I was disappointed to see a recent post on Millennial Star attacking Mitt Romney for his willingness to critique Trump. I strongly disagree with the post’s substantive critique of Romney, but also with the more general moral framework that the post employs. While the specific discussion about Romney, Trump, and Impeachment is important, I think the broader moral debate is even more important.
The post in question’s foundational premise can be summarized as a belief that Romney’s critique of Trump is intemperate or inappropriate because Romney ignores how evil the Democrats and those who oppose Trump are. In light of all of the things that Democrats endorse which the author sees as contrary to Church doctrine such as “new multi-trillion dollar government programs” and the “complete embrace of intersectionality politics,” the author describes Romney’s actions as “willful blindness” and ignorance as to “what the stakes are.” This post appears to share the perspective of a well-known essay which labelled the 2016 election a “Flight 93 Election” and argued that conservatives who failed to endorse Trump were ignoring the great evil that a Hillary Clinton presidency would lead to. That article’s central analogy was that terrorists had taken over the cockpit of America and that any tactics were justified in a last ditch effort to save it.
Another more recent manifestation of this same mentality is the one expressed by Sohrab Ahmari in his article “Against David French-ism,” namely that politics is all about “war and enmity” and that “the only way through” is to “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils.”
This “Flight 93 election” mentality is I believe a great moral evil, and it pains me to see people that I respect and admire among the Latter-day Saint blogging community appear to embrace it.
In this post, I hope to lay the moral foundations for a gospel centered rebuke of the “flight 93 election” analogy.
(I note that the purpose of this post is not to argue as to whether Trump’s conduct is impeachable. But I would not be candid if I did not acknowledge that I find the case for impeachment over the Ukraine call and many other matters quite compelling.
I do, however, want to point out that Romney is being criticized not for voting for impeachment or for calling for Trump to be removed from office, but merely for being willing to support an impeachment inquiry. So even a willingness to investigate and discover all of the relevant facts is seen as a betrayal in a “flight 93 election”)
Doctrinal Principle #1 D&C 10 – The Ends do Not Justify the Means
The Tenth Section of the Doctrine and Covenants was written to Joseph Smith after the loss of the 116 lost pages. In this section, God sternly critiques those who took the manuscript and emphasizes that “Satan has great hold upon their hearts” and that he “stirreth them up to iniquity against that which is good.” One of Satan’s most cunning lies is that he makes people believe that their unrighteous or immoral conduct is not only excused but justified. Indeed, “he flattereth them, and telleth them that it is no sin to lie that they may catch a man in a lie, that they may destroy him.” In other words, Satan makes people believe that their poor conduct is justified so long as it is done in opposition to something that they see as a greater evil. This is a timeless strategy of the adversary, “thus he goeth up and down, to and fro in the earth, seeking to destroy the souls of men.”
But the Lord has a different standard. In this revelation he emphatically rejects Satan’s philosophy that the ends can justify the means: “wo be unto him that lieth to deceive because he supposeth that another lieth to deceive, for such are not exempt from the justice of God.”
Our moral principles must not be relative. Even if we believe that we are opposing great evil, we cannot compromise on our principles and engage in evil or immoral actions. Satan is particularly effective at using this ruse to get us to call “evil good.” He wants to use the pursuit of the “lesser evil” as a tool to corrode our moral judgments and to “lead [us] along until he drag[s] [our] souls down to hell.” All the while, Satan will flatter us and tell us that we are doing the right and moral thing because of the great evil of those on the other side.
Violations of this principle have led to great evil both in the Church and outside of the Church. The willingness of Church members to avenge violence with violence in Missouri exacerbated tensions and helped contribute to their expulsion. And the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the more tragic events in Church history came because the members in Cedar City were willing to throw out their moral principles in response to what they saw as a the evil actions of the approaching U.S. Army and the violence perpetuated against them. Satan scores some of his greater victories when he convinced good and devout members of the Church to throw out principle in pursuit of otherwise righteous goals.
This foundational principle is perhaps even more relevant in our current politically charged environment.
Note, that this principle is universal and transcends political party or persuasion. Satan is pleased when he can stir up contention and cause us to question our moral foundations and bedrock values. (One could also draw an analogy to Russia hackers who supported President Trump in the 2016 election, but were equally pleased with stirring up contention on any fault line issue in American politics such as race.
