Sunday, June 29, 2008

Politics from the Pulpit

It’s the fourth of July so its time once again for the “Lets show how patriotic we are by damning liberals” talks in sacrament meeting (actually in my ward today we had a special patriotic themed 3rd hour, it wasn’t any where near as bad as talks/lessons that I’ve heard in the past, the first talk was totally fine it just focused on the history of the constitution.) On a more general note is not uncommon for me to hear members of the church equate patriotism, or even righteousness with conservatism or Republican ideals. It is unfortunate that some Mormons are either so unaware of what Democrats and liberals believe, or so befuddled by the right wing echo chamber that they are unable to distinguish between church doctrine and the political world view espoused by the conservative movement. Let me use examples from actual talks I have heard over the pulpit.

The speakers spoke of the evil of people who expected the government to do everything for them, of the danger of political correctness and the peril of an open mind (“Your brain might fall out.” Yes, that a fairly exact rendition). They sound like quotes from some conservative radio talk show host. While I believe that the speakers (many of whom I have a great deal of respect for) are genuinely expressing what they believe to be true, what they manage to show is that their understanding of the issues is one sided and derived from biased sources. These accusations are fairly typical of the things that conservatives accuse the liberals of, and typical of the way in which some (not many, but some) conservative Church members try and out-flank the requirements of the Church to not engage in political promotion when acting in an official Church capacity (such as teaching, speaking, etc.) Let’s look at each of them.

1) Liberals believe that we should turn our power, money, and will over to the government who will then feed, cloth and house us— alleviating the need for us to work for ourselves, and we are entitled to have the government provide for us. Or, in a related argument, liberals believe that the government should do things for us, rather than being self reliant.

I tried to debunk the false idea of self reliance in my last post so refer to that for issues relating to self reliance specifically.

The root of these arguments, I believe, are totally different conceptions of what our government is and the role it should play in society. The conservative view (as near as I can figure it out) is that the government is an outside force that exercises power over us. We may be able to influence it or direct it, but fundamentally it is an entity distinct from society, and as such it should be limited, and not come in and “do things” for people that they ought to be doing themselves, nor should it be spending the people’s money when they can figure out how to spend it themselves. If this is your view of government, of course the idea of a state-run housing project would be an unacceptable use of government power; people, when they can, should take care of themselves without outside assistance.

What, unfortunately, seems not to be understood by conservatives is that this is not how liberals see the government. Liberals see the government as a part of society not distinct from it. The actions that the government takes are our actions, it is the means by which the entire adult population is able to come together and say, “What do we, as a nation, want to work together to accomplish? What can we accomplish by working together that we could not when working as individuals?” In other words because the government is us, we use it as a tool to accomplish goals that we have all agreed on as important, such a providing health care, or housing, or whatever else we believe we can accomplish more easily by working together. We are not asking some outside entity to provide something to us that we are unwilling to work for; we are mobilizing the community to work together to meet our common needs.

2) Liberals and Democrats are presented as not being willing to call evil evil, or using political correctness to cloak evil in a veil to somehow make it more respectable or acceptable to society, and thus further our desire to cover the world with the evil of. . . whatever liberal position the speaker happens to disagree with.

The fact of the matter is political correctness is of course now terribly politically incorrect, both liberals and conservatives accuse each other of being politically correct whenever they think the other side is using terms that lessen offensive labeling that’s been assigned to the topic or person in question (ie in calling torture enhanced interrogation I would consider Republicans trying to be politically correct so as to make an evil more palatable). Political correctness emerged from an understanding that everyone is different and has differing values and that everyone, even those we disagree with, ought to be treated with respect. This purpose, of course, has quickly fallen away in the caustic atmosphere of present day politics. To often the mockery or denunciation of political correctness is only a justification for rudeness, used to cover ignorance of the issues, or a refusal to engage in a real discussion of them. In short the use of neutral language helps focus the discussion on the issues at hand rather than on the irrational or emotional arguments.

3) Liberals are often accused of being open-minded (open-mindedness being defined by the conservative accusator as “being without morals, willing to accept everything as equally desirable or acceptable”).

The danger of an open mind is one that seems to be especially fearful to conservatives. The most common argument against open-mindedness being that those who are open-minded accept anything that is presented to them, and don’t evaluate it in any way. In other words, an open mind is equated with an empty mind. It doesn’t take much more than the clear statement of that definition to see the ridiculousness of it, or the silliness of applying such a definition to liberals. Take for example the liberal distrust of big business; clearly we are not blindly accepting in that instance. True open-mindedness is not the blind acceptance of everything. It is a willingness to evaluate new ideas and people biased on their merits, rather then on tradition, custom, stereotypes, or other ways of pre-judging. To be open-minded isn’t to be empty-headed, it is to be humble and acknowledge that one’s own understanding is limited and that, with the addition of new information, old ways and ideas may need to be reexamined, and tradition or traditional ways of doing things may need to be replaced by new ways. The importance of tradition and its place in society is one of the defining characteristics of conservatism, and the lower priority given to tradition by liberals and progressives is one of the ways the movements differ.

