Let There Be Light, If Only We Could Agree on What Light Was

“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.


  1. david knowlton says:

    Habermas comes right to mind, when I read Elder Cook or Elder Oaks because I have been working through his recent writings. He argues that religion has an important place in the public sphere, but that it must submit itself to the rules of public discourse, which includes laying out evidence where saying simple “I believe” is not sufficient. It feels to me that the General Authorities are struggling with the ways their language and thought is challenged as not being adequate and authoritative in their own terms. I think they feel threatened by having to produce evidence for claims beyond simply saying “God says”.

    In this, I think you are right, lies the threat to religious freedom. Like Habermas, society is less grounded in a world where God has primary authority, but in one of argument and political challenge. They seem surprised that arguments to God are not sufficient in themselves to establish a moral order and even less so to establish a political order. As a result, they seem to feel, religion has lost what they hoped was its centrality and importance. But the loss is their idea and hope, not a real shift in religion in society nor a loss of religious freedom.

  2. Joe Geisner says:

    J. Nelson-Seawright,

    Thank you very much for this well thought out post.

    It seems religion thrives on persecution. It can be real or it can be perceived, either way religion seems to embrace persecution.

  3. JNS, it is delightful to read you again and I think your analysis here is accurate.

    As you note, the relationship between Mormons and slavery is a bit complicated. Young, for example, on other occasions was unrestrained in discountenancing slavery. And while there were many Mormons that were abolitionists or who gave up their slaves, there were many, as you write, who weren’t and didn’t.

  4. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    David, thanks.

    Joe, maybe so. I read the religious freedom discourse among Mormons these days as perhaps being less about persecution and more about disagreement regarding Mormons’ proper degree of political power in America.

    J., exactly — I hope my post conveyed the complexity of the situation, without obviously providing a complete overview of sources. What is important for present purposes is simply that Mormon moral vision did not translate into a clear, consistent, and powerful stance in favor of abolition.

  5. Habermas, amongst other greats, has been addressing this at length and Cook’s address, while seeming to directly attack arguments made by the likes of Habermas and Rawls, appears to be without any awareness of those debates. At least, there is no reference to any philosophical readings in the footnotes.

    Yet, it appears that he is mirroring the arguments against public reason made by Robert George. Elder Cook attended at gala in Washington, DC that honored George. He has been a regular visitor to BYU and is a recent addition to the editorial board of the Deseret News.

    Cooks talk was horrible. One of my former students put of his FB status on the Sunday night of conference weekend that he loved conference…especially the Cook and Packer talks. I was bummed. This was one of my more liberal students at BYU-Idaho. Sigh.

    Thanks for the post, JNS. Brilliant.

  6. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thank you for articulating several things that confused me about this talk.

    Living in a small island of secularism (=Austin area) in the middle of a large evangelical sea (=Texas) leads one to think differently, perhaps, about what the implementation of religious values in the public sphere might look like. By which I mean that it scares the daylights out of me.

    I’m wondering out loud here: How do you think Elder Cook might respond to this post? Are we misreading him? Was his language ambiguous? Are we missing something? Are we ‘just wrong’? Is he ‘just wrong’?

  7. “How do you think Elder Cook might respond to this post? ”

    I like that question. However, I think that he is repeating much of this a political dogma. He is not grounded in the history or the theory. Now, I would be interested in hearing how Ralph Hancock might respond, because he is the lead voice within the Church with the position which Elder Cook stated.

  8. “as political dogma”

  9. Cynthia L. says:

    Fantastic, JNS.

  10. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Chris, please do a service for the benighted non-readers-of-political-theory in the room and offer some bibliography! Readers could easily grab the “wrong” book by Rawls, for example…

    Julie, I have no idea how Cook might respond to this post. I don’t find the language particularly ambiguous, especially given the last couple of years’ discourse by church leaders on religious freedom. Obviously, it’s possible that Cook simply meant something completely different than what I read him as meaning — but if so, I have no idea what the meaning was.