I should also add one caveat to this point. It is of course possible that a circumstance arises when one is in fact justified in breaking some law or commandment to prevent a great and imminent harm. For instance, I think that those who hid Jews in their homes and lied to Nazi soldiers are great heroes. But it seems to me that the key difference is the imminence and specificity of the harm in question. In contrast, the mentality that an immoral strongman is needed because our foes are so dangerous has been the recipe for a great number of tyrants in human history (Hitler included).
Doctrinal Principle # 2 – Cleansing the Inner Vessel
In the Book of Mormon, the Nephites faced a truly existential threat in the great wars described in the final chapters of Alma. The Nephites fought “for their liberty and their freedom from bondage.” Yet in the midst of this great war for liberty, something went wrong. The Nephite government began to fail to supply the troops that it had promised to send to Captain Moroni to the battlefront. Moroni wrote an angry epistle to Chief Judge Pahoran, unjustly accusing him of treasonous behavior. But something in this epistle rings true to me. Moroni explained that unless the rot and corruption inside his own society could be cured, “it will be expedient that we contend no more with the Lamanites until we have first cleansed our inward vessel.” (Alma 60:24). In other words, fighting with the enemy would be inefficient and futile so long as the inner foe could not be vanquished.
When we are members of a party, an organization, a church, or any other institution. It is natural to begin to gloss over internal problems and to instead fixate on what others are doing wrong. Sometimes those critiques are even 100% justified, as it was with the case of the Lamanite armies.
But it is important to never become complacent or to gloss over flaws that exist in the organizations that we are a part of. Indeed, sometimes it is just as important to “clean[s] our inward vessel.”
The critique of Romney for directing fire at his own party seems to me to ignore this principle. In doing so the critique ignores the possibility that the inner rot of Trumpism is exactly the kind of blot on conservative principles that must be excised before conservative principles and values can once again flourish.
Doctrinal Principle # 3 – It’s Always a Time for Choosing
The “Flight 93 Election” mentality hinges on the notion that this election “is the most critical, decisive time” and that therefore the ends justify the means of supporting immoral or unjust political actors and refusing to speak out against members of your own party.
More than 45 years ago at the precipice of the 1972 election, then Senior Apostle and subsequent Church President Harold B. Lee spoke out against this attitude:
“I believe it is an illusion to say that this is the most critical, decisive time. Write it upon the hearts of all of us that every dispensation has been just as decisive, and likewise that every year has been the most decisive year and time for ourselves, for this nation, and for the world. This is our day and time when honorable men must be brought forward to meet the tremendous challenges before us.”
In this same talk, President Lee set out principles for those in political office that remain as timely as ever. He emphasizes that “we must seek for statesmenlike men who will ask, ‘Is it right and is it good for the country or the community?’ instead of those who may merely ask, ‘Is it politically expedient?’”
Rather than expecting our political officials to “vote for policy sake” or for the love of party, we must expect them to “vote for that which in [their] heart [they] feel is right” and to remain consistent with timeless principles.
What I see in Romney’s actions regarding impeachment is a politician willing to vote what he believes is “good for the country or the community” rather than what is “politically expedient.”
(The post accuses Romney of being “one of the most un-self aware politicians ever” and an “opportunistic flip-flopper.” The author’s primary piece of evidence is that Romney accepted Trump’s endorsement in 2012, critiqued him in 2016, “went on bended knee to Trump for a position in the Cabinet in early 2017” and is now attacking Trump once again. I think Romney’s actions in 2017 can be defended as the actions of a patriotic American seeking a cabinet position where he hoped to prevent some of the disastrous and erratic foreign policy actions of the current administration. But putting that aside, it seems more likely to me that Romney’s great flaw was his willingness to accept Trump’s support in the first place. In order to try to win in 2012, Romney embraced Trump even though Trump’s political claim to fame at that time was his wholly unfounded birther attacks on Obama. By embracing Trump in order to win the election, Romney unwittingly opened the door for Trump’s rise to power. Had Romney stuck to his moral principles, it is possible that we would not have a President Trump. So it seems to me that this critique of Romney actually leads to the opposite conclusion. Romney (and all of us) are better served by staying true to principles rather than being willing to compromise our integrity.)
