Pahoran is kind of the unsung hero of the whole incident.  

I tried to stay pretty true to the bare-bones narrative in the Book of Alma, filling in my own details and interpreting the existing characters in the mythos according to their actions instead of according to what the scriptural editorials have to say.  It was actually a lot of fun to re-imagine "classic" stories from my youth and I'll admit to taking a certain pleasure in my iconoclastic approach.

I never have enough good reasons to use the word "iconoclastic."  Seriously, say it out loud.  It's a great word.

Also, Moroni's extreme and uncompromising brand of political philosophy seemed like a particularly relevant thing to explore in the safety of a fictional universe.

Anyway, the ebook link is above if anyone wants to take a crack at it (paperback is in the works).  It's written so that zero knowledge of Mormonism should be required, but I would imagine that those with an LDS background will probably get a little more out of it.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Devil Church

Over the past few years, I've been getting progressively more interested in a rock band called Ghost.  Beyond their fantastic catalog of eclectic, metal-infused melodies, they appeal to my ex-Mormon appreciation for blasphemy and sacrilege by presenting themselves as a singing Satanic papal figure backed by a group of nameless ghouls on various instruments.

They don't sacrifice goats onstage.  They're not that kind of Satanists.  They're theatrical, tongue-in-cheek devil worshipers who draw upon the long, messy history of religion for inspiration in their flip-the-script lyrical style.

[gratuitous mid-concert camera phone shot]

Tobias Forge, Ghost's frontman who has portrayed a string of different servants of Lucifer on several tours, was recently interviewed in the New York Post and, as always, I was impressed by how insightful, how rational, and how generally non-evil he was:
The problem with religious doctrine, as with politics, because of its ability to give people authority, it has a tendency to attract people that want authority for all the wrong reasons, and that is what it has done across all time....  But, then again, in all fairness, I am not saying that there shouldn’t be faith. It’s completely different things. The belief in something bigger and supernatural is not the same thing as linear religion.
Let's compare and contrast this devil-praising shock rocker with the illustrious Dallin H. Oaks, apostle of God and heir apparent to the mantle of prophecy after Nelson:
We live in a time of greatly expanded and disseminated information. But not all of this information is true. We need to be cautious as we seek truth and choose sources for that search. We should not consider secular prominence or authority as qualified sources of truth. We should be cautious about relying on information or advice offered by entertainment stars, prominent athletes, or anonymous internet sources. Expertise in one field should not be taken as expertise on truth in other subjects.
We should also be cautious about the motivation of the one who provides information. That is why the scriptures warn us against priestcraft. If the source is anonymous or unknown, the information may also be suspect. 
Our personal decisions should be based on information from sources that are qualified on the subject and free from selfish motivations.
Okay, first of all, I'm contrasting Oaks's words with the words of an "entertainment star," but the reason I have a greater degree of trust in what the musician has to say is because of the content of his statements, not the source of the statements.  That's an important thing that Oaks is trying to sidestep—that stars, athletes, and anonymous internet sources can share truth.  Should we assess our sources to try to make sure they're being honest?  Obviously yes.  Should we assume a source is wrong or selfish or dishonest if it's anything other than an LDS scripture or an LDS apostle?  Obviously no.  When we're seeking truth, the substance of a claim or argument should matter more than the status, vocation, or anonymity of the person presenting it.

Nowhere does this apostle say anything akin to "to be fair" or offer any kind of praise for anything he opposes.  At no point does he validate the thinking behind opposing concepts.  He uses the word "should" frequently to instruct behavior instead of less absolute words like "tend" that leave space for complexity.  And perhaps most importantly, he refuses to acknowledge that ecclesiastical leadership is particularly attractive to people who crave authority—because he's always too busy defending his own:
Whoever exercises priesthood authority should forget about their rights and concentrate on their responsibilities.
—Obliquely smacking down Ordain Women in the April 2014 General Conference
I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them.
 —Refusing to admit in 2015 that his infallible institution had mistreated LGBT people
It's wrong to criticize the leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.
Responding in a 2007 documentary to clarify a less pithy version of this he taught in 1986
For further contrast, let's go back to Tobias Forge, a man who doesn't seem to present himself as an unassailable authority:
I am not against the idea of believing.  I am not an atheist ... The whole institution of Christianity being based on that book, being based on the premise that he was conceived out of nowhere—it's kind of hard to believe.  But on the other hand, I do believe in the idea of a historic person named Jesus that was a kind of chill dude who was just telling people to chill and be nice to each other.  And he got penalized for that.  So I'm not dismissing the whole thing as bullshit.  But I definitely believe that tormenting other people because of the Bible and for that to be—for lack of a better word, Gospel ... I think that is not very nice.
Does he come off as absolutist and authoritarian?  No.  Does he seem more open-minded, more empathetic, and less obsessed with the status of his own institution than Oaks is?  Absolutely.

I just think it's amusing that a man who's penned such a moving piece of musical praise to Lucifer (mostly as a parody of worship songs) is somehow more respectful, more aware of nuance, and more open to other ideas than some of God's chosen mouthpieces.  But, then again, there will always be people who call evil good and good evil.  Dressing up as a Satanic pope doesn't mean you can't be a thoughtful, perceptive, inclusive person—and dressing up as a Priesthood authority doesn't mean you can't be a thoughtless, uncompromising, abusive person.

Oaks is equal with parasites and moving without eyes.  Ghost just wants us to come together, together as one.

That last bit probably sounds dumb to everyone except Ghost fans.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

So Long, and Thanks for All the Shiz

When the November 2015 policy came out, I was furious.  I couldn't sit with how blatantly the church was punishing its gay members and leveraging their own children against them.  In the days following the leak, I wrote a page-long letter to LDS headquarters outlining how completely the apostles had lost any kind of moral compass and requesting that my name be removed from the records of the church.  

I didn't send it.  I was concerned that local leadership may inform my mother that I'd resigned.  I didn't want to cause her more heartbreak beyond what she'd already experienced merely from having an inactive son.  But it feels increasingly more important to send a message to the Church Office Building that their authoritarianism is immoral and indefensible.  Should local leaders choose to inform my parents of my personal decision, it will be they, not I, who have hurt my mother.

I also have nephews to think of.  Of course, more broadly, I support Sam Young's quest to help protect children from the shaming and grooming that too easily result from invasive questions from priesthood authority figures behind closed doors.  But isn't it worth risking my mother's disappointment to try to help protect her grandchildren—and countless other innocent kids—by adding my voice to a chorus that informs the apostles that their inaction and insouciance and imperiousness are not things that people are going to continue to tolerate?

I received confirmation of my resignation from on October 30th.  It needed to be done.

As I side note, I find it kind of interesting that my ordinances have now been revoked as a matter of procedure.  My baptism and confirmation no longer count.  But it seems incongruous that what had been established by God's appointed bishops and elders and high priests could be undone with something so mundane as an administrative task completed by an unknown bureaucrat.  If it takes magic to create something, shouldn't it take magic to destroy it?  How can the sign-off of an employee in the Confidential Records department have the ability to undo what the power of the Priesthood put in place?

Either some of the rules of Mormon mythology are inconsistent or the apostles have to hold periodic temple rituals to perform ordinance nullifications for batches of resigned apostates. 

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Notes on the Saturday Morning Session

Russell M. Nelson might be proving himself the busiest prophet in recent memory, making public statements and procedural changes left and right.  The big news as we began this general conference of the church was that the rumors were indeed true—the three-hour-block is going the way of polygamy.  Nelson announced the two-hour Sunday schedule taking effect in January and then let his enthusiastic underling Quentin L. Cook discuss the dry administrative details.

