Personal PAC Money

At the end of the pointless government shutdown that did nothing but damage, Republican representative Tom Rooney of Florida was asked who won in the stand-off. His answer was not the president, the Democrats, or even his own party. The winners, he said, were “the people that managed to raise a lot of money off this.”

By that standard, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee can confidently declare victory.

Senator Cruz’s political action committee raked in $797,000 dollars just this past quarter alone. Here in Utah, Republicans were inundated with 13 separate fundraising requests from our own Senator Mike Lee, who also fared well financially in the midst of the debacle, raising close to $250,000 for his 2016 reelection campaign. What’s interesting, however, is that there is a significant difference in these fundraising tallies beyond their disparate dollar amounts.

Under federal law, the funds raised by Senator Lee for his campaign is revenue that cannot be spent, in any way, for personal use. The same is not true of the money raised by Cruz’s PAC, which can be spent on anything with little or no accountability. And both Cruz and Lee gathered over two million signatures against the Affordable Care Act that were collected by The Senate Conservative Fund, a PAC that is also free to spend the money it raises however it sees fit. With two million more people on their mailing list, it is likely that they, too, will see significant returns from the shutdown fallout. But it is also likely that those who donate to these causes are unaware of how easy it is for their money to be misused for purposes entirely unconnected from the cause they thought they were supporting.

Consider Republican Congressman Ander Crenshaw of Florida. His leadership PAC spent $32,000 to take some of his contributors on a tour of California wineries. Democratic Representative Robert Andrews pulled $16,000 out of his PAC to take his family to a wedding at a four-star resort in Scotland. Both of these seem egregious misuses of donated money, but both expenses were entirely legal under existing laws.

Those who are motivated enough to open their wallets to support the candidates and causes of their choice expect their resources to be employed for the purposes for which they were given. Current law gives them no assurances that this will be the case. Cruz and Lee and others have a moral responsibility to spend PAC funds appropriately, but not a legal responsibility. Donors ought to be aware of the difference.

A Joseph Fielding McConkie Story

I served as a missionary in Scotland for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from September of 1987 until September of 1989. For the last five months of my service, that mission was under the direction of Joseph Fielding McConkie, a singularly gifted gospel teacher, a devoted disciple of Christ, a fierce champion of the Restoration, and a bold witness of the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. President McConkie passed away on October 10th, 2013.

He was only my mission president for a relatively short period of time, but he made an indelible impression on me and on my testimony of the Restored Gospel. If you have read anything I’ve written on the subject of religion here on this blog, chances are you’re reading warmed-over McConkie. So much of my thinking on these subjects has been shaped by his perspectives that it’s difficult to separate his point of view from my own.

As I attended his funeral yesterday and sang “Praise to the Man” alongside other middle-aged dudes in a choir of former Scotland missionaries, I tried to think of the best way to honor his memory here. I could recount some of his more memorable teachings, or I could recount some examples of his singular sense of humor.

Then I remembered a story that does both.

During a series of missionary zone conferences, President McConkie would take Bible texts used by critics of the Church and demonstrate how, rather than prove the Mormons wrong, these verses in context actually reinforced a testimony of the Restored Gospel. On this occasion, President McConkie began his instruction by quoting from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 22, verse 30:

“For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”

By that time in my mission, I had bumped into many an angry evangelical Christian that had thrown those words of the Savior in my face as evidence that the Latter-day Saint doctrine of eternal marriage ran contrary to the Bible. The conventional wisdom is that Jesus was announcing that there is no such thing as marriage in heaven. Certainly a cursory reading of his statement here would give that impression.

Not so fast, President McConkie said. Back up a little, focus on the context, and understand the point that the Savior is trying to make.

He began in verse 23 of the same chapter, which sets up the exchange that yields Jesus’s marriage statement:

The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection…

President McConkie noted that it’s important to recognize the Sadducee agenda here. These guys are questioning Jesus not to challenge him about marriage, but rather to trip him up about the reality of resurrection, a doctrine they rejected. (“The Sadducees didn’t believe in a resurrection,” President McConkie said, “so they were sad, you see.”)

That’s why Jesus, in his response, doesn’t focus on marriage, either. “But as touching the resurrection of the dead,” Jesus says:

But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying,

I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.

