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?