Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Mormon voices in the public square and what to make of them

This article was printed in the Washington Post Sept. 3, 2010. I thought it was very good so wanted to post it in it's entirety here.


Mormon voices in the public square and what to make of them
In all of the media analysis and dissection of the Glenn Beck rally in Washington last weekend, and in particular his membership in the Mormon faith, there has been one conspicuous oversight.

To be sure, Glenn Beck was accompanied by an impressive array of interfaith leaders - Catholics, Jews and evangelicals who, despite theological differences - appeared on the same stage as Beck because his message of restoring honor and returning to faith in God struck such a strong chord with them.

But leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not officially represented at the Lincoln Memorial event, however. Why not - especially since the Church respects the right of all faiths to raise their voice in the public square?

The Beck rally - as he had predicted and as most of the media has since acknowledged - turned out to be less about politics and more about a return to God. But The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons for short) is extremely wary of compromising its policy of strict party political neutrality. As was stated often during former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's run for the presidency in 2008, the Church neither endorses nor opposes political parties, candidates or platforms. It doesn't allow its church buildings, membership lists or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes. And it doesn't attempt to direct its members to which candidate or party to give their votes, regardless of whether a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

So even though the extraordinary Beck rally was billed and ultimately judged by many as nonpolitical, it did not seem to be the kind of event where Mormon leaders would feel comfortable given the expectations of a political event.

Part of the same policy of partisan neutrality also includes encouragement to Church members to be active and responsible citizens in the political process. The Church encourages its members to study issues and use their vote for whichever party most closely aligns with their ideas of good government.

In that sense, Glenn Beck was doing what every Church member is encouraged by the Church to do - make their voice heard. The fact that Beck has a huge megaphone doesn't change the principle. Mormons obviously are free to express whatever views of good government that they care to espouse, and many of them do. Their views may of course be influenced by their faith and values, but they speak as individuals, not as Church spokesmen. They may also disagree with each other. Since the same church embraces Senator Harry Reid, Governor Mitt Romney and Glenn Beck - all active members - that shouldn't even need saying.

One of the reasons why many seem transfixed by the fact that Glenn Beck is a Mormon is, I believe, reflective of an outdated yet deeply entrenched tendency to stereotype Mormons. If the only Mormons you've ever met are two young men on your door step wearing suits, ties and white shirts, that may be understandable. But there are six million Latter-day Saints now in the United States (about the same number as Jews), and another eight million worldwide, and they represent a growing cross section of ethnicity, demographics, cultural experiences, professions and attitudes. They are not obliged to think and act in lockstep. The common thread that unites them is their particular understanding of what they call the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and the commitment to follow Christ's teachings in their daily lives. That is a very powerful common denominator. But Mormons, like many Americans, share core values of family and community service, and in day-to-day life mesh comfortably with their neighbors.

There is a certain irony that this national discussion of Mormons is happening now. A few weeks ago, the Church launched an advertising effort in nine cities of the United States that will continue until at least the end of the year. Dubbed the "I'm a Mormon campaign," the ads depict ordinary Latter-day Saints in a variety of pursuits that don't fit the Mormon stereotype. They all end with the tag, "I'm so-and-so, and I'm a Mormon." Many have found the ads revealing and compelling, and I'm certain it has prompted some to reassess their perceptions.

Many scholars and Church observers have written about the "Mormon Diaspora"- the slow but steady spread of the faith from its Rocky Mountain home of 160 years, through the United States and most of the world. However long the Glenn Beck phenomenon endures, Mormonism itself will keep producing its share of public figures. Those public figures will continue to speak out on issues of concern to them, but they do so without any pretense of speaking for other members of their faith or for the Church itself.

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