I wasn't able to watch all the sessions of conference this time around (aw, shucks).  But that doesn't mean there wasn't a lot I disagreed with.  I'll jump right in, as usual.

I testify to you that in the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the temple and after our beloved prophet petitioned the Lord for revelation to move forward with these adjustments, a powerful confirmation was received by all.
—Quentin L. Cook
My issue with this is that Cook talked about pilot programs in Brazil and in other unspecified locations around the world.  He talked about getting feedback from members who had used the brand new manuals for the "home-centered church-supported curriculum."  I get the sense that when God told us to "study it out in your mind" before praying for guidance, he wasn't talking about pilot programs or polls or focus groups.  Did Nelson really need to supply God with numbers and spreadsheets and projections before receiving revelation?   Cook's description of how this decision was made sounded distinctly corporate and hardly revelatory.  

We can and should find joy when we face hard things.
—M. Joseph Brough
I sort of liked what he was saying, although I wish he'd avoided using the phrase "hard things" so frequently, especially when he discussed people who might have caused our "hard things."  It was a nice sentiment to remind us that we shouldn't let our struggles blind us to the good things in our lives, and I certainly respect his ability to avoid any hackneyed metaphors about darkness, sunlight, clouds, or maybe eclipses.  But his message fell a little flat because so many of the "hard things" his audience faces find their genesis in his institution.  It's as hollow a platitude as your boss telling you to keep your chin up and focus on how great your next paycheck will be because you're working twelve hours of mandatory overtime today.  I get what you're going for, and it's nice of you to try to say something encouraging, but...I'd greatly prefer it if you hadn't caused me this trouble in the first place.

He described to me the heartache he experienced in his life while vainly seeking lasting joy amidst the momentary happiness the world has to offer.  Now, in his later years of life, he experienced the tender, sometimes nagging whispering sensations of the spirit of God guiding him back to the lessons, practices, and the feelings and spiritual safety of his youth.  He expressed gratitude for the traditions of his parents and in modern-day words he echoed the proclamation of Enos:  "Blessed be the name of my God for it."  In my experience, this dear man's return to the gospel is characteristic of many and is repeated often among God's children who leave for a time only to return to the teachings and the practices of their youth.  
—Steven R. Bangerter 
Stop.  Giving.  My.  Parents.  False.  Hope.  You.  Assholes.  

You're just making this worse.

Yeah, my mom and dad did a terrific job teaching me the lessons, practices, and feelings that a good Mormon couple should teach their kids.   That doesn't mean I'm going back to church.  I'm not about to fall back into the same mindsets and attitudes that shaped me as a child because I understand how false, manipulative, and damaging those mindsets and attitudes are.  And, as far as Bangerter's experience goes, which is implicitly conceded to be anecdotal evidence, I think it's time to dust off this old gem that seems to make an appearance here every six months or so.

I believe it is less a question of whether our children are "getting it" in the midst of our teaching, such as while striving to read the scriptures or to have family home evening or attend mutual and other church meetings.  It's less a question of whether in those moments they're understanding the importance of those activities and more a question of whether we as parents are exercising faith enough to follow the Lord's counsel to diligently live, teach, exhort, and set forth expectations that are inspired by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It is an effort driven by our faith—our belief that one day the seeds sown in their youth will take root and begin to sprout and grow.
—Steven R. Bangerter
This is basically an admission that the brainwashing is more important than the comprehension.  It doesn't matter if your children understand what you're telling them, it just matters that you're telling them anyway because God says so.  And then the nonsense you're feeding them will be so deeply ingrained in their mortal experience that it will form the foundations of who they are and make it that much more difficult for them ever to abandon the worldview you programmed into them.

That's totally healthy.  This guy should write a book on parenting or something.

"Is it still safe and wise to bring children into this seemingly wicked and frightening world we live in?"  Now, that was an important question for a mom and a dad to consider with their dear married children.   We could hear the fear in their voices and we felt the fear in their hearts.  Our answer to them was a firm, "Yes, it's more than okay!" as we shared fundamental gospel teachings and our own heartfelt impressions and life experiences.  Fear is not new.
—Ronald A. Rasband 
And, pray tell, Ronald, who was it that introduced such fear into your children's lives by convincing them that the world is wicked and frightening?  Was it prophets and apostles, who preach fear from the pulpit so that their followers will carry the message into their homes and teach their children to be afraid too?  So you're basically trying to sell us the cure for the disease you're spreading?

Fear is most certainly not new, that's for sure.  It's been a useful tool in Mormonism going back to the days of having to let your husband marry other women so that God doesn't destroy you.  Today, when we're taught to fear the wickedness of the world, we become more likely to insulate ourselves from the practices and beliefs of the general population, which helps us stay true to those seeds our parents sowed at the church's behest so many years ago.

It's a testament to the depth of the fearmongering within Mormonism that Rasband's daughter actually asked him this question.  Every Mormon knows that one of the very first commandments God gave us was to multiply and replenish the Earth.  How much terror must have gripped Rasband's daughter for her to, as a faithful Mormon, have actually thought that maybe the right decision was not to have children?

And this isn't important enough to merit an actual quote, but I also found it amusing that Rasband made reference to "stand ye in holy places" like 20 minutes after Nelson and Cook told us they were lowering the expectation for how much time we should spend in the chapel each Sunday.

We must not allow procedural details to obscure the over-arching spiritual reasons these changes now are being made.
—David A. Bednar 
With that one line, he essentially invalidated the entirety of his buddy Quentin's address.

Rather, the power of the savior's gospel to transform and bless us flows from discerning and applying the inter-relatedness of its doctrine, principles, and practices.  Only as we gather together in one, all things in Christ, with firm focus upon him, can gospel truths synergistically enable us to become what God desires us to become and endure valiantly to the end.
—David A. Bednar
How can an apostle use a form of the word "synergy" without a trace of irony and still maintain that he represents a religion and not a corporation?  Perhaps I'm a little over-sensitive to this kind of talk because I've recently had to listen to a lot of company propaganda at my new job, but this just reeks of meretricious nonsense.  It's designed to sound impressive, but it's almost entirely filler.  "Applying the inter-relatedness?"  Come on.  All he's doing is trying to make his Nelson sycophancy sound as sickeningly fancy as possible.

I believe that the sequence and timing of these actions over many decades can help us to see one united and comprehensive work and not just a series of independent and discrete initiatives.
—David A. Bednar
The moral of the story here is that God plays the really, really, really long game.  If you can cite the different approaches and focuses of the "administrations" of different prophets across the generations and twist that data into a demonstration of an underlying trend, I applaud your logical flexibility, I suppose.  Because that's always a great trait to have.

I think this was a risky approach to take, anyway.  I remember sitting in my BYU religion class before I'd started to drift away from the church and wondering why it was that President Howard W. Hunter was particularly gung-ho about the Book of Mormon.  And why Hinckley was so obsessed with building temples.  It was still God's church the whole time, so why should the changes in focus align so perfectly with the changes in mortal leadership?  Bednar's review of procedural shifts from prophet to prophet should serve as a reminder that the church is led by men without any divine hotline at their disposal.  If God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, the simplest explanation for why his church doesn't mirror that characteristic is because we had a different prophet yesterday than we do today and we won't have this current prophet forever. 

