Why I'm a Mormon and Support President Obama, Part 2/6: Measuring the Man

Post by Randy Astle -


My thoughts in my first post were basically introductory to talking about specific issues; for my own sake as much as anything else I wanted to think through why there are conservatives and liberals within the Mormon camp and how there is room for both (for both government and church, for both progressives and traditionalists). New converts will bring their own backgrounds and beliefs with them when they join the Church—and we’re only talking about American Mormons in all this anyway—but I think that understanding the long history of Mormonism’s relationship with American politics can help us situate our current Mormon moment as it relates to Mitt Romney’s candidacy. So I was excited Thursday morning to see that another friend, Dan Wotherspoon, had posted a discussion on this exact subject on his podcast Mormon Matters, with a lot of people who are a lot more informed than I. It’s definitely worth a listen. If any readers were underwhelmed with my thoughts they’ll certainly be much more satisfied by the four gentlemen on the podcast.

So that was where I started, and in the rest of my posts I’ll look at specific issues that face our country and how my faith informs my beliefs about them. But what I hope to do today is look at what kind of political leaders I think the Lord wants us to have—and in a democracy what kind we should strive to elect—regardless of their specific platforms or the form of government in question. I guess I’m asking whether we should have specific moral standards for our public officials—if that’s even relevant—and then, to liken these standards unto ourselves, how Governor Romney and President Obama measure up. It’s a mixed bag and therefore I think a profitable discussion to have at this point in the campaign.

So what do the scriptures say? It makes sense to begin with Doctrine and Covenants 134, a statement of belief regarding the Church’s position on government, usually ascribed to Oliver Cowdery and written in Joseph Smith’s absence during a conference in 1835. This was when Mormons were first beginning to be seen as un-American because they allegedly sought to govern themselves autonomously, akin to South Carolina in the Nullification Crisis of two years earlier. Section 134 thus seeks to define what the Church believes to be the proper role of government and of religious societies, and it only briefly touches on the desired character of government officials: verse three reads: “We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign.” Hence, rulers and civil officers should be equitable and just, broad terms that encompass a trove of character traits: someone who is equitable and just must, perforce, be honest and forthright, which is one of my chief concerns with any elected official. Being equitable and just means regarding oneself as an equal to and a servant of the people: hence, not attempting to deceive the electorate or seek personal gain through position. It means seeking what is best for the country over a single political party, special interest group, or campaign donor.  It means they will always put their country and their people ahead of themselves.

LDS readers may make the connection with Doctrine and Covenants 121, part of an epistle written by Joseph Smith three years later while languishing in prison, having been betrayed by some of his closest associates. He wrote that “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion,” (v. 39) which, in civil as well as religious government, consists of undertaking to “cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness” (v. 37). Power corrupts, and it is a difficult task to find anyone who chooses to seek after civil authority for the public good yet who can remain untouched by the perks and power that accompany that authority. That’s why the Nephites “did wax strong in love towards Mosiah; yea, they did esteem him more than any other man” (Mos. 29:40) and why King George III described his rival General Washington as “the greatest man in the world”: both men relinquished the power they could have seized.

I think I can summarize all this into two qualities: one, honesty; and two, humility—perhaps the hardest qualities to find in politicians of any political stripe. In my mind these qualities mirror those described by King Mosiah in characterizing a righteous sovereign: “If it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments . . . then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you” (Mos. 29:13). He holds up his father Benjamin as an example of this and says he himself has “labored with all the power and faculties” (v. 14) of his soul to reach the same standard. The scriptures give us numerous other examples of righteous rulers—Nephi, Alma, Helaman, Hezekiah, Lamoni, Josiah, Lachoneus, Emer, Melchizedek, Anti-Nephi-Lehi, Enoch—and even righteous bureaucrats and civil servants—Daniel, Nehemiah, Gideon, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and Joseph in Egypt. The Book of Mormon’s oft-repeated promise about our continent—that if we keep the commandments we will prosper in the land—is personified in our executive leaders and their own humility; as Mosiah says, as the king goes so goes the nation (Mos. 29:16-23), and the national decline has visibly followed the moral decline of initially great leaders like David and Solomon, let alone the likes of King Noah, Jezebel, and Herod.

