Monday, April 24, 2017

How to Achieve True Freedoms

I'd like to invite you to an open discussion about gay rights and religious freedoms. I've found these topics are often difficult to discuss, as they have been so politically charged. All you have to do is say one small thing that someone doesn't like at all, and then the walls go up, rational thought goes out the window, nothing gets settled, and you are vilified just for trying to have a discussion.

Yet, I believe an open discussion is possible, and I invite you (gay people and religious people alike) for this short period of time to drop the politics, let your defenses down, and consider the following. I invite you to try and understand the opposing viewpoint and join me in trying to find solutions beneficial to all. I will explain the concepts of Type I and Type II errors, borrow from the 7 Habits books, and finally present materials from the LDS Church leaders. I hope you find at least one new thing in this article to be enlightening.

First, imagine you are a passenger riding in the front seat. The driver is being kind of crazy. You're on a mountain road, and the driver is riding dangerously close to the edge. As you look out the passenger window, all you see is the steep drop below.

You say, “Hey! Could you move over to the left? You’re scaring me to death.” After all, if the car falls, you’d be the first to die.

The driver answers, “It’s okay. I’m in perfect control. Stop worrying about it.”

As your heart won't stop pounding, you ultimately decide to grab the wheel and turn it to the left. But how far do you turn it? If you go too far, you'd be in danger of running into traffic. The driver may die first, but you, too, would be in big trouble.

Ideally, you'd want to work together to keep the car in the center of the lane, far away from either of the dangers previously mentioned.

If you were to take control of the wheel and push too far to the left, this would be an example of a Type I error. That is when you take action and end up hurting someone--in this case, the driver.

On the other hand, if you were to do nothing, that would be example of a Type II error. You would allow yourself to get hurt.

If you haven't figured it out already, in the current discussion, the driver represents the status quo, that is the legal environment over the past several centuries in which homosexuality was illegal, marriage was between man and woman, and so on. The passenger represents those who choose to stand up for gay rights, basically working to change the law in the name of equality and so on.

Before continuing on, it's important here to review some basic human nature, as discussed in in Stephen Covey's famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Each of us have fundamental needs. If we ever feel one of these needs to be threatened, we go into fight mode, which can often be seen as being irrational to another party.

For example, someone who is gay may fundamentally believe, "I can't change the way I am, but I believe I need the same benefits and protections that other people enjoy." If one were to say to him that gay marriage should be illegal, he would most likely feel threatened and go immediately to saying, "No. You're completely wrong. You're an idiot," ... and this is most important: "... and I don't care what you believe. I will fight you until we win and get what we want."

Now let's turn this around. Most religionists fundamentally believe: "I have the freedom to believe whatever I want. No one can force me to believe a certain way, or force me to do what I don't want to do." If one were to say to this guy that all churches need to perform gay marriages, he would feel threatened and say, "No. We can't let that happen. This isn't 1984," ... and this is most important: "... and I don't care about gay rights. I will fight them. I'm not going to give up my rights to make them happy."

What Stephen Covey points out is that when two opposing parties feel that their fundamental needs are threatened, they will often stop listening to each other and go into full defensive mode. This is exactly what I witness whenever someone brings up religious freedoms and/or gay rights.

Religionists will often say, "If we let gay people have any rights, they won't stop until they're performing gay marriages in our churches. We must stop them now while we still can." 

Gay rights proponents will often say, "Full equality is nonnegotiable. Churches will need to change their doctrine until we win all rights we deserve."

Unfortunately, this often goes nowhere and one of two things usually happen.

#1) Gay rights prevail at the expense of religious freedoms. Religionists lose out (Type I error), and are forced to do things they don't want to do. They suffer because their fundamental needs are not met. An example would be a photographer who is forced to photograph a gay marriage against her wishes.

Or #2) The status quo remains in place, and gay people lose out (Type II error). Their fundamental needs aren't met, and they suffer. An example would be a gay couple not being able to marry because there doesn't exist a clerk who is willing to provide a license.

The good news is that there exists a middle ground. As Stephen Covey suggests, two opposing parties can get somewhere if they first strive to understand their opponents. What are their fundamental needs? Once this is understood, the two parties can engage in open discussion. Covey says this isn't a "compromise," where each party gives up a little, but rather a "synergistic" solution in which they both come up with a solution beneficial to both parties.

Now comes the question: is there a way to provide gay people the rights they seek while at the same time maintaining religious freedoms? I believe the answer is yes. Up until 2008-ish, the environment favored the status quo traditional views. Then up until a few months ago, the environment shifted so as to favor gay rights at the expense of religious freedoms. Now with Trump as president, we live in uncertain times where there exists the real possibility of gay rights being repealed. Perhaps now is the best time to have that open discussion so we can find more permanent solutions that are beneficial to all.

Finally, I would like to focus on the LDS Church and where they currently stand on this whole topic. Up until 2008-ish, the Church did everything they could to promote the traditional idea of marriage being between husband and wife. But then after the backlash after California Proposition 8, the Church seems to have shifted gears. Though no doctrine was changed, the Church started reaching out for certain gay rights.

