Political Success and Political Suicide: How presidents make or break their popularity and how Donald Trump could win the country over

Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama each made a policy decision that afflicted long-lasting damage to their popularity.  Bill Clinton did manage to recover from his self-inflicted wound and is remembered as a successful president, but Ronald Reagan is the only president since John F. Kennedy who neither pushed nor enacted a policy that offended large numbers of Americans.  I would argue that his long-lasting glow is due to his extraordinary unwillingness to defy the will of the majority.  There is a lot that presidents can’t control, so you would think they would be careful about the one thing that is entirely up to them, but experience shows that they usually aren’t.

Please note that I am not arguing for or against the merits of the political decisions that hurt presidents.  In fact, I agree with most of them.  Many of them are quietly fading into history, but they all had political ramifications that shaped elections and our country.

I start with Gerald Ford for the totally logical reason that he is the first president I remember, sort of.  In reality, I just have a dim memory of the election of 1976.  Also, Nixon and Johnson were such complicated presidents that I don’t dare discuss them without having some sort of personal memory of events.  So, I begin with Ford.

Gerald Ford

Ford was untouched by the separate scandals that had brought down Richard Nixon and the former Vice President Spiro Agnew.  Gerald Ford was clean.  He was fresh.  He had been a college football star.  He began his administration in 1974 with an approval rating over 70%, the highest a US president had enjoyed at any moment since 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson was still the beneficiary of American sympathy and grief after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

And then he pardoned Nixon.  Ford’s popularity immediately tumbled to 50%, continued downward and never recovered.  It surpassed 50% a few times, but only briefly and by a small amount.  He lost the 1976 election to Jimmy Carter, who had been the governor of Georgia (but was still an outsider in Washington), owned a peanut farm, taught Sunday School, talked about being born again, and whose economically and culturally disadvantaged brother took advantage of his brother’s success by marketing Billy Beer.  In short, he was change Americans could believe in.

Jimmy Carter

Like Ford, Carter began his presidency on a high note.  His approval rating was over 60% for much of 1977, even briefly surpassing 70%.  Then he signed the Panama Canal Treaty in September of 1977, which coincided with a drop in his approval.  It was ratified the following April, when his approval dropped further.  The treaty finished a process that had started in 1964, handing Panama control over a small strip of land that inconveniently divided their country in two, but happened to be vital to American economic interests.

After losing the Vietnam War, Americans were looking for a victory, but they only found it in popular culture.  The 12 months after Carter’s election gave us not only Rocky and Star Wars, but Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”  Even Saturday Night Fever, released only 14 months after the election, can be seen as part of the “victory against all odds” trend.  The Panama Canal treaty was not the victory Americans were craving and they wouldn’t soon forgive him for it.

To be fair, Carter’s presidency was dragged down by other things.  The end of his presidency was a forgettable period when inflation was over 12% and unemployment was over 7%.  There was his description of the country as suffering from a national “malaise,” which was not welcomed by the people who had cheered Rocky Balboa and Luke Skywalker and were now standing in line for Rocky II and The Empire Strikes Back.  Then there was the Iran hostage crisis, complete with an embarrassing, failed rescue attempt and a nightly count on the evening news of the number of days it had been since Americans were taken hostage.  Even so, “He gave away the canal!” was a significant factor in his unpopularity and his subsequent loss in 1980 to the optimistic, tough-talking, former Hollywood star turned conservative governor of sunny California.

Ronald Reagan

It is often forgotten that Ronald Reagan did not start out his presidency with high approval ratings.  He started out just over 50%.  It surged in the first few months of his presidency,  helped by the return of the hostages from Iran and sympathy for an attempt on his life, after which he told his wife Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”

It is difficult to find serious policy missteps in Reagan’s presidency.  The only time he came close to defying majority opinion was when he signed into law a 5 cent increase in the gas tax (yes, that Ronald Reagan), but that sin was quickly forgotten when gas prices turned out to be the gift that kept on giving and declined steadily over the next few years.

In Reagan’s first term, his approval rating was only dragged down by a punishing economy.  The unemployment rate stayed above 8% for all of 1982 and 1983, while Reagan’s popularity stayed below 50% until the boom began.  For the first time in 16 years, Americans experienced a combination of rapid growth and low inflation.  The “malaise” of the 70’s was officially over and the “era of greed” had begun.

Reagan was called “The Great Communicator,” but a less-flattering nickname was “The Teflon President,” assigned to him by a press corps that could not comprehend his popularity.  This last description was inaccurate, however, because the Iran-Contra scandal seriously harmed his approval ratings.  They hovered around 50% until the end of his presidency, when presidents start their transition from divisive political symbols back to human beings and their popularity increases.

Reagan’s enduring popularity is attributed to his sunny disposition, his conservative philosophy and the economic boom of the 1980’s.  It is rarely, if ever, attributed to an acute political instinct that allowed him to reflect the will of the American public, even though that is exactly what he did.  If presidents are judged by their ability to do the will of the people, Ronald Reagan was one of the best we’ve ever had.

