Guest post: Mormonism in the public square

hancockBy Ralph Hancock

Part 1 of 3

There are two subjects to be avoided, it is often said, in conversation among casual friends and, especially perhaps, among relatives: religion and politics. Among people of the same faith, the first restriction can presumably be relaxed. But even (or especially) in the company of other LDS, with whom we share the deepest beliefs about things that matter eternally, we find ourselves avoiding political topics.

This reluctance to tread upon potentially touchy subjects is understandable, and it even makes a certain sense theologically: “My kingdom is not of this world,” the Savior said. Whereas pagan religions had always closely identified religious observances and beliefs with duties to a particular political community, Christ’s good news was proclaimed to all sons and daughters of a Heavenly Father, without respect to nations or kingdoms. Why complicate eternal truths and spiritual bonds with divisive questions surrounding how we run a country?

We express this same interest in keeping religion and politics separate when we affirm that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not an American church, nor of course a Utah church, but an international church that proclaims the Restored Gospel universally. None of us would want to burden a promise of eternal life with needless controversy surrounding mortal interests and partisan opinions. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this very clearly: “Religion,” he wrote, “cannot share the material force of those who govern without being burdened with a part of the hatreds to which they give rise.” The cost of mixing politics with religion can easily exceed the benefits.

In light of the Church’s divine mission, its official and consistent position of political neutrality therefore makes perfect sense: “The Church does not: Endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates or platforms, etc.”

Principles Essential to Both Religion and Politics

And yet it is clear, on just a little reflection, that this wholesome distinction between religion and politics can never be an absolute separation, for the simple reason that certain common principles are essential to both. Tocqueville saw this with great clarity as well: religion and politics spring ultimately from the same source.

“There is hardly any human action, however private it may be, which does not result from some very general conception men have of God, of His relations with the human race, of the nature of their soul, and of their duties to their fellows. Nothing can prevent such ideas from being the common spring from which all else originates.”

Elder Robert Wood, Emeritus 70 and political science scholar, developed the same point before an audience of BYU students just a few years ago:

“Religion and politics are now and always have been inextricably linked. It could not be otherwise. Politics is not only concerned with how do you get and maintain power and how do you order the political community and how do you distribute the benefits of the community, but as Plato and Aristotle pointed out a very long time ago, politics must necessarily raise the question of justice–which is to say, what is proper for man? What are the ends or the objectives of man and therefore what are the objectives of the political community? Now once you begin to think about that, you’ve just entered the area of religion. …”

Much as we might wish to keep religion and politics completely separate, there is a simple reason they cannot be: both are bound up with fundamental moral principles and feelings. Morality is central to religion and, despite appearances and claims to the contrary, it is also central to politics. Superficially, politics seems to deal with sometimes unseemly horse-trading and the flattering of petty egos; but at a deeper level, and in the long run, it concerns our basic priorities as a community. Religion and politics overlap in the domain we call morality, where we locate and sometimes debate the rules and principles necessary to making us worthy to call ourselves human beings.

Neutrality Principle Not Absolute

Since politics necessarily involves morality, at least when it touches on fundamental questions, it follows that the Church’s neutrality policy cannot be absolute. Thus we read:

The Church Does:

Encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections. ….

Reserve the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.

Of course the Church as an institution wisely picks and chooses the political issues in which it becomes publicly involved; it must carefully weigh the costs and benefits. We members must also choose wisely as well as we enter into political debates and contests, but we are not under the same constraint as the Church is institutionally. It is up to us to consider carefully how best to play our “role as responsible citizens,” and surely our fundamental moral and religious beliefs must be a very important part of such deliberation.

In the United States and other liberal democracies today, some citizens find it alarming that such fundamental religious and moral beliefs come into play in politics. This is understandable up to a point, since part of the genius of liberalism, going back to its foundations in philosophers such as John Locke and political actors such as the American Founders, has been to insulate politics from potentially inflammatory religious debates in large part by emphasizing our common interest in material security and prosperity. But this classical liberal strategy of “secularizing” politics has always presupposed a certain degree of moral and even religious consensus. J

John Adams was far from alone when he averred famously that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Tocqueville concisely revealed the logic behind John Adam’s statement when he argued that “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot …. How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God.” And Elder Christofferson made much the same point in General Conference (October 2009) when he argued against moral relativism and affirmed that political freedom depends upon shared moral convictions:

Failing to Foster Moral Discipline

The societies in which many of us live have for more than a generation failed to foster moral discipline. They have taught that truth is relative and that everyone decides for himself or herself what is right. Concepts such as sin and wrong have been condemned as “value judgments.” As the Lord describes it, “Every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god” (D&C 1:16).

