Reflections on Heartbreak and Choice

Dear Brother Givens,

I came across your post on abortion today.  I confess that I did not read it carefully because I am trying to be kinder to myself.  From what I did read, you quote several writers and statistics, and ultimately ground your opinions in your own visceral reactions to abortion and especially the procedures used in the second and third trimester.  I wonder, though, did you try to speak directly to any women who have had abortions?  Did you read any firsthand accounts of abortions by women who do not regret them?  Did you send out a call to your general female acquaintance to share their experiences with you?  I guarantee that you personally know some women who have had abortions, though, given what you wrote, I am not sure they would have trusted you with their experiences.

Here is what I would have told you.  I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from childhood.  I served a mission.  I have held many callings.  I remained chaste until marriage and remain faithful in my marriage.  And I had an abortion a few years ago on the first day of my fifteenth week of pregnancy.  

[Read more…]

On Terryl Givens and Abortion

Yesterday Terryl Givens published what he characterized as “A Latter-day Saint Defense of the Unborn” at Public Square Magazine. He ultimately concludes that Latter-day Saints are obligated to oppose abortion and that there is basically no room for personally opposing abortion but supporting its legality and availability.

Givens seems completely sincere in his revulsion for abortion. But that sincerity has led him to pen (type?) a deeply misleading and unchristian jeremiad against his fellow citizens and fellow-Saints who take the opposite tack.

I’m not going to detail all of the factual and legal problems with his piece, though I will highlight a couple of what I consider to be the big problems. I’m also want to point out that the way he’s framed his argument undercuts any assertion that he makes it in good faith and that it demonstrates a huge lack of moral imagination.

[Read more…]

#TrumpTaxReturns on The Surly Subgroup

As far as I know, the only news in the U.S. since Sunday has been the New York Times‘s investigation of leaked Trump tax returns. I certainly know that the first article Sunday evening definitively changed my work schedule for the week.

There’s a lot of information in the article, but there’s also a lot of additional context that tax people can bring to it. I’ve done a bunch of tweeting about the context, and just put my tweets together into a single blog post. (I’ll note that the tweets are better because they are GIF-filled, but the blog post is easier and, as a bonus, links to all of the tweets).

There’s nothing even remotely Mormon-y about this but, to the extent you’re interested in some further content and tax-y goodness, check out the Surly Subgroup.

Whiteness and Jesus

Over the last couple weeks I’ve been reading The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race In America. Without going into too much detail, the book traces the development of Jesus as white in the United States and the contested place of His whiteness. Broadly speaking, when the Puritans came here, they eschewed images, including pictures of Jesus. And in the early days, when Jesus appeared to people, He appeared as light, not as racialized.[fn1]

Little by little, Jesus began to be more embodied in the American imagination; His embodiment emerged roughly (though not entirely) with technology that allow the mass production of pictures and pamphlets. And embodied Jesus began to be depicted as racially white.

Especially after the Civil War and into the first half of the 20th century, His whiteness was often (not always, but often) pressed into the service of white supremacy. Jesus was white because white was better, white was purer, white was worthier.

Again, this outline is very surface-level; the book provides a lot more detail and nuance. But overall, it represents the book’s outline (at least through the Civil Rights movement and the creation of Black Liberation Theology, which is where I currently am in the book). [Read more…]

Uyghurs, the Church, and Religious Freedom

Uyghur girls. Xinjiang. Photo by kpi. CC BY 2.0

About a week ago, Disney released its live-action Mulan for rent on Disney+. As people watched it, they noticed something: in the closing credits, Disney gives “special thanks” to eight government entities in Xinjiang, where parts of the movie were filmed.

