Easter Weekend, 35 Years On

As it is Easter, I am returning, as I have many times before, to what is, in my opinion, the finest, most powerful, and most Christian personal essay which Mormon-Americana has yet produced: Eugene England’s “Easter Weekend.” It was originally printed in the Spring 1988 issue of Dialogue, and so is 35 years old this Easter season. You can read the whole thing here. I will include some excerpts below.

Gene has been dead for over 20 years, but his legacy lives on. I didn’t know him well, though there are many members of the BCC community who did. But whether you knew him well or only a little or not at all, we all can re-read his words, and look forward to someday hearing his voice again.

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Blame Christmas

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Towards the end W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written 80 years ago, Auden gives an imaginative narrative voice to a marvelously contemporary and thoroughly professional Herod the Great, the man responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, at least according to Matthew 2:16-18. The Herod of Auden’s prose-poem is a hard-working, highly intelligent, rigorously sensible man, someone wise enough not to imagine that he knows everything, but grounded enough to be confident in the consequences of even that which he does not know. The story of Jesus, he realizes, whether or not it is true, must be stopped immediately, because the masses of people in the world are delicate, desperate, and often deplorable, and in need of the disciplining, dependable myths which are central to the religious and civic order. Allow them to start thinking about God’s relationship to humanity as a personal Gift, as an expression of divine Love, as fundamentally a Mystery, and madness will reign. In imagining Herod in this way, Auden was perhaps updating, and making more relatable, the equally hard-working, highly intelligent, and rigorously sensible Grand Inquisitor of Fyodor Dostoevsky, but honestly, this man is a figure well-known to many of us, and sometimes–especially for people like me who take traditions seriously enough to think they are worth arguing about–maybe is us as well.

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Thoughts on Reading (and Being Surprised by) Isaiah

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Back in 2014, I embarked on a read of the complete Old Testament, with a close focus on the text. It took me two-and-a-half years to finish, and my insights along the way were hugely important to the way I have come to think about scripture and what it has to say about my life. Last year I decided to repeat that read, since Robert Alter, whose translations of various books were central to my first journey through the Old Testament, had finally finished his edition of the entire Hebrew Bible, and wanted his poetic sensibility and commentary to guide me through what I’d missed before. Of those missing parts, none were more important than Isaiah (the image here is Marc Chagall’s surrealist interpretation of Isaiah 6:6, when one of God’s seraphim descends from heaven, touches the prophet’s lips with a burning coal taken from God’s altar, cleansing his lips and calling him to reveal God’s will). [Read more…]

A Brief Note on Stewart Udall

I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Politics of Beauty,” a new documentary (currently touring film festivals around the country) on Stewart Udall, who was the Secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969, under both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and one of the strongest voices in the U.S. government on behalf of environmental protection during the whole history of the Cold War. He was also a product of the politically influential Udall family out of Arizona; the movie’s brief references to Udall’s identity as a cultural Mormon, and his relationship to the Mormon church and its people, is one of the few elements of the film which I think miss the mark, however slightly. (Marc Bohn’s tribute to Udall on Times & Seasons back in 2010 remains excellent reading in that regard.) I’ve written a post diving into Udall’s ideas, and both how they went beyond the environmental thinking of his time, and how subsequent developments in our thinking about the natural world (particularly as driven by climate change) show their limitations; you can read it here, if you’re interested. In the meantime, here is a preview sample of the documentary; the movie is quite wonderful overall, and well worth watching. At a time when, unfortunately, a majority of Mormon voters in Utah continue to support, however reluctantly, a fascist-adjacent flunky, it’s nice to be reminded of the progressives our tradition has produced as well.

Udall Sampler 12 min from Greg Davis on Vimeo.

