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You probably haven’t met a Mormon like Joanna Brooks.
She’s liberal, accepting of gays and feminist. She’s married to a Jewish man. She’s not a fan of Republicans, and she won’t vote for Mitt Romney, a Mormon running for president.
This sets her apart from many deeply conservative Mormons, whose church played a major role in fighting gay marriage in California.
Yet this church-going Brigham Young University grad and San Diego State literature professor deeply values her faith. She also pushes for greater understanding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Just this month, her column for The Washington Post titled “Five Myths about Mormonism” drew more than 1,300 comments online and became the most-read story on the newspaper’s site.
She also responds to questions about Mormonism on her blog, Ask Mormon Girl, which offers “unorthodox answers from an imperfect source.” Recent questions include: “I’m sexually attracted to my fiance! Should I feel guilty?” and “No one at work knows that I’m Mormon. Is it time to come out of the closet?”
I met Brooks, 39, at her Del Cerro home where she lives with her husband, a San Diego State anthropology professor, and their two young children. We talked about her faith, her family and her future.
What’s a liberal, feminist, gay-friendly, Democratic girl like you doing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
I was born this way, to borrow a phrase.
Why’d you stay that way?
I love the tradition I grew up in, and it feels like home.
A lot of what my faith gives me has fueled my politics. I learned to be compassionate, to work hard, to sacrifice myself for causes I believe in, to not think of myself as part of the mainstream but as a minority with a specific history and responsibilities.
What do you love about the church?
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Mormons are very dedicated people with really good hearts, and there’s just something beautiful to me about growing up with a sense of belonging. A lot of people in American contemporary life don’t have a specific identity and heritage they feel responsible to. I count it as a privilege to belong to a community that has a really big place in American history.
I have a deep Mormon heritage: my grandmother’s grandmother crossed the plains to Utah when she was a small child. I’ve always identified with that strong history and felt a bond with those who sacrifice for their faith.
The points of conflict are only a fraction of what it means to be Mormon. Anyone who belongs to a minority community knows what it’s like to have points where you wrestle with the people who you come from. We all live through a lot of contradictions.
You could have been a quiet Mormon. What’s made you decide to be so public?
I’ve always been a writer, and as a Mormon especially, I was raised to share my beliefs and be proud of them. It’s something of a missionary zeal, you might call it.
As I got older, I realized there were a lot of people like me who felt extremely isolated and alone. And I also wanted the world to know that a tradition I value is more than the caricature. Mormonism is more than it’s often caricatured to be as ultra-conservative. It’s capable of sustaining a diversity of approaches to life, politics and all that.
Do you think the church’s founders wanted it to be as conservative as it’s become?
In its time, Mormonism was a radical social movement. Early Mormons to some extent practiced a mild of communalism, sharing resources and sacrificing for shared causes. They flouted Victorian sexual norms with polygamy. They were visionary, they were spiritual seekers.
It’s only in the middle 20th century, as Mormons became assimilated into broader American society, that we’ve become more aligned with conservative politics and the Republican Party.
How do you reconcile your feminism with Mormon beliefs about women? (The church doesn’t allow women to be priests.)
I was always raised as a Mormon girl to value myself and my mind and to believe that I could study and pray and find my own answers to life’s questions. Sometimes that came in contradiction with conservative gender politics in the church, like its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and its emphasis on stay-at-home motherhood. But in my life I’ve seen a lot of evolution in the church on culture and gender. The fundamental lessons about learning to value myself have always remained.
Can the church excommunicate you?
Feminists were excommunicated during the 1990s, and many young feminists are vaguely afraid this will happen to them. I’m not afraid. The church hasn’t excommunicated feminists for being feminists for about a decade, and I feel pretty good about that.
What sort of prejudice have you encountered as a Mormon?
When I grew up in Orange County, there was a pretty active anti-Mormon movement. Anti-Mormon films were shown to my friends when they went to church on Sunday, and people would call Mormonism a cult. People would put notes in my locker and write in my yearbook about how it was a cult. I was around 13, and I was mortified.
But that’s nothing compared to what most gay people or African-American people go through. Being a Mormon is never going to get you disqualified from a mortgage loan. It’s going to help you.
A lot of Mormons have a persecution complex. But while we may retain a sense of cultural outsiderness, and people may make fun of our beliefs, it doesn’t impact our opportunities for health, happiness and well being.
Do you think Mormons are especially prone to prejudice because the church is so young?
I always scratch my head when people make the church out to be exceptionally strange.
All religions are irrational or odd in some dimension. Mormonism is oftentimes pegged as odd or weird because it’s newer. Give us 1,000 years and we’ll seem as normal as Catholics.
How are you raising your kids in a home with parents of two faiths?
It’s a work in progress. It’s their business, and they’re figuring it out. Right now, our goal is to teach them as much of both our traditions as possible.
Mormons believe in an afterlife, one in which spouses of the same faith play a major role. You have a Jewish husband. How do you deal with this?
Everything is going to work out.
In many faiths, there are people who come down more on the side of the rules and those who come down on the side of compassion and mercy. I think good things will win out.
You’re an optimist.
I guess. I’m a person of faith.
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