In 2009, the Church gave its support in Salt Lake City to protect housing and employment rights for gay people.

In 2012, several members of the LDS Church formed a grassroots organization known as Mormons Building Bridges, which is famous for reaching out to LGBT people and for marching in gay pride parades.

In Dec. 2012, the Church launched the website, which attempts to clarify the Church’s position that gay people are human, too, and need to be treated with love and support. It is also the first time the Church officially acknowledged the concept that being gay is not a choice.

In Jan. 2015, the Church announced a pledge to support LGBT rights as long as the laws also protect the rights of religious groups.

In Mar. 2015, Elder D. Todd Christofferson, of the LDS Church Presidency, clarified that Mormons are free to support gay marriage without fear of retaliation, as long as they don’t support organizations that promote opposition or positions in opposition to the church’s.

And finally, the Church has launched an effort to defend religious freedoms while at the same time respecting other people's differences. Here is one of their videos, which I highly recommend. Though it gets a little churchy at one point, keep going till the end, where it reiterates many of the concepts I presented above.

In conclusion, we're all human beings with our own needs and desires. As we learn to respect each others' needs, we can have open discussions and find solutions that benefit all parties.

So, where would you like to begin?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Where Do You Stand?

In this time of interesting news and conflict, I’d like to open up a discussion. I'll start by relating my concerns of our current president, hoping to show you what I've observed over the last couple of years, and I would like to invite you to respond. Where do you stand? What concerns do you have? What do you like about Trump? How can we all proceed from here?

The intended audience is the Mormon crowd, as part of my concern involves the many who seem to follow Trump, no matter what. However, I'm sure this discussion would also appeal to many other conservatively religious people. And as always, I promise a good read for anyone who is following current events.

Before I begin, here are two quick paragraphs about me. I was raised a Democrat, I became a Republican, and recently I changed my registration to Unaffiliated. For more detail, you may skim through this post.

In recent history, I loved George W. Bush. I was okay with Obama, though I thought he was the most divisive president in the past few decades. I loved it when Romney ran for office, and I would have voted for him again if he had run this past time. I consider myself to be a conservative, especially on economic issues. I also believe in protecting religious freedoms and am generally against abortion except in certain situations.

The story I now have to tell starts in 2015, the year that people started taking Trump seriously. Before then, he was nothing but a joke. Jeb Bush was my man. Ted Cruz was a little on the crazy side, but he had some good ideas. Rubio was also nice -- a little on the religious side. I would have been happy with any of these men as president.

In June 2015, Trump made his infamous comments about Mexicans. NBC dropped him and his shows. Practically everyone called him a racist. Most everyone laughed and said, "Well, there goes Trump's political career." Little did they know what was coming.

He quickly gathered a following. People were attracted to his message of changing things in Washington. Draining the swamp, as it would later be known. They were attracted to his humble facade. "Let's drop political correctness and beating around the bush, and let's get down to business. Here's what I'm going to do for you."

Yet, up through December 2015, a majority of people still distrusted Trump and his questionable antics, while at the same time wondering how he became so popular. When he proposed his Muslim ban, most Republican contenders spoke up to condemn the measure -- especially Jeb Bush and Rubio. Most Mormons I knew were aghast at the idea, posting on facebook about how terrible Trump was, and how they would vote for Cruz or some other viable candidate. Even the Church responded with a reminder about religious freedom, including Muslims.

Then the unthinkable happened. Realizing that Trump was the frontrunner, and not wanting to upset their base, all of the Republican candidates (except for Rubio and Bush) got behind Trump and started to find reasons to support his ban. My heart sank. I watched as the Republican Party became an entity that no longer represented my ideals. Of course, I still believe in conservative economic concepts, but I could not count myself among a group that would espouse racist tendencies toward any group, that would support the undoing of what our forefathers established in the Constitution.

That's why I declared myself an independent at the beginning of 2016. The Republican Party was no longer mine to claim.

I then noticed my fellow Mormons begin to stand behind Trump, more and more as it was evident he was going to win the nomination. The reason? Hillary was going to be bad for the nation. Just like me, many Mormons feared that she would help us to lose certain religious freedoms. On at least two occasions, she went as far as to say that churches would need to change their beliefs to be consistent with recent developments. She even said that she would appoint liberal judges to help enforce her ideals.

So, I tried really hard to like Trump, but in the end, I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I couldn't get past the Muslim ban. I couldn't get past his support for religious freedoms for only Christians. I couldn't get past the violent rhetoric at his rallies, ordering people to "take him out," and offering to pay the legal expenses himself. And most of all, I couldn't find any hint that he knew what it would take to be President. Wouldn't it be terrible if he helped to usher in a terrible disaster on his watch out of sheer incompetence?