This has led to calls to boycott the movie in the U.S.[fn1]

Why? It’s a long(ish) story, told better by others, but the short version: Xinjiang (in western China) is home to about 12 million indigenous Muslims. The largest of these groups are the Uyghurs.[fn2] Since at least 2017, the Chinese government has been aggressively detaining its Uyghur population in concentration camps (which it calls “re-education camps”). Today, an estimated 1 million Uyghurs (which represents more than 8% of the Muslim population in the region) are detained in these concentration camps. Moreover, Buzzfeed has determined that China has recently built 268 new compounds in which to detain its Uyghur population. [Read more…]

Conspiracy Theories, Ritual Abuse and the Rise of QAnon in Mormondom

We live at a time when conspiracy theory is spreading. This is my second post on its particularly Mormon manifestations. See the first here

In 1983, Judy Johnson accused her estranged husband, Ray Buckey, of molesting their young son at the preschool where he worked. The McMartin Preschool, in Manhattan Beach, California, was a family business founded by Buckey’s grandmother Virginia McMartin, and operated by her children and grandchildren.

The police found little evidence for Buckey’s guilt, but as a precaution they sent a long form letter out to hundreds of parents whose children attended the school. The letter stated that Buckey was being investigated and asked parents to question their children if employees of the preschool had committed any of a series of detailed acts. The Children’s Institute International, a child abuse therapy clinic, was brought in to consult and by 1984 staffers had interviewed more than 400 children. They received dozens of reports. The McMartins were mutilating animals; they were dressing in robes and digging up corpses in front of children; they were holding satanic rituals in secret rooms and tunnels under the preschool accessed through a variety of methods, including down the toilets. [Read more…]

Republicans render unto Trump that which is God’s

Photo by Brad Dodson on Unsplash

Scripture is replete with warnings about placing faith in political leaders above God.

God repeatedly calls the faithful to reject kings and idols, to disperse power away from any singular charismatic personality.  “Ye shall have no king nor ruler, for I [God] will be your king and watch over you.”  (D&C 38:21). 

Why?  Because we know from sad experience that as soon as men “get a little authority, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”  (D&C 121:39).  Kings, with their greater authority, wreak greater unrighteousness.  

[Read more…]

Rep. John Lewis and Religious Freedom

Yesterday and today, the late Representative John Lewis is lying in state at the Capitol. Thousands of people lined up to pay respects to the Congressman yesterday and I’d be surprised if thousands more don’t today.

They may know Rep. Lewis from his days as a Freedom Rider, fighting for racial justice. They may know him from the graphic novels about his civil rights career. They may know him from his 40-ish years representing constituents as an elected official.

I was reminded that Rep. Lewis was a deeply religious man and advocate of religious freedom last week when I got a call from Amy Lee Rosen, a reporter for Law360. She was doing a story about tax bills sponsored by Rep. Lewis.

One of the bills Rep. Lewis sponsored? H.R. 4169: the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act.

I was familiar with the Religious Freedom Peace Tax Fund Act; I wrote about it in chapter 4 of my book. [Read more…]

Religious Freedom vs. Public Interest (Working Women)

I dissent.

Let me start off by being clear that I am not a lawyer (on a blog with many lawyers). I have multiple decades of experience as a business executive in large corporations, overseeing the employment of thousands of people. As an executive, I understood very well what the applicable anti-discrimination laws were. Now that I’m a small business owner, I also recognize that many of those laws are not required for me, but based on my personal conviction and principles, I still run my business as if they do.

In a 7-2 decision, SCOTUS recently upheld a completely discriminatory ruling to allow employers (that are not directly affiliated with any church) to refuse to cover birth control in their employee healthcare plans. This decision rests firmly on a few shaky foundational assumptions: [Read more…]

Faculty Demographics at BYU

A couple weeks ago, President Nelson issued a joint statement with the NAACP condemning racial injustice. Toward the end of that statement, they said:

We likewise call on government, business, and educational leaders at every level to review processes, laws, and organizational attitudes regarding racism and root them out once and for all.

(Emphasis mine.) It occurred to me that, while at BYU-P, very few of my professors were people of color. (It’s been a couple decades, so my memory isn’t perfect, but as best I can remember, I had two Brazilian professors, which is probably the closest I came.) I wondered what BYU faculty looks like today.

It isn’t pretty.  [Read more…]

On Masks

A couple weeks ago, I was going to write a quick fun post asking whether, in a post-pandemic world, the church would start letting people wear masks to church Halloween parties.[fn1] After all, in the phased resumption of sacrament meeting, members can be encouraged to wear facemasks. And if at sacrament meeting, why not at Halloween?

