The Church and Democracy

It would be hard to claim that we are NOT one of the most patriotic Church memberships in the country–if not THE most patriotic. Mormons love America. We love hot dogs and apple pie. We support our troops and hang flags from our homes and cars. We LOVE America and we love democracy. We fought the red scare, dismissed communism, and embraced democracy as the government that God wants on the earth–at least right now. But this raises some interesting questions regarding where we came from and whether our 19th century counterparts loved democracy as much as we do.

There seem to be at least two competing political traditions coming out of 19th century Mormonism. First, is a democratic theme. In the early days there is at least some precedence for the fact that the membership could get rid of leaders in a quasi-democratic, no-confidence vote. The most famous examples are of the reverse–Joseph Smith wanting to get rid of certain counselors, the membership not supporting him, and Joseph keeping the counselor on–most notably Sydney Rigdon. There were elections in Nauvoo and later in Utah. Although in both periods Church leaders had a significant advantage in the elections.

And that brings us to the other tradition. It is not so easily labeled, as is the democracy tradition, because it is more multi-faceted. But in many ways it seems to have been a much stronger tradition. This was a tradition with strong elements of theocracy and some elements of communism or communal-ism. It is largely the story of the United Order. While the United Order had many different permutations in the 19th Century, especially in the Utah period, it was certainly a Utopian-styled ideal. Many scholars have argued that it was very different from communism, however, such arguments rely heavily on painting the United Order with a monolithic brush. While I would not argue that the United Order looked overwhelmingly like communism, certainly some permutations, especially in places like Orderville, had strong resemblances to communistic ideas. And all were communalistic, which shares certain elements with communism. Either way, for the most part the varied United Orders in the early Church did not look like democracy.

Along with communalistic trends, there was an even stronger and more consistent undertone of theocracy. Here I don’t use theocracy in a strictly political science manner. Rather, I use theocracy to generally refer to the belief that the Prophet speaks for God and leads his people on the earth both religiously and secularly. Furthermore, during the millennium the Lord will reign personally upon the earth and THAT will be the perfect government.

The Church has a mixed history with democracy for many reasons–so why do we embrace it so enthusiastically now (and when I refer to members of the Church who enthusiastically embrace democracy, I put myself right at the top of the list)? Is democracy really the best form of government right now? What if Pres. Hinckley ran for president as a theocrat? While a wild scenario, certainly the majority of the membership of the Church would support him. And if the Church ever became an overwhelming majority in the U.S. wouldn’t most of us welcome a Nauvoo-styled government where the prophet leads the country through the voice of the Lord? Isn’t that ideal where some of our fervor for an outwardly religious president comes from?


  1. a random John says:

    Ezra Taft Benson considered running as Vice President on a ticket with Strom Thurmond. If he had gone through with it that would have provided some interesting material for this post. Could such a ticket could have won the popular vote in Utah and received electoral votes from the state?

  2. At least for awhile there was not much love for the United States in Utah:

    Did I ever wrong them, a man or woman of them, out of a dime? No; but I have fed thousands where I never received a dime. Poor rotten curses! And the President of the United States, inasmuch as he has turned against us and will take a course to persist in pleasing the ungodly curses that are howling around him for the destruction of this people, he shall be cursed, in the name of Israel’s God, and he shall not rule over this nation, because they are my brethren; but they have cast me out and cast you out; and I curse him and all his coadjutors in his cursed deeds, in the name of Jesus Christ and by the authority of the Holy Priesthood; and all Israel shall say amen.
    Heber C. Kimball, JD 5:34

    Eventually, they got over it and the tradition of “The Promised” land regained its emminance.

  3. Justin H says:

    Not to threadjack, but I wonder how the majority of LDS members feel about the U.S. and current U.S.-style democracy, since they are not U.S. citizens.

    As far as President Hinckley running for U.S. President, I’m not sure the majority of LDS would support him (partly because most Mormons aren’t U.S. citizens, partly because I hope those of us who are aren’t all crazy). Maybe most U.S. Mormons would support him, but I’m sure there’d be a healthy contingent even in the States who would rather that not happen.

  4. Frank McIntyre says:

    President Lorenzo Snow gave a talk about the United Order and how we can each try to live in conformity to the higher law as best we can. As for comparing communism to the United Order, that ship has sailed. Communism is about the violent overthrow of the government and forcing a worker’s paradise. This is anathema to the United Order. Here is President Snow:

    “In things that pertain to celestial glory there can be no forced operations. We must do according as the Spirit of the Lord operates upon our understandings and feelings. We cannot be crowded into matters, however great might be the blessing attending such procedure. We cannot be forced into living a celestial law; we must do this ourselves, of our own free will. And whatever we do in regard to the principles of the United Order, we must do it because we desire to do it.”

