Does America Need a Civil Religion?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The website Patheos has revived their excellent feature “The Public Square” with one of the more interesting topics that can be asked in conjunction with religion and public life: namely, that of civil religion. I was asked to contribute something–in no more than 800 words, which anyone who knows me knows is difficult. I’m attaching below the unedited version of what they ran; I strongly encourage you to read all the contributions, as there is some good thinking on display there: [Read more…]

Come, Listen to a Prophet’s Voice

Exactly 50 years ago today, on Wednesday, August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–an evangelical Southern Baptist, a democratic socialist, a troublemaker, an agitator, an idealist, a patriot, a sinner, a saint, and, in the words of the announcer, “the moral leader of our nation”–gave the climactic address to a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people who had marched on Washington DC to demand the end to all those obstacles which stood in the way of both the equal rights and the full employment of African-Americans. Like all prophets, his voice that day was only heard and heeded partially. Thankfully, that doesn’t stop us from hearing and reading his words again today, his words which call us again to equality and forgiveness and justice and community and peace, and honoring them: honoring them with our hearts and our minds and our votes and our taxes and our democratic activities. That’s the good thing about dreams.

Three Notes on President Uchtdorf (and His Wonderful Priesthood Session Sermon)

Dnews 20.CESUchtdorf.0113.chn Let me confess that I’ve become a little suspicious of the deep affection which seems to characterize so many discussions about President Dieter F. Uchtdorf amongst the Intellectual Mormons (use whatever definition your prefer) that I frequently associate with. I have a hard time buying the idea that this man is some kind of Great Liberal Hope for the church; there’s no way any person (even a non-American!) can get to the highest levels of church leadership and not be fundamentally at peace with–and have real faith in the divinity behind–the corporate Mormon institution which we all know and love. He’s a general authority, a man we give the title “apostle” to, and that ought to be more than good enough. There’s no need to look at him as one who has great and unique and needed insights which his fellow general authorities lack.

Except that, well, he keeps giving beautiful, thoughtful, wise talks after which I have to tell myself: “Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the Church Office Building who would have said that.” His sermon in Priesthood session this past Saturday is a case in point.

[Read more…]

The Three Trees: A Folk Tale for Good Friday

[An old and oft-told story, one which gets better with age.]

Once upon a time, three trees stood in a forest high on a mountain, dreaming of what they might become one day.

[Read more…]

Resolving Existential Crises Through Philosophy and/or Film (or, My Dinner with Megan)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Last night, our delightful, thoughtful, ambitious, and very smart oldest daughter, now aged sixteen (and getting ready to graduate a year early; help support her year abroad in India here!), had an existential crisis. She’s been studying other religions–particularly Buddhism–at school, and while at an activity at our own church last night, it suddenly struck her: what if Buddhism (or, as I would emphasize to her, the version of Buddhism she’d become familiar with) was correct, and all she knew and had ever experienced was a kind of karmic illusion of suffering, one that she could only transcend through self-annihilation? Late-night bull-session thoughts, you might say, but they really shook her, and by late that evening she was crying and shaking, desperate to make some sense of the world. What did it all mean? Was there such a thing as meaning? Was there such a thing as herself–much less God or reality or anything else? [Read more…]

The Strange Missing Element in Elder Oaks’s Very Fine Stargazing Analogy

stargazingIf you live in anywhere in the Upper Midwest, and you’re the sort of Mormon who goes to stake conference, then yesterday you were sitting in a church building somewhere listening to some piped-in talks from Salt Lake City, the concluding one being given by Elder Dallin H. Oaks. His remarks were very Hinckley-ish, running over a wide range of topics pertinent to both administering the affairs of the church and living a Christ-like life. At one point he directed his comments to the single adult members in the church, and he told a short story, which I actually thought was an almost perfect analogy of the situation facing most single adult members of the church. Almost. To summarize as best as I can recall, his analogy went like this: [Read more…]

