At age 9, Joanna Brooks was already deeply committed to two things: her Mormon faith and progressive political causes. When assigned two term papers in fourth grade, she chose to write one on Joseph Smith, founder of Mormonism, the other on the Equal Rights Amendment, which at the time (1980) was the subject of heated nationwide debate.
“I knew the Mormon Church was committed to defeating the ERA,” says Brooks, now 40 and department chair and professor of English and comparative literature at San Diego State University. “But even as a little girl I also knew the ERA and other progressive issues were important to me.”
Brooks has traversed these seemingly divergent paths ever since. Even as a child, she gathered from Mormonism that it was highly valued to have questions and take them to God directly.
“This is (Joseph) Smith’s story,” she says. “He had questions and would go to the woods and pray. That model of searching inquiry impressed me from when I was young. I have always loved my religion, but have always had questions. It’s just who I am.”
Brooks’s outspokenness and tough love toward her faith became more of an issue as she grew into adulthood. It also has escorted her into the national spotlight: seemingly overnight she’s become an influential if controversial voice on Mormonism.
In high demand largely because of Mitt Romney’s bid for the White House, Brooks, whom Politico recently called one of “50 Politicos to Watch,” has been interviewed about religion, and politics, by everyone from NPR to the BBC.
A correspondent for the online magazine Religion Dispatches, Brooks’s groundbreaking blog, Ask Mormon Girl, on which she openly discusses Mormon history (including polygamy, race, and other erstwhile taboo subjects), is getting more hits than ever.
And her new memoir, The Book of Mormon Girl: Stories From an American Faith, is garnering praise from some unlikely sources.
In a recent review of the book, Philip Barlow, Arrington chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, wrote that “the narrative is, by turns, disarming, funny, wrenching, and inspiring. This is a quietly fierce, authentic, and faithful voice, one that insists her religious tradition is young, and the next chapter yet to be written.”
With her national profile ascending, Brooks is quick to point out that she isn’t trying to present herself as a religious authority.
“I’m just trying to humanize my faith,” says Brooks, a self-described “oddball Mormon” who was born and raised in Southern California and is married to a Jewish man, David Kamper, who is also a professor at San Diego State and chair of the department of American Indian studies. They’re raising their two children in both faiths.
“I’m a writer who provides cultural commentary,” she says. “I am not special. It’s a common part of what it means to be a person of faith, to question. I’m just willing to say out loud that I wrestle with my faith.”
In one of her boldest acts of defiance, Brooks says she returned her diploma to Brigham Young University during her commencement because the university had begun cracking down on and even letting go several left-leaning professors.
After receiving her doctorate in English from UCLA, she decided she no longer felt comfortable attending church because of her disgust with the way Mormon leadership aggressively campaigned against same-sex marriage.
“That was the turning point,” says Brooks, who worked in California on the campaign against Proposition 8, the anti-gay-marriage referendum that was affirmed by California voters but was recently deemed unconstitutional. “I hadn’t been that progressive on gay rights, but I knew gay people, and it just hurt.”
When a leader of the church said that feminists, gays, and intellectuals were the biggest threats to the church, Brooks recalls, “it was painful for me. I was two out of three! I love my faith. To be declared an enemy was a real feeling of rejection.”
Brooks’s “loving criticism” of her church doesn’t sit well with some Mormons. BYU poli-sci professor and blogger Ralph Hancock is one of her most vocal critics. On his Bulwark blog, he often questions Brooks’s “Mormonism” because of her liberalism, feminism, and stance on gay rights.
“Joanna’s position on gay marriage is irreconcilable with the church,” Hancock tells The Daily Beast and Newsweek. “Latter-day Saints are adaptable, and of course there is diversity within the Mormon Church, but it is hard to conceive of calling anything Mormon that relinquishes the importance of sexual difference and procreation in the big, eternal scheme of things. Joanna is unreservedly confident that all ethical and religious truth must be on the side of acceptance of homosexuality. I think that’s a nonstarter. I don’t want to sound harsh or cruel, because I want her to remain Mormon, but she must choose between being a gay-rights proponent and being a Mormon.”
Brooks says that despite such criticism, she’s never stopped loving her faith—even after her decision to stop attending church: “I still identified myself as Mormon. I was inactive, but I carried it around inside. I just didn’t feel comfortable going to church.”