Two Quick Questions About Attending BYU Devotionals

My memories of BYU are nearly 30 years old, so I am seeking more recent information. I teach Friends University, at a small Christian (originally Quaker, now non-denominational) liberal arts college in Wichita, KS, and the university community hosts, for most of the academic year, weekly chapel services. Those chapel services have evolved a great deal over the years, and will no doubt continue to do so. In times past, a certain amount of attendance at chapel meetings (which has gone by various names; when I arrived here in 2006, it was called “Faith and Learning”) was required of the student body; that stopped a while back, but now it looks it may be coming back. I am part of a committee attempting to design attendance policies, and at our last meeting, another faculty member–one strongly opposed to any required chapel whatsoever–surprised me by citing, as part of his comparative research, BYU’s devotionals, attendance at which is not required. [Read more…]

Obviously, We’re Supporting McMullin (and So Should You)

And of course, it is equally obvious that there is no good reason to believe that anything which appears on this blog could actually convince any particular Utah voter to cast their ballot the way we’d prefer. But “no good reason” is not, in fact, the same as “absolutely no reason whatsoever.” In that bizarrely hopeful spirit, By Common Consent is happy to give voice to two Utah voters who really, really, really want every single one of their fellow Utah citizens who read this to cast a vote for Evan McMullin for U.S. Senate on or by November 8. We do this 1) because the wishes of these two voters are, in our judgment, both righteous and correct, and 2) because their perspectives—one from a self-described “conservative former Republican,” the other a self-described “independent voter”–likely express well those of many BCC readers, including, just possibly, some still unregistered voters somewhere in Utah. So consider this our public service this election year. And now, to our contributors!

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Responding to Changes from On High, and Other Things that Never Happen in a Vacuum

Yesterday, the official organs of the LDS Church announced changes in the church’s For the Strength of Youth guide, which as just about anyone who was an active participant in church programs between the ages of 12 and 18 anytime in the past 60 years (but particularly the past 30) knows, has been a more-or-less official guide to the standards enforced at youth activities and the lessons preached in untold thousands of sacrament meeting talks, youth conferences, Girls Camp meetings, and more. This wholesale rewrite orients the publication around general principles and personal choices, with the explicit condemnations of tattoos, extra piercings, bare shoulders or midriffs, and “passionate kissing” now abandoned, and even same-sex attraction receiving, if not any kind of broad acceptance, at least much more tolerant language. It is a much-needed, wholly positive set of changes, and deserves nothing but applause. My wife and I a little upset about it (though about its roll-out, not its substance). [Read more…]

A Comic (But Not Comical) Take on Mormon History

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

As an intellectually-inclined, book-obsessed, life-long member of the Mormon Church, I have read many histories of my religion. I’ve read so many, in fact, that unfortunately I sometimes forget that such histories aren’t necessarily being written for knowledgeable believers like myself, and I end up criticizing them for getting some small detail wrong or for skipping over some academic controversy, forgetting that the purpose of good histories is to tell a story, one that draws you in. And when it comes to telling a story about a religious movement, presenting something compelling is essential, because if the story-teller can’t convey the circumstances or the feeling that drew people into the faith in the first place, the history can’t succeed at all.

All of that is to say that I wish I had been able to get over my intellectual pre-occupations and more fully enjoy the amazing accomplishment of Noah Van Sciver’s Joseph Smith and the Mormonsa wonderfully researched and captivatingly (and sometimes quite beautifully) drawn graphic novel when I first read it. Across more than 400 pages, Sciver presents an unconventional telling of the 19th-century, frontier American beginnings of the faith he was raised in, departed long ago, but has maintained a curiosity about and a confused sympathy for ever since. The tale it tells is mostly straightforward; it emphasizes some characters who rarely get much attention in typical Mormon histories, mostly bypasses some of the most intriguing beats in the story of Mormonism, and some might even argue that it is overly apologetic in its treatment of Joseph Smith. But as a literary whole, it needs to be acknowledged as a history as solid as many more scholarly ones, something I didn’t appreciate at first. [Read more…]

Why I have a Pro-Choice Sign in my Front Yard (Even Though I Don’t Call Myself That)

[The publication Current asked me to write up my thoughts about abortion; I ended up writing nearly 3000 words. A much, much shortened version of the essay below is available on their website this morning, but if you want to read the full thing, go for it. Cross-posted to In Medias Res.]

