Citizenship and the Local Ward

Guest submission from Laurie DiPadova-Stocks

A few weeks ago in Relief Society, we had a solid lesson on President David O. McKay, which made reference to President McKay’s view that we can participate in the positive transformation of society. This prompted comments detailing how the sisters have been pleased and at times surprised to find other groups that hold values similar to ours, and by aligning ourselves with these groups, progress can be made.

As an aside, I always find myself surprised at being surprised. We were in SLC in 2001, in a very established ward in a rather high-end area. In Sunday School and Relief Society meetings there were numerous comments of surprise as members discovered people’s acts of heroism, such as giving one’s life to save others in the World Trade Center—and these people "weren’t even members of the Church!" I have been musing on the dynamics of this isolationism in the Church ever since. Perhaps it’s our emphasis on teaching people in the mission field, omitting the value of learning from them.

Anyway, the discussion in RS a few weeks ago had this sort of tone to it, and was reminiscent of the SLC experience.

Then the Relief Society President made a comment. Making implicit reference to the 2004 presidential election, she mentioned how nice it was to find other groups who believe in "moral values" like we do.

At that point I offered that we needed to be careful about aligning with other groups (I actually think it is healthy for members to do so, but for the purposes of this comment, I framed things differently), as some of them may not have the priorities that we do–for instance, some of those groups do not consider it a violation of moral values to support policies that deprive children of necessary health care in the richest nation on earth, or deprive children of food, shelter, and education. This was not what I, at least, consider to be consistent with moral values. Further, I made reference to listening to good sermons on the radio–because I like to hear good sermons–but I also noticed that the ministers’ views of moral values were not the same as mine.

After the meeting, the Relief Society President thanked me in private and said she had not looked at things that way but she certainly agreed that it was not consistent with anything moral to have children deprived.

I agreed, and proceed to offer that it was highly unfortunate that our administration, which represented itself as Christian and which was elected by 22% of voters on a moral values basis, had perpetrated the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal, whereby we made fun of the sexual purity standards of another religion, and tortured and humiliated people, and what a betrayal those offenses are to our American ideals. When she objected, I explained Gonzales’s role, our new AG, who had written the opinions that relinquished the US from being held to the Geneva Accords. Her response was that the administration did not know that these acts would happen, I said that sure they knew–or else there would be no reason for refusing to be held to the Geneva Conventions. To my credit (maybe?) I did not share how we send prisoners abroad to be tortured, and then try to get those nations to accept our form of government. But I did indicate that everything I had said was well-documented and a matter of public information.

Now I admit to some discomfort. I am aware that many members tend to hold that "dissension is of the devil", and I do not hold that view. Different points of view are valuable. As Professor Gordon Allport said: "Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much." But in Church, there is a tendency simply to agree in order not to be divisive.

Obviously I did not do that. I hope I do not appear arrogant, and I most fervently hope that I am not arrogant. I certainly would not have initiated this conversation.

We are told not to have partisan political activity in Church–and I certainly agree. While in our Kentucky Ward, before Sunday School one day there was a lot of discussion amongst the sisters about then-Governor Patton’s latest indiscretion–which led to derogatory comments about Democrats. (By the way, in several Utah stakes there has been serious discussion regarding if Democrats can get Temple Recommends, but that is another story…) Everyone was chastised by our teacher, a wonderful African American woman who is blind and who minces no words.

But I am left to wonder–how can I not say anything? How can I find ways to offer these sorts of views so that they will not be offensive? What are my responsibilities as a Church member and as a citizen? Are we fulfilling our role as engaged citizens by being quiet?? Are we fulfilling our role as church members by being silent, and refusing to share and to be vulnerable? I would be very interested in how you handle these situations.

Comments

  1. My husband and I are both political junkies, and the 2004 election cycle was a little like a drug–some days we just couldn’t get enough of it. However, living in Utah, we felt like we were always just getting one side of the issues–the conservative side, which we mostly agree with. We wanted to know more about the reasons and decisions that led people to support more liberal stands. So we asked (tactfully) a couple in our ward if they usually voted Democratic (we thought we had heard from another friend that they did), and then invited them over for FHE one night right before the election. We made it clear beforehand that we weren’t interested in debating them (or “converting” them), we just wanted to hear their points of view on certain of the big topics of the day.
    We had a wonderful evening. Although I didn’t usually agree with their conclusions, it was marvelous to understand why they thought as they did. I have no trouble believing that they may be right on many things, or at least as right as I am. We just have different opinions. I honestly don’t think that our eternal salvation rests on how we vote, and I am doubly of that point of view after that FHE.
    In short (or long, sorry), I think that your discussion with the RS President was appropriate, especially since you waited until after class to delve into more details (since I doubt the lesson was on the current political situation in our country). I think more people should learn how to discuss politics in a non-compromising, but non-confrontational, way as you did. We can’t hide our heads in the sand–politics have such an important role in the policies of our country, and it is our responsibilty to DO something about them.

