Why I'm a Mormon and Support President Obama, Part 1/6: The Long View

Post by Randy Astle -


I casually started watching Mitt Romney’s career over a decade before I ever heard of anyone named Barack Obama. My oldest brother was his son Tagg’s roommate at BYU, then a trip to Boston to work on his ‘94 Senate campaign connected him with his wife-to-be, then Mitt swooped into my native Utah to save our Winter Olympics, then another sister-in-law became his speech writer as governor in Boston. At first, circa 1993, it was cool to have these connections with someone so famous and, frankly, rich, and I suppose I was even a little proud to see a Mormon challenge a politician as powerful as Ted Kennedy. In a way Church members like Mitt made us feel like we’d arrived on the national scene.

By the time he gained the Massachusetts governorship, however, I myself had matured and I’d learned a lot more about Romney’s views, leaving me apathetic at best about his single term in the corner office—with the exception of the Massachusetts health care reform law, which I saw as a shining example of bipartisan cooperation to achieve a much needed goal, one that I thought needed to be repeated on the national stage—and that deeply reflected my religious beliefs. But after not even attempting a re-election, Romney started his gradual shift to the right and I became increasingly critical and frankly skeptical of his beliefs, which seemed to be changing with the whims of the extreme faction of his party. As he shifted so did I: I became embarrassed and ashamed then eventually a little bit angry. When people learn I’m LDS the last thing I want them to do is equate me with the far right agenda that Romney has worked hard to embrace.

The thing is, I think I hold Romney up to a higher standard than most politicians. I don’t mean to, I consciously try not to, but it’s hard when he’s one of us. He’s the most-recognized face of my religion and hence he’s a surrogate for each of us Mormons, a symbol, supposedly, of what we believe and stand for. I realize he shouldn’t be and that it’s not fair for us Latter-day Saints or the nation at large to put him in that position, and heaven knows he’s tried with all his might to disassociate himself from the Church. But that’s just where he is, and it would only increase exponentially were he to win the White House. So because he’s become this public face of Mormon belief yet I disagree so strongly with essentially all of his positions—and on religious grounds, at that—I’ve been searching around for ways to explain the difference between what I believe and, from what I can tell, what Mitt Romney believes. I’m grateful to Joseph here at Mormons for Obama to give me a little opportunity to do that.

What I hope to do is write a short series of posts about why my religious beliefs as a Mormon lead me to support the Democratic Party in general and President Obama in particular, and why they cause me to generally reject the Republican Party in general and Governor Romney in particular. I know it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to persuade my conservative LDS friends and family members to join me on the Light Side, but what I want to do, as has been stated many times on this website and by organizations like Utah’s LDS Democratic caucus, is to add my voice and give insight into why I, as a Latter-day Saint, disagree with a majority of my fellow Church members and choose to embrace a progressive political agenda; to help show there is a diversity of opinion within Mormonism that is only going to continue growing as converts keep coming from different walks of life.

In undertaking a task like this I’m obviously not alone. We’ve seen a real upswing of Mormon Democrats adding their voice to the national discourse over the past four or five years; as has been pointed out by people like Joanna Brooks, it's generally the progressive Mormons that the news media is turning to for explanations of the faith, and news coverage of last Tuesday’s meeting of Mormon Democrats in Charlotte shows that progressive Mormons are often more interesting to outsiders than their conservative counterparts. Since all these Mormon Democrats have discussed their political beliefs with eloquence and gusto, I’d like to take a slightly different tact and instead discuss my religious beliefs. My thesis, I suppose, comes from Harry Reid, who first said in a 2007 BYU forum address (a pdf), “My faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined. I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it,” an assertion he repeated this week in North Carolina.

