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.

Next Time I’ll Do Better. Honest.

post office

Dear Will:

I think I just committed a federal crime. Pretty sure, anyway. Maybe. But if I admit it to you here, perhaps they’ll go easy on me at trial. (All the same, let’s keep this between us. Thanks, buddy.)

Here’s how it all went down: For Christmas I assembled a present for my daughter Bryn that included all of the items listed in this article from Outside magazine: 11 Things We Bring Backpacking that Cost Less Than $10. The list includes things like cotton balls soaked in Vaseline (DIY fire-starters), trash compactor bags (for water-proofing), and hot sauce packets filched from Taco Bell (for seasoning backcountry dinners). I packed all 11 items into a repurposed REI box and stuck it under the tree (except that I did upgrade her to Del Taco hot sauce because Taco Bell is gross and I love her). The only problem was that she arrived at our home with just a small carry-on and didn’t have room to schlep her trove of new gear on the airplane back to Utah.

Thus a few days after Christmas I was running around—you know, Getting Things Done—feeling all virtuous about my efficiency and productivity when I detoured over the post office to mail Bryn her loot. The clerk droned through the standard litany of questions: “Insurance?” “No thanks.” “Express Mail?” “Nope.” “Any liquids or flammables?” “Um. . . .” Of course I knew that Dr. Bronner’s Organic Liquid Soap would, technically speaking, probably qualify as a liquid. Plus I was pretty sure that the Bic lighter wrapped in Gorilla Tape was almost certainly flammable. But somehow in my zeal to Get Things Done I had not anticipated this inevitable question, and I panicked. “No,” I told him, and just like that my box was skim­ming down the chute, heading to the Beehive State, and I had taken the first step in my journey to, um, San Quentin.

In that very instant I could not believe what I had done. I wasn’t even sure why I had done it. As I drove away, I tried to rationalize my fib by noting that just about everything in that box had been shipped to my home, so it would be fiiiiiiine. Plus, clearly it’s not illegal to mail someone a 4.5 ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s because Amazon had mailed one to me. Right? I mean, right?

But the more I tried to rationalize, the dumber I felt. In a flash I had inadvertently revealed to myself my true character, and it was not a pleasant discovery. I like to think of myself as an honest, upright guy. Mendacity certainly does not align with my Christian values. But when faced with—what? inconvenience? an upcharge maybe? a little awkward embarrassment while dealing with a federal employee?—I opted for the easy lie instead. Even as I write this, knowing that the package arrived without dripping all over the conveyor belt or bursting spontaneously into flames, I am genuinely ashamed.

Of course, lying is all the rage these days. Everybody’s doing it. Maybe I’ve simply become . . . I don’t know . . . part of the Zeitgeist. Maybe. But when I witness the accumulating compost at the feet of our most public officials as they spew an endless stream of falsehoods and disinformation, the stench overwhelms me. Sure, compared to the sort of flimflam that gets tweeted and repeated these days, my postal prevarication really is nothing. But I can’t help but feel as though, in an unthinking moment, I stepped into something putrid and I can’t get it off of my shoe. Whatever that muck is, I want no part of it.

So to the United States Postal Service I say: I’m sorry. And to you and your friends and anyone else who believes that we would all be better off making a renewed commitment to integrity, I hereby make that same commitment. I really do believe in the virtue of veracity, in spite of what I might otherwise show in my weaker moments.

Next time I’m out Getting Things Done, I’ll do better. Honest.

PW

To Be Honest, It Was Up To Him

Dear Will:

My grandparents lived in a large home on a quiet street in a small town in western Wyoming. It was the home my mother grew up in. It had a lovely front entryway which opened into a spacious living room where you would have found the first piano I ever played.

One of my sisters taught me a simple song on that piano (you might know it yourself). It’s played with the knuckles of one hand, only on the black keys. To play it requires no training and even less talent, but I remember how magical it was to produce music from that big, grand piano. I immediately told my mother than I wanted to learn to play.

To be clear, this was not a historic moment in the annals of music. Although I could more or less keep a beat, I wasn’t much of a prodigy. And like any normal, low-talent kid, I didn’t like practicing. I liked the idea of playing the piano, of course; I just didn’t care for the work required to play it well. Although I can still play to this day—and even have come to enjoy it—I never learned to read music well enough that I could ever perform for anyone but myself. Forty years removed from five brief years of lessons, I still play like an eighth-grader who needs to practice more.

Come to think of it, I have just such an eighth-grader right here in my own home. Although we don’t have an entryway and our living room is much more modest than my grandparents’, we do have a grand piano where Seth slumps each day to suffer his way through 15 or 20 minutes of unenthusiastic practice. Occasionally, he might even give off a subtle hint that he would really rather be doing something else. He might pause mid-song, for instance, and say, “I hate the piano” or “I HATE the piano!” or maybe even “I HATE THE PIANO!!” In fact, he goes so far as to set a timer lest he play even one minute beyond his prescribed time. All of which makes him a pretty normal eighth-grader, if you ask me.

Except for this:

On Saturday night my wife and I were sitting in the Carpenter Center during intermission of Musical Theatre West’s production of 42nd Street. (Highly recommended, by the way. Our friend Zach Hess plays one of the leads and he is fabulous.) As we waited for the show to resume (it was around 9:30 p.m.), my phone rang. It was Seth.

“I just realized that I forgot to do my practicing,” he said. “Do I have to?”

Excuse me? What sort of eighth-grader, left home alone on a Saturday night, calls his parents to admit that he has not gotten around to doing the thing he hates the most? A lesser 13-year-old—which is to say, just about any other 13-year-old on the planet—would simply have watched a little more TV and then slipped off to bed, knowing that no one would ever know whether he practiced or not. But not Seth. Throughout his 13+ years of life, he may not have become a concert pianist, but as you can see he has become something much more remarkable than that. Actually, I misstated that. He hasn’t become anything. Rather he has remained that which he has always been: a model of integrity and honor.

As for Saturday night, I was so impressed by his honesty that when he asked Do I have to? I told him it was up to him—at which point he promptly hung up and went back to watching TV. Proving, I suppose, that for all his integrity, he’s still a pretty normal kid.

Makes you kind of proud, to be honest.

PW