Yet at the same time, I realized his strengths. The most important trait being his apparent ability of bringing two parties together and working out a great deal beneficial to both sides. That's exactly what our nation needs right now. After all, Trump has been both Democrat and Republican in the past, and he might actually be able to unify the parties. However, before I could vote for him, I needed to see any indication that he was actually going to accomplish this. With week after week of spewing divisive rhetoric, I failed to see even one sign of true leadership. Sure, Trump has done many nice things to people on a personal level, but could he lead with confidence, competence, and with fairness to all?

A vote for Hillary would threaten Christian religious freedoms, and a vote for Trump would threaten Muslims. Either candidate was going to be bad for America, so I felt I had no choice but to turn to third party candidates. Johnson was the most viable choice, and most of his platform points were consistent with my belief system, especially his idea of protecting religious freedoms for everyone (including Muslims, atheists, gay people, etc.) I believe that he was intelligent, possibly more than Clinton and Trump put together. But he had a terrible stage presence and succeeded in making himself look like an idiot.

In August 2016, shortly after Trump secured the Republican nomination, a miracle occurred. Evan McMullin threw his hat in the ring, seeing that the last chance to stop Trump had past. McMullin called for the formation of a new alternative party that espoused conservative principles, but eschewed racism of all kinds. This would have been the very party I was looking for!

And I wasn't the only excited one.

In October, when the Trump tapes came out, McMullin's support surged. It began to appear that he had a real chance to win Utah. If McMullin were a viable choice in the backwards state of North Carolina, I would have voted for him, myself. Either way, I had hope that my Mormon peeps would stand up in protest.

But then Trump supporters became vicious toward Evan. Some Mormons in good standing went as far as to call him a devil. Why? Because they believed, incorrectly, that a McMullin win in Utah could give the presidency to Hillary (which in reality would have been mathematically very unlikely to occur). So many Mormon that weren't so vicious went to facebook to explain why they were voting for Trump anyway. "God doesn't need to send a perfect man to lead our country. We need to vote in such a way that will help preserve our religious freedoms the best we can. Trump is who God is sending to accomplish what clean-cut Romney failed to do. A vote for anyone other than Trump is a vote for Hillary, and she will destroy our freedoms."

At the time, practically everyone knew Hillary was going to win. That's what I think ultimately happened. Hillary voters became complacent and stayed home that day, while Trump's base were energized. Trump won!

I ended up voting for Johnson, because I still had not seen even one sign of Trump being a good leader.

But then something happened early the next morning. Trump gave a very humble acceptance speech. It was the sign I had been looking for. I suddenly had hope that everything might be okay. In the next couple of months, he even reached out to his biggest opponent, Romney, asking him to be our next Secretary of State. Of course, Kellyanne Conway, Gingrich, and others had to sour the whole thing.

Nevertheless, I decided it was worth giving Trump another try. After all, he was going to be our President, whether the Democratic protestors liked it or not. If we are to survive the next four years, our best bet is to try and help Trump be the best President he can be. Otherwise, we're like a plane without its pilot.

You can see here, that I gave Trump a mostly positive prognostication. We will survive the next four years. Trump will be the humble President, and not do all those crazy things he said he was going to do.

While many Mormons and Democrats blasted the Tabernacle Choir for attending the inauguration, I expressed pride for them for being included in such a solemn event that was bigger than petty politics. And even now today, I still believe it was good for them to attend.

For lunch that day, I found a place where I could eat and watch the inauguration. Pence got sworn in. The Choir sang their song. Then it was Trump's turn. He looked a little disinterested, but I couldn't blame him for trying. I watched in silence as he repeated the oath, realizing this was really happening. It was such a cool moment. He was going to be that great leader that would unify the nation, bring back the jobs, and make America great again.

And then ... he opened his mouth.

Not even one sentence in, my hopes were shattered. He opened with one of the biggest slams against the last President, who was sitting right behind him. Of course, Obama had done the same to Bush, but TRUMP WAS SUPPOSED TO BE HUMBLE! You can't give a pompous speech and hope to unify the world. Trump went on, talking about America First. At one point I turned to my Cambodian colleague and said, "It was nice knowing you." Trump continued, talking about unification, though his version seemed to be, "You will all come to me to be unified."

Many of my conservative friends thought that Trump gave the best speech ever, but I was severely disappointed that he missed the perfect opportunity to be humble and reach out to his opponents and then promise to work together.

And his first couple of weeks in office? Let me just come out and say it. Compared to Trump, Obama's divisiveness was nothing. Whatever bad things I had ever said about Obama being a terrible leader -- you can multiply those by ten, and still not even come close to what I have witnessed the last couple of weeks.

Still, I have conservative friends disappointed in my liberal ways, trying to convince me that I'm looking at it the wrong way. Sure, Trump is coarse and not politically correct, but he's getting stuff done, and that's what really matters.

But what exactly is he accomplishing? In my opinion, the wall against Mexico would be very expensive and unnecessary. Sure, our border could use some robustification, and we could enforce some laws that Obama's administration ignored for eight years, but do we really have to build a wall that Mexicans can scale anyway? Or what about the Mexicans who already sneak in through the gate? Will the wall stop them? Plus, is Mexico really our biggest threat? And aren't the deportations in the past week happening even though the wall isn't up yet? In my humble opinion, that money could be better spent elsewhere, such as fighting ISIS or some other real threat.

