Over two years ago, I posted a series of posts on reasons to support the ACLU, and whether a Mormon could or should support the ACLU, on my personal blog. The discussion that ensued was one of the contributing factors to the formation of Times and Seasons. Given that the conversation around here turns to this topic from time to time, I thought it might be useful to move that set of posts over here. They are lightly edited for context and updating. (For the original posts, see here and here.)
Can a Mormon Support the ACLU?
I am both a church member and a genuine ACLU contributor (a “card-carrying member of the ACLU”). I understand the dislike some church members have for the ACLU. I don’t agree with every position the ACLU has ever taken. However, I think that it serves a very important role in protecting underrepresented and minority groups. And in doing so, it protects LDS members even more than the general populace. This is, of course, because Mormons are, nationwide, very much an underrepresented group. Because the ACLU protects my rights as a member of a religious minority, my ACLU membership is very important to me as a Mormon.
ACLU Protection of Church Members
A threshold question is whether support for the ACLU is prohibited given the lawsuits filed by the ACLU, in Utah, against the church. Given these suits, members may perceive the ACLU as an organization that opposes Mormon beliefs. Members may be less familiar with the ACLU’s efforts to protect church members’ rights to religious freedom outside of the Mormon corridor.
While in Utah, it may be possible to lose sight of the fact that Mormons are an underrepresented minority nationwide. However, in most of the country, we are a politically weak (politically non-existent) minority, and the ACLU helps prevent other majority religions from oppressing us.
I don’t know how many LDS people are aware that one of the lead plaintiffs in Santa Fe v. Doe, which struck down some “school prayer” programs, was an LDS student. That plaintiff was an LDS student who had been harassed by other students and teachers for being LDS, had been told by teachers that the church was wrong. That is, of course, exactly the kind of behavior majority groups can inflict on minority groups.
The ACLU suit in that case had several effects. For the LDS plaintiff, the suit had the effect that school officials could no longer harass LDS students (i.e. the plaintiff) and tell them that the church was wrong. That’s a good result for church members everywhere, which is why I am consistently surprised by the number of e-mails I get from LDS relatives about why “school prayer” is good. As the facts of Santa Fe point out, “School prayer” = license to harass LDS kids. Why exactly am I supposed to like that?
I’m not a Utah Mormon. I’ve never lived in Utah (except for a month at the MTC). I have lived in Mesa, Arizona for several years, which is similar in many respects to Utah, but I’ve also lived large stretches of life in areas where church members were practically unknown. I lived for several years in Oklahoma, where I was one of a handful of LDS kids at the school. I also lived for some time in New York, where my children were among the only LDS students at their school.
Being an LDS member in a non-LDS area made me very grateful for the ACLU. I am glad that no one is teaching my son prayers at school. I’ll do that myself, thank you very much. I’m glad that groups like the ACLU prevent the state from blatantly supporting religions, because any support would go to groups I am not a part of.
I sometimes joke that I should pay $20 a year in extra tithing to cancel out negative effects of my ACLU membership dues. But the fact is, I find my ACLU membership very much consistent with being a church member.
Other Aspects of the ACLU
The previous section discussed whether the direct clashes between the church and the ACLU rule out support for the ACLU by a church member. This section will discuss whether other aspects of the ACLUâ€™s political beliefs are at odds with church beliefs. That question turns out to be quite complex.
There is a need to examine more than just religious litigation. Religious litigation is not irreconcilable with church beliefs. However, it is conceivable that the ACLU may have other beliefs which are not reconcilable with church membership. That is, an organization could be compatible with church membership based on its position on religious litigation, but could be anathema to church membership because of beliefs in other areas.
The general proposition from which to begin, then, is that for ACLU membership to be consistent with church membership, such a position should be free from conflict not only in the religious-litigation arena, but in all substantive areas. If an ACLU position is found to be irreconcilable with church doctrine, then church membership may not be consistent with ACLU membership.
