This week I want to talk about Mormons and the ACLU. University of Utah President Michael Young, a descendant of Brigham Young, spoke at rival Brigham Young University about the importance of religious freedom and suggested that all Latter-day Saints should be members of the American Civil Liberties Union. For the left-leaning editors at The Salt Lake Tribune that pronouncement was front-page news. At the Deseret News, it was at the very end of a broader story.
It’s incredible news that anyone of President Young’s stature would believe, let alone say publicly, that Mormons should join the ACLU. If we lined up 100 legal issues that the ACLU has worked on I could assure you that very few would support any official position taken by the LDS Church.
I should say that I consider several of the staff of the ACLU of Utah to be my friends. There are a few civil-libertarian-type issues that we agree upon and on which we’ve collaborated. Personally, the staff I know are pleasant and decent people. That said, the ACLU and Sutherland Institute, more often than not, disagree on most things.
Civil libertarianism and libertarianism are kissing cousins and, when they’re more than that, some unfortunate intellectual inbreeding occurs. As a conservative, I’m naturally not fond of either philosophy. Libertarianism represents selfish individualism, almost worshipfully. Civil libertarianism advocates the use of government to enforce selfish individualism. Their collusion only adds insult to injury.
As I reflect on Michael Young’s endorsement of the ACLU for Mormons I can only shake my head in disbelief – not that he had the thought, but that a LDS university president can’t draw the clear distinctions which separate the LDS Church, or any institution of faith, and the ACLU.
The ACLU and the LDS Church were at odds on Proposition 8 in California and, most notably, they were mortal enemies on the Main Street case a few years ago. But even more so, it’s a stretch – and I mean this respectfully – it’s a stretch to say that the ACLU is a champion of religious freedom. Yes, it’s true the ACLU takes cases that defend religious freedom, but it is equally true that the ACLU opposes religious expression in the public square – and that is the break-point for me and many other religious-minded political thinkers.
The ACLU argues for an imaginary separation of church and state – the kind of separation that prohibits any and all religious expression in the public square. Of course, reasonable people understand that a state religion, as we often see in Europe and elsewhere across the globe, is un-American. But every reasonable person also understands the value of religious expression in politics – if for no other reason than liberty requires its adherents to recognize a power higher than man. And so city council meetings, the United States Congress, and the United States Supreme Court begin their work with public prayer. The ACLU has opposed this basic form of religious expression.
I won’t get into the history of the ACLU. It is what it is. And, frankly, everyone is allowed to change and remake themselves. But today, I think it’s important to say that not everyone agrees with Michael Young on this point that Mormons should flock to the ACLU. That’s like asking Michael Young to don the blue at a U. of U./BYU home game. I don’t think the Ute fans would appreciate it much. Likewise, Latter-day Saints should take no small amount of umbrage at the idea that they should embrace the soul of a legal and political adversary.
Again, I enjoy my personal and professional relationships with the ACLU of Utah. But we both know the limitations of our relationship. If you doubt that, you might want to ask the board of the ACLU of Utah what they think of Sutherland Institute.