Leaving the Fold
James W. Ure, editor
Edwin Brown Firmage
I believe that in the end the truth will conquer.
[p.215]Edwin B. Firmage teaches constitutional and international law at the University of Utah’s College of Law in Salt Lake City. A Hinckley Fellow at Brigham Young University, he graduated with high honors in political science and history; received a master’s degree in history from BYU; was a National Honors Scholar at the University of Chicago Law School; and served on the editorial board of the Chicago Law Review. He received Doctor of Law, Master of Laws, and Doctor of Jurisprudence degrees from Chicago.
Ed was a White House Fellow on the staff of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, with responsibility for civil rights. He also served as United Nations Visiting Scholar and attended sessions of the U.N. General Assembly in New York and the arms control negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1970-71. He was a Fellow in Law and Humanities at the Harvard Law School, and received the U. of U.’s Distinguished Teaching Award and BYU’s Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award. He was named Samuel D. Thurman Professor of Law by the U. in January 1990.
In 1987 the U. of U. invited him to deliver the annual Reynolds Lecture, “Ends and Means in Conflict.” He was awarded the Charles Redd [p.216]Prize by the Utah Academy of Science, Arts and Letters for outstanding contributions in the humanities and social sciences. Recipient of the 1989 Governor’s Award in the Humanities, given by the Utah Endowment for the Humanities, he delivered the McDougall lecture at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City in March 1989.
Ed is author or co-author of numerous books and publications. His book with Collin Mangrum, Zion in the Courts: A Legal History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was the first legal history of the Mormon experience in the nineteenth century and was named best book of 1989 by Alpha Sigma Nu, the Honors Society of the National Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities in the United States. With the late Francis Wormuth, he wrote To Chain the Dog of War: The War Power of Congress in History & Law; and with J. Welch and B. Weiss, he edited Religion & Law: Biblical, Jewish and Islamic Perspectives.
Ed was a participant in a Fulbright Seminar in the Soviet Union during the summer of 1990, and worked with Vietnamese refugees in Vietnam, Thailand, and Hong Kong in 1990 and 1991. He was the 1991 recipient of the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the highest academic award given by the University of Utah. In 1991 he was also awarded the Turner-Fairbourn Award for significant contributions to peace and justice. He has been an invited speaker at many institutions here and abroad, including lectures to Justice and Peace Representatives of the International Congregation of Men and Women Religious in Rome in 1993. That same year he delivered the Kellogg Lectures at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
It is autumn, and the University of Utah campus is particularly lovely. As you approach the law school, the trees of Cottam’s Gulch are resplendent in golds and tans. Ed’s office is on an upper floor with a view of Pioneer Memorial Theater and, beyond, Salt Lake City’s Avenues. Ed greets you, and immediately you’re at ease. He wears tan slacks and a plaid shirt which make his eyes seem very blue. A small scar marks his chin. He asks to change chairs, and leans back in a [p.217]lounger. He’s just had an inner-ear operation (“caused by sediments from the Balboa beaches”) and is still affected by it. He moves to a nearly prone position, and you feel like a psychiatrist looking down on a patient.
His office is small. On one wall is a striking poster of Desmond Tutu. Shelves are filled with books—books on war, international law, Constitutional law. A candle glows on a poster for Amnesty International. There are numerous photographs—of his mother, of himself with Vice President Hubert Humphrey and President Lyndon Johnson. Also hanging are a BYU Alumni Association Distinguished Service Award, and a U. of U. Distinguished Teaching Award. His Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Chicago is framed and sealed in wood.
I was born in Provo, Utah, in 1935. I had an active Mormon mother and a humorously semi-active father. Dad took organized religion with a substantial dose of humor. He was a spiritual man. I came to realize that in my adult years. He had to be coaxed or coerced into church. He found God in the mountains.
On horseback, we took a frying pan and coffee pot any Sunday he could because he worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, at Penney’s and then later the Firmage store. So there was conflict between Mom and Dad in that regard. I always felt deeply close to God. I never doubted. Not a Mormon god particularly, just simply God. But I didn’t have any particular interest in theology in my young days, and didn’t read scripture, including Mormon scripture, until my honeymoon. I was called on a mission when I was on a honeymoon. It wasn’t as astounding as it sounds in that it had been sort of planned. I became engaged to my former mate after one year at Brigham Young University. I always planned on a mission. I’d grown up in such a totally Mormon environment that one didn’t even think of a choice. It was not would you go, but when would you go. On my honeymoon I got a mission call to England. And in that two-week honeymoon I read all the standard works. It’s an interesting way to spend a honeymoon, but I did actually read all of the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Doc-[p.218]trine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price, the Book of Mormon—all essentially for the first time with any seriousness.
And you’d attended all your services regularly?
I’d been a pretty active attender except when I was off with Dad.
Was there ever any open discord between your mother and father about your going off with your dad?
Oh, yes, frequently. I remember being recruited by Mother to try to help convince Dad to stop smoking; he smoked a pipe—thoroughly enjoyed it. I approached him when I was just a little kid, three or four. Mother was a very artful, manipulative woman who, for all good purposes, didn’t want him smoking. So he stopped. He still enjoyed a cold beer every now and then. But due in part to my letters, mainly from the mission field, Dad became a Mormon bishop of two student wards at BYU and was a superb bishop because he was a very humane, kind man and didn’t care too much for the rule book. He simply spent his time counseling, giving good sage counsel to young people about life. Dad excelled at the sunny side of the haystack “reasoning together” on religion, and did extremely well. He was a very loved bishop. But I think he viewed God as a great mystery—he didn’t doubt God—but felt that many of the strictures that organized religion placed upon human beings (not the Mormons particularly more or less than others, but it was the Mormons he experienced) were rather severe and sometimes unfeeling. The trouble he got into as bishop was always with a superior, who wanted a harsh verdict of some sort. Dad also leaped over them occasionally and appealed to N. Eldon Tanner or Grandfather Hugh B. Brown on behalf of a young kid. For example: A youth going on a mission whom the stake president wanted to keep from going for doing something that 99 percent of young men have done (and the other 1 percent are liars). Dad wouldn’t go along with them and got Eldon Tanner to agree and that irked his stake president. Dad was released. But he was always very friendly toward the Mormon church and modestly active in it.
