Good-bye to God by Steve Benson
Good-bye to God
Editorial Cartoonist’s Journey From Jesus to Journalism– and Beyond
How does one go from being a born-in-the-bed Mormon to a born-in-the-brain atheist? From a Latter-day Saint to a Latter-day Ain’t? From a believer drowning in faith to a skeptic saved by the facts? Point me to the confessional. I’ve come to journalism, not Jesus.
Today I can be found among the congregation of secular humanists. It’s a significant change of scenery for someone who is the oldest grandchild of the Mormon church’s late prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, and who, for most of his life, was a ramrod straight believer.
Going from defender to debunker was a baptism of fire. Luckily, treading the hot coals was made more bearable by my experiences in journalism, which helped burn away the entanglements of illusion, error and fear, leaving me with a clear view of the horizon ahead. I came from a Mormon tradition that is sometimes referred to, for lack of a better term, as a cult. Even the coach of the Chicago Bulls called it that recently, in response to the National Basketball Association’s slapping of Dennis Rodman with a big fine for making unkind remarks about his Mormon hosts during the playoffs.
Having been a Mormon for some 30 years before seeing the light and leaving the lunacy four years ago, I can appreciate that perspective. Look at an average group of Mormon followers, and what does one find? People who dress the same way down to the same underwear, follow the same leader, think the same thoughts, believe the same things, read the same books, obey the same commandments, vote the same way, fear the same enemies, oppose the same ideas, condemn the same people who don’t think the same way, pay the same church, avoid the same movies, eat the same food, associate with the same people, marry the same kind, and give the same reasons for believing that God and Mormonism are one-in-the same.
Cult or not, if these folks worked for the same newspaper, it would be a pretty stale read. If for no other reason, I should have left because it was boring. To understand why I jumped from the Mormon wagon train requires an understanding of what Mormons are and how they think.
While Mormons have some quaint, quirky and fanatical ideas, they really aren’t much different from millions of poor, guilt-ridden souls who, throughout the march of human history, have hitched their hopes to mass movements of one sort or another. Eric Hoffer, in his brilliant treatise, “The True Believer,” explains the attraction of joining a cause:
“A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following ‘by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness and meaninglessness of an individual existence. It cures the poignantly frustrated by freeing them from their ineffectual selves– and it does this by enfolding and absorbing them into a closely knit and exultant corporate whole’. Of all the cults and philosophies that competed in the Graeco-Roman world, Christianity alone developed from its inception a compact organization.”
Once I realized this, it wasn’t much of a leap out of religion altogether once I flew the Mormon coop. I simply wanted to be free from organizational groupthink. I escaped from the stuffy attic of religion’s “pray, pay and obey” mentality into journalism’s open laboratory of “who, what, where, when and why.”
Even as this is written, Mormonism’s bicycle battalions of fresh-faced, uniformly dressed and highly organized missionaries are pedaling furiously through the neighborhoods of the world, peddling the notion that back in the 1800’s God descended through the treetops and appeared to a 14-year-old New York farm boy/grade-school dropout named Joseph Smith, informing him that the end was near and no one on earth had a clue as to what was really going on.
Not to fear, however. An angel was standing by to lead young Smith to a nearby treasure-trove of buried scripture, engraved on golden plates, containing the long-lost word of God to the world. Besides, it was a great story and Smith was a great story-teller. He claimed “The Book of Mormon” got its name from an ancient warrior whose ancestors set sail from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., using a special compass that only worked when they did what God told them to. Other groups embarked even earlier, only in submarines. Long before Columbus, these transplanted Hebrews hit the shores of the Americas, from where they proceeded to civilize the place, then destroy it all in a huge family feud. The story climaxes with a spectacular battle, in which tens of thousands of white-skinned true believers are slaughtered by godless Indians in what is today New York state.
