Guest Blog: Mormons, Politics, and the Ugliness Within

I was thinking of putting together a blog post on this issue and them came upon Jenny’s excellent post on the ‘LDS and Left of Center’ facebook group. With her permission I am reposting it here. Thank you Jenny for letting me share this.

The words of Jenny Pietz:

I always get nervous putting myself out there, but I wanted to share this. It’s pretty long, so I apologize for being verbose.

The past week was General Conference and I spent some time pondering Elder Cook’s talk and his call for civility in all things, especially in civil discourse. http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/can-ye-feel-so-now?lang=eng I’ve spent many years studying the Church, politics and both, and as I remembered past pleas for civility I started to see a trend emerge. For as long as I’ve been alive there have been themes at conference and throughout multiple conferences such as reading the Book of Mormon, food storage, the family, and pornography. They obviously get a lot of attention, but one has been a recurring staple for over 100 years but gets little attention but just as important and that’s political neutrality and civility, especially among members on both sides of the isle.

In 1835 at a general assembly the Church adopted by unanimous vote a “Declaration of Belief regarding Governments and Laws in general,” which was to become the 134th section of the Doctrine & Covenants. It said: “We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign.” (D&C 134:3.) Verse 6 of the same chapter goes on to say “We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker.” Joseph Smith and the Twelve issued this declaration along w/ the 12th Article of Faith, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”, while their homes were destroyed and their lives taken.

Leading up to statehood most members of Church were Democrats, stemming from the Republican platform “Twin relics of barbarism: Slavery and Polygamy”. But, in Utah’s path to statehood there was a call to even out church membership in both parties, and asked members of the church to join the Republican party. When Elder Jensen sat down with the Salt Lake Tribune in 1998 he retold the story from Oscar McConkie.

“At that time, Mormons favored the Democratic Party because it was less stridently anti-polygamy than were Republicans.
When members of the flock returned for an afternoon session, the Republican sign-up sheet remained blank, Jensen said. “Brothers and sisters, you have misunderstood,” said the church leader. “God needs Republicans.”
“And Oscar said his father would wink and say, ‘And you know, Oscar, those damned Republicans think they’ve had God on their side ever since.” “ http://www.kevinashworth.com/ldr/268/gop-dominance-troubles-church

Not a full decade after statehood in 1896, in 1903 Joseph F. Smith issued this statement “The Church [as such] does not engage in politics; its members belong to the political parties at their own pleasure. …” (“The Probable Cause,” Improvement Era, June 1903, p. 626.)

During this time the first Labor Unions are formed and Teddy Roosevelt is president. The Department Of Labor is also organized. This is also the year George Albert Smith became an apostle. The words of this wise man were brought up in April 2006. http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2006/04/instruments-of-the-lords-peace?lang=eng Robert S Wood (2nd Quorum of the Seventy) quotes ““There is nothing in the world more deleterious or harmful to the human family than hatred, prejudice, suspicion, and the attitude that some people have toward their fellows, of unkindness.” In matters of politics, he warned, “Whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground.” Speaking of the great mission of the latter-day kingdom, he counseled: “This is not a militant church to which we belong. This is a church that holds out peace to the world. It is not our duty to go into the world and find fault with others, neither to criticize men because they do not understand. But it is our privilege, in kindness and love, to go among them and divide with them the truth that the Lord has revealed in this latter day.” His words are just as profound to the second half of the 20th century and beyond as it did the first half.

After Pres. Smith’s death, in the Oct. 1951 conference Stephen L Richards, once again drove home the point about the perils of divisive politics. “A threat to our unity derives from unseemly personal antagonisms developed in partisan political controversy. The Church, while reserving the right to advocate principles of good government underlying equity, justice, and liberty, the political integrity of officials, and the active participation of its members, and the fulfillment of their obligations in civic affairs, exercises no constraint on the freedom of individuals to make their own choices and affiliations … any man who makes representation to the contrary does so without authority and justification in fact.” (President Stephen L Richards, Conference Report, October 1951, pp. 114–15.) http://www.lds.org/ensign/1974/05/guidelines-to-carry-forth-the-work-of-god-in-cleanliness?lang=eng

