Saturday, February 11, 2017

My Two Cents: Is It Okay To Punch a Nazi?

It says something about the times we live in that this question has come up at all.

Is it okay to punch a nazi? Is it a morally permissible act to commit violence against somebody expressing even the most objectionable opinions?

I believe nazi is the perfect word to describe the sort of people I am talking about here. But let's call them what you will: alt-right white nationalists, fascists, whatever. There is nothing new under the sun, and we have seen their worldview before. They are nazis. Is it okay to punch them?

The sort of milquetoast liberal argument goes like this: we have freedom of speech in this country, which means all people have the right to express their views. Which means even though I don't like it, the neo-nazi movement (which has never been stronger, nor had more access to power) has every right to express its views and people who punch them are committing an immoral act.

To which I say I'm sure we'll have lots of time to hash this argument out when we're sitting in camps for dissidents and undesirables.

Say there is a person repeatedly saying cruel and threatening things about your family or loved ones. They insult your wife, your husband, using the most insulting language they know. I think most people would agree that, if you were to punch them in response to this provocation, it would technically be an immoral act (it is wrong to commit violence against somebody) however that immorality would be weighed against the immorality of the person deliberately crossing lines to try and piss you off. Most people would probably agree that at least some of the blame is on that person, and nobody would try to argue that "freedom of speech" should protect somebody from getting punched if they are going to insist on going around insulting somebody's family.

A nazi is that person times a hundred. Leaders of the alt-right movement, the ones being punched in high profile incidents, have literally (not implied, but openly) called for the subjugation and genocide of non-white races. In the context of that, why is the morality of the punch the thing we are discussing at all?

I am not a violent person and I do not advocate violence as the remedy for almost all problems -- though I acknowledge that throughout history violence has often been the only way to achieve any kind of justice . I personally do not think I would punch a nazi if given the chance. But I understand why somebody would, and as in the example above I believe the nazi himself holds much of the moral blame here. Freedom of speech means we can't simply arrest somebody for saying he would LIKE to commit genocide if he hasn't actually DONE anything yet. But it doesn't prevent people who find that understandably horrifying from responding in a very natural way. If you want to say that genocide is okay, then a little punching in response seems trivial -- and we should be talking a lot more about the calls for genocide than about a punch here or there.

I mean.... right??

Monday, January 16, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?

The release of Rogue One has caused a sharp rift through fans, certainly through the small community of Star Wars fans with whom I am most directly connected. For some, this is one of the best Star Wars films ever, in the ranks with the original trilogy (or at least very close to it), and for others it was sort of a boring mess. Thus, to an even greater extent than with The Force Awakens about a year ago, the disparity between the reactions of various fans has been stark and clashing.

I find this fascinating. Star Wars is such a cultural touchstone for my generation that it has become a sort of universal connection -- you can always count on meeting people who like Star Wars, who are even enthusiastic about it, and being able to bond over that shared love. It’s a passion that has linked me to countless other men and women, and helped me form friendships with strangers by providing common ground. For all these decades we fans were in such agreement that Star Wars is awesome that it faded in the cultural zeitgeist, unquestioned and unexamined. Many of us continued to be enthusiastic die-hards, even when we hadn’t even seen the original trilogy in many years. Even with the release of the prequels, fans were largely united in their opinion: they sucked. Thus it has been easy for me to think of Star Wars as something that brings fans together in agreement as a unified, cohesive body. It is a universal good. If you grew up with it and loved it like I did, then we are totally on the same page.

Or so I thought.

The Force Awakens rattled that unity. Rogue One has shattered it. What we have come to discover is that all these years we were all saying how much we loved Star Wars without realizing that what each of us loved about the films and franchise varied wildly from person to person. The new movies have each catered to different sets of expectations and tastes, and suddenly we have two fans, equal in their ardor for the franchise, disagreeing over not just if a film was good but whether it could properly even be considered Star Wars.

Which begs the question, then, what is Star Wars? Do we all have a different perceptions of it completely? What if anything did we ever agree on about it? And I guess most importantly, What is Star Wars to me? And what does that say about me?

Knowing that, I can pinpoint (in a general sense) what I want from future Star Wars films. And I can explain why Rogue One is exactly what I feared the new films would be, indeed the very embodiment of everything I do not want the franchise to become.

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SO WHAT IS STAR WARS, ANYWAY?

The original Star Wars film was an unexpected, surprising success. While it contained many familiar components, there had never really been anything like it. Much has been said about it -- it created the very idea of the summer blockbuster, it changed the movie industry, it redefined a genre, etc. etc. Much of the audience’s initial fascination with the movie was with its technical achievements, and it won a number of special effects Oscars the following year. However, the movies are still beloved today, when their special effects seem quaint and primitive. So is film-making innovation enough to explain the enduring success of the original Star Wars trilogy? I don’t think so -- there’s something special about it, something that sets it apart from the ranks of other action-adventure technologically innovative blockbusters that have come and gone on our screens since.

Given that it is the original trilogy of films that launched the franchise and defined its unique and endearing qualities, I will be using them for comparison extensively in my critique of Rogue One. By doing so I will already be on a different wavelength than many fans of the new film, for it has become clear in my discussions with my friends that, for some fans, there’s a feeling that Star Wars has come a long way since those original moves and needs to continue to progress in new and different directions. They feel that if we remain fixed on the past success of those original films we will never create anything new or innovative, but instead merely rehash the same old stuff over and over and the franchise will go stale.

It’s an interesting argument. I certainly share the desire to keep the franchise fresh and compelling. If we really have to make more Star Wars movies, then, yes, let’s make good ones. And thus Rogue One (especially as the first non-saga “side” film in the franchise) becomes a fascinating test case of some fundamental creative questions. How much can you change of the original formula and distinctive qualities of the fictional universe that the original trilogy created before we are no longer in the same franchise? Is it enough to simply retain some of the surface elements to make something a part of the Star Wars universe? To make a Star Wars movie, is it enough just to reference a bunch of other Star Wars movies? Or does the heart of what makes Star Wars special and distinct, what in fact makes it Star Wars, exist in something beyond just those surface details?

In my view, the essential qualities of Star Wars are, broadly speaking, heroic characters, allegorical plot, unique genre, and use of myth. By examining the original trilogy and Rogue One in these terms, I will make a case for what those first three movies did really well so that we can see by contrast where Rogue One faltered or was misguided. We will try to uncover the qualities that made Star Wars special and has made it endure, and thus understand what it is we lose when we abandon them.

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HEROIC CHARACTERS

The startling success of Star Wars as films served as the perfect delivery system for what lay at the story’s core -- the redecoration and reimagining of mythic archetypes and arcs that are as old as humanity itself. Myths are the allegorical stories we tell ourselves to make sense of our own existence, to wrestle with the experience of being alive. Myth appears in every culture that has ever existed on the planet, appearing in religion, in folklore, in stories passed down from generation to generation, serving as a kind of symbolic mirror through which we can understand our own life journeys. Myth contains the wisdom of countless generations that have lived and died before us. Renowned professor, writer, and thinker Joseph Campbell made it his life’s work to study the core of every culture’s mythology where there are common themes and messages universal to all mankind. In his writings and teachings, Campbell distilled those common threads down to their essence. George Lucas was intensely interested in the work of Joseph Campbell, who he at least once referred to as “my Yoda.” Campbell, in turn, is reported to have said that Lucas was his best student. And he adored the Star Wars trilogy, which he watched for the first time all in one day near the end of his life.

And for all of my many critiques of George Lucas, which could fill an essay of their own, I have to give him this credit: he understood (at one point in his career at least) the purpose and power of myth. And one of the first steps in crafting a new version of an old myth, one that suited his times, was creating characters who would stand out vividly in our imagination, who would take root deeply in our hearts, so that we would be emotionally invested in the allegorical journey that they undergo. All of the characters in the original films have a familiar-yet-new quality, because they are new twists on ancient archetypes. The film is constructed such that we understand them immediately. We know their strengths and weaknesses. They are roughly drawn characters, sure, like those in a myth or fairy tale, but they are understandable and instantly familiar. The sassy but idealistic princess. The skilled but selfish mercenary. The wise teacher haunted by failure. And, most recognizable of all, the naive young hero, trapped in childhood, setting out on his symbolic quest towards enlightenment and adulthood. The psychological nature of archetypes, which represent aspects of the subconscious, of human nature (i.e., our own nature), makes them relatable and believable. They feel like our friends.

The key to their likability? Well, for one thing, they are flawed. They are occasionally even ridiculous. They squabble. They make big, comic mistakes. They bumble their way through and succeed as often through luck as through skill. And, yes, they display great moments of strength and courage in difficult circumstances. And that makes it all the more thrilling and fun, because we know these people aren’t all-powerful and we are rooting for them to succeed against the more obviously powerful forces arrayed against them.

For another thing, they have genuine connection with each other. The movie takes time to develop their interactions so that we believe in their deepening bond. Luke, Leia, and Han actually share little screen time all together in A New Hope. And yet in those sparse moments we get a whole range of both positive and negative interactions, and we see them forced to work together to overcome adversity. And thus in the final sequence, the award ceremony, we totally believe that they have become a kind of family unit, a team, on this adventure. This is because the film manages to display action while also developing character bonds, and if it ever has to choose between the two it does the latter. The characters bicker and give their point of view during firefights(“This is some rescue!”). Luke and Han interact in character while attempting to shoot down the pursuing TIE Fighter (“Great, kid, don’t get cocky!”), etc. etc.

And they change. At the end of each movie the core characters have been forever altered in some way. By the end of the trilogy they have completed major symbolic arcs. The changes they go through have allegorical meaning that resonate beyond their fictional context, but they are still totally believable within that context. And we were with them every step of the way.

The Force Awakens, for all its flaws, presents us with characters who are at least in the right ballpark. The characters are likeable and form genuine bonds on their journey. They care about each other, and we understand why. They are flawed and occasionally ridiculous. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They are skilled but still display weakness. And by the end of the film they have changed profoundly. Whether they have interesting and believable overall arcs remains to be seen in the next two installments.

