“The assault on moral principles and religious freedom has never been stronger…. there are also people who are determined to both destroy faith and reject any religious influence in society….” Quentin L. Cook, Let There Be Light, October 2010 General Conference.
It is hard to understand what Cook, as well as other Mormon speakers in recent years making similar arguments, means when he refers to “religious freedom.” I am, as always, tempted to ask what is happening today which limits our ability to worship more than the conflict between the church and the US government over plural marriage, when the church was disincorporated and lost most of its property. But restraint on ability to worship seems not to be central to what Cook has in mind in referring to religious freedom. Instead, the operative issue here involves a perceived rejection of “religious influence in society.” Let me allow Cook to elaborate:
There has always been an ongoing battle between people of faith and those who would purge religion and God from public life. Many opinion leaders today reject a moral view of the world based on Judeo-Christian values. In their view there is no objective moral order. They believe no preference should be given to moral goals…. In our increasingly unrighteous world, it is essential that values based on religious belief be part of the public discourse. Moral positions informed by a religious conscience must be accorded equal access to the public square. Under the constitutions of most countries, a religious conscience may not be given preference, but neither should it be disregarded.
In much, if not most, of the world, these arguments make little sense. In the Muslim world, are we really worried that religion is inadequately represented in the public square? This hardly seems like a live issue in those contexts. The Catholic church is in some ways less politically active, and perhaps influential, than in the recent and especially more distant past, but Evangelical churches of one kind or another are arguably in a period of worldwide increase in terms of political voice.
In the U.S., it remains the case that religion is overwhelmingly present in public life. One example of this involves polling data. Atheists are consistently listed as unacceptable presidential candidates by the majority of Americans. To take one typical example, in a 2007 Gallup survey, 53% of Americans said that they would not be willing to vote for “a generally well-qualified” atheist nominated for the presidency by their own party. By way of comparison, only 24% would be unwilling to vote for a Mormon candidate under similar circumstances. No other group mentioned in the survey was acceptable to fewer respondents than atheists. Far from being disregarded in public life, as Cook worries, it would appear that at least the public feigning of a religious conscience is essentially mandatory for would-be leaders in America.
But let us consider Cook’s argument at a more fine-grained level. His concern is that a move by some elites away from affirmation of “Judeo-Christian values” inherently involves the belief that there is no objective moral order and that moral goals should not be favored. Implicit here is the idea that Christian beliefs strongly imply a single objective, shared, moral system. This, of course, is not so. Christian voices can be found on most sides of most moral debates, and this has been the case at least since the Protestant Reformation got well and truly underway.
One of Cook’s favorite examples of an instance in which he sees religious voices bringing moral “light” to a public debate involves the abolition of slavery. Let me reproduce the key passages from his talk:
Many faith-based institutions in the last two centuries have been at the forefront in reaching out and rescuing those subjected to cruel circumstances because their members believe that all men are made in the image and likeness of God. William Wilberforce, the great British statesman who was instrumental in outlawing the slave trade in Great Britain, is an excellent example. “Amazing Grace,” the touching hymn, and the inspiring movie of the same name capture the feeling of the early 1800s and describe the account of his heroic effort. Wilberforce’s untiring efforts were among the first steps in eliminating this terrible, oppressive, cruel, and venal practice. As part of that effort he, together with other leaders, set out to reform public morality. He believed that education and government had to be morally based. “His . . . vision of moral and spiritual enrichment was what he lived for, whether in defending the institution of marriage, attacking the practices of the slave trade or emphatically defending the Sabbath day.” With great energy he helped mobilize the country’s moral and social leaders in a nationwide struggle against vice.
In our early Church history, the vast majority of our members were opposed to slavery. This was a significant reason, along with their religious beliefs, for the hostility and mob violence they experienced, culminating in the extermination order issued by Governor Boggs in Missouri. In 1833 Joseph Smith received a revelation stating, “It is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” Our commitment to freedom of religion and treating all people as sons and daughters of God is central to our doctrine.
These are just two examples of how faith-based values undergird principles that greatly bless society. There are many more. We should both participate ourselves and support people of character and integrity to help reestablish moral values that will bless the entire community.
It is certainly true that many religious actors were involved in the abolition movement. Yet religious voices were also fundamental to the defense of slavery. An excellent, although far from unique, example is the Louisiana Presbyterian Minister Benjamin Morgan Palmer, who in a Nov. 29, 1860, sermon said about the South’s Secessionist struggle,
…in this great struggle, we defend the cause of God and religion. The abolition spirit is undeniably atheistic. The demon which erected its throne upon the guillotine in the days of Robespierre and Marat, which abolished the Sabbath and worshipped reason in the person of a harlot, yet survives to work other horrors, of which those of the French Revolution are but the type. Among a people so generally religious as the American, a disguise must be worn; but it is the same old threadbare disguise of the advocacy of human rights. From a thousand Jacobin clubs here, as in France, the decree has gone forth which strikes at God by striking at all subordination and law. Availing itself of the morbid and misdirected sympathies of men, it has entrapped weak consciences in the meshes of its treachery; and now, at last, has seated its high priest upon the throne, clad in the black garments of discord and schism, so symbolic of its ends. Under this suspicious cry of reform, it demands that every evil shall be corrected, or society become a wreck—the sun must be stricken from the heavens, if a spot is found upon his disk. The Most High, knowing his own power, which is infinite, and his own wisdom, which is unfathomable, can afford to be patient. But these self-constituted reformers must quicken the activity of Jehovah or compel his abdication. In their furious haste, they trample upon obligations sacred as any which can bind the conscience. It is time to reproduce the obsolete idea that Providence must govern man, and not that man shall control Providence. In the imperfect state of human society, it pleases God to allow evils which check others that are greater. As in the physical world, objects are moved forward, not by a single force, but by the composition of forces; so in his moral administration, there are checks and balances whose intimate relations are comprehended only by himself. But what reck they of this—these fierce zealots who undertake to drive the chariot of the sun? Working out the single and false idea which rides them like a nightmare, they dash athwart the spheres, utterly disregarding the delicate mechanism of Providence, which moves on, wheels within wheels, with pivots and balances and springs, which the great Designer alone can control. This spirit of atheism, which knows no God who tolerates evil, no Bible which sanctions law, and no conscience that can be bound by oaths and covenants, has selected us for its victims, and slavery for its issue. Its banner-cry rings out already upon the air—”liberty, equality, fraternity,” which simply interpreted mean bondage, confiscation and massacre. With its tricolor waving in the breeze,—it waits to inaugurate its reign of terror. To the South the high position is assigned of defending, before all nations, the cause of all religion and of all truth. In this trust, we are resisting the power which wars against constitutions and laws and compacts, against Sabbaths and sanctuaries, against the family, the State, and the Church; which blasphemously invades the prerogatives of God, and rebukes the Most High for the errors of his administration; which, if it cannot snatch the reign of empire from his grasp, will lay the universe in ruins at his feet. Is it possible that we shall decline the onset?
