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Thursday, May 21, 2009
Craig Frank's Folly

Zeal without wisdom is a dangerous thing, even when all it does is open its mouth.

Too Much Frank(ness)?

On Friday (May 15) the news broke that Utah Governor Jon Huntsman would be named US Ambassador to China on Saturday, which he was, as most media-connected Utahans are well aware by now. On Saturday Utah Representative Craig Frank, a Republican from the Pleasant Grove area, wrote about Huntsman at his blog, under the title "Ambassador Huntsman . . . The LDS Implications Are Huge." Here's one lengthy paragraph:

Although the LDS church's missionary program has an ecclesiastical presence throughout many parts of the world, the countries with the largest population bases (China and India) are not currently open to the church's missionary efforts. Huntsman served his LDS mission as a 19 year old young man in the Taiwan Taipei Mission in the early 1980's. He has since been back to the Far East on a number of occasions. Huntsman not only takes to China his political acumen but also a lifetime of membership in the LDS church. This should bode well for the LDS church's mission to spread the gospel throughout the world, since all members of the LDS faith are under divine mandate to..."Go ye therefore, and teach all nations..." (Matt 28:19)

Let's stop there for a moment and analyze.

(1) It's true that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), among a few other Christian denominations, takes Jesus Christ's parting instruction to his apostles, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations," very seriously and personally. On any given day, there are tens of thousands of full-time Mormon missionaries proselyting around the world. I spent almost two years doing this myself and would happily do it again later in life.

(2) It's true that Mormons and some other Christians who are not full-time missionaries for their churches feel a personal, lifelong obligation to bring people to (their version of ) Christ. We Mormons are fond of quoting one of our leaders (or prophets), who rendered this obligation as "Every Member a Missionary." My own practical interpretation of this obligation differs from that of many genuinely devoted Mormons, who either attempt to exploit every relationship with a non-Mormon as a missionary opportunity or continually feel guilty for not doing so.

(3) It's true that a Mormon in a prominent position who openly practices his or her religion can be very influential, even without proselying, in opening doors, minds, and hearts, especially in areas where the Church is little known.

Although Representative Frank's words to this point are fairly innocuous, Governor Huntman's religious affiliation is enough to cause some to question his motives, as they question the motives of any Mormon who is appointed to or runs for high political office. Is there a higher loyalty? Will the person use the position to advance not just the nation or government he or she ostensibly serves, but also the growth and particular beliefs of his or her church? Some governments (and some partisans) are particularly jealous of divided loyalties and would suppress all religious activity or influence in a society, because of such concerns. Ours is not one of them, at least not yet.

It's Not Just the Mormons

Let's be fair, shall we? This question arises with others, too, not just Mormons. Remember when Hillary Clinton's campaign insinuated that Barack Obama is really a Muslim, and that he would be sympathetic to Islam and try to advance it from the White House? When abortion rights are used as a litmus test, some wonder whether a Catholic judicial nominee will take orders from the Vatican. Some see Jewish leaders in the United States government as a serious problem, because they might unduly advance the interests of Israel, even when they differ from the interests of the US. I myself am suspicious of what I see as some fundamentalist Christians' open intent to use government power to advance their religion -- which for some reason suggests to my mind the name of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. But I digress.

When I was a missionary, my companion and I were assigned to do one day per week of volunteer work in the community, apart from our regular proselyting activities. We chose a Pittsburgh hospital. The woman who would become our supervisor asked us quite directly if we intended to use the volunteer service as an opportunity to proselyte. It was a fair question, since our full-time occupation was to proselyte.

We told her quite truthfully that we did not. We ourselves suggested some boundaries, the general tenor of which was that we would tell people who we were if they asked, but not initiate religious discussions. If others initiated such discussions, we might answer a question or two if it seemed appropriate and could be done quickly, but we would defer substantive religious discussions until we were not on volunteer duty -- in other words, not representing the hospital. She was satisfied. We got the weekly volunteer gig, and we kept our word.

Some might say that in agreeing to and abiding by such terms, we were shirking our proselyting assignment, selling out, or possibly chickening out. I don't see it that way.

Where We Get in Trouble

Where we -- in the sense of Mr. Frank -- get in trouble in this blog post is just after the paragraph quoted above. You can almost see it coming:

Huntsman's ambassadorship not only puts him in an excellent position to address US-China relations, it puts him in an even better position to teach the gospel . . . in Mandarin.

Can you see that someone might interpret this to mean that Ambassador Huntsman's highest duty in China will be to preach the Mormon gospel? If my highest obligation in any situation, as a member of the LDS Church, is to proselyte -- if my first thought and motive always have to be to spread my religion -- then I am useless as government official, a volunteer, or for that matter an employee, because I cannot be trusted to do my job instead of proselyte. I am effectively disqualified from any useful role in any organization except my church. I cannot even shop, because I will end up proselyting my fellow Wal-Mart customers and be thrown out. I'll be a lousy neighbor, too. If I happen to be out mowing my front lawn, and I see some pedestrians approaching on the sidewalk, well, you know what I have to do. Come to think of it, I should have used the city committee I co-chaired several years ago to advance my religion. And so forth.

Maybe That's Not What He Meant

When I first heard mention of Frank's blog on the radio a few days later, I cringed, but I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. He must not really have meant that. He must simply have expressed himself unclearly, as we all do from time to time -- even fourth-term legislators -- thus allowing the media to misinterpret his words.

I was wrong. He meant it. Two days later, he elucidated:

Unless, in fact, the Prophet of God has granted a special dispensation to Brother Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., he is under the same obligation as any member of the Church to share the gospel "throughout the world."

