Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy (part III)

To read the first section of this essay, go here (Part I) and here (Part II).

A Communitarian Teleology
Despite the aggressive individualism of its concept of intelligence, Mormonism presents a soteriology of interdependence. This fact is perhaps most dramatically illustrated in the related concepts of sealings and salvation for the dead. Toward the end of of his ministry, Joseph Smith revealed that faithful Latter-day Saints could be baptized vicariously for those who had died without hearing “the fullness of the gospel.” However, baptism for the dead is more than a chance for altruism toward those on the other side of the veil. In 1842, Joseph Smith taught:

And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers — that they without us cannot be made perfect — neither can we without our dead be made perfect. (D&C 128:15)

Thus, the concept of salvation for the dead is actually an affirmation of the ultimate interdependence of individual salvations. If the primordial intelligences existed in glorious independence, unconditioned even by God, salvation for the dead suggests that the glory of exaltation can only be achieved and experienced in the company of others.

With the introduction of the temple ordinances and the sealing rituals, the necessity of interdependence in the hereafter was even more forcefully emphasized. In these ordinances, the power of God literally connects individuals in a bond without which they could not maintain an eternal connection. Joseph Smith taught, “[T]he earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link of some kind or other between the fathers and the children.” (D&C 128:18) The language of welding has been used repeatedly to describe the process of connecting the human family. Brigham Young taught:

We are called, as it has been told you, to redeem the nations of the earth. The fathers cannot be made perfect without us; we cannot be made perfect without the fathers. There must be this chain in the holy Priesthood; it must be welded together from the latest generation that lives on the earth back to Father Adam, to bring back all that can be saved an placed where they can receive salvation and a glory in some kingdom.

The second way in which Mormon teleology reflects a vision of interdependence can be found in the concept of Zion. From its founding, Mormonism has been focused on the attempt to realize the ideal City of God. In the nineteenth century this ambition took a very concrete form:

For the Latter-day Saints, the new American Jerusalem meant a real place, whose residents were distinguished by the way they lived. Geographically, Zion was the Holy City. Socially, Zion was a divine society, an organized community that would enjoy the promise of redemption in this life and a life of glory in the next. In the world to come, heaven would be right here on an earth brightened with its own celestial glory. For the Latter-day Saints in the 1830s, Missouri was both the literal site of the biblical Eden and the sacred place for the Saints of the last days as well as the place of eternal promise, a heaven on earth now and forever.

Zion represents an ideal community based on charity and unity. “And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18) The most dramatic instantiations of this ideal had to be abandoned in the face of federal persecution at the end of the nineteenth century, but Zion is an ideal that continues to resonate within Mormonism. LDS prophets continue to preach its significance:

If we are to build that Zion of which the prophets have spoken and of which the Lord has given might promise, we must set aside our consuming selfishness. We must rise above our love of comfort and ease, and in the very process of effort and struggle, even in our extremity, we shall become better acquainted with our God.

The Mormon concept of Zion, however, represents more than a Utopian vision of a particular sort of community. It is intimately tied to the LDS concept of salvation. Zion represents the God’s dwelling place and man’s assent into Gods presence. Mormon scripture captures this connection in the story of the City of Enoch, a Zion community taken by God from the earth to be his dwelling place.

And Encoh continued his preaching in righteousness unto the people of God. And it came to pass in his days, that he built a city that was called the City of Holiness, even Zion. . . . And it came to pass that the Lord showed unto Enoch all the inhabitants of the earth; and he beheld, and lo, Zion, in process of time, was taken up into heaven. And the Lord said unto Enoch: Behold my abode forever. (Moses 7:19,21)

Thus the striving for Zion is linked with the striving for salvation, and the realization of Zion is linked with the salvific return to God’s presence. In short, the ultimate telos of mankind is instantiated in a particular vision of the good community.

The teleology of LDS theology – Zion and the metaphysically joined human family – is communitarian in at least two senses. First it presents a vision of the individual that is intersubjective. For liberal philosophy – and the LDS ontology of intelligences – individuals are constituted within themselves. Each subject exists as a subject independent of other subjects. Any relationship that the subjects have with one another is purely accidental and do not implicate the fundamental nature of the individual. Rather, the individual is decisively prior to the community. Thus,

[liberalism] rules out the possibility of a public life in which, for good or ill, the identity as well as the interests of the participants could be at stake. And it rules out the possibility that common purposes and ends could inspire more or less expansive self-understandings and so define a community in the constitutitive sense, a community describing the subject and not just the object of shared aspirations.

Communitarian thinking reverses this priority. Aristotle argued that individuals were constituted by their communities. For him, a human being could only become fully human in the context of the polis – the political community. Outside of that context a man was either a wild beast or a god. Thus on Aristotle’s view the relationship of a subject to other subjects is not accidental but necessary. One cannot speak meaningfully about the nature of an individual without also talking about the community which defines that individual.

