For those who didn't grow up in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, your entire conception of the Valley of the Sun may be limited to images of saguaro cactus, mind-melting summertime temperatures and a few Kurt Warner stats. There are a few others who've spent enough time in the area to have sampled our excellent Mexican food and those who've experienced the best golf courses Scottsdale has to offer. Usually, that's about all people know.
But if you go past the touristy parts of town and get to where real people spend their daily lives, then you're likely to run into Mesa, the state's third-largest city that was founded by Mormon settlers in the 1870s. Today the city of 500,000 is home to several hundred wards, stake centers, seminaries and other markers of the faith. There are churches where all the proceedings take place in Spanish and others designated for singles (which is actually a fantastic idea I wish the Jews would co-opt).
What there isn't often is a place within the Mormon fold for people who grew up in the religious ranks but who don't feel the strictest interpretations are the best fit for them. In the Jewish world, we call people who grow up "Orthodox," or "frum," or "traditional," or "fundamentalist," as being "off the derech," literally "off the path," when they leave behind their sometimes secluded life for something more liberal.
Luckily, the Jewish observance spectrum is profoundly broad and diverse and many of these people find a place for themselves that feels comfortable. It may mean wearing a kippah instead of a black hat or pants instead of skirts. It may also mean eating different foods, working different jobs or working different days altogether. What matters most for the purposes of this discussion is that no matter what, they are always Jews. They may be Reform, Conservative, post-denominational or just plain Jewish, but they are still Jews.
Short disclaimer: I am by no means an expert in the Mormon faith so please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here. However, it's been my understanding from several young people who have felt their religious, political and theological ideas fall outside the norms of the LDS Church - that there is often little or no place for dissention, new interpretation and ritual selectivity. Put in layman's (or Heidi Klum's) terms, you are either in or you're out.
While some people can reconcile Saturday night beers or Sunday afternoon coffee (alcohol and caffeine are strictly verboten and Sundays are circumscribed as family time in the Mormon religion), with being a member of the Church, others sadly cannot. And sometimes the issue at hand is much bigger than a choice of beverage. Rather, it's about being homosexual or (gasp!) a Democrat. For some this means isolation, confusion, strained relationships with families and/or friends and even addiction.
Of course, the Jewish community knows all too well that addictions to drugs and alcohol often afflict those navigating the challenges of leaving the Orthodox world, and I'm sure it can happen to very observant Muslims, Protestants and Catholics too. Where the rub comes in for Mormons is that often the Church seeks to distance these people from the rest of the flock. Those not found in good standing are barred from certain ceremonies and the inner sanctum of the Temple becomes off-limits even for special occasions like a family member's wedding.
During my trip home to Mesa last week, I had a chance to reconnect with some high school friends who grew up LDS and who now struggle to live as they want but still go to church when they choose. It hurt me to see these young men (they happened to all be male) chafing against the fundamentalism but still desperate to be a part of the faithful.
We pondered what would come first - a woman president or a more liberal branch of the Church? Would we live to see a form of Mormonism that embraced critical questioning, progressive politics, women's leadership and lenient rules about caffeine/alcohol/sex? We had no answers.
For whatever its worth to new Church President Thomas S. Monson or anyone else out there, I hope more faith traditions take on the challenge of modernity and find a way to harmonize today's realities with yesterday's beliefs. Though I don't think Mormonism would work for me, I know many, many people who have found a spiritual, behavioral and moral guidance in the Church and that's really all any of us can ask for from any religion.