Threshold point: The distinction between religious commandment and legal law
A threshold point, which is vital in this discussion, is the recognition that an act may be spiritually condemned — it may be a sin — while at the same time legally permitted — it is not a crime. (The reverse, of course, also holds true — an act may be a crime but not a sin).
This characteristic is inherent in non-theocratic legal systems (and, it could be argued, it exists in some theocratic systems as well, to the extent they are not based on correct doctrine). The United States is a non-theocratic legal system. As LDS members, we may support non-theocratic legal systems, and indeed are encouraged to do so. (See Article of Faith #12). (Some theocratic systems are also spoken of highly in scripture; but, the government of the United States, which is non-theocratic, is explicitly approved in scripture).
Because we are encouraged to support this non-theocratic system, an LDS member can believe acts are sins, independent of any determination by the state that such acts should or should not be considered crimes. There are numerous examples of sins that are not crimes: Everything from alcohol consumption or pre-marital sex, to non-belief in Christ or non-payment of tithing, are sins — yet they are generally not crimes. (It is also true, of course, that some sins are crimes, but this is not a universal correlation).
Understanding the sin / crime distinction is central to reconciling church and ACLU membership because, at their core, the two organizations focus on different areas entirely. The church is concerned with spiritual laws, on obedience to commandments which will result in eternal life in the world to come. The ACLU is focused on temporal laws, and on the effects of laws that govern our physical acts. The church focuses on which acts can draw God’s condemnation, while the ACLU focuses on which acts can draw the state’s condemnation. They operate largely in independent spheres.
This discussion foreshadows much of the later analysis. At this point, it is sufficient that the reader realize that certain acts can be sins while not being crimes — that is, that there exists a sin / crime distinction — and that this distinction is entirely consistent with LDS doctrine.
A related note is necessary here: The Scriptures do indicate that societies in which temporal laws deviate too sharply from spiritual laws will face the anger of God. (See, e.g., Mosiah 29:27). The import of this principle on behavior is not clear. LDS members should strive to instruct and set an example for their neighbors. Should the sin / crime differential become too great, the scriptures tell us that society will be ripe for destruction. However, church members are not encouraged to go against the democratic or legal process (Mosiah 29:26).
The conclusion on this point is that the sin / crime distinction exists, and that LDS members should expect it to exist. It is not itself a bad thing. However, too broad of a sin / crime gap can lead to God’s punishment.
Second threshold point: Balancing of good
A second threshold point is what I will call the balancing of the good. Many organizations have beliefs or teachings that stretch across a large number of subject categories. The church is such an organization; so are many political organizations including the ACLU.
In considering the merits of an organization, it seems to me to be necessary to consider the balance of good — that is, if an organization has taken several positions on several different subjects, that a church member weigh the total (how many positions she agrees on, how many she does not) in order to decide whether or not to support that organization.
This principle is common in politics. A person may vote for a Democrat because he agrees with that candidate’s view on the environment, even if he disagree with her view on abortion. A voter may vote for a Republican because he agrees with a candidate’s view on taxes, even if he disagrees with her view on gun control. Balancing of the good is a practice that church members (and other people) are accustomed to engaging in.
Examples of Balancing of the Good
A few examples can help illustrate the principle of balancing the good. For one example, consider the American Heart Association. It has published papers about how drinking 1-2 glasses of red wine per day can cut down on cardiovascular disease. The AHA does not make an across the board recommendation, because they say that alcohol use for this reason should be discussed with the physician, but notes that “Moderate intake of alcoholic beverages (1 to 2 drinks per day) is associated with a reduced risk of CHD in populations.” This statement — that drinking wine can be good for one’s health — is a position counter to the Word of Wisdom.
A second example can be found in many (if not most) scientific organizations. For our example, we will use the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Institution, a wonderful museum and resource, also supports the theory of evolution. Such a position is counter to what might be considered the current official beliefs of the church on that issue, though the church position is not entirely clear.
