Saturday, October 17, 2015

Mormons need more Democrats? and Democrats need more Mormons?

I'll start with a question that really shouldn't need to be asked—but that does get asked from time to time, sometimes with surprising degrees of underlying emotional intensity.

Can a good person—a good Latter-day Saint—be a Democrat? Of course. If common sense weren’t enough, the fact that Elder Marlin K. Jensen (among many faithful Latter-day Saints) identifies himself as a Democrat should make the answer obvious. And can a good person, and a good Latter-day Saint, be a Republican? Yes, of course. Again, common sense should make the answer obvious—as should the Republican affiliation of many faithful Latter-day Saints, including such prominent leaders as the late Elder Neal A. Maxwell.

I mention Elder Maxwell because it was he who encouraged Elder Jensen to take part in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune many years ago on the very issue of whether the values of the Democratic Party are compatible with LDS values and beliefs. Elder Maxwell, like other leaders in the Church, was concerned about the public perception identifying the Church with the Republican Party and about the imbalance in Church members’ affiliation with the two major parties. Though unstated, at least one motivation behind that concern could be summed up in the words, “The Democratic Party needs more Mormons.”

Actually, the Church has been concerned that many Church members, busy with Church, family, and other responsibilities, have been relatively uninvolved in the activities of either major party. Why the concern? Besides our belief that we have a responsibility to be involved in our communities, the concern comes from evidence that both parties become more extreme and unrepresentative when only zealots are involved. If mainstream members of the LDS Church don’t attend party caucuses, where delegates and other leaders are chosen, then especially in Utah, a very large portion of the electoral—and a relatively moderate portion—goes unrepresented. In recent years, the LDS Church has strongly re-emphasized its political neutrality and has encouraged members to participate in the party of their personal preference. The Church has also set rules for local Church units intended to avoid holding activities that would interfere with attending party caucuses. As a result, both Republican and Democratic meetings have been flooded with far more participants than used to attend. For me, it was exciting to see people I knew as neighbors, local Church leaders, and temple ordinance workers at the meetings I attended.

I would reaffirm my view that the Democratic Party needs more Mormons and Mormons need more Democrats. Why? I hold with some but not all of the values of the Democratic Party. In general, I like the Democratic approach to international relations, the environment, immigration, racial tolerance and equality, concern with the poor and needy, and the dangers of increasing income inequality. I do not share the predominant Democratic Party position on abortion and same-sex marriage. On some of the issues I've listed, the Democratic and Republican positions are not really polar opposites; it's more a matter of emphasis and approach. And there are other issues on which both Democrats and Republicans agree (more or less), some of which I think Democrats have a better handle on, others of which I think Republicans would be better at dealing with. Depending on the day, I think I might be found to be about 60-80% in agreement with Democratic Party positions and 20-40% in favor on Republican Party positions. In any case, I think having more faithful Mormons involved in the Democratic Party would help that party be more moderate, more diverse, more genuinely tolerant, and more pragmatic.

I think Mormons need more Democrats for a number of reasons. One is to improve the image of the Church. I know some good people who have had a very distorted image of the Church in part because they associated it with the most extreme elements in the Republican Party. What changed their view of the Church was partly coming to know real Mormons and learning that, for the most part, we are kind, respectful, and sane, even reasonably intelligent, people. Something else that changed their view was learning that we share many of their concerns and attitudes—that many Latter-day Saints have a genuine appreciation of racial and cultural diversity, that we not only have compassion for but work actively to help those in need, that we favor peace over war, that we care for the environment and are well-informed on scientific issues. You don’t have to be a Democrat to make a good impression on such people. But it can be helpful if the Church is not so strongly identified with one party as it is often perceived to be.

Also, I think it would help many Church members to have a deeper and more balanced understanding of the gospel if they didn’t confuse it so much with political conservatism or the current attitudes of the Republican Party. There are some social issues where that confusion is understandable. But some views held by many members of the Church seem to me incompatible with, or at least in some degree of discord with, the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m thinking of issues having to do with war and peace, race, and the environment, among others. And while many of these are complex issues to which the gospel doesn’t offer a simplistic solutions, to identify the gospel with the predominant Republic view on these issues (or the predominant Democratic view, for that matter) seems to me to prevent a deeper, truer understanding of the gospel.

Among these complex issues is the role of the community in caring for the poor and needy. The Church teaches that we need to seek to apply principles of work and self-reliance in our own lives, help others learn and practice those principles, and also care for those in need. Those principles, used with intelligence, discernment, and compassion, could lead to a variety of practical solutions on such matters as health care, education, and tax policy. The complaint that government programs are imperfect and sometimes ineffective is probably valid. But that doesn’t mean government has no role to play in these matters. The idea that people should be left to fend for themselves, that people bring their financial difficulties on themselves, or that people deserve the wealth and privileges they have because they have “earned” everything they have—and therefore should have complete freedom in doing whatever they want with what belongs to them—seems to me clearly antithetical to gospel teachings. (I've written elsewhere on these issues.)

I have heard Latter-day Saints say things that sounded to me troublingly like the teachings of Korihor, an “anti-Christ,” whose teaching are condemned in the Book of Mormon: that “every man fare[s] in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prosper[s] according to his genius, and that every man conquer[s] according to his strength” (Alma 30:17). In contrast, the gospel teaches that we are interdependent and that nothing we have really belongs to us—we are stewards with a responsibility to use what we have to serve God and to benefit those around us. Failure to care for those in need is one of the most serious sins we can commit—and even attributing their problems to their inferiority or lack of effort puts us seriously out of harmony with God. (See Mosiah chapters 2 and 4, among other sources.)

