Friday, July 05, 2013
Ayatollah Big Jim
I’ve been following the news this week of the ouster of Egypt’s president by that country’s army. For many of the people of that country, who are celebrating as I write this, he represented a hated religious rule. In the late ‘70s when the Iranians chased out their shah and installed a religious leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, it was the opposite situation.
In Utah non-religious types such as me can be made to feel that we’re under religious repression. Despite separation of church and state many laws and public policies can have a strong influence from Temple Square in Salt Lake City to our state legislature, and down to our municipal governments. It can also affect us on the job.
From 1976 to 1988 my direct supervisor at the school district was Big Jim, who was as strict in his religion as the ayatollahs of Iran, and those of us working for him took to calling him the ayatollah behind his back. I called him that to his face, once, and he got a puzzled look on his face.
“Why did you call me that?”
“It’s how you often act. You base your decisions on your religious belief rather than school district policy.”
Ah, me. I had once again opened my big mouth and let my feelings come gushing out, even though I was talking to my boss. “I do not!” he hollered (something he did a lot) and stomped back into his office, probably to tell his secretaries that I was comparing him to the most hated religious figure in the world.
In 1988 Big Jim was promoted to be a director in our department, so he had an office in another building, and we were given another supervisor. Our second supervisor was also religious, but did not bring his religion to work with him. His problem, as he confided in me once, was that now that Big Jim was his boss and they shared a religious faith he found that Big Jim was just as harsh in his judgments as always, and he sometimes felt he was being yelled at by a Mormon bishop rather than a boss on a job.
That sort of thing, a very strong and self-righteous streak, is bound to spill over when the person doing the spilling is never criticized by his own superiors for using religious prejudice rather than company (or in our case, school district) policy on which to base decisions. The reason he wasn’t called down for his bigotry is that his bosses were like him. It was a big reason Big Jim was promoted to a top management position. The school district was a pyramid, with the tip of the pyramid being made up of very religious men who shared the same beliefs.
A lot of religious folks look at America as being founded on religious principles, of which I’ve written before (see my post, ”How religious were America’s Founding Fathers?”). But every time we let religious principles become the overriding reason for a law we become a state more like Iran than America. Big Jim told a group of us one day if he were made King of America there would be no abortions; homosexuals would be put in prison. No businesses would be allowed to be open on the Sabbath, each business day would open with prayer, and not just any prayer, but a Mormon prayer. A perfect state in Big Jim’s mind would include a religion police like the Taliban used, guys who rode around in Jeeps looking for women who showed a bit of ankle, and beat them with batons for daring to offend God.*
And that’s where I don’t see much difference between Big Jim’s attitude that his religion trumps secular policy, and a government like Iran’s or the former Taliban government in Afghanistan that bases public policy on strict religious rules. I learned my lesson after a time; I never told Big Jim a belief of mine, that had Big Jim been born in an Islamic state he probably would have been just as strong in those beliefs as he is in his Mormon faith. Born in Iran, Big Jim might have been an ayatollah today.
Think of your own beliefs, your own attitudes toward authority or the established order, and then flip them to a country like Iran, and ask yourself could you survive in such an environment? I know I couldn’t, and had I been born in such a place with the same personality and secular beliefs I have now I’d probably be in prison right now having the soles of my feet beaten by religious sadists for not conforming to the established religious order. (Likewise if born into the 15th century I might have been stretched on the rack during the Inquisition.) Like many Americans I feel lucky for being born where I was, under the political system we have, rather than in a repressive state where one’s worthiness is judged by a religious litmus test. I deeply resented being put through that test on a constant basis by Big Jim (and being found unworthy), rather than being judged on my work, which, in the real world is what is more important.
*A belief by Mormons is that one day they can be raised to an exalted state and become gods of their own worlds. Some of my fellow employees and I used to joke about the “Big Jim planet” and what kind of wrathful god he’d make.