George H. W. Bush

Like Ronald Reagan before him, George H. W. Bush started his administration with the approval of little more than half of the American public, but quickly gained their confidence.  He was classy and dignified and generally struck a moderate ground in politics.  What had seemed like bitter partisan fights in the Reagan era declined under Bush.  The country was getting similar results, but with less fighting.  Not only that, but the Cold War was coming to a close.  The Berlin Wall fell.  Bush basked in the glow.

Then he agreed to raise taxes.  This is the most-remembered policy reversal in modern American politics.  When he accepted the Republican nomination, he proclaimed that the Democrats would push him again and again, but he would tell them “Read my lips, no new taxes!”  As almost American knows who was alive at the time or follows politics now, Democrats pushed him to accept a tax increase in 1990, just like he’d predicted, and he agreed to it, just like he’d sworn he wouldn’t.

His approval ratings dropped into the 50’s.  Keep in mind, his lowest approval rating in 1990 and most of 1991 was still a clear majority and a number many presidents would envy.  During this period Bush Sr. was helped by a healthy economy, the end of the Cold War and the easy success of the Gulf War.

His policy reversal became more significant when the economy worsened and Americans woke up to the fact that the boom times wouldn’t last forever.  As the recession deepened even his classiness became a negative, when Democrats successfully associated it with his social class and called him out of touch (which is a euphemism for spoiled rich boy).  The end result was that Bush Sr. lost the election to the “I feel your pain,” saxophone-playing, sure I’ll tell you whether I wear boxers or briefs, baby-boomer, moderate governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton is the only president during this time period to successfully come back from a major political misstep.  His middling popularity took a small hit when he assigned Hillary the task of reforming the health care system, which was the euphemism the press used for enacting universal health care (they didn’t fool anyone).  The idea that an unelected spouse was going to skirt nepotism rules and lead a private committee to plan a government intrusion into a personal area of everyone’s life was only reason the arrangement was unpopular, but it was the biggest one.

Fortunately for politicians, the American public doesn’t take presidential proposals too seriously until they reach Congress and “health care reform” didn’t hurt him much initially.  The thing that really damaged his popularity in his first year was Waco, where 75 people died after federal officers forcefully entered a religious compound they had surrounded for 51 days.  While those lives were lost forever, Clinton’s popularity soon recovered.  The public placed the blame on his Attorney General, Janet Reno, the first woman in that position and one who is still called overly aggressive.

Once Bill Clinton started pushing for concrete health care reform, his approval ratings gradually declined until they reached Waco levels in August of 1994, when he abandoned the project.  Then from the middle of 1994 to his State of the Union speech in 1996, his popularity rarely breached 50%. That 1996 speech was when he declared “The era of big government is over.”

Some people might take his statement as a declaration of surrender, while others might see in it a sign of sincere repentance for his political sins.  Either way, his popularity never dropped below 50% again.  He was helped by a booming economy, but he was still more popular than Reagan was in 1987 or 1988, when the economy was doing quite well.  Even with his widely-reported scandals his popularity hovered around 60% during his entire second term.  After 1995, the man who was said to govern with his finger to the wind and an eye on the polls lived up to his reputation, and his popularity reflected it.

George W. Bush

George W. Bush is still unpopular.  His biggest mistake is not forgotten.  Still, one of his two major mistakes is rarely mentioned.  It is lost in the effects of his attempt to remake the Middle East by force and a recession that has not totally receded from our daily experience.

George W. Bush started out like Bill Clinton, but without Waco or a health care reform debacle.  He might have remained moderately popular if it had not been for 9/11.  The peak of his popularity as he handled that crisis has only been reached by one other president after World War II, by a man who happened to be his father.

His popularity slowly returned to its natural level during 2002, then was boosted again for a brief period when he went to war against Saddam Hussein.  Then, as his popularity again settled at an expected level, questions were asked about the intelligence that was used to justify the war.  George Tenet, the CIA director, had to publicly admit that there was never any good reason to believe that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium in Africa.  Then there was the ongoing, fruitless search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was called off in October of 2003.  From then until after his reelection, Bush was liked by only a slight majority of Americans.

In 2004, George W. Bush became the first president since his father in 1988 to win an election with more than 50% of the vote.  That is, he received 50.7% of the vote.  Still, he had the confirmed support of a majority of Americans.  In spite of his narrow victory, he declared that he had earned some political capital and that he intended to spend it.

And spend it he did, as if it was burning a hole in his pocket.  He immediately proposed privatizing Social Security, once known as the third rail of American politics: touch it and you die.  The result was predictable to everyone, or at least it should have been.  The effort went nowhere and Bush would never have the support of a majority of Americans again.  Unfortunately, the political effects of his proposal were buried under the effects of the Iraq War and the terrifying economic plunge of 2008.  His mistake probably helped Democrats take over Congress in 2006, but the only clear evidence of its effect is that it went nowhere.  As a result, people who would like to repeat the effort can point to the Iraq War to explain away the coincidental drop in his popularity and the subsequent Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006.

