Being Liberal at BYUI Part 2: Obama 2008

Previously on… can you tell I miss my regular TV shows?

Anyways, back to discussing the ultra-conservative atmosphere on campus at BYUI. Back when this was going on there was one main area everyone bottle necked because of construction. This was the Mainwaring Center (MC) where the bookstore is and the food court area. It was late September 2008. This was before all the spiffy new additions that are there now. Anyway, there were these two areas of the lower lobby that school clubs could reserve to hand out flyers or get signups for this, that and the other. One day I was walking through and saw this giant bulletin board that said “Campus Republicans – McCain 2008.”

One of the student volunteers must have noticed my eye roll from across the lobby area because he made a beeline for me. He was one of those guys with the “Hey, man,” attitude (the ‘bro’ stuff hadn’t reached Rexburg yet) with his very conservative LDS, middle of Idaho, football quarterback look about him. I’d be lying if I said he didn’t distract me a little bit from what he was actually saying, but when I got back around to paying attention I just politely said that I wasn’t interested. He asked if I just didn’t like politics. I shook my head and informed him that, no, I was interested in politics, but I was planning to vote for Barack Obama. I swear his eyes narrowed at me like I had become Korihor the anti-Christ. It would have been amusing if I’d been a spectator and not the source of the glaring. I didn’t want to get into a debate at the time, mostly because I still had half the campus to cross to get to my safe haven of wonderful people, the Snow Building. I apologized, sidestepped him and went on my way.

Thus began my exposure to the presiding cultural attitudes towards Obama at BYUI. Just like Prop 8, it was everywhere. If you wanted to derail and entire class away from a topic at hand, something I might have done on purpose once during a music theory class when my brain was hurting, all you had to do was bring up either Obama or Prop 8 and boom, class was over, political firestorm.

I found allies in unlikely places, one of my favorite professors, who had a stint as the Men’s Choir director, not to mention one hell of a French Horn player, had an Obama sign up in his office and I knew it was a safe place to discuss things with him on a political scale, which being in the leadership of the Choir I was able to do during that semester. Plenty of other teachers and students were able to be found if you knew what to look for. We were never so numerous, or annoying, just my opinion, as the Campus Conservatives. To give you a brief insight into their ridiculousness, they held “debates,” and even called them that…and didn’t bother to invite anyone of the opposing viewpoint. Utter hilarity.

I still remember the excitement the morning the election results came in and Obama had won. I felt elated and excited and posted about it on my Facebook page. Later that morning I received a text message from a rather closed-minded individual whose message was comprised almost exclusively of scriptures in the Book of Mormon talking about anti-Christs, the end of the world, and what will happen when the voice of the people choose evil over good…it was…special.

I received a few more of those kinds of messages on Facebook and in classes and from texts and was pretty baffled. I mean, I know people find politics very strong, but it was the first time I’d realized that people’s religion could dictate their politics and the reaction therein. It was fascinating and disheartening. The worst part was a story related to me by a professor, I think it was my Book of Mormon teacher at the time. He was a really good guy, great teacher, very religiously open-minded but very knowledgeable and had a strong testimony. His son was around second grade age and came home to tell his dad what he’d been told by another kid at school. This second grader had told this other second grader that Obama would need to be killed soon to fix the country. Fantastic, right? His parents, who I’m guessing he heard this from, would be so proud…

Now, let’s be clear, I’m not attributing any of this to church doctrine, necessarily, but I think we can all agree that church culture allows for and sometimes promotes this kind of thinking, and at least seemingly does very little to stop it.

I hope this gave you an idea of the culture that surrounded me in Rexburg as I began the fledgling thoughts to take my life in a different direction.

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At ‘The Lord’s University’

I first need to apologize about the lapse in writing these past weeks. I’ve been having an internal debate on the direction to take this blog and got mired in that and distracted long enough to keep myself from writing. I’ve decided, for now, to follow along with my current motion and just keep it linear and autobiographical unless something strikes me. So, that little bit of unrelated discussion aside, on with the meat of the post.

When last we left him, our intrepid hero was embarking on a deadly, covert mission to Rexburg, Idaho. (Sorry, I’ve always wanted to write something like that.)

Goofiness aside, as mentioned in my last post, I ran to college less than three months after returning to my hometown of Kansas City. I wanted to keep up the ‘spiritual high’ and ‘positive atmosphere’ of the mission as long as possible, and what better place to do that than at a Mormon college?

So I was off to the oft-frigid land of Rexburg, sometimes colloquially named Iceburg. College, by and large, was a great place for me, especially initially. I was able to be with friends from my mission, and made great new friends, most of which are still close to my heart, and connected via internet and online video games, if now physically distant today. Far and away the best part of the college courses themselves was singing in the BYU-Idaho Collegiate Singers and the Men’s Chorus. Not only from the friendship and camaraderie that I was able to forge, but the high quality of musicianship, hard work and the amazing music we were able to make. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to sing with a group at those levels again.

