The Right and Left of Mormonism; or How Can You Think That Way?

Garran_LDS_Chapel_by_AEastNewsflash: I am a conservative Mormon … with an abundance of friends who are liberal Mormons, thanks largely to my connections in the Mormon literary and academic worlds. A few weeks back, a friend from my ward and I were enjoying an early not-quite-spring-yet afternoon in a north Texas park when I told her just that, that I have many practicing LDS friends who are liberal in their thinking. Hers palms landed on the picnic table. She leaned toward me, and, with her head shaking, said, “See … I don’t get that. How can anyone be faithful LDS and be a Democrat?”

I am asked that precise question with astonishing regularity and the questioners always seem sincere. Conservative Mormons genuinely do not, for the most part, understand how LDS theology can be married to progressive thought. I’m not sure progressive Mormons are much better at the reverse, but they surely have more exposure to the thought patterns of the right, seeing as conservatives, being a majority, have more opportunity to use the pulpit to mingle scripture with the political philosophy of men than do Mormon progressives. While I have no interest in using this format for political persuasion, I am interested in the way politics intersects with our social structure, particularly when the intersection illuminates a cultural imperfection.

The Walk: So I’d like to answer my friend’s question: How can anyone be faithful LDS and a Democrat? The problem, of course, is that having a Conservative answer that question is like having an owner of a Chili’s restaurant explain why someone would chose to dine at Applebee’s. So I’m not going to answer it. Instead, I’m going to turn to an excerpt from an essay by my friend, Dr. Boyd Petersen, a professor at Utah Valley University, biographer of Hugh Nibley, and a 2012 candidate on the Democrat ticket for the Utah House of Representatives. In his essay, “A Walk in Blue-State Moccasins: Imagining Life as a Utah Mormon Democrat,” Peterson demonstrates the alienating and too often condescending way conservative political thought permeates our chapels and classrooms and reflects how progressive Mormons view the religion/politics dichotomy.

I believe this essay has the potential to do a great deal of bridge-building because it demonstrates two things 1) the way progressive thought can be seen to match up with LDS theology, and 2) the way the appearance of conservative political rhetoric in our meetings feels not only alienating, but condescending to those among us who lean left. It achieves both these things in the Mormon way–by example.

Peterson imagines a Mormon world in which progressive thought rules, and then he places a stake president at the podium addressing a congregation of like-minded Latter-day Saints. In his wind-up to the portionPeterson__DeadWood_1024x1024 of the essay he calls, “The Walk,” which is the Stake President’s address, Peterson is very careful to explain that he does not advocate the mixing of politics and religion in our meeting houses, and that he offers us this pretend sermon as a tool to increase awareness and sensitivity, not to condemn nor to complain. He writes, “Just as Republican Mormons see their religious beliefs confirming their conservative political values, [progressives] see these same religious beliefs confirming our progressive values. Just as they see their web of beliefs from politics and religion as overlapping, entirely consistent and self-evident, so do we. We feel no more tension between our political and religious beliefs than you feel with yours.”

Reverence, please, as Peterson’s mythic Stake President approaches the podium:

Dear brothers and sisters. It is indeed an honor to address you at this stake conference. As I look out at this congregation, the Spirit of the Lord tells me that we are at the dawn of a new era of peace and justice. The past four years have seen a tremendous spirit of hope spread across our great nation…As we look back at the past election, I am encouraged that the people have once again chosen to put their faith in optimism and justice rather than turning back toward cynicism, fear, and inequality. Even during those dark days of war just prior to the economic collapse, President Hinckley spoke of the “great dawning” of our age, how “the God of heaven inspires and pours out light and knowledge.” “Think of the increased longevity of life. Think of the wonders of modern medicine. I stand amazed. Think of the flowering of education. Think of the miraculous advances in travel and communication.” President Hinckley’s optimism for the future was inspirational even as we headed into our worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

I feel that same optimism when I think of how the Lord has directed our current leaders to enact laws that have comforted the poor and needy, the sick and the downtrodden. By expanding health care access, they are following Christ’s ministry of caring for the sick. By enacting Wall Street reforms, consumer protections, an auto industry bailout, and economic stimulus, they have brought us back from the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression and are providing economic justice for all. And now by working to raise the minimum wage, increase paycheck fairness for women, and eradicate poverty throughout the world, they continue to follow Christ’s admonition that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).

