If you’ve ever been to the Southeastern US, you’ve seen kudzu. It’s everywhere. In the 1930s, this Japanese vine’s popularity rose among poor American Southerners seeking a cheap and easy way to provide shade in their sweltering summers. Because it grew very quickly, those planting it were told, optimistically, that all they had to do was prune it regularly to keep it from taking over (insert nervous laugh). Nicknamed by southerners “porch vine,” it quickly draped across verandas, houses, trees and even powerlines.
Now, its proliferation has led some to call it “the plant that ate the south.” It grows like the weed it is in the hot, humid climates in the Southeastern US, and chokes out the plants and trees it smothers. The only other plants that can defeat it are also invasive species that wreak their own havoc on native ecosystems. It prompted the poet James Dickey to pen his famous, if controversial, poem .
In his poem, kudzu is both its own problem in that it grows so quickly, taking over everything, but it also creates peril by providing cover for dangerous snakes who use it to conceal themselves and access the cows of the farm. The poem ends on the hopeful yet exhausting note of “rooting it out” so that the farm and its people can live.
Likewise, certain ideas have invaded the Church over my lifetime. Due to the pandemic pause on attendance and then moving to a new ward, this became even more obvious when I returned. Those who are disaffected say “pray, pay and obey,” and that’s part of it. The first two meetings after I returned were at least 80% focused on obedience to human leaders. One lesson even asked the question “What’s the difference between obedience and blind obedience?” and the only acceptable answer was that obedience came with a pause first, but never was there ever a valid reason to disagree with leaders over anything. This included non-religious and bureaucratic ideas as well.
I was also struck by how many times talks and lessons included quoting leaders, including quoting leaders who were quoting other leaders! If I had to guess what percent of quotes were from leaders vs. Jesus, it would definitely be well over 90% quoting leaders. I really am not even sure Jesus was quoted even once, but we stopped studying Jesus’ words a long time ago, and instead we just study what leaders have told us they mean. That’s not always how it has been, although perhaps in my own childrens’ lives maybe it has.
These ideas have slowly crept in, providing cover for other testimony-killers like the conflation of GOP culture war priorities with gospel principles. I’m not sure what’s left at this point. All I can see from where I’m sitting is the religious kudzu, and I don’t think anyone has the will or strength to root it out. If we are waiting for the leaders to do it, they certainly will not. Local leaders are the only hope, and many of them can’t really tell the difference anymore. So long as there is moral cover, we don’t care where it comes from. We can point to a leader and say “even if they are wrong, I’ll be blessed for following them.” Really? That’s completely the opposite of what Jesus taught. Why do we not say so?
In response to the rising disaffection of women in the Church who are unhappy with so little representation from women in the leadership ranks, we frequently trot out the wives of the apostles who have no title of respect, and whose primary job seems to be the public adoration of their husbands, testifying of the importance of their husband’s role. Does anyone really think that this approach demonstrates women being involved in decision making? I can’t imagine any women being fooled by this.
It feels particularly on the nose that kudzu proliferated in the Southeastern US, because most of these religious ideas appear to have wormed their way into Mormonism via the conservative bedfellows of the deep South, via the GOP, whose sexism, racism and homophobia historically outpaces even our own. Evangelicalism, while perhaps not inventing current Mormonism’s worst ideological shifts, has certainly emboldened these tendencies and given them language to emerge. They give easy cover to the deeper problems of misogyny, racism, and homophobia. I thought I would never see the day that Mormons were unironically using lesson aids taken from Evangelical sources, but this is now the norm!
Before the Civil Rights Act, the South mostly voted Democrat. In the 1970s, the Republican party deliberately made an appeal to aggrieved white voters in the south on the basis of racism, providing cover for Jim Crow laws and other racial repressions that were designed to counter any attempts at equality for black people. This was called the Southern Strategy. Republicans used coded language to woo these racists into their conservative party, disenfranchising black voters, but altering the Republican party forever. And Mormons went right along with it because secretly (or not so secretly) many of them were also not bothered by racism or sexism. These ideas from the South have taken the Republican party to its current form, complacent with racism so long as taxes remain low, complacent with sexism, so long as white men continue to have power.
Peter Bleakly, a podcaster from the UK, calls this a Mormon Civil War between the Pharisees and the Christians. I don’t see a war at all. The war is over, and the kudzu has won. The members want the comfort of hearing the same things over and over, substituting propoganda for learning. They don’t want open discussions of real issues. If they do, they are finding them outside of our congregations.
- What religious kudzu do you see in the Church?
- How do you think these ideas can be rooted out, if at all?
- What gives you hope?
Japan invades. Far Eastern vines
Run from the clay banks they are
Supposed to keep from eroding
Up telephone poles
Which rear, half out of leafage
As though they would shriek
Like things smothered by their own
Green, mindless, unkillable ghosts
In Georgia, the legend says
That you must close your windows
At night to keep it out of the house
The glass is tinged with green, even so
As the tendrils crawl over the fields
The night the kudzu has
Your pasture, you sleep like the dead
Silence has grown Oriental
And you cannot step upon ground:
Your leg plunges somewhere
It should not, it never should be
Disappears, and waits to be struck
Anywhere between sole and kneecap:
For when the kudzu comes
The snakes do, and weave themselves
Among its lengthening vines
Their spade heads resting on leaves
Growing also, in earthly power
And the huge circumstance of concealment
One by one the cows stumble in
Drooling a hot green froth
And die, seeing the wood of their stalls
Strain to break into leaf
In your closed house, with the vine
Tapping your window like lightning
You remember what tactics to use
In the wrong yellow fog-light of dawn
You herd them in, the hogs
Head down in their hairy fat
The meaty troops, to the pasture
The leaves of the kudzu quake
With the serpents’ fear, inside
The meadow ringed with men
Holding sticks, on the country roads
The hogs disappear in the leaves
The sound is intense, subhuman
Nearly human with purposive rage
There is no terror
Sound from the snakes
No one can see the desperate, futile
Striking under the leaf heads
Now and then, the flash of a long
Living vine, a cold belly
Leaps up, torn apart, then falls
Under the tussling surface
You have won, and wait for frost
When, at the merest touch
Of cold, the kudzu turns
Black, withers inward and dies
Leaving a mass of brown strings
Like the wires of a gigantic switchboard
You open your windows
With the lightning restored to the sky
And no leaves rising to bury
You alive inside your frail house
And you think, in the opened cold
Of the surface of things and its terrors
And of the mistaken, mortal
Arrogance of the snakes
As the vines, growing insanely, sent
Great powers into their bodies
And the freedom to strike without warning:
From them, though they killed
Your cattle, such energy also flowed
To you from the knee-high meadow
(It was as though you had
A green sword twined among
The veins of your growing right arm–
Such strength as you would not believe
If you stood alone in a proper
Shaved field among your safe cows–):
Came in through your closed
Leafy windows and almighty sleephttps://genius.com/James-dickey-kudzu-annotated
And prospered, till rooted out