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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Faith and works

The Salt Lake Tribune accepted a Letter to the Editor I submitted in response to an unfortunate representation of the doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by Ed Firmage Jr, "Defining Mormonism: Faith in good works." The letter was published under the title, "Faith and works."

Letters to the Editor are seldom a way to accurately convey a point, but I felt it was appropriate in this instance to try and more accurately represent or defend the actionable doctrines of my faith. I felt as if submitting an Op-Ed in response to his writings would come across as combative. Therefore, I posted a comment on Firmage's article and then submitted the letter to the editor.

I applaud the Salt Lake Tribune for accurately representing my thoughts in the published letter. (My experience has been that letters to editors in general often undergo more editing that is appropriate - or even ethical; one periodical that will go unnamed once modified my submission so dramatically that I disagreed with the points ultimately submitted under my name.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

A renewed called for civil discourse

A recent Deseret News editorial, "A nation in need of civil discourse," stresses the importance of civil discourse. I don't often create a post simply to link to another article, but want to make an exception in this case.

The editorial begins by mentioning the infamous "Daisy" ad put together by the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign during the 1964 election against Barry Goldwater. "Ironically," states the Deseret News editorial, "President Johnson's voice was heard at the end, saying, 'We must either love each other, or we must die.'"

When campaigns demonize their opponents in order to win elections they implicitly teach the falsehood that it is okay to hate - and to express hatred towards others - just so long as we have a really good reason and something important at stake.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Why Democrats and Republicans should appreciate Romney's VP choice

I admit, I was surprised by Mitt Romney's selection of Paul Ryan as the GOP's vice presidential nominee. In the coming days and weeks, media of all varieties will be flooded with convoluted tomes detailing the brilliance or foolhardiness of Romney's decision.

In the process of reading reactions to Romney's largely unexpected boldness, I have gradually come to believe the selection of Ryan gives both Democrats and Republicans reason to rejoice, although perhaps for reasons not immediately apparent.

In particular, I think Ryan's selection has the potential to add substance to Romney's candidacy and civility to the race overall. 

Ryan is a man of substance with strong opinions. Romney is as well, but precious few voters seem to be aware of it. So effectively has the election been portrayed as a referendum on President Barack Obama's failures that many voters, having not been adequately educated otherwise, see Romney as a two-dimensional caricature instead of a multi-dimensional candidate of depth and substance.

Conversely, Ryan has a history of being much more explicit when expounding his views. His platforms are polarizing, but they are also substantive. That doesn't mean Democrats - or even GOP House leadership - will always take that substance into account when offering criticism, but Ryan's policies are a lot like buttermilk and peas: you either like them or you don't. Romney's policies, on the other hand, are often portrayed in such a manner that what you think about them isn't nearly as important as what you think about Obama.

By adding Ryan to the ticket, Americans all of the sudden have a more clear choice before them. The substance of Ryan's policies creates a dynamic in which the election becomes a contest between two candidates rather than a referendum on a single incumbent. This emphasis on substance is something for which both parties can be appreciative.

The inclusion of Ryan may also lead to an increase in civility in the days leading up the the election. As voters begin to understand the substantive differences between a Romney presidency and an Obama presidency, perhaps the respective campaigns will set aside their negative campaigns to focus more on the issues. I recognize this is wishful thinking, but even the slightest adjustment from slinging mud to expounding policy would be good for our country. The sad commitment to negative campaigning demonstrated by both campaigns only encourages the rest of the populace to follow suit.

The more Romney and Obama wallow in the mud, the less likely it is those they seek to lead will take the high road. This is dangerous because it reinforces the notion it is okay to be intolerant of the viewpoints of others. America is at a crossroads - as it often is. If we continue to focus our energies on uncivil personal attacks rather than the consequences of espoused policies, the time will come when we stop caring which bus route we take just so long as our bus driver throws a stronger punch than anyone else who wants to drive.

Negative campaigning is the unfortunate reality of our times, but that doesn't mean we can't work towards change. Now that Ryan's addition to the GOP ticket has more clearly defined how Romney differs from Obama, perhaps both sides will slow the pace of the nasty rhetoric - so often devoted to irrelevant topics - and begin to make the case for their respective platforms with added measures of civility.

Ryan's addition to the GOP ticket took me by surprise. However, the potential impact the Wisconsin Congressman may have on the substance and civility of the race is reason for Republicans and Democrats alike to be appreciative of Romney's selection.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A response to Ed Firmage Jr.'s, "Truth in Mormonism"

In an Op-Ed for the Salt Lake Tribune, Ed Firmage Jr. addresses the topic of truth as found in Mormonism. As he likely understood the challenge of trying to address the topic of "truth" in a 600-word limit forum, Firmage shifts his vernacular from truth to "creeds." Although the Mormon faith does not have a creed (we believe in an open cannon where God continues to reveal Himself and His will to mankind), Firmage makes brief mention of the Articles of Faith and then speaks of Mormon religious teachings in general.