My Final (?) Mormon Moment Thoughts

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Over the past 20 months or so, I–like a lot of other Mormon academics and bloggers–have found myself being contacted by reporters, being invited to conferences, and being asked to write up some thoughts, all of which had to do with the “Mormon Moment” which the coincidence of several pop culture trends and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign combined to create. (You can find versions of those thoughts here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That moment isn’t over, I think, though it’s obviously moved into a different phase, one that is far less public than was the case a year ago. In any case, there was recently yet another Mormon Moment gathering, this one held at Utah Valley University, and I was privileged to be a part of it, along with Kristine Haglund, James Falconer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Matt Bowman, and others. UVU has now put up a video of the main presentation (which doesn’t include the wonderful Q&A with Matt, unfortunately); my contribution begins at 53:15, but really, if you’re at all interested in any of the issues which pertained to the Mormon Moment, however you defined it, you should take two hours and watch the whole thing. [Read more…]

My Giant

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Today, February 11, my father James Russell Fox (who was named after his father, James Wesley “Little Bill” Fox, who was in turn named after his father, James William “Big Bill” Fox), turns 70. Even in this era of plastic surgery, third or fourth careers, and aging rock-and-rollers, that still counts as old. (Check it out: my father is older than three out of the four current surviving members of the Rolling Stones. That’s saying something.) He carries his age well: still waking up early, still golfing almost every day, still heading in to the office for a day’s work, still laboring with Young Men’s organization at church. He is, seven decades into his mortal life, the most healthy and firm and disciplined and well-rounded and loving and accomplished and thoroughly good man I have ever personally known, and probably ever will personally know. I am taller than him, and have more university degrees beside my name, and I suppose can–in a few ways–see some things which he cannot. But if that is so, it is only because I am, like my eight siblings, a dwarf who stands upon the shoulder of a giant. I am lifted up by him, yet I am also in his shadow as well. So he is above me as well as beneath me, and all around me as well. Jim Fox will follow me all my life, and for all the ways we disagree, I feel that as an enormous blessing, one I am unworthy of in so many ways. [Read more…]

All Creatures Great and Small

cows_in_snow[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

My father decided that we needed to learn how to work–and since he ran a feed mill, getting farm animals that we could feed relatively cheap seemed like the best idea. My father had been part of the world of alfalfa fields and cattle auctions since he was a child, but he wasn’t a farmer, per se; just someone who knew and respected the social and economic place of farm life, and saw an opportunity to continue to make it a part of his children’s lives. As so we got dairy cows, and starting around age nine, I and my older brother Daniel and older sister Samatha would milk them (usually two, sometimes three, sometimes only one) by hand, morning and night. Of course, that would include Christmas. [Read more…]

Elders Quorum and the Secret of Measuring Success in the Church

asleepAs a new member of a bishopric in a ward with all-new boundaries, I now get to attend all sorts of stake training meetings which I’d never been expected to get out to before. This is, to be clear, not exactly my favorite part of my new calling. But I have to admit that I learned something at a stake training meeting last night–or at least had a thought planted in my head which is probably worth some discussion. [Read more…]

Home Teaching and the Miracle of Interruption

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Yesterday, I and another member of our church went to talk and counsel with a family in our congregation. (In Mormon parlance, this is called “home teaching” or “visit teaching.”) They’re a young couple, married less than a year. He was born and raised in the faith, but unfortunately also had made some bad choices and developed some addictive behaviors along the way–enough that he ultimately found himself in prison and excommunicated from the church. He’s now on parole, and it was through his and his extended family’s efforts that the woman he’d met and was dating chose to be baptized into the faith. Now they are expecting their first child, and the real difficulty of the path before them–the legal as well as spiritual one–as they make plans for their family has crashed down on them, hard. As it happens, I’m a little familiar with some of the behaviors that ultimately led him to place where he now finds himself, and I’d like to believe I was able to offer some solace and support. But it’s hard to tell. Our congregation’s boundaries were recently redrawn, and I was asked to take on some new responsibilities at church, and so I am suddenly meeting new people, confronting new problems. Thrust into this situation by choices I made–as, in a very different but still similar sense, this couple also find themselves confronted by the unexpected, despite all the ways in which their own choices put them in the place they are–I do the best I can….but you never know what will come of these interruptions. [Read more…]