You mentioned Grandfather Brown. He was your mother’s father?
Yes, Mom’s father. When I came back from the White House after service with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, I lived almost next door to Grandfather, and so for the last decade more or less of his life we [p.219]were very close. We’d been all of our lives; he was a loving father and mentor in my childhood and youth. I’d worked with him when he was in Canada. I was in my mid-teens. I worked as a young man roughnecking the long end of a shovel on an oil rig. We had long talks in the evening, and there was never a censure or a harsh kind of ecclesiastical, authoritarian “this is the way it is and so you better believe” sort of thing, but rather he took seriously relatively childish questions. “Who’s God’s father” type questions—if that’s childish, it’s pretty profound really— and give them serious attention. I always saw reflected in his vast library and in the way he conducted his own life, a very humane, broad-gauged man, who didn’t fit comfortably within the conservative, authoritarian structure in which he worked. He was the odd man out. I grew up Republican because my parents—being mercantile types— were. And in Utah County and Provo, what else could I be? I always wondered why Grandfather was a Democrat among so many Republicans. I once asked Grandfather, “Why are you a Democrat?” His answer at the time seemed simple-minded. Since then I’ve found it rather profound. He said, “Eddie, I think the Democratic party is more sensitive to the poor.” He didn’t say anything else, no big theological or political thing … just “they’re more sensitive to the poor.” I now think that’s a pretty good way of judging politics and religion.
What comes first, the liberalism or the inactivity? I’ve talked to many people in the course of this project who are liberal and inactive, more so than of conservatives who are inactive. Any thoughts on why this may be the case?
I think it can be both. For me it was both simultaneously and before I knew either was happening. You could date a liberalizing influence when I was a young boy with Grandfather Brown having religious talks, and borrowing books from his library, most of which I never returned. As I consciously look back, it began for me probably in the mission field because I smuggled into my digs in England and Scotland the writings of the early Fathers, Greek and Latin Fathers— Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria. (And quickly thereafter, the writings of others—living people whom I would view as Christian disciples, like C. S. Lewis and Tolkien.) And the writings of Fredrick W. Farrar on Jesus and Paul. As I read these writers of the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh centu-[p.220]ries, I felt that they had been touched by God. I was too unconscious of what was happening to understand the awkwardness of what I was teaching as opposed to what I was reading. As far as I was concerned, I was strengthening my Mormon testimony. But I was laying the groundwork, laying some mines that would be detonated later, because the idea of preaching an apostasy and a restoration were antithetical to concluding that there was an unbroken line of writings from the gospel writings on; that there wasn’t any huge chasm between the end of the first century and the nineteenth. The idea that God was sort of snoozing until 1820 now seems to me absurd. Many deeply spiritual people were living, and I came increasingly to feel a deep affinity with them—like I knew them. That continuity increasingly came to be terribly important to me. The Mormon explanation for it seemed to trivialize God, and them.
I read a speech of Grandfather’s as I did a biography of him. Grandfather bought into this too, seeing all this as prologue, a great big drum roll for 1820. Years ago I finally said, “My hell, that’s a long drum roll.” Seventeen centuries of apostasy or at best prologue trivializes enormous actors on the stage: From Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria to St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas; Wesley, Luther, and the entire Protestant Reformation. These people were not a Greek chorus, prologue to Hamlet walking out on the stage. All of them had more impact than Joseph Smith in reality, in my mind now, in Christian history. But the more I read and the more I pondered and the more other life events began to hit me, my fundamental Mormon paradigm began to show fissures and then finally it cracked wide open. That is where political liberalism and theological and spiritual inquiry joined.
By 1960 Ezra Taft Benson had returned from Eisenhower’s cabinet and had begun preaching a powerful John Birch line, often disguised as if it weren’t, but it was—it was straight out of Robert Welch and his American Opinion magazine. Grandfather was the checkmate to this as best he could be. And I worked with him. I was a young law student just beginning my first year at Chicago when Benson had first raised the John Birch thing. Grandfather asked me to do a report for him on that subject. “Eddie what is this John Birch Society?” So I did a research paper for grandfather in 1960-61. Benson had returned and his son would become a coordinator for New England or some area for [p.221] the Birch Society, and a lot of this stuff was being infused by Benson into Mormon speeches and teaching. Grandfather was busy trying to checkmate this. About the same time I had just moved from the BYU environment to Chicago’s South Side. I’m asking myself theological and sociological and political questions exactly at the same time.
Why did you go to Chicago?
I was going to the University of Chicago Law School. Rex Lee and myself and a fellow named Larry Wimmer, who was a missionary companion of mine in Manchester, England, had all decided to go to the same school. We applied to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Utah, and Chicago. We were accepted by each of them and had money offered by most of them. Chicago offered us the most dough, and as young marrieds, we followed the scholarship funds. We also felt that Chicago was perhaps the premiere law school in the country. Larry Wimmer wanted to join the economics department at Chicago to study under Milton Friedman.
I took the Goldwateresque political views that I had acquired in a Provo environment to Chicago’s South Side, and that paradigm collapsed. I couldn’t see reasonable social and political answers coming through a sort of, “If you had any gumption, you’d inherit your own department store” sort of mentality. Though the university had an impact, Chicago’s South Side had a lot more.
After graduation and the acquisition of a few graduate degrees, I taught for a year at the University of Missouri Law School and then went to work on the staff of Hubert Humphrey in civil rights. The president had given Humphrey two big mandates: one over civil rights and the other was over relationships with the mayors and the governors. I ended up working with Roy Wilkins of the N.A.A.C.P., Whitney Young of the Urban league, and Martin Luther King, Jr., of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. And, particularly with Roy Wilkins of the N.A.A.C.P., I formed an intimate friendship. We often talked and he talked about the blacks and the Mormon priesthood and his sadness at that policy. He believed that both groups had much to give the other. He even offered to fly secretly into Salt Lake and meet with Grandfather and church leaders about this topic and not make any public to-do about it, make it absolutely secret.
