Newsflash: 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 portion 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.
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.”
So 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
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”