Some (Long) Thoughts on Mormon Political Theology

This past weekend I flew down to New Orleans to participate in a panel at the Southern Political Science Association on “The Theory and Practice of Mormon Politics.” The panel was originally proposed and organized by our own Nate Oman and frequent T&S commenter Jeremiah John, a graduate student at Notre Dame; unfortunately, Nate wasn’t able to join us, so in the end the panel consisted of papers from me, Jeremy, and Roger Barrus from Hampden-Sydney College, with comments from former T&S guest-blogger Damon Linker. Ralph Hancock, a BYU professor of political science, chaired the panel. What follows is some lengthy notes on the event, obviously somewhat skewed by my own perspective and preferences.

I think to the frustration of a couple of listeners and our chair, there wasn’t anything about “practice” in any of the papers which were presented, at least not directly; really, it was all theory. Two of the papers–Jeremy’s and Roger’s–dealt rather directly (though in very different ways!) with the issue of Mormon political theology, or in simpler terms, Mormon political teaching; my paper, by contrast, speculated theoretically on the possibility and nature of a “Mormon civil religion.” Depending on your point of view, however, it was Roger’s and my papers which shared the most ground: both of us addressed the Book of Mormon specifically as part of our argument, whereas Jeremy considered the problems of political theology generally, and applied them to some of the philosophical implications of Mormon doctrine, scripture, history, and so forth. One could also lump Jeremy and I together, with Roger as the outlier, as he was the only one of us who dared to actually present specific political observations about appropriate forms of government, the nature of citizenship, etc., drawn out of his particular account of Mormonism. So there were some interesting and diverse overlaps between the papers, only a couple of which were picked up on during the panel itself.

Before I get into the different papers, a couple of notes on terminology. Damon, in his remarks, contrasted “political theology” with “political philosophy,” which he defined as speculation and argument about political things (meaning, those things which are appropriate to the lives which political creatures like ourselves lead: questions of justice, virtue, liberty, order, authority, etc.) without restriction; philosophy cannot involve a “prejudging of where you’re going to end up.” “Political theology,” on the other hand, does: it assumes that the answers, or at least some of them, have already been given through divine revelation, and the job of the philosopher is to relate political things to those answers, and work out a “theology” of politics by so doing. One particularly interesting–and, I think, probably correct–observation which Damon made along these lines is that political theology is perhaps uniquely Christian: Judaism and Islam, for example, both hold that the revelations of God (and the authoritative commentary on them) take the form fairly specific laws and procedures necessary to the governance of righteous human communities, which doesn’t leave any room for, or need for, politico-theological speculation. So while there can be–and certainly have been–Jewish and Muslim political philosophers, and some of them have also philosophized about their religion, what they have done isn’t truly political theology; for such to obtain, you need a revelation or religious baseline which is vague, distant, or disembodied enough that it’s a somewhat open question how or if the law, or government, or civic virtues, can close the gap between human communities and God.

If we’d had more time to talk, I would have picked up on Damon’s brief discussion of political theology, and thrown out a couple of possible implications which might have been of particular relevance to my paper. For example, would this mean that Mormon political theology was an impossibility in the State of Deseret? This is something that Nate’s work–which focused on the “Mormon theocracy” of the late 19th century–would have contributed a lot to; I simply don’t know how exactly and authoritatively Deseret was run through theologically-grounded ecclesiastical channels. My impression is that Brigham Young, et al, never had revelations as specific in terms of political ordering as may be found, for example, in the Talmud, but perhaps I’m wrong. Moreover, depending on how one answered this question, it might have a lot of impact on understanding the sort civil religion which Mormonism can provide–that is, is the possibility of enlisting Mormonism as part of the civil fabric of a society either enabled or hampered by its more programmatic and pragmatic understanding of revelation? Or was that sense of revelation itself an aberration, one that has been entirely superceded in the decades since the Manifesto? Anyway, a little more on that below.