To write the post, I did a quick Google search to see if the internet had any explanation of the origins of the church’s ban on masks. And you know what? If you Google “mormon no masks,” you get a lot of hits about the church’s mask-making activities and, right at the top, Elder Cook’s 2012 BYUI devotional titled, of all things, “Don’t Wear Masks.” [Read more…]

#JusticeForGeorgeFloyd Revisited

A little more than a week ago, I posted some religious leaders’ reactions to the murder of George Floyd. While the church hadn’t responded when I posted, it responded shortly thereafter, and I update the post to include the church’s response.

Today, Pres. Nelson released a joint statement with the NAACP. The original post has dropped far enough below the fold that I decided it’s worth a new post. As with the other statements, I’m only going to excerpt it. It’s absolutely worth reading the whole thing.

President Russell M. Nelson, president, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO, NAACP; Leon Russell, Chairman, NAACP; and The Reverend Amos C. Brown, Chairman Emeritus of Religious Affairs, NAACP wrote: [Read more…]

Justice for George Floyd [Updated 6-1, 8-20]

I’m sure that you, like me, have seen the shocking murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. That you are aware that this isn’t the first time, the second, or even the third time this type of senseless killing has occurred. You’ve seen the protests demanding justice. Maybe you’ve participated in them.

Religion has things to say about justice, about how we should treat each other, and how we should treat the poor and vulnerable and the stranger. The Book of Mormon is basically 500 pages of God’s chosen people getting it wrong.

So I thought I’d look to see whether religious leaders are speaking out about this moral issue and, if so, what they’re saying. Unsurprisingly, they are speaking out about both our unjust society and the just society that we should aspire to create. The following is a sampling, undoubtedly incomplete but critical nonetheless in this moment of deep sorrow and introspection: [Read more…]

Sheep and Goats in a Pandemic

Sheep and goats in corrals. The Field Museum Library. No know copyright restrictions.

Yesterday my family and I took a bike ride to downtown Chicago. (Under Illinois’s stay-at-home order, biking for outdoor activity is an essential activity.)

It was stunning, in this usually-vibrant city, how empty the streets were. We passed a handful of people out for exercise, air, or to walk their dogs. The buses we passed, which should have been full to overflowing at rush hour, held a driver and one or two other people. The storefront businesses were dark, as billboards and electronic signs at bus stops reminded Chicagoans to stay home to avoid spreading Covid-19.

It occurred to me on that ride how hard it is to be truly Christian during a pandemic like this one. Not hard because our hearts are in the wrong place—I believe that everybody who’s sacrificing to protect the health and lives of their communities is being deeply Christian—but because being truly Christian requires physical communion. [Read more…]

Excluding Our Fellow Saints From the Sacrament

In Illinois, we’re now halfway through our sixth week under a stay-at-home order (and my family’s seventh week at home). And the stay-at-home order looks like it’s going to last at least another month here. That means at least 12 Sundays in Illinois without meeting together at church (and, even when the stay-at-home order ends, some people may make the eminently responsible and defensible decision to continue social distancing, and delay their return to church).

Ultimately, I don’t think putting church meetings on hold is optimal. (To be clear, it’s both necessary and good. It’s just not ideal.) We need human contact, and we need the spiritual benefits that come from gathering together. That said, it’s necessary, and on net, saving the lives and the health of our fellow Saints is both beneficial and will bless us and them.

Still, this extended time away from church means that some people—single women and families without priesthood holders in the home, for example—won’t have the ability to take the sacrament for three months or more.

The church has made a tentative stab at recognizing the position these women and families are in. On April 16, the church provided instructions for administering the church during the pandemic. The instructions provide that “In unusual circumstances when the sacrament is not available, members can be comforted by studying the sacrament prayers and recommitting to live the covenants members have made and praying for the day they will receive it in person, properly administered by the priesthood.” [Read more…]

On (Not) Blogging Through a Pandemic

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Monday starts my family’s fifth week of staying home (and fourth week under a formal stay-at-home order). Other than daily walks and occasional (rare) trips to the store to pick up necessities, my whole world has been the Chicago apartment we’ve lived in for the last half-decade-plus.

And my life has been pretty devoid of blogging.