We want leaders who are righteous, but that’s hard to gauge. After all, when Samuel was looking for a king the Lord told him that only he could look on David’s heart (1 Sam. 16:7). But trying to look holistically into politicians’ hearts is a dodgy business, so on a very practical level I’m quite satisfied limiting my inquiry to candidates’ honesty and, when possible, perceived humility. The latter doesn’t change much from person to person—all candidates promote themselves with monumental bluster—but the former, honesty, does. James says that if a man misuses his tongue it defiles his whole body; though “a little member,” it can give us insight into a man’s entire soul (Jas. 3:5-8). I wouldn’t want to be judged exclusively on what leaves my mouth, but bearing in mind our limited time as voters and that we’re not judging someone for their eternal disposition but just for a few years in elected office we can look at what they say as a pretty accurate measure of the man.

I suppose I’m fairly stern about this. When I catch a politician issuing public lies then I lose all esteem for them. I really admired Anthony Weiner’s ability to destroy ignorant reporters and galvanize constituents around important issues, regardless of his strength as a legislator. But when he started producing feeble lies to cover his very public tracks, the respect went out the window; likewise there was no way I was going to vote to re-elect my representative Charles Rangel after his financial improprieties and factually flimsy self-defense. The national example par excellence is Watergate, with major instances going back through the Gulf of Tonkin all the way to the XYZ Affair, but my most personal experience came with Bill Clinton. In August 1998 I returned from my mission to discover the country embroiled by the President’s misdeeds, leading to his impeachment that December. I was surprised but not particularly moved by his sexual indiscretions; I thought it reprehensible on a personal level but largely irrelevant to his ability to govern. His perjury, however, was another matter. Though not naïve about the relative honesty of all politicians, I thought Clinton’s perjury so inexcusable that it turned me against Al Gore in 2000. I supported Gore’s positions in every way over George W. Bush, but in my post-mission zeal I thought he had handled the Lewinsky affair poorly: when the full breadth of Clinton’s perjury and obstruction of justice became known, the only honorable thing I thought Gore could do was to resign in protest—or at least condemn his boss in the strongest of terms. He did neither, and the result was that I voted for a Republican for one of the only times in my life. (Imagine how I later felt when that new President repeatedly lied about the infinitely weightier issue of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.)

And that brings me back to Mitt Romney. I mentioned last week how frustrated and even a little angry I get regarding his platform, but the thing that really ticks me off is his perpetual dishonesty, dishonesty that makes President Clinton look like Abraham Lincoln. I’m trying to broach this some way besides just as a blatant personal attack, because it’s important to remember what a good person Romney is. Eric Samuelsen, one of the best writers in Mormonism, one of my mentors at BYU, and one of the most liberal Mormons I know, touched on this on his blog in July:

I actually like Mitt Romney. In fact, one thing I'm grateful for in this fall election is that we're genuinely choosing between two moral, decent guys; family men, good folks.  This isn't by any means inevitable.  It's not terribly hard to imagine this election being between Newt Gingrich and John Edwards, for example. Scary thought, that. 

I know we're not supposed to like Romney, we liberals… [But I don’t] see his policies as suggesting some core of rottenness in his character.  He's a Mormon patriarch writ large.  I know fifty of them in my stake.  Call him Friday night and tell him you having a moving van arriving Saturday morning, and he'll be there, bright and early, work gloves tucked into his belt, a smile on his face. 

This is a hypothetical testimonial; here’s a real one, courtesy of Glenn Beck. (Sorry it won't embed here on Wordpress. Feel free to start around 3:50 and end by 5:15, and as a filmmaker I really have to apologize for all those endless sea-sickness-inducing tracking shots; perhaps someone could donate a tripod to the show.)

If that’s the kind of person Mitt Romney is on a personal level, why is his public persona so different? He is, for example, just incredibly negative. All candidates have to differentiate themselves from their opponents, but Romney spearheaded the most negative primary election in the history of presidential politics. Clear back in January analysts in Florida, where he poured $15.3 million in one month on ads that were 92% negative, were saying things like, “I have absolutely never seen television advertising so negative in a Republican presidential primary.”

