Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Harry Reid, Prop 8, and Being A Good Mormon

Harry Reid, Senate Majority Leader and active Mormon, recently told a gay rights group that he did not support the Church's Prop 8 campaign. He said he believes that it was a waste of resources and a detriment to the Church's missionary program.

Reid's statement once again gave Mormon conservative activists the opportunity to question how one can be both a Mormon and a liberal. From a Salt Lake Tribune article comes this quote from Holly Richardson, who has a blog called Holly on the Hill, who said: "I just don't get how his politics translate to somebody who has LDS beliefs. He's an embarrassment to me as a Mormon." This quote is merely representative of the types of comments out there. It is truly astonishing that this type of thought still exists.

First, how can people not understand that holding a personal belief and not supporting that belief's codification into civil law are completely compatible? I believe in God. I do not believe that we should enact laws requiring everyone to believe in God. That is an individual choice and other people's beliefs do not effect me and my beliefs. Some Mormon conservatives do not seem capable of making this distinction.

Second, a Mormon Democrat does not have to personally espouse every majority Democratic issue. I have said it so many times it is getting boring and cliche. I do not have to be pro-choice to be a liberal Democrat. The next person does not have to be pro-torture to be a conservative Republican. There is room for debate and disagreement in any group, particularly political groups. Do not just blindly accept a political party's stances and likewise do not just blindly believe that members of the other party are monolithic. That is naive and foolish. All liberals do not want to abort babies and all conservatives do not want to torture and kill all criminals.

Third, we have also pointed out before that Pres. Faust was a Democrat and worked in the Kennedy administration. Elder Marlin Jensen of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, is a Democrat. Pres. Hinckley explicitly stated that a good member of the Church can be a good Democrat. The Church as explicitly encouraged political plurality. And so on. There is nothing inherent about Mormonism and conservatism that make them a match. There was a time when Mormons consistently voted for more liberals political candidates. It ebbs and flows.

So Sen. Reid is the Democratic Majority Leader and Mormon? So Harry Reid thinks that Prop 8 was a mistake? So what? We live in a complicated world, people, and there is plenty of room in the Church to have debates like this. It doesn't mean that we can start deciding who is a good member of the Church based on party affiliation.*

*I fully realize that I recently questioned Glenn Beck's Mormonism, but that was not for his politics, it was for the hateful and vindictive things he has said about political opponents and minorities, and inciting hatred in others. Different things.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Right to Life and a Public Option

Momentum is gaining in Washington for a public option. I say "in Washington" because the American public and doctors have favored a public option for some time now. Democratic Senators and Representatives appear to be coming around finally, hopefully not too late.

This movement comes on the heels of a CBO report that says that the House public option bill would reduce the federal deficit over the next ten years. It also comes at a time when liberals are doing a better job branding the public option as "Medicare for everyone." The question now is, would you like the option of buying into Medicare before you turn 65?

Republicans, of course, are pushing back. Sen. Hatch is trying to shift the focus away from morals and whether we have a "right" to healthcare, to an appeal to personal freedom, as if that it is a useful distinction. He recently said, "Framing it as a moral question is simply wrong because health care does not occur naturally and is not self-evident. . . It's a choice. It's the freedom of health care and a kind of personal medical liberty."

Calling health care a right, or arguing against it as a right, is misleading. As Sen. Hatch implies, we basically have two kinds of rights we believe in. First are "certain inalienable rights" endowed to all men "by their Creator," namely "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Don't forget what Jefferson wrote about those rights: "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Second are the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. They are well known and include the freedom of religion and speech, right to a trial by jury, and right to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.

Obviously there is no enumerated right to health care in the Bill of Rights. When conservatives say there is no right to health care, that is what they mean. But what if Americans believe that included in the right to Life, given to us by our Creator, is the right to adequate health care? And what if a majority of Americans consented and gave power to a properly instituted government which secured that right for all of us?

That is where the discussion should be when it comes to whether or not we, as Americans, have a right to health care. We have a right to Life. That right is inalienably given to us by God. We can consent to the government securing that right for us by providing access to adequate health care for every American in the form of a public option. Hopefully Washington Democrats will listen to Americans and give us the public option we want and to which have a right.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What To Do About Afghanistan

Here are three pretty convincing arguments about what Pres. Obama should do about Afghanistan.