  2. I get kinda sick of the notion that one party is the “moral” party and one is the “degenerate heathen” party. I don’t trust either of the two major parties to be my moral guide. Frankly, none of the smaller third parties, either.

    Maybe I’ll start “Mark’s Party”!

    MRKH

  3. I think there will always be tension between political and religious priorities. Perhaps the solution is to do as you have done, and phrase the issues not in a political context, but rather in a framework that tries to find some kind of immediate solution. It’s one thing to debate free health care for all; it’s another thing to engage in providing immediate assistance to the sick and weary. Even those members who reject any government involvement whatsoever can rally around projects to help those in need.

  4. I agree with Mark that both major parties in the USA are pretty bad in their own way. I don’t think that either is very sincere, especially on “moral” issues, which are used to motivate the masses. Maybe my standards are too high.

  5. Laurie – this is an excellent post about an issue that has needed addressing for a long time. I started writing this earlier today but felt I was sounding too defensive or partisan. But now I’ve just accepted the fact that I WILL sound partisan.

    I am an active member of my ward in Virginia (I served as bishop in the recent past.) But I feel uncomfortable around the time of elections or whenever any subject related to politics is raised because I know that my feelings are almost always on the opposite side of the majority.

    I would classify myself as a Democrat although I don’t have any membership card in any political party. My father, who is 85, is an old New Dealer and I learned my politics from him. I believe in a progressive tax system where those that are most able to pay – pay the most. I believe in public education and in civil liberities, even when those civil liberties sometimes allow guilty parties to go free. The opposite condition (jailing innocent parties) is even more worrisome to me. If those attributes make me a liberal then I am proud to wear that label. As a member of a church that believes in the equality of all men and women, that has experienced bigoted persecution from the government in the past and that is in the forefront of humanitarian aid to its members and to non-members alike throughout the world, I feel comfortable in holding those positions. I find it hard, because of my religious training, to support the sacrifice of noble men and women, not to mention our national treasure, on a preemtive war that was instigated by false and misleading information. I find it difficult to support an adminstration that has taken a robust economy that allowed us to start paying off the massive debts that began accumulating in the 1980’s and turn it into an even deeper abyss of red-ink, partially by giving back un-needed tax relief to the already wealthy citizens of our nation. I find it difficult to support an administration that has squandered our position as the ONLY super-power in the world and instead of using that position for peaceful purposes indicative of the generous hearts of the vast majority of the American people, has instead, turned the hearts and minds of the worlds population against us by our arrogant and irrersponsible use of that power.

    I never express these strong feelings in this manner in a church meeting but I hear fellow ward members expressing the counter to my feelings with language equally as strong and yet neither expression ever gets us closer to the middle, where I think we actually are.

    What Keryn and her husnad did is exactly what needs to be done to help both sides understand that we are not that far apart. The politicians and their surrogates who actually benefit by political strife and wedge issues will continue to keep those wedge issues on the forefront of our national debate. It is up to all of us to have reasonable political discourse in order to find common ground.

    Laurie – it is perfectly acceptable to defend your feelings in a respectful way – the way you decribe your actions in recent weeks.

    Keryn, thank you for setting a great example of how to respectfully discuss our differences.

  6. Geannina Bartholomew says:

    I am new at this, and English is not my native language, so bear with me. Laurie, I can’t thank you enough for your post. As a Hispanic that grew up and joined the Church outside of the United States I feel the same way you do about political issues. Many times I restrain myself so I don’t come across as “divisive” or “opinionated”, but certainly I have to express my opinion when I feel compelled to. As I said earlier, growing up in my home country of Costa Rica has given a different perspective on “moral issues”. In Costa Rica for example, education and health care are considered a “right” not a priviledge. We do not have an army. We are progressive in terms of taking care of the environment (isn’t that a moral issue, to be stewards of the earth?), and in taking care of the poor. Members of the Church in Costa Rica don’t feel that they have to belong to one party or feel alienated because of their political opinions. Each person is free to choose according to their conscience. So it’s been interesting to see how different the Church membership is here in the United States, especially in Utah, but also in other states, I have experienced in Washington, where I reside.