Barack Obama

Barack Obama came into office with approval ratings not seen for a new president since Jimmy Carter.  Then, like Bill Clinton, he turned to universal health care.  Unlike Clinton, he had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.  Even more unlike Bill Clinton, he faced a Republican Party that decided to deny him any victory and believed that if they could defeat him on health care reform he would be powerless thereafter.  This raised the stakes of the battle.  The result was that he put everything he had into the fight for universal health care and he pushed until it was passed in March of 2010.

His popularity had taken an immediate hit after House Democrats revealed their health care plan in July of 2009, dropping from about 60% then to 50% by the end of August.  He would experience some ups and downs after that, but until the last months of his presidency his approval was almost always between 40% and 50%.  It only broke the 50% level around the 2012 election, simply because partisanship is high around elections.

Barack Obama committed the cardinal sin of politics.  Not only did he do something controversial, but it was something that would affect the lives of everyone, all the time.  Of course, that last part was kind of the point, in a positive way, but not everyone welcomed it.

Ronald Reagan infuriated liberals.  He did some things that drove Democrats mad.  He used them as a political foil and as scapegoats, but he was always careful not to offend too many people.  Barack Obama was willing to offend people to get something done and he paid the price.  Whether or not it was worth it will be decided in the future.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is not yet president, but signs are not encouraging.  He is the least-popular new president in memory, so he is starting from a low level.  Other presidents have won over the public after their election, but Donald Trump does not show any inclination to do that.  His campaign theme song was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” after all, which is kind of the opposite of what Reagan preached.

His cabinet seems to be tilted strongly to the right, much more than voters expected.  During the campaign he was accused of not being conservative.  Even some conservatives voted for him despite believing he was moderate, and some even accused him of being a closet Democrat.  The hard-right cabinet appointees do not bode well for his popularity.

Because of Barack Obama’s low but steady levels of popularity and the fact that he was still reelected, commentators have accepted that as a new normal, as nothing more than a reflection of the partisanship of the times.  They say that any Democrat will get the support of Democrats and the opposition of Republicans, and vice versa.  In that context, Trump’s approval levels don’t seem out of the ordinary.

I argue that Barack Obama’s low popularity did not come from partisanship, but from his decision to spend his political capital by pushing the Affordable Care Act.  I say he had nothing left after that.  I say the floor in his popularity came from his strong likeability and a (slowly) growing economy.

Barack Obama only won 52.9% of the vote in 2008, which was just 1.2% more than George W. Bush won in 2004.  That this is still the strongest victory for an American president since 1988 is a reflection of the state of the parties, not the state of the republic.  I believe it is a mistake to put a theoretical ceiling and floor on Trump’s popularity, as if Barack Obama’s narrow range of popularity was a sign of the times and had nothing to do with his policy decisions.

Donald Trump, who won with 46% of the national vote and a slight plurality in the states that mattered, has less political capital than George W. Bush in 2004.  There are already calls for investigating his finances, not to mention the election itself, and we can see how scandal could drag down even Ronald Reagan, the political equivalent of a saint.  In spite of this reality, there is talk once again of reforming Social Security, the very thing that George W. Bush could not manage after his larger victory.

If Trump decides to pursue this path or similar ones, or if he decides to cooperate with Paul Ryan in pursuing them, he will not find the result to his liking.  He will not win.  He will not be liked.  His party will do worse than expected in 2018 and 2020.  Americans will find themselves with yet another weak president who is ignored or dismissed by Congress and finds himself tempted to use executive orders to get something done.

The best thing Donald Trump could do would be to steer far away from unpopular proposals.  Even a proposal that has 50% approval is risky.  If he were wise, he wouldn’t spend his meager political capital on anything that has less than 60% support and he wouldn’t speak a harsh word about proposed legislation that has majority support.  The last thing he would want to do would be to push for controversial or unpopular legislation.  People will forgive almost anything else in their president, but not that.


The following websites were used significantly in the preparation of this post and are recommended by the author as data sources or historical information:






My struggles with a new policy of my church

To begin with, I have to say that I love the doctrines of my church. I love the things found in our scriptures: the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. I love the temple ceremony, which we are not supposed to say much about, but which basically teaches the same doctrines found in our scriptures.

While there are some members of my church who think every word of our highest leaders is gospel truth, it has been a long time since I believed that the leaders of my church were perfect or that everything they ever said was true. I have not believed it was necessary for them to teach absolute truth 100% of the time. I have not believed that God required them to be perfect or to always do his will.

In the past several years, however, my relationship with the church has become more and more strained. Personal events and local matters turned my involvement in the church into a burden and a source of pain, rather than a source of healing.

Then, at the same time as I was experiencing personal difficulties that pushed wedge after wedge between me and the church, its leaders were doing everything they could to support a political battle in the United States: the fight against same-sex marriage.

When the U. S. Supreme Court decided to end the battle over same-sex marriage in this country recently and required it in every state, it had already been legal in some other countries and some parts of this one for years, without any negative effects.

Initially, I opposed it as a huge experiment, but over time all of the non-religious arguments to stop same-sex marriage seemed completely disproven to me. I also knew that gay and lesbian people are no different from others except for the gender they are attracted to, so they have the same desire to have family relationships as other people. When only religious arguments remained in my mind, stopping gays and lesbians from marrying seemed like forcing other people to follow someone else’s religious beliefs.

