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An Immodest Proposal

I didn’t expect to hear about topless teens when I sat down in the pew that day. A missionary had returned from a mission to somewhere in the South Pacific. He spoke in church and devoted a large portion of his talk to chastising the young women where he served.

School graduations there require traditional attire. Traditional attire meant being topless for the women. The missionaries exhorted the young women to refuse to honor the tradition by dressing more modestly for their graduation. They pleaded with the girls to observe Heavenly Father’s standard for modesty. They reminded them how sinful it was to appear in public without covering their breasts.

The young women attended the ceremony in traditional attire despite the missionaries’ exhortations, and the speaker condemned the young women for bowing to custom and social pressure instead of following the word of God.

His remarks got me thinking.

After I stopped daydreaming about topless young women in grass skirts (thanks, Elder), I wondered: what exactly is the true standard for modest attire?

The talk reminded me of my own missionary service. I learned soon after I arrived in my first area that it was forbidden for missionaries to be in Seneca Falls during the summertime women’s rights parade. It didn’t matter that I arrived as the last of the autumn color was fading from the trees, that I would probably leave before I had a chance to violate the taboo. The other missionaries told me anyway, taking some relish in warning me that all of Seneca Falls was verboten during the parade because female participants often went topless.

It was apparently legal in the state of New York for women to go topless just like men. At least prosecutors refused to try cases. The missionaries also shared folklore with that topless sunbathers could be found at the top of Cobbs Hill in Rochester. Oh the devilish controversy these stories conjured in this young missionary’s heart! I heard stories of errant P-day activities at the top of Cobbs Hill, but I studiously avoided participation. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to.

The mission leaders forbid missionaries from these areas because the wanted to preserve us from the taint of sexual temptation. Randy young men can be hard to control, especially when their leaders remove all sexual outlets. The leaders expect the young missionaries to lead exceptionally celibate lives at the peak of their sexual drive. Personally, I felt like a boiler with a red-lined pressure guage. Any weakness could cause the whole thing to explode. Seeing topless women could be the beginning of the end.

As I thought about my missionary experiences, I could think of no particular reason that men and women shouldn’t be held to the same standards of modesty. Why should women’s chests be so much more sexually charged than men’s?

Many modern members of the LDS church will point to the temple garment as God’s standard of modesty: the limits of the garments define the minimum standard for modesty. My primary problem with this idea has always been that the garment has changed over the years. It originally covered down to the ankles and wrists and up to the neck. Today’s garment covers a few inches below the shoulder and down to the knee, and plunges quite low below the neck. If the garment is God’s standard, he seems to have changed his mind to suit changing fashions in the Western world. Would God make the garment even more abbreviated in the future?

Also, assuming there is an absolute standard for how well clothing should cover our nakedness, what happens if we shorten clothing even a little bit I wondered. If my shorts should cover my knees, what if I shorten them just a nanometer? (A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers) Surely a nanometer can’t make a perceptible difference in modesty. Surely shorts that reveal 1 nanometer of my knees are still modest. But if I can reveal 1 nanometer, why can’t I reveal 2? That’s still not enough to perceive. If 2, why not 3? Pretty soon, the assumed absolute standard doesn’t seem so absolute anymore. It seems downright subjective. I began to suspect the very idea of an absolute standard for modesty. Modesty came down to nothing more than an “I know it when I see it” test.

So if modesty is subjective, then whose standards did the LDS church preach? Did God set these changeable, hazy standards? It seemed like pretty sloppy work for a perfect God. Perhaps God just expects us to follow the standards of modesty for our own time and place. That made more sense to me. If the idea is to avoid titillating each other with naked flesh, then different cultures have different thresholds for titillation. An African man wouldn’t give any special attention to a bare chested woman. A Muslim might feel aroused by the sight of a woman’s hair.

Wasn’t the missionary just exporting his own cultural mores to those young women in the guise of serving God? Maybe the problem was that the missionary found the idea of topless young women titillating. The problem arose because of his cultural expectations, not because of the attire of the young women. He was the visitor. He failed to adapt instead expecting them to conform to an absolute standard that didn’t exist. He believed himself to be God’s emissary come to save the benighted natives from their lascivious ways.