But wait. There’s more. Included are a few extra chapters that more than justify the admission price of a lifetime pledge to pay 10 percent of one’s income, wages and tips to the Mormon church. Amid some earthquakes, general mass destruction and special effects that would rival the studios of Steven Spielberg, Jesus himself appears, stopping en route to heaven after his resurrection. To the astonishment of his audience, he gives a preview of his not-yet-compiled Biblical teachings (delivered, coincidentally, in King James English.) Before leaving, he organizes a tax-free church and chooses a handful of goodly men to run it until he gets back.
Unfortunately, within a few years, things go to hell. Thanks to the devil (Jesus’s cantankerous brother, according to Mormon doctrine), the church falls apart in America, the Dark Ages envelop Europe and it’s time to phone home. That’s where God calls in the youngster Smith to pick up the pieces, dig up the gold plates, and restore the truth to the earth.
One hundred and sixty-seven years and 10 million members later, Mormonism is a remarkably successful, multi-billion dollar empire. If Joseph Smith were alive today, he’d probably be amazed at the number of folks who’ve actually bought into it and be grateful that the press hasn’t kept on it more than it has. After all, Smith knew his own record better than anyone else. Judging from the way the church has doctored its past, it’s not hard to see why most Mormons, along with much of the media, really don’t know the history.
Among other things, Smith was convicted in court for being a money-digging charlatan, was accused by his followers of swindling their cash in a clumsy bank fraud scheme, and was exposed by a group of skeptics that tricked him into “translating” a set of supposedly ancient brass plates that had actually been manufactured in a local blacksmith’s shop. Add to this the documented fact that he rolled in the hay with a 14-year-old girl and was both a believer in astrology and a dabbler in the occult, and what you have is a somewhat different picture from the one the church paints of its inventor.
As fate would have it, Smith didn’t hang around long to explain the details. He was shot to death by an angry mob while in jail for ordering the destruction of a newspaper printing press that published embarrassing revelations about his secret polygamous affairs. While he didn’t survive, the church he founded has survived both him and his exploits.
Most people still don’t know that Mormon prophets have actually preached as gospel truth that:
- People of African or Native American lineage are born with dark skin because God cursed them and their progenitors.
- God lives on a planet surrounded by multitudes of faithful Mormon men and their harems, who are destined to eventually become gods and goddesses, lording over their own worlds populated with countless millions of their own procreated spirit children.
- Jesus was literally fathered by God through sexual intercourse with the Virgin Mary.
- Adam was Jesus’s father, who, along with one of his wives, Eve, was transported to the Garden of Eden from another planet.
- The saving blood of Jesus can’t rescue murderers unless their blood has been spilled on earth first. That’s one reason why Utah is the only state in the union that gives the condemned the option of dying by firing squad. It makes their getting out of hell that much easier.
For Mormons who are conversant with actual church history, doctrine and practice and are tempted to challenge the church bosses about any of it, a remedy has been developed to snuff out dissent. “The Brethren,” as they are called, constantly remind the faithful to do and think as they are commanded. They are admonished that, for their own good, “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” Obedience is trumpeted as the first law of heaven.
Those who insist on playing a different tune are publicly denounced as arrogant apostates, suffer false accusations, are tagged for expulsion, and end up being ostracized. Such has been the fate in recent years for several Mormon intellectuals, scholars and feminists who dared speak out. I eventually had my fill of it, too, and, as a self-respecting journalist and human being, left Mormonism with my wife and children.
Sure as shootin’, word soon hit the Internet that my real reason for getting out was because I had fathered an illegitimate child by a young woman in Utah and was running from excommunication. (Actually, I was a virgin on our wedding night and my bride was the first and only woman I have ever kissed, not to mention made babies with. It sounds almost as unbelievable as Mormonism itself, I know, but I swear on a stack of Thomas Paine pamphlets that it’s true.)
Prior to bowing out, I was ostensibly an ideal Mormon– going to church, paying my tithing and doing my duty. In the eyes of my family and ecclesiastical leaders, I was a golden boy. Everything I was encouraged to touch (or, for that matter, to avoid) was designed to turn me into a better Mormon. And eventually into a god.
