Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mormons and Utah Political Partisanship (Part Two): UVU panel discussion becomes debate

This is the second installment in a three-part series on Mormons and Utah Political Partisanship.

Doug Fabrizio
The UVU meeting was called, LDS Values and Political Partisanship. It took place in the Ragan Theater, a large, 400-seat auditorium with a 40x30 foot stage. The 5 panelists sat behind a long table center stage.  At a podium stage right stood Doug Fabrizio, panel moderator, and host of KUER's weekly RadioWest program. The theater was large, but the audience wasn't packed. As I looked around I noticed most audience members looked like students seated alone. There were about 3-5 empty seats between each audience member.

Four of the panelists currently are, or recently were members of the Utah State legislature. The two Democrats were Representative Carol Spackman Moss, and Senator Ben McAdams. The two Republicans were Representative Holly Richardson, and Senator Howard Stephenson. All four said they actively practice their faith. The fifth panelist was Quinn Monson, Associate Director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.


Ben McAdams (D)
McAdams started out by saying, "I'm a democrat not in spite of my LDS faith, but because of my LDS faith." Then he spoke about how the LDS value of education makes him want to promote more government funding for public education. "The glory of god is intelligence," he said, quoting LDS church founder, Joseph Smith. Charity doesn't take care of everything, McAdams said, government needs to step in; it's about providing an equal starting point for people. He also mentioned that receiving government-funding help for his own education (a Pell Grant, and a Stafford loan), making it possible for him to go to college.

Richardson said that she values education just as much as McAdams or any Mormon does, and that she doesn't think her fiscal conservativism contradicts that.
Former Representative
Holly Richardson (R)
I would say I value education very highly, but I don't think it's the government's responsibility necessarily . . . I'm for educational choice. Over the years, I've had my kids in private school, public school, charter school, and I've home schooled for a dozen years.
She also connected her fiscal conservatism to the LDS value of family budget balancing. She teased McAdams by saying that based on his values, it would make sense for him to switch parties, "Come on in, the water's fine," she said. At a later point, McAdams mentioned his great respect and friendship with Richardson over the years.


Howard Stephenson (R)
The issue of Charity for the poor was pounced upon thoroughly. As expected, the Democrats argued that their LDS faith compels them to support government social programs like welfare. Stephenson argued that his take on social programs is informed by his adherence to LDS doctrine of "free agency," the belief that God doesn't want mankind to be forced to do good, that it must be by choice. "The idea that we are to act, and not be acted upon." After stating that he was grateful for LDS Democrats, he offered them this criticism.
Stephenson: In their bleeding heart liberalism, they want to take care of people, rather than enabling people to suffer the consequences of their actions.

Fabrizio: Wait--and that's not a Mormon value? Taking care of people?

Stephenson: No, it is. But it's a voluntary taking care of, not compulsion. When we exercise compulsion to get people to be good, we are not only hurting the recipient of the benefit, but we are hurting the giver as well. We have created an entitlement mentality, rather than the idea that private charities would take care of people.

Fabrizio: So, for you the clincher is that the problem obstacle is, I suppose, that difference between what is public and what is private. Absolutely be charitable, be compassionate, but don't let the government impose these kinds of ideas. 
McAdams responded by saying that charities can't take care of all the needs in the country. Howard's rebuttal was that he believes private charities would be the ones stepping up and helping people with all their needs it they hadn't been displaced by government getting in the way. And he added, that charities would be able to give care in a way that ensured recipients felt grateful, not entitled. I found it interesting that this assumed attitude was so important to him.

How does he know recipients of welfare feel entitled rather than grateful, or that recipients of charity feel grateful rather than entitled? I thought to myself. Did he conduct some interviews? The sociologist inside of me was skeptical.

Richardson took up the subject, too. She said that at her LDS Stake President recently emphasized, over the pulpit, the doctrine that God wants us to work by the sweat of our brow. She said that even the LDS Church welfare program expects something in return from recipients, and that government welfare is problematic, because it does not do so.

Freedom of Choice

At a later point in the debate, Doug took questions from the audience. One question-asker quoted Joseph Smith, "Teach the people correct principles, and let them govern themselves." McAdams and Stephenson returned to the question of whether the government should compel people to be good, or step aside so people can choose to be good.

