A Mormon Social Doctrine?

What is the LDS doctrine justifying a shift from seeing moral issues as a matter of individual conscience, and hence merit, to requiring morality as a matter of law? In other words, how does the gospel apply to society?

We have seen in recent decades an increasing involvement of religion within the public sector both in the US and abroad. This includes the rise of the religious right within the US, an increasingly politically engaged Catholicism, an Islam deeply concerned with the structure and organization of global society, and a political Hinduism. They have challenged the simple modernist notions that religion must be separated from the public sphere, especially government, and that religion is in essence private and individual not public and collective.

Today pundits take for granted that the religious vote is important in our country, especially the block of Evangelical voters that were key to putting Mr. Bush in the White House for two terms. Commentators wring phrases like hands as they discuss the distance between the presumptive Republican nominee for the presidency, John McCain, and the Evangelicals. Religion and Evangelical voters played an important role in the Republican primaries, as an Evangelical candidate and a Mormon candidate went mano a mano, while the more secularist McCain benefited in the polls. But now, many argue McCain needs the evangelical vote, a substantial part of the former “base” of his party, to prevail against resurgent democrats.

Although often unexpressed by commentators, there are theological concerns in the politics of Evangelicals. The general discourse in the pundit-sphere sees the issue as one of affinities between a politician and masses of voters who will enter the polls to vote their conscience. Talking heads worry about whether a given political stance, style, and rhetoric will sway enough voters to prevail on election day. They assume a world composed of individuals and aggregates. Religion is seen as something that molds individual consciences, but the individual reigns supreme in the casting of a vote. However, among Evangelicals there are complex theological arguments about political participation. The individualist theology that seems to correspond with the political notions of the pundits, that religion is most strongly a matter of individual conscience, whether in accepting Christ or in choosing a candidate for political office, is but one. There are more.

Following the Scopes trial, in which the teaching of evolution was at issue, the dominant idea among Evangelicals was to avoid politics. They emphasized living good personal lives as driven by the Word and Spirit of God such that they could be among the saved, those lifted up, when Jesus returns. In the sixties, however, a number of activist preachers, such as Reverend Jerry Falwell, reworked that emphasis on separation from politics. They articulated a vibrant gospel of political engagement.

A key theological principle was the issue of God’s pleasure or displeasure with the country prior to the return of Christ. Society was argued to have strayed from God’s design, as manifested in many sorts of “traditional” forms, such that God was displeased with society and would cease to bless it and might curse it—bring his wrath upon it. Evangelicals then should work, through their electoral power, to keep God’s wrath at bay as a matter of religious and personal devotion. The acceptance of God’s Word was not only an issue of individual conscience it was also a matter of social design. God’s Word should pattern the building of society and public institutions. It was not enough to be righteous in ones home, Church, and private life, one also needed to witness in the public sphere and build righteousness into social institutions.

In any single instance, whether prayer in the schools, abortion, gender roles, family values, gay marriage, the issues are complex. They involve notions such as the rights of groups of people to live their religion and claim collective recognition of it within a public sphere that almost by definition cannot be seen as neutral, as well as notions of a holy society and the place of individual conscience within it.

Evangelicals are not alone. The Vatican has strongly and clearly articulated a political and social gospel. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have railed against a moral and relativist vacuum in modernity and argued for religious values in the public sector. In the US we most recently saw our President stand with the Pope and hold forth against a dictatorship of relativism, one of the current Pope’s favorite phrases. The Pope claimed he liked America because here religious groups could stand up and actively participate in public sector debates, something he sees as much more restrained in Europe.