That sign is in our front yard, signalling our support for defeating the “Value Them Both” amendment on the ballot here in Kansas this August. If the amendment referendum succeeds, it would overturn a state supreme court decision which determined that the Kansas state constitution guarantees at least minimal abortion rights to Kansas women, thus allowing Kansans opposed to abortion rights to follow our neighboring states of Oklahoma and Missouri and push for a total abortion ban. The sign thus betokens a “pro-choice” position, even though I’ve never called myself that and think the language of individual “choice” when it comes to abortion is part of the whole problem. So why am I, some who was raised in a politically conservative (but not, as I later came to see, particularly ideological) Mormon home and thoroughly absorbed the repugnance of abortion which was communicated to me, taking this position all these years later? Well, that’s a story, mostly having to do with what my wife and four daughters have taught me along the way. [Read more…]

Michael Austin, Vardis Fisher, and the Death of the Mormo-American

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Michael Austin, a fellow blogger and old friend, wrote an essay nearly 30 years ago that accomplished what most of us intellectual scribblers can only aspire towards: putting into a words a framework for understanding a problem or question which endures, even if the problem or question does not. This is definitely the case for Michael’s “The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time.” Most of the specific examples and engagements in that essay are probably inextricable from the intellectual debates of American Mormonism during the 1980s and 1990s, but his general observations–that “embedded in the assertion that there is such a thing as ‘Mormon literature’ is the claim that we, as Mormons, and particularly as American Mormons, represent a cultural entity whose traditions, heritage, and experience deserve to be considered a vital part of the American mosaic,” and “we are [not just] Mormons, but…are “Mormo-Americans”–remain provocative and vital. In fact, the deepest importance of his latest book cannot, I think, be fully appreciated without them. [Read more…]

An Entirely Inappropriate, Unseemly, and Unnecessary Personal and Biased Ranking of Mormon U.S. Senators

Seeing as how Senator Orrin Hatch, a man who for over 40 years served in the U.S. Senate as both pillar of and a lightning rod for Utah (and thus American Mormon) politics, passed away yesterday, and seeing as how I’ve used By Common Consent to honor and reflect upon Mormon senators in the past, and also seeing as how no one has posted anything in a while, I hereby submit a ranking, based solely upon my own entirely personal and idiosyncratic judgments, of all the Mormons who have served in the U.S. Senate in my lifetime. Enjoy! [Read more…]

Nobody Watches Conference Anymore

Of course, that’s not true. It might feel that way, and there might be circumstantial or anecdotal evidence to support you feeling that way, but it’s just a likely that, thanks to technology, church scheduling, social expectations and pressure, and more, a greater percentage of the total worldwide church membership is watching conference than ever before. So really, when you think “nobody,” you’re mainly thinking of yourself.

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The Osmonds’ Christmas, and Ours

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The Osmond Christmas Album came out 45 years ago today, on December 18, 1976. I’m talking the original double-LP, of course, not the corrupt CD version which cut all of Merrill’s and Jimmy’s songs and was released 15 years later. For American Mormons of a certain age, the original–all 20 tracks of it–was an essential part of the holiday canon. It generated intense discussions of Mormon-specific trivia (was Donny singing to his then-girlfriend Debbie on “This Christmas Eve”?), gave rise to heated debates about family rules (surely, because it was the Osmonds and it was the holidays, we could play “Sleigh Ride” on Sundays, couldn’t we?), and required parental intervention as arguments broke out over who was better at picking up and dropping the needle without scratching the vinyl when it came to skipping over “If Santa Were My Daddy” (which, of course, everyone did). Consider the comments your space for your own or your family’s Osmond Christmas stories. Or, if you don’t have any (or at least not any for public consumption), you can always listen to the full thing here. (Or watch the 1976 special, broadcast the day before the album was released. Man, Paul Lynde wasn’t remotely Mormon, but I think he kind of loved our tribe.)

Chris Henrichsen, In Memoriam

No photo description available.