In conclusion, it is not so much that these specific issues were raised that bothers me. It is the ignorance that they reveal about what liberals believe, the way in which the language of the political right is used in gospel discussion, and the way the ideology of the right is miss-presented as gospel doctrine that concerns me. We need to acknowledge the extent to which our views of the world (including gospel teachings) are informed by our political views. And if we are going to respect the church’s politically neutral stance we can’t use the pulpit for de facto political posturing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Self Reliance Myth

Okay, so it’s been a while since my last post. My blog hasn’t gone less-active. I’ve had some troubles at work that have taken all of my mental willpower (such as it is), so my weekends have revolved around empting my head as much as possible, rather than any sort of deep thinking.


One of the greatest ironies of the so called Christian Right has to be the adoption by some Christians of the callous attitudes of the right wing towards the poor. Caring for the poor is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the followers of Christ (Matt 25:34-46), and the idea that the behavior of the poor (ie their “refusal” to work) somehow relieves the rest of us of our responsibility to extend our hand to them is specifically condemned in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 4:17-18.) The idea that poverty is a personal failing is a tool that the “haves” use to justify their unwillingness to help the “have nots”. After all, if it’s their own fault they’re in the mess they’re in then I don’t have to do anything to help get them out. Can you image going before the Judgment Seat knowing full well the sins you have committed, knowing that you cannot pay for them yourself and having Christ say “You got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out of it” (Matt 7:2)? Wasn’t that the whole point of the atonement? For Christ to help us out of our self-created messes?

If you sat though some of the Sunday School lessons that I have you could easily be forgiven for thinking that self reliance is both the penultimate achievement of any individual, and that every person born is instantly fully capable of complete self reliance. Thus anyone not fully self reliant from the get-go is clearly somehow less worthy or undeserving; that not being totally self reliant is a grievous sin. Both of these ideas are false. Self reliance is a necessary prerequisite for the service of others, not a final condition; if we are not strong enough to carry our own burdens we can’t carry any of the burdens of others. Nor is everyone equally capable in all things – can the mentally slow child of a drug addicted 14-year-old single mother really be expected to pick themselves up by their own boots straps on the day they turn 18? Does that person, turning 18, atomically learn that hard work will bring rewards and knocking off liquor stores won’t, especially when all they’ve ever seen their entire life is people sitting around complaining, committing petty crimes and going in and out of jail? Who would teach a child like that how to work, or even that work has rewards?

The fact of the matter is that none of us is truly self reliant in the sense of not being dependant on others. How many people do you know that grow all of their own food, make all of their own clothes from cotton they picked and sheep they raised, who drive cars they built from ore they mined on roads they paved, who, when they’re sick, perform open heart surgery on themselves? Our society is one of specialization and we are better for it. I can trade my skill as a carpenter for money which I then trade with you for your skill as a surgeon. This means that my self reliance takes on another form. Self reliance in a modern society is the capacity to contribute to that society in a way that can be traded for the necessities of life.

If I become “successful” in this society it is easy to claim that I am self made. That my successes are as the result of my own hard work, and if others work hard like me they will be successful too. Such an attitude takes for granted all of the hard work by others that goes into making an individual successful. Things such as good schooling, a stable home life, proper nutrition, health and access to good healthcare, being taught the value of delayed gratification, student loans, and safe neighborhoods, are all multipliers of individual handwork. Neglect, abuse, indifference, racism, bigotry, sexism, and ignorance all work to camouflage the tools required for success in a society such as ours. Responsibly and hard work are skills, and their use requires practice and a belief that eventually they will bring reward. Practice and belief are not inherited, or in-born, they are learned and thus require a teacher.

As a society and as individuals we have a responsibility clearly laid out to those who do not yet contribute to society in a meaningful way. Each of us should contribute to society to the maximum amount possible, regardless of what anyone else is doing. It is clearly frustrating when you feel like you are contributing more than your fair share, or that others are living off of your hard work. Clearly those in need of assistance have a responsibly to do what they know how to do to mitigate their condition. However, one individual’s neglect of their responsibilities is no excuse for neglecting our own.

As a society we have the responsibility to be our brother’s keeper. We can provide good education in safe schools for children and access to educational opportunities for adults. We can work to understand the complex causes of poverty and crime (I’ll give you a hint: saying, “It’s just because they’re lazy” doesn’t cut it). We can promote positive role-models. We can help strengthen families by providing social programs that encourage rather than discourage stable parenting partnerships. We can provide subsidized daycare so a single mother doesn’t have to work a second job to pay for daycare while she works the first. We can provide access to high quality health care for free so jobs are not lost due to illness. We can provide surrogate parents for children whose own parents are physically, mentally or emotionally absent. We can communicate to others that they are valuable and capable. All of these things require society to work together help those who struggle.

As individuals we also have responsibilities. First we need to be sure that we can carry our own burdens. But if we stop there we have only achieved selfish indulgence. We can reach out to others, not judge, and work to uplift. We can educate ourselves on the struggles of others and learn to view the world though their eyes. We can be more patient, and more helpful. We can understand how to put our own unique skill set at the service of others. We can reach out beyond our class, race, and religious comfort zones. We cannot blame the victim for their victimization, or the poor for their poverty. We cannot give into despair or cynicism. We cannot wait for others to act. If there is a problem in the world, and poverty is assuredly a problem, our response should be, “What can I do?” and not “What should they do?”