This morning I got on Facebook. There's much I like about it--it's a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, and people share lots of interesting links. But this morning, as has become usual lately, a good portion of the items I saw were political. Of the first 22 items (mainly from the past 24 hours), 4 were political--and all took a point of view different from mine. (More on this a bit later.)
Two were simply endorsing Mitt Romney (but also criticizing President Obama). One attacked "liberals" for their views on gun control. Another was a very negative anti-Obama posting. Part of what makes this an unpleasant way to start the day is that I'm reminded that, at least among my Facebook friends, I'm in the political minority. But even more unpleasant is the negative tone of so many of the postings (note the words "criticizing," "attacked," "negative," and "anti" above).
Despite the many calls for civility, respect, and mutual understanding, these posts on Facebook reveal that the prevailing tone in American politics, even among my Facebook friends, is negative, combative, sometimes mean-spirited.
So why don't I just join in and critique the criticisms and promote my own views? I feel tempted to do just that, and it sometimes takes me a while to work through the feelings of turmoil as I concoct imaginary counterarguments in my mind and try NOT to have negative feelings toward the people who have posted what I find to be offensive or wrong-headed content. (This morning, for instance, I found ammunition--oops!--for a contrary view on gun control and considered adding it as a comment on the anti-gun control post. See http://welcomingtheother.blogspot.com/2012/07/contrary-view-on-gun-control.html for what I wanted to post.)
But I almost never post my counterarguments for three reasons: (1) I do NOT want to contribute to the negative, combative spirit of political discourse; (2) I don't think Facebook is the right place for political propaganda; and (3) as I understand it, my responsibilities in my church make it inappropriate for me to do political propagandizing among many of the people in my list of Facebook friends.
This last reason especially sometimes leaves me frustrated because I'm drawn in two directions at once: I want to live up to my church responsibilities but at the same time I want to express my political views. Sometimes to ease the frustration, I do something indirect: I say something about civility and respect (while avoiding a partisan edge) or I write a blog post (as I'm doing now) and provide a link to it on Facebook. Even in these blog posts, at least when I provide a link, I try to avoid partisan propaganda. I save that for other posts that people have to work harder to find.
(I realize that people who work at it can certainly find the posts where I state my views more directly. One example: A member of my congregation--he also happens to be married to my son-in-law's younger sister--said to me at church one day: "Bishop, I've been reading some of your blog posts. It looks like you and I agree on a lot of things." I said something about how I'd love to talk with him about politics some other time, but I asked him to not spread around what he knew about my views to others in the congregation.)
Since I've brought it up, I may as well explain more about how my faith and religious commitments are related to my political involvement. I'm a believing and enthusiastically committed member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though I think it would be "cool," as some people put it, to have a Mormon president of the United States--and though I've had pleasant personal interaction with Mitt Romney (this was when he was a counselor in the Boston stake presidency during the time I was living in the Boston area), and though I think Romney is one of the better Republican alternatives, considering those he ran against in the primaries--he's not my favored candidate. Elsewhere I've written about what I think of him as a politician and what I think about his political views. Let's just say that I don't believe that membership in the same church is a reason I should support him politically. I say this despite the fact that I've been defending him for years against attacks (mostly from the evangelical right wing) based on his religion.
I've been politically active to varying degrees since about the age of 13. I've been aware for much of that time both of my church's official policy of political neutrality and of the unfortunate and extreme political imbalance among American Latter-day Saints. For 10 years, I was a counselor in the stake presidency in the area of Provo, Utah, where I live, and during that time I did my best to avoid mixing partisan politics with any of my church activities. So that I wouldn't offend any of my neighbors in the stake, I avoided bumper stickers and yard signs. I attended party precinct meetings, but so few of my neighbors were involved--at least in the party of my choice--that my political involvement was not widely known.
Released from the stake presidency in 2007, I felt freer to express my political views. My church calling was now at the Missionary Training Center, and so I didn't have direct responsibility for people in my area in Provo. I became an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, created a couple of blogs devoted to politics, and even put an Obama sticker on my car. (I devised a way to cover the sticker when I parked at the Missionary Training Center--though, seeing Romney and McCain stickers on other cars there, I wondered if I was being too careful.)
