Monday, July 9, 2012

Politics and Facebook

I have mixed feelings about Facebook.  I'm sure I'm not alone in having such feelings.

I realize that I've picked my Facebook friends (or let them pick me) and that nobody is forcing me to look at Facebook.  But I still want to explain WHY I DON'T LIKE POLITICAL POSTINGS ON FACEBOOK.  Obviously, the political season is beginning to heat up, and this is something I'm going to have to deal with for several months.  I'm afraid many of the political postings leave me feeling irritated and frustrated--not feelings I like having.

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 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":

> and

President Obama (and others) on civility:

Mark DeMoss (a Romney advisor) on civility (from a forum address at BYU):  (see also and )

President Hinckley's comments on kindness and civility: (and much that he and other Church leaders have said elsewhere)

Another beautiful LDS Conference talk on the same issue (more or less):

LDS Church leaders on political extremism (you'll find these a ways into my post):

More of my own views:


  1. Love it! Wise words again Bruce!

  2. Love your blog title too!

  3. FYI, both of my most active blogs ("Welcoming the Other" and "The Face of the Other") borrow their titles from Emmanuel Levinas--a philosopher whose work I much admire. You'll find more about him here and there in the two blogs.

  4. Hear hear ... regarding limiting posts, just go to that little upside-down caret in the upper right corner of a person's post in your status feed and a menu will pop up. You can then set what level of "exposure" you will get from that person.

    I have a classmate that would just bombard FB with posts from her extreme viewpoint and it was tiresome for me. So I just put her on "Only important" posts and viola! I'm much less annoyed and I didn't have to "unfriend" her.

    Good luck!

  5. What do you think Elder Oaks' stance is re: that same quote you cited after the Religious Freedom devotional he gave supporting/defending the Church's involvement with Proposition 8 in 2009?

  6. To Jefa: Thanks for the advice on how to limit exposure. To LaShawn: I doubt Elder Oaks would disagree now with what he said in 1987. I'm sure he would defend religious freedom (including the freedom of the Church to take certain positions) however the positions, or even religious freedom itself, are currently classified on the liberal-conservative spectrum. (In other words, the principles he's talking about would apply to the Church's support of civil rights and its opposition to the MX missile system as well as to its opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, or gambling.)

    Meanwhile, I'd like to report on how my post has fared via Facebook. I shared a link on Facebook and have gotten lots of comments--besides which, someone sent me a private e-mail sharing personal experiences and concerns. It appears the post has touched a chord in a lot of people: many of us, it appears, have had relationships with friends or family strained by political disagreements. And many of us have felt the temptation to engage in battle and let the relationships suffer. Whether we've yielded or resisted, it appears these feelings of irritation and contention are intensely unpleasant. It seems to me they can also be damaging--to inner peace and to social harmony.

    It's also pretty clear that negativity in the political sphere is not limited to a particular party or ideology. People of all sorts of political persuasions are capable of being negative, even abusive. As one commenter pointed out, those who are responding (for instance, through comments on Facebook) to a negative political post can sometimes be far more offensive than the post they are responding to.

    Trying to look at the positive, I would say this situation gives all of us plenty of opportunities not only to school our own feelings but to seek that blessed condition referred to in the Sermon on the Mount: to act as peace makers.

  7. Not to disagree with anything you say about the Church's neutrality position, I would add that there is a Federal income tax rule that also has a bearing. Although there are 1st Amendment arguments that churches should not be taxed, the black letter law that applies is section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code that provides, in part, that in order for an organization to qualify for tax-exempt treatment it must be the case that "no substantial part of the [organization's] activities . . . is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation . . . and [the organization] does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office." Thus, a modest amount of "issues" statements is thought to be OK, but there is no allowance for a 501(c)(3) organization to endorse or oppose any candidate.
    Indirectly (not as a lawyer giving advice), I know that the Church has been well advised on this matter.

  8. By the way, I've been aware for several hours that I misspelled the first word in my Facebook post: I wrote "Politcs" instead of "Politics." (It's just a typo; I really do know how to spell the word.) But if I try to change it now, I'll lose all the comments people have made. Which would be a shame.

