"By Their Fruits:
The Necessity of Civil Dialogue in the Public Sphere"

Janille Shumway Stearmer and Lynn Zaritsky

SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2010)






            As Latter-day Saints, we profess belief in “being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men,” and are told to seek after that which is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” [1] In these seemingly tumultuous times, however, it appears that too many Latter-day Saints are subscribing to an altogether different set of virtues written not by a prophet of God, whose sole expressed goal is to help individuals come closer to Him, but by individuals and organizations motivated by popularity, ratings, and social or political agendas.

            Consider the following personal example shared by Elder Robert S. Wood. “I have a friend who is a member of a political panel that is seen each week on national television. Explaining her role, she said, ‘We are encouraged to speak before thinking!’ We appear to be living in an era in which many are speaking without thinking, encouraging emotional reactions rather than thoughtful responses. Whether it be on the national or international stage, in personal relations or in politics, at home or in the public forum, voices grow ever more strident, and giving and taking offense appear to be chosen rather than inadvertent.” [2] 

            That last statement from Elder Wood is particularly striking: that giving and taking offense is a choice people are making in these latter days, rather than to follow Christ-like principles to be peacemakers and peace givers. We are making a choice to be civil or uncivil in our daily interactions. Joseph Cannon states that “Civility is defined as ‘conformity to the principles of social order, behavior befitting a citizen; citizenship.’ Civility has the sense of decency or seemliness. It is also ‘the state of being civilized; freedom from barbarity’ (and) has its root in the Latin word that means ‘a member of a household.’ In a sense, civility is really only the kind of manners we have been taught by our mothers for generations, that we should be cordial and treat others as we would be expected to be treated.” [3]

            More strongly put, combining Elder Wood and Mr. Cannon’s remarks, when we choose to not be civil we are choosing to be indecent, impolite, unrefined, and displaying poor citizenship.  This certainly goes against what we profess to believe in the 13th Article of Faith.  This should give us ample reason to pause and reflect on our personal level of civility and the level of civility present in the people or organizations we affiliate ourselves with.

The Fruits of Contention and Contentious Media

            We live in tumultuous times. Every nation seems to be involved in some sort of military conflict, either within or beyond their borders.  This is not an unexpected situation as “the Lord has warned that from the beginning and throughout history, Satan would stir up people’s hearts to anger…Time and again in the Book of Mormon, we find deluded and wicked men inciting rage and provoking conflict…agitators who inspired distrust, fueled controversy, and deepened hatreds.” [4] Sometimes it is easy to identify who these agitators may be – the dictator or the terrorist – yet there are other times when a more serious inspection of our own behavior and the behavior of others is required. In order to make an argument in defense of a more civil society, it is necessary to address potential consequences of incivility and how to recognize and avoid uncivil behavior and language in wider society.  “The Lord has said that in the last days, wrath shall be poured out upon the earth without mixture. Wrath is defined both as the righteous indignation of God and as the very human instances of impetuous ardor and deep or violent anger. The former arises from the concern of a loving Father whose children are often ‘without affection, and they hate their own blood,’ whereas the latter wrath arises from a people ‘without order and without mercy, … strong in their perversion.’ I fear the earth is experiencing both wraths, and I suspect the divine wrath is very much provoked by those who are stirring up the hearts of men to wickedness, slander, and violent hatreds.” [5]

            To illustrate what Elder Wood is describing, consider the following excerpts from news articles:

            “The fight over Proposition 8 is taking a dangerous turn as Fresno Police investigate death threats against the mayor and a prominent valley pastor.  Police Chief Jerry Dyer said the written threats against Mayor Alan Autry and Cornerstone Pastor Jim Franklin were very detailed and mentioned their participation in a pro-Proposition 8 rally this weekend…the California ballot initiative that would ban same sex marriage…just days after someone egged Franklin's home and church. ‘You never think that just because you express your opinion, you participate in the political process in a passionate issue that people will take it to this extent,’ said Franklin.” [6]

            “In Indiana, Richard Behney, a Republican Senate candidate, told Tea Party supporters what he would do if the 2010 elections did not produce results to his liking: ‘I’m cleaning my guns and getting ready for the big show. And I’m serious about that, and I bet you are, too.’” [7]

            “A fax bearing the image of a noose. Profane voice mails. Bricks thrown, a gas line cut. White powder sent to an office. Democrats and a few Republicans revealed mounting numbers and unsettling details of threats against them Thursday in the emotional aftermath of the passage of the health care overhaul. An undisclosed number of lawmakers have been given increased police protection.” [8]

            Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor notes that “death threats against judges are increasing. It doesn't help…when a high-profile senator suggests there may be a connection between violence against judges and decisions that the senator disagrees with." [9]

            Returning again to the counsel of Elder Wood, who asks, “Have we who have taken upon us the name of Christ slipped unknowingly into patterns of slander, evil speaking, and bitter stereotyping? Have personal or partisan or business or religious differences been translated into a kind of demonizing of those of different views? Do we pause to understand the seemingly different positions of others and seek, where possible, common ground? It is far too easy sometimes to fall into a spirit of mockery and cynicism in dealing with those of contrary views. We demoralize or demean so as to bring others or their ideas in contempt. It is a primary tool of those who occupy the large and spacious building that Father Lehi saw in vision. Jude, the brother of Christ, warned that “there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts. These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.” [10]           

            This lack of civility, unfortunately so prevalent in our public and private discourse today, not only has the physical manifestations of contention, hate, and harassment, it has also led to a loss of the influence of the Spirit among the people. Rather than submitting the natural man to the enticement of the Spirit, the Spirit is being subdued by our base nature, leading us away from living a more Christ-like life.

            While the effects of incivility upon our personal lives are alarming enough, we must also consider the damage incurred by society at large. George Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, had the following to say about the dangers of uncivil discourse:

            “[Americans should be] indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest….to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other[s] …shield yourselves…against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations ….It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption…The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.” [11]

            There are other “fruits” born of contention that we must also be on guard against.  The following are excerpts from a web post titled “Letter I received from Iraq” November 9th, 2009 by Amanda Dickson on KSL.com.  The letter was written by Maj. Dean Angelbuer, Camp Taji, Iraq.

            “As Veterans Day approaches I have been concerned about what appears to be an identity crisis in America. The country is at war. . . the airwaves are filled with the news of enemy attacks, but these attacks are not about the war on terrorism, they are from my American brothers and sisters fighting back home, both from the left and the right and everywhere in between …discussion and debate has been turn into anger and hatred. The attacks are getting vicious and personal. The war of words is having causalities (and) the truth is just too hard to find.”