The characters in Rogue One serve narrative functions, but I can’t really tell you much about their personality. I didn’t even really catch their names; I had to look them up after. Jyn is the jaded, tight-lipped, and badass female lead. Cassian is the jaded, tight-lipped, and badass male lead. Chirrut (the Force monk guy) is less jaded, perhaps, but still mostly tight-lipped and badass. His husband Baze is definitely jaded, tight-lipped, and badass. And the droid is wise-cracking but -- seeing the theme yet? -- still jaded and badass. We know that they are all badass because they are very good at killing stormtroopers in a very dramatic way. They are killing machines, in fact, displaying incredible skill in combat. I mean, for most of the movie, defeating their enemies doesn’t even look that hard. They don’t need me to root for them, they are doing just fine. Their skill level is all uniformly high - which, to me, is boring. This does not make them great characters, just great warriors. And war, says Master Yoda, does not make one great. If that combat prowess and gritty gumption is stripped away, their personalities are so similar, so uniformly humorless and angsty, that I’d be hard pressed to describe to you the differences between most of the characters beyond describing their job. The prequels suffered from a similar problem.

The characters also never really connect because the movie never gives them time to form relationships in any kind of likeable or organic way. This is partly a pacing and genre problem, which I get to below, but it’s also a problem with the characters themselves. Because what would these characters really have to say to each other anyway, given the chance? They don’t really even seem to like each other. I’ve had to work in an office with a group of people I didn’t particularly care for, and our conversations were much like how the Rogue team talk to each other: Let’s just get the job done, but you aren’t my friend. That’s a fine place to start if the characters grow to like each other. The movie behaves as though they do, because they are sad when they have to part later on, but I certainly didn’t see that bond happen. I had to take the movie’s word for it that they became friends, as it feels like they cut out a couple key character bonding moments. The movie consistently chooses focusing on action over building character relationships. Jyn and Cassian fight their way through Jeddha without saying a word to each other or giving us any kind of emotional point of view on what’s going on. It’s a long, long action sequence in which we see plenty of demonstrations that everybody is badass but no time at all is spent on developing the characters or their connection. The closest thing to that is Cassian’s shocked and surprised face when Jyn takes out a bunch of stormtroopers using just some extendable antenna thing. He’s somewhat impressed. There’s your character interaction, now back to the fighting.

A kind of antagonism is artificially built up between Jyn and K2 in a few lines, and at least their relationship takes a small arc during the movie as K2 grudgingly comes to respect her. But absent any other genuine human interaction in the movie this felt, to me, highly insufficient for us to come to love any of the characters involved. Cassian and Jyn mostly just yell at each other, and it’s not even sexy yelling like between Han and Leia. I was jarred by the sudden suggestion of romantic feelings at the end. Like, wait, what? Han and Leia’s sexual tension was clearly built up over several scenes of flirtation and verbal sparring. Cassian and Jyn just fight over his mission to kill her father. Do we feel that because they are opposite gendered characters there is no other possible resolution to their story before they blow up but to fall in love? It has to be romantic all of the sudden? They’ve known each other for, like, a day. It’s unearned, and it feels cheap. Frankly, Finn and Poe have a better romantic arc than these two.

And none of these characters change in any fundamental way by the end of the movie. Jyn’s entire arc is “I don’t want to help the Rebellion, it has nothing to do with me,” to, suddenly, “I’m willing to give my life for this cause now!” There’s a change there, I guess, but very little fuss is made over it. It just sort of happens. Cassian’s arc starts with “I really want to help the Rebellion” and progresses to “I really, REALLY want to help the Rebellion!” And that’s a shame because Cassian is actually potentially interesting - he’s committed horrible crimes in the service of the greater good of this cause so if the Rebellion falls apart he is terrified he will just be a bad person. Too bad the movie doesn’t really want to spend any time dwelling on this struggle other than to give him one speech about it where he basically just spells it out for us, then we move on. But there’s something to him, at least. His unquestioned loyalty to the Rebellion is put to the test when he is given orders he can’t fully bring himself to follow, so he has an internal struggle. Wow, an internal struggle! Thank the Maker! Unfortunately, it’s a little thin as the movie never takes even a few minutes from the endless action scenes to actually develop it. All in all, Cassian, to me, is the closest thing to an interesting character here.

Even some of my friends who loved the movie admit that many of the characters are boring, Jyn Urso in particular. You would think, given that she’s supposedly the main character, that this would be a problem. Her relationship with Saw is key to the whole plot, but it’s a relationship that happens entirely off-screen so that we have to take everybody’s word for it that it’s very important. Her relationship with her father never goes beyond the surface level of what you would expect (more on this in the next section). Her romance with Cassian comes sort of out of nowhere. She’s given canned cliche speeches that are delivered flatly, clashing against the stirring underscoring music trying to convince us that something dramatic is happening. There’s just not a lot to her. But individual characters, I am told, aren’t really the point here. The Rebellion itself, and the Rogue team as a unit, are the main characters. So…why did we spend the first twenty minutes learning Jyn’s backstory then?

And then there's Director whats-his-face... Yeah, there's just not much to say about him. He's a bad guy. Okay, fine. 

But, look, there's some of the original characters! Grand Moff Tarkin is back. And Darth Vader! That's exciting right? I mean, yes, maybe it could be if the movie didn't self-consciously reach out and smack you and say: Hey look its Darth Vader, you love him don't you? Here he is! And here he is choking a guy! You love when he chokes a guy, don't you? And here he is punning about how he's choking the guy, and showing us his hand in the choking-the-guy gesture! Same with Bail Organa. I was thrilled to see Jimmy Smits appear, since he's a great actor woefully under-used in the prequels, which gave him flat, boring scenes with flat, boring lines. Unfortunately, so did Rogue One, only it added the dimension of wink wink inside reference wink wink. As a Star Wars fan, I appreciated seeing him and Mon Mothma and General Dodonna, since (unlike some of the other character cameos) it made narrative sense for them to be there.

But the strength of the cast has to rest on the new core characters with whom the movie spends most of its time, not on callbacks to the previous movies, and those characters disappoint for all the reasons I have discussed above. We may disagree on some of the following points because we will disagree on what kind of movie Rogue One can or should have been. But no matter what kind of movie it is, shouldn’t it have interesting, loveable characters with whom we relate because they show us genuine emotion and interesting flaws? I mean without that…what’s the point?

Just the plot, I guess. And about that... 

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ALLEGORICAL PLOT

As action adventure space operas, the Star Wars movies always have a lot of plot. We’re always desperate to get the thing to stop the thing and save the galaxy. But why do we care about the fate of this abstract, fictional galaxy? What energizes the urgency of these fictional circumstances so that we get invested in getting the thing to stop the thing? Hint: it’s not more explosions.

In the original trilogy, there is a mythic, allegorical understructure to these plot points that keeps us invested. We are constantly asked to divide our attention between the epic (the struggle between the Empire and the Rebellion) and the personal (the struggle for the soul of the Skywalkers). This works because, ultimately, they are one and the same conflict, each serving as a symbol of the other. Drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, Lucas endowed the arc of the original trilogy with elements of the hero’s journey that have appeared in the action-adventures humanity has told for countless generations. Like many of those myths, the progression of the Rebellion and the journey of Luke Skywalker ultimately serve as a symbolic representation of something deeply personal and relatable for all of us - the trials and tribulations we all inevitably face, and the journey from childhood to adulthood.

Luke starts the trilogy as a child. That’s why he’s so annoying. He sees the world in black and white. Darth Vader is the personification of evil and that’s all he needs to know. A New Hope is a fairy tale, a story with simplistic morality because it’s told through a child’s eyes, in which the hero takes his first steps into the unknown and beyond his previously conceived limitations. In The Empire Strikes Back, he moves into adolescence. He is overly confident in his newfound strength and insists that he is ready to plumb the deeper mysteries. His confidence is shattered by a huge revelation, first hinted within the dark cave on Dagobah. When presented with a vision of his ultimate enemy, Luke does what feels right - he strikes it down. That’s what you do with evil, right? You vanquish it. However, within the mask is not a monster, but his own face. But he does not understand what Yoda is trying to teach him. The revelation doesn’t strike him in full force until later when Darth Vader reveals their connection. Now the evil is not some faceless other, it is his own flesh and blood. And this is the lesson that myths so often teach the hero (and thus us): that the evil you hate and want to destroy is not out there somewhere, it’s here, in you. Now his quest seems hopeless, for he is his own enemy. He flees from the revelation, he literally plummets downward and hits the low point of the journey. In the final chapter, he has through bitter experience come to accept that there is darkness inside of himself. He even appears in Return of the Jedi wearing all black, showing that over the course of the trilogy we have come to subvert the simplistic color symbolism set up in the first movie, just as Luke’s perception of good and evil has been subverted. His new, more nuanced understanding of morality has changed everything about his relationship to his enemy. He has learned that if the evil of Darth Vader is in Luke Skywalker, then the good of Luke Skywalker must exist somewhere in Darth Vader. He seeks out his father not to destroy him but to offer himself as the mirror in which his father might see his true self -- just as the father had been the mirror for his own revelation. He is tempted and pushed, but in the end he triumphs -- not by defeating Vader in combat or outsmarting him (as would happen, I think, in almost any other mainstream franchise), but by refusing to fight him, by throwing away his blade. And at that moment he is at peace with himself, he has become an adult. He has become a Jedi. The moral of the story, the myth’s core, is that it is only that surrender--never brute force--which can awaken Anakin Skywalker from within Darth Vader.

This is huge, epic stuff. This is the stuff of legend and myth -- and what I have sketched out above is only one possible way to interpret the richly symbolic action of the three films. The plot resonates with meaning beyond the fictional context of the story, and that’s why we care about getting the thing that stops the thing. We know instinctively that this is about more than just the fate of some fictional galaxy. The war, the conflict, means something; it is not just blindly championed as being awesome. The action is never just an end unto itself. Even if this is never consciously identified by much of its audience, this deeper meaning is instrumental to what has made the original Star Wars trilogy so unique among mainstream franchises and what has kept it relevant long after its technological achievements no longer impress.

