Book Notes: Common Ground, Different Opinions: Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues

10.16.2013 | Blair Hodges

Common Ground, Different Opinions is a collection of essays written by a variety of Latter-day Saint authors on controversial issues like environmentalism, stem cell research, gay marriage, feminism, and war. James E. Faulconer, BYU professor of philosophy and the volume’s co-editor, emphasizes such a book is needed because members of the Church in various countries “are confronted with one issue after another that demands their thought and decision” while the Church, through its constituted authorities, has made no official pronouncement on many of them. Not all of the issues call for pro and con pieces (who would write against Margaret Blair Young’s appeal to eschew racism?). Faulconer emphasizes that the essays are less about providing arguments that readers ought to accept and more about modeling different ways faithful Mormons approach difficult topics:

Part of being a good member of a family, a ward, a church, a community, or a nation is talking civilly and lovingly about things over which we may disagree and explaining our reasons for what we think. One of the things we discover when we think carefully about issues is that thoughtful, good people sometimes come to different conclusions. Good members of the Church may differ on important political and social issues. But even when they disagree, they ought to be able to talk to one another about those disagreements and to explain themselves (ix).

With scriptural warrant, Faulconer argues that Mormons must be one (John 17:11; D&C 30:2; 38:27), but says unity in the gospel (primarily as described in 3 Nephi 27:13-16) doesn’t “preclude disagreement about many things.” He acknowledges that some people begin to sense they don’t belong when their political or social views differ from that of “their parents or the majority of other saints whom they know,” but hopes to show that all members should “continue to love, respect, support, and comfort one another” regardless of differences (x). Some ultimately leave the fold.

I was reminded of a line from President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s April 2013 conference address: “As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.”

I’ve seen (and participated in) enough contentious Facebook discussions to see the wisdom in seeking unity amidst diversity, so I was glad to read this collection, even though I think it fails to live up to its goal in a few important ways. First the cons, then the pros.

None of the essayists interact directly with each other, so more often than not the opposition pieces argue past each other by not addressing differing perspectives at the highest level of argument. Consider the three contributions on gay marriage. Two consist largely of General Authority quotes and citations of studies by conservative think tanks while a third essay sandwiched between offers hypothetical theological directions Mormonism might take in the future with regard to sealing and homosexuality. The essays do not address the question of what a Mormon might do who disagrees with current Church positions on gay marriage, however, which is something a book published by an independent press seems specially positioned to address. Two of the essays communicate the feeling that Mormons who believe differently are certainly not true Mormons. One suggests, among other things, that approving of gay marriage is satanic and constitutes a “mockery of the atonement” (77). It is difficult to square this with the next essay which apparently constitutes just such a mockery in its openness to same-sex marriage. Another con, then, is that none of the essays address the difficult question of what a member might do when their understanding, conscience, or conviction leads them to believe something contrary to official Church teachings.

In short: only a few of the pieces speak directly to what I see as the main purpose of the book, which is to help prevent honest differences from damaging the unity Latter-day Saints seek to experience in the household of faith by exemplifying unity in diversity. As noted above, some of the essays are actually assured to exacerbate disunity.

My list of cons is somewhat blunted by the recognition that editors Faulconer and Justin White did not intend to cover all of the positions on any given issue, or even multiple positions on any single issue, but to provide models of faithful and diverse Latter-day Saints who remain united in the body of Christ. This collection clearly demonstrates that a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive issues do in fact exist in the Church. Moreover, contributors tackle a number of issues like evolution, stem cell research, and environmentalism, things which members are highly unlikely to read about in the Ensign or hear about in Conference or Sunday school.

Above all, I appreciated the essays that directly encourage unity despite disagreement. Kristine Haglund’s “For Louisa” is a touching tribute deeply informed by feminism and Mormonism alike. Former Senator Bob Bennett’s “Why I Am a Republican” and Richard Davis’s “Partisanship and the Gospel of Jesus Christ” each emphasize the importance of accepting goodness and truth regardless of the source, be it Republican, Democrat, or something else—a rare thing in the current charged political climate, and an approach which helped cost Bennett his Senate seat.

Bruce W. Young’s contribution on “Following Christ in Times of War” is worth quoting at length for the way it gives explicit voice to the anxieties generated by difference:

For me, it has been challenging and sometimes painful to find myself surrounded by neighbors and family members—most of them members of the Church—who disagree with me. At times I have felt my Church calling prevented me from speaking openly lest I offend others or seem to be presenting my personal views as Church doctrine. At all times, I have wanted to preserve charity and fellowship. As I have tried to listen carefully and sympathetically to others who disagree with me, I’ve found far more common ground than I might have thought: I’ve discovered that we share the same fundamental values but view their application differently. I have generally come away respecting those I disagree with, finding elements of their views that have helpfully tempered my own, and especially recognizing that, despite their views, which I have sometimes found abhorrent, I should be grateful for the goodness of their lives and their hearts. Again and again, I have been reminded of my own imperfections and the limitations of my understanding. To me, it would be tragic if I allowed the bond of charity to be sundered by differences in political views, and it would be tragically ironic if I allowed my appeals for peace to become an occasion of enmity and conflict (213).

Perhaps of most interest, the volume as a whole demonstrates shifts among Mormons over the past century on several fronts. Margaret Blair Young’s essay discusses the problem of racism in the Church and calls for the extinguishing of old explanations about why the priesthood and temple blessings were withheld from blacks of African descent. Two contributions on evolution speak unequivocally about its salience as a scientific theory; no representative of young earth creationism or the like is present. These essays would have been unlikely back in the 1950s, but some Mormons still perpetuate old theories about the race issue (such as the Curse of Cain), while others still promote the idea that evolution is a false or evil belief. While forbearance is an important component of maintaining civility and unity amongst members, the collection doesn’t exemplify interaction with people who perpetuate what might be seen by some as hurtful or wrong “doctrines” or address the problem of latent, potentially hurtful, perspectives.

That being said, the collection is successful in any case where it manages to give readers pause with regard to an issue they’ve been fond of debating, or convinces them to approach such conversations with greater charity and much more patience. It served as just such a reminder and encouragement to me, and for that reason above all, I recommend this book.