Damon Linker’s TNR article “The Big Test” came out last Friday. Despite the holiday, his argument about Mitt Romney’s all-but-certain presidential candidacy and the problems which at least some Mormon beliefs pose for people looking to decide who to vote for has already caught the eye of many, and will no doubt be talked and argued about for some time to come. If you’re looking for a lengthy take on his argument…well, I’ve put one up on my blog here. But here, writing for T&S’s Mormon audience, let me pick out one paragraph of Damon’s article, and see what I can make of it.
Damon argues that one of the reasons someone might legitimately worry about a Romney presidency is that faithful Mormons believe that the prophet can reveal new truths regarding politics and morals, and since those new truths need not be “grounded” in anything other than’s God’s will for His children–our prophets are not expected to appeal to philosophy or science or majority preferences or anything else for “supporting arguments”–they could require radical changes in policy, even what some might consider unconventional or immoral changes in policy, that Romney himself would not subject to critical examination, much less democratic procedures. This is, to be certain, a rather extreme claim, and gets some important things about Mormonism wrong. But there is one part of Damon’s article that accurately echoes a great deal of current Mormon philosophy. He writes:
Unlike the God of Catholics and Protestants–who is usually portrayed as the transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, and all-wise creator of the temporal universe out of nothingness–Smith’s God is a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely “organized” preexisting matter in order to form the world. As a result of this highly unorthodox revelation, there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology, since Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic of God-given moral purpose.
Compare this to what Louis Midgley has written on the subject of the Mormon faith and the “Law of Nature” (Encyclopedia of Mormonism, pgs. 986-987):
LDS scriptures…speak of God’s commandments, statutes, and ordinances, of God’s plans and purposes, of the ordering of the world (including its metes and bounds) of law given by God, and so forth. The laws mentioned in the scriptures seem…to be instances of divine positive law, though they are not arbitrary, since as moral prescriptions they form the terms of the covenant entered into in the hope that blessings will flow from obedience to God….Though Latter-day Saints sometimes speculate about the reasons for the positive law given through divine revelation and also about the moral sense of mankind, a moral natural law is not clearly delineated in the LDS canon. Some suggest that rough equivalents for a moral natural law might be elicited from scriputre. But theology, grounded in philosophical speculation, is typically seen as a competitor to divine revelation….Hence, there is little talk of a moral natural law among Latter-day Saints.
Damon attributes the “positive law” aspect of Mormon belief to our particular concept of God, and our disbelief in there being any kind of natural moral order possible in a universe where God Himself is an evolved, contingent actor within that universe. Midgley, by contrast, attributes our lack of a naturally grounded moral thinking to the way we understand the scriptures, rejecting theological readings in favor of seeing in the Bible and the Book of Mormon a series of highly specific–and thus non-systemizable–promises and penalties that arise contextually in the relationship between God and His children. However, I think they are ultimately saying the same thing; while Midgley goes further than Damon in putting the positive law upon which we arguably rely in our moral thinking into its proper context, basically both claim that Mormons don’t think much about nature when considering basic moral problems, but rather think about what the scriptures and prophets and The Ensign says. Descriptively at least, I think they’re both right.
There is much to be said in favor of the Mormon way of thinking as described by Midgley. For example, the upside of our “unnatural” reading of scripture is that we–as the argument usually goes–are able to read the words of God fairly literally without having to test or intellectualize those readings so that they can fit seamlessly in with an overarching moral whole. (Sometimes the scriptures suggest that the Anti-Nephi-Lehis have the right idea about dealing with one’s enemies, sometimes they imply that Captain Moroni’s approach is best, and we just roll with it.) Thus we embrace a scriptural seriousness that doesn’t require us to constantly explain away inconsistencies; we just assume that God has told different people different things at different times, and, well, He knows what He’s doing. But there is a downside to investing so much authority in the specific, positive dictates of God (or the prophet, or our local bishop, for that matter): it makes it difficult to develop a way of thinking about morality that would appeal to people who haven’t already accepted the Mormon reading of things. Figuring out what we believe Mormon temple presidents and bishops and members should think about same-sex marriage is a (relative) snap; just turn to the words of the prophet. Figuring out what we believe others should think about same-sex marriage, or what all of us collectively, as a community or state or country or world, should do about same-sex marriage, is…well, harder.