My issues and problems with this church owned and church run school, to be fair, might not be unique to LDS schools. All the same, college did very little to positively reinforce my view of mainstream Mormonism and the church in general. Yes I understand it was my choice to go there, but I constantly chafed at the immature honor code. Why are the commandments, and the eternal judgment and justice of God, not good enough? What about shorts, flip flops, goatees, skinny jeans, or a five o’clock shadow are immoral? Granted, it would seem that the Testing Center were the only ones with a crusade to enforce these ‘higher laws.’ I was never asked by a teacher to leave class because in my groggy rush to a 7:45 class I had forgotten to shave, which was a semi-regular occurrence. The whole situation makes me think of that scene in the film Spartacus, ” Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?” It all made very little sense to me, but I wore pants to school when it was hot and shaved off my goatee anyway because that was the ‘code,’ and until it was changed, that’s what I had agreed to.

The core issue that really chafed me the most was the main problem inherent with being at a church school. When I was perfectly happy with everything and active in church it wasn’t a problem at all. However, the flip side of that coin caused serious issues when I started having disaffection with the church, which started around 2009. When my activity started faltering, I was called in for an interview with my school congregation’s bishop. With no concern as to the causes or root problems I was facing, he warned that if my attendance didn’t pick up I would be faced with losing my ecclesiastical endorsement, which is a requirement for enrolling in classes and is renewed annually, but which a school bishop can pull at any time for any reason he sees fit. This would have effectively halted and possibly endangered my academic progress. Needless to say the meeting was less than inspiring and I left feeling worse about both school and the church.

To back up a little, I’ll share a phrase I heard from a favorite mission leader, and fellow missionary, from my mission. “Mormons (and you could probably insert many people of religious influence here) are like dung. Spread around they have the possibility of nurturing, fostering growth and being a social fertilizer. Grouped in a clump, they just stink.” Not wanting to get into the debate on the positives or negatives of religion in general, which might be a fun topic for a later post, I use this quote to illustrate one of my issues that first began my disaffection with the church. For a church that claims to be the one and only true church, touting the fullness of the restored gospel and all the saving ordinances, the church produces some of the most backwards, unintelligent, judgmental, cruel, ignorant, and harmful human beings I have had the displeasure of meeting.

Having grown up in “the mission field” I was not exposed to many of the more kooky, fringe members of the church, though I certainly knew they existed. Most of them were all older than me and I could dismiss their relative kookiness to age and senility. However, one of the problems when you are attending a school where 99% of the school’s student body are active, ecclesiastically endorsed members of the LDS church, you find that you are surrounded by the possibility of hundreds of crazy people.

This craziness was manifest in a lot of different ways. One example was how an entire hour and a half religion class was derailed by a discussion of the evils of Facebook. Obviously most of the class, those that were even mentally present enough to care to participate, were divided on the issue. You see, up to this point, the IT policy of the school had blocked Facebook, along with plenty of other harmless sites, from being accessed on the school network for bandwidth issues. When the school underwent a much needed upgrade to their IT infrastructure, many of those restrictions were lifted because it had become a non issue. The reason I know this is because my networking professor at the time was part of that project and was using it to help teach us, through real application, about network design, information flow, etc. Yet this girl student in my religion class was fully and seriously bothered that President Clark (the school’s president) had “given into the pressure of ‘the world'” and how horrible it was. I’m not even joking. This was one of the more comical and benign shows of the craziness I, or any attendee of the school, could relate to you. I could write pages and pages of what it was like to be a democrat at this school during the 2008 Presidential Election…

Back to the beginnings of my disaffection. While I was at the time dedicated to the ultimately morose notion of living a celibate life and finding joy in other areas, I distinctly remember the first time I decided to skip church because I was just so fed up with it. After the fifth straight week where the two main speakers in sacrament meeting were an engaged couple asked specifically to talk about how they met, how happy they were, and how exciting their marriage plans were, rather than any doctrinal point, I’d had enough. My church attendance became sporadic and based on if I was required to teach Sunday School that week.

Fast forward back to my meeting with the bishop. I knew that the system was in place to demonstrate attendance over participation or actual spiritual nourishment. With our meeting block reversed I would go to Elder’s Quorum and Sunday School first, sign my name on both role lists, sitting in the back of the room with a book, homework, or playing on my iPod and not participating in any way unless the topic was somewhat interesting. Then after making sure I was seen by a member of the bishopric I would leave and skip sacrament meeting, maybe staying for all three meetings once a month or so. So it was that I became what a few of my friends and I refer to as ‘spiritually less-active,’ something that is far more common at “The Lord’s University” than a true believer would want to accept.

This disaffection eventually led to interference with my actual school work, so I made plans to move back home to Kansas City, the first baby steps towards leaving the church behind, and towards the realization of the doctrinal issues and snags I ended up finally having to face.