Civil Disobedience

I received rather a shock some few days ago, reading through the Ensign report of the April 2003 General Conference Priesthood Session, which I had been unable to attend in person.

In the course of a talk on worthiness, addressed primarily to young men preparing for missionary service, Bishop David Burton casually drops the following bomb into the midst of a homey sports metaphor:

“Our participation in life’s important events may be jeopardized if we fail to follow the rules contained in our Father in Heaven’s commands. Involvement in sexual sin, illegal drugs, civil disobedience, or abuse could keep us on the sidelines at key times.”

(“And That’s The Way It Is,” Ensign, May 2003)(emphasis added).

Could he possibly truly mean what he seems to have said? That sitting at the wrong lunch counter is comparable to sexual misconduct and drug abuse? That political protest disqualifies one for missionary service? That adherence to gospel standards means Rosa Parks cannot demand a seat at the front of the bus?

As Latter-Day Saints in a democracy, isn’t resistance to injustice part of our civic obligation? Section 134 specifically carves out “sacred freedom of conscience” as a caveat to the LDS adherence to temporal law.

And wouldn’t principled, active young people who are willing to sacrifice for social justice be the first candidates we would want to sign up for missionary service?

62 comments for “Civil Disobedience

  1. Kaimi
    June 24, 2004 at 12:14 pm

    That is truly incredible. Perhaps it arises from a misunderstanding, a perception that people who engage in civil disobedience are likely to be sixties-type radicals and hippies, who are also advocates of free love and drug culture.

    In any case, I find it very hard to comprehend. If a child of mine wants to engage in civil disobedience to protest racism, sexism, foreign policy, or any other sort of perceived evil, I would encourage it.

  2. Dan Burk
    June 24, 2004 at 12:15 pm

    Incidentally, I am leaving for Sweden in a couple of hours, so apologies in advance if I my ability to respond to comments is curtailed while I am en route.

  3. Kaimi
    June 24, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    On second, thought, I do remember that I had to get a police certificate when I was preparing to leave the country to go to Guatemala, certifying that I had never been arrested.

    Perhaps it is a real issue — not that civil disobedience is a bad thing, but that governments of countries that missionaries would be sent to would be less tolerant of past arrests, whatever the cause (and for many countries, they would probably be especially leery of letting in perceived rabble-rousers).

    So maybe the message is, don’t sit at the wrong counter prior to your mission — we might want to send you to Uzbekistan, after all, and they won’t let in perceived troublemakers — but protest all you want after the mission is done.

  4. Dan Burk
    June 24, 2004 at 12:23 pm

    Kaimi — I see your point, but I certainly didn’t need such a certificate to serve in Austria. You wouldn’t need one to serve in the U.S.

    Even under your theory, all that protesting would mean is that young people with a strong social conscience couldn’t serve in places like Guatamala. That seems to me a fairly flimsy reason to tell young people not to resist injustice.

  5. D. Fletcher
    June 24, 2004 at 12:32 pm

    I see your point, but I don’t think that’s what he meant by “civil disobedience.” He meant, breaking the law, as opposed to the more refined definition, breaking the law *to make a point.*

    He meant civil disobedience as in, destroying public property, stealing credit cards or identities, exhibitionism, drunk driving, etc.

  6. June 24, 2004 at 12:36 pm

    Bishop Burton almost certainly had Caleb Proulx in mind. In the weeks before the 2003 General Conference, Proulx, a BYU student, participated in anti-war protests in Salt Lake City that resulted in his being arrested. He dropped out of BYU, since the Honor Code insists that BYU students must obey the law, a statement which has been interpreted as prohibiting civil disobedience, and he was unwilling to agree to never participate in such protests again. See here and here.

    Incidentally, I know from direct experience that the Honor Code is so interpreted, or at least is so interpreted by many, because Melissa and I participated in a Mormon-themed “peace protest” at a Nevada nuclear weapons testing site back in 1993, and I was arrested. It didn’t go down well back in Provo.

