What it means to be LDS and a Political Scientist

by sisterarnell

This is the transcript of an invited speech I gave at our chapter of  Pi Sigma Alpha.

I stand here this evening, clad in what Hugh Nibley called “the robes of the false priesthood” as an invited speaker.

There’s a few reasons I chose to give this address wearing my doctoral robes. First, these things cost more than my wedding dress. And that doesn’t even count the tuition I spent earning them, that’s just the robes. With a cost like that I’m going to wear them whenever I feel like it.

Secondly, there are not nearly enough occasions in my social calendar that call for wearing a velvet tasseled hat.

Third, I wear these robes to symbolize to you that today, I talk strictly as an academic. I speak to you as Dr. Arnell, rather than as Sister Arnell.

The topic of my comments is What It Means to be an LDS Political Scientist. But Dr. Arnell, I can hear you all thinking, you said you weren’t going be Sister Arnell. I’m not going to teach you doctrine tonight, or what I think is my understanding of doctrine. I want to talk about experiences I have had that have shaped my understanding of how I feel called to combine my belief in LDS doctrine with my training as a political scientist.

I have told many of you of my experience reading a talk given by Dallin H. Oaks to employees at BYU-Provo. He told them that they weren’t getting paid fair market value for what their work, but it was okay, because this was part of their covenant keeping for the law of consecration. The Mormon part of brain nodded in agreement. The Marxist part of my brain – every good political scientist has a little part of their brain dedicated to Marx – started yelling about me being oppressed.

What does it mean to be LDS and a political scientist? To believe in revealed truth, but also suspicious of power and claims to power – how does one reconcile those competing claims to allegiance?

I have an intuition of the right answer, but part of my personality is to intuitively leap to an understanding of what is true for me, and then have to painstakingly figure out the path to get to and justify to myself what I know in my heart to be correct. This talk is part of that process for me, to see if I can elucidate something that I feel more than know.

Political Science is, I think, unique amongst the social sciences in that it explicitly endorses a normative aspect, through its inclusion of philosophy and questions of the good and the right. Michael Sandel has been teaching a class at Harvard on the question “What is Justice?” for the last 25 years. This is the same question Plato tried to answer 2500 years ago in his classic Republic. 2500 years and we’re still trying to define our terms.

For a group of LDS political scientists this debate gets even more interesting. It adds in an entirely different set of commitments. Additionally, there is a cultural orthodoxy in Wasatch Front Mormonism that can be, at times, in conflict with different ways of interpreting doctrinal matters when it comes to political and economic theories. When you add in the conflict of your professional training as a political scientist, it can become quite unsettling to figure out exactly what you are supposed to do with your life, and how to reconcile what at times seems to be fundamentally irreconcilable.

As the comic Calamities of Nature recently pointed out, modern science basically understands the history of the universe back to when it was .000000000000000000000000000001 seconds old, and on the other hand the majority of the world’s population lives in poverty and doesn’t have the luxury to ponder such issues. That’s because science tends to focus on the easy problems.

Political scientists focus on the hard problems. We focus on things like injustice, poverty, war and genocide. We study abuse of power, corruption, and terror. Coercion is the raw material of our theories, and power enlivens everything we do. And that could be really depressing, but I prefer to offer a different perspective on it.

Political scientists see the world differently. You cannot feed the hungry, until you see hunger.  You cannot uplift the downtrodden, until you recognize your own role in their oppression. You cannot bring peace until you know the causes of war.

Political science was recognized by Aristotle as the master science because it “determines which of the sciences should be in the communities, and which kind individuals are to learn, and what degree of proficiency is to be required.” Political science studies all human actions to determine the good life for all. What could be more noble or enlightening than dedicating your life to bringing about the good for all? We need more political scientists in this world, not fewer.

A lot of you have been asked recently, “What are you going to do with a degree in Political Science?”

Some of you have struggled with that question, seeking to come up with an answer for the questioner but also for yourself. May I suggest a possible answer for you?

I’m going to change the world. I’m going to fight for truth, justice and the pursuit of the good. I am going to keep my covenants and build up the Kingdom of God.

We are so strict in our classrooms about not letting you justify your answers with “because God said so” that it may seem hypocritical to evoke Him now. But what I want you to consider is how your career, your skills and training, your passion for some aspect of this program that made you suffer through me teaching you statistics, can contribute to building up the Kingdom of God.

Aristotle – yes, back to Aristotle – said that there are two types of knowledge: theory and praxis. Theory is what we’ve taught you, what you’ve studied, even some of what you’ve learned down in the Taylor building. Praxis is applied knowledge. How are you going to apply what we teach you in a way that honors the covenants and commitments you have as a person?

The Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost) celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and falls 50 days after the second night of Pesach (Passover).  The Christian feast of Pentecost celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles in the book of Acts, ushering in the beginning of the church. Fifty days after Jesus’s resurrection (10 days after His ascension), the apostles were gathered together, and on Pentecost a flame rested upon the shoulders of the apostles and they began to speak in tongues by the power of the Holy Spirit.

At the giving of the Torah, there was an outpouring of Spirit as well, but instead of hearing the message of the Apostles in their own tongue, during the receiving of the Law, rabbis tells us that the audience all heard a message as well, but it was communicated by the Spirit, and each person was given a different message.


He hung back after class. “Sister Arnell, can I ask you a question?”


“How do you balance all this” he waved around the classroom, “with what you know to be true?”

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question, typically of a bright young mind that is sincerely honest both in their belief in God, and in studying in a discipline that doesn’t really have a place for God anymore.

“Because, I want to share my testimony, but I’m not sure if I can say ‘I know’ any more. I believe, but can you really know?”