Jeremy’s paper, “The Possibility and Site of Mormon Political Theology,” was possibly the most ambitious of the three. His aim was to explore the complications of political theology in a Mormon context, and he did so at great length. Among other highlights of his paper were his engagement with the writings of BYU professor Louis Midgley over the idea of natural law, natural reasoning, and its compatibility with Mormon doctrine. (Midgley has long argued against the very notion that Mormon scripture and relevation, grounded as it is in the narrative of specific covenants made by specific persons as part of a sacred history, makes room for a philosophy of natural law, whereby our reflection on the world around us could potentially reveal divine principles which tell the “real” story of our social existence; as far as he is concerned, theology itself, particularly any that attempts to reason out a “bridge” of sorts between natural creation and the commandments we have received, is bound to fail.) Jeremy fairly harshly criticized Midgley for making use of caricatures of Thomas Aquinas and other Catholic natural law philosophers in his writings; not that Jeremy endorsed the Catholic position on political theology, but he did think that Mormonism granted enough space to our reasoning as created being for two possible forms of political theology to emerge. One is the “polemical,” concerned with distinguishing our own beliefs from others and by so doing making a case for the necessary distinction of Mormon communities. The other is the “prophetic-critical,” which I understood to be (though I’m not certain of my comprehension of Jeremy’s point) a more “inside” conversation, dealing with the ways in which we may critically use the revelations and scriptures to shape and structure our own political existence. In both cases, Jeremey spent a great deal of time and energy–maybe too much–establishing the tentativeness of his endeavor; obviously, he thinks political theology is an ambiguous enterprise at best.

Roger’s paper, “The Political Theology of the Book of Mormon,” suffered from no such ambiguity. His intention is elaborate a very specific set of moral and political teachings to be found in the Book of Mormon, and he employs a basically Straussian esoteric reading of certain key events and statements in the text to do so. I thought it was a wonderfully provocative and insightful paper; I hope it’ll be published someday, because even if you don’t agree with his approach, it’s definitely something that hasn’t been seen before. One of the best parts of his paper was his analysis of the three “anti-Christs”–Sherem, Nehor, and Korihor–and the types he saw them as embodying, and the political and moral pathologies which identifying those types allow us to see. Sherem was the traditionalist, convinced of the sufficiency of traditional knowledge and the law; Roger very intriguing connects Sherem’s legacy with King Noah, whom most of us probably read as just a thug, but whom Roger presents as a tyrant convinced that an adherence to ritual and tradition excuses any amount of exploitation and debauchery. Nehor was a theist, preaching the existence of a nonjudgmental God who will make salvation universal; Roger skillfully traced Nehor’s influence down through decades of dissident Nephites, whose rejection of a God who makes distinctions or requires repentence worked to justify in their own minds a violent resistence to the priesthood, and a hatred of any who submitted rather than pursuing their own advantage. Korihor, of course, was the rationalist, about whom Roger discerned a kind of naivete about the evil implications of his own empirical nihilism; in his view, it’s ironic that Korihor met his death at the hands of the Zoramites, since they, more than any other group, embraced Korihor materialist dogma. Another interesting idea in Roger’s paper is found in his treatment Mosiah’s explanation about why kings are the best form government, but judges the “safest”; Roger teased out the suggestion that Mosiah is warning us that “not desiring to do evil” isn’t enough. The Nephites, he concluded, may not have been disposed to do evil, but they were rarely disposed to do good; there was a problem with their “public spirit,” you might say, a problem which the BoM, in Roger’s hands, seems an insightful guide to. And there was a lot more; we could have spent the entire panel just digging into Roger’s treatment of the scriptural text. However, his paper actually received the least discussion, partly because Damon turned aside from it in his comments; as he confessed, as one who doesn’t know the text of the BoM very well at all, he couldn’t really contribute to a discussion about scriptural interpretation.

In fact, Damon’s most significant comments were reserved for my paper. (Here’s a link to it.) Since probably no one has read this far anyway, I’m going to kind of talk to myself about my paper, incorporating thoughts from Damon and others along the way. It’s titled, in it’s present incarnation, “Revelation and the Mormon Canon in America,” and it’s my attempt to work out what I see to as the very original and even strange impact which Mormonism has on the political world. In a nutshell: the Christian religion has never had a truly settled place in the political societies of the West, especially not since the emergence of the modern era, because Christian revelation is simultaneously deeply social (treating all human beings as brothers and sisters equally deserving of love and concern) and radically anti-social (treating this fallen world and all its institutions as, at best, distrations before the liberation which is death and salvation); the idea of orienting oneself in the public world to a historical revelation which is ultimately inward, spiritual, and transcendent, would seem to make one into a very poor citizen indeed. In the post-Constantinian world of European Christendom, this problem was most resolved by granting a certain amount of public authority and responsibility to the church itself; being a good Christian therefore also meant being a good member of the social order (though, of course, there were always heretical movements which challenged this). Come the Protestant Reformation, the rise of the modern state, and democratic revolutions however, and this approach became impossible. The next best option would be what we might call “civil religion”–releasing religion from any specific grounding in the actual story and operation of the state, but making it institutionally important (through public rituals and art, perhaps partial control–whether official or unofficial–of the educational establishment, etc.) to the development of certain civic virtues and thus the preservation of the social contract which legitimated the state. Rousseau was a huge fan of civil religion, but doubted Christianity could ever function as such; Tocqueville, on the other hand, thought Christianity made for an excellent civil religion, and saw America as the best evidence of such.