So my views on this issue evolved, as President Obama said his did, but I did not expect the church to change its position on homosexuality or the acceptability of same-sex marriage. I did wish they could speak with more kindness and empathy, or even perhaps acknowledge the level of sacrifice that the church’s teachings require of people who experience same-sex attraction.

All of these things and more were behind a recent blog post I wrote about several passages from the Book of Mormon. One of the passages I cited was the one that said “Charity is the greatest of all and whosoever is possessed of it at the last day, it shall go well with him.” I complained that many Mormons seemed to misread this scriptures as “Chastity is the greatest of all….”

Then, just a few days after I posted that wish, the situation became worse. The church formulated a new policy for dealing with members who were married to someone of the same sex. The new policy was leaked to the public and a furor began.

One part of the new policy declared that anyone in a gay marriage was an apostate and their local leaders would be required to hold a disciplinary council to decide if they could remain members of the church, but what really pained me and some other members were the restrictions placed on the children who live with them.

Children living with same-sex parents can no longer be blessed as babies, be baptized or be ordained to the priesthood. (We bless babies after birth instead of baptizing them. We baptize children when they are eight years old or older. Boys are generally ordained to the priesthood when they turn 12).  Now minors who live with a same-sex couple cannot be baptized. They may only be baptized when they turn 18 if they say they believe homosexuality and same-sex marriage are wrong. This is not a statement that is required of anyone else.

After the policy became public knowledge and some members expressed their outrage online (including me), the church leaders made three attempts to calm the waters. First, one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was interviewed by the spokesman of the church. He tried to explain the reasons for the policy, but his words did nothing to calm the rising rhetorical tide. Instead, horror stories began to accumulate on the internet about how the policy was being applied, and some people speculated it would apply to many more situations.

The following week, the highest leaders of the church, the First Presidency, released a letter clarifying the policy and offering further justifications for it. They said it was aimed at children who lived primarily with a homosexual couple (which is how I had originally understood it). They said children who had already been baptized could receive the priesthood and continue forward. They said that bishops could contact the First Presidency if they had questions about special circumstances.

This letter didn’t help much, either, and hundreds of already-disaffected members of the church organized a mass resignation from the church (most people who leave the church don’t bother to formally resign their membership).  This propelled the news about the policy into the national and international media.

After another week, the First Presidency released a revised letter, which seems to be their final communication on the matter. This time they did not include any justifications of the policy and they added a statement that all children should be treated with love and respect. They also said that children of homosexual couples should be welcome at church.

I don’t know what someone reading about all this for the first time would think about their latest words. I know that it did not change how I felt. So, I would like to explain why this still bothers me.

As I think some people will already understand, I cannot see how you can treat children with love and respect at the same time that you tell them they cannot be baptized, especially when both they and their parents want that to happen. I don’t know how you can tell a child that the true church will not allow them to be one of its members without communicating to them that God does not want them, or at least that the church does not want them. I don’t know how you can say that to an adult without communicating the same message, for that matter.  To me, this seems like the opposite of love.

As a parent, as someone who worked at elementary schools for a dozen years and as someone who has taught children of baptism age at church, I cannot see how this policy can do anything but hurt children. The number of children involved will be small, but I do not want to see one child hurt this way. My understanding of the words and actions of Jesus Christ is that he would not want that either.

Even so, I have basically decided to remain in the church. Its doctrines mean too much to me and I have had too many deeply spiritual and deeply meaningful experiences in the church to walk away. Yes, some parts of my journey in the church have been difficult, but I think those parts come from the imperfections of human beings rather than from any doctrine. I claim the god-given right to be imperfect, and if I have that right then so do the leaders of my church.

In my church, speaking out against our leaders is a potentially serious thing and I am uncomfortable doing it, so I will finish with the words of blogger Rachel Held Evans, who wrote about a part of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huck believes he will go to hell if he protects Jim, a runaway slave…and chooses hell over betraying his friend.

“‘Your feelings don’t matter,’ they say.

“‘Your feelings cannot be trusted,’ they say.

“‘Once you start listening to your feelings, over and beyond the plain meaning of Scripture, it’s a slippery slope to hell,’ they say.

“A part of me agrees. I want to be faithful to the inspired words of the Bible, not bend them to fit my own desires and whims. Being a person of faith means trusting God’s revelation, even when the path it reveals is not comfortable.

“But another part of me worries that a religious culture that asks its followers to silence their conscience is just the kind of religious culture that produces $200 rewards for runaway slaves. The Bible has been ‘clear’ before, after all—in support of a flat and stationary earth, in support of wiping out entire people groups, in support of  manifest destiny, in support of Indian removal, in support of anti-Semitism, in support of slavery, in support of “separate but equal,” in support of constitutional amendments banning interracial marriage.

“In hindsight, it all seems so foolish, such an obvious abuse of Scripture.

“…But at the time?

“Sometimes true faithfulness requires something of a betrayal.”

