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 person. 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.
- Upbringing: Ages 5-19 (1980-1994)
- Disillusionment: Ages 19-24 (1994-1999)
- Liberalization: Ages 24-29 (1999-2004)
- Complacency: Ages 30-34 (2005-2009)
- Politicization: Ages 35-40 (2010-2015)
- 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 2: Disillusionment: Ages 19-24 (1994-1999)
Looking back, my mission to Brazil for the Mormon church was the beginning of the end of my conservativism, both religious and political. I have a friend who has observed that one of two things seems to happen to young Mormon men during their missions: Either they have the best experience of their life and it serves as a spiritual anchor for their Mormonism for the rest of their lives, or they don’t. I was in the latter category.
Don’t get me wrong. I had some amazing experiences in Brazil, and I met great people and gained some real friends, but it was hard emotionally and challenging psychologically. I was in Brazil from late 1994 to late 1996. I came into the mission feeling very zealous, which I now recognize as a sign of a fragile faith. And my experiences in Brazil dealt a fatal blow to that faith, though it took a few years for the impact of it to fully materialize.
When I left the mission in late 1996, I was feeling a lot of what I later recognized as cognitive dissonance. The experience had impressed on me the arbitrariness and even the corruption of religious authority. (I had never been comfortable with authority to begin with.) And the poverty, of a kind which I had never seen in the U.S., of many Brazilians was a rude awakening to my sheltered sensibilities. I was forced to face the fact that Mormonism had little to offer people living in such desperate circumstances. I saw the truth in the quote “A hungry man is not a free man.”
When I returned home, I still identified as Mormon, but mostly because I could not conceive of any alternative. I was suffering from a failure of imagination. I was home in time for the 1996 election, in which I voted for Ross Perot. But my vote reflected less of an informed embrace of Perot’s politics as a general dissatisfaction with status quo.
I returned to BYU in 1997, where I double-majored in sociocultural anthropology and political science. These two courses of study had opposite impacts on me. On the one hand, the political science major just re-entrenched me in political conservativism. BYU is extremely conservative. I went there for four years and can’t recall ever having a serious discussion about Marxism or even feminism in any of my classes Nowadays, I am often bemused by conservatives who assume I don’t know anything about conservative political theory, when in fact I received the full course of conservative political indoctrination, from Locke to the Founding Fathers to Milton Friedman.
My other course of study was anthropology, a field which I came to realize is inherently subversive. By approaching other cultures through the lens of cultural relativism, it encourages you to see your own culture in the same way, that is, relativistically. And, in fact, I took several course which looked at Mormonism through this lens. I even made it the subject of my honors thesis.
Relativism is dangerous to any absolutist faith like Mormonism. How anyone could come out of such a course of study with the our faith intact is beyond me. I didn’t leave the Mormon church while I was at BYU–I admire anyone who could do that under such intense social pressure to conform–but my anthropology studies opened up a critical distance in my mind between me and my religion. And in that space the seeds of my eventual apostasy had been planted.
The other heretical influence on me was, ironically, my fiancee/wife, Ruth. We met at BYU and married soon after meeting, in typical Mormon fashion. It was some time before I really appreciated how different Ruth’s attitude toward Mormonism was. She less less doctrinaire, more concerned with actually doing good than with being “good”. Her faith also was more temperate or moderate. For someone who approached religion (and everything else) in stark, either-or terms, Ruth’s approach to religion had a benignly destabilizing influence on my faith.
We graduated together in 1999–I was 24–and then moved to Indiana, so I could attend law school at Indiana University in Bloomington (where I had almost attended undergrad).
One more significant event happened in 1999, which I have to mention. Just after we had moved to Indiana, one of the Mormon authorities, an “apostle” named Russell Ballard gave a talk at the bi-annual Mormon conference, and in that talk, he declared that there was no such thing as “loyal opposition” in the Mormon church. (Ballard was more like me than Ruth in that he saw religion in all-or-nothing terms.) This was significant for me, because I had just recently latched onto the phrase “loyal opposition” as a way maintaining a sense of integrity with regard to my ongoing membership in the church.
I think the most important influences in my life were probably subtle ones that acted on me over an extended period of time. But the human mind is such that we tend to remember singular events (called “sentinel events” by psychologists) as being more formative than they really are. In any case, when I heard Ballard say there was no space for a loyal opposition in Mormonism, I felt one of the last strands connecting me to the Mormon church break.
Continued in Part 3: Liberalization