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Today's word on journalism

Monday, January 29, 2007

Words as weapons:

"When he had a pen in his hand it was like giving a kid a machine gun."

--Peter Hall, theater director, on "Angry Young Man" playwright John Osborne (1929-1994)

Religious discussions in Utah present many faces, in person or on the Internet

By Jacob Fullmer

December 15, 2006 | The distinct culture developed in Utah acts a catalyst for many religious discussions. These discussions through out the years have taken on many faces. Much of Utah's history and culture is easily traced back to the westward migration of Brigham Young and his fellow Saints. Even before the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints completely relocated, problems and other Americans joined them in locations isolated from the rest of the world.

Baptist Deacon Rudy Tarpley and his family were told by friends about the unique culture ready to face them before they moved to Logan from New Mexico four years ago. Tarpley relocated to the area for an agricultural teaching position he received at Utah State University. His new pastor was so excited to have a USU faculty member around. The pastor wanted to start a Baptist Campus Ministry student group but needed a faculty advisor to do so. Tarpley accepted the role and lead the group's weekly Bible study until another minister could be brought in by the church. The group has six to 10 members from the university's 23,000 student body.

Being a minority in any situation can be isolating but Tarpley said when people work together you find out they are not so different. The Tarpley family frequently attends activities, like a recent Christmas party, with their LDS friends and neighbors. Whenever new LDS missionaries move into town, the Tarpleys have them over for dinner. The devoted Baptist family has even allowed young men from the local Mormon congregation to practice for upcoming missions by teaching them Mormon missionary lessons.

"We've had absolutely no bad experience being a Southern Baptist in Utah," Tarpley said. "I understand that when persons of any faith try to convert you, it's out of love."

Becky Atkins has been involved with USU's Fellowship of Christian University Students for four years. She attended high school in a highly Mormon populated town in Idaho but said Utah is "definitely different" from home. She has never felt pressured by others about her faith but said some of her friends express a different opinion. Her ideas are similar to Tarpley's.

"All the Christian students can come together," she said.

Crystal Tarpley, Rudy's wife, finds an average of one Book of Mormon every month purposefully placed on her desk where she teaches at a local high school. But interactions are not always one way. Rudy said he frequently enjoys religious conversations with the students in his department, who he believes are statistically more Mormon in number than the general student body.

"I'm probably the only Baptist they've ever met," he said. "I'm the face of my faith."

Tarpley could be right but Utahns may need to adjust to a new group majority in the near future. According to a recent Salt Lake Tribune article, Utah was only 62.4 percent LDS in 2004 and, if current trends continue, by 2030 LDS members may no longer be the majority.

Utah's religious minorities may feel pressure from the dominant faith here but outside of Utah is a different story. Many religious sects also try to convert nonbelievers out of love. Consider Tower To Truth Ministries, a group of Christian men based out of Philadelphia, Pa. Their website says their efforts will be worth everything if they "can help anyone, even one person, find the real Jesus of the bible." They have a specific page devoted to Mormonism. It states, "Many members of the Mormon Church are sincere, loving, hard-working and moral [but the church has a] questionable past and strange teachings."

Discussions centered on Mormonism are readily available on the Internet. USU student Whit Lund said many people will visit the USU MySpace page to learn about student life at the school. Conversations about the university's dominant religion occasionally appear on the available discussion boards.

"People seem pretty chill at [the] Utah State [page] as opposed to other religious threads," he said. Lund, an active Mormon with many friends of different faiths, said he finds it interesting to hear people's opinions about Mormonism. He once deterred a MySpace user from continuing a fake Joseph Smith profile describing the Church's founder as a pedophile.

"It was just a juvenile thing," he said. "It's just ignorant people creating belligerent arguments to get people excited."

Eric Kettunen, an open "ex-Mormon" from Tennessee who once served a two-year full-time mission for the LDS Church, is responsible for a significant portion of online discussions concerning Mormonism. He founded exmormon.org over 10 years ago in an effort to help others in their "recovery from Mormonism." The Web site averages more than 160,000 hits every day. Its purpose isn't to facilitate debate but the feelings associated with "leaving a cult," he said, can explain some of the evident angst directed towards the LDS Church found on the discussion board. Kettunen said the simplified explanation of those emotions are "realization, the anger of feeling duped, acceptance" and, finally, moving on.

Searching the web for ex-Catholic, ex-Muslim and ex-Christian leads to similar websites about people leaving various faiths. The first link brought up from a Google search of "ex Catholic" is a site reserved for the top of the page by paying an advertising fee. Operated by a Franciscan ministry in Ohio, it is intended to strengthen the faith of struggling Catholics.

Stories about how people became "ex-mo's" are shared on Kettunen's website in a similar fashion to the LDS practice of bearing testimonies to lift fellow believers. Stories are shared so others can "know they are not alone." Experiences posted include disagreements with doctrine, abuse from priesthood leaders and feelings of isolation, to name a few.

Mormons account for some of the Web site's traffic. Kettunen posts some of the letters he has received from Mormons. Some letters thank him for the oppositional views he offers. Others testify of their beliefs in a friendly manner. Still, others accuse him of sin and tell him he will go to hell for his actions.

"A current believing Mormon does not understand this site at all." Kettunen said in response to one of the many pro-Mormon letters he receives. "I would have not either a few years ago."

Sunstoneblog.com is a positive discussion board for Mormons used to examine "the rich spiritual, intellectual, social and artistic qualities of Mormon history and contemporary life." The editor of the associated Sunstone Magazine, Dan Wotherspoon, said they cover "independent Mormon thought." There are a lot of things you aren't allowed to say at church, said Wotherspoon. Sunstone allows its readers and contributors to explore those ideas.

"I think I have a spiritual core to my personality but also a need to hang my hat on something that at least has a reasonable basis," he said. But Internet blogging doesn't satisfy the magazine's editor of five years. He said he would rather have his ideas saved in "longer lasting" print.

The religious discussions stemming from Utah culture and elsewhere have plenty of sides and enough people to voice their opinion on all those sides. Online or in person, university student Lund said he thinks people should be "passive and open minded."

"When it comes to religion and politics, there's no right answer," he said. "There's one person's opinion vs. another person's opinion. But there's no concrete answer."

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