Yes, there is lots of action, tons of it. Star Wars is characterized by those thrilling fast-paced action sequences. However, the story is also willing to slow down now and then to give us moments of wonder and introspection, iconic images of stillness and reflection that break up the action a little bit to add an epic, operatic texture to the fabric of the tale. Think of Luke staring with longing angst at the double sunset on Tatooine, the music swelling. Think of his awe and speechless wonder when Yoda lifts his X-Wing out of the bog. And think of his quiet grief as he watches his father’s body burn on the moon of Endor. Every now and then, in the midst of the lasers and explosions, the movies dare to be still, to reflect, and let a few simple images set to beautiful music communicate everything. These moments counter-balance the fast-paced action sequences and thereby enhance them.

Again, The Force Awakens at least tried to do all this. It wants to be myth, it wants to have allegorical moments. It does this, as we all know, by attempting parallelism with the plot of A New Hope, but because nothing obvious is communicated or illuminated by those parallels it lapses into rote plagiarism instead. But the movie has (sometimes forced) mystical, mythic moments. There’s an fairy tale quality to much of it, and that’s something I had given up hope for ever seeing in a Star Wars movie again. And there are iconic visuals and moments of quiet reflection and meditation, though not much--it’s too much to hope in modern adventure films that things can pause to take a breath for more than ten seconds here or there, I guess.

Kylo Ren is one of the only characters added to the franchise since Return of the Jedi who has the potential to have an arc that truly fits into the mythology of Star Wars. He’s a fantastic inversion of Luke, a young man trying desperately to be evil and to repress any other part of his soul. Like Luke, he must face his father, face who he really is -- only Ben Solo chooses to kill his father in the hope that this will free him from his father’s legacy and allow him to be the powerful evil lord that he so desperately wants to be. He is the anti-Luke, starting at the opposite place and making the opposite choice. He resonates with deep symbolic meaning for our time, a young man full of anger trying desperately to quench his more sensitive, sympathetic nature to fulfill the hard-edged expectation of what he feels he is supposed to be. He buries his insecurities with a false show of strength. We all have known Kylo Rens; hell, some of us have been him. It will be fascinating to see where they take this character. It’s difficult to know if interesting arcs are in store for Rey and Finn, but the potential is there. It’s hard to make a full assessment until we get at least one more movie. Episode VIII will go a long way towards revealing if, for example, Rey’s precociously fast command of the Force is part of her overall story arc or just lazy storytelling.

It’s difficult to see any place in Rogue One that aspires to the level of allegory or myth. But this may be an unfair critique. I don’t think it wanted to do so. It was trying to be a very different kind of movie. But I think something vital is lost without that element. The surface elements of the plot were all there (we need to get the thing to stop the thing) but… why should we care? Especially since, this being a prequel, we already know how it ends. There is no symbolic journey for the characters. There can be no allegorical revelation because nobody changes in any profound way, unless you count dying in the service of the cause. There is mythic ground to be covered regarding self-sacrifice that the movie flirts with but never quite manages. Its attention is too focused on the action.

There’s a surface-level nod to the themes of the saga. The pivotal relationship in the film (apparently) is again between a father and a child. Jyn has tried to forget her father after he’s taken/abandons her, then she gets a message from him that changes her opinion of him, and then, conveniently, also gets to see him in person right before he dies to tell him that. That confrontation, I guess, changes her in that now she’s committed to defeat the Empire to…honor his legacy? Revenge his death? Muddying the waters is her other parent/mentor, the other one that the plot also hinges on, Saw Gerrerra. They have a complicated past, I guess. It’s not clear. He basically raised her, but they don’t say much to each other when they finally meet that helps us believe there is real affection there. And then, because of that relationship which is barely established, we are evidently supposed to care (given the dramatic music and posturing during that scene) about his pointless sacrifice: “It’s okay, Jyn, leave me, I am just feeling like it’s time for me to die now. I’m not even gonna try to escape with you even though there is clearly time for me to get on the ship. There’s really no valid plot reason for me to die right now other than there’s nothing else, apparently, for my character to do.” The movie spent no time giving us an emotional connection to him, and his death does nothing to help the heroes on their journey or propel the plot. Why bother casting Forest Whitaker if you aren’t going even use him for anything?

It’s all balls-to-the-wall action. The film does not give itself a single moment of introspection or stillness to explore beyond the barest surface level the deeper themes that motivate the conflict or the human emotions that are caught up in it all. I know this is essentially a kids movie, it doesn’t have to be super deep all the time. But the original trilogy proves that you can be deep and really fun at the same time. Rogue One doesn’t have time to even try. It moves with breakneck speed from action set piece to action set piece, so many explosions in sequence that they begin to lose all meaning in a general wash of violence and urgency and action and go go go go go. GET THE THING TO STOP THE THING BECAUSE…. WELL JUST BECAUSE.
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UNIQUE GENRE

One of the major purposes of myth, Campbell writes, is to provide a roadmap for life, particularly for those huge moments of transition that all of us face eventually. One of these fundamental transitions is the passing from childhood to adulthood, a transition so profound and complicated that coming-of-age stories are still prevalent in every form of literature and art. So too do they symbolically dominate much of world mythology. A culture’s myths and coming-of-age rituals guide a child into adulthood. There is an aching need for this kind of myth today. Campbell believed that many problems in our society arise from the lack of any cohesive coming-of-age ritual or mythology in our modern culture. But we long for the guidance it would provide and feel the hollowness of the void its absence leaves in us.

For many of us, this void has been filled with genre fiction, particularly fantasy. This popular genre has long been widely misunderstood by the mainstream public. It has some cred now, what with Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones becoming part of the mainstream, but it was not taken seriously for many, many years and still raises an eyebrow with some. Considered nothing but children’s stories, pure pulp and escapism, those who do not read it cannot fathom why anybody over the age of 12 would want to read about hobbits trying to destroy a ring. But escapism is the very least of fantasy’s attractions. The genre taps into folklore and myth, and by doing so tells the symbolic, allegorical stories that mankind has always told. The passion the genre evokes comes not just because the stories are “fun” but because they fulfill an aching, existential mythical need that we didn’t even know we had - the symbolic, artistic representation of growing up, of facing adult life and adult responsibilities, of confronting loss, sorrow, and death. It’s not an accident that so many fantasy fans become enamored of the genre around the beginning of adolescence, nor that so many fantasy novels are also coming of age stories that mirror the heroic arcs of ancient mythology. Their fantastical settings allow them to hint at a deeper truth. Fantasy has the potential to actually be more about real life than any novel set in the real world, by doing what all myths do: removing the trappings of our day-to-day life and, by putting humanity into a fictional/mythical imaginative context, revealing something fundamental about us that is separate from all that. That is, in fact, the whole point of the archetypal hero’s journey - leaving behind the day to day reality, traveling into darkness and mystery, and returning changed. By going on that journey, we change too. Such is the power from which fantasy draws its appeal.

I’m dwelling on fantasy here, and not science fiction, for a simple reason: Star Wars is not science fiction. I assumed for many years that we were all on the same page about this and that it went without saying. However, my discussions with many about Rogue One suggest otherwise. The movie itself is pretty solid proof that a great many people do not agree with me on this. Since this disagreement might be the most fundamental divide between those who loved Rogue One and those of us who didn’t, I’m going to write that again, and I’ll even put it in all caps in indicate how crucial of a point that I think it is:

STAR WARS IS NOT SCIENCE FICTION. It is fantasy, as much of a textbook fantasy as anything can be. Just a fantasy that happens to be set in space.

It is, admittedly, not your typical form of a fantasy, and this is a great part of its appeal. Though popular with many, the forms and trappings of fantasy are prone to clich├ęs and can easily go stale. They can be off-putting to anyone outside of its most ardent fans. So while fantasy has the potential to be a vehicle for the myths our society needs to hear, it was very much not in vogue back in 1977. It no longer seemed relevant in a more pessimistic, post-Vietnam world. Movies were dark and bleak and gritty in this era, and only the nerds were reading Tolkien. It was, however, a world fascinated with the increasingly rapid pace of technology and of space travel. Globalization was arriving on the scene, and there were few places on earth left unexplored or mysterious, few places of fascination for the imagination. Space was the new unknown. Space had the possibility to excite wonder and hope even in the cynical 70s. By setting his fantasy in space, Lucas managed to take something very old and make it fresh and new, and to take something exciting and new and make it familiar and ancient.

“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” each movie begins, evoking fairy tales and folklore. This is simply the same “once upon a time in a kingdom far away” from any those stories, with the exception that this has its own special contradiction: it’s all happening in space, you see, but it’s also deep in the past. And it gets away with all this mythic and operatic pomposity because, anchoring the seriousness of the myth of the saga is the fact that the trilogy does not take itself overly seriously. There’s a relaxed camp, a sense of play, and of wonder, that lifts the story out of the mundane into the realm of myth and fable.

Rogue One made a conscious decision not to be a space fantasy. Instead, it attempts to be a heist movie, or a war film, or some kind of hybrid of both, but definitely gritty, violent, ruthless and dirty. And perhaps the thing that most gets in the way of this movie being memorable or fun is the fact that it takes itself so very, very seriously. Yes, K2 had some good jokes. I actually smiled at them a few times. But the dry sarcasm of his humor only adds to rather than cuts against the general emotional flatness. And I even love dry sarcasm, as a rule. It's humorless, sardonic, pessimistic humor in a humorless, sardonic, pessimistic movie. With no sense of play, the film maintains all the pomposity of Star Wars with none of the heart, camp, or wonder. Never mind that this means we have a movie that is monotonous and generally soulless in the way so many action movies are, but does this even work as a Star Wars film? Is Star Wars still itself outside of its home genre? Personally, I don’t think so, particularly when the movie in question is a direct prequel to the original movie that established that genre.

Without the mythic sensibility at the core of the fantasy genre, what’s left to define it as Star Wars at all? Just the outward forms, the details. Without the heart, there is only the minutiae -- and the Star Wars universe now has a lot of minutiae: hundreds and hundreds of characters, planets, alien species, droids, backstories, spin-offs, you name it. I used to take a great amount of pride and enjoyment in soaking up all of this extended lore, so when I see a fan who lives for all those details, it feels familiar. I understand, I do. I remember when it felt like being a fan meant I needed not only more Star Wars, but better Star Wars, bigger, more spectacular, more epic, more sprawling, more detailed, more intricate. I wanted every single thing to be fleshed out and explained. Rogue One is popular with fans who feel this way because it rewards them with everything they want: more detail to absorb, and plenty of easter egg references to details they already know. It attempts to bring multiple strings of this sprawling Frankenstein that is the extended Star Wars universe lore into one movie and tie them all together. And if you love all those strings then this is a treat.

