Last Sunday, the Deseret News published an opinion piece on Mormon liberalism written by Eric Samuelson, a professor of theater and arts at BYU.
It was an articulate and thoughtful piece, but the initial premise — “I’m a liberal because I’m a Christian” — troubled me. It seems to imply that Republicans aren’t genuine Christians. It’s nearly as arrogant as the flaming online retorts to Dr. Samuelson’s article that the devil is behind the entire liberal agenda. The devil! What boldness!
Such grandiose claims about the motives of a political opponent, liberal or conservative, seem to me to be a major roadblock, if not the major roadblock, to many Mormon political discussions. What I mean is that a debate that starts with “I’m the true Christian!” and is refuted by “No, I’m the true Christian!” is sure to go nowhere quickly. Such claims hack at genuine political debate, since they’re saying (in essence), “God’s with me, kid.”
That’s not to say that we should pack up our wit, play in the sunshine, and “just get along.” Such Teletubby tenderness fouls up democracy, a form of government that thrives only if citizens argue intelligently against each other.
But since it can take years to comprehend our own motives, let alone the motives of a stranger, genuine political debate always requires that we give opponents the benefit of the doubt. That is, genuine political debate requires us to assume that our opponents — including even presidents and TV pundits — have noble motives. It also requires us to assume that our own motives — as much as we want them to be pure — may be off-kilter. In other words, political argument can only gain traction once we assume that our opponents may have something to teach us, that they too might be genuinely good, even if they vote to tax the rich or privatize health care.
At the very least, granting opponents the benefit of the doubt can help us avoid the embarrassment of flaming. I’ll leave you with a shining yet sadly typical response from a reader about Dr. Samuelson’s argument on health care:
“We can afford to fix health care”? Are you stupid? We are IN DEBT! Why does no one ever acknowledge this? How can you go from suggesting this, to later acknowledging that “large deficits and a huge national debt are obviously unsustainable”? STUPID!
To Dr. Samuelson’s credit, even though his self-righteous premise about true Christians has the flavor of a flamer, he steers clear of this futile, angry tone — and he’s all the smarter for avoiding it.
This is Jon Ogden’s first contribution to Rhombus.