You’d think, with all this spare time, I would have plenty to say here. (At the very least, I owe a book review of First Nephi: A Brief Theological Introduction, which I finished reading weeks ago. Spoiler alert: it’s amazing, and you should get your hands on it for some quarantine reading. But I’ll do a fuller review in the near future.) [Read more…]

The Temporal Urgency of Faith

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Photo by Wonderlane on Unsplash

Introductory Note:  Several years ago during General Conference I started journaling the messages my soul most longed to hear.  I posted one of those last Conference.  I’m doing so again now.  This requires a suspension of disbelief:  it contains a mix of true and aspirational content, and is written as if I had been asked to speak during General Conference.  I do not purport to actually have any authority to speak on behalf of the Church. 

Faith without works is dead.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to cast our spiritual burdens upon the Lord, rely on the grace of his Atonement, and put our faith in him during adversity.  But the Gospel also preaches that our spiritual health is intertwined with the physical welfare of our neighbors.  Pure religion looks not just to eternity but to now.

“If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, and one of you say unto them:  ‘Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled’; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit?

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.  (James 2:14-17)

[Read more…]

Domestic Violence and Coronavirus

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Laura Brignone Bhagwat is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her dissertation tracks a public health intervention in hospital emergency rooms meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

Imagine yourself scared. Maybe you’re scared for your life; you’re definitely scared for your health and wellbeing. You’re probably scared for those around you, and scared for what your future holds. Imagine yourself terrified to go to the doctor, unable to secure your financial wellbeing. It probably isn’t that hard to do, as we’re all living in the age of the coronavirus.

Now, imagine that this coronavirus-like being lives in your house. [Read more…]

What is the right level of panic for the new coronavirus pandemic?

Today’s guest post is courtesy of Rachel H. DeMeester, MPH, a public health expert and Latter-day Saint living in the Seattle area.

Living in Washington state and being a public health professional, Covid-19 is on my mind almost constantly, but really, there are few places it hasn’t touched. Public health’s greatest challenge is giving recommendations that don’t induce panic but also aren’t ignored. That clearly has failed so far as people hoard toilet paper (irrational) and masks (ineffective since healthcare workers need them) and in many cases ignore pleas to spread out. Do we know everything we need to know about the virus? No. Do we know enough to act? Absolutely. No matter how independent we feel we are, we all have some level of social contact and therefore a personal stake and responsibility in Covid-19. Those who believe in God receive an extra reminder that we are all God’s children and are expected to care for each other as such. We should be concerned—not panicked—enough to act. [Read more…]

I am hyper-social. I am social distancing.

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Last May I had an extended business trip that took me to the West Coast for twelve days (Los Angeles, then San Francisco, then Anchorage, then Seattle). While on business, I did what I always do: I looked up my friends in each city, individually texted them, and then scheduled every hour of free time as meals and visits to catch up.  I shaved two or so hours off of my sleep schedule each day so I could pack in catching up with more friends.

I love people.  One of my most persistent complaints is that there is not enough time in life to be best friends with everyone I think is amazing.

For my own curiosity on my flight back to D.C., I counted the number of friends I had “meaningfully” interacted with in that twelve day period. I defined “meaningful” as “engaged in conversation for at least one hour while hanging out in a group of four or fewer.”  The answer was forty-seven. [Read more…]

Did You Know Parsonages Are Taxable in Utah?

Churches & Parsonage, Antrim, N.H. From the New York Public Library. Public domain.

This week is my week to blog over at the Nonprofit Law Prof Blog. And for today’s post, I did some absolutely blatant self-promotion.

And you know what? That self-promotion may be of some interest to BCC readers, too, so I thought I’d mention it here. I recently posted God Is My Roommate? Tax Exemptions for Parsonages Yesterday, Today, and (if Constitutional) Tomorrow to SSRN. I’ve posted a number of times about Gaylor v. Mnuchin, the case challenging the constitutionality of providing an income tax exclusion for housing allowances paid to clergy. And this paper derives from that decision.