I became a lot more forgiving of other culture’s standards of modesty after that missionary’s talk. No standard of modesty is more justifiable than another.

I would be remiss if I finished this post without providing photos and videos of topless women in New York.

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Confessions of the Lord’s Anointed

[The following is not intended to be an exposé of the Mormon temple ceremonies. The curious can find the temple ceremonies without the portions which initiates covenant to keep secret.]

When I arrived at the temple on that hot August day, I was in high hopes. This would be my first time through the temple, aside from youth trips to perform vicarious baptisms for the dead. I was told by my youth leaders before those trips that some particularly spiritual people see the spirits of the deceased who are being baptized in the temple. I had always hoped to be righteous enough to be like those people and see dead people in the temple. It never happened, but I blamed myself. I could think of lots of reasons God wouldn’t think I was righteous enough. Maybe someday I would be ready.…


I had heard such wonderful things about the temple. Everyone told me how special and uplifting it was. They told me that the Holy Spirit was stronger there than anywhere else in the world. I hoped that my experience in the temple would make my belief in the divinity of the Mormon church more sure. I believed that the gospel was true, but there were always doubts somewhere in the back of my mind. I longed to pass through the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost and take my place as a faithful member of God’s church with an abiding conviction. I wanted to be truly converted.

I would be leaving on a mission soon, and receiving these ceremonies was an important step in preparing to serve. I had taken a temple preparation class and the Stake President had hinted at what would go on within the walls of the temple. He wasn’t very specific because what went on in the temple was considered too sacred to be discussed outside of its walls, even within the precincts of the Mormon chapel that I had grown up attending.

I had already had ample opportunity to discover the secret ceremonies before I personally entered the temple if that is what I had wanted. I worked as a page in a local library, shelving books. My boss assigned me to a section of the library which included the religious books. The book Secret Ceremonies was published during my time at the library. I skimmed sections of the book reading about the sordid details of the author’s life in Mormonism, but I fastidiously avoided the sections regarding the details of the ceremonies. I didn’t want to violate the sanctity of the temple ceremony with my uninitiated eyes.

So when I arrived at the temple with my parents on that hot summer’s day, I was in the dark about most of what was going to happen. I entered the temple and showed the Brother at the front counter my living ordinance recommend which showed that I had been recommended by my bishop and stake president as a faithful Mormon who was worthy to enter the sacred temple.

I was led past the counter to the locker room where I would exchange my “street” clothing (dress slacks, shirt, and tie) for all-white clothing symbolizing light, purity, and equality. When I entered the locker room, I was met by a shocking sight. Two men wearing strange hats, white flowing robes, and green aprons entered the locker room. They had just finished an endowment ceremony and were returning to the locker room to change their clothing before leaving the temple. I had already seen the ceremonial temple clothing—which is worn on top of the white clothing I was wearing—when my mother and I had purchased my own ceremonial clothing in preparation for this eventful day, but to see it being worn for the first time was a striking experience.

What exactly had I gotten myself into? I wondered to myself. I swallowed my apprehension and dove in.

I was calm throughout the proceedings even during portions of the ceremonies which would have made me uncomfortable in other circumstances. Being clothed in nothing more than a white poncho for the washings and anointings didn’t bother me as much as I had expected (although I did check to make sure that they really did mean for me to take off all of my clothing). Fumbling like a toddler to put on the ceremonial robes during the endowment ceremony didn’t embarrass me like it might have.

You’re given several opportunities to back out before entering into temple covenants. I wasn’t told what those covenants were prior to being given the chance to back out, so it was a leap of faith on my part to plunge forward. I wondered if anyone ever had backed out in the middle of the ceremony.


I was hot and confused when the day was over as I drove home from the temple with my parents. The late afternoon was extremely hot and I was now wearing an extra layer of clothing: the Garment of the Holy Priesthood. The temple ceremonies were too much to take in all at once. It seemed like I had just entered into an entirely different church, one that I had no idea existed before today. I was bewildered by the strangeness of my experience, but it felt good to be a new member of this exclusive club. I felt more grown up. I reviewed in my mind my new, secret name; the secret grips and signs; and the words of the ceremonies. I believed that I would need to remember them to get into heaven, so committing them to memory was very important.