            “Remain true to your beliefs and the best of how you envision America for our children, but don't live in fear and hate. Pick your battles for that which you hold dear, but remember that we are all brother and sisters and that certain realities never change over time, namely that ‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ On Veterans Day, please remember why we are here, and for the cause that we serve—the cause of freedom. We are the most powerful force for freedom on the planet, and it's because of the American family that we hold dear.” [12]

            It is profound that an American military officer, deployed to active duty in a foreign war zone, can so precisely pinpoint the civil war going on within our own borders and why we should guard against it.  It is good to be reminded what the consequences of war are to any people or nation engaged in it, and that the popular, war-like media storm has created a “fog of war” in our nation. As a people it is not requisite that we live in perfect, harmonious agreement over the variety of issues we face each day. Debate on points of disagreement is certainly conducive to the discovery of truth and in reaching productive compromise in governance. Our argument for increased civility requires that legitimate disputes be handled in such a way that recognizes the merits of each position but still demonstrates one position to be more meritorious than another.  Without that civility, the truth becomes surrounded in that “fog” and true discernment can be lost. It is always the individual’s responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff – this becomes a difficult job if one is surrounded by a fog of incivility, cut off from the influence of the Spirit.  President George Albert Smith observed, “There is nothing in the world more deleterious or harmful to the human family than hatred, prejudice, suspicion, and the attitude that some people have toward their fellows, of unkindness.’ In matters of politics, he warned, ‘whenever your politics cause you to speak unkindly of your brethren, know this, that you are upon dangerous ground.” [13]

            In this modern age, much of our communication is done through various forms of electronic media.  We can receive newscasts or other media through television, radio, from our computers and even from our phones.  There is much discussion about media usage – how it helps and how it harms.  So what role does our national media, and our personal use of that media, have in perpetuating this “fog of war” and divisions among the people? While the concepts discussed below would certainly apply to any position along the political spectrum, from left to right, at this point we will only address the influence of various conservative talk-show hosts due to the fact that the majority of LDS adults identify themselves as conservative and/or Republican, as illustrated by the following results from Gallup: “Of the Mormon adults surveyed last year, 59 percent identified themselves as conservative, 31 percent as moderate and only 8 percent as liberal.” [14]  There is certainly an equally appropriate case to be made about incivility on the liberal side of the political spectrum, but this would be less relevant, generally speaking, to the LDS community.

             We think it is prudent to note at this point that a person is entitled to forming, and sharing, their own political and social views. Viewpoints and opinions, in all their variety, are not the issue at stake here – the method by which such views are disseminated is. An individual or group may easily share the same stance as any media representative mentioned hereafter, yet still be offended by their incivility and choose to remove themselves from the influence of a contentious forum.

            While historically there has been commentary of one sort or another on the news for as long as there has been news, it is only fairly recently that radio and television have entered into an expansive flowering of such programs and their hosts. Ultraconservative Rush Limbaugh was early on the scene in talk-radio, along with Michael Reagan and Michael Savage, followed by Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Bill O’Reilly on conservative TV commentary.

            In the United States, talk radio has almost become an American art form, with a well-understood structure. In talk radio, for example, while the specific format of each program is unique the host generally begins the program by commenting on recent political news. This is generally followed with an expression of personal endorsement or, more often, the host’s consternation about the efforts of the various political parties and party individuals as concerns the topic of discussion. There are often guest interviews and, in some formats following the host’s introduction of the topic, the public is invited to call in to discuss the issue with the host.  Two types of callers are allowed: they either affably agree with the host or suffer the indignation of holding a differing point of view. Generally those calling to disagree are interrupted, talked over and shouted-down by the host until the unfortunate caller is finally dismissed in defeat and the call is disconnected by the host. In all formats, any opposing point of view is held in derision and disdain and precious little respect is given either the differing point of view or those holding that point of view. Name calling is the norm.  Contention is apparently the rule.

            In addition to this ritualized format, various programs use a marketing ploy of insisting that only the absolute and total truth is being presented by the host. The host will often comment that the listener would “only hear this here,” implying (or sometimes simply stating outright, such as the Fox News slogan that it is the only “fair and balanced” source for news) that “other” news media outlets are somehow hiding “the truth” in an overarching conspiracy of some sort. Yet even a casual study of those issues will generally reveal another side to every story and what was presented as “truth” is, at the very least, sometimes found to be innuendo or half-truth.  There are many problems with such methods, not the least of which is a tendency for people to find the worldview or commentator they agree with most which also does not require them to do any more work discovering truth for themselves.

            Now such uniquely American forms of entertainment would be less harmful—indeed, more like the ritualized sumo wrestling of Japan—but for the tendency for people to engage in “one stop shopping” and treat the information they receive from such forums as factual evidence.  It is then not uncommon for that unverified information to go viral on the internet, where it gets forwarded exponentially for years, even though a simple search on websites such as Snopes.com, or FactCheck.org can verify or debunk it.  Thus, misinformation is hurtled around the globe at lightening fast speeds, creating a void where “truth” ought to be. And any information, true or not, repeated thousands of times through viral media takes on the patina of truth.

            While freedom of speech, and freedom to produce one’s show according to one’s personal beliefs, is certainly a right to be upheld, we must consider the effect that contentious, unchecked media infotainment has on listeners and participants. As consumers of media it is requisite that we recognize the patterns and consequences of polarizing speech and behavior.

            Consider the effects of the conservative media influence in late 2009. Conservative listeners were asked to disrupt local town hall meetings as elected Congressional representatives, home for the August 2009 recess, attempted to discuss the serious health care proposals currently facing Congress. “[R}ip’em apart and tear’em down, disrupt’em,” Rush Limbaugh encouraged his listeners, referring to the town hall meetings. [15] Sean Hannity echoed his call on several occasions. [16] Disruption, not discussion, was encouraged. Contention, not understanding, was advised. While there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to attend public meetings to present dissenting points of view, the strength and validity of a differing opinion is diluted by emotionalism, mud-slinging, and belligerence. Again, incivility begets nothing worthwhile or meaningful.

            The following news story from Tampa, Florida, illustrates media influence during this time: “Police officers were called to calm down an unruly crowd outside a health care reform town hall meeting in downtown Tampa, Florida on Thursday evening . . . Angry protesters screamed, yelled and banged on windows as officers hurried to guard the entrances to the facility, where U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor was trying to discuss the various health care reform proposals being debated in Congress. . . Many of the hundreds of protesters said that they had been inspired by a conservative activist group promoted by Fox News host Glenn Beck and some received emails from the county Republican party . . . Several of the protesters' signs bore an image of Obama with his face painted as the Joker, an image that drew protests of racism locally when it appeared on a Web site thought to be associated with the Pinellas Republican party. [17]

            Now some might argue that media personalities should not be held accountable for how their listeners choose to interpret their words. After all, did Glenn Beck specifically tell his listeners to assault other people or engage in property destruction? No. However, on face value of the words referenced above, clearly this rhetoric is intended to incite and inflame and it appears to be succeeding. Some media personalities even justify their actions, shielding themselves with the claim that they are just “defending morality” or upholding the “right” principles, likening themselves to the original American Revolutionaries. It must be noted though, in regards to our American Forefathers, that the actions and words of the American Revolution were in response, and in defense, of freedoms and liberties they as a people were denied. They could claim no elected representation, no guaranteed freedom of speech, and no legal recourse for these inequities. When all appeals of redress to their sovereign nation failed, they indeed had no other option available except revolution. To claim that modern Americans are living in similar circumstances, thus justifying similar responses, is to blatantly ignore over 200 years of freedom and prosperity under the US Constitution.

