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Gordon B. Hinckley’s ‘Standing for Something’ turns 20, and it’s the handbook our politics needs today

President Gordon B. Hinckley waves his cane to the crowd as he leaves general conference.
Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Republicans and Democrats need major repairs.

The 2020 election cycle underscored the predicament: Neither party has built upon a foundation that can last more than a few more years without crumbling. One has replaced its platform with a cantankerous man who will soon be out of a job, and the other offers a buffet of woke appetizers that nauseates much of middle America.

It’s the sort of “instability, injustice and confusion” that, according to James Madison, have been “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.”

What’s missing is foresight and a fundamental commitment to principle that can withstand fluctuations in public attitudes. Fortunately, the remedy is simple, and little did I know the book I picked up on a whim a few weeks ago has the blueprints for moving forward.

Two decades ago last September, President Gordon B. Hinckley published what could have been received as just another book from a religious leader — an easy-read petition for traditional values in a secularized world.

Which makes the success of “Standing for Something” unique. It landed on The New York Times Bestseller’s list, receiving endorsements from Democratic Sen. Joe Leiberman, conservative pundit William Bennet and self-help guru Steven Covey. The forward was penned by Mike Wallace, the face of “the most successful broadcast in television history.”

The book launched as the world was opening its eyes to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints being more than a Utah-based religion, and people were curious about “the Mormons.” Four years prior to “Standing for Something,” President Hinckley, the church’s leader at the time, gave unprecedented media access by appearing on “60 Minutes;” two years later he sat down with Larry King on live TV.

Now, two decades on, the 2020 election cycle throws “Standing for Something” in sharp relief. It offers principles for a country grappling for a foothold. It accentuates McKay Coppins’ recent observation in The Atlantic: “What holds the country together is its conviction in certain ideals — community, democracy, mutual sacrifice — that it once possessed, and now urgently needs to reclaim.”

“Standing for Something,” when viewed as an outgrowth of the faith that informs it, is the way to reclaim those ideals.

And if altruism doesn’t inspire the political crowd, consider this: Whichever party can implement its principles the fastest, that is the one that will prevail.

So how does the book hold up after 20 years?

President Hinckley’s observations in 2000 seem more prophetic than descriptive. He laments an “unprecedented majority” who believes the private morality of elected officials has no bearing on their public behavior, but he did not know Donald Trump would win election in 2016. He is alarmed by “account after horrifying account of school massacres,” but he did not know there would be 293 school shootings since the book’s date of publication. He said he was more troubled by “the growing moral deficit” than the financial one, but he did not know Congress would let both deficits skyrocket under its watch in just the past year.

All of this he calls the “secularization of America.” He mourns the substitution of “human sophistry for the wisdom of the Almighty,” and argues that as religion has left the public square, so too have character traits that have upheld God’s blessings on this land.

The cure for the disease is straightforward: We must return to God, he says. We must “worship him in spirit and in truth ... acknowledge his all-powerful hand ... humble ourselves before Him and seek His guidance.”

Perhaps aware of the severity of his request, President Hinckley breaks down the way back into manageable sections, each focused on a time-honored virtue and a host of declarations: Love (“the virtue that has ... the power to have the most lasting good”), honesty (“how cheaply some men and women sell their good names!”), thrift (“ours is a wasteful generation”) and so forth.

It’s naive to think leaders will suddenly embrace virtue and shun the selfishness that has benefited their standing for so long. In politics, nice people finish last. But that’s not true if politicians and the nation are concerned about the long game.

This is the moment for political parties to decide where they’re headed. If they’re only concerned with winning a battle four years from now, they’ll lose the war. From George Washington to Margaret Thatcher, the most transformational leaders are those who cement their feet in a foundation of principle.

“The price of leadership is loneliness,” warns President Hinckley. It’s exhausting to stand apart from the crowd, but the moral high ground won’t be so solitary if even a few choose to make the hike and stand for something.