Saturday, April 2, 2011
While I was living in the Boston area, I dated a man who was a reporter at the Boston Globe. One evening he took me to a party where there were a lot of young reporters from the newspaper. At one point during the evening the people I was speaking with brought up Mitt Romney (who had been governor of Massachusetts and was at that point assumed to be the front runner for the Republican nomination for U.S. President in the 2008 race). The conversation turned to his religion and whether America would elect a Mormon, when suddenly a young woman from across the small, crowded room turned towards us with wide eyes and a knowing smile and said, “Oh my god, aren’t Mormons such weird people? What a f**ked up religion!”
Upon hearing this young woman’s brief but forceful summation of Mormonism, I immediately thought of a talk I heard as a teenager by Gordon B. Hinckley, late "prophet, seer, and revelator" (or, to put it in layman's terms, late president of the church - Mormons call their leader by the the title "president" if they are using his last name, but they generally speak about him in the third person simply as "the prophet"). In this talk, President Hinckley said, “Profanity is the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully.” I don’t think the line was his originally, but I associate it with him because that's where I heard it - and because I liked it when I heard it. So with words of the prophet in my head, and with – I must admit – some enjoyment in my soul at the awkwardness I was about to make this young woman feel, I smiled and said, “I grew up Mormon.” And then I laughed.
The young woman apologized profusely, and in subsequent conversation I found her to be a warm, funny, and insightful person who had a lot of good questions about the church. Her mind certainly wasn't feeble, but her knowledge of Mormonism was. No doubt the fact that I’m not a practicing Mormon (I was there as the date of a gay man she worked with, after all) helped us get around her first greeting. My date was less forgiving than I was, however. Such sentiments are never good party conversation when you don’t know the other guests well, but what made him even angrier was that this young journalist at a major newspaper would say such things (no doubt thinking them was less of a problem). It's probably also worth mentioning that my date's beat was religion.
This type of situation happens a lot, and potentially offensive first remarks don't always spring from total strangers who don't know my background. Last summer my partner and I joined his old college friends for a few days up in the Adirondacks, where we stayed at a cabin owned by the parents of my partner's college roommate. These parents were there the first night of our stay, and over dinner the father, who knew my background, turned to me and asked, "So are Mormons really as creepy as they seem?" Honest to God, that's what he asked. There was a moment of silence while I processed the question - and while everyone else looked down at their plates, as if whatever dish we were eating was the most interesting thing they had ever seen. After a few seconds, I replied, "That's probably a hard question for me to answer, since I grew up Mormon and all my family is Mormon." Someone then tried to change the topic of conversation, but there were more questions about Mormonism, my family, and their relationship with me. The rest of the questions, by the way, were much kinder.
There are almost always a lot of questions about my background from people I meet at parties, or on vacations, or in other social settings where one's guard and the stakes are lowered. It's very predictable, and my partner always laughs now when it happens. He knows that as soon as someone in a social setting realizes I'm Mormon or feels comfortable enough to bring it up, we won't be talking about much else - and he sometimes says as much to inquisitive new acquaintances. If they ask whether I'm offended by the questions, or whether I'd prefer not to talk about it, his reply is that I don't mind, and that in fact I like talking about it. And that's true.
For the first 23 years of my life, I was surrounded by Mormons. The church or aspects of it were constantly present, wherever I was or whatever I was doing. And now in my regular life I think and talk about the church only when someone asks me about it in unguarded conversation. I suppose in a way growing up in a religion and in a religious community and then choosing to move out and move on is an experience that's a bit like choosing to move to another country where a different language is spoken. It's not that you want to go back, and it just isn't practical to speak your old language in your new country. But when someone wants to hear about your homeland or to try speaking your first language with you, it feels nice to go to that home you carry within you for just a few minutes. Short, controlled visits are fine; a permanent return is impossible.