Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A letter to Jon McNaughton

I sent the letter copied below to artist Jon McNaughton to share my thoughts about his reaction to the BYU Bookstore deciding not to sell his political paintings.  (He pulled all of his paintings from the store and suggested that BYU has become "infected" with liberalism.)  I sent the letter via the comment form on McNaughton's website.  I haven't heard back from him, so I don't know whether he's read what I had to say.

My comments are rooted in frustration I've felt for many years at some Latter-day Saints who take what I believe with all my heart to be the glorious gospel of salvation--a message of peace and joy offered to all humankind and expressing God's love for all his children--to be an extension of their narrow conservative ideology.  Sometimes their theological positions are closer to fundamentalist or conservative evangelical ones than to authoritative or mainstream Latter-day Saint thought.  Politically, their view that one party or one political ideology is true and in harmony with the gospel contradicts official statements of the Church and views expressed by its leaders.  Their emphasis on protecting America is sometimes joined with hostility toward other nations, cultures, and religions and as a result seems to me out of harmony with the expansive international emphasis of the Church.  And sometimes they engage in dangerous doomsday or conspiracy-theory discourse.

I believe many of their political views amount to distortions of true gospel principles.  Many argue that the gospel principle of agency necessarily entails pure capitalist economics and virtually no role for government in relieving of human suffering or ensuring of the public welfare.  They are sometimes what I would call selectively strict Constitutionalists--meaning that they don't have much problem with limiting civil liberties if national security is the rationale and don't put much emphasis on freedom of speech, assembly, or the press.  What they emphasize are the limits set on the federal government, especially on economic matters, and sometimes states' rights.  In their positive principles, I see some merit.  But their emphasis is selective--and is connected with their claim to be the only true protectors and upholders of the Constitution.

What bothers me most are not the ideas of many of these folks as it is the spirit and tone with which they present their views.  Latter-day Saints are rightly troubled by the ugly spirit of most anti-Mormon discourse.  But right-wing Latter-day Saints often treat their "enemies" with the same kind of irrational hostility, unfair stereotyping, and self-righteous judgmentalism.  I favor open discussion and am happy to hear various view expressed with civility and goodwill.  But it seems to me that human beings ought to express their views not only civilly and respectfully but humbly.  Even in our deepest convictions about the things that matter most, none of us has attained a perfect understanding.  When it comes to politics--to the sorts of issues on which political passions make it hard to be unbiased, issues on which (in addition) divine revelation and official Church teachings have not defined a position--we ought to be even more careful to exercise humility and to consider respectually the views of those who disagree with us.

In my letter (reproduced below), I have not been as insightful or eloquent as I would like to have been.  But I have shared my thoughts and feelings in something I hope approaching a good spirit.  For a better written and more incisive discussion of McNaughton's paintings, see the following piece by Ben Park: "Arts, Politics, and Religion" < >

Now for my letter to Jon McNaughton:

I’m aware of the recent controversy concerning on of your paintings--though of course you’ve created other paintings with even more controversial political messages. You’re right in pointing out that the BYU Bookstore sells books from various political viewpoints, while having a policy of not selling politically oriented paintings. I don’t have direct knowledge of their reasons but suspect it has something to do with the powerful “in your face” character of visual propaganda. There are statements of all sorts in books sold in the Bookstore that would be extremely offensive if they were portrayed and displayed in a visual format. You’ve argued that the criticism of your Constitution painting comes from “liberals.” My own criticism, I believe, has a deeper basis.

I believe some of your judgments and attitudes are contrary to important aspects of the spirit of Christ, differ from some attitudes expressed by the current First Presidency, make harsh judgments on some humble followers of Christ, and convey attitudes that impede rather than aid the progress of the Lord’s work. I would need a good deal of space to explain my views. But I can give a few thoughts here and link you to longer expressions.

Some quick thoughts: Church leaders have repeatedly warned against certain kinds of conspiracy theories about “threats to America.” They have also sought to separate the Church and the gospel from partisan politics, not (I am confident) as a concession to some “weaker brethren,” but because the gospel transcends partisan politics. Elder Dallin H. Oaks once said: "Those who govern their thoughts and actions solely by the principles of liberalism or conservatism or intellectualism cannot be expected to agree with all of the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As for me, I find some wisdom in liberalism, some wisdom in conservatism, and much truth in intellectualism—but I find no salvation in any of them" (“Criticism,” Ensign, Feb 1987, 68ff.).

On conspiracy-theory and end-of-the world activism, note these words of Elder Boyd K. Packer (“To Be Learned Is Good If . . ." Oct. 1992 General Conference): "There are some among us now who have not been regularly ordained by the heads of the Church and who tell of impending political and economic chaos, the end of the world--something of the 'sky is falling, chicken licken' of the fables. They are misleading members to gather to colonies or cults. Those deceivers say that the Brethren do not know what is going on in the world or that the Brethren approve of their teaching but do not wish to speak of it over the pulpit. Neither is true." (See more at .)

About the need for harmony and political tolerance within the Church, consider this warning from George Albert Smith: “Whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground.” President Hinckley reminded us that “political differences never justify hatred or ill will,” adding, “ I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties” (see “Instruments of the Lord’s Peace,” Ensign May 2006).

For more thoughts from Church leaders, see & .

My own thoughts on the relation of the gospel and politics may be found at various spots, including , , , , &

Thanks for your patience.

Best wishes,

Bruce Young

1 comment:

kevin said...

Brother Young,

Please update us if you hear back from Mr. McNaughton.

I visited BYU for a relative's graduation in August, and happened to wander into Mr. McNaughton's studio at the mall in South Provo (is it Town Center? Towne Centre? Hehe). I hadn't seen the painting of President Obama standing on the Constitution before. Anyway, I think you are correct about Mr. McNaughton's visual rhetoric being too abrasive to be sold at BYU. My wife's first response to the Christ with the Constitution painting a few years ago was a sarcastic "Perfect, I've been looking for a picture of the Savior endorsing slavery."

What offends me the most about such artwork (besides the things that you listed in your letter, of course)is the "key to symbolism" that Mr. McNaughton provides with his paintings. I haven't known an artist to really do that, barring reflective papers for high school art projects. It makes me wonder what some of the critics that we studied in your class would say to such a practice.

(On a side note, I've been thinking a lot about your class lately...maybe it's because I have been working closely with Alfred's translation of Boethius for the past week, or maybe it's because I still read over those notes from time to time, as a refresher. Your class was essential to success in any grad program. Anyway, it made me remember your blog, and the Google machine led me here.)