Elder Oaks’ Devotional

November 10, 2004 | 32 comments
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A Deseret News article reports a recent devotional by Elder Oaks where he expresses concern over some recent social trends. Discuss.

32 Responses to Elder Oaks’ Devotional

  1. Russell Arben Fox on November 10, 2004 at 10:29 am

    From Elder Oaks’s address:

    The first [social trend he expressed concern about] was [the] “overemphasis on rights and underemphasis on responsibilities”….”Currently we are increasing rights and weakening responsibilities, and it is leading our nation down the road toward moral and civil bankruptcy,” Elder Oaks said. “If we are to raise our general welfare, we must strengthen our sense of individual responsibility for the welfare of others and the good of society at large” [emphasis added].

    Dallin Oaks: civic republican, communitarian. If only he were a social democrat too, we’d have a trifecta.

  2. Robert C. on November 10, 2004 at 10:48 am

    Elder Oaks also said media attacks on public officials and political ads that attack candidates instead of promoting discussion of serious issues encourages doubts about public leadership. That can result in doubts about laws and rules and lead to skepticism about the ties that bind society.

    I heard the broadcast of this talk, and I think the news article missed what I thought was one of his most salient and provocative points, viz. showing respect for authoritaty figures. (The quote above was only one example of the larger point he was trying to make.) Got me thinking about the fine line between fault-finding of others, whether it be family, friends, church leaders, or civic leaders, vs. constructive criticism. I think there is a difference, and the fact that Elder Oaks emphasized being well-informed and assertive politically/civicly implicitly assumes a critical approach. But how can one be sure they are being constructive rather than just fault-finding? I’ll be anxious to read the transcript of his talk, and to hear others elaborate on their views about this….

  3. Kevin Ashworth on November 10, 2004 at 11:37 am

    I fear that negative campaigning’s success ensures that “political ads that attack candidates instead of promoting discussion of serious issues” are the norm from here on out. Will Elder Oaks’s statements make more Mormons have reservations about being unconditionally supportive of the Republican party? Not that the Democrats don’t do awful ads, too, but our present drive to negativity has had the GOP (Karl Rove, et al.) at the vanguard.

  4. Frank McIntyre on November 10, 2004 at 11:53 am

    Russell,

    I would put the emphasis in a slightly different place. Elder Oaks notes our individual responsibility to help others and advance the common good. Although we all agree as Christians about the importance of these objectives, it is by no means clear that the proper way to do that is to regulate and tax our way to a utopian Zion. Hence a plausible explanation for Elder Oaks’ failure to endorse national socialism (though I don’t want to put words in his mouth, maybe he secretly does endorse national socialism).

    Help me out though. Is there some special meaning to the phrase “civic republican”?

  5. Larry on November 10, 2004 at 12:17 pm

    Kevin,

    As an outside observer I think you might want to do some research before you start pointing fingers.

  6. Frank McIntyre on November 10, 2004 at 12:20 pm

    Larry,

    I’m not so sure. I think it is often best to point fingers first, then do the research later. It helps to know what your conclusion is before you get started. This gives your research agenda more focus :).

  7. Larry on November 10, 2004 at 12:26 pm

    Well said! :>)

  8. Russell Arben Fox on November 10, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    “Is there some special meaning to the phrase ‘civic republican’?”

    Civic republicanism is a body of ideas, mostly elaborated by historians of political thought, which focus on the importance of various communitarian (though not exclusively communitarian) principles: self-sacrifice, respect for leaders, political engagement through communal networks, patriotism, “civic virtue” (i.e., believing the political group, the patria, constitutes a moral accomplishment worth contributing to, even at personal cost), etc. As a way of thinking about politics, it goes all the way back to the early Greek city states (hence their concern for the res publica, the “public thing”), but it really came into its own during the Renaissance, and subsequently informed a lot of thinking about “liberty” in Europe over the next 300 years. Scholars like Gordon Wood, J.G.A. Pocock, and Forrest McDonald have emphasized how important the republican link between virtue and liberty was to the Founding Fathers–more important, in their view, than the liberal contractarian inheritance of John Locke.

