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.

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