  7. Frank McIntyre
    June 24, 2004 at 12:38 pm

    Rosa Parks aside, not all civil disobedience is a good thing. There is a fair bit of rabble-rousing and contentious behavior that goes under the banner of civil disobedience.

    The examples you give refer to things that happened long ago. I think the examples of clearly justifiable civil disobedience are getting harder to come by.

  8. Kaimi
    June 24, 2004 at 12:51 pm

    Incidentally, I don’t believe the church was particularly supportive of even the type of civil disobedience that Dan refers to as a positive thing — i.e., counter sits, bus rides, protests, against racist laws in the sixties. Aren’t there statements from church leaders (President Benson, as I recall) to the effect that Martin Luther King was a communist and/or a fraud?

  9. June 24, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    The word disobedience has such negative connotations in the church that perhaps anything attached to the word is condemned. Perhaps it’s important to be clearer in the language we use when speaking of disobedience by adding a few words to it, as in “Disobedience to God”. After all, in many other situations, disobedience is a wonderful thing. One has only to think of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego (I know I’m misspelling something here) to realize this point.

    If civil disobedience is merely rabble-rousing then obviously it’s not a positive thing. But civil disobedience a la Gandhi or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks has simply been representative of disobedience to evil… so I think that little bomb that got dropped was a bit problematic.

  10. Frank McIntyre
    June 24, 2004 at 1:09 pm


    Since MLK was an adulterer, it may not be unsurprising that he didn’t receive much strong support from the Church. His late-in-life socialist views would not have helped. This is not to say that he didn’t do good things, just to point out President Benson may not have been a strong personal fan of his.

    Bishop Burton’s talk was addressed to current youth. What current issue on the table warrants civil disobedience ala Shadrach and company? I would argue none. Should the political environment change enough to warrant such disobedience, then the Bishop’s talk to the yuoth can be suitably modified. Of course, there may be countries where Church members live that they should be involved in such disobedience. This is a well recognized problem with general conference, the advice is general, not specific.

  11. Geoff B
    June 24, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Article of Faith 12: “we believe is being subject to kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates, in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.”

    If you are being arrested at a WTO demonstration for throwing rocks at a cop, you are going against the spirit of this article of faith. This might be someone’s definition of justifiable civil disobedience (it certainly isn’t mine).

    However, if you are peacefully picketing an abortion clinic (or, for that matter, the Republican headquarters) and are following the law, you are not violating the spirit of this article of faith.

    It seems to me that Church members should anxiously try to keep their civil activities closer to the latter example than the former. That’s how I read Bishop Burton’s comments.

  12. June 24, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    That wasn’t Kaimi’s post, it was mine.

    Ezra Taft Benson didn’t seem to mind an adulterer-socialist when he met with David Ben-Gurion, first prime minister of Israel. For a photo of them together, see President Benson’s excellent book Crossfire. I’m willing to concede the possibility that maybe it wasn’t known at the time that Ben-Gurion had affairs… but his socialism was certainly well-known. Either way, I still think President Benson would have shaken his hand.

    By the way, I’m not anti Ben-Gurion at all — I think he was an incredibly accomplished leader and organizer who should be studied carefully by anyone interested in understanding the Zionist movement and Israeli history. The Palestinians could have done better if they were as pragmatic as he was.

    Anyway… back on point. The complaint that Martin Luther King is an adulterer and a socialist/communist is usually a complaint that is launched by conservatives who didn’t like (and perhaps still don’t like) what MLK was doing. Yes, he was an adulterer. So was King David. We still can appreciate the great accomplishments these men had in their time. Large diamonds sometimes have serious flaws, but you can still sell ’em.

  13. Kingsley
    June 24, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    “Could he possibly truly mean what he seems to have said? That sitting at the wrong lunch counter is comparable to sexual misconduct and drug abuse? That political protest disqualifies one for missionary service? That adherence to gospel standards means Rosa Parks cannot demand a seat at the front of the bus?”