  11. JNS, I think this is a very well-argued post, and you make some very inconvenient but nonetheless noteworthy observations about the complicated history of slavery.

    My question to you is: do you think the majority of Latter-day Saints listening to Elder Cook missed his point or had any big disagreements with what he had to say? For the majority of us, the sources of the “ongoing battle” are very obvious in our lives, and the rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and its consequences, are all around us.

  12. Wowzers, yet another great post on the blog-o-nacle. These last few days have been amazing.

  13. Thank you JNS for this post, and I do hope Elder Cook reads it. Same with Elder Oaks. He too complains about religious freedom somehow waning in this country today. Maybe we need a tyrant to really show Americans what it is to not be free. We’re so spoiled right now.

  14. Geoff,

    For the majority of us, the sources of the “ongoing battle” are very obvious in our lives, and the rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview, and its consequences, are all around us.

    Is someone from the government telling you you cannot pray to God in your home, or in your church, or even in public? Is someone from the government telling you you cannot say bad things about other people? Or is the practice of “religious freedom” creating laws that restrict the rights of others not of your faith?

  15. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Geoff B., I obviously have no idea what most listeners thought about this talk. I’m not at all sure that the rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview is indeed obvious in the U.S. Also, I’m not at all sure that there is a Judeo-Christian worldview.

  16. J – Interesting observations. To Elder Cook’s defense, this is a very real issue in Europe, where atheism is on the rise and where it is anathema in most places to bring religion into the public square. Perhaps he feels that the US and other parts of the world are moving, to a certain extent, in that direction (certain right-wing activist groups notwithstanding).

    With regard to religious freedom, several of the church’s international legal counsel spoke at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society’s leadership conference a couple of weeks ago about numerous experiences throughout the world where the church was threatened with being expelled from the country or where the church was trying to gain a legal presence in a country (with continued opposition). Perhaps he may be referring to situations like these.

  17. “Chris, please do a service for the benighted non-readers-of-political-theory in the room and offer some bibliography! Readers could easily grab the “wrong” book by Rawls, for example…”

    Good point…they might pick up “Where the Red Fern Grows” by Wilson Rawls…though that would not be a bad choice.

    John Rawls offers a rule of public discourse, as David put it above, which Rawls calls the idea of public reason. When making arguments in the public realm (and Habermas has a much wider idea of what the puclic realm should include), we should appeal to public principles that can be accepted by many on the groups of reason. This means appealing to liberty, order, well-being, safety, etc. rather than appealing to religious conceptions of the dictates of God.

    Rawls, like Habermas, does not think that religious rhetoric should be banned from the public sphere, but it is not enough.

    Rawls’ take is primarily outlined (along with his larger argument) in his second major work “Political Liberalism.” For Jurgen Habermas’ (my favorite name in the world) take a look at his “Inclusion of the Other.”

    I address public reason in a historical context here:

  18. I think the decline and fall of the “Judeo-Christian worldview” can best be described as a decreasing extent to which generally applicable laws reflect what some religious persons describe as “Judeo-Christian” morality (something like the irreversible wrongness of elective abortion, men kissing men, evolutionary “science”, birth control, sodomy, race-mixing, pornography, face-cards, income taxes, pants for women, etc.), as well as the reduced status of the phrase “Judeo-Christian” as a privileged trump card in debates about enforceable public policy.

  19. Most of my Jewish friends insist that they are in no way part of what conservative Christians call the “Judeo-Christian worldview.

  20. Most of my conservative Christian friends think that “Jew” is shorthand for “liberal secularist.”

  21. In that case, I am a Jewish Mormon.

  22. JT,

    To Elder Cook’s defense, this is a very real issue in Europe, where atheism is on the rise and where it is anathema in most places to bring religion into the public square.

    In Europe’s defense, the Catholic Church has done quite a number on European people, giving people ample reason to distrust religion, and eventually distrust God. If all I knew about religion came from the Catholic Church and I saw bishops, and even the pope involved in suppressing victims of child sexual abuse while giving guilty priests a pass, I too would be pissed at that god that the Catholic church wishes me to worship to.