    I associated it with Elder Oaks talk because he condemned the fact that political engagement in the U.S. today is too often contentious and irresponsible (he talked about a “less concerned, less thoughtful, and less informed citizenry”), emphasized the reliably republican theme of vigilence against values which would corrupt or undermine the nation, and connected those two together: through teaching proper traditional values, people will better recognize their responsibilities as citizens and will act in accordance with the common good. That sounds pretty much like anything you’d hear from Hannah Arendt, Benjamin Barber, or other contemporary republican thinkers.

    His failure to link his communitarian concerns to democratic socialism is, admittedly, regretful. Given his background and past legal and political writings, it’s very likely that he doesn’t believe the market can or should be turned through collective action to public ends. Still, one can hope.

  9. Derek on November 10, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    The problem with newspapers is that they tend to put too little information into too many words and from only a single perspective at a time. If I really want to learn the whole story for past events, I go to Wikipedia. For current events, it’s a combination of various online news sources, talk radio, television, and various blogs and discussion web sites.

  10. Jonathan Green on November 10, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    A question: has anyone looked into the pedigree of the “rights-not-responsibilities” theme? My impression is that it developed in the milieu of opposition to the civil and privacy rights movements of the 60′s and 70′s, but maybe it’s considerably older, and I’ve never looked into it seriously. I don’t think Elder Oaks is using the phrase as a conservative codeword, but I wonder if there are more connotations to that phrase for some people.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on November 10, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    “I don’t think Elder Oaks is using the phrase as a conservative codeword, but I wonder if there are more connotations to that phrase for some people.”

    For me, the term is most clearly connected with the civic republican and Tocquevillian revival in legal and political circles during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Robert Bellah, Amitai Etzioni, Bill Galston, Christopher Lasch, Samuel Huntington, Mary Ann Glendon: a bunch of folks, with very different backgrounds and agendas, all began to focus in on our “democratic distemper,” our increasingly reliance on the rights-based claims of disparate, divided interest groups without any sort of attendent concern for common restraints and responsibilities, and the promotion of civic virtues. But it’s possible they were reviving and redeploying a term that had been used in earlier contexts.

  12. Nate Oman on November 10, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    My bet is that if you are looking for an intellectual pedigree for Oaks’s use of the term your best source is Mary Ann Glendon’s _Rights Talk_, given that Glendon was writing in Oaks’s academic idiom and I believe that they are personal acquaintances.

    Frank, if you want an easy primer on civic republicanism try checking out Frank Michelman, “Law’s Republic,” 97 Yale L.J. 1493 (1988), which summarizes the literature that Russell refers to. If I recall correctly, that volume of the Yale L.J. contains a number of attacks on civic republicanism as well.

    Russell: I don’t know his work well, but I am curious as to why you place Galston in the civic republican camp. The only thing by him that I have read is _Liberal Pluralism_, but it struck me as very, well, liberal.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on November 10, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    ” I don’t know his work well, but I am curious as to why you place Galston in the civic republican camp. The only thing by him that I have read is _Liberal Pluralism_, but it struck me as very, well, liberal.”

    I was just grabbing names for that post; Galston definitely isn’t a civic republican in any deep sense. However, his big book before Liberal Pluralism was Liberal Purposes, in which he talks about the sort of virtues which are necessary to, and follow from, liberal practices. And Galston frequently associated himself with neo-Tocquevillians and other “strong republican” types, like Benjamin Barber, throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Since his time in the Clinton administration in the mid-90s, he’s been focusing a lot more on the question of value pluralism, and how one can articulate expressive, authoritative moral values and purposes in a pluralistic state. As the titles of his books indicate, he thinks liberalism, properly understood, provides the necessary answers.

  14. Justin B. on November 10, 2004 at 4:17 pm

    Here is an audio file of the talk:

    Oaks MP3

  15. Lizzy on November 10, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    Elder Oaks is right about the need to read newspapers and not to rely on TV news programs to get our information.

    About a month ago, I had to give a speech on news media. In order to prepare, I recorded the 11o’clock nightly news for CBS, NBC, and ABC. After taking the minutes of each program (including how long they spent on each segment), it was startling to see the discrepancies. Out of the 38 different news items covered by the 3 networks, they only had 4 in common!

    And what do you think they spent the most time on? The upcoming election? Nope. The war in Iraq? Nope. A grusome murder in the area (LA)? Nope.

    Sports! It was the same for all 3 stations.