[p.222]So those things were festering in me: what about the blacks? What about the priesthood? What about the constant, reactionary drumbeat of Mormon ecclesiastical teaching as it interfaced with politics that I was by then deeply involved in at the White House. For example, I spent a good part of my time planning the White House Conference on Civil Rights. Tickets to it were like gold. University presidents were turned away, governors were turned away; there was very limited seating capacity for it, although hundreds and hundreds would be there—everybody wanted to come. There had been no invitations to Mormons sent. Now the president and the vice president have what you call “night reading.” That is, they will read overnight some portions of the thousands of letters and memoranda that they didn’t write but bear their signature. Humphrey would take this correspondence home each night and glance through it. He saw a memo that I’d written to Clifford Alexander, who was the president’s man on civil rights (I played a similar role for Humphrey), saying, “Look, there isn’t a Mormon in this whole group. I admit that this group will not contribute to the cutting edge of debate on this topic—they’re way behind. But part of governance is not simply getting the best and the brightest to create new law, but also to bring the country with you through dialogue with many groups as you move into a radically different time— so won’t you invite two or three Mormons?” Humphrey happened to see this memo sent over his imprimatur—my name but on his stationery. He wrote back on it, “Eddie, I will support you. Tell me who you want invitations to go to.” So I chose four youngish Mormon general authorities whom I thought were up-and-comers at the time. Tom Monson was one and two or three others. [Marion D.] Duff Hanks received an invitation. But the word came down from the top: no Mormon general authority would be allowed to go. I know that Hanks would’ve come. They sent Milan Smith who was, as I recall, stake president in the area of the Capitol. The other major religious traditions had national and international church functionaries attending. You could multiply that incident a hundred times and those were the things I was bumping into.
Up to this time, did you have a basic bedrock testimony of the Joseph Smith story?
Absolutely. The whole thing. I was deeply disturbed by the black [p.223]and the priesthood issue, but I don’t choose my religion by a particularly disturbing single issue. Whether it’s the ordination of women or blacks or a more authoritarian structure than I feel comfortable with, I don’t leave, even de facto, an organization on the basis of some level of discomfort on one issue. There’d be no home that one could institutionally find if one did that. It was more fundamental things like Christian continuity. Increasingly I felt the need of continuity. I just felt uncomfortable with an 1820 beginning. I felt enormously deprived, spiritually hungry. When I got into the literature of other churches at a later time, I saw how thirsty I truly was. When I discovered in 1980 the writings of Thomas Merton and Francis of Assisi, it connected back with my meeting (through their writings) Lewis, Tolkien, Bonhoeffer, in the 1960s, and Farrar and the Fathers of the early church in the 1950s. But they came to have a deep impact on me. I felt the need institutionally to connect those centuries, and this feeling was utterly at odds with the Mormon response of apostasy and restoration; all those people in all those centuries were but a prologue to the Restoration. That idea for me disintegrated.
What happened at that time was a critical point in my exodus. The MX missile debate. Paradoxically so, because while I was chasing air force generals around the desert (debating MX), I was meeting wonderful religious figures, many of them Franciscans. I had long dialogues with Mormon leaders which lead to three Mormon messages by the First Presidency: a Christmas message, an Easter message, and finally an MX message, all dealing with nuclear weapons. The first two statements essentially condemned the nuclear arms race and expressed horror at such weapons ever being used. In addition, whenever KSL would editorialize in favor of MX, I’d be allowed KSL air time to rebut. Gordon Hinckley at the time was the head of the Public Affairs Committee, a euphemism for the “church-state committee.”
The “church-state committee”?
I’d call it that, if you scraped away the euphemism. Its jurisdiction concerned the relation between church and state. I’d been meeting with and writing Gordon Hinckley long memoranda based on the teachings of the Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants, and the teachings of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, et al., on force and violence and the Christian gospel [p.224]of love. There was great disharmony between those teachings and having a base in Utah and Nevada of the greatest collection of genocidal power that had ever been known. There was almost dark humor in basing such weapons in an area seen by the original settlers as “Zion.” Finally, I was asked to brief the First Presidency on this, which I did. I spent two hours with Spencer Kimball and Presidents [Marion G.] Romney and Eldon Tanner. I’d gone in with long memoranda. I knew but didn’t emotionally remember or realize that they were functionally nearly blind in old age. I had to tell them the story of MX and why I thought it was such a threat. I was due to fly off to make one last effort to dissuade Jimmy Carter from supporting MX. It was the one time in my life when I single-issued a candidate. I was on his reelection committee, and I said to members of his staff that if they went ahead with the MX, I couldn’t support his candidacy. Eldon Tanner called and said, “Delay your White House trip. We’ve found a later flight for you. We want you to come in and brief the Quorum of the Twelve and tell them what you told us.” So I did. This was the culmination of a year of private meetings with Gordon Hinckley. I briefed the quorum and the First Presidency (the First Presidency joined the Twelve in their meeting room). I wrote a draft statement that I hoped would be of some use. A week later the church’s statement on MX was released. I was then ready to start a nationwide speaking tour with a navy vice admiral, John Marshall Lee, and one of the heads of the Western Shoshone and the head of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association— a four-person truth squad, in our view of truth, at least, going across the country preaching against MX. I was just at that time going to brief the L.A. Times religion editor, John Dart, when the church called and read the statement to me. I said, “That’s great.” My interview with John Dart came out banner, front-page headlines: “Mormon Church Comes Out Against MX.” I think formal Mormon opposition is without a doubt what killed it, given the proposed MX location. Had it been located in New York’s Central Park, the Mormon First Presidency statement wouldn’t have found the obituary page. But given the location in the heart of the Mormon Great Basin, the idea of forcefeeding a missile down the throat of a group now utterly opposed was politically not possible.
The whole culture, basically.
[p.225]It’s simply not acceptable in a democratic state. I believe the First Presidency statement killed MX.