We need to be cautious as we seek truth and choose sources.  We should also be cautious about the motivation of the one who provides information.  That's why the scriptures warn us against priestcraft.  If the source is anonymous or unknown, the information may also be suspect.  Our personal decisions should be based on information from sources that are qualified on the subject and free from selfish motivations. 
—Dallin H. Oaks
I might be able to write an entire book about everything I despised about this hateful man's speech, but let me try to hit the major bullet points.

Yes, we need to be cautious as we seek truth and as we choose sources.  Yes, we should also be cautious about the motivation of the one who provides information.  But the person echoing the scriptural warning against priestcraft fucking practices priestcraft himself!  We know thanks to MormonLeaks that apostles earn a six-figure stipend.  Plus, let's see if Oaks makes any money by, I don't know, selling his theological musings in book form.  I wonder if Deseret Book, the publishing arm of the church, has anything for sale written by—oh look:
It takes an unbelievable level of arrogance for this guy to preach against priestcraft.  But Oaks, as I've come to understand, can always be counted on to be a pompous mouthbreathing dickhead.

Then he decides to warn us that anonymous sources should be judged based on the anonymity instead of on the substance of the claim or the supporting evidence behind it.  And then he doubles down on his hypocrisy by making sure we know how crucial it is to make sure our sources have no selfish motivations.  He's revered and fawned over worldwide by church members, might soon wield more power than any other apostle, has what is clearly above average financial stability because of his ecclesiastical position, and supplements whatever the church gives him with his Deseret Book deals.  But I'm sure he has no selfish motivations when he tells us to toe the company line, right?

I'm always sad when I hear of one who reports a loss of religious faith because of secular teachings.  Those who once had spiritual vision and suffer from self-inflicted spiritual blindness, and as President Henry B. Eyring said, "Their problem does not lie in what they think they see, it lies in what they cannot see." The methods of science lead us to what we call scientific truth, but scientific truth is not the whole of life.  Those who do not learn by study and also by faith limit their understanding of truth to what they can verify by scientific means.  That puts artificial limits on their pursuit of truth.
—Dallin H. Oaks 
For giggles, let me concede this point briefly.  Let's say seeking verifiable scientific evidence puts artificial limits on our pursuit of truth.  Inversely, wouldn't seeking supernatural confirmation imply an artificial expansiveness of the truth?

But now onto my real argument.  Not every flaw in the church-approved process for determining truth is based on a clash with the scientific method.  I didn't abandon my faith because of cosmology or archaeology or evolutionary biology.  It was fucking logic.  There are too many contradictory doctrines, too many emotional atrocities inflicted on faithful Mormons by a supposedly loving God, too many scriptural ifs with non-functioning thens and conspicuously absent elses.  I didn't put the Book of Mormon in a centrifuge and run tests on it.  I didn't examine its chemical composition.  I read it and applied its principles and discovered that too little of its instructions made rational sense and most of what did make sense didn't work.

Not to be that guy who likes to call people on their specific logical fallacies, but I think it's fair to say that Oaks's entire line of reasoning here is what you'd call a strawman if he and I were talking face to face.

I will now speak of restored gospel truths which are fundamental to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Please consider these truths carefully.  They explain much about our doctrine and practices, perhaps including some things not yet understood.  There is a God, who is the loving father of the spirits of all who have ever lived or will live.  Gender is eternal.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Wow, he's not pulling any of his punches today.  Apparently, the second most fundamental doctrine of the church is pretty unkind to the transgender crowd.  There's no ellipses in that quote because this is precisely the order in which he presented these "gospel truths."  Here are some fundamentally important things to know:  there is a God, and don't get that sex change operation.

There's really not a lot to say about that other than...goddamn, what an asshole.  Even considering the Mormon doctrine that gender is assigned of God and an eternal individual characteristic, did he really have to be so unkind as to make it sound like the second most important thing he had to say?  Couldn't we at least push it a little further down the list so that maybe some people who feel that they were born in bodies that don't reflect their true identities don't feel marginalized and disrespected and, I don't know, maybe unloved?   Can't we maybe soften the hateful rhetoric towards this group of human beings because the way they've been treated, especially within Mormonism, has put them at a drastically higher risk for suicide?  Okay, so maybe there was more to say than goddamn, what an asshole, but it's worth saying again.

Goddamn, what an asshole.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is properly known as a family-centered church.  But what is not well understood is that our family-centeredness is focused on more than just mortal relationships.  Eternal relationships are also fundamental to our theology.  Family is ordained of God.  Under the great plan of our loving creator, the mission of his restored church is to help the children of God achieve the supernal blessing of exaltation in the celestial kingdom, which can only be attained through an eternal marriage between a man and a woman.  We affirm the Lord's teachings that gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose and that marriage between man and woman is essential to his eternal plan.
—Dallin H. Oaks
Just a quick pivot to hating on the gays, and then back to bashing transgenderism.  It's a flawlessly executed move.  Even if all these horrible doctrines were legitimately ordained of God, he's completely incapable of finding kinder, softer ways of presenting them.

I suddenly understand why Oaks was a jurist and not a doctor.  Can you imagine this guy's bedside manner?  Dr. Oaks would sweep into your hospital room, ask you how you're feeling, and then when you complain about the pain, he'd reply without a trace of humor, "Then you probably shouldn't have had pancreatitis, then."  His approach is unbelievably cold—this is how it is, if you don't like it, that's your problem.  He has no trace of empathy, no interest in understanding what other people with other experiences have gone through, and clearly no patience for anyone who believes differently.

Anyone who understands these eternal truths can understand why we members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints think as we do and do as we do.
Dallin H. Oaks
What I don't understand, though, is how a member of any religion can believe that "think as we do and do as we do" is a well-penned turn of phrase. 

First, we honor individual agency.  Most are aware of the restored church's great efforts to promote religious freedom in the United States and across the world.  These efforts do not promote just our own interests, but according to his plan, seek to help all of God's children enjoy freedom to choose.
 —Dallin H. Oaks
Yeah, legal freedom to choose and divinely granted freedom to choose are not the same thing.  Free agency, in the doctrinal Mormon sense of the term, can't be taken away by any government.  Exercising it in certain ways can be outlawed, but we don't yet have the technology to proactively force someone to make a particular choice.  So I don't even understand what point you think you're making here.

And your little crusade for "religious freedom" absolutely was for your own interests.  Let's not pretend you don't stick your nose into politics whenever gay marriage might become legal or whenever a hot-button issue like immigration or medical marijuana seems to intersect with the church's priorities.  Let's not pretend like you don't have an unhealthy level of influence in the Utah state house.  Let's not forget that your #FreedomForAll videos a few years ago were basically whining not about any actual legislation but instead about perceived cultural persecution for your homophobic beliefs.  At least in the United States, there's no growing movement that I'm aware of to make Mormonism illegal or even homophobic doctrines illegal.  You're just tired of being hit on the nose with a rolled newspaper whenever you spread your shit around and this is your way of trying to save face by protecting your reprehensible interests a little more gracefully.

We're sometimes asked why we send missionaries to so many nations, even among Christian populations.  We receive the same question about why we give many millions of dollars of humanitarian aid to persons who are not members of our church and why we do not link this aid to our missionary efforts.  We do this because we esteem all mortals as children of God, our brothers and sisters, and we want to share our spiritual and temporal abundance with everyone.
Dallin H. Oaks
I'm...sorry, this is a thing that actually happens?  People ask the apostles why they give humanitarian aid to non-Mormons?  Why the hell would anyone ask that kind of question?