  23. BYU_Student says:

    @Chris bahahahaha

  24. The history of religion in Europe is complex. There are many factors which have led to the current state of religion there. That said, being more like Europe works for me (though I hear they do not have free soda refills).

  25. The “Judeo-Christian tradition” was largely constructed in the mid-twentieth century to confront anti-semitism. It is slowly being replaced by the new “Abrahamic traditions” to confront Islamophobia.

  26. Doug Hudson says:

    The concept of a “Judeo-Christian morality” is an odd one, considering that Christians spent over a thousand years arguing that Jews were one of the major sources of immorality (and often killing them for it).

  27. On a more serious note, it should be clear that “Judeo-Christian” is an explicitly political category masquerading as a traditional religious/moral category.

  28. Mark Brown says:

    I struggle to find coherent meaning in this talk, and invite anybody who does understand it to clarify the following points.

    1. Elder Cook slides easily between generic religion, Judeo-Christian religion, and then just Christian religion without bothering to adress the very problematic differences. His argument rests on the assumption that all those factions speak univocally but that is obviously not true. For instance, I wonder what cooperation between Christians and Jews would look like on the issue of Sabbath closing laws. I’m guessing Jews would get the short end of that stick.

    2. He appears to contradict himself. He first claims that religious viewpoints deserve special consideration, then turns around and claims that religious viewpoints should be treated fairly, but don’t deserve special consideration.

  29. I am worried that Elder Cook’s talk and recent talks by Elder Oaks on this theme are motivated by the reaction of same sex marraige supporters to the result of the Prop 8 episode. In other words, when Prop 8 passed with massive support from Church members, same sex marriage supporters engaged in and continue to engage in grass-roots opposition to and protest against the Church and its position. This is then being taken as evidence that a “Judeo-Christian” religious voice is being drowned out in the public square.

    This argument is strained because in a democracy, such grass-roots protest by a party that loses a ballot initiative is not abnormal and, in fact, should be seen by the victorious side as the natural result of the outcome of the election. The public’s backlash against the Church should have been completely foreseeable by anyone who thought that the Church should become involved as it did, especially lawyers.

    It does not seem accurate to say that this backlash is evidence that religious freedom is being threatened in society, especially where this is not action by a government but simply grass-roots action by people who ended up on the losing side of the particular question.

  30. John F, # 29, that was my take as well. If anything, my sense was that the argument being presented was that our particular religious/moral worldview ought to be given a privileged place in the public discourse. The use of the slavery example, while flawed, seemed designed to bolster the validity of our particular “Judeo/Christian” worldview.

  31. This is a fantastic post, JNS. I think that the very presence of various religious voices on divergent sides of any public debate is pretty good indication that religious freedom is indeed in tact and healthy.

  32. Bruce Nielson says:


    J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Geoff B., I obviously have no idea what most listeners thought about this talk. I’m not at all sure that the rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview is indeed obvious in the U.S. Also, I’m not at all sure that there is a Judeo-Christian worldview.

    JNS, if what you meant was that the Judeo-Christian worldview an abstract label on a sometimes difficult to define (and even changing) worldview, then I’d be fine with what you are saying.

    But you seem to go far beyond that when you claim you aren’t even sure if there is something that is currently labeled ‘the Judeo-Christian worldview.’ You further admit that you aren’t even sure how the intended audience would relate to Elder Cook’s talk. If this is true, that is fine, of course, but then this might be an area where you need to do a bit more research because it’s not exactly esoteric knowledge. Geoff B is basically correct here.

    I would recommend spending some time talking with people that feel threatened and looking into what is happening to cause them to feel that way and make an attempt to put yourself into their shoes if only to understand where they are coming from. I suspect there are many political compromises available that get overlooked because we do not bother to try to understand where ‘the other guys’ are coming from.