Long before that, I put together what was called “Utahns United Against MX.” It included our then new Roman Catholic bishop, William Weigand, and our Episcopal bishop Otis Charles, the Jewish rabbi, AFL-CIO leader Eddie Mayne, Maestro Maurice Abravanel, Chase Peterson of the University of Utah, and about seventy other luminaries. In this process I also had met people who’d change my life dramatically. They were more simple folk, mainly the Women Religious of Roman Catholicism. I met some spectacular nuns who were at the forefront of MX opposition in their communities; Franciscans in the main, but not always. A Franciscan sister in Las Vegas, Rosemary Lynch; Mary Luke Tobin of the Sisters of Loretto, who’d worked closely with Thomas Merton earlier in an abbey near his at Gethsemane, Kentucky. One of the few women invited to Vatican II. She introduced me to the writings of Thomas Merton. Rose introduced me to the writings of Francis of Assisi. By that time I was also into more secular writing—but writing directly relevant for me and my own pilgrimage— and that was the writing of Carl Jung—depth psychology. I was into a form of depth spirituality and depth psychology simultaneously from 1980 on. This was new to me, utterly new, without a Mormon counterpart. The “inner journey” rather than seeing simply a transcendent God out there sitting on some star near Kolob. There was another aspect of spirituality, I learned—God wasn’t only the transcendental “ultimate Other.” He was also a subjective God, in my heart, the Imago Dei. I’d been speaking without a means of spiritual, emotional, and physical renewal, almost alone, for over a year. The governor was still in favor of MX. He later became a valued opponent of the MX, but in 1979 he’d send a letter inviting MX to Utah.
That would’ve been Scott Matheson.
Scott Matheson, friend and colleague. He did a wonderful turnaround and became a powerful opponent of MX, but at an earlier time he was in favor of it. As were all of our Congressional delegation, my own party’s president, and the Congress which was Democratic. So it was a very lonely war. For a long time I was meeting privately with Gordon Hinckley, but other than that I was speaking around the state, doing everything I could to help people see not only the genocidal na-[p.226]ture of this weapon, but also to see the deep spiritual and moral issues central to this question. I came to a point where I was really burned out. I needed a source of renewal. And I don’t think my Mormon tradition gave me the teaching or the tools to renew. Maybe this is my fault, not any institutional fault, but as I saw my institution it didn’t provide an obvious way of renewal. Subjective spirituality wasn’t emphasized in Mormon teaching. We could make a desert blossom as a rose, but our own heart could be an arid desert. And the idea of meditation, of contemplation, of an inner journey, of Christian mysticism—or for that matter Buddhist spirituality or Hindu spirituality or Sufi spirituality— were utterly beyond my horizon.
Were you conflicted by this?
I was intrigued, fascinated, drawn by the rich mixture of history and spirituality. Of course, a lot of this was overcoming fearful stereotypes. Brick by brick a paradigmatic structure that had worked well for me for a long time was being dismantled. I couldn’t see Catholics through the lens of older stereotypes after Sister Rosemary. I couldn’t preach apostasy from the readings I’d done even as a young Mormon missionary. Lutherans, Jews … I mean, it all seemed like there was one huge central truth—and that was our common humanity. Then there was a secondary truth and that was the wonder of our individuality. This secondary truth could sometimes be controlling. For example, if I were single, which I am, I’d want to marry a woman, so the fact that I’m a man means that I’d be looking for a woman, and our common humanity, though a larger truth, wouldn’t control my decision to date women rather than men. But in human rights you could never have the secondary truth as being controlling. Whether I was black, or Catholic, or Mormon, or male, or Hispanic, an alien, or legitimate, or illegitimate—these ways we categorize ourselves in law and sociology— shouldn’t overpower for human rights’ purposes the primary truth of a common humanity. I saw this universality preached better by different organizations than my own.
I have to go back now because I’ve missed one terribly important man in my life. Other than Jesus—and that’s unfair competition, to compete with God—it would be St. Paul. I wrote a little book on Paul; it was meant as a little morality play for my brothers and sisters of the Mormon church. I first read Paul as a young missionary in England in [p.227]a version of the Bible that wasn’t King James (and I think that was important because I needed to see it afresh without a sing-song familiarity). When I read the second chapter of Ephesians and Paul talked of a universal humanity, it blew my mind. Here’s this provincial young man from Provo, Utah, never seen a black guy, and Paul is talking in Ephesians about an absolutely universal humanity. He’s fighting the problem of whether a gentile must first become a Jew before becoming a Christian. In the earliest period of Christianity, all Christians had also been Jews. But then the Christian church had to confront the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon of gentile Christianity. By then you’re having this phenomenon of gentile Christianity and it would foment the first Christian Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Paul wins. The gentile Christian need not be circumcised or obey any other of the Jewish law to become a Christian. Jesus becomes the door for the gentile Christian convert.
Paul’s vision of universal humanity makes him one of the four or five great people in history. Though for Paul, it didn’t extend to women. (Even here, however, Paul’s personal practice must have transcended his traditional notion of the role of women in religion. We owe to Paul and his traveling companion Luke almost all of the names of women we have in the New Testament.) This Pauline vision of universality made it possible to evangelize the whole world.
This universal statement to this Provo boy simply blew my mind. Later my experience in Chicago, then falling into the arms of Hubert Humphrey and Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young and Martin Luther King would explain my growing sense of human universality. Later I’d begin to meet, through literature, Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi, and Carl Jung. These would be my guides to the center of my own soul.
Now I have to qualify all this. As I’ve aged, I see the reality of the objective God, the ultimate Other. I don’t think the inner journey is the whole story; it’s simply a yin and yang. I believe in an objective God who’s different from me, utterly different than me, and who’s somewhere. I believe that Jesus is Christ, God’s son, and somehow God incarnate himself. I believe that historical fact and that objective reality. I also believe, as Jesus said, that “the kingdom of God is within you.” There’s the need of an inner journey, of creating one’s own myth, the story of subjective spirituality. And there I had no Mormon help, no [p.228]theology, and no institutionalization for me to go out on a dream quest, to go inside. Yet in the MX controversy I desperately needed it because I was burning out. A sister in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Francis Russell, who was a Franciscan and who headed opposition to MX right there under the noses of the air force, introduced me to the retreat process, as did Sister Mary Luke Tobin. I met Mary Luke when I was the house-Mormon in an ecumenical service opposing MX in North Dakota, sponsored by the Methodist and Catholic bishops of the state. Mary Luke and I were the keynote speakers at the ecumenical service. She introduced me to Merton. (She runs the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange in Denver.)
The Episcopalian and Catholic view of history, of continuity, deeply appealed to me. I feel the need for connection of centuries. Episcopal practice, for me, performs the necessary though awkward precarious job of accepting the Christian teaching through every century before the Reformation, and equally accepting the central teachings of the Reformation.