Some fictional universes improve with a tight network of ever-increasing self-referential details and lore. I’ll discuss Game of Thrones minutiae with you all day, and happily. One of my favorite modern fantasy series, the dark and epic Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, is satisfying and compelling because of its intensely detailed and self-referential nature.

After reading countless Extended Universe novels, comics, and spin-off materials in my time, I have come eventually to believe strongly that Star Wars is not like that. The more details you add, the more you explain, the more extra stuff you fold in, the further away you get from the realm of myth, the unique tone, the straightforward storytelling, and the fantasy genre at its core that gave the original films their distinctive character. You end up burying the originality of the trilogy under a mountain of junk that obscures its special quality. You end up with a lot of empty facts and data that are meaningless in and of themselves.

You end up with Rogue One, a movie that has all the Star Wars decorations but has as much to do in spirit with Star Wars as any Marvel or Star Trek movie does -- that is to say, not much. It has in fact more in common with basically any action movie made in the last 10 years in any other franchise than it does with the movie for which it ostensibly serves as the direct prequel. Watching the two films back to back would be an exercise in absurdity, a jarring, janky roller-coaster ride. Though there is a narrative through-line, they could not be more different.

It’s not as though, by messing with the core essence of Star Wars that gave the originals their character, the filmmakers decided to do something entirely different but equally unique and interesting. If the argument is that we cannot re-hash the original trilogy, that Star Wars must evolve beyond those movies, then at least try to do something original and surprise me. If we strip away even the essential characteristics of Star Wars that I have laid out above, the general spirit of the franchise can be boiled down to creative audacity. There’s nothing bold or audacious about Rogue One. This is the same kind of action movie we’ve seen a million times in various forms, the one that is so focused on giving you an general wash of epic intensity and special effects to earn that opening weekend buzz that it gives you no substantial reason to watch it again and again (for me--sorry Lou). And it does it while wearing the costumes of a beloved franchise, expecting me to be automatically on board just because, you know, it's Star Wars. So it’s no wonder that I felt faintly insulted.

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IN CONCLUSION

The movie simply doesn’t fit into the franchise. Or, even worse, it fits perfectly into a franchise that is increasingly unrecognizable from the films that launched it. Furthermore, it is mediocre and unimaginative. I could forgive mediocre, I guess, because most movies like it are mediocre. But unimaginative is unforgivable. Star Wars deserves better. Star Wars has already suffered enough. 

Nevertheless, Rogue One suggests I am in the minority in this opinion. It's box office and critical success, in addition to how much it has won over some of my fellow die-hard fans, suggests a future for the franchise that worries me. If this is really the kind of Star Wars movie we want, then this is the kind of Star Wars movie that Disney is going to keep giving us. And then the franchise, which has already been slowly dying for decades, will finally collapse under the weight of its own cultural cache into self-referential drudgery and narrative mediocrity.

I may simply have to come to terms with this. Movies are not made to accommodate my particular sensibilities, after all. And maybe it's just plain ridiculous that all this bothers me at all. Look at everything that's going on in the world! Why do I care about this so much? I mean, they are just movies, right? Why bother writing a huge essay like this to argue about some silly movies?

But, if you are a true fan, you know that they are more than that. They are the myths through which I subconsciously processed my own journey to adulthood. They are the allegories through which I came to understand the humanity of my enemies. And that is worth arguing about.

Well, at least I have the original trilogy, no matter what the future brings to the franchise. It's not like George Lucas is gonna go back and mess with those and ruin them or anything, right?

Oh, wait. :(

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Mormonism Made Me A Lefty

** All quotes from the Bible in this essay come from the King James Version, the translation favored by Mormons and thus the version with which I am most familiar. Also, as an English major and lover of Shakespeare, I have to say from a literary point of view it’s just prettier than more modern translations. That's the first of many of my opinions that you are about to read.

Introduction: Meet the Mormon Bourgeoisie

It was somewhere around 2003 or 2004. I was in my early twenties, a student at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. and a devout (though struggling with my faith) member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- a Mormon. One of the highlights of my time at BYU was Sunday dinner with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in nearby Orem. One Sunday around that time, for reasons I do not remember, I not only came over for dinner but attended church with them as well. Instead of my usual campus-based congregation of fellow unmarried students, I went to Sunday School with older men and women from the families in my aunt and uncle’s neighborhood.

The area was affluent and suburban, a good representation of what I call the “modern Utah” of which people like Mitt Romney and Stephen R. Covey (“Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” ) are good representations -- Mormon men who have done very well in business and bought themselves large, expensive homes in which to have large Mormon families, deep within the heart of the Mormon bubble. In that Sunday School class, I was surrounded by men and women who had more money than I was ever likely to see in my lifetime, but since in LDS culture all members are brothers and sisters in the faith that class difference didn’t even occur to me, at least not until the lesson began.

That year this particular weekly class had been going through the New Testament page by page and closely studying the words of Jesus as recorded by his apostles. If you were under the impression that Mormons are not Christian, let me assure you nothing could be further from the truth; if anything, Christ plays a grander and more expansive role in Mormon cosmology than in most Christian sects. While Mormons are not scriptural literalists to the same extent as evangelicals and have a more flexible view of biblical interpretation as well as a unique doctrine of living scripture through their belief in a modern-day prophet, the New Testament is still a critical text to Mormon theology and the words of the Savior Himself as recorded in the gospels are taken very seriously.

Which was unfortunate for my fellow classmates on the day in question, for on that day we reached Matthew Chapter 19, Verses 21-24, in which a wealthy young man approaches Jesus and asks what he should do to gain eternal life: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The discomfort in the room was palpable.

What followed was a master class in rationalization in which the group came to a consensus that, in this instance, Jesus couldn’t possibly have meant exactly what he said. He meant, of course, that if you loved your money more than God you couldn’t go to heaven. He meant, of course, that if you didn’t pay your tithing of 10% of your gross income to the Church and didn’t use your wealth to support the poor in charitable causes (private charitable causes, naturally) you couldn’t go to heaven. Having wealth in and of itself would not keep you from entering heaven. Obviously!

I was a young, insecure college student at the time. Through the excellent education I was receiving at BYU (motto: “The Glory of God Is Intelligence!”), I had recently entered into a world of critical thinking which taught me not to trust things that were presented as obvious. I sensed a logical tension, a cognitive dissonance in these arguments and in the faith of these wealthy businessmen and their wives who devoutly worshipped as the Son of God a teacher who had continually preached against earthly wealth and the pursuit of money. But there was no way that I, at 23, could have spoken up in dissent to this prevailing interpretation. I probably wouldn’t have the guts to do it now at 35, honestly, were I in the room.

But I have just enough guts to do it in this essay, in which I would like to address the question: Why couldn’t Jesus have meant exactly what he said?  We live in an era when many Christians of all sects, not just Mormons, sincerely believe that God will reward you now with material, earthly riches if you believe in him and follow his commandments -- despite the fact that this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus said over and over again in the book they hold as divine. For Mormons this dissonance is even more pronounced, as The Book of Mormon and the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith both strongly reinforce the anti-wealth teachings of Jesus.

“If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.” Give your possessions to to the poor?? Why, that’s… that’s the redistribution of wealth! That’s socialism!

Yes. Yes, it is. Jesus was a lefty.
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Left Vs. Right

I think one of the reasons (and there are many!) that having nuanced political conversations in America in 2016  is so difficult is because the words we typically use to denote the two sides of the political coin (“conservative” and “liberal”) have come to be wrapped up in many signifiers and values beyond the political sphere, including connotations of education, lifestyle, geographic region, as well as religious faith and implications of morality and moral priorities, that they get in the way of having a serious discussion about ideas. In one sense, “conservative” and “liberal” are team names, a “side” you pick in the cultural conflict. By identifying as a “conservative” or “liberal” you are often taking on a predetermined set of positions on a variety of issues meaning that in the effort to align yourself to one side or the other you can end up inheriting positions on issues that you have not always carefully thought through for yourself. Stances on a variety of issues come in a package deal, when there is nothing inherent in those positions that require them to go together. “Liberal” and “conservative” are, in other words, not very precise about specific intellectual positions, better for arguments than they are for real discussions.

When it comes to discussing foundational worldviews and political philosophies, I prefer the terms “right-wing” and “left-wing.” Right and left politics are definitions that come with a more specific set of viewpoints on how to best to structure a society. They somewhat sidestep the “cultural” divide in America as they are not necessarily synonymous with the usual sides of  conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. In fact there is a very real argument to be made that there is no left-wing party in America, that the Democrats have been a center to center-right party for a long time. Throughout the history of our country, Democrats and Republicans have traded positions on their support of the working class and social inequality, so this is not an argument about party loyalty. And more to the point,  I’m not writing about how Mormonism made me a liberal, or how Mormonism made made me a Democrat -- that would be an entirely different essay. I want to talk about how Mormonism made me a lefty, a believer in the principles of the left-wing worldview. I identify as a lefty first and foremost and I view the world (and vote for political candidates) based on that primary philosophy.

The left-wing, as excellently summed up by Wikipedia, “supports social equality and egalitarianism, often in opposition to social hierarchy and social inequality” and is characterized by a “concern for those in society whom its adherents perceive as disadvantaged relative to others as well as a belief that there are unjustified inequalities that need to be reduced or abolished.” Leftists believe any society can be judged by how it treats its poor, its vulnerable, its minority voices. While there are wide variations and degrees in leftist politics, they are all characterized by a belief that society as a whole prospers more when differences of status, wealth, and power are minimized. Left-wing economics are, very simplistically speaking, essentially about the power of sharing and the common good. We think that it’s better for everybody to have some than for a few to have a lot and everybody else nothing. To me, the essential principles and ideals of a lefty are simply this: that a good society must focus on the welfare of all, that we cannot prosper while leaving large segments of our people suffering in poverty, and, most fundamentally of all, that we are all in this together and have a responsibility to each other as fellow citizens.  