  33. Cynthia L. says:

    It could have to do with the Prop 8 trial (with Judge Walker), rather than specifically the Prop 8 *campaign*, John. In the trial, one of the things being determined is if there was a rational basis for the law. The upshot is that religious belief is not considered a rational basis, rather it might be considered simply “animus,” which is not an acceptable basis for legislation against a minority group. So, in that sense, that is one area of public life where secular arguments are acceptable and religious ones are emphatically not allowed.

    That said, it is hard to see how this could change. No law could ever be overturned for being unacceptably biased if the only thing required to uphold it is someone saying that is their religious belief. Sometimes we seem disturbingly cavalier about the collateral damage we are willing to accept in order to enact anti-gay-rights legislation (sorry, infertile couples! only fertility matters in marriage! sorry, interracial couples! courts should never change the definition of marriage! sorry, all minorities! courts shouldn’t ever overturn the majority!)

  34. johnf, 29,
    I think the broader influence of religion in society is what Elder Cook feels is being threatened. Referring to basic Christian ideals as one of the foundational elements in any particular law does not constitute establishment of a religion, at least according to many people. You may disagree, but this seems to be the concept Elder Cook is getting at.

    I think its very easy to go overboard and let religionists rule the day. But at the same time, it seems Elder Cook and the other Apostles seem to think the country is on the wrong track when it purges any religious undertones from having an effect on the legal system.

    There is clearly a difference between establishing a religion and allowing bedrock moral principles derived from religion to have some influence (not an overriding one) in the laws of that society.

    I think his broader point is, if you consider a secularist reasoning on any particular matter and award that 1 point weighting, you should definitely consider the Christian principle on the matter and not discount it. Where does that leave Zoro Astrians, Buddists, Muslims etc. etc.? That’s the tricky part of living in an pluralist society.

  35. (I think the links sent my article to moderation, so I’m pasting w/o this time.)

    JNS, I understood Elder Cook to have movements like the New Atheism in mind as his primary target. From this perspective, his points seem very appropriate and well argued. The tendency toward valueless scientism that this movement propagates is damaging to communal ethics quite generally, and the so-called Judeo-Christian values that I believe Elder Cook is trying to defend. Of course it is hard to pin-point what these values are and how they should be enacted, but that doesn’t change the fact that they have been enormously influential in the history of Western culture, including the abolition of slavery, etc.

    Regarding bibliography:

    I agree with a previous comment that Robert George is a good thinker to read to for a broader sense of where Elder Cook is likely coming from. George can be generally located within the natural law tradition of ethics, which has been quite marginalized recently. Here is an overview article on ethics from a natural law perspective.

    Some other recommended reading would be Jim Faulconer’s article on secularism at Square Two: The World and the Prophets: A Religious Response to Secularism”.

    Also, Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has sparked the kind of controversies that Elder Cook seems to be responding to. Some quick reviews of his book should give you a better sense of the kind of debates that I believe lurk behind Elder Cook’s talk.

    Finally, for a sense of where Ralph Hancock is coming from, a good place to start might be his response to Ben Hertzberg at Square Two here. Though I believe he differs from George, Taylor and Faulconer, they could all be grouped as making more rigorous arguments against the New Atheist movement that Cook seems to be implicitly targeting.

  36. Daniel (22) and Chris H. (24) – I wholeheartedly agree. As a student of French history and a former French missionary, I can certainly attest to what you are saying (both the rough history of the catholic church there as well as other factors, such as the famous Dreyfus Affair of the early 20th century). Sadly, it is a case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

  37. Excellent post. I think that your analysis is right on that what counts as “religious” in this kind of LDS rhetoric is highly selective. It presumes that “religious” represents a single perspective on certain issues. The religious freedoms of gay people to marry or for churches to perform those marriages are simply not counted.

  38. This is a good piece of analysis. I would, however, make two points regarding religious voices that militate your claim that religion has little if anything unique to add to pubic discourse.

