Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Mormons Rock

U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey

I find this bit particularly interesting:

"This survey and previous Pew Forum studies have shown that Jews and atheists/agnostics have high levels of educational attainment on average, which partially explains their performance on the religious knowledge survey. However, even after controlling for levels of education and other key demographic traits (race, age, gender and region), significant differences in religious knowledge persist among adherents of various faith traditions. Atheists/agnostics, Jews and Mormons still have the highest levels of religious knowledge, followed by evangelical Protestants, then those whose religion is nothing in particular, mainline Protestants and Catholics. Atheists/agnostics and Jews stand out for high levels of knowledge about world religions other than Christianity, though they also score at or above the national average on questions about the Bible and Christianity. Holding demographic factors constant, evangelical Protestants outperform most groups (with the exceptions of Mormons and atheists/agnostics) on questions about the Bible and Christianity, but evangelicals fare less well compared with other groups on questions about world religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism. Mormons are the highest-scoring group on questions about the Bible."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Early Mormon Cooperatives

I've been reading Building the City of God by church historians Leonard Arrington, Dean May, and (kind of) Feramorz Fox.  I wrote a post about the Law of Consecration and Stewardship here.

Not long after the saints arrived in the Great Basin, "gentile" traders and merchants arrived and started making huge money off the saints.  Brigham Young was against trading of any sort, but especially among the members.  His thought was that a man should be making something, or producing something, and that work in shops was okay for women, but not for men.  What's more, he was against the idea of a man gaining wealth at the expense of the producers.

Because members of the church were strongly discouraged from getting involved in trading, the gentile merchants had the market to themselves and became very rich at the expense of the saints.  This became very alarming to many members, who petitioned Pres. Young to allow the members to get involved in trading at a cooperative level.  At first he balked, but eventually relented.  Here is how the authors of the book describe the evolution of his thought process:
Finally, it is important that Brigham Young believed strongly in social equality.  Ideologically opposed to gradation of wealth and status among his people, he sought instinctively for a scheme that would prevent aggrandizement of a few at the expense of the many.  His opposition to the first association of Mormon traders proposed to him in 1860 was based partly upon these grounds.  He consistently encouraged the widest possible ownership of the new cooperatives, to prevent the establishment of a wealthy privileged class.  The cooperative movement was, thus, wholly consistent with his own social philosophy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Millennial Positivism: An Introduction

People's ideas about of the "last days" and all the various events leading up to the Millenium inform their political views, both inside and outside of the Church. Up until now, I feel that the conversation about those events has been dominated by what I'll call the "doom and gloom" school of thought. This particular viewpoint is based on the idea that the majority of the world is wicked, a small minority is righteous, and even the righteous people will barely survive the spiritual and temporal onslaught until Christ appears to rescue them and usher in the Millennium.

My aim is to present a more "positive" version of the "last days" narrative to counter the "doom and gloom" viewpoint over a series of five posts. Since this is the introduction, here's an outline of what I plan on discussing:

1.) Jacob Chapter 5 -- Breeding Out the Bad Fruit.

2.) The Day Dawn is Breaking.

3.) A Positive Reading of the Book of Revelation.

4.) Circling the Wagons vs Lengthening the Cords.

5.) The Church, a Rough Stone Rolling.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Primary Sources

I'll show my hand – I'm a scientist. That doesn't really mean anything special except that I play with chemicals and cells on a daily basis, pretending that I'm doing something worthwhile. It also means that I was trained to keep digging through exorbitant amounts of information out there, past the anecdotal evidence, and past the citations of citations, until the primary source is uncovered. Let me put it this way: although Wikipedia is a great initial source of information, if I was ever to cite that website as my primary reference in a scientific report I would be hung for heresy.

This training and my religion explain much of my aversion to rumors and hearsay, and likely underpins my suspicion of the media. Apparently, Mike Wise of the Washington Post shares these qualms enough that he tried to illustrate the lowered standards of the social media in checking the accuracy of information. After intentionally pumping false information into cyberspace, several reputable media outlets picked up, and published the "scoop". The irony in Mike's experiment is that he was criticizing people for not using reliable sources when he WAS their source. When it comes to news and current events, I admit that I am guilty of trusting my trusted (i.e. favorite) sources. However, I try to exercise due dilegence and check multiple outlets. There is so much peril in turning to a single source for the details of a story because the media is not objective. Jacob S. has posted several times on the monstrosity that is the Daily Herald, and demonstrated how creative biased journalists can be. Obviously the opposite end of the spectrum is just as guilty.

Beyond op-ed opinions sneaking into all aspects of reporting is the, arguably much more dangerous, selection of what is reported. Media is big business, and in our overtly capitalistic society, they are legally obligated to make the largest profit possible. As such, current events can be sifted and sorted until the most lucrative can be selected. Take Pastor Terry Jones of Gainsville Florida as a prime example. Here you have a backwater nobody, with a congregation of 50 nobodies that gains international recognition for wanting to burn a book he has ostensibly never read. Why do we care? Religious fanatics say and do crazy things all the time, so why was this one different? The only reason I can find is that the media picked up on the story and fed the flames. We care because all our sources told us to care. For the record, I think the right to burn books should be defended, but what's the impetus for all the commotion? How does some starved-for-attention small town pastor rise to the level of importance that requires correspondance from the nation's Seceratery of Defense Robert Gates?! Again, the only reason I can think of is that the media wanted to cash in (pun intended) on the hype around the two-blocks-away-from-ground-zero—ground-zero community-center/mosque.

