Mike Delph and the Book of Mormon

In the wake of Mike Delph’s bizarre meltdown, and his obvious inability to distinguish between his personal (and idiosyncratic) religious commitments and his civic and constitutional responsibilities, I couldn’t help thinking of The Book of Mormon.

Bear with me here.

For those of you who have yet to see the musical, Book of Mormon is both a delightful comic entertainment and a meditation on the role of religion in human society, for good or ill. While the ostensible subject is Mormonism, the real subject is the uses to which religious commitments are put, and the various harms done by unquestioning adherence to dogma.

When youthful “Elders” from Salt Lake City are sent to Uganda to convert the villagers, they find horrific conditions: widespread AIDS, hunger, poverty and hopelessness. The blond, blue-eyed, privileged Americans are steadfast in their beliefs; they sing of the “spooky Mormon hell dreams” that follow even minor indiscretions, of the “little Mormon trick” of “turning off” and denying unapproved sexual impulses, and–in my favorite, a song called “I Believe”– they affirm all manner of (implausible) doctrinal beliefs, including the belief that “in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.”

Elder Cunningham, one of the missionaries and the play’s comic relief, is a reluctant apostate: when a member of the tribe announces his belief that he can cure his AIDS by raping a baby, the appropriately appalled Cunningham invents a scriptural passage about AIDS that forbids such behavior (and substitutes a frog…you really need to see the show.)

This spontaneous invention–and many others that follow, including a divine prohibition against genital mutilation and commanded reverence for the clitoris–is clearly not consistent with Mormon doctrine. But it’s just as clearly humane and socially useful. And in fact, Cunningham’s version of Mormonism (which owes a considerable debt to Star Wars) is wildly successful with the Ugandans.

This musical morality tale brings us back to what I am going to call the Delph Dilemma.

Every religion has its doctrinal fundamentalists, a minority of believers for whom (their version of) the letter is far more important than the original spirit or purpose of religious law. And that’s fine, so long as we all recognize the wisdom of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, which essentially say “Okay folks, you have a right to believe what you want, and to live in accordance with those beliefs (at least until you start sacrificing small children or violating other basic laws of society). But you don’t get to make the rest of us live by your rules, especially when those rules require marginalizing those who are different.”

People like Mike Delph and Eric Miller and Micah Clark have an absolute right to their belief in a God who doesn’t want gay people to get married. They have an absolute right to throw a hissy fit (on twitter or elsewhere) when they lose a legislative battle. Those of us who see religion as one of many ways humans approach questions of ethics and morality, one of many way we try to understand our obligations to the other humans with whom we share this planet–have a right to think and live differently, and in our system, the government doesn’t get to make anyone’s religious doctrine the law of the land.

Although none of us has the right to impose our preferred religious doctrines on others, we do each have a right–perhaps even a duty–to assess whether any particular belief system ultimately encourages loving-kindness or abets mean-spiritedness– whether any particular worldview promotes amity or enmity.

We get to decide which is better: the dogma that sacrifices the baby, or the modification that targets the frog.


  1. I watched Mr Delph on TV Yesterday
    It is clearly time for the adults (if any) in the legislture to tell him

  2. Amen. I know that the religious folks have stolen that word – but let’s just take it back.
    Oh, and the Dump Delph movement should start here. Poli-sci 101 – a D cannot win in district 29, so we have to get a sane R to run in the primary. Apparently that is called getting primaried these days. Then we give $’s to that sane person, and finally we ask the D to bow out of the race before it starts so the sane R sees a clear path to the General Assembly. Just sayin’.

  3. Sheila’s post today reminds me of an event just this past weekend in which a young pastor in a church in Eastern KY or East TN died after a serpent-handling incident at the church in which he was bitten, went home and hid from emergency medical personnel, refused all assistance, and died shortly thereafter.

    Adherents are completely sincere in their beliefs. According to them, the practice is Bible-based, and they add dancing around and speaking in tongues to the ritual. It is ancient, it is deadly, yet the pastors and members never waver in their belief–even to the point of losing their lives.

    And on a lighter note, I am glad to be receiving Sheila’s blog again! I had not seen any posts during February, making my life exceedingly boring. Hello, all!

  4. More info: Pastor Jamie Coots served the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name church in Middlesboro, KY. He had also appeared in a NatGeo reality show called “Snake Salvation”.

    Here is a link: http://www.tennessean.com/article/20140217/NEWS06/302170056/Snake-handling-Pastor-Jamie-Coots-funeral-tomorrow

    Strange practices do strange things: Celibacy among Shakers and serpent-handling among others can do serious damage to church membership rolls.

  5. @Betty, indeed strange practices born from strange beliefs do strange things, and I appreciate your gentle handling (no pun intended) of this tiny group of snake-handling enthusiastics. Lest all good people north of the Mason-Dixon Line believe that the majority of our southern neighbors in Kentucky and Tennessee are living in hillbilly heaven, it’s worth noting the growth of this Sunday Assembly in Nashville, of all places. Actually, the Sunday Assembly is a global movement with active groups in the UK, North America , and Australia.

    Here’s a link to an interesting interview: http://www.tennessean.com/videonetwork/3166506545001?odyssey=mod|tvideo2|article

  6. I must say; lumping MIke Delph and Mormon religion into the same blog is a good fit. In the 1960’s two young Mormon Missionairies came to my door offering Bible study. Out of curiosity, I accepted and my then husband sat on the sidelines – my big mouth and inquisitive (argumentive) mind kept the questions and religious disagreements moving. The two young men, Tim and Steve, became friends and often stopped at the house for a Pepsi and to argue that the caffeine in soft drinks was not dangerous to our bodies but caffeine in coffee and tea was against God’s plan somehow. They changed that belief somewhere along the way; maybe when they decided God did allow blacks into His churches and young women into the Mormon missionary field.

