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My Relief Society's Constituition Class

by EmilyCC

Recently, I got an email talking about an upcoming Relief Society class series where we’d study the U.S. Constitution. I’m intrigued by the idea of this course of study and think it could be worthwhile.  Heavens knows, I need to know more about the Constitution.  But, I’m worried about mixing politics and religion in a Relief Society setting.  At first, it seems like a class on the Constitution would be politically-neutral, but gosh, I’m not sure.   I think of some of those Amendments and I wonder…can it be?

On the one hand, I think it could be terribly productive and enlightening to have a variety of readings and vigorous debate in class. It would do me good to have my political beliefs questioned and to tear down some stereotypes I have about those who’s opinions differ from mine.

On the other hand, I’m worried because it looks like we’ll be following a study program from a conservative think-tank. And, though I just said it’d do me good to examine my beliefs more closely by looking at those views on the opposite end of the spectrum, I think it’s only fair that we do some readings that show the class a variety of political rhetoric and beliefs.

One thing that I really appreciate about this class is that the woman in charge has made it a point to ask if people would be offended or upset and has gone on to ask for additional reading suggestions. I’m also excited about the innovation at work here. While there’s the potential for this class not working, I think this is an imaginative and promising new idea.

Still, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous about attending. I prefer to listen to vigorous debate rather than participate in it, and as far as I know, I’m the only female Democrat in my ward. So, I’ll go into this remembering that it’s important for me to be a part of this if only to learn more about political leanings that I don’t understand.

Have you been in a Church-sponsored class regarding politics? What was your experience?

Do you have ideas for books I can suggest for this class that are politically-neutral or even a little left-leaning?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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27 Responses

  1. Keri Brooks says:

    I’ve never been in a church-sponsored class regarding politics. (I purposely absented myself from the Prop 8 meetings, which was easy to do in my ward because the meetings were separate from the three hour meeting block.) However, the gospel doctrine lesson on Sunday (being good citizens) kind of veered toward the political. It’s hard not to in that circumstance. Everyone was pretty open-minded and accepting of differences. (I always squirm a bit when politics comes up at church, since I lean libertarian. Both the liberals and the conservatives think I’m wrong.)

    If you’re looking for good balanced or left-leaning material on Constitutional law, I recommend Erwin Chemerinsky’s work. He has a hornbook/case supplement that I used in law school. It’s very accessible in its language, and it goes through the major doctrines/developments in the law. If you want some libertarian perspectives (though they often match up with right-leaning views), I recommend Ilya Somin or Randy Barnett. They both blog at the Volokh Conspiracy.

  2. EmilyCC says:

    Keri, thanks so much for your suggestions! I’ll definitely look into them.

  3. Jessawhy says:

    Great post, Emily.

    The only thing that comes close to this was a game I did for Enrichment one year to help people learn about our 20 some-odd ballot initiatives.
    It was a Jeopardy format, and of course there was some spinning coming from me and the woman wearing the Bush 04 t-shirt, but it probably all balanced out in the end.

    If that Constitution class was in my ward, I wouldn’t go because it would make me really frustrated. I’m too argumentative to sit and listen. When the debate started, I’d probably start to make enemies. That’s not good for church social relationships.

  4. mmiles says:

    Eeek! The idea worries me–I see red flags.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    But, Jess, I was going to make you come to mine to be my eloquent debater friend 🙂

    mmiles, I think you’re very right.

  6. Bree says:

    Lots of red flags. Not much room for real debate or discussion if you’re the only Dem in the room (especially in AZ wards in my experience), but nice that the woman leading the group solicited feedback in advance.

  7. ZD Eve says:

    I’ve never been in, or even heard of, a church-sponsored class on politics. I think it sounds great in theory, and in the hands of a very, very skilled teacher, it might just work. But it would be all but impossible not to avoid partisanship–particularly if you’re following a partisan course of study.

    I’m a little surprised that an official RS activity is following a partisan course of study, actually. That would seem to contradict the church’s political neutrality. On the other hand, it sounds as if the teacher is trying to create a balanced curriculum. I just wonder if there’s any way to keep the curriculum and discussion at all neutral.

    I have to admit that if someone proposed this as a possible small-group activity in my ward, I would strongly discourage it. The potential for problems is just far too great. But I’m curious to hear how it goes, Emily–I hope you’ll post a follow-up if you decide to attend!

  8. mmiles says:

    Seriously, this can’t possibly be church sanctioned.

  9. Azucar says:

    I highly recommend reading Rex Lee’s short devotional on the constitution:
    http://byub.org/talks/transcripts/devo/1991/1/devo1991115-186.pdf

    Done properly, a class on the constitution can be politically neutral, but I’m going out on a limb to suggest that you do not have a preponderance of constitutional scholars who will make it so.

    I’m skeptical because the class sounds like a response to the streak of Constitutionalism that runs in our culture. Lee’s devotional does a great job of describing why he, a former solicitor general for Reagan, is not a Constitutionalist, and provides needed perspective.

