“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance—you have to work at it.”
― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
Our country is polarized—this much is certain. And when it all becomes too much for our busy lives, it’s tempting to avoid politics and the news completely. Feeling overwhelmed, we understandably become insular, focusing only on our everyday responsibilities. Apathy and cynicism about politics is widespread in the U.S., as (according to Pew) over 20 percent of adult citizens are not even registered to vote, and of those that are, millions fail to submit ballots. The daunting task of educating oneself on the candidates and issues looms large, and a feeling of powerlessness and pointlessness may prevail.
As Latter-day Saints, we have a moral responsibility to overcome those negative feelings and push forward with civic engagement anyway. Every election cycle, the First Presidency urges us to participate in the political process by “exercising [our] right to vote” and “[spending] the time needed to become informed about the issues and candidates [we] will be considering.” Since “principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties,” this charge includes a responsibility to truly understand our ballots without merely following a partisan agenda blindly.
Be Anxiously Engaged in a Good Cause
Even if we want to heed the call, we may not know where to start. The post-truth political landscape of 2018 makes it even more confusing. Each day, our minds are shocked by extreme opinions on our televisions and news feeds. As seekers of truth, it is essential that we break through this bombardment and seek, as the Doctrine and Covenants teaches, “things as they really are.” We must make an effort to find accurate information so that we may effectively work for good in the world.
As believers in a Heavenly Father, we “with surety hope for a better world.” This “hope cometh of faith,” and we must press forward with action to become the good we wish to see in the world. Elder Uchtdorf invited us to do just that in his most recent talk at General Conference. He reminds us that “discipleship begins with three simple words: Believe, love, and do.” He invites us, “Come, help us build and strengthen a culture of healing, kindness, and mercy toward all of God’s children."
Until recently, I avoided the discussion of politics and current events in everyday conversation. I felt that such conversation was fruitless and invited unnecessary conflict. But I came to realize that is not true. It is essential for us to expand our interactions beyond the familiar and reach out to others in healing engagement.
Love One Another
After all, we brothers and sisters, humans on the earth, are more alike than we are different. Even so, we naturally tend to focus on the differences. Without sincere engagement with those we see as different, we make assumptions and the divide increases. The United States is a pluralistic society- we believe that various religious, ethnic, racial, and political groups should all be allowed to thrive. In this society, diversity without engagement will only lead to fear and isolation.
On the other hand, active engagement transforms populations into a community. We learn in the Mormon Newsroom’s three-part series on the practice of civic life that when we engage with others, “tolerance then grows to understanding. Monologue changes to dialogue. The echo chamber of identical voices transforms into a roundtable of dynamic voices. In a healthy society diverse elements are in constant encounter.”
Engaging in genuine conversation changes us and those with whom we exchange. As we learn from “others,” they become familiar. It is our sacred task to “mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort.” I cannot think of any better way to exemplify that call than by reaching out with humility and curiosity to understand another in pain—even (and perhaps especially) when our political opinions differ. As we do so, we can further knit our hearts together as we advocate for those marginalized brothers and sisters who may not have a voice.
This empathy and compassion does not weaken our freedoms or our desired way of life. Conversely, it helps to build a stronger, more beautiful community. Professor John Inazu, a religion and law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, writes, “We can choose to model kindness and charity across deep differences without sacrificing the claims upon which we stake our lives.” For pluralism to succeed, we must find the unity that is respect, love, and genuine compassion for all individuals. A famous poem from Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller goes:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Make Small Efforts
You may feel that your work in civic engagement will be insignificant. Your efforts too small. This is incorrect. It is precisely through our collective small acts that we can effect mighty change. Just one voice raised through small efforts can be momentous. Our own scriptures speak beautifully of this in Alma:
“Now ye may suppose this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.”
We cannot turn away. It’s up to each one of us. It’s up to me. And it’s up to you. So let’s get to work.
How do I get involved?