To create a theological basis for religious action Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger a theologian and former professor of philosophy, developed an argument against a politics grounded in individual action alone. He holds individualism leads to relativism, which inherently defies morality. There is no place, in individualism, beyond individual choice and will, from which to articulate a moral position, since in the Western tradition, morality and ethics depend on a God who stands outside of society. Individualism, by definition then, is anti-moral according to the Pope, and leads of necessity to a feeling of emptiness and disengagement, since God and hence a moral anchor is driven from society. Relativism creates social problems and decay because it does not allow any absolute source of value. It results in social and personal nihilism. The Pope also argues to notions of nature to sustain his argument for God in society. He holds that in nature one can see the purpose for which God made creation. It is un-natural, then, to live or move against this divine purpose. The Pope is unapologetic for introducing God and morality into political discussion through this notion of nature, since God, otherwise, is lacking from social discourse. Society’s role, ironically, is to assure nature’s, and hence, God’s, place as a determiner of morality in order to avoid the nihilism of unfettered individuality. As a result, to fill the philosophic and social empty space, religion must re-enter the political world and become a basis for legislation.

The cynic, of course, would ask what kind of God is it that must be socially legislated as being above society such that nature can reflect His will. However to the Pope this weaker notion of God is part of the problem Western society faces when it sees morality as solely a matter of individual conscience, and he argues for a return to nature and hence God as a means of solving a modernist problem of an unanchored self allowed by enforced relativism.

The theological and philosophical issues and debates in the surgence of religion into politics over the last few decades are rich. Latter-day Saints have also moved into political activism. One hears, of course, the regular call for Latter-day Saint to vote and be active in the political process. However, one has also seen the First Presidency take stances on what are determined to be moral issues where they invest Church resources in political action and make callings to members to organize and work against or in favor of particular issues. We saw this develop with the Brethren’s determination to defeat what was the quite popular Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution that would have given men and women equal standing under the law. We have also seen it in the so-called Defense of Marriage Acts. Now we see it in the call to support an amendment to California’s constitution defining the nature of marriage as between a man and a woman.

The First Presidency writes laconically when asking members to become involved. They do not develop explicit theological arguments, on the whole. Their language tends to emphasize that an issue is moral, and hence, the purview of religious leaders. It is therefore within their authority to speak out and call for action. They also use a language of rights, such as a claimed right of children to be born into a particular kind of marriage.

In this tradition, their most recent letter does not clearly articulate a theology of society and individuals. They leave unspoken any answer to the question of which doctrines justify, and how they justify, the movement from an understanding that morality is a space of individual conscience and action to one of requiring legislation to enforce a moral stance on society.

There has been much discussion of Evangelical theology and Catholic theology on the issue is published on the Vatican’s web page as well as in many books. As a result, I think it would be interesting to discuss LDS theology of society and individuals, and how one moves from a notion of morality that has such deep individualist resonance in LDS thought to one of legislation. I am not interested in a discussion of the particular issues that might be legislated, such as particular kinds of marriage, but rather the theologies that justify and sustain Church action. How are these similar to and different from those that have motivated Evangelical and Catholic discussion and action?


  1. I’m not in a place where I can offer an LDS social doctrine, but I do want to very quickly say that I think that you are homogenizing the catholic approaches. For at least two centuries, there have been a wide variety of simultanteously existing and often competing catholic socio-political doctrines. For instance, during the 1970’s you had simultaneously existing Christian Democratic Social Doctrines associate with the CD parties in W Germany, the Netherlands, and Italy; the Doctrines associated with the Franco-ist regime in Spain (which has equally been popular in Petainist France and Quebec before the Quiet Revolution; and Liberation Theology in Latin America; and some remnants of the Catholic Worker Movement hanging around. Aside from the decline from visibility of the ideas assoicated with the Franco-Petain-Dupleisis regimes, these continue today, along with a few new ones drawn out by the challenges of the pro-life struggle and the response to Communism.

    So there’s no clear Catholic social doctrine; I’m not sure we should expect to see one in the LDS context, especially given that there has been no concerted effort to articulate one.

  2. StillConfused says:

    I think the “more” religion in politics is mostly just trying to keep the status quo. Religious people cannot stay out of politics if the anti-religious people continue to remove things.