Can an LDS member donate to either organization? Certainly. The LDS member may quite reasonably feel that the good work done by the AHA is important enough to support them, despite its statements on alcohol use, or that the Smithsonian (or other museum or scientific society) is important enough to support despite any disagreement on creation. The same principle could apply to donation or assistance to Catholic charities, even though they have contrary beliefs on the priesthood and the authority of the Prophet, or to donations to one’s alma mater, even if the school leadership has expressed beliefs contrary to church doctrines.
Balancing of the good is a practice that LDS members can and should engage in. Church members should not reserve their generosity for perfect organizations, but should actively strive to improve society, even through (or especially through) imperfect organizations, as long as those organizations have a balance which favors the good.
To recap the points discussed thus far, they are:
(1) Church members should examine all facets of ACLU belief to see if it conflicts with church doctrine;
(2) The existence of a sin / crime distinction is not counter to church belief, provided the gap between the two is not too great;
(3) Organizations should be judged on a “balancing of the good” test.
I will now discuss some substantive areas of church doctrine and ACLU belief.
Potential Areas of Conflict
The first step we will take in reviewing the doctrines of the two organizations for conflicts is to make a preliminary assessment of areas where any conflicts are likely to exist. At this stage, the assessment will be a largely intuitive matter, a simple listing of areas of law or politics where, based on my observation, church members often seem to be at odds with the ACLU or its perceived position.
And at first glance, there are several areas in which it seems possible church doctrine and ACLU belief could come into conflict. These include drugs, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, welfare, gay and lesbian issues, women’s rights, gun control, prisoners’ rights, the Boy Scouts, and national security. We will now begin a closer examination to see which of these issues (if any) present real potential conflicts, and which are red herrings.
The church position on drugs is clear: Drug use is a violation of the Word of Wisdom and is contrary to the commandments.
The ACLU stance on drugs is quite different. The organization argues that the “war of drugs” should be ended and that most drugs should be decriminalized. The ACLU has litigated against mandatory minimum sentencing laws and against drug policies that are perceived as having a disproportionate impact on minorities.
These two positions are certainly different. However, they are very much reconcilable. The church position is that one should not use illegal drugs — just as one should not use alcohol, tobacco, tea or coffee. This spiritual admonition does not require an accompanying legal ban. In fact, for every other aspect of the Word of Wisdom, there is no accompanying legal ban. Tobacco, alcohol, coffee and tea are perfectly legal substances. Church members are not required to maintain abolitionist positions on these substances.
To put this in terms of the prior discussion on sin and crime, the LDS belief in that use of some substances is wrong (sin) does not require members to support legal restrictions on the use of such substances (crime). As long as the ACLU is not actually promoting drug use — and I have seen no evidence that it is — its position in favor of decriminalization of drugs does not appear to conflict with a belief in the validity of the Word of Wisdom.
The Death Penalty
The ACLU is opposed to the use of the death penalty.
It has been my experience that many church members favor the death penalty. Utah is a death penalty state. There has been some media coverage of Utah’s practice of firing squad executions and this has been attributed to Mormon belief.
Such a connection is tenuous at best. Despite public sentiment in favor of the death penalty, there is no requirement that church members support the death penalty. The church has no position on the death penalty that I could locate.
(Church members who support the death penalty can point out that there is no lack of scriptural verses which could be used to support a belief in the death penalty (such as Captain Moroni’s execution of dissenters in Alma 62:9-10). However, there are an equal number of scriptural statements which could be used to support a position against the death penalty, such as Matthew 5:38-39 or John 8:3-11. The scriptures do not clearly indicate that either position is correct.)
Because the church has no position on the death penalty, there is no conflict between its position and the ACLU position.
Is the ACLU position contrary to the church’s position? There is no reason to think that the two cannot coexist. The church encourages people to work for a living, and promotes ideas such as self-sufficiency and emergency preparedness. Such a belief can coexist with the idea that some people may need welfare assistance due to lack of education, emotional or physical handicaps, addictions, or other long-term problems. In fact, many scriptures emphasize the need to give to the poor — which is exactly what the ACLU focuses on.