And when the multitude heard this, they were astonished at his doctrine.
(Matthew 22:31-33)

The astonishing doctrine is not the marriage doctrine, then, but rather the doctrine of resurrection, and everyone knows it, including the Sadducees. That’s the point of the exchange. So when we look at what Jesus says about marriage in order to make that point, we need to realize that his purpose is not to expound on the nature of marriage in the eternities to a group that rejects eternity, but rather to sidestep the rhetorical trap the Sadducees are setting.

Jesus did that all the time. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and “the baptism of John, was it of heaven or of men?” and “he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” were all examples of Jesus refusing to accept at face value the premises being presented to him.

That’s all well and good, but what did Jesus mean about marriage in verse 30?

The key, according to President McConkie, can be found in the antecedent to the word “they” in Jesus’s answer. “They” neither marry nor are given in marriage. Who are “they?”

The Sadducees, in setting up the scenario to flummox the Savior, talk about how “there were with us seven brethren,” and each of them, in turn, marries a woman whose first husband dies. The next husband dies, too. This happens over and over again, and she ends up marrying eight times, so who is going to be her husband in the resurrection?

Again, it’s essential to remember that this query is coming from a group of people who don’t believe in a resurrection. They think this example, then, shows how ridiculous the concept of resurrection is on its face, and that Jesus won’t be able to provide a satisfying answer, and his authority with the masses will be undermined by anything he says.

But Jesus refuses to play the game.

“They neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Jesus says – the “they” in question being the people provided in the Sadducee example. “There were with us seven brethren,” the Sadducees said, emphasis added. In other words, seven Sadducees, who don’t believe in a resurrection, marry a Sadducee woman who obviously wouldn’t believe in a resurrection, either. The Savior, then, is masterfully skewering them for their presumption in assuming they’ll be married in a resurrection they deny.

They, the eight men and the one woman who deny the resurrection in the example provided, aren’t going to be married in the resurrection. If you want to be married in the resurrection, you have to accept the Lord and his doctrine. Implicit in Jesus’s rejection of the marriage example of the Sadducees is an assumption that, while “they” won’t be married, there will be others who will be.

“There’s a modern precedent to this,” President McConkie told us. “Can anyone think of a woman in our day who has been married eight times?”

Sure, we all answered. Elizabeth Taylor.

“Good. Is there any question as to who Elizabeth Taylor’s husband is going to be in the resurrection?”

We, laughing, shook our heads.

President McConkie laughed, too, and then said, “Elizabeth Taylor is going to be lucky to be resurrected.”

Joseph Fielding McConkie. A great scholar and a great man. I’m going to miss him.

Vote for Rex Lee

If I were a rich Democrat, I’d max out my donations to the Mike Lee 2016 campaign.

It would be a bargain at twice the price. What Democrat could possibly match Lee’s ability to destroy the Republican Party from the inside?

I’ve read a number of statements from Lee’s diminishing number of devotees who, while forced to acknowledge the woeful ineffectiveness of his demagoguery, applaud his willingness to “stand for something.” These are often the same people who, rightly, deride liberals who want to be judged for a policy’s good intentions instead of the same policy’s disastrous results. I do not doubt Lee’s sincerity in wanting to get rid of Obamacare. But no one should doubt that Lee’s stupid stunt actually strengthened Obamacare, more so than anything the president or the Democrats could have done. His intentions don’t matter; his results do.

I’ve covered this before, so I don’t want to repeat myself any more than I already have.  Yet I remain baffled as to why Lee’s acolytes assign a level of integrity and righteousness to the man that somehow mitigates the disastrous consequences of what he actually does. Many believe his eagerness to “save the Constitution,” etc., endows him with a divine commission to pursue his warped strategies, which therefore holds him blameless.

God, it seems, is on Mike Lee’s side, so the rest of us ought to shut up.

But what’s remarkable, and what few people realize, is that “the rest of us” includes Rex Lee, Mike Lee’s father, a fine Latter-day Saint and arguably one of the greatest constitutional scholars that has ever lived. On just about every salient constitutional point, the father and the son not only disagree, but are diametrically opposed.

To illustrate this, I’d like to quote some excerpts from a speech that Rex Lee, former president of LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, gave at the institution over which he presided. The address was titled “The Constitution and the Restoration.”

Behold a Lee who makes a whole lot of sense:

The descriptive phrase most commonly used by many members of the Church is that our Constitution was “divinely inspired.” Unfortunately, some Church members have deduced from that general, nonscriptural description more than the scriptures or the Constitution or common sense will sustain.