So what about Mormon civil religion (which, many months ago, Nate and Adam and I argued a certain amount about)? Well, one person’s civil religion is another person’s incipient theocracy, and yet another person’s pathetic religious window-dressing; there’s a lot to be debated in regards to what a Mormon civil religion would look like, how it would be sustained, or whether it’s even plausible. I think this touches on a misunderstanding between Damon and I: he thought I was talking about how Mormonism could or would become America’s civil religion. But I wasn’t–rather, I was talking about how there is something deeply modern, subjective, structural and relational about how most Mormons conceive their faith in public terms. Being a good Mormon does not, at least not in the 20th century (and here is where the–unresolved?–legacy of our polygamous, theocratic past perhaps haunts us), cast one into the world in a public way, the way Catholicism does, for example. I’m not talking about political positions here; of course American Mormons tend to vote a certain way, and that tendency has its roots in our religious culture. But that religious culture does not have an especially public embodiment; it does not demand a particular sort of connection or interaction with a particular place or polity. It is, on the contrary, embodied in a specific artifact: the Book of Mormon. On first glance, this might seem like a replay of the original Christian problem (and perhaps appropriately so, if we’re the restored original church!)–a transcendent interruption of our lives via prophetic actions and revelations, which throws us all out of and against the world. But the thing is–and here I rely very heavily on the brilliant analysis of Terryl Givens–that our particular “interruption” is domesticated, made banal and ordinary and everyday; it is made into a this-worldly text whose primary spiritual significance is not, contra Roger’s claim, it’s theological claims so much as its theological facticity. Think about it: our primary message to the world isn’t the teachings of the Book of Mormon, but rather its existence. Givens calls the sort of relationship with the divine which this message introduces to those who accept the witness of spirit and believe in the BoM, “diaologic revelation.” This sort of revelation can be life-changing, but as I see it, the changes are personal, subjective, reflected in our priorities and choices but not in how we enter publicly into the world, in terms of political rituals, norms, customs, cirricula, etc. To put it another way: through the Book of Mormon, the Mormon religion becomes infinitely transportable–anyone can be a Mormon, anywhere, in just about any public form, so long as they take the discussions and are baptized by one with authority. Similarly, the American dream is for everyone; it’s there on the television, at McDonald’s on the corner, at the Wal-Mart they built just down the highway. I don’t mean to be dismissive here, but rather to think about what it means, politically, to belong to a church which refuses to theologically invest itself in boundaries, which wants its identity to be pliable and inoffensive and able to enter into every heart and community every where in the world.

Of course, there is any easy response to all this: the public identity of Mormonism is filled with boundaries; we experience them everytime we go to church and get the cold shoulder because of some social faux pas. Well sure, that’s part of the point: Mormons are human beings and thus are political creatures, who therefore will attempt to take the spiritual interruption, the revelation, which has shaped their life and ground it in the world; we will form Mormon polities, in a sense, wherever we go. What is Utah but a constantly contested Mormon civitas? The issue, however, is that this “civilizing” habit recieves little or no theological backing; the current church leadership–and more importantly our current conceptualization of the Book of Mormon, the keystone of our own spiritual movement–is rigorously neutral regarding the particularities of the world, in the same way (again, not to be critical, but just to emphasize the point) that Coca-cola neutrally views the entire world as a market. I can understand perfectly the reasoning behind this decision, assuming it is a conscious one (which it probably isn’t): we Mormons don’t want to go the route of Roman Catholicism, where wholly distinct national Catholic identities (Italian, Polish, Irish, Mexican, etc.) formed over the centuries, as local hierarchies allowed themselves to be civilly “placed.” And we certainly don’t want to go the route of Protestantism, where the rejection of civil authority resulted in an over attachment to national, civil bodies. Better to remain free from such acculturation–but of course, you also don’t want to turn antinomian, opposing the world at every step. The Book of Mormon works to keep us seperate, without much civil separation. At least, that’s my thesis.

