Hyper-partisanism is nothing new in American politics and something that will not go away any time soon. Unfortunately, we are living in period of American history were all too frequently, members of both political parties are unwilling to compromise and see the others point of view. Due to this, certain non-political groups have become monolithically supportive of either one party or another. Among these is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Although the church officially supports a message of political neutrality, the shear amount of Republican support and prominent conservative figures (especially Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck) coming from the church have given people on both the inside and outside the idea that you cannot be a good church member and a Democrat.
This is problematic. I will attempt to show some of the problems behind this mindset and also attempt to demonstrate that one can be a Democrat and a good Mormon. As stated in a Huffington Post article, liberal Mormons are a “minority within a minority,” and are often subject to unwarranted negative opinions. I am not trying to criticize Mormon conservatives or convince people to become Democrats (in fact I do not really consider myself one), but to be more open to the idea of Mormon Democrats in speech and in ideology and work to make sure that people are aware of the political neutrality of the church. It is important for members of the church to not reject Democrat ideas purely based off of a false notion that the Republican Party is the church’s party. I also wish to encourage people who lean Democrat to be more open and vocal with their beliefs.
[Note: I will be grouping the Tea Party in with the Republican Party, since it is effectively a more vocal and rightwing branch of the Republican Party. I also will be grouping Libertarians in with the Republican party just for convenience’s sake. The Libertarian Party should be justly considered separate from the Republican Party, due primarily to its more liberal take on social issues, but it seems that Libertarians have an easier time fitting in with other church members than Democrats. Seeing as the Libertarian Party has yet to acquire a large support base behind its Presidential candidates, it seems to me that most conservatives still vote Republican. Effectively, I will be using the term Republican Party to describe all conservative political movements in American politics. Yes, I realize that that is an oversimplification, but I decided on this out for convenience to me.]
Statistics on the political affiliation of Mormons are not extremely common, but a recent Pew Research profile and USA Today article mentioning a 2012 Pew Forum show that, not surprisingly, a large majority of church members seem to favor conservative/Republican points of view. In the USA Today report, as many as 74% of Mormons identify as Republican and only 17% identify as Democrats.
That is a huge discrepancy that has been a cause of concern among church leaders. Especially disconcerting is the decline of the Democrat party in Utah. Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Quorum of the Seventy and lifelong Democrat stated during an interview:
“One of the things that prompted this discussion . . . was the regret that’s felt about the decline of the Democratic Party and the notion that may prevail in some areas that you can’t be a good Mormon and a good Democrat at the same time…So I think that it would be a very healthy thing for the church – particularly the Utah church – if that notion could be obliterated. . . I think we regret more than anything that there would become a church party and a non-church party. That would be the last thing we would want to have happen.”
Along those same lines a recent official church statement declared:
“Principles compatible with the gospel are found in the platforms of all major political parties. While the Church does not endorse political candidates, platforms, or parties, members are urged to be full participants in political, governmental, and community affairs.”
A great example of a church leader who was both a Democrat and a prominent church member was President James E Faust, who served for years on the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later in the First Presidency until his death. He stated:
“I am liberal in terms of human values and human rights. I believe what it says in the Book of Mormon, that the Lord values all of his children equally – black and white, bond and free, male and female, Jew and gentile – and that the Lord likewise has compassion for the heathen.”
A final quote on this issue comes from a talk that President Dieter F. Uchdorf gave in the April 2013 General Conference.
“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences. The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.”
These few quotes illuminate both the need and the possibility that good church members can be found in all parties.
Now I am not much of a sociologist nor a politician so I can not say for certain why church members tend to overwhelmingly vote Republican. I assume that at least some part of this phenomenon is the preconceived notion that one can not be a good Mormon and a Democrat coupled with the broader prejudice among Christian groups against people who support the Democratic party. Generally, the moral flaws of the Democrat Party are more open and easily identified than the moral flaws of the Republican Party. Because of this, members can more easily throw their support behind the Republican Party during elections. These are just my guesses.
It is safe to assume that both predominate American parties have positive and negative aspects to them. The damage is done when citizens on each side of the aisle indulge in extremism when deciding or discussing their political opinions. Doggedly accepting every single choice of one party while rejecting every single choice of another helps no one and causes more problems than not. Likewise, it is important to realize that supporting a certain political party does not mean that an individual supports every decision by that party.
