Some Thoughts On the War For the Heart and Soul of Mormonism

In recent years there has been a significant amount of academic literature that argues, in essence, that political orientation is largely determined by social, cultural, and psychological factors, rather than the initial or continued imposition of the will upon political belief. [1] In other words, we are largely predisposed one way or another toward political belief and that any talk of free creative production with regard to political orientation, or positive or negative political assent only makes sense within that context. In still other words, I cannot simply choose to authentically train myself to think conservatively if I am more prone to liberal political thinking and vice versa. Even if external causal factors do not tell the entire story, there is no doubt that one does not simply walk into Mordor–even if possible, modifying political belief would at minimum be an epic and grueling quest. I think “political conversion” would work along the same lines. Yes it’s possible and it does happen, but again, when we change our allegiances it is because we are captured by events and other factors that we did not create ourselves. (Perhaps in the end any conversion–spiritual, political, etc–is a function of grace).

If this is true, it has significant ramifications for those who engage in the task of political and cultural sifting. In a more immediately Mormon context this political and cultural sifting is being manifest in a war being waged for the heart and soul of Mormonism. Each side believes that the the Mormonism of the other side is in some sense illegitimate or corrupt, and not genuine Mormonism at all. And many (perhaps not all) on each side believe that the other side injects its politics into its religious commitments and that its own commitments are either free of political taint, or that its politics just so happen to cohere with the core principles and teachings of the Gospel or the Church. I think it is possible and even necessary to establish how such a claim to legitimacy can be made–how we define Mormonism is a legitimate intellectual inquiry that has serious consequences for the lives of those who claim the Mormon identity. However, I don’t think that such an inquiry can be made on political grounds unless one believes that the whole of religion (and our religion) is derived and instantiated politically. Even apart from causal origins, that’s a problematic claim, but if we are truly “captured” in some way by our political leanings–if we find it virtually impossible to see any other ideology as appealing–then it is simply impossible to define Mormonism along these lines, or, perhaps even more importantly, to attempt to define others’ Mormonism along these lines.

Are we really to accept, then, that certain folks who claim the Mormon identity must by force of will transform their political thinking, must force themselves into a contrary political paradigm (which is additionally asserted to be intimately connected to the REAL Mormonism)? Or is Mormonism bigger and more expansive than politics?  In my view, when we inquire into the legitimacy of the parameters of the Mormon identity we are inquiring into a genuine Revelation such that all political paradigms–conservative, liberal, and everything in between–are superseded by something from the outside that is meant to transform and rebirth every aspect of us, from the level of the individual to the level of the community. Then we say that what is ultimately at stake is how the Revelation that is Mormonism might be allowed to define my politics (and everything else) instead of the other way around. As a Revelation Mormonism is meant to be a third way, always “another way” no matter how many ways are possible, something that comes to us from elsewhere and completely and constantly alters our worldview. (That Christ said HE was the way has direct bearing on this, I think). Our religion is supposed to call us to continual repentance, not enable us to call others to political and cultural repentance. Is not the nature of religious commitment totalizing and all-encompassing in a way that nothing else, really, should be? If so, then there is something about my religion that transcends my politics by embedding itself within me so that my politics are seen by its lights rather than the other way around.

This also means that it is simply impossible that our political and ideological commitments align perfectly with our Mormonism. Any discussion of the legitimacy of Mormon boundary markers must, in my opinion, spring from this point. There is something about the Mormon identity that makes Mormons of various political persuasions hold closely to their Mormonism instead of simply abandoning it in favor of something else (for those who persist, of course). What is that something or somethings? Perhaps we initiate a dialogue there instead of claiming that there are those who are erroneously projecting their politics onto their religion. Most everyone does this and I am arguing here that not only is it unproductive, it simply does not work. This is not to say that religion itself (or at least its lived practices and interpretations) is free of social, cultural, political derivations. It is simply to say that, at minimum, the nature of religious commitment intrinsically demands our fidelity in ways that other commitments do not inherently possess.