Mormonism didn’t give this to you?
Mormonism didn’t do that. I read one of Grandfather’s speeches again. At one point he’d talked of the importance of the Reformers and the importance of what had gone before. But again, to him, it was a big drum roll. A big drum roll for the restoration in 1820. And I thought, My hell! Augustine isn’t a drum roll! You know, the great Protestant reformers, the Church Fathers; this isn’t a prologue to something else. Christian teaching and spirituality have continued from the beginning through the centuries. God is speaking in every century in a magnificent fulfillment in and of itself—not as a prologue to something else. I thought, How tiny we make God. And how tiny we make these figures. Could I really worship a God that snoozes around from the end of the first century until 1820? What the hell was he doing?
At the same time, going back to your original question—it was happening simultaneously, these things were interacting, like an antiphonal chorus. For example, after my work with Martin Luther King, Ezra Benson sent a statement directly after Martin Luther King’s death, attacking that great religious leader, to the general authorities. He referred to King as an agent of the Communist conspiracy and all this horseshit. I’d worked with the man. So at the time I’m having deep [p.229]theological questions, deep centerpieces of Mormon theology are coming unglued for me. Simultaneously the radically reactionary, almost paranoid conservatism, of Mormon politics and sociology was also alienating me.
You can’t get a more secular issue than MX. And yet in God’s wonderful paradox, it’s the process of fighting a war against the MX and the decision by the air force and the president to base the MX in the Great Basin that would become the springboard for an enormous spiritual awakening for me: meeting Francis of Assisi, Thomas Merton, Carl Jung, and another big name for me, Gandhi. In preparing for the Reynolds lecture in 1987 in Canterbury, I took mainly Gandhi, Jung, Francis, and Thomas Merton; those were the big four.
You were the University of Utah’s Reynolds lecturer in …
In 1987. I wrote it in part in the Canterbury Cathedral, with an appointment at Kent University. The Reynolds lecture was a deeply personal lecture; it was my story. Then in 1989 came the supposed sequel. I viewed the McDougall lecture—which was to be a great defining point for me, in both my marriage and in my church—as simply a sequel to the Reynolds lecture—part two of my story. The Reynolds lecture was in three parts. The first part dealt with the nuclear issue in international law. The second part dealt with the constitutional issue of how we go to war (based on my book To Chain the Dog of War written with Francis Wormuth). The third part was beyond law. Law can help, but it leaves you hopelessly short of where we must be. Even if by law you could eliminate all nuclear weapons from the earth by fiat, you don’t lobotomize a generation of physicists. You could begin the whole process of arms racing again. How do you change the souls of human beings? How do you change your mind? I went into the depth psychology of Jung, and Christian and Buddhist and Islamic spirituality. Then in the McDougall lecture, I began where the Reynolds lecture ended: beyond law. Going where law can’t get you. Spirituality and psychology. The inner journey and the outer consequence. I gave the McDougall lecture at the invitation of the Catholic bishop. I didn’t view it as an assault on the Mormon church. It was perceived as that because as a very small part of a thirty-page tome on Jesus, Gandhi, and Jung on reconciliation and spirituality, I said I longed for the time in my own church when sev-[p.230]eral black people, some of them women, would sit on the stand as general authorities in our holy house, meaning the tabernacle. The Cathedral was packed—about a thousand people in attendance. They, hearing the whole thing in context, reacted extremely warmly to the message. But the media, quite correctly I suppose, highlighted the statement on the ordination of women. That was the newsworthy portion, in their opinion. Well, all hell broke loose. I had hundreds of letters, three death threats. Overwhelmingly most were positive, including all the communication from Catholic priests and sisters: they favored the ordination of women. But the reaction from the Mormon church was different. I think they misunderstood. I’m an old political pro and had I wanted to tack my thesis on the Mormon temple door I’d know how to do it. I hadn’t put out press releases. I viewed the lecture as my personal story, more of a mea culpa regarding my own patriarchal past: “Here’s how I should be viewing women, and I haven’t in my life.” Well, the speech—this is an overstatement but not too much—ended my marriage and changed fundamentally my relationship with the Mormon church.
The McDougall lecture in 1989 was a defining point. But it was more than the straw that broke the camel’s back—it was more like a two by four. The response at church headquarters was immediate. There was formal rebuttal in the Salt Lake Tribune and all through the media. It was talked about in thousands of congregations. I received letters almost instantly, from all over the country and around the world. The issue was the role of women in religion—the feminine face of God.
Was it serious enough that you thought you might be called before a church court?
My stake president called me, and many have been excommunicated for far less. I was the first active Mormon male to make this call for women in the priesthood. Many have done so in frankly a more tepid fashion later and most of them have been excommunicated, men and women. I don’t know why I haven’t. I’ve done what I’ve done with great respect. I’ve never spoken disrespectfully of a general authority.
You obviously have very warm feelings for …
I have warm and intimate friendships with many general authori-[p.231]ties. All this time during the MX struggle, some of those friendships had significantly deepened. But truly I didn’t see my actions, as naive as it may sound, as leading any crusade. I saw the McDougall lecture as my most intimate statement of my own spiritual journey, which included not a little acknowledgment of my own blindness and insensitivity in my attitude towards women. I bore witness. I didn’t intend to lead a movement.
My Christianity is far more central to my being than my partisan political beliefs. I’m an active Democrat, I’m a liberal Democrat. I love the old social gospel, as unfashionable as it is right now. So I find my Christianity and my liberal Democratic inclinations very compatible. I’ve often been a sort of Lone Ranger leading off on some crusade on the First Amendment and the Utah Supreme Court, or civil rights in Utah for blacks or Hispanics or women, arms control, peaceful resolution of disputes, the MX missile, etc. But like any other human being, I need group worship and group association. In a Mormon context, I was finding that it would take me Wednesday to recover from Sunday service. I was no longer renewed by a Mormon service. I felt assaulted and degraded, or at least beat up on, not personally, but ideologically and spiritually.