Then in March of 2009, I was called as bishop of my ward. (For any non-LDS readers, a ward is a congregation consisting of a few hundred members--and it is one of the marvels of the LDS Church: a unit of just about the perfect size to become a real community and one in which everything, from running church meetings and activities to counseling to visiting to compassionate service, is done voluntarily, involving as many people as possible.) Besides being smacked by an intense sense of my inadequacy upon becoming my ward's bishop, I was also filled with a sudden sense of caring for everyone in the ward, especially the youth and also ward members who were struggling in various ways. And I was also filled with intense gratitude for all the good work being done by members and leaders in the ward. I was not in this alone, by any stretch of the imagination.
At the same time--the week I was called as bishop--I removed the bumper sticker from my car and vowed to avoid mixing anything political with my church calling. There were a couple of bumps on the road during the first months, and both were related to Facebook. One ward member posted some content about the evils of socialism (I should add that I'm not a socialist), and I responded to what I felt were inaccurate implications about the current political situation. (We resolved things and remain good friends.) Someone else posted something else I disagreed with--probably something anti-Obama--and I responded in some way. (This was at the very beginning of Obama's presidency, and he was already heavily under attack from those who felt he could do nothing good.) That ward member dropped me as a Facebook friend. I felt very bad about both of these lapses on my part and was determined to avoid anything partisan or negative on Facebook, knowing that at least some of my Facebook friends were also members of my ward. I've kept to that determination pretty well for about 3 years now.
I also have relatives--one in particular, someone I love and admire in many ways apart from his political views--who have been relentlessly political in their Facebook postings. I first noticed this when I was listening live to Obama's inaugural address and noticed a series of postings via Facebook from a particular relative, DURING the address, attacking and critiquing what Obama said almost sentence by sentence.
In 2010, I attended the local political caucus meetings hoping to find someone to replace me as precinct chair. Given my desire to separate my church responsibilities and my political activities, I found it awkward to be the representative of my party in my neighborhood. It turns out, though, that at this meeting I was one of only two from my precinct who attended: the other person was my stake president. So we decided that I'd continue as precinct chair and he'd be a convention delegate.
Two years later, there were many more who attended the caucus meetings, mainly because the LDS Church strongly encouraged its members in Utah to attend caucus meetings of the party of their choice. A couple of my ward members were there, and I believe one became the new precinct chair. And I was delighted to see many other members of my stake, including stake and ward leaders. As for myself, I felt comfortable giving up any official position--for now. But I plan to remain involved in appropriate ways.
Earlier this year, official instructions from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints specified what political involvment would be appropriate for general and local church leaders. These instructions are more explicit than anything I've seen in the past. I'm guessing the reason is that, at the time the instructions came, there were two Mormon candidates for president (Jon Hunstman and Mitt Romney). With the strong possibility that one of them might end up as the Republican candidate for president, there may have been concern that it would be difficult for the Church to maintain its stance of political neutrality if leaders were getting visibly involved in politics. Among the instructions are these: general leaders, who serve full-time in their church responsibilities, are not to endorse candidates or parties or even contribute financially to any candidate. Local leaders are free to make financial contributions and be involved politically in other ways as long as they do not imply that they represent the Church in doing so and as long as they do not engage in political activities (including promoting particular candidates) among those for whom they have direct church stewardship. In other words, as a bishop, I should not be going door to door or making phone calls to promote a candidate or a political position within my ward boundaries. (I interpret the counsel as also preventing me from having a yard sign or bumper sticker.) These instructions are also reason I try to be very careful in what I say on Facebook.
Over the years I've seen many minor violations of the Church's policy of political neutrality--mainly by members who wax political in a Sunday School class or comments in a testimony meeting. (A few months ago, a member in our ward came awfully close to crossing the line in comments made over the pulpit in testimony meeting, though she spoke in somewhat vague--I would say "coded"--language so as to avoid naming names.) I believe the repeated statements by the Church's First Presidency are sincere attempts to avoid connecting the Church and its worldwide mission of service and spreading the gospel with particular parties, candidates, and political ideologies. In other words, I believe the First Presidency mean what they say.
For those who are interested, I'll provide an appendix with some of the official Church statements and other material.