Also, even if you claim to esteem all mortals as children of God, you certainly do not want to share your spiritual abundance with all of them.  You don't excommunicate people because you want to share your spiritual abundance.  You don't declare those in non-heterosexual relationships as apostates because you want to share your spiritual abundance.  You certainly don't force children of people in those relationships to postpone saving ordinances because you want to share your spiritual abundance.  And let's not forget that, prior to 1978, it was clear that you weren't interested in sharing any spiritual abundance with certain racial groups.

And you certainly do not want to share your temporal abundance with everyone either.  The church is notoriously protective of its financial information, and this year's MormonLeaks discovery of 32-billion-dollar investments of probable church-owned companies implies that the "many millions" Oaks is so proud of constitute a small fraction of the church's temporal abundance (and, unlike in past years, Mormon Newsroom no longer publishes the dollar amounts of the church's monetary donations).  Sure, it appears that the church does a lot as far as humanitarian aid, but much of it is the volunteer work of selfless local members, not necessarily huge cash donations by the organization itself.  We don't know exactly how much cash the church does donate, however, because the leadership is so tight-lipped about their finances.  Personally, I think a valid theory for this tendency is that they know that their humanitarian donations are a mere pittance in comparison to what they have the resources to give.  At the very least, Nelson and the apostles are smart enough to realize that releasing financial details and donation details would expose their parsimonious ways to an embarrassing level of scrutiny.  But, again, since they don't release financial information, that's only a theory.  If they're as wonderful as they say, it would be easy for them to exculpate themselves by sharing details.  

Third, mortal life is sacred to us.  Our commitment to God's plan requires us to oppose abortion and euthanasia. 
 —Dallin H. Oaks
Interesting.  Doesn't your commitment to God's plan mean you support the freedom of choice?  As in, women should be free to choose what to do with what is, for a time, part of their own bodies?  And terminally ill people should be free to choose how to deal with their own suffering?  And Mormons should be free to choose their own opinions on topics such as these without being required to take any particular stance?

I care very much about mortal life too—about preservation and quality.  That's exactly why I disagree with Oaks on both issues.  And I'm not preaching pernicious doctrines that lead teenagers to take their own lives, so maybe my claim to hold the value of life in such high regard is a little more believable by default.

Our knowledge of God's revealed Plan of Salvation requires us to oppose current social and legal pressures to retreat from traditional marriage and to make changes that confuse or alter gender or homogenize the differences between men and women.  We know that the relationships, identities, and functions of men and women are essential to accomplish God's great plan.
Dallin H. Oaks
You know when you say that it sounds pretty ridiculous to most people, right?

We're on a planet designed by an omnipotent God.  He's had eons to work out his perfect Plan of Happiness.  The plan has the power to exalt us like God himself.  And you're telling me we can still flummox this thing when women take on traditionally masculine characteristics?

That was another West Wing reference (one-minute clip for those who didn't get it, which was probably everybody).  Perhaps it wasn't my best effort, but I think the analogy is valid—the idea that something so comparatively microcosmic as people's personal decisions about gender and identity can foil an omnipotent creator's plans in any way makes about as much sense as a cell phone bringing down a passenger jet.

Finally, we are beloved children of a heavenly father who has taught us that maleness and femaleness, marriage between a man and a woman, and the bearing and nurturing of children are all essential to his great Plan of Happiness. 
Dallin H. Oaks
Dude, you already made your point.  You don't have to circle back to it again just to piss people off.  We get it.  You like traditional gender roles, you like heteronormative relationships, and you like it when people subscribe to rigidly binary and purely biological definitions of gender. 

Opposition is part of the plan and Satan's most strenuous opposition is directed at whatever is most important to God's plan.  He seeks to destroy God's work.  His prime methods are to discredit the savior and his divine authority, to erase the effects of the atonement of Jesus Christ, to discourage repentance, to counterfeit revelation, and to counterdict individual accountability.  He also seeks to confuse gender, to distort marriage, and to discourage childbearing, especially by parents who will raise children in truth. 
Dallin H. Oaks
So many of these "prime methods" are confusing to me.  Can Satan even erase any effects of the atonement?  I feel like that's not how it's supposed to work.  Does Satan counterfeit revelation?  I mean, I guess there were "false" revelations in early church history from Hiram Page and James Strang.  And I highly doubt that Oaks is bothering to take a swipe at the likes of Chris Nemelka.  Is that a veiled shot at Sam Young, who believes he's being Christlike by challenging the church's lackluster approach to sexual abuse and grooming among LDS children?  If it's not that—and it feels like the Sam Young thing is a stretch—then what the hell is he getting at?  

Moving onto the less prime methods, it really bothers me that Oaks chose the word "confuse" to modify "gender."  Listen, your disdain has already been made very clear.  Implying that those who have completed or are considering gender transitions or those who don't agree that men are only to preside and to protect and women are only to teach and nurture are merely confused is needlessly shitty of you.  Even complicate would have been less disrespectful.  Oaks also thinks that marriage has a constant definition and hasn't been distorted in the past to allow prophets to marry teenaged foster daughters, which is a delicious little hypocrisy.  And, by the way, we all have a responsibility, especially as believers, to have a whole bunch of kids because being brainwashed in the covenant is the only method of member retention that seems to maintain any kind of long-term success.

For those who falter under that opposition, I offer these suggestions.  Remember the principle of repentance made possible by the power and atonement of Jesus Christ.  As Elder Neal A. Maxwell urged, "Don't be among those who would rather try to change the church than to change themselves."  As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland urged, "Hold fast to what you already know, and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.  In this church what we know will always trump what we do not know."  Exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, which is the first principle of the gospel.  Finally, seek help.  Our church leaders love you and seek spiritual guidance to help you.
Dallin H. Oaks
Maxwell reminds us that if there's a problem, it's not with the church.  It's with you.  The organization is infallible.  Holland reminds us that when we're confronted with troubling new information, we should ignore it.  Hold fast to the old information.  There's definitely an acceptable explanation, but you can't have it yet. 

And then, like he's channeling an angry middle schooler from the nineties, Oaks lays his last suggestion on us:  seek help.  He doesn't mean therapy, though.  He means turning back to the organization that is causing you to struggle and asking for the solution.  Because we should never entertain the idea of looking anywhere other than the church for information or assistance.

That's...twelve quotations from one talk?  I think Oaks may have set a new record for General Conference bullshit.  

Goddamn, what an asshole.

Saturday, September 29, 2018

Lingering Afteraffects of Mormonism

I've been in training at my new job during the past two months and my fellow new hires and I are struggling to learn the impossible complexities of our expected responsibilities.  Most of our managers and coaches are so supportive that some of us feel like we're being coddled.

Generally, when someone observes my work to provide feedback, he or she will offer floods of compliments.  I can feel myself resenting it as I sit through bullet point after bullet point of accolades.  I mean, I'm a reasonably intelligent guy and a reasonably quick learner, but I'm sure there are opportunities for me to develop my skills that are more important to discuss.  I can figure out on my own what I'm doing well—hurry up and tell me what I need to do better.

Apparently, I have very little patience for positive reinforcement.

This approach is great for some people, I realize.  Some of my coworkers get discouraged easily and the abundance of praise is valuable to them.  But as far as I'm concerned, this approach only pisses me off.  So it was while I was pondering my own reaction to useless platitudes that I came up with a theory.