In the early MX meetings in 1979 and 1980, I’d begun to go to St. Mark’s, the Episcopal cathedral, in Salt Lake City. First came a retreat with Otis Charles, then Episcopal Bishop of Utah … a silent retreat. I had no idea what I was getting into, three days of silence.
Was that difficult?
It wasn’t; it turned out to be rather nice, but I was utterly astounded. I thought we were going to have three days of discussions on religious topics, and I said, “My hell, Otis, you mean we’re going to sit here and not say anything for three days?” He said, “Essentially, yes, Ed. We’ll have conversations in the evening, but basically we’ll be silent.” That was a big first for me. Since then, silent meditation and contemplation have come to be the center of my spirituality. Prayer is at the heart of my spiritual life. A deep love of the New Testament would be a second moral and spiritual worshipful element. As a young Mormon missionary, I read the New Testament nineteen times. I just loved it. I kept a copy in an open jockey box in an English Ford that I drove around. I was second counselor in the mission presidency, trav-[p.232]eling all over the United Kingdom. When I’d stop at red lights, I’d read one paragraph and put it back. I had a love affair with the New Testament that has never ended.
You’re very spiritual.
I won’t put tags on myself, but my spiritual journey is the center of my life. Without it my life would have no meaning. My center isn’t law professoring, it isn’t fighting for constitutional issues. They’re important to me, but the centerpiece would be Jesus as Christ, and St. Paul as a spectacular disciple of God with a universal vision. It has huge implications for civil rights and civil liberties, for the fight in California now regarding aliens and scapegoating, to issues of race and gender. I draw huge political implications from my theology, but it’s that direction and not the reverse. In finding a religious home, I had two powerful attractions: Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal church, and I still do.
Could you embrace either of these today?
Yes. The reason I have in the last couple of years gravitated toward the Episcopal church is that on several core issues I find the Episcopal tradition more compatible with my own views. Everywhere sexuality touches the church I find myself uncomfortable in Catholicism. These include issues of the requirement of a celibate clergy; divorce and remarriage; the role of women in the church government, including ordination; abortion and choice; and birth control. I think Protestants have a blind spot when it comes to celibacy. Through my dear Roman Catholic sisters, I’ve come to understand the need for many who feel called to celibacy, but I oppose celibacy as a requirement for ordination. I find a comfortable theological ambiguity in the Episcopalian faith, while offering me the same episcopal and apostolic continuity through the centuries.
The Episcopal faith wonderfully acknowledges a paradox in the Reformation. They are partially a Reformation church, accepting the Reformation, but they don’t denounce the Catholic tradition which came before. Where I will eventually be, I don’t know, but I’m in contented communion at St. Mark’s. I’m a member of the Mormon church. My tribe or ethnic group is Mormon. My religious practice is Episcopal, my theology is catholic—small “c”—and my spirituality is [p.233]a blend of Catholic, Episcopal, Buddhist, and Hindu spirituality, with one huge center—Jesus as Christ.
You sound very confident.
I know who I am and where I am. I can be damned wrong on many things, but this is where I am. And I’ve been public enough about it that I’m not in the closet on any issue.
Can you see a time where you might ask to be excommunicated from the LDS church?
Yes, if I felt tension between my Mormon membership and my Episcopalian communion and practice. The Episcopal church looks upon my baptism as valid. I’m a baptized Christian. I’m invited to take the Eucharist. My dear Dominican friends never denied me, and I often took the Eucharist at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, at the Newman Center here, but they were violating their rules and I was forcing them to violate their rules. I came to be uncomfortable in this. If I were to marry after being divorced, unless I went through the annulment procedure, which I find deeply offensive, I couldn’t take the Eucharist even if I became a Catholic. So the invitation to receive an ecumenical Eucharist “for all who are searching after God” at the Episcopal church again is an invitation, an ecumenical invitation, to me. I don’t renounce my Mormonism. I’m proud of our nineteenth-century heritage of suffering for the right to practice a peculiar religious tradition. I also acknowledge the power of Mormonism as an ethnic and tribal phenomenon. I personally think you can understand Mormonism far more clearly by seeing it as dominantly an ethnic group and secondarily as a church.
I think it’s deeply tribal with all of the empowerment that allows, and that’s great. I mean, when you talk about social organization, and taking care of your own, and organizations for young people, the Mormon church is formidable in its power. But tribal power has its shadow side. The shadow of a tribe is that you can excommunicate God. God is no longer at the center, the tribe is, and you’re involved in a strange group self-worship. That’s a form of corporate ego-centrism, where the center of the group becomes itself, that is the tribe. Tribalism has great power. You belong. There’s no anomie, there’s no [p.234]“lonely crowd.” You know who you are. But God isn’t at the center. The tribe is at the center. That’s what makes it a tribe. The cost, however, is the excommunication of God. The First Commandment is obliterated.
I’m of the Mormon tribe. My biological great-great-grandfather is Brigham Young, and, by temple sealing, Joseph Smith. My great-great-grandmother, Zina, was married to Joseph Smith, sealed before his murder. After Joseph’s death, she was married to Brigham. I’ve never felt embarrassed by, or in need of, renouncing my Mormon roots. It’s just that the paradigm of life that they offer me now at this time in my life, in my spiritual journey, won’t work for me.
On the other hand, how does your paradigm accommodate Mormonism’s teachings regarding the after-life, especially regarding your former mate and eight children?