Carol Spackman
Moss (D)
Moss said she felt it was ironic that Republicans emphasize freedom of choice on fiscal issues (lowering taxes so people can choose what they will do with their money), but not on social issues (like abortion, and gay rights). "I can't reconcile that," she said.

McAdams said he felt government's role should be limited if it's getting in the way of people's freedoms. Unless, of course, those people are infringing on the rights of others. He used the alcohol example, that is that government shouldn't get in the way of a person's right to drink alcohol in their house or in a bar, but if their choice to drink puts someone else in danger (drunk driving) that's when the government should get involved.

There was more banter about taxes and charity. Stephenson pointed out that tithing is optional, whereas taxes are not. McAdams answered by saying, actually tithing isn't any more optional than taxes: there are consequences for not paying tithing, such as not being allowed to enter the temple. He explained that if he didn't pay tithing he wouldn't be permitted to attend his daughter's wedding, then said that similarly there are consequences for not paying taxes--but if I wanted to, I could move to a different country, he added.

Moss was right, there was an irony, but it wasn't just a Republican one. One question-asker put a name on it. He called it, "the switch in the dichotomy." This conceptual summary outlines it. While all faithful LDS members ascribe to the doctrine and values listed below, LDS Republicans emphasize freedom of choice on fiscal issues, and LDS Democrats emphasize freedom of choice on social issues.

Conflicting LDS Political Philosophies
"the switch in the dichotomy"


Doug Fabrizio asked Monson for his analysis.
Fabrizio: Quinn Monson, what are you hearing? In some ways, I'm not hearing a lot of distinctions. I mean, they're sort of parsing some particulars, but . . . they're from pretty extreme sides of the spectrum, I have to say, but it seems like they're saying the same things in a lot of ways. What are you hearing?

Quinn Monson, BYU
Monson: Well, you have four very intelligent people up here, also very religious, and all LDS who are expressing very different political views.

Fabrizio: Is this what we do, we sort of take our ideology, and make it adapt with our religious world view? Is this just human nature?

Monson: I don't know if the causal error is that way, or the other way around, but I guess the summary point I would make is it's clear to me that if you take a political ideology in it's pure form, conservatism or liberalism, neither one is gonna be perfectly consistent with the teachings and theology of the LDS Church, that you're gonna find reasons to justify or reject both . . . maybe the answer is that Latter-Day Saints ought to be fierce moderates in some way, and pick and choose. 
Although each panelist clearly felt his or her political party was the right place for a good Mormon to be, there were quite a few moments when they emphasized moderation.

Moss said it was important to look at individual issues. Richardson and Stephenson mentioned their support of moderate bills regarding immigration. Stephenson mentioned that he sponsored the bill that makes it possible for the children of undocumented immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition, and Richardson said it was a spiritual decision for her to support HB 116, the guest worker program that will allow undocumented immigrants living in Utah to obtain legal work permits, and eventually become citizens. "I prayed over that bill," she said.

Elizabeth's question

The second audience member to come forward and pose a question said her name was Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: I have a question, generally, how to foster this community we've been talking about today that seems very supportive of both Republican and Democratic views within the Church. As a life-long liberal and a life-long member of the LDS church, I've had plenty of opportunities to reconcile my faith with my politics, but it seems to me, y'know when I sit in Sunday School, and I hear references to Glenn Beck, and to conservative politicians, and frankly, it was difficult for me in 2008, to see the Church's involvement in Proposition 8, like, how, how do we foster more trust and love, and support within the religious community so that we [non-Republicans] can feel comfortable holding these different views?

Fabrizio: Can I ask you,  before you get to that question, is the atmosphere that you're seeing, do you ascribe it to this sort of nasty political atmosphere right now. That it's so, the partisan bickering? Is that the milieu that you're talking about?

Elizabeth: Well, the partisan bickering also kind of trickles down to the religious bickering about these partisan issues, and so how do we take out the bickering? And also people to have, and express, not just have, I mean you can have whatever beliefs you have, but as soon as you express them, and perhaps act on them, then you're seen as a threat, or not part of our community.
The panel's response, uncensored.