His thesis appears to be concern about the legitimacy of doctrines taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints - and perhaps any religion - based on his perceptions of religious doctrines. In particular, he does not believe Mormons have truth capable of producing salvation, and infers our doctrines don't cross the boundary from "an existential... to an epistemological truth."

Firmage is very civil in his post and even appears to go out of his way to properly identify Mormons as Christians. His tone is very much appreciated and stands in contrast to a recent article in the Huffington Post.

Letter to the Editor

I would like to take the opportunity to briefly respond to only a few of Firmage's points. I have submitted a short 200-word Letter to the Editor that may or may not be accepted for publication in the Salt Lake Tribune. The focus of the letter is to emphasize that I believe the doctrines of my faith are meant to be acted upon and used to better ourselves and serve others. I hope to dissuade those who may have come away from Firmage's article with an incorrect understanding about the purposes of truths revealed by God.

I include this scripture from the New Testament (James 1:27) to illustrate how a belief in scripture leads directly to actions intended to emulate God and ease the burdens of others:

Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

"That is my religion... It is to save the people."

I also took the opportunity to share some similar thoughts in the comment section of the article and felt it would be prudent to post a copy here. As Firmage is participating in the discussion associated with his article, I addressed my comments to him:
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints myself, I have always approached our doctrine with the understanding that it is designed to impact our behavior, to call us to action - as manifest not only through our overt physical actions, but also our thoughts and words.

I seek to use the doctrines of my faith to become a better man and to increase my ability to serve others. Still, I often fall short in both of those efforts. However, that reality to me is inspiration to try harder.
My beliefs directly impact even those efforts. For example, my belief in the enabling atonement of the Savior gives me added strength and capacity to better serve others today than yesterday, and tomorrow than today. Morality and service are among the many important bricks in my house of faith.

Your Op-Ed and this comment make me think of a talk shared in General Conference several years ago by President Gordon B. Hinckley as he taught of the importance of using our doctrines to provide to others salvation, both temporal and spiritual.

He shared the example of Brigham Young responding to news that two handcart companies were stranded and in dire circumstances. Many had died, and all would die if help wouldn't soon be at hand.
The text of his remarks to a session of General Conference in 1856 has stayed with me from the day I first heard it.

In the tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young arose and powerfully taught the saving doctrines of the Mormon faith. He said,

"I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak.... It is this.... Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with the handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be, to get them here...."

He continued, "That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people."

I thank you for the civil tone in your original Op-Ed. I share your concern for those who suffer. We differ, however, I think in the role of religion. To me, there is objective truth found in the doctrines of the gospel that hold the power of salvation, both temporal and spiritual. That we profess knowledge of truth in its ultimate sense doesn't mean that our fragile attempts to respond to various truths will be perfect. Naturally, that means there are those within our individual spheres of influence who may suffer unnecessarily because we lack the capacity, skill, or willingness to help. However, the sad state of society inspires me to try even harder to apply the truths revealed through my religion to my life.

I regret that your perception appears to be a belief that Mormon doctrines don't extend beyond epistemology. But I thank you again for the civil tone of your original post.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A few thoughts in advance of Romney's VP announcement

At present, I am enjoying the bliss that is pain-induced insomnia stemming from a serious car accident.

As I was reading articles from various news websites to help distract the pain and pass the time, I was surprised to learn that Mitt Romney intends to announce his vice presidential running mate early Saturday morning (Aug. 11, 2012).

Timing of announcement?
The press release caught me off guard in a number of ways.

Friday evening is usually the time bad news is reported to the press. I participated recently in a local vice presidential pool through The exercise is similar to an NCAA March Madness tournament bracket where you track 68 basketball teams and try to predict which team will win the national championship and what road they will take to get there. Readers were invited to submit their best guess of who Romney would select - and then include a date and time.

I picked a Wednesday at 10am EST for Romney's announcement. My thought process was that the Romney camp could maximize press coverage during a certain time window.

What slipped my mind in the process, and what may or may not have played in role in Romney's announcement, is that the former Massachusetts governor is struggling mightily to deflect the media's scrutiny related to his recent foreign policy gaffes as well as the incessant clamoring for greater transparency into his personal financial records. Then there's the recent ad produced by a pro-Obama super-PAC that introduces readers to the tragic story of a man whose wife died of Stage IV cancer. In perhaps the vilest negative political ad I have ever witnessed, it is inferred, though not overtly stated that Romney bears some degree of responsibility for the eventual suffering and death Ranae Soptic (semantics are at play in defensive responses to this ad; it was carefully designed and presented the way it was for a reason). Simply put, it's been a  difficult season for Romney's communication team.