I am reminded of the example set by our beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, who, when he was first called as bishop at the young age of twenty-two, cared for and ministered to the spiritual and physical needs of eighty-five widows in Salt Lake City ward. And I am so thrilled to see the Church and the nation follow the prophetic lead of President Monson’s addition to the three-fold, now four-fold, mission of the Church, “to care for the poor and needy.” Brothers and sisters, the gospel calls on us to provide care and comfort to all, both privately and publicly, to use our resources to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (Heb. 12:12-15). In the Book of Mormon we read that inequality was a “great cause for lamentations among the people” (Alma 4:13), and that it was only when “there was no inequality among them” that “the Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land to prepare the minds of the children of men, or to prepare their hearts to receive the word” (Alma 16:16). As the Lord has stated, “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (D&C 78:6).

I am elated as I watch wars ending in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan. Truly the Lord’s hand is at work in establishing peace throughout the world, especially after Satan’s lies were used to justify these ugly and unnecessary wars by the wicked leaders of our past. In his Bicentennial address, “The False Gods We Worship,” President Spencer W. Kimball scolded us, as a Church and as a nation, for being “a warlike people” and admonished us that “our assignment is preparing for the coming of the Lord.” As he clearly and unambiguously stated, we are under the condemnation of the Lord when we assume that the ways of the world are superior to the ways of the Lord: “we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’” As the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, we must “renounce war and proclaim peace” to all the world (D&C 98:16).

Sisters and Brothers, we must not allow the rhetoric of fear and hatred and divisiveness to alarm us, to distract us from the project we have of bringing again Zion. For Jesus Christ has stated to this very dispensation, we are to become one in heart and in community, “for if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). We must have faith in our Father’s plan and, as President Hinckley admonished us, “Cultivate an attitude of happiness. Cultivate a spirit of optimism. Walk with faith, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, in the goodness of those you love, in the testimony which you carry in your heart concerning things divine.” Let us contribute to the peaceful and reasoned momentum that is, through our Heavenly Father’s spirit, spreading throughout the world.

(Read Peterson’s essay in full here or in Peterson’s collection of essays, Dead Wood and Rushing Water: Essays on Mormon Faith, Culture, and Family, available for purchase here.)

The Tracks: Back in the days when I taught composition at a community college, I would have my students read something controversial–maybe about abortion or gay marriage–and then force them to take sides, those pro-whatever on one side of the room and those con-whatever on the other side. Then I began to agitate them, asking the hard questions, challenging them in their thoughts. The discussion never lasted more than three or four minutes before someone from one side of the room or the other responded to a point made by the opposition with, “That’s just stupid.” And of course, the opposition would follow that with, “No, what’s stupid is [what you just said.]” That’s the moment I would step in, pointing out that obviously neither of the students is stupid and asking them to consider why it is they would make such an accusation. No surprise: the answer eventually always came back as “Because I don’t understand how they can think that.”

train tracksSo it is in politics. We have the habit of thinking that truth runs on a single track and that, of course, we are each on the Truth Train on that Truth Track. When another engine barrels down at us, we steel ourselves in an ideological game of chicken, expecting that the other train will jump track when it realizes how firmly set we are, how right we are in the direction we are headed. And then comes the crash and the blame.

In reality, there are two train tracks on which our minds can run–one is conservative, one is liberal–and they are running parallel, not in opposition. Latter-day Saints tend to want the same positive goals for our nations and the world even if we don’t all share the same pinpoint view on which issues will get us there best.

I am not advocating a moderate political view. I’m not a moderate. In fact, I’m a political animal who, in my youth, was tempted  toward a career as a political wordsmith. Fear for my soul, however, turned me away from that flirtation and pointed me, instead, toward the writing of fiction, where “lying” is an acceptable method of arriving at truth. Yet, even though I am not moderate and have no intention of tempering my personal politics, I am learning  to carefully reconsider how I mix my political and faith rhetoric so as not to pass an unfair judgement on those who have been gifted by God minds that run on a different track.

Several weeks ago, my son’s Sunday School teacher asked the students to list some of the names for Satan. The kids offered up names and one of them shouted, “Obama!” Everyone laughed, including my son and the teacher. But it’s not funny. Not when you think that maybe there’s a child in there who’s parents are teaching him to honor his Lord by running on a different political track. In that case, promoting politics as if part of a faith practice undermines family, rather than strengthening it. It alienates good people from the tribe. There’s no place for that in the House of the Lord.

Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons.  Acts 10:34

sunflower train

Please come back to read my two upcoming posts, tenatively titled: “The Mormon Historical Narrative and the Pride Cycle” and “The Kingdom of God and Civil Disobedience”

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19 thoughts on “The Right and Left of Mormonism; or How Can You Think That Way?