    First, religion is inherently destabilizing in that it opens of the possibility of appeals to authority beyond civic or rational authority. This is both potentially dangerous and potentially powerful. it is dangerous because the safety of a liberal democratic order resides in the subordination of competing claims to the authority of rights and liberal practices. Religion creates the possibly of saying, “To hell with your rights.” On the other hand, religion can be very valuable in that often what counts as reasonable and rational are social constructions based who controls the social institutions that arbitrate reasonableness and rationalness. Religion’s willingness to be “irrational” provides a means of upsetting these structures and sometimes they need upsetting. (For example, there actually were very extensive naturalistic defenses of slavery based on supposedly scientific ideas such as polygenism.)

    Second, while I agree with you that religious voices can be found on either side of an issue, I think that having such voices in the public sphere is important because it provides a way for us to deliberate in the presence of God. It is a good thing, I believe, to be reminded that we are accountable to him for our choices and actions. The memory of this accountability, however, is erased in a purely secular discourse.

  39. TT: Do you know of any statement or other piece of evidence suggesting that Church leaders would not regard the performing of gay marriages by other religious denominations as an action protected by the idea of religious freedom?

  40. Bowled a strike here, JNS. This kind of speech is not new for us. Elder Cook’s address may be read as fitting into a genre that Mormons have had going since the late 1820s (and of course we didn’t invent it as you say). The position has always been to protect our ability to preach, proselytize, publish and in general get the word out and defend its message, etc. Anything that threatens the ability to do that, well, it will generate this kind of thing. Public morality has never been the overriding issue for Mormonism, and prop 8 was a manifestation of the perception of Salt Lake seeing a threat, not to the “Judeo-Christian” underpinnings of American society, but to the ability of the Church to press its mission: in this case, as in many others, the long doctrinal thread of Divine Anthropology. There has always been an acceptable variance in how “Mormonism” approaches the public square and it’s mostly based on protecting the abilities of the institution to accomplish what it sees as it’s mission. As Elder Cook actually points out, we’ve been inconsistent, and it’s often been on purpose. Off to class.

  41. A couple of years ago I read Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War by Harry Stout. http://www.amazon.com/Upon-Altar-Nation-Moral-History/dp/0670034703 I think the book has received mixed reviews, but I thought it was fascinating. The portrayal of southern versus northern views on religion, God and the Bible seemed very like today’s culture wars. The quote JNS provides was not at all unusual for southern clergy. The south thought the north was much too secular and criticized the Constitution for not mentioned God or Jesus Christ. The confederate constitution, accordingly, was written explicitly mention and glorify God. (Clergy in the north supported an amendment of the U.S. Constitution recognizing God and Jesus, but tnose amendment were never passed by either House, although “In God We Trust” was added as a U.S. motto on coins. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_amendment.)

    The south then seemed the more religious part of the country, and still is, and the north less so. Some saw it as the religious people (south) fighting against the secularists (north).

    I am a religious person, and generally “root” for the religious side, and I am generally sympathetic to the south (I was born in North Carolina and I have an ancestor and other relatives who fought for the confederacy.) But I found myself rooting for the secularistic north (even at the time when the north did not perceive the Civil War to be about ending slavery).

  42. DavidH,
    Sounds like a good book, I look forward to the sequel where the Axis are portrayed as the religionists and the Allies the secularists. I also liked the version where the Sioux at little bighorn were the secularists and finally put down the religionist tyrant Custer and his clergymen. Secularists save the day!

  43. Thomas Parkin says:

    Spot on.

  44. This analysis of Elder Cook’s talk is interesting but the stance JNS is writing from doesn’t take into account the audience Elder Cook is speaking to. He isn’t speaking to the UN, he is addressing church members. A speaker makes certain assumptions based on the audience he is speaking to.

    If Elder Cook prepared a talk to address the UN on this subject, I think JNS would have found it more to his likening.

  45. Nate 38:
    I am not aware of any evidence that the church supports the concept as of SSM as a religious right. In all of the legal analysis I’ve seen the church put out in public statements, I’ve only ever seen the concept of not performing them as a religious right.
    UU ministers for years have been making the case that SSM is a religious right, and I’ve been given no reason to believe that the LDS church recognizes that.