That started to change after her daughters were born in 2003 and 2005. At first, she taught her older daughter about Mormonism at home, singing hymns in a rocking chair at night and teaching her how to pray. But she hungered for her daughter to be a part of the Mormon community.
“I remember the morning of the day we went back to the church,” she says. “I was walking the dog before church while pushing my girls in a double stroller, and it was a beautiful San Diego day in early 2008, but my heart was pounding with fear, because in the fall of ’93 the church had ex-communicated a number of feminists and intellectuals and declared them as dangers. I didn’t know what would happen.”
But she remains a member of the church, and her no-holds-barred prose about her Mormon experience and the fact that other Mormon progressives and feminists have evidently responded to her story in such a positive way certainly shatters any notions that all Mormons are conservative or that they are all like-minded.
“I don’t think many Americans realize that about 15 percent of Mormons are Democrats,” says Brooks, who notes that while Glenn Beck is a Mormon, so is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was raised agnostic but converted with his wife to Mormonism while he was a college student.
In a 2001 interview with a reporter at BYU, Reid said, “I think it is much easier to be a good member of the (Mormon) church and a Democrat than a good member of the church and a Republican.”
That Reid’s Mormonism is rarely talked about, while Romney’s is a point of whispered controversy, just demonstrates that presidential candidates are scrutinized to a much greater degree than any other in American public life, says Brooks, who thinks Romney’s presidential campaign is a “mixed bag” for the religion.
“It is a good thing to a degree,” she says, “but it has also brought a great deal of scrutiny to the Mormon faith, including the controversial, thorny aspects of our history.”
Case in point: The Washington Post ran an article last week on the church’s history of not allowing African-American priests until 1978. In the piece, BYU religion professor Randy Bott said that blacks were still not ready for the Mormon priesthood, “like a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car.”
The LDS church quickly denounced Bott’s comments, saying in a statement that they “absolutely do not represent the teachings and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and that “we believe all people are God’s children and are equal in his eyes and in the church. We do not tolerate racism in any form.”
Says Brooks, “This is the kind of thing that is inevitable because of the Romney campaign. It’s a time of real scrutiny for a religious community that has been very insular, very guarded, for a very long time.”
Brooks says Romney has an opportunity to educate the public about the Mormon religion and shed some light on the changes it has made with regard to race, for example. But, she says, “he rarely talks about his religion, and I can understand that. It’s a no-win situation for him. The topic attracts sensationalism and negative historical residue.”
She explains that a century ago, the nation’s first Mormon senator, Reed Smoot from Utah, was the victim of a multiyear show trial that delved into all aspects of Mormon life.
“There were congressional hearings, and the image that emerged was that Mormons were scheming, duplicitous, murderous polygamists, and certainly softer forms of those same images continue to circulate,” she says. “Mormons are still often perceived as having a hidden agenda.”
If Romney talked more about Mormonism, Brooks suggests it would conjure up a host of associations that “can’t be politely dismantled. Overall, the country is still more interested in the sensational elements of 19th-century Mormon doctrine. The nation isn’t ready yet for a balanced discussion of the faith. And he (Romney) doesn’t have the bandwidth to discuss religion in a nuanced way.”
Of course, it’s comments like these that land Brooks in hot water with some members of her church. But she insists that in every faith there are people who don’t agree with all tenets of their religion. “Does that mean you leave it? No,” she says flatly. “Look at the fact that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception at one point or another in their life. That goes against the church, but these women are still Catholics; they still love the church.”
Brooks says despite the risks, and they are great, she’ll continue speaking out on topics she feels are important.
“It’s always a risk for me, doing what I do, because many Mormon women have been excommunicated for saying some of the things I’ve said,” she says. “There is always fear that this will happen, because I love my faith, deeply. But I am who I am.”
As for Romney, Brooks wishes him well and says that despite her disagreements with his position on many issues, she believes that overall it is more of a positive than a negative, having a Mormon running for president. “Like I said, it’s a mixed bag,” she says, “but there are many Mormons I know and love, including my mom, who is a Republican, who are very proud of Mitt.”
But, she adds wryly, “I’m still voting for Obama.”