Mocking Romney’s Mormon Self-Sufficiency, and What That Misses

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Amy Sullivan has an article on The New Republic’s website this morning, calling Mitt Romney “insufferably cheap,” and arguing that the “frugal quirks” which have been welldocumented in recent news stories–according to the Washington Post, Romney “duct-tapes the holes in his gloves….rinses and stacks the dishes at the sink before loading the dishwasher after family holiday meals….picks up his own dry cleaning, pulls his own suitcase, eats at burger joints, counts his change”–reveal a “pathological” personality, make Romney “sound like a complete loon,” and “must make him a bit annoying to be around.” I respectfully disagree with all those claims. Far from making Romney seem like a tightwad jerk, learning about Romney’s devotion to personal penny-pinching–though only in some areas of his life–does more to make him seem to my eyes like an authentic human being I can relate to, than anything else that he’s done or has been said about him in all his years in the public eye. I’m not going to vote for him, but for the first time, I feel as though I kind of like the guy. [Read more…]

Cleansing the Altar, and the Anvil Too

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Some interrelated thoughts for today, which is Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday that I kind of wish every year was one of my own. First of all, the text: [Read more…]

How Mitt Romney Deflated the Mormon Moment

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Before we get too far into this week’s Democratic National Convention, let me get off my chest something about last week’s, something that I’ve alluded to in other places before, but now, having watched and read up on all the Mormon-centric stuff that came out of Tampa last week, I’m more certain of than ever. The speeches given last Thursday, culminating in Mitt Romney’s speech accepting the presidential nomination of the Republican Party wasn’t just a “climax” for the Mormon Moment–it was the effective sublimation and emptying of it as well. [Read more…]

Blessed, Honored Pioneers

Caitlyn–our second daughter, age 12–gave her first talk in sacrament meeting on Sunday. The topic was, as no doubt was the case in wards and branches all across the country, the Mormon pioneers. She genuinely struggled over it, asking smart questions (like “Why did they go all the way to Utah; could they have just set up a new city once they’d escaped from Illinois?”), and wondering whether it was appropriate or not to mention our family’s pioneer heritage (Brigham Young on my father’s mother’s side; C.C.A. Christensen–and hundreds of other Scandinavian saints–on my wife’s father’s), or whether that would seem like bragging. In the end, she gave fine 7-minute talk, telling stories and expressing appreciation for the way the pioneer experience “gave us a church we have today.” Which is true, mostly. Her ancestors would have been proud. Really, it was a good sacrament meeting, all around. The only way it could have been improved is if we’d sung The Handcart Song as a congregation–you know, the real one. [Read more…]

Why I Think I Was Wrong About Proposition 8 and Same-Sex Marriage

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The only time I have had the opportunity to actually vote on–as opposed to pontificate about–same-sex marriage was in 2004 when I lived in Arkansas, when an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the legal recognition of anything besides a union of one man and one woman as a marriage was on the ballot. I voted in favor of it. In 2008, though I wasn’t living in California, Proposition 8–the ballot initiative to re-establish what was, at the time, the exclusively heterosexual definition of marriage in that state–was obviously something just about every informed American Mormon, due to our church’s heavy involvement in its passage, had an opinion on. My opinion, which was published as part of a roundtable in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, was that I would have, if I’d lived in California, reluctantly voted in support of the referendum. I now think both my vote on same-sex marriage in Arkansas, and the arguments I laid out regarding Proposition 8, were wrong. [Read more…]

“What Think Ye of Christ?”