  5. danithew says:

    Don’t leave out righteous monarchy or the hope for the kingdom of heaven to come.

    Mosiah 29:13
    Therefore, if it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, yea, if ye could have men for your kings who would do even as my father Benjamin did for this people—I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you.

  6. HL Rogers says:

    I know you love to respond to my communist musings, and not to threadjack my own thread–because I really want this discussion to focus on our attitudes about democracy in general. But communism is only partly about the violent overthrow of the government and as a pure theory isn’t about forcing anything–the belief (as I understand Marx) was that the world would progress toward communism without needing any forcing (obviously none of the governmental regimes that used communism seemed to agree).

    Communism was/is also largely about sharing all of our possessions. Many scholars have made hay about the fact that communism took agency (by forcing you to do it) while United Order was an expression of agency. I think this is a legitimate difference but it only goes so far. After all, don’t we believe that eternal salvation is ultimately more imprtant than our mortal lives (meaning it is worse to be damned than to be physically killed). In that sense the United Order had worse consequences, if you opted out (during certain phases) you were considered on the road down, while if you opted out in China you were merely brutally torturesd and murdered (tongue in cheek–but the difference is not as simple as 50s/60s LDS scholars wanted it to be).

    I think there are a lot of differences between communism and United Order but both share communalistic theories. Both had dominant strains that taught coming together as a community and sharing all things equally. Maybe the similarities end there, maybe not. The point for this thread, is that both (communism and communalism) often have very little semblance with democracy.

    Brigham Young was the spiritual and secular leader of the Church and Utah. Obviously that ship has saled but why such animosity to the idea of a prophet/president Justin. Yes the debate exists in a global framework which is why I limited the discussion by talking about members becoming a majority within America. I was attempting to create a hypothetical where a prophet/president would be a real possibility. I think many members would be against this (think Reed Smoot). But why?

    Also, Frank your quick vehement response (tongue once again in cheek) to communist ties, I think, is an example of what I am discussing. Sometimes we want to divorce our past from anything not democratic, why?

  7. Frank McIntyre says:


    You are not tricking anyone. If you wanted to write a post about democracy, you could have done so without any reference to communism. The two are independent, are they not? It’s no good slipping in pinko propoganda and then trying to act all innocent! :)

    _Socialism_ was not about violent overthrow. Communism was. But in either case, if you wish to define socialism as a strictly voluntary enterprise then

    a. you are not doing anything resembling any socialist government on the planet
    b. your new brand of socialism is starting to sound like repackaged United Order, and I am fine with voluntary, priesthood run, United Order.

    But you ask why do we wish to divorce our past from the democratic? Well, I have no problem with BY as a theocrat. So you’ll have to ask somebody who is bothered by it!

  8. HL, to continue the threadjack one more comment . . .

    communism was never about sharing, (no Workers of the World, SHARE! slogan), but about capturing and controlling resources through force. No democrats or capitalists worried about communist ideology because the ideology encouraged _altruism_!

    And I don’t think it’s right to characterize Frank’s comment as trying to “divorce our past from anything not democratic,” when he rejected the comparisons to communism. Communism and democracy are a false duality and, because the monarchical system dominates our theology, it’s unlikely Frank’s statement stems from a single-minded embrace of democracy.

  9. I think it’s important to distinuish democracy, and a commitment to it, from patriotism. That Mormons — or anyone else — are patriotic, doesn’t necesarily make them committed liberal democrats (note the little “l” and little “d,” please). In fact, I think there are a lot of Mormons who are patriotic theocrats.

  10. danithew says:

    Democracy and communism. Such blasphemies. A divine emperor (King of Kings) with many righteous prophet-kings working under Him is the only way to go.

  11. Frank McIntyre says:

    What Matt said.

    By the way Steve, your bcc (by communist control) font is too small. Fortunately I have two monitors so I can embigify the font and see what the heck you guys are talking about. Talk about freedom!

  12. Actually discussion of the United Order is relevant to discussion of LDS attitudes toward democracy, but not in the way either Frank or HL may be thinking. The United Order was always based on Order participants having private ownership of their stewardships (see D&C 51:7 or thereabouts). Church ownership only lasted long enough to make equalizing redistributions to the poor of the community. Whether voluntary or not, the term communist implies state ownership, or it means nothing. Orderville and other 19th C united orders were cooperatives, which is a wholly different thing than being communistic. The ownership of Orderville was held by a private corporation owned by the community residents, not by the Church. Significantly, where the united order involved enterprises larger than sole proprietorships, the united order revelations and actual practice in Utah put united order operations in the hands of professional management elected by the Order participant/stockholders. The bishop was only involved in the idealistic initial conscecration, not in the ongoing control of the united order enterprises or the united order treasury.