Chris Henrichsen (top right), who passed away suddenly this morning at the age of 45, was many things. A student of political theory, a democratic socialist, and a passionate defender of the legacy of John Rawls. An old-school fan of Minor Threat, Bad Brains, and other early 1980s hardcore punk acts (especially those with roots in his home stomping grounds of Washington DC). An educator who taught on the college and the high school level in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, and Maryland. A one-time Democratic candidate for Wyoming’s single seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a failed campaign which he described to me at one point as having both completely broken him and entirely re-made him, financially and intellectually and politically, all at once. And perhaps most of all for this audience, a devout but cantankerous Mormon, always looking to situate himself (both publicly and within his own thinking and believing) in the midst of every controversy that roiled the waters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

It was these latter efforts which led him to be a inconsistent-but-always-returning mainstay of the Mormon blogging world, whether at Approaching Justice or Faith-Promoting Rumor or Times and Seasons. His history here at By Common Consent was…contentious, as Chris was never shy about fighting for what he believed to be correct, and never too embarrassed to simply walk away from a fight that he believed not be worth pursuing further. But that pugnaciousness, however visible at conferences–like the one featured above, from Kansas City in 2011–or on the blogs or over the years on social media, never characterized any discussions about his beloved wife Lyndee and their three children, Todd, Shem, and Geneva. Them he would celebrate in the most stereotypically weepy Mormon male fashion imaginable…which, perhaps, expresses the delightful paradox of Chris very well: a man of doubts and disputations and abrupt declarations, who also maintained a deeply loving domestic heart.

We are a lesser tribe for Chris’s passing. Please send your prayers and best wishes to his family, and if you have any tales of Chris’s many online adventures over the years, please share them here. Stories can be the best medicine, sometimes.

A Non-Believer’s Benediction for Cumorah, and Other Things

Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song | The Point Magazine

A little less than two weeks ago, the church broadcast a Hill Cumorah Commemorative Devotional, acknowledging that the Hill Cumorah Pageant was no more, and celebrating its legacy. However, for better or worse that commemorative devotional was very much a product of the contemporary church–not the church in which creative, inventive, deeply devout, culturally oblivious, and definitely slightly crazy Mormons came up with the pageant, and kept it going, over the decades. I never saw the Hill Cumorah Pageant live (shout out for the Manti Pageant, however, my personal favorite!). Andrew Kay, a non-Mormon writer and a native of the Hill Cumorah region of New York, did see it however–saw it in 2019, in fact, in what turned out to be its final performance. The essay he has crafted about the experience, and what he has thought about it since–“Mormonism’s Sci-Fi Swan Song“–is the finest essay I have read about our church and our culture in many years. Using the pageant as a lens, Kay sees the American Mormonism that was–but isn’t so much anymore–whole: devout, campy, decent, rich, insular, plainspoken, charitable, practical, kind of racist, kind of sexist, and really very weird. It is a deeply compassionate essay, one that captures the vagaries of a genuine, comprehensive belief in a society where belief is mostly compartmentalized into discreet boxes for the sake of the believer and the non-believer alike. Here’s a taste: [Read more…]

Fathers, Friendship, and Holding onto Your Platoon (or Not)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This old Cal Grondahl cartoon, from many years ago, has been on my mind for while:

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Some Comments on the Possibilities for Mormon Socialism, or Communalism, at the Present Time

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

1) First things first: obviously, there isn’t any real world possibility for the (re-)emergence of Mormon socialism, or communalism, at the present time. [Read more…]

The Story of the Lost Sheep, Revisted

[A guest post from Glen Henshaw, a husband, a father, an engineer, a lover and raiser of animals, and a longtime reader of the blog.]

We found this lamb, named Pearl, hiding under a bank of the creek that runs along the back of our property one morning last week. This is the near bank, which means she could not be seen from our side of the creek – we had to wade the creek or jump the bank to see her. Pearl was not making a sound, and it took some careful counting to realize she was missing, and some careful searching to find her.

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Ritual, Remembrance, and Minerva Teichert’s Art

Manti Temple's Minerva Teichert murals will be preserved by church -  Deseret News

Recently, in connection with the controversy over the church’s decision to renovate the Manti Temple, and by so doing remove the murals by the famed artist Minerva Teichert contained therein, my old friend Jonathan Green wrote a short, smart, pithy defense of the church’s decision on the Times and Seasons blog, which I think I can mostly fairly summarize as: “you’re focusing on the wrong thing, everyone; as far as murals in a temple are concerned, It’s Just Art.” I strongly disagree with this take–but I want to be clear on why.