This argument, then, which sweeps over the entire circle of our relations, touches the four cardinal points of duty to ourselves, to our slaves, to the world, and to Almighty God. It establishes the nature and solemnity of our present trust, to preserve and transmit our existing system of domestic servitude, with the right, unchallenged by man, to go and root itself wherever Providence and nature may carry it. This trust we will discharge in the face of the worst possible peril. Though war be the aggregation of all evils, yet should the madness of the hour appeal to the arbitration of the sword, we will not shrink even from the baptism of fire. If modern crusaders stand in serried ranks upon some plain of Esdraelon, there shall we be in defence of our trust. Not till the last man has fallen behind the last rampart, shall it drop from our hands; and then only in surrender to the God who gave it.
Note not only the strong, religious fervor behind Palmer’s defense of slavery, but also his explicit connection of abolition with atheism. The trope of the “atheistic abolitionist” was widespread in American discourse before the Civil War; there was no countervailing figure of the “atheistic advocate of slavery.” The reasons for this are sketched in Mark Noll’s excellent essay, “The Bible and Slavery,” Chapter 2 in this volume. Not only did common readings of the Bible at the time regard slavery as scripturally permitted and therefore divine in origin, but also prominent abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison argued along the lines that these aspects of the Bible should be seen as providing sufficient reason to disregard the book’s authority in questions of morality. In short, religious voices spoke on both sides of the debate about slavery, but atheistic, iconoclastic, and heterodox voices were most visibly found on the side of abolition.
Mormons as a community did not unambiguously stand on the abolitionist side. Cook cites a revelation stating that, “It is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” One might reasonably juxtapose this revelation with another from the same time period, which states that:
…That law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land; and as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil. (D&C 98:5-7)
It hardly bears mention that slavery was quite explicitly the constitutional law of the land at the time these words were written. Joseph Smith’s position on slavery was complex and shaded by political considerations, but he seems to have usually leaned in an abolitionist direction. Nonetheless, he was willing to argue from time to time that slavery was ordained of God and that abolitionism was an unworthy movement. See, for example, the April, 1836, article on slavery and abolitionism published in his name in the Messenger and Advocate, which argues against abolitionism as contrary to scripture and divine providence.
The church and Mormon community more generally during Brigham Young’s years was far from aligning itself unambiguously with abolitionism. In fact, Utah Territory was a slave territory, by act of the Mormon-controlled Utah Legislature. Young saw slavery as a divinely-sanctioned institution, although he did not unambiguously support it. Consider, for example, this passage from a July 13, 1859, interview between him and Horace Greeley:
H.G. — What is the position of your Church with respect to Slavery?
B.Y. — We consider it of Divine institution, and not to be abolished until the curse pronounced on Ham shall have been removed from his descendants.
H.G. — Are there any slaves now held in this Territory?
B.Y. — There are.
H.G. — Do your Territorial laws uphold Slavery?
B.Y. — Those laws are printed — you can read them for yourself. If slaves are brought here by those who owned them in the States, we do not favor their escape from the service of those owners.
H.G. — Am I to infer that Utah, if admitted as a member of the Federal Union, will be a Slave State?
B.Y. — No; she will be a Free State. Slavery here would prove useless and unprofitable. I regard it generally as a curse to the masters. I myself hire many laborers and pay them fair wages; I could not afford to own them. I can do better than subject myself to an obligation to feed and clothe their families, to provide and care for them, in sickness and health. Utah is not adapted to Slave Labor.
We here come to the point. Religious voices did indeed play an important role in the abolitionist movement — but not all of them, and not only them. Mormons were not really part of the abolitionist movement. Our faith simply did not produce clear and resounding statements and action against the morality of slavery. While there are religious traditions which deserve to give themselves some of the credit for abolition, we are probably not one of them.
This has implications up to the present day. For most of the moral issues that Mormons want to talk about in the public sphere these days, there are religious voices advocating various positions. Some churches and religious leaders support same-sex marriage. A variety of churches are explicitly pro-feminist, and so forth. Because religious actors and voices advocate nearly every position that commands substantial public support in moral debates, it is simply far from clear that religious voices bring special moral clarity or light to those debates. Furthermore, it is hard to know how to identify the church or tradition which represents the moral light in a given argument. Thus, a call for religious voices to be taken more seriously is really just a call to keep having the debate we’re having anyway. And a special call for Mormon voices to be taken seriously based in any part on the abolition movement is an unwarranted annexation of other traditions’ virtuous pasts.