No Republican President in the Near Future

I am sorry to my Republican friends and family, who are tired of seeing their views and their candidates lose, but that is my prediction after watching some of the Republican debate tonight. My impression is that the only candidate that could win a national election is Chris Christie–and no one believes Chris Christie has a real chance of winning the nomination.

I think it’s important for people to vote, and to vote for the candidates they agree with, so I don’t actually mean to tell anyone how to vote. I do want to point out what is going on, though. First, let me talk about Bernie Sanders.

I like Bernie Sanders. I like almost everything about him. I like him as a person. I like the way he is running his campaign. I like his policies. I like the way he talks. But I will not be voting for him in the primary. Why? I want someone I agree with to be President, and he will never be President.

The table in the link below explains why neither he, nor the major Republican candidates will win. I could not find the exact table I had seen, but the link below will take you to an article that contains similar information:

Consistently liberal: 13%
Mostly liberal: 21%
Mixed: 39%
Mostly conservative: 18%
Consistently conservative: 9%


Note that neither liberals nor conservatives can elect a president by themselves.  Liberals make up somewhere around 34% of the population and conservatives make up only 27% or so.  Both need the support of voters with “mixed” views.  Also note that in the general public, liberals have a slight advantage over conservatives.  (The article also shows that this was not the case among likely voters in 2014 and that conservatives outnumbered liberals among likely voters that year.  It was a midterm election, however, and the voters in 2016 will be more like the population as a whole.)

The most important fact is that 39% of Americans have “mixed” political views. If a voter like this is faced with a choice between a consistently liberal candidate and a mostly conservative candidate, they will generally choose the mostly conservative candidate. They will also choose a mostly liberal candidate over a consistently conservative candidate. In general this group splits their votes between Democrats and Republicans, as can also be seen in the Pew Research Forum article.

The problem for Republicans is that the Republican Party currently demands a fairly high degree of “ideological purity” from their candidates, so much so that John McCain and Mitt Romney were considered to be moderates within the party simply because they weren’t completely pure ideologically, and many people blamed their losses on that supposed moderation. A significant number of vocal Republicans claimed that these men would have won if they had just been more conservative. For most people who are not Republicans, it is difficult to understand the rationale behind these opinions.

Unfortunately, all the Democrats have to do to defeat a “pure” Republican is nominate a Democrat who can articulate a few conservative viewpoints. On a national scale, Democrats haven’t needed very many conservative views to persuade voters in the middle that they are the more reasonable choice.

And yes, I really am arguing that Barack Obama has a larger number of conservative positions than either Mitt Romney or John McCain has liberal positions.  I am aware of the fact that most Republicans think that Barack Obama is a perfect liberal and that he does the exact opposite of anything they would ever do, but that is a gross exaggeration. I can point out a few things he has done that I would not do, but that are perfectly acceptable in the Republican Party. For example, he did not push to reinstate the Glass-Steagal act that used to protect our banks from speculative investment failures, he used drones to assassinate people in other countries and he sent American troops into a foreign country on a secret mission to kill Osama bin Laden (yes, I think that was a mistake—it has done no good, it has harmed our relationship with an important ally, and it helped set loose people who were even more extreme and violent: the so-called Caliphate or Islamic State).  I also dislike his “Race to the Top” education initiative.

These are not small things to me, and I consider myself to be pragmatic, rather than dogmatic. I do not agree with every liberal position there is, and yet Barack Obama is still more conservative than I am in the way he approaches Wall Street, the way he approaches foreign policy and the way he approaches education.

It seems to me that Republicans have talked themselves into a seeing their political opponents as something they are not: constant enemies and their arch-nemeses, who oppose every spark of truth and every shred of goodness. Unfortunately for them, the voters in the middle do not see Democrats so simply. They hear things they like and things they don’t like when they listen to Democrats, the same as they do when they listen to Republicans.

Republicans almost seem to have abandoned the voter in the middle. There were some bright spots in the debate tonight, when a Republican candidate said something that a typical conservative would not say, but the crowd watching the debate applauded only the conservative points. This year, once again, conservatives are looking for a consistently conservative candidate. They will get a candidate who is close to that. And then that candidate will lose, because unless a miracle happens and Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, voters in the middle will tilt towards the Democrat.  (If you think Hillary Clinton is a perfect liberal, she isn’t.  She voted for the Iraq War, for example, a vote that will not haunt her this time the way it did in 2008.)

The party that wins the presidency will not be the party with the smartest candidate or the best campaign, it will be the candidate that convinces the voters in the middle that he or she will represent them a little better than the other candidate. After watching the debate tonight, I predict that the candidate that appeals slightly more to voters in the middle will once again not be a Republican.

Maybe next time.

Mormons, Polygamy, the ERA and Gay Marriage

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken some controversial positions in its 185-year history. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith, was murdered for one of them (polygamy, of course). The church became much more mainstream in the 20th century, but still manages to anger people.

After polygamy, the church came under fire for restricting blacks from the priesthood, for restricting women from the priesthood and for fighting gay marriage. The church has received its greatest criticisms when it involves itself in politics. So why does it keep doing it?

