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Response to Derrick Shore opinion on Mormons and Mitt: The Myth About Separation of Church and State

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This opinion piece on Mormons and the Separation of Church and State was brought to my attention by a friend who had seen it online, and asked me to submit my thoughts on the matter.  All feedback is of course welcome.

DS: “But here’s why Mr. Romney’s religion is relevant: For Mormons, there really is no such thing as separation of church and state.”

Not true.  We firmly believe in the separation of church and state.  Mormons have a long history of respecting and upholding the laws of the land, and that includes laws created to keep the two entities separate.  That is why whenever new laws on any subject are drawn up or old ones modified, LDS church leadership complies, and encourages its people to do the same.  In fact it is written into church policy that we are to obey and uphold all of the laws of whichever nation we live in.

DS: “From as early as I can remember, I was taught in church that the framers of our Constitution were directly influenced by God to create a nation where Jesus Christ could come to Earth and his true gospel could be restored. Essentially, Mormons believe that the United States was chosen and created specifically by God as the Promised Land where Earth’s one true religion — Mormonism — could finally be discovered and then flourish.”

Mr. Shore is not a spokesman for the LDS church, as neither am I.  He can only reflect church teachings as he perceived them growing up. I don’t doubt the veracity of his account; I only caution that his statements can’t be taken to represent official positions of the church. We do hold a general belief that God inspired the American founders to conceive and arrange the magnificent principles that embody our Constitution.  And yes, my account is that we do believe God placed Joseph Smith not by accident in a place and time when conditions were right for the restoration (not a discovery, as Shore states) of Jesus Christ’s original gospel to begin and move forward.

DS: “One doesn’t need to look far to learn more about this version of American history. On the Mormon website DesertBook.com (a Mormon Literature bookstore), there are dozens of books about American history — one of which cites “evidence of God’s hand throughout the unique history of the United States.”

There is nothing alarming about the belief by Mormons and other religions that God has a hand in the affairs of men. The Pilgrims and Founders were God-fearing people who recorded their convictions that God was involved in their respective journeys toward a tyranny-free life. I’m thankful to have an ancestor who came across the ocean on the Mayflower.  Thankful to have been born American, where all of my ancestors have found the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their consciences. That God cares and makes a difference in our collective and individual pilgrimages permeates our oral traditions.  I don’t know why this belief set should play strongly into whom anyone votes for in November.

DS:”The sometimes-blurry lines between the LDS church and politics can be illustrated by the 2008 passage of Proposition 8 in California, which amended the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage. The First Presidency of the church issued a written statement asking members to do all they could “to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman.”

There have been rare occasions when LDS church leadership has overtly encouraged members to move a political agenda forward. The four examples I can name: 1890 Manifesto, 1960’s ERA, 1978 Priesthood for Blacks, and 2008 SSM. 2008 would have been the ideal time for this type of collusion to occur between Romney and church leadership. But it didn’t, according to my knowledge. It’s one thing for a Romney-friendly PAC to donate to Prop. 8. It is quite another for a future President Romney to suddenly veer away from his duty to the American people and modify his actions to be in lockstep with the straw man [of an LDS President who tries to dictate to Romney that he needs to take some specific action as POTUS]. It won’t happen. It didn’t when he was Governor Romney, it doesn’t for Speaker Harry Reid, nor does it happen for my representative in Congress [LDS Democrat Jim Matheson whom I helped to elect], or for the numerous other people’s representatives that occupy DC offices and also subscribe to the LDS faith.

Does that mean that we don’t do what we can as Mormons to move forward those of our fold who are running for office? No. We do. Yeah Samake was a presidential candidate in Mali this year, who also happens to be LDS in a Muslim country. He was winning too, before a military coup disrupted the process. We were all cheering for him to succeed, because we wanted them to have a great leader, which he’s shown himself to be among his people. He knows what they need, and has real solutions. Some of our people have contributed money to his campaign. I’d bet that his supporters even come from both LDS Democrats and Republicans. But I think that’s a far cry from asserting undue influence, or colluding to achieve an inappropriate end. But the point is, where is the evidence to validate this fear that a Romney presidency would be beholden to LDS leadership?

DS: “Top Mormon officials also held a special, emergency satellite broadcast from Salt Lake City in which they warned, “You are a mighty army. You’ll be responsible for holding true to the doctrines of the Church.”

I honestly don’t recall any such broadcast. He may be rewriting the facts in his own mind here.  Or possibly he’s mistaking one of the church’s regularly held leadership or general conference broadcasts as being emergency and/or only focused on Prop.8 in nature.

