Tag Archives: political correctness

Tolerating Faith: Lessons from Nauvoo

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Sunset across the Mississippi, seen from Nauvoo

Nauvoo, Illinois, is a small place on an out-of-the-way bend in the Mississippi River. It rates a footnote in American history because for about four years in the mid-1800s it seemed a safe haven for persecuted members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—Mormons.

But suddenly Nauvoo is relevant again because we in America still have not learned lessons that should have been learned there in the 1840s.

Mormons had been driven from Missouri under threat of extermination, in the dead of the winter of 1838-39 with only the clothes on their backs. The mob war against them had been tacitly approved in an extermination order issued by the state’s governor. There had been murders, robberies, rapes, and beatings, including the massacre at Haun’s Mill. No one was spared—not even children. Their leader had been imprisoned on trumped-up charges for which there was no evidence.

Fleeing eastward, they found haven, and sympathetic helpers, in Illinois. They built up the new city of Nauvoo, and members began to gather there. But by 1844 their relationship with neighbors had gone sour again. The reasons were social and political as well as religious. Politicians began to fear the power of Mormons voting as a bloc. Their Christian religious beliefs were unorthodox. Among other things, some of them practiced polygamy, believing they were following a command of God given through a prophet. Much of the information that was circulated about them was false—lies concocted by people who were

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A memorial to Joseph and Hyrum Smith, martyrs for their faith, in front of the Nauvoo LDS Temple.

ignorant of their doctrine but wanted to turn public opinion against them. Their leader, Joseph Smith, was assassinated by a mob.

I have been reading a lot about Nauvoo lately because my wife and I will be spending some time there as missionaries. In a country that proclaims religious freedom, there is plenty of room for differing views on doctrine. Many Christians find reason not to accept LDS doctrine, and I would defend their right to do so. But facts from history leave little room to doubt that what happened to the Mormons of Nauvoo was unjust and criminal.

The federal government failed to protect them and their rights. State governments failed to protect them. They were driven out of the then-United States to the Great Salt Lake Valley. When that territory was annexed by the United States a short time later, the persecution over their beliefs continued until—again by the command of a prophet who received a revelation from God—they abandoned the practice of polygamy. Before that happened, enemies tried to destroy the Church with laws targeting their beliefs (beliefs that seem relatively tame now, in an era when courts are dealing with issues of same-sex marriage and gender by choice).

But all that persecution is past now, right?

Or does some of this sound familiar in light of current events?

Today, we still have religious minorities under attack because their beliefs are different. Demagoguery and unsubstantiated, bigoted rhetoric has given the hate-mongers in our society license to go after people they fear or dislike.

Christians, including Mormons, who hold to the belief that marriage is a sacred relationship between a man and a woman are under attack by those who see themselves as more enlightened and more sensitive to acceptable social norms. Many people cite religious freedom as they reject traditional beliefs about morality, yet they are willing to violate the freedom of others by trying to force them to accept ideas repugnant to their consciences.

People who hate don’t seem to need a reason to attack Judaism, and haters attack Muslims based on half-truths or falsehoods. What little I know of Islam suggests it is a religion of peace whose name has been hijacked by remorseless and sadistic criminals. In any case, barring or booting people from the United States based on the fact that they come from a predominantly Muslim country does not live up to the ideal of religious freedom we hold up for the world. Never mind that Christians are not given tolerant treatment or religious freedom in Muslim countries; this country espouses a higher standard. Let’s live up to it.

An attack on the religious freedom of any minority is an attack on the religious freedom of all of us. We do not have to agree on doctrine to agree that we each deserve the right to worship according to our own faith. Whether we call him God or Heavenly Father, Yahweh or Allah, our obligation of faith and obedience is to Him, and no one should interfere with that so long as our worship does not hurt anyone else.

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The inscription below the tower on the Nauvoo Temple proclaims “Holiness to the Lord.”

One basic Mormon tenet is this: “We claim the privilege of worshipping almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may” (Articles of Faith). No one need be a Mormon to accept that this is a fair expectation of religious freedom. I can easily live and work alongside those who believe and worship differently than I. We will no doubt find that we have much more in common than we knew.

So, back to the lessons of Nauvoo. Mormons were victimized, persecuted, and driven out in Missouri, then Illinois ostensibly over religious differences. Has that kind of persecution stopped in this country? No, not for religious minorities whose views are seen as incorrect by self-appointed arbiters of social norms, and not for those who are the targets of hate.

Neither those who hate nor those who impose politically correct theology actually believe in religious freedom. Their view is that it should apply to those who see things their way, or those who share their ethnic heritage or skin color. The haters and the politically correct are often in the same camp. In the name of orthodoxy or racial and ethnic purity, they are willing to forego tolerance. They let themselves believe that people who do not share their philosophy or their heritage don’t deserve or can’t be trusted to handle freedom of choice.