This is not a naive call to attempt to free ourselves of political beliefs in the name of adhering more closely to religious beliefs. (Of course I am obviously arguing that such willful conversion is not largely possible and it is therefore unjust and irrational to require it of others). It is instead to see our religious commitments as necessarily transformative of our political commitments, no matter what our politics are. We are constantly and ceaselessly being called to repentance by the Revelation that is Mormonism. We are meant to be revisionist in that way about our ideologies and hypotheses, but not just loosely and generally revisionist. The Gospel calls us to always rethink ourselves and our communities such that, to crudely put it, as much widespread redemption and reconciliation as possible can occur. Perhaps this is one reason why the spiritual gift of charity is so highly lauded in scripture, because it requires us, not merely to consider only our religion as valuable, but rather to value everything else under its lights–the pure love of God. Such a love is the only thing that can transcend those things about our natures that are simply a part of us and do not, for the most part, ever leave us.

[1] See here and here for some examples.


  1. I should also thank some of my fellows at BCC for helping me think through some of this, particularly Russell Fox for his insightful comments.

  2. You know, there are a great many Mormons, maybe even most, who are blissfully unaware of the “war” you describe — they go about day-to-day trying to do good, reading their scriptures, and so forth. Why engage in a war when peace is so easily obtained?

    Paul counseled in Romans ch. 14, let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind, and let no man put a stumbling block in front of his neighbor. He counseled to put the greater good ahead of our own pet peeves. That was good advice.

  3. Jacob, you rock so hard.

  4. I know a great many wonderful M

  5. I don’t know how to delete that comment. My cat bumped into me while typing and I hit post comment. I decided ti stay silent on this subject (at least for now) since I definitely feel people try to define my Mormonism by my politics. (I have been called an apostate, etc… which is an extremely loaded word, btw)

  6. CS Eric says:

    This reminds me of a point I made in a lesson I taught in Priesthood a few months ago. The Church really doesn’t care about your politics, and sooner or later will probably take a position you don’t agree with. The people who were thrilled with the Church’s support of Prop 8 were not at all happy with the Church’s recent statements on immigration, and vice versa. If you look to the Church to verify your political beliefs, you will find support there. And so will people whose political stance is different from yours.

  7. I agree that religion should shape our politics and not the other way around, but there are pretty clear limits on how it can do so. Mormonism tells me plenty about what the objectives if governement should be (sharing with the poor, encouraging stable families, personal liberty, discouraging substance abuse, promoting charitable treatment of all people, etc.) but tells me very little about what its methods should be. Many of the most controversial social issues on which Mormons disagree (legality of abortion, SSM, redistribution of wealth, immigration, etc.) are really just about methods. And when it comes to methods, I don’t think Mormonism provides much guidance.

  8. justapunkkid says:

    I wish there was a like button for some of these comments. RJ, totally agree with you, Mormonism teaches ends but not specific means. I love that in the Church we believe that God doesn’t command in all things.Although I would extend this phenomena to politics in general.

    I do agree that the greatest virtue in the gospel is charity. I think some of the things we politically say are “make or brake” all or nothing, are really quite small to the Lord. Currently our politics are becoming more and more polarized. I ponder often the scripture that “contention is of the devil” and father Lehi’s admonition to arise from the dust be men (and women) and be united in one heart and one mind. I wish that these scriptures would define mormons in politics and ideological debates.

  9. In some ways, this is a really America-centric topic – or perhaps I should say that those who believe political views define one’s legitimacy as a Mormon are using a lens that does not reflect the world-wide scope of the current LDS Church and the political differences among the world-wide membership.

    Frankly, I think it boils down to a distorted understanding of the nature of Zion. “One heart and one mind” doesn’t have to mean “thinking exactly alike about everything”, imo.

  10. I suggest that any readers of this post who walk away thinking “yeah, those other folks lack the requisite charity to recognize their shortcomings” is missing the most important point and task: the courage to seriously ask: “Lord, is it I?”

