This past Sunday while we were talking about the story of Jael, a brother who often participates in class discussion stood and said, “This reminds me of our duty to wage just war.” He went on and on about a supposed duty to wage offensive war, and how we neglect that duty too often today, and … and … and it took me quite a while to find an opening to break into his monologue and change the subject.
Two months ago during the Gospel Principles lesson on prayer, our Relief Society teacher read an interminable list of things we should pray for. When she got to the political section of her list, she instructed us to pray for the Tea Party agenda in specific detail. Oh, she didn’t mention the Tea Party by name, but she told us we needed to pray that our taxes won’t be raised any higher, and that our leaders won’t take this country down the path to socialism, and that we can replace all our bad leaders at the next election. She returned to the theme of “taxes are too high” several times during the lesson without any specific tie-in to prayer other than, I guess, we were supposed to pray that her friend doesn’t lose her house when “they” raise taxes.
One ward member has a standard symbol dredged up whenever she wants to point out how fast the world is sinking into anarchy and evil: “Those people who want us to pay for their health care.”
A while back a man in my ward who escaped from a Communist country during the height of the Cold War seized on some slight excuse in a class I was teaching to go on a rant against illegal immigrants. “I followed the rules – they should too.” There was no acknowledgment that being a trophy refugee for whom the State Department rolled out the red carpet might have entailed different “rules” from those expected of a migrant Mexican farm worker.
Last year when I taught the lesson based on the Willie and Martin handcart experience, I asked class members to consider (not discuss, but just react privately) when I read several statements taken from today’s political debates against welfare and against immigration, and think how uncharitable and unholy they sounded when spoken against people we have come to think of as heroes and martyrs.
We all like to think that our political views are informed by the gospel, don’t we? And if the gospel informs our views, then they must be right, and any contrary view must be evil, no? And no brother or sister in the gospel would have a contrary view from my own righteous view, right?
Yet the truth is that politics are not spelled out definitively and unambiguously by the gospel. For every person who thinks that there is some Mormon concept of “just war” that justifies us in waging offensive war, you can find at least one other person whose understanding of the gospel decries war of any kind. Tax rates and the use of public tax monies (including health care, or not) are policy decisions, not eternal principles spelled out by the gospel. A nation’s immigration laws and methods of enforcement are policy decisions to be made in the political arena and are not spelled out in scripture, no matter how often or how loudly someone shouts “Remember the 12th Article of Faith!” And it wasn’t fair of me to twist people’s emotions toward the suffering handcart companies into a commentary on very different conditions of the 21st century.
But how do we handle it when a teacher or class member preaches politics rather than the gospel? If you’re like me, you probably do nothing. And I’ll probably still go on doing nothing if possible – that is, if a casual political comment is made, I’ll let it go. But I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do in all circumstances.
I’ve been rehearsing (yes, out loud, to myself, so that I can actually say it pleasantly without choking) some possible comments to use as a class member: “You know, sisters, we’re probably all aware of the poisonous political atmosphere out there. I think we can only maintain the sisterhood we need in here if we’re careful to keep our focus on the gospel and not on partisan political agendas.” If that hint isn’t enough – and it may not be, for someone who is convinced of the gospel-centered righteousness of a political view – I might raise my hand again later and say, “You know, tax rates are a matter of public policy; they aren’t spelled out in the gospel. I’m happy to pray that your friend can work out her financial problems, but I’d prefer that no one tell me to pray for a specific political tenet.” If that didn’t do it and the issue was raised a third time, I’d probably walk out of the classroom.
Or is that the right thing to do? Should I wait for a Relief Society leader to intervene, instead of me? (So far, no one has.) I don’t want to harbor the feelings I have toward ward members who have no trouble preaching that my views are of the devil. But do I have the right to chastise the teacher, however gently?
It’s even harder to know what to do as a teacher. On the one hand, I have the responsibility to see that the lesson is Gospel Doctrine, not Partisan Speculation. Yet I don’t want to embarrass a class member in front of his peers.
I’d appreciate your thoughts on how to handle political remarks in church classes, whether you’re a teacher or class member.
Remember, the topic is handling these remarks. Any comments that debate a specific political issue will be removed.