How to Make a Mormon Political Theory

How should Mormons use Mormonism to think about law and politics? My question is not about what the “right” Mormon answer is to this or that issue. Rather, it is about how we go about constructing a Mormon theology of politics. It seems that we have three possible alternatives.

First, we could simply find a political theology that has been articulated by Mormons in the past, dust it off, and see if with a bit of tweaking it might yield a theory of law or politics useful for the contemporary world. As it happens, our 19th-century forebearers were good enough to put together such a theology for us. It centers on the idea of the Kingdom of God and imminent millennial expectations. The idea is that the nations of the world are on the brink of collapse. As they fall, the Mormons will be building up their Zion, the Kingdom of God, a theocratically governed social order. The powers and jurisdiction of the Kingdom will expand as the nations crumble. Eventually, the Kingdom will come to govern all and Christ will return to reign in the millennium. The theocracy, however, turns out to be remarkably liberal. Rather than a Taliban regime of forced religious unity, the Kingdom is to provide perfect toleration and freedom of worship for all. Or at least something looking like this theology was taught. I realize that I have not captured all of the curlicues and distinctions.

Second, we might take a natural law approach. Here is what I mean by this: We look at Mormonism as taking certain philosophical positions about the nature of human beings and the nature of human communities. We then reason forward from these first principles toward concrete conclusions about issues of political or legal theory. Once these theories are in place, we use them as ways of analyzing discrete issues. Notice, that this approach does not necessarily require that one reach the same conclusions as previous Mormon political theologies. The Mormoness of the theory lies in its basic assumptions, rather than in its congruence with previous Mormon discussions of politics. A while back, I informally circulated a short paper entitled “Intelligences and Zion” that tried to start down this path. Russell, of course, disagreed with the paper :-) …

A third alternative would be Hegelian. Here is what I mean by this: we look at the course of Mormon history (including the course of Mormon discussion of political theology) and we come up with some kind of unifying theme to the experience. This unifying theme is then taken as the basis for a Mormon political or legal theory. The authority of the theme could rest on two potentially interrelated arguments. First, we can view history providentially and our interpretation of history as a way of discerning God’s will in the world. Second, we can take the unifying theme of our history as stating (to use a term from economics) “expressed preferences.” Several years ago, Cole Durham and I wrote a paper that tried to take this approach in order to articulate a Mormon theory of church state relations. The paper is available online here, and at some point in the hoped for future it will be published by the De Paul Center for Church State Studies. I am not sure, however, how successful this approach will be (or was in our paper).

No doubt there are other ways of approaching the issue, but I think that these are a good start. I suspect that none of them standing alone provides an adequate way of dealing with the issue. What is needed is some way of integrating them together. In particular, I think that we need some way of using 19th century Mormon political theology that is relevant in the 21st century. I have yet to see anyone successfully carry out this project.

So, we have some intellectual work cut out for us. Of course, to read much of what is produced by Mormon intelligensia you would think that the tasks of Mormon intellectuals are exhausted by complaining about the people in their wards and compiling ever longer lists of the things that they weren’t told in Sunday School.

16 comments for “How to Make a Mormon Political Theory

  1. Brent
    December 10, 2003 at 5:03 pm

    Not having much time at present to do flesh out some of my thoughts on this, let me raise just two points. First, I think Mormon beliefs as to the Constitution (i.e. divinely inspired, influence for world, etc.) should constribute to any Mormon political theory. Second, I have been struck both during law school and since that the Book of Mormon has some interesting stories/teachings about or involving government and law (e.g. Mosiah 29, Alma 48 etc.). Some of these also might be a source for constructing political theory. I will hopefully be able to elaborate later.

  2. Dave
    December 10, 2003 at 5:11 pm


    Interesting ideas. I find the concept “a theology of politics” troubling. Democratic politics is a process that mediates diverse group interests. Using religious doctrine and reasoning to arrive at a set of “correct” Mormon political positions or “correct” voting choices (whatever they may be) is problematic because it ignores the diverse interests of the set of all Mormons. I believe equally sincere and believing Mormons can arrive at different political choices.

