By Common Consent: Reflections on Mormon Political Theology

Jason K. is an English professor specializing in Milton and currently at work on a book project studying political theologies during the English Civil War period. The organizer of the Mormon Lectionary Project series here, this is his first post as a regular guest blogger at BCC.

For my first non-lectionary post, I thought I’d adapt some earlier ruminations on this blog’s eponymous scripture.

In a recent Sunday School discussion, D&C 20:63—”The elders are to receive their licenses from other elders, by vote of the church to which they belong, or from the conferences”—was referenced as an example of church government by common consent. The notion of voting, however, seems more democratic than LDS church government typically is. In this case the general membership is not voting to select elders, but to grant them licenses, authorizing them to function elsewhere. My question is: why go through the formality? Why can’t the person in authority to ordain elders simply issue the license and have done? In addressing this question, I suggest that Richard Baxter’s work of political theology, A Holy Commonwealth (1659), offers a helpful analogue to LDS practice.

Baxter’s treatise starts from the premise that God is the universal sovereign, and that human magistrates exercise sovereignty over limited spheres by delegation from God. By way of advancing this argument, Baxter attacks Sir Henry Vane’s A Healing Question (1656), which advocates popular sovereignty through the argument that government derives from the people. (Baxter partly misunderstands Vane, but that is another issue.) On the question of sovereignty—in Schmittian terms, who decides—Baxter unequivocally sides with God. Given LDS belief that people must be “called of God” in order to serve (Article of Faith 5), we would seem obliged to take Baxter’s side in this debate.

Further evidence bears this supposition out. After the initial mention in D&C 26:2, another reference to government “by common consent” comes in D&C 28, the first part of which establishes Joseph Smith as the sole person authorized to receive revelation for the church as a whole. The idea of common consent comes up by way of repudiating Hiram Page’s claims to receive revelation through a seerstone—suggesting that such claims can only be substantiated through a vote of the church. The nub of the issue appears in verse 10: “[M]y servant Joseph shall be appointed to preside over the conference by the voice of it[.]” Whether this verse predicts the outcome of the vote or ordains it, the exercise can hardly be described with any accuracy as popular sovereignty. God is sovereign, and the people can assent to or dissent from the divine decision as expressed by the chosen vessel, Joseph Smith. [1]

To understand why the people’s voice matters in this arrangement, it is useful to turn to Baxter. Human consent occupies a central place in Baxter’s theology, in which justification occurs when a person acknowledges God’s sovereignty. [2] In politics as well, Baxter maintains that although magistrates acquire their sovereignty from God, their legitimacy depends on the assent of the governed. The people do not choose their rulers, but they can choose to be ruled by them. In this way, Baxter reads the familiar authoritarian scripture, Romans 13:1 (“The powers that be are ordained of God”), right through the human rulers on whom the focus usually falls to the ordaining God behind them.

Baxter offers several reasons for insisting that the people properly have a role. First, Baxter posits a basic human freedom that entails a right to consent. No more can God force people to heaven than can human rulers rightly compel obedience—even if both God and rulers have a right to expect it. [3] Second, following Luther’s Two Kingdoms theory, Baxter places both the magistracy and the church within the Kingdom of Men; that is, both are fundamentally human institutions in which God’s acknowledged interest is expressed indirectly (fol. c2v).

A key passage for thinking about the church as a body of divinely empowered humans is Paul’s metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12-14. There, Paul compares the diversity of spiritual gifts to the diverse members of the body, arguing that each has need of the others. Given that the very concept of membership in the church owes to this metaphor, one might draw the conclusion that membership amounts to a kind of office. In the political theological terms of the chapter on Dante that concludes Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, and in keeping with the insistance on basic human freedom in both Baxter and LDS teaching, this office could be called dignitas. What I am suggesting, in other words, is that the principle of government by common consent rests on a fundamental human claim to dignity, a claim so basic that even God must honor it.

With office comes obligation. If voting in the Church sometimes resembles a rubber-stamp parliament, it ought not be so. What matters, though, is not the appearance, but the actions that correspond to it. The fact of human dignity means that our leaders have an interest (or a spiritual stake) in us. Their capacity to perform depends in part on their understanding our interests accurately. We are obliged, therefore, to make sure that our leaders know what those interests are.

Now, the Church is structured along more complex lines than a simple sovereign-subject binary will admit, in that everyone holds callings and has some kind of stewardship over others. This structure involves us in multiple networks: in some we are the person to be sustained (even if only as a home or visiting teacher), and in others we are in a position to sustain others. The office of dignitas equips us to function in both of these roles.