  3. sister blah 2 says:

    This is an excellent post. I would have thought the topics of the Christian Right (and all the individual issues) were fairly beat to death, at least for me. But this is an interesting and even-handed take. Lemme think more, then comment further…

  4. TMD, I did not presume to summarize Catholic social teaching in one paragraph. That is why I wrote solely about the most recent two Popes and particularly Pope Benedict. I hope I have not been unfair to his voluminous and complex thought. However your proper citing of the variety and importance of Catholic social thought raises issues. There are, of course, multiple voices among Evangelicals as well. In distinction with the Catholics, they do not have a single, central base of religious power and legitimacy. Latter-day Saints are even more centralized.

    Though Catholicism is rich and diverse, the Vatican has certain abilities to give priority to its perspectives. While the inner battles of the Vatican are not to be given short shrift here, nevertheless it is important to note that in the last two decades the Vatican has used its bully pulpit and its power to give its teaching priority over others, such as the Liberation Theology you mention.

    I think the variety of LDS Social thought is interesting, some of it articulated deeply on the blogosphere. But how does all this relate to the actions of the Brethren? What are the doctrinal bases for politics?

  5. Wasn’t the LDS position less libertarianism than simply making moral laws on as local a level as possible?

  6. What is the LDS doctrine justifying a shift from seeing moral issues as a matter of individual conscience, and hence merit, to requiring morality as a matter of law?

    I’m not sure your premise is justifiable. Among other things, the Book of Mormon is a treatment of the interrelationship between religious authority and political authority. The history of the Restoration is filled with religious authority and political authority being comingled, and moral law seen often in line with legislative activities.

    I don’t know where you see a “shift” occurring, and when the church was not involved in politics, be it gambling or MX missiles or blue laws or prohibition or ERA (the support of which was rather overstated in your post — the church’s actions could not be said to be the determining factor in its failure to pass. Lots of other states besides Utah failed to ratify.) In fact, it’s not too hard to trace a bright line of political activity around moral issues back through Kirtland at least.

    What has been shifting, perhaps, is the American politic, which has increasingly challenged issues that were seen as strictly moral ones. You may remember the arguments that ERA was a slippery slope to unisex bathrooms and same-sex marriages. At the time, such arguments were ridiculed as lacking seriousness. As the ground traditionally under the purview of the faith establishment has been brought into the political process, it seems unremarkable that the faith community has spoken up and mobilized as part of the debate.

    What is remarkable, in fact, is that so many feel a sense of outrage that the faith institutions would dare speak up. That attitude, I think, is most interesting.

  7. Ben, you miss a big middle period of Americanization between Kirtland etc and the ERA, MX, etc. I am not challenging the Church’s political actions in this post. Part of the notions of Americanization and hence secularity was the development of what the sociologists describe as a limitation of religion to the private sphere where its role was primarily that of providing a moral education and discipline. Americanization also involved a particular set of notions about the nature of individuals and their place in society, as a result. Charles Taylor takes all this on masterfully.

    The “outrage” you describe (a word that does not describe my position–one of studied neutrality–on the issue) is curious. It stems from an idea that religion belongs in the private sphere and not in the public domain. That idea became widespread and socially entrenched in large sectors of American and other societies. A movement back into the public sector is an important shift that needs observation.

    Please clarify the links you see stemming from the book of Mormon that explain the theology of society and religious authorities’ action within it.

  8. David,

    My understanding of some major theological differences between the Catholic Church and our church is our unfettered and direct access to the divine through prayer and revelation, whereas Catholics seek access through saints, and via the clergy, rather than a direct relationship with God. I hope I have not misstated that position.

    That sets up a difference then from the current Pope in that we still believe in individualism through seeking confirmation via prayer for what our prophets teach and the church espouses. Hence, I would say that in our theology, individualism is not by definition, anti-moral. It does set up an internal tension and paradox when the Church does take these stands on political and legal issues that are determined to have moral implications. The current letter to California members, however, is less ambiguous than the one I saw for Washington State last year regarding the Federal DOMA. That one said only to let your personal view be known to your Senators, and did not specifically say that should be only in support of the DOMA. This letter is more specific, leaving the individual less wiggle room for personal conscience. I perceive that to be a change from how the church has worded the letters in the past that I have firsthand knowledge of.