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Twice in the past week, I have been asked, in essence, this very question, though not exactly as it is recorded in Matthew 22:42. Once the question came from a student of mine, a young person, unfamiliar with the Mormon church but filled with questions, a person generally uninterested in Christianity; the other came from a fellow Mormon blogger, an academic like myself, trying to make sense of certain statements I’d made in response to some of the templerelated controversies which the Mormon Moment has thrust upon us. I found myself responding as I did in both cases, I suppose, because I’m mostly unconcerned with, and admittedly sometimes outright dismissive of, many of the doctrines in question: the point of the church, for me at least, is to get close to God, and experience the condescension, love, and grace of Jesus, and I often find the need to justify or make sense of much of the rest of our teachings a distraction, at best. What follows is my attempt to recreate the answers I gave to those two questioners, with some help from Elders Holland and Uchtdorf along the way. [Read more…]

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This is a sermon which I gave in sacrament meeting on January 1, 2012. It was the day after our third daughter, Alison, was baptized, and my parents and parents-in-law were in attendance, which all made for a wonderful occasion. I don’t think I would have done anything different with this sermon it had been just another Sunday though. In any case, I think it turned out well, and enough people told me afterwards that they liked it that I decided to post it here. Enjoy. [Read more…]

Happy Christmas, Everyone

This, or something very much like this, is perhaps my oldest Christmas memory. Also one of my best.

Best wishes for a great holiday tomorrow.

The (Not So) Radical(ly Conseravtive) Mormon Priesthood

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

That Mormonism was at one time a radical movement which challenged dominant American liberal norms–most famously regarding marriage and sexuality, but also (and I think more importantly) regarding economics and government–is pretty well understood by most who have even a passing familiarity with Mormon history. (If that’s not you, see here and here.) That Mormonism today–at least American Mormonism, at least if the dominant voting patterns and preferred modes of discourse amongst the majority of American Mormon wards are taken as evidence–is no longer much committed to radical communitarianism and egalitarianism, to radical re-organizations of social life, to radical distinctions in how one talks about sovereignty and loyalty, is also pretty well understood. (Again, if you’re lost, begin here and here.) America is a different place than it was in the late 19th-century, to be sure, when the U.S. government invested considerable effort to imprison church members and break apart church operations…but then, we are also a significantly different church than we were then, far more at peace with, and far more aligned to, dominant American ways of socializing, making money, electing our leaders and living our lives. Sure, we could point to all sorts of contrasting evidence–but we’re much more sexually traditional than most Americans! we challenge all sorts of trends regarding divorce and family! we’re considered weird by people in Hollywood!–but all that is, I would assert, fairly circumstantial: fundamentally, for better or worse (or both), the “Mormon moment” has come, in all its multicolored variety, and its conclusion is: even allowing for our mostly traditional mores and mostly conservative politics, here in America we are, I think, undeniably a pretty modern mix of mostly independent individuals, just like nearly everybody else (or, more honestly, just like nearly every other mostly white, mostly suburban church in America). [Read more…]

Mormonism and Utopian Politics

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I don’t mean to make a habit of responding to Matt Bowman’s essays in The New Republic, if for no other reason than that the man’s scholarly chops and writing skills are both impressive and intimidating. Both those talents are fully on display in his latest piece, which thoughtfully postulates a link between Mitt Romney’s technocratic worldview and organizational acumen (as well as his occasional history of deviating from quasi-libertarian, Tea Party-conservative Republican orthodoxy) and Mormonism’s history of progressive-style responses to social problems. But there’s a problem with Bowman’s essay: what he identifies from Mormon history and culture as a variation upon “classical American progressivism” isn’t really, or at least isn’t at its roots, despite his claims otherwise. In fact, the affinity which Matt sees between Mormonism and progressivism is actually just an echo of an ever deeper, more radical historical parallel and inheritance–one which, I’m sad to say, Mitt Romney (like most American Mormons) shows little sign of having been influenced by at all. [Read more…]

Finally Weighing in on the Jeffress-Romney Thing….