Monson answered that it would help if LDS people stop equating their political views with their religious views. Then McAdams and Stephenson gave responses. I wanted to quote that entire portion of the conversation, but now that I'm going back to the online recording of the meeting on the KUER website, I'm finding that that part of the conversation was edited out. I did take careful notes, however, so I can summarize what happened.

McAdams said, "I need to be a better Mormon." He said he feels as a democrat that there's extra pressure for him to prove he's a good Mormon, even if it means doing all the little Mormon things that are more cultural than doctrinal, like wearing a white shirt and tie to church. The implication was that there's a stereotype in the community that Mormons who are Democrats are probably not good Mormons.

Elizabeth added a comment, that she and other Democrats feel like they're supposed to keep their political views secret in order to be accepted by the community. She said she had LDS friends in her neighborhood who would not continue to let her kids play with their kids if they knew she was a Democrat.

Stephenson gave a long response, in which he said some Mormon Republicans need to "stop being bigots" about it. He said that it's important for Mormons to better understand what it means to have real love for all people. Then he described a hypothetical situation in which a person who smells like tobacco smoke comes to church (Mormons follow a health code that includes refraining from tobacco and other drugs). He said it would be important for the LDS congregation in that situation to respect, and welcome that person

The smoker-comes-to-church scenario is one I've heard before. It's commonly used by LDS Sunday school teachers to teach the importance of making newcomers, inactive church members, and potential converts feel welcome. But I thought it was a patronizing response to Elizabeth's question. Comparing LDS democrats to a newcomer who smells like cigarette smoke at church is illogical, and counter-productive. The very problem Elizabeth was trying to address is that many faithful, righteous LDS Dems feel that if they made their political feelings known they would be treated as outsiders who need to change in order to be accepted by the Mormon community. I think Stephenson meant well, but by using the smoker-comes-to-church analogy, he was perhaps inadvertently suggesting that LDS Dems should be welcomed with love, and then expected to change their political philosophy.

Is it possible to be Pro-Choice and be a good Mormon?

At the very end of the discussion, Doug brought up the issue of abortion.
Fabrizio: Representative Carol Spackman Moss, Is it possible to be Pro-Choice, and a good Mormon?

Moss: Yes, I believe you can, and I think the Church has made it very clear in terms of when they believe that abortion is acceptable, and I ascribe to those tenets, but there are those now, who would do away with even [exceptions for] situations of rape and incest, and the life of the mother. 
She said it was also about having rights and responsibilities that the government shouldn't interfere with. Then Richardson was asked about abortion.
Fabrizio: Holly Richardson, what do you say?

Richardson: This is an area we totally disagree on. And I believe that all life is valuable, and that life begins at conception, and that choosing to kill an unborn baby is killing an unborn baby.

Fabrizio: [So you're saying], if you're Mormon and you believe in abortion rights, that's problematic, you don't think you're a worthy Mormon?

Richardson: Y'know, I'd really have real struggles with that, my views are very stridently on the side of Pro-Life. But I think when you take into account the [free] agency component . . . I can understand the Church's position of saying rape, incest, and life of the mother, that, that changes the component of choice, the mom did not have a choice to get pregnant, or perhaps has to make a value judgment on whether one life is more valuable than the other, but other than that, absolutely not.
I thought her response was surprising because she seemed to be assuming that people are only Pro-Choice if they are personally okay with abortion. By saying, "this is an area we totally disagree on . . . I believe that life begins at conception," she assumed that Moss was in disagreement with that point. Monson noticed. He responded by saying, "I think there's a real distinction to be made here between what you do as an individual . . . and what you advocate in the policy world." Regardless of political philosophy, all faithful LDS members believe that abortion is morally wrong.

A Conversation in the Hallway.

Following the program, I chatted with one of the event ushers. He was tall, white, and in his early 20s. His wife was there with him, but she showed little interest in our conversation. He said was taking a class from the event organizer, David R. Connelly, UVU associate professor and chair for the Department of History & Political Science. After I told him I had driven down from Salt Lake, and that I blog about Utah culture, his smile and tone of voice sweetened. It wasn't flirtation. I've sometimes seen this happen when recently returned missionaries meet someone with whom they hope to share the gospel. I don't know if that's what was going on, but it felt like he was making an unusually altruistic gesture to welcome me to Utah County. I decided not to tell him that I was LDS, or that my degree was from BYU.