  1. San Tan Heights

    Wow! Thank you for recognizing that we are faithful Latter Day Saints, too. Thank you for recognizing that my sons are not going to think it is funny to liken to Obama as Satan for the very reason that you stated. Please continue to share this olive branch of love and peace. Let us all be known as Latter Day Saints first and political parties last.

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    1. Heavy sigh. Its really quite sad that you feel the need to thank me. I’m sorry. I should be thanking you for staying patient and forgiving when conservative Mormons have overstepped. Sometimes we literally know not what we do. Thank you for reading.

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  2. Kaylee Heninger

    Conservative here. I love your analogy of truth trains! I myself am a “political animal”, having studied and actively participated in politics through college, intending to pursue a career in the political arena. Then I came to the realization that gladiators in the arena have a tendency to wind up dead. (Metaphorically in this case.) Now I work from the sidelines rather than the front lines. I have often thought that the problem with our politics in general is the tendency to revert to the “you’re an idiot” argument. Understanding why the “other side” believes how they do is rarely attempted. Thank you for putting planks in the bridge of understanding. Though I have at times been shocked at the vitriol I find even in the church halls, I don’t know that I ever really considered how prevalent the conservative mindset is in the church, in even subtle ways. While I will not necessarily be tempering my viewpoint, I will be more closely monitoring my words. We are after all, a brother and sisterhood of love. So thanks again!

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    1. Wonderful, Kaylee. That’s all we need to do. The political fight doesn’t belong in the halls of a church. We don’t segregate according to political theology like some religions end up doing. That’s part of the reason, I suppose, we attend according to geography. We are supposed to learn to put aside our difference and love one another. Period. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Pass the awareness on!

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  3. CORRECTION: In the original publication of this post, in the last paragraph, I indicated the Sunday School teacher had offered up Obama as a name for Satan. After talking to my son, I realized I’d misunderstood. One of the 12 year old’s offered Obama’s name, not the teacher, though my son admitted all laughed, including the teacher. I’m relieved … and not really.

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  4. Lisa, I tend to agree with your post, but I feel to qualify that a bit. There seems to be more than a few political views that are held by various individuals that are not reconcilable with the doctrines of the Church, some quite overtly. For instance, the Proclamation on the Family specifically makes statements to leaders in governments and those that elect those leaders. These warnings and counsel are directly contradicted by the policy goals of some of our elected leaders and by the Latter-day Saints who vote for them. While I do not think that this should be a litmus test in the strictest sense, as often we are dealing with choosing between the lesser of two evils, there are many within the Church that consciously ignore, disregard and argue against these statements.

    To the extent that someone ignores or disregards clearly stated Church doctrine in favor of their own political preferences, then they’ve left whichever of the tracks mentioned in your post that they might have been on. While I agree that one can be a democrat or republican and still be a faithful member, there are certain policies of both parties that should be difficult for any member of conscience to reconcile with the gospel.

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  5. Will Jacobson

    I appreciate this article quite a bit, and look forward to reading the rest of Boyd Peterson’s mythical Stake President talk. To show my colors a bit, I dream of a day in which that talk might be real. Irrespective of what I think, I wholeheartedly echo the sentiment that we should leave our political hats at the door in our meetinghouses, and wish that more people would, especially when it seems that only one kind of political discussion is “welcome” to bring up.

    Fascinating post, and I look forward to poking around a few more soon.

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  6. i enjoyed reading your post, Lisa. I wonder why you didn’t reply to Michael. I also wonder why these kind of discussions have to be couched in terms of political parties. Washington warned us to avoid them like the plague. The liberal/conservative labels also seem tired and meaningless. Further, do you have any thoughts on the reason why, as has been noted here by many, the most prevalent political view in the Church seems to be conservative (there’s that term again).

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    1. Rick, I don’t remember why I didn’t reply to Michael. Its possible I didn’t really notice his comment since, having been previously approved to post here, his comments don’t show up as needing approval. They simply appear on the blog. I could change that setting, but this blog isn’t exactly a job. It’s a sideline and being completely engaged isn’t a possibility unless the blog magically begins paying me enough to do no other paying work and to pay someone else to do all the normal stuff we moms and housewives do. That’s just my reality. I don’t look through all back-posts every time I visit, but I do try to check back with some of the more “popular” ones periodically. And so here I am today, June 10th, 2014.