The right-wing, on the other hand, is characterized by adherence to traditional power structures, classes, and hierarchies, and the consolidation of power in a few over the many, illustrated in wide difference in wealth between classes. Capitalism, unchecked, unregulated, left totally to its own devices in the so-called free market, is a system that ever tends towards the right, as it is characterized by its unequal distribution of power. The principles and ideals of right-wing economics are that the prosperity of the individual is more important than the prosperity of society generally, each person acting in his own “rational self-interest” (the pursuit of personal wealth) in constant competition with others, and may the best man win. There is no sense of obligation to other members of society, in fact every one else is a competitor.  Class differences, in the right’s worldview, are (in Wikipedia’s words) “inevitable, natural, normal, or desirable, typically defending this position on the basis of natural law, economics, or tradition.” In modern capitalism the fact that one can rise in class is continually stressed, which creates the underlying assumption that since upward social mobility is possible, the poor must be poor due to some fault of their own -- not as the result as social and economic system based on inequality.

It is on this continuum of worldviews between extreme egalitarianism and communalism on the one hand, and extreme authoritarianism and plutocracy on the other, that I would like to try to plot the teachings of Jesus. True, throughout the gospels Jesus spends little time pontificating about the best form of earthly government. His concern is with Heaven and the spiritual realm, and not with politics per se. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s,” he says, brushing aside the conversation and trying to focus back on spiritual ideals. I’m not claiming he was specifically a political activist, though certainly the Roman government was eventually convinced to regard him as one.

And yet the values he taught and the example of his life can easily be characterized on the left/right spectrum. The philosophy of his teachings can be aligned with the values and priorities with the left and right in order to determine where appear to make the best fit. I believe that Jesus’ concern for the poor and needy, his repeated emphasis on the essential equality of mankind, his denunciations of those who placed themselves above others in any kind of social hierarchy, along with his continual warnings against the spiritual dangers of coveting early riches and material wealth place his philosophy squarely in the realm of the left.
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Jesus Was a Lefty

It was not a surprise that those wealthy Mormons felt the need to spend an entire class wrangling with Matthew Chapter 19. If they were uncomfortable with the incredibly blunt words of Jesus about camels going through the eyes of needles, they were in good company. The rich young man himself went away sorrowful, realizing that however eager he had been to “obtain eternal life,” there was clearly a limit on how far he would go, how much he would sacrifice. There’s a profound spiritual lesson here about the law of sacrifice, one that was beat into my head over and over as a young man, one that continues to shape my values and worldview to this day. Self-sacrifice is a spiritual principle that has long been a part of mankind’s religious make-up, far predating the life and death of Jesus, who for Christians is the principle of sacrifice made manifest. But there’s a connected, less discussed point about power, wealth, and class being made as part of this story and throughout Christ’s teachings, and it is a point that puts Jesus solidly in the company of leftist thinkers and writers through the ages. “Wait a minute,” Christ’s disciples said after the rich young man had left, “Hold on a moment, Jesus. If that’s what’s required to obtain eternal life, how will anybody be saved?” to which he replies by gently chiding their faith, “With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” You are struggling to imagine a world in which the rich man gives away his wealth freely to the poor, he says, but that does not mean it is not possible.

Concern for the poor, sick, needy, and outcast are the fundamental characteristics of Christ’s ministry and lie at the heart of Christian values, as exemplified in these beautiful words found in Matthew 25:37-40: “Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger and took thee in? Or naked and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick or in prison and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.” In the philosophy of Christ, God can be found in the most vulnerable members of society and our worship, the strength of our faith, will be revealed in our attitude towards their suffering. In the next verses, the King castigates those who ignored the suffering of the hungry, the poor, the indigent, and oppressed. “Yes,” says Christ in word and deed, “You are your brother’s keeper.” Please note (and I’ll be coming back to harp on this point again later) that Jesus provides no qualifications to this directive, no test or bar that the needy must meet in order to earn this charity. For Christ, whether you will address yourself to the needs of those with less than you is not a test of their morality or deservingness, but a test of yours. And it is on this principle that the core of the Christian faith was founded, in which Christ himself is held up as the ultimate spiritual example -- a perfect being who willingly suffered the sins of all mankind out of love, whether or not any of us deserved or earned it.

Jesus was always ignoring the wealthy and powerful and hanging out with and helping the poor, the outcast, the diseased, and the reviled. He was no “respecter of persons” we are told. In fact, Christ continually preached against social hierarchies and stressed that all men were equal. He gave most spiritual weight to those who would serve others: “But Jesus called them unto him and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you... but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life as ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28). There is a profoundly revolutionary idea being put forth here in this reversal of roles -- and I mean literally revolutionary in the full leftist/Marxist sense of the word. There is a whole new social order implied in which the loftiest position a man may hold is not to rule over another but to serve him, one as profound as anything laid out in the Communist Manifesto. “Whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased,” Christ says, and to me this implicitly turns the whole right-wing worldview on its head.

His disciples echoed this condemnation of those who oppressed others -- and, relevant to our discussion, who oppressed them economically, using precisely the language of “class warfare” so characteristic of the left. James writes: “Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you. Your riches are corrupted and your garments are motheaten. Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days. Behold the hire of the labourers” (i.e., the proletariat!) “who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud” (i.e., you have kept a stranglehold on the means of production),”crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ear of the Lord of sabaoth. Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.” (James 5:1-5). Marx and Trotsky could not have put it any better. But James isn’t finished castigating social hierarchy: “But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called? If ye fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself, ye do well: but if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.” (James 2:6-9). Indeed, a recurring characteristic of the Bible that rings true to a leftist’s ears is its expression of righteous anger not just in defense of the poor and downcast but in condemnation of social oppression and those who take advantage of their fellow man. It is difficult to imagine a more fitting metaphor for left-wing political activism than the righteous fury of Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple, purging the sacred space of those that would commodify, exploit, and manipulate the sincere faith and goodwill of the people.  

But perhaps the aspect of Christ’s teachings that most strikingly clashes with the right-wing, capitalist worldview is his condemnation of the pursuit of material wealth. After all, capitalism is an engine that runs on the fuel of “rational self-interest," or, as Christ might call it, greed. “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal,” he famously says, adding these condemning words: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. No man can serve two masters…. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matthew 6:19-21, 24). What is striking here is the concept that the active pursuit of personal wealth is not just a distraction from but is inherently incompatible with true devotion to God -- how, then, could any form of economy be more anti-Christian than capitalism? “Rational self-interest” seems fundamentally in opposition to “whoever shall exalt himself shall be abased” and any reconciliation of the two is going to take some rather acrobatic logical leaps. Much like “it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle,” the pronouncement “ye cannot serve God and mammon” seems to me rather direct and in need of little interpretation. We should sit up and pay attention if any self-professed Christian squirms at these verses and seeks to wrestle some kind of easier-to-follow message out of them. Anybody who truly believes the Bible to be divine and Jesus to be the Son of God while also pursuing their own individual wealth in a capitalistic economy should, if they seek to employ any kind of logical consistency to their faith, do some serious soul-searching, as these two philosophies are set starkly against each other right in these few verses and over and over again throughout Biblical text.  

To make matters worse for the right-leaning Christian, Jesus’ most prolific defender Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Let no man seek his own, but every man another’s wealth,” and to the elders of the church he says, “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20-33-35). And perhaps most condemning of all is this famous description of the early Church soon after the ascension of Christ and the dispensation of the Holy Ghost on the day of Pentecost: “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.  And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” (Acts 4:31-32). A veritable communist utopia! The New Testament, the handbook of the Christian right, has here described a perfect example of the most extreme leftist ideologies: no social hierarchy, no sense of personal possession, all things held in common by the community, and material goods dispensed to each according to need. This vision of a unified, compassionate, egalitarian society in which each man takes care of his neighbor is presented here as the Christian ideal, and just so happens to also embody the society dreamed of by the left. These particular verses are the foundational scriptural inspiration for Christian socialism, a broad term covering several historical movements over the last couple hundred years to implement socialist ideals based on the teachings of scripture, historical movements which will become relevant again later when we discuss Joseph Smith and the early Mormon church.  

Since the Cold War, socialist ideals have become to be denigrated in this country as anti-Christian and anti-American. And yet the foundational worldview of the United States, the “thesis statement” of its identity, if you will, rings with all the egalitarian audacity of the left-wing: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal!”  The right-wing in 1776 would never have dared to speak out against the traditional social hierarchy in which the king and his aristocracy stood at the head of society. We often discuss the American revolution as if everybody living in the colonies all decided at the same time that they wanted to be free and independent, but there were right-leaning colonists (some of whom have their names signed on the Declaration) who argued that to declare independence and deny the primacy of the king was blasphemous treason, and against the laws of nature and mankind -- after all, the distinction between the ruling class and us normal people is “inevitable, natural, normal, and desirable.” That the Declaration was published and our revolution happened at all is the result of restless, single-minded left-leaning intellectuals who dared to envision a new social order with a more egalitarian bent and who argued endlessly for it, ultimately pulling many of the right-leaning colonies who might have preferred to remain loyalist into the cause. Studying the Continental Congress shows us that the right only joined the left on this bold new enterprise after a lot of argument, compromise, and concessions that would allow them to keep essential aspects of their local social hierarchies. That compromise between left and right that allowed our nation to be born is both the miracle and the disaster of America, and may be the true beginning of the sociopolitical divide that so thoroughly separates Americans today.

But in the end it was published: “all men are created equal.” Nice words, a leftist dream, and the heart of what America was supposed to be -- though we know the history of America is a history of wrestling with how much we really mean “all” and how much we really mean “men” and how much we really mean “equal.” That a country could be founded on that principle while at the same time holding millions of human beings in slavery, for example, (the major concession the left made to the right to get them on board with the revolution, to our ever-lasting shame) highlights the rather schizophrenic character of America, where our talk and our ideals have always been loftier than our actions. But what power and possibility are carried in those ideals!

