Chains of Persuasion: a Symposium about Religion and Democracy, Part 3

Our third review of Ben Hertzberg’s Chains of Persuasion is provided by Russell Arben Fox, BCC permablogger and professor of political science at Friends University in Wichita, KS. Read the previous reviews here and here.

Ben Hertzberg has written a fine and serious work of political theory, one which may be of real interest to many Mormons who aren’t otherwise familiar with Ben’s analytical approach to his chosen political problem. His problem is a big and important one: how, in a pluralistic democracy such as the United States, can you justify taking seriously exclusive religious claims–which Mormonism has most assuredly traditionally made?

Of course, if you mean “seriously” solely in the electoral sense–that is, a lot of people believe these things, and will vote accordingly, so anyone interested in winning votes to their candidacy or their cause should take those beliefs into consideration and pay them respect–then the “how” is fairly obvious. You won’t find a single successful politician in Utah, Mormon or otherwise, who would disagree. But if you mean “seriously” in terms of actual democratic deliberation with religious claims, then the matter becomes a good deal more complicated.

Should you simply not do so, insisting instead that all political arguments must be secular, and thus in theory be equally available to consideration from all possible points of view? If so, then you are condemning religious values to a private realm of opinion, forever irrelevant to arguments over social matters. To do so would mean that large numbers of citizens whose religious faith is totalizing would be denied full access to democratic discussion.

But does that mean, therefore, that we should do so, and thus give religious claims, however exclusive, a justificatory pass in regards to public debate? Arguably, taking that approach means subjecting democratic discourse to endless improvable assertions, obliging those engaged in policy arguments to constantly adjudicate seemingly authoritative claims–the moment when life begins? the punishment for the crime of blasphemy? the authority of husbands over their wives?–which many non-believers may reject outright. Neither seems like a pleasant alternative.

Ben doesn’t split the difference, but rather introduces a new way of thinking about–and delineating the proper public space for–religious claims. He does this through multiple interrelated claims packed together in this densely argued book. Here I want to focus on a small, perhaps tertiary claim he makes, because it arguably relates to the relatively unique position Mormonism occupies in the whole landscape of America’s religious pluralism: that of a one-time geographically and sociologically distinct church, which has long since outgrown that isolation, but perhaps is not yet truly cognizant of the potentially unfortunate consequences of such.

Towards the end of his book, Ben summarizes what kind of religious teachings and practices are most amenable to and supportive of pluralistic democracies: they 1) “accept that public reasons are required to justify law”; they 2) maintain a degree of “internal pluralism,” or in other words, “allow their adherents the intellectual freedom to accept or reject some aspects of the required beliefs commitments of their tradition without being excluded from their religious community as a consequence”; they 3) recognize the importance of holding “those in political power accountable”; and perhaps most importantly, they 4) “increase the sociological and cognitive diversity of the public in which they participate” (pg. 170). That final one seems most important to me, because, in prioritizing the diverse perspectives which genuine religious faith can bring into the public square, Ben extricates his investigation from the usual secular assumption that authoritarian religious are necessarily a threat to democracy. As he writes, “conflicts between a democratic virtue and some religion’s virtue alone are not sufficient to criticize that religion….democracy cannot, consistent with the idea of public reason, require citizens to abandon the practice or virtue of moral deference to religious authority…even if such deference does conflict with the kind of self-assertion many believe is democratically necessary” (pg. 138).

In other words, Ben is making a modified democratic defense of exclusive, authoritarian, even frankly undemocratic religious views in the public square. Not all such religious contributions obviously, but some: in particular, those that represent perspectives which are sociologically distinct–sufficient to, in certain circumstances, serve “as a corrective to the epistemic errors and missteps that human communities are likely to make” (pg. 47). From the cause of abolitionism to anti-war movements, American history is filled examples of absolutist religious demands entering into ordinary public debate, and shaping democratic outcomes accordingly.

Many Mormon readers may guess where I’m going with this. Has the growth in membership of the Mormon church, and the mainstreaming of many Mormon practices and beliefs over the 20th century, to say nothing of the “Mormon moment” in American public discourse in the early 21st, all combined to end, or at least to lessen, our sociological distinctiveness, and hence, according to Ben’s analysis, our ability to articulate religious justifications for public matters in ways that genuinely benefit democratic discourse? One could respond to this, I suppose, by asking “which” democratic discourse–national, or local?

On the former level, as Ben observes, “Mormons remain a small minority in America’s religious landscape, and so their participation in national political discussions could provide informational benefits” to public conversations (pg. 181). But that possibility may be questioned, given the frequently noted ways in which, in many key political debates over the past 30 years, Mormon church leaders have tended to purposively align themselves with other socially conservative Christians–which is today by no means an unusual or original set of affirmations. Meanwhile, on the latter level, meaning mostly within the Mormon Corridor, Mormon religious arguments are hardly sociologically distinct. On the contrary, the near omnipresence of the Mormon church in Utah and elsewhere, and its often arguably limiting effects on public debate, might be seen as supporting evidence for the “informational problems” which Ben’s sees locally dominant religious hierarchies posing for democracy.

To religious believers, of course, democracy isn’t the sole or even the most important value; their faith is. And Ben, unlike many others, is not necessary critical of that position; on the contrary, he argues that, under certain conditions, such transcendent value schemes are good for the democratic health of a pluralistic society like America. In the particular case of the Mormon church and those of us who sustain it, however, Ben’s analysis may suggest a problem. The church today is perhaps no longer a small, idiosyncratic witnesser to sociologically unique, and hence democratically valuable, moral perspectives; on the contrary, it is the source of a locally dominant culture. But perhaps it is also still, at the same time, too small to significantly shape the discursive contributions that it makes in conjunction with much larger and more influential socially conservative Christian voices. In short: are we Mormons, from the point of view of democratic theory anyway, institutionally stuck in the middle–too dominating to be justified democratically on the local scale, and no longer unique enough to democratically helpful on the national one? It’s a perplexing question, and I thank Ben for leading me to the point of asking it.


  1. Russell, that’s a pretty superficial reading of the church’s positions with respect to conservative American Christianity. On several hot-button issues, there are significant differences that you’re ignoring here. These include the church’s positions on immigration (rejecting anti-immigrant agitation), abortion (opposing abortion while allowing for exceptions and not hewing to a life-begins-at-birth line), and gay rights (where the church has been broadly supportive of anti-discrimination laws while rejecting gay marriage). So the view that the church has no unique contribution to make to public discourse because it’s just like any other conservative church is pretty facile.

    You should also distinguish between the local position of the church in Utah and that in surrounding states, which you describe as “and elsewhere,” where 5% or 10% or 25% of the population still makes it a minority.

  2. I’m not sure we actually disagree, C.–a blog post can’t include all possible nuance, obviously. That said, I think you’re misreading me. I wrote that “over the past 30 years Mormon church leaders have tended to purposively align themselves with other socially conservative Christians” on “many key political debates”–which does not mean all political debates. I respect the fact that our church has officially charted a relatively distinct political path on occasion over the past few decades. And while I admit my “and elsewhere” aside was too casual, I think the truth you point out there actually serves to support my concluding point: our distinctiveness, to whatever extent it exists, is manifestly not significant enough to materially contribute to the conversations that take place in politically conservative circles. The sad examples of Mitt Romney or Mike Lee (to think of two very different sort of Republicans) both occasionally talking a distinct game, but then in the end lining up with Trump, just like the huge majority of other politically conservative American Mormons did, lends credence to one part of Ben’s thesis: what are Mormons adding on the national level anyway?

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