  7. How do I handle it? I just avoid politics at church.

    More generally, the Church has sown conservative politics at all levels of the organization over the past forty years, and is now reaping the consequences: Narrow-minded members who can seriously (not jokingly, but seriously) question whether Democrats should be admitted to Mormon temples.

  8. I have been fortunate to know a couple of indaviduals that I quite admire. These people have beliefs and ideas out of the “mainstream” American Church. They frequently note their perspectives and challenge the cultural assumptions of the wards; however, they are so “good” and serve the members of the ward so much that everyone can not help but love them…and consequently listen to them.

    Unlike Laruie, I am arrogant. I hope I can follow my friends examples in spite of that.

  9. Laurie, it also seems to me like what you’re asking is essentially, “how can I be a mormon activist?” How can you believe in causes external to the Church, and work to acheive those objectives while still being at harmony with the church?

    That’s a whopper to deal with. Still, you’re very good at pointing out that whatever groups we choose to align ourselves with externally, it’s unlikely that we’ll find groups that match up perfectly with mormon paradigms. So even the most benign external participation should be undertaken (I think) with eyes open, as it were.

  10. Could someone please reliably verify the statement that “in several Utah stakes there has been serious discussion regarding if Democrats can get Temple Recommends”? I don’t want to complain, but this seems pretty ridiculous. I think that the issues raised in the post (the difficulty of maintaining reasoned political discourse in the Church) are quite evident without resorting to rumour-flinging.

  11. AB, what exactly is “reliable verification”? What are you asking for?

  12. I can specifically remember letters from the First Presidency being read over the pulpit encouraging members to become involved in local politics. Perhaps the idea was to get more of “us” into government, but regardless, I feel that I have been encouraged to be politically active by the church.

    People have strong opinions about politics and political discussions can be extremely divisive. I think this is true in general, not just of Mormons. There is a time and a place for political discussions. Maybe it’s just not at church.

  13. Dave, perhaps AB wants to hear someone say, “in my Stake I have heard people discuss earnestly whether Democrats can get Temple Recommends,” rather than, “I have heard that in several Utah Stakes ” such discussions are happening, or “in my step-mother’s nephew’s girlfriend’s cousin’s Stake in Utah…”

  14. Laurie DiPadova-Stocks says:

    I wish it were a rumor, but it is not. Like AB, I considered this ridiculous. I was living in SLC at the time, and this was in the late 1990s. Perhaps because of my visibility in the community and at the University of Utah, I received reports from several credible non-anonymous (but must remain unnamed) sources to this effect: at stake priesthood meetings in several Utah county stakes, the question of whether it was appropriate to give temple recommends to Democrats was asked. In each of the cases, the reports came from priesthood leaders who were Democrats and were concerned by the question, but became alarmed when the question was seriously considered and not simply summarily dismissed. One was a counselor in a bishopric.

    I shared these reports to my friend, the then-Senate minority leader in the Utah legislature. He had received other such reports, as well. This was not news to him and both of us considered this very dangerous for the Church. My understanding–and I cannot swear to this because he merely hinted at it–is that he took these reports to the First Presidency who then took action.

    Elder Marlin Jensen, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, permitted himself to be interviewed and the article appeared on the front page of the Sunday edition of the Salt Lake Tribune. This would not occur without the approval of or assignment by the FP; he was not “acting on his own.” In that interview he disclosed that he is a Democrat and made the case that we are by no means a one-party church. I will never forget that Sunday, although I do not have the date memorized. Shortly afterwards, my husband and I visited briefly with him regarding the newspaper article and the need for such assertions to be made.

    Around this time President Hinckley himself openly discredited a Republican legislature position by speaking out firmly for gun-control and not allowing firearms in churches. Meanwhile there was increasing open acknowledgment that President Faust had been an active Democrat in Senator Moss’s campaign.

    Here is my interpretation of these events: the cultural and political conservatism of Utah is immense. Democrats in Church can feel oppressed and remain silent, for reasons already discussed in this thread. To cause “dissension” merely opens them up to added criticism of being unspiritual. Democrats come to be seen as “liberal” and in favor of abortion and all sorts of evil, and thus unworthy, because they are obviously not following the Brethren. There is a logic here that is not complicated and within which the ridiculous makes perfect sense. [It is instructive how this might create danger--when the ridiculous makes sense.]

    Obviously with a volunteer priesthood leadership, the FP is not going to openly discredit a stake presidency. Instead they may have someone make a discreet telephone call, and simply decide to affirm visibly the value of a diverse political arena.

