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.

How to Choose a President

Dear Will:

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Mormons have been in the press a lot lately. For instance, recently there was a four-hour Frontline special on PBS tracing the Church’s history from the early 1800s to the present days. But much more has been said about the Church (and will be) due to the candidacy of Mitt Romney for President of the United States. As every semi-conscious being in and around the United States must know by now, Romney is a Mormon. And it has caused much hand-wringing.

I continue to be surprised by the frequency with which politicos include Mormon theology in the discussion of Romney’s suitability for the office he seeks. What I find especially remarkable is that they do not, at the same time, at least make a gesture toward discussing the religious beliefs of any of the other candidates. In fact, I couldn’t tell you which church ANY of the other candidates belongs to, nor could I so much as confirm whether he or she so much as believes in God. I’ve now voted in six or seven presidential elections, and not once were the religious affiliations of the various candidates included in the public debate—even though (it should be noted) my voting life has coincided rather directly with the growing influence of the so-called “religious right.”

Most surprising of all is that so often you will hear that such-and-such a spokesperson for some ostensibly Christian political group will state emphatically that he/she would never vote for Romney simply because he is a Mormon. The implication, of course, is that such people would rather vote for a candidate who may or my not be a Christian and whose beliefs may or may not align with Christianity. Better to do that (they seem to be saying) than vote for a fellow Christian who happens to be a Latter-day Saint.

To be clear, I don’t begrudge anyone the right to use religion in deciding for whom to vote. But what I find hard to understand is the arbitrary application of such criteria. If you eliminate one candidate because of the teachings of his church, shouldn’t you be equally diligent in determining the accepted teachings of each candidate’s religion? To do otherwise is to be guilty of a kind of bigotry which I find inconsistent with the ideals which Jesus taught.

Please do not misunderstand. Personally, I have no idea if Mitt Romney would make a good President. I can assure you that I would never vote for him because he is a Mormon any more than I would vote against someone else because he isn’t. I would be much more interested in examining the personal integrity and motivations of each candidate. Let me know what he truly believes in, what he cares about, how he acts when the pressure is on and the right thing may be neither popular nor politically expedient. Then I will know whether his beliefs align with mine, regardless of where or if he goes to church on Sunday (or any other day, for that matter).

It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who dreamed that one day his children would be judged not by their skin color but by the content of their character.  I sometimes find myself dreaming a similar dream on behalf of the Latter-day Saints (whom I know and love): Judge us on our character, not on some mistaken understanding of what we believe. Jesus said: “By their fruits ye shall know them” (see Matthew 7:15-20). That’s a standard up to which Mormons should rightly be held—and one worth discussing in reference to all candidates in any political debate.

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