The Exponent Gets Political: An Oxymoron

by Laura McCune-Poplin

I stopped running for mental health reasons. No matter where I started my run, cerebrally speaking, I always ended up on Oprah, sitting on her couch, preaching my pro-choice, pro-gay marriage gospel to the world. Without fail, I would end my run out of breath, my face burning red with anger and my forehead dripping with beads of frustration, which I disguised as physical exertion. And why? For various, yet predictable reasons—a letter to the editor decrying all healthcare reform supporters as socialists, a newspaper article defending tax cuts for the wealthy, any quote, however small or insignificant, issuing from Glen Beck’s mouth were all plausible instigators of my imaginary (yet they felt so real!) rants. But my angriest imaginary tirades were always devoted to perceived hypocrisies of the religious-political variety. When moral issues are paraded as a veil for bad economic policy, and the religious right starts thumping their Bibles, without reading them long enough to realize that Jesus was the greatest social revolutionary of all.

My politics are defined by my faith. And yet, in my extended family of Mormons (which by definition means a very extended family), I am the only liberal. A liberal Mormon. A mythical beast that defies reality despite sound logic and substantial scriptural support. An oxymoron of the most difficult kind, because it means I will spend my entire life struggling to reconcile my religious and political identities. Or at least that’s how it feels.

How did I become such an unnatural creature? Where did my leftist political views come from? My brother thinks it’s from watching Family Ties. Even though my 10-year-old crush on Alex P. Keaton was completely oblivious to any political commentary, my brother insists that Elyse and Steven brainwashed my subconscious with all their peace, love, and happiness. It’s the only explanation. But as usual, I disagree. It’s my mission’s fault.

Three weeks into my mission I was hit by a car and subjected to France’s health care system, which to my uninformed perspective looked identical to the American health care system. Except I didn’t have to wait four weeks for the first available doctor’s appointment. And the doctor came to my house. And the painkillers she prescribed cost only ten francs (two dollars). And the pharmacist repeatedly apologized for having to charge me at all.

Six weeks into my mission I started knocking doors in the projects. Since Elders were district leaders and in charge of gerrymandering the tracting areas, Sisters were frequently assigned to work the least desirable neighborhoods. But I didn’t mind because what was true in Antionum also proved true in Pau. Poor people are more likely to listen to the missionaries, or at least invite them inside, where I discovered people who worked at McDonald’s—yes—but who made eighteen dollars an hour with four weeks paid vacation (not including holidays) doing so. And never, ever, did I see a family, working or not, go hungry.

Eight weeks into my mission (and three streets into the projects) I met a man who had every Rolling Stone album ever produced, unopened and preserved beneath plastic. I joked that his collection could pay for his young son to go to college someday. He looked at me with a most confused expression and explained that he didn’t have to pay for his son to go to college. It was free. And I realized that the joke was on me.

So now I’m a socialist. Or as I like to think a neo-united-orderist. I’ll gladly render unto Cesar if Cesar pays for everyone’s education and health care. I would proudly brandish a CTR ring or a WWJD bumper sticker (on my bike rack, since I do not own a car) and cycle to the polls to vote a straight democratic ticket, because when Jesus wasn’t teaching the poor, he was feeding them and healing them. Whether or not they had insurance.

Yet, even though poverty is a moral issue, it’s not the only moral issue. My political beliefs go deeper than my wallet. This is where my pro-choice, pro-gay marriage stance comes in. Although I refuse to legislate my religious beliefs, I try my best to live them. In my very biased opinion, legislating the commandments is not much different than Satan’s plan: forcing people to obey the gospel, or else. But we voted for Christ’s version. He sacrificed himself to ensure our free-agency. Who am I to take away this freedom?

Elder Wilson’s most recent conference talk “Only upon the Principles of Righteousness,” helps support my political views, although I’m not sure how he would feel about this. He says among other things that “anytime we try to compel someone to righteousness who can and should be exercising his or her own moral agency, we are acting unrighteously” and that “learning opportunities are lost when controlling persons pridefully assume they have all the right answers for others.”

But even if I did have all the right answers, does that mean a law should ensue? Martin Luther King defines an unjust law as “a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself.” Heterosexuals are both a numerical and a power majority. I vote for gay-marriage rights, not to attack the sanctity of marriage, but because I hold the right to my temple marriage sacred.