For now, just a couple of other things. Why this intense concern with political neutrality? I believe there are several reasons. One, as I've already indicated, is that the Church's mission transcends partisan politics and many other concerns of the moment. Furthermore, associating the Church with particular candidates and positions would certainly make it harder to share the gospel with people who have contrary views. (At the same time, I'm one of those who believe it's entirely appropriate for churches to take positions on moral issues and to promote their views in the public square. But even that needs to be done carefully and respectfully.) Another reason for political neutrality is that the gospel itself--the good news of redemption and all the associated revelations about who we are and what our eternal possibilities are--far transcends the narrow human ideologies over which we spend so much of our time squabbling. A current member of the Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles--Elder Dallin Oaks--put it in a way that resonates for me: "Those who govern their thoughts and actions solely by the principles of liberalism or conservatism or intellectualism cannot be expected to agree with all of the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As for me, I find some wisdom in liberalism, some wisdom in conservatism, and much truth in intellectualism--but I find no salvation in any of them" (“Criticism,” Ensign, Feb 1987, 68ff.).
Another of the crucial reasons for the Church's stance is the desire to preserve harmony among Church members while inviting all those who are willing to accept the gospel and participate in the Church. Church leaders have expressed deep concern about political divisions within the Church. George Albert Smith, a president of the Church during the mid-twentieth century, warned, “Whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground.” More recently, President Gordon B. Hinckley reminded us that “political differences never justify hatred or ill will,” and added, “I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties” (see “Instruments of the Lord’s Peace,” Ensign May 2006).
So one of my concerns is how to purify my own heart--how to avoid and extinguish the negative feelings I have when I see political propaganda on Facebook, among other places. An anti-Obama posting by a Church leader with responsibilities for members within the stake seems to me unfortunate and wrong. The same would go for an anti-Romney posting by a leader with similar responsibilities. (I wonder how such a leader can expect members to read a negative partisan posting and then be ready to received help or blessings at that leader's hands.) Even when it comes to someone who has been released from an important calling and who has access through Facebook to many of those he formerly had stewardship for, I wonder whether more bad than good comes from posting a daily dose of political propaganda, especially if it's negative in tone. I think ahead to what I will do after my release and how I will do it.
Meanwhile, I have to consider what approach to take now. Should I drop some of my Facebook friends whose postings regularly disturb my feelings of peace? Is there a way to limit postings to certain circles of friends so that I can follow the instructions I've been given while still sharing my views? Is there some sort of filter that would allow me to admit the positive content posted by my friends but not the negative?
Who would have thought 10 years ago that we'd be dealing with this sort of challenge? Still, underneath the specific media we're now using are all the old issues of kindness, respect, and self-control. I guess I'll have to keep working on that age-old project of learning to "school my feelings." I also look forward with hope--despite much of the evidence that surrounds me--that people will learn better ways of sharing their thoughts and feelings, ways that don't consist so much of battering one's opponents while congratulating oneself and indulging one's prejudices, but that instead include some elements of real listening and humble sharing.
APPENDIX (with links and other items related to civility and political neutrality):
The LDS Church's statements (and related items) on political neutrality--including the assertion that "Principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties":
> http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/first-presidency-issues-letter-on-political-participation and http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/first-presidency-issues-letter-utah-precinct-caucus-meetings
President Obama (and others) on civility: http://faceofother.blogspot.com/2011/01/two-speeches.html
Mark DeMoss (a Romney advisor) on civility (from a forum address at BYU): http://news.byu.edu/archive12-jan-demosstalk.aspx (see also http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/12/mark-demoss-civility-project_n_808219.html and http://speeches.byu.edu/index.php?act=viewitem&id=2013 )
President Hinckley's comments on kindness and civility: http://lds.org/general-conference/2006/04/the-need-for-greater-kindness?lang=eng (and much that he and other Church leaders have said elsewhere)
Another beautiful LDS Conference talk on the same issue (more or less): http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2009/07/instruments-of-lords-peace.html
LDS Church leaders on political extremism (you'll find these a ways into my post): http://secret-memo.blogspot.com/2009/08/conspiracy-theory-mentality.html
More of my own views: http://bruceyoung-election2008.blogspot.com/2008/10/religion-and-politics-especially-for.html