I recently had a long political discussion on Facebook. The person I was talking with, also a practicing Latter-day Saint, disagreed with me on pretty much every current issue. But my point in continuing the discussion was not to finally persuade him that I was right, but to help both of us see that taking a different political position does not mean we need to question each others’ commitment to the Church or to our country. And to help us both understand that good dialogue can lead to greater understanding and more trust. I grew up believing that if there are two people in the room that share the same political beliefs then one of them is redundant. Good discussion (and good friendship) comes not simply from what we have in common but, more importantly, from our differences. It’s our differences that generate great conversation. Granted that can only happen if we assume goodwill resides on both sides of a discussion. Unfortunately we don’t often see much goodwill in the public sphere. Candidates for public office seem to get ahead by using the time-honored tactic of throwing mud at their opponents, and partisans on both sides assume the worst about the motives of the opposition. Both sides start off by demonizing their opposition, often quite literally believing that to take a contrary side is to enlist in Satan’s army.
Last semester I received a student evaluation that totally floored me. The student had completely misjudged my motives and beliefs. Among other things, the student wrote that I am an anti-Mormon and hate religion. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love nothing more than my religion! I have no idea where he or she got this idea, but I was blown away. Mean-spirited student evaluations are often painful to read, but after the initial pain of this one, I was forced to do some serious reflection. How had I given offense to this student? It was clear to me that I had been misunderstood and harshly judged, but I started to wonder how often I do the same thing. How often do I assume unkind motives and beliefs of people I disagree with? How often do mischaracterize, even demonize, people with differing beliefs? It’s lead to some very deep reflection and repentance, and I can honestly say I now appreciate that student’s anonymous comment even though I wish I had a chance to talk with him or her, apologize for giving offense, and explain myself and where I’m coming from.
If Mitt Romney’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 have taught Mormons anything, I believe, it’s that many Americans still have deep prejudices about Mormonism, prejudices that are completely unwarranted and, when not laughable, often uncharitable. While I think we need to fight these prejudices, I now believe the bigger lesson we need to take from this “Mormon moment” is not to do likewise. We must assume these ideas are coming from sincere people, from ignorance rather than malice. While I’m confident this is not always the case, I have realized that I personally can never really know what is going on in someone else’s brain; I can never really know what motivates the words or actions of another individual and therefore must assume the best possible motives.
Hugh Nibley once said that, “Nothing is easier than to identify one’s own favorite political, economic, historical, and moral convictions with the gospel. That gives one a neat, convenient, but altogether too easy advantage over one’s fellows. If my ideas are the true ones—and I certainly will not entertain them if I suspect for a moment that they are false!—then, all truth being one, they are also the gospel, and to oppose them is to play the role of Satan. This is simply insisting that our way is God’s way and therefore, the only way. It is the height of impertinence.” I am encouraged by the LDS Church’s statement on political neutrality, which stresses that “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties.” To me this suggests that I must assume goodwill in all political parties’ platforms, but I am granted freedom to make my own prayerful, reasoned decisions about where I stand individually.
I believe good literature accomplishes a similar goal. It assumes there are no black hats or white hats, but rather imagines complex characters, fully rounded, fully developed. Characters often do make mistakes, but good literature–ethically challenging literature–confronts us with difficult choices and imperfect people who struggle in a complex world where their own motives are complex, often even unconscious. As Eugene England once argued, “ethical fiction brings the great contraries into juxtaposition and moves us to new visions of truth greater than any of the poles.” People who understand good literature should be examples of good political discourse. They should avoid demonizing, strive for dialogue, assume virtue on all sides of the discussion, and work for real solutions. Great literature–from Plato to Thoreau–has had a huge impact on the shape of political thought. But great fiction and great criticism should help us become better at the form of political thought, helping us to engage in principled and meaningful political dialogue.