The first argues that if we want a victory in Afghanistan we are going to have to decide to Get Nasty, send a lot more troops than even Gen. McChrystal is asking for, and use overwhelming military force to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda for good. We can't win this war by going home or using half measures. We need to fully engage, no matter how politically unpopular the idea may be. Peace is only achieved through war.

The second argues that brute military force in Muslim countries is the actual cause of hatred towards America, and thus creates breeding ground for terrorism. Even if we oust the Taliban through military force, we will have lost the bigger goal of stamping out terrorism because the act of taking out the Taliban through military force will cause more hatred and terrorism towards America.

The third takes the middle ground and argues that our goal should be protecting and propping up a few major cities in Afghanistan by "throw[ing] at them all the resources they can absorb: military, civilian, financial, the works." We don't worry about the sparsely populated rural regions because if popular opinion turns our way in the big cities it will seep out to the rest of the country.

What is likely to happen will be more like the middle of the road suggestion than anything. We won't just leave, but it is too unpopular a stance to approve a major troop increase, so Pres. Obama will send a few more troops and hope it all works out.

You, of course, can decide which plan makes the most sense for you, understanding that very few of us can really understand the full scope of these foreign policy decisions. But that doesn't mean we can't have an opinion. We may not grasp the full implications of these decisions, and we don't have access to the intelligence information on which the government bases its decisions, but we can still have an opinion about how our government should generally make these decisions.

I want to re-post two quotes from modern-day prophets that guide my feelings on this subject. During World War I Pres. Joseph F. Smith said:
For years it has been held that peace comes only by preparation for war; the present conflict should prove that peace comes only by preparing for peace, through training the people in righteousness and justice, and selecting rulers who respect the righteous will of the people.
Pres. Marion G. Romney said:
We should find no pleasure in the fact that men’s strivings for peace have proved ineffectual. I wage no war against their efforts. Many of them are doing the best they can in the light they have. Nevertheless, I can see no justification for us, who have the clear light of the revealed gospel of Christ, to spend our lives stumbling around through the mists following the uncertain glimmer of a flickering candle lighted by the wisdom of men. Rather, we should devote our energies to spreading the true light, and leave the mists to those who do not see that light.
Wars are creations of man. They are only waged because we want them waged and we have created situations where they are then necessary. At some point we have to stop looking for opportunities for war and start looking for opportunities for peace. So I am personally ready to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and have our leaders start focusing on peace.

That may be naive at this point, especially to those in the government who have spent their lives in the "uncertain glimmer of a flickering candle lighted by the wisdom of men." They would say that we have to wage these wars to protect America from terrorism. Perhaps, though, we protect America best by focusing on peace and understanding instead of war.

There is no way of knowing this, but I suspect America may have been better off if we never went to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Somalia, Afghanistan, and all the other places we've taken our military might. There is not a decisive victory in the entire list, and all we've reaped is more hatred and bitterness towards our country. And now people are even talking about going after Iran. This type of thinking has to stop.

So I say, bring the troops home from Afghanistan, start creating understanding and diplomatic ties, start focusing on peace and commonalities. That, to me, is the best way to ensure peace and change the world.

Monday, October 19, 2009

100th Post Extravaganza

The fact that this is our 100th post says more about our stubbornness here at the Mormon Left than about the inherent quality of our writing and thinking or the number of people reading this blog.

It started out almost exactly a year ago as a way to explain that, yes, a person can be politically liberal and a good Mormon. I think we sussed that out pretty effectively and have now moved on to mostly writing about current events through the points of view of Mormon liberals. We've also made it clear that the purpose of this blog not to criticize or reinterpret doctrines, it is just a way to discuss secular politics from an angle that hasn't historically gotten a lot of publicity.

We've got some excellent readers who check in often and make really interesting and insightful comments. We thank everyone that comes and reads and comments. We welcome comments from all over the political spectrum and have had some great discussions over the past year.

I thought I would take this opportunity, then, to go over the thesis once again. Modern political liberalism and church doctrine are not mutually exclusive. There is plenty of room within the doctrines and teachings of the church for people of all political persuasions as long as they affirm the right of the individual to freedom of choice, including the freedom to practice religion.