That is, from the general label “divinely inspired ,” some assume that the Constitution is tantamount to scripture, and therefore perfect in every respect, reflecting in every provision and every sentence the will of our Heavenly Father, just as is true of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants. That view cannot withstand analysis. Our Constitution has some provisions that are not only not divine, they are positively repulsive. The classic example is contained in Article V, which guaranteed as a matter of constitutional right that the slave trade would continue through at least the year 1808. There are other provisions that are not as offensive as the slavery guarantee, but they were quite clearly bad policy, and certainly were not divinely inspired in the same sense as are the scriptures. Moreover, regarding the Constitution as tantamount to scripture is difficult to square with the fact that our republic has functioned very well, probably even better, after at least one of its original provisions (requiring United States senators to be elected by their respective state legislatures rather than by the people at large) was amended out of existence by the Seventeenth Amendment.

This is especially interesting given that one of the centerpieces of Mike Lee’s campaign was the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment. When asked about this specific issue in a candidate forum, Lee said his father “wasn’t always right,” but that we should “not speak ill of the dead.”

Mike Lee would often end his campaign rallies by quoting LDS scripture about “wise men being raised up” to write the Constitution, with the clear implication that the Constitution was, indeed, the very scripture that his father said it wasn’t. Rex Lee addressed that issue head on, and came to the opposite conclusion:

Probably the most helpful statement is contained in section 101, verse 80 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose.” I submit that this scripture makes it very clear that our Heavenly Father’s involvement in the bringing forth of our Constitution was more an involvement in process than in end result. As President Benson has stated, “It is my firm belief that the God of Heaven raised up the Founding Fathers and inspired them to establish the Constitution of this land.” His focus, and the focus of the Doctrine and Covenants, frees us of the burden of trying to equate the Constitution with scripture and, therefore, to justify every part.

Mike Lee spent a great deal of time bemoaning any attempt to reform our broken immigration system, even, at one point, calling for the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which made slaves citizens. He also railed against the commerce clause, and Rex had some strong words on those subjects, too.

One of the most important features of the American Constitution, both in theory and in practice, is the magnificent breadth of its most important provisions–notably the commerce clause, most of the Bill of Rights guarantees, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses. The lack of specificity of these and other provisions has almost certainly been essential to the ability of this document drafted in 1787 to survive over 200 years of the largest and most unanticipated change that any country at any time has ever experienced.

The younger, stupider Lee would often wave a pocket copy of the Constitution at questioners who had specific policy concerns. “Just read this darn thing,” he would often say, referencing the magical document in his hands. “The answers are all there.”

The older, wiser Lee disagreed profoundly.

You can read the Constitution very carefully and not find, even in a footnote or an annotated version, any answer to [specific policy] questions… nothing in the text of the Constitution, and nothing in its history, provides the answer to those and many other practical questions that arise every day.

Finally, the most rancid issue that comes up with regard to Mike Lee is the oft-repeated, but seldom understood and possibly apocryphal prophecy that one day the Constitution will hang by a thread, and it will be Latter-day Saints like Glenn Beck and good ol’ Mike Lee who will be called upon to save it.

The elder Lee had no patience at all for this kind of nonsense.

A final area of constitutional interest unique to Latter-day Saints finds its source in the well-known “hanging by a thread” statements by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Similar statements have been reiterated by no fewer than six of his successors, including the current prophet. In a forthcoming book to be published by the Religious Studies Center, Professor Donald Cannon lists over forty instances in which these seven presidents have either used the “thread” metaphor or something like it. But in none of those quotations cited by Professor Cannon has any Church leader ever been very specific as to the metaphor’s meaning.

Unfortunately, some members of the Church have been all too ready to offer their own explanations. The only thing consistent about these explanations is that in each instance, it was the Church member’s own unresolved, often very private, grievance that supplied evidence that the thread was beginning to fray, sometimes beyond repair. Among some people, any problem from a tax increase to a failure to collect the garbage on time to a boundary dispute with one’s neighbor is likely to call forth the observation that it is certainly easy to see how the Constitution is hanging by a thread. A companion assertion is that the election or appointment of certain persons, often the person making the assertion, to designated positions provides the key to preventing the demise of our constitutional system.

In my view, this is another instance in which going beyond what our leaders have said can be misleading at best, and potentially fraught with mischief.

So when considering the differences between the two Lees, if Mike is on the side of the angels, does that make a demon out of Rex? Or, in the Lee family, has the Constitutional apple  fallen pretty far from the tree?

Anyone Want to Be a Beta Reader?