Through the years, I served in many church capacities, from Boy Scout leader and Sunday School teacher to bishop’s executive secretary and church high councilman. I devoted myself to being a scripture-reading, special underwear-wearing, church-attending, hymn-singing, prayer-offering, faith-promoting, tithe-paying member of the flock.
I was on track to eternal Mormon stardom, reserved especially for faithful men in a church run by men. At eight, I was officially baptized a Mormon. I remember going under the water in my white baptismal clothes as my dad immersed me in the font. All I could see was a murky light above me. I wasn’t too fond of water and prayed it wasn’t a near-death experience.
It turned out to be, figuratively speaking, a spotlight that was to follow me throughout my youth, shined on me by an ever-watchful church and family, making sure I didn’t wander too far afield, where I might wind up befriending Democrats or going to the high school Sadie Hawkins dance with a non-Mormon.
At 16, I became the first Eagle Scout in my Mormon troop. At about the same time, I earned my special Mormon scout “Duty to God” award, depicted by a cow skull that, when hung on my uniform, was (not surprisingly) bigger than the eagle.
At 17, together with my parents and four younger sisters and brother, I marched off into the mission field, where my father oversaw the proselytizing efforts of a 100-plus army of elders and sisters, who fanned out over the Midwest, combing for converts who might be hiding in the cornfields.
At 19, I was ordained by my grandfather as a “minister of the gospel” and dispatched to Japan to serve a full-time mission. Two years later, only 11 Japanese had taken me up on the offer.
At 21, I met my wife-to-be, Mary Ann, while we both were attending what Mormons refer to as “the Lord’s University” (known to the outside world as “Breed ’em Young.”) We were eventually married in the Salt Lake temple. Barely nine months into our union, having thrown birth control to the wind on the orders of our leaders, we did our part in providing physical “tabernacles” for God’s spirit children by bringing forth our first baby, followed in quick succession by three more.
Like the obedient Mormon helpmate she had been conditioned to be, my wife stayed home, Like the stalwart Mormon breadwinner I had been raised to be, I continued to work and go to school. Our marriage was the usual secret Mormon temple rite, in which the bride and groom wore bizarre costumes made out of bulky white material, complete with fig leaf aprons, a puffy hat for me and a veil for my wife. Typical of such rituals, it was off-limits to anyone except Mormons in good standing who had passed a “worthiness interview” prior to being admitted. My grandfather officiated as the high priest. The ceremony was the celebrated high point of a series of secret temple initiations that included whispered code names, handshakes and symbols borrowed from the Masons, and figurative blood oaths pledging unflagging obedience to God’s church in return for the Lord’s promise not to kill us, but to allow us, instead, to take a seat in heaven next to Joseph Smith.
I remember how nervous I was a few years later when word leaked to the press that Mormons had removed the bloody oaths from their temple ceremony. I myself had, with other temple Mormons, vowed to let my throat be slit from ear to ear, my heart yanked out of my chest and my intestines spilled on the ground if I ever revealed the secret signs and tokens given me in the temple. I just hoped God didn’t mean it literally.
Now I was afraid a reporter would call and ask me what was really going on in there. Sure enough, one did. With palms sweating, I refused to go on the record. I didn’t want a big hand reaching down from the sky some night while I was snoring and pulling out the only tongue I had.
While still in the shadow of the Salt Lake City temple and well within monitoring distance by prophets and parents, I kept up the church/family tradition of drawing cartoons for the BYU newspaper, defending what I was told to defend.
But I was soon to start another life. And it wasn’t to go in the direction the church or my family expected or wanted. In 1980, I joined The Arizona Republic as its editorial cartoonist. There I earned a reputation as a question-raising, justice-seeking, icon-smashing, authority-bashing, status quo-attacking, myth-debunking, doubt-encouraging bomb-thrower. I liked to say that I didn’t aim to please; I just aimed.
