Mark Paredes has offended me.
I don’t know Mark Paredes. Until this weekend, I’d never heard of Mark Paredes, and in the great eternal scheme of things, what Mark Paredes does or says or thinks or writes shouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to me. But offend me he has, and in the spirit of the Lord’s counsel in Doctrine and Covenants 42:90-91, I offer this brief but public chastening to my offending brother.
I’m offended, but not for the reason you think.
Yes, I am a Mormon Democrat, and yes, in a recent online essay Brother Paredes suggests that “Mormon Democrat” is an oxymoron, a canard as cynical and insincere as, say, “cruel kindness” or “compassionate conservatism.” His remarks, while incendiary, don’t bother me: I’ve never been all that good a Democrat, and having lived through a past bishop’s decision to delay my temple recommend renewal interview for a week, to give me “time to think about your political views,” there’s nothing a man I don’t know from a ward I’ve never heard of can say to rattle me.
I spent the better part of ten years in the bishopric of our mostly poor, mostly immigrant, mostly converts ward in southwest Houston. For six of those years, I was bishop. What bothers me about Mark Paredes’s essay is not what he says (although I’m not crazy about what he says), but his choice to cloak personally held positions in the mantle of his Priesthood calling. He doesn’t offend me as a Democrat; he offends me as a former bishop.
“A bishop,” the Apostle Paul counsels Timothy, “must be blameless.” There has never been a time in my life when I felt as many eyes on me, as during the six years I served as bishop. Some of the watching was silly – shortly after my call, we bought a Saturn VUE, and within a couple of months, three other families in the ward purchased Saturns of their own – and some of it was deadly serious: a father, distraught over his son’s bad choices, once interrupted a ward council meeting, demanding to know why I lacked the necessary spiritual strength to rescue his wayward boy. His words were embarrassing and a little unfair, but he had been watching me, and I did not live up to his expectations.
Leading a ward is a constant exercise in humility and restraint, one of those things that requires endless patience, frequent fasting, and near-constant prayer. Even then, every week brings new hazards, dozens of fresh icebergs, ready to rip holes in your hull and send you sinking. What Billy Martin said about managing a baseball club – “the trick is to keep the five guys who hate you away from the five guys who haven’t made up their minds” – holds for bishops, too.
Our ward is a racially and ethnically mixed congregation, with active, faithful members whose political views run the range of parties, Republican to Democrat, Tea to Green. For six years, I was acutely, almost painfully aware that I was bishop to all of them, the people who liked me, the people who didn’t, and the ones who hadn’t made up their minds. I was their bishop, regardless of their political affiliation, and regardless of mine. My duty was to esteem all of my brothers and sisters as myself, to remember the poor and see to their needs, to speak no evil of my neighbor, nor do him any harm, and most importantly, to talk of Christ, to rejoice in Christ, to preach and prophesy of Christ, that I might help those in my stewardship come unto Him, and receive His covenants and blessings. Political commentary and general bloviating was not part of that stewardship.
For six years, I kept my mouth shut about politics. I refused to be drawn into the impromptu debates that regularly flared up in the clerks’ office or meetinghouse foyer. I didn’t display campaign signs on my front lawn during election seasons, for fear that some earnest ward member would misinterpret my personal preference as a Church-sanctioned endorsement. My purpose as bishop was to unite people of disparate backgrounds and experiences, to make them “of one heart.” Anything that highlighted division had to be set aside. I did not want to say or do anything that would ever lead a member of our ward to question whether he would be accepted, respected, or nurtured by the good word of God when he sat across from his bishop. For six years, I kept my political opinions to myself.
It’s wonderful, even essential that committed, engaged Latter-Day Saints participate in the political process, be they Republican or Democrat or somewhere in between. When you accept the call to serve as a bishop, you voluntarily silence your political voice for a season. You have more important things to talk about.
When you are a bishop, you are focused on the needs of the men, women, and children in your stewardship. You do not waste time conducting online speculative worthiness interviews of well-known Mormons you’ve never met. As a bishop, you are constantly aware of the courage it takes for a hurting child of God to trust you with their deepest shames, their most painful secrets. You don’t demean those sacred personal interviews by casually referencing them in an ad hominem attack on a public figure. You don’t tarnish the holiness of the Temple recommend interview by using it to make a cheap political point. That verges on priestcraft.
I don’t fault Mark Paredes for his views. Heck, I find gambling and abortion abhorrent, too, and while I hold that gay couples are entitled to the full rights and protections afforded by the Constitution, I sustain the Family Proclamation as the word of God. (I also think the widening chasm between Rich and Poor is the single greatest threat to our families, but that’s just me.) Mark Paredes is free to talk about anything he chooses, in whatever venue will have him.
Bishop Paredes, however, needs to keep his mouth shut.