Friday, September 30, 2011

Bushman on Mormons and political civility

Excerpts of Scholar: Political name-calling goes against Mormonism by Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune
If Mormon politicians were living their religion, they wouldn't engage in name-calling against their opponents or verbally attack any officeholder, especially the commander in chief, a prominent LDS historian said this week.

"I sorrow to hear my fellow Latter-day Saints resort to the demeaning language that has degraded political discourse in our time," Bushman told a packed audience at the University of Utah's Union Building. "Should not Mormons, with their tradition of working together, lead the [vanguard] in these calls for moderate speech and collaboration? Should they not live their religion seven days a week by extending the respect they afford church leaders to other kinds of authority?"

Sen. Orrin Hatch doesn't engage in personal attacks on the president or any other elected official, said the Utah Republican's spokesman Mark Eddington. "Senator Hatch looks for the good in people. He is measured in what he says. But if he disagrees with a policy, he doesn't hesitate to criticize that policy and offer an alternative."

Hatch, who is Mormon, once called President Barack Obama's health-care overhaul a "dumb-ass program." But the senator, his spokesman insists, is careful to say that he doesn't dislike the president personally.

Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University and a widely respected biographer and writer, presented his provocative point of view in a speech, "Mormonism and the Public Good," as the annual David P. Gardner Lecture, sponsored by the U.'s Tanner Humanities Center.

He began by decrying the seemingly intractable positions and caricatures that nearly derailed this summer's debt-ceiling resolution. But such rancor is hardly new.

The divide between pro- and anti-government forces is so "deeply ingrained in the national psyche," Bushman said, it is "grounded in the very nature of our national political culture."

And it all started with the country's two founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

The former outlined reasons for breaking with a monarchy, viewing with suspicion any "centralized, imperial government," Bushman said, while the latter saw government as "the people acting together to promote the general welfare."

One was built on fear of tyranny, the other on faith in the process.

These opposing impulses have tugged Americans in different directions for centuries, he said, and continue to do so today.

Within the Utah-based faith, respect is given not necessarily to an individual, but to an office. Members stand, for instance, whenever the church's president enters the room.

Latter-day Saints should apply this same principle to the highest office in the land, no matter who occupies it.

"Mormons hold to the idea that the United States Constitution is a godly document," Bushman said. "Mormons should honor those who come to power through due constitutional processes, including members of the opposing party, if only out of respect for our founding charter."

LDS Church founder Joseph Smith ran for U.S. president himself in 1844. His political platform, Bushman noted, recommended a pattern of bipartisanship, stating that "unity is power; and when I reflect on the importance of it to the stability of all governments, I am astounded at the silly moves of persons and parties to foment discord in order to ride into power on the current of popular excitement."?

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