It’s time for those who truly cherish religious freedom to say, “Enough.”

It is long past time for those who say—with fingers crossed—that America stands for religious freedom to act like they really mean it.

It is time for religious freedom without qualifications—without this mental reservation: “if they believe and worship as I do.”

 

 

Echoes of the McCarthy Era

As I write this, I’m listening to one of my favorite folk albums, by a group called The Weavers. I’ve loved their music since I discovered this CD in a music store a few years ago. Only after I bought it did I realize they were the group that recorded one of my favorite songs when I was a little boy. I used to sing along at the top of my voice to their rendition of “On Top of Old Smokey” on an old 78 record.

After I found this CD, I wondered whatever had happened to The Weavers. I, for one, enjoyed the American folk music boom of the late 1950s and1960s. I had several favorite groups, but I couldn’t remember The Weavers being part of that scene. I wondered why.

It turned out, as I read a little about them, that they apparently were victims of McCarthyism or of unchecked root-out-the-Reds fervor in the heyday of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Somehow they were tainted, and that effectively ended their musical careers.

List them among the victims of extremism in thought.

A memorial display honors veterans who gave their lives.

A memorial display honors veterans who gave their lives.

Do not misunderstand what I say here. I consider myself a patriot. I have loved the United States of America from my earliest childhood. I still cry when I sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “America the Beautiful.” In an era when my country is attacked and demonized throughout much of the world, I am deeply grateful when I hold the passport that specifies where I had the privilege of being born.

As a teen and young adult, I was deeply concerned about the influence of communism in the world. I won a high-school oratory competition with an anti-communist speech. I truly believe there were evil and sinister people among the communist/socialist leaders of the world who needed to be stopped or held in check.

But much foolishness was propagated and evil done in the name of fighting communism. This includes the destruction of lives and careers of people who were tainted because of the great Red Scare.

I am worried because I see the same thing happening today as the pendulum of popular thought has swung in the opposite direction from what was acceptable in society in my youth. I see political correctness as the McCarthyism of our times.

As much as I admired the late Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for his principles, I never could completely buy into his assertion that “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Sorry, senator, but extremism is almost always the wrong response to a problem in society. It leads to an “us versus them” mentality, a willingness to categorize others in the harshest of judgments, and a willingness to punish those who do not agree with philosophies currently acceptable to the majority. That was the case during the McCarthy era, when a person could be ruined by expressing thoughts that someone else might conceivably describe as socialist or sympathetic to communism. And it is the case now, when someone can be attacked or ruined for expressing thoughts that do not seem sympathetic to “reproductive rights” or favorable toward gay marriage. Even corporations and institutions must not seem lukewarm toward these causes; they must express support or be publicly punished and ridiculed. Never mind the sincerely held beliefs of those who may disagree. There are those who would willingly punish or ostracize anyone who believes that the unborn child has rights, or that marriage is an institution established by God that men and women have no right to redefine.

Self-righteous “patriots” used labeling during the McCarthy era to categorize people who disagreed with them—“communist fellow traveler,” “pinko,” “socialist symp.” (This may seem funny if you watch an old episode of M*A*S*H in which Frank Burns is made to look like an idiot, but believe me, there was nothing humorous about it in the 1950s.) The same kind of labeling is used today to pigeonhole and sometimes demonize people who do not agree with some things that have become acceptable in society. These people may be called “anti-feminists,” “homophobes,” “haters.” This makes it so easy and convenient to dismiss them as people and to judge their beliefs as unworthy of consideration.

I do not feel that I am an enemy to women because I believe that a child conceived without coercion is not simply a “fetus,” or mere tissue, but a person with a right to live. If the woman who conceived the child does not want it or cannot keep it, there are other solutions besides abortion. I believe that marriage is a divine institution established by God so that one of His daughters and one of His sons can join together to progress in this life and to bring more of His daughters and sons to live on earth if they can. Believing this does not make me hate anyone who sees things differently.

But well-known people I admire—notably, actors and other public figures—take positions on these sensitive issues that not only express disagreement, but seem to ridicule and advocate ostracism or punishment for those who do not accept conventional wisdom. Many of these people who use the public forum to attack or criticize the beliefs of others are too young to remember what McCarthyism did to Hollywood and to politics in its heyday. I wish they could.

I fear that some of them would be quite willing to build intellectual and philosophical ghettos for those who disagree with them.

I fear for liberty when people can be punished, even in subtle social ways, for simply holding beliefs that do not conform to those of the majority. Extremism in defense of “liberty” is always a vice if it leads to suppression of thought or to punishment of those who do not accept the philosophy of the majority.