    This seems like a rather extreme interpretation. When I read it (the talk) my initial impressions were more along the lines of D. Fletcher’s post, i.e. vandalism etc. You could just as easily say, “What about Brigham Young telling various U.S. presidents to hang themselves! What about Jesus’s refusal to bow to the pressure of Rome!” etc.

  14. June 24, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    I think President Hinckley’s General Conference address about war provides some insight into civil disobedience:

    > In a democracy we can renounce war and proclaim
    > peace. There is opportunity for dissent. Many
    > have been speaking out and doing so
    > emphatically. That is their privilege. That is
    > their right, so long as they do so legally.

    I think that if there is reasonable doubt as to the ultimate legality of the prohibition, civil disobedience may be permissible. For example, the Church continued to perform plural marriages even after laws were passed against the practice. But Official Declaration 1 says:

    > Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress
    > forbidding plural marriages, which laws have
    > been pronounced constitutional by the court of
    > last resort, I hereby declare my intention to
    > submit to those laws, and to use my influence
    > with the members of the Church over which I
    > preside to have them do likewise.

    I interpret this to mean that in a democracy, where we have a legitimate way to work within the law in order to change the laws we feel are wrong, civil disobedience to constitutional laws is not allowed. But if it is not certain whether a law is unconstitutional, it might be permissible to disobey it until its constitutionality is determined.

  15. lyle
    June 24, 2004 at 1:36 pm

    Hm, if that isn’t it Danithew, perhaps it was other flaw(s); such as MLK’s documented plagarism (sp) on a grand scale. However, per the Founding Fathers, a few small sins shouldn’t detract from the God MLK, the FFs, or Ben-Gurion accomplished. Heck…for some reason, I even felt the Spirit strongly testifying to the importantce of Ben-Gurion’s work while visiting the kibbutz were Ben-Gurion lived/worked in the Negev. Go figure.

    Kaimi: I hope that your respect for your progeny’s future ‘civil disobedience’ activities extends to when/if they go uber-conservative on you. I know that I would like to think that I would accept & support my future progeny’c when/if embrace of uber-leftist causes…but have to admit that when it comes to it…I can’t really say.

  16. June 24, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Bah… I managed to get my response to Frank posted at the wrong thread. My apologies to all. Here’s my response in the place it should be.

    I suppose if a person feels strongly enough about it, civil disobedience might be used as a tactic against abortion clinics. I never joined Operation Rescue as I didn’t think I agreed with their perspective on the abortion issue… but I wasn’t sad that the abortion clinics were inconvenienced either. That’s just one issue. There are probably some others.

    Civil disobedience certainly has its place in China, Iran, just about any other country in the Middle East, to name some places.

    Recently I saw that bloggers are being encouraged by another blogger at to help Chinese bloggers thwart the Chinese governments attempts to block free speech on the internet. I think that would count as a form of civil disobedience as well, even if its not our own government (I have a link/image to this effort posted at the bottom of my blog).

  17. June 24, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    Sorry for the sloppy sentence about Chinese bloggers in my post. Ugh.

  18. June 24, 2004 at 2:18 pm

    Someone brought up church civil disobedience during polygamy. Don’t you think that in part explains why the church is so anti-civil disobedience, given their experiences in 19th century civil disobedience? It seems like after nearly being destroyed the church reacted in an extreme fashion in the other direction – trying to be “perfect” Americans. You can see that in church support for some of the federal roundups of polygamists in the 30’s and 40’s.

    I think it has as much to do with image and how the government views the church as anything. And, given that past it is understandable that the remnants remain.

    I’d also say that typically civil disobedience is merely an annoyance which is a selfish way of trying to get ones political way. I’ll grant you the civil rights movement of the 60’s. But most of the anti-war protests of a few years ago did nothing but annoy innocents. Likewise radical environmentals have as their civil disobedience the destruction of property and an apparent anti-democratic streak.