  11. #10 – Amen.

  12. “I don’t think that such an inquiry can be made on political grounds unless one believes that the whole of religion (and our religion) is derived and instantiated politically.”

    “It is instead to see our religious commitments as necessarily transformative of our political commitments, no matter what our politics are.”

    I appreciate that you are attempting to separate out politics and religion, and suggesting that religion transform our politics, not the other way around. I think that part of what we need to think about is what is “political” and what is “religion.” I am not aware of any clear line of demarcation between what is and isn’t political. The very emergence of this dichotomy is what marks the beginning of the modern era, for some historians of modernity. That is, the very distinction is a both a political and a religious compromise making it possible for the religious pluralism of the modern nation state. The distinction is not a clean one, but rather is continually negotiated by designating some things as “political” (ergo, not “religious”) and other things as “religious” (ergo, not political). The fact that these categories are unstable, and the disagreements often focus on what exactly fits into these categories, suggests to me that we should begin by questioning the nature and interests of power for the distinction itself, rather than assuming that there is some better way to enact the distinction.

  13. Kristine says:

    TT–I think you’re right, and this is why Zion is so much more elusive than a secular pluralist society. What we really must have is a deeply religious pluralism, that somehow allows difference to be contained in unity–“that they may become the [children] of God, even one in me as I am one in the Father, as the Father is one in me, that we may be one.” (Unsurprisingly) I think the best analog we have is choral music–the best unison comes not from some individuals being silent or imitating others, but from every singer producing the healthiest, most robust possible tone s/he is capable of–it is precisely the variety of timbres of individual voices that makes an ensemble sound rich, and it doesn’t happen by insisting that everyone make an identical sound. Of course, they do all have to sing from the same score… :)

  14. Douglas Hunter says:

    “This also means that it is simply impossible that our political and ideological commitments align perfectly with our Mormonism.”

    I agree completely, but we don’t need much more than an understanding of politics, and an understanding of Biblical ethics to see that our faith is constantly putting our political beliefs into question. Its a structural necessity of Christianity. The extent to which we don’t see this, is probably the extent to which our Christianity is ideological in nature. I think this is the case for both liberals and conservatives.

  15. Great stuff, Jacob.

    I think it is more than creating an environment in which we can co-exist more easily. Though that is a worthy and necessary goal, perhaps a necessary starting place. In the longer term, it is a matter of folks on both sides growing in such a way that we begin to share virtues, and hence vision, in common.

  16. I have given this post a great deal of thought since I feel I struggle against this a lot and I have come to the following conclusion: I am harder on myself than anyone else (meaning both that I am harder on myself than anyone else is, AND I am harder on myself than I am on anyone else) so this is not as if I go around justifying my every move. I have come to the conclusion that comments like this:

    “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true and what was said is true. If some gay rights person is ticked off well, good for them. They only get so mad because they know they are wrong. Further, the reason they will edit the talk is just to make things more clear on the intent. They[sic] words will be a little different, but the meaning is the same. Don’t question the leaders of the church! Think about it and start praying for understanding and guidance. Jake.” Deseret News Comments section 10/8/2010 “Jake the Mormon”

    make it clear to me that I will never be able to live in a Zion-type society with people like this. I am sorry, but I cannot. If it turns out that I am wrong and Jake the Mormon is right then I guess I will have to find that out to my own detriment later but I will not embrace such hatred and ignorance (not just in the previous comment) as simple nuance. I cannot believe that there is room for hatred in the Kingdom of God and the society of the Saints.

    I dated someone for almost 3 years who (conveniently enough) always had God on their side. He and God agreed on so many things that it was uncanny–it was almost like they were twinsies! I have seen enough of this type of behavior to recognize it. It is hard to accurately portray as a lowly commenter but anyone who knows me irl can attest that I am not in the business of excusing my own behavior so when I really feel like I am doing right I have to stick with it. It breaks my heart if that means someday I will have to leave The Church, but the most that I or anyone else can do in this life is what they honestly feel in their heart of hearts is the right thing. That may look different for many people, and I absolutely believe there is room for widely varying degrees and methods but hatred….no, I can’t do that. It is too damaging to my own soul to allow myself to be one with such people.

