Another confession: I had a really hard time with this chapter. And it’s not just because I read it sitting in an airport waiting for a plane that was delayed for an hour and a half. Rather, it’s because of the way Nibley speaks of the wealthy. Certain of his descriptions feel, to me, so laughably one-dimensional—so moustache-twirling, tying-the-heroine-to-the-tracks—that I find myself fighting both his prose and my instincts to not just dismiss his entire piece out of hand.
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The Approaching Zion Project: Our Glory or Our Condemnation
Now that I’ve read my first chapter of Approaching Zion, a couple more caveats before we get started. First, I’m not going to bother summarizing what Nibley said. Instead, I’m going to try to engage it, responding to ideas that engaged me, whether I agree or disagree. Second, I’m not going to try to engage with the full text; in Chapter 1, there were two things that really spoke to me, and one more that I’m going to mention and defer until a later installment. Feel free, in the comments, to engage with what I’ve engaged with, what I’ve said, or something else in the chapter that you feel needs to be responded to. With that, let’s go!
The Approaching Zion Project: Prologue
I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Hugh Nibley’s Approaching Zion. I’m serious. I mean, I bought it years ago, probably before my oldest daughter was born. I’ve lugged it through at least six or seven moves. And it’s sitting on my bookshelf, taking up valuable real estate. But, though I’ve nibbled here and there, I’ve never even read a complete chapter.
It seems an odd oversight, frankly: in Approaching Zion, Nibley describes what constitutes a Zion society, and what we need to do to establish such a Zion society; I’m deeply interested in how society and the law can promote social justice and a better world. So it seems like a natural fit, right?
An April 15th Post
Happy tax day! In honor of today, a Mormon/tax story:
Tracy McKay fMh Scholarship
Our sisters and brothers in the bloggernacle have turned their virtual relationship into doing tangible good for those in need. Yesterday, Lisa at fMH announced the Tracy McKay fMh Scholarship. I remember last year when Tracy’s ward financial assistance was cut and the immediate action by her fellow bloggers to raise enough money to get her through her last semester. fMh is working on an endowment to make the scholarship permanent and contributions tax-deductible. (Last year, we just gave money because it was needed, it was the right thing to do, and that mattered more than a tax deduction.) In the meantime, any single Mormons mothers who are in need of financial assistance may apply for this year’s scholarship. For complete information, check out the post at fMH.
Authenticity and The Book of Mormon
I know, I said a year and a half ago that I wasn’t going to see The Book of Mormon. But then it came to Chicago and, in spite of the fact that it is sold out through at least March, a friend set me up with a ticket. So I’ve now seen the show. I’m not going to review it, though. It’s already been widely reviewed, and frankly, I don’t have the musical theater chops to provide a credible review.
A Mission Story: Tigre
I met Tigre pretty soon after arriving in my second area. He was a solid man, all muscle but his midsection. As I got to know him, I learned that both his muscle and his gut were well-earned. The muscle because Tigre taught karate for a living, and owned his own studio. The gut? You have never seen such a mountain of rice, covered with an avalanche of beans, as this man ate for lunch.
Facebook Memes and the Property Tax
There is, I’ve been told, a Facebook meme going around, juxtaposing a decaying house and the San Diego temple to support the argument that churches should not be exempt from taxation.
And, like Facebook memes everywhere, this one is dumb. Dumb primarily because it is a tautology that doesn’t say anything. Because of course a tax-exempt organization does not pay taxes that a non-exempt individual pays. That’s pretty much the definition of tax exemption.
Of course, saying that a Facebook meme is dumb and tautological makes for a pretty short and boring post. Far more interesting, imho, is to take seriously the point that the people spreading the picture are trying to make, and complicating that rhetorical picture a little bit.
An Immodest Proposal
As Sarah noted, Saturday and Sunday bring us our Fall semiannual General Conference.
As part of our twice-yearly ritual, we’ll hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir up to three times: one session of Conference Saturday, one session Sunday, and the Music and the Spoken Word broadcast before the first Sunday session.
