Scholar, editor and author Joanna Brooks investigates the complexities of her faith in The Book of Mormon Girl, her quirky, impassioned memoir of growing up Mormon. She chronicles the beauty as well as the divisiveness of her religion, and how she came to reconcile her differences with the church's stance on such issues as gender equality, contraception and homosexuality.
As Brooks looks ahead, noting, "The tradition is young, and the next chapter has yet to be written,” she also shares the highs and lows that she's experienced building an interfaith family with her Jewish husband. It all comes together in an engaging investigation of faith in contemporary America, as well as a fine introduction to the Mormon tradition.
Read more of the best new nonfiction books this August.
Recently, we spoke with Brooks about women's rights, misconceptions about Mormonism and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Tell us a bit about your memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl.
It's a funny, tender, poignant account of how it feels to grow up in the Mormon faith. One of the reasons I wrote the book is that there are so few books of the Mormon experience from the point of view of Mormon people, especially Mormon women. Growing up, I never had books about what it was like to be part of this really unique and, in many ways, beautiful American culture. This is my best shot at communicating the beauty and complexities of my faith.
One problem with being a Mormon is that it's considered weird. If I were Presbyterian, that wouldn't be a problem. We need to have more books on the Mormon experience on the market to really humanize the Mormon experience. [I self-published] in January 2012. No agent would take it at that early date. So, after trying my hand at traditional publishing, I turned to self-publishing. From there, it got picked by Free Press.
You're not reticent to speak about the problems you have with your faith, particularly women's rights.
As a practicing Mormon, I love my faith. But at the same time, I have progressive points of view on many social issues, and Mormonism has typically been very conservative on matters of gender. In the 1980s, the church went on record in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. Equal rights for women was very important to me, even as an 8-year-old. I knew this from the same place inside me that made feel strongly about my faith.
This put me at odds with the tradition. But I'm not the only person who's had experience being at odds with something they believe in. How we negotiate those tensions is a story familiar to all people of faiths.
Time tends to soften the stances the church takes. Mormonism is fascinating. Mormon women draw a great deal of strength from the history of our faith in which women have always played a strong role, especially these pioneer ancestors of ours who crossed the plains to start this community of goodness.
But the hierarchy of the church is all male. I know literally thousands of Mormon women who wrestle with this complicated dimension of our faith and yet hold to it because we know the Mormon story is still unfolding. God is just. [Our religion is in the process of] building a faith tradition, building a religious community where people feel a sense of belonging. We know that it's worth it.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about your religion?
Fifty percent of Americans still have a tendency to confuse mainstream [Mormonism] with ultra-orthodox [versions of] the faith. Many think that all Mormons think alike, and all Mormons practice their faith in the same way. There is actually diversity within the Mormon community, who live their faith in a thousand ways, interpreting it and applying it in contemporary lives. My story reflects the way everyday Mormons grapple with and live their beliefs.
Do you think religion, universally, tends to get a bad rap in today's society?
We've just come through a period in 1980s and ’90s when religion was weaponized in many ways around political issues— contraception, women's rights, reproductive choice, gay rights. For 20 years, when we saw religious people on TV, a great deal of the time they've been arguing with each other in ways that are just uncomfortable. That runs counter to what a lot of people seek from religion: comfort, courage and reassurance.
Those of us who love our faith traditions believe that that religion is supposed to bless and enrich and not just be fodder for argument, or at its worst depriving people of rights.
The most prominent Mormon in America right now is Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Do you think the fact that he's a practicing Mormon will have an effect on how people perceive him?
I do. The poll numbers suggest that the percentage of voters who say they would not vote for a Mormon has remained consistent since the 1960s at 20 percent. I think it's going to play a role this fall. I'm hopeful it will be a good time for America to get to know the Mormon story better and learn to see Mormons as human beings who can regard their own faith with tenderness and humor. That's certainly what I was trying for in my book.