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.

Government by the People

we-the-people

Dear Will:

When I was 19, I moved from Montevideo to Rio Branco, Uruguay, while serving a full-time LDS mission. I lived in an uninsulated, cinderblock apartment with a cold tile floor and a bathroom the size of a walk-in shower. In fact, the bathroom was a walk-in shower—exactly as nice as that sounds.

Just over the wall from Casa Frígida lived Doña Celia Terra, the beloved, local matriarch, who watched over and mothered us missionaries. A widow, Doña Celia lived with her adult son (let’s call him Jorge), who treated us with caution and respect. Only rarely would he enter a room with us present, however, and he never left the house. Not ever.

In time I learned that Jorge was not always the Boo Radley of Rio Branco. As best as I could tell with my still-fledgling Spanish, for some time Jorge had been a prisoner of the military leaders of Uruguay, who had seized control of the government a few years prior in an effort to put down a left-wing insurgency group called Los Tupamaros. Whether Jorge was actually affiliated with Los Tupamaros—and more to the point, whether he had actually done anything illegal—I never really knew. What I did know was that he had been tortured over the course of several years prior to his release, and he emerged from his captivity a severely broken man.

As you might guess, all of this was a bit hard for my 19-year-old brain to comprehend—especially in broken Spanish. Plus I knew next to nothing about Uruguayan politics and history. What made matters worse is that the mid-‘70s was an era in Uruguayan history that people were reluctant to talk about at any length. What was clear was that the citizens of Uruguay were deeply ashamed that their once-proud democracy had been transformed into a military dictatorship—this in a country which was once considered a model of stability and democracy, “The Switzerland of South America.”

Later that year, when I was once again living and working in the capital city of Montevideo, there was a widely publicized, constitutional referendum calling for a YES/NO vote. Once again, I understood very little of what was taking place, but the vast majority of the impossible-to-ignore advertising was in support of the proposal. With virtually no discernible campaign to convince people to vote NO, I assumed that the referendum would pass in a landslide.

At last, on November 30, 1980, over 86% of eligible voters cast ballots as required by law. To my utter astonishment, the referendum was soundly defeated, with over 57% voting against it. It seemed impossible. It was only later that I learned that the purpose of the referendum was to legalize in a new constitution the military control of government that so many Uruguayans found so appalling.

It was a remarkable day in the history of democracy—remarkable (to be fair) that the military allowed the vote to begin with, and remarkable that so many were able to see through prevailing propaganda to reaffirm “government by the people” in keeping with established constitutional law. For me it was also the most powerful example I have witnessed of a the truth taught in the Book of Mormon: “Now it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right” (Mosiah 29:26).

As we face an election of our own in the days and months ahead, I invite you to ponder that truism and the obligation it implies. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, let your voice be heard. Truth and right will win out so long as good people refuse to sit idly by. Please vote.

PW

In Defense of Dubious Alternatives

Dear Will:

Across the room I can see my Voter Information pamphlet. It’s been sitting there for days, unopened. Every time I glance that way it fills me with dread. I have put off quite successfully what I can now put off no longer—I must, it seems, set aside some time to read up on the initiatives and try to determine which side’s rhetoric is less difficult to believe. Then I must go through the ballot and try to decide whether I should vote for the incompetent incumbent or the unqualified challenger. (Or is it the unqualified incumbent and the incompetent challenger? I can never remember.)

As you can probably tell, I have become a bit of a political cynic, but I wasn’t always this way. I came out of high school filled with idealistic political zeal, excited to exercise my franchise and support the democracy. Alas, the first election in which I could vote featured a gubernatorial race between the hyper-liberal guy-in-office and his super-conservative wannabe challenger. As I considered my options, it was quickly apparent that I didn’t want either of those guys for my governor. Since that moment of disappointment I have lived through dozens of elections characterized by many such dubious alternatives. And I hate it.

Part of my problem, quite clearly, is that I keep hoping for someone who represents me as opposed to some guy who primarily represents the various interests who are willing to fund his campaign. I’m not happily Republican or Democrat, I’m afraid, but rather some sort of strange hodgepodge of beliefs and passions. I’m an actual moderate rather than a candidate pretending to be one, the result being that I agree with some things, disagree with others, and can’t find a single politico who is willing to say that I’m right. It seems, anyway, that the exigencies of the modern campaign (fundraising, primarily) make it impossible for any aspiring politician to say what most reasonable people already know: that half of each party’s platform is hooey. And that polarization of positions is exacerbated by the misrepresentations and falsities on which both parties rely in order to gather votes through advertising: Too often our representatives can’t do the right thing because they know it will be twisted and used against them later on. So when I vote, I either get the baggage of one party or the baggage of the other and generally come away from the polls feeling disgruntled and somewhat disenfranchised.

But I do keep voting. Every election, no matter how many Tom Haydens or Michael Huffingtons appear on the ballot, I march down to the polling station and give it my best shot. Even though I sometimes wonder if it really makes any difference, I feel it my duty because of my respect for the institution. I love my country and believe with great passion in the principles upon which it was founded. I truly believe that the Constitution is an inspired document and remain amazed at how well it is holding us all together in spite of the crazy turns our nation has taken during the last 200 years.

I apologize if any of the preceding rant offends you. (I got a little worked up there, didn’t I?) Obviously, this is a bit of a sore subject for me to address. But when I look around the world and see so many places in which democracy has not yet taken root, I am reminded once again that it is a divine privilege to cast a vote—even when you’re dissatisfied with your options. I hope you feel the same. See you at the polls.

PW