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Lessons learned from law and faith and this presidential election

By Rodney K. Smith

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3 2012 12:26 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Like President Barack Obama, I am a lawyer. But, he has not approved this message. Like Gov. Mitt Romney, I am a Latter-day Saint (a Mormon) and a lawyer. But, he has not approved this message.

I am grateful to be a lawyer and a Latter-day Saint, in part because I have learned invaluable life lessons in both capacities. These life lessons have been about seeking after the facts and the truth in order to make wise decisions.

While serving as dean of a state law school, I learned that one of our faculty members was teaching our students to "massage the facts." This was disturbing. Great lawyers deal with facts; they do not massage them.

As a Latter-day Saint, while serving as a bishop of a small congregation, I had an interaction with an anti-Mormon. He shared a document with me, "50 points that prove Mormonism to be False." The document disparaged our history and leaders on a very personal level.

I asked him to pick out any three points, and I agreed to respond with the facts. He picked out three. I responded. After having established the inaccuracy of those points, I said, "I assume you will cease using these falsehoods and the other points in your materials."

His response was unforgettable: "When there is cyanide in the birthday cake, the ends justify the means." He could have emphasized theological differences, as many wonderful people of faith do. But, he chose the low road.

This presidential election has been filled with "massaging of facts," on both sides. Worse yet, there have been occasions when character assassinations, with little grounding in fact, have been supported on the ground that the ends of being elected justifies the means.

Obama recently acknowledged that his campaign ads have sometimes been "overbroad," that "there are mistakes that are made" and there are "areas where there's no doubt that somebody could dispute how we are presenting things." Some of Romney's ads have similarly failed the Pinocchio test for the truth.

In another lesson learned in the law, Justice Stewart, who served for over two decades on the United States Supreme Court, said that the best argument he heard before the Court was made by an advocate who began by articulating the other side with great effectiveness, then turned to his side of the argument, which he argued with equal vigor, and concluded that after having given the conflicting arguments months of thought, he believed that his side was right and gave the reasons why he reached that conclusion.

Similarly, as Latter-day Saints, we are taught that in order to make wise decisions we "must study [the facts] out in [our] mind." Then we ask if the decision we are making based on those facts "is right." If it is a wise choice we "shall feel that it is right." That feeling will be accompanied by a sense of peace.

President Obama stated that we need to have a "vigorous debate about a vision for our country, and there's a lot at stake in this election." Romney also emphasized the importance of the "choice" to be made in this election. He added, "To make that choice, you need to know more about me and about where I will lead our country."

Given the importance of this election, these lessons learned in law and my faith are paramount — we must earnestly seek after facts and then we must weigh those facts in our minds thoughtfully or, for some, prayerfully. This is the basis for making wise choices.

Unfortunately, given the barrage of less than credible ads and a media too often driven by a desire to entertain by titillation, which includes more about personal attacks than positions, finding the facts is not easy.

In the final weeks of this campaign, I offer three suggestions for assessing the facts. First, ignore every attack advertisement. Second, ignore how the candidates massage the other candidate's positions. Ignore the negative and listen closely, particularly in the debates, for how each candidate defines his vision or positions on issues.

Third, follow the practice of setting an evening aside each week for family matters. As part of this practice, each Monday evening before the election, we will respectfully lay out each candidate's position on issues — jobs, the economy and deficit, foreign affairs, and social issues — and thoughtfully consider them.

If we follow these three steps, with a sincere and searching heart, seeking after the truth, we feel the peace and can cast a wise vote.

Rodney K. Smith is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego

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