    Your no. 1, the Kingdom model, seems inconsistent with the group interest articulation and mediation that characterizes politics in a democracy.

    Your no. 2, natural law, has the problem that general moral laws lead to a variety of valid political options. Also, different moral values may pull in different directions when applied to a particular policy or issue. I note how selective the Church has been about launching political initiatives in the cause of particular moral values it supports.

    Your no. 3 is interesting–I’ll read the paper and comment later. I’m eager to see whose preferences are revealed in the course of Mormon history and how you discern them.

  3. Nate
    December 10, 2003 at 5:28 pm

    Brent: I actually think that the idea of an inspired constitution is part and parcel in LDS theology of an idea of providential history. You simply push the interpretation of “Mormon history” back prior to Joseph Smith.

    Dave: I think that you are missing the point of the project that I am interested in. Even if we had a well developed theology of politics it would not necessarily be the case that we would all agree on particular political issues. Rather the question is if we can think about political issues in rigorously Mormon ways. I am looking for a consistent way of talking about things, not necessarily uniquely correct answers.

    Also, you cannot simply take philosophical liberalism as a neutral baseline against which to compare potential theories, a move that you implicitly make by saying that politics is really about mediating between divergent groups, etc. Philosophical liberalism is a particular philosophical position. It has a history and a set of philosophical assumptions. It is most definitely not simply “the way things are.” The question is the relationship of Mormonism to philosophical liberalism (or any other political philosophy). I want to find a way of rigorously thinking about that issue, rather than simply assuming the validity of philosophical liberalism and then using that as a way of avoiding the question of political theology.

  4. clark
    December 10, 2003 at 5:57 pm

    I’m not a lawyer nor a political scientist. So forgive this novice’s wasting time he ought to be programming by posting a few thoguhts…

    Wasn’t the early Mormon view of the constitution simply that of a fairly decentralized government? i.e. the reason a kingdom was possible was because each locality could more or less run things as they wish.

    i.e. they tended to see the constitution as limits of *federal* power and less as having an effect on local power.

    I fully admit that I don’t have the reading on either historical constitutional law nor early LDS views on the same to say much. But from my superficial reading that has seemed to be the case.

  5. Scott
    December 10, 2003 at 6:06 pm

    Why do we need a theory? Isn’t the very idea of analyzing or resolving a moral question (or, more specifically, a political question) by reference to a “theory” somewhat foreign–possibly even destructive–to Mormonism’s distinctive revelatory MO?


  6. Nate
    December 10, 2003 at 6:10 pm

    Scott: Perhaps. My fear is that without being explicit about our theory, we are simply in the thrall of some unstated theoretical assumptions. I suspect that we cannot escape theory. I would rather have the beast out in the open where I can see it. Also, making such a theory might be fun!

    Clark: I think that it is difficult to talk about a single 19th century view of the constitution. In the Missouri and post-Missouri period, the Mormons seem to have adopted a view of the federal government as ultimate protector of individual liberties against local authority. Thus, they appealed to the federal government in order to get relief. When that effort failed, their attitude shifted. They learned their lesson and set out to creat autonomous local governments of their own, first in Nauvoo and then in the Great Basin. The problem is that when push came to shove after the Civil War, the antebellum constitutional lessons that they had learned so well in Missouri were no longer true.

  7. Greg
    December 10, 2003 at 6:20 pm

    I just finished reading our own Jim Faulconer’s essay entitled “Religion and the Possibility of Justice” (in the collection _Transcendence in Philosophy and Religion_). It is a powerful example of looking to religion (Judeo-Christian scripture in this instance) to help explore the question of “justice.” Although it is clearly not meant to be “Mormon political theory,” it should give us hope to think that the project is possible.

  8. clark
    December 10, 2003 at 6:25 pm

    Nate, weren’t the rights that the early saints wanted the rights of their own local government?

  9. Nate
    December 10, 2003 at 6:33 pm

    Yes and no. In Missouri they were making a number of claims. First, they argued that they were being forbidden to practice their religion. Second, they argued that their property had been taken without consent or compensation. These are not clearly rights dealing with local self-government.

