This week, Republicans took back the Senate as well as several state houses and across the country. This victory has variously been described as a wave or a flood. I gratefully celebrated on Tuesday night as the election results came in. Yet, that celebratory spirit turned a bit sour as I read the now infamous post, Good riddance to Harry Reid, the Mormon Senate leader, by member and current Bishop Mark Paredes. I don’t know brother Paredes personally, bu I have greatly enjoyed some of the other posts that he has written on other topics and appreciate the vital role he is playing in reaching out to the Jewish community. Nevertheless, I think Paredes’s post is needlessly divisive and ultimately misguided. While many have already written on this topics, in light of the national attention given to this post, I feel that I should also share a couple of thoughts on the subject.
First of all, I would urge everyone to read Elder Oaks’s masterful talk from this most recent conference entitled Loving Others and Living with Differences. Elder Oaks specifically talked about rancorous discourse in politics.
“The Savior taught that contention is a tool of the devil. That surely teaches against some of the current language and practices of politics. Living with policy differences is essential to politics, but policy differences need not involve personal attacks that poison the process of government and punish participants. All of us should banish hateful communications and practice civility for differences of opinion.”
For me the underlying point of Elder Oaks’s remarks is that while we can disagree on matters of politics, we should not disparage or seek to question the motives of those with whom we disagree.
Likewise, Elder Oaks provided a standard for our communication on public issues:
“On the subject of public discourse, we should all follow the gospel teachings to love our neighbor and avoid contention. Followers of Christ should be examples of civility. We should love all people, be good listeners, and show concern for their sincere beliefs. Though we may disagree, we should not be disagreeable. Our stands and communications on controversial topics should not be contentious.”
Being a good listener and showing concern for the sincere beliefs of others means that we do not demonize, we do not distort, we do not engage in invective filled character attacks. Instead, we focus on explaining what matters to us and work to find common ground.
This can be difficult when our deeply held beliefs lead us or even compel us to adopt a certain position. Yet, it is important to realize that individuals are trying to do good based on the light and understanding that they have. When it comes to dealing with those of our faith that disagree, it is perhaps even more difficult. After all, we assume that we share common doctrine with those of our faith and therefore assume that this would lead to the same conclusion politically. Yet, Mormon doctrine is not a checklist of answers to questions, instead it is a tapestry of values and principles that individuals can interpret and understand differently.
Thus, I think Paredes falls short when he suggests that Harry Reid “is not a man of serious religious faith.” For Reid, and many Mormon Democrats, it is precisely serious engagement with the teachings of Jesus Christ that leads them to be Democrats.
To some degree, it is question of priorities as well as perspective. Those who see economic issues such as alleviating poverty as being of primary concern as well as the purview of government are going to support more politically liberal parties and views. Many liberal Mormons simply see social issues as either a distraction, or a matter best left up to individual choice rather than government action. On the other hand, those that see government’s role as more limited, or social values as of primary importance over economic issues are much more likely to be conservative.
I am personally not a democrat, because of the way I resolve this hierarchy of values and priorities. I tend to see poverty as something that will regrettably always be present in society. I see a lack of morals and values as one of the primary roots of poverty and inequality. I am therefore skeptical of the unintended consequences that come from government efforts to alleviate poverty from the top down. I am also judicially conservative because I believe that limited government with enumerated rather than plenary powers is the best check on violations of individual rights such as freedom of speech or religion.
I am disappointed when conservatives demonize others and especially when they demonize the poor or those on welfare. Hearing such deplorable attacks on the weakest and most vulnerable among us, it is easy to conclude that conservatives do not care about poverty or the poor. It is easy to conclude that only the Democrats are taking seriously issues such as poverty and inequality. I think these conclusions are misguided and firmly believe that conservative principles are better suited for alleviating poverty in the long run, but the appeal of liberal economic policies is easily understandable.
Paderes suggests that being merely a member of the Democratic party makes sense, but that being a leader does not. This seems illogical to me. I currently am a precinct chair for the Utah County Republican party even though I do not agree with every single position in the party platform (mainly the platform’s affirmation of the death penalty). From his position, Reid has been able to direct his party and to focus on the issues that he finds most critical. While I strongly disagree with many of Reid’s methods (especially the stifling of debate and amendments in the Senate), seeking leadership in a party that in his mind best alleviates poverty and fulfills our duty to the poor and needy is not only understandable, but commendable. In the process, I am sure Reid also feels that he can open hearts and minds towards the church by dispelling myths and negative stereotypes.
Of course, one does not have to agree with everything Reid has said in order to be charitable towards him. I was somewhat disappointed by his very vocal criticism of the Church over Prop 8 for instance. His comments that Mitt Romney had “sullied” his faith were deplorable and just as bad as anything Paderes has written. Yet, even if Reid himself has not always perfectly shown empathy to his political opponents, that is not an excuse to ignore the clear teachings of Elder Oaks and the Savior. Each one of us needs to be personally committed to showing empathy and charity to our political opponents even when such empathy or charity is not extended to us. At the bare minimum, we should seek empathy to understand how individuals of our faith could feel that their faith leads them to very different political decisions. We should leave final judgments to the savior, and extend the benefit of the doubt to those with whom we disagree.