You want to say that I'm taking Representative Frank too literally, that he cannot have meant what I think he meant. But that's what he wrote, and when he had a chance, he reaffirmed it, rather than correcting or clarifying it. I think he really did mean it. If it leads to an absurd conclusion, then I myself must conclude that he has yet to think through the implications of his dogmatic zeal.

Fourth-Term and Freshly Fallen from the Turnip Truck

In that second blog post, he also refers to his published thoughts as "personal 'speculation'" and wonders why anyone would get uptight about them:

First of all...this website is just my dumb little personal blog. It's like an on-line journal where I keep a record of a few of my thoughts regarding issues and current events that pop up from time-to-time. . . . I'm not just a representative, I'm also a human being...a father, a husband, a member of the LDS Church, a small business owner, a taxpayer...and occasionally, I golf. . . . The fact that someone would even care to refer to something I posted is...well...beyond me

Memo to the aspiring but hopelessly naive: There is no such thing as a private statement when you are a public official. If you say it or post it in a public place, it's public. If you say it in the presence of a reporter, it's public. Don't publish your thoughts to the world and then expect us to treat them as personal and off-the-record.

Just in Case We Didn't Get It Before

Yesterday, in yet another blog post, Frank cited a Salt Lake Tribune article about this flap, which quotes a BYU professor, Matthew Christensen, at some length. Frank doesn't like the suggestion that Huntsman's good Mormon example will satisfy his religious duty; he thinks Huntsman must do more. He writes:

Professor Christensen said that Huntsman "likely will go out of his way to avoid being seen as promoting the LDS Church."

I understand where he is coming from in one sense. Obviously he can't be seen as exploiting his position and blatantly pushing Mormonism on the Chinese, but that is obvious and it's obvious that you didn't mean that.

He goes on to say that simply living his religion will be enough to elevate the LDS church.

When the brethren continually mandate that we share the gospel with those around us, including those with whom we work, they don't mean to JUST be a good example. They actually mean to share the gospel. That's why the say to share the gospel. It probably starts with being an example, but it doesn't end there.

So it's not enough for Governor Huntsman to be a good example of Mormonism. He's supposed to exploit his position and promote Mormonism in China, but be stealthy about it and not blatant. Ahem.

I don't know Representative Frank or his work at the Utah Legislature well enough to know whether his own first priority in his legislative work is to advance the cause of the LDS Church (which is also my church), stealthily or otherwise. If it is, I disapprove -- but he's not from my district, so my disapproval does not affect him. I do know that he gets a lot of applause at Utah County conventions. I may be in denial, but I don't think that the Utah Republican Party at large or most Utah legislators have the advance of Mormonism as their first political goal. If they do, they are fundamentally, dangerously wrong and will find themselves increasingly unable to campaign or govern effectively in Utah.

Here's what I do know: Representative Craig Frank is an excellent, politically tone-deaf poster boy for what is still to a disquieting extent a provincial and politically tone-deaf Utah Republican Party.

In this criticism I don't want to paint with too broad a brush. Governor Huntsman and my own state representative, John Dougall, are happy misfits in this respect, even if I'm not crazy about some of the Governor's politics. And I recall with some satisfaction that, when I voted for Satan, so to speak, at the recent Utah County Republican Party Convention, I was in the majority of delegates. So I think there's hope.

The Actual LDS Church Position

For the benefit of any reader who takes my position in this matter to mean that I have neither faith, nor commitment to the religion I profess, nor sufficient regard for my Church's leaders, nor the faintest hope of landing eternally in any (literally or figuratively) cooler place than hell, I quote part of a statement at the LDS Church's official Web site:

The Church does not:

  • Attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to. This policy applies whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  • Attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader. . . .

Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position. While the Church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent.

I realize that this statement does not explicitly say, "Despite his zeal, Utah State Representative Craig Frank is two or three Chicken McNuggets short of a Happy Meal on this US-Ambassador-as-Mormon-Supermissionary thing." But note the clear sense in this statement that the Church expects LDS officials to do their jobs, to represent their governments and constituencies, not the Church.

Frank's Gaffe in Perspective

I interned at the US Senate in the fall of 1987, just after the summer show trial of Oliver North (during which I was in Russia). I was there to witness the "borking" of Judge and Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. After Bork's nomination and the subsequent nomination of Douglas Ginsburg failed -- the former because of a perceived threat to Roe v. Wade, the latter because of occasional marijuana use in college -- it was said that at least two of the likely candidates for the nomination were Latter-day Saints, including former US Solicitor General Rex E. Lee. In the end none of the Mormons was nominated, but a source at the Senate Judiciary Committee, which conducts the confirmation hearings for judicial appointments, told me that the majority staff of the committee (the Democrat side) had a folder several inches thick of materials prepared to destroy any LDS Supreme Court nominee, based on religion alone.

This is not Craig Frank's fault. Nor is it his fault that Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy was upended largely by religious bigotry, fueled to some degree by archbigot and fellow candidate Mike Huckabee and abetted by eventual nominee John McCain. There are plenty of people nationwide and in Utah who will believe -- without ever hearing of Craig Frank -- that Mormons in general cannot be trusted with political power.

But somewhere out there are some people with open minds, who are reluctant to exclude an entire church full of fellow citizens from public usefulness based on religion alone. It doesn't seem fair, after all. What's the evidence? they wonder. Enter Craig Frank, with an armload of evidence -- misconstrued evidence supporting an erroneous conclusion, but evidence nonetheless.

Of course, I'm assuming that Craig Frank is not representative of LDS politicans generally. If he is, then the evidence is properly construed and the conclusion to which it leads is correct.

Maybe both of these opposites are too sweeping. May I suggest a compromise? We might conclude that unreflective Mormon zealots like Craig Frank ought not be trusted with political power, but that wiser Mormon candidates and officials may safely be judged by their politics, not their religious affiliation.

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