Broadly speaking, I look at the current and historical property tax treatment of parsonages and other clergy housing in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. And that history is absolutely fascinating! And also, that history resonates with Mormonism in two places: Utah and Idaho. [Read more…]

NonBelief Relief and Church Financial Disclosure

As we’re all very aware, questions of financial transparency have recently become tremendously salient to the church and its members.

There are, of course, ways to remedy the issue of financial transparency. The church could voluntarily release financial information. Or Congress could change U.S. tax law to require churches—like virtually every other tax-exempt organization—to file a Form 990, which would then be released to the public.

NonBelief Relief wanted to help spur this second option. NonBelief Relief was a charitable organization formed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Its charitable mission was to provide humanitarian-style aid, improving the world and the situation of people here. It also had a secondary purpose: to challenge the constitutionality of the tax law requiring non-church tax-exempt organizations to file information returns, but exempting churches from that requirement.[fn1] [Read more…]

What I Wish My Prophet Would Say

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Kenneth Merrill graduated from BYU with a degree in Philosophy and now works as a cinematographer in Los Angeles, CA. He’s married, with two boys, and in his spare time he likes to play music, rock climb, practice sleight of hand, and read/write—but mostly he just ends up staring at glowing screens.

It was a warm summer day in Long Island City, an area of Queens just across the river from Manhattan. My companion and I were on our way to an appointment in the Queens Bridge Projects when we stopped to talk to two older ladies on their way back home from the grocery store.

“Hi, I’m Elder Merrill, and we’re out here to tell people that we have a living prophet on this earth today. Would you be interested in hearing more about that?”

With frightening directness, one of the women turned to me and asked, “Oh really, a prophet? What’s he been prophesying lately?”

I probably stood slack-jawed for a decent 5 seconds before the next words tumbled uncontrollably out of my mouth:

“Drugs are bad.” [Read more…]

So You Have $100 Billion.

There has been a lot of talk over the last couple weeks (interrupted, of course, for impeachment and Christmas) about the church’s $100 billion endowment. And I want to add to that discussion. Specifically, I want to think about the question of how the church could change with a $100 billion endowment.

I’ll note that in the earliest iterations of this post, I thought about freaking this as some sort of (unsatiric) modest proposal.

But that has a couple significant problems. What I’m going to lay out here is not at all modest; it would represent a sea change in church finances. Moreover, it’s not a proposal so much as it is brainstorming. But a $100 billion endowment absolutely requires brainstorming. And my brainstorm?

[Read more…]

Some Thoughts About Ensign Peak Advisers and the Church

The Religion Unplugged and Washington Post stories raise (at least) three important questions. I’m going to try to address all three here (though at least one will be really quick), and I suspect that this post will be unsatisfying both to those who want to see the church vindicated and those who want to see it get its comeuppance. And that’s because, contrary to popular perception, the tax law isn’t an area full of clear answers and bright lines. It’s also because many tax issues are fact-dependent, and we lack many of the facts. To the extent that you want more information and analysis, Peggy Fletcher Stack has been doing some great reporting on this.

The three main issues I see are these:

  1. Does the church have $100 billion in securities-type investments?
  2. Should the church have $100 billion in securities-type investments?
  3. Does the $100 billion in investments violate the tax law?

Now, I have absolutely no answer to number 1. I’m slightly skeptical, just because growing $12 billion in 1997 to $100 billion today (with two significant market downturns happening in those 22 years) strikes me as requiring some pretty aggressive assumptions. On the other hand, it’s at least plausible. And notably, the church has the ability to tell us how much it’s worth. To the extent it chooses not to do so, assertions like this will continue to find traction. Since the ball’s in the church’s court here, and since I have neither knowledge of nor the ability to find out the net asset value of the church’s investments on my own, for purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that he’s right, and that the church has $100 billion invested in Ensign Peak Advisers.

[Read more…]

Utah’s New Tax Bill

If your Twitter feed is anything like mine, you’ve probably heard by now that the Utah legislature passed a tax bill last week in a special session. The governor has apparently said he plans to sign the bill.

