I am not going to get into politics on this blog. For one thing, I have dear and respected friends on both sides of the aisle. For another, I think most political conversations just get people mad and usually accomplish very little.
I don't generally talk too much about my faith either. I used to but now that my readers skew younger, I'm uncomfortable doing that because I think that it is a parent's role to teach their children about faith and their religious heritage (actually, ditto with politics) and anyone outside the family ought to tread very lightly in these areas.
All that being said, let me briefly wade into the highly charged waters of religion and politics.
I am a Mormon (actually, that's not the preferred name of the Church, but that's okay). I am the only Mormon that many of my friends and acquaintances know.
As the presidential campaign has heated up, I have sensed in many of them a curiosity about my beliefs. Usually, I sense that they want to ask something but maybe don't quite know how to go about it. If you are my friend or acquaintance and want to ask me something, it won't offend me. The only thing I ask is that you be willing to listen to the answer, and understand the context, which might take more than a few words.
Beyond that, though, being the only Mormon many people know, I have been increasingly frustrated by reports about my religion in the press. There is a spectrum of stories out there from maliciously false to just sloppy. There have been some very fair pieces, as well, but these have been in the minority.
I don't like having my faith be a political football, or a weapon to be used in what will be a hard-fought campaign.
There are so many beliefs and practices in any faith that could be made into scary or strange without the right context. Any faith could be made to seem bizarre or threatening with very little effort--not only faiths, any deeply held belief system or ideology.
So it bothers me that people I know may hear weird things about my church and believe them, or think I believe them.
At the same time, I have too much to do and no desire to respond to every half-truth, inaccuracy, misunderstanding, or distortion about my church--and, as I mentioned earlier, I don't want to do that on this blog.
Happily, there is an answer! My brothers--both very smart guys--have started a blog in which they respond to incorrect and unfair statements and characterizations. One brother has a law degree from Georgetown, the other has a Master's in International Affairs from Columbia.
Anyway, if you are interested, here is a link: www.mormonamerica.com
So, if you hear something crazy, I encourage you to go there and see their response.
This is disgusting. It is reprehensible. I don't have the words to say what I feel about it. This has nothing to do with politics (incidentally, I made this point when right-wing people mocked young Chelsea Clinton, but there were no blogs back then).
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post has ridiculed the way the Santorums dealt with the death of their still-born child. You can read about it here. Alan Colmes did the same thing, but was called out on it and apologized. Robinson needs to be called out on it as well--by every parent, by everyone who believes in simple decency.
This revolts and infuriates me. Is nothing off-limits? Is nothing sacred or private anymore? A family mourning a lost child is one of the most intimate, private things I can think of and it is ghoulish and inhuman to discuss it, let alone criticize it.
Do what you want with your own kids--don't have kids if you don't want them. Mourn them however you want. On that note, disagree loudly and vigorously with any of Senator Santorum's policy views (I do with a number of them).
But at what point do we say, "Too far! Stop. Our humanity and decency is far more important than political points!" I would suggest that this is a good point. Is everything to be fair game in politics? Spouses? Children? Dead children? Are there no boundaries? Is politics going to determine what we see is right and wrong. The reality is that many people will react to this story based on their political views. That is wrong. We should react as human beings.
Dear heavens, what and who have we become? I'm normally pretty optimistic, but things like this make me think our culture has crossed a point of no return that makes all our other challenges seem trivial.
Badly done, Mr. Robinson. Badly done.
I try to avoid politics on this blog. I do that because I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle and in between. These friends are good and sincere people and I value their friendship and don't want to be incendiary. I also question how much good talking about politics really does. I mean, having a calm, reasoned discussion is almost impossible. People believe what they believe and I don't think posting things is going to change opinion--but may get people mad. Which accomplishes nothing.
But I am really disturbed by something going on. I've waited for someone to say something and a few people have, but not too many, and I don't want to be silent about it.
In 1838, the early Mormons were living in Missouri. Because of theological, cultural, and political differences between them and the Missourians, tension turned to friction, which ignited violence.