            In a recent interview on National Press Radio, author John Avlon states that “factions out there try to excuse whatever actions they have by saying it all comes from patriotism....that they’re fighting for the Founding Fathers. Obviously they are trying to see themselves in their best light instead of what they really are, which is trying to stir up fear-mongering and stirring up extremes for their own political or personal profit. . . .Yet what is ironic, of course, is the Founding Fathers were focused on uniting a divided nation, not dividing a united nation. The Founding Fathers warned constantly about the danger of faction… (those that) ‘turn neighbor against neighbor’ . . . George Washington didn’t belong to a political party as a matter of principle . . . we should be aware that there are folks out there who, for their own political or personal profit, are trying to divide us, they are trying to divide to conquer.” [18]

            It would be wise to consider if “righteous indignation” or “patriotism” is being used to excuse poor public and private behavior, callous disregard for other people’s feelings and beliefs, and the selfish pursuit of pride.  In the face of such evidence of malcontent and divisiveness, we find it highly ironic, even hypocritical, that on Rush Limbaugh’s website he has links to articles titled: “Our Laws Descend from Moralityand “When we get a moral leader, our country will recover.” [19] We wonder if a moral leader, in Limbaugh’s book, is one that seeks to turn brother against brother in hate and violence? There is a marked tendency, from the forum of online discussion boards to political news media commentary, which seeks to distinguish between the moral behavior of the electorate from the present elected leadership. One must ask exactly who elected the present leadership?  What, then, are we to conclude about the moral state of the electorate?

            In direct contrast to the tone set by ultra-conservative media personalities is the tenor the LDS Church expects its members to hold regarding discussion of political issues, as expressed in the LDS Church statement of political neutrality, illustrated by words such as “informed,” “civil,” and “respect.” Such calm and sturdy words are light-years away from the incendiary language so common to the ultra-conservative talk show hosts. The following is an excerpt from that statement: “The Church does: Expect its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.” [20] “Expected” behavior is behavior that should be the norm. The LDS Church “expects” its members to be informed, civil and respectful. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints calling names of people with whom they disagree is neither informed nor civil, nor is it respectful.

            In the spring of 2008, as local caucuses were organizing for the upcoming presidential election, LDS Church leaders once again reiterated that "principles compatible with the gospel may be found in the platforms of all major political parties.” [21] And while it appears that the leaders of the LDS Church understand that all major political parties in the United States of America have principles compatible with the gospel, Rush Limbaugh employs fallacy by comparing the Democrats with the Nazis [22] and Latter-day Saint ultra-conservative talk-show host Glenn Beck jokes about poisoning Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. [23]

            This is dangerous behavior and very much out of line with Gospel principles.  We value life. To compare people with whom you have political disagreements to the perpetuators of genocide and war, or to even entertain the idea that it is okay to kill someone you disagree with, does some very dangerous things. One, it encourages neighbors to think of each other as enemies and less than human. When we look at our fellow man as the enemy we justify many “defensive” behaviors such as violence and destruction against them.  The modern histories of genocide and war in Somalia, Rwanda, and Darfur should educate us enough about the dangers of being made to think of our neighbors as our enemy.  Two, if we entertain jokes about killing people with whom we may have profound disagreements, it creates a lack of moral conscience to guide our interactions with our fellow men.  Disturbed students feel justified in shooting up their schools, people feel justified bombing federal buildings, and disgruntled employees feel justified attacking their boss or coworkers.  When we lose our fellow feeling towards our brothers and sisters we descend into more and more evil behaviors.

            Beck and Limbaugh’s comments also qualify as “light-mindedness,” a particular state of mind that LDS persons are counseled to avoid.  Light-mindedness and idle thoughts lead us to be too casual about important issues. When we are light-minded we make excuses for our words and behaviors, using phrases such as “I was just expressing myself,” or “I wasn’t really serious.”  A more common definition of light-mindedness is used in reference to frivolity but Orson Pratt provides a more relevant discussion and admonition:

            “We have learned to impose a guard upon our tongues, to speak no evil concerning the children of God. We have learned not to backbite our neighbors and friends. Many of us have learned this lesson, but not all of us. We have learned, also, practically, the necessity of ceasing from all light-mindedness and levity and excessive laughter. But there are many, I am sorry to say, who have not learned the first principle of this lesson. . . .” [24] Based on this statement, it is safe to say that by engaging in divisive, disrespectful, light-minded discourse we make it that much more difficult for the Spirit of God to work within us and prepare us for further blessings.           

            The Prophet Joseph Smith stated: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” [25]  Yet it seems that, on the topic of civility, LDS people have been taught correct principles and we are not governing our behavior accordingly. When prominent LDS persons are seen to be engaging in certain behaviors, other LDS persons may think that behavior is not only acceptable but desirable. Samuel Johnson made an interesting observation when he wrote: “Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless. … Knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.” [26] This type of conduct by a prominent member of the LDS Church is not to be applauded or rewarded by our faith community: rather, it is to be deeply lamented (3 Ne 6:13).

Journalistic Integrity and the Compartmentalization of Ethics

            What, then, ought we to expect of both our media news sources and our own role in informed public discourse?  The LDS Church published an article on November 17, 2009, titled “Journalistic Integrity and the Compartmentalization of Ethics.”  While we have included only excerpts of the article here, we would ask the reader to consider this advice as it applies to how they, personally, receive and disseminate information in this modern era.  Do the media outlets you frequent follow such ethical guidelines?  Do you, personally, follow such ethical guidelines as you share information and opinions?

            “An informed citizenry, it is often said, is the bulwark of democracy. The basic principles of journalistic integrity – objectivity in reporting, detachment from personal bias, and disinterested duty to the truth – are essential in facilitating public trust and civil discourse. All individuals and institutions, including churches, share an interest in contributing to these worthy goals.”

            “Though the perceived distance between personal and public writing might make sense to the reporter, the reader is often left confused. People still expect journalists to be impartial reporters of the facts. If objectivity is absent in one platform, it cannot be present in the other. Trust cannot thrive on contradiction. Nevertheless, these conflicts can be managed with proper rules and guidelines. Openness can co-exist with objectivity, but not with open bias.”

            “Among news organizations grappling with these issues, National Public Radio has done a commendable job of establishing guidelines that promote journalistic ethics by delineating clear boundaries between the private and the public. In doing so, they inject a welcome dose of order into an often unwieldy world of conflicting information   Excerpted below are (some of) NPR’s “commonsense rules” that can also apply to everyone in the field of journalism:

            Information from your Facebook page, your blog entries, and your tweets…can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. This content, therefore, represents you and NPR to the outside world as much as a radio story or story for NPR.org does.

            Recognize that everything you write or receive on a social media site is public.

            You should conduct yourself in social media forums with an eye to how your behavior or comments might appear if we were called upon to defend them as a news organization

            “Furthermore, in an effort to ensure a respectful, reciprocal relationship between staff and readers and to promote more civil online participation, many news organizations are establishing guidelines to rein in contentious comments. For example, the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently issued a new commenting policy seeking to end bigoted comments, while at the same time urging its staff members to meaningfully engage with readers. Likewise, the Boston Globe has created a ‘member agreement’ stipulating general rules for reader participation on its site: ‘You agree not to use language that abuses or discriminates on the basis of race, religion, nationality, gender, sexual preference, age, region, disability, etc. Hate speech of any kind is grounds for immediate and permanent suspension of access to all or part of the Service.’  Hopefully, such moves among respected news organizations such as these will be duplicated by media organizations concerned about the low levels of public trust and civil discourse.” [27]

            It may be productive at this point to engage in a short discussion about “hate” speech versus “free” speech, since it can be possible to be so careful not to offend anyone that the end result is that even the Devil himself is not offended.  It is possible for persons to express their feeling that certain things are morally or criminally wrong without engaging in attacks of a personally offensive nature. Neither we, nor the LDS Church, are asking people to compromise their principles but it must be emphasized again that these disagreements should be handled in a civilized manner. The Church set an example for us in the Proposition 8 debate with a civil, proactive, and successful campaign.