    Which reminds me of another SMM story. He told us about a time when the stake presidency was set to take action against his church membership. The SP called and asked for Sterling to recomment witnesses that could testify against him. He knew they were serious. So in his next visit with President McKay, he indicated that this action waqs apparently coming up. President McKay called the SP to verify the situation and then requested that he be informed as to the date and time because he wished to appear as a character witness in Brother McMurrin’s behalf. Obviously the action never took place. Notice that President McKay did not confront the SP or take away his right to judgment–the president just offered to testify on Sterling’s behalf. Sterling also relates this incident in the Matters of Conscience book, which is more accurate tham my memory of his telling it.

    This is the way it works.

  15. The original comment appears to have two parts, which need to be addressed separately:
    – first, the idea that we ought not to be surprised when others share our ‘moral values’
    – second, the idea that Democrats and Democratic ideas are suppressed in the Church.

    All the comments so far seem to revolve around the second point and seem to have ignored the point Laurie started out making, which is also very interesting. It is true that we ought not to be surprised when we find that others share our moral values, and a healthy awareness of the outside world should help us see that there are many who share our views in a number of areas. We ought also, as President McKay and many others since (not least President Hinckley) have said, to band together with those who have similar views on moral issues where this makes sense. This is particularly the case where the First Presidency has issued clear statements on such moral issues, where there is no ambiguity.

    However, this debate appears to have turned into one about exactly which ‘moral issues’ (in the broadest sense) we ought to be championing, and particular the sense Laurie and many of the commenters appear to have that certain of these issues are discussed more often and more openly at Church. While I could not agree more that Democrats and Republicans (and members/supporters of any other party) should feel at home at Church, I think it’s important that we draw a distinction between those issues where the First Presidency has taken a clear stand, and those where they have not. In both cases, it is appropriate for us to get involved in local politics and with groups that feel as we do, but in the first case this can be done within the Church organisation, while in the second (where Church members might find themselves on either side of an issue) it must be done on an individual basis.

    Thus, the Church would directly support efforts to prevent the legalisation of same-sex marriages, while it would not support in the same way attacks on the administration for the abuses in Abu Ghraib or demonstrations against the war in Iraq. It is not because of party lines that the Church would support action in one instance but not in another, but because on one issue the Church has taken a clear stand and on the other it has not.

    The problem here is that the ‘moral issues’ discussed in Laurie’s post and others are largely both issues on which Democrats have taken a stand and issues on which the Church has not taken a clear stand, but it is important not to confuse the two, or to feel victimised or marginalised because of the resulting emphasis on issues which might be considered more “Republican” than “Democrat”.

  16. Wait just a minute, Jan.

    Remember how the Latter-day Saints are “not compelled in all things”? The Church does not need to make official statements about every issue out there or they’d be releasing one per day. As Christians, and as people who follow Christ’s admonition to “love one another” and to “denounce war and proclaim peace” we have, by default “taken a stand” against Abu Ghraib, it is just so obvious that it doesn’t bear stating.

    SSM, however, is an issue upon which there may be some ambiguity and so the Church feels the need to offer clarification. After all, it is obvious to any Christian that Christ would not condone torture; apparently less obvious (note the schisms in many other churches) is whether two decent people who love each other should not make a marriage-commitment because of their same-gender attraction. I myself am torn on this issue, so I am glad the Church has taken a stand. They don’t need to tell me that torture is wrong, however.

  17. Ronan,

    You make a fair point, but I think in essence it’s the same as mine. The point being that there are Church-endorsed issues and there are individual issues (in which we are not ‘compelled’ but can still take a stand where we feel this is the right thing to do).

    The complicating factor is the lack of consensus even among Church members on what the appropriate response to some of these issues is. It’s clear, for example, that although we can all agree that the torture at AG itself was wrong, we may not be able to agree on where the blame lies, and therefore on the appropriate response. The Church doesn’t comment on the torture for the reason you suggest, but doesn’t comment on the appropriate response for the reason I suggest – that it’s controversial and our beliefs do not dictate a particular stance.

  18. I don’t understand why the Church doesn’t just excommunicate all the Democrats… (just kidding)

    The problem stems from where the church takes a stand on different issues. The Church has made it’s position on both abortion and SSM very well known. People who don’t take time to think things through associate both issues with the Democratic party and begin to think that if they side with that side of politics that they are going against the Church. People who calculate the merits of each individual issue against a party’s platform, their own opinions and the tenents of the gospel are at a premium here in Utah. Everybody wants to be in the crowd instead of thinking for themselves.

  19. Um, dJake, the church’s official position on abortion is NO position on the policy issues involved–neither Republican nor Democratic platforms closely resemble the church’s position. On same-sex marriage, the church has taken a specific policy stance.

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