I hadn’t experienced profound communion with the Holy Spirit in the temple as I had hoped, but perhaps if I kept my new covenants, perhaps I would someday soon.…

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A View from the Outside

I ran across a couple of statements about Mormonism from outsiders to the religion today. The first was an excerpt on Mormonism from Christoper Hitchens’ new book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He got some Mormon trivia wrong here and there, but his take on Mormonism was largely well informed and unsurprisingly negative. May I never be on the wrong end of Hitchens’ scorching eloquence.

I also watched Bill Maher’s recent discussion on Mormonism. Yes Harriet, Elder Mark E. Petersen did preach that “If that Negro is faithful all his days, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. He will go there as a servant, but he will get celestial glory.” and President Brigham Young taught that a white man who “mixes his blood with the seed of Cain” (i.e. descendants of black Africans) should be punished with death. I had to look those statements up (this was news to me), but I’m not too surprised that they in fact taught exactly what he said.

What these critics say is substantively accurate. It is not anti-Mormon lies. It is based on the unvarnished, un-correlated facts. Apologetics only works on the faithful. To most everyone else, it looks like excuses. This is the greatest threat that I can see to Mormonism: the truth.

I feel a kind of sympathy for Mormons over the next few years. Mitt Romney’s candidacy for President of the United States is going to put Mormon beliefs in the spotlight of American consciousness even more than the Winter 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. People are going to want to know what a potential Mormon President’s beliefs are all about. Mormonism is going to get publicly scrutinized, and I have a feeling that it isn’t going to be pretty in a lot of cases if these two examples are a good indicator. They will watch as their religion is attacked in the public arena. They’re going to learn facts about their past which have been censored from church approved materials. Many will retreat behind comfortable lies to excuse their religion, but some will take the truth to heart. I feel sympathy because I remember how painful it was to unlearn what I thought I knew.

More and more, I think the public is going to see all the uncomfortable secrets hidden in Mormonism’s closet. Personally, I hope (probably without good reason) that seeing Mormonism’s foibles will cause them to examine the skeleton’s in their own closets.

By the way, don’t forget to watch the Frontline and American Experience documentaries about The Mormons next Monday and Tuesday.

They’re all crazy!—Bill Maher

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Temple Recommend Interview

Talking to God gave me the idea to conduct a temple recommend interview with myself. First I’ll answer them as my former self then as my present self.

1) Do you have faith in and a testimony of God the Eternal Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost?

Mormon Me: Yes. To myself: At least I’m pretty sure. I hope that counts. I mean I’ve never seen them, but maybe if I’m really righteous…

Awakened Me: No. I can’t see any reason to believe in God. If he does exist, he seems pretty truant. I never sensed anyone at the other end of all those prayers that I offered. In retrospect it seems like I was on my own the whole time. So, no I don’t believe in the Father, Son, or Holy Ghost.

2) Do you have a testimony of the Atonement of Christ and of His role as Savior and Redeemer?

Mormon Me: Yes. I’ve never really felt forgiven for anything, but I hope that if I go to the temple enough and do everything that’s expected of me I’ll be forgiven.

Awakened Me: No. Jesus seems like he was a great guy (if he isn’t just a myth). He had some interesting teachings, a lot like other moral teachers that came before him, but his followers took things too far. The Son of God? Seems like a religious power grab to me. Even if I could believe that he was God’s only begotten, why should I believe in him rather than the other messiahs of his time?

Oh, what was it that I need to be saved from again?

3) Do you have a testimony of the restoration of the gospel in these the latter days?

Mormon Me: Yes. Kind of, anyway. I haven’t made my mind up about Joseph Smith. He’s a hairbreadth from being just like all those cult leaders. Asking to marry someone else’s wife? That’s got “cult leader” all over it. But I guess he did a lot of good. The Book of Mormon and the Church are good, so he must have been alright.