The 50s and 60s were tumultuous politically and the apostles were just as divided. The words of previous leaders would go unheeded and divisive politics would take hold of the Quorum of the Twelve for decades. Elder Benson was very vocal in his beliefs particularly about communism. However, Elders Hugh B Brown, N Eldon Tanner, and Joseph Fielding Smith felt much differently. It seemed to have reached fever pitch when Elder Benson was sent to Europe as mission president over the European mission. While the public statements on his departure claimed it had nothing to do with the infighting, Elder’s Brown and Smith didn’t see it that way. When asked how long Elder Benson would be gone Elder Brown wrote back “If I had my way, he’ll never come back!” Elder Smith was equally harsh. “I think it is time that Brother Benson forgot all about politics and settled down to his duties as a member of the Council of the Twelve. He is going to take a mission to Europe in the near future and by the time he returns I hope he will get all of the political notions out of his system. I am glad to report that it will be some time before we hear anything from Brother Benson, who is now on his way to Great Britain where I suppose he will be, at least for the next two years. When he returns I hope his blood will be purified.” While this shows how human our religious leaders are, it should also serve as a message of warning to the members that odds over politics should never divide us.
The elections in ‘68 and ‘72 also elicited comments from the General Authorities reminding the Saints of the neutrality of the church and freedom of conscience all men have to join the political party of their choice. And this is during Vietnam and the hippy movement.

“First, I’d like you to be reassured that the leaders of both major political parties in this land are men of integrity, and unquestioned patriotism. Beware of those who feel obliged to prove their own patriotism by calling into question the loyalty of others. Be skeptical of those who attempt to demonstrate their love of country by demeaning its institutions. Know that men of both major political parties who guide the nation’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches are men of unquestioned loyalty and we should stand by and support them, and this refers not only to one party but to all.” – President Hugh B. Brown, Commencement address, Brigham Young University, May 31, 1968

“This being election year, there will be much campaigning; we will hear and argue the pros and cons of many questions; we will have strong opposing views. Each must try to understand the questions and then stand firm by his convictions. But let us determine now that in the heat of the campaign we will not indulge in the vituperative talk of personalities that we so often hear. We must not rail against our brother and accuse him of lying and cheating or being dishonest or immoral.
Let us stand on principle—high principle. Also, it is most important that all of us, including our politicians, strive to live so that our actions will be above reproach and criticism.

We never gain anything or improve our own character by trying to tear down another. We have seen close friendships destroyed through words spoken and accusations made in the heat of a campaign. Tirades against men in office or against one’s opponent tend to cause our youth and others to lose faith in the individual and others in government and often even our form of government itself.” N. Eldon Tanner. 1972

Forty years later their words speak to this generation loud and clear. Even though both elections had Richard Nixon on the ballot I find it honorable that both men saw worth in Nixon. With all their flaws, I believe that Romney and Obama are good men who are patriots with two very different views on how this country should be run. It’s up to every individual to decide which path is best and you may disagree w/ the other guy. But that’s ok. Ideally both parties come together and compromise with some give and take. It is how government is supposed to work. Compromise is not the dirty word it’s become.

This would not be the last time the brethren would talk about political civility. Elder Oaks, in the Oct 1996 Ensign said “The distinction between sins and mistakes is important to our actions in the realm of politics and public policy debates. We have seen some very bitter finger-pointing among Latter-day Saints who disagree with one another on the policies a government should follow, the political parties they should support, or the persons they should elect as public servants. Such disagreements are inevitable in representative government. But it is not inevitable that they would result in the personal denunciations and bitter feelings described in the press or encountered in personal conversations.

