Political Tolerance in a Religious World

The morning after the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints passed away, the New York Times (N.Y.T.) tweeted: “Thomas Monson, the president of the Mormon church who rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died Tuesday at 90.”


Any L.D.S. person on social media can attest to the outrage that followed. After reading the New York Times’s controversial summary of President Monson’s tenure as church president, some shared that they never wished to read the paper again, others expressed disgust, and still others shared an online petition asking the New York Times to rewrite the obituary.


When I stumbled upon the obituary while trawling Apple News, I was not yet aware of these reactions. As I scrolled through the article, I was pleased to see that the passing of our church’s president had made the news, and even sent the article along to a few friends. Prior to reading the article, I hadn’t realized that President Monson was behind the increased transparency regarding church history, and I felt a fresh rush of gratitude for President Monson and his work. I was glad the paper interviewed a prominent, active, L.D.S. scholar (Richard Lyman Bushman, Columbia University) rather than an outside source. As a political science student, I was interested in how church developments were seen from a secular perspective and pleased to read about President Monson’s humanitarian and interfaith initiatives. While some of the topics were sensitive, such as controversy surrounding women and the priesthood and stances on gay marriage, the New York Times refrained from making normative statements about President Monson’s actions, and I was grateful for their effort to confront church issues in this way. I thought it was as comprehensive a review as one could expect from a secular source; the paper offered a neat summary of major occurrences during President Monson’s time as church president, especially those the N.Y.T. had previously reported on, as well as matters relevant to current national discussions.


Clearly, others felt differently. When I discovered that the article was controversial to some, I asked friends and family what they thought of it. The most common theme I encountered was the idea that the New York Times had intentionally led the obituary with a contentious statement in order to slander or embarrass a good man. This response is understandable. Framing matters, and the points the N.Y.T. chose to lead with can rationally be interpreted as intentional.


Some interpret this obituary as a sign of the times, a slap in the face of religion, or a gleeful embarrassment of the L.D.S. faith. However if one believes that the church’s teachings on women and the priesthood and homosexuality are right and true, then the New York Times’s tweet regarding President Monson’s refusal to bend to societal pressure should be an honor, not an offense. As a national newspaper, the New York Times is obligated to report on nationally relevant issues, and any movements or debates surrounding women’s and gay rights fall squarely within this category. Church members have long prided themselves on being a “peculiar people,” unyielding to the whims of the world even in the face of mockery or pressure. We may not have liked the issues the N.Y.T. chose to highlight, but have to realize they were reasonable topics to cover because they were some of the most central teachings of the church during President Monson’s tenure. If we choose to see this coverage of central church issues as malicious and withdraw from secular media, we forgo any opportunities for further discussion with and understanding from the outside world.


In a sense, wishing the New York Times had watered down President Monson’s teachings to something more palatable to the public is paternalistic. Who are we, as church members, to ask that some of President Monson’s core principles be downplayed or left out altogether? The church’s stance on the priesthood and homosexuality was emphasized and reinforced throughout President Monson’s leadership, even declared over the pulpit in broadcasts to millions of people. Surely it was fair of the New York Times to pick up and report on these issues, which are so closely related to current national topics.


In a new era of tough language and unprecedented frankness, if religious people wish to be included in the national dialogue, we must be prepared for the kind of inclusion which lacks the cushion of context. In the eyes of many L.D.S. readers, the New York Times’s tweet was harsh. Regardless, it would be a mistake to believe something and declare it as doctrine, and then feel wronged when known for it in the public sphere. We can’t ask to be religious people in politics, and then ask others to avoid politics when discussing our faith, such as in President Monson’s obituary. After all, what are politics but the expression of moral convictions?


I firmly believe in the right of the individual to act according to her political conscience, and I desperately hope that religion and politics can be harmonious forces for doing and seeing good. As religious people, do we want to freely express religious views in our politics? If so, then we need to be comfortable with secular sources interacting with our religion and make efforts to understand how outsiders view us, even when it is difficult or controversial. In other words, we cannot expect special treatment in frank political discussion, and we cannot ask to be excused from political consideration as long we wish to express our religious views in political discourse. It is my hope that this will not be the last time the New York Times covers the L.D.S. Church, nor the final straw for church members in seeking differing perspectives from secular sources. There is something important to be gained from a healthy understanding between church members and those outside, and miscommunication can be a golden opportunity for a renewed connection. I hope that church members will be leaders in this endeavor and refuse to withdraw from discussions that could yield important mutual appreciation, insight, and goodwill.

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Rachel Finlayson

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