The Mormon Ethic of Civility

            It is time for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to consider their own role in perpetuating, or destroying, civility among mankind.  The following is the full text of a recent statement made by the LDS Church on October 16, 2009, titled “The Mormon Ethic of Civility.” Let us consider our own words, actions and affiliations against the counsel outlined below.

            “The political world is astir. Economies are faltering. Public trust is waning. Individuals feel vulnerable. And social cohesion wears thin. Meanwhile, stories of rage and agitation fill our airwaves, streets and town halls. Where are the voices of balance and moderation in these extreme times? During a recent address given in an interfaith setting, Church President Thomas S. Monson declared: ‘When a spirit of goodwill prompts our thinking and when united effort goes to work on a common problem, the results can be most gratifying.’ Further, former Church President Gordon B. Hinckley once said that living ‘together in communities with respect and concern one for another’ is ‘the hallmark of civilization.’ That hallmark is under increasing threat.

            “So many of the habits and conventions of modern culture — ubiquitous media, anonymous and unsourced online participation, politicization of the routine, fractured community and family life — undermine the virtues and manners that make peaceful coexistence in a pluralist society possible. The fabric of civil society tears when stretched thin by its extremities. Civility, then, becomes the measure of our collective and individual character as citizens of a democracy.”

            “A healthy democracy maintains equilibrium through diverse means, including a patchwork of competing interests and an effective system of governmental checks. Nevertheless, this order ultimately relies on the integrity of the people. Speaking at general conference, a semiannual worldwide gathering of the Church, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles asserted: ‘In the end, it is only an internal moral compass in each individual that can effectively deal with the root causes as well as the symptoms of societal decay.’ Likewise, Presiding Bishop H. David Burton emphasized that the virtues of fidelity, charity, generosity, humility and responsibility ‘form the foundation of a Christian life and are the outward manifestation of the inner man.’ Thus, moral virtues blend into civic virtues. The seriousness of our common challenges calls for an equally serious engagement with reasonable ideas and solutions. What we need is rigorous debate, not rancorous altercations.”

            “Civility is not only a matter of discourse. It is primarily a mode of engagement. The technological interconnectedness of society has made isolation impossible. Of all the institutions in the modern world, religion has had perhaps the greatest difficulty adjusting to the reality of give and take with the public. Today, and throughout its history, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continuously encounters the legitimate interests of various stakeholders in its interaction with the public. Rather than exempting itself from the rules of law and civility, the Church has sought the path of cooperative engagement and avoided the perils of acrimonious confrontation.”

            “Echoing this mode of civil engagement, President Monson declared: ‘As a church we reach out not only to our own people but also to those people of goodwill throughout the world in that spirit of brotherhood which comes from the Lord Jesus Christ.’ Speaking of civility on a personal level, Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught Latter-day Saints how to respond to criticism: ‘Some people mistakenly think responses such as silence, meekness, forgiveness, and bearing humble testimony are passive or weak. But, to ‘love [our] enemies, bless them that curse [us], do good to them that hate [us], and pray for them which despitefully use [us], and persecute [us]’ (Matthew 5:44) takes faith, strength, and, most of all, Christian courage.’”

            “The moral basis of civility is the Golden Rule, taught by a broad range of cultures and individuals, perhaps most popularly by Jesus Christ: ‘And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ (Luke 6:31). This ethic of reciprocity reminds us all of our responsibility toward one another and reinforces the communal nature of human life.”

            “Similarly, the Book of Mormon tells a sober story of civilizational decline in which various peoples repeat the cycle of prosperity, pride and fall. In almost every case, the seeds of decay begin with the violation of the simple rules of civility. Cooperation, humility and empathy gradually give way to contention, strife and malice.”

            “The need for civility is perhaps most relevant in the realm of partisan politics. As the Church operates in countries around the world, it embraces the richness of pluralism. Thus, the political diversity of Latter-day Saints spans the ideological spectrum. Individual members are free to choose their own political philosophy and affiliation. Moreover, the Church itself is not aligned with any particular political ideology or movement. It defies category. Its moral values may be expressed in a number of parties and ideologies.”

            “Furthermore, the Church views with concern the politics of fear and rhetorical extremism that render civil discussion impossible. As the Church begins to rise in prominence and its members achieve a higher public profile, a diversity of voices and opinions naturally follows. Some may even mistake these voices as being authoritative or representative of the Church. However, individual members think and speak for themselves. Only the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles speak for the whole Church.”

            “Latter-day Saint ethical life requires members to treat their neighbors with respect, regardless of the situation. Behavior in a religious setting should be consistent with behavior in a secular setting. The Church hopes that our democratic system will facilitate kinder and more reasoned exchanges among fellow Americans than we are now seeing. In his inaugural press conference President Monson emphasized the importance of cooperation in civic endeavors: ‘We have a responsibility to be active in the communities where we live, all Latter-day Saints, and to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations. My objective there is ... that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute for it the strength of people working together.’” [28]

Moving Forward

            It seems prudent for each person to take a moment or two of personal reflection in regards to this topic of civility.  We live in times of political, economic and social turmoil, when the tendency is great to blame our troubles on others, whether it is government, groups, or individuals.  We like this quote from Senator Evan Bayh: “Ultimate reform will require each of us, as voters and Americans, to take a long look in the mirror, because in many ways, our representatives in Washington reflect the people who have sent them there . . . What is required from members of Congress and the public alike is a new spirit of devotion to the national welfare beyond party or self-interest. In a time of national peril, with our problems compounding, we must remember that more unites us as Americans than divides us.” [29]

            Too often we hear messages that point out, even emphasize, our differences and divisions rather than our common ground. Even the word “patriotism” has been used to divide American citizens. One has only to examine the very different personalities and ideologies of our Founding Fathers to realize the truth of Senator Bayh’s words: we must, and can, indeed engage in a new spirit of devotion to the national welfare, physical and spiritual, beyond self-interest, in order to fix the ills of our society and live under a more perfect union. John Avlon also suggests that “by standing up to the extremes, on the right and the left, maybe we can restore balance and some common sense and decency back into politics. . . . Government is not a warfare of interests. America cannot simply be divided by people who demonize their fellow Americans who disagree with them.” [30]

            Former United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said “the middle of the road is all the usable surface. The extremes of left and right are in the gutters.” [31] Let us emphasize that reasonable compromise is not to be confused with moral mediocrity.  There are some things that will always be right and some that will always be wrong.  But let us be careful that, in our defense of what is right, we do not allow ourselves to slide off the road because it is easier, and sometimes more viscerally satisfying, to engage our opponent with the filth in the gutters. We suggest that it is time for Americans in general, and Mormons in particular, to pull their discourse and social interactions out of the gutters. We as individuals are the only ones with the power to do so. We as Latter-day Saints have a personal responsibility to do so.

