Although I have limited my activity on Facebook in the past year, I still scroll through the newest posts from time to time to keep up with people’s lives. In recent months I started noticing a pattern among the political posts I was receiving from my LDS friends. One “friend” would post about something that had deeply offended them, politically. It may have been a negative ad aimed at their presidential favorite, or it might be something disparaging Mormons in general. They would often post the item or a link to the item for others to read or watch. Those others then also became offended and reposted it for their network to read or watch. Some “friends” even seemed to search out media that they knew would offend them - and then post those examples for others to watch and be offended by and pass on! It seems an endless cycle of people from one political view searching out offensive things the other side engages in, drawing battle lines where one feels that victory must be achieved at all costs, no matter how bloody and uncivil the “battle” became.
People were so angry, so offended, I had to wonder why they continued to watch and re-post such things. It made no sense to me - surely we wouldn’t seek out Rated R movies or pornography to watch, post publicly, and exhort our friends to also watch and pass on, just so we can first-hand experience offensive media and share it with others, so we can all be offended together. Why, then, would one do so with offensive political posts? The only outcome I noticed with all of this posting and re-posting of offensive political media was that people became more angry, more likely to lash out at those on the opposite side of the political spectrum, and less likely to find common ground. It was, and is, a vicious cycle.
It was after I started noticing this pattern that I began pondering the 13th Article of Faith, which reads: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things (emphasis added).
This led me to ponder what, exactly, we as an LDS people, were “seeking after” during this “Mormon Moment” in American politics. Were we seeking unity, shared values and ideas, common ground? Or were we seeking pride, contention, paranoia, fear, anger, and divisiveness?
After leaving a particularly difficult political exchange a few months ago I realized that there were some things influencing my life that I did not like very much. I didn't like the antagonism I felt towards others. I didn’t like the antagonism others felt towards me. I didn’t even have to know most of these “others” because my antagonism reached far and wide, to “friends of friends,” as it seems their’s did also. Democrats and Republicans have all been lumped into single generalizations, each on opposing sides. If one Republican did or said something offensive, then all were guilty by association, including their candidate. If one Democrat did or said something offensive, then not only were all other Democrats tarred with the same brush, so was the President.
The constant barrage of negative ads and commentary - in print, online, on yard signs, on TV, on the radio - left me feeling heartsick, isolated, and unwanted within my personal circle and culture. As a civic-minded citizen, I wanted to express my views on major political issues but the process often left me feeling even worse, even when I was sincerely trying to engage in more civil discourse and guard my own words so as not to offend. This “Mormon Moment,” for me, has been very discouraging and left me with a poor impression of many fellow Church members, many of whom are friends or acquaintances of long standing.
From my observations, I can assume that others have been affected similarly by this dark cloud of political incivility that has raged through our nation and among LDS church members. Only a few days before the election, as I sat in the chapel at church waiting for a meeting to start, I overheard two ward members quite vocally discussing their recent Facebook political discussions with another ward member (who was not present). Their language was not kind. It was not civil. I shudder to think of how the person they were discussing would have felt had they overheard those comments. I wonder if others have made similar comments about me, since my political leanings are in some ways different than many of those I attended church with. Even thinking that might be the case, that people whom I thought loved and respected me might actually think or say such hurtful things about me because of my political and social views, makes my heart hurt.
Post election fervor included Facebook posts accusing Obama supporters of being “ignorant,” ruining the country, leading a moral decline, and paving a pathway of evil. It was like a huge ball of rage was sweeping through the ranks of LDS people who had voted for Romney. Some Facebook posters were so angry at the outcome that they were even angry at other Romney supporters who chose to post positive comments about moving forward, working together, seeking unity and optimism for the future. Those who wanted to be mad sought out ways to stoke their anger at the opposition,and kept it fueled for days.
The scriptures tell us that strife and quarreling are symptoms of weak faith (Proverbs 10:12; 2 Timothy 2:23-25; James 4:1) and are among the things the Lord “detests.” The spirit of hate and intolerance can work so tirelessly in the hearts of humankind that those who should be seeking unity and a Zion society no longer see each other as brother and sister but as liars, exploiters, and enemies.
Many times people of faith excuse such behavior as acceptable because “it’s just politics.” Bryan Roberts, in his article “7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics,” states that “Not only are believers excused for their political indiscretions, but they are often applauded for committing them. Slander is explained away as righteous anger; winning arguments are esteemed higher than truthful ones (whether or not the “facts” align); and those who stir up dissension are given the pulpit.”
In direct contrast to this way of thinking is counsel given to us directly from modern prophets, such as the LDS Church’s statement on civility in the media (link below). In his book “Created for Greater Things,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland says: “Think the best of each other, especially of those you say you love. Assume the good and doubt the bad.”
I would like to include the following excerpt from a post written by Joshua Uda regarding political discourse, both in reference to candidates themselves, and the populace in general. I recommend that you follow the link to see the photos attached to his post, as it illustrates both the dark spirit that enters each of us in contentious discourse, as well as the lightness of spirit when we throw off the contentious spirit in political debate and attempt to be more true to gospel principles. Speaking of Mitt Romney, Uda states:
“In debates one and two, he was visibly aggravated as he acquiesced to the demands of his campaign advisors to contend aggressively against the president, and at the end of the second debate, he could not even bring himself to look at his opponent, much less shake his hand. His entire countenance was full of darkness.”
Like everyone else, I expected more of the same in the final debate, but something had changed since the week before. This time, Romney was pleasant, polite, and respectful from his first words to his last. He avoided contention throughout the debate, refusing to attack or even counter when attacked, and backed off meekly when confronted with misrepresentations of fact. He gave the president praise for the things he had done right, and honestly expressed agreement with policies that had worked well. Most notably, he deviated from his talking points, abandoning the saber rattling party line expressed so aggressively on his own campaign website, instead speaking of his hopes and aspirations for peace.