The split identity arose, in large measure, as a reaction to what became the suffocating control attempted by Mormonism on my intellectual growth and individual freedom. For years I struggled to live in both worlds. It became obvious to me, however, that they were worlds in collision. I decided I could not serve two masters. I had to either follow my head and my conscience, or surrender both to the dictates of little minds who relied on fear-mongering in their claim to speak for God.
Like an asteroid sucked into an encounter with Jupiter, I hurtled toward what I knew would be the final encounter between reason and religion. I was picking up speed and leaving behind an ever-increasing trail of disintegrating pieces of my faith. But unlike the asteroid that vaporized on impact, I emerged out the other side, relatively intact, suffering from some religious road rash, to be sure, but nothing fatal. I found myself loosed from the gravity of the gods, free to roam the universe in search of new adventures, new beginnings and my real self. For years, my true identity had been smothered by a church which held its stone commandments over my head like a swatter over a fly, warning me that if I took off, I risked being flattened from above. I had tried hard to resuscitate the dying faith that had for so long ruled my life and defined my destiny, but it proved to be a losing battle.
At work I drew the obligatory “He Has Risen” Easter cartoons, along with the ones bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas. As a holiday gift, my editor–a kindly and deeply religious man–gave me a tree ornament depicting St. Nick kneeling at the side of the baby Jesus, cap worshipfully in hand. Later, after I left Mormonism, he invited me to participate in personal chats with his priest, where the three of us prayed and discussed godly things. After a few sessions, I gave up. My heart–and head–just weren’t in it.
I found little value in searching for meaning in what believers joyfully described as the unfathomable mysteries of God. What good was God if his purposes couldn’t be understood? How was I supposed to understand his “plan” if the processes by which he supposedly brought all things into being were incomprehensible?
What meaning was I supposed to attach to my existence if the pain and death of life’s cycle could be no better explained than with the pious platitude, “It is God’s will”? I found that scientific explanations based on observable laws of nature made infinitely more sense than the scriptural fairy tales invented around campfires by superstitious shepherds.
I concluded it made no more sense to believe in Christ than it did in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. God, I decided, was nothing more than an imaginary playmate for older people. As astronomer Carl Sagan observed in what proved to be his last book, “Billions and Billions,” shortly before dying of cancer:
“The world is so exquisite, with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better, it seems to me, to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
My dissatisfaction with religion grew as I saw the Mormon blue suits attempt to manipulate the facts and hoodwink the public at the expense of truth. My cartoons lampooning and criticizing those efforts were met with fierce resistance from church members and leaders alike.
When Mormons tried to get away with a slippery change in the wording of “Book of Mormon” scripture prophesying the future of Indians who converted, I drew a cartoon lambasting the Mormon God as the bigot he really was. The traditional scripture read that Indians who accepted Jesus would become “white and delightsome.” The scripture was altered to instead read “pure and delightsome.” The change was made despite the fact that racist Mormon prophets had, from the early days of the church, predicted that a change in the red man’s heart would result in a change in the red man’s skin.
(The cartoon showed a bonneted Native American chieftain tossing away a bottle of “Book of Mormon Eye Drops” designated “to get the red out,” while muttering, “Nice try, white man.” Shortly thereafter, I received a letter from a Mormon editor in another state, accusing me of being “anti-Mormon.”)
I learned quickly that Mormons don’t take kindly to criticism, no matter how well-deserved. They think because they have the corner on truth, they can put people making fun of them in the corner. In a series of cartoons on a Mormon Arizona legislator with a habit of introducing anti-evolution bills, I drew him as a monkey, either swooping through the legislative chambers on a tire or attempting to type up a bill that made sense. He wrote me an indignant missive, huffing that it was my family, not his, that descended from apes. His family, he declared, was made in the image of God. Maybe so, but I hated to think God busied himself around the universe dressed like Bozo the Clown.
