(RNS) Joanna Brooks is not what most people imagine when they think “Mormon.”
She is too liberal to support fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, she's married to a Jew and is pursuing a career as a writer, commentator and English professor at San Diego State University.
In her writing at Religion Dispatches, Brooks specializes in explaining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to non-Mormons, and in presenting a different way to be Mormon to those steeped in its orthodoxy.
She reveals the roots of her spirituality and politics in her recent book, “The Book of Mormon Girl.” Brooks talked about Mormonism, the presidential primary and her interfaith family. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why is America so admiring of and yet so weirded out by Mormons?
A: Mormons founded our own theocracy in the American West and began re-assimilating into the United States in the early 20th century as conservative, patriotic citizens. We tried very hard to pass. We combined that drive to assimilate with a pioneer work ethic and a sense of the importance of family — and we've turned out some pretty dynamite-looking people. All of our most famous people have these big, shiny families who present well and achieve high.
At the same time there's a deep-seated American perception of Mormons as a heretical, renegade, insular sect. Polygamy can't be understated. I'm routinely shocked by surveys that come out showing that 60 percent of Americans are unsure whether or not we still practice polygamy. There's a lot of tension and shame about our polygamist past — I think disproportionate shame. I mean, come on, it's polygamy — it's not the end of the world.
Q: Does this mean Mitt Romney, a Mormon, can't get elected president?
A: Yeah, he can. Absolutely, though data we have on anti-Mormonism is not good. Polling firms ask “Would you be comfortable voting for a Mormon?” But no one asks “Why?” Democrats are going to say no because many accurately understand the LDS church's record on gay rights and women's issues and race is conservative. That's not anti-Mormon, that's anti-conservative.
On the right, there are evangelical reservations about Mormons. Some will refuse to vote for Romney, and they'll get a lot of press coverage. But others will do what they feel is in the best interest of the party because partisanship is ultimately stronger than sectarianism in this country.
Q: Which discussions of Mormonism in this campaign have bugged you?
A: There are large daily newspapers of record that regularly run pieces on Mormonism that are wrong — wrong in fact, wrong in implication. There are respected LDS and non-LDS scholars of Mormonism out there who are not called upon and should be part of the conversation. And I'm not talking about myself.
There was a terrible piece a few weeks ago about race and Mormonism, that Mormonism is the whitest church ever. Yeah, it's pretty white. But most churches are fairly segregated in this country. It said Mormonism's vision is all for white people. That's just patently untrue. This is a church that is trying to spread itself all over the developing world.
Q: You're an outspoken feminist and supporter of gay rights. How do you reconcile that with the LDS church's traditional views of women and its work against gay civil rights?
A: Women in polygamous Utah enjoyed political rights, a level of visibility and access to education far greater than that of a lot of women in the late 19th century. Many worked alongside suffragettes. A lot of us look back at our pioneer foremothers and their physical and spiritual acts of bravery and draw a lot of inspiration.
I see a lot of movement among Mormons in dealing with gay issues. Just a few days ago I got an email from a pastor in Salt Lake City who runs programs for gay homeless youth. Who at her shelter is serving meals to homeless gay kids, many of who come from Mormon families? Straight Mormon families.
Q: Your husband is Jewish, but the LDS church teaches that only Mormons spouses can be “sealed” together in the afterlife. Do you worry about what will become of your marriage in the hereafter?
A: We're not really worried about that. If there was a reform branch of Mormonism, that would be the best way to describe me. I am a believer, but I tend to sort of hold off on a literal view on many things. I defer to the big sense of God that I learn from my tradition. God is merciful, eternity is a long time and things will work out for all of us.
Q: So how are you raising your two children?
A: Our children, 6 and 8, go to both Hebrew school and “Primary,” LDS Sunday school. They have twice as much to learn as the other kids. The path we're taking makes some people uncomfortable, but generally people are supportive of us trying to educate our children as our consciences lead us. We love both of our traditions and it just didn't feel right to closet one.
Q: You brought it up so now we have to ask. Why is it that so many Mormons are, as you put it, “dynamite-looking?”
A: The orthodox Mormon would say of course we're good looking — that's what happens when you take care of your body by not drinking and smoking. But anyone who thinks we're all good-looking just needs to meet more Mormons.