    Later in Utah they essentially who two sets of arguments. First, the federal policy violated their right to local self-determination. Second, by criminalizing polygamy, the government was directly violating their personal rights to religious freedom. Seperating out the two strands of argument this way is a bit anachronistic, since it is not at all clear that prior to Reynolds v. United States (1879) these were seperate concepts in the minds of most. It is one of the things that makes reading the pre-Reynolds legal arguments, briefs, etc. so wierd and so interesting. They were clearly living in a different legal universe.

  10. Adam Greenwood
    December 10, 2003 at 6:51 pm

    “Your no. 2, natural law, has the problem that general moral laws lead to a variety of valid political options.”

    I actually see this as an advantage. A robust Mormon Natural Law might make our goals more coherent, while leaving us to argue about how to achieve them; it might make certain things mandatory; and it might make certain other things forbidden. This is at least the case with the natural law thought of John Finnis, who is one of the leading Catholic practitioners of the subject. In any case, such a project might bring enough coherence to some questions that we know what we’re fighting about, maybe even enough that we can seek revelation on it?

    “Democratic politics is a process that mediates diverse group interests.”

    Exactly. What is our group interest? I for one want to know more.

    Finally, I think Nos. 2 and Nos. 3 might be compatible. That is, Mormon Natural Law might have a term in it that requires looking to one’s own past and culture, as part of friendship and love for one’s ancestors or something.

  11. Jeremiah John
    December 11, 2003 at 3:51 am

    I’ll post a few rough and sloppy comments here and then post an LDS-PHIL comment, especially in response to what Melissa Proctor has had to say about it.

    I don’t have much of a problem with your use of various terms for what you are talking about: esp. in the case of “political theology” or “theology of politics” it is not at all clear that these indicate two different things. As for “Mormon political theory”, that sounds to me to be “political theory” whatever that means, done in some kind of to-be-specified Mormon way. This is a bit different but may still be related to Mormon political theology. When we sort out what this stuff means then we may be more sure what to call it.

    Generally: We had an exchange on this issue last June, which I will send you. I’d like to post some of it again somehow, but I don’t know what part of it to put up. Anyway, in that exchange I argue that political theology (and much or all of theology generally) is a project of self-relfection. In political theology we are attempting to make intelligible those discursive claims and practices of the church which have relevance to the political order. As political theologians we are thinking through our place as children of God in between Zion (conceived as something that is and which will be) and the World.

    Under this view, theology does not directly compete with or run parallel to continuing revelation of priesthood leaders or other forms of revealed imperatives. Indeed, the ethical life of the church provides us with all we need to figure out what to do in most life situations. But political life, especially liberal political life, is one of those areas where the ethical life of the community breaks down. E.g. it seems to me that Mitt Romney understands what being a Mormon requires on Sunday morning, when it’s time for family prayer, etc. But he seems confused about the issue of abortion rights. It’s not that Romney is an inscruptulous politician; I think that he, and many of us, finds it hard to understand how his religious life relates to life as a politically active American. This is especially problematic in a pluralistic society–in this situation the rational core of political claims is generally ‘political, not comprehensive’, as Melissa tells us. But precisely because the goods of Mormonism are comprehensive and not merely private as liberalism would have it, we face a crisis of what one may call moral integrity. In short, to be a good liberal, through and through, in public life you have to act as though the Kingdom isn’t everything.

    I think that the three general approaches you mention can be interpreted as ways of thinking through this crisis, except in the case of natural law as you describe it.

    Traditional Christian natural law may have some characteristics which are especially Christian, but it was conceived not as an elaboration of uniquely Christian truths, i.e. truths available only by revelation. Rather, it was conceived as a rule of natural reason, absent revelation. This why St. Thomas might find it unfair when we accuse him of baptizing Aristotle (and Cicero); the point was not to show how Christian the Greeks were but to show just how good and decent natural reason and natural virtue can be. This is especially useful for politics, since it can provide a justification for a political order that happens to contain non-Christians or wayward Christians. The appeal is to natural reason rather than Christian faith.

  12. Adam Greenwood
    December 11, 2003 at 8:18 am

    Could you post some version of your June discussion? I’d be very interested.