As things got worse, the governor issued what has become known as the Extermination Order. Citing Mormons as a menace to the peace, Governor Boggs said, "...the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State" (link here).
And they were. Mormons had their homes, farms, and businesses burned down. They were whipped, tarred and feathered, beaten, raped, and murdered because they were Mormons.
Not people. Not men and women with feelings and hopes and dreams and fears. Not humans who could feel pain on the flesh of tormented bodies or the pain of broken dreams and cruelty. Not children who cried from hunger and died from exposure. No. They were Mormons.
That is all. Just a word. One word to sum up everything they were--a true word, but a reduction of their humanity into on strange and sinister term. Mormons. Enemies. Killing them or wounding them would have been much easier to do because they weren't people.
One young boy survived a massacre at a settlement called Haun's Mill. When the attackers came in the stockade where the men had barricaded themselves, they found this young boy. "Nits make lice," one of the mobbers said, before pulling the trigger and blowing his thigh away. (Link to reference here).
How easy it is to reduce others to a name, a term. To see them, not as humans, fellow travelers here on this earth, but as the Other. Someone who is not quite human. Not like us. And once this reduction has been completed, how easy it is to be inhumanly, unspeakably cruel.
The Nazis did this to the Jews. The Holocaust didn't happen overnight. It happened only after years of demonization, as Jews were portrayed as infernal, evil, and sub-human. Once the propaganda was spread far enough, the actions followed.
A group of Mormons did the same thing to a wagon train wandering through Utah to California. They heard they were from Missouri and suddenly, instead of families, instead of men and women and children trying to get a better life, they were Missourians. Enemies. They were massacred.
If history teaches us anything it is that we can be grossly cruel to each other and such cruelty seems to be the default setting, not the exception. We can fight against this impulse--but it is a fight. It requires constant vigilance and unremitting effort. We are never past the point where our society could quickly unravel and tribal affiliations flare up into violence. If we think we are past this, if we think we have somehow evolved or progressed beyond this, then we are dangerously and foolishly naive.
And so, I watch with tremendous concern the demonization of groups of people. The Rich are doing this and that. Wall Street Bankers are stealing from you.
Not humans. Not names and faces. Not people who live and love, who die and bleed. Others. Rich people are greedy. They are oppressing us. They are stealing from us. Wall Street Bankers. Fat cats. And so on.
Note that these are vast and generalized terms that are true--but reductive and imprecise. Is everyone who is rich bad? At point does affluence or prosperity become evil riches? $1 million? $500,000? Do the rich get a chance to prove their innocence? If so, what is the process for this? To whom does one submit exculpatory evidence? Is everyone who makes a living on Wall Street greedy?
Terms that make them the Other--a problem that must be solved. The barrier to our happiness and prosperity. The rich are the problem but for whom everything would be good and peaceful. I also note that all the examples I've pointed to are with basically unsympathetic people. It's rather clever. Who's going to go out on a limb to defend rich people? Or, slimy Wall Street people.
Well, I think we all should.
I'm sure there are some crooks on Wall Street and some really nasty rich people. If they broke a law, they should be prosecuted. Period.
But do we really want to live in a society where we can prosecute people we don't like, people we disagree with, or people didn't commit a crime beyond being slimy? Do you want to live in a world where a group of people decide they don't like you or what you did and so call for you to go to jail or be killed just because they don't like you? Or because you were irresponsible? How about just stupid?
It's quite different to criticize a person for specifics. To say, "The President's proposal would have this result..." or "Speaker Boehner's policy actually causes this problem...." It's even different to criticize voluntary, specific groups. "Republicans's policy preferences are wrong because...." or "Democrats are incorrect when they assume ...." (I do think we ought to be specific, not general, and not hyperbolic. I hate it when people do that).
If we want to criticize the way that the government and some corporations work together--fine. That's specific. If we want to discuss the merits or demerits of different policies, legislation or philosophies--great. I love spirited discourse.