    This argues that 19th C LDS attitudes were more inherently democratic than we might think. Due to outside persecution, there was a lot of social pressure and rhetoric directed toward political unity which comes down to us in the second strand HL elaborates. However, the facts about how the most advanced experiments such as the united order actually worked suggests a much more democtratic spirit.

  13. Seth Rogers says:

    Honestly, I don’t see why Mormons are as patriotic as they are.

    It isn’t just the mobs and killings in the early 1800s; the political witch-hunts over polygamy, and the Federal invasion of Utah.

    Don’t forget that St. George, Utah currently has something like a 70% cancer rate thanks to the US government’s nuclear weapons testing. Don’t forget that Ronald Reagan wanted to paint a nuclear bullseye on Temple Square with his MX Missile project. Don’t forget that most of the other states would like places like Utah to become the nation’s toxic dumping-grounds. Our country has always either stepped on us or taken us for granted.

    I see the United States of America as a means to an end. The primary purpose of the US is to provide for the spread of the Gospel in the last days. Any other benefits it confers are secondary. Once the US is no longer of use for the Mormon Church and the “gathering of Israel,” it will fall. I’m a political realist. America is only useful for maintaining world stability. If it fails in that task, I won’t be particularly sorry to see it go.

    I have always considered myself Mormon first, American second (actually US citizenship ranks about fourth or fifth in my hierarchy of affiliations). I feel more kinship with Mormons in Nigeria than I do with non-Mormon Americans in Florida.

    Actually, I do have a theory about why Mormons are so patriotic. Mormon Americans tend to be very concerned with convincing everyone else in America that we aren’t a bunch of religious freaks. I think forced displays of patriotism are the Mormon community’s way of displaying their “American-ness.” “Look, we’re normal flag wavers just like you.”

    It’s not going to work. I think everyone who knows our church realizes that we’re quite a bit different from the American-Protestant mainstream. The Protestant majority here tolerates us, but they do not embrace us. When push comes to shove, I think they will turn on us again. Patriotic displays and voting Republican are not going change that.

  14. HL Rogers says:

    Frank and Matt,
    Alright, alright. I really did want this thread to be about democracy. I put in the little bit about communism b/c it is 1. interesting, 2. significant that there are certainly ties between commnuism and cummunalism and thus United Order and 3. to show conservative knee-jerk reactions to ties between the 2. :-)

    I don’t think your communism/socialism divide is quite right. True, I used communism with a very broad stroke but if we want to be more specific I think we need to talk about marxism (which is more what my initial post was about). That being said governmental coercion was merely an outcropping of Marxism in the early years before it became a full-fledged platform.

    very interesting points. However, the different permutations of privately owned united orders is a bit misleading. They were owned by the collective as cooperatives. Although only some scholarship has been done on this they were quite simialr to kibutzs in Israel, which are generally discussed as proto or full out communistic in a communalism vein. The fact is that the property was not democratically owned as it was “owned” by the community as a whole (proto-communism at its best). You would think 40 years after the red scare you could see the similarities without having to do back-flips to avoid them. oh well… I’m not saying there weren’t important differences but there were pretty interesting similarities.

    But that is all merely a side point to the fact that we have had a large measure of ambivalence in our past to democracy. Whether from theocracy or other unnamed strains (which will remain unnamed lest the conservatives lynch me).

  15. Seth Rogers says:

    By the way. My St. George cancer rate is just off the top of my head and might be inaccurate. But it is ridiculously high, especially among the older generation.

  16. alamojag says:

    Following the threadjack, the biggest difference I see in the philosophies of communism and the united order is this: in communism, the phrase was “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, and the D&C always talks about distribution to wants _and_ needs. If you want more than I do, fine. I would rather mow a smaller lawn and pay utilities on a smaller house. That is essentially _my_ choice, not that of the bosses.

  17. HL Rogers says:

    Seth might be on to something. It might be more about fitting-in in America than about political ideology. Obviously certain political beliefs are held by members b/c of how members believe they match with gospel principles. But perhaps if we lived in a monarchy that allowed for religious freedom we would be just as patriotic.

