Monday, June 30, 2008

Some Mormon Political Dynasty's

Congressman Chris Cannon recently lost his parties primary and will thus not be running for a seventh term in the general election. This is the second major set back for a Mormon political dynasty this year, the first being the primary defate of Mitt Romney, latest headman for the Pratt-Romney dynasty. Most Mormon political dynastys tend to be Republican, thought the Udall family is mostly Democratic, with member Gordon Smith being a moderate Republican Senator from Oregan. The Cannon family is of particular interest to me as for roughly eight months I’ve contemplated writing a biography of Frank J. Cannon.

I read an essay about Frank J. Cannon late last year in a book on non-conformist Mormons. The shear verity of things he did with his life, editor, lecture circuit, ghost-writer, finical deal maker, U. S. Senator, aborted third-party co-founder, made him seem interesting enough to spend the years it would take to write the book. Most of his archival material is in Utah and Colorado, so it would be roughly accessible, though trips to Washington D.C. and San Francisco (where he briefly edited a paper) would also probably be necessary. In addition he’s such an incredibly flawed man, liquor, adultery, a father complex, in addition to some warranted feelings of slight and underapriction, he’d be dramatically interesting. Plus he’s never had a book length treatment written about him, and well he’s important and interesting enough to deserve one. Anyway someday I may get to that. As far as the Cannon political, or Romeny political dynasty’s goes, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of either, same with the Udall’s.

Frank J. Cannon:

Project Gutenberg

Utah History Encyclopedia

Under the Prophet in Utah

The LDS Church on Illegal Immigration

What are the polices and positions of the LDS Church in regards to matters of illegal immigration? With the widespread Mormon identification with the Republican right in this country, one would think that the LDS Church would be very much on the ‘law and order’ end of things when it comes to illegal immigration. Now when your dealing with the average American member of the Church you would probably be right, but the official Church position is a kind of neutrality, but can in fact be argued to fall on the side of the illegal immigrants. Take for instance the issue of temple recommends, small cards that grant members who meet certain requirements of ‘righteousness’ entrance into the Churches temples. While the Church stresses obedience to civil law, members who have come into this country illegally are permitted to have temple recommends if they meet the same requirements as native born American members, mainly fidelity to the Church, tithing payments, and abstaining from serious sin (adultery, robbery, abuse, ect.). Analogy may be made to the Roman Catholic Church, which like the LDS faith has a strong presence in Latin America. Some critics claim that the Church’s ‘neutrality’ on this issue is a concession to this base of membership (more Mormons speak Spanish then English), though it should also be pointed out that to think Mormons globally resemble Utahan’s in there politics is a mistake.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Friends of God: A Road Trip with Alexandra Pelosi (2007)

Alexandra Pelosi, the daughter of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and maker of the delightful documentary Journeys With George, now turns her attention to the American Evangelical community. Friends of God is as its subtitle informs us a road trip, Pelosi and a small crew travel across the United States, primary in the south, to take a look at the goings on among the countries Evangelicals, with a particular emphasis on politics. All of the expected area’s of interest are covered, anti-evolution activism, the pro-life movement, opposition to same sex marriage, Republican political canvassing, road side crosses, youth outreach groups, even the Christian Wrestling Federation. It’s a good primer, and Pelosi manages to seem non judgmental despite our knowing full well what her politics are. Pelosi is less front and center in this film then in George, but her ability to be disarming is on full display, she gets full access to both rank and file evangelicals and their promanite leaders, including the now late Jerry Falwell, and now discredited Ted Haggard. Worth your 56 minute if you are at all interested in this area. Three and a half out of Five.

See Also: Jesus Camp (2006)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Brigham Young and Simple Testimony

This has always been one of my favorite Church produced vignettes. I think it captures the Mormon view of the simplicity of the faith, despite all the things that hang onto it, the history, the controversies, to the average Mormon this is what their faith is about a simple sweet testimony, a feeling from whence comes knowledge. The merits of such a conception of God or truth are doubtless debatable, but the spirit of this little film is the spirit of Mormonism at its simple, populist/egalitarian best.
Celebrity Atheist List

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Emma Smith: My Story (2008)

The figure of Emma Hale Smith, the first and only legally recognized wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith, is a difficult figure for mainline Mormons to grapple with. While intensely loyal to her husband she was vehemently opposed to polygamy, actively worked against it in Nauvoo. During the difficult succession crises following Joesph’s death Emma sided not with the pro-polygamy Brigham Young, but rather with the monogamy supporting Sidney Rigdon. She would go one to"poison" her children against the mainline Church, lending her support, if not terribly proactively, to the RLDS movement under her son Joseph III. She would even have a twenty year marriage to a non-Mormon Major who ended up cheating on her, and whose son by a mistress she would raise as her own. It is perhaps no wonder that her most well known biography is titled Mormon Enigma.