And I told him. Yes, you know. I know through the Spirit. It’s confirmed to me the truthfulness of God being our Father, and Jesus is our Savior, and in Joseph Smith and in the Book of Mormon. I know those things are true. And I leave the rest of it up to God.

I don’t really think God cares what you believe about dinosaurs, and geological time tables, and Glenn Beck. He cares whether or not you’re keeping the covenants you have made with him. The gospel has existed in a lot of different places and a lot of different times, and sometimes the revelations that were good for other generations don’t work today for some reason. I can cut my hair short and eat a cheeseburger and I think that’s okay, and I think God’s okay with that too. Doctrine doesn’t change. Cultural practices of a doctrine does. So, we have to figure out what is doctrine from what is culture.

“Well, how do you do that?”

I said, this is where it gets tricky. You and I both believe in modern day prophets. We sustain them as prophets, seers, and revelators. They receive guidance from the Lord about how to administer his church. Does that mean that every utterance they make is Scripture? No. Sometimes they are just men. And sometimes they get it wrong. And they admit that they got it wrong.

We then talked for a while about how different practices of the church have been disavowed, and where apostles have admitted publicly that they were mistaken about statements they have made.

“So, how do you tell the difference?”

The Spirit will tell you the difference. When someone says something that is incorrect spiritually, the Spirit will let you know that it is incorrect. God trusts you enough to receive confirmation by the Spirit of the truthfulness of any message.

That’s not a standard LDS viewpoint. We tend to just accept whatever the brethren say as capital T Truth, but there are times where they are factually inaccurate, or that the message they are giving as a general guiding principle doesn’t apply to you, or needs to be practiced in a non-standard way. This is the point to me of the parallels between the giving of the Old Testament Law and the New Testament Law. Both involve God speaking, through the Spirit, to each of His children in an individualized personal manner. Whether it is literally in a different language, or if he is just speaking the language of our heart, we should be prepared for and seek after opportunities to feel the guiding influence of the Spirit in how we live the Gospel.

And I ended with, when in doubt, act out of love, and you’ll never be wrong.

That is my call to each of you tonight. Practice a political ethics of love. How you practice that may be different than how I would practice that. The church believes in orthodoxy of doctrine, but not of implementation. The technical name for that sort of variety is heteropraxy. The important thing is that we are acting out of love.

So, if you go home tonight, and your roommates ask you what you talked about at your social, tell them “The Heteropraxy of Love.” And then they will leave you alone. So you can finish working on your homework. Because most of you in this room have projects due to me next week.

If they are made of braver stuff, they may ask you to explain what that string of syllables that just came out of your mouth means. Then, turn with them in the Bible to Luke, and reading the following passage.

But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,

Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.

And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloke forbid not to take thy coat also.

Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.

For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them.

And if ye do good to them which do good to you, what thank have ye? for sinners also do even the same.

And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? for sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again.

But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and ye shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind unto the unthankful and to the evil.

That’s the call I hear in the Bible, from Jesus Christ, to those who would be his disciples.  Love those with whom you disagree. Bless those who hurt you, and hate you, and use you to evil ends. Give to those in need, regardless of whether or not they are deserving.  Treat others as you would want to be treated.

Why?  Because even sinners can love those that love them in return.  Even Voldemort has friends. But we, as believers, are called to live a higher law.  We are called to love those who hate us.  If we only give to those who can pay us back, we are a sinner.  If we only serve those who are capable of serving us back, we are a sinner.  If we only love those who love us back, we are a sinner.

It’s nice to think that the world is so clear cut that poor people are poor because they made bad choices or are lazy or are evil.  That’s nice to think about, because that means that I am rich(er) because I am a good person, or made good choices, or worked hard.  Rarely will anyone admit that they are rich(er) because they won a genetic lottery that rewarded them with a beneficial socio-economic portfolio that pays dividends that seem, to the recipient, to be rewards for their supposed labors rather than systemic privileges to which they have no moral desert. Self-congratulatory narratives may make it easier to sleep at night, but they are detrimental to our ability to treat other people with the respect and dignity to which we claim they have an inalienable right.

And so we have a special call as LDS political scientists. We need to put a stop to hate in this world.  We need to put a stop to hating people based on political disagreement.  Even if you are adamantly opposed to the policies they propose, the people they have sex with, the color of their skin, the taxes they pass, or the wars they get involved in, there is no room for hate as an LDS political scientist.  We are too great for that.

We need to put a stop to tolerance. Yes, you heard me. We need to stop tolerance. I have often heard the word tolerance used to describe our attitude towards those who engage in behavior the gospel denounces. We tolerate those who disagree with us, or who live lifestyles different than ours. The word tolerate is not used in the scriptures. The word love is used 564 times. There is a difference between tolerance and love. I love my cat. When he gets mad at me, he pees right outside his litter box. I tolerate that behavior because I love my cat. I do not tolerate my cat. How much more greater is the command to love one another than my love for my cat? No one wants to be tolerated. We do not hope for a valentine’s card that says, “I tolerate you.”  I do not tolerate people, if I am following Christ’s example. I love them.

We have in this gospel and in this discipline a legacy that should shine forth like a city on a hill, but instead of burnishing the flame of freedom that we have inherited, purchased by generations of effort at so great a cost and immense an effort, we need to be wary of tarnishing it through our actions with a thousand little jealousies, and a million petty acts. Selfish demagogues have used that flame to light the torches of an angry mob, rather than candles of example that should illuminate the good within themselves and in each other.  They should be ashamed.

But we are not ashamed. We are LDS political scientists. And the next time someone asks you what you’re going to do with a degree in political science, just smile and say, “I’m going to change the world.”