As a side note: At a practical level, it seems obvious to me that there is no clear correlation between how hard a person works and how much money they make. Family background, location, timing, and chance have a lot to do with success (as Malcolm Gladwell has beautifully illustrated). Even if intelligence and talents play a role, as they certainly do, those gifts are in fact gifts—they may be developed or neglected, but they were never in a fundamental sense earned. They were given, and along with their being given came the responsibility to use them to benefit others.

Having said all of that, I should add that, while identifying as a Democrat, I do not see being a Democratic as part of my essential identity. I identify as a Democrat partly because I live in Utah and feel that somebody needs to belong to the minority party and that that somebody should include faithful Latter-day Saints. Excessive political imbalance is not good for a community. It is not good even for the majority party. I also identify as a Democrat because I’m more comfortable with the Democratic Party’s positions on many issues that matter to me, and in general I prefer the tone and attitude of the Democratic Party, especially the very moderate Democratic Party of Utah.

But I know and respect many, many Republicans and know that for the most part we value the same things. I even love and respect some people whose views I find appalling—because their views have little (I’m happy to say) with the goodness of their characters and lives. I am as unhappy with the intolerance and disrespect shown by some Democrats and liberals as I am with that shown by some Republicans and conservatives. Republicans and conservatives too often demonize their opponents; Democrats and liberals often do the same to their opponents and perhaps more often engage in condescending mockery and misrepresentation. None of that, on either side, is good.

I’ve mentioned liberal and conservative. I like to think of myself as moderately liberal. That self-perception would probably be borne out by a survey of my opinions on most current political issues. But I recognize that liberalism and conservatism are slippery and unstable concepts. Different people have different views of what they mean. They have certainly changed over time and will continue to do so. If I were to leave my feelings aside and look at them objectively, I would have to say that both encompass positive values and principles that I would endorse. An ideal understanding of life and an ideal program for practical governance would have to include elements of both. One of the oddest realities of our political life is that the constant combat between liberal and conservative ideologies seems to prevent the combining of elements from both that might offer the best solution to many problems.

In any case, my deepest sense of who I am and what life is all about has very little to do with political ideology or party affiliation. I agree with something Elder Dallin H. Oaks said many years ago: “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.). If I am sure of anything, it is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is far more profound, more intellectually satisfying, and more transcendently true and truly empowering than any human ideology.


Jeff said...

I really like a lot of what you've said here. I agree that, for the most part, on many issues Republicans and Democrats agree on the core principles but differ in the implementation.

Virtually everyone believes that the poor and the needy should be cared for. (At least, virtually every member of the Church.)

The problem that I have with the idea that government should be the caregiver, (in addition to the one you brought up which is that government really isn't very good at it) is that it removes virtue from our society. When an individual looks at a person in need and, rather than looking at how they can personally help, petitions government to do something, they have lost the opportunity to serve as the Savior would.

As government continues to grow, virtue continues to shrink. Those who believe in smaller government (at least among Christians) believe that the role of caring for the poor and needy belongs to individuals and to churches. It's interesting to look at the studies that show the huge disparity in charitable giving between Republicans and Democrats. That's simply because there is a stronger belief among Republicans that they, personally, have the duty to follow the Savior and help those in need while Democrats believe it is the role of government.

Sorry. I know you don't know me and I don't know you and you probably think it's weird for me to write a novel on your blog. I just had to speak up because I get deeply bothered by the idea that if a person doesn't want government to be the care taker then they believe there should be no care taker. Unfortunately, it is increasingly true that individuals won't step up to help. To me that is a symptom of the growing problem that individuals take no responsibility for the care of others. I believe this is a problem perpetuated by a culture that believes that the government should take that role.

That being said, I agree that we need more politically active Latter Day Saints. They could bring more sanity to both parties.

John_C_C said...

I agree so much with Bruce's opinion, having recently left my activist role in the GOP to join the Democratic Party. I couldn't tolerate the growing sense of anger, intolerance, and blindness to the plight of the disabled. I plan to still be an activist for the Democrats, and will attempt to find a positive way to communicate with those Democrats who disagree with my positions on abortion and lgbt issues.

I understand the conservative position preferring private over public welfare, but wish to justify a continued significant role on the federal level for two reasons--more universally even support and a refusal to accept the artificial distinction between private and public aide.

By "universally even" coverage I refer to a glaring discrepency, where in a poor community private welfare means a starving person shares food with person who is even worse off. In a rich community a yacht owner helps another yacht owner who falls behind in his payments.

Sure, we should encourage more voluntary private donations to welfare services on a federal level and support more gospel principals in how the aide is administered, teaching local welfare officials the same principles bishops are taught about abolishing the evils of the dole.

Public welfare is the result of a community voluntarily agreeing to pool their resources to achieve economy of scale and avoid inefficient duplication of services. Government and taxes are voluntary impositions of citizens on themselves as they cooperate with each other. Freedom isn't free, and every act of cooperation requires each community member to surrender a portion of his freedom to act as if only his own self-interest matters. It seems as basic as the lesson I teach with the Citizenship in the Community Merit Badge--citizenship includes rights, privileges, and responsibilities.