Most importantly, however, this highly interconnected dignity works—or should work—to direct our attention to the interests of others. Our own interest in being understood correctly should invite us to better understand others. If God ordains people (including us) to positions of stewardship, the legitimacy of this action crucially depends on everyone’s acting in the offices to which they have been called.

In short, “by common consent” is not democracy or liberal republicanism. It is illiberal not only in that it denies the voice of the people in electing their leaders, but more fundamentally in that the concept of dignity undergirding it is hardly intelligible in purely individualistic terms. Rather, as suggested by the insistence in D&C 1:30 that the Lord is pleased with the Church collectively, but not individually, it seems that individual dignitas comes only through participation in the larger whole. As in Baxter, the concepts of sovereign and subject are best understood as relationships, not individual positions.

This is a political theology that, instead of trying (as in liberalism) to obscure or wish away the decision, attempts to channel decisive power through an ethic of meekness designed to build group identity through intra-group nurture founded on a common dignitas rather than through political friend/enemy distinctions. Even if in practice the Church cannot avoid the political in this Schmittian sense, its concept of a Zion defined by its people being “of one heart and one mind,” with “no poor among them,” does announce an ideal that attempts the closure of political theology declared impossible by Schmitt. [4]

Zion promises a closure of political theology by insisting that the friend/enemy distinction derives from a blinkered perspective blind to the potential for unity in difference. The antidote to politics, in other words, is charity, used in the robust sense of that which enables the eye to say to the hand, “I have need of thee” (see 1 Cor. 12:12-21). Charity is seeing that the obnoxious person—and I am using the word in its Latin sense of “liable to punishment,” meaning that we usually want to knock some sense into such people—is just as engaged in advancing the gospel cause as we are.

People being what we are, this is an improbable vision. We cling to politics, and politics cling to us. Moreover, in the United States at least, we have individualistic liberalism in our bones. Zion will require that we check such baggage at the door—or rather, it will require that we commit our admittedly imperfect efforts to the collective cause of restoration, no matter the baggage we bring.

Indeed, I am increasingly of the mind that, especially in light of LDS Temple theology, salvation itself is best understood as a collective affair. To individuals who ask, “What must I do to be saved?” the answer seems to be, “Get on board the old ship Zion and go to work.” The principle of common consent aims this question at us, week after week: are you on board, or not? Here, too, of course, politics threatens, by offering to tag those who say “no” as enemies. The challenge is to follow the counsel of the great 17th-century dissenter Henry Jessey by concentrating on how we follow Jesus rather than worrying about how others do (or do not) follow him. [5]

Thus, even though Zion promises the closure of political theology, Mormonism most certainly has one. It demarcates the gap between who we are and who we ought to be, and as such performs a great service. Can we have the charity to welcome even this contribution, accepting the chastisements of the schoolmaster under whose tutelage we’re likely to remain for a long time yet? I hope so.


[1] That God’s sovereignty seems to be a key feature of LDS church government perhaps explains why Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps (2012) does not have much, if anything, to say about church governance. See my review, in which I suggest that the Givenses aim to solve the theodicy problem by positing a vulnerable God instead of a sovereign one.

[2] See, for instance, Baxter’s famous peppercorn analogy, Aphorismes of Justification (1649), 152-53 [Thesis 30], in which a tenant in default acquires a new lease by offering a peppercorn as token of homage to a mediator who intercedes with the original leaseholder.

[3] Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth (1659), fol. b3r. Thomason E.1729[1]. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

[4] See Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology (Malden, MA: Polity, 2008 [1970]).

[5] “For, this is one of the Vanities; that (with griefe) I have beheld, under the Sun; that the Spirit that is in us, (even in Professors of the Gospell,) lusteth after things lesse profitable or pertinent to us; like that of him, who asked, What shall this man doe? which had this check, What is that to thee? follow thou me: (John 21:21-22.)” Henry Jessey, A Storehovse of Provision (London, 1650), fol. A2v. Wing J698.


  1. These are important reflections! Thanks!

    “Zion promises a closure of political theology by insisting that the friend/enemy distinction derives from a blinkered perspective blind to the potential for unity in difference. . . . Here, too, of course, politics threatens, by offering to tag those who say ‘no’ as enemies.”

    I think this is a very important point — it would be good if we could move away from using the confrontational and excluding rhetoric of “enemies” or battle when we are discussing interior dialogue among Mormons about important questions. We are all baptized and, as such, are “on board the ship” — or at least we are all “no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), which should be at least as good as being aboard that ship, if it is not coterminous with the ship.