DS: “When LDS church leaders issue directives like this, their members listen and immediately mobilize. …Despite a rather murky money trail, an estimated 50 percent of the money raised for Prop 8 came from Mormons, and a vast majority of door-to-door volunteers (an estimated 85 percent) were Mormon. A Mitt Romney PAC reportedly donated $10,000 to support the measure.”

As I mentioned earlier, this type of overt political statement by church leadership is rare.  I make no apologies on behalf of my friends in California who took up the cause.  I would likely have been among them had I still been a resident there at the time.  They are well within their prerogative to become active in any political cause they choose.  I want to make one fact very clear at this point, and that is that when the President of the church issues this kind of a statement, encouraging members to get involved, it is not a mandate.  No one’s agency or salvation was at stake here.  No one who chose to ignore the statement was punished by their leaders for conscientiously objecting.  Even the members who launched the Prop.8 blacklist website, used by opponents to punish contributors to Prop.8, were NOT punished by church leadership in any way, as far as I know.  And yet they did cause measurable harm to those people by encouraging retribution in the way they organized and published the data.

Note: The conglomeration of maps on the above website is an iteration of the original data and website, which listed donors on a spreadsheet together with zip codes and monetary amounts.  It is unclear whether or not the subsequent website was authored or contributed to by LDS members.  In any case, it took the dirty work of violating privacy to astonishing heights.  I found my old neighborhood on the map and was able to identify a number of friends who contributed, by their location on the map.

DS: “Members of the Mormon church … also donate incredible amounts of time and additional money (in the form of monthly offerings, or for special emergencies like Prop 8) to further the agenda of the church and remain obedient to God.

Shore is dealing in half-truths here.  Yes we do expend incredible amounts of time and sometimes money to further the growth of the church.  Monthly offerings to the local congregation are used to help the poor or needy members of the local community.  This offering, as well as the ten percent tithe, are not forced on anyone.  A member has to initiate the donation of money to the church on their own, and seek out a local leader to give it to.  (One exception, as noted by my brother in the comments section is that active members are visited once a month to collect fast offerings, but they are not mandatory.  Any amount donated is kept private from the collectors).  No offering plate is passed around in Sunday meetings, or other church gatherings.  The church does not utilize tithes and fast offerings to support political agendas. Period.  There is no line item option on the donation slip specified: “political donations.” Further, no one’s salvation is at stake when an LDS member chooses non-involvement in politics, whether encouraged by church leadership or not.  I hope my thoughts on this are excessively clear.  Keep in mind that I offer here my interpretation of LDS policy and culture, not pretending to be an official church spokesperson.

DS: “If members break this vow to steadfastly follow God’s teachings, they risk losing eternal salvation, in which they believe they will live with their (non-plural) families forever in paradise.”

Ibid.

DS: “Mormons believe that their leader is a modern-day prophet who speaks directly to God — and that’s why their stance on many issues or practices seems to evolve or change abruptly. In 1890 the prophet instructed members to immediately end the practice of polygamy (which Congress had outlawed in 1862 but which church members continued to practice for decades).

I’m digressing from the point here, but Shore’s statements are misleading, and they demonstrate a lack of understanding of the time period immediately preceding the 1890 Manifesto.  There is also irony in the Mormon connection with the SSM debate that begs to be noted.  Utah wasn’t admitted to the union until 1896.  It follows that the polygamous church could not fully be subject to acts of Congress until they were legitimate citizens of the U.S. But most glaring here, is the political climate during this era Shore doesn’t consider.  He glibly paints a picture of the 1890 Manifesto issued by church leaders as a sudden or arbitrary directive, and the response by members as adopted suddenly and blindly. The decades of non-compliance he refers to were in actuality the extent of time it took to quell the bitter culture war that was playing out, to determine the fate of polygamy.  On one side were Mormons, trying to attain statehood without forsaking polygamy, as Congress demanded.  On the other side were non-LDS and hostile territory officials who enforced anti-polygamy policies ruthlessly and with approval of Congress.  (For a history lesson on this subject, see here.)

The script should be familiar to SSM activists.  A culture war in which one group perceives itself as persecuted by mainstream America, who only wants to be left alone to live their family life as they choose. In the 21st Century, when the re-definers of marriage win the war, it will pave the way for polygamists to take up their cause with confidence.  They need only to establish that they should be included in the new and expanded definition.  Only now, the LDS church agrees with the DOMA legislation passed by Congress to prevent SSM, and hope to see the traditional definition written into the Constitution.  We’re now two decades into this culture war, and I’d not be surprised to see it span another two before it is completely resolved.

