A few months ago, I began noticing a disturbing trend online. I began seeing posts and comments that went something like this: No real/true/faithful member of the church could vote for ____________.
Indeed, there are some things that members of the Restored Church can be expected to largely agree on because we share a common faith and follow living prophets. But the things I saw mentioned were not general gospel principles like forgiveness and chastity, but narrow and specific partisan stances.
For example, I’ve seen people insist that every latter-day Saint should vote Democratic to protect the food stamp program, and others insist that every Latter-day Saint should vote Republican to expand school choice. I’ve seen people insist that those who don’t publicly support the Black Lives Matter don’t deserve to be considered members of the Church, and others suggest that church members who don’t work to fight socialism are betraying our pioneer heritage.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with saying “I think the gospel tells you to vote ________ because we believe __________.” We should all feel free to express and defend our opinions. I’m talking specifically about a public attitude that goes beyond “I think this is what the gospel tells us to vote for” to “If you don’t vote the way I think the gospel tells us to, you are failing in how you live the gospel.” Between social media and blogs and online comments, I’ve seen an increasing trend of Church members insisting that all other Church members “should” vote in a particular way and that they are failing in their righteousness if they don’t.
The gospel should definitely inform which candidates and parties and policies we vote for. But it should also inform the way we treat others, and the way we talk publicly about those we disagree with.
I believe this attitude of judgment toward others, proclaiming that all members or all Christians “should” or “must” vote in any particular way (coming from those who have no authority to speak to what “all” should do), violates the charity we are commanded to have for one another.
And yet, in the dirty trenches of the political internet, when you ask “How should Latter-day Saints vote?”, the answers are simple but strident. “They must vote Republican!” or “They must vote Democrat!” The mobs hiss and scream their demands, content to insist where God has not insisted.
I want to suggest another way to think about this question.
“How” doesn’t always mean “which party” or “which candidate”. “How” can also mean, “with what quality, or in what manner”. Members of the Church may (and often do) disagree about which candidate or party to support. But we have been clearly taught how we ought to treat one another.
On this, I think we can agree.
1. The cognitive bias that makes us criticize others’ opinions
First things first: our current political polarization is extreme, but not unexpected. It is actually quite common for us, as human beings, to assume that people who voted differently from us must not care about the gospel the way we do. It comes from the tendency to believe that the way we see the world is the way the world is.
For example, if I read the scriptures and do my best thinking and come to an opinion about how to vote, I tend to assume that everyone who thinks carefully and searches the scriptures should come to the same conclusion as I did. When someone disagrees with me, I will therefore assume that either they haven’t read the scriptures or they haven’t thought carefully!
Maybe they’re biased or brainwashed or lazy or don’t care about the gospel or whatever—but surely they did something wrong to get to the wrong conclusion.
Social psychologists call this “naïve realism” and consider it a cognitive bias.
Simply put, there is no human being with a pure, unbiased perspective on the world—that is simply not how our brains work. Life is complicated and nuanced and endlessly changing, and individual human beings have different perspectives, upbringings, assumptions, and experiences that affect what matters to them most when they vote. How we see things and how we come to conclusions changes based on our mood, our surroundings, our prior commitments, the social behavior of others, our level of tiredness, our expectations, and a host of other factors. The truth is, there are many perfectly valid ways to interpret the very same data.
(Check here for a lovely visual example of many valid ways to interpret the same information.)
Naïve realism (thinking that anyone who disagrees with me must be either thoughtless or immoral) stops us from noticing when we are wrong, prevents us from changing our minds when the facts don’t line up with our previous opinions, and makes us contemptuous of our brothers and sisters just because they don’t agree.
2. How good people disagree about politics: There is a difference between a value and a policy
Secondly, it’s factually inaccurate that our gospel values will lead to one and only one choice when it comes to policy.
For example, suppose one candidate for office has a plan to reduce crime, and the other candidate doesn’t have a crime plan at all. We, as members of the Church, should want to reduce crime—it’s bad for individuals and societies and for the perpetrators themselves. That’s simple enough in theory.
But in reality, suppose that I research these two candidates and I conclude that the “reduce crime” plan will actually backfire and make crime worse. Then it is not obvious what the gospel is telling me to do! If I want to reduce crime, I can’t vote for a policy that I think will make crime worse. But my only other option is to vote for someone who doesn’t share my anti-crime value.
My gospel-informed desire to reduce crime may not actually solve the problem of whom to vote for!
This happens because there is a difference between a value (like being against crime, or against racism, or in favor of protections for minorities, etc.) and a policy. A value is an eternal principle given to us by the scriptures and indeed by the light of Christ. A policy is a man-made plan for enacting a value. It may or may not end up actually promoting the value it seeks to promote. It is not, itself, a value, but only a plan.
In this example, one faithful latter-day Saint voter might decide the best way to reduce crime is to stop this bad plan, and so she votes against it. Another faithful latter-day Saint voter might decide that the plan isn’t actually that bad, and doing something is better than doing nothing, and vote for it.
Neither one of these voters has the right to tell the other that their vote means they don’t care about crime. They each brought a gospel perspective to the issue, and they each cared about reducing crime, but they ultimately voted for different policies because they had different perspectives on how well that policy would enact their values.
So if I choose to support a policy or candidate based on my gospel value of reducing crime, or caring for the poor, or protecting freedom of conscience, or whatever—I cannot simply conclude that everyone else who shares that value must choose the same candidate. Even people who share my values may disagree about how well any policy or candidate will enact that value in practice.
