One of the key themes that permeates the recently-released Council of Fifty minutes is the issue of religious liberty. (Note how the LDS Newsroom frames the discussion here, for instance.) In some ways this may sound odd, given that the council revolved around theocratic principles that appear ill-fit for modern conceptions of political order. In other ways it seems convenient, as religious liberty has become the dominant rallying cry for the LDS hierarchy who have frequently and loudly denounced what they believe to be an “attack” on the principle. (They recently unveiled a new website on the topic; I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about it at General Conference this next week.) And to a degree, the connection between the Council of Fifty’s minutes to questions of religious liberty are justified, as that is how Joseph Smith and the other council members discussed it themselves. (See my write-up here.) But the concept of “religious liberty” has never possessed a staid definition, as it has often evolved according to different contexts and concerns. Understanding how Smith and his successors conceived the topic is a crucial–and often confusing–step, but it may give meaning to how we have defined it within the LDS tradition ever since.
The earliest British settlers believed they were establishing religious freedom, but they understood the concept quite differently than those who came later. The Puritans were indeed seeking the liberty to practice their faith unmolested, but that liberty did not imply the opportunity for everyone to do likewise. For them, as well as for many others who followed, religious freedom was the freedom from error, or the freedom to practice the true religion. John Winthrop, the same guy who first attached the biblical “City upon a hill” metaphor to the American continent, argued that “natural liberty,” in which everyone had the freedom to do as they want, was not as valued as “moral liberty,” where residents merely had the freedom to do the right thing. Over the next century their vision of religious and social homogeneity collapsed under the pressure of diversity and schism, but elements of the Puritan anxiety remained. During the founding period there was an energetic fight between those who wanted the state to merely provide religious toleration, where diversity of thought was allowed but special forms of Christianity were privileged, and a new, and more radical, form of religious liberty that separated the federal government from religious institutions. The Constitution enshrined the latter approach, though it took a few decades for all the states to do likewise. (Massachusetts retained a form of religious establishment until 1833, for instance, and the majoritarian Protestant culture ensured a de-facto establishment for long after.)
Which brings us to Smith and his radical council. On the one hand, the creation of the council itself was predicated on the idea, at least in the minds of Mormon leaders, that the Church wasn’t being granted the right of religious liberty. This new government, Smith believed, could finally “tell the people what the true principles of liberty was,” because even “Washington did not do it.” Willard Richards declared that he was “for establishing a kingdom upon the principles of liberty and universal freedom. He wants to have the privilege of wearing his beard till it grows as long as his arm if he wants to,” so long as it “does not stick into another man[‘]s face.” (Tell that to BYU’s honor code!) At one point there was a heated discussion concerning whether there was a difference between this “Kingdom of God,” which governed temporal matters, and “the Church of God,” which focused on ecclesiastical and spiritual issues. In other words, was there a separation between church and state? Even amongst the participants, there was a lot of disagreement. Some thought the Church was a stepping stone to the Kingdom, and others thought the opposite. Some saw no difference whatsoever. Joseph Smith, for his part, believed there was a separation: “There is a distinction between the Church of God and kingdom of God,” he explained. “The laws of the kingdom are not designed to effect our salvation hereafter. It is an entire, distinct and separate government.” To demonstrate this, Smith even appointed three non-Mormons to the council. His rhetoric often emphasized the importance of the freedom of conscience. There are a number of statements in these minutes that can be plucked out, de-contextualized, and re-packaged for modern purposes.
Yet Smith’s rhetoric of a clean separation belied a fundamental reality: both the Kingdom and the Church were to be directed by the same person, not to mention governed through the same prophetic source. Smith’s definition of democratic order was quite different than his contemporaries, as demonstrated by his coining a new phrase, “theodemocracy.” To exemplify this shifting notion of sovereignty, he even redefined the traditional American phrase, “Vox populi, Vox Dei”: rather than meaning “the voice of the the people is the voice of God,” a hallmark of the democratic principle regarding the supremacy of the common citizen, Smith proclaimed a better definition was “the voice of the people assenting to the voice of God,” which tethered the common citizen’s rights to their willingness to follow divine will. People only have true liberty in order to enact God’s commands, as outlined through His prophet. Like Winthrop, Smith believed that religious liberty meant the liberty to live true religious principles, as governed by a strict priesthood hierarchy, even if he maintained a semblance of republican rhetoric concerning church and state. After Smith’s death, and due to contextual turmoil, (understandable) cultural distrust, and a need to centralize authority, Brigham Young gave up even that pretense. “[I] will defy any man to draw the line between the spiritual and temporal affairs in the kingdom of God,” he told the council. As one of his first acts as the new “prophet, priest, and king” of the organization, he released the three non-members from the quorum.
The legacies of this council were lasting, especially during the Territorial Utah period. Yet these were radical actions that were rooted in a particular set of conditions. As the circumstances surrounding the Church changed, so too did our conceptions of religious liberty. And there had to be adaptation on both sides. Kathleen Flake’s excellent book on Reed Smoot demonstrated that one of our compromises to become a member of the American body was to adapt modern notions of a “church.” And conversely, the government was finally willing to extend rights and privileges to a group they previously believed was a threat America’s democratic order due to heretical beliefs and actions. As Flake so aptly put it, Mormonism was more willing to act like a church, and the government less like one. Both the Church and the State, you see, had to reexamine notions of religious liberty and decided that true freedom required the bracketing of religious ideals that should not be inherent in a neutral political body. That is, the American government and the Mormon Church were able to come to agreement because they both became more secular.
Now, I know that “secularism” has become a bad word in LDS circles. (I’ll save my rant on that for another day.) But what I want to emphasize here is that one of the things that has allowed us to exercise our “religious liberties” has been the embrace of a new understanding of that very phrase, at least on the part of the state. We may be tempted to infuse “religious freedom” with the cultural baggage of our Puritan and Mormon ancestry, which, as I wrote about the Kim Davis saga, includes an unspoken assumption that it is meant to guarantee the perpetuation of true religious belief and practice. But I think that would be a mistake. It seems to me a more helpful response to these new circumstances is not to replicate the models of religious liberty dictated by Joseph Smith at a moment when our rights were genuinely under siege, but rather to adapt to the new political boundaries that have, in reality, actually secured those freedoms for us. It is one thing to call for the freedom to believe and practice what we believe to be God’s true faith, and another to allow the same liberties to those in other traditions who aim to do likewise.
Perhaps the best way to live up to our legacy and heritage is to trumpet the ideals of religious liberty embodied in Smith’s 1844 rhetoric while also accepting the needs, circumstances, and parameters of today’s pluralistic society.