A reader here at Mormanity asked me to comment on an article that initially resembled (but wasn't) just another critic of Mormons looking for faults in the things Mormons do. A Harvard-trained professor at Emory University, Dr Benjamin Hertzberg, wrote what I consider an unkind piece for the Washington Post deconstructing Utah's rejection of Trump not as a vote for religious liberty but more as a desperate if not deceitful attempt to look mainstream by fearful Mormons who allegedly might not really be so supportive of religious liberty for others. In "Utah’s Mormons rejected Trump and picked Cruz. Here’s why," the professor applies what must be Ivy League mind-reading skills as he explains what Utahans were really thinking as they overwhelming rejected Trump in the recent Republican primary.
First, let me note that Hertzberg does not share the refreshing outlook of Mike Donnelly, the Catholic man who is Deputy Chief of Staff for Senator Mike Lee, who finds a community founded on kindness and service in Utah that he believed would thrash Donald Trump on election day (see "Why a Catholic Loves Utah–Especially on Caucus Day" at Meridian Magazine). Hertzberg also doesn't share the positive response exhibited by Damon Linker writing for The Week with the intriguing title, "The GOP needs more Mormons." Linker lists six reasons why Mormons may not like Trump (these may not apply to all of you, but they fit me fairly well and a majority of my LDS friends and family): (1) we aren't angry people; (2) we object to vulgarity; (3) we generally dislike Trump's "garish lifestyle"; (4) we respect the law and distrust those who might set themselves up as authoritarians above the law; (5) we like immigration reform and have a positive view of immigrants (many of us want more legal immigrants and recognize how much they can contribute to our society); and (6) Mormon's don't hate Muslims.
On that last point, in my small circle of LDS friends here in China, Trump's anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to be an especially important factor in their dislike of Trump. You can't just trample the Constitution and deny religious liberty to a whole class of people. Mormons tend to get this. We can easily see that this is dangerous. So I cannot vote for Trump. That doesn't mean I want to embrace radical socialism or any other flavor of Big, Bigger, Biggest Government -- the lessons of China's painful history, especially the Cultural Revolution, have much to teach us about what happens when you stir up a generation to think that progress and prosperity comes by seizing other people's stuff.
When a Muslim worship hall (not yet a full-fledged mosque, as I recall) came to the Fox Valley near Appleton, Wisconsin a few years ago when I was serving as a bishop, I took my older sons with me to attend to the opening ceremony and public house. I wanted them to meet some of my Muslim friends and to appreciate the goodness in this other faith. More recently, on Christmas Day while in Hong Kong, our youngest son actually recommended that we visit a mosque there that we saw on the way, and we had a wonderful and memorable experience there (and I'm looking forward to what will be my third visit the next time I'm in Hong Kong at the end of April, hoping to meet my new friend from Yemen). I was proud of my son's willingness to learn about and respect another great faith. In my experience, typical Mormons generally respect other faiths, including Judaism and Islam.
Such points don't seem to count for much to Hertzberg. What's really driving the Mormon vote — as if all of Utah were just one big Mormon block, acting in lockstep — apparently is fear, coupled with a lack of courage, and certainly not any kind of genuine, principled concern about religious liberty:
As members of a minority religion, those in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are stuck in a Catch-22: They are bound by their well-developed fear of persecution to appear as American as apple pie, all the while preserving their radical religious particularity. It is this predicament, rather than a principled concern for religious liberty, that best explains Utah’s caucus results....
For a minority religious group such as the Mormons, religious liberty is both a necessary condition for their survival and a continuous threat to it. Without it, they could potentially be subjected to coercive restrictions... With it, however, Mormons have to deal with continuous and relentless historical examination of their founding theological claims and the ever-present fear that their youths will either leave the faith or radically reshape the way it is practiced and understood....
It is deeply mistaken to understand Utah’s decision ... as motivated by some principled Mormon concern for religious liberty.It is a mistake, he argues, to see Utah's rejection of Trump as a vote for religious liberty since, he argues, Cruz has serious gaps in that area, too, and the lesser known, less liked John Kasich would be the right choice, he says, for a vote actually based on respect for religious liberty. Since Utahan's preferred Cruz, the only Republican candidate with a serious chance to compete with Trump, they must not really be for religious liberty.
What I see instead is the fearful calculus of a minority religious group that has legitimate concerns about the likely implications of the GOP’s increasingly punitive policies toward the religiously different — but does not have the courage to embrace their particularity and leave the party entirely. To do so would be to admit what is obvious to students of Mormonism: They are radically different from the mainstream of American Protestant religiosity. So instead of proclaiming their own difference, they stay, effectively, in the closet: They support the marginally more respectable Cruz over the brash and aggressive Trump. [emphasis mine]
I know some of you are going to say that I'm once again way out of my league in criticizing the political thinking of a Harvard-trained professor of political theory, but when I talk with actual voters about how they vote, I notice that very few of them are willing to "throw away" their vote the way I often do and vote for, say, a third party or a remotely trailing candidate with little chance of winning. To me it seems that a majority of voters will select the lesser of two or three evils in order to support a less objectionable candidate with a chance of winning. That may sound crazy in the halls of Harvard, but it's what I see on the streets of American towns.