And this travel ban? Many of you say nothing about the religious test it contains, which I believe effectively makes it equivalent to a Muslim ban, as he promised in his campaign. As the executive order stands now, it includes text that gives preferential treatment to those suffering religious persecution, "provided that religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality." In other words, in order to have your refugee claim expedited, the gate guard would have to ask what religion you are, and that right there constitutes a religious test, which is against the Establishment Clause in the first amendment. This is exactly why everyone else around the world is up in an uproar.

I am happy to see that this order is being challenged currently by judicial review. Obama, himself, had written a controversial order on immigration, which was then overturned by similar judicial review. Both of these events fall under what the Constitution calls checks and balances.

I am mortified that Trump seriously claims that these judges have no right to challenge him. EVEN THOUGH IT'S IN THE CONSTITUTION IN BLACK AND WHITE. If Trump doesn't understand the Constitution, then what else does he have in store for us over the next four years? No act or piece of legislation short of an amendment can overrule the core checks and balances of the Constitution.

Though I disagreed with many of Obama's orders and policies, this was one area he had down pat. As a Constitutional scholar, he did everything by the book. In my opinion, in two short weeks, Trump has threatened the Constitution more than Obama had in all his eight years combined.

I'm not the only one who sees this. The existence of the religious test is exactly the reason people are protesting. Where were the protests when previous presidents instituted similar travel bans? Why didn't the judges stop those orders? Because every single one of those previous orders lacked a religious test. None of them were against the Establishment Clause in the first amendment.

Of course, I realize that Trump is privy to certain information we will never learn. He may have real reasons to institute such a ban. Perhaps ISIS is stepping things up since Trump is now in office. I don't mind Trump taking measures to help secure our safety. Let him beef up the vetting process. Let him even provide a list of countries. He just has to follow the rules. Remove the religious test entirely. It's not needed. Consult with the experts and come up with another order that is more compatible with the Constitution. If Trump takes this course immediately, he could have a new order up and running a lot faster than his current course of fighting this bad order in court ... as he's going to lose ... yugely. There's just no way around the religious test.

As the order stands now, I actually feel less safe. I feel that Trump has put a big red target on our country. He's ringing that dinner bell, yelling, "Come and get it!" He's pushing away allies who have been helping us in the fight against ISIS.

On top of this, Trump and his staff are deluging us with "alternative facts" and distractions. For example, he called the Reuters' Obama vs. Trump inauguration picture a fake, even though it's been proven to be real. You can see my own analysis, comparing that picture to the awesome CNN gigapixel picture here.

He blames the press of kindling worldwide protests, not seeming to understand that they are protesting on principle, and not because they are told to do so. I have never seen a sitting president exhibit so many signs of insecurity. If we gave him a blanket, would that help him get back to work?

Yet, even now, I still have hope for Trump. Perhaps after he learns the Civics 101 lesson that will be handed to him, he will finally become that humble president I've been hoping for. Then perhaps he will turn to unifying our country, and everything will turn out okay. If this happens, I would be pleasantly surprised.

But for now, my time for giving Trump a chance has passed. I am under no obligation to unilaterally stand behind our President in blind faith. I am disappointed to see the beginnings of my original fears materialize, and more and more, I fear a disaster will befall us in the next four years.

It is now Trump's turn to show humility and true leadership in order to win back my trust. I want to tell him: Stop trying to prove you won. Stop wasting effort going after SNL and other entertainers. Don't listen to Kellyanne -- she's bad news. Reread the Constitution and stop inadvertently destroying it. Stop broadcasting your own insecurities. Be the bigger man and stop trying to one-up your opponents. Step up to the challenge that lies before you. Show the Democrats they matter as much as the conservatives. Win back the Never-Trumpers. Show us what you can really do.

I realize that as a white, Christian, straight, upper-middle-class worker, I have much to gain personally from Trump's success. I will probably benefit from some nice tax cuts. My Christian religious freedoms will become strengthened. A stronger economy will translate into some nice raises and bonuses for me.

Thus, I can see why many of you aren't worried.

But what good is all of this if it comes at the price of punishing several groups of minorities? I don't want to live off of the backs of the rest of the world. I don't want to see good people and talent leave our country. I don't want to see any repeat at any level of events that have occurred in the past in other countries concerning the treatment of minorities. Aren't we better than this?

So, this is where I stand. I have a rule irrevocably decreed that inasmuch as Trump (or any other president) will stay true to the Constitution and govern with righteous principles, he will have my support, and I will convince others to support him as well. Inasmuch as Trump (or other) defies the Constitution, spews "alternative facts," or otherwise puts our country at irreparable harm, he will have my protest, and if it gets bad enough, even my calls for his removal.

Finally, I turn to you, my fellow Mormons. Where do you stand? If you continue to support Trump, I will understand and will not condemn you, as I can see why you like the guy. Though, I predict that one of two outcomes will occur in the next four years.