I can’t answer why the church takes the positions it does, but I think I can explain why it enters the political fray even though doing so will cause it to lose some current and potential members. The answer comes down to its experience with polygamy.

I don’t know how many times I have read a news article that said the following, almost word for word: “Mormons practiced polygamy in the 19th century, but abandoned it in order to obtain statehood.” This is not even close to the truth.

Mormons abandoned polygamy for one basic reason, and perhaps two more subtle ones. The clear motive for abandoning polygamy was the Edmunds-Tucker Act, which was passed in 1887. The law strengthened previous anti-polygamy laws. Among other things it disbanded the church as a legal entity; allowed the seizure of almost all its property, including churches and temples; threatened polygamists with jail and fines; required voters, jurors and officials to take anti-polygamy oaths; and, oddly, took the vote away from women (which Mormon men had given them in 1870).

The last item seems to show that Mormon women were not truly opposed to polygamy, even in the privacy of the voting booth. As hard as it is to believe, 19th century polygamy wasn’t really an anti-woman institution, at least not in comparison to the social arrangements available elsewhere in the country. For one thing, divorce was easy to obtain.  Women in polygamous marriages were active in the feminist movement, with the consent of their husbands and communities.

Leaving aside that debate, the Edmunds-Tucker Act was draconian. The church sued, but the Supreme Court ruled the law was constitutional on May 19, 1890. That decision has never been overturned.

On September 25 of that same year, the church, led by Wilford Woodruff, published the Manifesto that announced the end of polygamy. The decision prompted a few members to say he was a fallen prophet. They founded their own churches, including the FLDS Church, or Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that has been in the news so much.

Later, Wilford Woodruff defended the Manifesto. In one of his defenses, he claims that the Lord would never let him lead the church astray, but would take him out of his place. This is a non-canonical doctrine that is included in a footnote in the scriptures, but is accepted by a large number of faithful Mormons.

However, it is a different defense found in those same footnotes that interests me. Wilford Woodruff says: “The Lord showed me by vision and revelation exactly what would take place if we did not stop this practice. If we had not stopped it, you would have had no use for … any of the men in this temple at Logan; for all ordinances would be stopped throughout the land of Zion. Confusion would reign throughout Israel, and many men would be made prisoners. This trouble would have come upon the whole Church, and we should have been compelled to stop the practice. Now, the question is, whether it should be stopped in this manner, or in the way the Lord has manifested to us….”

Wilford Woodruff says that if the church did not stop polygamy, the organization and its members would suffer greatly. This is the clear reason that the church ended polygamy. One of the more subtle reasons I referred to is a likely desire on the part of the members to fit in, let go of a difficult practice and stop being weird. The second subtle reason is that, if you accept Wilford Woodruff at his word that the Lord showed him these things and showed him how to end polygamy, then the Lord also wanted polygamy to stop. It sounds to me like the Lord told Wilford Woodruff if the church didn’t stop polygamy, he would let all these horrible things happen. To my ear, it almost sounds like a threat.

Whatever the more subtle motivations may have been, the church only abandoned polygamy in the face of draconian punishment by the federal government, and the law which authorized and encouraged that punishment is still considered to be constitutional. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints knows better than any other institution what the limits to religious freedom are in the United States. When Mormon leaders talk about religious freedom, they are almost speaking from experience.

I believe this is the real motive behind the church’s heavy involvement in the fight against gay marriage. The church was banned once because its marital practices were out of step with the nation’s. Its leaders could hardly be unaware of the possibility that such a thing could happen again, especially with one of its top leaders, Dallin H. Oaks, being a former state supreme court justice. I think this is also one of the motives behind its fight against the ERA in the 1970’s and early 80’s (being afraid that it might be forced to give women the priesthood by court order).

Again, I am not claiming any special insight into the reasons the church opposes gay marriage or why it doesn’t want to ordain women to the priesthood. I am only saying that its political involvement seems to stem from experience. I believe that church leaders are afraid that the church could come under fire the way it did in the 19th century.

Those events happened 125 years ago, but the way the church is organized makes it an event that isn’t quite so distant. Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles serve for life, like Supreme Court Justices, but without the possibility of retirement. Traditionally, the most senior Apostle is called to be the President of the Church.  Current and recent leaders are not far removed from the legal battles over polygamy.

Thomas S. Monson is currently the President. He was born in 1927 called to be an apostle in 1963. When he was called, David O. McKay was the President of the church. President McKay was born in 1873 and was called as an apostle in 1906. He led the church from 1951-1970.

President McKay lived in the time of polygamy. He was called to be an apostle by Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of Joseph Smith. Brigham Young, Jr. was an assistant counselor in the First Presidency at the time. At least five of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had served before the church abandoned polygamy. One of the more recently-called apostles was Reed Smoot, who had also been elected to the US Senate and had endured lengthy congressional hearings  before he was seated. The hearings centered on polygamy.