In an obscure moment of post-debate punditry, one commentator mentioned that he had called a Romney campaign strategist during the debate to inquire as to the sudden and unexpected change of strategy. The strategist answered with frustration, “It was all Romney’s idea. He insisted that he do it his own way.”
His own way…
I saw a man who had caved to the demands of the world around him, and a man who deeply regretted it because, despite his success and notable gains… their advice went contrary to everything he stood for and against everything he aspired to be. I saw a man who, at some point after that second debate, recognized the spirit of contention, looked deep into his heart, and reflected on his own way, on the one and only way he had ever known and had always strived to follow.”
As for me… a staunch and vocal Obama supporter… [Romney’s] performance was perfect.
And despite his earlier failings… his repentance and his courageous rejection of contention, not while on the ropes, but with incredible forward momentum and the goal in sight, risking everything… this example of Christian meekness… brought me to shame, and made me reflect on my own failure to walk in the path of Christ in all things… even in politics.
As he stayed after the debate to warmly converse with the President and First Lady, I saw a different look on Governor Romney’s face than I had seen a week earlier, not the personal disappointment and shame of compromise nor the lingering fire of contention, but the deepest and most serene peace that comes only from the Spirit of Truth as it witnesses to your soul that the path you have chosen is the path of Christ, the Son of God.”
Two points stood out to me most clearly when reading Uda’s post. First, “his repentance and his courageous rejection of contention....brought me to shame, and made me reflect on my own failure to walk in the path of Christ in all things… even in politics.” And second, that “the deepest and most serene peace...comes only from the Spirit of Truth as it witnesses to your soul that the path you have chosen is the path of Christ, the Son of God.” This is what I should be seeking after, to walk in the path of Christ in all things, and not follow the path of political contention, nor should I excuse it to the least degree when I see it in the public sphere.
The scriptures say: “For verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another. Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away” (3 Nephi 11:29-30).
All of these things have led me to make some major changes in how I interact with media and with those in my circle when it comes to political discourse. I had realized that I was “seeking after” political things that brought more contention into my life, things that negatively influenced my perceptions of people I said I loved. I have resolved to deliberately “seek after” a more Christ-like attitude and influence in all my social interactions, but especially in politics. The section on "Entertainment and the Media" in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet gives us sound advice, not just for traditional entertainment choices like books and movies, but also for political “entertainment” choices such as ads or political commentary programming. For the Strength of Youth says:
“Whatever you read, listen to, or look at has an effect on you. Therefore, choose only entertainment and media that uplift you. Good entertainment will help you to have good thoughts and make righteous choices. Satan uses such entertainment to deceive you by making what is wrong and evil look normal and exciting. It can mislead you into thinking that everyone is doing things that are wrong.
Do not attend, view, or participate in entertainment that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Do not participate in entertainment that in any way presents immorality or violent behavior as acceptable. Have the courage to walk out of a movie or video party, turn off a computer or television, change a radio station, or put down a magazine if what is being presented does not meet Heavenly Father’s standards. Do these things even if others do not.”
In the weeks before the election, I took this advice to heart and stopped listening to mainstream radio stations which were full of contentious political ads and talk shows. I turned to the classical station and kept it on through election day. I muted political ads that popped up automatically online so I didn’t have to hear them. I avoided TV shows with contentious political commentary. I even “hid” posts by facebook “friends” that had contentious tones so I wouldn’t have to see that particular post and be influenced by its negativity. Additionally, I sought out media sources that maintained a more civil tone when discussing political differences. I can report that such decisions on my part helped enormously to encourage feelings of optimism, love and respect, both for those around me and for myself.
The 2012 Election cycle is now over, the votes tallied, and life is moving on. I’m not sure how other people’s personal relationships faired through this often contentious period of time, but I can only hope that we can all move forward, repent where we have been offensive, forgive where we have been offended, and strive to be more Christ-like in all aspects of life, politics included. Although the political ads have left the airwaves, there is still a need to discover “If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy....[and] seek after these things.”
Holland, J. R. (2011). Created for Greater Things. Deseret Book. Salt Lake City, UT.
Mormon Ethic of Civility. October 16, 2009. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/the-mormon-ethic-of-civility
Roberts, B. (2012). 7 Things Christians Need to Remember About Politics. Relevant Magazine. Retrieved November 6, 2012 from http://www.relevantmagazine.com/current/politics/7-things-christians-need-remember-about-politics
Uda, J. (2012). How Mitt Romney Lost the Debate and Won My Vote. Personal Post: Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/notes/joshua-mililani-uda/how-mitt-romney-lost-the-debate-and-won-my-vote/10151155746448780
Full Citation for this Article: Stearmer, Janille Shumway (2012) "The Mormon Moment Did Not Bring Out the Best in Us," SquareTwo, Vol. 5 No. 3 (Fall), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleStearmerPoliticalContention.html, [give access date].
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I. Andrew Morales
Thank you, Janille, I really enjoyed your article! I must admit that
I have, at times, been guilty of the same negativity that you are
describing. I believe that I have been more positive than most of the
posts I read on FB but I am also sure that others feel that I was more
contentious than they. I think its easier to see the flaws in others,
instead of recognizing them in yourself.
I really like that quote by Joshua Uda. When I lived in Mass and Romney was running for Governor I was excited because I felt that he led a campaign that was above the political fray. He even told his opponent, Shannon O'Brian, that her negative campaigning was "unbecoming". I feel like that was the man I expected to see on the national level and I was disappointed when I didn't. Although I am an Obama supporter I know that his campaign was also very negative but somehow I had higher expectations for Romney.