When I was a kid, I was told repeatedly in church that I was part of the greatest generation.  My peers and I were superior to all generations that had come before and God had selected us to live in the latter days because he needed his best and brightest for his most important work.  I was frequently reminded by older Mormons that I was surrounded by a surfeit of temptations that were previously absent—and often these older Mormons would self-effacingly admit that they would not have been equipped to deal with these temptations in their youth.

Of course, I rarely felt that I was living up to the reputation I was given.  Because Mormonism also teaches that you always need to do more.  I'd skip scripture reading a few nights a week and I'd hesitate to share the gospel with my friends at school and I'd start to feel like I wasn't really a member of God's elect.  And, of course, when masturbation became problematic for me, I was overcome with the sense that I was a colossal disappointment to myself, to my generation, and to my Father in Heaven.  But that didn't stop me from raking in all these compliments from adults who seemed to admire my very existence.

And then it all turned out to be bullshit anyway.

I'm wondering if those experiences are why, as an adult and an ex-Mormon, I have so little interest in positive reinforcement.  It puts me on edge.  I distrust it.  It actually makes me suspicious that there's something I'm doing horribly wrong and that my manager is trying to soften the blow by building my confidence up before correcting whatever my huge problem is.  I would honestly be so much happier at work if my coaching sessions contained no direct compliments, but only a list of things that needed to be improved.  Maybe I have such a distaste for compliments because I received so many as a Mormon kid that felt undeserved and that turned out to have originated from unreliable sources.

And if something as relatively tame as that can have such a lasting impact on a person's character and behavior, I can't imagine the lasting impacts for Mormons who have suffered firsthand through the homophobia, sexism, racism, and abuse that the church can heap on people.  Which makes my perspective on the recent MormonLeaks documentation pointing to lawsuits and confidentiality agreements that much harsher.  It's as though Jesus directed us to protect the good name and reputation of the shepherd of the ninety and nine instead of concerning ourselves with the struggles of the one.  Negotiations for legal settlements don't acknowledge or correct the institutional failures that caused the damage in the first place.

Every day I become more and more impatient to see enough bad press that even lifelong members within my small circle begin to understand the horrible truth of Mormonism.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Ten Years of Apostasy

This month marks ten years since I officially stopped attending LDS church services.  Sometime during the preceding year I'd decided I no longer believed, so I spent the summer miserably attending my parents' ward because I didn't know how to tell them how I felt.  Then my bishop told me he was going to give me a home teaching assignment.  As bad as it was to participate passively in church meetings, I couldn't stomach the thought of actually teaching false doctrinal principles to families.  So at the next sacrament meeting, early in September of 2008, I was not in a pew.  In an act that demonstrated a peculiar mixture of cowardice and courage, I had written a letter to my dad explaining my position, left it in his office during the week, and barricaded myself in my bedroom on Sunday morning.  I've attended one solitary sacrament meeting since then, and that was only for one of my nephews' baby blessings.

A lot has changed in ten years.

I recently had to explain to a friend via text message why I don't drink alcohol, and I felt like my answer reflected my attitudes on a lot of things in my post-Mormon existence.  "I like the idea of choosing my vices," I told her.  "When I left Mormonism, I decided to try some things that were forbidden (tea, coffee, sex, working on Sundays, non-homophobia) and there are some previously forbidden things I decided I didn't want to try (cigarettes, alcohol, body piercing, meth).  The whole point is that it's my choice now either way.  Maybe someday I'll try some of those other things if I choose (not meth though) but for now I like that I've never had alcohol."  I can take responsibility for policing my own behavior, whether it's about moral decisions or lifestyle options.  That's something I never really felt I had the power to do within the constraints of the LDS church.

I relish the liberation that came with tearing up the road map of Mormonism.  Life is more enjoyable when there isn't some pre-approved checklist of tasks for you to complete in some pre-approved order by some pre-approved means.  You can make your own checklist or choose to operate without one.  After all, men are free according to the flesh.  They are free to choose the liberty of self-sovereignty or the captivity of conformity.  It's surprising to look back on how hollow following each behavioral procedure of Mormonism was.  It's bizarre to realize that I was utterly miserable but considered myself happy because of my belief that the only way of living I'd ever experienced was the only way to have joy.  It's incredible to realize what potential for happiness really exists in the broader world of broader experience and broader investment.

Life isn't wonderful.  I don't know that I'd say I'm happy without the church, but I'm certainly less unhappy.  And I think it's an important distinction that, regardless of my current level of joy, I can now allow myself to become immersed in the full spectrum of emotion.  I can be miserable when I'm miserable and happy when I'm happy instead of pretending to be happy when I'm miserable and pretending to be ashamed of myself when I'm happy—because, honestly, most of the times I felt any kind of abiding existential bliss as a Mormon were the times when I flirted with the temptation to defy my programming by actually being myself.

It's been a long decade.  But I don't regret the changes I've made.  And the fact that I am now required to look inward for moral direction and the fact that I can struggle with the weightier matters of life to come to my own conclusions and to pursue my own paths are both very empowering.  Despite any ups and downs tempering my reality, my sense of emotional strength and my feeling of inherent worth are so much higher and so much steadier than they were when I considered myself a child of God and a follower of prophets.

My life is my own now.  My choices are my own now.  My triumphs and failures are my own now.  It's a lifestyle that I find pure and delightsome.  And I desire all to receive it.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Sam Young and Common Coercion

The ex-Mormon world has been ablaze recently because Sam Young may be facing excommunication.  For those of you who don't know (to borrow an oft-used Mormon phrase), Sam Young is the man behind Protect LDS Children, a movement that wants the church to implement safer guidelines for worthiness interviews so that the risk of sexual abuse and sexual shaming among Mormon youth can be significantly decreased.

As Mr. Young posted on his blog, here is why he's being summoned to a disciplinary council that may result in—and, to my mind, likely result in—his excommunication.
Of course, I believe in what Sam Young is trying to achieve and I agree that the prophets and apostles have showed a lack of moral fortitude by neglecting to directly address his concerns or even to acknowledge the existence of the problems he's raised.  But, oddly enough, the authoritarian paranoia, the blame-shifting, and the pathological avoidance are not what irritate me the most about how these events are unfolding.  What really makes me grind my teeth is Sam Young's first cited offense in the letter above:
Encouraged others to vote opposed to church leaders.
The way I'm reading this summons, the Houston Texas South Stake has just helped muddy the already turbid waters of official church policies.  Let's take a quick trip to the Doctrine and Covenants, section 20, verse 65:
No person is to be ordained to any office in this church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of that church;
And for good measure, I'll throw in Doctrine and Covenants, section 26, verse 2:
And all things shall be done by common consent in the church, by much prayer and faith, for all things you shall receive by faith. Amen.
Just about any location of the modern church in which a sustaining vote is conducted is a location in which there is a regularly organized branch or ward or stake of the church.  Of course, votes are conducted after the fact to sustain the leadership which has already been installed, which means we weren't really following the practice of common consent the first place...but according to a divine, scripturally canonized revelation given to Joseph Smith himself, a vote should be required prior to anyone receiving a Priesthood position.  Official LDS doctrine has been twisted and perverted and watered down and redirected to the point at which it's become an abusive mockery of the word of God.

Why do I bring this up?  Because Sam Young's foremost crime in the eyes of his stake presidency is encouraging people to vote against the established power structure.  Not only can Mormons not vote before officers are ordained, but if Mormons vote against officers after they've already been set apart in their positions, it's somehow a terrible thing punishable by formal disciplinary action up to and including losing all their ordinances and blessings for eternity.  So, essentially, the prophets grant the members the ability to cast a non-binding, wholly cosmetic vote and become furious when that powerless gesture is used in a way that displeases them.  How much pettier could the apostles be, even if children's psychological, sexual, spiritual, emotional, and sometimes physical health didn't all hang in the balance?