#1) I will eventually come to the same place as other Trump supporters, praising his accomplishments, OR

#2) Many good Mormons who turned to Trump will eventually come to where I am now and question why they ever liked the guy, most likely experiencing some level of sorrow for positions they may have supported in the past.

In conclusion, I'd like to ask you to consider the follow questions and decide for yourselves:

If Trump were to institute an actual Muslim ban, would you be in support of it?

Do you believe in religious freedoms? I'd like to invite to try my test to see how far this belief goes.

Do you see now the questionable text, the religious test, in the current Order, and do you believe it makes it equivalent to a Muslim ban?

Would you be okay with a similar ban (or vetting system) minus the religious test? For example, giving preference to refugees fleeing religious persecutions regardless of whatever religion they belong to?

Would you seek to confirm all political claims, whether from conservatives or liberals, with other reliable independent sources?

Think back to late 2015 when you didn't want to vote for Trump, for fear of what he might do, and look at what Trump is doing now. Is he doing the things that you once feared he might do?

If Trump gets bad enough, would you be willing to go so far as to call for his removal?

Would you be open to joining a new party, ala McMullin, that would espouse conservative ideals minus the racism and xenophobia?

Would you seek to understand why people like me are still concerned about Trump, and understand that we have prayed as much as you have? Would you refrain from calling us lost ... or even worse ... liberals?

I wish you all the best, and may God help us all as we process all this conflicting information. In the coming years, we Mormons could very well play a large role in what is to come, and we should all do our best to prepare ourselves, and not do anything that would hinder our future potential to contribute.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and your stories, so I open this up for discussion. Where do you stand?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Why Do We Let Political Parties Define Us?

Jesus, in the Bible, tells us, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath." (Mark 2:27). Similarly, it could be said in the realm of politics: parties are made for man, and not man for the parties.

This year, the nomination of Donald Trump presents an interesting conundrum to many of my fellow Mormons and other conservative Christians. This block of voters tends to vote Republican, but what does one do when the chosen candidate seems so much against their deeply held beliefs? Some are choosing to hold their noses and vote for Trump, because "well ... he is the Republican nominee, so I need to support him."

That last statement gives me pause, and causes me to wonder: where does that even come from? Why do so many of us believe in that unwritten rule: I'm a Republican, so I need to vote Republican no matter what? Why do many act as if it's a betrayal if you ever vote outside of the party?

The answer is simple: because we allow ourselves to have our chosen parties dictate what we believe (that is, man is made for the party). Let's see if we can analyze this.

Why do political parties exist in the first place? They help to facilitate elections. (Parties are made for man.) If we didn't have parties, then many individual persons would run for president, and no one would gain the required 50.01% to win. In other words, the US Constitution practically guarantees the existence of political parties. Further, Duverger's Law shows that our constitution nearly guarantees that we can have at most two viable parties, and perhaps three in times of transition.

So, when each of us are born, there are two big parties already in existence. Most of us end up affiliating ourselves with the party that most closely matches our personal beliefs. When we register to vote, we choose a party, and then something strange happens. Many of us let the party dictate and mold our belief system. We're supposed to fall into step with every platform of the party and condemn every single platform of the opposing party.

Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I was raised to be a Democrat. I remember back in 1976 when my father woke me up in the middle of the night to announce that my candidate Jimmy Carter had won the election, and I remember how well I slept after he had told me. Republicans were evil with their predisposition to boost up the rich at the expense of the poor.

In 1987, I went out to BYU, where a Democrat Mormon, such as me, was a novelty. For some reason, during the 1996 election, this came to a head. With the impending reelection of Clinton coming, I had the following discussion with many of my Republican friends.

R: "I don't understand how you can be a Mormon and a Democrat. Do you really believe in abortion?"

D: "I think abortion is terrible."

R: "Then you can't be a Democrat. They believe in abortions."

D: "But I can't be a Republican, since they support the rich and stomp all over poor people like you and me."

R: "I think you really need to pray about it."

Then starting in 1998, something funny happened. I became an actuary and took a series of economics courses. I watched how an insurance company operated, and my eyes were opened to how capitalism really works. I came to understand the Republican economic policies, and they made sense. I suddenly had a party that supported both my conservative beliefs as well as my newly formed economic beliefs. By 2000, the transition was complete, and I found myself voting for Bush and condemning Gore for trying to steal the election.

I then began fielding attacks on the Republican Party. I explained to many Democrat friends how the party wasn't racist, and how they actually helped poor people. Income inequality wasn't a problem, but rather evidence that the American Dream was real. Rush Limbaugh was a sincere person after all. Republicans weren't blocking Obama because he was black, and so on.

But then Donald Trump happened. Along came someone who said so many bone-headed racist and xenophobic comments that I felt that no party would support him. When it came time for the Republican Party to condemn Trump on his comments on Islam last December, the unthinkable happened. Most of the party either remained silent (for fear of disrupting the election) or fell right in line with Trump.