As a consequence, self-discipline has eroded and societies are left to try to maintain order and civility by compulsion. The lack of internal control by individuals breeds external control by governments.

Now, many people today, both inside and outside the Church, including morally and religiously conservative people, think that the logic connecting religion, morality and politics no longer applies. How often have you heard the argument I paraphrase here?

“In traditional societies, certainly law and government were grounded in morality and religion. That’s because everyone shared pretty much the same beliefs. Even the American Founders took for granted a Christian society, in fact a very dominantly Protestant society. (And we know how Mormons fared in relation to that dominant Protestantism!) But now society has fundamentally changed. It is no longer based on a moral consensus, but on the acceptance of diversity. ‘Pluralism’ has replaced moral-religious homogeneity as the basic character of modern societies like ours. So, even though we may not approve, personally, of many lifestyle choices among our fellow citizens, it is not only politically necessary but in fact a moral duty to respect the diversity of lifestyles that flourish in a pluralistic society. We may feel some nostalgia for a society informed by traditional morality, but at least we are free to practice our religion however we choose.”

This statement captures a widespread attitude and makes an argument that we should carefully examine. There can be no doubt that statesmen and citizens face very different circumstances than those faced by, say, the American Founders or a prince in medieval Europe – or, for that matter, by King Mosiah. As concerns America, it is indeed pertinent to notice that Protestantism will never again be our unofficial established religion, and in many ways that’s a good thing. Our religious and ethnic diversity certainly far exceeds anything the Founders had to address, and maybe anything they might have imagined. But it is a long way from such a descriptive observation to the assertion that government and law no longer require any common moral framework.

The Moral-Political Challenge We Face

The story of our transformation into a “diverse” and “pluralistic” society in which moral questions can not be excluded from the public sphere and assigned definitively to the realm of the “private” or merely “personal” beliefs or tastes is in fact a fairy tale, or perhaps rather a lullaby that prevents us from facing vital questions concerning the basic character of the communities in which we live.

“Pluralism” is taken to be the solution to our problems, when in fact it is merely a statement of the moral-political challenge we face. While we congratulate ourselves on just how diverse and pluralistic we have become, how sophisticated in comparison with our ancestors who thought law had a moral basis, legislators will go on legislating, executives will execute (or not, it seems, according to their will), while bureaucrats will administer and regulate, and judges, infamously, will decide matters of the highest importance, bound even less than the bureaucrats by any constitutional or other general public law.

Some interests, opinions, and ways of life will be favored by these regulations and decisions, and others will be heavily penalized, if not outright prohibited. And the judges and bureaucrats passing out rewards and punishments will no doubt appreciate the celebrations of “pluralism” that distract citizens from what is really at stake and have no effect at all on the singular coercive authority of their decisions.

Let’s consider an example or two. The limits of “pluralism” are perhaps nowhere clearer than in the question of abortion. Certain it is that a plurality of opinions exists surrounding the rightness or the criminality of killing an unborn child, and concerning how the downside (shall we say?) of such killing ought to be balanced against what many consider a woman’s right to control “her own body,” or not to be unduly inconvenienced in her personal and professional life, etc. But this “pluralism” of opinion matters little to the child who is sacrificed to the “right to choose.” The law must decide the matter one way or another, and it has not decided in favor of the child.

Another elephant in our “pluralistic” room is the issue of homosexual “marriage.” Some people favor traditional or natural marriage, as it has always been defined (with some variations, of course), namely, as an institution that governs heterosexual unions, which differ from all others in their capacity (in principle, at least) to bring new human beings into the world. And some people favor an unprecedented redefinition of marriage to include at least, to start with, homosexual couples. From a “pluralist” point of view, the solution seems clear: let anyone who wants to marry, and then no one is harmed. How does it harm your “traditional” marriage that two gay fellas down the street can also get married?

I find this argument breathtaking in its glibness and shallowness. It is in fact equivalent to asking, “How is anyone harmed if the institution of marriage as we know it, as it has always been known, no longer exists?” To answer this question would require explaining just what marriage is good for: how it channels sexual desires and human affections more generally into paths best suited to the happiness of all concerned, and, especially to the effective raising up of another generation. Rather than undertake such an explanation here, I will refer readers to the excellent writing of such authors as Jennifer Roback Morse and Maggie Gallagher, and return to our central question, the question of the adequacy of the term “pluralism” in understanding our political community.

