Scriptural and Political Hermeneutics in the Mormon Tradition

SL Temple flagRecently, I attended a conference on the Civil War, hosted by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Among the many great presentations was a panel on abolitionism, and the common thread was an exploration of how opponents to slavery positioned their action with regard to the Constitution: was the Constitution a pro-slavery document that must be decried? (Prominent abolitionist William Loyd Garrison argued it was a “covenant with death.”) Was it an anti-slavery document that was being wrongly interpreted? (A recent and brilliant book teases out how Lincoln understood there to be “implicit readings” in the Constitution that could be expanded to introduce new laws and interpretations.) Did human rights take precedence over legal jurisdiction? These were thorny issues in the decades leading up to 1860, and remain a difficult moral dilemma even today.

One of the papers focused on Theodore Parker, a radical Transcendentalist minister and leading abolitionist, who believed that the Constitution was a malleable and flawed document that required constant revision, expansion, and correction. (If you’re interested, I’ve written on Parker here.) One reason Parker was able to have such a progressive view of the Constitution, the paper argued, was that he also had a progressive view of the Bible: he is widely known by religious historians as the controversial minister who argued there were both “transient” and “permanent” principles found in the sacred text, and that it was modernity’s duty to help the text evolve. Thus, his scriptural hermeneutics had a profound influence on his political hermeneutics. (Juvenile Instructor pseudo-blogger Jordan Watkins is currently writing his dissertation on this very dynamic.)

This left me with a question, though: what hermeneutical traditions have Mormons inherited, and how might they influence our own unique political theology/theologies? How does our practice of and approach to the interpretation of scripture affect our understanding of political texts and governments? (Note that this is a separate question than how the content of our scriptures influence our politics; while that is a fine and important question in and of itself, this is different and distinct approach to our unique political theology.)

As is (mostly) consistent with my larger interpretive approach to Mormonism in particular and cultural traditions in general, I believe we have inherited a mesh of possibilities—a toolbox which we can use to construct various theological frameworks based on our own assumptions and cultural contexts. But a couple, admittedly abstract, thoughts before I open it up for discussion.

First, I would like to think that our tradition of an open canon, living scripture, and our “as far as it is translated correctly” clause make it possible for us to be quite progressive* in reading documents like the Constitution as a living document. However, at least in the late twentieth century, this has certainly not been the case. A majority of American Mormons, for a variety of reasons, tend to be quite conservative* interpreters of American law, even tending to be originalists. Perhaps this is a situation in which demographics, contexts, and allegiance to past authoritative positions (see here) take precedent over hermeneutical possibilities. Or perhaps our quixotic attachment to biblical literalism—a foreign practice that oddly increased within the LDS faith during the last century—renders mute the hermeneutical tradition I mentioned above. But I would think that the materials are there within Mormon scriptural practices to approach government and government texts in a very open and evolving way.

Second, as has been skillfully pointed out lately, we don’t so much have a tradition of scriptural hermeneutics as we do a tradition of authoritative interpretations of scriptures. That is, we have projected the responsibility and authority of scriptural interpretation to those in authoritative positions: it doesn’t matter how we interpret a passage as much as it matters how prophets and apostles interpret the passage. This seems the most salient “continuing revelation” tradition currently in place: we have a theoretically open canon, though most of our current practices and developments depend not on newly revealed scriptural texts but on the rereading and reinterpretation of texts already at our disposal. In this sense, scriptural readings become mere proof texts at the will of leadership, and our practice of reading is more a ritual of reinforcing the doctrines and principles taught to us from the pulpit rather than a personal quest for personal understanding. (Think the D&C sunday school manuals.) Projected into the political realm, this means our interpretation of political documents is dependent on those who are in the positions to make seemingly authoritative interpretations—whether it be in the executive, legislative, or judicial branch. (Note that this proof-texting approach is present on both sides of the political spectrum.)

So, what do you think? Does our method of and approach to interpreting scriptures influence the way we interpret political documents?

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*Note that my use of the terms “progressive” and “conservative” do not necessarily imply the partisan phrases currently in use; rather, I mean to use it in the hermeneutical sense that, in the former sense, a document is open to new and creative readings and, in the latter sense, the belief in a staid document that has clear and limited possibilities. While these distinctions do sometimes fall into modern-day political dichotomies—Republicans are more likely to be “originalists,” after all—this is not always the case, and it often varies by topic.

Comments

  1. Theodore Parker, one of my favorites. Nice write-up, Ben.

  2. K Eversole says:

    I think how we interpret the documents at ‘murica’s founding are guided, but ultimately are up to us. We can be indoctrinated, but that can be undone. In short, we must ‘study it out in our minds,’ and make our own decisions. For the most part, the church makes clear that salvation doesn’t depend on political affiliation (some I know might disagree), and lets us choose what we will. I feel like most decisions have to be left up to our own to be figured out, like the bro of Jared.

  3. Good post Ben. I think that you point out the problem well. We have given our “leaders’ greater authoritative leeway in interpreting all things than what the scriptures seem to do. While I think this began when Mormonism was still a close-knit community, some twentieth century churfch leaders became political Jeremiahs who saw evil in political and ideological terms and meshed their doctrinal orthodoxy with cold war politics. Because they were so much more aggressive in their politics and willing to take on other church leaders in public, they eventually became the dominant voice of authority, and many members simply acquiesed to their views. Over time they simply became the mainstream. Those who opposed such views were either pushed out or chose to leave. And often, those who stayed to push back became their own community and found themselves outside the mainstream of Mormonism and thus ineffective, eventually–as I came to experienced–it became a badge of honor to be different from the rest of Mormonism, which did not help much. Some thoughts. There is a strong counter narrative to our current status quo but those who hold it don’t do a good job of promoting their views or recruiting the troops necessary to wage a stronger battle. I experience this a lot at the Y. A lot of “thumbs up” and “I agree” done and said in the hallways but not in the meetings and never on paper.

  4. we have projected the responsibility and authority of scriptural interpretation to those in authoritative positions: it doesn’t matter how we interpret a passage as much as it matters how prophets and apostles interpret the passage. This seems the most salient “continuing revelation” tradition currently in place…

    This is an interesting observation, you connect the authoritative interpretation of canon as an element of “continuing revelation,” where cont. rev. stands in for authority in general.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post a bit. The idea that Mormons might be tend to be originalists is somewhat radical. Imagine if that were extended to the canon? And is that what the presentist impulse is satisfying, that is the idea that the way we are reading it is actually the way it was understood?

  6. Thanks, all.

    J: that is how I read it, yes. Originalism stems not only from a naive presentism, but also an anxiety over authority that projects our own interpretations on those of the past.

  7. I think it’s relatively easy to be an “originalist” when it comes to Constitutional interpretation and a “living canon-ist” when it comes to the scriptures. Many are drawn to originalism because the “living Constitution” tends to remove decision-making from the political sphere and place it in the judicial, which is unelected and unaccountable, And no judge I know of is a prophet, seer or revelator.

  8. Makes me wonder about the tendency of “scripture fundamentalists” to also be “Constitutional fundamentalists”…

  9. In what sense is Biblical literalism a foreign practice?

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