The complicated character of Emma Smith made me particularly intrigued to see how she would be rendered in a mainstream Mormon film like this one. I had not high expectations, and perhaps that’s why the film surprised me so much. I was in fact so impressed immediately after viewing that I could probably have raved about the thing, yet I held back and gave myself time to ruminate on the proceedings, knowing full well that if I thought about it awhile my enthusiasm was likely to moderate. It did. This not to say that I came to view this as a bad film, it is in fact a good film, with an engaging narrative and satisfactorily inspiring to mainline Mormons. Neither is it a historically inaccurate one, I myself noticed only one out and out inaccuracy.(1) However it is a carefully framed film, in which the events of Emma’s life are carefully culled to present a faith promoting picture fit for a Relief Society class. Any difficulties in the Smith marriage (of which we know there were a number) are completely neglected, save for polygamy (which would have been THE ISSUE of the final two or so years of the marriage) which is dealt away with in a mere sixty seconds of dialog, in which an elderly Emma tells her daughter Julia the she "will not speak of it".(2) In short the marriage comes across as though it were something out of Jane Austin.

But the story of Emma was ultimately a sad one and the movie does capture a good bit of that, the constant moving and persecution, her estrangement from her fathers family, the deaths of a number of her and Joseph’s children, Joseph’s death, and Major Biedman’s subsequent betrayal, all ending in a death from cancer in 1879. She bore it nobly I think, this movie certainly wants to make that point. The film however does not deal with its subject figure in the fullness of her identity but rather gives us a sympathetic and faith promoting construct, a mythology that will provide for the believing Mormon an acceptable model for approaching Emma Smith. But what more could one expect, nor how much better or more complete could her life be rendered, we have no way of knowing for sure what went on behind those walls in Harmony, Manchester, Hiram, De Witt and Nauvoo. Indeed it is as true of Emma as it is of Joseph, no man knows her history. Three out Five.

1. The publishing of the early (in fact the first) anti-Mormon book: Mormonism Unveiled, is implied to be around 1832, when in fact it was published in 1834.

2. Such dialog is in itself not at all a stretch, as Emma didn’t like to speak of plural marriage and throughout her life insisted to her children that their father never practiced polygamy, but rather that such arraignments had been introduced to the Church by Brigham Young and others, something she knew to be false.

Tim Russert: 1950-2008

I was of course both shocked and saddened to hear yesterday of the sudden passing of Tim Russert. If I was awake on time on Sunday mornings chances are I was watching him on Meet the Press (and on particularly slow Saturdays would watch his cable show). He was eminently fair and gracious, yet asked the tough questions and did his research admirably. He was the best interviewer on television and by all accounts a stand up guy, a truly remarkable person who I’d have loved to have a conversation with. I have never seen this kind of out poring of emotions from a mans peers in broadcasting. Tim Russert will be missed.
Unity and Gratitude Emphasized at 30th Anniversary of Priesthood Revelation

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

President Bush meets with First Presidency

Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed (2008)

The big ‘liberal’ documentaries (Fahrenheit 9/11, An Inconvenient Truth) get all the media love and attention, while the ‘conservative’ ones are ignored. Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is the only documentary I can think of, with such an obvious built in audience of religious conservatives, to achieve wid-spread or semi wid-spread theatrical distribution. As I generally make a point of seeing films, especially documentary’s, that are ‘controversial’ and hence good conversation and blog fodder, I caught this one on its last night at the local Reel.

Hosted by that one of a kind showmen Ben Stein, simply put this is a film about the concept of Intelligent Design and how it is excluded from serious consideration by the scientific and academic ‘establishment’. Now Intelligent Design is a concept that requires a little unpacking, these are vague words especially when used in combination, and could really mean any number of things. Generally as discussed in the media ‘ID’ is treated as a code word for literalistic Biblical creationism, something one would call teaching Genesis in schools, if one didn’t want to admit to (or deal with the legal ramifications of) teaching Genesis in schools. This definition is certainly what is meant by some Intelligent Design advocates, but it is neither the exclusive nor even the most accurate summation of ID.

Intelligent Design could be most basically rendered as the idea or theory that life, in its great complexity was not arrived at by chance, but rather bears the imprint of some intelligent originator. The traditional sky God who came down and made the Earth and everything on it out of nothing, would be but one example of an intelligent designer, however one for which specific evidence is not found, as far as objective evidence is scientifically understood to be. Intelligent Design simply questions the old Darwin understanding of life coming about and evolving through shear chance, random genetic mutations simply improving on one another, increasing complexity derived not through any kind of direction, but via what could only be described as luck, and luck of only the most insanely minuscule of mathematical probabilitys to occur.