  13. Nate
    December 11, 2003 at 12:44 pm

    At Adam’s suggestions, I will post a taste of the rather meandering exchange Jeremy and I had a while back.

    I wrote:

    As described in scripture, Zion seems to be an uncoerced ideal. It is not something that the state imposes upon people. It thus seems that it cannot properly be used as a model for the kind of state of affairs that we should seek
    to bring about through legal rules. We therefore ought not to justify legal power in
    the form of regulations with reference to the idea of Zion. This probably seems like a fairly banal point. Here comes the clever part of my argument:

    In _Anarchy, State, and Utopia_ Robert Nozick argues that the state should exist in some minimal fashion to facilitate the creation of private “utopias”, i.e. voluntary instanstations of different conceptions of “the good.” Some — including me — have conceptualized Zion within this sort of a paradigm. Thus, one might argue for a liberal state because it would provide a hospitable forum for Zion. This is
    important, because when you conceptualize Zion in this way it has implications for
    legal theory. The idea is that one might be skeptical of legal institutions in their
    regulatory aspect, but one can use Zion as a justification of legal rules that protect “private” interests. In particular, the institution of property — by giving
    one a right of exclusion — allows you to fashion self-defining communities independent of the state or the will of the majority. Zion thus justifies legal property (broadly conceived) because it is property that allows independent
    communities to maintain their integrity.

    Jeremy responded:

    I think that this picture of Zion is unneccessarily liberal. While it may be
    true that Zion is not an ideal which “the state imposes on people” (in the crude sense which
    this way of putting it may conjure up), this point returns us to the old liberal question, if the “state [imposing] on people” is in general bad, when can the state (or more properly, the community) impose on people (if ever) and
    why? When the undergrads I teach reject Rousseau’s claim that sometimes we must be “forced to be free”, I ask them–since being forced to do some things is practically an inevitable fact of political life–the real question is–to what end are we forced? As long as the liberal state is necessary for Zion (as it seems to be in this your formulation, and at least may be for the current historical situation
    of the Church), we must figure out how Zion is going to accept the minimal coercive measures (imperative legal rules and the apparatus that enforeces them) that make possible Zion’s existence.

    If we posit a pure Zion community (which seems identical to the church in what many have said) inside a basically libertarian state (without any positive goods of its own to recommend it, merely the conditions for church life) then we seem
    quite often to arrive at the Lutheran thesis–that while our alliegance to the Church is
    based on celestial premises, our justification of the state is based on very teleological grounds. We punish evil in political life, very ruthlessly at times, because if we don’t get them they will get us. And God established government so that evil people won’t get us good Christians. I think that by locating politics (“coercion” for our purposes) outisde the realm of forgiveness and redemptive change we force ourselves into either apolitical quietism or a dual life of
    Christianity and a law-and-order libertarianism (Cowdery’s statement in D&C 134 shows some traces of this Lutheran alternative).

    My point: I see no reason why Zion would not involve the kinds of laws-as-commands (you’re probably thinking of Hart’s distinction here).

    To which I responded:

    Yet to simply ask these questions is hardly sufficient to send liberals running to the hills. Liberal theorists HAVE attempted to provide answers to these questions — e.g. social contract theories, ideal discourse theories, rights theories, etc. Furthermore — if I may engage in a bit of whiggish history — given the massive salutory effect that liberal regimes have had on the societies where they have been adopted, I have little patience with their glib dismissal. That said, I appreciate the force of many of philosophical attacks on liberalism. I thus find myself in the position of being a conflicted liberal, a closet doubter if you will [grin]…

    I start with the liberal position for essentially methodological reasons. I am interested in using Mormonism to formulate ways of thinking about law and politics IN THE PRESENT. In the present, (at least in the West) we live in essentially liberal political regimes. It thus seems that the first thing that a relevent and useful Mormon political theory must do is start thinking about liberalism very seriously.

    I agree with your criticism of political quietism justified by theological complacency. At the same time, I would like to see more thinking about just what sort of steadying of the ark it is that we are supposed to be engaged in. “Not conservatism” isn’t much a platform, although it is certainly a start. In the end, I suppose that we are back to where we started: negative political theology. The job of the Mormon political or legal theorist seems to get reduced to warning that Saints that we are not X. I am just hoping that we can find some further light and knowledge.