And it’s kept going of course, with all the force of Citizens United behind it. Mudslinging is unbecoming any candidate, and it is, of course, not Christlike in any way. Here’s a verse (6) from Doctrine & Covenants 134 that I don’t think I’d ever noticed before but which applies specifically to how we citizens should regard our government officials, of either party: “We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations…” Romney is certainly not honoring the station of the President through this fog of negativity, nor is he paying respect and deference to the laws like the Affordable Care Act that seem to be in his crosshairs. To be sure, President Obama has been dipping in the muck as well, but claims that his campaign are as negative as his opponent’s are more spin than fact.

This is all bad enough, but unfortunately it gets worse. Romney seems on track to run the least honest campaign in history as well. There’s Paul Ryan, of course, who’s blatant dishonesty has even drawn criticism from Fox News along with CNN and the traditional suspects, and who can’t even discuss his marathon running without including two lies, about the number of races he’s run and his finishing time, last week trying to clean up the mess by admitting that he just made up the facts. No harm in that, right?

Romney is not Ryan, but he is responsible for him and they’re running to be in the same administration. And Romney doesn’t need Ryan's help to dabble in dishonesty. There are the truly famous moments, like taking credit for how President Obama saved the auto industry despite the New York Times op-ed he wrote in 2008 unequivocally condemning government involvement, arguing instead for a “managed bankruptcy.” But there are smaller Etch-a-Sketch moments weaving their way throughout his campaign, on everything from abortion to global warming.

The sheer number of lies is unbecoming any candidate, but I'm afraid that it’s downright disgraceful for a priesthood holder; like I said last week, I'm afraid it's rather difficult to not subconsciously hold him up to a higher standard. But I don't even need to do that. In June The Guardian wrote up a laundry list of falsehoods emanating from Romney’s own lips, blaming the President for touring the world to apologize for America (not true), saying the stimulus didn’t create private-sector jobs (it did, over three million of them), saying Obama's grown government (both government spending and the number of government employees are down), saying he’s raised taxes (they’ve gone down), saying Obamacare will consume 50% of the economy (not true), etc., etc. The connections to reality become increasingly tenuous, with New York magazine even publishing an article entitled “Romney Just Making Stuff Up Now.”  And that was before the RNC.

How bad is it? On Friday Steve Benen at MSNBC published the thirty-fourth installment  in his series totaling up Romney’s weekly mendacities. This week Romney told at least thirty-six verifiably indisputable lies. His incredible change of position on healthcare reform—that he wouldn’t get rid of all of it, an Etch-a-Sketch move toward the center to pick up moderate voters—came not just after several years of claiming that he would get rid of all of it, but just one day after claiming on the record that he would get rid of all of it. This week he claimed he balanced Massachusetts’ budget even though he left the state with a deficit. This week he said the federal deficit has doubled under Obama when it’s actually shrunk by $200 billion. And so on and so on, just this week.

The amazing thing is that Romney continues to hammer away at the same falsehoods, despite their obvious inaccuracy, over and over again. This is supposedly on the theory that if enough voters hear the same lies repeated on Fox News and conservative radio enough, the facts won’t matter: hence, his campaign will not be dictated by fact checkers. And it’s this point, quoted here from the Guardian article but raised by many commentators, that I as a Latter-day Saint observing another Latter-day Saint candidate, find the most unsettling:

This is perhaps the most interesting and disturbing element of Romney's tireless obfuscation: that even when corrected, it has little impact on the presumptive GOP nominee's behavior. This is happening at a time when fact-checking operations in major media outlets have increased significantly, yet that appears to have no effect on the Romney campaign.

What is the proper response when, even after it's pointed out that the candidate is not telling the truth, he keeps doing it? Romney actually has a telling rejoinder for this. When a reporter challenged his oft-stated assertion that President Obama had made the economy worse (factually, not correct), he denied ever saying it in the first place. It's a lie on top of a lie.

