I had an interesting exchange today with a relative. (I won't name him because I don't have his permission to do so.) It went like this:
ME: I hesitate to say I'm "left-of-center"--it depends on the issue. I range all over the spectrum, probably because the spectrum itself is all messed up. (I like to think Joseph Smith would have been similarly hard to categorize politically.) But I like the saying: "The heart is a little to the left of center."
HIM: Nice quote. I wish sometimes that right of center were not painted as heartless. It really is unfair in my opinion because the most compassionate people I know are right of center. I've always pictured Joseph smith as being right of center in a world where gay "marriage", outrageous taxation and record deficits, and unfettered access to abortion for convenience is the primary foundation of the party currently in power.
ME: The most compassionate people: I know plenty on both sides of the spectrum. The least compassionate tend toward the extreme on either end.
In response . . . (while partly agreeing and simultaneously strongly challenging the "primary foundation" phrase) I'd add: On the other hand, Joseph's championing of moderate abolitionism, economic egalitarianism (D&C 78:6), racial and religious tolerance, civil rights (with federal protection) for minority groups, and compassionate prison reform would have been considered "liberal" in his own time and would generally be so considered even now.
Attempting a fair assessment (& considering economic issues, foreign affairs, & civil rights, along with hot-button "social issues"), I would put Joseph Smith where I've placed "JS" in the following spectra:
His own time: LLJSLLLRRRRRRR
Our time: LLLLLJSRRRRRRR
But a linear spectrum is far too simplistic to capture anyone's political views.
HIM: Bruce, I agree, the linear spectrum is far too simplistic. The best model is not really a "spectrum" at all, but a 3D or even 4D (includes time) representation of some kind.
As for the primary foundation phrase, I have to stand by it. Until I see the "left" reform itself on those issues as much as they seem to require of the "right" on our alleged inadequate treatment of our fellow man, they will remain, in my mind, very far removed from any sort of monopoly on compassion. It is not compassion to condone or promote physical abuse of a child in the world nor in the womb. There is simply no way to justify it. None at all. I feel very strongly about this, as you can tell. It's a very personal issue for me, but then all issues are personal to the ones who hold strong opinions about them. Otherwise, they wouldn't care enough to vote about them. All voters are single-issue voters because in the end, you have to stand your ground on one major thing to check "yes" or "no" on a ballot."
[end of exchange]
Joseph Smith (for those who don't know) was the first president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He ran for president in 1844, and though some think he did so with no serious thought of winning, but rather to help protect the rights of Latter-day Saints and to help promote the Church's religious views, he had a platform that dealt seriously with the issues of the day, for instance, proposing a plan to end slavery.
I stand by my view that his "championing of moderate abolitionism, economic egalitarianism (D&C 78:6), racial and religious tolerance, civil rights (with federal protection) for minority groups, and compassionate prison reform would have been considered 'liberal' in his own time and would generally be so considered even now." But I acknowledge that the whole matter is far from simple. At some point, I'll post something on where I think Joseph Smith, the Church (historically and at present), and the gospel might fit on the political spectrum on various issues. And of course, I'll give my reasons and evidence.
To expand a bit on the views I expressed above, I'll take two issues in order:
1. Most compassionate, least compassionate: I haven't found, in real life situations, that compassion correlates particularly well with political views. I know some exceptionally good, compassionate people on both sides of the political spectrum. Sometimes, views on a particular issue have something to do with practical acts of compassion. Some conservatives care deeply about preventing the destruction of unborn children (aka abortion), about caring for the aged and disabled, and about promoting non-governmental--and sometimes governmental--efforts to help those in need. (Orrin Hatch, for instance, has worked with Teddy Kennedy and others in promoting some government initiatives he feels are effective and needed.)
Some liberals, on the other hand, are prompted by their ideals to promote efforts to help the needy and underprivileged, often through government programs but also in personal and private ways. Some I would call "liberal" (including at least one Church General Authority I happen to know) fit that label partly because of their concern about extending tolerance, sensitivity, and concern to those who are different, who don't "fit in." And "liberals" tend to be more compassionate on foreign policy and immigration issues.
On the other hand, some of these issues are the very ones that make it hard to categorize people. Orrin Hatch is considered very conservative but is selectively liberal, depending on the issue. Harry Reid is considered liberal but is anti-abortion. Governor John Huntsman is a moderate conservative who has taken moderately liberal views on some issues. Two "conservative" leaders in Utah (one a former congressman, the other a former head of the state Republic party) take a moderate, compassionate view on immigration and the treatment of illegal aliens--a view they consider endorsed by LDS Church leaders (I'd agree, having been in meetings where such views have been expressed). These same leaders I've called "conservative" have expressed frustration at what they consider the uncompassionate and unreasonable views of some of their fellow "conservatives" and have been vilified by these same fellow "conservatives" for being too "liberal" on the issue.
I've often noticed how intolerant and mean-spirited some "liberals" can be, especially in their view of people they consider narrow and intolerant. (This is one of the great ironies--but it makes sense in a way if you think about it. It's sort of how some sibling or conjugal arguments go--both sides accuse the other of the same thing, and the accusations themselves are a big part of the evidence.)
I've also known "conservatives" whose have views on some issues that I find horrifying but who have been wonderfully loving in face-to-face relationships. Their "lack of compassion" is largely imaginary--that is, it's directed toward people they don't know, such as the people of different faiths, nationalities, or political views they despise or look down on. But even though such antagonism is in a way imaginary, it does have real-life consequences. People who mentally dehumanize and demonize groups of "enemies" can provide practical toleration or support for treatment of other human beings that has traditionally(by the great religious traditions and by American constitutional traditions) been considered horribly evil, such as torture and indefinite imprisonment without charges or legal representation.
