From Conservative Mormon to Pagan Anarchist: Upbringing (Part 1)

Over the course of my adult life, I have traveled a significant part of of the breadth of the political spectrum, from right to left, from authoritarian to libertarian, from politically conservative Mormon to radical Leftist. Someone recently asked me how this happened, and the question brought me up short. My lack of a ready answer surprised me, because I am a very introspective personality. So I decided to reconstruct the course of my life as best as I could, to see if I could identify the events or people which were most influential on my transformation.

I’ve identified six phases of my life and broken this (relatively short) autobiography into corresponding six parts.

  1. Upbringing: Ages 5-19 (1980-1994)
  2. Disillusionment: Ages 19-24 (1994-1999)
  3. Liberalization: Ages 24-29 (1999-2004)
  4. Complacency: Ages 30-34 (2005-2009)
  5. Politicization: Ages 35-40 (2010-2015)
  6. Radicalization: Age 40-Present (2015-present)

This series is something of a personal indulgence. Which is to say, I don’t expect or even hope anyone will read it. But I feel compelled to write it in any case. Note, this is a political autobiography. Though religion intersects my politics at several key points, my spiritual autobiography is a different topic and one for another day.

Part 1: Upbringing: Ages 5-19 (1980-1994)

I was born in 1975. But for all intents and purposes, my memories don’t really begin until 1980, the year we moved to Louisville, Kentucky and I entered public school. We lived in the suburbs and my parents were what I would call struggling middle-class.

When I was three years old, my parents had joined the Mormon church, after being proselytized by Mormon missionaries. My mother was the devout one, and so my own experience of Mormonism took the shape of her faith: elitist and focused on faith over works. (The former is typical of Mormons; the latter is not.)

I mention religion here because most Mormons are conservative and voting Republican is an unofficial article of faith. In this, my parents agreed. My father was a neoconservative Reaganite. I suspect his politics were somewhat in reaction to his post-Depression Roosevelt-loving parents. His Republicanism was of a variety that is increasingly rare these days. He wanted small government in both the economic and political sphere, out of people’s pocketbooks and out of their bedrooms. And he was a capitalist at heart. (He once told me that he had to pay Santa back for all the presents he brought.)

Talk of politics in my home was talk of economics. Social issues weren’t even on my radar. I has some interaction with some Black kids in elementary school, but it was mostly superficial. When I was in third grade, I was bused to a school in another district as part of an integration effort. But I was part of a “gifted” program, so except for the bus ride, I was still surrounded mostly by other White kids. Over the rest of my grade school years, I rarely even saw a person of color and I didn’t know any openly gay people, except my hairdresser.

My parents divorced when I was in fourth grade (1985), and I moved with my mother from Kentucky to West Virginia, which was even whiter than Kentucky. She remarried after six months, and my new step-father was even more devout to Mormonism than she was. He became for me an example of a kind of abuse of authority that Mormons call (and often exemplify) “unrighteous dominion”.

Eventually, in 1988, we moved to Indiana, where my mother had been raised. Though technically a northern state, it has been noted that, in many ways–economically and culturally–Indiana is really a southern state. With the exception of its capital, Indianapolis, and the Northwest corner which borders Chicago (where I live now), it is overwhelmingly rural, White, and Protestant.

I graduated from high school in 1993 and then took off to Utah to attend college at Brigham Young University (BYU). The university, which is owned and operated by the Mormon church, is very conservative, both politically and culturally. It was as monochromatic as the rest of my life had been up to that point. I could have gone to Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington, which was very close to home and more liberal and somewhat more diverse, but I wanted to get away from Indiana. (My life would have taken a very different course had I chosen to attend college there.)

After one year of college, I applied to go on a mission for the LDS church. I really did not want to go, but it was expected of all Mormon young men, and not going would have made me a social pariah at BYU. I was assigned to go to Brazil, specifically northeast Brazil, which it turned out was one of the poorests part of the country. So, in the summer of 1994, I went into the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah to learn Portuguese for three months, before flying to Brazil for the next two years. As it is designed to do, I received a second indoctrination in Mormonism at the MTC, and I came out quite devout, almost fanatically so.

All of this is just setting the stage for what followed. At this point, I was both religiously and politically conservative, but it was more or less by default. I had practically no exposure to other viewpoints or even to people who were very much different from me. Brazil would start to change all of that.

To be continued in Part 2: Disillusionment

Published by John Halstead

John Halstead is the author of *Another End of the World is Possible*, in which he explores what it would really mean for our relationship with the natural world if we were to admit that we are doomed. John is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is a co-founder of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment.” He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the Statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post,, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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