Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Politics, Religion, and the Bully

Ten years ago, I was on my mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I served in Romania, my native country. I left Romania in 1982 with my mother and my sister. My father had escaped Romania in 1979 by locking himself in a crate on a freight train to Germany. From Germany he made it to the United States, where he worked on getting his family over. Going to Romania on my mission was a wonderful experience, which I will share more about on my other blog here The Life of Nicolae Padigone. When I got home from my mission, I lived in Utah. We had just moved to Utah about a month and a half before I entered the MTC (Missionary Training Center), so my impressions of Utah before I left for the mission were pretty nice. During the mission, my sister sent me a small package that included a letter from her and some brochures. In that letter, she told me she was leaving the church because of how she was treated by members of the church in Utah. The pamphlets she sent me were anti-Mormon pamphlets meant to show me what she discovered so that I would leave the church also. What did my sister experience? Why did she feel the need to leave the church? How were members treating her? When I got home, my mother felt nearly the same way. It didn't take her too much longer to also leave, never wanting to come back into activity in the church. And now that she lives far away from Utah, even on the east coast, she does not want to consider going to the church. I started living my life after my mission, in Utah. I had a job and went to UVSC (Utah Valley State College), prepping to go to BYU (Brigham Young University). Slowly I noticed something about the people surrounding me. They were not nice to me. They were cliquish. This became progressively worse and worse so that by the time I finished my undergraduate at BYU, I could not wait to leave Utah. My undergraduate studies formed around politics, and I soon realized that I could not call myself a Republican. In fact, everything I saw about Republican views seemed tainted with vile, ugly rudeness and meanness, even the most precious of principles. I had written in a notebook back in my senior year in high school that I considered myself a "moderate Republican." I know that in 1992, I liked what I heard from Clinton, as he ran for president, but that I hoped Paul Tsongas would win the Democratic Primaries. You could start hearing Mormon Republicans that you couldn't be a good Mormon and a Democrat. This was heard often at BYU. I later learned that this was one of the insidious strategies Republicans had of driving a wedge in American politics, of dividing this beloved country of mine into two categories (with us vs. against us; religious vs. non-religious; communist/socialist/liberal vs. conservative; gay marriage vs. anti-gay marriage; abortion vs. anti-abortion; war vs. anti-war). Their strategy was to tie all the bad stuff in the world to the Democratic party in the hopes of discrediting every principle Democrats believe in, no matter how worthy, good, or right those principles were. As they were not conservative principles, the best way to discredit them was to lump them in with communists abortionists and homosexuals living in the vilest of sins, therefore, also, not religious. Their tactics got so bad as to even lump anyone who said anything against the president as siding with terrorists! I quote Ashcroft: "To those who pit Americans against immigrants, citizens against non-citizens, to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve," Ashcroft told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil." http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/12/06/inv.ashcroft.hearing/ It is an effective short-term tool, labelling dissenters as such. It strikes fear into the hearts of everybody. Could I really be a terrorist-loving liberal? Or from the other person, Could he really be a terrorist-loving liberal? How can his views then be valid? It is only effective in the short-term though, and once fear subsides, it doesn't work as well anymore. So many of my fellow Mormons who believe in conservative principles have fallen into this trap, into this ease of simply treating fellow members of the church with such contempt. Just recently, on ldslinkup.com, a member of that site made a comment towards a liberal Mormon who easily disputed her remarks about Saddam Hussein and weapons of mass destruction. Instead of trying to refute his remarks, she commented on his status as a single male and said "you're a liberal, you can't be a good Mormon." As Mormons we believe in Prophets. We believe that God still communicates with us here on Earth through prophets as in the old days. We're a fascinating religion. The thing that differentiates us from other religions is that we believe in Divine Revelation, that God still communicates with us today, and that he has not actually finished his work with us. There is still so much to do. Our prophets speak to the whole church membership twice a year in General Conference. They also travel around the world and meet with as many members as possible. In this last General Conference, April 2006, President Gordon B. Hinckley, our current prophet, made some remarks in regards to how we treat each other. He said: "Why do any of us have to be so mean and unkind to others? Why can't all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ." The Need For Greater Kindness Later during the Conference, Elder Robert S. Wood, of the Seventy said this about discussing politics: "I have a friend who is a member of a political panel that is seen each week on national television. Explaining her role, she said, "We are encouraged to speak before thinking!" We appear to be living in an era in which many are speaking without thinking, encouraging emotional reactions rather than thoughtful responses. Whether it be on the national or international stage, in personal relations or in politics, at home or in the public forum, voices grow ever more strident, and giving and taking offense appear to be chosen rather than inadvertent. "The Lord has warned that from the beginning and throughout history, Satan would stir up people's hearts to anger.1 In the Book of Mormon, Laman set a pattern of so murmuring as to stir anger, to stoke rage, and to incite murder.2 Time and again in the Book of Mormon, we find deluded and wicked men inciting rage and provoking conflict. In the days of Captain Moroni, the apostate Amalickiah inspired "the hearts of the Lamanites against the people of Nephi."3 Amulon and the wicked priests of Noah; Nehor; Korihor; and Zoram the apostate (the dishonor roll goes on throughout the Book of Mormon) were agitators who inspired distrust, fueled controversy, and deepened hatreds. "In speaking to Enoch, the Lord indicated that both the time of His birth and the time preceding His Second Coming would be "days of wickedness and vengeance."4 And the Lord has said that in the last days, wrath shall be poured out upon the earth without