Stewardship and Citizenship at the State Level

Polls in this country indicate a gap between the mainstream voter and elected officials at the state and national levels. I am not sure how different the trends are between the two parties, but there is certainly evidence this has happened on the right. Most recently, for example, we find evidence that a majority of Republicans are concerned about climate change and believe that more should be done to address the problem. This is true on other issues as well, including gun control and immigration. What accounts for this?

The American democratic system is broken, and among the causes of this breakdown is certainly the flood of money into politics but it is also the lack of participation of the voter. Not only are voting rates exceedingly low, but in places like Utah, the straight-party vote is still a viable option on the ballot, often encouraging people to abdicate the responsibility to look carefully at individual candidates and issues and instead place the entirety of their trust on the party platform. In most elections in Utah, for example, at least 20% of all voters opt for the straight party vote. The sad irony is that when we examine the party platform on county and state levels, there are a myriad of issues where the platforms differ from public opinion, even within the same party. All is not well in Zion.

In a wonderful speech to the students of BYU in 2004, Elder Dallin Oaks warns us not to emphasize rights at the expense of responsibilities. He said:

“We cannot raise our public well-being by adding to our inventory of individual rights. Civic responsibilities like honesty, self-reliance, participation in the democratic process, and devotion to the common good are essential to the governance and preservation of our country. Currently we are increasing rights and weakening responsibilities, and it is leading our nation down the road toward moral and civic bankruptcy. If we are to raise our general welfare, we must strengthen our sense of individual responsibility for the welfare of others and the good of society at large….

After citing statistics about the alarming drops in the numbers of people reading newspapers and books nationally, he continues:

“Why are these trends of concern? More and more people are not reading the news of the world around them or about the important issues of the day. They apparently rely on what others tell them or on the sound bites of television news, where even the most significant subjects rarely get more than 60 seconds. Where will this lead? It is leading us to a less concerned, less thoughtful, and less informed citizenry, and that results in less responsive and less responsible government.” (emphasis mine)

There is scarcely any reason why an elected official would need to be responsive to the majority opinions in polls as long as those opinions never actually get reflected in how people vote. So the question is, how often do you vote, particularly on the city and state levels? Do you know your state House and Senate representatives? Have you ever communicated an opinion to them or to the governor, either in person or in writing? Have they heard recently about your concern for the environment? Do they know that you express that concern from a perspective of faith? If the answer is no to these questions, then there is good and important work to do. Imagine the collective force of many of us writing, speaking, communicating regularly with those who represent us. Imagine too that this conversation is not typical of what they are used to. They are responding to those who have sought them out, supported them, and whom they see as power brokers in society. They need some new faces and voices.

I know my circumstances in Utah are different than LDS people who live elsewhere, but here I have experienced the unusual opportunity to discuss my environmental views with state officials who share my faith even if they don’t share not my environmentalism. I have written about this before, so I won’t repeat my accounts of those experiences. But what I wish to underscore is the value of pronouncing one’s concerns in the language of one’s faith tradition. There is more than one way to translate LDS doctrine into policy. No party has a corner on truth and no good legislation ever came out of narrow factional or self-interest or without any honest and open deliberation. If you are speaking to a person who shares your belief, it will be good for them (and you) to hear the reasoning behind a different perspective on policy. If you are speaking to someone of another faith, or no faith in particular, it will be good for them to learn to respect and understand how seriously you judge the issue to be.

On the city and state levels, there is still very much the hope that we can keep government responsible and responsive, as Elder Oaks envisions, but only if we are truly engaged. As I have said before, this involves at least a little bit of reading and discussion of local issues with others. Unfortunately, to the degree that politics captures our attention at all, we are drawn first and foremost to the dramas of national politics digested as they are into sound bytes and clichés. But real democracy starts locally. And if you ask folks who are in public service at the city and state levels, they will tell you how much more satisfaction is to be gained from the smaller scale work they do and from the awareness of the direct impact their decisions can have on people’s lives.

I am as frustrated as anyone with the current state of affairs in my home state of Utah. I can’t see real dialogue on issues. I have worked on campaigns for upstanding citizens with sterling credentials who ran for state office as Democrats only to be crushed by incumbent Republicans with voting records that would cause concern among most reasonable people. This wasn’t religious bias at play. Most of the Democrats I have known and worked for are also active Mormons (and that still does not excuse religious bias, of course). It is an ideological and partisan stranglehold. I don’t say any of this out of my own partisan bitterness. I am really less interested in the survival of the Democratic party than I am in the survival of genuine deliberation. What discourages me isn’t that “my party” isn’t winning; it is that democracy is losing. People are unwilling to listen to all sides of an issue and unwilling to budge from a dogmatic partisan vote to the point that Republican legislators are sometimes named by their predecessors, often run unopposed, or are chosen in small caucus meetings, and then end up supposedly representing the rest of us. Democrats, no doubt, would do the same, given the chance. And political innovation and common sense become rarer and rarer. It is particularly frightening to see how on environmental issues—from energy development to wilderness preservation to air quality and to climate change—the range of policies proposed grows ever narrower and the rhetoric repeats itself in an increasingly small echo chamber of groupthink. The net result is that Mormon politicians, people who presumably share the same faith of Joseph Smith who received powerful revelations about earth stewardship, have given environmentalism a bad name, cast it under a cloud of suspicion, and forsaken their own unique and valuable mandates to not “waste flesh” and to use natural resources with “judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.”

It is time to reconsider our responsibility as stewards of the earth and to speak and act according to a renewed commitment to our highest ideals.

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