Begin by prayerfully choosing a current issue that interests you or you think you might have an opinion on. Set aside time to become knowledgeable about both sides of the issue or topic. For example, when I first started getting involved, I set aside two hours on Monday mornings that I called “Activism Mondays.” For the first few weeks, I spent those hours just reading up on my chosen topic so that I could more fully understand the issues and its implications.
It is suggested that you watch and read as many news outlets as possible, focusing on written news from reliable outlets, as televised news can be more sensational with particular hosts or panels. Seek after news outlets that report factual information with little bias.
Benjamin Thevenin, a media arts professor at BYU, emphasizes the importance of sharpening our critical thinking skills when engaging in media. He writes, “In the field of media literacy, there are these key questions: Who’s authoring this? What’s their intention? What kind of stylistic or other persuasive devices are they using to communicate this message to us? What perspectives are absent? What are other possible meanings? How could other people in other cultures interpret this in a different way?” Prayerfully pondering these questions and their answers is important in evaluating sources of information.
These helpful links can help you evaluate the quality of an information source:
As we read and seek to understand others, we build a foundation with which to understand the context of current social conversations. Continue to learn by observing and listening to leaders, legislators, and others who are concerned about the issues you’ve been studying.
Follow municipal social media accounts to learn about town hall and council meetings. If your schedule allows, attend the meetings to listen to the issues that are important in your community.
Follow candidate and representatives’ social media accounts. This can quickly give you an idea of the style and tone of a certain individual and their values and followers. As you evaluate candidates, seek those who exhibit Christlike attributes and carry with them the Light of Christ. This is not limited to one political party or perspective.
Watch debates and legislative sessions online or in person. While this may seem boring and not possible all the time, even watching for a short time will give you a sense of who a politician really is and how they vote and express themselves.
Start conversations. Reach out to others, especially those who may be different than you by asking questions and respectfully listening to their answers. If tensions arise, remain calm, polite, and civil. Remember that disagreement need not equal contention. Seek for understanding and if appropriate, explain your perspective lovingly and respectfully. Seek not to convince, but to empathetically converse. Pray for guidance during these conversations and rely on the Holy Ghost to assist you. “For it shall be given you in the very hour, yea, in the very moment, what ye shall say.” (D&C 100:6)
Ammon Gruwell, a BYU student and activist told the Church News, “More than anything, don’t be afraid to talk about important issues with friends and family in person and on social media. For every one person who disagrees with you, there are five more who are happy to learn more about the subject from someone they trust as long as they know you treat the issue fair and objectively.”
When engaging on social media, be especially mindful of anything you might be tempted to share or “like.” Many articles and memes are emotion-driven and are intended as clickbait rather than to inform or benefit. Use the habits you developed by evaluating the quality of a source when deciding what to share on your page or newsfeed.
Engage with people in person whenever possible. When we speak directly with others, we are more aware of the subtext and tone of the conversation. It is easier to communicate and will more likely result in a positive experience for all parties.
Once you find a candidate or issue that you care about, spend your time educating others about it. This could mean canvassing, participating in a phone bank, or otherwise volunteering to assist. Contact the volunteer coordinator for the candidate or organization to ask how to participate.
Make phone calls to representatives to let them know how you feel about a particular issue. This simple act is effective in communicating your opinion and takes very little time. There are many simple scripts that can be found online to help you if you are unsure of what to say. Save the phone numbers in your phone for quick access every day.
Donate to a cause or candidate. Funds are always needed to help educate the public about a policy, initiative, or individual running for office.
Going Forward with Faith
Engaging in politics, especially when we feel we don’t know much or worry about breeding contention, can be daunting. But our desires to be Christlike people can only help as we thoughtfully engage. If you ever feel overwhelmed or confused, you can pray for help. Heavenly Father wants us to be involved in making the world a better place—in every arena—and with our efforts at healing the wounds of polarization, we will be fulfilling the Savior’s call to be peacemakers.
Danielle Wright lives in Tucson, AZ. She is a mother of four boys, a stage manager, campaign volunteer, and has too many hobbies for her own good.