How to Choose a Stick

Dear Will:

In our country, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to take an active role in politics and elections. Pastors and preachers do not hesitate to endorse individual candidates, often inviting their favorites to speak to their congregations. Some sects and their leaders become explicitly associated with specific parties and openly instruct their followers how to vote.

In contrast, my church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) remains quietly on the sidelines, unwilling to engage or endorse, even when our own members rise to prominence and run for office. Here’s the official Church policy on such matters: “As citizens, Church members are encouraged to participate in political and governmental affairs, including involvement in the political party of their choice. . . . While affirming the right of expression on political and social issues, the Church is neutral regarding political parties, political platforms, and candidates for political office. The Church does not endorse any political party or candidate. Nor does it advise members how to vote.” And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.

Case in point: This very weekend, my church held its 190th General Conference, a semi-annual event that features ten hours of instruction stretched across five sessions on a single weekend. In two days of remote “gathering,” we listened to over 30 sermons, maybe a couple dozen previously-recorded choir numbers, and a bunch of prayers. Here we are, just a month away from an election, and yet there wasn’t one mention of a specific candidate or political party. As you might guess given the rancor and divisiveness that dominates public discourse these days, we did get a healthy dose of admonition regarding racial equality, civility, peacemaking, and loving our neighbors, but not one word on whom to vote for. That’s just how we do things.

I think that reticence is consistent with something Joseph Smith said maybe 180 years ago in reference to how he governed a growing church. “I teach them correct principles,” he said, “and they govern themselves.” There is an expectation, in other words, that members of our church will make their own decisions, that we will strive to align our actions with the principles taught from our pulpits, that our lives and choices will reflect our desire to exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ. That’s the theory, anyway.

So what are the principles my church teaches with respect to elections? These, and these only:

In accordance with the laws of their respective governments, members are encouraged to register to vote, to study issues and candidates carefully, and to vote for individuals whom they believe will act with integrity and sound judgment. [Members of the Church] have a special obligation to seek out, vote for, and uphold leaders who are honest, good, and wise. (See D&C 98-9-10.)

I think that’s pretty good advice—“correct principles” indeed. While I admit that it’s not easy to assess the character of a candidate based on 30-second TV spots and out-of-context soundbites (or, God forbid, the latest muck shoveled into our social media feeds), for some we do have a substantial public record by which we can assess the integrity of their actions, the soundness of their judgment, their honesty and goodness and wisdom—or their lack thereof.

For me, those things matter a whole lot more than dubious campaign promises and posturing as I try to make my votes align with my stated beliefs. Alternatively, I suppose I could choose my candidates based on a single issue or party-first loyalty, but increasingly I find that doing so would force me to compromise too much. As they say, when you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other as well, and too often there is so much gunk on the other end that I just can’t tolerate the stench.

However you choose to exercise your franchise, I hope you’ll “vote your conscience,” as they say, and celebrate with me the honor of being part of a democracy in which we each get a say in how we are governed and by whom. Like it or not, those choices say a lot about who we are and what we aspire to become.

PW

P.S. Two days after I published this Letter to Will, my Church sent this letter to all congregations in the United States reiterating its neutrality and encouraging members “to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.” However, the letter didn’t mention anything about sticks.

4 thoughts on “How to Choose a Stick

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