As the United States finishes weathering the conclusion of this ugly presidential election, I still wonder if choosing between these two candidates was really the ultimate point (as so many of us were convinced)?
At the transformative moment in Latter-day Saint history when members of the Church of Jesus Christ believe God the Father and His Son appeared to Joseph Smith while seeking true religion, he asked “which of all the sects was right…and which I should join?”
The response shocked the boy prophet: “I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.”
The divine warning went on to highlight specific “creeds” that had misled adherents and leaders that had become “corrupt” as Isaiah foretold: “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
Why is it so difficult to consider the possibility that all the major options in society’s great contests might, indeed, simply be wrong?
Joseph was “forbade” repeatedly to “join with any of them”—a possibility that had “never entered into [his] heart” because he had never considered that “all were wrong.” (Notice that he was taught not that these other churches were all wrong, but they all were wrong).
We tend towards the opposite—condemning our opponents as being all wrong, rather than recognizing goodness and truth they still possess. In the same moment, we can insist our side is all right, while overlooking evidence of our own troubling creeds and corruptions.
Why is it so difficult to consider the possibility that all the major options in society’s great contests might, indeed, simply be wrong (in the sense that they don’t contain 100% of the truth)?
As Nathaniel and Terryl Givens suggested prior to the election, “If you are a Christian, you are politically homeless. This has always been true. Now it is obvious.” Calling this sort of “exile” the “plight of all sincere Christians,” they go on to cite David French as saying:
More and more, thoughtful (mainly young) Christians say to me, “I’m pro-life, I believe in religious freedom and free speech, I think we should welcome immigrants and refugees, and I desperately want racial reconciliation. Where do I fit in?” The answer is clear. Nowhere.
So, how do we become so convinced we must pick a side? Maybe because we get swept up in what Hugh Nibley once called the “neighborhood brawl.” I recently found this excerpt from Approaching Zion so fitting to this moment in our country: “Satan’s masterpiece of counterfeiting is the doctrine that there are only two choices, and he will show us what they are.” In this way, the adversary “convinces us that we are making the vital choice when actually we are choosing between branches in his road.” He continues:
Which one we take makes little difference to him, for both lead to destruction. This is the polarization we find in our world today. Thus we have the choice between Shiz and Coriantumr—which all Jaredites were obliged to make. We have the choice between the wicked Lamanites … and the equally wicked Nephites. Or between the fleshpots of Egypt and the stews of Babylon, or between the land pirates and the sea pirates of World War I, or between white supremacy and black supremacy … or between Catholic and Protestant, or between fundamentalist and atheist, or between right and left—all of which are true rivals, who hate each other.
A very clever move of Satan!—a subtlety that escapes us most of the time. So I ask Latter-day Saints, “What is your position frankly regarding the merits of cigarettes vs. cigars, wine vs. beer, or heroin, vs. LSD?” It should be apparent that you take no sides. By its nature the issue does not concern you. It is simply meaningless as far as your life is concerned. “What, are you not willing to stand up and be counted?” No, I am not.
Does that mean we should never pick a side—or stand up for various good causes around us? Of course not. But neutrality is not always the inspired or better place to be, either.
It’s simply to point out how easy it can be for all of us to get swept up in either/or battles between black and white options—neither of which represent God’s will. Nibley elaborates on the danger of this:
This fatal polarization is a very effective means of destruction. As the Romans knew, “divide and conquer” is the means of gaining power and leadership. So we have always been told we must join the action to fight against communism, or must accept the leadership to fight fascism, or must join Persia against Rome. … Or in World War I, you just join the Allies or the Central Powers. While all the time there is only one real choice—between accepting the gifts of God for what they are on his terms and going directly to Him and asking for whatever you need, or seeking the unclean gift, as it is called, of power and gain. Remember, Moroni ends by saying; “Deny not the gifts of God, … and touch not the evil gift, nor the unclean thing [filthy lucre and so forth]” (Moroni 10:8,30). So that’s the choice I think we have.
I’m not optimistic that any of this will persuade many minds on either side of our great political divides. People are so deeply embedded in their respective tribal politics that some of what I’m raising may be unsettling, even threatening, to deep-seated convictions. And after all, it took God Himself appearing to Joseph Smith for him to realize both sides were wrong. Not until then did he recognize that reality.
If that’s at all true in our day, how easy it is for us to miss. So much easier to see our side as the Great Defender of all that is good, and the other side as the Great Threat. All matters of political disagreement, then, become about making choices between right and wrong.
But what if we’re not? What if we’re choosing between wrong and wrong? Or partial truth and partial truth? And essentially pursuing different “branches” of the same road?
In that case, it may not even matter to the adversary which fork we go down, as long as enough of us go on each side to keep the fight going. The point is to keep us at each other’s throats.
And forget that there are believers on both the left and the right. That there are mothers and fathers on both sides. There is goodness on both sides, and truth on both sides—along with bad folks on each side too.
I find it interesting that recent circumstances of a closely divided country seem to be creating maximal contention.
We think everyone on the other side is so different. They’re not! It’s more like a Venn diagram with plenty of crossover. But we get so fixated in our mold that we assume our opponents are completely wrong.
And downright evil. Why, then, wouldn’t you hate them?
I believe Satan wants us to hate each other—and to remain in perpetual conflict with each other.
And I find it interesting that recent circumstances of a closely divided country seem to be creating maximal contention. What if the point isn’t to choose either side, but to opt out of contention entirely?
In that case, if both sides of the political spectrum are in fact wrong in important ways, then practically, what does that really mean? Certainly, it doesn’t mean the outcome of these prevailing battles getting all the attention is meaningless or unimportant. Maybe it simply highlights other things even more important. And it might even suggest a different way of proceeding entirely—and another way of approaching the national “brawl” continuing to play out before us. As Nibley goes on to ask, “What then of the choice between entering into divisions, schools, controversies, contentions, vanities, or avoiding them? How can you avoid them?”
He responds, “If you don’t want to get involved in the neighborhood brawl, there’s only one thing you can do—move out of the neighborhood. [Yet] we refuse to do that. [But since] both sides are wrong … you must move out of the neighborhood.”
Nibley, of course, is not referring to physically moving away—or refusing to participate in influencing the pressing conversations of the day. It’s something else he’s speaking to—something less dramatic, but harder to achieve: continuing to engage publicly, but in a Godly way – without the vitriol and vengeance we see on both sides today.
Nibley adds, “We of course don’t do that without supernatural aid.”
He’s right. It’s hard—incredibly hard—to extricate oneself from the latest greatest brawl (take your pick—Trump v. Biden, Black v. Blue Lives Matter, Lebron v. Jordan). So, it will probably require divine assistance for any of us to make any progress there. Nibley concludes:
That’s where it comes in; the whole thing is supernatural. That changes everything, of course. The argument then ceases. We are dealing in absolutes there. That’s where the gospel comes in. Consider the stories of all the great patriarchs—Adam, Enoch, Abraham, Noah, Jared, Ether, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Lehi, and Alma. All are the stories of individuals who faced the problem of contending against the world—a world in rapid decline. Why are these stories told to us in such harrowing detail? Do you think they don’t apply?
Oh, they do. Exactly now.
And I pray we will all hear those voices, before it’s too late.