Friday, April 14, 2006
Exceeding the Bounds of Authority
The Sutherland Institute wants the Utah Legislature to assert authority that no government rightfully has. The Mayor of Kanab and a senior local church leader in American Fork seem oblivious to the bounds of their authority.
Should politics and religion mix? Yes and no.
Some seek to exclude people with religious convictions from public service and even from public debate. I am not one of them. For political purposes, I don't care where you get your principles, as long as you have them. If they're based on your religious convictions, fine. If not, fine. Bring your principles with you, along with a decent respect for the freedom of others, and I am happy to see and hear you in the public square.
My own political principles are connected in complex ways to my religious convictions. The latter are firm, which is probably a good thing in a Mormon bishop. But my political principles are also heavily influenced by degrees in political science and political thought, and by volunteer and professional work at various levels of politics and government.
As a religious person who is also a conservative Republican, you'd think that I'd be adamantly in favor of officially sanctioned prayer in the public schools, wouldn't you? I'm not. On one hand, I don't want the public schools anywhere near the questions of how, where, and when my children worship. On the other, I think a lot of zeal is wasted on school prayer as a political issue, that could be put to use on issues of more practical and urgent import. I'm all for prayer, but prayer is a very personal thing. Let the schools concentrate on reading, writing, and arithmetic; those subjects can use all the attention they can get.
Since I'm a Mormon, you might also think that I'm looking for the most devout Mormon candidates. Sorry, wrong again. As long as you have some moral principles (honesty, loyalty, and a commitment to freedom of conscience come to mind), for political purposes I don't care where you got them. I care more about your politics, as I expressed rather friskily last year in "Yes, I Would Vote for a Druid."
I'm certainly not hostile to nonsectarian public expressions of gratitude to and trust in God. I don't resent the "under God" in "one nation under God." I'm not offended by the holidays or devotions or places of worship of those who believe differently than I. I don't read the language in the First Amendment about the government and religion to mean that in all cases government has to shun the very idea of religious devotion. So I don't belong in the ACLU (which I have lately called the Anti-Christian Liberals' Union, which is not their real name).
But I think it's wise and important to separate our religious devotions from our political activity to some degree, and to resist the temptation to use ecclesiastical lines of authority for civic purposes and vice versa. I have a long example and a short example, and I will present them in that order.
The Natural Family Resolution
I have in hand a Sutherland Institute publication which was mailed to all elected city officials in Utah, among others. It is promoting a so-called "natural family resolution" at the state and local levels. You can see the same document at their Web site. The proposed resolution acknowledges -- and I agree -- that the family is the fundamental unit of society; that people reared in stable families tend to be happier, more productive, and better citizens; and that the major public pathologies can largely be traced to the breakdown of families. I have no objection to any of this, or to the assertion that marriage is the legal union of one man and one woman.
But when we get to the passage, "We see our homes as open to a full quiver of children" (a Biblical phrase), I want to say, "Wait a minute! Government should mind its own d*** business!" This desire is further reinforced by later language about "homes, lawns, and gardens . . . ringing with the laughter of many children."
Remember, this is something they want the state legislature and your city council to adopt.
My first objection is that a married couple's decision when to have children and how many is too sacred and personal to be meddled with by government, even if government's intentions are good in the majority's view. As a Mormon bishop (pastor) I have a congregation, and a lot of things about their lives are my business, whether I want them to be or not. But this one isn't. (That's actual LDS Church policy.) It's a matter for husband, wife, and deity -- not pastor, and certainly not government.
Second, the document's commentary on the proposed resolution smugly asserts that "nothing in this resolution . . . judges or condemns anyone or anything" -- as if telling people they shouldn't feel judged or condemned will prevent them from feeling so. ("You are inferior and illegitimate -- no offense intended!") It also insists that it does not seek to impose the barefoot-pregnant-always-in-the-kitchen bilge on women. But even if its authors do not intend such judgment or oppression, some -- including municipal and state legislators -- will try to use it that way sooner or later. Why invite such abuse?
Third, the discussion says that this would be "a non-binding resolution" -- in other words, symbolism with no substance. We already have too much symbolism in the legislative branch of governments, as a substitute for substance. We don't need more, even on this important subject.
Fourth, how many is a quiver? Do different couples have different sizes of quivers? Who decides? Who even has a right to an opinion? Where is the emphasis on not simply having lots of children, but raising well the children you have? (As to the last question, I think you can find it in the document, but it is overshadowed by that full quiver.) This last, not very subtle, distinction, between having babies and raising children, is completely lost on many Mormons, among others. Why encourage that problem?
Fifth, I can't support the proposed resolution because of the behavior of some who do support it. Kanab, Utah, adopted the resolution at the local level. ("Now it is your turn," said the cover letter to my favorite city councilor.) Seventeen-year-old Mark Livingston of Kanab wrote an opinion piece in the high school paper which lambasted Kanab Mayor Kim Lawson over the resolution. (See a Salt Lake Tribune story.) Predictably, the piece seems to have been a bit over the top, but a politician needs a thick skin anyway, right?