So yes, perhaps Kasich might be a better choice to make a statement on religious liberty for a well-informed voter (do they still have those these days?) willing to simply vote for the best candidate on the list. Actually, more Utahans voted for Kasich than for Trump, but many more supported Cruz, the only Republican candidate with a chance of beating Trump. Kasich has only won his home state, nothing else, and is a distant fourth behind Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Is it implausible that making a "practical" vote for someone with a chance to stop Trump was an important factor for many voters? To portray the overall outcome in Utah as the result of a perverse "fearful calculus" to make Mormons look mainstream without actually being very tolerant people strikes me as the kind of harsh bias and skewed mind-reading we often find in anti-Mormon writings, where everything Mormons do can be cast in negative light and precious little credit given for what others can readily see as good.
At that point I had to wonder about Hertzberg. What makes him tick, or rather, what makes him so ticked about Mormons? In Googling him, I was quite surprised to see that he had been a professor of political science for a couple of years at BYU. In fact, he's LDS, which surprised me. Then came a critical insight. Very shortly after the LDS policy on children in gay marriages came out, he published a harshly critical piece on CNN.com in which he boldly states that he must stand against the Church. In "Mormons' unChristian policy on LGBTQ," published Nov. 13, 2015, just a few days after the policy was published, he declares that Mormons should "loudly and publicly object to the policy and demand its immediate retraction," and calls the Church's explanations for the policy "disingenuous." He urges dissent, and declares that he's doing it out of love for the Church and as means of sustaining its leaders:
Some will think that by publicly dissenting from the new policy I am not sustaining the First Presidency and the Twelve. Nothing could be further from the truth.
This is certainly his right. Many of us struggled with the policy when it came out. Some have waited patiently to understand it and to better understand what the Church's concerns are. Some have reacted too quickly and harshly, in my opinion, and Hertzberg's prompt reaction of loud public dissent may be an example of that, though I am confident he is genuine and that he views his actions as loving and courageous.I dissent because I love Mormonism, and I cannot bear to see its leaders cause so much unnecessary suffering and harm. I dissent because obedience now costs too much, to my moral integrity, to the church, and to the families of Mormons whom I love.
Of course, we have to make our own personal choices in these difficult matters. I fear, though, that his anger or frustration over the same-sex marriage issue may have led him to become too critical. This has happened to many I know when they become frustrated or critical on one issue, that can then affect their approach to other issues as well.
Regardless of where Hertzberg is in his attitudes, which may be more benign that I gather from his interpretation of Mormon voting, I wish now to speak of the general issue of disagreement and dissent.
I have a little experience in dealing with Church leaders and decisions from above that I object to. What I have learned over the years is that I rarely do wrong when I am charitable, when I assume that those in leadership positions with whom I may disagree are not acting out of vile hatred, fear, ignorance, and other evil motivations. This took some time for me to learn as I dealt with some painful circumstances when I served in some past leadership positions, but it has been a vital lesson for me.
We are rarely wrong when we take some time and consider that there may be reasonable thinking behind the actions of our mortal, fallible leaders, and that while they may sometimes be in error, the error is usually not because they are idiots and mean-spirited bigots, though few men are free of the many errors in thinking that can pervade human society in every generation. We are rarely wrong when we keep our objections, however well founded, and even anger to ourselves and wait for an appropriate opportunity to discuss concerns with our leaders. We are rarely wrong to be patient. And we are rarely right when we take our indignation to the public, however righteous we think we and it are. There's something about the psychology of going public and all the encouragement and attention that it brings that makes it very easy to step over the threshold from good-faith feedback to "kicking against the pricks." There's a reason for Christ's wise counsel: "in your patience possess ye your souls" (Luke 21:19), and I urge caution to those who want to stand as loud and critical dissenters. That's my view, anyway.
It is common for dissenters to claim that their public criticism and denouncements are done to help the Church (though calling it a manifestation of actually "sustaining" our leaders is a bit unusual). It is common for them to call it an expression of love for Mormonism. They probably mean it. But while the GOP may need more Mormons, as Damon Linker suggests, sometimes we Mormons could use a little less love.
I hope members who feel a need to publicly criticize their Church can apply patience and faith rather than becoming vocal critics. I also hope that America will learn the lessons of history and come to its senses in preserving not just religious liberty but the many precious liberties meant to be preserved by the Constitution which gave us a small, weak Federal government, with vast powers reserved to the States and to the People, not in the hands of an autocratic executive (and his appointed cronies) able to launch wars, change or ignore laws, spend at will, and do thousands of things our Founders sought to prevent. May the blood they spent in bringing us liberty not be for naught.