  9. Chris--thanks for your comment. I've never known exactly what the law is on that matter. I often think of the civil rights movement as something it's easy to consider "political" (though not partisan) in which many black churches and some white ones were heavily involved. I've also read lots of stories about conservative Christian churches--or at least the pastors leading particular congregations--very directly endorsing candidates and allowing the churches' meetings and resources to be used to help in the partisan effort. (Are they endangering their tax exempt status when they do that?) In any case, I am very, very grateful the LDS Church doesn't allow that kind of direct connection between the Church and partisan activity.

  10. For anyone who is interested, I'll let you know what my completely non-expert understanding is on the issue I just brought up (churches endorsing candidates, campaigning for them, etc.). Apparently, it's technically against the tax code (at least if "any substantial part" of its activities are involved). But lots of churches seem to do this sort of thing anyway (including some black churches and some conservative evangelical ones). Apparenty, the IRS isn't likely to go after them, though, unless they get SO involved with the campaign efforts that they cross the line from being a church to being a political organization. The tax code also talks about influencing legislation--but obviously lots of churches are involved in that in various ways, on various sides of many issues. (The civil rights movement was one prominent example, and there have been many less prominent ones.) I suspect that the IRS practice may be similar to what I said about campaigning: they're not going to worry about things unless a church crosses the line from being a church to being primarily a lobbying organization. (Again, let me emphasize that I'm thinking out loud here, trying to process what little I know. These are "hints and guesses," but maybe are something near the real state of things.)

  11. To give another example: A friend of mine shared a photo of Pres. Bush embracing a soldier, accompanied by the caption "this is what a real 'Commander in Chief' looks like"

    I believe you can find the photo at:

    I found a photo of President Obama doing the same:

    And I put both in an album:

    . . . to which I added this message:

    The Constitution designates the President as the Commander in Chief. We're invited as citizens of the United States to recognize our President as such.

    I also added a comment to the photo of President Obama (see!/photo.php?fbid=10150920386645060&set=a.10150920385505060.405072.506575059&type=1&theater ):

    I added this photo in response to one of Pres. Bush hugging a soldier (and saying "this is what a real commander in chief does"). I wanted to remind everyone that this is what ALL commenders in chief do (do you know of one who hasn't?). In this case, to imply that Pres. Obama doesn't hug the troops (or that Pres. Bush didn't)--especially when the photographic evidence is unignorable--is both to disseminate a falsehood and to engage in the worse kind of partisanship, the kind that demeans the institutions, practices, and relationships that make up America's national life.

    (You may notice the note of frustration in that comment--not only at the mean-spiritedness of some of what goes on on Facebook these days, but also at the awkwardness of responding to it. Oh well.)

  12. This post has had an interesting afterlife, not only with the comments posted here, but with comments on Facebook. (You can get the whole story--at least up to this point--at 2012/08/ politics-and-facebook-afterlife-of-post.html.)

    Here I wanted to copy just one of the things I said on Facebook because it gives a fuller sense of my view of the intersection of Facebook and politics. After acknowledging that I'm OK with some degree of politics on Facebook, I go on:

    Facebook has few rules--making it a bit of a free for all. To its credit, Facebook has also provided some ways to opt out of some elements of the free for all.

    I value the way Facebook gives people--including virtually anyone--a larger voice. And I'm not entirely opposed to dealing with some political content. It's good for me to develop some tolerance for opinions I disagree with.

    What I don't like are the following:

    (1) Large quantities of political material each day (much of it from just a couple of people).

    (2) Mean spirited, unfair, disrespectful, uncivil content--much of it also badly distorting what I would recognize as a fair representation of reality.

    (3) The fact that I cannot respond to most of these items, even the most outrageous ones--at least if I follow counsel I feel bound to respect and if I include ward members among my Facebook friends. Even if it were appropriate for me to respond, I'm not sure how effective I'd be in "talking some sense" into my friends--while at the same time keeping them as friends.