  9. Thank you for posting this, David.

    Your point about Pope Benedict XVI’s analysis is interesting; as you’ve articulated it, it seems to be a step back from post-modernism, rather than a solution to it. That is, it doesn’t sound like an acknowledgement that, in fact, culture and context and environment shape not only the form, but also the content of a particular experience/event/understanding.

    Whether I’ve correctly understood his position or not, it seems to me that any principled basis for seeking to prevent others from acting in accordance with their conscience has to speak either of the effect of the action on the actor or the effect of the action on the object of the action. From an LDS perspective, the answer to your inquiry may be nothing more than, “…because we believe that God said so…” In the context of Pope Benedict’s statement, such a perspective might be understood as a similar retrenchment from post-modernist dis-integration of authority in the face of diversity, or it could be a perspective from a higher ordinate, akin to parents’ understanding of children.

    Either way, I’m not sure it provides interesting theories to explain the historical gap in Church political arena efforts, but perhaps those result more from extrinsic pressures more than theoretical constraints (i.e., Church sought to avoid political limelight during early post-polygamy years for fear of additional governmental intervention/punishment; Church relatively impoverished and therefore unable to affect political discourse during mid-20s through early 60s).

    Anyway, I found your post provocative of a number of thoughts, and I appreciate that.

  10. Walt Eddy says:

    During polygamy, did members have the option of speaking out against polygamy? What happened if they did? With ERA, were members for ERA sanctioned? Sonia Johnson comes to mind. Obviously, during MX they were not, since the bulk of Utahans were originally for MX and in opposition to the Church’s ultimate stand against it. What happened after the Church announced and the member retained a pro stance? Talk about flip floppers. What happened to members who, in a political sense, called upon the church to change its stance on blacks and the priesthood before June 8, 1978? Wasn’t Byron Marchant, for example, excommunicated for not sustaining President Kimball over the issue? Now, during the current era, what happens to members who advocate for same-sex marriage? Haven’t I read where the Church is going after such members, too? (e.g., Danzig) So, I am interested in this topic and the doctrine that governs the matter. It seems to me that many bloggers participating in the Mormon blogosphere have expressed that they are for same-sex marriages. What is the doctrine governing moral dissent? Good questions and discussion topic, David.

  11. #6 – Ditto.

  12. Monson (really) says:

    Re. #10, I’m not sure many church members are advocating “for same-sex marriages,” only for the freedom of gay people to get married. Not support, just not refusal. It’s an important distinction, I think.

    Also, I’m curious what you all think Joseph Smith’s stance on the California issue would be. My gut thinking is that he would be ok with the amendment, esp. since it’s a state enacting(presumably fairly popular) state legislation. But I don’t know.

    In any case, I’ve gotten some angry IMs today from friends and coworkers reading this story: http://www.mercurynews.com/breakingnews/ci_9675600?nclick_check=1. I don’t feel like it would be appropriate for me to apologize for the actions of the First Presidency to my non-mormon associates, so I basically hem and haw, but I hope this isn’t the type of issue the church itself ends up apologizing for 10 years from now.

  13. LDS Art Collector says:

    Great Post.

  14. “Their language tends to emphasize that an issue is moral, and hence the purview of religious leaders.”

    I’m curious as to why certain political issues get branded as moral, while others do not. It seems to me that most political, and even economic issues are also moral issues, such as war, torture, social services for the poor, etc. It seems the we as Latter-day Saints should broaden our view of what issues are “moral.” On the other hand, just because something is not moral, doesn’t necessarily mean it should be banned by law. Some things, it seems, should be preached against, but not legislated against.


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