The following is a list of five public figures who have greatly impressed me with their particular brand of courage and accomplishment.
1. Pope John XXIII
When John XXIII was elected Pope of the Catholic Church, he was old and considered a transitional leader. Instead, in 1963, shortly after he took office, he called the historic Second Vatican Council in Rome. In the short time he had left, Pope John became committed to modernizing the Catholic Church, and creating a spirit of mutual understanding between the different religions (ecumenicism).
As a missionary for the Mormon Church in Argentina, I was the first group of missionaries who went into Catholic strongholds as those meetings in Rome were taking place. As a result of Pope John’s work, missionaries like myself became extremely busy teaching. Catholics became more open and predisposed to listening to different religious messages. Little did I realize that I was participating in a religious transformation the likes of which had not been witnessed for centuries.
Ironically, years later I became an advocate of the ecumenical approach espoused by Pope John. Like Pope John, many of us started stepping out of our context, and realized the importance of building bridges of understanding between members of different religions. The world is a healthier place because of this.
2. Martin Luther King
Dr. King was a Protestant clergyman who became the foremost force for the use of non-violence in the fight for the fair treatment of minorities and the passage of laws that upheld individual civil liberties.
I first became aware of the problems facing African Americans as I was exposed to Dr. King on television. My feelings were sympathetic toward Dr. King, but the culture I grew up in was not. This started a decades long struggle for me to escape and overcome my personal ambiguity regarding race and racism.
I have become acutely progressive when it comes to the full extension of civil liberties to minorities. This includes people of color, as well as gay, lesbian, transgender, and religious minorities. As Dr. King has said, an offense against one of these is an offense against all of us.
3. David O. McKay
McKay was President of the Mormon Church during the 1950’s and 1960’s. His ministry was materially different than what had gone on before him. He sought to establish a different relationship between the member and the Church. He turned the triangle upside down. Instead of what the member could do for the Church, he asked what the Church could do to meet the needs of the individual member.
I was a beneficiary of this approach. I came to believe that the Church wanted me to progress as an individual, and to be successful in this life. This period of time has become known as the golden age of the Church. Membership sky rocketed. Young people were drawn to the Church because of its wholesome and positive message.
McKay may have passed on, but his approach still lives on in the lives of thousands of young people who were positively touched by it, and now occupy positions of leadership and trust in and out of the Mormon Church.
4. Earl Warren
Warren was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after serving three terms as California’s governor.
As governor he created California’s system of higher education and the state’s freeway system. If that were not enough, it was as Chief Justice that he changed the nature of the legal system.
Instead of concentrating on property rights, Warren shifted emphasis and dealt with individual civil liberties. The Court’s signature case was “Brown versus Board of Education“, where the Warren Court found that separate was not equal when it came to school segregation. This was noteworthy enough, but even more so by the fact that he was a Republican politician appointed to the bench by a conservative Republican President. The country would change for good with these decisions. I would soon learn what equal meant. Under the United States Constitution, equal means equal.
Warren was branded an activist judge and was criticized for over reaching the authority granted him. With Warren there was no doubt that power in America resided not only in the executive and legislative branches of government, but in the judicial branch as well. As it pertained to individual rights and protections, the Warren Court would become aggressive in addressing and upholding a person’s civil liberties.
At the time I didn’t pay much attention to the Warren Court, but calls for Warren’s removal worried me, and evoked a negative response in me that has stayed with me to this day. Radical political movements such as removing someone from office just because he or she diverts from the norm have never interested me.
5. Hillary Clinton
In my opinion no female has been a better model for how women will function in the new world.
I can think of no person who has had a fuller life than Hillary Clinton. Every role she has taken on has been played well. I can think of no person who has been more consistently vilified than Hillary Clinton, and then continued on successfully in the face of it.
The fact that the majority of the criticism of her came from the conservative communities I was a part of only proved to me how toxic conservative positions had become.
It was during her run for the presidency of the United States that I decided to support her. I did it for one specific reason. She is a woman; a woman who has weathered a marriage with a brilliant but rogue husband, a woman who has been extremely successful at child rearing, and a woman who has successfully run twice for The United States Senate.
Although she did not win the nomination of her party, she has continued on to be one of the more successful secretaries of state in history. Our challenges are so daunting in our new global world, that it will take women and men of depth and maturity to make it function for the benefit of all. Hillary Clinton is becoming one of those key players.
To my surprise, of the five people I picked, three (John XXIII, King, McKay) were religious leaders, however only one (McKay) was from my own religion. It’s evident that the ecumenical approach started with Pope John has had an impact on me. In fact, theological competition between religions over who is right and who is wrong holds no interest for me personally. This is ironic given my service in the Mormon Church. Both as a missionary and a mission president, you would probably be hard pressed to find anyone of equal experience who has been responsible for bringing more new members into the Church than I have. To some this may seem contradictory, but at this point in history, religion in general is full of irony and contradiction.
Again, to my surprise, two (Warren, Clinton) of the five on the list are politicians and trained lawyers. Down deep, I’m a frustrated lawyer. I love the discipline law brings to one’s thinking. Through clear thinking, good results emerge, especially when employed in the political arena. And, I am particularly pleased that a woman such as Clinton has accomplished so much both as a trained lawyer and a superb politician.
Last, it’s clear that the “civil rights movement” has had a big impact on me. Personally, I believe that America’s great tragedy was its two hundred year practice of slavery. Nothing has taken a greater toll on America’s human treasure than this sin. Thank goodness there have been those individual leaders who have faced it down, two of whom (King, Warren) have lived during my life time.
As I chose these five names and explored the reasons why, it’s evident that three issues emerged: religion, African Americans, and women.
For me religions need to be less combative with one another, and need to be more supportive of the personal goals and ambitions of their young people.
Equality is important to me. Until African Americans and women are fully integrated as equal partners in the American Dream, there is no dream. I’m happy to report I see equality starting to emerge.
I believe these five individuals have contributed to making these ideals come true. Indeed, they have acted courageously and successfully so.