I’m also a Democrat because I’m a Mormon, but what does that mean for me personally? On my mission I was fond of misquoting Marx to claim that politics is the opiate of the people. My thought was that people were too focused on the temporal and passing issues du jour—what Ecclesiastes repeatedly calls “divers vanities” (5:7), and which John Bunyan in his 1678 novel The Pilgrims Progress described as a “Vanity Fair,” a place where the faithful are tempted to leave the path of progress to dally in the passing issues of the world (heaven knows why anyone would name a magazine after such a fleshpot). Thus I thought the politically consumed were neglecting the weightier matters of the law, limiting their vision to a myopic moment in the spectrum of eternity. There’s still a lot of weight to that argument, I believe; after all, Neal A. Maxwell said the plan of salvation “is a most stunning example of the precious perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ”; it widens your view to the things of eternity over the cares of the day. But after my mission I began to increasingly notice the claims that all truth can be brought together into one great whole and quotes like Brigham Young’s claim that “Mormonism . . . embraces every principle pertaining to life . . . no matter who has it. . . . There is no truth but what belongs to the Gospel.” Such truth would surely include political truth. I also became aware that if God, though above politics, was intimately interested in the intricacies of our lives, then how we govern our nations and communities would be included in that—D&C 134, Mosiah 29, and the common LDS belief that America’s founding fathers were divinely directed (i.e. 1 Nephi 13) evidenced that. So, even though I’d always been inclined toward the Democratic Party, as I allowed my political beliefs to solidify out of what I believe about God, Jesus Christ, the scriptures, and the plan of salvation, I found myself aligning firmly with that party. Not always, but usually.

The epic caveat to all this, of course, is that God is neither a Democrat nor a Republican, and he favors neither Democrats nor Republicans. God is not progressive or conservative; he’s not a monarchist or a socialist or a capitalist or a Marxist or a Tory or a Whig or a Bull Moose. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8-9). The work of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent no matter who is king, chief judge, president, or prime minister. I think any discussion of Mormonism and politics needs to begin—and perhaps end—with Hugh Nibley’s 1973 speech “Beyond Politics.” I’d love to reprint the whole thing (please read it!), but here’s the most pertinent passage for what I’m talking about and what I hope to do in my subsequent posts:

“The wide difference, amounting to complete antithesis, between men's ways and God's ways should always be kept in mind. If we would remember that fact, it would save us from a pitfall that constantly lies before us—especially here at Brigham Young University. 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. `There have been frauds and secret abominations and evil works of darkness going on [in the church], . . . all the time palming it off upon the Presidency, . . . practicing in the Church in their name.’ Do you think these people were not sincere? Yes, to the point of fanaticism—they wholly identified their crackpot schemes with the church and with the gospel. Some of the most learned theologians, such as Bossuet, have shown from every page of the scripture that God is an absolute monarchist, while others, equally learned and dedicated, have formed religious communities dedicated to the equally obvious scriptural proposition that the Saints are Communists. You can search through the scriptures and find support for any theory you want, and it is your privilege to attempt to convince yourself of any position you choose to take—but not to impose that opinion on others as the gospel. God certainly does not subscribe to our political creeds. The first issue of the Times and Seasons contained a lead editorial to the elders: ‘Be careful that you teach not for the word of God, the commandments of men, nor the doctrines of men nor the ordinances of men; . . . study the word of God and preach it, and not your opinions, for no man's opinion is worth a straw.’”

With that warning in mind and before jumping in (in my subsequent posts) to how the scriptures have led me to believe what I believe politically, let me just add with a few thoughts about how I see Mormonism as positioned between conservatism and progressivism (so hopefully we can all get along!).

Taking the long view, I think it’s helpful to remember where our political terminology comes from. I remember learning in high school that the terms right and left are simply relics of the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly randomly divided themselves on the right (monarchist) and left (revolutionary) sides of the room in order to hear themselves over their opponents’ shouts. I like the terms conservative and progressive (rather than liberal) because they better connote the desires of people who thus self-identify. Conservatives want to conserve, they want to retain what they or their country had in the past: traditional values, traditional ways of doing things. They look back to a lost time when life was better, people were happier, and their beliefs were not under attack from new ideas. Their goal is to deliver society out of its contemporary morass by making the future more like the past. Progressives, on the other hand, look forward; they want to progress. They see the past with all its warts and want to create a future that is more just, pleasant, and egalitarian than anything we’ve seen before. Conservatives look back to a paradise lost, progressives forward to a coming utopia.