When I lived in New York, I could have told you what virtually all of my friends paid in rent. It was a fairly common topic of conversation, and the conversation was one of two types: the can-you-believe-I-pay-$2,000-for-this-dump, or can-you-believe-I-only-pay-$3,500-for-this-apartment.[fn1] I didn’t really think much of it; I didn’t put much stock in financial privacy. And it wasn’t just the amount I paid in rent—as an attorney at a big firm in New York, if you wanted to know how much I made, you basically just needed to know the year I graduated from law school, the firm I worked for, and the website for NALP.[fn2] My salary was there for the viewing. After my first stint in New York, while living in the DC metro area, an acquaintance bought a house. And he mentioned the price[fn3] at his housewarming party. His wife was mortified. She explained to him that that is a number you don’t mention in public. It came as a shock to me—I was so acclimated to the public discussion of rent payments as a cocktail party discussion that it never occurred to me that anybody would want to be cagey about how much they paid for housing. I remembered these differing social conventions about money when I read the Parade Magazine[fn4] interview with the Romneys. When asked about tithing, Mitt Romney says, Our church doesn’t publish how much people have given. This is done entirely privately.…
Missions, 15 Years Later
Today is the 15th anniversary of the end of my mission. (Note that I can’t entirely remember what I mean by that—I’m pretty sure that August 5, 1997, was my last day of proselytizing, the 6th I got on an airplane, and the 7th I arrived home. But it has been 15 years, and I’m not 100% sure.) And what does that two years mean to me, 15 years later? On one level, not a whole lot. I don’t think about it a whole lot; my days are much more likely spent occupied by the Internal Revenue Code. Or my kids. My wife. My calling. Blogging. But although its explicit significance has diminished in my life, I still feel fallout from my mission’s underlying repercussions. (Fallout in a good way, naturally.) Principal among these is that my commitment to the Church and the gospel solidified over those two years. This is not to say that, without a mission, I wouldn’t be active and involved in the Church. It is to say that those two years allowed me to build a foundation I could attach to. The subsequent 15 have allowed me to continue building that foundation, to the point where I won’t be surprised or shocked out of the Church. I’m invested in it, I believe its truth-claims, and I’m happy that way. My mission provided me with a shared experience common to many Mormons. Which is to say, even…
Too much attention to those awkward stones just adds to them and makes a dam, and I seriously don’t want to have to bring out the dynamite and blow it away.
Taxing Churches: A Response
Oh no—somebody on the Internet is wrong while I’m on vacation! But duty calls. Recently, Ryan Cragun, a sociology professor, along with students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega, argued that the government subsidizes religion by about $71 billion a year. He thinks this is wrong, and that religions should pay their fair share. I have no problem with his making this argument—tax exemption costs the government significant revenue (though his $71 billion is based on really, really poor assumptions—more on that later), and should be examined carefully and critically. But Prof. Cragun’s analysis is not the careful and critical examination that the tax treatment of churches deserves. His piece has a number of significant problems. I’m not going to address all of the problems, including the fact that he appears unaware that there is an extensive academic literature that explores the place of a tax exemption for churches,[fn1] but I am going to address a handful of his assertions. In the end, though, what bothers me most about Cragun’s piece is that he’s taken an important topic and made it into a polemic. Those who agree with him now have “facts” to bandy about, while those opposed have a specious argument they can treat as an easily-dismissed straw man, and can ignore engaging in a valuable tax policy discussion. Before I get into my specific criticisms, though, I want to make a couple points upfront. First, although I find lots…
As the sacrament was passed in the rural ward we attended today, my younger daughter looked at the deacons passing the sacrament and asked, “Why are those kids doing that?”[fn1] (My wife tells me that my older daughter noticed the same thing.) — [fn1] Just in case it’s not clear what my daughters are talking about, there is one teenage boy in our ward (but another turns 12 in a month or so!). And that’s not a significant outlier in my perhaps limited experience. So my daughters have rarely seen a bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds get up after the sacrament is blessed.
