The Influence of Law on Mormon Theology in the 20th Century

I recently published an article that T&S readers might find interesting. It traces the legal issues faced by the Church as a result of its international expansion after 1945, arguing that the pressures created by these concerns tended to modify Mormon theologies of the state in the last half of the twentieth century. There is a bunch of interesting stuff in the paper (or at least I think that there is), but it mainly makes two contributions. First, it tries to provide an overarching narrative for Mormon legal history in the late twentieth century. Second, it shows that just as with the abandonment of polygamy at the end of the 19th century, law has been an important force in the development of Mormonism in the twentieth century. Here’s the abstract from SSRN, along with a link for those who want to read it:

International Legal Experience and the Mormon Theology of the State, 1945-2012

Nathan B. Oman
William & Mary Law School

January 16, 2015

Iowa Law Review, Vol. 100, 2015
William & Mary Law School Research Paper No. 09-295

This Essay has three goals. The first is to provide a basic narrative of postwar Mormon expansion, identifying the basic periods and major developments. The second is to summarize the main legal issues provoked by this expansion. The third goal is to advance an argument about the relationship between this legal experience and the development of Mormon discourse in the last half of the 20th century. As the Church expanded into new regions of the globe, it confronted non-American legal systems. This placed pressure on the Church and affected the development of Mormon discourse in the last half of the 20th century. In particular, international legal challenges created incentives that tended to moderate Mormon theologies of the state. By the turn of the 21st century, the dominant theology of the state in Mormon discourse was quietist and non-confrontational, a marked contrast from the theodemocratic ambitions of the 19th century or the Cold War apocalypticism popular among many Mormons in the middle of the 20th century. Just as law proved decisive in the development of Mormon belief and practice in the 19th century — particularly Mormon doctrines surrounding plural marriage — in the 20th century, law has again exerted its influence on Mormon teachings.


10 comments for “The Influence of Law on Mormon Theology in the 20th Century

  1. OK. I’m back. Very well put. I found the information about the legal challenges outside the U.S. fascinating. I’ve been saying for two years that a Romney Presidency would NOT have been good for the world growth of the Church in some areas. The idea of a Mormon President authorizing drone strikes against Muslims (not that there’s anything wrong with that . . .) would cause quite a bit of unrest and the Church would likely be removed from India, Indonesia, Pakistan and China. I hope more people read this.

  2. “The Church has been unable to shed its widespread association with America in general and, to a lesser extent, United States policy.”
    Yup. I recall at the time of the 9/11 attacks a condolence card was delivered to our local church building, explaining that the sender understood we were an American church. It was very kind of them, but at the same time made me, as a Brit, feel uncomfortable.

  3. Excited to read this. As another Brit LDS, we ALSO got a 9/11 condolence card! I used to take offence when fellow Englishmen said my faith was American, but then I went to BYU and had a chance to study Mormonism in historical context and realised how right they were. Still feel weird about the 9/11 card. Or, should I say, 11/9.

  4. Excellent article, Nate.

    It is certainly true that the church has been entering into a more quietist and non-confrontational mode of interacting with governments. Two remarks:

    – To what extent can the fact that the majority of top church leaders are still openly affiliated with the Republican party continue to influence, in other countries, a perception of Mormon political involvement or at least of strong leanings to certain political choices with international impact? (cf. also the affiliation of Mormon members of Congress). In media abroad the church has a strong image of being part of the American Christian right: its involvement against same-sex marriage has not been helpful in that respect, particularly in countries where SSM is legal. Can we expect the church to further “back off”, confirming a continuation of the movement you analyzed?

