Beware: lengthy reflections on the politico-theological problems of Mormonism follow.
Way down towards the bottom of the comments attached to Nate’s post “How to Make a Mormon Political Theory” (which I never commented on, but should have), Nate makes reference to an article by Fred Gedicks, a BYU law professor, titled “The Integrity of Survival: A Mormon Response to Stanley Hauerwas” (DePaul Law Review 42 (1992): 167-173). I’ve a copy of that article sitting on my shelf right now, and it has always bothered me. Specifically, I’ve been bothered (though perhaps in a good way) by a single footnote Gedicks included in that essay; a footnote that is, in my view, fairly explosive in its implications (though what the fallout from that explosion exactly is I’ve never been quite certain).
The context is as follows: Stanley Hauerwas had just delivered a powerful address on Christianity’s interaction with the modern state, in which he claimed (among other things) that American Christians’ obsessive concern with the First Amendment and “free exercise” jurisprudence has blinded them to the degree to which, as he put it, “‘Christianity’ [was being separated] from the social form in which it is to be embodied…[with the result that] Christian belief [is being] located in an interior, asocial sphere, ‘the heart’ or ‘conscience’ or some other private (i.e., non-public) space, and thus degenerates into ‘mere belief.'” (Hauerwas’s title, “The Kingship of Christ: Why Freedom of ‘Belief’ is Not Enough” should be a more than adequate summary of his point.) Gedicks is one of the commentators, and he confesses himself entirely unable to appreciate Hauerwas’s argument. He writes that “Hauerwas’s argument is not that seeking religious freedom through political activism is ineffective or self-deceptive, but that…activism on behalf of religious freedom transforms the church in ways that the church ought not to be transformed.” He goes on to claim that such “embodied faith” in an enduring church is, for Mormons like himself at least, impossible: “[I]t is not enough for Mormons simply to be faithful to the end…[for in] a conflict between faith and survival, our beliefs require that we do all we can to stave off the end.” After discussing the persecution the church faced because of its practice of polygamy, Gedicks comments that, “Just as Wilford Woodruff had made it clear that the survival of the Mormon church depended on its abandoning plural marriage, he had also made it clear that this abandonment was the will of God….[thus,] God does not always demand faithfulness over survival.”
Interesting stuff, to be sure. But what is it that strikes me as so explosive?
Following the sentence I just quoted, Gedicks drops in this footnote: “There is a sort of positivist loophole here: if God approves the abandonment of a particular article of faith, then by abandoning the faith one is still being faithful to God’s will.” Let’s think about this for a moment. Just what does the Manifesto–and the Mormon experience with polygamy and persecution generally–really teach us Mormons about religious freedom? Usually we appropriate the whole historical experience in terms appropriate to our post-Manifesto acceptance of the American context of religious pluralism (where what matters is “freedom of belief”); that is, we make it into a lesson about sensitivity and autonomy. We were a persecuted minority once, so we should be sympathetic to other such minorities; moreover, we know what it means to have freedom to practice your religion taken away by government power, and we’re determined to prevent such from happening (to us, or anyone else) again. Thus, our church lines up behind the Relgious Freedom Restoration Act and anything else which, relatively speaking, strengthens the free exercise clause. This are eminently defensible positions. And yet, strictly speaking, is the reasoning behind the historical lesson which we take to guide us to such positions legitimate? Look at it this way:
1) God command the church to practice polygamy.
2) God is good, and so, presumably, polygamy, within the bounds and by the terms God has set for it, is also understood to be a good, a “particular article of faith,” as Gedicks put it.
3) The church, when challenged by those who reject that article of faith, subsequently affirms right to practice what it holds to be good, within the bounds of basic principles necessary to a free society (for example, anti-Mormon literature to the contrary, no one is actually physically forced to practice polygamy against their own will).
4) The U.S government announces, through various legislative acts and Supreme Court decisions, that keeping the practice of polygamy within the boundaries of those basic principles is insufficient: polygamy itself is, actually, a bad practice, and must be ended.
5) The U.S. government begins to imprison Mormons, terrorize Mormon communities, and confiscate Mormon property, in order to force them to stopping doing what they believe to be good.
6) Wilford Woodruff goes to God and asks, what are we going to do?
7) God commands the church to stop practicing polygamy, to excommunicate those who do, and preach monogamy.
8) God is good, and so, presumably, the abandonment of polygamy (and the “persecution” (relatively speaking) of those who continue to practice it) is now understood as a good.
8) After a great deal of internal dissent and struggle (about 20 years worth), the church complies with this command, and the persecution ends.
Now, obviously, one can take this as additional sad story of government persecution of a religious minority, with the usual lessons being drawn. But don’t such lessons involve a normative presumption which isn’t present here, at least not fully? Polygamy was, in a particular instance, a good thing. Which would mean that being forced to abandon polygamy in that particular instance was a bad thing–a thing which should not have happened. If you don’t believe that, then any complaint about government persecution of a religious minority has no moral force. (I suppose one might have serious complaints on procedural, constitutional grounds, in the sense of the ACLU lawyer being upset that Nazis are being denied their rights…but from a perspective internal to the Mormon church, I do not understand how any complaint against government persecution, and any lesson drawn from it, cannot presume, if only implicitly, that it would have been better had the government not forced Wilford Woodruff to go to God and ask for help. But does anyone, actually, think that: especially given that we are to understand that it was God Himself to told us to adapt to what the U.S. government was telling us to do?)
In short: official Mormon doctrine holds that God told us that it was absolutely necessary to practice polygamy, and then when we couldn’t anymore, He told us that it was absolutely necessary that we stop. So, that would mean that our church actually didn’t lose its autonomy. God told us to be one thing, and then, when the abusive federal government told us we couldn’t be that thing, God told us we could be this other thing too. That’s really not quite the same as Jehovah Witnesses being imprisoned for refusing to recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and then continuing to refuse to recite it. Obviously the U.S. government’s persecution of the Mormons was far more extreme than that which individual Jehovah Witnesses suffered, and I wouldn’t want this simplistic caricature of the struggle over polygamy to seem like an apology for the federal government’s actions. But still, Gedicks’s footnote (which he himself admits isn’t “spiritually satisfying”) suggests to me that the Mormon experience isn’t very applicable to debates over religious freedom and pluralism; our theology of continuing revelation seems to put us outside long-standing (and very important) debates about freedom and community in the modern world. Perhaps, if God is not only in control of events, but is also in communication with us in regard to how we should adapt to said events, then there can be no such thing as “faithfulness” in the face of persecution, or the preservation of one’s “social order” in the context of a pluralistic state, because that state, and that persecution, are in fact already internalized into that faith and that social order. We might as well say that the Manifesto was a “victory” for the Mormon church, because it enabled the church to survive and flourish as an Americanized religion, while still somehow maintaining our primary allegiance to our divine King. Hauerwas would no doubt suspect that such a revelatory theology makes the preservation of our church’s “authenticity” much too easy, much too much a “done deal.” Sometimes I think he has a point, though I’m not sure such a point is a negative or a positive one.