The snowball of negative media attention has appeared unusually intense these last few weeks and I can't help but wonder if part of the reason the Romney campaign didn't hold off a little longer in making their announcement was because they had to change the prevailing narrative and try to get the candidate's ship back on course.

That still doesn't explain the Friday press release and the anticipated early Saturday morning announcement. I'm curious to see what the explanation for the unique time slot turns out to be. 

But timing is a mere detail compared to the pick itself.

Paul Ryan...?

I selected Tim Pawlenty as my predicted recipient of the VP nod. Truth be told, I thought Rob Portman would be a better pragmatic choice, but his economic association with the George W. Bush administration is something Romney appears to consider as a very serious liability.

While I created my own set of criteria to narrow my choices to one individual, my rationale really didn't end up varying much from most analyses I have seen; my pick was hardly original. After all, this is Mitt Romney - the man with an uncanny ability to produce results by synthesizing the messy irrationality of human behavior with the strict logic of cost-benefit analyses.

Tim Pawlenty wasn't a bad choice. He just happened (apparently) to be the wrong one.

The honor instead looks as if it will go to Paul Ryan, the wunderkind Congressman from Wisconsin who was first elected at the ripe age of 28 and steadily mastered the financial ideology of the GOP and the technical aspects of the budget process. Yet the Republican economic oracle has been seen as a risky move because he's, well, risky. His proposals to dramatically alter the face of social services, especially those such as Medicare, make him an easy target for attacks.  Ryan's proposals are radical enough to have already made him a hero in the eyes of some and a villain in the eyes of others.

He is a polarizing figure. He will be a lightning rod for the campaign. But I don't believe Romney is making this choice out of desperation. I don't believe he is taking a risk just to show the American public he can be unexpected. I don't believe he is giving into pressure from the lobbying of high-profile Republicans who want to see their favorites next to Romney's name on the ticket.

This kind of a list could go on for quite a while. Whatever the final deciding factor(s), I believe that while Ryan is widely believed to be a risk, Romney didn't shoot blindly into the dark. I think this is another example of the kinds of calculated risk that have been responsible for so many of his successes - and failures.

As to specifically what Ryan brings to the table that objectively translates into electoral college votes, I doubt many people know with certainty the full reasons behind the choice. I certainly don't, although I can make some educated observations.

Potential benefits of a Romney-Ryan ticket

There are at least three potential upsides I see in these first few hours after hearing the news about the pending announcement.

First, Ryan is unambiguously conservative. As Romney moves into the full force of the general election, political science dictates he must move closer to the center to secure the votes of independents.

Unfortunately for the GOP, the primaries put Romney in a difficult position. For months, the motto of the Republican party seemed to be, "Anybody but Romney." Extra resources had to be devoted to take down one challenger after another, but the cash doled out was nothing compared to what it cost Romney in trust capital. To secure the support of the further right demographic, Romney had to creep further in that direction than  he probably preferred. His challengers, still hoping to clinch the nomination themselves despite the inconvenient reality of delegate arithmetic, amplified a sense of fear from the more conservative segment of the GOP base by stating that Romney would merely change his positions once the general election got underway (Republicans may come to seriously regret their new rules that replace winner-takes-all contests with proportionately allocated delegates). Having a running mate adored by the far right allows Romney greater flexibility to be himself without further alienating those who are suspect of the legitimacy of his conservative credentials. Ryan's selection would put a conservative stamp of approval on Romney's formal nomination in Tampa at the GOP convention.

Second, the economy is Romney's strong suit. By adding Ryan to the ticket, it may be the equivalent of having a second-string quarterback whose most critical skills mirror those of the starter; Ryan complements Romney's extant economic savvy. Of course, there is the question of whether Ryan's approach is feasible (I doubt it is) - and whether it aligns precisely with Romney's own financial vision (I doubt it does).

Ryan's budgetary prowess could be to Romney what steroids are to world-class athletes. At the same time, if Ryan's budget is used as a significant template for Romney's own economic platform, there is no guarantee it will impress independents. In fact, I think a strong argument can be made that Ryan's latest budgetary proposals may push independents towards the incumbent.

Third, a perfect storm is brewing in Wisconsin. The state's recall election combined with Ryan's political celebrity may do in actuality what most vice presidents do only in theory, namely, swing his home state in the direction of his ticket.

Romney and Obama are neck-to-neck in most nationwide polls of registered voters, but elections aren't won by a popular majority - they are won by a very specific majority of the electoral college. These votes will be critical to a Romney victory and the unique circumstances of Wisconsin's current political environment just may be enough to give Romney the state.