  10. Margaret says:

    As a political science major at BYU, I spent a lot of time in Church-sponsored classes on politics. It was sometimes exhausting and infuriating, but I learned a lot. I’m glad that my political education didn’t just reiterate everything that I already believed. If you have someone who really is well-educated, she’ll know that there aren’t any easy answers to Constitutional questions and that usually all sides have valid points.

    One of the good talks to deal with over-exuberant constitutionalists is Dallin H. Oaks “The Divinely Inspired Constitution.” In it, he talks about how the Cons. is great because it can be changed to fit the needs and growth of a changing nation, not because it was perfect in its original form.

  11. E.D. says:

    I’m really surprised that a ward would sponsor a constitutional class. As others have said, it’s nice in theory, but I can’t imagine how it can be done without upsetting someone. I couldn’t be the teacher of that class. There’s no way that I could do it without inserting my own political opinions in the course. While I’m conservative, my ward and stake are politically diverse. During the last election there were cars in the church parking lot with bumper stickers supporting candidates on both sides, including president. I have relatives who have worked for and fully support Harry Reid (I live in Nevada), yet I can’t stand him as a senator. My last stake president is a wonderful man who is a Democrat appointed by Harry Reid to be a federal judge. With all that in mind, I would love to have a discussion with a politically diverse group of Mormons and find out how the same gospel principles we believe in translate into such different political beliefs for each of us. Obviously, we each find something valuable in our political choices that correspond with our spiritual beliefs. I think it would be very eye-opening and, like you said, encourage us to question what we believe. Our beliefs are usually either strengthened or toppled when they are challenged by thoughtful and respectful questions.

  12. G says:

    Ditto about the red flags. The Church, as an organization and in it’s membership are so predominately one-sided in politics… While I would be pleased if this actually became an open-minded discussion/debate with all sides equally represented, I seriously doubt it would be much more than a validation of the majority’s politics and a dismissal of the minority’s.
    Maybe I’m just jaded.
    If you go, I’m curious to see how it went.

  13. madhousewife says:

    This class would scare the bejeezus out of me. It would be difficult for me to decide not to attend, though, because I am voyeuristic enough to hate missing the drama that would certainly ensue. Our ward has more political diversity than some, but a lot of people with very strong opinions. I can’t imagine anyone in charge thinking that this would be a good idea. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work under some circumstances, but I don’t think I personally have ever been in a ward where it wouldn’t have ended in disaster. I suspect this sort of class would work best when comprised entirely of folks who were apolitical and extremely timid.

    Well, I’m a real negative Nelly, aren’t I? I’m not intimately familiar with Erwin Chemerinsky’s work, but I’ve heard him debating conservative/libertarian thinkers on talk shows (right-wing talk shows), and he articulates his views very well, even though I don’t agree with him.

  14. EmilyCC says:

    Bree, so true about those AZ wards 🙂

    ZDEve, yes, it will take an exceptional teacher. I haven’t heard if one has been assigned yet, but I don’t envy them the task.

    mmiles, truthfully, DH and I tried to say that this shouldn’t happen, but it continues to be in announcements.

    Azucar, thanks for the link. It is *really* a nice example of a doing this well (and I love the quote by Paul Martin Wolff on pg 9).

    Margaret, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m glad to hear that you felt like it was worthwhile because I’m expecting I will be feeling the same way at times. Thank you also for the Dallin Oaks’ talk; it’s another helpful resource: http://www.lds.org/ldsorg/v/index.jsp?hideNav=1&locale=0&sourceId=729d94bf3938b010VgnVCM1000004d82620a____&vgnextoid=2354fccf2b7db010VgnVCM1000004d82620aRCRD

  15. EmilyCC says:

    E.D., I couldn’t agree with you more! Maybe we could have our own little class 🙂

    G, excellent point. And, I’ll admit, I’m a little jaded, too. Maybe it’s because I’ll be in the same building where I was called a baby-murderer when I was 14. Ahh, good times in early morning seminary…

    madhousewife, this class is scaring me, too. I’m hoping I can change it’s direction by sitting in the classroom and suggesting additional readings, so I guess I’m one of the good candidates for the timid category you mentioned.

  16. Zenaida says:

    Baby Murderer!! WHAT?!

  17. Kelly Ann says:

    This doesn’t completely surprize me given the number of comments I have heard my entire life that the constitution is inspired. But still recovering from the impact of Prop8 (and specifically the mix of religion and politics, more than the issue itself), this bothers me to no end …

  18. My ward has such a group (I am not sure exactly how active it is at the moment).It is not officially a ward-sponsored group.

    Moving into the ward a few months ago, a few people told me about the group when they found out that I teach political science and American Heritage. I thought about attending the group, but then I saw their blog and found out they were using Skousen and other similar books. I am very committed to the Constitution, but I also think that Skousen is 100 percent wrong in his interpretation of the Constitution. I figured that as a lefty, I would just make everyone else uncomfortable.