  17. EOR – at best, you’re just a@heretic. J/k

    In my opinion, Mormonisn is very tiny compared to the range of possibilities and inclusions. As Ray alludes to, much of what we think connects to Mormonism isn’t connected at all. Mormonism may inform or influence, but in a limited scope.

  18. I absolutely agree with that. It is not even so much *what* Jake hates, but the fact that he (and enough others) hate that leads me to believe I will never fit in. I have spent too many years in therapy and too much time in self-reflection to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and to get myself to a place where even if my anger isn’t necessarily under control I still cannot bring myself to hate people. To let myself get sucked in would be failure on a massive scale.

    I do want ir to be clear though that there are many people in The Church who think quite differently than I do who I consider to be shining examples of Christ-like love. This is not a “woe is me” moment, nor am I painting with broad brushes.

    I am open to the possibility that I am the “H” word though. ;)

  19. TT: Basically what Kristine said. I essentially agree with you as well. My model is ultimately too simple, but the messiness of demarcating the “religious” from the “political” is another way, I think, of pointing to the struggle it must necessarily be for us to give priority to one over the other. Some have described Mormonism as another modernity, or a modernity by other means, and I think this is basically right–one can argue that Mormonism in some sense refuses to make the ideological distinctions that Enlightenment modernity insisted on and therefore in essence doesn’t place the political and the religious in separate realms. (Mormonism’s insistence on a kind of universalism precludes simply categorizing it under some kind of postmodernity). Thus, there’s a kind of resource we can already appeal to in Mormonism that doesn’t make it absolutely necessary to choose one over the other. Of course, that resource is largely buried in history and discarded concepts of community. Mormons today still have to negotiate Enlightenment modernity, and so can’t just appeal to their history (which their political commitments often help them interpret anyway :) But perhaps this is part of the religious task–that our religion requires us to struggle with the distinction between the religious and the political such that the struggle is, in the end, engaged in religiously instead of politically. Perhaps the task then is to discover what exactly that could mean. Modernity created these distinctions but we have to live with them. Maybe the struggle is ultimately with modernity as much as it is with the actual content of religion and politics.

  20. As someone who lives in the US but chooses to not be identified with any political party, thank goodness I live in a state in which “nonaffiliated” is an option while still being registered to vote, I am always surprised by people who are affiliated with a political party who essentially tell me I am not a real “Mormon.”

    I have a number of friends who grew up in or are living in countries in which there are many more parties than in the US, and they don’t seem to have the same attitude that only their choice in parties can be in line with the gospel. They also tend to see the US in general as baffling because we think that all people of who believe in Mormon doctrine could fall into either of, only two, categories.

    I am not apolitical. In fact, my PoliSci and philosophy classes are what. Brought me to believe that no single party, even in a much more pluralistic society than ours, could ever agree with my person values and beliefs. I find this even more true when looking at individual candidates. I actually find it kind of baffling that anyone can vote for someone based only on the political party they have chosen to align themselves with.

    Since I have never run for anything, except in high school, I have never been able to vote for a candidate that I completely agree with. It is a lot more work to gather information on candidates beyond the sound bites that pass for debates and political advertising in the US. It is even harder to compare incumbents to non-incumbents because there are no “similar records of voting” to compare. It takes a lot of work to get to meet and ask candidates questions in person, that aren’t covered by their talking points. (Although candidates for local offices seem much more willing to do this in general since they have fewer people to attempt to communicate with.)

    Okay, I will stop rambling. Essentially, no matter how well I am able to get to know multiple candidates, I am never going to agree with them on every issue. My husband deals with this “problem” by voting for cartoon characters. (I always argue he is taking the easy way out.) I spend a lot of time choosing who I will vote for, and I find political affiliation is very rarely a consideration in who gets my vote. It is always a judgment call on who is closest to the things I believe in. Sometimes that means I end up voting for someone completely out of the “mainstream.” I guess that might be like the people who were not LDS who voted for Joseph Smith when he ran for president.