    As fellow citizens, we should treat each other as such, respecting differences of opinions and perspective and, in fact, valuing them as providing insight that perhaps the Lord wants us to hear through them. To switch metaphors from the household of God, each is a vital part of the body of Christ (as you allude with reference to 1 Cor. 12:12-21), contributing something necessary — arguably even essential — to the whole such that the whole would suffer without it (thus preventing the establishment of Zion).

  2. I agree, this post is full of some very interesting observations. My primary question is how your analysis is affected by the way the institution of the Church has interpreted or reinterpreted the sense of mutual dignity (and mutual accountability) over time. We’ve come a long way, baby.

  3. Jason,

    This is a rich and thoughtful set of comments, thanks very much for sharing them! I can’t go along with you in seeing Zion as promising a “closure of political theology,” though, because I reject the Schmittian definition of sovereignty as an attempt to imitate (or instantiate) God’s decisive authority in the social order. I think that “political theology” is a much broader idea than that, and much more important one. (You have Neibuhr, Hauerwas, Robbins, and more.) Within Mormon scriptural texts we are presented as both fallen beings and dialogic, Aristotelian ones; that is, we are both in need of a savior and, as you rightly note, in need of each other. Building Zion is thus both a Christian and political act, and political theology can be an aid to that.

    This may be, I suppose, an entirely academic and thus pretty minor point–but then again, maybe not. If we continue along (however unintentionally) with Schmitt’s Hobbseian definitions of the political, then “politics” will never involve anything beyond than the contractarian, and thus divisive, state. We instinctively recognize (or at least should, as people called to show charity to one another) the limits of the state; sovereigns can’t love as fellow-citizens in the City of God can and should, and hence we feel torn: as you put it, “We cling to politics, and politics cling to us.” Politics needs to be checked as extra baggage at the door to Zion, so we can get on with “the collective cause of restoration.” But this has now been implicitly defined as a non-political, or even anti-political act. And from the Schmittian point of view, it would have to be! You qualify yourself a little bit, suggesting that your particular concern is America’s “individualistic liberalism,” and communitarian and socialist as I am, I’m with you there. But politics is, I think, far than just the individual’s vouchsafing of rights before the sovereign! Politics–the art of living and talking and deciding in the polis, the city–can be collective, even “common” and “consensual.” In short: I would insist that we not let ourselves and all our fellow Mormons off the political hook by allowing us and them to believe, via our (usually implicit) political theology, that what we’re doing when we raise our hands to sustain a bishop isn’t, or shouldn’t be, political, that what we’re about is an expression of dignity that, because it has nothing to do with sovereignty, isn’t properly political. I think it is, on the contrary, possible to argue that politics goes all the way to the top of Mount Zion and beyond. (Which means that I think Nibley was wrong on this point, for whatever that’s worth.)

  4. Steve: to your question, I’d say that part of what I’m after here is to reimagine old possibilities in a present context. This is to admit the truth in your observation that we’ve come a long way.

    Russell: as a conscious interloper in your discipline, I appreciate your comments, and I respond as one who may have more to learn than to teach. I like that you bring it back to the Aristotelian idea of politics as that which happens in the polis. In that sense, Zion is certainly political and can’t help but be. I think that the common usage of “politics” is more Schmittian than Aristotelian, however. This is not to say that everyone who kvetches about politics on Facebook is invested in holding up the friend/enemy distinction as a definitional paradigm, but I do think that people generally think of politics as something fundamentally contentious in our age of competing partisan cable channels and so on. In that sense I do hope that sustaining each other is an antipolitical act.

    Even so, I agree with you Zion has to be more than antipolitics, and your suggestion that we need to work out a politics of Zion (returning to the Aristotelian definition) is very welcome. I think that your ideas about localism and communitarianism have a lot to offer in that regard, and I’ve enjoyed watching your process of thinking through them.

    I should clarify that my interest in Schmitt has more to do with his usefulness as an interlocutor in thinking through my own relationship to liberalism that it does with any particular commitment to his framework or conclusions.

  5. “In that sense I do hope that sustaining each other is an antipolitical act.”

    Such a good insight. I share your hope.

  6. Thanks, John, for your support, and for your part in making the post possible in the first place. Thanks to Steve, also, for having me on board!

  7. Jason,

    “In that sense I do hope that sustaining each other is an antipolitical act.”