“We hold these truth to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

I believe strongly that the Founders designed our country with a clear desire for separation of Church and State, but one thing the right does have correct is that they were men of the Christian faith -- though most were Deists, which is a very different kind of Christianity than Christian sects of today. Still, like the right, I believe their faith informed the values and principles that framed the context of our society as the Declaration of Independence resonates with the leftist philosophy of Christian teachings that I have outlined above: the essential equality of all humanity in the sight of God. Thus I believe the United States can be considered a Christian nation (as the right so desperately wants it to be) only when is it seriously engaged in creating a society that resonates with the teachings of Christ: a society of inclusion, of mutual respect, responsibility, and love between citizens, a society where the highest aspiration is to be a servant of others, a society where the poor, needy, and vulnerable are protected and tended to with compassion, and most of all a society where individual greed is never allowed to harm the greater good. As this society has never yet been realized in all the time since the Declaration, we can conclude only that America is not and never has been a truly Christian nation… but that it could be, if we wanted it to be.

(Please read Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again” -- it says everything I could say about America better than I can ever say it.)  

Any self-professed Christian and patriot, therefore, must somehow reconcile their faith to the clearly defined and rapidly growing gaps between social classes and ever increasing obsession with money and profit that so characterizes modern day America. But for the devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints this problem is even more acute, for if anything their foundational text, the “keystone” of their religion, the Book of Mormon, is more overtly anti-capitalistic and left-leaning in its teachings than the New Testament.
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The Book of Mormon: Anti-Capitalist Manifesto

For those who are unfamiliar with it, here’s my super quick, stripped down introduction to the Book of Mormon. Mormons are unique amongst Christians in that in their theology the Bible is only one of many texts considered divine and scriptural. Because of the doctrine of “living scripture” and modern-day revelation, they have a distinctive open-ended canon on which to found their faith. The core of this extended canon is The Book of Mormon, a record that was written on those golden plates that you may have heard of, translated into English by Joseph Smith. Frequently subtitled “Another Testament of Jesus Christ,” the book is a narrative describing how a branch of the house of Israel, led by a divinely inspired prophet, escaped the the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians around 600 BC and came to the American continent. The narrative follows their story and that of their descendents over hundreds of years and many generations, chronicling their division into two major tribes: the descendants of Nephi, called “Nephites,” and the descendents of Laman, called “Lamanites.” Mormons believe that these peoples are the ancestors of the Native Americans.

The message at the heart of the Book of Mormon is, as its subtitle suggests, a testament of the divinity of Christ. Prophets among the Nephites foretell his birth back in the old world, and those who believe them and obey the commandments of God are forever struggling with those who are wicked and do not believe. Generally, the Nephites are the good guys and the Lamanites are the bad guys, but not always. The climax of the book is the visitation of Jesus to these peoples soon after his resurrection and ascension from Judea. His death is accompanied by signs and wonders and disasters here in America, and then he arrives and preaches to the Nephites a lot of the same things that he preaches in the New Testament, including essentially all of the Sermon on the Mount and “ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Double trouble for Mormon capitalists. Now Jesus has told them this twice on two different continents.

But even before Jesus shows up, the book’s point of view on material wealth and economic classes is clear. A recurring pattern in the Book of Mormon is the description of a society slowly giving into pride and descending into wickedness. The people are always going astray, and God has to send prophets to try to whip them back into shape. This happens so often that many of my teachers at church and in the Book of Mormon classes I took at BYU (yes, I got college credit for this) referred to this pattern as the “pride cycle” and taught that this pattern provided an important set of signposts to determine if a people are turning away from God. But look at how this wickedness reveals itself! “But it came to pass in the twenty and ninth year there began to be some disputings among the people; and some were lifted up unto pride and boastings because of their exceedingly great riches, yea, even unto great persecutions; For there were many merchants in the land, and also many lawyers, and many officers. And the people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning; yea, some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches...And thus there became a great inequality in all the land, insomuch that the church began to be broken up…” (3 Nephi 6:10-12, 14 -- emphasis added). Social hierarchies and economic inequality are here provided as signs that a society has turned away from God. Indeed, just as in the Bible, wise and holy men throughout the Book of Mormon castigate the people whenever they become more preoccupied with money and riches than in God and in taking care of their fellow man: “O, how could you have forgotten your God in the very day that he has delivered you? But behold, it is to get gain, to be praised of men, yea, and that ye might get gold and silver. And ye have set your hearts upon the riches of the world, for the which ye do murder, and plunder, and steal, and bear false witness against your neighbor, and do all manner of iniquity.” (Helaman 7: 20-21).

Time and time again throughout the Book of Mormon, the growing wickedness of the people is accompanied with their obsession with wealth, status, and personal greed. Contrast that to how the Book of Mormon describes a people who are living with righteousness in accordance to the will of God: “And thus, in their prosperous circumstances, they did not send away any who were naked, or that were hungry, or that were athirst, or that were sick, or that had not been nourished; and they did not set their hearts upon riches; therefore they were liberal to all, both old and young, both bond and free, both male and female, whether out of the church or in the church, having no respect to persons as to those who stood in need.”(Alma 1:30). Yes, there are card-carrying modern day Republicans who think that text I just quoted is holy scripture. But it gets worse -- here’s how the Book of Mormon describes the perfect society that Jesus leaves behind when he eventually finishes his ministry to the Nephites: “And it came to pass in the thirty and sixth year, the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but all were made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:3). And then we are told that this communist utopia lasted for two hundred years after the coming of Christ, two hundred years of socialist bliss, productivity without the personal profit motive, without personal possessions, without economic class, essentially a textbook description of the most "extreme" leftist ideologies. And then after two full centuries the Nephites eventually fell back into their old (and the book makes very clear, wicked) habits: “And now, in this two hundred and first year there began to be among them those who were lifted up in pride, such as the wearing of costly apparel, and all manner of fine pearls, and of the fine things of the world. And from that time forth they did have their goods and their substance no more common among them. And they began to be divided into classes; and they began to build up churches unto themselves to get gain, and began to deny the true church of Christ.” (4 Nephi 1:24-26).

The essential equality of mankind and the evil of men placing themselves above another are also highlighted in the book, with Christ himself held up as the ultimate example of one who loved and gave to others without qualification. Nephi, the first narrator in the book and patriarch of the Nephites, writes of Christ: “”He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world, even that he layeth down his own life that he may draw all men unto him. Where, he commandeth none that they shall not partake of his salvation...Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden. He commandeth that there be no priestcrafts; for, behold, priestcrafts are that men preach and set themselves up for a light to the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion. Behold, the Lord hath forbidden this thing; wherefore, the Lord God hath given a commandment that all men should have charity, which charity is love. And except they should have charity, they were nothing. Wherefore, if they should have charity they would not suffer the laborer in Zion to perish. But the laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion; for if they labor for money they shall perish. (2 Nephi 26:24, 28-31). In Mormon theology, “Zion” has a lot of meanings, both literal and metaphorical -- I’ll discuss this a bit more in the next section. But for now it’s enough to say that Nephi is speaking here of Zion in its more metaphorical sense of the kingdom of God on earth or, we might say, the ideal, perfect society. He is essentially saying, “You should labor for the common good of society, and not for money, for your fellow man, and not for your personal profit.”

Charity, or the exemplary love of Christ for all without qualification, is stressed in this passage and throughout the book, including in these pointed, gorgeous words of Mormon himself in the final chapters, perhaps from both a semantic and literary point of view one of my favorite parts of whole book: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things must fail -- But charity is the pure love of Christ, and it endureth forever; and whoso is found possessing of it at the last day, it shall be well with him. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope, that we may be purified, even as he is pure. Amen.” (Moroni 7:46-48).

The Book of Mormon then, like the Bible, continually holds up as virtues those qualities that to me seem most absent in a right-wing, capitalist worldview: namely, humility, charity, self-sacrifice, and the laboring for the common good. Unconditional love of humanity is a tricky thing to obtain when everyone is a competitor, when wealth is the prime motive for all your actions. The right insists that individual greed is an unavoidable reality, part of human nature, and that free market capitalism is the only workable economic system because it is the only system that uses that aspect of human nature to its advantage. Human beings, they thus tell us, aren’t capable of anything else. However, relevant at least for those who claim to believe in them, the Holy Bible and the Book of Mormon both strongly disagree with that assessment.

Comrade Joseph and the early Mormon Church

The story of Joseph Smith, in his own words, begins with an earnest but bewildered young man: “Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon become general among all the sects in that region of the country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir of division among the people, some crying ‘Lo, here!’ and others, ‘Lo, there!’...During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness… so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations that it was impossible for a person young as I was and unacquainted with men and things to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.” (Joseph Smith - History, 1: 5, 8) The confusion over the many different religious sects claiming to know the proper way to worship and the true interpretation of scripture eventually led the young Smith to go off into the woods and pray for guidance from God directly, at which point he said he had his first of many divine visitations, and the whole Mormon wheel was set into motion.

This “unusual excitement on the subject of religion” was the zeitgeist in which Joseph Smith and his family found themselves immersed, a movement described by historians as the Second Great Awakening. Between about 1800 and 1840, the United States was swept with a sudden revitalized interest in religion. This was a grassroots movement, starting with mostly lower class folks like the Smiths, and was characterized by a great enthusiasm to return to a simpler, purer form of religion. Gone was the rationalism and the deism that characterized the Enlightenment and the faith of the Founding Fathers, and in its place emerged a more literal belief in supernatural phenomena including miracles, revelations, and signs from heaven. The Awakening saw not just the revitalization of certain pre-existing sects like the Methodists and Baptists but the emergence of totally new ones including, for example, the Shakers, the Millerites (from which the Seventh Day Adventists evolved), and the Mormons. Though unique in so many ways (what other sect came with its own new book of scripture, or such a sweepingly epic view of the purpose of existence?), some aspects of the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints can be better understood in the context of other movements happening at the time.