  21. Vagabond says:

    I believe the line of demarcation between religion and politics is fuzzy for one simple reason…principles. Whether you are talking about religion, politics, ethics, values, cultural traditions, policies, etc, the line will be fuzzy between ALL of them on a whole range of issues. This is because they are all threaded or permeated with what may be common principles. As an example, lets use the principle of free agency. You could tie the universal principle of free agency to the political belief that everyone should be able to be free to make their own choices, without government involvement. You can also link this to the ethical belief in the US that it is unethical to force someone to think/act a certain way. Etc, etc, etc.

    Some of the confusion I think, is in regard to universal principles that “trump” as it were, any and all other beliefs from any belief system (political, personal, cultural, etc). I think that people get confused between the belief systems they decided to rely on (like their own assumptions, opinions, etc) and the fact that there are universal and eternal truths/principles that should instead be their “guiding star”. To take a common cliche, if there’s a group that adheres to a belief system that doesn’t believe that gravity exists and another group that does believe that gravity exists, one is correct, the other is not based on a universal truth that gravity does exist and acts on everyone at every moment.

    To use a Mormon universal principle of self-reliance as an example, then one should base their belief system (political or whatever) on this universal principle and if there’s a group that falls in line with this principle better than any of the others out there, then I would think that a Mormon would choose that group to align with. Of course you would have to take into account a whole range of issues and universal principles.

  22. Self-reliance is not a universal Mormon principle during mortality. Period. I simply can’t fathom someone believing it is.

  23. #22:Ray,
    ” Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”(?) A “principle’?

  24. Vagabond says:


    You cannot fathom someone believing self-reliance is a universal Mormon principle? How can you NOT believe it is such?

    “From the earliest days of the Church, the prophets have taught Latter-day Saints to be independent and self-sustaining and to avoid idleness. True Latter-day Saints will not voluntarily shift from themselves the burden of their own support. So long as they are able, they will supply themselves and their families with the necessities of life.” –Gospel Principles

    Do not also forget the endless counsel on staying out of debt and food storage which are in themselves based on the principle of self-reliance.

    For the sake of argument, to clarify my original post, substitute self-reliance with another universal principle such as chastity.

  25. Bob and Vagabond,

    I can quote fight with the best of them, but I’m not going to do so about this one.

    Self-reliance is not a “universal” Mormon principle, and it’s patently absurd to phrase it that way. Not everyone can be self-reliant in mortality. It can’t and won’t happen. Period. Self-reliance is a Mormon principle, and it’s an important ideal, but it’s not a universal Mormon principle. Charity, taking care of the poor and needy who always will be among us, Zion as self-reliant people helping those who aren’t and those who aren’t doing whatever they can despite their inability to be self-reliant, ad infinitum is the “universal” Mormon principle. Self-reliance is a principle for those who can be self-reliant that leads to the universal principle of comm-unity.

    There’s a difference, and it’s an important one – since seeing self-reliance as a “universal” Mormon principle can lead to all kinds of Prosperity Gospel nonsense and arrogance of chance (meaning a loss of understanding that “there but for the grace of God go I”). Nobody is truly self-reliant. King Benjamin’s sermon is the best repsonse to the idea that self-reliance a universal Mormon principle of which I am aware.

  26. Ray (25) Excellent!

  27. #25: Ray,
    You have chosen to define words in your own way. But you shouldn’t require others to agree with your definitions. How I define “universal ” and “self-reliance”, is not the same as you do.

