From Conservative Mormon to Radical Anarchist

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. I was surprised by my lack of a ready answer. This prompted me to look back over my history to see if I could identify the events or people which were most influential on my transformation.


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 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. 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, except as something in the past. I interacted with some Black kids in elementary school, but it was mostly superficial. 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 religious authority.

Eventually, in 1988, we moved to Indiana, where my mother had been raised. Though technically a northern state, it has been observed that, 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 went 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.

After one year of college, I went on a mission for the LDS church, as all 19 year-old Mormon males are expected to. I was assigned to go to Brazil, specifically northeast Brazil, which was the poorest 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.

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.


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.

I did have 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 mortal 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 my bourgeois religion had little to offer people living in such desperate circumstances.

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, and I voted for Ross Perot. 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 students to see their own culture in the same way, that is, relativistically. And, in fact, I took several courses which looked at Mormonism through this lens, and 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 really 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 estrangement had been planted.

The other heretical influence on me was, ironically, my fiancee-turned-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.


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. By the end of my first year of law school, I was already calling myself a liberal. And in 2001, I formally left the Mormon church, but primarily for doctrinal, not political, reasons.

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 (the same 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 majority’s opinion.

It was at this time that I had picked up a book by Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counterculture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (1968). 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 exploitation 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 (to which my wife still belonged) became less doctrinal and more political.

I started thinking about how I could use my anticipated law degree for societal good. I joined and eventually became the director 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. And a single phrase I learned in contract law class–“unequal bargaining power”–pretty much demolished all of my conservative economic indoctrination.

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(er) religious movement called Neo-Paganism. Soon thereafter, I started practicing my own idiosyncratic form of Neo-Paganism.

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 was liberating.


Complacency: Ages 30-34 (2005-2009)

After law school, I started working in my legal field of choice. My first child started school. My wife, Ruth, started graduate school in 2005, studying family therapy. This introduced her (and indirectly me) to systems thinking, which would be important for me later. We moved into our first home 2007, when my second child was starting school. In 2009, Ruth graduated and started working as a therapist. I was settling into a middle-class complacency.

My politics were complacent too. I had voted for Kerry in 2004, my first vote for a Democrat. We voted for Obama, both times. I had bought into the idea that racism had been transcended by the election of a Black president, but I soon realized otherwise. Gradually, I became disillusioned with Obama, starting with bailout of the big banks and the failure to close Guantanamo to the disappointment of Obamacare and the expansion of the surveillance state. By the end of Obama’s presidency, I was through with the Democratic party.


Politicization: Ages 35-40 (2010-2015)

If there was a theme for the next five years, it would be “turning outward”. I started attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation in 2010, and I also started interacting with other Pagans, both online and in person. Both religious communities are very liberal and activist and were to help shape my politics.

In 2012, I was made a partner in my firm. Ruth was licensed that year as well. My oldest entered high school the next year, which meant I had less direct involvement in his education. I was feeling more established and more free to focus other things than my career.

I had started writing for the Pagan channel at the interfaith website, Patheos. At first, my writing was focused on theology, but it gradually it became more political. It was through my writing for that site that I met my first anarchist and I learned about anti-capitalism.

That same year, in 2012, I had series of transcendent experiences in semi-wild natural settings: in Muir Woods, on Route 1 along the California coast, and at Pike’s Peak. These experiences prompted (or maybe signaled) an internal shift, as I started to look for something “larger”, outside of myself, to connect with. My Pagan practice also started to change, from being focused on inner healing to connecting with the more-than-human world.

In 2014, during a family vacation, we visited Fish Lake, Utah, which is home to the largest (and one of the oldest) organism on the planet called “Pando”. It’s a grove of quaking aspens which is actually a single living organism with a giant root system stretching over 100 acres and containing over 40,000 individual trunks. Pando is estimated to be at least 80,000 years old. Part of the grove was fenced off. And when I asked a park ranger about it, he said that it was to allow the park service to attempt different methods of saving Pando. Pando, it turned out, was under threat due to climate change, which was causing invasive species of insects to migrate north. I was struck that something so large and so old could be threatened by climate change. This signaled the beginning of my growing sense of urgency about climate change.

Later that year, I organized some leaders in the Pagan community to draft a Pagan Community Statement on the Environment, which has since received thousands of signatures from people in 100 different countries and has been translated into 16 languages. It has been signed by practically every prominent Pagan organization and many of the most well-known leaders in the Pagan community. It represented the most successful effort to date to harmonize the diverse voices of the Pagan community in defense of the Earth and the web of life and possibly the single largest expression of Pagan voices ever.

I also attended my first public protest in 2014, a small local protest, which coincided with the People’s Climate March in NYC. The next march I attended was in Minneapolis, and it was on the bus ride that I met some of the local radicals. Eventually, we would form the first chapter of 350.org in Indiana.

