From Conservative Mormon to Pagan Anarchist: Liberalization (Part 3)

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 3: Liberalization: Ages 24-29 (1999-2004)

Ruth and I had moved from Utah back to Indiana (my home) in 1999 after graduating from Brigham Young University. I started law school at Indiana University-Bloomington. The university is an oddity in Indiana–a liberal bubble in a sea of red.

Though I had some romantic notions about the practice of law, I was quickly disabused of them. In my very first class, Torts (which came to be my field), the professor informed us that the law is merely a dispute resolution system with little to no connection to justice.

The summer following my first year, I had an internship with the Kentucky U.S. attorney’s office in Louisville. My supervisor was a lonely conservative in a liberal office (Clinton was president), and he hired me because he thought I was conservative too, because he saw that I had attended BYU and then joined the conservative Federalist Society when I started law school. What he didn’t know was that I never attended a single meeting of the Federalist Society, and by that summer I was actually calling myself a liberal by that time.

In the 2000 election, I didn’t vote. If I had, I would have voted for Nader. I agreed with the Green platform, and I liked the idea of shaking up the two-party monopoly (part of the reason I had voted for Perot four years earlier). That was the year of Bush v. Gore and, since I was taking Constitutional Law that semester, we studied the case. I was struck most by what seemed to me to be the tortured “logic” of the conservative opinion.

in 2001, I left the Mormon church. A lot of people who leave in the church just walk away and don’t go back, but I wanted to make it official. So I went through the process of having my name removed from the church rolls. That involved writing a letter explaining my reasons (10 pages single-spaced) and meeting with two different church officials. At the time, my objections to the church were primarily doctrinal (I still called myself Christian at that time), not political, though that changed over time. Leaving the Mormon church freed me to explore some novel religious ideas, but stayed away from organized religion for the next decade.

It was at this time that I had picked up a book which I had been carrying around for years, The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1968) by Theodore Roszak. I had actually stolen the book from the high school library almost a decade before, after reading the preface. I kept it all that time, even though I didn’t read any more of it until after I left the Mormon church. The book is a critique of Western civilization and examination of the revolutionary potential of the youth counterculture. (Roszak would later become the founder of the eco-psychology movement.) I think the book had the most profound impact on me politically of any book that I’ve ever read. It primed me for my later embrace of alternative spirituality, political activism, and anarchism.

9-11 happened later that year (2001) and I became disturbed by the seeming arbitrariness of the invasion of Iraq, the abuse of patriotic sentiment by politicians, and the undisguised Islamophobia of the American public. As my politics shifted to the left, my criticisms of the Mormon church became less doctrinal and more political–so much so that, when I went back years later to read the letter requesting that my name be removed from the church records, I was surprised to find that my political objections had just been an afterthought.

I started thinking about how I could use my anticipated law degree for societal good. I joined and eventually became the leader of a legal clinic that obtained protective orders for domestic violence victims. A class on feminist jurisprudence introduced me to feminist theory and, suddenly, I had words to express my own experience of toxic masculinity and patriarchal domination. Our culture is not just male-dominated, I realized, it is male-centered, as well. This realization opened my mind to eventually see myriad and interconnected forms of domination, from heteronormativity to anthropocentrism to capitalism.

I graduated from law school in 2002. By 2003, I was identifying as an atheist. I also started reading about Jungian psychology, as well as about a quirky new religious movement called Neo-Paganism. Soon thereafter, I started practicing my own idiosyncratic form of Neo-Paganism, which helped me heal some wounds in my psyche created by my Mormon upbringing.

As much as I’d like to say that my liberalization was a product of rational analysis, I think it had more to do with my location. It’s hard to overstate the pressure to conform among Mormons. Getting out of Utah and away from Mormons and interacting with people who had different experiences freed me.

To be continued in Part 4: Complacency

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, PrayWithYourFeet.org, and Gods & Radicals. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also facilitates climate grief support groups climate grief support groups affiliated with the Good Grief Network.

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