The White House Mormon Youth Round Table
The first thing that surprised me about being invited to The White House for a Youth Round Table Discussion was that anyone still considered me a youth. I’m married, I’m a mom, and I spend my days teaching people I consider “youth.” I felt honored to be invited and out of fear that I’d be found out I didn’t bring up this apparent mix-up. My anxieties were allayed when I arrived at the meeting and I wasn’t the oldest person there. It became abundantly clear after viewing the diversity present in those assembled (in age, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, profession, and organizational representation—unfortunately not ethnicity) that this would be an exercise in bridging the lacuna that exists between our civic and religious notions of everything from youth, welfare, and volunteerism, to family policy, organizational hierarchy, and multinational institutions. We would, for the day anyway, be the cultural brokers between Mormonism and The White House.
All of the participants took this responsibility very seriously. From the very beginning we problematized the idea of representation. After a few conservative participants couldn’t make it, we worried that we didn’t adequately embody the church membership. While we each represented different types of Mormons—the SAHM, the academic, the college student, the young professional, the religious scholar, the new convert, the gay Mormon, the feminist, the philanthropist, the blogger, the overachiever, the future CEO, the Idaho farm girl, the political intern, the future apostle, the intellectual— we leaned a little to the left.* Our White House liaison made it clear that we were not representing the church in any official capacity, but rather giving voice to the interests and concerns of young Mormons.
She explained that President Obama tasked The White House Office of Public Engagement with participating in 100 Youth Round Table discussions in the next four months as a bipartisan effort to engage with youth from many different sub-cultures.One of the reasons for this, Kalpen Modi, Associate Director of the Office of Public Engagement at The White House, explained after listening to and acknowledging many of our concerns, is that the main issues for conservatives and progressives alike tend to be the same things: jobs, economy, education, deficit, and Darfur. Round Table discussions foster communication between political parties and the administration as well as provide opportunities for The White House to both learn about the policy concerns of each subgroup and how to better engage them in civic participation.
Upon learning about the Mormon Youth Round Table discussion, Paul Montiero, Assistant Director of the Office of Public Engagement and liaison of faith-based and secular belief communities at The White House, went to great lengths to participate in the meeting and communicate his desire to engage Mormons on a more frequent and personal level. He explained that many people know that President Obama was a community organizer, but not many people know that he was working with churches and faith based communities to alleviate poverty. Mr. Montiero wanted us to understand that he took our concerns very seriously and that he saw many similarities in our religious doctrine and the goals of The White House that could lead to mutually beneficial policies and interactions.
The meeting began with the utterly youthful and articulate Mr. Montiero giving a brief description of the purpose of the Youth Round Table discussions and a clear caveat that this initiative was not connected to any campaign whatsoever. Then Mr. Kalpen Modi, who must have taken some relief in the fact that Mormons were probably his best bet of a youth group that hadn’t seen his “Harold and Kumar” movies, asked us each to introduce ourselves and share some of our main policy concerns. We went around the table and discussed everything from the economy, jobs, student loans, education, and the deficit, to immigration, family policy, religious protection, science funding, civic education, maternal health, women’s rights, and LGBT issues.
The conversation grew especially interesting when Montiero asked us in what ways do Mormonism and this administration share the same goals and how can The White House better communicate these overlaps with the Mormon demographic? We went around the table and came up with, what I think are, some important clarifications and useful recommendations.
- We explained that despite the 4th mission of the LDS church which is to help the poor and the needy, there are a couple reasons Mormons tend to be wary of government social programs: 1) the current cultural ethos among most Mormons regarding government welfare is one of inefficiency and misuse, 2) Mormons pride themselves on their own autonomous welfare programs and the ability to help our own people, 3) there is an overwhelming “pick yourself up from your bootstrap”/“Don’t give a man a fish, teach him to fish” mentality, 4) when someone is in need, leaders often encourage members seek help in a hierarchy of resort, first from their families, then the church, then the state, and 5) all of these reasons combined makes government assistance something stigmatized and avoided by most members. However, while church welfare services are something to be admired, they fall short in a couple of ways that hurt both the person in need and the community. In these ways, the administration could fill a niche that would be mutually beneficial for LDS leaders, members, and the public perception of social programs. For example, because the entire church functions with lay and temporary leadership, each bishop must relearn what church resources are available and how to access them. Leaders do not have any training on what governmental social programs are available and who qualifies, they aren’t given training on how to handle sexual abuse, maternal health concerns, or disability cases. Often because of this members aren’t getting the care that they qualify for and bishops and communities reinvent service opportunities rather than working with preexisting states programs. We suggested that the administration create a guidebook for newly appointed bishops that outline what social programs are available, who qualifies, and how members can volunteer their services to the state rather than reinventing the wheel. Working together would give members first-hand knowledge of both the needs and benefits that social programs provide as well as combining our energies to better alleviate suffering. Working together for one goal and seeing the administration as a supportive body and government programs as valuable resources would go a long way to improving the LDS perception of and relationship to public programs and policies.