    But I do think we are fitting-in and to the point we can do that without losing our distinctive identity, missionary work will be aided by the effort. I think this is exactly Pres. Hinckley’s point of being in the media more than past prophets and de-emphasizing past practices (such as polygamy and priesthood bans). If people see us as both good Americans (not weirdo cultists) at the same time as seeing the benefits the gospel brings to our lives then our message of the gospel is easier to bring to them.

  18. The first chapter in R. Laurence Moore’s book Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans deals with this Insider/Outsider dynamic of the LDS Church throughout American religious history. Moore argues that because early LDS leaders, especially Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, recognized the importance of positing the religion outside a kind of mainstream religious affiliation in order to energize a religious fervor. Their success helped solidify church and encouraged a robust growth among those who sympathized with the outsider label.

    Paradoxically, Moore says, this outsider language complemented Mormon patriotic ardour because early American history, i.e. Puritanism, revealed Americans as religious outsiders in the incipient colonies. Therefore, casting themselves as outsiders made Mormons heirs to the throne of true American insiders. This dual insider/outsider tract figures in LDS leader’s rhetoric throughout the post-restoration history, as we still refer to ourselves as a “peculiar people” while recognizing the founding documents of the US as inspired documents.

    All this being said, I do think there is a problem with this patriotic pulse in the context of a very international church. Mr. S. Rogers says he personally feels an affinity with a Nigerian LDS Church member more than with a Floridian who professed another faith. I am sympathetic to his feeling, but I never felt like his impulse was shared by the majority of those in the Church. Instead, I think there is another phenomenon: one where members conceived of foreign co-confessors of the faith in a different realm than geo-political realities. Most only thought of Africa in terms of LDS membership when seeing a video of GBH’s trip there, for example, while a discussion of “the Church” in the abstract denoted members in the US or even just Utah in actual conception.

    To use an anecdotal (and therefore logically useless) example, I remember hearing a stake leader who presented a talk on the Proclamation to the Family. The speech made the explicit error of equating the Proc as a document only for the US in spite of the actual text because that is what “the world” in the context of the Church meant for him. Leaders surely don’t share these presumptions, but I would suggest that local laity do.

  19. HL –

    In #14 you use the terms communalistic and communistic interchangeably when they really mean radically different things (if they are to have any useful meaning at all). Communalism is any system where people voluntarily operate economically on some basis of private cooperative ownership. Communism is any system where economic operations are owned and controlled by the use of the coercive power of the state. It is true that in the 19th C and early 20th C communalist idealogy often blended into sympathy for communism, but surely there is no excuse for that confusion today.

    That said, you are correct that Orderville in many ways was like a kibbutz. A study of the similarities would be intriguing since the beginnings of the kibbutzim occur only a little after the time of Orderville and similar Mormon communities.

    The point I was making was that I agree that there is some ambiguity in modern Mormon attitudes toward democracy. I’m just not sure we can blame it on our early history. I think that you will find that most modern Mormons will assume that Orderville was owned and operated by the Church like a modern welfare farm. Almost no one realizes that it was in fact a private cooperative independent of any ownership or control by the central Church. Most modern Mormons assume that the united order would operate as what I call “Church Communism” with everything owned and controlled by the central Church bureaucracy. This attitude is anti-democratic and also contrary to the actual 19th C practice.

    My point is that I think that this illustrates that these anti-democratic but intensely patriotic tendencies are a modern 20th C development, which I believe come from the rise in centralization and bureaucratic control in the Church. But raising the pros and cons of correlation would be an even bigger threadjack than communism, so I’ll leave it there.

  20. I think the fact that Mormons assert that the Constitution is an inspired document shows that we are not simply tolerating democracy until such time as a theocracy can be instituted.

    JS and BY’s theocracy in the past was instituted in the face of persecution, to save the church from immediate destruction. I think that the Mormon dynamic of free will requires a democratic environment and that democracy is the higher law.

  21. JWL, why should democratic means of distribution be a concern in our Church? It seems to me that administratively, we’ve never been a democracy. I agree with you that the united order practices weren’t communism, but perhaps you’re overemphasizing their democratic aspects?

  22. HL Rogers says:

    Aaron the duality you speak of is fascinating and I think carries a lot of weight both as a historical tool and as a current explanative tool. However, I wonder if you are right about the lay Church’s conception of the true membership of the Church. From my experience (so once again useless) members in the Church view the global membership on the same level as the American membership. In fact, I wonder if most members’ conceptions of the difference between convert and life-long member is stronger than conceptions of the difference between US and global member.