The question of Mormism and natural law is one of the oldest of all Times and Seasons discussions, going all the way back to our first month of existence. It has shaped–even in its absence–discussions on this blog regarding not just same-sex marriage, but also abortion, family size and planning, divorce, war and peace, adoption, gender relations, child-raising, and a dozen other topics. Damon, I suspect, would argue that there is a good reason for this. Stepping outside one’s immediate community of belief and engaging a wider public in moral discussions often seems to require some sort of theological or philosophical ground if only so that one can explain oneself to someone else in mutually comprehendable terms; natural law discourse is hardly the only way to do this, but it is certainly one of the most tested and refined ways of doing so, having an intellectual tradition that extends all the way back to the Greeks and Romans. Of course, it’s not necessarily a democratic tradition; claiming that there is some sort of moral purpose to the natural world and that we are organically beholden to that purpose in our lives and relationships is a pretty good way to invest an ethical system with some real authority, but it isn’t guaranteed to move the application of that authority any closer to the sort of liberal environment Damon wishes to see in America. Still, Damon connects the basic project of philosophy and theology to some of the key elements of Western politics, and he has a point in doing so: if morality in public life really does depend upon arguing publicly about the reasons for one’s beliefs, then perhaps our inability to talk about morality “naturally” limits our ability to articlate our beliefs, and thus to participate in public life.
Now there are a few assumptions in all of the above that I think are quite wrong (and I plan to go into them in my own response). But for the moment, consider this:
In recent years, mostly–but not solely–in association with the church’s efforts to pass state and federal laws opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage, more than a few general authorities of the church, as well as politically active members of the church, have begun to employ same “natural morality” language that most socially conservative Protestants and Catholics do. (See here and here for examples.) Romney has come to speak that way himself. According to Damon, Mormons can’t sensibly use such language, because our concept of God cannot be squared with moral principles existing outside or alongside the commands of our working-it-out-as-He-progresses-in-glory God; according to Midgley, we shouldn’t use such language, because even if there are such eternally-existing-and-morally-binding principles (and Midgley implies there are not, writing that at most Mormons believe the “laws of nature” to be morally neutral descriptions of simple “regularities” in the universe), we can’t know what they are through the scriptures, and so, he concludes, “[s]uch speculation remains tentative and problematic.” We could, of course, assume that Elder Hafen and Professor Wilkins and Governor Romney are speaking that way without embracing, or perhaps even fully understanding, the philosophy or theology behind it. (This is actually my suspicion.) But we could also give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that they’ve thought through all of the above, and yet don’t see any problem with connecting Mormon belief to natural principles apart from specific statements of the prophets. There could be, as I see it, a few ways to make this work:
1. Perhaps Damon is wrong; perhaps Mormons don’t actually believe in a God who is an evolved being in the midst of a universe without any intrinsic natural purpose. Perhaps the King Follet Discourse–which, it is worth noting, has never been canonized or made binding upon members of the church–is one of those odd remnants of Smith’s teachings that we just elide in our moral thinking, thus making it easy for politically concerned Mormons to affirm the existence of a God-endorsed fully natural law. (There is also the possibility that the KFD has been wrongly interpreted all these years and doesn’t actually imply the existence of a God who gives moral edicts separate from the nature of the universe around Him; see Blake Ostler’s arguments on this point.)
2. Perhaps Damon is correct, but his inference is wrong; perhaps Mormons do worship such a “once-a-man-now-a-God”-type of God, but that doesn’t prevent us from employing natural law thinking. Much theorizing about natural morality assumes that “nature” has an objective, propositional quality: that what is moral about is inscribed in it somehow, and can be made manifest by simply getting one’s test or questioning of nature correct. (“Will children raised by same-sex couples flourish, yes or no?”) This sets up an either-or dynamic to our understanding of the natural world: either one is dealing with a prejudiced (“pre-judged”) take on the universe, or one has come to the original truth. But this dynamic greatly reduces our own interpretive contribution to moral thinking, turning our impressions and intuitions into distractions and illusions. Hermeneutic philosophy teaches that we can’t get a grasp on anything–including “nature”–without subjectively recognizing certain “givens” in our understanding. If this happens to be the case, then why should one assume that the covenants which God establishes through positive edicts with us aren’t every bit as natural as any other kind of claim?
3. Moreover, perhaps Midgley is wrong; perhaps between our lay organization, our teachings about the apostacy, and what Terryl Givens’s has called our “dialogical” approach to God’s word, we have allowed ourself to become blinded to the degree to which the scriptures and revelations do invite us to develop general moral theories grounded in nature. It has become common amongst some LDS thinkers to downplay the efforts of early Mormons to systematize our faith and present Smith’s and others’ revelations in the form of public treatises (as was done here and here and here)…but maybe they had the right idea after all: maybe they, writing before what many historians would refer to as our era of “assimilation” (basically the early 1900s through the 1960s), appreciated as we do not today the potential value of expressing to the world a unique Mormon theological perspective on major religious and moral problems. If Romney’s incipient candidacy suggests, among other factors, that Mormons today are prepared to enter into political contests on our own terms, then the ability to discern in Mormonism a set of broadly applicable moral arguments may be necessary, and constructing a moral law out of the standard works doesn’t seem to pose any greater obstacles than the Bible alone did.