Now imagine that in the same hypothetical situation, the candidate without a crime plan actually does have a plan to improve education, and the crime-plan candidate does not. Latter-day Saints care a lot about education. But they may still disagree about how good this education plan is, just as they did with the crime plan. Now each voter has to not only weigh the merits of each plan, but also decide which value—reducing crime or improving education—they care about more, because neither candidate is focused on both things she values.
Our two voters might choose opposing candidates, or the same candidate for different reasons. But if we criticize either of them on gospel grounds, we are unfairly minimizing the complexity of the choice they face.
It is arrogant and disingenuous, not to mention totally dismissive of others’ difficult choices, to behave as though our gospel commitments to certain values must always lead to a commitment to the same policies.
3. Pride is the source of condemnation, criticism, and mockery
Finally, even if we could be sure we have the “right” political opinions, and even if it were clear and obvious how other people “should” vote, it would still be wrong to criticize, insult, or show hatred or contempt for mockery for those others who are still our brothers and sisters.
It is so easy, once we enter the quagmire of online politics, to want to condemn those who are clearly wrong in their opinions! Especially when they’re members of the Church who “should” know better!
Let us not be fooled by the easiness of the way. The desire to condemn, harm, or ridicule others never arises from pure Christlike motives, but only from pride and superiority.
We can justify treating others as though they deserve to be insulted, only when we feel absolutely certain and confident that our own opinions are superior to others’. If I believe I am superior to others, I also believe it is okay to mistreat them, ignore them, mock them, or insult them online—after all, I am the one with the true, correct opinion.
However, the scriptures assure us that this kind of confident superiority is not approved by the Lord. “He that shall humble himself shall be exalted”[i] and “Humble yourselves…and he shall lift you up”[ii] The ideal disciple “becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble”[iii] and trusts “in that Spirit which leadeth to…walk humbly”[iv].
Sure, some of us are going to reach better conclusions than others. You may, in fact, happen to be “right” about some opinion of yours. But even if you are, it doesn’t mean you are superior to others—it just means you happen to have had the experiences, education, perspective, upbringing, and inclinations that led to the correct opinion.
That is not a reason to feel proud and superior. It is merely a reason to feel grateful.
It is desperately unfair to demonize others simply because they have not had the same life experience as you.
For all I know, I am the one missing crucial lessons or trapped in pride or constrained by my circumstances to believe certain things that are not true! I wouldn’t know it if I were.
4. The bedrock value of Christlike political behavior is Charity
When we criticize, mock, or condemn others because of the conclusions they have reached, we are violating the direct and unequivocal commandments of the Lord.
The Savior said “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.”[v] And “as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. “[vi] And “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The scriptures also tell us to be “kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another,”[vii] and “kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you,”[viii] and to “love one another with a pure heart fervently.”[ix]
None of these scriptures goes on to say “unless you come across someone with a stupid political opinion—it’s okay to be mean to those people.” On the contrary, we are instructed specifically to love our enemies. Our enemies are, by definition, people who don’t “deserve” our love and compassion.
And yet the Savior himself said:
“I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”[x]
In this time of political polarization, we have become too used to thinking it is okay to hate people if they encourage the killing of the unborn, or if they are racist or promote racism, or if they are criminals, or if they devalue women, or if they “cancel” you, or if they fight against religious freedom, or if they refuse to help the poor, or if they instigate wars, or if they protest wars, and on and on.
But the gospel tells us that we do not have the right to hate and mistreat anyone, even if they are our active enemies, even if they hate us first, even if they use us despitefully and persecute us, even if they imprison and crucify us.
As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are obligated to love all the children of our Heavenly Parents. That love does not have to include agreeing with them or voting with them. But it has to include praying for them, serving them if we can, and treating them with respect and kindness even in disagreement.
Loving others does not include mocking them and their beliefs in public on social media.
Loving someone does not include demanding that they read your preferred articles, agree to vote for your preferred candidate, or sign your petition in order to avoid being “unfriended” or shamed.
Loving your enemies means you support their right to have their own opinions, and you engage in honest debate and discussion with them, not mockery and insults.
Loving your enemies means you do not tell them they have to vote the way you do in order to be good Christians or good members of the Church.
So how should we vote?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is politically neutral. That is, although Church leaders will occasionally make statements expressing support for (or against) certain moral issues and, they do not endorse specific candidates or parties. At the same time, they encourage members to be politically active and care about political issues and work for a better world.
As we navigate our fallen, polarized, intensely partisan political landscape, we have been encouraged to figure out which we think are the correct or “best” policies and laws and practices. And there’s nothing wrong with discussion and debate, arguing for our positions, and talking and writing about how we think certain policies will support our shared values.
But those others who see things differently are still our brothers and sisters, and we owe them compassion and respect. We can try to convince them, and courageously defend our beliefs, but as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ we know to avoid anything that insults, mocks, hurts, or dehumanizes our enemies.
As Saints, our primary responsibility is to develop charity for our fellow mortals. If we cannot do this, then it doesn’t matter whom we vote for—we will still be voting wrong. If we vote arrogantly, aggressively, violently, mockingly, with disdain and contempt, then no matter who we cast our vote for, the Lord will not be pleased.
So how should Latter-day Saints vote?
Thoughtfully, carefully, humbly, kindly; full of love for God and of all His children, however they may vote”[xi].
[i] Matt 23:12, Luke 14:11
[ii] James 4:10
[iii] Mosiah 3:19
[iv] D&C 11:12
[v] John 15:12
[vi] Luke 6:31
[vii] Romans 12:10
[viii] Ephesians 4:32
[ix] 1 Peter 1:22
[x] Matthew 5:44
[xi] 2 Nephi 31:18, Mosiah 2:4