            As Latter-day Saints we must “raise the level of private and public discourse. We should avoid caricaturing the positions of others, constructing ‘straw men,’ if you will, and casting unwarranted aspersions on their motivations and character. We need, as the Lord counseled, to uphold honest, wise, and good men and women wherever they are found and to recognize that there are ‘among all sects, parties, and denominations’ those who are ‘kept from the truth [of the gospel] because they know not where to find it.’ Would we hide that light because we have entered into the culture of slander, of stereotyping, of giving and seeking offense?” [32] It is important to yet again point out that a significant consequence of incivility and contention is loss of the Spirit. This is a consequence that we as Latter-day Saints simply cannot afford to flirt with. The work of the Lord, and our individual roles in that plan, is too important to hinder through thoughtless, hurtful, divisive language and behaviors.

            “Wherever we live in the world, we have been molded as a people to be the instruments of the Lord’s peace. In the words of Peter, we have been claimed by God for His own, to proclaim the triumph of Him ‘who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light: Which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God.’ We cannot afford to be caught up in a world prone to give and to take offense. Rather, as the Lord revealed to both Paul and Mormon, we must neither envy nor be puffed up in pride. We are not easily provoked, nor do we behave unseemly. We rejoice not in iniquity but in the truth. Surely this is the pure love of Christ which we represent.” [33]

             President Gordon B. Hinckley has also counseled: “Now, there is much that we can and must do in these perilous times. We can give our opinions on the merit of the situation as we see it, but never let us become a party to words or works of evil concerning our brothers and sisters in various nations on one side or the other. Political differences never justify hatred or ill will. I hope that the Lord’s people may be at peace one with another during times of trouble, regardless of what loyalties they may have to different governments or parties. As true witnesses of Christ in the latter days, let us not fall into the darkness so that, in the words of Peter, we ‘cannot see afar off,’ but let us be fruitful in the testimony of Christ and His restored gospel, in thought, in speech, in deed.” [34]

            What is the purpose to our discourse?  Is it to score points off the “opposition” or elevate ourselves over another? Is it to gratify our pride?  The answer to these questions lies in the motivation behind what we say or do.  Do we act out of love or fear? Compassion or hate?  Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf offers the following admonishment:

            “Because love is the great commandment, it ought to be at the center of all and everything we do. . . Love is the healing balm that repairs rifts. . . It is the bond that unites families, communities, and nations. Love is the power that initiates friendship, tolerance, civility, and respect. It is the source that overcomes divisiveness and hate. Love is the fire that warms our lives with unparalleled joy and divine hope. Love should be our walk and our talk.” [35]

            Finally, consider the words in Matthew 7:15-20. It reads: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” [36]

            How do we recognize true or false prophets, good or evil trees? By the fruits of their labors. What is the fruit of civil discourse?  Civility leads to respect, harmony, the presence of the Spirit, and continued blessings from God.  Compare that with the fruit of fear-mongering, divisive speech, and extremism, which is anger, hate, violence, and societal degradation. 

            As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we have been taught correct principles regarding our words and behaviors, both in public and in private.  It is abundantly clear that we have been counseled to live in civility and it is very clear what constitutes civility. While we may not have control over how others choose to exercise their right of freedom of speech we can certainly regulate our own words and actions and exhort others to follow suit. Indeed, as Margaret Mead says, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” [37] The painful consequences of an uncivil society are too great to ignore. Civility must be a standard among Latter-day Saints and it must be a standard that is shown in unity to our troubled world.



[1] 13th Article of Faith [Back to manuscript]

[2] Robert S. Wood. “Instruments of the Lord’s Peace,” Ensign, May 2006, 93–95. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Joseph A. Cannon, “The gospel in words: Civility.”Mormon Times. Dec. 10, 2009. Retrieved on Jan 4, 2010 from http://mormontimes.com/mormon_voices/joseph_a_cannon/?id=12082 . [Back to manuscript]

[4] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[5] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[6] Amanda Perez. “Prop 8 Death Threats.” KSFN-TV: Fresno, CA. 31 Oct 2008. Retrieved March 26, 2010 from http://abclocal.go.com/kfsn/story?section=news/local&id=6479861. [Back to manuscript]

[7] David Barstow. “Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right.” The New York Times. 15 Feb 2010. Page 3. Retrieved March 1, 2010 from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/16/us/politics/16teaparty.html?pagewanted=3 . [Back to manuscript]

[8] "Threats against lawmakers spread after health vote,” KSL.com 25 March 2010. Retrieved March 25, 2010 from http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=153&sid=10141595&s_cid=E0002 . [Back to manuscript]

[9] Jonathan Raban. “Dictatorship is the Danger: A Reagan-appointed supreme court justice voices her fears over attacks on US democracy.” Yurica Report. 13 March 2006. Retrieved March 26, 2010 from
http://www.yuricareport.com/Law%20&%20Legal/OConnorWarnsOfDictatorship.html . [Back to manuscript]

[10] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[11] George Washington’s Farewell Address to the People of the United States. 1796. 106th Congress. 2nd Session. Senate Document No. 106-21, Washington, 2000. Para. 8-15. Web retrieved on March 5, 2010 from http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=62 . [Back to manuscript]

[12] Amanda Dickson. “Letter I received from Iraq” November 9, 2009. KSL.com. Retrieved from http://www.ksl.com/?nid=445&sid=8607452 . [Back to manuscript]

[13] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[14] Scott Taylor. “Mormon faithful most conservative religious group in U.S., poll finds.” Deseret News. 11 Jan 2010. Retrieved Feb 20, 2010 from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705357775/Mormon-faithful-most-conservative-religious-group-in-US-poll-finds.html?pg=1 . [Back to manuscript]

[15] Rush Limbaugh. 4 August 2009. http://www.rushlimbaugh.com . [Back to manuscript]

[16] Sean Hannity. 29 July 2009 and 3 August 2009. http://www.hannity.com . [Back to manuscript]

[17] “Tampa Town Hall On Health Care Reform Disrupted By Violence.” The Huffington Post. August 6, 2009. Retrieved Feb 21, 2010 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/06/tampa-town-hall-on-health_n_253478.html . [Back to manuscript]

[18] “Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America.” A conversation with
author John Avlon, by Doug Fabrizio, 23 Feb 2010. KUER. Retrieved from http://www.publicbroadcasting.net/kuer/news.newsmain/article/184/0/1615386/RadioWest/22310.Wingnuts [Back to manuscript]

[19] Limbaugh, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[20] LDS Church Political Neutrality Statement http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/public-issues/political-neutrality . [Back to manuscript]

[21] “LDS Church encourages attendance at caucus meetings.” Deseret News. March 24, 2008. Retrieved on Feb. 21, 2010 from http://www.deseretnews.com/article/1,5143,695264345,00.html . [Back to manuscript]

[22] Limbaugh, ibid. August 5, 2009. [Back to manuscript]

[23] Glenn Beck. August 6, 2009. http://www.glennbeck.com . [Back to manuscript]

[24] Orson Pratt. “Privileges and Experience of the Saints, Etc.” Journal of Discourses. Vol. 7. 18 Sept. 1859. p. 310b. Italics added. [Back to manuscript]

[25] Joseph Smith, as quoted by John Taylor. “The Organization of the Church,” Millennial Star, Nov. 15, 1851, 339. [Back to manuscript]

[26] Royden G. Derrick. “By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them.” Ensign. Nov. 1984, 61. [Back to manuscript]

[27] “Journalistic Integrity and the Compartmentalization of Ethics.” LDS Newsroom. November 17, 2009. Retrieved from http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/journalistic-integrity-and-the-compartmentalization-of-ethics . [Back to manuscript]

[28] “The Mormon Ethic of Civility” LDS Newsroom. 16 October 2009. Retrieved from http://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/commentary/the-mormon-ethic-of-civility . [Back to manuscript]

[29] Evan Bayh. “Why I’m Leaving the Senate.” The New York Times. 20 Feb 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/21/opinion/21bayh.html?pagewanted=1&hp . [Back to manuscript]

[30] Avlon, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[31] Avlon, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[32] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[33] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[34] Wood, ibid. [Back to manuscript]

[35] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Love of God,” Ensign, Nov. 2009, 21. [Back to manuscript]

[36] Matthew 7:15-20. [Back to manuscript]

[37] Margaret Mead. Retrieved from http://www.quotes-museum.com/quote/59517 . [Back to manuscript]


Full Citation for This Article: Stearmer, Janille Shumway and Lynn Zaritsky (2010) "By Their Fruits: The Necessity of Civil Dialogue in the Public Sphere," SquareTwo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleZaritskyStearmerCivility.html, accessed [give access date].

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 300 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 7 Comments

1) Marlon R. Berrett, 12 May 2010

In all Civility!  I found this article to fall far short of the very dialogue the authors seem to be proponents of.   To lump all of the conservative talk show hosts into the same basket of incivility is exactly the type of stretch stereo typing and mischaracterization that you expect from someone with an agenda and biased perspective.  Worse yet, is to attempt to hide that perspective behind what I found to be some interestingly warped “LDS gospel speak” (“Light-mindedness?"  your  application is twisted almost  to a sacrilege).   There are millions of perfectly honest, and “civil” citizens (and I would safely suppose the vast majority of educated LDS members) who are occasional or even ardent listeners to one or more of the these talk show hosts.  They may agree with these hosts on some points and disagree on others, in a completely “civil” frame of mind, with no thought that they have been incited to “incivility."   There will always be some listeners who can be raised to uncivil response to any presentation, even, on occasion, conference talks! 

To lump the likes of Michael Savage in with a Sean Hannity, or Glenn Beck is, at worst dishonest and at the least embarrassing. 

What I do believe the vast majority of listeners to these conservative talk show hosts  have in common, is the confirmed belief that:
·         The “moral state of the electorate” is in dangerous decline!
·         While not yet, as were our forbearers, under the thumb of a despot or benevolent king, as it were, we are and have been moving under the thumb of an ever more powerful and far more intrusive federal socialist/welfare state government.
·         If we continue down this path, it will lead to the end of our “200 years of freedom and prosperity under the US Constitution” and the end of the blessings of its inspired principles.

There is, as you and we all know, a world of prophetic “LDS Gospel Speak” that supports these listener’s honest concerns.  Today’s Church leaders walk a difficult tightrope of political and legal challenges, where every word must be weighed against its outcome.  Compare, if you would, the conference talks of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s particularly of leaders such as J. Reuben Clark, Marion G. Romney, Presidents McKay, Benson and Kimball and many others and you will find the full and honest fodder for these concerns.

I am in my late 60’s and have spent my life in the business and professional world.  For the last 40 years I have watched Europe sink into the throws of an all encompassing state socialism that has meant the literal end of Christianity.  State social justice has replaced any meaningful role for religion, and in my opinion, has had a corresponding effect on LDS missionary work.  For the past 15 years I have had the privilege of serving as the US representative of the one the European government’s economic development offices.  Close friendships have been developed with State officials there and they have become familiar with the LDS Church through our work.  They have come to openly respect it but see little or no application for it in Europe.  The State is the only answer there!  

Your application of the very laudable standards of “Journalistic Integrity and Compartmentalization of Ethics” is self-servingly misplaced.  If we are talking about groups  like CNN, FOX, NPR or others who put themselves out as “fair and balanced” or as impartial journalistic sources (a claim all are so quick to make and yet all fail to some degree!) that is one thing (that none of us should be so foolish as to accept).  Isn’t it much more honest and with a fuller measure of integrity,  that an “advocate” in the public arena, of a specific perspective, be very open, and use every skill at his command to represent that perspective effectively.  Can you imagine a “Fair and Balanced” Thomas Paine!

The fact of the matter is, the Limbaughs, Becks, Hannitys, Coulters and O’Reillys of our media world are filling an honest need  for “civil” advocacy and with a fair degree of integrity!  The very existence of your article is proof of their effectiveness and if it wasn’t for the fact that they strike a chord with so many of your co-religionists, I doubt it would bother you as much as it obviously does.  I especially find your veiled comments that could only refer to Mr. Beck a bit “uncivil”!

All this being said,  let’s be grateful for our conservative talk show hosts!  Perhaps they are the Thomas Paines of our day.  Be discerning!  Take them with a grain of salt! And above all, let's be civil with one another!


2) Steven Goold, 12 May 2010

I have had similar concerns for some time now. It appears that too much devotion to ether the 'right' or the 'left' leads some out of the church and creates feelings in others like they did not belong. It is hard to see youth or even adults for that matter who may be working through different ideas who feel they cannot work through the ideas within the framework of the Church. There has been a spectrum of political views among the brethren and that should be allowed among the membership, also. When Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States In August 1843 he stated, “I am not come to tell you to vote this way, that way or the other.” “Every man should stand on his own merits.” “The Lord has not given me a revelation concerning politics, I have not asked for one.” Also, “In relation to politics I will speak as a man: but in relation to religion I will speak in authority.” He stated that the only reason he was running for President was "for the protection of injured innocence.”. If Joseph did not receive a revelation on politics while running for President of the United States, it is probably safe to say that no one else has either. The church has been consistent on its stance over time on political issues.

In the October conference in 1951, the First Presidency said:

“A threat to our unity derives from unseemly personal antagonisms developed in partisan political controversy. The Church, while reserving the right to advocate principles of good government underlying equity, justice, and liberty, the political integrity of officials, and the active participation of its members, and the fulfillment of their obligations in civic affairs, exercises no constraint on the freedom of individuals to make their own choices and affiliations … any man who makes representation to the contrary does so without authority and justification in fact.” (President Stephen L Richards, Conference Report, October 1951, pp. 114–15.)
C. S. Lewis made some observations that members of the Church would do well to consider. He wrote the Screwtape Letters during World WarTtwo, and though some of the issues of the day have changed the insights are still valid. He has a senior Devil named Screwtape teaching a Junior Tempter named Wormwood his craft in how to lead the Christian away for Christ. He has Screwtape saying,

"I have not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.

"Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the 'cause', in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in (the cause's) favor... The attitude which you want to guard against is that in which temporal affairs are treated primarily as material for obedience. Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades, matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours - and the more 'religious' (on those terms) the more securely ours. I could show you a pretty cageful down here."


3) Raymond T. Swenson, 12 May 2010

I agree with the authors’ concern that the level of civility in civic discourse has been shrinking to an alarming extent.  However, I disagree with their thesis that the sole significant exemplars of this lack of civility are among the popular media figures of conservative talk radio and their TV counterparts. 

During the George W. Bush Administration (2001-2009), critics of President Bush (including former Salt Lake City mayor Rocky Anderson) called vociferously for his impeachment, and even promoted a movie that proposed his assassination.  Every mention of Bush by left-wing commenters ridiculed him for lack of intelligence, even though he earned an MBA from Harvard (making him demonstrably better educated than most of his critics in the news media) and had a better GPA at Yale than John Kerry, his opponent in 2004.  He was accused of cowardice and of avoiding military service, even though he was a commissioned officer in the Air National Guard who spent a year on active duty training as a jet pilot, and then flew the supersonic F-102 nuclear armed interceptor for several years, until the Nixon Administration made a policy decision in the early 1970s to end active defense against Soviet nuclear bombers, and the end of the Vietnam War greatly reduced the need for Air Force pilots (the pilot candidates in my ROTC class of 1973 were told not to report for pilot training and were summarily released from their military service obligation).  He was accused of placing America into an Iraq “quagmire” like the Vietnam War, until the “Surge” strategy proved successful in resolving most insurgent activity and allowing the withdrawal of most US troops from Iraq, which the Obama Administration now takes credit for.  He was criticized for not catching or killing Osama bin Laden, though neither event has happened after a year of the Obama Administration’s control of US forces in Afghanistan. 

The characterization of grass roots conservative activity at congress members’ public forums on health care legislation as “disruptive” rather than assertive appears overblown to me.  Conservative critics of the various health care bills waited their turn to ask questions, and yielded the floor once they did so.  They pointed to specific flaws in the legislation, including its allowance of taxpayer-subsidized funding for abortions, its massive increase in taxation on those who had employer-provided health insurance to pay for coverage of those currently too wealthy to obtain Medicaid, and the secret nature of most of the legislation and the deliberations on it.  Opinion polls affirmed that the people who criticized the legislation at these public forums in fact represented the opinion of the public at large, unlike the members of Congress, who voted to enact the legislation despite the overwhelming opposition of almost 2 to 1 against it by Americans who were polled.  Rather than accept the voices of critics as reflecting popular opinion, Democratic members of Congress, led by Speaker Pelosi, called critics a small minority who were trying to subvert the public discussion—along the lines of the criticism voiced in this article.  Pelosi and other leading Democrats in Congress and the Obama Administration have repeatedly tried to associate conservative groups like the Tea Party movement with acts of extreme violence by others, even though those who associate themselves with the Tea Parties are on average better educated and have somewhat higher incomes than the general population and have in fact not been found guilty of any violent political act.   This guilt by association was pursued by Democrats even though they refused to make such associations between individual violent Islamic terrorists—from the underwear bomber to the killer Army psychiatrist to the Times Square bomber--and the larger Jihadist movement whose literature motivated them and which provided them specific explosives training. 

One of the most blatant examples of uncivil speech was committed by President Obama during his State of the Union address.  With most members of the US Supreme Court seated before him, he roundly criticized them for their decision striking down limitations on the speech of non-profit corporations during the months before an election, and raised factually false arguments about “long standing precedents” being overturned—precedents which were less than a decade old and which, in oral argument before the Court, Solicitor General Kagan (Obama’s nominee to replace Justice Stevens) specifically refused to use as the basis for the Administration’s defense of the statute.  He then called on Congress to enact legislation that would overturn that ruling—in effect, overturning the First Amendment—which was greeted by a standing ovation, surrounding the Supreme Court justices.  And yet the left-leaning news media criticized Justice Alito for mouthing something that was not heard, but might have meant “Wrong.”  It was a gross example of physical intimidation against the justices, rationalized by lies, and a demonstration of raw power that brushed aside the constitutional independence of the judicial branch that the Left Wing is so fond of claiming justifies rulings that are not based on any discernable language in the Constitution.  When such demagoguery by the most powerful man on earth is employed in the service of suppressing First Amendment freedoms, there is a much more significant threat to civic dialogue than any demonstration by ordinary citizens, no matter how unruly. 


4) One of the authors, Janille Shumway Stearmer, responds (12 May 2010)

Lynn Zaritsky and I, as co-authors of the original article, want to emphasize that all points of view are welcome - we do not promote nor discourage any political, religious, or moral ideology or economic model for discussion.  In fact, civil discourse among different points of view is very much needed to maintain the principles of the US Constitution.  Our aim is to encourage readers to promote more civil discussion, to examine their personal level of discourse (as these authors have done while researching and writing the original article), and to hold the media and themselves to a higher level of civility. One has only to spend a few minutes reading comments on the KSL.com website to realize the level to which discourse has fallen among LDS persons (as we think it can be safely assumed that the majority of KSL's viewership and readership is LDS). 

While Mr. Swenson does point out some very applicable examples of incivility from recent political events, he incorrectly assumes that the purpose of our article was to blame all incivility on conservatives.  We explained our rationale for discussing largely conservative media personalities. We hold all media to the same standard. Nor did we "lump" all conservative media personalities together and label them all uncivil at all times.  Was every town hall meeting violent and uncivil? No.  Were there many that were? Yes.  The recent Utah GOP Convention illustrates this well. Was every state delegate or attendee disrespectful or uncivil in their dialog and behavior? No.  Were there many that were disrespectful and uncivil? Yes.  The examples we used were simply that: examples of behaviors and words which we should all be aware of as uncivil and inappropriate. The very lack of conservative outcry at some of these examples, and many others in the news, is alarming to these authors. The lack of liberal outcry at negative liberal media examples is also alarming. 

It is dishonest to accept the behavior of one group of people as "civil" and honest simply because it agrees with one's views, while labeling the behavior of another group as "uncivil" and dishonest because it disagrees with one's views.  Yet this seems to be the argument that Mr. Berrett is making - that conservative media is justified in their method and tone of discourse because he feels they are "right" and that the "ends justify the means."  We need only look as far as the Doctrine and Covenants and the story of the lost 116 manuscript pages to see that this kind of justification can be harmful.  Those that stole the pages felt justified in their theft and deception because they felt it served a higher purpose of good. Martin Harris also sinned because he sought to have the power and authority of the Prophet Joseph Smith and have his own following. We would be well served to be mindful of this story and how we can deceive ourselves and others for "good" purposes.

We reject the assumption that our living prophets and apostles are reticent in making bold statements of warning, whether they be religious, political, moral or economic in nature.  To encourage the thought that we must rely on media personalities to sound warnings, because our Prophet is constrained by any kind of influence, is incorrect. God has never allowed his prophets to shun their responsibilities due to fear or any other emotion. Is our Prophet afraid? Does he need to be swallowed by a whale until he complies? Is God afraid of American or world political parties? Not only is that degrading to the role of our living prophet, the chosen servant of God, it elevates paid media personalities to the status of prophet, a circumstance for which we are amply warned against promoting. President Monson did not shrink from the very difficult task of defending marriage and requiring the church membership to also put themselves in a difficult political and social position.

The LDS church published its own statements of civility - cited in the original article.  It is our contention that the Church does not do this sort of thing unless they are very concerned about the behavior of the membership in particular, but also of the general population. When "all is well in Zion" we do not receive such plain warnings and guidance. The influence of the Holy Spirit cannot be felt amid contentious dialog and "light-minded" commentary.

As for our use of the standards for Journalistic Integrity being "misplaced," and applying only to large media stations such as NPR, FOX news, etc., we believe that all the people mentioned in our article are employees of such media outlets, and the church's statement regarding Journalistic Integrity also applies to employees of media companies.  Standards are standards. There is not one standard applied to a media outlet that is not also applied to its employees and affiliates. Our ethical behavior should not be "compartmentalized" to apply only when convenient for us.

Mr. Berrett incorrectly assumes that only conservatives and conservative media are concerned with "the moral state of the electorate," and an end to the blessings of the inspired principles of the US Constitution.  We disagree that all answers to such concerns come from only one viewpoint and submit that the LDS Church has many times stated that there may be principles compatible with the gospel found within every political party. Unless we are to believe that our prophets and apostles have taken to placating the wayward, we must take this statement at face value and seek to find that which is good in every political persuasion and work together to seek solutions to the issues of our day.  This is not done through belittling others, threatening harm (even in jest), or personal attacks, no matter how "right" one thinks one's views are. Do not be deceived that these behaviors are of too little consequence to matter, or "no big deal."


5) One of the authors, Lynn Zaritsky, responds (12 May 2010)

While Mr. Barrett concludes his response with the general theme of our paper, it does appear that, in general, he may have missed the point. As our mothers have told us, it is often not “what” you say that is important as much as “how” you say it. While we welcome Mr. Barrett’s political perspective, as expressed in his response, and while we surely support his right to that perspective and any civil expression of that perspective that he may offer, we strongly object to the hijacking of that perspective, or of any political perspective, by those who then express it in an uncivil manner.

We entitled our paper, “By Their Fruits...” in the hopes that Latter-day Saints, recognizing those key words, would look more carefully at the tone and tenor of those media talk-show hosts we watch on television or listen to on the radio, no matter their political bent. What are the fruits of those media hosts? Do they call names of those they disagree with or do they engage in thoughtful commentary, respectful of those having differing opinions? Are they completely honest in their presentation of the “other” side’s views, actions and statements, or do they present those things merely “mingled” with truth and fact? Do they “stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another” (3 Nephi 11: 29-30) or do they speak “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (Doctrine and Covenants 121: 41) to help us see their point of view? Is their mantra “I’m right and you are wrong,” or do they say, “Come, now and let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18)? And, most importantly, since we have been repeatedly told that “principles compatible with the gospel are to be
found in the platforms of various political parties” (First Presidency Letter, March 23, 2010), do these media talk-show hosts also look for the good of the gospel in those of differing political parties, or do they paint those holding differing views as “others,” different from us in fundamental ways, or worse, as “the enemy?” Do they remember that we are all children of God or do they attempt to pit us one against the other, creating contention among the children of men?

We understand, as Latter-day Saints, that these last days are to be trying. We know that there will be “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” leading us astray and to our potential demise. We understand that “if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect” (Matthew 24:24). It is important to realize that the “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” those who might deceive us, will indeed appear, by all outward signs, as we do. They will appear to hold our values and to promote our goals, but, critically, their true motives and goals will be, beneath it all, quite different from ours and potentially quite lethal to our spiritual and perhaps even our temporal welfare. (See Matthew 7:15-20.)

We maintain, as Jesus stated, that it is only “by their fruits” that we will recognize this deceit. Only then will we be free to separate and save ourselves from partaking of the eventual bad fruit that can only result from it.


6) Rick Morse, May 26, 2010:

Well done! What the authors are describing has been an issue that has really been bothering me for a while now. How am I to look at a brother of mine who pulls up to stake priesthood leadership meeting with a “Psalm 109:8 – Pray for Obama” bumper sticker prominently displayed on his car? Or hearing family members explain to me their sincere belief that the President is some kind of Manchurian candidate who lies about his Christian faith, among other things. It is really disheartening.

I think the Matthew 7 reference is right on. I think it is particularly relevant to Glenn Beck and members of the church. Beck appeals to conservative members precisely because he is LDS, and his mannerisms (talking about how he “feels” things are right, choking up, tears, etc.) seem to fit right in with LDS cultural norms in bearing testimony. Furthermore, Beck’s waving the flag of patriotism and the righteousness of our founding fathers, inspired constitution, etc. also directly appeals to LDS culture. So when most members (I believe) hear Beck, they “feel” good about him because he is one of them, sounds sincere, and constantly is reminding them that everything he does is because “I just love my country.” Take all that and combine it with the fact that his political point of view is shaped by Cleon Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson (a point of view that is sort of in the DNA of most members), it is pretty easy to see why he is so popular with so many members. The sad part of it is, of course, that this blind devotion to Beck blinds his followers to the fact that his antics are often right on the borderline of sedition, that he is indeed inciting the wrath Elder Wood spoke of, and even though his language is “united we stand,” the fruits are actually that he is helping to further divide our country.

What makes your Matthew 7 reference most apt to consider the Beck-effect among church members though is his most recent talk around the “100 year plan” he is crafting for America . He is now using prophet-like language to describe this (even saying this is what he thinks God wants him to do and say), and the book is remarkably even going to be called “The Plan.” And he is planning to have a big rally at the Lincoln Memorial to unveil his plan—on the anniversary of MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech (I’m not making this up!). Never mind the hubris of this self-described “rodeo clown” thinking that only he can devise “the plan” to save our country (maybe he thinks he’s the hero of the long-debunked “white horse prophecy?”), but it should raise all kinds of red flags among members for this man to suggest that God is communicating this “plan” through him. The Beck movement is almost cult-like and is simply frightening. I hope my brothers and sisters in the gospel who are Beck-devotees can step back and see him for what he is.

In saying that I want to be clear that this isn’t at all about political philosophy. That is what this article does so well, I think. It’s great for Brother Berrett (comment #1) to hold strong libertarian viewpoints and for him to work hard to get Republicans elected. The problem is when you get to the point that you see “the Limbaughs, Becks, Hannitys, Coulters and O’Reillys of our media world are filling an honest need for “civil” advocacy and with a fair degree of integrity!” If those people are seen as civil and people of integrity, then one’s perspective has truly been warped. So going hand-in-hand with civility should be an effort on all our parts to read broadly, not take commentator’s viewpoints as truth, and just in general to be informed citizens. Getting all your information from Fox News (or MSNBC) isn’t going to cut it. My suggestion (for getting news): NPR. Best news organization out there. Consistently excellent.


7) Michael Jantzen, 26 June 2010

I really enjoyed reading your article. As someone who personally aligns himself as liberal (more reasonable really - I often feel I'm kinda conservative) I feel out of place at church frequently. Our Bishop (who is also a doctor) has more than once voiced his opinion against health care reform, and our teacher in Elders Quorum has compared various government policies and debate to the teaching of the devil. I teach every 4th Sunday, and I would never dream of voicing my opinion in those lessons - I feel its inappropriate. Lessons in church are supposed to come from the Spirit. I have a feeling that many members of the church feel it their duty to inform other members of the evils of the President, or a particular politician, and I guess that is fine, but I don't think it should be done via the pulpit.

Glen Beck is an especially troubling case as he is not only a church member, but I believe many church members believe because he is - what he says is gospel (when I question Glen - members often say "you know he's a member of the church right?"). Having watched his show several times I believe he intentionally uses imagery, and speech to deliberately deceive - to make people get riled up for no reason. One of the best examples was on the daily show (no I normally don't watch it - but someone sent me a clip here: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-june-3-2010/glenn-beck-airs-israeli-raid-footage

Yes I know Jon Stewart is left-biased, but in this clip he does a good job in illustrating that Glen did in fact complain about media other than Fox News not airing a clip taken by Israeli security when they did in fact air that clip - apparently Beck said this for the sole intention of making people believe there was a liberal conspiracy in the media. If that is gospel - count me out.