Gordon Monson: LDS leaders should be preaching the gospel, not pushing patriotism

Celebrating the U.S. Constitution is fine, but a global church must steer clear of partisan pitfalls.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Apostle Ronald Rasband and his wife, Melanie, ponder a replica of the Christus statue on the grounds of the Paris Temple on Friday, April 14, 2023. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson is urging church leaders to focus on Jesus' teachings, not pumping up patriotism.

After reading the much-debated message from the Utah Area Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints instructing bishops and stake presidents to follow the lead of the heavily Republican Utah Legislature to celebrate the U.S. Constitution in September and to “recognize and observe this occasion through appropriate programs, teaching, meetings, services or celebrations,” I had some thoughts spring to mind.

Thoughts like this one: Why are church officials following the lead of a state legislative body?

And this one: What exactly will be taught, and how will it be taught, recognized, celebrated and observed?

And this one: Why, in the pursuit of teaching members how to love the Constitution, are church leaders throwing in with an outfit like “Why I Love America,” a group that asserts to be nonpartisan but that includes political extremists on the right hand and no Democrats on the left?

And another one: Why are these same spiritual leaders encouraging “your stake to sponsor one patriotic event during the month of September that would (1) rekindle a spirit of patriotism by educating our Saints on the inspired principles of the Constitution and/or (2) build a spirit of appreciation for our Founding Fathers who were raised up by the Lord”?

Does that include Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who advocated a “wall of separation between church and state”? And like John Adams, who maintained “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”?

Just wondering.

The Utah church leaders’ message goes on to list suggested activities to “gain an even greater appreciation for God’s hand in the origin and destiny of America.”

How about this thought: What sort of greater appreciation is to be gained from and for that origin and destiny? Who’s to navigate and interpret that appreciation? Will a bias recognized, if it is recognized in the navigating and interpreting, be a bias sterilized? Or will it be a bias perpetuated? Yeah, all the appreciating can get complicated. Even the U.S. Supreme Court gets confused by it.

Moreover, one person’s patriotism is another person’s protest. It’s not just the salute of a flag. It can be a call for change.

What would Jesus preach?

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune columnist Gordon Monson touts the importance of keeping church and state separate — as depicted in this 2017 photo of the Salt Lake Temple and the Utah Capitol.

In this particular case, let’s jump right in and say it straight here: Ecclesiastical leaders of a religion that sets itself apart as the one true church of God on the Earth should occupy themselves with teaching the gospel, in worldwide application, not in endorsing what the Utah Legislature is emphasizing, not in getting tangled up with a group doused in its own biases such as “Why I Love America.”

Teach heavenly principles, eternal principles, faithful principles, stuff about which God is concerned, that apply to every living soul, not principles of government inside a single state or country.

In one moment, the top Latter-day Saint leaders send messages purporting and substantiating the church’s political neutrality and the next, area general authorities intentionally or unintentionally blow a hole in that hull by endorsing a group seen by more than a few as one-sided and extreme.

Think about it this way: If you’re a Christian who believes Jesus will come again to this terrestrial orb, if he were here among us now, would he be encouraging followers to fall in line with what the state Legislature is telling everyone to do? Or would he be solely teaching a gospel of faith and love and honesty and service and kindness and generosity and benevolence? Whatever your own line of political thinking is, it’s fairly easy to believe the Only Begotten, the Prince of Peace, the Son of Man would not be rallying the faithful around any political slant.

And if the U.S. Constitution really is an inspired document, one that enables and insists upon a separation of church and state to protect the freedom of all, not just of Christian nationalists eager to cram their ideologies down the throats of every American, then inspiration is, in fact, inspiration, even if you disagree with it and want to disregard it.

Point here is, if Utah’s predominant faith sees itself as a global religion, a spiritual presence for the entire planet, from one end of it to the other, it would be wise for the church to act the part, to leave behind celebrations of government, to shed its reputation as an Americanized church. Governments exist. Duly noted, not completely ignored. But swinging around the Stars and Stripes is not a godly nor a Latter-day Saint mission.

Here’s what is: being a spiritual force of charity and goodness for everyone, everywhere.

What about Latter-day Saints around the world?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Relief Society General President Camille N. Johnson and Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon receive a warm welcome from Latter-day Saint women at a meetinghouse in Nairobi, Kenya, in February 2023. Tribune columnist Gordon Monson notes that any church focus on the Constitution may mean little to members who live outside the United States.

Again, even if the Constitution is inspired, you think the faithful in Kenya care much about any of this? What about the Saints in Singapore? Australia? Argentina? Chile? Ghana? Italy? Indonesia?

It’s wholly acknowledged and understood that the message discussed here came from particular leaders in Utah, which, at last look, was indeed part of the United States. Appreciation of the Constitution is fine and good in measured doses from the church, as long as three things are certain: 1) It does not overshadow universal spiritual truths that are meaningful to all humankind; 2) It isn’t presented and taught to the membership, and especially to its young people, in a partisan way, a way that leans toward the extreme; and 3) It does not call for the infringement on or removal of personal liberties harbored by those who belong to a faith of a different kind or to no faith at all.

Appreciation for the U.S. Constitution, even inside Utah, shouldn’t be founded on anyone’s religion, either. The notion that proper morals only emanate from religious sources is untrue and offensive to good people who do not embrace religious beliefs. Nor is it limited solely to political conservatives or progressives.

Better it is for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its leaders to follow their own advice and stay politically neutral. And in any celebration of the Constitution, most importantly, to honor the line in the Utah Area Presidency’s message that was truer than any other. It said this:

“Of course, your own revelation on the matter will be [the] best course for you to pursue.”

There’s nothing more spiritual, nothing more applicable worldwide, in heaven and on Earth, nothing more American than that.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gordon Monson.

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