    It is a strange religion; and very secretive about any publication or written material that has a negative content. Delph is a strange man; initially secretive regarding his gay brother while battling same-sex marriage on all levels. The musical’s cure for AIDS can be compared with the GOP views on when rape is rape and controling women’s health and while still trying to repeal the ACA. Neither Delph or Mormonism makes much sense to thinking people. The musical sounds like a real hoot and a worthwhile way to spend an evening.

  7. @JoAnn, I understand what you’re saying, totally, I do. However, I believe we both stand about as much chance of changing Mr. Delph’s feelings and the feelings of the young Mormon missionaries as I’d have with changing my younger son’s feeling about how absolutely disgusting cream-style corn is. Arguing with someone about their feelings is a lost cause.

    Personal feelings exist and tend to exist whether or not someone tries to argue them into nonexistence. I can try to argue against Delph’s, the young Mormon’s, or my younger son’s feelings, by telling them they should not have them, they’re being unreasonable, they’re being illogical or irrational, they’re too sensitive, they’re overreacting, they’re short-sighted or pig-headed, they’re primitive, they’re unwilling to try new things, or they’re simply ignorant knuckle-draggers. At the end of the day, nothing will change except maybe both sides digging in their heels a bit deeper.

    I ignore Delph and his personal rants and vents, I ignore pink-cheeked young Mormon missionaries who are the happy holders of their truth, and I’ve ignored my younger son’s distaste for cream-style corn for years while continuing to serve it every Thanksgiving, without fail.

    Honey served with a big smile draws far more flies than vinegar.

  8. I agree with Eric. As Mr. Delph has freely stated in public, he has more issues going on than working out the relationship between religion and politics. He is not a stupid man, but he’s made it pretty clear that he has allowed a number of serious family and personal problems to cloud his judgment. He has made public (with a virtual bullhorn) some things that have humiliated people whose privacy he should be protecting. He isn’t just crossing boundaries. He’s running roughshod over them. Furthermore, he has made some really bad judgments during the last week that may come back to bite him hard. If he’s a politician, he is, to put it bluntly, artless. At least politically astute people have a sense about who they should protect. This is someone who, this weekend, was focused on achieving a Pyhrrhic Victory, which does not bode well for him. All of this is really pretty sad.

  9. Stuart, I’m glad I’m not the only person who views the Delph issue basically as a sad thing. Evidently Mr. Delph has real affection and genuine love for his openly gay brother, but at the same time, as you inferred, he’s shared private family issues that none of us needed to hear. Mr. Delph’s brother appears to be a real keeper, in my book, and perhaps the openly gay brother has greater insight into Mr. Delph’s psyche and his apparent problems of meshing his public proclamation of faith with his private feelings of great love for his brother. I wish Mr. Delph no harm, and I also wish he’d allow whatever happens in his family to stay in his family.

  10. Eric, Delph has affection and love for his brother in public… he neglects to mention he had him arrested last year and then left him in jail for 16 days without bonding him out. Delph really should not have making his relationship with his brother a matter of public discussion, as pubic records can punch a lot of holes into his story.

  11. @Eric: Thanks for the kind words. Another thing about Pastor Jamie Coots of Middlesboro, KY, is this: My own high school English teacher is now retired professor emeritus of English at East Tennessee State University. He and a colleague are perhaps the two top authorities anywhere on serpent-handling churches in East Tennessee and Eastern Kentucky. My teacher, Thomas Burton, PhD, is a dear friend. He did not know that Jamie Coots had died in the recent episode that made the papers around Tennessee. When I e-mailed Tom, he said that the pastor was a friend and a good man, and that he (Tom) was going to go to the funeral.

    Coots and pastors from other serpent-handling churches were featured in a story maybe on the National Geographic Channel, called “Snake Salvation”. These people and their followers are incredibly earnest and sincere in their beliefs. We don’t understand them, and I’m pretty sure they’re OK with that.

    Gone to bookmark “It Really Sucks to Be Poor,” so that I can try to keep up with this blog! It’s all really strange that others and I have been dropped and declared as spam or junk. Yes, we are subscribed already. No, the blog isn’t in my junk file either. It isn’t making it that far. The trouble does seem to be on my end of things, not Sheila’s.

  12. Mike Delph should not be “ranting and venting” against anyone but himself. If putting in the second paragraph was such a big deal, then why did he not put forth an amendment for reinstating the second paragraph? He was told by the GOP not to make an amendment, and he did what the GOP (not God) told him to do. I do not believe that Mike Delph has the right to “rant and vent”, because he did not follow his public religious convictions. It seem clear to me that the GOP ranks higher to Mike than GOD.

  13. A new Indianapolis Star post on Facebook reported that Delph has been sanctioned for his tweet on HJR-3. His seat in the Senate Chamber has been moved to the side of minority Democrats. He lost his leadership position, his secretary and his title as the Judiciary Committee ranking member.

    Thinking Republicans; who would have thought it possible in this state!

  14. I kind of know Senator Delph. The whole reason his gay brother was brought into this was because people were attacking him and asked when he has ever dealt with anyone who is gay. Then he explained that he has had someone throughout his whole life who is gay. So people actually were wanting to know some of his personal life. Not only that, his brother wanted to be interviewed in order to stick up for his little brother and nieces. Cause apparently Delph’s daughters were being attacked as well.

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