The Flight That Never Ends
One of the major problems with the Flight 93 election analogy is that this kind of siege warfare mentality never ends. “Flight 93 did not end with the 2016 vote; we are forever on the plane, endlessly in danger, no matter who has seized the controls.” See Carlos Ladoza, Thinking for Trump, Washington Post (March 15, 2019) There will in other words never be a point where the danger is past and we can once again return to our foundational principles. If the danger of a Clinton presidency is past, then there will always be another danger on the horizon. Whether it is extreme Democratic policies or a “deep state” coup, there will always be some evil to fixate on and combat. Anything that Trump says or does can always be excused as a necessary evil. And the same will be true for the next Republican candidate, and the next after that. After one embraces a “Flight 93” mentality, there is no point of return.
And don’t think that I am making a purely partisan point here. Democrats are just as guilty with their fixation on the evils of Trump and their willingness to stomp on all sorts of Constitutional norms to oppose him.
Much of our political partisanship today is the result of both sides embracing this damning mentality. If our opponents are not just wrong, but evil, then there is never a need for dialogue or deliberation. There is no room for compromise. Politics can only be a bloodsport where the winner tries to trample on the loser as much as humanly possible.
Those who like Trump’s policies may take comfort for now. But not for long.
And such a foundation is like a house built upon the sand. It will not endure the rain and the shafts in the whirlwind that the devil will send. A house so foundationally divided cannot and will not stand.
I fear the consequences of hyperpartisanship and an embrace of an ends-justify-the-means mentality far more than I fear the specific results of any one policy that either political party may embrace.
A Better Way Forward
In contrast, the Church has modelled a better way in how it has approached LGBTQ issues in the state of Utah. It is hard to imagine a more contentious issue. The author of the previous post is of course right that the Equality Act and other legislation being advanced by the Democratic contenders would seriously harm religious freedom. The Church could have easily oppose any and all legislation concerning LGBT rights and treated the topics as a battle where there could only be a single winner or loser.
Instead, the Church adopted its “fairness for all” approach. The Church explained that ““Rights work best when sought and shared by everyone. And since we all live and breathe and move in the same public space, there is no acceptable alternative to working out our differences.” As Elder Holland explained, “We must find ways to show respect for others whose beliefs, values, and behaviors differ from our own while never being forced to deny or abandon our own beliefs, values, and behaviors in the process.”
“Fairness for All” is an antidote to the “Flight 93 Election” mentality. When we are engaged in civic dialogue with others and concerned with fairness for everyone, then we will eschew winner take all attitudes and instead be more open to dialogue and compromise.
(Note, that this does not mean that we do not fight in the legislature and in the courts to defend vital constitutional rights. I am a Constitutional litigator who fights against government overreach and for individual rights every day. I am not naïve to the danger of government oppression. Nor do I think that Church leaders are naïve.)
The Need for Prayer
Finally, I would note that the rhetoric used in the post, calling the Democratic party “insane” their behavior “anti-democratic” is not at all the kind of rhetoric that one hears from Church leadership with regard to elected officials of either party.
I should note that I share the post’s critique of most of the democratic policies he derides. But I also recognize much in the current Republican Party platform that is out of sync with Church doctrine such as immigration policies that separate families, hostility to refugees, and pervasive hatred of Islam.
It is for this reason that the Church declares to its membership that “Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties, and members should seek candidates who best embody those principles.” Every member has to decide for himself or herself which party is more likely to advance gospel principles. We need to be a lot more charitable to our fellow brothers and sisters who make a different political determination.
Just this weekend, Elder Ballard invited us to sincerely pray for our elected officials and for the well-being of our country:
“I plead with you this evening to pray for this country, for our leaders, for our people and for the families that live in this great nation founded by God. Remember, this country was established and preserved by our founding fathers and mothers who repeatedly acknowledged the hand of God through prayer.”
He urged us “to join in a new movement” and to “[i]nvite your neighbors, your colleagues, your friends on social media to pray for this country.”
I don’t think this is possible if we are stuck in a “Flight 93 election mentality.” I am not sure we can really come together as a community and pray for the well-being of our nation if we are convinced that half the country is beyond the pale.
At the end of the day, my foundational disagreement with the Flight 93 election mentality is that if we ever hope to restore the torn civic fabric of our nation, we must put aside binary and partisan thinking. Refusing to candidly confront immoral and unconstitutional conduct in our leaders because we are more afraid of what the other side might do if they take power is a dangerous idea. More than that, it is a damning idea. With that mentality, we can never progress morally. We can never appeal to our better angels. Instead, we are constantly engaged in a war of all versus all. That is not the foundation for Zion or even for a functioning democracy.