    What a sad commentary on our society.

  16. Adam Greenwood on November 10, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    I have nothing but respect for Elder Oaks and the communitarian, civic republican, not a social democrat position since it’s more or less my position but in fancier words.

    I do think that there is a potential disconnect between trying not to criticize authorities and criticizing the ignorance and self-interest of the voters who select them. In this country delegitimizing the voters really is delegitimizing the sovereign fount of authority. It would have very dangerous consequences. It can be done, just as Elder Oaks seems to be suggesting that political leaders can still be criticized, but have a care, have a care.
    See this post:
    http://www.timesandseasons.org/wp/index.php?p=275

  17. Kevin Ashworth on November 10, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    Larry,

    I haven’t an idea what you’re talking about. Could you please explain yourself a little more. What research should I do? Why are you an outside ovserver and I’m not? What finger pointing did I do that stands out to you more than other finger pointing? Many other questions come to mind. I’m at quite a loss, really. Please enlighten!

    Kevin

  18. Larry on November 10, 2004 at 6:42 pm

    After listening to Elder Oakes’ address I was struck by a number of things.
    1) I am one of those who in the past year has stopped reading the newspaper. Why? Because I found the quality of the reporting to be just as inane as the quality of reporting on television. I have been present , on occasion, where an interview was given and recorded by the press. When I read the newspaper account of what was said it seemed more like an exercise in creative writing than an accurate reporting of the news.
    2) There is a great deal of difference between espousing political differences and demogoguing an opponent. One may not be able to specifically write a one sentence summation of this but it is clear that one knows it when one hears it.
    3) His statement regarding rights and responsibilities sounds like common sense not a political or philosophical agenda.

  19. Larry on November 10, 2004 at 6:57 pm

    Frank,
    You said;
    “Not that the Democrats don’t do awful ads, too, but our present drive to negativity has had the GOP (Karl Rove, et al.) at the vanguard.”
    Kevin, you obviously have a thin skin so I’ll try to be gentle.
    I have been around a long time and have seen the negatives back when the Democrats demogogued Barry Goldwater. I have seen the demogoguing take place on both sides but nothing compared to the anti-Goldwater ads the Democrats ran. I simply think that the rush to judgment on who is worse than who should be done from an historical perspective. Karl Rove had good teachers. Otherwise, expect responses like mine.
    I am an outsider because I am not an American.

  20. Jonathan Green on November 10, 2004 at 7:37 pm

    Larry, it’s not thin-skinned for Kevin to ask you to clarify what you meant in your unclearly written comment that misconstrued what he was saying. It’s extremely generous, I’d say, and your response was gratuitously condescending. Please, if you’re going to cast about insults like “thin-skinned,” don’t use them on nice, polite people like Kevin. Save them for rude and irritable people like me.

    That a Canadian who no longer reads newspapers wants to offer historical perspective on negativity in American political campaigning is a bit rich, but I’ll pass on that for now. Are you seriously telling us that Democrats are just as negative in campaigning as Republicans because of what happened to Goldwater FORTY FREAKING YEARS AGO? The most recent candidates for preisdent couldn’t even vote in that election! You can try to argue for equally negative campaigns in 2004 if you want, but 1964 has nothing to do with it. It’s completely irrelevant.

    We’re all working on effective Internet communication, but you need to work on making people angry only when you intend to.

  21. Kevin Ashworth on November 10, 2004 at 8:05 pm

    Larry:

    I didn’t mean to come across as thin-skinned. I was hoping I’d come across as condescending and superior, but only to the very astute, because all the while I was pretending not to be condescending and superior. I got you, and I got Larry by pretending to be polite! Neener.

    Well, now that I know what you’re talking about, I stand by my remarks. The current crop of negativity has a vanguard, as I’ve duly noted. They had teachers or did some research? Okay, I’ll give you that. They had teachers or did some research.

    Anyway, back to the topic at hand. So if negative campaigning works (and it does), is Elders Oaks suggesting it’s better not be pragmatic in politics? I’d love to have him come out and say that plainly. “The ends do not justify the means.” Any chance of that happening?

  22. Kevin Ashworth on November 10, 2004 at 8:06 pm

    I meant to type, “I got you and I got Jonathan.” Drat.

