By Boyd Peterson. Republished with permission.
A Sandy, Utah stake president’s recent speech ignited a frenzy on Facebook and Twitter after it was posted on the internet by one of his stake members. President Matthew DeVisser’s words of warning about a general decline in values and admonition to prepare for turbulent times ahead was nothing revolutionary, but it soon morphed into a political rant that emphasized right-wing Republican talking points, lamenting, for example, that Americans had chosen “socialism over capitalism, entitlements over free enterprise, redistribution and regulation over self-reliance.”
DeVisser said that he didn’t intend “to be controversial, political, or even dire” but simply to “state the facts” after “having been moved upon by the Holy Ghost”; however, left-leaning Mormons, including me, found the speech highly offensive, factually misleading, and theologically problematic. The talk was offensive because DeVisser was speaking as Stake President, a position of authority and influence over the region of the Church he supervises; it was factually misleading because many of his “facts” were false or deceptive (e.g., that the “UN Ambassador was instructed by the White House to cover up what happened in Libya”); theologically problematic because most of his concerns about the ominous direction our country is headed in are not Church teachings (e.g., where in the scriptures does the Lord give divine approval to deregulation and unrestrained capitalism?).
Nevertheless, I do believe that President DeVisser never intended his words to be controversial (and surely he never imagined they would go viral on the internet). In fact, I would guess that the average Utah Mormon would have a difficult time even telling where this good stake president’s words jumped the rail from a message of preparedness and morality into a clueless, insensitive, partisan train wreck. Having lived most of my life as a Mormon Democrat in Utah, this kind of thing is nothing new to me. I’ve heard endorsements for Republican candidates in sermons, George W. Bush compared to Nephi in Sunday School, rants about Democratic politicians leading the world into apostasy in Priesthood meeting, and announcements about Republican political events given at the beginning of Sacrament meeting. In 1984, my mother even received a post-card sized portrait of Ronald Reagan in Relief Society as a reminder to vote in the upcoming election. I doubt any of these people realized that they were crossing a line that aliened people in their ward and defied official Church policy of political neutrality—after all, there are so few of us progressive Mormons in Utah valley that some of my ward members probably never met a Democrat until they met me. The problem, as I see it, is that it’s very hard to recognize one’s own ideas end and the gospel begins. As Hugh Nibley once stated,
“Nothing is easier than to identify one’s own favorite political, economic, historical, and moral convictions with the gospel. That gives one a neat, convenient, but altogether too easy advantage over one’s fellows. If my ideas are the true ones—and I certainly will not entertain them if I suspect for a moment that they are false!—then, all truth being one, they are also the gospel, and to oppose them is to play the role of Satan. This is simply insisting that our way is God’s way, and therefore the only way. It is the height of impertinence.”
Each of us has a web of beliefs—some we inherited from our family, some we gained from study and schooling, some we learned in Sunday School and seminary, and some we received with our testimony of the Church. Of course, we see these beliefs fitting into a coherent whole, but where our own beliefs and God’s beliefs overlap is not clear. This is especially true in the world of politics, since the scriptures and Church leaders’ sermons typically stress general truths rather than applied principles. To paraphrase Joseph Smith, scriptures and leaders typically “teach correct principles” but leave us govern ourselves. “Politics, as practiced on earth,” Hugh Nibley reminds us, “belongs to the ways of men” not the ways of God.
I’m lucky, I suppose, because my stake president was our Democratic Party district chair before he was called into stake leadership, so I doubt I’ll hear a version of President DeVisser’s talk at my stake conference. But that fact caused me to imagine a liberal stake president in Utah delivering a similar talk, but with Democratic Party talking points mingled with scripture. What would it sound like to hear a such a talk? What would be the reaction of the congregation?