Within the theology of sealings and Zion, individuals are defined intersubjectively. Our relationship to others places our fundamental nature – saved or not saved; greater glory or lesser glory – at issue. “[T]hey without us cannot be made perfect — neither can we without [them] be made perfect.” (D&C 128:15) The image of welding suggests that the connection is not accidental to our nature but constitutive of it. In being sealed we are transformed. We become someone different that we were before. We are melted, reformed, and joined. Zion, likewise, is a concept that suggests intersubjectivity. “They were of one heart.” (Moses 7:18) Within the Zion hoped for and worked for in Mormonism, individuals seem to become identified with each other necessarily. It thus represents a broader, communal instantiation of the intersubjectivity alluded to by Jesus in the Gospel of John, where in the Intercessionary Prayer he identifies the intersubjectivity of the godhead with the intersubjectivity of his disciples. “And the glory which thou gavest me, I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them; and thou in me, that they may be perfect in one” (John 17:22-23) In contrast to liberal theory, the relationships of individuals is a necessary component of their natures. Indeed, to the extent that Mormonism sees human beings as gods in embryo, it is striking that at least one Mormon philosopher has identified interconnectedness as the essence of divinity in LDS theology. “Divinity arises from a relationship of unity in oneness.”

The second affinity between LDS soteriology and communitarianism is that it presents a vision of human nature that is teleological. Liberalism rests on the assumption that individuals as individuals can be defined and understood logically prior to the particular vision of the good that they pursue. It is this logical separation between subjects and the objects that they pursue that allows liberalism to formulate universal principles of justice that hold true regardless of the vision of the good held by particular individuals. Put another way, it is only in virtue of the fact that individuals can be defined without reference to their ends that the right can be given priority over the good. However, as communitarian critics have pointed out:

[A] self so thoroughly independent as this rules out any conception of the good . . . bound up with possession [of a vision of the good] in the constitutive sense. It rules out the possibility of any attachment . . . able to reach beyond our values and sentiments to engage our identity itself.

Mormon soteriology, however, suggest that individuals cannot be completely defined without reference to their ends. One cannot be “made perfect” – completed, fully realized – without entering into a particular vision of the good life – eternal families, Zion. This connection between human nature and the good undermines the liberal project of prioritizing the justice over virtue, the right over the good.

A Caveat on Zion and Distributive Justice
In the foregoing section I discuss Zion as a possible source for a communitarian philosophy on the basis of Mormon theology. At this point, it seems appropriate to add a few thoughts about Zion and the concept of distributive justice. Many “progressive” Mormons find the concept of Zion extremely attractive because of its vision of an egalitarian distribution of resources. “And the Lord called his people Zion, because . . . there was no poor among them.” (Moses 7:18) For example, Mormons for Equality and Social Justice, a group of Latter-day Saints interested in advancing progressive politics, explicitly invokes the ideal of Zion and argues for more generous government welfare programs. In the previous section, I invoked Zion as a possible Mormon basis for a communitarian political philosophy. However, it would be a mistake to assume that I am implying that egalitarian views of distributive justice are necessarily communitarian, or that I see the communitarian aspect of Zion as being its concept of distributive justice.

First, it is simply not true that communitarian political theories are necessarily more friendly to redistributive policies than liberal political theories. For example, Edmund Burke, whose conservatism was deeply rooted in a communitarian allegiance to the value of rooted institutions, did not see in his political philosophy any support for the redistribution of wealth. Second, it is a mistake to associate liberalism only with non-egalitarian visions of distributive justice. Certainly, one must acknowledge the historical link between liberalism and the kind of laisse-faire, free market economics that progressives associate with the unjust distribution of social resources. For example, many nineteenth-century liberals saw a necessary connection between liberal philosophy and largely unregulated markets. However, there are liberal theorists who forcefully argue for an egalitarian conception of distributive justice. Most notably, John Rawls has advanced a theory of justice based on liberal individualism and the priority of the right to the good that nevertheless justifies the aggressive redistribution of wealth.

While, I do not deny that one might construct an argument about distributive justice on the basis of the concept of Zion, I invoke Zion for a different reason. My argument is that it seems to suggest a vision of human nature at odds with the liberal assumptions of autonomous individuality. The distinction that I am interested in is not between egalitarian or non-egalitarian political theories. Rather it is with how political theories conceptualize the relationship between individuals and communities and the relative priority of the concepts of right and good. The important distinction between communitarianism and liberalism is that they provide different categories with which to understand and justify political decisions.

10 comments for “Intelligences and Zion: An Essay in Mormon Political Philosophy (part III)

  1. MLU
    February 23, 2007 at 2:32 am

    Deeply satisfying. Thanks. I’ll re-read this several times. What a pleasant burst of intelligence beaming into my hermit’s digital cave on the west slope of the Northern Rockies.

  2. Eugene V. Debs
    February 23, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Since we don’t have anything remotely approaching revelation indicating that the United Order is best described as a “communitarian” enterprise, this analysis begs an important question: why not call the United Order “collectivist” or even “socialist”? Of course, then Nate would have to appeal to a different set of social theorists–perhaps theorists that he is not as familiar with–and would have to be more concilliatory to the views of the “progressive” Mormons he seems to want to debunk.