DS: “Then, in 1978, fifteen years after racial integration was mandated by the federal government, God revealed to Mormon leaders that African-Americans could finally enter into Mormon temples and hold the full privileges of membership.

Yes, and I wonder that this should be a point of criticism.  It was the one time out of four that secularists can point to, when the LDS church overtly promoted a viewpoint, which primarily seems an effort to reject the status quo of bigotry.

DS: “Mormons can’t anticipate when these kinds of revelations from God may come, but they live as righteously as possible in order to be ready to adapt to commands from their leaders.”

I beg to differ.  In the cases of the Manifesto, ERA, and SSM, they had all been issues watched closely by church members and leaders alike, in the decades preceding the action.  They were each debated at crossroads in church policy, which needed to be adjusted for in terms of doctrine.  We do try to live righteously, but our motive ISN’T “in order to be ready to adapt to commands from [our] leaders.”  Among my motives personally, is to serve God and promote happiness in my family life.  But to be clear, I don’t anticipate that any instructions from church leadership are likely to be objectionable to me.

DS: “Let me be clear: I’m a firm believer in freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and the freedom to support the policies and candidates one chooses. I also believe that it’s not only OK to question authority (whether it be teachers, religious leaders, or politicians) but an essential part of human development and the journey to becoming a better-informed citizen.”

I’m pleased to find a point on which we can both agree. 🙂

DS: “In the case of Mr. Romney, the political agenda of the Mormon church (of which he is a devout, lifetime member) potentially carries significant political implications — and that’s why it needs to be more openly discussed. This kind of political discourse should be at the heart of true democracy. Yet somehow the political landscape in the U.S. has fostered an environment where asking tough or uncomfortable questions is the equivalent of using “gotcha” tactics or is considered just plain unpatriotic. I disagree.”

I’m all for informed, even pointed discussion.  When it’s supported by credible sources and absent of ad hominem attacks, passionate discourse is among the best of American traditions.  The problem in 21st Century America is not that people won’t talk about issues as they understand them.  They’ve just lost the art of doing so with respect and civility.  Worse, most of our people have shrugged off their civic duty, instead deferring to those who would gain most by loudly advocating for a particular position/ideology/agenda.  Give me enlightened discussion by the rank and file citizens.  With the primary goal of understanding one’s opponent, a desire to preserve the freedoms long-enjoyed but disappearing, we’d be on our way to a better nation.

DS: “If Mitt Romney is elected president, what happens the next time top officials in the Mormon church instruct members to take a specific political stance because it is God’s will? Because Mormons are expected to put God before everything else, this puts Mr. Romney in a tricky position that might jeopardize his eternal salvation. As the leader of our nation, who would he put first: God or the American people?

See my earlier response, on straw man collusion.  Additionally, who says that putting “God before everything else” translates for Romney into being a rubber stamp for the LDS church? Founding fathers such as George Washington put God before everything else too, and it served the people.  They took seriously the belief that God wanted them to do right by the people.  Romney takes his promises seriously.  He is bound by honor to uphold the oath he swears before the American people.  That may seem an antiquated concept to most Americans today, but to devout Mormons it still applies. No one who arrives at that juncture in history does so by being a rubber stamp.  He’s fought tooth and nail to win the campaign.  He’s not about to stupidly  throw that back in people’s faces.

DS: “Mr. Romney has said repeatedly that his religion would not get in the way of his presidential responsibilities, but the simple fact is that his presidential responsibilities would get in the way of his religion.

I respectfully submit that you are mistaken.  There is no evidence to support the idea that Romney has ever leveraged his government authority to write church policies or positions into law. No reason for that to suddenly change.  Further efforts to incite fear in Americans of a Romney presidency are misguided, without foundation.

For another LDS perspective on the separation of church and state, see Ezra Taft Benson’s “The Proper Role of Government.”  He authored this article in the 1960’s, when he was an apostle of the church.  Incidentally, he also served as a member of Dwight Eisenhower’s cabinet.  He later became President of the LDS church, in 1985 after the death of Spencer W. Kimball.

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2 Comments

  1. Your little brother says:

    I looked this over and did find one point that I felt was a little misrepresented. Fast Offerings do often involve a knock on the door, though this is probably a courtesy from an earlier era, it is a monthly donation that is solicited, though considerations for privacy are taken.

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