I’m not sure why Mormons continually self-identify with the religious right, a group who would willingly burn us at the stake along with the other infidels. I support freedom of marriage the same way I support freedom of religion, because like homosexuals, Mormons are a numerical and power minority, and I think it would do us good to remember as much.

It’s this kind of hypocrisy that fuels my longest runs. Consequently, I could never vote for Mitt Romney, who is now conveniently pro-life. Who let his gay national security and foreign policy spokesman go less than 3 weeks after hiring him. Who disowned the health care reform he proposed and implemented while governor of Massachusetts.

I’d never heard of Mitt Romney before moving to Massachusetts. And no, not even in reference to the Utah Olympic Games, which I never saw, as I was living in a converted dog kennel in socialist France while I helped an American family purchase the corresponding chateau. Yet, imagine my relief at discovering a former Stake President who self-identified as pro-choice in public office. I didn’t need permission for my political beliefs, but such a visible display of religious-political discrepancy certainly validated them. During Romney’s reign, Massachusetts instated a universal health-care law. Massachusetts legalized gay marriage. Where was the church-funded political opposition then?

Incidentally, I have never been ashamed of my religion. Everyone who knows me knows I’m Mormon. Or at least everyone who met me before Prop 8. Now I am more careful about reveling my religious affiliation, especially with my homosexual friends. It’s all about timing: I want them to know me, to see my religion in action, before I label myself a Mormon. If today’s adulterous woman (taken in the very act) were a lesbian, we as a church have been casting stones.

Church is another habit that can be bad for my mental health. But I refuse to give it up, and have instead learned to walk a very precarious line that’s more tolerant than not. With some success I have convinced myself that everyone, even the staunch pro-life activist who recently underwent IVF, is doing her best to live the least hypocritical life. But often I fumble and fall and erupt with righteous anger that I like to pretend emulates Christ’s eviction of the moneychangers, but which more likely resembles the other guy.

Because I am the worst hypocrite if I do not make space in my congregation for those who disagree with me. Almost 10 years ago, I attended an ACLU meeting at Harvard University to denounce post-September 11 racial profiling. Or at least that was my intention. Instead I found Larry Flynt preaching the doctrine of free speech. And despite my serious misgivings, I stayed and learned a lesson that has stuck with me ever since: we do not believe in free speech unless we’re willing to allow voiced the very ideas that scare us most. And in a religious context, the ideas that scare me most are often those trumpeted loudest.

When I can sit in an LDS congregation and feel that my political views are respected if not shared, I might retract my claws, and silence my discontented growl. But until then, I will continue to fight for space in the LDS conversation, even if that means leaving church angrier than I entered it.

Hmmm. Maybe I should go for a run.

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9 Responses

  1. sylvia says:

    thank you for articulating what i often feel.

  2. Jenn says:

    Words can’t express how much I love this post. Wonderfully spoken!

  3. Canada G'ma says:

    You took the words out of my mouth – if I could only write as well!

  4. Naismith says:

    I loved this. And you are not alone. Where I live, church members are probably no more than 50% Republican/conservative, and the leadership tends to be Democrat/liberal. This is not coincidence. Some strict conservatives lack the flexibility to serve as a bishop or relief society president, especially since a bishop serves ALL in his ward boundaries, not only the members.

    At some point, leaders notice how much of their time is being eaten up with problems that would not exist if healthcare (including mental health services) was readily available. What would it be like to live in France, and just minister the gospel? And not have to worry about whether to use fast offering funds to buy a prescription for someone?

  5. Unknown says:

    Please make Laura a perma-blogger!!!

  6. Common One says:

    I am an active member of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. I find all of your thoughts to be fully in-line with the teaching of the Savior, the Prophet of the Restoration and the scriptures as revealed to us. You may sit next to me at church and think that I don’t agree with you because of what I wear or a calling I may hold, but I (and I stand for many) find your Christlike thoughts to be what is desperately needed and gratefully received. Keep running and keep believing.

  7. Gayla says:

    Loved this. Thanks.

  8. kelly ann says:

    Laura, thank you for sharing your experience so eloquently. I agree with many of your points. Although I have to smile when you first said you ran, I thought of running for political office.

  9. sisterarnell says:

    Love this. I am having this same fight right now. I get panic attacks from going to church because I feel so claustrophobia and attacked. And I am honestly dreading Fast Sunday in November. At least it will be before the election and not after it, because I don’t think I can stand another testimony meeting about how God intervenes for Republican causes.

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