Joanna Brooks’ memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories from an American Faith, relates a lifelong relationship with the LDS Church. Brooks conveys this relationship through a variety of childhood and adult experiences that influenced her self-identification as an “unorthodox Mormon woman” (168). This unorthodoxy, unrecognized as a variation of the mainstream church, is something she perceives as more inclusive, more politically correct. She relates these experiences as an insider to Mormon culture, yearning for a clearer relationship between the traditions she grew up with and the feminist politics to which she seems to adhere. Her experiences often reflect a natural tension between an internal Mormon cultural experience and the mainstream of an external experience with modern liberalism. Brooks’ illumination of this tension, in addition to her questioning of the Mormon role within a liberal democracy, provides significant opportunities for reflection on how my own Southern California Mormon cultural experiences translate into adult conceptions relating Mormonism to its external context.
Brooks’ description of her adolescent experience is one in which parents are thrilled with the idea of an impending apocalypse (36, 38, 45, 49, 87), female gender roles are reduced to blind obedience to dominant men (99, 100, 105, 106, 106, 137), and, conversely, a lack of intellectual theological ability from the Mormon women with whom she interacted (41, 97, 106). Her pivotal assumption here, one that did not resonate with my experience in Los Angeles, is that her experiences provide a normal or average representation of the “Mormon” culture (or even the Southern California Mormon culture). Perhaps her reflections are remnants of a cultural moment that occurred before my time in Southern California. Yet it seems in her vivid recounting of the Joseph Smith narrative (19), her favorite movie in Sunday School (22), or even in the lessons that were taught (21-22) that there are striking similarities to my experience, although seemingly with one major difference — she is passive in the learning process.
The stories as she relates them are assertively told to her in a way that omits a fundamental principle of the adolescent Mormon cultural experience: the questioning and the seeking of personal religious understanding. For me, one of the most progressive Mormon ideas of the modern dispensation is the emphasis on personal revelation. Despite differences (not inequality) in gender roles, personal revelation allows each individual equal opportunity to question, consider, and synthesize doctrines until a patchwork of principles come to provide a larger testimony. Brooks presents her experience as if it would have been outlandishly foreign for anyone to have suggested that she personally or privately gather information on a particular topic, thoughtfully consider it, counsel with others about it, and/or pray about it piece by piece. Perhaps the questioning associated with the Joseph Smith story was omitted for her. Or the wrestle that he describes with considering the variety of religious denominations was downplayed. However, this theological piece of the puzzle informed my cultural experience as early as I can remember, and seems to be an integral facet of Mormon doctrine that not only informed my adolescent experience, but also continues to inform my adult synthesis of childhood teachings within a liberal democratic context. My cultural experience was one in which questioning was encouraged, learning and synthesis integral, and where gender roles (although different) were equal.
Admittedly, I grew up about 15 years later and 30 miles up the road, but it seems as if her experience might just as easily have been a million miles away. Perhaps the disparities are due to differences in age, although it doesn’t seem in any way probable that a doctrine this integral would have been outside her realm of experience. My high school career was not one of yearning for the homogeneity of BYU, where everyone would ‘understand’ me without explanation. Rather, it was one that was filled with questioning by my non-member peers, and it was within that questioning that my study was furthered. It required me to consider the truths I took for granted and rationally consider the various advantages and disadvantages of each precept as it was solidified into a patchwork of truths that became (and continues to become) my testimony. It was expected both by ecclesiastical leaders and my parents that I would carefully consider each piece of the puzzle and receive an answer on my own.
Like Brooks, very few Mormons surrounded me in my childhood; in fact there was only one other Mormon girl my age at my high school and usually around a half dozen of us total. We knew that we were different, that there would be curiosity about our lifestyle; but this was not grounds for shrinking away from questions, but rather a constant reminder that fueled a fire that had been questioning (and receiving answers) for a long time. Some questions (my peers and my own) have been complex, things that I have revisited and will continue to revisit until I feel I have an adequate grasp of the principle. Others were easier, comedic even. Rational consideration as a methodology for explaining principles to curious peers was integral to the process of responding to their wanting to understand a cultural experience outside of their own. Isolation because of my religion was something I never experienced; any kind of mockery was always light-hearted, and as minimal as it can be for teenagers.