The Second Great Awakening was happening during a century where there was great interest in social experimentation and in re-thinking how society could be structured. Europe was a turmoil of new ideas during its tense transition away from old regimes into the new world of industrialization, and within just a few decades from Joseph Smith’s first prayer Karl Marx would publish the Communist Manifesto. In America, utopian communities were popping up all over the place, some religious and some secular, often led by charismatic leaders who thought they’d come to the best conclusion on how to create the perfect community. Most of these had no real lasting power, disappearing after only a few years, but if you want some absolutely fascinating reading I suggest going down a wikipedia hole reading about them, there were a bunch of them and they are all pretty interesting. So social experiments were in the air, and most of these would-be utopias were collectivist in nature and practiced some form of communalism with the all goods and land owned, shared, and worked on by the whole community. For those communities founded on religious principles, the verses from Acts describing the utopia of the early church led by Christ’s twelve disciples (which I quoted above) were often cited as inspiration. The Great Awakening was producing religious thinkers who took the words of scripture quite literally, and were coming to the conclusion that it was not enough to just read about this stuff, we have to go out and do it ourselves. And they lived in an era where there were enough people willing to drop everything and move out to the middle of nowhere to try to implement those ideas with them.

Into this context we place the early Mormon Church, which also began as an attempt to form a utopian community. Quite unlike the LDS Church of today, Joseph Smith sought to “gather” the faithful into one community. The location of that community continually changed, moving further and further west as people decided they didn’t like Mormons living nearby and drove them out, often violently. The church started in New York, then Ohio, then Missouri, then Illinois, and then finally out into the wilderness in what would later become the state of Utah. Nauvoo in Illinois was an entire town built from nothing just by and for Mormons (or, as they call themselves, the Saints) and, up until they were again driven out, it became a productive, bustling community. Smith said he had been directed to gather the faithful Saints into Zion, a New Jerusalem, which was a literal city, a utopia, that they would build together. Mormon missionaries were going around with the Book of Mormon as early as 1830, but unlike now those missionaries were not just trying to baptize you and convert you into a member, but also to convince you to pick up and move to wherever the Saints were gathering, to where Smith was shaping his utopian community. And like many Christian utopian movements of the era, his vision for the New Jerusalem included a form of communalism.

In a key revelation in the early days of the Church, Joseph Smith laid out the “law of consecration” which is considered one of the highest, most sacred laws in Mormon theology. It requires that the faithful be willing to consecrate and willingly give any or all of their personal possessions to the administration of the Church to be used for the common good, for the building up of Zion. For Mormons, the theological significance of “Zion” comes from the Book of Moses, Smith’s elaboration and addition to the Book of Genesis. It includes a more detailed description of the prophet Enoch, mentioned only briefly in the Bible. In the Book of Moses, Enoch is such a powerful and influential prophet that he gathers a group of people and founds a city that serves as Smith’s model for his desired utopia: “And the Lord called his people ZION, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there were no poor among them. And Enoch continued his preaching in righteousness unto the people of God. And it came to pass in his days, that he built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even ZION.” (Moses 7:18-19, emphasis added). Eventually, the people of Zion were so righteous that God takes the whole city and all of its inhabitants immediately into heaven without tasting death. By examining all the models of a “righteous society” that he put forward for the Saints to emulate, it’s clear that Smith’s vision for utopia included a classless, egalitarian society, as summed up in another revelation regarding a storehouse for the poor: “...that you may be equal in the bonds of heavenly things, yea, and earthly things also, for the obtaining of heavenly things; For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things.” (D&C 78:5-6, emphasis added).

Joseph Smith’s attempt to implement the law of consecration among the early Saints led to the founding of the United Order, a collectivist program that required participants to give the deed and legal ownership of all their property to the Order, which then allowed them to still to manage those goods and lands as their “stewardship” -- in this way, a basic sense of private ownership was maintained though with the understanding that really everything belonged to the community. Whatever your land or property produced that was in excess of what you and your family strictly needed to take care of yourself, you would give back to the Order. All of this excess was held in reserve for the purpose of giving to those who had a bad year or needed a little more to get by. The efforts of each participant went into the common good which each participant also could potentially benefit from -- quite similar to left-leaning social programs practiced by the government today. For a few years, participation in the Order was a requirement of continued membership in the Church. Like many of the Christian socialist experiments taking place across the country, this didn’t work out so well. The United Order didn’t last very long and generated some very negative feelings. Eventually some of those who participated in it, including some very influential early leaders left the church in a short period during which the rather new faith almost collapsed on itself. The United Order and the material communalism it advocated proved one of the major causes of the division that led these leaders to fall away (another was Smith’s introduction of the doctrine of plural marriage, or polygamy, but that’s another topic!). The Church did end up surviving this crisis only to be faced with another, more profound one after Joseph Smith’s murder when questions of succession arose. Eventually, the bulk of the Saints accepted the head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young, as the new Prophet and followed him out west to what we now call Salt Lake City. Young attempted to implement the United Order again amongst some Mormon communities in Utah, this time to slightly better success, but collectivist programs were no longer strictly associated with the religion as a whole and are not practiced today.

Despite this, it is fundamental to the Mormon worldview that the “law of consecration” is a sacred, divine mandate and that the only reason the Saints are not yet sharing all goods in common is because they are still too weak of faith and not ready to live this higher law in its fullness. Instead, tithing and Church welfare (which has grown into a fairly large endeavour and does provide food to the poor) are considered to be the current expectation for fulfilling this law. But the teaching is that one day, full participation in a socialist, communal society will be required by true believers, if not before the Second Coming then certainly after it during the Millennium of Christ’s personal reign on earth. The principles taught by Joseph Smith on this matter are clear, and when the conversation stays within the purely theoretical religious realm and out of any practical political one, most Mormons profess belief in his teachings -- that a righteous, Christian society is egalitarian, without economic class, where each man shares what he has for the good of all, where people put more emphasis on the greater good of mankind then on their own individual profit and benefit.

If that is true, one has to ask, why are so many modern Mormons businessmen, capitalists, and Republicans?

Mormon Businessmen and Other Oxymorons

I like to joke that Mormons stopped being fun and interesting right around when they stopped wearing beards. But the reality behind the joke is historical shift of the LDS Church from its socialist utopia, “peculiar people” roots to the modern faith that tries desperately to be considered a “mainstream” Christian sect. The “And I’m a Mormon” ad campaign was an attempt to demystify the religion and its practitioners - look, we’re just normal people! The reluctance of evangelical voters to support Mitt Romney in 2012 because of a general suspicion that Mormons don’t really count as Christians (despite their enthusiastic support of Trump, who is a walking posterboy for all the Christian vices) suggests that this not mere paranoia on the part of Mormons and that they are still not yet considered mainstream by most Americans. I still routinely meet people who either know absolutely nothing about even the most basic doctrines of Mormon theology or who have wildly inaccurate ideas about them. Most people know that your average Mormons dress like normal people and don’t practice polygamy, but the amount of people I meet today, in 2016, who still have the opposite impression is quite shocking. Thus this shift towards trying to be normalized in modern society may be the natural and quite understandable tendency of a people whose theology is unique enough that it is still frequently mocked and ignored, and whose ancestors and predecessors became so hated that it was legal to kill a Mormon in the state of Missouri (technically) until 1975. But what is remarkable is the extent to which that shift towards the mainstream has led most Mormons, along with their fellow Christians in the Catholic, Protestant and evangelical communities, toward the political right, the Republican party, and capitalist ideology.

Utah Valley, where so many of my family and loved ones live, is the heart of US Mormon culture today even though the Church headquarters are technically a little further north in the now fairly cosmopolitan Salt Lake City. When visiting this area, one can easily find evidence of the capitalist urge creeping into every aspect of the LDS faith, as there is not a practice or belief that has not been commodified in some way, with a whole Utah-centric industry of providing Mormon faith related goods and services. You can buy action figures of characters from the Book of Mormon, for crying out loud! To be fair, many of the faithful recognize this commodification of their religion for what it is (the equivalent, really, of those moneylenders who incurred Jesus’ wrath for plying their trade inside the temple grounds) but just as many are enthusiastic participants and see no apparent contradiction between the teachings of their faith and the ever increasing commercialization of their religion, their community, and their culture. It doesn’t help that, since so many Mormon men now distinguish themselves in the field of corporate business, and so many of the General Authorities (the highest leaders of the Church) are drawn from these distinguished Mormon men, the whole structure of church leadership begins more and more to resemble corporate America in tone, policy, and practice. Many former Mormon missionaries (including myself) can tell stories about mission presidents who, after a career in some big corporation before their church service, set about organizing and running their mission jurisdiction like a corporate office, with all the jargon, quotas, and salesmanship seminars associated therewith. Driving through many neighborhoods in Utah, one cannot help but be amazed by the stark contrast between the tired, penniless pioneers who came to that country, to their modern-day descendants in their ostentatious homes and multiple SUVs. For a people steeped in the rhetoric of the Book of Mormon, which continually uses the presence of wealth and costly possessions as a signpost of pride and wickedness, the pressure to rationalize their fortune to themselves to alleviate guilt must be intense, and, conveniently for them, the right-wing, Republican ideology is exceptionally good at rationalizing wealth.

The "prosperity gospel" or gospel of success is a movement gaining traction among modern-day Christians precisely because it marries their cultural identification as a Christian with their capitalists urges as right-wingers. To be told that, if you are really really good, God will give you earthly riches and blessings is both an encouragement to the poor and a comfort to the rich, who can tell themselves that their money is a self-evident sign of their favor with heaven. Any system which includes the unequal distribution of power and wealth requires ideology to support it, so that those who have can justify their unequal portion and those who have not can be convinced to be content with their smaller share. The prosperity gospel is a particularly pernicious way that capitalist inequality can be perpetuated (one of what Louis Althusser calls an ideological state apparatus) in that it twists the pure, selfless teachings of Christ into a ideology of oppression and inequality. Mormons are not exempt from this ideology, falling prey to the same Biblical traps as mainstream Christians with a few extra Book of Mormon verses thrown in just for them. You will not believe how often Mormons are quick to quote this verse from the Book of Mormon, Jacob Chapter 2:18-29: "But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good - to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted." It's always the "ye shall obtain riches" part that seems to get the most attention, not all the stuff afterwards, of course. When you are scouring an overwhelmingly anti-wealth text for some indication that you are not a bad person for having or wanting money, you'll take whatever small scrap you can get that can be wrangled into a "See, its okay to have money" message. Once you have accepted the prosperity gospel as your core interpretation of scripture, a particular kind of politics naturally evolves from that worldview.