All the while, I was still attending the Unitarian church. What Unitarianism lacked in spirituality, I found it more than made up for in social conscience. It was through the church that I learned about and became involved in anti-racist work. I joined the church in 2015 after attending for several years. A desire for spiritual community had brought me to the church, but it was Unitarian Universalists’ commitment to social justice that convinced me to join (though later I was frustrated even with them because of what I perceived as complacency).

I had voted for Obama again 2012 and the Supreme Court’s same sex marriage decision came out in 2013. It felt like the “arc of history” was “bending toward justice”, and being Unitarian and Pagan helped me to feel like I was a part of it. But once again, things were soon to shift for me.

Part 6: Activism: Age 40-42 (2015-2017)

When I look back, I’m amazed at all that has happened in just the last few years. I went from being a progressive to being a radical, from being a prominent voice in the Pagan community to cutting most ties with it, and from being a mainstream environmental activist to being a pessemistic “collapsenik”.

In 2016, I voted for Jill Stein. I was, by then, completely disenchanted with the neoliberalism of mainstream Democrats. I had learned my lesson about shallow identity politics after eight years of Obama, and I was beyond “electoral realism” or whatever you call voting for the lesser of two evils. That was the beginning of my shift away mainstream politics.

My wife had first introduced me to systems thinking years before, when she was a graduate student. Family therapists take a systemic approach to personal issues, which means they don’t treat individuals in isolation. At the time, I was still fascinated by Jungian psychology, so I was initially resistant to the concept. But gradually, as I learned about climate change and ecology, as well as various systemic forms of oppression, I embraced a systemic perspective, which would be foundational to my later radicalism.

I wrote my first essay for an anti-capitalist website, Gods&Radicals, in 2015. I was starting to get more politically active. Like a lot of people, the election of Trump in 2016 was galvanizing for me. I participated in some of the largest protests in U.S. history, including the Women’s March (500K D.C./7M global), the People’s Climate March (200K D.C.), and the March for Science (60K Chicago/1M global), as well as many smaller demonstrations. I found that kind of demonstrating exhilarating, and I had high hopes for the potential of these mobilizations.

I was one of the founders of the first chapter of 350.org in Indiana. We were only active for a few years, but in that time we did a lot. In 2016, I was arrested as part of a protest at the BP petroleum refinery in Whiting, Indiana. The protest was part of the Break Free campaign which involved 20 coordinated actions on six continents and was hailed as the largest ever act of civil disobedience against the fossil fuel industry. I organized my first protest, at the courthouse following our sentencing (deferred prosecution).

As part of 350 Indiana-Calumet, I organized a lot of events, including two pipeline walks (called “Walk the Line”) in 2017 and 2018, to raise awareness about the presence of tar sands pipelines in our communities. One of the walks also helped draw attention to the lead contamination of a nearby community and raised money for and brought bottled water to those residents. Our last event was an interfaith prayer vigil, which brought together representatives of a dozen different faiths (mostly non-Christian) around the issue of environmental responsibility on Earth Day 2018. (Looking back, it’s probably telling that I went from marching in 2016 to praying in 2018.)

Organizing protests brought me into contact and sometimes conflict with the police, who I began to see, not as brave civil servants, but as racist thugs for capitalist elites.

During this time, I also served on (and also chaired) the social justice committee at my Unitarian Universalist church. I helped organize numerous social justice actions and educational forums around issues of climate change, environmental justice, racial justice, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and immigrant rights. I advocated for my congregation to become more openly anti-racist, and I carried Black Lives Matter and LGBT-welcoming signs, flags, and banners with the church in the Fourth of July parades of the conservative town of Hobart.

I acted in multiple capacities to support numerous Black Lives Matter protests and immigrant rights protests, including at the Gary airport, where immigrants were being deported. I acted as a legal observer for numerous protests on behalf of the National Lawyer’s Guild, trained other legal observers, and provided other legal support to activists. In my professional capacity, I spoke for immigrant rights at the 2018 Fourth of July naturalization ceremony in Hammond, Indiana, which resulted in my being censured by the presiding judge who was very conservative.

During this time, I continued to write online about environmental and social justice issues, including at the Huffington Post. I wrote my first essay in support of Black Lives Matter in 2016, which drew a lot of praise (mostly from Black people), as well as a lot of criticism (mostly from White people).

Radicalization: Age 42-present (2017-present)

My writing at Patheos was becoming increasingly political, and in 2017, I was kicked off the site, following my criticism of the channel editor and site owners for their labor practices and their affiliation with an anti-LGBT organization. About two dozen other writers also left the site in protest.

After leaving the site, my chronic disenchantment with the Pagan community came to the fore. Paganism had helped me to reclaim some parts of myself that had been buried by two decades of Christian conditioning. And I saw great potential in the movement to help effect a cultural transformation toward an ecologically sane existence, but I felt it was mostly wasted in indulgent self-expression.