    JWL, a couple points. Your analysis of democracy in Orderville and other United Order permutations during the Utah period is interesting but I don’t know if it bears out the conclusions which you assert. I was not attempting to conflate communism and communalism. I was simply pointing to shared roots. True communism became government coercion in the hands of EVERY government that practiced it but communism (esp. the Marxist strain) is not coercive per se. There were several communistic experiments carried out by none governments that were non-coercive. Of course, once you enter either a communistic or communalistic set-up there are elements of coercion as the systems fail to work unless the mebers function as a single entity. Thus, in communalism to get out you had to leave the society, much as you would have to flee a communist government–the biggest difference in that regard being the power of the government to coerce v. the power of the collective. True, communalism and communism are VERY different things but it is in the similarities between the two theories that I think you have a useful discussion of the United Order. In a way, I suppose I am saying that communalism often represented the best elements of communism while divorcing the worst and I often view the United Order in that way. It had certain similarities with communism but did not embrace the major flaws in communistic theory that ultimately led to it being used as a bludgeon.

    However, both systems ultimately failed on a theoretical level for the same reason: in mortality at least, humans need economic incentives that drive production and wealth enhancment.

    Finally, I don’t agree that the anti-democtratic strains in the Church are 20th century conceptions. Perhaps I could see some strength in a theory that posited that mormons embraced a 19th century formulation of democracy which was far less majoritiarian and individualistic so that when we look back at them from a 20th century democratic perspective (more majoritarian and driven by individual rights) we see something less than democratic. But I don’t think even that theory would tell the whole story. It seems to me that Mormons embraced non-democratic theories in the 19th century including wholly non-democratic theocracy.

  23. Frank McIntyre says:

    HL, we lynch because we care.

    (and because you’re wrong, but mostly because we care)

  24. Seth Rogers says:

    “I think the fact that Mormons assert that the Constitution is an inspired document shows that we are not simply tolerating democracy until such time as a theocracy can be instituted.”

    I think you’re probably right. I don’t feel that way myself, but I imagine it is true for a good chunk of the American LDS membership.

    I heard a really interesting remark from a scholar on Judaism (it was back in undergrad and I doubt I could find the source again). He suggested that the greatest contemporary threat to world Judaism was not resurgent anti-semitism in Europe or Palestinian terrorists (and nations that support them). He said the greatest threat to Judaism, as a religion, was American culture.

    He pointed out that the US currently holds the world’s largest Jewish population. Yet many of these “Jews” would hardly be recognized as such by most people. They have been assimilated into the American mainstream. They don’t observe the Sabbath, don’t really keep up with the other religious observances, and only drag out their religion for weddings and bat mitzvah’s. Kinda like most Protestant Americans.

    I once heard a comedian joke: “I’m not a Jew. I’m Jewish!”

    I took it as a poignant symbol of vanishing religious identity.

    I think a lot of Mormon Americans are taking the same path. We are becoming American first and Mormon second. I find this trend extremely disturbing. I don’t think that national affiliation should ever define personal identity. I see mainstream American culture (and I’m not just talking about MTV here) as one of the largest threats to our church today.

  25. Justin H says:

    To agree with Aaron and Seth–I think that while many members consciously recognize that worldwide membership is equally legitimately LDS, the Church is still very American in our discourse and thought.

    Take the language of HL’s original post. Reading it, would one have any idea that Mormonism is a worldwide phenomenon? “Mormons love America,” he writes in the opening paragraph, and continues on in the assumption that Mormons everywhere think about US politics.

    I see this in a lot of different Mormon forums. I don’t think it’s malicious, or exclusionary, and I apologize for using HL as a straw man. But the problem of our language and thought reflecting the Americanness of Mormonism (at least in much of our informal discourse) is a little troubling. It’s a reflection of what Seth points to in his anxiety about Mormons in the US being US Americans first, and Mormons second.

  26. Justin H says:

    Meant to say intentionally exclusionary…

  27. “I’m not a Jew. I’m Jewish!”

    I like that. I may have to start claiming not to be “Mormon” but “Mormonish”.

  28. Christof M says:

    “claiming not to be “Mormon” but “Mormonish”

    Hmm… this could be a total tangent, but I do hope you think your last comment was a bit extreme Justin H. I mean the fact of the matter is that one having any “Mormon-ness” at all is completely contingent upon their being Mormon. Isn’t it?

    I mean this sincerely, isn’t it actually damaging to the gospel to try to separate your cultural identity from your religious one? Once this is done, the road to relativism is all but paved, leaving me with little at all to discern the faithful from the flippant, little at all to guage what my behaviour should be when I lose sight of my true calling as a child of God.

    I think we should emphasize a wholistic view of life, i.e. my religion, work, culture, values, and goals are all distinctly Gospel-oriented… Shouldn’t we?


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