  3. February 23, 2007 at 2:15 pm

    Eugene (may I call you Eugene?): WHy would we need revelation on how to describe a particular set of practices? Wouldn’t the accuracy of our description turn on how well it captured the practices in question? FWIW, I am fine if you want to call the United Order collectivist or socialist, provided that you cash out the terms so that I can see the value added of the label. I am not tryng to debunk progressive Mormons. Rather, I am simply trying to make the point that the divide between liberals and communitiarians is not the same thing as the divide between egaletarians and non-elagetarians, and that one can invoke the concept of Zion to make points unrelated to issues of distributive justice. Period.

  4. M. Archer-Beck
    February 23, 2007 at 6:49 pm

    Nate: Hope things are well. A few thoughts. Although I know you have one further installment, I must say that I find the communitarian model a much more convincing model for a Mormon political theory because, unlike the liberal model, it directly concerns itself with how individuals should engage with others and is thus by its nature political. If can we agree that the liberal and communitarian sides of Mormon theology are not logically incoherent (which I think we can), then the next question for me in forming a concept of a Mormon political theory is which side best addresses or confronts the question of humans as political animals. While Mormon ontology, as you demonstrate, shares similarities with liberalism, that aspect of Mormon theology is not trying to answer political questions (at least not very directly). The concept of Zion, on the other hand, by its very nature concerns itself with things political.

    While I thought that Eugene’s comment was a bit combative, the last part of the post did seem to me a bit defensive/”doth protest too much.” While I agree that liberals, like Rawls, can be very egalitarian, I am not sure why you need in the essay to specifically distance yourself from those who use the concept of Zion to promote egalitarian ends.

    Well, I look forward to the last part.

  5. February 23, 2007 at 7:09 pm

    Dangnabbit! I wish I understood this subject better. I’ve pondered some of these themes for many years, but I get lost in all the philosophical references. Wish the discussion were more accessible (or my intelligence greater).

  6. Eugene V. Debs
    February 24, 2007 at 1:39 am


    Let me be less combative and ask more direct questions. I do not like it when I think that people are turning my ideas into straw people, and my initial post unfortunately reflects my irritation.

    Why did you choose the term \”communitarian\” and its variants? Your post seems to take it for granted that that\’s the best terminology, and so my hyperbolic question about revelation. Here\’s a clearer way to state my point: people with your academic training see communitarian thought where people coming from different theoretical perspectives may see things differently. For example, there wouldn\’t be too much alienated labor in the United Order, nor would exchange value function in the way Marx describes. A Marxist could, as Coffinberry implicitly points out, create a long, obfuscutory post about the United Order as well. But unless she or he explained why that theoretical description would trump one that relied on, e.g., communitarian theory, it would be begging an important question as well as confusing people who didn\’t get the chance to go to a fancy law or graduate school. This is particularly important since your essays tackle Mormon political philosophy and seems to offer a totalizing description. Could you make a convincing case for your perspective before or during your eloquent explanation of it?

    Your post also seems to argue that Mormon \”progressives\” think of themselves as communitarians. Indeed, your binary liberal/communitarian doesn\’t work that well if you are misstating the theoretical apparatus through which Mormon \”progressives\” view their social action. Just because what they say can be made to sound like communitarian thought doesn\’t mean that it actually is. Are Mormons for Equality and Social Justice a self-defned \”communitarian\” group? Are they genuinely representative of \”progressive\” Mormons? Or is there more going on than your constricting binary can accomodate?

  7. MLU
    February 24, 2007 at 2:36 am

    coffinberry: I know what you mean. I think we all feel that way quite often, if we really are searching and really are honest.

  8. February 24, 2007 at 8:58 am

    Gene (do you mind if I call you Gene?): The reason I chose the term “communitarian” and focused in on “communitarian” thinking is because there happens to be a big debate about liberalism and communitarianism that I happent to be interested in. There are obviously other debates, and to be sure one could expand the discussion to include more things. I did not say that Zion is best explained by communitarian thinking. Rather, I said that there are certain concepts associated with Zion that can be used to think about communitarianism.

    Are Mormon “progressives” all communitarians? Do the folks at MESJ self-describe as “communitarian”? I don’t know. I doubt it. I don’t really care. Neither point seems relevant to the particular set of issues that interest me in this essay.

  9. February 24, 2007 at 10:04 am

    Mr. Debs,

    “A Marxist could, as Coffinberry implicitly points out, create a long, obfuscutory post about the United Order as well.”

    It’s already been done. (Though, while certainly long, I hope it wasn’t totally obfuscutory.)

  10. Matt Evans
    February 25, 2007 at 12:45 am

    “there wouldn\’t be too much alienated labor in the United Order, nor would exchange value function in the way Marx describes”

    We have no knowledge of a United Order that was not a thoroughly liberal system. The participants entered voluntarily and by contract, relinquishing their rights under liberalism for a communitarian (or socialist) purpose. By recognizing and substantiating the right of individuals to decide whether to enter the Order, the Order reified liberalism even as it called individuals to voluntarily relinquish their interests for the good of the community.

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