"Choose the Right" has become one of the most well-known and oft-repeated phrases in Mormondom, beginning at the heart of things in Salt Lake City and spreading through all the compass points of the world.
The words and concept first became familiar and loved through the lyrics of Joseph L. Townsend in his hymn by that name: "Choose the right when a choice is placed before you, in the right the Holy Spirit guides … choose the right, choose the right, let wisdom mark the way before; in its light choose the right, and God will bless you evermore."
Townsend was born in Pennsylvania in 1849, came to Salt Lake City for his health in 1872 and joined the church, later serving as a missionary in the Southern States Mission. For 15 years he had a drugstore in Payson, then taught at BY Academy and Salt Lake City High. A mere 10 of his hymns yet remain in the current hymnal, but all are recognizable favorites, such as "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words," "The Iron Rod" and "Hope of Israel."
Brother Townsend lived to be just shy of 93, dying in 1942, nearly 30 years before the changes that would bring new meaning and new scope to his words.
Helen Alldredge, a Primary general board member in the 1960s, designed a shield logo incorporating the letters CTR for "Choose the Right." In 1970, a committee chaired by Naomi W. Randall recommended inclusion of the shield and logo into official church material, along with a ring bearing the same symbol, which children preparing for baptism could wear to remind themselves to follow the example of the Savior and "Choose the Right."
Sister Randall was also author of six other words we all know and love: "I Am a Child of God," which powerful little song (now translated into more than 90 languages) embodies the spirit of childhood, family and the enduring eternal love between children and God.
The first rings given to children by their teachers, as part of the Primary instruction, were inexpensive silver which was adjustable, and bore the CTR logo and escutcheon in green.
I remember when my young grandson received the coveted ring, and wore it with awed enthusiasm all day long, only to report to his mother after a tumultuous day, with tears of wounded wonder and frustration in his eyes, "It doesn't work!"
Does it work — the multi-faceted industry of CTR, which now includes necklaces, bracelets, pins, ties and tie tacs, T-shirts, bookmarks, journals and stationery? The CTR ring itself is currently available in more than 40 languages, in a range from mini to oversized, in material from gold to bronze, and in style and design that stupefy the senses. There are, to name a few: flower, bow, constellation, dolphin, cursive, glow-in-the-dark, Lehi's dream, Noah's ark, shooting star and Utah's sego lily CTRs.
There are CTR sports rings: soccer, football, baseball, basketball, dance — and snowboarding! I am all for creativity and variety, but doesn't this cloud the issue a little?
Some would argue, "No, it helps young people remember when engaged in these activities to choose the right."
I ask: "Is it necessary, beyond a simple, straightforward CTR reminder?" In addition to the investment on the part of parents with several children of multiple tastes and interests, has it become a status symbol to wear such rings? What do we teach our children — that they can't choose the right unless they have the "right" CTR ring? Unless they fit in with their crowd? Unless they have several, because they are all so ingenious and appealing? Unless they have something clever and unique to "show" that draws them away from the basic premise altogether?
It would be wonderful if integrity were the widespread norm, but even in Zion — perhaps especially in Zion — we are struggling to perfect ourselves. Yet, let us be careful lest the message we send harms or even negates the one which the ring we are wearing bears.
For example: In Provo, Utah, several years ago, I was stunned as I watched as a young man grabbed a 14k gold CTR ring from a jeweler's case and sprinted right past me in his frantic effort to escape; stealing a "Choose the Right" ring has to be some sort of an epitome of irony and contradiction! At the movie theater where my daughter worked she would often — not occasionally — see returned missionaries prominently sporting their CTR rings, buy tickets to very definitely R-rated films, talking back and forth to each other in language that made her ears burn.
On the other hand, I like to see a bank teller, a grocery store clerk, a pharmacist or even a fellow passenger on a plane wearing a CTR ring and smiling kindly at me. I want to trust them — I do trust them, and it is the responsibility of each of us to make and keep that trust justified. What better way to strengthen the cords of our society, and magnify the gospel we preach?
"Choose the right," the hymn urges us, "there is peace in righteous doing; choose the right, there's safety for the soul."
While we enjoy the commercial phenomenon, let us "safeguard the standard," so that "Choose the Right" represents "what we are" — among ourselves, and in the message of our people and our beliefs which we send to the world.