Thursday, September 17, 2009


I am not a pragmatist. I would love to be one, it's just that things keep getting in the way of that lofty ambition. The latest blockade to pragmatism is my agreeing to be the faculty advisor for The Latter-day Saint Student Association (LDSSA) at UC Merced. It is not good for me to be the advisor of this organization. It draws attention to the fact that I am a Mormon evolutionary biologist and this combination does not go over well with most people. Most Mormons don't believe in evolution (even though they don't know anything about it) and most evolutionary biologists think that a deluded idiot would choose to be a Mormon (even though they don't know anything about it). Born Again Christians and most of the Religious Right hate me for both reasons. At one of their protests against Mormons, held in front of a gathering of Mormons, I found signs saying I would go to hell for both of those reasons and then a third sign saying I would also go to hell for being an independent woman. Maybe there will be a special suite there reserved for me since I am so bad. Anyway, I have dreaded being the LDSSA advisor since the school opened and I have not encouraged the formation of that organization.

This situation changed slightly in the wake of proposition 8. None of the Mormons at UC Merced were enthusiastic about joining in the proposition 8 campaign. We all have gay friends who are really sweet people we care about. I dragged my feet and happily found excuses to not be involved. The campaign was kind of on the edge of my awareness. However, as friends in larger cities told me about Mormons they had seen being assaulted by Prop 8 protesters and then never finding anything in the news about it, I became more concerned. In the news papers, I found articles that were disparaging to Mormons and mostly false. Finally, when a television ad showed missionaries as menacing people who forcefully invade homes, I decided to get involved. It was just such a low blow. Missionaries in coastal California are treated poorly. They get people in cars dumping drinks out on them as they pedal by on their bikes. They get their bikes stolen. They get called all sorts of horrible things and they just don't get too ruffled over it. Producing an ad that might cause greater harm to come to the missionaries, who had been specifically forbidden from participating in politics was just over the top. The people protesting prop 8 argued that marriage for homosexuals had nothing to do with religion and would not affect the freedom of religion, but there they were specifically attacking my religion in a very low way. So I got involved. Many others got involved at that time too.

After the campaign was over, newspapers reported that Mormons were gloating over the victory, but I didn't know anyone who was. Even right after the vote came in, there was a grim silence among all the Mormons in Merced. There is no direct joy to be had from denying others what they want even if it is done as a defensive act.

Then the real backlash against Mormons began and the little handful of Mormons at UC Merced quietly went into hiding more or less as our friends turned on us, calling us bigots and Fascists. Remarkably, the friend who was slowest to turn on me was my gay friend, who I think understands the discrimination Mormons face better than most people. He only turned when there was a broad call by the gay community to single out and bring harm upon the Mormons who had contributed money to prop. 8. He never did anything to me. We just stopped spending time together. I couldn't blame him. When the time came for me to chose a side, I did. He was just doing the same.

Finally, after the backlash died down most of the way, the students wanted to form an LDSSA chapter here, and they needed an advisor, so I agreed. I think that all of us wanted to have a little nucleus of Mormons here, just so we wouldn't feel quite so isolated, and so that we would know who the other Mormons on campus are. There aren't many of us and most of us keep a low profile. After all, even the Mormon students who didn't support prop. 8 were singled out and treated poorly.

So I find myself in a sticky situation now. I am the advisor of a club that is entirely based upon a religious affiliation that I don't go around advertising. But I have a sign on my office door for the society for black engineering students, because there is a demographic here of very bright and hard-working but very intimidated students here. They all happen to be black and while I don't know the reasons for that correlation, the sample size is too large for it to be random. If a club for those students will help them become more comfortable here, then I will support it. I find myself in the moral dilemma that what I do for a club that I am in no way associated with, I must do for the club I advise, so a big LDSSA sign will be going on my door. Soon, my colleagues who haven't realized that I am Mormon will. I will also sit at the club table during new student orientations, so all of the incoming freshmen will know that I am Mormon.

The surprising thing to me about all of this is that I am immensely enjoying advising the LDSSA. Mike Meiners comes down from Modesto to teach us lessons about the parables of Jesus. He is way cool. He has studied the Bible in a fairly serious way and so we get to have some intellectual discussions. They aren't the sort where we are musing over the origins and evolution of life, or how modern events tie into the Book of Revelations, or even much about the history and politics of biblical times. They are more discussions of imagery, symbolism, cross references and allusions, the composition of the text, the choice of wording. It's fun. I also think that everyone in the club is enjoying getting to know more Mormons. There are quite a few Mormons who have stopped by for just one meeting, but then we all become aware of each other and we stop and chat when our paths cross.

1 comment:

Mark said...

You are on the right track now. Boldly stand for what is true! Since most people will come out knowing you are an LDS evolutionary biologist anyway, you may as well educate them out of their ignorance and give them a chance to not hate you. While you are sitting at the table for LDSSA with an LDSSA sign put up your own sign which says something like "Miriam Barlow, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, specializing in bacteria evolving to become immune to antibiotics. No, I don't believe we evolved from primates (No proof). We are God's children (Proof)."