The word "liberal," of course is pretty loaded (just like the word "conservative") and can mean a lot of different things to different people. I think Shawn O. made the definitive statement for this blog, however, when he wrote:
I value individual freedom more than about anything else, and so I am a liberal. I favor the freedom of action with respect to matters of personal belief or expression, and so I am liberal. I encourage progress, representation, tolerance, generosity, and freedom to act upon the dictates of my own conscience, and so based on both connotation and denotation, I am liberal.
Liberal is more than just Democrat, in fact sometimes they are at odds altogether. It is not always about government control or regulation of markets and systems. The focus is not on abortion or gay rights. "Liberal" is about progress, questioning the way we do things, looking for ways to improve, focusing on the rights and freedoms of all individuals, fostering tolerance and dialogue.

I feel this is a good fit with my religion, for me. I feel like believers should be constantly questioning the ever-shifting winds of societies, challenging individuals and groups to improve human conditions and relationships instead of holding on dearly to the secularist ideas of the past. We should embrace progress in technology and science and understanding to reach out to the least fortunate and powerful among us to lift them up and give them real opportunities in life.

Sometimes that means giving power to the government as the entity with the most potential to reach everyone. Sometimes that means trusting in individuals to do what's right on their own. It always means tolerance, respect, generosity, and selflessness. It means giving up what may be best for Me, for what is best for Us.

There have been no shortage of prominent Mormon liberals and statements by church leaders that both conservatives and liberals are welcome and encouraged in the church. But that doesn't mean that there are not issues where a liberal has to take a non-liberal stance in order to conform with the teachings of the church (abortion, for instance). The same can be said for conservatives, though (torture and war, for instance). We stated before and we will state it again, if you accept and agree with 100% of the views of a political party chances are you are not thinking critically. You are likely just following along blindly without examining the rhetoric.

So once again we state unequivocally that a person can be a strong liberal and a strong Mormon. We have loved working through these tough issues over the past year and hope to continue doing so. Feel free to tell your friends and, if you are new to the blog, to browse through our older posts which cover a wide variety of subjects. Thanks again for reading and contributing.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Jason Chaffetz Show

I like having Jason Chaffetz around. He is fun to follow. He has kooky ideas, a weird personality, boyish enthusiasm, and really kooky ideas. Don't get me wrong, I'd rather have a liberal representing that district, but since it is arguably the most conservative district in the nation, and any representative they elect is going to be an extreme right-winger anyway, we might as well be able to sit back and enjoy the show.

Chaffetz, remember, won his seat by ousting Chris Cannon, the 16th most conservative representative out of 435 by one measure, by running to Cannon's right. I still find that fact horrifying and entertaining, like watching the audition stage of American Idol.

Interestingly, however, sometimes there are bizarre issues that Chaffetz latches onto where I can kind of see his point. For instance, Chaffetz recently had a vendetta against TSA whole body imaging devices at airports. This is a device that creates something like a 3D image of the persons body for security purposes. Chaffetz's money quote is that "Nobody needs to see my wife and kids naked to secure an airplane."

I have got to say, I kind of agree with him. The images are not like photographs by any stretch of the imagination, but they kind of do look like a human body naked, kind of, and it seems maybe a little too far. And what is wrong with all the other security measures we have at the airports that we need this new thing? Does our right to privacy have some bounds that this maybe encroaches? I get where he's coming from.

But don't forget that he is still Jason Chaffetz. He recently went to the airport, purposefully got in line for one of these machines, and then reportedly went berserk and made a big scene about them and caused a ruckus and claimed he was being harassed because he was the Congressman that introduced the bill to get the things banned. Again, weird dude.

He went to Congress with this real absolute personal quest to end all earmarks. Again, there is something to that. Earmarks, while just a fraction of the federal budget, are a place where a lot of money gets wasted on pet projects, like the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere." He was incredibly adamant about this and used it as a major campaign issue. Remember he is still Jason Chaffetz, though, and now has a set of rules where it will be okay for him to get some of his own earmarks.

Which brings us to the latest Jason Chaffetz issue. He wants the census going out next year to require people to mark if they are legal U.S. citizens. Okay, so I understand the problem. The House of Representatives is configured by the number of citizens in each state and in each district. There are 435 seats which can get switched around from state to state as populations shift. We should make sure we have a pretty good idea of where U.S. citizens are before we move around seats. For instance, Utah is going to get a new seat, probably at the expense of South Carolina, with the new census. That should not be done willy-nilly.