But when we stir up resentment toward people in vague, unsympathetic categories, we are playing with fire, I fear.
Revolutions are ugly things, generally. The American Revolution worked out pretty well for us. But the French, Russian, and Chinese (and other more recent, smaller) revolutions were ugly, ugly things that caused suffering far and wide, and ruined the lives of millions and millions of regular people.
Fires, once started, can spread quickly, and are difficult to put out. We live in difficult times and there's a great deal of dry timber in the body politic. I pray that all of us can consider what we say, and whether it's wise and good and helpful--and whether our comments will be sparks that could light a fire that none of us will really want.
I find that possibility chilling. God help us.
It is a beautiful day in Nashville today. Almost, but not quite as beautiful as the crisp, golden fall day in New York City ten years ago.
9/11 is personal to me, to my family. We lived in NYC on that day. A dear friend lost a sister in the attack. I watched the second tower come down from my office window. We were not in danger, but our neighbor worked at the World Trade Center and narrowly missed death that day. In fact, she only lived because she ignored the "all clear" and decided not to go back in after the first plane hit and they were told the other buildings were fine. Later, as she fled, she had to dodge a tire flying through the air--part of the airplane's landing gear.
I regret that, like many other things, 9/11 has become politicized. It wasn't like that in the days immediately after. The horror of 9/11 brought people together in a remarkable way. New York City was a different place for several months. People made eye contact on the subway. They gave up seats to the elderly or pregnant women. They were courteous and kind.
And instead of being from Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan, instead of being Catholic or Jewish or atheists, instead of being white or black or hispanic, instead of being Puerto Ricans, Dominicans--we were all Americans.
American flags proliferated over night. They were every where. Apartments. Fire escapes. Car antennae. It was not nationalism or superiority. It was genuine love and unity. It was an impulse to link arms as we realized that what we took for granted might not be so unassailable.
I thank God that we have not had any more attacks on that scale since then and I honor the brave people who have stood between us and danger. Surely our relative peace has not happened simply because no one has tried to hurt us again.
I think of those brave firefighters and police officers who ran towards the hell that everyone else was running away from. Jesus said, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). I mourn their loss and the loss of innocent life in those towers.
But I also mourn the loss of unity, the loss of togetherness that swelled up during those days during the aftermath. I mourn the quick, and entrenched return to our own tribes and ideological camps.It's not that I think we should all agree with each other on every thing. I don't, and that's not possible. It's not that I think that principled disagreement is never right. I think it's often important.
But I do wish we could be less strident, less hyper-politicized. The people who died that day died because they were Americans. They didn't die as Democrats or Republicans. The firefighters who gave their lives while trying to rescue people were trying to rescue other Americans, other humans. Their brothers and sisters.
I wish we could remember that.
One of the most amazing things I've ever seen happened on that day. It's something that has not been widely remembered in the collective consciousness and I think it's worth a look.
All the members of the U.S. Congress--senators, congressmen and women came out on the steps of the capitol and held a press conference. They said the things you would expect and had a moment of silence. But watch a few minutes into it. Something really remarkable happens then--something that provides a wonderful metaphor for the way forward.
I don't hear Democrat voices or Republican voices. I just hear Americans singing, acknowledging that we are together and that we need help and guidance.
I recently read a tedious, tendentious essay about Harry Potter. The author is a writer for a liberal leaning web magazine and was new to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. She gushed about how the movie clearly portrayed liberal values and so forth.
To be fair, I read a similar blog post by a conservative writer outlining the conservative world view that exists in J.K. Rowling's books.
To be honest, both of these essays left me feeling a little queasy. They both overlooked clear pieces of data that argued against their points and pushed on, impressing Harry and Rowling to serve their cause like the British Navy dragging some poor guy in a waterfront tavern to the H.M.S. Bounty.
My friends and family know I have strong political views and there is a time and place to discuss those.
But does everything have to be political these days? I mean, Harry Potter, really?
Can we not just enjoy a good story about a brave kid with a scar without having to search for deeper political messages? Are we so bereft of arguments for our politics that we have to draft underage wizards (yes, they are underage by Muggle standards. Harry is only 17).