Where do Latter-day Saints sit? I think the tenth Article of Faith puts us right in the middle: “We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes; that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent; that Christ will reign personally upon the earth; and, that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory.” We look back to Adam and Eve and the earth before the fall, Israel before its apostasy, Zion before it was taken to heaven, and we want to regain that state; we believe that Christ’s atonement was specifically planned before the earth’s creation to achieve that. But we also look forward to Christ’s second coming, when the glories of the new Jerusalem will surpass those of the old—or even of Enoch’s city—and the renewing of the earth as it fulfills the measure of its law and transforms into the Celestial Kingdom. We look back to the prophets but forward to their prophecies’ fulfillment. We trace back our ancestors and our priesthood authority, but do it to bless our children and those who come after us. Our past physical bodies, a great gift, will be renewed and perfected in the resurrection.We will go back into God's presence but with the new stature as exalted beings ourselves. Basically, we want to conserve all that the gospel has given us as we progress toward the millennium. Remembering this can help us see beyond immigration policy to the greater vision Elder Maxwell was talking about.

But we still live here in mortality, it’s still a fallen world, and immigration policy still needs to be addressed. I’m grateful to live in a country that guarantees me the right to freely exercise my religion and to belong to a church that allows all men the same privilege, to worship how, where, or what they may—and encourages me to exercise my franchise and be involved in my community and the political process. I greatly appreciate Church leaders’ oft-repeated declarations of political neutrality and, like I said, I’m gratified that one result of Mitt Romney’s campaign has been to shine a light on the breadth of Mormon political belief.

But why are so many American Latter-day Saints, especially multi-generational Latter-day Saints, politically conservative? (74% compared to 17% liberal, according to this year’s much-discussed Pew Forum survey.) We should let them speak for themselves, of course, but I think I understand some of the causes.

Reason #1: Agency. Conventional wisdom is that early Mormon converts, often New Englanders transplanted to the antebellum frontier, tended to vote in a bloc—hence the Gallatin Election Day Battle in 1838, for instance—and that nearly all Mormons in nineteenth-century Utah supported the People’s Party, essentially an arm of the Church itself. When this was disbanded during the Great Accommodation of the 1890s and Church members were encouraged—and often assigned—to join the two national parties, there was a great amount of resistance to Mormons becoming Republicans; it had, after all, been the Republican Party that had spearheaded the campaign against polygamy and refused Utah statehood for so many decades. But I can also see how the Republican platform would appeal to Utahns from that time, particularly in its evolving emphasis on states’ rights over a strong federal authority: local self-determination had, after all, been the rallying cry of Mormons since the first mobs pushed them out of their homes in the east—and it certainly reflected how they felt about anti-polygamy legislation and Washington-appointed governors and judges in Utah territory. In other words, in all of this, the distant federal authorities were seeking to restrict the populace’s God-given agency, a right they saw as guaranteed in both scripture and the Constitution. If they chose to live polygamously, or follow a prophet over a legislature, or work communally instead of individually, then the government had no right to limit their belief or religious practices, just like it couldn’t for Abinadi, Alma the Elder, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, or Abednego. Political self-determination merely protects individual agency, and if the anti-polygamy raid didn’t cement this belief, by the Cold War it was easy for Mormons to see any government that limited agency as either wrongheaded or inherently evil. Communist countries exemplified this, making it easy for Mormons to gradually migrate to the right.

Reason #2: Fiscal self-sufficiency. Mormons’ nineteenth-century collectivism was, by the Great Depression, replaced by a sense of fiscal propriety, of living within one’s means. The Church’s welfare program, launched as something of a response to the New Deal, still included the value of caring for one’s neighbor, but it also emphasized maintaining a house of fiscal propriety free from debt or speculation. Financially strained Church members were to rely on family first, Church second, and government welfare only as a last resort. Work was “to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle” of Mormons’ lives. “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (1 Tim. 5:8) There were at least two results from this: first, reliance upon government assistance for any reason became a sign of weakness or infidelity—or at least poor judgment—and, second, Church members extrapolated the Church’s advice on personal finance, specifically to avoid borrowing and deficit spending, to government finance as well.