It opened my eyes. Trump was a candidate who seemed to legitimize racism, violence, and intolerance, and many Republicans were eating it up. I was so disillusioned, that I wasn't sure what to do. I didn't want my name associated with the "Racist" Party, and I couldn't call myself a Democrat with my beliefs that their economic policies would destroy our economy.

There now exists no party that matches my belief system. I ultimately decided back in February to register as an Independent.

Then came the epiphany I share with you today. I am not a member of any party; I am a free man!

Each of us is an individual with unique beliefs. None of us should be beholden to any specific party. We should all be able to think on our own, and realize it's okay to believe in some platform points of one party and other platform points of another party. None of us signed a pledge saying we need to support the party we signed up with, and there is absolutely no reason for any of us to choose one party over another.

I'd like to reiterate what the LDS Church announces to all the units every election cycle:

Latter-day Saints as citizens are to seek out and then uphold leaders who will act with integrity and are wise, good, and honest. Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.
Therefore, in this election year, we urge you to register to vote, to study the issues and candidates carefully and prayerfully, and then to vote for and actively support those you believe will most nearly carry out your ideas of good government.

For years, the Church has encouraged us to think independently and choose leaders according to our conscience. There is no call to support a specific party.

In conclusion, I strongly encourage you to be your own person. If you want to believe abortion is bad AND that global warming exists, then knock yourself out. You may consider registering as an independent. In many states this would mean not being able to vote in primaries, but it may be a choice to consider for some of you. I strongly suggest against the concept of "I need to vote for the person nominated in my party." Be a free man (or woman)!

Just remember: parties are made for man, and not man for the parties.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Movie Review: Risen (2016)

This past week, I decided to try out the movie Risen. Just in time for Easter, this movie explores the experiences of the fictitious Clavius, a Roman soldier placed in charge of finding the missing body of Jesus. At first, Clavius has no idea who Jesus is, but as events transpire, he finds himself enthralled by the stories and his followers.

Doctrinally, the movie tries its best to stay generically Christian. Most denominations would not have many qualms with wrong facts. Viewing as a Mormon, the only thing I picked out was one point where Jesus is called the "Son of Jehovah," but that's not even worth arguing over. Many other nitpicky things are correct, such as having the nails go through the wrist instead of the hand, and Jesus being called "Yeshua."

The plot centers entirely around Clavius, which is both good and bad at the same time. In order to have Clavius attend most of the important post-death events in the New Testament, the story of Jesus and his followers is forced to bend around Clavius, so much so that some parts come across as being a little funnier than they should be. For example, Pontius Pilate is turned into some super bad guy who won't rest until Jesus's body is found. When in actuality, Pilate (who is portrayed in all four gospels as not wanting to crucify Jesus) most likely left the matter alone after the crucifixion.

But on the other hand, it is Clavius's story. Joseph Fiennes (brother of everyone's favorite evil guy Ralph Fiennes) plays his role well. Clavius is good at what he does. He executes his orders with precision. All he wants to do is retire in the country and live out a good life with his future family.

As he comes across Jesus and witnesses several miracles, he at first holds to more scientific explanations. For example when the walls crack at Jesus's death, it was only an earthquake. While everyone speaks of miracles and adoration, Clavius strives to stick with his cold logic and his desire to get down to the real story.

Along the way, Clavius asks one of the disciples, "Before he died and he said he was going to rise again, did you believe him?" The disciple answers, "To tell you the truth, we doubted." To which, Clavius asks, "Then why do you follow him?" Eventually, he gets his answer, and this is where the movie excels.

The writers cleverly turn Clavius's story into our own personal stories. As Christians, why do we follow him today? This movie gives us plenty to think about, and leaves it up to us to decide.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Do You Believe In Religious Tolerance?

More and more in the news, we hear about religious freedoms being under attack.

As we fight this figurative but real war, I'd like to invite you to take a quick inventory to see where you stand.  Do you believe in religious freedoms?  And what exactly does that mean?

Take for example, prayers at public meetings.  Most Mormons and Christians would agree with me.  If I'm on the city council making tough decisions that would affect thousands of constituents, I would like God's inspiration and guidance.  Thus, I believe a prayer offered by someone in the room would be more than appropriate.

Atheists don't like these prayers because it makes them uncomfortable.  They are also concerned about the appearance of establishing an official government religion.  If you say a Christian prayer at a city council meeting, it's like the city saying that Christianity is our religion.

I understand the atheists concerns, but I don't think a prayer establishes a religion.  I also believe that when the Constitution spells out the separation of church and state, it's talking about the independence of church and state, and not the removal of church from state.  If the government were to deny us the right to pray in public, I believe it would be infringing on my religious freedoms.

Let me switch gears here.  How would you feel if a Jew gave the prayer instead of a Christian?  Would you feel uncomfortable?  Jews make up about 2% of the US population, so if prayers are allowed, we should expect on average more than 1 out of 50 of these prayers to be Jewish.

But then again, would a Jewish prayer really be that bad?  Their perspective on life is different and beautiful, and their doctrines are so similar to what we Christians believe.