In regards to the political diversity of the church, having a monolithic outlook on politics can hurt the church in three ways.
- It catches the church up in the tide of contemporary politics. As public opinions are formed of the Republican Party, a politically monolithic church and an illusion that there is a church party and a non-church party can cause the church to be lumped into the public perception of the Republican Party, much like most Christian groups are nowadays. This not only skews the perception of the church as a non-political entity but also causes us problems when preaching the word.
- When we are attempting to reach out to nonmembers the perception that Mormons are monolithically Republicans undermines the missionary program to an extent. New investigators can get the idea that becoming a church member also requires a shift in political ideology which they may not want. Since missionaries are already asking nonmember investigators to make significant lifestyle changes, the perception that joining the church will also require a political affiliation change adds an unnecessary complication for investigators.
- The predominate focus on conservative politics can also breed ignorance and narrow mindedness among the Saints. Understandably, most members of the church are very close to other members. A large part of their social circle is made up of other church members, and most members’ closest friends are in their church group. A politically monolithic church means that most members do not have the adequate opportunity for real political discussions among other church members. Real discussion means talking with another person about their beliefs and learning to accept the validity of their opinions and claims even if you do not necessarily agree with them. Political discussion is not commenting on news articles from your favorite biased news source with other like minded people. Political discussion also does not entail attacking someone based solely on their political ideals. America was built on the idea of political discourse. By engaging people of other political beliefs in only confrontational settings and tones we do ourselves a grave disservice.
Now this does not mean that everybody should become a Democrat just to balance out the numbers, but we should remain open-minded to the beliefs of that party and their reasoning. Look at the issues. Too frequently the misconception that good Mormons cannot be Democrats pushes people to align themselves with the Republican Party with no consideration or research. And who knows, once you try a little bit of the Democrat party, you may actually like it.
We should also attempt to make it clear that our church is officially politically neutral. When we discuss politics we should always make it clear that our opinion (even if shaped by our interpretation of church doctrine) is not the official political stance of the church.
Finally, we should support people with different political viewpoints. I do not consider myself a Democrat (mostly because I have some serious problems with the foreign policy decisions and outlooks on moral issues of the current leadership) but I do hold some progressive opinions that are not held by the Republican Party, and have felt from time to time ostracized or looked down upon because of my purely political beliefs.
Unfortunately, church members can be extremely critical of individuals with more liberal opinions. Indeed this is endemic of all politics, but should not occur in a church that preaches compassion and openness. We must remain open to the idea of a diverse political environment and remain respectful of the political ideas of others, even if we do not agree with them. Supporting other peoples right to believe what they may and kindly engaging them in conversion does not necessarily mean that you agree with their point of views.
It is important in this regard to refrain from over relying on scriptures to prove a political point. As mentioned earlier, it is fine to have your religious beliefs shape your political beliefs. However, there is a fundamental difference between using the scriptures to explain a point and using them to prove a point. The scriptures are primarily for moral lessons. Attempting a Book of Mormon exegesis to prove why a prophet who lived 2000 years ago would have opposed or approved of the Affordable Care Act (for example) not only misses the point of the scriptures and cheapens the message, but it works to alienate other perfectly worthy members who may actually support the law.
On moral issues where the scriptures do speak (war, marriage, abortion, the responsibilities of citizens in a government) the scriptures are applicable to an extent in political discussions, but it is generally best to keep discussions of a purely secular nature away from cherry picking the scriptures. Proving a point is ok, but if proving a political point, stick mainly to politics.
Politics can be a sticky subject and one that incites hatred, ignorance and unhappiness. We must first and foremost remember Jesus Christ’s admonition to avoid contention at all costs. As church members, it is never acceptable to persecute or belittle another church member because of their political beliefs, to say nothing of people not of our faith. The single most important thing in religion is a person’s relationship to God and to Jesus Christ, and in the end, who we voted for in an election will have no significant effect on our eternal salvation.
It is also important to acknowledge that in our day and age the church is expanding throughout the world. There is no longer such a thing as a “cookie cutter” Mormon. Although bound together by religious affiliation, church members come from many demographics and have a myriad of opinions about the world. By thoroughly studying the issues without bias and allowing ourselves (and others) to affiliate with whatever party they see fit without ridicule, we will become a church known for its openness and exemplary citizens. Adopting the attitudes mentioned above will allow us to truly become a diverse church for all people and to provide for the future posterity of our great country.
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