The bill has been controversial, to say the least. It was even protested by an odd assortment of characters including not only Utah Legislative Watch and Alliance for a Better Utah, but also Santa Claus and the Grinch. A lot of the objections seem to be to process—the bill went from proposed to passed in less than a couple days, and was passed in a special session (though, as a non-Utahn, I don’t actually know what that means). But there has been pushback against the substance, too. A lot of that pushback resonates with me: there have been significant complaints that the changes amount to a more-regressive tax burden on Utahns, with new taxes burdening the poor, while tax cuts redounding to the benefit of the wealthy.  And that, in the words of both of Isaiah and the Twitter feed of the greatest blog in the universe, would be grinding the faces of the poor.

So is that what Utah’s doing? Not entirely, it turns out. [Read more…]

The Evils of the Dole: What Is This “Dole” Thing, Anyway?

Last week, Kristine A wrote an excellent post from last week, highlighting the BYU-I Medicaid omnishambles. In the post, she mentioned that one rumored reason for the policy was to get students “off the dole.”

Now, I’ve been meaning to write about church (and government) welfare for a while, and that comment got me thinking: variously in lesson manuals and other church contexts growing up, I’ve heard about the evils of the dole. But outside of church contexts, I can’t say I’ve heard the word “dole” very often.[fn1]

Originally, I had a long, comprehensive post vaguely mapped out in my head. But it turns out this is the holiday season, and also the writing-and-grading-finals season, so in place of the comprehensive exegesis of church welfare, I’m going to look at use of the word dole. [Read more…]

The Salt Lake Tribune is Officially a Public Charity!

Photo by Cool Hand Luke [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

This morning, the Salt Lake Tribune announced that the IRS had granted it tax-exempt status as a 501(c)(3) public charity.[fn1] And, while it’s not the first tax-exempt news organization, it says that it’s the first legacy newsroom that’s transformed from for-profit to nonprofit.[fn2]

This doesn’t come entirely as a surprise: six months ago, it announced its intention to become a nonprofit/tax-exempt organization, and I wrote an Explainer about it. So now that it’s real, what does that mean for the Tribune?

I don’t think we know yet. The paper hasn’t announced what changes it plans to make, if any. I stand by everything I wrote last time I wrote about this, but I’ll add a couple things now that it’s real. [Read more…]

Amish at the ABA Tax Section Meeting

On Friday, I was at the ABA Tax Section meeting in San Francisco. Patrick Thomas had invited me to speak on a panel entitled “The IRS Violated My Client’s Religious Liberties: When is This Unlawful and What Can We Do About It?” And, although the panel focused specifically on the Amish, its subject matter is relevant to Mormons’ interest in religious freedom, in immigrant rights, and in what it means to live as a religious individual in a secular society.

Some background before I get into the specifics of our panel. First, it turns out that talking about “the Amish” as if it described a single, unified group is misleading. There are, I’ve been told, at least 40 different Amish groups, each of which differs at least a little in its beliefs and practices. Generally speaking, though, the Amish don’t believe in insurance (government-provided or otherwise). It interferes with the familial and community support they believe the Bible demands of them, and which they value, and it demonstrates a lack of trust in God.

As a result, the Amish have largely been exempted from paying Social Security taxes. That exemption also prevents them from collecting Social Security when they would otherwise qualify, of course. (To claim and memorialize that exemption, they have to sign a Form 4029 which, through a complicated procedure, is also signed by their bishop and has to be processed both by the IRS and the Social Security Administration. Apparently, they generally sign the Form 4029 when they’re baptized, which happens in their late teens or early 20s.) [Read more…]

A Conversation with my Catholic Husband on the Word of Wisdom

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“Did you see your Church just officially banned green tea?”

“And vaping. That’s days-old news.”

“Mormon news isn’t real to me until the Washington Post covers it.”

“Fair enough. The best take I’ve seen so far is Jana Riess’s.”

“The Washington Post agrees:  they quote her. The Word of Wisdom is ‘not necessarily a slam-dunk in terms of clarity.’ That seems accurate.”

“The problem is our cultural norms surrounding the Word of Wisdom have strayed so far from its literal text that we’re all left wading through layers of shame and confusion.”

“You know what Jana or you or some other sassy Mormon feminist should do? Write a Rachel Held Evans style book: ‘A Year of Word of Wisdomhood.’ It would be hilarious.[Read more…]