  46. TT: Many religious denominations such as the UU have been performing gay weddings as a religious ritual for some time and the Church has never supported any effort to suppress the practice. Indeed, as far as I know NO ONE has worked to suppress the practice. Also, the Church was a very vocal proponent of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which unarguably protects such practices from federal law, and would have shielded them from state laws as well but for the Court’s decision in City of Boerne. On the issue of protecting religious practice from state interference, the Church has actually staked out a very libertarian position both in Congressional testimony and lobbying and in various amicus briefs.

    I just don’t think that there is much hay to be made on this issue.

  47. I suspect that the question Nate and TT are trying to work out turns largely on whether the marriages would be legally recognized, binding contractual relationships. In other words, actual marriages.

  48. Nate,
    Yes, I think you are right that it is not the case that the church has, for instance, argued that in places where SSM is legal that UU ministers do not have the right to practice them. But, I am not sure that this is really a fair understanding of the UU claim that performing SSM is a matter of religious freedom. In this case, I see competing claims to religious freedom where UU ministers argue that they should, as a matter of faith, be able to solemnize and participate in SSMs, and that the ban on SSM is a violation of their religious liberty. I see the Church’s position as denying that performing or participating in SSM is a right at all o any kind, including a religious right.

  49. StillConfused says:

    Brigham Young is interesting in that he thinks slavery is okay but personally won’t do it because it is too expensive and he doesn’t want the attendant responsibilities.

  50. TT: With all due respect, I think that either you or the UU are misunderstanding what it means to “legalize” SSM. There is no legal prohibition on the UU or anyone else performing a religious ceremony for a same sex couple. The question of whether SSM is legalized or not really has no bearing one way or another on the legal ability of a UU minister to perform their marriage. It does have an impact one what effect that religious ceremony has on the legal relations of the couple. In a state where SSM is not legalized, as in for example Virginia, there is no “ban” on UU ministers performing SSM.

  51. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    There are some ministers, in the UU and elsewhere, who claim that there is a religious obligation for the legal recognition of marriage to be extended to same-sex couples.

    Nate, I agree that religion can be a nonrational challenge to liberal hegemony. So also can any affect-laden symbolic system. I also agree that it’s good for people to be able to introduce God-talk in politics when they want, just as it’s good for people to be able to vote against ideas and people who represent God-talk that they don’t like. That is to say, I don’t think your challenges really represent disagreements with my argument.

    All others, thanks very much for the comments and the interesting discussion! I wish I had the time to respond in a more personalized way. Alas, those randomization tests won’t run themselves.

  52. #48

    I’m quite legally dense. Are non-under-aged polygamous marriages performed by fundamentalist religions legal or illegal?

  53. Nate Oman says:

    JNS: Suffice it to say that this is an extremely idiosyncratic view of religious liberty, rather like claiming that the concept of religious liberty requires that SSM not be recognized. Frankly, I don’ think it is a compelling argument and I am not sure it is even meant to be taken as such. Rather, I think that they have religious reasons for believing that the failure to recognize same sex unions as legal marriages is unjust, and are then trying to piggy back that claim onto the idea of religious freedom for rhetorical effect.

    For example, in France it is my understanding is that one cannot be legally married in a church. It isn’t that the sacrament of the mass is a crime, but that it has no legal effect. It seems extremely odd to me to argue about the wisdom of this law in terms of the Catholic church’s right to religious freedom.

  54. …or rather were early Mormon religious marriages legal or illegal?

  55. Nate, fair enough, but according to your definition of what it means to be religiously free on a given issue, we have to concede that the church has no religious freedom interest in gay marriage. There is simply no possibility that church officials would ever be compelled to solemnize gay marriages.

    So either the church is mistaken when they say they do have a religious freedom interest in the legal recognition of gay marriage, or they do not define religious freedom on the issue of performing gay marriages in the same very narrow way that you do. I think you’re just being very idiosyncratic in your framing of this.

  56. Nate Oman says:

    @51: Non-under-age polygamous marriages performed by FLDS and the like are illegal in the sense that they are crimes for which one can be prosecuted and sent to prison. This, however, is not because of the laws governing marriage. Those laws state that the second marriages of polygamists are not legally recognized as marriages. This fact alone does not make them crimes.