Nonsense? Probably. For one thing, it’s a mishmash of several distinct theoretical concerns and questions. For another, it assumes that the BoM, even if it does function in our faith lives as I suggest, really is the keystone to how we enter into and act in the world as Mormons. But maybe that’s not the case; maybe our private dialogue with the BoM is secondary the what we here the prophets say at General Conference and on Larry King–and if they say something that’ll set us politically afire, then up in flames we’ll go, burning out our own civic space as necessary. Likely? I wonder. Damon thought it was ridiculous to concentrate so much on the artifactual oddity which is the Book of Mormon, when there was a living prophet in Salt Lake City directing us to oppose same-sex marriage and so forth. Perhaps he’s right. And perhaps one can look at the church’s increasing involvement in local politics in Salt Lake–buying property, fighting in the courts–to see a church which is allowing itself to be rooted, to give substantial structure to an emerging a global Mormon community: becoming a Vatican, if you will. But so long, as seems to case to me, that the majority of Mormon dialogues are private one, figuring out what our civil religion could (or will, or even should!) be is a difficult question indeed.

6 comments for “Some (Long) Thoughts on Mormon Political Theology

  1. After all that you wrote, and I think it is intriguing enough that every word will be read, your summation seems to be the most poignant.
    The comments we see from time to time on this blog reflect private dialogues, but often very dissimilar viewpoints, and often diametrically opposite points of view, while referencing the same scriptures out of the Book of Mormon.
    Thus, indeed, it would be extremely difficult to decide what our civil religion would,could, or should be.
    Excellent thread.

  2. Perhaps he’s right. And perhaps one can look at the church’s increasing involvement in local politics in Salt Lake–buying property, fighting in the courts–to see a church which is allowing itself to be rooted, to give substantial structure to an emerging a global Mormon community: becoming a Vatican, if you will. But so long, as seems to case to me, that the majority of Mormon dialogues are private one, figuring out what our civil religion could (or will, or even should!) be is a difficult question indeed.

    Interesting thoughts.

    The person at BYU whose political theology impressed me the most was Eugene Jacobs at the law school. You should look him up, even in retirement he is a thoughtfull presence well worth knowing and thinking with.

  3. Russell,

    This clarifies some things for me. I definitely misunderstood some of what you hoped to attain in your paper. And I certainly agree that there is something “deeply modern, subjective, structural and relational about how most Mormons conceive their faith in public terms.” I’d even add, as an example of this, the peculiarity of the “witnesses” providing signed testimony at the beginning of the BoM — as if the truths of Scripture could receive empirical validation. What could be more modern than that? If I understand your use of Givens, this example furthers your larger point about the fact of the BoM’s existence being more important than the content of the book.

    Yet I must also admit to being newly perplexed by some of what you say here. When you write, “anyone can be a Mormon, anywhere, in just about any public form, so long as they take the discussions and are baptized by one with authority,” I wonder: About what religion is this not true? Can’t I be a Catholic anywhere? Or a Jew? Or a Muslim? Sure, it’s different to be a Catholic in Rome, or a Jew in Israel, or a Muslim in Mecca. But not fundamentally different — and isn’t this difference analogous to the difference of being LDS in SLC? The exception to this might be Eastern Orthodoxy, where there are national churches, or maybe being an Anglican in Great Britain. But those are exceptions in the Christian tradition, are they not? Certainly Christianity has taught since Augustine that it is a universal church — the City of God — and not wrapped up with the fate of any earthly city. Sure, to be a Mexican Catholic, or a Korean Catholic, or an American Catholic — all of these will differ somewhat from one another, in style, liturgy, etc., — but the core teaching of faith and morals remains roughly the same everywhere. (This is why, for example, American Catholics defending abortion rights is such a scandal — it runs completely counter to settled Catholic teaching.) So I guess I’m just not seeing how Mormonism is unique in this respect. Further, if Mormon missionaries all over the world are radically similar, not varying with regard to culture and forms of worship, then is not SLC already acting as a kind of Super-Vatican? In a nutshell, it sounds like you’re saying that the Church is much more open-ended than other faiths, and at others like you’re pointing to its radical homogeneity.

    And this points to a deeper problem: the link between all of this and Americanism and globalization, where I’m afraid that you still lose me. At the very least I think you need to make clear whether you actually believe that American globalization is extra-civilizational, pure form, no content, etc., or whether, in fact, this very aspiration is itself a mark of its Americanism. You can probably tell by my tone that I side with the latter. Nothing could be more American than the belief that we can and should embrace and promulgate an abstract, universal humanity. To the exent that the LDS Church protrays itself as doing something like this, it shows itself to be a profoundly American religion — and its proselytizing activities to be a form (perhaps benign, perhaps not) of American cultural imperialism, much like globalization, in fact.