  19. Dan Burk
    June 24, 2004 at 2:19 pm

    Frank — I strongly disagree that civil disobedience is no longer relevant to changing unconstitutional or even just plain old stupid legal restrictions. There are still plenty of laws that deserve challenge and resistance. A number of people on this thread seem to think that picketing abortion clinics is an important type of protest. That’s not my particular kind of gig, but one can see why it might be. What if your clinic protest is unconstitutionally restricted beyond reasonable time place and manner? What about refusing to stay in the “protest zones” that the Secret Service establishes rather far away from Bush when he’s out on tour? Risking or being subjected to arrest is an entirely legitimate method to mount a challenge to such laws and to call public attention to them.

    And for those who believe that Bishop Burton was only talking about property damage and attacking the police — well, maybe he needs to buy a dictionary. That’s riot, not civil disobedience. There is no constitutional right to smash shop windows or throw rocks at peace officers. But there arguably is such a right to get close enough to Bush’s motorcade or to an abortion clinic so that the message on your poster can be seen.

    Now I really am going to Sweden.

  20. Kevin Barney
    June 24, 2004 at 2:22 pm

    I agree with Russell. This is clearly an allusion to Caleb Proulx. Often things that happen and make the news in Utah wind up being transmogrified into generic cautionary tales in General Conference and other addresses, sometimes leaving those of us who live away from Utah scratching our heads wondering where in the world *that* came from. This is one of those times.

  21. Kevin Barney
    June 24, 2004 at 2:26 pm

    Oh, and didn’t the Church engage in civil disobedience on a massive scale in the 19th century in reaction to the anti-polygamy legislation?

  22. obi-wan
    June 24, 2004 at 2:30 pm

    I note that no one who has asserted that the Church discourages civil disobedience has yet dealt with the “conscience” proviso of Section 134. That’s not the unwritten order of things, that’s canonized scripture. Or did we revoke its scriptural status when I wasn’t paying attention?

  23. Kingsley
    June 24, 2004 at 2:31 pm

    Kevin Barney: Yeah, but they they caved.

  24. Kingsley
    June 24, 2004 at 2:34 pm

    Oops. But then they caved.

  25. lyle
    June 24, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    Dan: Have you actually been to one of the “secret service policed off areas which are so far away that your poster can’t be seen”?

    I’ve been to two in PA so far. Neither were “too far for the poster not to be seen.” In fact, the areas were positioned about 10 feet from the intersections that Pres. Bush went through. He could see plenty well…

    & the media didn’t care how far away the protestors & supporters were…they talked to both groups. the p&S folks are not there to be seen by Bush…but by the media.

  26. June 24, 2004 at 2:51 pm

    In the name of civil disobedience, check this site out and support the “Adopt A Blog” project:


  27. greenfrog
    June 24, 2004 at 3:46 pm

    I’m reminded of Justice Scalia’s misuse of federal marshals’ authority to require a reporter’s tape recording of his remarks to be erased.

    No one is suggesting that it would have been wrong for the reporter to resist, right?

    The “supremacy” of the Constitution answer might make certain kinds of actions lawful, even though they look like civil disobedience at the time they’re performed. I think of some abortion clinic protests may fall into this category.

    The harder question (because it lacks the supremacy argument that “I’m really obeying the Constitution, even though I’m violating this unconstitutional piece of flotsam”) is whether it is right to obey a perfectly “lawful” law that is, itself, morally bankrupt.

    It is hard to imagine circumstances more extreme than Hubner’s that might cause the Church, as an institution and an organization, to approve of (let alone endorse) direct and intentional violation of the law.

  28. Gary Cooper
    June 24, 2004 at 3:47 pm

    I wonder if the conference statement might not also be referring to another form of “civil disobedience” that is increasingly common out West: environmental extremism. A not insignificant number of Latter-day Saints tend to be attracted to the Green movement, and unfortunately this same movement has begun to take sinister turns. Organizations like Earth First now shoot cattle in the middle of the night (to save the world from bovine flatulence), drive metal spikes into trees to shatter chainsaw blades (potentially killing the lumberjack), and engage in arson and vandalism.