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

(I’ve no deep interest in the whole current morass of Republican party politics and anti-Mormonism, partly because I’ve gone through the whole thing before, and partly because many others have weighed in with thoughts much better than my own. Still, last Friday I sent this editorial off to my local newspaper, responding to a piece by Robert “Mormonism is a cult” Jeffress which had appeared that morning, and today they actually ran it, though I had to cut down my essay to under 600 words, which was simply criminal. Anyway, here’s the original, longer version of the piece. Read and enjoy.) [Read more…]

Uncle Buck Demonstrates the Wisdom of President Dalton’s Counsel

President Elaine S. Dalton, speaking in this morning’s conference: “Fathers, if  your daughter isn’t back from her date on time, go get her!” [Read more…]

Getting Everything Wrong (Even What He Gets Right)

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

The October 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine features as its cover article a lengthy, provocative, at times insightful, but mostly wholly tendentious anti-Mormon screed by Chris Lehmann, entitled “Pennies from Heaven.” Lehmann’s thesis basically boils down to 1) Mormon doctrine conveys a particularly pure version of the “prosperity gospel,” in which the tightly organized collective acquisition of non-speculative wealth (mostly gold or land) is held up as the ideal characteristic of God’s chosen people, and 2) this ideological mix of piety and material plenty has spread through the Tea Party movement and into the mainstream of the Republican party, with Mormon presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman being exemplary contributors to this continuing economic conversion. This thesis–both parts of it–is, to put it plainly, complete balderdash. At one point Lehmann, in criticizing the Tea Party, speaks of their “tortured and largely confabulated vision of the Founding Fathers” (p. 36); the exact same sentence could be used to describe how he treats what he calls “Mormon economics,” or indeed how he treats Mormonism itself. Even when he touches on an important point or two that could contribute to a thoughtful story about the unfortunate alliance between much of contemporary American Mormonism and the G.O.P.’s free-market fetishization, he still manages to get the actual argument wrong. [Read more…]

“We Have Seen Strange Things To Day”

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I recently finished reading through the four canonical gospels. I didn’t embark on this scripture study project because the church is studying the New Testament in gospel doctrine class this year, but because, after having completed both another family and a personal read of the Book of Mormon, I thought I should do something different. I thought about reading the Old Testament, which I’ve never completed all the way through (the closest I ever came was more than 20 years ago, on my mission, when I made it all the way to Lamentations when I just gave up). I thought about the Doctrines and Covenants and Pearl of Great Price, but the truth is they’re my least favorite books of scripture; much better, to my mind, for occasional study, both historical and theological, than for devotional reading. And that’s what I’ve come to view my own scripture reading as: an act of ritual and repetition, a brief, daily, meditation upon The Word. The New Testament presented the obvious text of choice. And in reading through the gospels, one point seemed to me to be clearly hammered home by the text, again and again: Jesus seriously freaked people out. [Read more…]

Reviving the Review

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

When I began my university education at nearly 25 years ago, Student Review, an independent, non-correlated, student-run newspaper at BYU, was a year old. I’d never heard of it before, but when walking through the parade of booths set up by clubs and other student organizations during Freshman Orientation, I spotted a man with a beard. Since this was Provo, that was, of course, unusual. I walked to him, and learned he was Bill Kelly, the publisher and one of the three key founders of the newspaper. (He had to shave the beard the next week, when the semester officially began.) I’d worked for student newspapers before, and like the–admittedly, rather self-congratulatory–feeling of being a bit of a rabble-rouser, so I immediately signed up. And that was it. For all the rest of my time as an undergraduate–throughout my freshman year in 1987-1988, after I returned from my church proselytizing mission in 1990, and until I graduate in 1993–Student Review (or “SR” as we near-universally referred to it) was one of the defining elements of my education. [Read more…]