There is room for disagreement, since church members may think that the ACLU’s tactics are not the most effective way to help the poor. However, there is nothing inherent in the ACLU’s position on welfare that is irreconcilable with church beliefs.
Affirmative Action and Racial Justice
The ACLU supports affirmative action. On other race-related issues, the ACLU has worked to protect voting rights of minorities and has litigated against police abuse against minorities.
On many of these issues, such as police abuse or voting rights, there is obviously no conflict. The church has no position on affirmative action. However, church leaders are required to be called by revelation. (See Article of Faith 5). Thus, it seems likely that the church would be opposed to any requirement that its appointment of leaders be subject to affirmative action. However, the ACLU has not, to my knowledge, advocated such a position. The Civil Rights Act has an exception for religious organizations, and in addition the Supreme Court has firmly established a right to appoint ecclesiastical leaders without state regulation.
(The church’s previously held position that Blacks could not hold the priesthood may have been criticized by the ACLU. I do not know whether or not this is true; the church has had its new policy for as long as I can remember).
Thus, I do not see any conflict between church doctrines and the ACLU’s support of affirmative action and other laws intended to help racial minorities.
Immigration, Prisoners’ Rights, National Security, and Gun Control
I group these four together because I think they are truly red herrings. The ACLU does have positions on many of these topics. And the ACLU position is often, in my experience, at odds with individually held political beliefs of some church members. The church, however, does not have positions on these topics, and there is no reason a church member cannot support the ACLU positions in these areas.
Recap of Discussion thus far
Thus far, the discussion has examined ACLU beliefs relating to many issues and found no conflict with church doctrines. These areas are drugs, death penalty, affirmative action, welfare, and some red herrings (gun control, immigration, prisoners’ rights, and national security). Each of these areas has needed only a brief discussion to establish the lack of conflict between ACLU and church beliefs.
There remain three major areas (and one tangential area) of potential conflict which will require more in-depth discussion. The three major areas are women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, and abortion; the tangential area is the Boy Scouts.
The ACLU has litigated in favor of women’s rights and fought workplace discrimination. The church, meanwhile, has stated that men and women have different roles in God’s plan, especially in the care of the family.
Many of the ACLU’s actions regarding women’s rights are clearly compatible with church beliefs. There is no church doctrine, for example, supporting sexual harassment or workplace discrimination in most settings. Ecclesiastical positions, as noted above, are exempted under law so do not present a problem.
There is one aspect of women’s rights where the ACLU position is at odds with the church position. That is the Equal Rights Amendment. The ACLU supports the ERA while the church has opposed it (see this article).
Much of the church’s opposition to the ERA appears to be based on issues which will be addressed later in the discussion (homosexual issues and abortion) and which may have their own solutions (as we will discuss). However, the fact remains that the ACLU supports the ERA and the church discourages its members from supporting the ERA. This is a direct conflict which can only be resolved by a “balancing of the good” (as discussed in the first post) — that is, a church member may support the ACLU if he feels that the good that they do outweighs any harm from their support of the ERA.
The church is opposed to abortion except in cases of rape, incest, and life or health of the mother. The ACLU has a strongly pro-choice position, defending a woman’s right to an abortion and litigation against restrictions on that ability.
These positions are at odds. Much of the difference can be reconciled by reference to the sin / crime distinction. That is, it is possible to believe that abortion is a sinful act, which a church member should not engage in, and also to believe that abortion is a subject which is not appropriate for state regulation.
However, it is difficult to fully reconcile all of the ACLU position — including opposition to parental notification, abstinence education, and hospital choice about whether to provide abortions — with the church position. It seems to me to be possible to reconcile all of the ACLU position by using the crime / sin distinction. But a more comfortable reconciliation, at least for me, is done by balancing the good — recognizing that the ACLU does much good, and either refusing to accept the entire ACLU position on abortion, or finding that, on balance, any harm caused by the ACLU position on abortion is outweighed by the good the organization does.