    In a broader sense, the Church has always been an institution that has cherished ORDER— an order often opposed to the world’s order, but order nevertheless. The problem with “civil disobedience” is that it is heady stuff, often based more on emotion than reason, and the worst emotions at that (revenge, hate, intolerance, and that great “soul-stealer”, “just wanting to be part of the crowd”. The Gospel puts heavy emphasis on reason and logic, and the determined control of emotions (think of Joseph Smith’s description of revelation as “pure intelligence”. It also places great value on patience and not “running faster than we are able”, hence the value the Church places on using the legal and electoral systems to bring about legal change.

    There is great wisdom in this approach, even if it is so—SLOW. Civil disobedience is quick, exciting, satisfying (“we’re really doing something!”), but it essentially rests on the principle of FORCE. That is Satan’s playground, and the key ideological element that defines The Great and Abominable Church of the Devil (at least accroding to several G.A.’s, including Pres. Benson and H. Verlan Anderson). It is dangerous, and being so often based on emotion, very difficult to control or limit. What can start as a few people shouting and waving signs and spray painting someone elses’ property can very quickly degenerate into arson, assault, even murder—and that without most of the people involved being able to point out when the “protest” ended and the violence began (“we really didn’t want to hurt anybody, officer. We don’t know how this could have happended!”) So, I think the advice was inspired, and very much in keeping with Church practice over the last several decades.

  29. lyle
    June 24, 2004 at 4:11 pm

    I’m reminded of greenfrogs failure to read a news story after it develops further. (no personal offense, i occasionally do the same). Scalia didn’t order the confiscation. Scalia even apologized for the behavior that he DID NOT authorize.

  30. greenfrog
    June 24, 2004 at 4:16 pm

    Gary Cooper’s point about Order suggests another reason that we shouldn’t expect the Church to suddenly do a 180 on civil disobedience: such things tend to occur from the bottom, up. IOW, Church leaders are unlikely to be “in charge” of such actions, even though they may be asked uncomfortable questions in response to actions of civil disobedience by individual members.

    While I disagree strongly that all civil disobedience is a function of emotion, let alone negative ones, I do believe that it is, intentionally, destabilizing. By definition, civil diobedience is a statement, through action, that the stability of the “civil” society is corrupt in some fashion and should be changed.

    Change of any kind is destabilizing.

    It’s supposed to be.

  31. Geoff B
    June 24, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    Gary Cooper, bravo for a well-reasoned comment. Another point: the Church did not urge Germans to oppose Hitler in the 1930s after he came to power. If there ever was a clear cause for justifiable civil disobedience, it was there in German. Secret combinations, evil machinations, murder, arson, rape — these were the tools of the Nazis. Clearly the Church’s ideals and the Nazi ideals were diametrically opposed, but the Church came down on the side of order and following laws.

    Why? Jesus himself was urged to be a rebel against Roman authority, and he declined. Many Galileans saw Him as the Messiah who would free them from the foreign yoke, but his kingdom was not of this world. The things of Caesar are for Caesar, etc. But there is another reason: it is ugly for peaceful followers of Christ to spend their time and energy on civil disobedience, which can quickly devolve into the scene Gary describes above.

    How to explain the disobedience against polygamy? My personal interpretation is that on the American frontier laws were not generally followed as quickly as they are now. We must remember that the federal government spent much of the latter half of the 19th century figuring out new ways to persecute the early Saints. Joseph Smith had received a revelation on eternal marriage, and by gum the early Saints were going to follow it until ordered by the prophet not to. When it became impossible for the Saints to continue to function as a church because of the federal oppression, the Lord allowed the law to be followed.

    What does this mean for our day? It seems to me there is direct counsel from our leaders that there will be tough times ahead. Many will be tempted to take to civil disobedience for various causes. As long as activities are lawful, no problem. If they are not lawful, it’s not the right thing for a Latter-day Saint to do. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

  32. lyle
    June 24, 2004 at 4:35 pm

    So: we have a Mormon Gordian knot.

    the “left” wants to do civil disobedience, admires it…but the Gospel/Church forbids.

    the “right” wants to bring agency via armed liberation & admires such…but the Gospel/Church forbids it.