A local right-wing Mormon activist sent a letter of protest to my grandfather, complaining that my pro-evolution cartoons were a roadblock to God’s plan for returning constitutional control of the schools to his people. Unable to bring me to my senses, she implored him to silence me.
My grandfather gave me a call, asking for an explanation. I told him that so-called “scientific creationism” was nothing more than religion masquerading as science and that if Mormons, or anyone else, wanted to teach it in the public schools, they should confine it to a course on comparative religions. By way of information, I added that the official Mormon position on evolution had historically been neutral. He asked me to provide him with proof of that in writing, saying he would consider not only sending a reply to the Mormon complainer, but also think about making it available to inquiring church members in the form of an official public declaration. I did as he requested, but never heard back from him. Months later, I asked him about the status on the matter. He said the church had decided to do nothing, since publishing the facts would only cause more controversy.
The same local political extremist, in cahoots with other like-minded Mormons, was later involved in a noisy effort to kill a holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr., in Mesa, Arizona, a city founded by Mormons that remains essentially under their political control. Quoting the anti-King sermons of my John Birch-loving grandfather, they swarmed city council meetings, denouncing the civil rights leader as a moral reprobate and a tool of the Communist conspiracy to overthrow America. I drew a cartoon showing these goofs sitting on the porch of a country store labeled M.L.K. (“Mormons Lynch King”), selling ax handles, Lester Maddox-style. I was subsequently grilled by a local church leader who called demanding an explanation.
In an episode that caused considerable consternation among the Mormon hierarchy, a skilled forgerer and document collector named Mark Hofmann attempted to alter the official version of the church’s beginnings by fabricating documents in which early church leaders claimed a white salamander, not an angel, delivered the gold plates to Joseph Smith.
Before the forgery was unmasked, Mormon leaders, fearful the documents might actually be genuine, desperately attempted to buy them from Hofmann for tens of thousands of dollars, intending to hide them from the prying eyes of historians, the press and other perceived critics, not to mention church members. Only when Hofmann, in a botched attempt to cover his tracks, blew up some Mormons, along with some of his own fingers, was the scheme discovered.
I drew a cartoon showing a stereotypical Mormon P.R. man, sporting a flat top and conservative business suit, on the phone to his secretary, wailing, “Mad bombers, white salamanders, forgeries, con men! Golly darn, Sister Jones, that does it! Get me a cup of coffee!”
My grandfather called, telling me somberly he had a cartoon in front of him that he wished to read aloud to me. After repeating the punch line, he paused dramatically and asked, “Why?” I was tempted to respond with a “Why not?” but thought better of it. Instead, I tried to explain that one of the best defenses in the face of criticism is an ability to laugh at oneself. My grandfather replied, “I still love you. Just go easy on us.”
I really began feeling the heat from the Mormons when, in a fluke election won with less than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race, a fellow Mormon and used car salesman, Evan Mecham, was picked to be Arizona’s governor. He lasted barely a year before being thrown out of office.
Mecham was a small-minded, loose-lipped, vicious little man, with a thinly disguised racist streak under an ill-fitting toupee. His first official act as governor was to cancel the state’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, declaring that blacks didn’t need holidays, they needed jobs. He defended the use of the term “pickaninny,” saying he saw nothing wrong with it and couldn’t understand why blacks would be offended. He assured dumb-founded Arizonans that he hired blacks at his car dealership, not because they were black, but because they were the best for “the cotton-pickin’ job.”
He didn’t stop there. When asked by a reporter what he planned to say to the Pope when the Holy Father visited Phoenix, he replied that he didn’t think the fellow spoke English. He caused another stir in a visit to a local synagogue, where he declared to the Jews in attendance that Jesus Christ was their lord and savior.
As embarrassment over the governor’s burblings grew, I spoke with Mormon church leaders, including my grandfather, about what they had in mind to do, if anything. They privately expressed the hope that Mecham would shut up, step down, or do both, but were unwilling to say so publicly.