President Thomas S. Monson, current president of the church, is only one step removed from Reed Smoot, Brigham Young, Jr. and Joseph F. Smith, among others. He worked closely with someone who worked closely with them. He is only two steps removed from Brigham Young. Recently deceased apostles Boyd K. Packer and L. Tom Perry worked with people whose experiences stretched back a little less, but not much.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a long institutional memory. The draconian measures enacted by the US Congress in 1887 are not ancient history for the First Presidency and the senior members of the Quorum of the Twelve. These are things that touched some of their close friends personally.

It is no coincidence that the church pushes for religious freedom. Its senior leaders may not have known the legal persecution the church endured in the 19th century, but the President of the church and its senior apostles all knew people who did. They seem quite reluctant to bring polygamy into the conversation, but the church’s experiences with the United States government hang like a constant shadow over the issues at hand.

I have my own opinions on the political stands of the church. We are not required to agree with them and I don’t. But I think that people should be a bit more forgiving of the church’s political involvement on laws that might someday affect its practices. For the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, religious freedom is not an excuse or a political ploy. It’s almost personal.

Why I Wish the ERA Had Passed

I am old enough to remember the ERA battle, barely. I even read some of the arguments against it. Its opponents said the Supreme Court has a history of interpreting constitutional rights in ways people never expected. They worried that the ERA could lead to unisex bathrooms and women being drafted. They said that protections for women were already in place throughout the country, making the amendment not just risky, but unnecessary.

I don’t know if the things they worried about would have happened or not, but I now wish the amendment had passed, and not because I am concerned about women’s rights. I am more concerned about men’s rights.  They are not more important than women’s rights, but few people are talking about them.

Unfortunately, the existence of real misogynists requires me to say that I do support women’s rights. Women are not always treated equally. This is wrong. I would not want to be treated the way women are sometimes treated. I would consider myself to be a feminist, but I now believe that for too many feminists, gender equality isn’t an actual goal.

I have had too many personal experiences with some kind of discrimination and bias as a man to believe that the elimination of bias against women will result in equality. Because most people who fight for women’s rights are totally silent about discrimination against men, and the angriest feminists do everything they can to keep men from even talking about it, I have decided that if feminists achieve all their goals, women will actually have a superior position to men. Bias and discrimination against women would be eliminated, while bias and discrimination against men would remain. Given feminist rhetoric, the best men can hope for if feminists were to prevail would be to wait until all bias against women is eliminated before saying anything at all about bias against men. (Of course, this is an extraordinarily unlikely outcome–let’s face it, men do have influence in the world).

But if the Equal Rights Amendment had passed, then discrimination against either sex would be immediately unconstitutional. Men wouldn’t have to wait until it was socially acceptable to talk about bias against them, because the Equal Rights Amendment would not just ban discrimination against women, it would ban all discrimination based on gender.

The bias against men in child custody battles? Any bias would be unconstitutional. Unfair child support judgments?  Possibly also unconstitutional. Telling men they are not wanted in an all-female workplace? Unconstitutional. Creating an environment where men cannot make negative generalizations about women, but women can make disparaging comments about men? Unconstitutional. Those are just some of the things that the Equal Rights Amendment would do.

And if the Equal Rights Amendment were passed, we might be able to broaden our focus from the gender imbalance in the sciences and address the gender imbalance in elementary schools and preschools, where boys have their first experiences in education and have few role models. Or maybe we could take fathers as seriously as we do mothers (and expect them to step up to the plate, as we expect women to do now). Maybe we could worry about boys’ self-image the way we worry about girls’ self-esteem. Maybe we could nurture boys instead of expecting them to make it on their own. Maybe it would matter when boys cry. Maybe we could address the differences in the way boys are treated when they are sexually abused. Maybe we could address the fact that men are sometimes victims of spousal abuse.

I’m probably dreaming there, though: that’s a lot to hope for. A constitutional amendment probably wouldn’t actually bring genuine gender equality to the nation because there are a lot of problems that the government simply does not control.

Even so, as a man concerned about gender equality, I support the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment. If it were reintroduced and passed, women, including feminists, would have solid protection in the issues they care about. Women would be equal, period. And so would men.

And sadly, I have to say this: if any man uses my words as a justification for attacking feminists, I have one question for him: do you support the Equal Rights Amendment? Because if you don’t support equal rights, you have no business criticizing feminists for anything.

How Life (or Politics) is Not a Game of Chess


Chess is a great game, but it is very different from life.  Yes, it is complex, like life.  Yes, like life it is surprising. And winning a game of chess does require you to think further ahead than your opponents, anticipating what they will do and how they will respond to your moves.  Yet, it is still not like life.  It is not even like politics or international relations.  As a matter of fact, I believe that referring to world leaders’ interactions as a game of chess is probably harmful.

Here is how I came to that conclusion:

For a time I played a game called Go.  It comes from China, although it is played in other Asian countries, too.    For those who are not familiar with the game (almost everyone who might read this), it requires surrounding your opponents’ pieces with your own.  The object is essentially to control as much territory as possible with as few pieces as possible.  The rules are simple, but they create a complex game with many possible moves at any given point.

For a while I played Go on my Kindle Fire during my lunch breaks or any time I had a few minutes of down time.  Even though the computer opponent in the app was rather foolish and weak, it was still a struggle to beat it.

