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Mormons should engage critics with kindness, LDS public affairs leader says

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PROVO, Utah — Ally Isom is no Pollyanna about the public arena. She has had the thickness of her skin tested as a spokeswoman for the LDS Church and deputy chief of staff for Utah's governor.

So she is realistic about how overwhelming it can be to defend religious beliefs when cutting voices are peddling polarization. Even so, Isom suggested Thursday that Mormons should do more than just engage with opponents and critics. She encouraged them to tackle tough issues without contention.

"We cannot privately pray in our chapels and homes for the healing of divisions and unity in our hearts, and then publicly berate those whose ideas or practices differ from ours," Isom said at the 18th annual FairMormon conference. "Our covenant duty is to resist pride and offense."

Isom spends her days in the arena, working with interfaith and community groups as the director of the division of family and community relations in the Public Affairs Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She has worried for years that too many people see those around them as enemies, whether they are talking about politics or religion or even in their personal lives.

Reject polarization

She encouraged 400 people at the Utah Valley Convention Center for the conference's first day to reject the frameworks of polarization and contention even when faced with ignorance, hypocrisy or selfishness. The payoff for remaining patient and acting with charity and openness is not limited to better solutions that benefit all and increase understanding, she said. The person who presses forward in the public arena with respect for all will also experience transformative personal growth.

"We can have an animated — even passionate — discussion about ideas and issues and solutions," she said, "without being unkind to the people who support or reject those ideas or issues or solutions."

When people enter dialogue with that mindset, they exit it a changed person, she said. "Can you see that as a faithful, faith-­centered, faith-­directed disciple, how entering the arena and talking about solutions transforms?"

She shared four concepts that help her maintain her focus in difficult circumstances and that have led her to transformative experiences in her work.

Four concepts

First, words matter. "I urge you to understand the meaning of words for all key players and then choose your words well," Isom said.

Second, people matter. She rejected frameworks that simplify issues into polar opposites and assume pernicious motives. Instead of mentally placing a person on an opposite side, see the other's potential and value.

"Can we not see the people and resist the poles?" she said, adding, "What might happen if those oppositional dualities were framed as complementary or interdependent — each a unique part of a greater whole, each part of the total, ultimate solution?"

Third, Isom said "you matter." She referred specifically to disciples of Christ, who said contention should be done away, and said their contributions make a difference.

"Authentic discipleship is the surest way to counter the pervasive anger that is overtaking our communities and politics," she said. "Even more importantly, authentic discipleship is the best way to share the gospel’s truth — to live as disciples, to share our light and, in turn, the Savior’s light. In marketing terms, it is called 'living our brand.'"

Fourth, Isom said "we matter," meaning all people should work together as God's children. People can successfully engage in the arena by working together both to create change and to allow themselves to be changed.

Outcome or process?

Finally, she questioned whether winning is the point of engaging in the arena.

"Could it possibly be that the process is more important than the outcome?" Isom asked. "Could it possibly be that good works of discipleship are more important than good outcomes in the arena? What if, in the grander schemes of eternity, it’s not what we fought for, but how we contributed; it’s not the tangible deliverables, but whom we touched; it’s not the widgets produced or the book published or the bills passed or the size of your portfolio? What if it’s the understanding gained, the charity demonstrated, the patience refined, the relationships cherished, the friends kept, the people nurtured, the peace made, the hearts healed, the partnership with heaven? What if the truest meaning in any arena is not in being right, but in becoming true? A true disciple."

Isom chairs the women's outreach committee for LDS Public Affairs. The committee works to elevate the voice, visibility and perceived value of women. She said the concerns of women too often are framed in artificial binaries, including women vs. men. As she prayed to understand her role, an image came to mind of a left hand and a right hand cupped together. The image was combined with a thought: "You are here to help men and women work together. We hold more living water together than we do separately."

Isom said she was not talking about glossing over differences or compromising principles. She said she knew her invitation to charity might sound idyllic to those who have spent time in the arena.

"But I do know from experience, when we tackle a really tough policy challenge, there are viable solutions that honor the principles of all sides. Sometimes it demands patience, time and multiple iterations, but there are ways to get there. It is not going to be easy. It is going to require work. It is going to require active listening."

Ally Isom offered a checklist for Mormons as they consider their conduct in the public arena. She titled it "A disciple's reality check."

A Disciple's Reality Check

1. Do my words hurt or strengthen?

2. Do my words marginalize or divide or unify?

3. Does the Spirit tell me to pause and reconsider better words?

4. Do I see others through God’s eyes and regard them as part of the solution?

5. Do I honor others’ agency?

6. What does the Spirit tell me about their hearts?

7. What words and tone would Jesus Christ use?

8. Do I speak truth in love?

9. Am I patient with the progressive understanding and path of others?

10. Do I forgive others and myself?

11. Do I love and pray for all in the arena?

12. Do I trust God and submit to his will and timing?

13. Do I recognize my spiritual gifts and accept my stewardship?

14. Am I pressing forward, steadfast in Christ, feasting upon his words about this issue?

15. Do I allow the Holy Ghost to tell me what to do and how to do it?

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com