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Of Mormon Angels and Catholic Missals

An old friend of mine sent me this story; it has no great message, but it is worth pondering, in these post-Christmas days, as we wait the beginning of, we all fervently hope, a much better year. Enjoy!

Some of us may be familiar with Jorge Cocco Santángelo, an 84-year-old Argentinian Mormon artist who, after a lengthy career making and teaching art in Argentina, Spain, and Mexico, was recently “discovered” by our community. Since much of his recent work depicts the life of Jesus, it has found admirers far beyond his co-religionists; for example, shortly before the covid lockdowns began, the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas held an exhibition of his work. Recently, he was commissioned to do paintings for some Christmas postage stamps (not USPS), which should come out next year.

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Messages of Gratitude from the Desert (and for it, Sort Of)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

For years, our family has had a “Thanksgiving Tree” tradition. We write on cut-out leaves something we are thankful for, then hang them on a “tree” of dead branches, and on Thanksgiving Day, we share them all. Since we’ve saved these leaves over the years, I can look back at mine, and there are several constants. Among other things, it seems that at this time of year I regularly feel gratitude for changing seasons, for frost on the grass, for fall foliage, for the smell of the earth after a November rain. It wouldn’t be wrong to sum up one of the main themes of these leaves simply as: I am thankful I don’t live in a desert.

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Thoughts on the Difficulty of Friendship at the Present Time

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

[A slightly altered version of a presentation on civility I gave at Friends University on October 26.]

I have seen a lot of anger among my family and friends during this election season; I presume I am not alone in that. After I was asked to give this presentation I thought about that anger, and talked with my wife about it at length. To her, Jesus’s cleansing of the temple is the emblematic scripture story of our moment, and I think she may be right. But what kind of guidance does it provide, if any, when we’re thinking about a Savior who called all who aspire to be servants of Him to love one another, without reservation?  A Savior whose most loving words, to those who served Him best, was to call them friends? [Read more…]

Sukkot and Settling Into Fall

[Cross-posted to In Media Res]

This year I planted a spring garden for the first time. Probably because of the pandemic, but because of other plans that I’ve been thinking about for a while, I decided early this year to up my gardening game–putting in raised beds at last, planting in mid-March, expanding the range of vegetables I aimed to grow: lettuce, broccoli, eggplant, green beans, and more. Most didn’t work out, but it was a good struggle along the way. But with August and September, and the need to convert my classes online, the pressures on my time increased, and the garden (along with some of those other aforementioned plans) got pushed to the side. Perhaps not coincidentally, my once rewarding garden took a serious dive, in terms of both productivity and the enjoyment I took from my increasingly limited engagements with it. So it was with some satisfaction that yesterday I ripped out all the wilting tomatoes and long-since-exhausted peppers, as I usually do around this time of year. But this year, I also started prepping for a fall and winter garden. It’s Sukkot, after all; time to build my settlement anew.

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Family-Centered, Church-Supported Thoughts About (Not Yet) Attending a New(ish) Ward

That’s our ward building, right there. We call it the “Westlink Building,” because its address is along Westlink Avenue, here on the west side of Wichita, Kansas. It’s more than a half-century old, having been built by the Mormon faithful here long before the church’s building program was centralized, back when local units needed to raise their own money and, perhaps, pour their own concrete and lay their own stones. Today, meetings were held there for the first time in months. Despite having attended church in that building ever since moving into our Wichita home–also on Westlink Avenue, just a third of a mile away, an easy Sunday walk–back in 2006, this week we weren’t there. [Read more…]

Our Own Vines and Our Own Fig Trees: a Post-Independence Day, Post-Hamilton-Watching Sermon

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Like plenty of other Americans (and, given likely demographics, probably in particular like plenty of readers of this blog), my family and I watched the musical Hamilton over the July 4th weekend. Our second-oldest daughter, who was home to join us yesterday, had actually seen the show in 2016 on Broadway; for the rest of us, as familiar as we were with the music, watching the show was a new experience–and it was a lovely one, a wonderfully funny and dramatic, visually and aurally compelling, and historically challenging (in more ways than one), piece of filmed theater. It was three hours very well spent. [Read more…]