  23. Ivan Wolfe on November 10, 2004 at 8:10 pm

    I’m not sure why Republicans (Karl Rove, Swiftvets, etc.) were any worse than Democrats this election cylce (see MoveOn.org, Farenheit 9/11, the various documented attacks – some with gunfire – on Republcan HQ throughout the country).

    There’s plenty of mud that was flung around and the Democrats had just as much (if not more, thanks to the deep pockets of Soros) as the Republicans.

  24. Larry on November 10, 2004 at 8:25 pm

    Jonathan,

    Just in case please note the full text od Kevin’s statement:
    “I fear that negative campaigning’s success ensures that “political ads that attack candidates instead of promoting discussion of serious issuesâ€? are the norm from here on out. Will Elder Oaks’s statements make more Mormons have reservations about being unconditionally supportive of the Republican party? Not that the Democrats don’t do awful ads, too, but our present drive to negativity has had the GOP (Karl Rove, et al.) at the vanguard.”
    If you look at that in context you will note that he uses the phrase ” that attack candidates instead of promoting discussion of serious issuesâ€? are the norm from here on out.”
    That implies a lack of knowledge of historical events.
    He then wrote;
    “I haven’t an idea what you’re talking about. Could you please explain yourself a little more. What research should I do? Why are you an outside ovserver and I’m not? What finger pointing did I do that stands out to you more than other finger pointing? Many other questions come to mind. I’m at quite a loss, really. Please enlighten!”
    This is, in my opinion, is an over reaction to a simple request to do some historical review. He did point a finger and I thought that inappropriate when the evidence of this past election did not reflect that fact.

    Now, you said,

    “That a Canadian who no longer reads newspapers wants to offer historical perspective on negativity in American political campaigning is a bit rich, but I’ll pass on that for now. Are you seriously telling us that Democrats are just as negative in campaigning as Republicans because of what happened to Goldwater FORTY FREAKING YEARS AGO? The most recent candidates for preisdent couldn’t even vote in that election! You can try to argue for equally negative campaigns in 2004 if you want, but 1964 has nothing to do with it. It’s completely irrelevant.”
    It is not irrelevant. If today proscribes the future, then today was proscribed by the past.
    By the way, I would have pointed it out to a conservative as well.
    May God bless you!

  25. Adam Greenwood on November 10, 2004 at 8:28 pm

    How about we call a moratorium on Larry-Kevin fireworks?

  26. Larry on November 10, 2004 at 8:32 pm

    Kevin,

    I’ll accept condescending and superior. Although that depends on how tall you are and whether or not you play basketball.

  27. Kevin Ashworth on November 10, 2004 at 8:59 pm

    Ivan: I believe the GOP took the lead in negativity, but I don’t have research-based proof. Both sides did it, surely, but I sensed that the right tended to take the first steps every time we walked down to a lower level, and/or they took more effective steps. Maybe I’m wrong about them being at the vanguard, but it’s my sense. If I’m wrong, they’re still in it up to their armpits and the question still stands: Will Elder Oaks’s statements make more Mormons have reservations about being unconditionally supportive of the Republican party?

  28. Will on November 10, 2004 at 9:06 pm
  29. Ivan Wolfe on November 10, 2004 at 9:48 pm

    Kevin – maybe, but only if the Democrats stop embracing Michael Moore and Moveon.org types.

  30. Jonathan Green on November 10, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    Thanks, Adam. We can all use a little negative reinforcement sometimes. But I do have to point out that

    *ZAP*

    …uh, what was I saying?

  31. Adam Greenwood on November 11, 2004 at 12:38 am

    What a fine lab rat you would make!

  32. Bill on November 11, 2004 at 3:36 pm

    Last night the TV news had a segment on Ivory Coast. Did it tell us anything about what was happening in the country? Not really. The only reason they mentioned the “unrest” was that as a result chocolate prices will be going up just in time for the holidays.

    At least some newspapers still make an effort at serious news reporting. The New York Times, for instance, has had several informative articles this week on Ivory Coast. I haven’t read the NYT on a daily basis since about eight years ago; the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Economist all have much better writing (with the exception of the WSJ’s unfortunate editorial page).

    One really has to consult at least four or five serious news sources of various political slant on a regular basis in order to have a satisfactory understanding of what is going on in the world.