Sticks and Stones and Same-sex Marriage

Call 2 BWThere is a collision coming—a collision of ideas—that I fear will be damaging to freedom of thought. It is yet another clash between freedom of belief and political correctness. I fear that in the zeal of political correctness many people would be willing to give away some of our freedom of belief.

I’m thinking of the conflict between those who believe in same-sex marriage and those who believe that marriage is ordained of God to be between a man and a woman.

I am in the latter camp. I firmly believe that marriage between a man and a woman was ordained of God from the beginning of this world. When God gave Adam and Eve to each other and declared that they should be one, it was a pattern for the ages. Men and women are to marry, form a divine unit called a family, and, if they are able, bring daughters and sons into this world. In doing so, they participate with God in providing mortal life for others of His spirit children.

To make marriage into something else is to go against His plan for His sons and daughters.

Some people will say here, “Then you don’t believe in equality for all of His sons and daughters.” That is not true. And the issue of marriage is not an issue of equality.

I believe that every individual on earth should enjoy the same basic civil rights. This would include the right to designate someone to make life decisions if the individual is incapacitated, someone to receive the benefits accorded to a partner under law, someone to receive or inherit the benefits of a pension or retirement fund if the individual dies, and any other rights one might wish to confer on a partner in life. Each individual should have the opportunity to choose with regard to these things, guaranteed by law.

People may choose to share their lives with whom they will, whether that person is of the same sex or not. But to call such a relationship between two people of the same sex “marriage” is to defy the will of God, I believe, and beyond the power of man to decree.

Still, there are social and political leaders in our world, up to and including the president of the United States, who seem inclined to make same-sex marriage an institution with the force of law which everyone must accept, no matter their moral beliefs. That is wrong. It is a violation of freedom of belief.

Many seem quite willing to place political correctness ahead of personal liberty—a liberty they like to claim for themselves but would not mind restricting for others. They would be willing to marginalize those who disagree with them socially and legally, to penalize them for believing what might be unpopular, to restrict their ability to worship or act according to their conscience. After all, what the true believers feel really ought to be moral, so why not try to coerce everyone into practicing it? Thus people who believe abortion is morally wrong can be required by law to support it with their tax dollars. Thus those who believe marriage between people of the same sex is not according to the plan of God nevertheless should be forced by law to recognize and accommodate same-sex marriage.

The doctrine of my church does not accept same-sex marriage, but if such marriages become generally recognized by law throughout the United States, I fully expect that there will be legal challenges to my church’s right to refuse to perform same-sex marriage or to refuse full fellowship to those who enter into such marriages.

People who are convinced that they are morally right and that anyone who disagrees is simply unenlightened have a propensity for creating laws to force their will upon others. Many seem convinced that they know the will of God better than He does—if indeed there is a God—because how could an intelligent God not see things their way?

People inclined to compel others to go along with their thinking do not understand the meaning of freedom of religion and freedom of speech—indeed, of freedom at all.

One of the most influential books I read in college was called Freedom for the Thought that We Hate. It argued that if we truly believe in freedom of speech, we will allow people to voice thoughts that are abhorrent to us without trying to suppress them or trying to force the people to change their thinking.

This is particularly challenging in a world where there are so many vile and repugnant ideas floating around. There are dedicated pedophiles out there who believe sex with little children ought to be acceptable. There are those who twist peaceful, moral doctrines of Islam to support mass slaughter, to validate their actions in depriving women of their rights, or to justify punishing women for actions inflicted on them by wicked men.

While there is no way I could countenance the actions espoused by some of these people, I cannot think of a morally or practically effective way to control what they believe. Freedom of thought, no matter how malignantly they may misuse it, is a gift given to them by God at their long-ago beginning—a characteristic of their eternal spirits that no one else can control.

Many rational, intelligent, morally respectable people believe differently than I do. I would do nothing to take that right away from them. I simply hope that in the clash of ideas in our society, they will not be inclined to take away my right to believe and practice my religion according to my own conscience, so long as what I do does not bring physical or emotional harm to anyone else.

It may be argued that my way of thinking could do emotional or intellectual harm to other people. If that were true, it would be equally true that trying to force me to believe and act as others do could cause emotional and intellectual harm to me. It seems that we are all going to have to live with the increasing probability that we will be associating with others whose beliefs clash with ours. When clashes come up, we will have to practice something that people who believe in political correctness like to preach: tolerance.

We will have to relearn that singsong bit of wisdom from childhood: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

As we face the inevitable clashes, let us learn not to pick up sticks and stones—especially not the sticks and stones of prejudice, name-calling, categorization, and dehumanization. We might not like the way another person thinks, but he or she is still a child of God and a fellow pilgrim in this mortal world.