I remarked that moderatism was a surprisingly significant theme during the discussion, and that it was interesting that the politicians volunteered examples of issues where they stood on more politically moderate ground than their party colleagues. I wondered out loud if the panelists were emphasizing their most moderate views because they were in mixed political company.

The usher didn't recall there being anything in the meeting about moderate positions. He asked what my political position was. I told him that I usually vote for Democrats. He didn't seem surprised.

Eventually we were talking about marriage and gay rights. I said something about how I thought it was interesting that even though the LDS Church encouraged members to support Prop 8 in California, the reason they gave wasn't about whether or not gays should have that right, but about protecting the rights of religious groups to refuse marriage ceremonies to homosexual couples. 

The usher questioned me, "I don't know, I think the Church has been very clear about their position on this." His face told me he thought I had it wrong. That's when I told him that I'm LDS, and that my understanding of the reason given for the Church's support of Prop 8 is based on the words of Elder Dallin H. Oaks (LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) in the LDS Newsroom article, The Divine Institution of Marriage.

That's when he sighed, and with an expression I interpreted to mean you're LDS, you should know better, he said, "Well, all I know is the Church is in favor of family." He seemed satisfied with his rebuttal, and I was speechless. I refrained from saying, "Well, buster, I'm pretty sure gay and lesbian couples are in favor of family, too. That's why they want the right to marry in the first place."

But I knew that by "family" he meant something that only another LDS person would understand. He meant eternal family. He was referring to the LDS belief that in the temple, families who make a covenant of obedience to God can receive the promise of eternal life, in which they will continue to be a family unit forever. The rite includes the marriage covenant between the mother and father of the family, it's for heterosexual couples only. This doctrine is part of my belief system, but as far as public policy is concerned, I don't think it's fair to impose my beliefs on others. I wish I had had the courage to say so right then. Instead, I let the issue go, thanked the usher for the chat, and said goodbye. I shyed away for the same reason many LDS non-Republicans do: because being a minority is uncomfortable, and in Utah sometimes it feels like people think of you as unrighteous.

This is the second installment in a three-part series on Mormons and Utah Political Partisanship.


  1. via a series of links I somehow happened upon this blog and I'm loving it. It's really refreshing to see this kind of writing about culture, politics, Utah, etc.

  2. I've enjoyed your posts greatly; it has long disturbed me how political partisanship has invaded Mormonism. The truth is neither party perfectly conforms with the Church's standards, doctrines, and practices, and gospel principles can indeed be found in the platforms of both political parties. It is a shame how members who don't subscribe to the Republican party can sometimes be made to feel like they are somehow unrighteous. As another person who also tends to vote for more (but not all) Democrats, I have been victim of that from time to time myself. That simply should not occur. I think Dieter F. Uchtdorf's words (even though he was actually talking about sports) are quite apt: "We must realize that all of God’s children wear the same jersey. Our team is the brotherhood of man. This mortal life is our playing field. Our goal is to learn to love God and to extend that same love toward our fellowman. We are here to live according to His law and establish the kingdom of God. We are here to build, uplift, treat fairly, and encourage all of Heavenly Father’s children."

    However, I do have to disagree with you on one significant point. The Church's political motivations for opposing gay marriage extend far beyond "protecting the rights of religious groups to refuse marriage ceremonies to homosexual couples." Certainly that is a significant reason, but it is far from the only reason. In fact, if I were to pick out one statement from The Divinie Institution of Marriage to sum up the Church's motivation for involving themselves in this issue, it'd be this: "Because this question strikes at the very heart of the family, because it is one of the great moral issues of our time, and because it has the potential for great impact upon the family, the Church is speaking out on this issue, and asking members to get involved." While I can respect the view of not wanting to impose my beliefs on others, I feel like statements such as the one above require that I do more. Like in so many other issues (as you mentioned here) the key question for the Latter Day Saint is what do we want to see legislated, and what do we leave to the agency of man? The Church only rarely takes a position on that question. This, however, is one of those times.

    I am glad you linked that article; I've read it several times before and believe it is the single best thing to read to understand the Church's view on that issue. I think your encounter with the usher (and earlier blog post on the matter) clearly illustrates one of the biggest problems in this debate: too many know only that they oppose gay marriage without knowing why.