I suppose there's an argument to be made that the operative phrase in the first offense is "encouraged others."  I suppose you could say that the problem isn't voting against the leaders, the problem is influencing your fellow members to follow suit.  But I'd argue that this would make the sustaining vote even more of a sham if only the dissenters are expected not to share their opinions with those around them.  This is not voting and this is not consent.  If the event at which this crime is committed is pure pretense, how should violating the fake procedure matter enough to merit a disciplinary council?  

The votes are not real votes if there's only one acceptable way to cast a ballot.  The consent is not real consent if it's only granted after the deed.  The voting, instead, is used to reinforce the need for controlled conformity and to engender a false sense of common consent, which is all terrifyingly authoritarian and blatantly non-scriptural.  I've been reading George Orwell's Nighteen Eighty-four for the first time in about fifteen years and all this is sounding chillingly familiar.  The church is not following its own rules and is instead modifying those rules as it wishes so that it can disparage, discredit, and discard something it perceives as a threat.  Truth goes out the window, integrity goes out the window, and the need for the system to perpetuate itself drives every inelegantly unscrupulous decision.

I think it's also worth noting that, in my country—the country where Mormonism originated and is headquartered—if any administration of any party were to deport or denaturalize a citizen for merely campaigning for an opposing candidate, it would be a massive scandal, even in this particularly unusual political climate.  And that's even if the administration in question weren't tacitly condoning isolated but extremely serious cases of children being groomed for sexual abuse by its own officials.

This should be a no-brainer.  Child abuse should be one of those rare issues that everybody can agree needs to be addressed.  But the church seems to be more concerned with maintaining its authority over its followers than it is with protecting its followers' children from sexual predation, from psychological trauma, and from unwarranted shame and guilt.  And it will continue to twist and retcon its own doctrine to do it.  In the meantime, Nelson and his apostles continue to lose moral credibility because they're more worried about informal nicknames and marijuana legislation.

That's fucked up.  Plain and simple.  And if Sam Young gets the spiritual noose, he'll be far nobler a martyr than Joseph Smith ever was.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Baptizing the Brainwashed

Last week, I attended my nephew's baptism.  I didn't particularly want to see an eight-year-old initiated into a cult, but it was important to me to be present at landmark events for my sister's family.  But the baptism was actually even more uncomfortable for me than I'd predicted.

I spent the night on my sister's couch, and when my nephews woke up on the oldest one's birthday, I could hear them talking in hushed voices outside their bedrooms when they thought none of the adults were awake yet.  The birthday boy was excitedly telling his younger brother about what he was looking forward to the most—he theorized about which family members brought which gifts and what kind of frosting he should have his mom put on his cake.  He was going to be baptized that day, too, but he didn't mention it at all.  He expressed no excitement, apprehension, reverence, or awe concerning the covenant he was about to make with the all-powerful creator of the universe.

This, to me, was a pretty clear indication that he did not understand the importance of the commitment he'd be making.  Not through any fault of his own—he's a kid.  Kids get excited about all the trappings of birthdays.  But that also means kids don't really focus on the weightier matters that don't provide the same gratification.

At the chapel that afternoon, the ward held a joint baptism.  There was a girl who'd turned 8 a few days earlier, so the service was combined for the two families.  The other initiate was a restive, intractable goofball who struggled to focus on anything other than the large stuffed My Little Pony she carried with her.  (I wish I were making this up.)  She was traipsing around the relief society room in her baptismal whites with a bright purple stuffed pony tucked under her arm.  The pony's mane had glitter in it.

After the invocation and opening hymn, this girl's grandmother got up to give a talk.  She requested that both initiates sit front and center because she was about to speak about what baptism means and these two needed to hear it more than the adults.  My thought process was that they'd already interviewed with the bishop and they should know what baptism means way before the eleventh hour, but maybe we were humoring the grandmother.  But I was about to find out that, regardless of any bishop's interviews, these two kids were almost clueless about their in-progress rite of passage.

The grandmother began by directing a series of blatantly leading questions at her granddaughter and at my nephew—questions they still couldn't answer correctly.  She asked her granddaughter why she wanted to be baptized.  Clutching her pony and sucking her thumb, the girl replied, "because I want to."

"Is that what Jesus wants you to do so you can live with Heavenly Father forever?" her grandmother clarified.  "Isn't that what you want?"

I shit you not, this girl flat-out said, "No, because then I won't be able to live with Sparkles anymore."  She was, of course, referring to her stuffed animal.  People laughed.  They seemed to think it was cute.  I was grinding most of my molars down to nubs.  

Then the grandmother went on to try to explain more about baptism and what it means.  She involved my nephew a few times, asking him questions as well.  After an explanation of the age of accountability, she inquired of my nephew why he had to wait until he was eight to be baptized.  He precociously replied, "I don't know, but I know you have to be at least eight or older to be baptized."  This, of course, was honest and accurate, but demonstrated a complete lack of understanding regarding the underlying theological principles.

A little later in her discussion of baptism, the grandmother decided to quote some scriptures relating to the topic.  She cited Revelation 1:5:
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood....
Immediately after the verse ended, the little girl squirming in the speaker's arms blurted, "That's weird."  And both her parents shushed her.  Nobody cared why the girl thought it was weird.  Nobody cared that she wasn't demonstrating any comprehension.  Nobody cared that she wasn't behaving with reverence commensurate with the gravity of the eternally binding divine contract she was about to sign.  Her childish priorities were a source of amusement and her nonexistent grasp of fundamental doctrine was something she was encouraged to keep to herself.  And when it was her turn to enter the baptismal font, the girl would have walked right into the water still clutching her beloved Sparkles if her mother hadn't managed to finally snatch the toy away.

How many more indications that these kids did not properly comprehend what they were doing would have been enough to make their families stop, think, and reconsider whether this was the right time for the ordinance?

Obviously, the fault for this nauseating display of brainwashing does not lie with the kids. My nephew and the girl in his ward couldn't really follow the importance and the scope of what was happening to them.  And I'm not convinced that much fault really lies with their parents either.  After all, what parents wouldn't baptize their kid at eight if they could?  You don't want your child wandering around purportedly knowing the difference between good and evil but not having the protection of the Atonement, would you?  And how humiliating would it be to have to tell people that you had intended to have your son baptized, but he clearly had no idea what that meant and you were going to defy the established Mormon Childhood Timeline by postponing the ordinance for a few years?  That poor kid would experience a similar social stigma to returning from missionary service without serving the full two years, only this would happen to him a decade early.

The doctrine and the culture of the church combine, then, to coerce parents into coercing their children into signing their lives over to a religion they don't yet understand.  High stakes of eternal consequences and a stifling atmosphere pressuring members to conform both mean that it would require an extremely rare level of audacity for a mother and father to avoid subjecting their children to this shameful ritual.  It's the beautiful rinse cycle of brainwashing and I got to see the results firsthand.  And it was even more unpleasant than I expected.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The True Message of God's Not Dead 2

I recently had the opportunity to view God's Not Dead 2, the sequel to 2014's masterpiece of thematic insight.  I was pleased to see that, not only had the storytelling and acting improved, but the first movie's legacy of accidentally making perceptive points outside of its professed purview had been preserved.
See, if you can get past the hamfisted drama of martyrdom, the contrived feelgood nature of the uber-Christian triumphs juxtaposed with the equally contrived woeful nature of the uber-Christian persecution complex, the fact that every character is defined first and foremost by religious beliefs alone, and the black-and-white atheist-and-Christian depictions of almost every single major player in this jumbled tale of tested faith, circlejerk vilification of different belief systems, manufactured threats, and implausible victories, there's actually a sparkling gem of wisdom a the bottom of the box of tasteless cereal—that blind fear begets unfavorable outcomes.