Okay, before I continue on, I'll come out and say that I expect that most of my readers would already be comfortable with a Jewish prayer.  I just wanted to give y'all a moment to pat yourselves on the back for believing in religious freedoms before we take this up a notch.

What if it were a Muslim giving the prayer?  Would that be okay with you?  Most Christians I know would pause here.  A lot of them would be uncomfortable.  But could we deny the Muslims their turn to pray?  They do make up 1% of the US population.

If we were to deny the Muslim, how would that make us any different than the atheist wanting to deny all prayers?  Then we would might as well be saying, "I believe in religious freedoms, but only for Christians (and sure, the Jews, too)."

And this is exactly what I hear when political candidates go around talking about how we need to preserve the "Judeo-Christian values" our Founding Fathers instilled into our nation, and even going so far as to propose or entertain the ideas of removing, tagging, or carpet-bombing Muslims.  It makes me want to yell, "No, we're not a Judeo-Christian nation!  We're an All Religions nation!"

It's very important to maintain that distinction, as it is the only way to ensure religious freedoms, not only for Jews and Christians, but also for Muslims, other religions, and even atheists and agnostics.  The Founding Fathers instilled into our Constitution certain protections that are meant to help each one of us be able to believe according to what we wish to believe.

It is true that practically all of the "Founding Fathers" had a Christian upbringing, but many of them were friendly to other non-Christian religions.  Some even clarified straight out that Muslims were meant to be included under the umbrella of religious freedoms.  I recommend this Washington Post article for an expose of several quotes from several of our early leaders.

In response to recent anti-Muslim sentiment, the LDS Church came out on 12/8/2015 and offered this official announcement clarifying their stance on religious freedoms, pointing out how Joseph Smith specifically mentioned Muslims as being equal to others.

Finally, this discussion would not be complete without a recitation of the eleventh Article of Faith.
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.
Now at the end of this blog post, I ask once more.  Do you believe in religious freedoms?  Is it just for Christians?  Or will you fight to protect the freedoms of Muslims and other religions, and even atheists and agnostics?  Will you endeavor not to infringe on the freedoms of others?

I think that as we properly align ourselves in our understanding of religious freedoms, we will be much more prepared to fight the ongoing war.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Are Sunday Deliveries a Good Thing?

So, I just ordered something off of Amazon, and just as we were getting ready to head off to church this morning, the postman stopped by to deliver the package ... on a Sunday!  Since when did the USPS start doing this?

Evidently, it started back near the end of 2013 when the USPS signed a special deal with Amazon during the Christmas rush.  Then it seems to have expanded from there.  Now it seems to be available during non-rush times as well.

While Sunday deliveries sounds like the greatest idea since apple pie to many people, this presents a dilemma for us Mormons who believe in keeping the Sabbath Day holy.  Not only do we try not to do work ourselves, we try to make sure not to cause anyone else to do work on our behalf.
(Exodus 20:10) But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.
Thus in a sense, I broke this particular commandment because I caused the postman to work on Sunday.

The Bible does grant some leeway in emergency situations (ox in the mire).  For example, we always need cops, doctors, and transportation services.  If I were to break my neck and be rushed to the hospital on a Sunday, I wouldn't be sinning.  Rather, the doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers would be providing a necessary emergency service.

Do postal workers provide similar emergency services?  Most of the packages they deliver are cool gadgets, earrings, clothes -- things we would want to have, but not things that we would need in a timely manner.  I definitely didn't need my package delivered on a Sunday.

Sunday work is often required during Christmas rushes.  Those presents have to arrive by December 25, and there are so many of them to deliver.  So, yeah ... it would be okay to hire a whole bunch of seasonal workers who are willing to work on Sundays.  That way, career workers wouldn't be forced to work Sundays, and they could be home with their families.

However, according to this article, postal workers are getting the raw end of the deal.  While we're getting our packages on Sunday, these carriers are working several weeks in a row with no breaks.  Even the career workers are working Sundays with the threat of losing their jobs.

Is this the price we're willing to pay -- to pull these people away from their families and their worship in order to get our goods one day earlier?

Sure ... in this world that's becoming more and more agnostic, there are plenty of people who are willing to work on Sunday.  Let them work if they so desire.  But I will strive to minimize my contribution to demand that could indirectly cause bosses to make unwilling people work on Sunday.

However, the conundrum with Amazon still exists.  When I order a package, how can I help to ensure it does NOT get delivered on Sunday?  I think the best I can do now is to look at the shipping options and choose one that doesn't land on a Sunday.

If only I could set up my account to opt out of Sunday deliveries altogether.  But alas, Amazon doesn't offer such an option.  I searched (even though reading rumors that such a switch exists), but Amazon seems to provide no such help.

Could this be a sign that eventually down the road, the Sabbath will cease to exist altogether?  All in the name of added convenience?  Then when would we spend time resting with our families?

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Joseph Smith History

After much waiting, here is the next installment of my Mormon book, which everyone can now see on the Introduction page.  Plus, I've used my html skills to add a table of contents at the top of that page to help guide the reader to quickly go to the section he/she wants to read next.  (Napoleon Dynamite would be so jealous!)