The Scriptorian

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

My first encounter with Jim Faulconer came on my mission to South Korea. I’d been in the country about a year, and my companion at the time had an older brother who was studying philosophy back at BYU. He sent his younger brother a recent essay by Jim: “Self-Image, Self-Love, and Salvation”, a masterpiece which has since been reprinted and celebrated and attacked many times. I don’t know why this fellow thought his brother would like or need the essay: perhaps it just struck him as a great piece of writing, or perhaps he thought his brother would relate to Jim’s own experiences as a missionary in South Korea more than 20 (now more than 40!) years before, or perhaps he thought his brother would value Jim’s advice. If the last of these, he misjudged his brother greatly; my companion looked through the essay, turned to me and said (if my memory is accurate, which it probably isn’t) “This guy just doesn’t like people being successful and making money!”, and threw it in the trash. I retrieved it, read through it, and realized several things, among them: 1) this man, James E. Faulconer, has put into better words than I ever could at least a portion of the many inchoate and confused thoughts I had about my situation as a missionary and a Christian, and 2) that I want to read everything he’d ever written, or ever would write.

As it turned out, Jim’s thoughts, profound as they were (and are) didn’t do much to prevent me from being a pretty crappy missionary, but I have attempted diligently to read just about everything Jim has written in the years since, and I have been blessed by that determination. Let me take a few moments to attempt to explain why.

[Read more…]

Radical Homemaking, Radical Enrichment

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

I first heard about Shannon Hayes work through Laura McKenna’s blog nearly two years ago. I was already disposed to like the sorts of localist, agrarian, and traditional causes that Hayes urges us to consider when I first read about her (after all, Melissa and I vaguely aspire to that sort of lifestyle ourselves), but it was Laura’s concluding line–“There is absolutely no reason that feminism should mean a devotion to capitalism”–that really pulled me in. When I finally got a copy of Hayes’s book, Radical Homemakers, I confess it wasn’t what I expected–rather than a serious, theoretically grounded critique of consumer culture, family life, and the structural obstacles that often stand in the way of adopting a simpler, more communal lifestyle, I found an often sloppily researched but nonetheless impassioned instruction manual-cum-rallying cry. A cry and a manual for what? Very simply, for rejecting the economic demands which insist of dual-income households (p. 17), for relearning how to grow and preserve your own food (pp. 78-83), and for refusing the economically and environmentally devastating materialism of modern American life (pp. 93-94). And I thought to myself: now, wouldn’t this make for a great Relief Society lesson?

[Read more…]

Should Mitt Even Want a “Moment”?

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Another thought (shorter than last time) about the recent Newsweek cover story on Mormonism in America today, and Mitt Romney’s–or any other prominent member of my church’s–place in it all. [Read more…]

Do We Want Our Religion To Be Mainstream?

[Cross posted to In Medias Res]

This cover story in Newsweek is pretty much the only thing Mormons in my crowd have been talking about this morning. (They’ve also been talking about the other features in the package, as well as a wonderful sidebar article on Elizabeth Smart, but not as much as the main piece.) The main article, “Mormons Rock!”, written by Walter Kirn–who is a long-lapsed member of the faith himself–apparently started out as a piece on the new “The Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway, but grew from there. The editor primarily responsible for putting the package together and guiding it was Damon Linker, my old friend and frequent intellectual sparring-partner, not least when it comes to things Mormon. Here, thanks to the work of some fine other journalists, he’s developed something that might well be read as a basically innocuous puff-piece (running through some of the basics of the church’s history and current institutional culture, quoting several prominent members of the faith about how they deal with the misunderstanding and marginalization that comes along with being a minority faith), but which, to me anyway, presents a fairly challenging question, a question that might be legitimately asked to believers of any non-dominant religion: should you, as a adherent of a faith, actually want to have your “moment”? [Read more…]


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