Eugene England’s “Easter Weekend” Fast

Some of you are fasting today. In recognition of that, and in recognition of Good Friday, I am doing what I often do this time of year: return to what is, in my opinion, the finest, most powerful, and most Christian personal essay which Mormon-Americana has yet produced: Eugene England’s “Easter Weekend,” which is the story of a very different–and yet also, very universal–kind of fasting. It was originally printed in the Spring 1988 issue of Dialogue, was reprinted in the Autumn 2001 issue of Irreantum, and is available in full in The Quality of Mercy, a collection of his essays long out of print. You can read the whole thing here. I will include some excerpts below.

Gene has been dead for nearly 20 years. I didn’t know him well, though there are many members of the BCC community who did. But whether you knew him well or only a little or not at all, we all can re-read his words, and look forward to someday hearing his voice again.

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Presidents’ Day Questions for Ralph Hancock

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Ralph Hancock, a political theorist at Brigham Young University, is a fairly notorious figure in certain tiny Mormon slivers of the internet. I never took a class from him when I was a student at BYU, but I’ve interacted with him, in person and online, dozens of times over the decades; we’re friendly, if not necessarily close friends. Recently, Hancock made waves with a piece he published in the Deseret News, arguing, in reference to the recent impeachment vote, that Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, who voted, along with every other Republican save one, to find President Trump not guilty of the impeachment charges, had acted like a true statesman; Mitt Romney, the only Republican senator who voted to convict Trump, had not. This is a position I disagree with, as I’ve made clear already. So this President’s Day, I’d like to pose some questions for Ralph–not with any illusion that anyone’s mind will be changed by voicing such questions, but because I honestly want to understand just what it is he’s claiming about American statesmanship circa 2020, and why. [Read more…]

Religious Liberty and Joseph Smith in Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Benjamin Park’s Kingdom of Nauvoo: The Rise and Fall of a Religious Empire on the American Frontier is going to be released in two weeks. You should buy it and read it. It’s a first-rate work of Mormon history–the best book about this era I’ve read since Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling–and if it doesn’t quite become the work of intellectual history that I think Park sensed writing the story of Joseph Smith and the Council of Fifty could become, it’s not for lack of trying. Park takes up the many radical threads–political, economic, racial, and sexual–which were part of Smith’s final, and greatest, effort to establish his vision of a distinct community, and weaves them together into a compelling, fascinating tale. And now that Park has provided an interpretation of Smith’s kingdom-building which no previous historian was capable of–with the minutes of the secretive Council of Fifty only finally being made public in 2016–early Mormonism will likely soon find itself occupying a new and even more important conceptual place in the never-ending academic arguments about American democracy, religion, liberalism, and pluralism. Nerds like me who delight in such arguments will keep coming back to Park’s work as a foundational treatment, and we’ll be rewarded for doing so by Park’s delightful read. [Read more…]

Thanks, Mitt

McKay Coppins on Senator Mitt Romney’s vote to convict President Trump on one article of impeachment, the only Republican to do so:

“Romney’s vote will do little to reorient the political landscape. The president’s acquittal has been all but certain for weeks, as Republicans have circled the wagons to protect Trump. But the Utahan’s sharp indictment ensures that at least one dissenting voice from within the president’s party will be on the record—and Romney seems to believe history will vindicate his decision.” [Read more…]

An Brief Post About a Complicated Topic

Today I attended a local ecumenical Christian conference here in Wichita, KS. While there, Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Orthodox archpriest, gave a wonderful plenary address–ranging from deep philosophy to pastoral counsel–on boundaries, the other, and shame. At one point, while making the point that everything that exists is, and should be, bounded in some sense or another, he suggested that even in the perfect unity of the Trinity (what we Mormons tend to call the Godhead), there must be a “no,” a limit, or else everything collapses into one, and love of another becomes impossible. This made me think of two things. The first was 2 Nephi 2:11. The second was: was Father Freeman going off on this own here, or was this the correct Orthodox understanding of God? [Read more…]