Awakened Me: No. I haven’t made my mind up about Joseph Smith, though. He did some pretty awful things in his life and I don’t believe that he was called by a non-existent God. But did he really believe in his own calling or was he a charlatan? Did he start as a charlatan and start to believe his own lies? I just don’t know. He had some pretty innovative ideas about religion and I respect his willingness to go against the popular ideas of the day, but he was no prophet.

4) Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators? Do you sustain the other General Authorities and local authorities of the Church?

Mormon Me: Yes. I hope he doesn’t bring up home teaching.

Awakened Me: No. Why do you keep asking me these questions? It seems pretty obvious that I don’t believe in any of this, so why continue? Oh well, if you insist.

I think its too bad that they claim to be infallible. It’s even worse that people believe them. They’ve made a lot of mistakes and most of what they say just comes down to opinion. And what happened to all of those revelations? It seems like no one since Joseph Smith is willing to speak in the name of the Lord, on official record at least. The current leadership is more like the board of a corporation than prophets, seers, and revelators. Where’s all the new holy scripture?

5) Do you live the law of chastity?

Mormon Me: Yes. I wish that I felt forgiven for all that stuff I confessed before.

Awakened Me: Isn’t that a pretty personal question?! Who died and left you in charge of my sex life? Oh right, Him. I guess that makes something resembling sense.

No… Yes. Are you counting masturbation? Really?! I’d like some scriptural backup for that because I think that’s a bit too extreme. Seems like the church bought into all that masturbatory insanity nonsense.

6) Is there anything in your conduct relating to members of your family that is not in harmony with the teachings of the Church?

Mormon Me: No.

Awakened Me: No, though I’m not actively following its teachings.

7) Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

Mormon Me: No.

Awakened Me: Yes. Some of them are even in the LDS church. The more I think about it, it would seem pretty difficult to do any of your missionary work without affiliating with someone whose practices are contrary to the Church’s teachings. You really should get out more often. There are some really nice people out there who disagree with some things the church teaches. Didn’t Jesus affiliate with some pretty vulgar people?

8 ) Do you strive to keep the covenants you have made, to attend your sacrament and other meetings, and to keep your life in harmony with the laws and commandments of the gospel?

Mormon Me: Yes. Strive being the operative word.

Awakened Me: No, not really. I don’t really care about covenants that I’ve made with a non-entity or obeying his commandments. All the same, I don’t think you would notice much difference between how I live my life and yours. My lifestyle hasn’t changed much since I left the church.

9) Are you honest in your dealings with your fellowmen?

Mormon Me: Yes. Well mostly. I guess I could work harder at my job. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m giving an honest effort. Wait, does that mean I just lied about lying? Best to just keep quiet. What would it look like if I didn’t get a temple recommend?

Awakened Me: Not perfectly, no. But I feel a lot more honest now that I can talk about all of my doubts. I used to avoid investigating my doubts in case it might contradict the Church’s teachings. Truth and I weren’t on the best of terms. Now I do my best to find it even when it contradicts what I already believe. So, yes, I’m more honest than I was when I was Mormon.

10) Are you a full-tithe payer?

Mormon Me: Yes. Phew! At least there’s one question that I can answer without any reservation. I’ve been paying on the gross since I knew how to count my pennies.

Awakened Me: Not intentionally, no. What do you do with all that money anyway? Your church takes in a lot, but I don’t see as much coming back out. When was the last time you had an outside auditor look at your books? Don’t you think all those people giving you money deserve to know where it’s going? What do you have to hide?

11) Do your keep the Word of Wisdom?

Mormon Me: Yes.

Awakened Me: Mostly. I’ve heard green tea is pretty good for your health. You like Chai? You do know that’s made with black tea, right? Yeah, no. It’s tea. Um, maybe I should be asking the questions here.

Do you use meat sparingly, only in times of winter and famine? I see. Do you use mild barley drinks? Yeah that’s beer. Why not? It’s right there in D&C 89:17.

12) Do you have financial or other obligations to a former spouse or children?

Mormon Me: No. Another easy one.

Awakened Me: No.

13)Do you keep the covenants that you made in the temple?
Do you wear the garment both night and day as instructed in the endowment and in accordance with the covenant you made in the temple?