The recent mobilization of the masses is interesting, noteworthy, and even exciting. My concern lies in their primary source for information and guidance. I overtly support public demonstrations, especially when enlisting the masses to question traditions of the parties, interests of the powerful, and failure to deal with discontent of the populace. We must be more diligent in verifying the information we are fed from primary sources. Too many lips talk-the-talk, but few feet walk-the-walk.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Law of Consecration and Stewardship

I am currently reading the excellent book Building the City of God, which is a study of early communitarian efforts by the saints.  Though I'm obviously no historian, I thought it might be interesting to write a few posts about what I'm reading as I go along.  I just finished the section on the Law of Consecration and Stewardship, which was Joseph's early attempts in Kirtland and Missouri to get the saints to live a more perfect economic system.

The basic gist of the plan went something like this:  First, all members deeded their real and personal property to Edward Partridge, the presiding bishop.  In the earliest iterations of the Law the person would completely forfeit all property if they left the church, i.e. the church had full rights to the property.  Later, when civil courts eroded that away, the person could get real property back, but not personal property and not any of the yearly consecrations.  Second, Partridge would lease and loan back those respective properties to the individual, depending on their needs.  Third, the individual, though a steward over the land, would have the control to do with the property whatever he or she desired.  Finally, at the end of the year the individual would consecrate to Partridge any excess gains above what they needed.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Why I Can Kind of Sort of Support the Tea Party

I don't like the Tea Party, which should come as no surprise.  I don't like the fear-mongering and implicit racism that it invites in some (not all), I don't like the complete breakdown of civility, and I just don't like the politics of taking caring for the poor and elderly out of the government's hands.  I think the government has a valuable role to play in helping the underprivileged and underrepresented and in kick starting the economy when it tanks.  But they are doing pretty well this primary season (here is a list of their major victories).  Despite all of that, I find myself rooting for them, in some small way, for two reasons.

First, in the ulterior motive category, they give Democrats a better shot at holding on to seats that the Democrats otherwise would have certainly lost.  As a caveat let me just say that Democrats, as a party, are no great shakes.  But they are closer to what I espouse in politics than Republicans, so that's where my tentative loyalty lies.  So when I see races that should be Republican blowouts actually close and winnable for Democrats, I'm glad the Tea Party is doing well.  Some examples of this are the Nevada senatorial race, the Kentucky senatorial race, the Delaware senatorial race, the Colorado gubernatorial race, and a slew of house races around the country.  The primary voters are electing ultra-conservative candidates that moderate voters want no part of, and it's hurting their party.  If the Republicans fail to win back the House and Senate, you can point to the Tea Party as the reason why.

Second, *deep breath* I actually think they are good for democracy.  Most or all of those Tea Party primary wins came against the party-backed, system-approved incumbent or insider.  These are the type of candidates that expect to win because they are supported by the institution.  Reelection rates in America are somewhere north of 90%.  Politicians get comfy and complacent and power-hungry.  As a result we get a political class whose main goal is to continue to get reelected, as opposed to doing the work of the People.

So when a movement comes along which starts booting some of them out and putting the fear of the People in their hearts, I'm kind of on board.  I wish it was a movement of moderates or something more benign, and I hope they win as few general election contests as possible, but I see their intrinsic value nonetheless.  So, rock on, anti-establishmentists, vote out the stupids, but remember that I have a very different idea of what is stupid than you.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Ending the Bush Tax Cuts for the Wealthy

The Bush tax cuts are set to expire at the beginning of the year and the bombs are starting to fall in the political war over this issue.  Democrats want to let them expire for those making over $250,000 while extending them for everyone else.  Republicans want to extend them for everyone.  So, essentially, the argument is whether or not to extend the tax cuts for the very wealthy.  The two top marginal tax rates would go from 33% and 35% to 36% and 39.6%, respectively.

A second area of disagreement also has to do with taxing the wealthy, this time in the form of capital gains, which are disproportionally slanted towards the rich.  Those rates would go from 15% to 20%, and eventually to 23.8%.

Read up on the issues from both sides here, here, here, and here.  Another excellent resource is the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which lays out the argument for how letting the tax cuts expire for the wealthy and extending them for everyone else will reduce the deficit ($300 billion per year), almost universally benefit small businesses, and spur the economy and job growth.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Liberaltarianism: Might Mormons Embrace a Liberal-Libertarian Alliance?

I once foolishly asked if the liberal dominance of the immediate post-Bush era would have the effect of liberalizing Mormon voters.  The answer came resoundingly recently with a Gallup poll that showed that Mormons give President Obama the lowest favorability marks of any group, 24%.  Sigh.

So I started wondering if there is anything that could be done about this.  In my mind Mormons should feel very comfortable leaning politically left on issues such as immigration (love thy neighbors, the special place of "Lamanites" in Book of Mormon prophecies), the environment (the sanctity of all God's creations), war (Gospel of peace), and poverty (BOM: no poor among you, all things in common, 4 Nephi), among others.  But I am continually disappointed.

In my meanderings trying to figure all this out I came across my solution du jour: liberaltarianism.  That's right, the fusing of libertarianism and liberalism.  This newish brand of Western politics could be just the thing to shake Mormons out of our political heterodoxy.  Or not, but let's take look.