Mother’s Day, 1996
I sit, waiting for the phone to ring. I haven’t spoken to my parents since December and, though I love what I’m doing, I love them, too. But I’ve been sitting here for almost an hour. I’m not 100% sure of the time zone difference between eastern Brazil and the western United States, but I’m pretty sure they’re late. In this area, none of our members have phones. One of our member’s father has a phone, but, in order to call, I’ve promised that it won’t cost him anything. It’s a party line, something I’d heard about in the U.S. but never actually experienced. (The way it works is, 10 households share a line. Calls come to the first house in the group. That person directs the call to whomever it’s for.) I told the person at number 1 that, when she got a call she didn’t understand to put them through to me. But, after the hour, I decide to call my parents to give them a phonetic way to ask for me. It takes some doing to figure out how to call the U.S., but eventually I succeed and, 15 minutes later, I am talking to my parents. I ended up paying about $15 for the instructional call home, but it was worth it. I got to talk to my parents, then return to the missionary work I was in Brazil to do. — I spoke today with…
Adventures in Family History, part 2
One Sunday evening, several months ago, I was playing around on FamilySearch, clicking back through my father, his father, his mother (or something like that), etc. After twists and turns—twists and turns I recorded so that I could get back there again—I discovered that I have ancestors from Jersey.[fn1] No, not that Jersey, the one famous for Bruce and the MTV show. Its namesake, the one in the English Channel. Through my clicking, I learned that my great-great-great-grandmother was born in Jersey in 1838 and died in West Bountiful in 1912. For most, this probably wouldn’t be remarkably meaningful. I didn’t do the work to get back these generations, and I have absolutely no knowledge of these ancestors’ lives.[fn2] But . . . . . . but Jersey is a tax haven.[fn3] And I’m a professor of tax law, a researcher of tax law, and, frankly, pretty darn interested in most things tax. And so, learning that I’m descended from residents of what has now become a tax haven is just cool. Way cooler than pretend being descended from royalty. And now I’m curious. I’m curious about when and how the Church moved into Jersey. I’m curious what life was like in Jersey (which, I assume, wasn’t a tax haven in the 19th century). And I’m curious what the Church was like in Jersey. My relationship to Jersey is more attenuated than the relationship that Ardis suggests careful family history research…
Taxing(?) City Creek Reserve, Inc.
The other day, Nate responded to many of Jana Riess’s criticisms of the City Creek mall in Salt Lake. As I read her piece, one sentence jumped out at me.
Just Say No?
We have had horrible luck while traveling with finding church services through Mormon.org. On one trip, the address it gave didn’t exist. (How do I know? After nearly an hour of looking, asking people in the shops nearby, meeting up with friends who were also looking, well, we never found it.) On another, church started an hour after Mormon.org claimed it did. So I’m gun-shy about trusting Mormon.org when I’m looking for church services. Which is why, last summer, on vacation, when my wife saw an older couple wearing missionary name-tags, we decided to confirm when and where the church met. Turns out that they weren’t assigned to that particular area.[fn1] Still, we started talking. At one point, the husband mentioned something he’d been asked to do, and said, “You don’t say no to a Seventy.” Let me interrupt myself right here to emphasize that it was a throw-away line. They had been asked to report on establishing some program or committee or something. He was not implying that, if a Seventy asked him to do something immoral or illegal or even questionable, he would mindlessly obey. I assume that, if pressed, he would admit that he would say no in that situation, except that he couldn’t imagine that situation actually happening. But we were in a pleasant social situation, he was a pleasant missionary, and there was no point in pressing him on a laugh-line. I’d been thinking about…
Mormons, Increase, and Gifts
An unscientific poll: [polldaddy poll=6036362] (Poll inspiration here.)
The Bott Gaffe: A Chronology [Updated 6Mar12 9:45p]
Since Wednesday, when I read the Washington Post article that cited BYU Professor Randy Bott, I have been surprised at two elements of the news and commentary I’ve read about it. First, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the unanimity of the response—no one that I’ve seen has tried to defend the ideas that Bott expressed. Second, I’ve been surprised at the speed of the official response. If it is possible, the response makes the views expressed by Bott seem anachronistic to Mormonism today. And I hope this response will make clear to those who still maintain some version of these racist views that they are no longer tolerated among Mormons.