    The ceremonies in which these marriages are performed, however, do constitute a crime because of separate criminal statutes that make bigamy, polygamy, and unlawful cohabitation (although unlawful cohabitation doesn’t involve a marriage ceremony) into crimes. In Utah, at least, these criminal statutes have been read very broadly so as to reach even ceremonies that don’t purport to have legal significance, although some members of the Utah Supreme Court have expressed questions as to whether the statutes should be read this way or can be read this way consistent with the constitution.

    To my knowledge there is no analogous statute that makes the performing of a same sex marriage ceremonies a crime, even in states such as Utah that do not recognize same sex marriages.

    It is the presence of these criminal statutes that make the anti-polygamy crusades of the 1880s an imperfect analogy to the legal debates over SSM.

  57. Ah, and it appears we have cross-posted accusations of idiosyncratic definitions of religious freedom. :-) Still, my first paragraph holds: either UU and LDS have a religious freedom interest in the legal recognition of gay marriage (or lack thereof), or neither does.

  58. Nate Oman says:

    Cynthia: I don’t think that the church has a religious freedom interest in gay marriage. I do think that there are some potential problems with the particular way in which the California Supreme Court created the right to same sex marriage in In re Marriage Cases, but I don’t think that the mere fact that California or any other jurisdiction recognizes same sex unions threatens religious freedom. Any arguments about religious freedom take the form of slippery slope arguments. I think that there is some substance to some of these arguments but not much.

  59. J. Nelson-Seawright says:

    Nate, I agree that arguments in favor of legalized SSM as religious freedom are odd. At the same time, arguments that there is a religious duty to legalize SSM would count as potentially privileged under Cook’s “religious freedom” concept. To me, that is the most relevant issue.

  60. Nate Oman says:

    narrator: the status of 19th century Mormon polygamous marriages is actually quite complicated.

    Those contracted in Illinois would have violated Illinois bigamy laws. Those contracted in Winter Quarters were probably legal, as they were in a U.S. territory, federal law didn’t outlaw bigamy in the territories until 1862, and the common law of crimes could not be enforced by federal courts because of Supreme Court holdings. Once Utah Territory was organized, there was no anti-polygamy law until Congress acted in 1862. Also, Utah did not pass a reception statute so the common law of crimes didn’t operate in the territory. After 1862, second marriages become a federal crime, although that law is not enforced until the late 1870s and 1880s.

    Finally, there was an effort in territorial Utah to grant legal recognition to polygamous marriages, albeit in a very round about manner. The territorial legislature granted the church a corporate charter that provided that any union solemnized by the church was subject to an irrefutable presumption of validity. This charter, however, was repealed by Congress in 1862. The validity of that repeal, however, remained subject to legal challenge under the Dartmouth College Case until the Supreme Court passed on the matter in an 1890 case called Late Corporation.

    In short, it was a complex and tangled mess.

  61. JNS: excellent, excellent post.

    NO: one of the most (silly, but) common arguments in favor of Prop. 8 among Mormons was the fear that the Church would be forced to perform gay marriages. Whether or not the leaders of the Prop. 8 movement really believed it, they fostered it among the supporters within the Church. And it was framed as a freedom of religion issue. I don’t see how UU performing SSM as a freedom-of-religion issue is so different from Mormons not performing SSMs as a freedom-of-religion issue.

  62. I too felt that Cook’s talk was mostly just well-accepted political rhetoric rather than actually correct factually or historically. But if we’re going to start fact-checking GC talks, there go the 14 Fundamentals (which aren’t binding anyway, so I kid).

    A well-done article!

    Chris 24 – I paid the equivalent of $9 for a measly 8 oz. diet coke in Barcelona two years ago. No refills, indeed. However, the architecture was cool. It’s all trade-offs.

  63. StillConfused says:

    #60, Also as I recall, Utah’s constitution prohibits polygamy. I recall that this was required for statehood to be granted. Is that your recollection as well?

