May 25, 2010

What is Right and What is Legal: Arizona Mormons

by Brett Hendrickson

According to a recent story in the Arizona Republic, the new anti-immigrant legislation in that state is having a negative effect on Latter-day Saint efforts to proselytize Hispanics. The problem for many potential converts is Russell Pearce. A Republican state senator, he has been the gasoline driving almost all immigration crackdown legislation in Arizona. He is also a Mormon.

Kenneth Patrick Smith, a lawyer and the president of a Spanish-speaking LDS branch in Mesa (Pearce’s home turf and a Mormon stronghold) said, “It's a great disconnect because on one hand the missionaries are out there preaching brotherly love, kindness, charity, tolerance, faith, hope, etc., and then they see on TV a quote-unquote Mormon pushing this legislation that makes them not only . . . terrified but terrorized.”

Another leader in Arizona Hispanic LDS circles, Jorge Pimienta, said, “I don't know Russell Pearce. I don't know where he is coming from. All I know is that what he is doing is not what Jesus Christ taught.”

Naturally, Pearce defends his faithfulness and refers his detractors to The Articles of Faith of the Mormon Church. Number twelve of the thirteen articles reads: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” Illegal immigrants, Mormon or otherwise, cannot follow this article.

This division among the Saints on the issue of immigration presents heaps of fodder for classroom discussion. A short list of topics could include the separation of church and state, the role of authority in Mormon scripture vs. ongoing revelation in LDS immigrant fellowships, and how a global church with U.S. headquarters does or does not monitor and influence public perceptions of the Church.

But my go-to discussion would have to be how far Russell Pearce has deviated from the central Mormon narrative of being a persecuted and unwelcome people in the United States. A little over one hundred sixty years ago, Mormons en masse entered what is now Utah but was then Mexican territory (without papers) to get away from the sort of intolerance for difference that Pearce seems to be promoting. On the other hand, Mormon leaders from Joseph Smith on down have been keen on participating fully in American government, and there is no doubt that the United States has a very unique place in Mormon self-understanding.

So which is it? Is it Mormon to reach out to the dispossessed, even those who are here illegally? Or is it Mormon to stand firmly behind American laws?


Matthew said...

this question reaches beyond Mormon understandings to more orthodox Christians who take a similar tack to Pearce's by quoting from Romans 13 in defense of upholding current law.

Robert said...

WOW! All this time & I did not know it was the law of Mexico in 1847 that immigrants had to have "papers."

Brett Hendrickson said...

Matthew--you are right. This specific case could very fruitfully open a whole discussion about the ways Christians (of all stripes) have lived with, as part of, and sometimes against, civil governments. What gets me about Pearce and other Christians like him is his inability to match the fervor he has for upholding the law with any of the classic Christian virtues.

Of course, perhaps another question would be whether it is justifiable to expect Pearce to represent all Mormons merely because he is a public figure.

Here's another question I had: Catholic bigwigs have withheld the Eucharist from politicians who have voted for abortion rights. Likewise, should Pearce be censored by Mormon authorities for hindering proselytization, arguably a central feature of LDS religious practice?

BHodges said...

When Latter-day Saints cite the article of faith on sustaining the law they overlook the fact that we can help define and change law. Hiding behind that article of faith is inconsistent, in my view, with overall LDS beliefs about bearing one another's burdens, etc. As a Latter-day Saint myself I am strongly opposed to the current Arizona law.

Brett Hendrickson said...

Thanks for your comment, BHodges. While I'm probably not qualified to make the theological assessment you make, I know for sure that you are not alone among Saints. Your blog looks interesting--I look forward to checking it out.

Quin said...

Our Heavenly Father and His Son are gods of law. All that exists and operates in this universe does so according to eternal laws. The Gospel informs us that those who disobey His laws on purpose will be held accountable and punished according to those laws.

The Gospel as taught by the LDS Church clearly instructs that there is only one way to enter into the kingdom where God dwells, and that none will enter it "illegally" or without obedience to the laws of that kingdom.

It is possible to love, serve, and show compassion for others without embracing their lawless behavior. Christ was the perfect example of it. What is impossible however is to accuse or vilify another, particularly a total stranger, without trampling on at least a few 'Christian virtues' ourselves.