I don’t think Joseph Smith interpreted Jesus correctly on marriage in the New Testament any more than I think the Catholics interpret Jesus’ statements on divorce correctly. I simply appeal to C. S. Lewis and to my sense of a loving God. I believe that we’ll be with those whom we love; what the relationship is I haven’t the foggiest idea. In one of Lewis’s great books, he says, All we really know about the hereafter is that if we try to picture the most beautiful picture that can possibly be, the reality will be incomparably greater. I fully believe that. I have no fear of death in that sense. I’ve had to bury one child, three months of age. And my father. And loved friends. I miss people as they die. I hope to be missed when I die. But I’ve had plenty of dreams and plenty of contact that tell me that life is forever, that if we love each other here we’ll love each other there. The Mormon paradigm on life after death isn’t without its problems. I can’t imagine anything more hellish than to be with someone for time and all eternity if, even though not divorced, you didn’t get along very well. I don’t think entrance into heaven will be determined by a handshake or a sign or signal, nor do I believe associational rights will be determined by a temple ceremony. I think the temple ceremony is beautiful in that it presents an opportunity for someone to go in, shed earthly clothing, to put on white, and for a time try to determine spiritual true North. But when one makes it terribly literalistic, you’re dealing with what Jesus was talking about in straining at gnats and swallowing cam-[p.235]els—why Jesus seemed to hyphenate lawyers and hypocrites, why “the hearse horse snickered as it drew the lawyer away.” I don’t think that literalism is what it’s about. It’s about love. I think we’ll be with whom we love. I have no doubt of a resurrection; I have no doubt of an afterlife. The McDougall lecture came as a dream. I re-entered a dream. I’ve been studying Jungian psychology with a fine Trappist monk who’s also a certified Jungian analyst, who studied in Zurich for many years. I tried dream re-entry. It worked. I talked to the woman in my dream. I won’t tell you the whole dream—it’s intimate. But basically the McDougall lecture was merely my recitation of what I received in the dream. Is that the “other side”? I don’t know; it’s probably the other side of my psyche; but within that dream, I was in touch with some aspect of divinity.
Have you ever been in analysis or therapy?
I’ve studied with professionals in study groups. I was in therapy before divorce and after, but it has nothing to do with what we’re talking about. The friend I’m talking about was a Trappist who came out here from Gethsemane [Kentucky] where he’d known Merton and was for twenty-odd years in Huntsville but also spent years in Zurich training as a Jungian analyst. I worked with him for a long time. I worked with him personally in a study group, not as a patient.
I think I got derailed on one little point, probably a minor one, but you were asking about friendly relations with general authorities. I mentioned the Rosenblatt prize. Gordon Hinckley was at the university convocation. This was two years after the McDougall lecture and all the public debate about ordaining women. We had a very friendly talk. There never was a word of censure, never a word of criticism, or even raising the issue. He said how much he appreciated the award being given me and that he appreciated this renewal of an old friendship.
I was called in by my stake president directly after the McDougall lecture. The issue, of course, was my statement about the ordination of women. I said to him that I supposed that Elder Dallin Oaks or some other of the general authorities had directed him to do this, and the president’s facial expression confirmed this. My stake president wasn’t an intimidating kind of man; he’s a very kindly guy. By this time a media fire storm had erupted over my comments about the ordination of women and the general role of women in religion. Hun-[p.235]dreds of letters and calls had come in, including several death threats. I was separated from my wife and was soon to be divorced. Personally I was in a shambles. So I was agitated, apprehensive. I arrived at the stake president’s office before he arrived. After some time his secretary came in and said he’d been delayed in traffic. With this unexpected delay, and amid the stress and agitation of that time, I sat back and meditated. The same woman I had had contact with in the dream was there as I was meditating. She put her hand on me, and we seemed to dance through the cosmos. She gave me a blessing. When he came in, I was utterly relaxed. He was flustered and very upset that he’d kept me waiting. Spontaneously, trying to put him at his ease and without any premeditation, I said, “President, I know why you’ve called me in. I’ve had a lot of time waiting for you to arrive … I’ve really had a chance to rethink my own positions on things. I don’t think I can accept a call to the stake high council at this time.” I said it dead-panning you know, absolutely serious in my expression. His jaw dropped down and he couldn’t get his mouth to close. He looked at me in shock. Then I couldn’t resist laughing. I started to laugh, and he laughed, and then we both embraced and our entire time together was very friendly. All he basically said was, “What is this thing?” referring to the McDougall lecture. I took him through it page by page, and he said, “Well, you’ve had death threats, can we do anything for you?” I said, “No, I don’t take them seriously. I had serious death threats in the MX controversy. This time, I think, I simply pushed some good old boys beyond where their vocabulary for invective could allow them to respond. Had they grown up in Provo when I did, they’d have the profanity sufficient to say what they really meant.” I said that a Mormon sister across the street from my home had come over to me and said, “Ed, we don’t know what you’re talking about half the time, but we know you and we know you’re something of a pacifist, but if anybody comes around here with death threats we’ll beat the tar out of them.” I said I felt quite secure and don’t worry about threats. We hugged and that was that.
For some prolonged time I did have some attempt at institutional intimidation directed from the general authority level, not from my ward or stake. Everywhere I spoke for several years after that lecture I had someone taping my talks.
[p.237]Is it possible that your positions have in the past helped become catalysts for change within the church?
It surely did in the MX controversy and perhaps on some other issues related to civil rights.
Perhaps some day we’ll see changes in the status of women?
I know it’ll come. Whether it comes because of anything I say or do, it’ll definitely come.
But you’re adding to the many voices, and your voice carries a lot of authority.
There isn’t a down side to the ordination of women. That’s the impelling point, I think; that is why I think it’s inevitable. If you talk Roe v. Wade, abortion, I can give you as powerful an argument on one side as the other. Either side you take, and I have a definite side, it’s the opposite side than I had for a good part of my life. But I see a powerful down side to it. An ethical, legal, moral down side that is awesome either way you go. In other words, you pay a huge cost by accepting any position on the question of abortion. But the day after the Mormon church ordains women, they’re going to say, “What in the hell was the fight about? That didn’t hurt a bit.” Mormons have yet to have their Vatican II. They need it badly. Within Catholicism, at Vatican III, I expect bishops to bring their wives. And at Vatican IV bishops will bring their husbands.
Several months after the McDougall lecture, I finally sat down and cogently wrote an op ed piece for the Salt Lake Tribune as I had written the first op ed piece opposing MX, the first voice against MX in 1979. The next day the Mormon church came out with a statement against my position. They quoted Boyd Packer. The statement was basically an appeal to tradition. There wasn’t a substantive reason given. I’m not diminishing the importance of tradition in church practice, but there has to be something undergirding the tradition. The article basically said, “We do it, because we do it, because we do it.” He said, “Motherhood is the equivalent of priesthood. Men have priesthood, women have motherhood.” I responded that “men have fatherhood as women have motherhood. Fatherhood and motherhood are each other’s equivalent. Priesthood is entirely apart.” The vacuousness of the church’s position seemed to me apparent. The reality is that there’s no reason that I can perceive why men must mediate God for women.