This distresses me for several reasons. First of all, as I have written before, I worry about the growing, deepening divisions in our country. There is precious little we have in common anymore. So when something comes along that we can all enjoy (or many of us at least) it would be nice not to find ways to disagree about it.
Second, good and great art speaks to our souls. It tells us about being human and it generally draws on universal themes. Harry Potter is about courage, loyalty, friendship, good and evil. These are big ideas, transcendent themes. To drag politics in cheapens it.
Politics is a necessary fact of life in a republic or democracy. It is to freedom what excrement is to life: a fundamental and necessary, if unpleasant, process everyone goes through. But in polite society, we don't focus on it beyond occasional jokes that we all acknowledge are juvenile and in bad taste.
Third, and most importantly, Harry Potter features an evil wizard who tortures and kills people. He wants to rule the world. Republicans or Democrats may really annoy you but come on! They are nowhere near Voldemort's level of evil. And if you think they are, then you are smug, delusional, and a big part of this country's problems. You need long self-reflection, less media, and possibly some counseling. You need to calm down and think clearly and logically. You also need to make some friends with people on the other side of the aisle. You might also read my blog posts on civility here, here, and here.
One of the things that bugs me most about these kind of comparisons is that it's a sort of narcissistic values inflation. The writer elevates his or her policy beliefs to being analogous to great heroes while simultaneously casting those who disagree as villains. That is an off-putting kind of arrogance and self-righteousness.
More than anything though, I think we are focusing far too much of our time on politics. We should vote and write our Congressional representatives. We should be informed and express our opinions. But if we let politics consume and inform everything then it's getting to be unhealthy and we risk becoming myopic. There's so much wonderful and good stuff in the world! If we focus exclusively on politics we are cheating ourselves. Not to mention contributing the polarization and extremism that are raging.
Finally, there have been times and places when all art had political overtones. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and North Korea, for example. Art was (is) subverted to be elegant propaganda for a political message. And it wasn't pretty. It's not something I think we want to emulate. Let's not voluntarily go to this kind of system.
Harry Potter was something enjoyed by adults and children, liberals and conservatives, readers and non-readers. Let's celebrate that and just leave the politics at the bookstore's edge.
Well, with Mitt Romney running for president, and Jon Hunstman (former governor of Utah) probably running, there is growing chatter in the media about Mormons and what they believe.
I'll tell you a secret: as an active, believing Mormon, I really don't relish this. What it means, in my mind, is that political opponents and the press will kick around some of my most cherished beliefs and then, by focusing on marginal, obscure and unusual elements, make Mormons seem crazy. There will be some who make us seem like lovable, quirky eccentrics, while others will portray us as dangerous lunatics. But either way, it's not something I look forward to.
Here's the thing. Every religion, and I do mean every religion, can be made to look foolish if you want to try. What religion doesn't have doctrinal or historical elements that look strange to those outside the faith? I would add, that you don't even need to be religious. I have heard secular humanists made fun of in the same way. Any belief system or sub-culture can be mocked and made to seem crazy.
My experience, incidentally, is that the kind of stories I am referring to usually pick something that is fairly small in terms of significance, some marginal idea or doctrine, and then frame it in a way that makes it sound like a bigger deal than it is.
At any rate, since I don't like the way Mormons and our beliefs are often portrayed, and since I am the only Mormon many of my friends and associates know, I thought maybe I'd take the chance to explain some of the basic things we believe. I note that I'm focusing on the pillars of belief that inform the daily life of your average, practicing Mormon, not on the more exotic and arcane theological points or historical events that might interest scholars and historians.
Let me start with what we don't believe in and what we are not. First of all, since this is precipitated by two presidential campaigns, let me note that not all Mormons are Republicans. Many are, but I have a great many Mormon friends who identify as moderate to raging liberal, believing fully the doctrines of the Church and participating in full fellowship. It is interesting to note that Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate is an active, believing Mormon. For some reason, that never gets much play.