  64. Natalie B. says:

    I really liked this post. My favorite line is “let me allow Cook to elaborate.”

  65. Antoinette says:

    #34: There is clearly a difference between establishing a religion and allowing bedrock moral principles derived from religion to have some influence (not an overriding one) in the laws of that society.

    I agree with chris on this point. Some of our most basic legal and social mores do have religious/moral basis, but that doesn’t mean that religion is going to dictate to society. The idea of a theocracy scares me because that is when I believe religious freedom is threatened because of our pluralistic society.
    However, I don’t think that religious values should be trampled on, or viewed as irrational or irrelevant to our society.

  66. “religious” and “moral” are not one in the same. The religious is good to the extent that it is moral. The moral is not necessarily good because of the extent that it is religious.

  67. I think there is a desire on the part of the Church to be able to participate in the political process without having to actually engage in discussions of the issues.

    On the Prop 8 issue the it was clear that the two sides were talking past each other. I think this is unfortunate in many ways and causes more misunderstanding that might occur otherwise. But I certainly think it is the right of the Church to frame issues that it chooses to speak out on however it wants. I do think that the Church shouldn’t argue that people must respect their arguments without regard to what those arguments are. Frankly the quality of the arguments in favor of Prop 8 left a lot to be desired, but they seemed to do the trick, at least for the voters.

    I do think that some made a religious freedom argument in favor of Prop 8 that was completely without basis, saying that gay marriage would result in being forced to perform gay marriages in the temples. Which is nuts. Our arguments should at least be legitimate.

  68. I get the feeling that this and similar talks are really just laments about the waning influence of religion in America (Americans are becoming less religious, as Pew continues to find). But rather than state this directly and make a kind of America’s going to hell-in-a-hand basket argument, it sounds better to blame sinister, secular forces within the government elite. Better to make these vaguely defined forces the bad guy than “Americans in general.”

  69. Cook did a Beckian straw dog maneuver.

  70. Sheesh. This has nothing to do with Beck. I think he is drawing on stuff like this:


    While I disagree…completely, it is not talk radio rubbish.

  71. Jeremy: I agree with you that SSM doesn’t pose any threat to religious freedom per se. To the extent that the California Supreme Court’s decision in In re Marriage cases can e read as holding that there is a compelling state interest in eradicating discrimination against homosexuals it could be put to potentially troubling uses, especially were a federal court to adopt the same reasoning. That said, Prop 8 was drafted and defended in the California Supreme Court so as NOT to raise this question, which means that it’s passage had no effect any of the potentially troubling portions of the In re Marriage Cases holding.

    BTW, I think that everyone who insists that the First Amendment would always protect a church’s right to refrain from performing SSM is being wildly optimistic about the level of protection afforded by current constitutional law. While I think that there would be very strong freedom of association claims and expressive speech claims that you could make against a law that say required churches to perform SSM marriages on pain of imprisonment, I do think that laws that — for example — revoked the tax exempt status of churches that refused to perform any legally recognized wedding could be upheld under current Free Exercise cases. Note, I don’t think this has anything to do with SSM per se, as the cases I have in mind — Bob Jones University and Smith — were decided in the early 1980s and early 1990s respectively. Mind you, I don’t imagine that it is all that likely that such a law would be passed, but were it passed I don’t think its unconstitutionality would be a foregone conclusion.

  72. Nate Oman,

    BTW, I think that everyone who insists that the First Amendment would always protect a church’s right to refrain from performing SSM is being wildly optimistic about the level of protection afforded by current constitutional law.

    Wildly optimistic? Seriously? I realize that you tone it down in the last sentence of your comment, but I don’t think that it required wild optimism to think that churches will not be risking their tax-exempt status by having their own standards for their religious rites.

  73. Nate, I think the major protection on this issue isn’t constitutional so much as political. It would take significant change for our country to accept a law requiring same-sex marriages to be conducted on demand by religions. What the courts might do later is another issue — I doubt it will come up, because the rest of the system will probably keep it from being a live issue.

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