Recently, 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?
*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.