I was frustrated with the self-centeredness of many Pagans. I questioned whether Paganism really was as earthcentered as many of its practitioners claimed. I was disappointed with the otherworldliness and pietism of polytheistic Paganism (which was on the rise), the lack of political engagement by most Pagan writers, and just the overall silliness and credulity of much of Paganism. Rather than finding a true re-enchantment of the world, I saw Pagans reproducing the disenchantment of the mainstream culture. Finally, in 2018, I cut my last emotional ties with the Pagan community (though I still remain connected to a select group of pagan friends).

Also in 2018, our 350.org group went on permanent hiatus. After that, I continued to act in a supportive role for other activists. But I also became more critical of what I saw as mostly symbolic events with little to no connection to the most impacted communities. I authored an open letter to local activists setting forth my concerns, which upset some of my fellow activists. That was the beginning of my shift away from mainstream activism.

As I realized the depth of the cultural and economic transformation that was needed to avoid environmental catastrophe, I grew increasingly pessimistic about the possibility of any such change happening. In addition to climate change, the concepts of exponential growth, peak oil, and energy-return-on-investment (of renewables compared to fossil fuels) were critical to the demise of my former optimism.

In 2018, I published an essay entitled, “What If It’s Already Too Late?: Being An Activist in the Anthropocene“. The article drew the attention of the post-doomer/deep adaptation community, which I hadn’t known existed before that. Following the publication of the 2018 IPCC report, I continued to write more on the topic, did several interviews, and eventually published a small book titled Another End of the World is Possible, in which I explored what it would mean to really accept that our way of life (and maybe even our species) is terminal. (I have to mention Paul Kinsgnorth here, especially his collection of essays, Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, as having a profound influence on the course of my thinking in this regard.)

I met more people in the post-doom/deep adaptation community. Eco-theologian Michael Dowd had been a kind of mentor for me on this topic. I started this site, anotherendoftheworld.org, to host my own and others’ writing on the topic. In 2020, I also started a climate/environmental grief support group to help local activists and others process eco-anxiety and grief in community with each other. Unfortunately, we had to stop meeting in person shortly afterward when Covid arrived in the U.S.

I started resonating with anarchist ideas, after learning what anarchism actually is. Conceptually speaking, by anarchism, I basically mean direct democracy and small-is-beautiful economics. Practically speaking, by anarchism, I mean creating ways to meet our needs (material and spiritual) together and outside of the capitalist market or the state. In 2020, I wrote a series of articles on anarchism in which I tried to make these idea accessible to non-anarchists.

Though I had pretty much given up on electoral politics, I still voted for the Green Party candidates, Howie Hawkins and Angela Walker, in the 2020 election (to the chagrin of many of my progressive friends)–mostly because I see national voting as a quasi-religious communal ritual that still has value as such. I also joined a group organizing a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, because was interested in what real organizing (instead of just activist mobilizing) might look like where I live. However, I quickly grew disenchanted with the group.

Looking Forward: The Future

As you may have noticed, I have a habit of becoming disenchanted with communities I belong to: Mormonism, the legal profession, Unitarian Universalism, Paganism, progressive politics, mainstream activism. I am still in search of community, but now I’m looking for something more small scale, rather than a world-changing movement.

Where I really want to focus my energy now is on a twofold strategy which takes environmental and economic collapse as givens, as processes which have already begun. First, on side of cultural transformation, I want to continue to work with the Deep Adaptation community to help transform how we think and talk about our relationship with the more-than-human world. My writing, the grief group, and creating rituals for use as tools of transformation, are all part of this.

On the side of material resistance, I want pursue what David Holmgren calls “permaculture activism”, which I mean creating parallel/alternative economies at the household to small community levels, in order to (1) increase resilience in face of collapse, (2) as a kind of boycott of the dominant system to possibly accelerate that collapse (which, as Holmgren explains, could be a good thing), and (3) ultimately to help shape what follows collapse in an ecologically positive way.


So that’s how I got here–from being raised as a conservative Mormon, attending Brigham Young University, and being a missionary, to becoming a progressive activist and eco-pagan, to being a collapsenik anarchist. Looking back, I think it all started with my experience in Brazil, which jolted me out of the bubble I had been raised in. The Pagan community, my Unitarian church, and a handful of special individuals, including my wife, challenged me along the way and helped me grow. An anthropology professor, David Crandall, and a professor of feminist jurisprudence, Susan Williams, deserve special mention, as do an anarchist pagan writer friend and sometimes-antagonist, Rhyd Wildermuth, and a local contrarian organizer, Vince Emanuele, both of whom have been persistent gadflies to whom I will be forever grateful. I don’t think I would have gotten here without all of you. Thank you.

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