Laws, Policies and Regulations Are Not Neutral

My point is, the reader may or may not agree with me that abortion is wrong and that natural, heterosexual marriage is good. But what ought to be clear is that our laws, policies, and regulations will not be neutral on these questions.  A society in which a woman’s “reproductive choice” is sacrosanct is one in which an unborn child’s life is not; and a society in which the definition of marriage has been stretched to include homosexual unions is a society in which the institution of natural marriage no longer exists, or at least has been decisively weakened and brought down to the level of just one “lifestyle choice” among others, and in such a context it will certainly not be considered the most advanced, exciting or praiseworthy expression of human freedom and creativity.

In particular, parents who want to teach their children that sex is for marriage and babies will be at a decided disadvantage in a society that has decided, publicly and through law and regulation, that sex is a matter of pure personal self-expression.  You may still dare teach your children a politically incorrect understanding of marriage and sexual morality in the privacy of your own home. But you will do so at your own and your family’s risk, because your public schools will increasingly follow the power and the money and will not tolerate indefinitely any expressions of the old “bigoted” view that your offspring may let slip in the classroom or on the playground.

This article appeared in Meridian Magazine (www.ldsmag.com).

Dr. Ralph Hancock is president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs and a Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of such works as Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics and The Responsibility of Reason, as well as numerous others arguing for philosophy’s openness to religious and moral insight. Moreover, Dr. Hancock has organized and directed more than a dozen scholarly conferences and colloquia concerning philosophical and religious dimensions of public issues. He holds degrees from BYU and from Harvard University.

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  • Adison

    It is hard to remove religion from politics not because it is a necessary part of government but because it is a major part of humanity. Morality is not found only in religion. Religion is a society but it is not The Society. Religion uses fear to gain power and control just as do many governments. Governments only have however tangible fears while religion is fear of the intangible. To understand a pluralistic view you need to be able to understand other ways of thinking. This can be hard for someone who is religious because in their mind, just as in the mind of every other person on the planet, they are correct. What makes it even harder for the religious devout is that they feel they are are correct no matter what someone else may show them or explain to them. No longer are long held beliefs good enough for a societal morality. The reality is that there are too many long held beliefs and many that contradict each other from different religions. These beliefs don’t cause problems unless they affect other people’s lives poorly. There is little danger in allowing religious citizens to participate in politics however there is for the devout. They cannot and will not accept the possibility of being wrong and the necessity of protecting everyone’s, beliefs, rights and life choices. This is why it is necessary to, not control belief, but the amount of effect any one belief can have on society without some burden of proof. An example of this is the requirement to teach or at the very least suggest the possibility of creationism in schools. Though it may be offensive to some the notion that it would be excluded from a lesson plan, there is no scientific support for the theory that the earth is only 7000 years old. Theories are not the basis of teaching when overwhelming consensus of science and evidence supports another view. Though science and religion seem to be at odds sometimes for the most part science is something that has a logical path that anyone willing to understand can sympathize with. All groups, religion and people ask for protection and a pluralistic approach provides that protection. Lastly for a Mormon to claim that religion and traditional conservative thinking is the basis for decisions regarding someone’s ability to legally recognize a relationship as a marriage is hypocritical and dangerous. That would mean that the United States government, when it forced their religion to end the practice of polygamy, did the right thing. However if the government did the right thing then was polygamy wrong? If polygamy is, and was, wrong was Joseph Smith doing wrong and essentially committing adultery, one of the 10 commandments. That is very shaky ground. The defense of Mormon action in the politics of marriage is a shaky defense, at most.

    • Michael Gordon

      I would like to respond but you are all over the map in your rant.

      “Lastly for a Mormon to claim that religion and traditional conservative thinking is the basis for decisions regarding someone’s ability to legally recognize a relationship as a marriage is hypocritical and dangerous.”

      What does that MEAN? What is the danger? Where is the hypocrisy? For me it is very simple — it is not what the word MEANS. When words cease to have meaning they can no longer be reliably used for anything. “Gay” used to mean happy and carefree, then it meant homosexual, now in the rising generation it means silly and stupid. I don’t use the word for anything because of this problem. When I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean. It appears you wish to use those same words for other purposes. Chaos ensues.

      “These beliefs don’t cause problems unless they affect other people’s lives poorly.”

      Like the baker in Colorado facing prison time for refusing to bake a wedding cake to a wedding he found offensive to his religion. You seem to think, as most advocates on this topic seem to think, that your privileges ought to force all other persons to your service.

      “there is no scientific support for the theory that the earth is only 7000 years old.”

      Correct, but it is also a “red herring” — do you know anyone arguing this? What does it matter to YOU either way? Strictly speaking the Earth could have been created YESTERDAY (or 2 minutes ago, or maybe its “virtual” and doesn’t exist, and neither do you).

      So, cough it up — what is the real reason for your rant?

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