In her 1980’s-era satirical “Walk in Pink Moccasins,” Carol Lynn Pearson attempted to show Mormon men what it’s like to hear patronizing patriarchal language as Mormon women hear it, as it constantly permeates Church meetings and lessons. By imagining a matronly “Presiding Sister” speak to the “dear young brethren” of the Church, praising them for their modest clothing and clean fresh faces, Pearson reverses the gender dynamic in Mormon discourse. Pearson’s goal is that the men who read her satire are “never quite the same again.” With a similar goal in mind, I want to attempt a walk in blue moccasins, blue not as in male but as in blue-state progressive, to help my red-state Utah brothers and sisters understand the Church I have experienced throughout my life.
Let me emphasize that I would never give this talk in a meeting—not all of it, anyway—not because I don’t believe these things are true, but because I know the content would offend people in my congregation. I strongly believe politics should remain out of our Church meetings. Since the Church belongs to Jesus Christ, I believe its meetings should be reserved for thoughtful, charitable discourse that brings us to a unity of the faith. But I also want to stress that I could deliver this talk without the least bit of irony. Just as Republican Mormons see their religious beliefs confirming their conservative political values, we see these same religious beliefs confirming our progressive values. Just as they see their web of beliefs from politics and religion as overlapping, entirely consistent and self-evident, so do we. We feel no more tension between our political and religious beliefs than you feel with yours. I offer the following only for the sake of comparison, with the express hope that after reading it you are “never quite the same again.”
Dear brothers and sisters. It is indeed an honor to address you at this stake conference. As I look out at this congregation, the Spirit of the Lord tells me that we are at the dawn of a new era of peace and justice. The past four years have seen a tremendous spirit of hope spread across our great nation, a continuation of the slow but steady reparations after the disastrous reign of lies and terror of the earliest decade of this century. As we look back at the past election, I am encouraged that the people have once again chosen to put their faith in optimism and justice rather than turning back toward cynicism, fear, and inequality. Even during those dark days of war just prior to the economic collapse, President Hinckley spoke of the “great dawning” of our age, how “the God of heaven inspires and pours out light and knowledge.” “Think of the increased longevity of life. Think of the wonders of modern medicine. I stand amazed. Think of the flowering of education. Think of the miraculous advances in travel and communication.” President Hinckley’s optimism for the future was inspirational even as we headed into our worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
I feel that same optimism when I think of how the Lord has directed our current leaders to enact laws that have comforted the poor and needy, the sick and the downtrodden. By expanding health care access, they are following Christ’s ministry of caring for the sick. By enacting Wall Street reforms, consumer protections, an auto industry bailout, and economic stimulus, they have brought us back from the greatest economic recession since the Great Depression and are providing economic justice for all. And now by working to raise the minimum wage, increase paycheck fairness for women, and eradicate poverty throughout the world, they continue to follow Christ’s admonition that “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matt. 25:40).
I am reminded of the example set by our beloved prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, who, when he was first called as bishop at the young age of twenty-two, cared for and ministered to the spiritual and physical needs of eighty-five widows in Salt Lake City ward. And I am so thrilled to see the Church and the nation follow the prophetic lead of President Monson’s addition to the three-fold, now four-fold, mission of the Church, “to care for the poor and needy.” Brothers and sisters, the gospel calls on us to provide care and comfort to all, both privately and publicly, to use our resources to “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (Heb. 12:12-15). In the Book of Mormon we read that inequality was a “great cause for lamentations among the people” (Alma 4:13), and that it was only when “there was no inequality among them” that “the Lord did pour out his Spirit on all the face of the land to prepare the minds of the children of men, or to prepare their hearts to receive the word” (Alma 16:16). As the Lord has stated, “For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things” (D&C 78:6).
I am elated as I watch wars ending in Iraq and winding down in Afghanistan. Truly the Lord’s hand is at work in establishing peace throughout the world, especially after Satan’s lies were used to justify these ugly and unnecessary wars by the wicked leaders of our past. In his Bicentennial address, “The False Gods We Worship,” President Spencer W. Kimball scolded us, as a Church and as a nation, for being “a warlike people” and admonished us that “our assignment is preparing for the coming of the Lord .” As he clearly and unambiguously stated, we are under the condemnation of the Lord when we assume that the ways of the world are superior to the ways of the Lord: “we train a man in the art of war and call him a patriot, thus, in the manner of Satan’s counterfeit of true patriotism, perverting the Savior’s teaching: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’” As the Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith, we must “renounce war and proclaim peace” to all the world (D&C 98:16).
