By Samantha Strong
Last semester an essay published in the BYU Political Review was brought to my attention. This essay piqued my interest, mostly because it coined a term that perfectly pinpoints one of the greatest frustrations born out of my job. I”d like to personally thank Ryan Decker, the author of that essay, for giving a name to my previously ambiguous, unarticulated annoyance: The Mormon Trump Card.
The term describes a common offense, made in letters to the editor, viewpoints and face-to-face conversations all the time – using quotes by general authorities and scriptures to halt healthy, and many times important, discussions. Regardless of how promising another”s hand may be, a quote is spat out, the card is thrown down and the game is over, leaving one party feeling satisfied and the other feeling cheated, if not technically then at least in spirit. Playing the trump card, although legal by the rules of the game, seems like the easy way out. It robs either party of the opportunity to really test their skill, and, more often than not, leaves the trumped individual feeling condemned as well. The analogy is fairly solid, with one major exception: in cards, the trump player wins the game, in life, they only end it. There is no winner.
Trumping is a practice that evokes great emotion in those who oppose it, and enough discourse against it to fill a book. Not only was it combated by Mr. Decker, but it was also referenced in Monday”s viewpoint by my colleague, Ms. Abigail Shaha. I strongly urge you to read both of their commentaries yourself. But here, for just a moment, I”m going to throw my two cents into the discussion.
Context is an important part of any message. When, where, to whom and by whom are all crucial factors to consider in determining the intended message of a statement. Before you decide what the root message is, and most definitely before you repeat the statement in promoting your own message, ask yourself these questions:
When and where was a statement made? Was it in General Conference? Was it in a press interview? Was it made in the past so updated statements could have been made since, or is it current? Whom was the speaker addressing? Was it a universal audience that spans the globe and the ages, or was it a narrow demographic? Who spoke the words? What was their position at the time? Whom did they have stewardship over? What role were they assuming when they made the statement?
These considerations are just the tip of the iceberg. Questions of a more implicit nature must also be asked. What societal or cultural assumptions could have influenced the speaker? What was their personal interest in the matter? What assumptions are likely drawn as a result of the statement? Are any meanings being imposed on the words, meanings that aren”t really there?
Answering these questions, or at least wrestling with them, requires time and effort. It”s far easier to bypass it all, throw the trump card down and obstruct the play. There is a common misconception in the Church that makes this shortcut conveniently justifiable: Many members wrongly assume that in the history of the Church, general authorities have always agreed on political matters. The fact is they have not, and very likely do not even today. Mr. Decker illustrates this fact in his essay with numerous examples of Ezra Taft Benson”s differences of opinion with Hugh B. Brown and other leaders on issues like civil rights and communism. Presidents of the Church during Benson”s time made extra efforts to inform the members and the world that there is a distinction to be made – by and large, the political views of general authorities are not doctrine. When politics and doctrine do collide in absolute ways, statements regarding those matters will be labeled as such.
Yet despite this clarity, many have missed the point. Many assume that because Apostles have the authority to speak on God”s behalf, every word that escapes their lips is doctrine. Many also, tragically, take what is doctrine – plain and precious principles – and convolute it. They add meaning. They determine what they believe the best way to implement a principle is and they attribute that determination to the doctrine itself. These are mistakes.
Several comments on Decker”s essay, posted on the Political Review”s Web site, made an important point: General authorities, despite disagreeing with each other, always have the highest ideals at heart. Thus, while their quotes should not be used to end discussions, they can be used to enhance them. Some quotes by the brethren can be used to highlight unique bits of wisdom, articulated in particularly eloquent ways. These insights have merit in the context of arguments irrespective of the authority who speaks them. Their merit is in their meat, not in their sources. Sometimes, a quote is insightful whether a general authority said it or Joe the Plumber said it. Sometimes, general authority quotes can be played, but when they are, they”re point cards, not trump cards.
It”s tricky. You must still be careful. You must still ensure that your use of the “point card” is backed up by a strong analysis of the context in which it was delivered. The point is, you have to wrestle with it. Make the effort. Consider the context. Refrain from imposing meaning on principles rather than deriving meaning from them. Your opinions will be well-founded and you”ll better understand your leaders and yourself. On many topics, especially political topics, the game is far from over.
Samantha Strong is an Issues and Ideas Editor at The Daily Universe.