- A few people described how the entire 13 million member multi-national church was built upon the principle of public service and illustrated how volunteerism is inculcated at a young age and practiced throughout the entire lifetime of Mormon membership. This universal commitment to service often includes many sacrifices of time and money all while concurrently fulfilling the basic duties of providing for and raising families. We suggested that the administration tap into this huge reserve of potential volunteers and model of lifelong public service. White House staffers were interested in this concept and had us go around the table and share where we all served missions. It was profoundly satisfying to see almost every continent represented by the participants in the room.
- A couple of us argued that the political right has co-opted religiosity in their stances on gay marriage and abortion and that many Mormons tend to vote according to these issues because they align with their beliefs. However, Mormonism has an even longer precedence, gospel injunction, and history of helping the poor, alleviating suffering, and serving others. Some Mormons with allegiance to these moral issues might be persuaded to support more politically left policies if the arguments were made in equally as persuasive religious and moral terms.
- A participant explained that one of the main reasons why Mormons oppose marriage equality is because of the fear that they will be required to perform gay marriages in their temple ceremonies. She suggested that increased support and assurance of religious protection in this area could alleviate some of these fears and lead to a mutually acceptable resolution for both sides.
- Another participant implied that Mormons still harbor resentment from a past of being seen as strange and different and that we revel in positive recognition and acceptance. She encouraged The White House to publicly acknowledge the church and particular church members for their role in community service, social justice, and public policy, arguing that these actions will lead to more members seeing political options that align with beliefs in both parties and a sense of pride in and acceptance of progressive views.
- We all acknowledged that Mormons generally support family friendly policies and because so many members get married and have children young they often vote according to older generational expectations. We suggested that recognizing and highlighting the importance of the family is a good way to garner LDS support. Although we mentioned specific cases where Mormons tended to vote against family friendly policy as in the cases of women’s, maternal, and LGBT rights. One of the participants gave a moving testimony of how being raised in the church taught him to desire and value family over anything else and how being gay didn’t change that. He then spoke about how important family policy, adoption, medical rights, and family leave are to the LGBT Mormon community and explained that he chose his current employer based on these benefits.
- We clarified that sometimes there is a conflict between what the church leaders say and how those words are interpreted and enacted by church members. We gave prop 8, civil liberties, and immigration examples to highlight this point and asked that The White House seek out and support the official church stance (as in the case of the immigration issue in Utah right now) rather than the presumed or media-fueled position.
- We finished this section of the meeting by explaining both the hierarchy of the church organization and the freedom of political affiliation inherent in our gospel. We concluded that there were many democratic and left-leaning Mormons and encouraged the administration to see them as allies and to reach out to them by recognition, through BYU devotionals, and via official church contact and continued communication.
One of the most meaningful moments for me came shortly after this when Mr. Kalpen Modi asked for some specific examples of grass roots initiatives that we have been engaged in.
- One participant explained how he had led a bipartisan fundraising effort at BYU for awareness and peace in Sudan and how they got unprecedented numbers of students from all political spectrums to participate.
- Two participants spoke about their advocacy for the prevention of male teenage suicide relating to LGBT concerns in the greater intermountain West. They explained how this area has the highest rates of teenage suicide in the nation and how many youth struggle to find a balance between their faith and their sexual identity. Then, they told of a couple cases where they were instrumental in talking youth down from suicide attempts and one case where they discovered the identity of a blog commenter who had admitted to swallowing a bottle of pills and called rescue workers to his house, ultimately, saving his life.
- Another participant spoke of an interfaith initiative where Mormons shared their belief of fasting (once a month Mormons fast for 24 hours and take the money they would have spent on food and donate it to feed the poor) and organized many different denominations to participate in a large community fast. This project went on to fund the local soup kitchen for many years.
The biggest surprise for me (and based on the silence around the previously loquacious table, everyone else) was when Mr. Montiero validated our idea of recognizing Mormons working toward similar goals as the administration and then asked point blank to give him some names of people to bring to The White House. The room was suddenly silent. He rephrased his question a bit and asked if we could give him the name of a leader who supports similar goals as The White House that he could publicly recognize. Again, we were silent. Eventually, I think we did a fair job of explaining why the turnover of a lay local ministry, the strong desire for church uniformity, and the hierarchical nature of the church organization make it difficult to identify particular leaders. This was the single most penetrating question left on all of our minds as we left the Round Table discussion.
Ultimately, I think The White House staff made it very clear that they were willing to do the work on their end of fostering this relationship and recognizing the LDS church and individuals, but they also tasked us with finding the people and actions that they should be recognizing! I think we would be missing out on an invaluable opportunity if we did not work together to provide them with this information.
The questions remain: Who would you have suggested? What did we miss? What would you have added if you had been a part of this Round Table? What did we get right? What did we get wrong? Etc.
Caveat: This report is a description of my experience at The White House as recreated from my notes and memory. While this Round Table was a complete group effort, all errors in this report are my own doing.