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Walter Kirn and the Mormons

If you haven't already, please read Walter Kirn's TNR piece, "Confessions of an Ex-Mormon." It touches only lightly on the subject of Mitt Romney's religious beliefs and the role they play in this election season and instead focuses on biography: How a brief conversion to Mormonism helped Kirn's father stabilize a life that was spinning out of control, and how (a generation later) Kirn's residence in a house full of Mormons helped him find his own foundations.

Kirn's somewhat ambiguous about the state of his own faith in the piece, but I found it a useful reminder: In the public sphere, we treat religion like it's merely a set of beliefs and doctrines. I've written--and still think--it's fair to test how Romney's own adherence to Mormon beliefs and doctrines affects his views of public policy.

But Kirn's piece reminds me that religion is more than a set of fit-slot-A-into-tab-B rules for getting into heaven: Very often it's a source of community and belonging for people who desperately need it. Which is most of us. And one can benefit from those features without necessarily following the party line on the doctrine stuff: It certainly appears that Kirn did.

About a decade ago, shortly after I'd told my pastor that I had lost my faith and was withdrawing from the church, I attempted to go to church again. It wasn't that I'd changed my mind about my lack of belief; it was that I missed the people desperately. Some of the people I'd attended church with in Lawrence, Kansas, had shown me how I could be an adult in terms that I wanted and made sense to me: They'd helped me, in a very real sense, to become a man. (Though that is, frankly, an unending process.) But my return lasted precisely one service: As Huck Finn said, "You can't pray a lie." I couldn't, at least. And remaining part of that community without partaking of its most regular, weekly, ritual, proved untenable.

I wrote last week that I'm able to construct meaning without God in my life. And that's true. Constructing community has been, and remains, trickier without resorting to church. Maybe that's not the case for everybody, but I spent 30 years in the church: It's difficult to shake old ways of doing things.

So Kirn's piece is a welcome reminder of such things, as is its placement in a political magazine. We--I--get so busy with day-to-day jousting in political matters that we--I--forget about the broader human project. Kirn's piece is so good, because it's so humane.

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