Mormon Me: Yes. I hope God isn’t too strict about that laughter thing.

Awakened Me: Let’s see if I can remember all of them. No. No. No. Yes. No. Yes. Yes. Yes. No. Yes. Oh and assuming that there’s a covenant with that last sign and token, yes. I keep some of those covenants just because it would seem disrespectful to divulge someone’s sacred secrets.

And no, I don’t wear the garment anymore. Why do you think God would insist on keeping husbands and wives from feeling intimate skin to skin contact while they sleep? I never noticed before how much intimacy I was missing.

14) Have there been any sins or misdeeds in your life that should have been resolved with priesthood authorities but have not been?

Mormon Me: No. Not this time, thank goodness.

Awakened Me: I haven’t done anything against the priesthood holders of the LDS church, so I don’t know of anything I need to work out with them personally.

15) Do you consider yourself worthy to enter the Lord’s house and participate in temple ordinances?

Mormon Me: Yes, through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

Awakened Me: Do I meet your criteria for entrance? No. Do I feel unworthy of entering? No. Would I go if you let me? Probably not. It would feel like crashing someone’s party and pissing in their pool.

Now that that’s over, have you seen The Matrix? It’s pretty thought provoking. Better than a lot of the scriptures.…

[temple recommend interview questions courtesy]

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[The following is something of a journal entry which I postponed publishing until after I was done telling the story of my awakening.]

11 Jan 2007

It is a little odd getting used to the feeling of new underwear. Things felt… different… as I walked from my car to the office this morning. Adding to this sense of newness was the new lavender-scented fabric softener that we used to launder our clothes last night.

I’ve been wearing Garments (more properly The Garment of the Holy Priesthood) ever since the day twelve years ago when I received my Endowment in the Las Vegas Nevada Temple. In a ritual that marks a kind of coming of age in the Mormon community, I was given this special form of clothing to wear out of sight underneath other clothing. I was admonished that it would be a constant reminder to me of the covenants that I had entered into during that ritual. I promised to always wear the Garment. Luckily there are exceptions for bathing, sports, and sex which you learn about by word-of-mouth outside of the ritual.

If I remained faithful to this promise and all the others, I was promised divine protection. When Sunday School lessons veered off the planned topic, sometimes I heard stories about Garment wearers who received burns to their body everywhere except where the Garment was covering. These stories emphasized that the protection was literal. The protection also extends to temptations to break covenants and commit all manner of sin.

I took the Garment off last night for what I presume to be the last time. I grieved this sign of my former Mormonism as I took them off. I quickly put on the new underwear. It felt strangely like Christmas. I didn’t know what to say as my wife saw me for the first time in Gentile underwear.

Perhaps it shows how fundamentalist I had become, but I was a little scared driving to work this morning while wearing my mundane underwear. In the back of my mind was the thought that God might teach me one final lesson in the guise of a fatal car accident. Thankfully I did not turn out to be the butt of a future cautionary Mormon legend told in off-topic Sunday School tangents, eliciting in the mind of the audience the satisfaction of poetic justice and a renewed determination to remain faithful. At least not today.

In fact today has been spectacularly ordinary aside from the new sensations of… freedom. I still feel like the same me. Removing the Garment hasn’t made me any more likely to sin.

In all fairness, the Garment is probably best understood as an outward sign of something internal. I haven’t felt that certain internal something for many moons, so the ouster of the outward sign is probably just a belated rectification of the situation. The change that removing the Garment represents had happened long ago.

My fear of divine retribution reminds me of so many other fears that I have let go. The fear that everyone in the room is staring at that volcano of a zit on my nose. The fear that no one in their right mind would want to be with me. The fear that demons would tempt me against my will to do bad things. The vague fear that I was not a worthy human being. The fear that leaving the Church would make me unhappy. So many of my fears have turned out to be illusions.

I was the illusionist. As long as I believed in them, these sources of fear were real. Once I stopped giving credence to these ideas, they vanished. In other words, it was all in my head! I was my tormentor and chief adversary all those years.

[I'm still around, living large in my Gentile underwear.]

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