    – Because of a perceived threat of Islamization, the West (in particular Europe, but also other regions) is showing a heightened sensitivity to the detrimental effects of conversion to a foreign religion. Expansive religions have never been welcome in countries with their own culturo-religious traditions. With thousands of Mormon missionaries trying to convert people in such countries, could we expect more governmental and ecclesiastical opposition (like in Greece, Russia…)? The church has already shown it backs off in countries like Israel. At the same time Islamic sensitivity is increasing the awareness of “insult” and “blasphemy” when it comes to trying to convert others actively. These seem to be new elements to be taken into account as the church grapples with the legal diversity abroad.

  5. Wilfried: The short answer is obviously that I don’t know the answer to either of your questions. You have a better sense of whether the political affiliation of top LDS leaders matters that much abroad. My sense is that it probably doesn’t. More salient is the fact that the Church has taken conservative positions on a few key issues in American cultural politics, namely abortion and same-sex marriage. I doubt that the Church is going to shift on either issue. My bet is that SSM will cease to be terribly salient in the next couple of years. Within a year, I expect that the SCOTUS will declare a constitutional right to SSM and that will largely end the political debate in the United States. A much more interesting question would be the international effect of Romney either in the past or the future. The good news is that it shows that Mormons can be well-educated, effective leaders. The bad news is that it associates the Church with particular partisan policies. Coupled with this the fact that the biggest challenge that the Church faces in many places is not so much hostility as total ignorance as to its existence.

    The second question, it seems to me, will vary a lot by region. How the Church is supposed to operate an effective missionary program in Western or Eastern Europe is a mystery to me. My research suggested that the place where Mormons were most likely to be subject to legal harassment was in Russia. Western Europe can also be a legally hostile environment, although it is obviously far, far better than Russia. But the real problems, as you point out, are often less a matter of legal negotiation — although as an American lawyer the extent to which European legal systems are comfortable regulating public expression worries me — than cultural negotiation. My bet is that we will gradually see a certain amount of devolution and regionalization of missionary work. My bet is that it will also be slower and less radical than it probably ought to be. The real problem is that the Church institutionally is pretty uncomfortable with failure, which means we are probably too risk adverse and have too little variation and experimentation. Ideally, I’d like to see a higher tolerance for bad ideas and more variation. Then we see what works, reinforce what does and discard what doesn’t. I tend to think that we are better off fostering evolution rather than trying to plan success.

    Who really knows, though?

  6. Also, Wilfried, let me again publicly thank you for your help with this project. You’ve really helped my thinking on these issues.

  7. Thanks for this essay Nate. I am teaching a class on US Constitutional and Legal history at a local college and was looking at using Reynolds v. U.S. as part of the curriculum, and using your essay of several years ago. This will round out some of what I want to cover.

  8. In Japan, it took World War II to open the country to effective proselyting again, after the mission was closed in 1924. Somewhat ironically, American racism toward the Japanese, which resulted in the 1924 law barring new immigration from Asia, supported at the time by FDR, and was exploited in WW II propaganda and in FDR through Executive Order 9066 imprisoning over 100,000 Japanese Americans for three years, without any trial, was mitigated enormously when tens of thousands of American servicemen were stationed in Occupied Japan and became friends with Japanese, including marrying Japanese women (like my own parents), forcing the US to amend the law and allow new Japanese immigration. It also helped when the Korean War broke out and the US needed Japanese support.

    It required pretty basic changes in government law and policy to enable the Church to proselyte even in Span and Italy, let alone in the former Warsaw Pact nations and Mongolia.

    Sadly, there were also changes for the worse, when Lebanon and Iran dissolved into chaos and repressive regimes, ending Mormon missionary work in those countries.

    I can’t help but think that if Romney were president, it would help overcome some of the visa problems that some European nations give to our missionaries. I remember Mike Young, when he was chairman of the US religious freedom commission, relating that he was told that a bureaucrat in Belgium was not prejudiced against Mormons, he hated all religious people equally.

  9. Raymond, I say this as someone who would like to see a Romney Presidency for many reasons, but the issue I mentioned in #2 would likely impact the church more negatively than the visa problems you indicate. Of course, I might be wrong too.

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