Another thing. We do not believe in having more than one wife. That ended in 1893. For a relatively short time, some Mormons did have more than one wife. I don't understand why. I've heard a lot of theories over the years, some make sense, some don't, but the point is no one really knows and everyone who was involved has been dead for a very, very long time.
This is a great example of what I was talking about. The day-to-day impact of polygamy on contemporary Mormons is about nil. But it's exotic, mysterious and therefore, it's something people tend to latch on to and it gets a lot of play. To be honest, I don't really like that they did practice polygamy. But it's so far out of anything that is relevant to my life today as to be basically meaningless in practical terms and so I don't spend much time thinking about it. But, others do. I was surprised recently when someone who knows our family well and has been to our house numerous times, asked if we did polygamy.
I note that you canNOT be in the Church and practice polygamy. It is the quickest way to get excommunicated. One hears from time to time about splinter groups in the West, and there have been some TV shows that highlight this practice. Mormons are embarrassed and offended by this stuff. Polygamists are not Mormons and vice versa. Period.
So, what do we believe? Since this post is already longish, I'll make this brief: the main, day-to-day fundamental of my faith is that God lives, that he is real and personal. We believe he is the father of our spirits and that he loves us more perfectly than the most loving earthly father. We believe he is interested in our lives and that he has a plan for us, a plan that encompasses the proximate circumstances of life, but also a plan so expansive it reaches in to eternity. We believe--I believe--that God sent us to earth as a parent on earth sends children to school: to learn and grow, and then return.
One of the most beloved songs in the church today is a very simple children's song called "I Am A Child of God" and I think it says it all:
I am a child of God, and he has sent me here
Has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear.
Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way.
Teach me all that I must do to live with him some day.
I put a clip of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing the song below.
P.S. I'm happy to answer questions people have. I sense sometimes that people I know often want to ask me things but are worried about being offensive. You needn't be worried.
I was in a church meeting the other night where our stake president (senior local leader, over about nine congregations) made an earnest plea to leave politics outside the walls of the church.
That got me thinking. My church has a strict policy of political neutrality. In fact, every time there is an election, the Church issues a letter which is read in Sunday meetings reaffirming this political neutrality. I like this line from the First Presidency (a group of men we consider to be prophets): "Principles compatible with the gospel can be found in various political parties."
I think it's pretty cool to belong to a church that has room enough for both Mitt Romney and Harry Reid.
Because I have lived in a variety of places, and because my career has taken me to some interesting places, I have a lot of friends across the political spectrum. I know and love staunch, solid conservatives as well as liberals with the bleedingest of hearts.
To a person, all my friends have the best of intentions. They pursue their political views because they sincerely believe that those views are right (whatever the metric they use to determine "right").
I've been thinking about the idea that principles compatible with the gospel are found in both parties. How can this be true, given that two parties are so vastly different?
I have a thought on this, and I think it comes down the fundamental values on which specific policies are built. If I had to identify one trait that my liberal friends have in common it would be empathy and love. These people genuinely care for others and they have a sincere desire to help the downtrodden and poor. This desire informs their policy preferences.
Across the aisle, my conservative friends also share some bedrock values. One of the most important fundamentals to these folks is freedom. They believe that God gave humanity freedom--that the right to act and choose is integral to God's plan for His children. Consequently, they favor policies which they see as congruent with this aim. (I'd say that there is a second value for conservatives, and that has to do with preserving traditional values because they genuinely believe they are right.)
Here's my point. We are in what promises to be a raucous election year. And that's as it should be. We have big decisions to make in this country about big challenges. Vigorous debate is a good thing. But, it concerns me when I hear people--on either side of the political spectrum--talking about opponents as if they are mean-spirited/evil/stupid/bigoted/whatever is counter-productive.
I have strong political views, myself. I get that. And I think we should all advocate vigorously for what we think is best. But let's do it with the presumption of good faith--that those on the other side might also be acting according to their best lights, for all the best reasons.
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