I drew an angel atop the Salt Lake City temple spires blowing his horn, from which fluttered the banner, “Resign, Ev.” The newspaper was flooded with letters of protests from Mecham’s Mormon minions, some claiming that God himself had orchestrated Brother Ev’s election. My sister-in-law withdrew her Thanksgiving dinner invitation to our family.
Mecham supporters held special meetings, encouraging a letter-writing campaign to Salt Lake City, in an effort to stop the cartoon carnage. He was compared by his loyal followers to Jesus, Isaiah and Joseph Smith. They complained that, like God’s servants of old, he was being hounded mercilessly by the dogs of Satan. My parents called from Utah and urged me to lighten up on the guy, reminding me he was one of our own.
Eventually, Mecham was impeached for high crimes and misdemeanors. (Maybe there is a God after all.) Quoting the Biblical scripture at a press conference, he vowed, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord,” and promised to return. I could hardly wait.
True to his word, like a bad rash, he came back, running for reelection.
In a cartoon labeled “The Second Coming,” I drew him as Jesus descending from above, flanked by trumpet-blowing rats dressed in angel robes, as he held forth a book of scripture entitled, “The Book of Moron, by Ev Mecham,” while intoning, “I warned you sinners.”
Letters threatening to have me hauled into ecclesiastical court were fired off to Salt Lake City, demanding that my grandfather remove me from all positions of church service. Phoenix’s ecumenical council, under pressure from a Mecham henchman, released a statement to the press, denouncing my attack on the Mormons. The local Mormon spokesman compared the cartoon to the work of evangelical Christians who were exposing Mormonism’s secret temple ceremonies to public ridicule.
My stake president–the Mormon equivalent of a Catholic bishop–called me into his office and relieved me of my church duties, declaring that I had abused my God-given talents in mocking the sacred emblems of the church. (A Mormon state senator later admitted to me that he had advised the stake president to lower the boom. The stake president himself acknowledged he had received a call from Salt Lake’s Commandment Central, but insisted it had nothing to do with his decision.)
The stake president later wrote to commend me for having learned my lesson, saying that since he took his disciplinary action, my cartoons had shown a marked improvement. I replied by reminding him he was not my editor and that, given the opportunity, I would do the cartoon again.
Outrage from the religious community has not been confined only to my cartoons lampooning the antics of Mormon public officials. Cartoons berating Catholic priests for sexually preying on little children or the Pope for condemning women who use artificial birth control sparked formal letters of complaint from the Catholic hierarchy, as well as protest marches around a newspaper in New York, where my work was also published.
When I poked fun at Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for attempting to justify the ill-conceived invasion of Lebanon by citing Hebrew scripture on the floor of Israel’s parliament (the cartoon showed him jetting over the Golan Heights, waving the scrolls and shouting, “Torah! Torah! Torah!”), the protests were predictable.
The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith invited me, along with several other cartoonists, including Jules Feiffer of The Village Voice and David Levine of The New York Review of Books, to Israel, where we had a wonderful time. In a return visit a few years later, however, Foreign Minister Yitzak Shamir reportedly refused me an audience.
In an episode that helped write the final chapter in my escape from Mormonism’s Alcatraz, I went to the press to inform it of my elderly grandfather’s deteriorating physical and mental condition. The church knew of his situation but chose to continue misleading its members. In carefully worded pronouncements, his assistants perpetuated the myth that while he was physically weak, he was still mentally alert and performing his daily prophetic duties, receiving God’s revelations and making essential administrative decisions.
Based on my own direct observations, I knew the opposite was the case. I had seen my grandfather enough to know that he was fading fast. He was largely confined to his recliner in his apartment, where he spent his days, wrapped in a blanket, being spoon-fed by his nurses, unable to speak more than a few words and frequently incapable of recognizing visitors.