    Now that I’ve written this, it strikes me that this may be exactly your point — though, if so, I think you have to go much further in making this explicit. As it is, I think your argument is somewhat knotted.

  4. Thanks very much for commenting, Damon. You’ve given me a lot more to work with a think about–on the one hand, it’s gratifying to know that my argument can be discerned in there, somewhere; on the other hand, it’s also important to know just how much yet remains murky. We’ll have to discuss this more via e-mail, whenever I get around to making further changes to my essay.

  5. Russell, Thanks for commenting on the panel. Thanks also for the comments on my paper. I was actually surprised that the panel seemed to think that my paper is very pessimistic about the possibility of Mormon political theology. The reason for dwelling at such great length on the issue is that I think the conditions of possibilty of political theology are of central and at this point most pressing importance. Novalis said that philosophy examines, most of all, philosophy itself. My sense is that some of the most interesting insights of Mormon political theology will come out of a relfection upon what political theology is and what it might mean for a Mormon to do it. Thus the fixation on the concerns and obstacles.

    As for the two sites I outline, they are “apologetic” (not polemical) and “critical-prophetic”. I don’t blame you for the oversight: the paper got long and error-filled toward the end. These two sites are in some sense opposite and yet go hand in hand. I spend a few pages in the paper showing how critical political theology needs apology, but also that apologetic political theology contunies to show elements of critique. This discussion comes out of early Christian history: the Gospel of John, Tertullian and the Epistle to Diognetus. Both sites of political theology are rooted in the Mormon church–it is concrete and institutional, like the Catholic church, and yet small and vulnerable, like other heterodox Christian movements. Thus it stands apart from the world, concretely (and thus tends toward critique) and yet is politically and temporally vulnerable (thus requiring apologetic defense and peacemaking). So in a way unlike any other Christian movement, Mormonism necessarily embraces and (has embraced throughout its history) both of these twin poles of political theology.

    A further point might be made that any Mormon political theology should necessarily reflect this paradox. I don’t deny that people can read the Book of Mormon and come up with interesting political interpretations of it. But if these readings are not aimed at proclaiming the (harsh, critical) truth of the Book of Mormon or are not concerned for the kingdom of God on earth, then I might hesitate to call them theological since anyone might do them, even those who have no committment to the Kingdom. These readings may not even be “political” in my sense of the term since they are not motivated by political problems connected to discipleship but rather the academic desire to say something interesting about an interesting text.

    Now, I say this last comment not to disqualify any particular existing work of Mormon political theology. Your paper and Roger’s could fit into my definition (political stuff by Midgley, Dennis Potter, Rodney Smith, Hickman, Bushman and Faulconer as well). But the point is to give political theology a practical, religious definition rather than a merely academic one. My reluctance to compare political theology with political philosophy, as Damon does, comes from my sense that what makes something theological is not the nature of premises (e.g. not arrived at rationally but accepted on faith) but rather the practical orientation which motivates it and which provides its subject matter. Hence the idea that theology is a second-order reflection which comes after religious committment. Philosophy may be defined as a reflection upon a practical orientation (i.e. the ever-questioning Socratic quest for truth) with ultimate committments, but most American philosophy PhDs I know seem to define it rather as a set of questions and a set of methodological alternatives–an academic discipline like any other. I don’t want to define theology as a set of questions or as a certain method (following faith-based premises to their rational conclusion), but rather as a reflection upon one’s faith and committment to religion.

  6. Jeremy, my apologies for the polemical/apologetic mistake, as well as for any other errors I made in my notes. I really do believe that your paper was the most ambitious of the three, and your final paragraph above proves it: you want to, among other things, question the theological, so that it needn’t be understood as a necessary “second-order” (in the sense that embracing one premise will necessarily open up questions about another premise) practice but as concomitant to a first order practice: theology is part of being “believing” in the first place. If I understand you correctly there, then we were all wrong in assuming you were pessimistic about Mormon political theology; what you were actually talking about were the complications in making one’s belief in Mormonism political. In other words, you were looking for an idiom to describe where Mormonism is political, not how we can use our (settled, accepted, broken into premises?) Mormonism to get at the political. That’s a fascinating reframing of things.

    I hope I’ll be able to read more of your stuff on this topic in the future. Maybe I should resubscribe to LDS-Phil…

Comments are closed.