(That's not quite as long as the sentence I wrote last time.)

Just as a little background here, Melissa Joan Hart plays a high school history teacher named Grace Wesley.  One of her students, Brooke Thawley, asks a question in class about possible ideals that Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. may have shared with Jesus.  Miss Wesley fields the question pretty well and quotes a bit of scripture, while referring to the religious topic in more clinical, academic terms than she would outside of school.  Brooke's parents then file a lawsuit because Miss Wesley was supposedly proselytizing to public school students.  And a bunch of characters, many of which have returned from the first movie, are swept up in a frenzy of persecution paranoia as Miss Wesley and her charming atheist public defender Tom Endler lock horns in court with a bitter, scheming attorney whose last name is a homophone for Christianity's first murderer.  I think it's also worth noting that a TV role as the devil is among the most recognizable credits for the actor portraying that bitter, scheming attorney.

But now that we've covered the basics, let's delve through the first few malodorous layers of this thematic onion.

Case Study 1:  Brooke's Parents
When the legal team of Pete Kane visits the Thawley home to speak with Brooke's parents, the cunning lawyer pretty easily manages to coax them into filing a suit against Miss Wesley.  First, he mentions that colleges Brooke will be applying to the following year won't be able to resist her if she's a part of a "landmark constitutional case concerning the separation of church and state."  His associate also mentions the financial windfall from a successful settlement.  These are the two arguments that win over Brooke's parents.

See, Brooke's brother has recently died, and this has understandably rattled her. Her parents, however, advise her to move on, because she's a junior and it's her "make-or-break year" as far as her future options are concerned.  Her mother in particular, is adamant that she "stay focused."
State schools don't give legitimate educations, honey.  And you should feel
shame about grieving for your brother and not attending an Ivy League school.
Brooke admits later in the film that her parents think the lawsuit will get her into a better school and provide them the funds to pay for it.  Although the parents' doomsday scenario—Brook not attending an Ivy League university—isn't really much of a doomsday, it's their unwavering belief that their fear is becoming a reality that pushes them to not only embroil the family in a controversial court case, but also to steamroll their daughter's wishes and, in the process, utterly disregard her emotional distress over her brother's passing.

Case Study 2:  Brooke Thawley Herself
Pretty much everything that happens in this movie is a result of Brooke's struggle to cope with whatever happened to her brother.  Early on, she approaches her history teacher, Our Noble Martyr Grace Wesley, and asks her how she always remains so positive.  Since this is in a coffee shop and not a public school, Grace answers honestly that her faith in Jesus gives her hope and strength.  While pondering on that later, Brooke learns that her departed brother was a devout Christian and she begins reading his personal Bible.  This is what led her to ask Miss Wesley in class about the similarities in non-violent approaches between Jesus and other historical figures.  This is what gets everybody in trouble.

It seems that Brooke is driven by a fear that she'd let her brother slip away from her and that she hadn't appreciated him or loved him the way she should have when he was alive.  "The only thing that I really want," she tells Miss Wesley in the coffee shop, "is five more minutes to tell my brother how I really felt about him."  She later confides in a complete stranger (Chinese Exchange Student from the first movie) that, while studying and embracing her brother's religion, she felt like she was given those five minutes.  Equating Christianity with her relationship with her brother, she becomes an ardent advocate of her new faith.  Armed with the sword of righteousness and scared that her compassionate teacher was becoming a martyr, Brooke bursts into the courtroom to loudly inform the judge that Miss Wesley hasn't anything wrong.  She manages to then get herself called as a witness and accidentally reveals the religious discussion in the coffee shop to the jury.  The sinister lawyer Kane jumps on this as evidence that Grace Wesley was being dishonest and really had been trying to encourage students to join her faith.  Brooke later admits that, because of her testimony, she'd "ruined everything."
I'm not afraid of interrupting public court proceedings to inject my opinion,
but apparently I was afraid to privately tell my brother I loved him.
And none of this would have happened if she hadn't been so terrified that her brother didn't know she loved him.  Her fear may not be as irrational as some of the other fears that fuel characters' foolish decisions, but odds are that her brother knew she cared for him.  Especially considering how emotionally tone deaf the parents are, the love between the two siblings was probably the purest, most rewarding relationship in the Thawley household.  Had Brooke not been so deeply afraid that she hadn't shown proper appreciation for her brother, Miss Wesley would never have been suspended without pay and put on trial for her supposed proselytizing and we'd have never had this masterpiece of modern cinema.

Case Study 3:  Reverend Chill Dude
A peripheral protagonist here is the same reverend who accepted Kevin Sorbo's dying confession at the end of the first movie.  He's called as a juror for Miss Wesley's trial and, adhering firmly to the theme of the film, he becomes convinced that he's the vital finger in the dam that's holding back the flood waters of religious persecution.  So certain is he of his role in preventing the doom of Christianity that he refuses to leave the jury when he develops a stabbing pain in his side because he "really needs to be here."  He endangers his own health by avoiding treatment for a potentially life-threatening condition and even collapses on the floor of the courtroom—all because he fears the worst and acts as though his predictions are certainties instead of conjectures.

Reverend Chill Dude also becomes wrapped up in a side story about some nameless government entity requiring an undetermined number of pastors in an unspecified geographical area to hand in their recent sermons for undisclosed nefarious purposes.  This story unfolds in three scenes, the first of which involves a group of clergymen discussing the impending crisis at a luncheon.  The second is Reverend Chill Dude's receipt of the subpoena.  And the third is Reverend Chill Dude's bold refusal to comply with the subpoena.

The subplot begins with some kind of senior priest (played by the late, great Fred Dalton Thompson) explaining the "subpoena that just came down demanding that [they] submit copies of [their] sermons from the last three months for review."  The assembled men of the cloth then discuss the implications of this revelation.  One of them asks, "So now the government can determine what we can and can't preach at our churches?"  And the voice of reason, a character who is tellingly not even given a name, pipes up with, "Let's not overreact.  I'm sure there's no ill intent here."  Fred Dalton Thompson doesn't appear to give the voice of reason even a moment of consideration.
Not overreacting is for suckers!
And for people who haven't starred in seminal police procedural dramas!
After a bit of doom and gloom, another voice of reason—who is also unnamed—references the silent majority that can successfully oppose such gratuitous overreaches of government.  Reverend Chill Dude hops on the Fred Dalton Thompson bandwagon and steamrolls both voices of reason, explaining that pressure today will be persecution tomorrow.  When asked for reasons, Reverend Not-So-Chill-Anymore answers, "Speed of change, viciousness of the opposition."  He speaks of making enemies because powerful people oppose the gospel and declares, "Whether we admit it or not, we're at war."  And in a matter of minutes, we've gone from an ill-defined subpoena to an armed conflict.  The war may be metaphorical, but the rhetoric used closes these clergymen off to the complexity of the situation and reinforces the ideas that there are two clearly drawn sides that can never coexist peacefully.  In the context of this narrative, that may be true, but it's a uselessly naive oversimplification when this mentality is applied to the real world.