But it is such a horrible idea to make people check a box if they are legal citizens in the census questionnaire. First, it would obviously depress responses. If I was not a citizen I wouldn't mark it and send it back in. I would be afraid that would be used against me, even if I was in the country legally. Second, the census is used for more than just redistricting, it is used to track population trends, income trends, gender trends, and the like. It is more important to get as many accurate responses as possible than to use it as what looks like an attempt to further his extremely offensive immigration stances.

Anyway, since we are going to get an extreme conservative out of Utah's Third District no matter what, we might as well get one that is entertaining (again, in an American Idol audition kind of way) and harmless.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Utah's Red Rock Wilderness Bill

The Red Rock Wilderness Act to protect, as wilderness, about 9 million acres of federal land in Utah raises several interesting issues.

1. What is the best use of wild lands? Resource extraction? Tourism? Motorized recreation? Non-motorized recreation? Conservation in a pristine state? Development?

2. Who has the most valid claim to making decisions about the use of federal lands in Utah? Utahns? Utah's Congresspeople? Counties? Congress at large? Americans at large?

3. Why, again, do we consider Jim Matheson a Democrat?

The primary conservative argument against the Red Rock Wilderness bill is best summed up by Rep. Rob Bishop in his editorial to the Deseret News. It is that the the bill would foreclose a large portion of Utah to economic activity. First, we should make clear that these are lands that are not suitable for commercial or residential development, nor are they anywhere near where any serious development is likely to occur in the foreseeable future. So really we are talking about extraction: oil and gas wells, hardrock mining, and logging.

The assumption is that Utah's economy will benefit more from extractive industries than what is termed as "ecosystem services," which includes such things as:
provisioning, such as the production of food and water; regulating, such as the control of climate and disease; supporting, such as nutrient cycles and crop pollination; and cultural, such as spiritual and recreational benefits.
Economists have estimated that ecosystem services contribute about $5 trillion each year to the global economy. Really, though, ecosystem services are impossible to quantify because they are irreplaceable. You cannot create through artificial means the natural process that moderates our weather, mitigates droughts and floods, cycles nutrients, controls agricultural pests, purifies the air and water, and more.

Utah, and most of the West, has been beholden to the extractive industries for our entire American existence. Just a fraction of pristine, untouched land remains. It is time we shift our focus from consumption to conservation.

And that is exactly what is happening. A recent Dan Jones & Associates poll, commissioned by SUWA, shows that over 60% of Utahns think that those 9 million acres should be protected as wilderness. SUWA, of course, is biased, but Dan Jones is not, and that is who makes sure the poll is unbiased and objective. More polling should always be done, but that is a pretty good indicator of where Utahns stand on the wilderness issue. Utahns want their undeveloped land to be protected as wilderness.

But Utahns are not the only people with a stake in this issue. These are federal lands, they always have been. They belong to America, and that includes every American. There is a legal doctrine that says that states are in this together and that one state can't discriminate against another. For instance, New York cannot deny landfill space to New Jersey just to make sure there is enough for New York. We have to pool together as a nation.

Americans from Maine to California, from Florida to Alaska, pay taxes that support our federal lands. People from all over the nation come to Utah to experience wilderness. These lands belong to us all. Just as much as the Statue of Liberty, Everglades National Park, and Denali National Park belong to Utahns as much as the residents of the states where they are located. We are in this together as Americans, and all Americans have a right to protect the last vestiges of pristine wilderness in Utah.

So is it really important, as Rep. Bishop wrote, that no Utah Congressperson supports this bill? No. The only thing noteworthy about that is that Jim Matheson continues to win reelection by 10-20 points every year and never takes a stand as a Democrat. He has political capital to stand up for liberals in Utah as our only Democratic representative in Washington, but he never uses it. Like most members of Congress, he appears to make decisions based on maintaining his power and authority than on doing what is right and representing his constituents. It would be a shame if this bill did not pass just because no Utah Congressperson stood up for it, including the perpetually spineless "Democrat" Jim Matheson.

The Red Rock Wilderness bill is good for Utah, economically, ethically, and as a practical matter. It should pass, Utahns want it to pass, Americans want it to pass. We deserve to have our natural, untouched land protected as wilderness both for ourselves and for future generations.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Flubs of August

When people look back on August (about my post title, fyi) I think they'll realize it was a pivotal point in the healthcare debate, and possibly in national politics. It is the first time that I'm aware of where the Noise Machine that is the media totally failed to "move the needle".