    To which Jeremy responded:

    This is a hard question, though my point was that social ills are not an ark at all, but are rather manifestations of sin like any other, which we should humbly try to remedy in accordance with the gospel despite our inadequaies.

    As my comments above may indicate, a platform is not my aim, though specific determinations may come out of political theology, if only in localized and tentatived recommendations. And so I may not even be able to say “we are not X”. This may seem like the program of a weasel, since is lets me seem to say something without saying anything. But this view is somewhat to be expected, given the limitied and precarious role for political theology which I want to argue for. Even an wide-encompassing and unifying system as Thomas’ natural law is hard to turn into a platform. Many people have had difficulty getting it to justify or prohibit anything. But it does argue for a specific understanding of God’s relationship with the social world which does *help* turn us in the right direction politically, in my opinion. It is a perhaps a stone of stumbling for political theology that our responsibilities within the church seem so clear in comparison with out duties to our political community.

    A second problem with saying we are X or not X politically is that it is hard enough to keep the flock together without introducing more political litmus tests than need be, especially when we have as a people been encouraged to mingle in good faith among the Gentiles, if you will. In an essay on abortion, Hauerwas mentions this point in a reference to the Quakers (?) in Philadelphia, whose congregations were apparently torn apart by divisions over slavery in the 19th century.

    Last note: Not being able to say Not X for me does not cut off the possibility of critique. From the perspective of Zion we can still point out contradictions, expose half-truths, and clarify the true needs that underlie all the false expressions which these needs take on in the political realm. In Augustinian terms, being pilgrims in the world means that we can appreciate the need for politics without taking glory, wealth or pleasure as ultimate ends. To be sure, how this is different from saying yes or no to a given platform probably needs to be clarified more.

    This is a rather incomplete snippet of our conversation, but it gives you a sense of the tone and some of the issues that we were trying to hash out.

  14. Jeremiah John
    December 11, 2003 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks for posting this–I don’t quite like all the things I wrote then, but the good parts are better than what I could reproduce now. Right now I am interested by Hauerwas’s idea of political theology: that for the church to do what is right in political life, all the church has to do is be the church. This doesn’t mean: “continue to do whatever we have done and are doing”, but rather live in the Christian life of covenant which we have entered into. He argues, quite persuasively. This is problematic for us because we seem to have accepted some kind of dichotomy between private religious life and public “good citizenship”. But other American Christians have this problem as well.

  15. Nate
    December 12, 2003 at 11:23 am

    Jeremy: You might want to check out an article that Fred Geddicks (BYU Law) wrote about ten years ago for a symposium with Hauerwas. As I recall it is something like “The Integrity of Survival: A Mormon Response to Hauerwas,” and was published by the De Paul Law Review.

  16. Jack
    December 2, 2004 at 1:44 am

    The problem with taking past Mormon political beliefs, such as local autonomy, collectivism, etc. and trying to construct a modern Mormon political theory from that is that any group’s political behavior is dependent on the social paradigm in which it exists.

    Example: Mormons from 1830 to around 1850 had fairly strong leanings against the laissez faire attitudes of the federal government with regard to the persecution they faced out west. But this does not mean that Mormons in general favor a more “populist” or “hands-on” approach by government. Their anti-laissez faire beliefs referred specifically to the issue of the persecution that they were dealing with. It does not suggest that 19th century Mormons would have this same attitude if the issue were abortion, gay marriage, or even the prohibition/regulation of alcohol.

    Therefore, I favor the third (Hegelian) approach. Look at where Mormons are today and how our collective political attitudes square with our religious beliefs. The two should fit together comfortably without contradicting one another or warping some past political philosophy around an unprecedented modern problem.

    Mormons today are treding away from collectivism and, somewhat surprisingly, toward a laissez faire economic conservatism. Not that this is bad. It merely reflects a level of comfort with modern conservatism. Yet this laissez faire attitude does not extend to social issues such as abortion, gambling, alcohol regulation, and gay issues. Mormons probably have always supported government prohibitions of most behaviors that are already prohibited by the Church.

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