  19. For some centrist to left of center readings on the Constitution, I would look at the following:

    For a good reader friendly discussion of the development and purpose of the Constitution:
    The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country–and Why It Can Again by Eric Lane and Michael Oreskes

    America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar

    For a fun critique of the Constitution (though I would likely not bring it to a conservative book group):

    Our Undemocratic Constitution: Where the Constitution Goes Wrong (And How We the People Can Correct It) by Sanford Levinson

  20. Aimee says:

    Wow! This whole idea feels like a loaded gun. The presumption such a class is inevitably making is that the Constitution is a document with divine religious significance. We often forget that its religious significance lies in its application to protect religious freedoms–it’s significance is more of a result than a starting point. For me trouble starts once you start giving the document itself too much divine authority. I know that we as Mormons want to do this as a way to further prove the Book of Mormon’s claim that we live in the “Promised Land,” but it shouldn’t come at the expense of understanding how the people involved with creating the document actually created it. We fail to remember that many of these documents’ designers weren’t even entirely Christian (don’t get me started on that ahistorical painting found in so many LDS homes of George Washington kneeling at Valley Forge). Though I have never experienced a whole church course meant to study political documents, I have found that when ss lessons have tackled the subject, the conversation quickly becomes about God’s hand in creating these documents and then follows an almost pre-scripted neocon course of thinking. If you’re brave enough to undertake the experience, I’d have to think that academic history books on the subject would be illuminating and less partisan (hopefully) on the dynamics and influences that surrounded the Constitution’s creation. And if you do take the class, PLEASE send updates!

  21. EmilyCC says:

    Zenaida, isn’t that just another name for people who are pro-choice? 😉

    Kelly Ann, I think you make a good point. I’m surprised that there are people willing to dive back into politics and religion after Prop 8 (102 here).

    Chris, I suspect the class you’re talking about follows the same program as the one we’re planning on doing. It’s heavy on Skousen writings.

    I think you were smart to stay away because of the group’s leanings. I think if this wasn’t Church-sponsored I would do the same, but since it is, I guess I feel a duty to be the “voice in the wilderness.” Thank you VERY much for your suggestions!

    Aimee, you make LOTS of good points here. Thanks!

    I don’t know if I’ll do another post on this subject unless the class is just the best experience I’ve ever had. Because I use my name and location, it wouldn’t be hard for people to figure out which ward this is. And, I feel a little funny about reporting/critiquing an activity in my ward that I’m not responsible for.

    But, we chat enough that you’ll definitely hear more!

  22. Ziff says:

    Emily, I agree with you and several others that this class seems like it could go very very wrong. But I’m probably like madhousewife in that I’m such a voyeur that I’d have a hard time letting myself miss such potentially crazy discussion. Yes, I am evil.

    Also, you might want to remind the teacher that no class on the Constitution will be complete without some use of this painting. 🙂

  23. Jessawhy says:

    Ziff,
    That painting is amazing.
    If you mouseover each person it tells you all about them.
    I really like the Professor who’s academic leanings deny God who is rejecting Christ holding the Constitution.
    All the other liberals are being shunned, too, except JFK, oddly enough. What a crazy painting.

  24. One of the things that is disappointing these days is the perception that its necessary to view the constitution from an ideological point of view. Yes, the constitution was formed via a political process, but I suggest that if we desire to come to the constitution from an ideological point of view, that we arrive at the constitution too late. If I were attending such a class I would want to do the work of breaking down the assumed frame of references.

    The other problem in the Mormon context is that the constitution is so often folded into a Mormon teleology, that asserts the very purpose of the constitution was for our religion to be able to come forth. I find such a teleology to be destructive and has the goal of subverting any historical discussion, etc.

  25. EmilyCC says:

    Ziff, that painting is awesome because art is all about explicit symbolism, carefully explained by the artist 🙂

    Douglas, I think you’re so right on both counts. The Constitution is so often (mis)used to promote political agendas that my guess is that it would take several classes by a skilled teacher to help the class (myself included) to get our minds out of entrenched ideologies.

    And, the idea that the Constitution was written specifically for the Chruch to be restored is troubling to me as well.

  26. “the idea that the Constitution was written specifically for the Church to be restored is troubling to me as well.”

    And yet there it is a fairly conspicuous feature of Mormon cultural ideology. So what do we do if anything? Is it just another element showing how quirky/conservative American Mormon culture is? Or is it more problematic than that? Does it influence theology, doctrine, and action of church members? does it complicate the project of having a global Church? After all, since America is chosen, obviously other nation states are not right?

  27. Two of Three says:

    I emailed my sister, an American history major. She recommends a book called “The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness” WW. Norton. She explains that the framers did not want to have a godless country, but were careful to make the document inclusive to all faiths (or nonfaiths). They had just come from a situation where people where persecuted for there religious beliefs. You can find an excerpt at http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/Sept07/Constitution.excerpt.html

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