I recently had a co-worker ask me how many wives my husband had. “Just one,” I answered. Red-faced, I hurried to explain that Mormons don’t practice polygamy. By the end of our conversation, he looked unconvinced and I felt uncomfortable because I belong to a church outside the mainstream. The innocuous encounter gave rise to one of my least favorite emotions—feeling guilty for feeling embarrassed about the most important thing in my life. Religiosity, I often worry, isn’t chic.
I know my beliefs aren’t cool. It’s why I don’t often tell people that my great-grandfather did practice polygamy. Growing up my siblings and I would look through old family albums, pleased that we came from the prettiest of the wives. Amongst ourselves, our history is not a point of shame. But it’s easy to see the way outsiders view it and suddenly my adolescent yearnings to “belong” rear their pimply head and I find myself trying to shrink off to the sidelines. It’s the same way I felt when a Rasmussen Reports survey said that 43% of American voters would never even consider voting for a Mormon candidate. A jovial colleague put the newspaper clipping on my desk–and I pretended I never saw it.
We always laugh (nervously) when my cousin Emily tells about the time she was sitting in a diversity class as a graduate student at Columbia University. In a discussion where students were admitting their prejudices so they could debunk them, the boy next to my cousin leaned over and whispered, “Mormons scare the crap out of me.” It was another instance where my suspicions were confirmed: this big, important thing in my life makes me look nutty.
I can see why others think we’re weird. Because really, no alcohol ever? No premarital sex? Except for my junior year of high school when I was too naïve to know that people could put marijuana in brownies, no drugs. No coffee, or R-rated films. Not even tank tops or the occasional well-placed swear. I’m like 30 Rock’s Kenneth the Page, gawkily entertaining because I am just so darn righteous.
On top of which, it’s not exactly hot these days to claim you do things because a higher power told you to. No one would think twice if I said I didn’t drink coffee because I don’t like the way it tastes. But the reason I’m caffeine-free is because I believe it was revealed to a modern Moses that it’s bad for me. I can understand how anyone who didn’t get that same revelation might be frightened by someone who so fervently believes God speaks.
Any time I feel self-conscious because of my beliefs, my thoughts land on Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” and I feel lousy for being such a worldly disciple. “Maybe if I had more faith,” I reason.
For years I’ve piddled around with different ways of handling my discomfit. I used to try keeping my religion a secret until friends knew me well enough. Once they did know, I’d downplay it. When I explained the tactic to a friend she said I sounded like I was gay. “It’s like you’re trying decide when to come out of the closet.” Seeing as we’re a people who actively proselyte, the evasion tactic left me feeling guilty and false.
When I moved to Manhattan five years ago, I considered taking advantage of all those open minds in an effort to appear normal. I’d make conservatism the new liberal. “Tripping acid induces hallucinations? I think people have transcendent visions when they’re stone-cold sober.” Not surprisingly, my views were off-putting. “Sexual revolution? Here’s one to blow your mind: abstinence before marriage, monogamy after.”
While it was easier to find acceptance for my views in New York than it had been growing up in Colorado Springs, once nicknamed “the Evangelical Vatican,” playing on others’ professed tolerance felt forced.
I called my oldest brother the other day to see if he ever feels the way I do. “Yeah, I do,” he answered. “But awhile ago,” he said, “I decided just to get over it.”
Talk about a revelation. It made me think back to my favorite take-away from the PBS documentary on the Mormons. I watched it with some level of anxiety. “Please don’t let us look weird,” I prayed. I was especially worried about how the First Vision would be explained—and at first, I focused on how weird that story must sound. But then the documentary cut to a clip of President Hinckley speaking. “We declare without equivocation,” he said, “that God the Father and His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, appeared in person to the boy Joseph Smith.” When President Hinckley spoke—without equivocation—there was no trace of that familiar embarrassment in me.
It’s like the NY Times reviewer noted, “The tenets of the Mormon church may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the church members and leaders who speak in this program are admirably forthright about the religion’s history, strengths and challenges. It’s great to hear people who believe in something and can articulate it without sounding crazy or defensive.”
And all this time I thought people wanted me to sound apologetic…