  28. Vagabond says:

    #25 Ray

    I should make sure our terms are defined as you seem to believe that the universal principle of self-reliance means that if you are not self-reliant, you are somehow less of a Mormon. The universal principle of self-reliance is one of “striving for” and does not mean you MUST obtain self-reliance in everything and at 100% (which is of course impossible) without help from Christ and others. It is a universal principle just like hard work, charity, chastity, service, sacrifice, etc. Do not confuse these other universal principles such as charity, service and sacrifice as somehow the antithesis of self-reliance or something like that. Giving to the poor etc is not somehow opposed to the principle of self-reliance.

  29. Thanks for the thoughtful post. This is something I have been struggling with in regards to my own personal interaction with religion and politics, some of which I recognize to be reactionary and unproductive. The one thing I do struggle with is deciding how much of the Revelation of Mormonism or what I see as the teachings and guidance of leaders who we believe to be inspired is free from their own political and social influences. Seeing how easily I mix these two and in looking at modern church history to understand God’s interaction with us has made me very wary. It isn’t so much that I look to Mormonism to fuel my desire to partake in the culture war but rather I wonder if Mormonism itself has become a force to be acted upon as opposed to a force to act in said war. It seems that it is at very least a mix of both and God feels content to let us grope together towards truth and the building of Zion. How to disentangle the two personally is such a challenge and I see that challenge reflected in the broader institutional church as well.

  30. “I should make sure our terms are defined as you seem to believe that the universal principle of self-reliance means that if you are not self-reliant, you are somehow less of a Mormon.”

    Huh?! I’ve never thought that or anything like that in my life. It’s the exact opposite of what I believe.

    “Do not confuse these other universal principles such as charity, service and sacrifice as somehow the antithesis of self-reliance or something like that.”

    I didn’t and don’t.

    Yes, at the heart of it all, we are defining “universal” and “self-reliant” differently. I believe Protestant individualism has gained WAY too much traction in our modern church, to the detriment of charity and community, and I see one cause as an over-emphasis on “self-reliance” as defined by most people inside and outside the church.

    Why are there needy among us (inside the LDS Church) who don’t get the help they need? Why are there so many of us who pay for huge houses that are far more than we actually “need”? Why do we insist on not just a shirt and tie for Sunday worship but also include a suit coat? Why does the leadership constantly beg us, irony intended, to give a more generous fast offering?

    I believe it’s because we have focused so much on “self”-reliance that we are distorting its proper place in the big picture; hence, I react negatively to having it called a “universal” principle. Sorry for the harshness of my response.

  31. I also should add that I’ve seen self-reliance used too often as a political club, so, in a thread about this particular post, I also reacted based on those expereinces.

  32. alanfrombigeasy says:

    My political affiliation SHOULD have changed after we invaded Iraq under the pretext of a lie. But it did not – it did have the intimate, life changing aspect required.

    Living in New Orleans post-Katrina radically altered by political alignment. I saw Republicans send help AWAY during Katrina. The US Gov’t, with telegraphs and steam trains, got help into San Francisco faster in 1903 than they got help into New Orleans.

    And LDS was simply not present in Orleans Parish at any time in any way helping, except for a large number of missionaries sent afterwards. I heard of Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) sent one small group.

    Afterwards the Republicans did *SO* many things to slow down the rebuilding effort (while waivers were granted to Mississippi).

    The Republican Senate first passed a bill – and GWB signed – that no one state would get over half the relief from Katrina & Rita, although Louisiana had 80% of the damage.

    OTOH, the Republic of France (vive la France !!) showed what a caring effective government could do. They came in as the water was being pumped out and asked “what do you desperately need ?”

    One answer was fire protection in the flooded areas. Three fire stations left on the “sliver of the river” that did not flood – most of the city was many miles from them.

    The French agreed to rebuild 5 fire stations in 30 days (they later rebuilt two more).

    Despite a federal law requiring the US Gov’t to rebuild public infrastructure, it took the Republican Administration *17 months* to rebuild their first FIVE fire stations, and a couple were unfinished when they thankfully left office.

    I learned, by bitter experience, the evils of Republicans in power – and they have the power to “screw you”.

    So my politics changed. As did my religion.

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