But what are the consequences of Reverend Chill Dude and his buddies entrenching themselves further into their spiritual warmongering?  What is it that their shared fears make them do?  We don't get a conclusion to this storyline (I'm assuming it may continue in the third film), but what we do see is a macho posturing and a stretching of the ideological gulf between the two sides of this fictional battle.  When Reverend Chill Dude turns in not his sermons but a written statement explaining why he refuses to hand them over, he has a tense little standoff with whoever's manning the desk at the district attorney's office.   Apparently offended by the reverend's refusal to comply, this man looks him straight in the eye and, with overwrought menace, warns him, "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

So when one group involved in a conflict of ideas decides to treat it like a war, even if they're justified in feeling attacked, it can help escalate that conflict.  It's also interesting that this is the only scene in which we see this district attorney or legal clerk or whoever he is.  We don't know who he is or why he seems so dead set on making the reverend suffer.  Maybe if we could see more of his backstory and hear his reasoning, we would understand his apparent enmity for religion better and we might realize that he's not as villainous as he appears.  Maybe he's held just as captive by his own fears as the pastors are, and maybe that's what helped this whole stupid dispute ramp up to this oxygen-starved elevation.

Case Study 4:  Pete Kane
Kane is the lawyer who's rabid to see Grace Wesley burned at the stake for daring to mention Jesus in a public school (okay, maybe that's a little bit of exaggeration on my part).  He is brazenly and unabashedly opposed to Christianity.  When he convinces the Thawleys to file the lawsuit, he references the case's importance because of other children "being subjected to [Christians'] repressive belief system."  His legal opponent, Tom Endler, tells Grace at one point that, to Kane, "your beliefs are like a disease whose time has come and gone, sort of like small pox or polio or the Plague."  It is repeatedly and obviously established that Pete Kane has nothing but contempt for Christianity.

But, cleverly, he's the opposite side of the same coin as our more pious characters.  He makes the same kinds of ridiculous assertions and paints the same kinds of apocalyptic caricatures as the Christians do...but from his own twisted perspective.

The first example of this is his opposition to a particular juror during voir dire.  He removes a possible juror from the pool on the sole basis of his status as a former Marine because, in his mind at least, this would make the man a devout Christian who would be biased in favor of the defendant.
All Marines are Christians and all Christians are incapable of impartiality:
the gospel according to Pete Kane, Esq.
But, because Kane is so convinced that the Marine will spell disaster for his case, he unwittingly lets an even more disastrous candidate into the jury—Reverend Chill Dude.  By nixing the Marine, he uses up his final challenge so that when he tries to remove the ordained minister, he's stopped by the opposition counsel, who successfully reminds the judge that Kane has exhausted his peremptory challenges and that removing a Christian juror is discriminatory.  Kane is then stuck with Reverend Chill Dude, someone decidedly even more pious than the dreaded lay Marine.

In his opening argument a few scenes later, Kane clearly reveals the terror that fuels his ardor.  "If we grant Miss Wesley the right to [preach in the classroom], and by extension, everyone else, to violate the law based soley on our own private beliefs," he tells the jury, "then our society will crumble.  I believe that.  So implore you, please do not set this precedent.  Do not.  The future of our republic depends on it."  Maybe if this lawyer would take a deep breath and reflect with a little less fear, he'd realize that Miss Wesley answered a question posed to her from a student and did so with surprising deftness considering the awkwardness of the setting.  Maybe he'd realize that if she'd intended to preach she would have answered the question much differently.  Maybe he'd realize that her lifestyle is not so incompatible with his and that the strength of her beliefs does not lead down a logical, inevitable path toward the destruction of the republic.

Case Study 5:  Grace Wesley
As the hero of our story, Grace is the only major character who emerges triumphant despite brushing with the same tendencies to poison her decision making with panic.  An early scene in the teacher's lounge identifies her as an endlessly optimistic person, and that could be the characteristic that allows her to escape the clutches of fear and avoid shooting herself in the foot the way everybody else seems to.

She does, admittedly, shoot herself in the foot a little bit by refusing to apologize for what she said in the classroom—but this isn't motivated by fear.  It's motivated by philosophical purity and conviction and, of course, by her love for Jesus.
I'd rather embrace a false dichotomy and hold my head up high
than embrace my head and hold a false dichotomy up high...or something like that.
Grace's mastery of the fear so many others fall prey to is showcased in the climactic scene in which her own lawyer appears to turn against her in the courtroom.  Endler goes on what is clearly intended to be a heroically ironic rant about how "in the name of tolerance and diversity," the jury should hold Grace Wesley accountable for her actions because deeply held religious beliefs that color the way people act in the public square mean that these public servants are clearly untrustworthy.  It's designed to be a powerful illustration of the absurdity of those who oppose Christianity, and perhaps it's supposed to serve as some clever reverse psychology for the jury as well.  But in order for Endler to make this argument, he first has to demonstrate that Grace believes she has a personal relationship with God—a feat he accomplishes by bullying her into sharing, under oath, a personal story she'd told him in private about hearing Jesus's literal voice speaking to her.

Sobbing on the stand and insisting that the jury won't believe her—and also not privy to the supposedly brilliant bit of lawyering Endler is doing—Grace finally manages to push her fears of ridicule and scorn and unemployment aside to tell the truth.  Had she behaved as if the negative consequences of telling the truth about her spiritual experience were set in stone, she'd have clammed up and Endler's gamble of arguing against his own client in the courtroom would have been a complete failure.  For Grace Wesley, not only was limiting the credence she gave her fear the reason she was victorious, but doing the opposite would have guaranteed her defeat.

And that is, perhaps, the tragic genius of God's Not Dead 2.  Because as it tells this tale of the damage we can all do to our own lives when we entertain our worst anxieties and act upon our deepest dreads, it completely fails to understand its own point.  Because of course the filmmakers weren't telling a cautionary tale about jumping to conclusions and treating fear like fact.  They were telling a cautionary tale about the persecution of piety and the suppression of faith.  The continuation of the warlike metaphors from the first movie speaks to their lack of perspective to the point of celebrating the absence of their own objectivity.

So terrified are Brooke's parents that she might not get into a top-tier university with a solid scholarship that they try to deprive her of her legitimate grief and wind up widening the emotional and religious gulf in their parent-child relationship.  So convinced is Brooke that her brother didn't know how she felt about him that she almost single-handedly starts a community uproar over the role of religion in public service and then she nearly torpedoes her beloved teacher's case with her testimony.  So paranoid of persecution is Reverend Chill Dude that he stops being chill, refuses to listen to reason, endangers his own health, helps escalate the conflict between the religious and the irreligious, and probably causes himself some legal woes down the road.  So convinced is Pete Kane that his anti-Christian vendetta is the direly required salvation of democracy that he makes some errors in judgment that do not befit his character's level of legal acuity.  And Grace Wesley comes so close to crumbling beneath the weight of myopic horror herself, only to escape unscathed when she sticks to her guns, does what she feels is right, and doesn't have to compromise her principles.

The moral of the story then, dear filmmakers, is that we don't need to spend so much time painting the landscape around the modern-day American Christian with the color palette of Mordor.  Sure, there are jagged rocks and slippery slopes here and there, but there are no volcanoes, there are no patrols of hideous orcs, and there are no relentless all-seeing personifications of undying evil.  Maybe we should keep our fears in check as best we can, at most let them passively inform our behavior as we do what we believe is right, and stop treating people who don't share all of our principles like enemy combatants.  Because—let's be honest—there are so many better movies we could be filming right now.