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Church leaders urge civility in politics and defense of constitutional principles

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ General Conference contained lessons for American politics.

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President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency, conducts the Sunday morning session of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ 191st Annual General Conference in Salt Lake City on April 4, 2021.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Politics and religion have been major forces in our nation even before the birth of the republic. This reality is especially intriguing in Utah where one faith is so influential. In the April 2021 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talks by general authorities grabbed national and local headlines. We explore the impact of these important statements on political deliberations.

President Dallin H. Oaks of the First Presidency reminded conference listeners that the U.S. Constitution and its inspired principles are of “special importance” to church members. He said that no party or candidate can satisfy all personal preferences. Thus, members may at times need to consider “changing party support or candidate choices, even from election to election.” What is the significance of this speech?

Pignanelli: ”The broad tendency of Americans is to see religion as a positive force in society.” — Pew Research Center

I am an Italian Irish Catholic native Utahn who has watched some portion of every conference for more than three decades — oftentimes with my Latter-day Saint wife. This gentile benefitted from the wisdom provided.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was born in a republic without the blemish of supporting the “divine right of kings” that plagues other religions. For many decades, adherents suffered tremendously through the despicable actions of fellow countrymen. Therefore, church leaders have unique moral authority to admonish Americans to respect our beloved Constitution. Because of recent events, President Oaks’ deliverance was timely and much needed. He reminded us there are higher objectives than petty score settling.

Partisan discord is corroding the fabric of our society. President Oaks prescribed a simple, but very proficient, remedy for all voters regardless of their affiliations and persuasions.

Utah is consistently heralded for a well-managed government, tremendous work ethic and deep compassion. These are all traits directly derived from religious heritage. So, it’s natural Latter-day Saint leaders are providing a path to resolve national and state divisiveness. This heathen is proud to participate in the solution.

Webb: Non-Republicans in Utah were quick to interpret President Oaks’ comments as a clear signal that it’s OK for church members to support candidates and parties other than the dominant Republican Party.

I think they are correct in that assumption, although such positioning by the church is nothing new. Church leaders have frequently encouraged members to be active in politics, but have made it clear that the church does not support particular candidates or political parties. Such choices are properly up to individual members of the church.

Of greater significance, in my view, President Oaks strongly encouraged church members and everyone else to “uphold and defend” the divinely inspired principles of the Constitution. That clearly means supporting candidates who share that commitment.

He explicitly encouraged support for “five divinely inspired principles” in the Constitution. I strongly urge everyone to read and reread his talk and review and think about how we can champion those five principles to protect our freedoms and the vitality and durability of our nation.

I was especially pleased to hear President Oaks proclaim as the second “inspired principle” of the Constitution “the division of delegated power between the nation and its subsidiary states.” As a strong defender of balanced federalism in our nation it was heartening to see this key principle elevated by President Oaks. I firmly believe that a restoration of the proper federal/state relationship could help solve many of the nation’s most difficult problems.

Elder Gary E. Stevenson articulated scientific and anecdotal examples of why kindness is necessary. He denounced bullying and said that prejudice and poor treatment of others because of their personal characteristics have no place in society or in the church. He reminded church members they have a responsibility to set a tone of “inclusion and civility” in a society that is shifting toward division in “politics, social class and other manmade distinctions.” Can this counsel improve political dialogue?

Pignanelli: I will never forget Elder Stevenson’s talk. His stories of the laboratory rabbits and neighborliness of Quincy, Illinois, were moving and reaffirmed unkind poisonous language is not justified.

For too long, commentators on cable television, talk radio and social media have vilified others simply for policy differences. Religious leaders must consistently denounce these tactics. Elder Stevenson offered a successful formula.

Webb: In politics, there are certainly issues, principles and candidates worth fighting for. There are also issues, principles and candidates that should be opposed and defeated. But it really can be done without personal attacks and vicious language.

Admittedly, it is hard to stay civil and respectful on hotly contested issues. I often fall short myself. But we would better solve problems if our exchanges were courteous, with even a bit of grace and understanding in the mix.

Could the statements by church leaders generate backlash among members, or produce a deeper commitment to their objectives?

Pignanelli: Demanding charitable behavior toward those with different religious or political beliefs always generates criticism from the narrow strident believers (just ask Pope Francis). Unfortunately, it’s happening in Utah. But the legacy of the church, and its members, commands respect nationwide. Frequent admonitions similar to those delivered Easter weekend can change American discourse.

Webb: The behavior of those on the extremes may never change. But the entreaties of good church leaders can absolutely motivate centrists of all political persuasions to do better.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.