If you read only one thing about Mormonism this election cycle, read Walter Kirn’s moving essay in The New Republic, “Confessions of an Ex-Mormon: A Personal History of America’s Most Misunderstood Religion.” Kirn, author of the novel-turned-film Up in the Air, TNR’s new national correspondent and a former Mormon convert, tells a story one never hears in the mainstream media today: why Mormonism matters to so many decent, seeking, striving Americans. He cuts through the mockery that has pervaded coverage of the LDS Church and addresses the faith in all its complexity. Writes Kirn:
I’d never been a good Mormon, as you’ll soon learn (indeed, I’m not a Mormon at all these days), but the talk of religion spurred by Romney’s run had aroused in me feelings of surprising intensity. Attacks on Mormonism by liberal wits and their unlikely partners in ridicule, conservative evangelical Christians, instantly filled me with resentment, particularly when they made mention of “magic underwear” and other supposedly spooky, cultish aspects of Mormon doctrine and theology. On the other hand, legitimate reminders of the Church hierarchy’s decisive support for Proposition 8, the California gay marriage ban, disgusted me. Deeper, trickier emotions surfaced whenever I came across the media’s favorite visual emblem of the faith: a young male missionary in a shirt and tie with a black plastic name-badge pinned to his vest pocket. The image suggested that Mormons were squares and robots, a naïve, brainwashed army of the out-of-touch. That hurt a bit. It also tugged me back to a sad, frightened moment in my youth when these figures of fun were all my family had.
Where countless liberal columnists have indulged in opportunist slurs against the LDS Church, its history and practices, Kirn brings sophistication and sympathy, noting “A church is the people in it, and their errors. The errors they make while striving to get things right.” He even offers a kind word for Mitt Romney:
As for Romney himself, the man, the person, I empathized with him and his predicament. He no more stood for Mormonism than I did, but he was often presumed to stand for it by journalists who knew little about his faith, let alone the culture surrounding it, other than that some Americans distrusted it and certain others despised it outright. When a writer for The New York Times, Charles Blow, urged Romney to “stick that in your magic underwear!” I half hoped that Romney would lose his banker’s cool and tell the bigoted anti-Mormon twits to stick something else somewhere else, until it hurt. I further hoped he’d sit his critics down and thoughtfully explain that Mormonism is more than a ceremonial endeavor; it constitutes our country’s longest experiment with communitarian idealism, promoting an ethic of frontier-era burden-sharing that has been lost in contemporary America, with increasingly dire social consequences. Instead, Romney showed restraint, which disappointed me. I no longer practiced Mormonism, true, but it was still a part of me, apparently, and a bigger part than I’d appreciated.Sometimes a person doesn’t know what he’s made of until strangers try to tear it down.
Read the whole thing. It has Via Meadia‘s strong recommendation and great credit is due to TNR for commissioning it. With luck, Kirn’s powerful, personal plea will help elevate the discourse on Mormonism in the media.