      I’ll respond to Michael here, since you ask, and note that below his comment. I agree with Michael. Completely. There are many political philosophies that I reject as being contrary to gospel principles. Here I only ask that we carefully separate our religious and political rhetoric when possible, that we make the effort to understand our fellow Latter-day Saints and to challenge our assumptions about their (okay I’ll say it) intelligence. We need to be Christ-like and more inclusive. I’m not letting go of the political ideology I embrace and I argue passionately for it in private. I don’t intend this to ever become a political blog, or, at least, to refrain from discussing politics except as politics intersect with Mormon culture. Still, that’s pretty broad.

      Like you, I wish we had no political labels. I wish we didn’t have the need (read: weakness) that leads us to divide ourselves in the quest for group identity. But it does seem to be how humans work. We divide up to conquer and we accept as conquering anything that gives us more power than the other guy. I’m looking forward to experiencing an existence after the Second Coming, when many things will be clarified and our true leader teaches us what my words–what anyone’s words–can only be a pathetic shadow of.

      As to your last question about my thoughts regarding why things have shaken out politically for the larger body of Mormons, I do, indeed, have thoughts. Musings. Things I wonder about. But that will need to be another post. As the political season heats up, I’m more likely to return to that than I am at present. Boyd Petersen offers up an interesting take on this in his essay collection, but you can read it here: http://boydpetersen.com/2009/04/04/the-morality-of-politics-the-challenges-of-mormon-tribalism/

      To be honest, I don’t recognize the conservative Mormonism Petersen describes in this essay. And its a tad condescending, but I hate pointing that out. Over the months I’ve been doing this blog, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been accused of being condescending. Its probably not a fair criticism the majority of the time its leveled at someone. People explaining their way of thinking is nothing more or less than that and we take offense too quickly when none is meant or understood to be present. Anyway, I do find that, while Petersen asks conservatives to try to walk in his moccasins, he’s not actually adept at doing the reverse. But that’s normal, I think. Its very difficult to represent an opposing view in the way that will make them happy. That’s why I chose to quote Petersen instead of attempt to represent him.

      Sorry for my delayed response. I hope you understand.

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  7. Hmm it seems like your website ate my first comment (it was
    extremely long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I submitted and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying
    your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m
    still new to the whole thing. Do you have any tips for novice blog writers?
    I’d really appreciate it.

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    1. Tips? I feel like a novice myself. But I’ve got three tips and they are related. 1) Don’t let it eat up your life. 2) Develop a thick skin. 3) Resist the urge to defend yourself. Put what you want out there and let people converse. You’re job is to start conversations, not end the conversation and not to become the conversation.

      Good luck!

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  8. David

    “No true Latter-day Saint and no true American can be a socialist or a communist or support programs leading in that direction. These evil philosophies are incompatible with Mormonism, the true gospel of Jesus Christ.” Ezra Taft Benson – conference report, Oct. 1961

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  9. Freedom Wins

    Here we are, August 29, 2014. In his essay, Brother Peterson is elated and relived at the removal of US Troops out of Iraq. Now, we have the impending threat of ISIS attack American interests as well as the America Homeland. Had Obama left Security Forces on the ground in Iraq in 2011, ISIS would not be the grave threat it is to US and the world.

    ‘Kumbyah’ has NEVER, nor will it ever, work with these lunatics. Our only hope is to show strength as is shown to us clearly by Captain Moroni. Yet, our President is more comfortable out on the golf course or campaign trail than to strategize any plan that will keep America safe. In addition, yesterday, he announces his weakness to the world, emboldening our enemies further.

    As Brother Peterson breathes his sigh of relief at the time of his writing, the evidence of this ill-thought out plan has now come home. I was curious to know how he, or anyone singing the praises of ‘Kumbyah’ is feeling now that we know just keeping to ourselves will never work?

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    1. First, I apologize for the late reply. I’ve been off-line (for the most part) for several weeks due to familial concerns. Second, I not only understand, but share your frustrations over the current state of turmoil in the middle east. Like you, I’m unfortunately not surprised to see ISIS rise and I’m shaking my head over the president’s response(s).

      However, the message of this post was most assuredly not that one side is more right than the other, or that both sides are equally correct in all political situations. I’m not forfeiting my strongly held political views because I seek to understand fellow Latter-day Saints who function from a different political perspective than I do. I ask, however, that we who are within the embrace of Christ cease measuring one another’s spiritual self against our own political views. This is something both liberal and conservative Mormons tend to do, and, when we do this, we alienate ourselves from an entire set of wonderful, inspired people. Religion requires us to trump political division. Our Christian faith elevates the individual, not the faction, and this suggests to me that my job is to learn to see a person wholly.

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