The second piece of her primary argument reflects the integral nature of the questioning and seeking of truth that seemed to be lacking in her childhood experience. Brooks describes her long-anticipated BYU experience with a sentiment of enlightenment in which fearless inquiry (132), intellectual understanding (132), and gender equality was something entirely new (131, 134) and known only to a select few individuals (133, 139-140). Again, it seems that her pivotal assumption here requires a Mormon ontology consumed with asserting its beliefs upon its members to a degree that genuine questioning is subverted into anti-intellectual, blind obedience. My experience at BYU, like Brooks’, entailed a new level of inquiry into Mormon history and doctrine, but inquiry itself was not foreign. It was something I learned in Primary, Young Women, from my parents, and various ecclesiastical leaders. My questions were encouraged as a fluid process for understanding, and building upon, various precepts. It was not a method for understanding religious principles that was in any way foreign to my peers or known only to several enlightened individuals. Perhaps the disappearance of the otherness associated with California and Mormonism created a yearning to distinguish herself among the more homogenous BYU crowd? Maybe she enjoyed being the Root Beer among Cokes in California and when she found herself a Root Beer among Root Beers the only option was—caffeinated Root Beer? This moment in her academic career, her transcending the boundaries of the supposed Mormon intellectual subversion, is something I was hoping she would have delved into more thoroughly so that I might see more clearly what I missed during my academic career at BYU. Or, perhaps, the lack of inquiry from her childhood allowed Brooks to find a stronger authoritative figure with which to align (outside of religion), and not to question?
I think Brooks would say, and I would agree, that the homogeneity of BYU can be overwhelming. My own Westchester High in Los Angeles, with an African American population of around 60%, a Hispanic population of around 30%, and a Caucasian population of around (but usually less than) 10%, hardly meets the white-washed demographics of BYU, let alone its homogenous value system. However, I was surprised to find BYU students at all different levels trying to synthesize their experiences within larger frame of an external world view. This consistent yearning for new questions and more complete understandings of principles was reminiscent of my cultural foundation. Not only did it compound my yearning for Mormon doctrinal knowledge, but it gave me an overwhelming number of opportunities to test out ideas with my peers and for them to test out ideas with me. These ideas were developed and shaped into my patchwork testimony, in and out of the classroom, and it seemed to be that way for the vast majority of my colleagues. This genuine interest in inquiry, even if it pushed some limits, was not something to be locked away in some basement classroom or something to be held secret for a select enlightened few. The emphasis on a relationship between faith and reason was a dominant theme of my BYU experience, one that if I were writing about distinguishing aspects of Mormon culture could not be downplayed or omitted. What I mean to say is that despite the seeming homogeneity of BYU, the differences between students provided a refreshing glimpse into understanding how to rationally consider complex principles and their relationship to the external world. And although each student was at a different level in this progression, it did not discount the authenticity of his or her inquiry.
The combination of both her childhood and BYU experiences seem to provide Brooks a clear causal connection to her ‘exile’ (168), a No on 8 stance (181), and a Mormon tradition bent on excluding a variety of groups (196-197). This causal connection seems vague and ambiguous — almost as if the anger she clearly expresses with the excommunication of her professors caused a need to reflect and justify their beliefs through her own experience. The reality of her experience is not something I am willing to debase; I merely want to assert that it is not familiar to me as an individual, nor to the vast majority of the peer group with whom I’ve associated.
However, it’s not just her experience being different than my own that is most disconcerting; it’s that leaving out the Mormon emphasis on personal inquiry cheapens the richness of the Mormon cultural experience. It’s within these causal factors that Brooks seems to claim authenticity most poignantly for her views on Proposition 8, but also on the excommunication of her feminist professors. It is here that the tensions between internal Mormon culture and the externalities of modern liberalism are most illuminated, as it seems that Brooks wants to reconcile a liberal agenda under the guise of unorthodox Mormonism. This, for me, would require a relationship between faith and liberalism that would alleviate tensions between Mormon culture and democratic liberalism by requiring Mormonism to sacrifice its traditional values as a price for assimilation into liberal culture. Unorthodox Mormonism, whatever that may mean (perhaps Mormonism by birth or tradition?), is not familiar to me nor is it a price that I am willing to pay. In fact, not only is it unfamiliar to me, it is a version of Mormonism that I have never encountered — not even in the tall tales that often run rampant on BYU’s campus. This unorthodox Mormonism does not seem to be a claim to Mormonism as a religion so much as it is a claim to liberalism as a religion.
I would be interested to understand if the distinctions between Brooks’ cultural experience and my own are merely differences in age, or if they are something else. Although I’m not willing to say that it is necessarily something else, the searching for answers and expecting responses was so integral to my experience that I can only imagine that the omission of this central principle is being used here for the purposes of forwarding an external political agenda. In any case, it is at least misleading to suggest that her experience was in any way typical of Mormon culture. I would imagine that if she believed it was typical she would be pleased to hear of the openness that seems to be reflected in both my childhood experience, as well as my BYU experience — although that does not seem to have translated into the liberal agenda that she seems to be courting. Maybe, one day, she will offer an addendum to the book that clears up some of these seeming ambiguities, and I will be able to read it over a nice, cold Dr. Pepper.
Kristen Robinson Doe was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She received a BA in Political Science from Brigham Young University and is pursuing a MA in Political Theory and American Politics at the University of Utah. She is currently the Chief of Staff of the Conservative Caucus for the Utah House of Representatives.