The film sites, via expert and cheesy illustrative cartoon, how the most basic form of life would require at minium 265 proteins coming together in an exact sequence and working in concert. This is likened to getting a floor of slot machines to all pay out there total holdings one after another, with just one turn at each machine. It’s not very likely, indeed exceedingly not likely, and indeed apparently even less likely then the example given to occur. In addition to which the doc points out that there is no scientific agreement on how life first started on this planet to begin with. The old stand by, which I learned from science class and Star Trek, is that lightening struck a boiling mud puddle some where a billion years ago, causing some amino acids to bond together and create life. In effect this is a variation on the spontaneous generation theory once popular in ancient Greece, and now so much discredited that I remember disproving it as a class exercise in elementary school. The other most prominent theories are that life started on the backs of crystals, which are prone to variation and mutation, and on which simple proteins and acids would have been piggybacked into odd formations that eventually resulted in life. The other theory is that aliens ‘seeded’ life here, (again with the Star Trek) which is in fact a form of intelligent design, though then you get the question of from whence the Aliens, which is basically the same as the from whence God question, so there you go.

Given the inherent limitations of any theory as to the origin and progression of life, it would seem appropriate for the scientific community to reflect the zeitgeist and be open to a variety of explanations. However, as the film painstakingly and perhaps overly documents, qualified scientists who undertake to work on or publish anything that takes the idea of intelligent design even remotely seriously, tend to lose there jobs or at lest not get tenure. For more information on this you can reference Seattle’s Discovery Institute, which seems to be the scientific hub for the pro ID vestiges of academia, and apparently catalogs such horror stories.

But why would the scientific establishment be adverse to even considering ID, especially given the limitations of the theories so far expounded? This is because, says the doc, ID challenges the dogmatic assumptions of many scientists in the same why that evolution challenges those of the religious fundamentalist. Darwinism is an article of faith, codified and hallowed, enshrined as a unquestionably basic componit of the universe. Stein takes us to the home of Charles Darwin, now meticulously kept and preserved as a museum. You see old papers and specimen jars, bones and scientific equipment. There is a Victorian sitting room where you can just picture Charles and a close circle of associates siting and conversing, challenging assumptions, and unintentionally creating a new dogmatism. This holding of Darwin and his thinking as essentially the religion of the secularist scientist is further brought home by an eerily life like statue of the man in the museum presumable adjoining his old residence. He sits like Lincoln in his monument, inscrutable, mystifying, yet of a great presence, like an old Catholic icon, there for the veneration of the faithful and the subtle existential angst of the unbeliever. The place is a scientific Vatican, Jerusalem, Mecca or Temple Square.

Like the more virulent defenders, apologist, and unrelenting zealots of the old religions, this scientific establishment has sponded its own aggressive front lines. Surely there is a fear that if something as basic as Darwinian evolution is effectively challenged that other things will follow, an unraveling of authority, a domino theory of what could diminish science and its prestige. For that reason there is little coloring outside the lines allowed in ‘the establishment’. 2006 was a banner year for those most pointedly desiring to fight back against the tied of anti-scientism, which they believe (and from there point of view perfectly rightly) to be wedded to ‘religion’ especially of the conservative variety, but actually encompassing anything that accepts the sky god (or any anthropomorphized god) of tradition. Christopher Hitchins, Richard Harris, and Richard Dawkins all had best selling Scientific Atheist Verses That Evil and Debilitating Superstition of Religion books that year, quite an accomplishment, and indeed a possibly foreboding sea changing for America.

Of this triumvirate Dawkins serves as the films intended straw man, and the object of the confrontational climax with Stein, a conceit apparently now required of popular documentaries. Stein doesn’t defeat Dawkins, he holds his own, and in fact seems to go out of his way to be generous to his interviewer/ would-be assailer, something which the film attempts to take advantage of. When asked how such a proof of Intelligent Design would come about, were it to come about, Dawkins indulges in the intellectual exercise and paints a scenario, which the film construes to be Dawkins admittance that such an event could still in fact be possible. That’s a low blow, but Michael Moore has been guilty of worse, though his have generally been better executed.

I admire this film for the assumptions it questions, for putting a microscope to its subject matter and critically evaluating it. Though far from perfect in its execution it does a good job of prompting discussion and for that should receive accolades. Some could say it strays a bit in the militancy of its metaphors, such as the Berlin Wall of science, but it is intended to be a confrontational work. The time taken to point out that Darwinism was a major building block for Eugenics and hence the Nazi’s holocaust is well taken, but extreme and unthinking devotion to any set of principle yields bastard children, wether they be Catholics or Communists. The image that I most carry from the film was an aw inspiring CG animation of the workings of an animal cell. It is a machine, I can’t really buy that that happened by chance, in that way I am at least Deist. I don’t know a lot about science, I think I know a little more about religion, but mostly I like to think about these important questions of where we came from and what life means, and this movie was an aid to that. My expectations were far exceeded. Four out of Five, a plus for issues tackled, a minus for polemical elements in the presentation.