Pete and Sarah were mainstays of my Mormon experience growing up. Their oldest—a famously rowdy boy with several rowdy younger brothers—was present on the Sunday when I was introduced in children’s classes as a newcomer to the congregation. When I outgrew children’s classes and made my way to youth Sunday School, Pete was our teacher for a while—the kind of teacher who tried to suppress a giggle (and usually unsuccessfully) whenever the word “ass” (especially “dumb ass”) appeared in the KJV. Somewhere in there, he served in congregational leadership; somewhere in there, they might have moved away before returning to Kentucky (my memories are fuzzy).
When I got older, I got recruited as Pete and Sarah’s go-to babysitter. I was from a large family, and he had a large family, but it was more than that. One of the young women in the congregation came from an even larger family and had been the go-to babysitter, but something had happened, and she had had enough. All of their kids were rowdy boys (at the time—a couple of girls would later join the family), and there was some kind of gendered assumption that it might take a young man to keep all those boys in line. Even if I question that gendered assumption in hindsight, it was a good gig! Pete and Sarah paid well and gave me CDs from Mormon a cappella groups around Christmastime. I have lots of memories of babysitting at their house: Taking out my first pair of contacts, trying out a new tabletop game with the kids, introducing the kids to Homestar Runner, developing some of my first programming chops by messing around with Excel formulas on their computer, scrubbing the floor, reading the core rulebooks for the Legend of the Five Rings RPG and maybe even Rifts—both borrowed from a friend in my Star Wars RPG group.
One weekend, I got invited (with my brother) to Pete and Sarah’s for something other than babysitting. Pete played Axis and Allies with us and his oldest boys until late in the night; despite Pete’s confidence that the USSR was condemned to defeat (the common wisdom at the time), I led Moscow and the Allies to victory over his Axis powers. I was so pleased with this that I would later write a paper on the upset in one of my college classes. Then, it was Halo time: through some credit card deal, Pete had finagled his way into two Xboxes for essentially free, and we played 4v4 networked Halo until even later. I remember blearily packing up my things the next morning after only a few hours of sleep and then making my way to the front door, where Pete was standing only in pajama pants and an undershirt, talking to my dad about some weapon he’d really enjoyed firing during his Army service.
Let’s fast forward a few years. By 2009, Pete’s family and I had both moved away from Kentucky, them for his work and me for college and then grad school. Most of my interactions with Pete were now on Facebook, and Facebook seemed to bring out a side of Pete (and his family) that I hadn’t noticed before. It’s not that I had Pete up on any kind of pedestal—there were other Mormon mentors in my life whom I’d spent more time with and for whom I had fonder feelings. Nonetheless, Pete, Sarah, and their kids were part of the background radiation of Mormonism that infused my life and shaped my perspectives. I took them for granted as part of my larger life experience, and seeing them differently led me to see that experience differently, too.
There were a number of these small, perspective-changing Facebook interactions between 2009 and when I quit Facebook in 2018. When some—and then all—of Jon McNaughton’s art was pulled from the BYU bookstore in 2010-2011, I said to a Facebook friend that even if the Constitution was inspired, I was wary of treating it on the same level as scripture; Pete jumped into the thread with some Ezra Taft Benson quotes stating the opposite. When I posted something positive in 2015 about the CEO who raised the minimum salary of his employees to $70,000, one of Pete’s sons chimed in with some Fox News talking points about what a bad idea it was. After Trump’s election, when I expressed concern on a friend’s post sharing the story of an East Lansing mosque that had received threats, Pete (who doesn’t know my friend) jumped in with claims of fake news and links to Breitbart stories.
The interaction that sticks in my mind the most, though, was something he wrote in response to a post of mine sometime in mid-2015. I had been in Provo to attend two siblings’ graduation from BYU. My sister was graduating from the College of Humanities, from which I’d graduated two and a half years earlier. The Dean of that college made some similar comments this time around as he had for my graduation sometime earlier, but they really stood out to me hearing them the second time. In particular, he quoted the following passage from III Nephi 3 (well 3 Nephi 6, actually, but I’m trying to get in the habit of using Community of Christ versification):
And the people began to be distinguished by ranks according to their riches and their chances for learning; some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others received great learning because of their riches.
This is a great verse to read at a BYU commencement address, and the dean did a great job of it. He made it clear to us that these newly minted graduates had had great chances for learning, encouraged them to recognize that privilege, and gently warned them against the “distinctions by ranks” that followed those chances in III Nephi. In recognition that different people do have different chances for learning, he also announced (as he had at my graduation) that although it was traditional for colleges to lay out a spread of BYU’s famous mint brownies for graduates and their families, he had made it a habit of redirecting the “mint brownie fund” for his college toward scholarships to make sure that more students had more chances to learn. He apologized to any families who felt disappointed by this and read out his cell phone number with an offer to buy a brownie for anyone who was particularly bummed, but if I remember the amount of applause correctly, everyone was basically on board with scholarships instead of snacks.
I was really impressed by this! Now, in 2015, I wouldn’t have described myself as a liberal Mormon—I’d been a registered independent for the whole of my short political life, and I knew from Rand Paul that I wasn’t a fan of the Tea Party, but I’d (just barely) voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, and it really wasn’t until 2016 that I realized that the reasonable right I hoped was still out there might not be after all and began a leftward march to where I am today. Still, even has someone who didn’t consider himself particularly liberal, something felt deeply right about this decision by the Dean. So, I said so on Facebook, gushing a little bit about how impressed I was with this decision.
Pete’s reply to my Facebook summary of the dean’s announcement was simple, but that made it all the more difficult to understand. It was something along the lines of “But some families really look forward to the brownies.” Sure, Pete. Of course they do. I don’t remember whether or how I responded to him then—if I did, it was probably just to say (or repeat) what the dean had said about offering to pay out of pocket for anyone who really wanted a brownie. I think I already recognized, though, that it wasn’t really about the brownies for Pete. Writing this down now, I see the parallel with his son’s objection to the CEO who bumped up wages to $70,000/year minimum. How dare those who have share with those who have not—especially if it mildly inconveniences those who are already doing okay.
I had so much more trouble understanding Pete’s objection because it was not even some kind of government decision encroaching on his precious freedoms. It was a single unit at a religious university sponsored by his own church that decided that helping a few more kids through school was more important than a bunch of sugary (and, frankly, not as great as people seemed to think) brownies. This was the same Pete who had once posted to Facebook that for all of his deep libertarian commitments, he really wondered if Congress ought to do something about the Bowl Championship Series, because something about it deeply bothered him. Football was important enough to make him wonder if maybe government intervention wasn’t so bad after all, but the idea that you would take away a single dessert from families-who-have to pay tuition for students who have not raised his hackles.
I haven’t had any interactions with Pete in years, and I’m no longer a practicing Latter-day Saint, but I’m fascinated by the two competing visions of Mormonism that are present in this story. I wonder how Pete feels about the Church’s admonitions against racism or about Russell Nelson’s encouragement to wear masks and get vaccines. Pete was inseparable from my Mormon childhood and youth, and it’s hard to think of Pete as anything other than Mormon. Yet, the Book of Mormon—not to mention the Bible—is filled with counternarratives to Pete’s Bensonian worldview, and I wonder if he would stick with the Church if it paid more attention to passages like the one the dean read at my sister’s graduation and less attention to the culture wars. I have hope for the Mormonism that cares about different chances for learning, but I also wonder if it will ever be allowed (by LDS leadership, but more especially by LDS membership) to thrive.
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