Do you remember that old Homefront Jr. spot, a Church-produced PSA from the 1980s that sang, “If you tell one lie it leads to another. Then you tell two lies to cover each other. Then you tell three lies—oh brother, you’re in trouble up to your ears.”

If I as a Latter-day Saint refused, on moral grounds, to vote for a candidate who served as the vice-president for a man who got caught telling one admittedly horrendous lie, how can I possibly justify voting for a man who himself told thirty-six equally horrendous lies just this week, many of them again and again and again? Reporters like George Stephanopoulos have given him ample opportunity to repent and come clean, but he refuses to do it. “Thou shalt not lie; he that lieth and will not repent shall be cast out” (D&C 42:21), not elected to the highest office in the land.

I haven’t even talked about avoiding the very appearance of evil. By only releasing one set of tax returns Romney leaves the door open for us to assume the worst about the rest of them. As one outlet, I forget which, wrote a few weeks ago: “It’s a pattern of secrecy, and this [the Boston Globe’s revelation that Romney was still actively running Bain Capital two years after he claims to have left] is just the latest example of him trying to hide the truth from voters.”

And then there’s Libya. The gall Romney had on September 11th, to use the death of American diplomats abroad to score a political point, was affronting. The fact that he misrepresented the truth in a way that everyone understood when he made the statement that night was more jarring. That he and his campaign have doubled down on the lies throughout the rest of this week is truly affronting. Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast analyzed Romney’s statement with its inaccuracies and concluded:

[Romney’s] people are simply unfit for the responsibility of running the United States. The knee-jerk judgments, based on ideology not reality; the inability to back down when you have said something obviously wrong; and the attempt to argue that the president of the US actually sympathized with those who murdered his own ambassador in Benghazi: these are disqualifying instincts for someone hoping to be the president of the US. Disqualifying.

Maybe, maybe not, but it’s certainly troubling. The photo of Romney leaving the dais with a smile on his face didn’t do him any favors. When Captain Moroni’s men were suffering abroad, the chief judge Pahoran wrote him saying, “I do not joy in your great afflictions, yea, it grieves my soul. But behold, there are those who do joy in your afflictions . . . and it is those who have sought to take away the judgment-seat from me . . . for they have used great flattery, and they have led away the hearts of many people…” (Alma 60:2-4) Now, of course Romney doesn’t joy in the death of Chris Stevens and the other American diplomats, but he’s given us no way to know that or reason to suspect it.

Contrast this situation with 1980, when President Carter’s attempt to free the American hostages in Iran went horribly wrong. As reported then, candidate Ronald Reagan “urged Americans to ‘stand united’ and to pray . . . He also said it would not be appropriate for him to express his reaction to the action. ‘This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united.’ George Bush was also campaigning in Michigan, saying he completely supported Carter’s actions. ‘I unequivocally support the president, no ifs, ands or buts. This is the time to support him,’ Bush said. ‘This is not a time to go one up politically. He made a difficult, courageous decision.’”

Hillary Clinton gave a moving and forceful response  to the Libyan and Egyptian attacks, akin to these men in 1980. Romney, in contrast, gave a mean-spirited and fallacious attack on President Obama for events beyond his control, then hunkered down this week by saying the attacks would never have occurred were he President and his Republican allies in control of the State Department. Honest? No. Humble? No.

Such assertions sound like the “great flattery” described by Pahoran, or those used by Amalickiah (Alma 46:4-5), or by Akish (Ether 8) or Gadianton (Helaman 2). I do not and cannot believe that Mitt Romney is anything like these men. I believe the descriptions we’ve heard of his deep concern for people, his kindness, his charity in the best sense of the word. What I can’t yet do is square that private individual away with this public figure who we’ve seen so smoothly and consistently bend the truth for his personal ends. Of course he’s not evil, but he hasn’t sufficiently avoided the appearance thereof to gain my trust or my vote. And I really wish that the LDS candidate would have set the standard for excellence. I feel America is in better hands with the President who has consistently treated us like adults, expanded executive transparency, and who is already navigating us through these crises.

Next, given the events of this week, foreign policy.

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