Despite ballyhooing about raucous town hall meetings and endless hours of airtime for any health care reform opponent, nobody really changed their minds. In fact, public opinion may now swing more strongly in favor of reform. Solid majorities support the idea of a public option, even though they're uneasy about health care reform in general. Now, however, I think we're seeing those two lines starting to converge. People are getting the message that current reform efforts (generally) include support for a strong public option. The Finance Committee bill is only one of several bills that need to be reconciled before this thing is over, and it looks more and more like the Finance Committee's efforts are more of a sideshow to the main attraction. While the Senate is being a bit of a wet noodle, the House is much more strongly behind a public option, so there are many opportunities to get it into a bill. Perhaps the Finance Committee efforts will fail completely and no bill will come out. If that happens, then the other bills which include a public option are in a much better position to lend their language to the final version.

The bigger story for me, though, is the failure of the aforementioned noise machine. In the past it's been terribly effective, and Republicans have pumped their talking points through it, with the result being that people believed them. This time, however, it failed in a big way. Even though all the parts are working fine (and Fox/Beck continue to gain viewership relative to other cable news channels), nobody outside of their base is listening, or they just don't care. It's instructive that Frank Luntz, a Republican messaging specialist, warned Republicans not to oppose health care reform. The party, however, has a new set of leaders who don't stay "on message" (Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, et. al.) and as a result the whole apparatus has lost its power to affect the public debate for longer than a week or two.

Opponents of reform like to think that time is against the reformers, but in this case it appears that the opposite is true. Indeed, as time goes on the public opinion trends and the politics on the ground are swinging in the favor of a public option. And I'm fairly optimistic that, until the Republicans figure out how to be relevant in the health care debate, those trends will continue.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Glenn Beck, Cleon Skousen, Secret Combinations, and Conspiracy Theories

It's well known by now that Glenn Beck loves W. Cleon Skousen. If you are a Beck follower, Skousen's The 5,000 Year Leap is practically required reading. I won't go into a history of Skousen, but you can find some good information here.

In brief, Skousen is a member of the church, sometime FBI employee, BYU professor, Salt Lake City Police Chief, author, and lecturer. He devolved from conservative to right-wing conspiracy theorist. He was denounced by conservatives of the 50s and 60s after finally getting to the point where he called President Eisenhower a communist agent and warning against a New World Order. President Kimball and the church leadership issued a statement in which local leaders were not to support or advertise for Skousen's groups. The 5,000 Year Leap and other Skousen writings flit about from American history in religious terms to worldwide conspiracy theories linking fascists, communists, rich people, and anyone else opposed to the Skousen world view.

This is the man Glenn Beck is putting forth as the foundational thinker for his 912 Project. Now, there is enough take-down material on Skousen out there that I do not want to rehash it all. But are we not alarmed that the man too conservative and radically right-wing for McCarthy-era Republicans has become the new touchstone for the tea-baggers and birthers of today?

I cannot read Beck's mind, but after reading this article from the Dallas Morning News I have a theory for what might be going on. Beck, like Skousen before him, is trying to identify secret combinations like those chronicled in the Book of Mormon. Since there is no proof of anything of the sort he has been reduced to groping about for any little perceived evidence that crosses his consciousness. The now-famous communo-fascist art history lesson Beck put on a few weeks back stands as the perfect example.

I think we are all susceptible to a conspiracy theory or two. For instance, there was a time when I could be convinced that the moon landing was a hoax (A moon rock with a letter "C" on it?! Come on!). It's just in our nature to tend to believe some of these. Most of us don't think President Obama is the Manchurian candidate or that President Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, but we've all got something.

But what happens if you take a particularly sinister conspiracy theory and link it your religion? Then it gets a little dangerous. Then you stop thinking objectively and critically and start seeing the the hand and will of God in your nutty theories. Then what happens when you a take an ascending figure in American T.V. and radio, a prominent Mormon who happens to be incredibly charismatic and has tapped into an angry segment of American society that feels disenfranchised, and really convince him of a grand conspiracy theory and link it to secret combinations that were prophesied by his religion? Could anything possibly go awry there?