Rather than risk having their duplicity exposed to the faithful, who had been propagandized to believe God was running the show through his modern-day Moses, church functionaries continued the deception. In reality, church leadership was rudderless on top and characterless at heart. Lieutenants were filling in for the failing general, all the while claiming that all was well in Zion. (Only later did the press report that a few years earlier the church had secretly transferred authority to run its corporate affairs away from the prophet to his assistants, in the event that he became incapacitated.)
I hoped in vain that church leaders would do the right thing by telling the truth. If nothing more, it would have been the humane and decent thing to allow an old man who had given so much of his life to the church to slip away in quiet dignity, instead of being propped up by his handlers like some store mannequin for publicity shots, all the while making sure the camera didn’t catch the tube up his nostril. Even my young son could see what was going on. One Sunday morning over breakfast, he asked, “Dad, why do they call great-grandpa ‘prophet’ when he can’t do anything?” His guileless question prompted me to act. I called a reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune and laid out the facts. He warned of the repercussions that would follow.
He was right. As they say, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make ye mad.” Mormons denounced me as a tool of the devil and an enemy of righteousness. I was chastised for lacking faith to believe in miracles. I was reminded that if God could part the waters for Moses, he could make Ezra Taft Benson rise, walk and talk.
Counter-claims and rumors began circulating that my grandfather was actually doing quite well, supposedly ordering Christmas gifts in phone calls to the church owned bookstore. My brother accused me of being a publicity seeker. Even my father called to warn me that the media was the enemy of the church. I reminded him that I was a member of the media. Still, he said if I ever again talked to the press about his father’s health, he would see to it that I would be barred from seeing him in the future. It was his duty, he said, to protect the prophet, and he was determined to carry it out. So much for that good ol’ Mormon family togetherness.
A few weeks later, my wife and I left the church with a mixture of disgust, disappointment, determination and delight. My bishop called, asking if he could buy our house. To his disappointment, we told him we weren’t moving.
A few months later, my grandfather died. Shortly after his passing, I received an anonymous call from a man in California, claiming to be carrying a message to me from my grandfather from beyond the grave. He said my grandfather had appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to tell me he wanted me back in the church.
I figured if my grandfather had regained enough of his wits in the afterlife to communicate with someone in California he didn’t even know, he sure as hell could have contacted me himself. After all, he had done it plenty of times before.
As a newspaper editorial cartoonist, I have worked for several years in the world of journalism, where lying, hypocrisy, intolerance, bigotry, self-righteousness, abuse of power, corruption and downright stupidity are regularly exposed and reported. Sadly, those doing the deeds often wrap themselves in the vestments of the church.
The honest newsperson’s response to such shenanigans has always been to press forward with the questions; to continue to challenge, probe and identify the wrong-doers; to inform the public; and to call for reform.
The press–and that includes cartoonists–must never retreat in the face of threats or punishments dispensed by intolerant theocratic terrorists who are more interested in protecting their own power and turf than in serving the needs of humanity or advancing its condition.
Science discovered long ago that carbon is a source of life. The ashes of my faith have prepared the ground for the planting of seeds that have produced new forms of truth, morality and meaning on my own terms, not according to the dogma laid down by religious ruffians or a vengeful God.
If, as believers claim, the word “gospel” means good news, then the good news for me is that there is no gospel, other than what I can define for myself, by observation and conscience. As a journalist and free-thinking human being, I have come not to favor and fear religion, but to face and fight it as an impediment to civilized advancement. Historically, it has been the so-called “men of God” who have committed all manner of evil in heaven’s name.
The philosopher Bertrand Russell observed:
“You find as you look around the world that every single bit of human progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is, the principal enemy of moral progress in the world.
I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a fit place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it.”
To which the cartoonist can only add, “Amen to that.”
Steve Benson, Editorial Cartoonist of The Arizona Republic, is syndicated by United Features. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 and has been a finalist four other years. He has written four books: “Fencin’ With Benson,” “Evanly Days,” “Back at the Barb-B-Que” and “Where Do You Draw the Line?” He is a 1973 graduate of the Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis and a cum laude Bachelor of Arts recipient in political science from Brigham Young University.