    So…each side can dismiss scripture/prophetic statements against the position it likes & make much ado about the statements that go against their erstwhile political opposites.

  33. Frank McIntyre
    June 24, 2004 at 4:46 pm


    There is a difference between disobeying a law in order to bring a test case and flouting the law in order to force your view on everyone or to get attention. You defend the former, I disparage the latter. I also don’t see anything wrong with a single act of disobedience designed to test constitutionality.

    Danithew brings up some other countries where civil disobedience makes more sense. Add the requisite Nazi Germany case and one has the kind of examples that call for invoking Section 134. So now obi-wan will be happy. Danithew notes Operation Rescue as a possible justification for civil disobedience. I actually lived in Wichita during the Operation there, so I saw it firsthand. If that is what Bishop Burton and President Hinckley are counseling against, I side with them over Dan :).

    As Lyle noted, the Scalia example is a non-example as a Scalia basher because he didn’t ask for the tapes to be taken. But it is an example where one could believe disobeying the authority at hand (the cop) is not civil disobedience, because the law (or Constitution) is on one’s side. Once again, there is a huge gap between claiming to do something legal that someone else says is illegal in order to take it to the courts and doing something you _know_ to be illegal to get attention for some secondary cause (blocking federal buildings to protest the Iraq war). I see no causes in the U.S. that justify the second, thus I think Bishop Burton’s counsel is sound for the thousands of young men in the vast majority of states and nations, but is probably not focused on the literally dozens of young men that might be listening in Iran, China, and, in a feat of superhuman time-traveling satellite technology, Nazi Germany.

  34. June 24, 2004 at 4:47 pm

    Since New Testament times, the Church has taken the position that Saints ought to obey the law in order to protect the Church from the state rather than because the laws are inherently just. A prohibition of civil disobedience follows from that position.

    Does it follow that a member ought never to practice civil disobedience? No. It only follows that she or he ought to do so prepared to accept the consequences should the Church feel the need to protect itself. If the Church censures me for civil-disobedience, I have to accept that and assume that the Lord will sort out the problems. Unquestionably, I think, Huebner did the right thing. But perhaps his bishop also did. Civil disobedience is sometimes justified, but it ought to be undertaken quite seriously. The Church’s position underscores the seriousness of the decision to be civilly disobedient.

  35. June 24, 2004 at 4:49 pm

    Kevin, I mentioned how I think the Church’s civil disobedience in the 19th century affects its position today. Scroll up a bit and you can see it. Basically I think 20th and now 21st century views are a reaction against the failures and consequences of our own attempts at civil disobedience.

    I’d add to Gary’s comments somewhat. (And I largely agree with him) I think a lot of people engaged in civil disobedience are trying to make themselves feel good more than actually *achieve* anything. Of the last 25 years what acts of civil disobedience have actually done anything but made the activists feel excited and superior? Even if their goals are just, there are almost always more effective means of achieving their ends – and typically means that don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

  36. lyle
    June 24, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    to magnify clark’s stmt: some folks believe that if civil rights/bussing had not been enforced by the sword of the state…then racism would have gone away quietly…as it did in the UK. Of course that is small comfort for those that feel the institutions of society, or their church, are somewhat flawed in the here & now. But…it could reap rewards in another generation or two.

    of course, I recog that this goes 100% against the Civil War & the Iraqi Liberation. Hm…

  37. June 24, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    I feel like I need to go look up a definition of “civil disobedience.” For now, I’ll just say that some forms of civil disobedience are more civil than others.

    I think Gary Coopers examples of environmental extremism point to this problem very well. If people are engaging in conduct that is harmful to animals or humans, in order to make their point that humans should not damage the environment, then obviously they’re slightly off their rockers.

    I guess when I think of “civil disobedience” I’m assuming that we’re talking about non-violent acts of non-cooperation or disobedience. Rosa Parks isn’t allowed to sit in certain seats on the bus, so she does so anyway. Her manner of protest hurts no one. A point is made. End of story(?).