    This last point relates to the multifaceted functions of Facebook: for some it is a way of keeping in touch with family and close friends; for others with neighbors and coreligionists; for others it's a way of maintaining professional contacts or even of promoting products or services; for others, it's a forum for promoting political views, candidates, or one side or another in partisan battles. Some of the dissonance comes when one is, or when one's friends are, using more than one of these functions.

    It's true that most of what my "friends" are saying is not directed specifically at me, and I can try to ignore it if I don't like it (despite the large photos and biting captions). Facebook allows me to tone down the voices of specific friends, subscribing only to their "important" content or even unsubscribing entirely. But there's no easy way to eliminate offensive or other unwanted content while keeping the positive and genuinely informative content. I lament the fact that I have to eliminate much or all of the contact I have with certain people through Facebook simply to avoid unpleasant and contentious feelings and to avoid associating certain people I love and respect--and in some cases have significant responsibility for--with those feelings.

    My blog post was mainly a description of my experience and a commentary on contemporary culture. I don't imagine I'll be singlehandedly bringing about an era of good will and intelligent discussion. But I did learn (from some of those who commented ) techniques for minimizing some of the discomfort. And as a result of writing and sharing the post, I had some specific tender, bonding, illuminating moments of interaction with some of my Facebook friends. That made it entirely worth it.

  13. Looks like I'm DEFINITELY not the only one to feel this way. There's an e-card (apparently from ) you can find via the following links: 506575059&type=3&l=92b877bccf

    or 10150958057140060_ 1997237429_a.jpg

  14. If you want to remain connected to people over Facebook but not have them see any of your posts or other information, you can put them on "Restricted" (put your mouse over the Friends button on their profile and pick Restricted).

    I have zero guilt about dropping people as Facebook friends. I figure that 5-10 years ago, I wouldn't be in any contact at all with most of my FB people, so who cares if we're not able to stalk each other now? Big deal. And the people I want to keep in touch with at least already know where I am on things and know to ignore/restrict me if they don't like it.

    I do use Facebook heavily for political organizing. It's a really great organizational tool. And I don't have time to bicker with people who used to be casual acquaintances but now get their jollies from trolling on Facebook. Ditto for cranky extended family members. Either you're already in touch with them by phone, or you're not and there's a reason. Once a year at Christmas used to be good enough-- and it still is in my book.

  15. I apologize I am late to the party on this. Ironically, I saw this on a post on facebook of a friend.

    I am reminded during these months of an article from 2004 -

    It discusses a desire for people to have their opinions validated. She uses examples of an ipod that only plays what you want, or a tivo that only shows what you wish to validate that what you desire is appropriate and gives the illusion of being generally accepted.

    Thus your thoughts are no longer a minority, as you put it, but you can give yourself the feeling that everyone does what I do.

    Fast forward 7 years and this article has much more meaning with tools like tweeting, and facebook. We are exponentially experiencing tools that allow us to validate our thoughts and find communities that agree with our thought processes. (As a side note, I never remember the word "partisan" really be thrown around as a buzz word up until about 5 years ago.)

    I feel your concerns, (along with validating your beliefs) that I have those that express opinions different from mine on facebook, or twitter.

    What I have tried is the "ignore" approach that has been suggested earlier. However, the drawback is to then only allow those with opinions that validate your own views.

    I am now trying to embrace those with different opinions and accept that they will challenge my beliefs. Presently I am in graduate school at a school close enough to your own, but far enough away that we shall not speak its name. Every class is challenging that what I know to be is or isn't correct.

    Unfortunately this requires more time to separate the wheat from chaff, but it keeps me more salient in my course as I find others that are saying that their course is better.

    Aside all that, facebook political posts are lame and I don't engage in them. If I would like to have that conversation I will in person with that friend. Usually inviting the entire planet to the conversation will derail the issue and not allow in depth discussion.

  16. I'm so glad I was directed to read your blog and this post in particular. Very well done. It can be a lonely world out here in the land of liberal Mormons. I also see that you are a Beatles fan. My 15 year old daughter is also a huge Beatles fan. Not too many of those her age around here either...

  17. Thank you for your insights. It was extremely helpful.