Homosexual Rights (also addressing Boy Scouts)
The church has strongly opposed homosexual behavior as well as gay marriage. The ACLU, in contrast, defends homosexual rights including gay marriage.
These positions appear very dissimilar. But there are many aspects in which there is no disagreement. For example, the church believes homosexual acts are a sin. The ACLU does not dispute this characterization. Similarly, the ACLU has brought cases and advocated that gay kids not be discriminated against at school; that gay employees not be discriminated against at work; and that laws criminalizing homosexual behavior be struck down. None of those positions are contrary to official church position.
In short, there are many areas within the rubric of “homosexual rights” where there is no direct conflict between church position and the ACLU position. Much of the lack of conflict can be traced to the sin / crime distinction. However, there are areas with more direct conflicts. Those areas deserve some attention:
The church is opposed to gay marriage, while the ACLU has argued that it should be legally allowed. This area is actually less problematic than it first appears. A church member can believe (1) that gay marriage is wrong — that it is a sin — because homosexuality is contrary to gospel commandments, but (2) that the state should not discriminate in this area, i.e. should permit gay marriage. Such a position is consistent with the sin / crime distinction.
The issue is complicated, however, by the fact that the church has campaigned against gay marriage in California. This gives some indication that church members should not support gay marriage. I am unsure of what weight to give the fact that the church has campaigned politically on this issue. It may still be possible to resolve differences in gay marriage using the sin / crime distinction. To the extent that church activity in the political arena suggests that this distinction could not be employed to reconcile the two positions, the church member must use the balancing of the good test, and could reasonably conclude that the good done by the ACLU outweighs any harm done by their position on gay marriage.
A very similar outcome applies to gay adoption. Again, the church does not support adoption by homosexuals, while the ACLU has supported a right to such adoptions. Again, the difference can be reconciled at least in part by reference to the sin / crime distinction — it may not be inconsistent to agree on spiritual condemnation of behavior while allowing the state’s criminal or civil laws to permit such behavior. And again, the church’s political statements make me unsure that the difference can be fully resolved using the sin / crime distinction. Any difference that cannot be resolved using the sin / crime distinction could reasonably be resolved under the balancing of the good test.
The final potential issue, which is related to gay rights, is the difference of opinion regarding the Boy Scouts. The church has supported the Supreme Court decision allowing the Boy Scouts to exclude homosexuals, while the ACLU opposes that decision. This issue is peripheral. The difference can be explained using the sin / crime distinction — it may be morally right for the Supreme Court to rule as it did, but constitutionally inconsistent. As for the underlying issue, again, it is quite possible, using the sin / crime distinction, to maintain that the Boy Scouts are required under the Civil Rights Act to admit homosexuals, while also believing that homosexual acts are not allowed under gospel principles.
This lengthy discussion has shown, I hope, that ACLU membership can be consistent with church belief. Not all church members will support the ACLU, of course. Because this discussion has relied in part on a balancing test for which individual members will have different results, it is possible that many church members will find ACLU membership to be inconsistent with their personal church membership. However, the balancing tests may also, depending on the member’s feelings on the issues, reasonably be resolved in the other way, allowing (as in my case) for ACLU membership consistent with church membership.
This discussion has treated the statements and positions of both organizations in a substantially similar, impartial way. I recognize that church membership is very different than ACLU membership. Church membership is a way of life, while ACLU membership is a small political statement. I know that the church is true and have a testimony of the church in a way that I will never have with the ACLU, or any other purely temporal organization.
However, I do think that the ACLU does much good in the world today. I am proud of both my church membership and my ACLU membership. I believe that both organizations do many important things. And because I find both organizations to be beneficial, I am very happy to be a member of them both.