Liberty and equality are routinely said to be conflicting foundational values in America. For example, a policy in favor of equality in the form of a high minimum wage law restricts liberties: the liberty of potential employers to hire workers at a lower wage and the liberty of workers to accept very poorly paid contracts. Whatever normative weight a given individual may attach to these two value poles in a given situation, we may often be able to agree that the two values create trade-offs. Does such a trade-off between liberty and equality arise within the Mormon polity? If so, which value is most heavily favored by our scriptural texts?
On many issues, the Mormon community is structured in ways that emphasize neither liberty nor equality. The aspects of Mormon thought, tradition, and practice that are especially hierarchical are most relevant here. When the rights and importance of our highest church leadership are given central attention, that attention stresses spiritual and organizational differences between the average church member and the leadership. Such difference obviously tends against equality. At the same time, the common emphasis on the importance of following and obeying leadership stands in some real tension with the value of liberty. At the margin, the Mormon leadership may enforce its instructions by excluding — or threatening to exclude — from the community those who choose to disobey. Yet even when such total enforcement is not at stake, social pressure within the Mormon community, the prospect of losing opportunities for service in the church, and the very standing of the leadership marginally erode individual liberty.
Indeed, it appears to me that liberty is not generally a privileged value within the Mormon community. One of the few domains in which Mormonism has a tradition of liberty involves freedom of doctrine and belief. This freedom is emphasized in the Book of Mormon society’s legal system:
…the law could have no power on any man for his belief. (Alma 1:17)
A large collection of quotations from early Mormon leaders applies this idea to the Mormon community in particular. In one particularly famous example, Joseph Smith stated:
…I never thought it was right to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please, it feels so good not to be tramelled. It dont prove that a man is not a good man, because he errs in doctrine. (8 April 1843 Conference Report by William Clayton)
Aside from freedom of belief, however, the Mormon tradition emphasizes equality far more extensively than it does freedom. Indeed, the Mormon scriptures imagine the good society primarily in terms of social and economic equality. Thus, 4 Nephi describes the paradisaical Nephite community in the wake of Jesus Christ’s visit in terms of a lack of contention and of class division, and in terms of community ownership of all property. Little or nothing is said about freedom in this book; curiously, the text also has no time for issues of hierarchy.
Likewise, the Book of Moses describes Enoch’s City of Zion in the following terms:
[the people of the city were] of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them. (Moses 7:18)
Here, once again, there is a significant stress on equality — one heart, one mind, no poverty. The text does not emphasize either liberty or hierarchy.
If the conclusions drawn from this scriptural sketch are correct, then Mormonism emphasizes equality far more than it does liberty. However, hierarchy may play a much greater role as a central value in Mormon life than in American politics, for example. While hierarchy is not stressed in the Mormon scriptural accounts of the good society, it is emphasized in Mormon culture, organization, and current discourse.
In American life, the value of equality is often not fully realized at least in part because of tensions with various aspects of liberty. Evidently, that is not the case within Mormonism. Even so, themes of equality often seem less emphasized in the day-to-day church than in the scriptures. Might the reason lie in a tension between equality and hierarchy?
At the abstract level, this is obviously plausible. Hierarchy and equality are not fully compatible in a logical sense. But rather than working through these linkages, it seems to me that our effort might be better placed in finding ways to bring equality more centrally into view within our current hierarchical worldview.