Here is the new excerpt for all to enjoy.  This is still a first draft, so I'd appreciate any comments/suggestions.  Also, keep in mind that this is all exposition, so I don't show or analyze any possible negative aspects of Joseph Smith's life.  I'm reserving that for a later chapter on apologetics.

The Story of Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith was born December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont.  By 1820, he had moved to Manchester, New York (near Palmyra).  Around that time, the city was taken up in a religious upheaval.  Only 14 years old, Joseph Smith didn’t know which church to join.  His parents joined with the Presbyterians, and Joseph wished to join with the Methodists at first, but he became a little put off at the perceived dissensions between the denominations.
One night as he was reading the Bible, he came across James 1:5, which says: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”  He decided to ask God which church to join.
Then on a cool spring morning, he went out to the woods, where he figured he could pray vocally without being heard or interrupted.  He started his prayer and continued on until his prayer was answered.  God (the Father) and Jesus Christ (his son) appeared and told him not to join any church, for they were all wrong.

This forever changed Joseph Smith’s life and is the one defining moment that began what we Mormons call the Restoration of the Gospel.  The belief is that Christ’s full original Church had died out with persecution in its earlier years.  The Christians who remained preserved many of the tenets, but without guidance from living, appointed apostles, there was confusion and apostasy.  The authority God had given to act in his name was lost, and Man was left alone to figure out doctrine on their own.
What transpired next was a series of stepping stones where Joseph Smith received pieces of the “Restoration” until the end of his life in 1844. I’ll briefly list these events in chronological order.
Springtime 1820: The First Vision (as described above).
September 1823: Joseph Smith was visited by an angel, Moroni, who described a buried record.  The angel told Joseph he needed to get his life in order and that in four years he’d receive this record and would begin to translate them.
January 1827: Joseph Smith married Emma Smith, someone who becomes very important in later Church history.

Emma Smith

September 1827: Joseph Smith acquired the buried record—golden plates—and began translating the writings into English.  Several people, including Emma, and friends Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery, helped in transcribing the words.
March 1830: Joseph Smith had this work published under the name The Book of Mormon.
April 1830: Joseph Smith officially organized what would eventually become known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.  
The church quickly gained followers and kindled persecutions from those who opposed the movement.  Joseph Smith left New York and went to Kirtland, Ohio in 1831.  Several followers, endearingly named “Mormons,” also settled in Kirtland.  Later that year, Joseph Smith went to Jackson County, Missouri to begin another settlement.  Thus, over the next few years Mormons gathered in both Ohio and Missouri.

Kirtland Temple

December 1832: Joseph Smith began construction of the first temple in Kirtland, Ohio.  It was finished in April 1836.
Persecutions continued.  As early as 1833, the Saints (as we like to call ourselves) were driven out of Jackson County, Missouri into Clay County.  Then in 1836, they were further driven to Caldwell County.
The Saints in Ohio lasted a little longer, being driven out in 1838.  This group came to join the others in Caldwell County.
Toward the end of 1838, Joseph Smith and several of his friends were arrested, tried, and imprisoned, ultimately ending up in Liberty Jail in December.  After months of living under subhuman conditions, a few benevolent guards allowed Smith and his friends to escape in April 1839.
During this same time, one church leader who was not imprisoned, Brigham Young, remained with the Saints.  To flee persecutions, he helped lead the group to Illinois.  After regaining his freedom, Joseph Smith reunited with the group, and then named their new city, Nauvoo.
Over the next few years, the Mormons took swamp land, overcame disease, and built a thriving small city.  In 1840, they began working on their second temple.

Nauvoo Temple

In 1844, Joseph Smith was arrested one last time along with his brother Hyrum Smith, and friends Willard Richards and John Taylor.  They were held in the Carthage Jail for their “safety” as the trials proceeded.  However, an angry mob stormed the jailhouse, and killed Joseph Smith and his brother.

The Death of Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith’s live ended, but the church grew stronger in his absence.  Brigham Young became the new leader in his stead—directing the completion of the Nauvoo Temple—guiding the Saints away from persecution around 1846—and eventually leading them to arrive in Salt Lake City in 1847.  There, after traveling a couple of decades in their own Trail of Tears, the Saints were finally safe from persecutions.  In a few years, they took a desert and turned it into a thriving, and eventually large city.
Today, the church that Joseph Smith had started, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, has become a large church with millions of followers from all around the world.
Sources on Joseph Smith:
The Life and Ministry of Joseph Smith” from Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 2011: a good summary of the life of Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith—History” from the Pearl of Great Price: the writings of Joseph Smith giving his account of the First Vision and obtaining/translating the Book of Mormon.
The First Vision: Searching for the Truth” by Ronald O. Barney.  Published in the Ensign, Jan. 2005: a brief account of the First Vision and several artist’s depictions.
Joseph and Emma: Moments in Their Lives.”  Published in the Ensign, Jul. 2012: a brief and interesting summary of the interactions between Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma.