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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Guest Post: The Independent Voter in Today’s Political System

Born in Cheyenne and blown from his crib westward to California, David has lived on both coasts, in the middle and in Uruguay/Paraguay on his mission. He currently works in international development in Washington D.C. focusing on agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is twice married with 7 children and ten grandchildren located on both coasts and three continents. His youngest is currently serving a mission in the Philippines dodging mostly successfully (big) spiders in the shower. He and his wife, Mary-Anne, have traveled to 46 countries (Italy ranks #1). An ardent Giants fan, he loves watching the Dodgers lose. Yes, Willie Mays and Babe Ruth were the best who ever played the game. If he had just kept all his baseball cards ...

Recently I read with interest an article by Brad Oates entitled An Open Letter to Mitt Romney from Independent Americans. Brad's thoughtful and well-researched message prompted me to write him an extensive reply to which he kindly responded. Unfortunately, I found the comments to his article largely jumped to conclusions, were emotionally charged and even made judgments of the author without knowing him. The comments reminded me of an article by Hugh Nibley entitled Zeal Without Knowledge, an article whose title and message remains just as relevant today.

Speaking of which, let me share an intriguing part of a conversation my wife overheard recently between two women at a North Carolina craft fair:

Democrat: "I just can't vote for a Muslim and Obama is one of those. I'm sure of it."
Republican: "I worked with some Muslims and they were nice people, I just can't vote for Romney because he's a Mormon and I've worked with Mormons and I can't trust them."

The independent voter is a curious development. This voter finds no comfortable place in any of the existing political parties. These people may be on to something. George Washington wanted no party system. He wanted to ensure that the hard fought Revolutionary War did not create in any way a higher purpose or a prevailing sovereignty above the United States of America. He was a staunch Federalist, as opposed to Thomas Jefferson who strongly favored state rights to prevail. Consider Washington's words about political parties from his farewell address: "They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests."

Sound familiar?

Space does not permit a thoughtful review of the evolution of the U.S. political party system. Still, it is interesting to note just how much the positions of each party have changed over the years. For example, it was a Republican that issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 over the will of the Democrats. After the Civil War, blacks overwhelmingly voted Republican. Then we see a major position change nearly 100 years later when Democrat Harry Truman first advocated for civil rights, and then Democrat President Johnson continued the initiative and ultimately signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Former Democrats like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond switched parties and the political realities of this change remains to this day. In 1960, the Republicans gave their "firm support" to "the union shop and other forms of union security" and also advocated for doubling the annual number of immigrants!

These shifts in thinking can make it awfully difficult for the person who wants to find the comfortable political platform socially, economically and politically; especially over years. This is particularly true when we consider such issues as abortion; civil rights, including gay rights and women's rights; entitlement programs; environment; healthcare; labor; state rights to determine if medicinal use of marijuana should be legalized (who advocates this may surprise you!); etc.

Can any person agree to all the tenants of a political platform? In choosing a party we, like the candidate, may very well find ourselves at odds with major portions of the platform either publicly or privately. Herein lays the power and dilemma of personal choice. It all gets pretty complicated, though, in part because things can change once a candidate is elected. Consider Bill Clinton. His policies of balancing the budget, seeking welfare reform to require a work component and advocating pro-business policies certainly fit into the Republican Party philosophy.

Perhaps the most challenging issue for members of the Church is when the Church, either directly or implicitly, favors a specific issue with which members do not agree. Some Church members actively campaigned for Proposition 19 in California, while others who considered themselves faithful members could not share the church's position and/or participate in its tactics. Some members of the Church who consider themselves staunch Republicans may advocate for unions and take up the Democratic platform because unions offer employment protection and benefits not found elsewhere in the workplace. A Church member may support the Democratic Party or candidate because of gay rights, perhaps as a result of seeing firsthand the challenges a gay family member or close friend faces. Another member may feel particularly strongly tying human rights to trade agreements based on principle or personal experience.

If we were to conduct a poll within the Church, the most likely result would show most members saying that the Church's positions are most frequently reflected in the Republican Party. This is not to say that we have not had prominent members of the Church, such as Hugh B. Brown, James E. Faust, Neal A. Maxwell and Marion G. Romney, who were Democrats. Still, the Republican platform can generate its set of challenges. For example, the abortion position of today's Republican Party goes beyond what the Church teaches. Would you put your wife's life at risk to have another child when she faces significant personal risk, especially when she is already a mother? Would you require your wife or daughter to give birth to a child conceived by rape or incest? Consider the virtually unconditional support for the private sector when it can be reasonably argued that the private sector's greediness played a significant role in our financial crisis.

It is interesting to note that Elder Marvin K. Jensen, speaking on behalf of the Church, lamented the fact that the Church was perceived to be of one party. He welcomed diverse political views. "There is sort of a division along Mormon/non-Mormon, Republican/Democratic lines," says Elder Marlin Jensen, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. "We regret that more than anything -- that there would become a church party and a non-church party. That would be the last thing that we would want to have happen." (Salt Lake City Tribune, May 3, 1998)

Does the Church advocating political pluralism raise an interesting institutional and individual conflict? The Democratic platform is clearly pro-choice and President Obama recently advocated for same-sex marriages. Yet the Church clearly believes otherwise. If a member chooses to be a Democrat and/or vote for the current president, is that member voting against what are clearly opposite positions taken by the Church? How does one reconcile positions a party or candidate takes when, during the temple interview, the Priesthood authority inquires about support for, affiliation with, or sympathy toward teachings or practices contrary to those accepted by the Church?

We can only reconcile these real or perceived conflicts through picking and choosing as best we can from the various positions and then looking at the quality, integrity and positions of the person who is running for political office. So, picking a political party to support isn't so black and white after all. The Church has clearly stated on multiple occasions that it does not, "endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms" or "attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to. This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints." Members are frequently encouraged to research the positions of the candidates and, through prayer, identify the best candidate for the office. If an answer to prayer was the deciding factor in making a political choice, than the answer would be the same for all who prayed, would it not?

So where does all this take us? I suggest that it takes us to a very personal and individual place in which we each must determine with as clear a mind and as pure a heart as humanly possible just what is the best political choice. Is it any wonder, then, that many will argue that neither party really captures and advocates their belief system? The independent voter may be today's "silent majority." Do we vote for a candidate out of selfish reasons or for the greater good despite personal sacrifice? Are we swayed by rhetoric or compelled by actual past performance? Do we determine allegiance based on one fundamental position that is non-negotiable? Do we accept one party in its totality or take the best there is and accept that as good enough?

Political sands continue to shift. This political system is far from perfect. But the system will remain until a better one is established under the Hand of God. Therefore, regardless of party or persuasion, it behooves each of us to be open to new information, think critically, welcome new perspectives, and then use these insights to shape our own thinking before we cast our vote. Open dialogue is essential, but not in a condemning or condescending manner (e.g. "shocked" or "appalled"). If we do disagree, let's do so in an informed, civil and respectful manner. After all, freedom of choice founded this country and remains fundamental to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Note: All information contained in this article can be found on the internet, including the temple recommend questions.

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