We put political disagreements in the appropriate context when we remember that even if our political adversaries are making the wrong choice (as we suppose), that is generally a matter of error (mistake) rather than transgression (sin). (Of course, there are some public policies so intertwined with moral issues that there may be only one morally right position, but that is rare.) http://www.lds.org/ensign/1996/10/sins-and-mistakes?lang=eng

In 1998 Elder Marlin K. Jensen, a life-long Democrat, gave an interview w/ the Salt Lake Tribune about the concerns the Church had w/ the GOP dominance in the church, especially in the intermountain west.http://www.kevinashworth.com/ldr/268/gop-dominance-troubles-churchIn the interview he raises several concerns.
• The LDS Church’s reputation as a one-party monolith is damaging in the long run because of the seesaw fortunes of the national political parties.
• The overwhelming Republican bent of LDS members in Utah and the Intermountain West undermines the checks-and-balances principle of democratic government.
• Any notion that it is impossible to be a Democrat and a good Mormon is wrongheaded and should be “obliterated.”
• Faithful LDS members have a moral obligation to actively participate in politics and civic affairs, a duty many have neglected.
The full interview can be read here – http://www.kevinashworth.com/ldr/transcript-of-marlin-jensen-interview

The 2000s only amplified rhetoric and divisiveness, and 25 years after Elder Jensen’s interview things seem to have gotten worse. Or it could be that the prominence of the Internet just brought everything out in the open. In 2006 the church once again reminded members to be civil in political discourse. Returning to Elder Wood’s talk he quotes Pres. Hinckley, “We can give our opinions on the merits of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties.” After the 2008 election once again the Church issued a call for civility. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/the-mormon-ethic-of-civility

“The need for civility is perhaps most relevant in the realm of partisan politics. As the Church operates in countries around the world, it embraces the richness of pluralism. Thus, the political diversity of Latter-day Saints spans the ideological spectrum. Individual members are free to choose their own political philosophy and affiliation. Moreover, the Church itself is not aligned with any particular political ideology or movement. It defies category. Its moral values may be expressed in a number of parties and ideologies.

Furthermore, the Church views with concern the politics of fear and rhetorical extremism that render civil discussion impossible. As the Church begins to rise in prominence and its members achieve a higher public profile, a diversity of voices and opinions naturally follows. Some may even mistake these voices as being authoritative or representative of the Church. However, individual members think and speak for themselves. Only the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles speak for the whole”
Elder Faust was a life-long democrat and even held public office before joining the Quorum of the Twelve and played an active role in the Utah Democratic Party up until the 2006 election. He would quietly behind the scenes encourage local democrats to run for office to help balance the political parties in UT. Faust told his biographer, James P. Bell, “Both locally and nationally, the interests of the church and its members are best served when we have two good men or women running on each ticket, and then no matter who is elected, we win.”
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/2007/08/knowing-a-beat-inside-and-out/

It’s election time and once again the General Authorities felt the need to remind us to be civil with each other. You’d think civility would be easier than finding time to read the Book of Mormon or food storage. But, that is the source of so much ill in the world. Families break up because parents don’t treat each other with civility. I see every day children who would rather be right and to win at all cost over being kind to their fellow classmates, many learn it from their parents. Elder Cook said in this past conference, “The need for civility in society has never been more important. The foundation of kindness and civility begins in our homes. It is not surprising that our public discourse has declined in equal measure with the breakdown of the family. The family is the foundation for love and for maintaining spirituality. The family promotes an atmosphere where religious observance can flourish. There is indeed “beauty all around when there’s love at home.””

We have become a worldwide church, with more political parties then there are nations and our members are going to have a full range of beliefs and it serves no purpose to isolate or ridicule them just because you feel differently. I know I’ve never always been perfect at this, but every day, especially in the last 18 months I wake up every day and try harder. But, when you’ve prayed so hard about what you believe and confirmation so strong you can’t deny it, seeing comments that anyone who believes in the opposition are idiots, uninformed, even lacking knowledge of the gospel, are disheartening. While, with me, it hasn’t affected my testimony, it did make it harder for me to want to go to church. Because why would anyone want to be somewhere, even at church, where your opinion is not respected? It is one thing to educate others, it is another to belittle and degrade. One thing that I am striving to do, as much as I may disagree w/ policy and statements I may find to be ridiculous, is avoid name calling. I am also trying to teach this to my children. To respect the office even if you don’t agree with the policy. If I am ever challenged, a wise man once told me to be respectful, factual, and kind and ever since that day I’ve tried to keep that in the front of my mind. I hope its wisdom we can take with us the last few weeks leading up to the election and beyond.