So I haven’t written much on this blog of late. My apologies. By way of explanation and not excuse, I thought I’d tell you why.

I’ve been producing a whole lot of content for the Deseret News, including a weekly column that you can find here if you’re not reading it at the moment.  My latest column about the moral dilemmas posed by “Breaking Bad” was published online last night and in the print edition today. Maybe I should publish them here, too, so it gives the illusion that I’m keeping this blog up to date.

But that’s not the whole story. I’ve been doing work for the Deseret News for over a year now, and I’ve still managed to produce some original content for this blog. The difference now is that I’ve spent every possible writing opportunity for the past few weeks in revising my novel, which attracted the attention of an agent in New York who hooked me up with an editor that provided invaluable feedback on what I need to do to get the book ready for publication. She gave me a lengthy overview that went through the book chapter by chapter, and then we had a Skype session where we were able to discuss the details in person.

She was filled with great advice. She objected to my use of the phrase “smooching like there was no tomorrow” and the word “poopiness,” insisting those were both too juvenile for the audience I was trying to reach. I gave her “poopiness,” as I didn’t even realize that word was in there, but it took a bit to put me at ease with letting go of “smooching like there was no tomorrow.” But let go I did – the things I do for my craft!

Um, yeah. Anyway…

The best advice she gave me, however,  came when she questioned one of the mythological components of the story. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m a bit fuzzy on that, too.”

“Well, if you’re fuzzy, then there’s no chance your readers won’t be fuzzy,” she said. She then insisted that I write a concise backstory that outlines the mythological framework of the whole book, so that I don’t break my own rules as I tell the story.

“That’s the reason Harry Potter is great and Twilight isn’t,” she said. “J.K. Rowling understood her universe and never broke her own rules. But Stephanie Meyer broke them all the time. Readers are completely unforgiving when a writer breaks their own rules.”

That was good advice, but it was easier said than done. My book has gone through various iterations over the course of twenty years, and it’s been hard to keep track of what the rules are. When I sat down and tried to flesh out the backstory, I ran into so many contradictions that I became frustrated that I would be able to make the book work at all. I was tempted to abandon it.

Then a reprieve came in the form of my nephew Matthew, who has just begun his service as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Little Rock, Arkansas.

At a family party, I shared with Matthew the part of the backstory I had been able to come up with, but I felt I had written myself into a corner. We swapped ideas, and he promised me he would think about it.

Then, about a day later, I received a 2,500 word opus from Matthew with an entirely new backstory he had fashioned out of whole cloth. Well, not entirely whole cloth – it still relied on the characters and the basic premise of my novel, but he wasn’t at all afraid to toss out garbage I’d been holding on to for the sake of tradition more than anything , and it took a bold new approach to the story, using fresh eyes to see the problems and solid suggestions to make the thing work.

I didn’t adopt all of Matthew’s suggestions, but I did use a good chunk of them, and, even more importantly, his overview gave me the catalyst I needed to bring order out of chaos. I set out to rewrite the book, and even though I already had a draft, it felt like I wrote the whole thing again from scratch. Characters were radically modified, combined with other characters, or discarded altogether. No section survived without major revision, and, in an 80,000 word book, about 20,000 of those words constitute entirely new material. It also has a new title, and the original title of “Captain Jumper” is entirely dead, since no character uses that name in this version.

And now for the good news is – the draft is done! Done! Honestly! I finished the unfinishable! Huzzahs all around!

But I’m not going to resubmit it to the agent just yet.

The editor and my nephew provided the fresh eyes I needed, and I’m hoping I can impose on you – yes, you, the person reading this – to help me polish this version. If you’re reading my blog, you don’t have a major aversion to what I write, so you might be interested in being a beta reader for my novel, now titled “Gods, Monsters, and Jeff Downey.” I’d love it if you’d be willing to read through the book and tell me what you liked, and, even more importantly, what you didn’t like. All suggestions and criticism are welcome, ranging from fixing grammar and poopiness-level word choices to massive, overarching thematic visions you think I’ve missed.

If you’re interested, send me an email to and say so. I’ll send you back a message with a copy of the book in an MS-Word file, and I’ll eagerly await your feedback as you dive into my fictional world.

(One caveat – if I don’t know who you are in real life, I may balk at the idea of sending my book to you. I’m not saying I won’t send it, but I would ask that you provide me with enough personal info to help me be comfortable with the idea of trusting someone I don’t know with a copy of my unpublished manuscript.)

So, with that said, who’s in?