Today our leaders are coming to understand the Church’s teaching of the importance of gaining an education, that “the glory of God is intelligence,” and our leaders are working to provide unprecedented opportunities for all of our young people, both rich and poor, to attend better schools and take advantage of college. But they also recognize the central role service can play in that education process and are striving to assure that our youth have new opportunities to serve their communities and the world. They understand the importance of King Benjamin’s words that “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
We know that family is central to God’s plan of happiness and we are so blessed that our leaders are working to keep families together by creating a path to citizenship for our brothers and sisters who, like Nephi of old, have been blessed to come to this promised land of hope and prosperity. They are following the Church’s official position on immigration reform that encourages a “balanced and civil approach” to the problem, one that emphasizes not only the rule of law, but also “compassion, . . . [and] reverence for family.”
Despite all the positive in the world, we do face increasing challenges as well. I am reminded of the seventh chapter of Moses when Enoch hears the cries of the earth “Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me?” (Moses 7:48). Sin and suffering continue to be ever-present. We have polluted, as President Kimball said “mind, body, and our surroundings.” Today we face threats that come from that pollution, from sin and from global warming, land degradation, air quality, and hazardous waste. Let us remember the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell that “True disciples … would be consistent environmentalists—caring both about maintaining the spiritual health of a marriage and preserving a rain forest; caring about preserving the nurturing capacity of a family as well as providing a healthy supply of air and water.” As Elder Maxwell stated, “Adam and Eve were to ‘dress the garden,’ not exploit it. Like them, we are to keep the commandments, so that we can enjoy all the resources God has given us, resources described as ‘enough and to spare’ (D&C 104:17), if we use and husband them wisely.”
Even though the Lord has been pouring out his Spirit upon our land, Satan and his hosts are spreading doubts and lies throughout the land, scattering innuendos about our president’s birth place and religion, slandering our leaders as “socialists” and “Marxists,” trying to convince us that economic justice is economic tyranny. Like Gadiantons of old, corporate interests and their secret combinations (for what is more secret than hidden moneyed influence outside of the channels of public transparency?) are even now seeking to overturn democracy and obstruct the will of the people. They seek to oppose the Lord’s work.
These people want to exert the will of a minority over the democratic will of the majority, the rule of tyranny over the rule of law. They are a vocal and dangerous minority who insist that because they are now governed by those with whom they disagree, they have a right to overthrow the very principles upon which this nation is based. We must remember that, as the Book of Mormon states, “it is not common that the voice of the people desireth anything contrary to that which is right; but it is common for the lesser part of the people to desire that which is not right; therefore this shall ye observe and make it your law—to do your business by the voice of the people” (Mosiah 29:26). I also worry that some of this anger focused specifically on our president is motivated by racist ideology. President Hinckley warned that “that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.” We may disagree with each other and remain civil. In the 2006 general conference, Elder Robert S. Wood cautioned us that “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.” Elder Wood continued, “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?” And while “the political diversity of Latter-day Saints spans the ideological spectrum,” our leaders have warned that “the Church views with concern the politics of fear and rhetorical extremism that render civil discussion impossible.”
Sisters and Brothers, we must not allow the rhetoric of fear and hatred and divisiveness to alarm us, to distract us from the project we have of bringing again Zion. For Jesus Christ has stated to this very dispensation, we are to become one in heart and in community, “for if ye are not one ye are not mine” (D&C 38:27). We must have faith in our Father’s plan and, as President Hinckley admonished us, “Cultivate an attitude of happiness. Cultivate a spirit of optimism. Walk with faith, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, in the goodness of those you love, in the testimony which you carry in your heart concerning things divine.” Let us contribute to the peaceful and reasoned momentum that is, through our Heavenly Father’s spirit, spreading throughout the world.
 A Wonderful Flood of Light (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 2009), 103.