    Using “politics” in this Schmittian, sovereignty-focused, “friend/enemy distinction” sense which you (perhaps correctly) see as a “definitional paradigm” for us today, I would agree. In the end, Jesus called His disciples “friends,” and Hobbes’s sovereign doesn’t have friends. So we need to get away from that. But I’m going to want to demand that politics is something that ought to be understood more broadly than capitalism generally allows. Something to work towards, I guess.

  8. Russell: “politics is something that ought to be understood more broadly than capitalism generally allows.” I’m with you all the way on that one!

    Also, in further reply to Steve, something from Elder Christofferson’s talk on the doctrine of the church a couple years back has stuck with me ever since. He quoted J. Reuben Clark to the effect that doctrine is worked out through the body of the members. If that’s true, I’d submit that by and large we’re far more passive than we ought to be.

  9. Mark Ashurst-McGee says:

    “Given LDS belief that people must be “called of God” in order to serve (Article of Faith 5), we would seem obliged to take Baxter’s side in this debate. . . . The people do not choose their rulers . . . In short, “by common consent” is not democracy or liberal republicanism. It is illiberal . . . in that it denies the voice of the people in electing their leaders”.

    In Mormon political theology God is the sovereign and the authority flows downward to the people through the prophet and church leaders. The people have their own dignity and role, as discussed above, but the sovereignty flows down from God. When the people are the sovereign and select themselves for office, then they promote their own candidates, you get political parties, division, conflict, and contention. The religious parallel is that when people kill or reject the prophets and it comes down to interpreting the writings of dead prophets, you will get different interpretations eventually forming different churches, all competing for congregants and their money, fighting each other over doctrine, and creating the kind of confusion and contention that drove Joseph Smith straight to God (and to become a new prophet). The political history in the Book of Mormon bears out the need for divine authority (consented by the people) and how it fosters harmony, unity, love, and human flourishing, as opposed to division, distinction, contention, conflict, violence, war, suffering, and destruction.

  10. I find the parts of this dialog that I can understand interesting and thought-provoking. However, nothing has been said here about the actual practice of “common consent” or sustaining votes (which differs considerably from the concept of “sustaining.”) in the Church. These high-sounding theories and interpretations seem to bear little on reality.

    As the OP stated, “If voting in the Church sometimes resembles a rubber-stamp parliament, it ought not be so. …The fact of human dignity [and, I would add, righteous stewardship,] means that our leaders have an interest (or a spiritual stake) in us. Their capacity to perform depends in part on their understanding our interests accurately. We are obliged, therefore, to make sure that our leaders know what those interests are.”

    “…sometimes resembles a rubber-stamp parliament?” I have over six decades of participating in these sustaining votes. I have raised my hand (even stood up on one occasion) to register a dissenting vote three times (never regarding a calling). I have never seen another person do so. Therefore, I am of the opinion that there is no better example of rubber-stamp acquiescence (which is not the same as “consent”). In other words, the practice may well offer the sheep comfort that they are participating in consent, but in actuality it is just a cultural formality.

    As for any members making sure our leaders know what our interests are, the members and the leaders seem to rely solely on their (almost always incorrect) assumption that inspiration from God (or, in the case of local leaders, what they think or have been told Salt Lake wants) is guiding the leaders’ decision-making. There is no welcoming of suggestions after “God has spoken.”

  11. Neal Kramer says:

    I really enjoyed your invitation back to the 17th century for insight about current LDS political theology.

    Your insight that common consent is an act of charity leads me to Milton’s divorce tracts, especially Tetrachordon, the tract in which Milton defines charity, in part, as the primary ethical rule of a sacred community based on mutual acceptance of the Solemn League and Covenant. Milton’s rule clearly depends on a commitment to the preservation of human dignity in a Zion-like community, a concept that also resonates in Areopagitica, published a few months before.

    Milton seems to me to believe that mutual rejection of the tyranny of Laud and Charles I creates the possibility of a new kind of liberty based on fraternal sympathy as well as having entered a new covenant.

    Since many LDS forget the similarly radical origins of our own Zion, I think we find ourselves trapped in discourses of mutual suspicion about power. Zion rejects power as the foundation of political theology and replaces it with love. Remembering love and dignity as the sources of community can allow citizens to move beyond wealth, education, hierarchy, and other distinctions based on power relationships toward the liberating character of human dignity.

  12. Yes, Neal, you would be able to sort out the influence of Milton on my post, even though I only quote Richard Baxter and Henry Jessey. Well done, sir! Milton has indeed deeply informed my thinking on Zion, and you’ve drawn attention to key moments. There are others in DDC.

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