The Mayor of Kanab Is Out of Bounds
Incensed, Mayor Lawson fired off two letters. One was to the superintendent of schools. It's an overreaction, but at least relevant. The other was to the boy's LDS stake president (roughly akin to the bishop of a Catholic diocese). To the latter he suggested that boy's "tone and verbiage" were not consistent with the principles of his Church, according to the Mark Haynes story in the Tribune.
Here we have a political leader who does not know the proper bounds of his authority, which is a dangerous thing. What right has he, first, to judge that the boy's actions are inconsistent with the boy's beliefs? What right has he, second, to complain to the boy's religious leader, or, third, to suggest the need for some "mid-course guidance" for the boy? This is the sort of abuse of power that gives Utah Mormons a bad name in politics.
The Tribune story reported that Livingston's church leaders have not mentioned the matter to him. Good for them! Excellent judgment! Perhaps one of them would be a good opponent for Mayor Lawson in the next election. Livingston's teacher and mother also stood behind him, apparently. Good for them, too.
An American Fork LDS Leader Is Out of Bounds
My second and shorter anecdote is from American Fork and concerns a senior local LDS Church leader who is less circumspect than Mark Livingston's church leaders. I could tell you his name, but I won't.
There's a proposed zoning change on the west side of American Fork that has attracted some opposition from the nearby neighborhood. The landowner wants the land zoned commercial, not residential, which would reportedly increase its sale value from two or three million dollars to six or seven. The neighbors are opposed to the change. Some of them bought their current residences with the understanding that the adjacent land would be zoned residential.
(One American Fork Planning Commission member said it should be commercial, because if it were residential, no one would want to live there, right next to CostCo and other commercial entities. Somehow, it didn't seem relevant to him that the current residents don't want to live next to commercial things, either. The neighbors are baffled at the publicly-expressed illogic, not to mention the ill treatment they have received from some members of the Planning Commission.)
But back to our story. I have heard from several of the neighbors that they are angry with the aforementioned senior local LDS Church leader. It seems that he used the pulpit in a recent large church meeting to exhort the neighbors to abandon their opposition and let the landowner do what he wants with his land. These angry folk aren't fully persuaded that their leader was just being a peace-loving minister of Christ at that moment. They have noticed that the leader himself and his family own adjacent pieces of land, the value of which would soar if they, too, could be zoned commercial. The precedent of commercial zoning for the plot currently in question would be a big step towards that same very profitable rezoning of the adjacent property.
The LDS Church is careful to maintain political neutrality. It doesn't endorse candidates, and it doesn't take positions on issues unless it would be directly affected by them or it views them as moral issues. Moreover, Church leaders, when acting properly, do not use their ecclesiastical authority for financial gain, and they carefully avoid the appearance of doing so. These American Forkers think their leader crossed a line.
A Common Thread
If there is a common theme to all this, it is leaders exceeding their authority. We have in the Natural Family Resolution an attempt to get state legislatures to go where no government has any right to go. We have in Kanab Mayor Lawson a local political leader trying to use his political authority to persuade religious authorities to discipline a member of their flock. And we have right here in American Fork a local church leader who appears to be using his ecclesiastical authority to sway political issues for his own monetary gain. (If it is only appearance, not reality, it is still a problem.)
It's entirely possible that it never crossed these folks' minds that they were crossing important lines. But don't you wish it had?
Once overwhelmingly Mormon (LDS), Utah is home for a rapidly increasingly population of "friends of other faiths," to borrow an awful euphemism of recent origin. Some natives may not like this trend, but it's happening. The rest of us would like the newcomers to feel welcome. It would help quite a lot if we could get some folks who are still mired in the nineteenth century to appreciate the proper boundaries between religious and civic authority, and between religious authority and personal monetary gain.
A concluding note: Some LDS readers may be troubled by my American Fork anecdote, because they accept as their duty avoiding speaking ill of "the Lord's anointed," which is generally interpreted to mean Church leaders. I am one of those leaders. I fail to see how the members' duty to uphold me confers on me any degree of immunity from criticism when I exceed or misuse my authority. I do not know this leader personally; I would not recognize him if I saw him. I suspect he serves well and unselfishly in many ways. It's entirely possible that his misuse of authority was not malicious, but simply a thoughtless mistake. The thought that his counsel was inappropriate may never have crossed his mind. Maybe it will next time. In any case, I suppose he has some bridges to rebuild among his flock.
David Rodeback comments (4/20/06):
In case anyone is paying attention to such things, I haved slightly reworded three paragraphs and two section headings, to more clearly and accurately convey my meaning. The essential substance is unchanged.
Copyright 2006 by David Rodeback.