As I played Go and struggled against my digital opponent, I found myself thinking about the human conflicts I was involved in, feeling like I was struggling to win them as well.  I thought about human conflict, about winning and losing.  My mind was repeatedly drawn to the sitcom husbands who think they are winning arguments with their wives until suddenly things turn and they find they have completely lost.  I wondered why those TV moments seem so realistic.

Gradually, it occurred to me that cause of these husbands’ problems is the whole idea that there is going to be a winner and a loser.  They were treating the argument and the relationship like a contest, and it was the very fact that they thought there would be a winner and a loser that caused their downfall.

I realized that human relationships are not a game of Go, nor are they are a game of chess or any other game.  In human relationships there is never a winner and a loser, at least in the long term.  In the long term either everyone wins or everyone loses, and if one person tries to come out the winner, both parties will lose.  I now think that in a human relationship, just trying to win guarantees that you will both lose, eventually.

I think this may be true of all human relationships, whether they are personal or just economic.  I think it may be true of conflicts between groups: nation vs. nation, management vs. unions, even Republicans vs. Democrats.  I think it may be true that in these situations there are only “win-win” or “lose-lose” outcomes, that there is no “win-lose” possibility.

I think it’s when we forget this that human disasters happen.  We always declare winners in war, but there really aren’t any:  everyone loses.  Wars happen when we forget that fact.  When we forget that we all have to get ahead economically for any of us to prosper, we take unusual risks, lie and cheat.  In the process, economies shake, even crumble, and we all lose.  When employees and management forget they are in it together, the business declines and ultimately fails.  When political parties forget that we all win or lose together, they fight until we all lose.  In a family, if someone tries to win, everything can fall apart.

I think this is a result of the most basic fact about human relationships: we’re in them for our own benefit.  As a result, if we want to “win” in a relationship, it means getting more out of the relationship than the other person or group (getting our way, for example).  Most people will tolerate getting less than the other party for a while, because they know the benefits they receive will always vary. Sometimes things will go your way and sometimes they won’t.  People will wait it out until things get better.

But the minute we begin to treat human relationships like a competition, all that changes.  Suddenly one person or group is trying to win.  They want more of the business’ profits than the other person.  They want more favorable terms in the treaty than the other nation.  They want to get more of what they want in the negotiations.  They simply want more benefits from the relationship than the other person.

This works great for the winning side, at least for a while.  They get more than they would have if they hadn’t competed and things look great…until the loser finally withdraws from the relationship.  Employees quit or management declares bankruptcy.  Nations quit trading with each other or even go to war.  Political parties quit negotiating or just destroy each other and make room for new ones.  Friendships end.  Marriages are dissolved.  One way or another, competitive relationships all end and somehow the “winner” becomes a loser, too.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m advocating communism or that I favor a world where winning is banned, because I am actually arguing the opposite.  Communism treats relationships between capitalists and laborers as a simple contest about who will reap the benefits of labor.  The communist worldview is extraordinarily competitive.  In it, the 99% fights the 1% for the world’s resources.  And just as in every competitive relationship, in the end everyone loses.

We can’t win if we only advocate for the 99%.  We can only be sure to win if we advocate for the 100%.

So, no matter how many similarities chess or Go may have with the conflicts we encounter, life is not a game of chess.  It is not any kind of game.  Over time, we can only win if we make sure everyone wins.  And one of the saddest facts of life is that it only takes one group or one person to turn a relationship into a competition where everyone loses.

Please don’t be them.

“Imagine” (if Everyone Thought Like Me)

“Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

by John Lennon
John Lennon painted a beautiful picture in this song.  In some ways it was revolutionary, arguing for finding peace by ending religion itself (among other things), but to me it seems like the same old argument that has been used for millennia to justify oppression.

We can find peace, if we only give up our differences, the song seems to say.  Fighting will stop when there is nothing left to fight about: no religion, no nations, no possessions.  To me this seems like an argument that is almost as old as government itself, as kings and emperors sought to establish peace in their borders by eliminating differences among their subjects.

Renaissance-era Spain is an example of how far this can go.  In the name of national unity, the rulers of Spain threw out families of Jews and Muslims who had lived and practiced their religion on the peninsula for centuries.  The Spanish Inquisition actually started as a way to uncover closet Jews, Spaniards who had given up their religion in public for the right to stay in their homes and country.  At the time, Spanish rulers believed a country had to be united in religion to be strong.

To me, John Lennon makes a similar argument.  He was not religious, after all, so when he asked others to give up their religion he was essentially asking them to believe like him.  It seems very much like he was saying “if everyone believes like me, we will have peace,” something the Spanish monarchs might also have said.

I strongly disagree.  The only way to find peace is not by eliminating differences, but by respecting them and accepting them.  This is a common refrain today, but it isn’t just about accepting the rights of minorities.  It means accepting that good, intelligent people will have different views on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and gun control…and not demonizing them for disagreeing with us.

We cannot find peace in politics if our goal is to eliminate opinions we don’t like.  Mockery, derision, ridicule, insults and anger will get us absolutely nowhere.  Peace does not come from agreement.  It comes from being peaceful.