[p.238]Can you foresee any circumstances under which you might re-embrace Mormonism and become active again?
I can’t. It would take a huge, almost impossible, institutional change to accommodate where I am spiritually. I don’t think Mormonism could transmute itself in a time span that my life would demand. If there is no apostasy, then there is no Restoration. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a first vision. Joseph Smith’s first account of the first vision sounded almost the same as John Wesley’s. Hundreds and hundreds of Christian mystics have had a similar experience—a sort of personal witness that their sins are forgiven, that God loves them, and that God is. There was nothing about all the churches having been in error and utter apostasy. There was nothing in it about forming a church. It seemed to be a personal vision. Now, having had dreams of importance, I understand that one can ponder a particular meaning, and perceive a meaning and a richness that one didn’t understand at first. How much more I understand about my 1989 dream now than I did in 1989. So I can understand Joseph Smith in spiritual dialogue internally trying to figure out what happened in 1820. It’s possible that his various versions of what happened can all be legitimate in a sense. But the integrity of his original statement, not condemning other churches nor denying their authority, would allow us to adopt and use the riches of all the authors of Christianity through two millennia. If the Mormon church came to adopt that kind of an idea, it would allow all sorts of ecumenical outreach. Great incomprehensible riches in theology, in spirituality, and in social and political ethics could be ours. We could use the richness of all Christian tradition. We could also honor and use the best of Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic spirituality. Mormonism stripped of hubris, slimmed down to be a true church rather than the true church, could have God at its center, not its ethnic tribal self. The first commandment would be honored by eliminating the corporate or tribal ethnic self-worship that presently relegates God to the periphery.
What about your children? How have they dealt with your becoming inactive, with this new awakening? Are they active? Are some inactive?
All of the above. As divorces go—and they’re savage things—ours was a love fest. We see each other almost daily. I have open access to the home. We regularly enjoy meals and family parties celebrating [p.239]birthdays, or simply all getting together. We have constant association with the kids. And the kids are often at my house. We live only two minutes from each other. Davey, my youngest, slept at my house last night. We go on family vacations together. Gloria gets one home and I get another, on Balboa Island. We’re much better friends than we were mates for the last decade, let me put it that way. Her final letter to me was very tender; it basically said, “You’re like a huge boulder and everywhere you go people and things kind of get in your orbit and I’m there too.” But then, mixing her metaphors, she said, “I have a song to sing too and it’s not your song.” It wasn’t on civil rights, it wasn’t on the First Amendment. She’s a very conservative person. So when I’m out doing stuff with Hubert Humphrey, that’s not what she’d have me do. When I’m working with Martin Luther King, it wouldn’t be where she’d be. Surely on the ordination of women—she was simply appalled. And on this last article supporting gay rights at East High School and analogizing same-sex marriage to polygamy in terms of some of the invective that was heaped on both—it just blew her mind. She needs to be where she is … the marriage ran out of gas. We were wonderful partners during the time we could be together, but for the last decade that was increasingly impossible. I was moving too far— and she rightly said, “You’re the one who changed. ”We started in the same position in the Provo of the 1950s. I changed radically during that time. This doesn’t mean friendship can’t remain. The kids range from one active son who just returned from a mission to several children in some modest level of activity to several who are completely alienated. But each child had reached her or his own position as part of their own journey. On Thursday we’re all gathering as a family to fast for my oldest son for a particular purpose—a venture he’s engaged in. We’ll all do that with various degrees of belief in the efficacy of a fast or prayer. I have one daughter who had her name removed from the church, having to do with the role of women. She and her sister faced particularly harsh realities in their own personal life based upon what I think is, very accurately, a subordinate view of women in the Mormon tradition. They don’t want to take it any longer. One’s out formally and one’s out informally. So it ranges from an active returned missionary from South America right down the line to some kids who’d think I was an old fuddy-duddy for my very orthodox belief in Jesus as Christ and my belief in a personal God. But we’re very close, [p.240]enormously close as a family. They like to be together; they choose each other as social partners over other people.
We haven’t talked about one important issue, but I can hand you a document that explains my thinking and experience. I’ll give you the article that I wrote for the Event magazine on the gay-lesbian support group at East High School. I’d spoken at the Capitol Hill rally protesting the state legislature’s hate speech and hateful action taken against the appeal of young high school students to form a gay/straight support group at East High School. Several days after the speech, I was asked to write an article for the Event, a local alternative newspaper. It was a deeply personal thing for me. Serendipitously, the night that I was asked to write the article, I was due to fly off the next morning to spend some time with my wonderfully Mormon mother who was in Nauvoo serving as a guide and host. Two days later, coming home, I found all these letters on my desk from the Capitol Hill speech, hundreds of them, from Family Fellowship, which is a Mormon support group of Mormon parents of gay and lesbian children. These letters and articles included horrendous stories of suicide of children, of what I’d term ecclesiastical abuse—not from vindictive bishops as much as ignorant bishops—and stories of wonderful love from some of them. As I continued to write or rewrite this article, the scapegoating of other human beings by legislative and religious leadership was apparent. My mind returned to Nauvoo where my mother and I stood on the banks of the Mississippi, reliving the history of our own people who were savagely persecuted for, among other reasons, practicing a form of sexual relationship— plural marriage—which the country found shocking and unacceptable. The painful paradox of a people formally persecuted for polygamous marriage now persecuting their own people who are homosexual struck me like a punch in the belly or a knife in my heart. As I wrote this article, it seemed apparent that every contact and event for this short intense period of time had a direct bearing on the article. It came to the point where I knew that if a person entered my office or my life in any way it had to do with the article. I had people pull me off the road to tell me their story. I’d be approached as I was eating in a restaurant repeatedly by people who said, “My son, my brother, etc., is gay,” or “I’m gay and I want to talk with you.” It became painfully clear that hundreds of thousands of Mormons were living in some degree of fear, pain, and rejection by their church—gay and lesbian men and women, [p.241]their parents, other relatives, and friends. Many have formed virtual “churches in the catacombs” of houses of worship of other religious traditions. Others are excommunicated or have left voluntarily, disillusioned or disgusted with the treatment they received from the church. It came to my visibility in a way that had not been before; but I’ve told this story so I’ll just hand it to you.