Reason #3: Social issues. My friend Boyd Peterson, whose 2009 article “Why I’m a Mormon Democrat” is another must-read, summarized this well on NPR’s Tell Me More on Thursday. After talking about Utah’s pluralistic political atmosphere of the 1960s and 70s (with a Democratic governor and congressmen) he said, “It’s interesting that we’ve [since] become so closely identified to the Republican Party. I think a lot of that has to do with the social issues that have come to the floor recently that have been so divisive, from the women’s rights movement of the 70s on through abortion and now gay marriage. I think those kinds of issues have polarized the electorate and the two parties in ways that have kind of influenced the way the Church members have seen it.” It was difficult for Mormons to affiliate with a party that supported the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, when their church so strongly opposed it.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but those three reasons help me as a progressive understand how so many of my friends support a political party that I otherwise find so foreign to my beliefs. But there’s a flip side to the coin. While Mormons were developing their vehement dislike of government authority in the 1800s, so too grew their belief in centrally organized communal industry under the leadership of Brigham Young and John Taylor. The Great Basin Kingdom that Leonard Arrington describes so intricately in his 1958 book was, he believed, the predecessor and model of the New Deal. As he says in the preface, “[This book] may be said to suggest the positive role which a government, whether secular or theocratic, if sufficiently strong, can play in the building of a commonwealth.” Or, as LDS historian Ronald Walker says in his new introduction, “During a time of New Deal and Fair Deal reform, the Mormon Kingdom was a concrete, practical example of what government central planning could be” (p. xx). It persevered as the last manifestation of Jacksonian democratic ideals while the rest of the nation fell under the spell of capitalist industrialists and robber barons. (My friend Roger Terry wrote an interesting comparison to early Americans’ view of private corporations in Thursday’s Deseret News.) Indeed, Arrington's book shows it wasn’t polygamy but rather this centralized planning and communal social safety net that Americans rejected most strongly in the 1800s, and it would have to be overcome before Utah could gain statehood. Great Basin Kingdom reads like an autopsy of the early progressive Mormon ideals; as their communal industries died out one by one, the stage was set for capitalist expansion in Utah, through mining and other industries, akin to the rest of the country. For better or worse, Deseret—symbolized by the communal hive—disappeared as Utah joined the Union.

But for Mormons who retained a memory of this isolated period, Christ’s call to be our brothers’ keeper trumped any qualms about a large activist government, federal authority, or deficit spending. This is exactly what prominent Mormon Democrat James H. Moyle, an assistant Cabinet member for both Presidents Wilson and Roosevelt,  said in a memo on Mormonism requested by FDR in the 1930s (as reported by a young Gordon B. Hinckley in his 1951 biography of Moyle). More recently, at the meeting in Charlotte this week, Robert Cooper said, “I feel there’s a big-tent approach, helping those who are disadvantaged. If you look at economics, Mormons take good care of themselves. We give ten percent of our income to the Church, in addition to a monthly donation. So a lot of Mormons say that’s not the role of government. But not everyone has that support structure. That’s one of the roles of government, to help those who don’t have that support structure. A lot of people don’t have what we have.”

I’ll explore these issues in greater depth, but Cooper's statement is a cogent summary of why many Mormons support the Democratic platform despite its obvious flaws. Along with churches, charities, and individuals, government can often be part of the solution to society’s problems; in fact, because the federal government is as large as it is and has the authority it has, it can almost universally be a greater part of the solution than any other organization. The Church is amazing in its humanitarian programs, disaster relief, and myriad other efforts—and I’ve been a grateful beneficiary of it—but it cannot revitalize infrastructure, ensure healthcare, repair environmental disasters, regulate industry, protect our food supply, deliver our mail, run our public schools, provide police and national defense, care for the poor, or do most of the other things the government does to the extent that government can do it. With all the problems facing us today, there is room for both. Next I hope to get into some more specifics about President Obama and Governor Romney as individuals and why I think the former remains the better leader for our country.

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