Sometimes political views affect face-to-face relationships as well. Maybe because there are more intense "right wingers" where I live than intense "left wingers," I've found some of the least compassionate people I've know to be extreme conservatives. I'm not at liberty to say all I know, but I have seen the passion that fuels political enthusiasm fueling at the same time intense hatred toward neighbors.
It seems to me the moral virtues should come first: kindness, sensitivity, tolerance, compassion, fairness, integrity, civility, humility. Once those are there, one may find one's place just about anywhere on the political spectrum. But in practice, I think it's likely that in general, and on most issues, one's position will not tend to be either extremely conservative or extremely liberal. There's probably a reason that's so, even given the fact that what counts as "conservative" and "liberal" changes somewhat from generation to generation.
2. Are "gay 'marriage,' outrageous taxation and record deficits, and unfettered access to abortion for convenience" the "primary foundation" of the present-day Democratic party? I don't believe they are.
(a) Gay marriage: A complicated issue--but I believe I can make a strong case that it makes sense to define "marriage" as it has been traditionally understood (which, among other things, means that it is a bond between a man and a woman). I also accept the LDS Church's position on the issue, which is multifaceted but which includes a similar understanding of marriage.
On the other hand, I accept some of the arguments in favor of giving legal status to "civil unions."
The present question, though, is whether support of "gay marriage" is part of the "primary foundation" of the Democratic party. It's probably true that self-identified Democrats are more likely to support gay marriage than self-identified Republicans. But the national platform of the Democratic party does not favor gay marriage; neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden supported it during the presidential campaign (in fact, all four major party candidates said more or less the same thing on the issue); and gay marriage is not favored by Harry Reid and many other Democratic leaders. I know that there are some within the party that are pushing strongly for a pro-"gay marriage" view--and that makes me nervous for a variety of reasons, including the effect it could have on the party as well as the country. But there's no way it makes any sense to call "gay marriage" part of the "primary foundation" of the Democratic party. The answer to that question is simple--fairness, honesty, and intellectual acuity all require "no, it isn't" as the basic answer to this one.
(b) "Outrageous taxation and record deficits": Hmmm. The Democratic party has long been accused of being the party of "spending and taxing." But the facts have been more complicated. Nowadays especially, fairness would require noting a few things: (1) George W. Bush has so far--in the entire history of the United States-- presided over the greatest record spending and deficits; the spending is in part the result of the Iraq invasion; the deficits are partly the result of tax cuts that were supposed to help the economy (reviews are mixed on that) but that many consider to be unfair. (2) Obama has been in office a few months and has proposed minor adjustments in tax rates for the wealthiest Americans (the changes are small enough some would consider them nominal; they are certainly not "outrageous"); deficits continue to climb, partly because of the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, a crisis that did not happen under Obama's watch. (3) Obama has declared his intention and has proposed specific plans to decrease the deficit and to move toward getting the massive discrepancy between government income and spending under control; in my opinion, his plans and efforts in this direction are entirely sincere. (For some idea of what he's up to, see http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/29868186/ .)
I believe it's entirely legitimate to disagree with Obama's approach. I'm not sure anyone really knows enough or has been granted the ability to foresee the economic future in such detail that they would know exactly how best to tackle the current crisis. But I trust Obama's efforts as ones based at least on some solid principles I believe in and on the wisest advice he's been able to gather. He certainly has no desire to create a system in which what most people would consider "outrageous taxation and record deficits" are the norm.
(c) "Unfettered access to abortion for convenience": The position that many in the Democratic party have had on abortion has been one of the saddest and most challenging features of political life for me over the past 20 or 30 years. The party has, however, become more open on the issue, accommodating those with "pro-life" as well as "pro-choice" views. ("Pro-lifers" include, for instance, Harry Reid and Bob Casey.)
My own views--and the LDS Church's, for that matter--are not, however, on what is usually considered the extreme conservative side on this issue. For years, in fact, some of the anti-Mormon protesters who carry banners outside of the LDS General Conference meetings have criticized the Church for not being anti-abortion enough. The reality is that the Church's position includes elements of "pro-life" and "pro-choice"--the "choice" part being that, even in cases where the Church permits members to retain good standing for participating in abortions, encouragement is given to make the choice carefully and prayerfully.
I would like to see, as a beginning step, the removal of public funding for elective abortions. (That's Joe Biden's position.) I'd like to greatly limit what are called "partial birth" (i.e., late term) abortions--but I think it's appropriate for the law in these cases to allow exceptions for serious threats to a mother's life and health. Beyond those two things, I would focus more on education and persuasion--helping people feel, see, and live differently no matter what the law says they can and can't do--and dealing with adoption, the plight of single mothers, problems of sexual exploitation, etc., etc., which (I'm told by people who work with these issues) are often at the root of the choice to abort a child.
For more on the abortion issue as I view it, see http://bruceyoung-whyobama.blogspot.com/2008/10/abortion-my-views-candidates-views.html .
A quick summary of President Obama's view: He believes abortion is a "tragic situation" but calls himself "pro-choice" and believes that "ultimately . . . women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision." He opposes late-term abortions as long as exceptions are made for threats to the mother's life or health. He favors various measure to discourage abortion including encouraging sexual responsibility ("sexuality is sacred") and adoption and making it more economically feasible for women to choose to give birth rather than have an abortion. (For more on his views, see the link noted above and also http://www.clipsandcomment.com/2008/10/15/transcript-third-and-final-presidential-debate-barack-obama-%E2%80%93-john-mccain-hofstra-university-october-15-2008/--the source of the quotations.)
At some point, I'd also like to write a blog post titled "Why Mormons should support Obama," explaining that that doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with or even voting for him. It will be a good one, once I get around to it . . .