Rarely is a break in our personal life as clean as it seems in our memories. It is usually marked by seesawing until one day you you make a clean break.
A football game, the longest in NFL playoff history, between the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs on December, 25 1971 marks when my interest in attending the church of my youth, but not my faith, began to wane.
A group of us who were students at BYU were sitting in a small den in Reseda, California watching the game as it finally ended and talk turned to a remarkable new version of the song Without You I had dropped onto the record player.
We had first heard the song a year earlier as written and recorded by the band Badfinger, but in that den we were listening to a powerful, new version sung by Harry Nilsson, well-known to us for his cover of Everybody’s Talkin’, a Fred Neil song included on the soundtrack a year earlier for the Academy Award-winning Midnight Cowboy.
Come to think of it, that tumultuous period of change in my life was bookended by references to finding sunshine through the rain first in Everybody’s Talkin’, and then 1972’s Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues written and recorded by Danny O’Keefe, who grew up in Spokane where I started law school that year.
The small group watching the game in Reseda included a friend who was LGBT, an orientation that was taboo at BYU in the early 1970s, even though the school was much more moderate then than it is now.
This wasn’t my first exposure to people who were LGBT. I describe my parents as conservative Republicans but they would be considered moderate, if not liberal today, and unwelcome in that party. They were openly accepting and inclusive of a gay friend of theirs during my teenage years in the early 1960s.
I am not LGBT myself, but volunteering for an underground crisis intervention group at the time had deepened my empathy for LGBT students at BYU and throughout my life since. But this wasn’t the only issue that made me get off that seesaw.
It was a perfect storm of issues that made me get off that seesaw back then. Even for a political moderate, intolerance around issues such as war, sexual orientation, civil and reproductive rights all played a part in my pivotal sea change during that period.
Being at BYU during that period was not oppressive nor were my changes made in rebellion. In any other environment I may have not been able to learn to hear myself think and feel or my energies would have been diverted by defensiveness.
I know now that the Mormon Church, which also owns BYU, had slowly been coming to grips during my lifetime with its discrimination against African-Americans and other dark-skinned groups during the leadership era of David O. McKay who led from just before I turned 3 years old until I was 21.
Mormon leadership is more decentralized than people think and he had pushed for the understanding that the church’s approach to African-Americans was practice not policy and open to change.
In college I wasn’t aware of the shift or that it would culminate in repeal of this practice seven years after I stood up from my seesaw. But by then it was too late.
Unaware that the church had consistently opposed other wars and that views by students at BYU, including mine initially about the Vietnam War, were an anomaly, comments by a few church leaders who argued that the war was justifiable as a missionary tool turned me away.
Fears of and active suppression of protests at BYU spawned a spy campaign on campus during my time there. By the time students were turning increasingly against the war, it was too late, I had stoop up from the seesaw.
My most personal protest was the length of my hair, for which the spy ring reported me to the dean’s office because as you can see in the image in this blog it was substantially over my collar which was taboo at the time.
For many, views about reproductive rights date only to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v.s. Wade which was winding its way through the courts during my 1971 gestalt in Reseda. But in the 1800s the nation went through a similar period to the last forty years.
Then too, polemics failed to distinguish between “foeticide” or termination of an embryos prior to “quickening” (when the spirit enters the body at 18-20 weeks) and “infanticide” or the murder of an infant or child after birth. Little was made back then of privacy or a woman’s rights involving her body.
At first Mormons used the debate to rationalize polygamy, but unlike other religious groups, the church has not been definitive about when the spirit enters the body or when it was irreversible, although factions have always pushed to the extreme.
Many individual church members and leaders have argued against termination of embryos based not on the moment of “quickening” which seemed so right to me, but on a notion of a need to clear a backlog of spirits waiting to inhabit bodies.
It was an argument also used to buttress the Old Testament practice of polygamy by 20% to 30% of Mormons in the 1800s including three of my great-great and great-great-great grandfathers who were called to do so, much to the consternation of their first wives, my great-great and great-great-great grandmothers.
My view of a woman’s reproductive rights is not based on the spirit demand for bodies but on personal liberty and deferral of birth to a time when quality of life is more assured.
Most arguments, however, as I was coming of age, focused more on addressing the overall decline in American fertility and church doctrine when I was last active left the issues around reproduction to the discretion of families.
But for me it was too late. Arguments against a woman’s choice proved too much, possibly because I had premonitions of ultra-conservative factionalism that would leave little space for a moderate worldview.
The issue of the acceptance of gays has mellowed from when I was at BYU, seemingly chilled by the excesses during Proposition 8 in California which was uncharacteristic of the church’s policy when it comes to politics and which was essentially nullified by Supreme Court inaction as I write this post.
For any of my differences, I see the Mormon Church overall as a very caring and evolving institution and I agree with others that its stance regarding sexual orientation is evolving and may be far ahead of perception as evidenced by the church’s response to the changes with Boy Scouts which it clarified:
“Sexual orientation has not previously been – and it is not now – a disqualifying factor for boys who want to join Latter-day Saint scout troops.”
My attendance and participation in rituals lapsed many decades ago, but not my cultural affinity nor my faith. By exiling myself these past 40+ years, my goal was not dispute or disrespect, but to find personal space in which to retain my overall faith.
More than any of the issues I’ve cited was the realization that the grove of trees that gave Joseph Smith solace from the cacophony of revivals or the wilderness that inspired Thoreau or Muhammad or Emerson or Moses or Roosevelt was more nurturing for my personal spirituality than the extroverted intensity of congregations.
It is always possible that my revelations may result in the termination of my membership by someone one day. But I leave this introspection to provide some explanation to my descendants who may wonder why and when my approach to spirituality changed so long ago.