mixture.5 Wrath is defined both as the righteous indignation of God and as the very human instances of impetuous ardor and deep or violent anger. The former arises from the concern of a loving Father whose children are often "without affection, and they hate their own blood,"6 whereas the latter wrath arises from a people "without order and without mercy, . . . strong in their perversion."7 I fear the earth is experiencing both wraths, and I suspect the divine wrath is very much provoked by those who are stirring up the hearts of men to wickedness, slander, and violent hatreds. "The first casualties of human wrath are truth and understanding. James counseled that we be "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God."8 As Enoch observed, God’s throne is one of peace, justice, and truth.9 Whether they be false friends or unrighteous teachers, artists or entertainers, commentators or letter writers to local newspapers, seekers of power or wealth, beware of those who stir us up to such anger that calm reflection and charitable feelings are suppressed. He then asks some very important questions regarding the discussion of politics: Have we who have taken upon us the name of Christ slipped unknowingly into patterns of slander, evil speaking, and bitter stereotyping? Have personal or partisan or business or religious differences been translated into a kind of demonizing of those of different views? Do we pause to understand the seemingly different positions of others and seek, where possible, common ground? He continues.... General Andrew Jackson, as he walked along the line at the Battle of New Orleans, said to his men, "Gentlemen, elevate your guns a little lower!" I think many of us need to elevate our "guns" a little lower. On the other hand, we need to raise the level of private and public discourse. We should avoid caricaturing the positions of others, constructing "straw men," if you will, and casting unwarranted aspersions on their motivations and character. We need, as the Lord counseled, to uphold honest, wise, and good men and women wherever they are found and to recognize that there are "among all sects, parties, and denominations" those who are "kept from the truth [of the gospel] because they know not where to find it."11 Would we hide that light because we have entered into the culture of slander, of stereotyping, of giving and seeking offense? When I heard these two talks during General Conference, my heart leaped with joy. I knew something was wrong in America ever since I came home from my mission, ten years ago. America got mean. America turned nasty and divisive. People turned on members of their own religion, calling them names and judging their spiritual worth unrighteously. It is time for America to drop this strategy. More specifically, it is time for Republicans to drop this strategy. It does not work. You cannot tie a religion to a political viewpoint, irrespective of what research shows regarding activity in religion and political viewpoint. Generalizing stereotypes will harm your point in the end. Being a bully does not pay in the long run. You'll get your short term victories, but in the end, you will fail. RHMD now, I quote the remainder of Elder Wood's talk here at the end: It is far too easy sometimes to fall into a spirit of mockery and cynicism in dealing with those of contrary views. We demoralize or demean so as to bring others or their ideas in contempt. It is a primary tool of those who occupy the large and spacious building that Father Lehi saw in vision.12 Jude, the brother of Christ, warned that "there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit."13 Closely related to mockery is a spirit of cynicism. Cynics are disposed to find and to catch at fault. Implicitly or explicitly, they display a sneering disbelief in sincerity and rectitude. Isaiah spoke of those who "watch for iniquity" and "make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought."14 In this regard, the Lord has counseled in latter days that we "cease to find fault one with another" and "above all things, clothe [ourselves] with the bond of charity, as with a mantle, which is the bond of perfectness and peace."15 President George Albert Smith observed, "There is nothing in the world more deleterious or harmful to the human family than hatred, prejudice, suspicion, and the attitude that some people have toward their fellows, of unkindness."16 In matters of politics, he warned, "Whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground."17 Speaking of the great mission of the latter-day kingdom, he counseled: "This is not a militant church to which we belong. This is a church that holds out peace to the world. It is not our duty to go into the world and find fault with others, neither to criticize men because they do not understand. But it is our privilege, in kindness and love, to go among them and divide with them the truth that the Lord has revealed in this latter day."18 The Lord has constituted us as a people for a special mission. As he told Enoch in ancient times, the day in which we live would be one of darkness, but it would also be a time when righteousness would come down from heaven, and truth would be sent forth out of the earth to bear, once more, testimony of Christ and His atoning mission. As with a flood, that message would sweep the world, and the Lord's elect would be gathered out from the four quarters of the earth.19 Wherever we live in the world, we have been molded as a people to be the instruments of the Lord's peace. In the words of Peter, we have been claimed by God for His own, to proclaim the triumph of Him "who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God."20 We cannot afford to be caught up in a world prone to give and to take offense. Rather, as the Lord revealed to both Paul and Mormon, we must neither envy nor be puffed up in pride. We are not easily provoked, nor do we behave unseemly. We rejoice not in iniquity but in the truth. Surely this is the pure love of Christ which we represent.21 In a world beset by wrath, the prophet of our day, President Gordon B. Hinckley, has counseled: "Now, there is much that we can and must do in these perilous times. We can give our opinions on the merit of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. 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."22 As true witnesses of Christ in the latter days, let us not fall into the darkness so that, in the words of Peter, we "cannot see afar off," but let us be fruitful in the testimony of Christ and His restored gospel, in thought, in speech, in deed.23 God lives. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Joseph Smith, the great prophet of the Restoration, was the instrument by which we have been constituted as a people, led even today by a prophet of God, President Gordon B. Hinckley. Let us daily renew in our hearts the pure love of Christ and overcome with our Master the darkness of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen. Instruments of the Lord's Peace

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