At a big family and friends gathering in Utah one year, when I was much more uninformed about politics and things than I even am now,  I was accosted by a young devout Mormon who must have sniffed out my leftist tendencies. “You don’t seriously think we should implement universal healthcare, do you?” he asked, with a disbelieving smile (this was long before Obamacare, so the question was a bit out of nowhere). I replied rather naively that I most certainly did and who wouldn’t want that? “But then our taxes would go up!” he protested, as though that were the nail in the coffin in that argument. I replied something to the effect that I wasn’t really an expert on the various ways universal healthcare could be implemented but that personally I would be willing to consider paying more in taxes for such a benefit. He made it clear that he would not. I asked whether he believed it to be a worthy goal that everybody have access to healthcare -- after all, maybe we differed on how best to achieve that goal, but surely we could agree that it would be a good thing if people had access to healthcare regardless of their means. He would not even admit that much. It was not the role of the state, he believed, to take care of anybody and if they didn’t have insurance then really that was their problem. Further, it would be immoral for the state to provide healthcare without qualification to people who “did nothing to earn or deserve it.” The idea of needing to earn or deserve is both the old right-wing ideology of meritocracy (in which we accept without question that whose who have money are just better people and thus deserve, and those who are poor are basically bad, lazy people) combined in this case with prosperity Christianity. This man believed his money was a blessing as a result of his faithfulness, so why should he share it with people who are probably immoral and disobedient to the commandments of God? Again and again the argument turned back to the “injustice” of asking him to support anybody else. “Why should I have to pay for other people’s healthcare?” he kept asking. This was a priesthood holder and self-confessed follower of Christ. I firmly believe in the wisdom and profound spiritual purity of Jesus’ teaching: “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” but I was really struggling to follow it on that occasion. I’m sure the feeling was mutual.

He is hardly alone in holding these political views in Mormon culture. With a typically Republican focus on “individual responsibility” and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, the right-leaning Mormon is easily able to dismiss any kind of state humanitarian effort or any policy designed to minimize inequality as misguided or even immoral. Like most Republicans, they are able to attribute their financial success and personal wealth to their own hard-work and good moral character, or even as a “blessing” as a result of their faithfulness, rather than as an extension of their racial and class privilege that already placed them high in the social hierarchy and provided innate opportunities and advantages over lower classes and minorities, allowing them to benefit from a system that is inherently unequal and that systematically screws over a large portion of the population for their benefit. As became fascinatingly clear during the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, who was born into a very wealthy and connected family, genuinely and completely believes that all of his success in the financial and political world are due entirely to his own hard work and no other reason. Thus, like most Republicans, many Mormons are able to view the poor as, at best, pitiful souls who just don’t really want to put in the work required to not be poor or, at worst, as vampires on the system sucking away their money via taxes. There are Mormons in the lowest economic classes both in the US and around the world, a reality that I faced constantly growing up and as a missionary in the Philippines, but even many of them have grown to hold this worldview. These is because of the right’s successful campaign (very successful, as we have now seen) to convince many lower class Americans to align themselves with the wealthiest against their own interests. “If you help us get richer, we will help you back!”, the forces of the those on top of the class hierarchy have told those beneath them throughout the history of the world. And never in the history of the world has this actually happened. The rich have never, ever voluntarily enriched the lives of the lower classes - when left to their devices, the wealthy have only increased their wealth at the expense of everybody else. Whenever the lower classes have improved their share in a society's wealth it has been as a result of their insistence and demand for it, never because of the benevolence of the rich. The left does not seek to start class warfare -- class warfare is already happening, is always happening, and frankly the rich are winning. The rich are kicking our butts while barely lifting a finger. And the right-wing worldview is that this is natural, inevitable, and desirable.

Nearly every aspect of the right-wing worldview is totally at odds with the core texts, values, and principles of the Mormon religion, as I have done my best to lay out above, but this does not seem to trouble the Mormon bourgeoise most of the time, except on the rare occasion a starkly anti-wealth verse comes up in Sunday School, only to be explained away in anxiety-filled repression and rationalization. Mormons shifted right and into the Republican Party, I suspect, around the same time that most religious communities did, in the mid-twentieth century as the cultural wars really got going. Suddenly Mormons, who had always had long hair and beards, were clean-cut and shaved as they emulated the mainstream’s ideal, wholesome American. But the rise of communist Russia as America’s rival and enemy during this era triggered a suspicion of leftist ideals in America that continues to this day. For Mormons the Cold War triggered an identity crisis, one of many the church endured in the 20th century. I am not the first to point out the similarities between passages from holy scripture and Joseph’s Smith’s United Order to socialist and even communist practice. The Church was very quick to distance themselves from communism -- and why wouldn’t they? This was the era of McCarthy and ruthless communist witch hunts. Fortunately, communist Russia’s militant secularism and persecution of those of religious faith made them an obvious bad guy from the Mormon point of view. Church leaders taught that communism was only similar on the surface to teachings of scripture and of the Prophet Joseph Smith because it was Satan’s counterfeit, corrupted version of the true spiritual teaching. True communalism, spiritual socialism, will be practiced in the confines of the religious community and between brothers and sisters of the faith, and any attempt by a secular government to establish socialist policies and practices is in fact an evil, misguided corruption. With this clear distinction between religious and secular communalism in place, right-wing Mormons are able to explain away Church teachings that seem to advocate leftist values as not applicable to government and politics. They view socialist ideas (like universal healthcare, for instance) as oppressive government overreach, exploiting hard-working Americans to give to the lazy and less-deserving. Charity and assistance of the poor are worthy endeavours, they admit, but these should not be handled by the government but by private organizations. Mormons point to the LDS Church’s own welfare program as representative of this approach even though, while it does a lot of good for a lot of people, that program is vastly insufficient to address the needs of the country’s needy in an era when the gap between rich and poor is growing exponentially, and is only likely to get worse.

Socialism will arise from religious practice, not from secular law, these Mormons claim -- it is oppressive (and a corruption of Satan) to try to legislate this kind of society into existence. Setting aside the hypocrisy of any Republican claiming that morality should not and cannot be legislated, this explanation may explain the Mormon hesitance to embrace a leftist society, but it does not explain their headlong acceptance and glorification of a right-wing, capitalist one. No Mormon Republican or member of the Christian right has ever been able to satisfactorily explain to me how the true follower of Christ can justify not just participation in a capitalist system of pursuing individual wealth, which may be arguably unavoidable, but the celebration and championing of the free market economy which perpetuates class differences and encourages focus on the self and on personal economic gain. One common argument suggests that the left’s “welfare state” discourages work and individual responsibility. Whether or not this is factually true is actually irrelevant, as I would like to suggest with all due respect that, while I’m sure he thought they were wonderful things, Jesus did not make work and individual responsibility the core of his teachings -- instead he invariably focused on compassion, on charity, and on giving. He did not stop to make sure somebody deserved it or had a good work ethic before dispensing his healing touch or his words of comfort. “Inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me.” Full stop. No qualifications. No exceptions. No tests to pass. And no judgment of those who were in need or how they had come to be that way. In fact, he stressed over and over again that you should not be concerning yourself with somebody else’s morality, but with your own. To me, the parable of the Good Samaritan alone should be enough to make the avid Christian right-winger rethink their politics, if they are willing to honestly ask themselves, “How much do I really believe in what Christ taught?” And the principles of Christianity, of Mormonism, of the law of sacrifice and the law of consecration suggest that the true measure of your faith is what you are willing to give up and offer of yourself to hold true to those principles -- put your money where your mouth is! If your objection to a policy boils down to “but then my taxes would go up” then it is time to seriously re-evaluate your motivations and priorities -- and your faith.

We may disagree on the proper role of government or on the best approach to solve society’s problems. But if we cannot even agree that human beings should be able to get healthcare regardless of their means then it is not very surprising that America is so divided, that the left and right can barely communicate, and that Congress is absolutely gridlocked. Though this profound breakdown in communication is daunting and depressing, I want to believe that common ground could be made to break through this divide. The core values of Christianity and Mormonism are powerful enough that they could rally the true believer to see beyond partisan politics and propaganda, and the right-leaning Christian could realize that these values are shared by other Christians, Muslims, Jews, and even secular humanists on the left, and then maybe we could get some work done. Crossing the divide will not be easy, and we will probably always disagree on how things should be accomplished, but the first step will be to realize our shared faith and values gives us common goals to work towards, goals that have been pointed to by true spiritual leaders of all faiths and creeds for thousands of years. I believe that, because of their sincere dedication and genuine faith, their unique teachings of social good and self-sacrifice, their love of learning and education, and their proven willingness to embrace world cultures and other faiths, Mormons could take the lead in crossing this cultural and political divide and become a strong force for good in this country.

It is my sincerest hope that they do.

CONCLUSION: Why I Went Left

I didn’t choose to go to Brigham Young University so much as it was chosen for me by loving parents who desperately wanted me to be in a wholesome, faith-promoting environment and who worried, I’m sure, about the corrupting influence of a more secular university. They had spent two decades working to instill Christian values in me and to steep me in the Mormon view of the world and eternity. I was drilled on doctrine. I worked hard to make them proud. I committed this stuff to memory, I taught it to others both here in the US and on the other side of the world. They didn’t want all that to disappear, and I worry that they think that it has.

I am not a democratic socialist and a lefty today in despite of their teachings, but because of them. The English department at BYU changed my life but not because it taught me new values that pushed out the old ones, but because it helped me understand what I already believed. As I learned about the world and how to think about it critically, I felt myself naturally inclined -- no, impelled -- towards the political ideologies that to me best represented what I already considered good and wholesome and virtuous in this world.

We are all children of God, and all men and women are my brothers and sisters. I believe that so strongly because Mormons take that very literally, and if there were ever a religious doctrine worthy of taking literally, it’s that one.

Mormonism made me a lefty because when I learned what “lefty” meant, I realized I already was one.  

Amen.