A fellow ward member who is African-American related to me recently that several years ago he and his wife felt impressed to move their family to Utah County even though they knew they would stick out among the vast majority of residents. Moreover, repeatedly he has been offered better jobs elsewhere and he and his wife have considered moving, but again have felt impressed to stay where they are.
He is blunt in explaining why. He believes he does more good in Utah County helping white LDS Utahns understand African-Americans than he would anywhere else. Although he experiences occasional racism and misunderstanding from those he comes in contact with, I can testify that he does just that. He and his family offer a diversity to our ward that we need. (Thanks to his family and two others, we have an unusually large number of African-American members in our ward. At times, half of the deacons passing the sacrament have been African-American.) He and his wife talk about African-American culture. He often sings, in a black church gospel style, when he bears his testimony or teaches a lesson. He is open about the issues he faces as an African-American in the Church. As a result, he has achieved his objective - members in our ward and stake, as well as others he encounters, come to appreciate the issues he raises, the problems he faces, along with his commitment to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The same rationale can be applied to Democrats. By being members of the LDS Church, and openly expressing a political affiliation, Democrats can provide diversity in a ward or stake. Democrats also can help dispel misunderstandings. Like my friend, Democrats in the Church are sometimes subject to hostility. Also like him, it becomes necessary to keep focused on the larger objective of being there to inform and educate others who may misunderstand and therefore condemn.
Indeed, that is one reason I wrote "The Liberal Soul: Applying the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Politics." I wanted to explain to ordinary Church members why someone could be more progressive politically and at the same time be an active Latter-day Saint. Clearly, the book is drawn from my own beliefs, approaches, and experiences. However, I don't think I am unique in that sense. Others I have spoken with have related similar experiences and have been frustrated at the inability to articulate how they feel. I hope this book can do that for them.
Obviously, this diversity can be disturbing to some Church members. They believe in sameness and even quote the verse that is the title of this blog post. Of course, the Savior's admonition to be one is not political. Nevertheless, that is the inaccurate impression many Latter-day Saints have today. If you are not Republican, you cannot be a good Church member. You are not "one of us." I have heard that articulated and believe it is widely shared even by those who don't express it.
The "oneness" we share is a commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a desire to be a disciple. The tools at are disposal to do that - modern revelation, scriptures, the personal guidance of the Holy Ghost, the experiences we gain from callings and the resulting stewardships within the Church organization - are helps to walk as disciples.
Our job in the Church is to explain that an unexpected political sameness is unnecessary. In fact, it is quite unhealthy. The illusion of political sameness leads some members to use the forum of Church meetings and classes to press political viewpoints because they assume other members feel the same way and won't challenge their views. It produces satirical comments about political leaders they don't like (Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, etc.) in such settings because, again, they believe they will get a laugh from like-minded people rather than a rebuke or a challenge. It also results in a woeful misunderstanding of the diversity of Church members and perhaps an unwillngness to fellowship those who are politically different. In a missionary church that is stretching across the globe, that reluctance should be distinctly "unMormon."
How is that misconception about "oneness" addressed and overcome? It is by taking the same approach as the member of my ward who is African-American. It is being upfront about political affiliation. While my friend's African-Americanness is impossible to hide (nor would he wish to anyway), Democrats can easily be anonymous. One can quietly vote for Obama without anyone really knowing. One can sit uneasily, but comfortably anonymously, while a teacher or fellow class member rails against liberal politicians or quotes Glenn Beck. Yet, those who differ from these views should express that difference. Speak up!
However, be careful not to lose a brother or sister in the process. The goal is not just to express political views or, even worse, conquer the other person's views. It also includes respecting and loving them while still disagreeing on particular points. Admonish with love, not harshness. Humor works well also. Don't just be civil; be loving and kind.
The result of speaking up will be surprising. First, the political talk will cease. Once these members understand that not everyone shares their views and that they will be challenged when they express them in these settings, they will stop. Second, other like-minded individuals will speak up as well. One comment emboldens others as well. Often, there are far more allies in the room than you realize. Even if that does not happen publicly, there will be those who come up quietly afterwards and express agreement.
Some members will approach you and start asking questions about why you think a certain way. They are curious. They may be quite conservative, but want to be open-minded. Actually, they may be glad they have someone to talk to who can help them understand differing views. Take the occasion to express those views. Or share my book with them, if you prefer not to articulate yourself.
The existence of diversity comes from the expression of diversity, as my friend does. As the Church continues to grow, that diversity will become even more of a challenge for Church members. The next waves of new Church members likely will come from those who are poorer, less white, and more liberal than the membership of the Church now. Those who are more progressive politically will be there to embrace them when they arrive. But we also may be instrumental in helping other Church members embrace them as well.
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