Political agitator and perpetually grumpy guy Steven Bannon took a swipe at Mitt Romney a few days ago, accusing him of “hiding behind his religion” by serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rather than serving in Vietnam. It was one of the most openly hostile things said about Mormons in years, at least by a political figure. Whatever this reflects about Mr. Bannon’s religious bigotry, it speaks volumes about his ignorance concerning LDS missionaries.
Here’s how it goes, Mr. Bannon. The LDS Church teaches that, as a part of his priesthood covenant, every worthy and able young man should serve a two-year proselyting and service mission. Young women are also invited to serve. Many of our youth go on missions; others don’t. Some are able to serve their full missions; others come home early for medical, family or other reasons. For those of us who do or did serve, we believe that we are acting on a divine commandment to bring a message of hope, peace, and salvation to the world. We believe that, at that age, there is nothing more important for us to do.
Missionaries serve without pay, and at their own expense. Serving a mission doesn’t affect your future position in the Church (file that under “who cares,” since we have an unpaid ministry); doesn’t improve your financial position (just the opposite); disrupts your education; and delays your entry into the workforce. From a traditional “what’s in it for me” perspective, the answer is “not much.”
Indeed, many missionaries have to learn a new language, mostly on their own. You don’t get to date (even sailors get shore leave), you call your family twice a year, and you don’t engage in many other common activities for a teenager (like movies, television, or popular music). You spend most of your time being rejected by people, but soldiering on in the hopes that there is someone for whom you can make a difference.
Missions are often full of drudgery. You have to go to bed by a prescribed time and wake up early. You spend hours in scripture study and prayer. You walk until there are holes in your shoes, and then you walk some more. You are mocked and insulted. You sometimes find yourselves in dangerous circumstances, and, unfortunately, sometimes you never go home.
And sometimes you make a difference. There are days you rescue a soul, lift up a downtrodden spirit, or help someone in need. There are days that you help to instill or restore faith, reveal a path to someone who is lost, or spend some time raking leaves for a shut in. Every success says nothing about you. There are no medals, commendations, or accolades. If you do well, you are honorably released at the end of your service. And you move on with your life.
Missions are not in lieu of military service nor are they an escape from civic obligations. I served with missionaries who were in the armed forces before they served the Church, and I served with others who enlisted afterwards. That many people choose to do both demonstrates their outstanding character and their commitment to God and country.
I never enlisted in the armed forces. I don’t hide behind my religion to excuse that. I never wanted to serve in the military, and so I didn’t. As service isn’t compulsory, I chose to do other things. But I honor those who serve our nation and fight for our freedom because I am confident that such service requires sacrifices beyond my imagination. I don’t belittle them because their commitment was different from mine.
And I don’t expect to be belittled for my two years, either. I wasn’t a great missionary. I was barely an adequate one. But I served in order to fulfill a covenant that I believed I had made with my God—and to follow the example of my brother, who (by the way) honorably served in the U.S. Army following his mission. I did it because I felt that was what integrity required of me. I’m proud of that decision. I’m proud of all who have made that decision.
Not everyone gets it. Not everyone agrees with it. But I didn’t serve to be respected or agreed with. I did it because serving others, even in as poor a fashion as I sometimes did it, is the right thing to do. And I give the benefit of the doubt to all that have served that they acted for the same reasons.
Mr. Bannon would be better advised to pause before insulting those who have made a covenant that he clearly does not understand.