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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Bryan Kennedy's Progressive Religious Values

Update by folkbum: MU Warrior and Boots and Sabers readers are encouraged to read the entire essay below, as McAdams and Owen both completely misrepresent what Professor Kennedy actually says. Bryan responds here, and my personal rejoinders are here and here.

How is it that conservative religious zealots have seized my Savior and determined His values? Why do they try to tell me how to live my life and how to follow Him? How did they come to the conclusion that Christ was pro-war, pro-business, and that He spouted hatred for people who were not like Him? These questions have puzzled me for quite some time. I was raised to believe that Christ was the peacemaker, he cast the money changers out of the temple, and he taught us to turn the other cheek.

I was raised Catholic, but as a teenager my family and I converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons/Latter-Day Saints). This was not an easy transition. We were nominally Catholic, so the move to a Church that requires so much of its followers was a big step. Mormons are among the most personally conservative of all Christians. We are strongly pro-family, don't drink, don't smoke, believe in chastity before marriage and fidelity once married, and we tithe 1/10th of our household income to the Church. To become a Latter-Day Saint is to make a major lifestyle change for most people. (It certainly was for us!!)

Despite conservative personal behaviors, Latter-Day Saints are also very progressive collectively. The Church has its own welfare system and we take care of people during hard times. The LDS Church has a worldwide charitable arm that functions in areas of natural disaster, famine or war to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Our women's auxiliary regularly provides meals and assistance to families when a new child is born, a parent is sick or there is a death in the family. We take seriously the passage from the
Book of Mormon, "When ye are in the service of your fellow being, ye are only in the service of your God." (Mosiah 2:17) Our Sunday School classes and weekly worship services regularly teach of: faith, hope and charity; brotherly kindness; and lifting up the sick, the afflicted, the elderly, the fatherless, the widows, and the downtrodden.

We also hold as one of the most important tenets of our faith God's gift of
agency. We believe that we are saved by grace after all that we can do for ourselves. Being a follower of Christ requires us to give all of our heart, might, mind and strength to keeping His commandments and to emulating His example. In the end, we are human and will fall short. Thus, Christ's grace saves us after all that we attempt to do for ourselves. Our agency is our God-given right to make our own decisions and to chart our own paths in life. God forces no one to follow His Son; we must decide for ourselves to pursue His Gospel in word and deed. Agency allows us the freedom to choose for ourselves in all things. To Latter-Day Saints there is NOTHING as important as agency.

Latter-Day Saints so strongly supported agency and religious freedom that they were driven by mobs of religiously intolerant Christians from Illinois and Missouri in the 1840's to leave the United States and go to the Rocky Mountains. (Utah was part of Mexico when Mormons fled there 160 years ago.)

In the past couple of decades, LDS people have compromised their belief in religious tolerance and have "gotten into bed" politically with conservative religious ideologues, most of whom hate Mormons. (This animosity is because we believe that we have a living prophet, who talks with God and provides revelation for us today.) Despite this hatred by many conservative Christian churches, LDS people have voted lock-step with them on issues of abortion, lotteries/gambling, and "moral values." Utah, which is over 70% Mormon has not voted Democratic for President since 1964. While Mormons espouse conservative, moral, personal behavior, we still believe that each person has their agency to choose for themselves. This conservative political realignment of the LDS Church appears to be overshadowing the best characterisitics of our religious actions--the progressive social values that fuel our church welfare, fellowship, and charitable programs.

Having now given a primer on what Latter-Day Saints believe, let me explain why I diverge from my religious community on political issues. It comes down to two things--my upbringing in an immigrant, pro-labor family, and my STRONG belief in agency as my primary religious value.

While I live by the conservative code of conduct of the Church, I recognize that it is a personal choice. I choose to live this way and I feel spiritually stronger by having bedrock principles that guide my actions. There is nothing so important to me as my freedom to make these decisions for myself. I resent people telling me how to live my life and criticizing me for not drinking and for not "sowing my wild oats" before getting married. There were many in my extended family who chastised us for abandoning our cultural religion in search of greater spiritual satisfaction. Within a few years, however, they saw a dramatic change in our family, our relationships improved, and my overwhelmingly Catholic family respects my parents, my brothers and me for our dedication to following Christ's example.

Our representative democracy promotes religious freedom and tolerance and allows for people to make their own decisions about what to believe and what religious organizations to join. We also allow the freedom to not worship at all, if an individual so chooses. Essentially the "agency" that is so central to Mormon doctrine is written into the guaranteed freedoms of the United States Constitution.

The official policies of the Church are actually more moderate than many other conservative Christian religious groups. The LDS Church does not excommunicate a woman who has an abortion, although they do excommunicate persons who commit murder or assault. The Church's policy on abortion is "
Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer. The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion" (Church Policies Handbook, p. 157). The LDS Church does not oppose birth control. Once again, the Church Policies Handbook: " The decision as to how many children to have and when to have them is extremely intimate and private and should be left between the couple and the Lord. Church members should not judge one another in this matter. Married couples also should understand that sexual relations within marriage are divinely approved not only for the purpose of procreation, but also as a means of expressing love and strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife" (p. 158). On prolonging life, such as the Terry Schiavo case, the Church has said: "When severe illness strikes, members should exercise faith in the Lord and seek competent medical assistance. However, when dying becomes inevitable, it should be seen as a blessing and a purposeful part of eternal existence. Members should not feel obligated to extend mortal life by means that are unreasonable. These judgments are best made by family members after receiving wise and competent medical advice and seeking diving guidance through fasting and prayer" (Church Policies Handbook, p. 156). We are a more moderate people that current political behaviors would lead one to believe. Each of these "moral values" issues mentioned above has agency and personal choice as its foundation.

As you can see, my personal political views appear to be in-line with the policies and teachings of my church. I choose to use my agency to follow Christ's example. I respectfully allow others the right to use their God-given agency however they may. A respected conservative, Voltaire, is purported to have said: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." That is my personal feeling about civil liberties and religious freedom--agency and personal choice.

I am the grandchild of Italian immigrants. My grandfather, as a teenager, fled Mussolini and ended up in central Pennsylvania working in a coal mine, later a steel mill, and finally in a Mack Truck plant in Hagerstown, Maryland. My grandfather was one of the original signatories on UAW Local 171 union charter at Mack. While my grandfather was a religious conservative, he was a strong supporter of workers' rights and liveable wage. He taught me that management can do good things, but they won't generally do it without some prodding. He always believed in working together and in fostering good relationships with management. His philosophy was: "Sometimes they give; sometimes we do." Outside of the union hall, he was a charitable and giving person. He once said to my 9th grade social studies class: "I have worked hard and been poor. I cannot judge someone else because I do not know what setback they have suffered. I give and don't ask questions." That is my example of progressive religious values.

My progressive religious upbringing does provide a foundation for my political beliefs. My recipe for successfully navigating the political world and getting things done in Washington: Take a healthy dose of personal choice and individual freedom and add equal parts of moderation in all things, building consensus, and working together.

This post should probably invite a lot of commentary. I look forward to reading your feedback and comments. Thanks, God bless, and Happy New Year.

Bryan Kennedy

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