Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Of Mormon Politicians

OK, just so everyone knows where I'm coming from, full disclosure right from the beginning: I support Obama, and I plan to vote for him in November.  The health care plan isn't perfect, but in my opinion it's an improvement over what we had previously.  (In my opinion, it doesn't go far enough.  I'm a believer in single-payer universal health care, like the system they have in Finland, my mother's home country.)  Also, in my opinion, Obama is the only real choice for the gay community, and for gay families.

I want to lay out up front what makes me tick, politically.  From the time I was a teenager, I have embraced the notion that the ideal social and political order would be something along the lines of the United Order of the early Mormon Church.  And for those of you who are unfamiliar with early Mormon history, what I'm specifically talking about (in ideal terms, at least) is the brand of Christian communism described in Acts 2:44 and Acts 4:32 (i.e., having "all things in common").  As a teenager I would have explained that the ideal social and political system would be NEITHER American style capitalism NOR Soviet-style communism, but a blend of the best features of both those systems.  I liked Mao's dictum: "To each according to his need, from each according to his ability."  Give me Mao's economics, but with total political and religious freedom, and you have some general idea of what I'm talking about.

Now people will hasten to point out to me that Utopian/Christian communism has been tried many times and failed.  Early Mormons tried it, and ultimately abandoned it.  It's all well and good to say, each of us will work to the best of his or her ability, contributing to the welfare of the whole, and each will receive according to their needs, receiving no more nor less than anybody else.  But unless you link financial rewards to performance, people will not be motivated to work hard, and the whole system will come crashing down in a puff of disincentives.  Only raw capitalism (the argument goes) with its haves and have-nots, will truly motivate the vast majority to create the kind of social wealth that the good life requires.  We need inequality, even poverty.  It's not perfect, but it's the system that works best, given human nature.

And I would always have agreed, that in order to have the kind of system that I think is ideal, the human race needs to evolve to the next level spiritually.  A central message of the Book of Mormon is that Zion, that ideal political and social order in which people have all things in common, is not possible until we collectively vanquish pride, envy and covetousness.  In order to have something like Zion, we collectively, as a people, need to evolve to the point where we are motivated more by the common good than we are by personal rewards.  In other words...  Kind of like the Star Trek universe.

My youthful idealism has been tempered somewhat in middle age.  I still believe that the United Order is the highest political, economic and social goal toward which we should be striving.  I still believe that my faith, in it's highest expression, has profoundly real-world political, economic and social implications.  In order to truly live my faith, I should strive to build a world where there is no poverty.  However, that youthful idealism has been tempered by the recognition that compromise, patience and allowance for human weakness is a virtue.  I've come to accept that the "ideal" is often the greatest enemy of the good.  I've accepted another profoundly spiritual principle as my guide in politics: "line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little, there a little" (Isaiah 28:10; Doctrine & Covenants 98:12).  If I live in an imperfect world or an imperfect social order, it is still valuable to make incremental improvements -- as along as we're moving in the right direction.

In order to get there, we all have work to do -- both personal work and political work.  Part of the reason I'm committed to the Church is because I believe it will help me become more like the kind of person who can abide Zion.  (Vis-à-vis the social order: there's profound wisdom in the principle of tithing!)  If my faith is not helping me grow into a more selfless, more generous, more humble, more loving human being, then my faith is in vain.

To illustrate my political evolution...  As an eighteen-year-old, when I first registered to vote, I registered as a Socialist.  Understand that I registered as a Socialist out of my deeply held, orthodox religious convictions as a Mormon!  I saw the Socialist Party as being closest in its overall goals to the United Order of early Mormonism.  Now, in my late forties, I am a registered Democrat.  I'm not a big fan of either the Democrats or the Republicans, but I've resigned myself to the fact that we have a two-party system, and the best way to move things along is to work within the system, and the Democrats are closest to my values as a Mormon.  As a Mormon and a Christian, I feel that my political choices ought to be driven by a concern for the less fortunate, that I ought to be willing and glad to pay taxes so that a portion of my income can go to make things better for everybody.  I believe that the Republicans are too much about private good versus public welfare, about coveting one's means and being stingy about the common good.  To my mind, those are profoundly anti-Christian, and anti-Mormon values.

Now I say this, without trying to cast any aspersions on my Republican brothers and sisters.  I acknowledge that they might see things differently; that they have totally valid reasons for believing that the Republican Party is closer to the religious values they espouse.  I grant them the same freedom and respect to engage in the political process as they see fit that I hope for myself.  In other words, I'm not saying here that being a Republican necessarily makes you a bad Mormon.  I'm just saying that based on my personal history and perceptions and understanding of my faith, I must engage politically as a Democrat; and I see my engagement as perfectly consonant with the religious values I hold.

I feel it's important to put that all out there, to preface this brief statement about the Romney candidacy: I'm glad Romney's running.  I truthfully think he's the best candidate that the Republicans have put out there in a while.  I'm glad that Romney's faith as a Latter-day Saint has spurred a lot of dialog about Mormonism, and I think the fact that we have a major party candidate who is a Mormon has had the beneficial effect of generally increasing Americans' understanding of Mormonism, and has helped to dispel a lot of negative stereotypes about Mormonism.

At the same time, I hope Romney's candidacy will not promote the impression that Mormons must all be extreme, politically conservative Republicans.  I hope it will not encourage Mormon Republicans to act as if Mormons of other political persuasions are bad Mormons.  (For what it's worth, I don't see any signs that that is happening, at least not here in Minnesota.)  I deeply disagree with most of the platform that Romney is running on, and I disagree with it as a Mormon.

My faith is much, much bigger than Romney's politics.


Ron Schow said...

I agree with much of what you are saying here. I find it curious that one of the three most important persons in passing the new health care law was Harry Reid, a Mormon. Reid, a Democrat and majority leader in the Senate, is probably the highest U.S. government official Mormons have ever had in public life. In Utah he is not very popular but Mormons in Nevada surely have had some role in supporting him as a senator over the years. If Romney were to be elected and repeal or dismantle the Affordable Care Act, then he would undo the work of Reid. I think it is regrettable that two Mormons, in effect, are duking it out in perhaps the most important political and ethical issues of our times. Romney has managed to make himself extremely wealthy by using the most heartless and pragmatic elements of selfish capitalism. Oh, yes, it has been legal and in the spirit of capitalism to lay off and downsize and outsource workers in order to make his personal fortune and leave a few stronger companies standing. But how ethical has it been?

Will our first Mormon president, in fact, be someone who takes great delight and pride in dismantling an effort (universal health care) by another Mormon to provide health care and a better life to more than 30 million Americans? To me that would be a sad, sad commentary on a form of Christianity at least some Mormons have embraced. To me it seems extremely selfish and suggests that at least some rich Mormons do not really care about the poor. I am glad that Harry Reid helps the country to understand that at least some Mormons do care.

J G-W said...

Ron - yes, I really admire Harry Reid. Of course no one politician "represents" his or her faith. But I'm glad I can point to him as an example of an LDS politician whose values and commitments are more in line with my own.