    I said earlier that I didn’t agree with Operation Rescue’s viewpoints and did not join them. That’s mainly because I wouldn’t always equate abortion with murder (though the farther along the pregnancy, the more my feeling of alarm rises). At the same time I respect the fact that some people care enough about a very serious moral issue — to the point that they seriously inconvenience abortion clinics and those who frequent them. As long as it was merely causing inconvenience and not hurting people, there’s not a lot there I have to complain about. For one thing, I’m confident that anyone who seriously intended to have an abortion procedure performed was able to do so. The value in the protest was that a point was made.

    I’ll sum this up by saying that I wouldn’t fully approve of or join in an act of civil disobedience unless I felt it was part of a fight against a horrible legal injustice. But in those types of situations, I’d support them with all my heart. A prime example to me of this sort of situation would be the student protests in Tieneman Square.

  38. June 24, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    “Even if their goals are just, there are almost always more effective means of achieving their ends.”

    Politics isn’t always about effectiveness, Clark. There is an expressive, affective quality to it as well. Some of those who commit acts of civil disobedience and protest do so because they cannot authentically express their views otherwise. Indeed, that’s the reason many people vote for candidates who don’t have a chance of winning (speaking here as a two-time Nader voter); they believe that there is something that needs to be said, and they want to say it, even if it’s not heard.

  39. Nate Oman
    June 24, 2004 at 5:33 pm

    Russell: If we have a prima facie obligation to obey the laws, even ones we think are misguided, then it may be that the affective justification for civil disobedience is less powerful than the its-the-only-effective means argument. Hence, if I start from the good 19th century liberal position “Censure freely, obey punctiliously,” then perhaps Ghandi and MLK provide an example for departing, but voting Nader doesn’t

  40. greenfrog
    June 24, 2004 at 7:40 pm

    lyle wrote: “Scalia even apologized for the behavior that he DID NOT authorize.”

    FWIW, the assumption regarding the limited nature of my news readings was incorrect.

    In my view, Justice Scalia’s after-the-fact denial that he provided specific (and wrongful) direction does not mean that he was (and is) not responsible for the conduct in the first place. He created a situation in which those under his direction and oversight engaged in wrongful conduct believing themselves to be acting consistent with his instructions. That would be enough in any court of law to establish Justice Scalia’s responsibility for the actions of his marshals.

    That said, I remain interested in your views of whether the reporter would have been justified in resisting the wrongful erasure of her recordings or not. Do you have an opinion on that question?

  41. June 24, 2004 at 7:46 pm

    So voting for Nader constitutes civil disobedience?

  42. lyle
    June 24, 2004 at 8:17 pm

    Well Russell…if I were a Utah voter, I might just join you in your civil disobedience! :)

    as it is…I voted for a 3rd party candidate in 2000. Since the Democrats aren’t a viable 2nd party in Utah, I voted for the libertarians…who at least put up a candidate in each of the races (i.e. about 2-3 times as many candidates as the democrats, on average).

  43. Susan
    June 24, 2004 at 11:09 pm

    Jim: I’m still thinking about your Huebner example. Do what you think is right. Feel just fine if the church comes at you. God will sort things out in the end. There are so many assumptions here. I find it so hard to negotiate all of these trade offs as a pattern for life.

  44. Susan
    June 24, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    Jim: I’m still thinking about your Huebner example. Do what you think is right. Feel just fine if the church comes at you. God will sort things out in the end. There are so many assumptions here. I find it so hard to negotiate all of these trade offs as a pattern for life.

  45. Susan
    June 24, 2004 at 11:13 pm

    Jim: I’m still thinking about your Huebner example. Do what you think is right. Feel just fine if the church comes at you. God will sort things out in the end. There are so many assumptions here. I find it so hard to negotiate all of these trade offs as a pattern for life.

  46. Susan
    June 24, 2004 at 11:17 pm

    Jim: I’m still thinking about your Huebner example. Do what you think is right. Feel just fine if the church comes at you. God will sort things out in the end. There are so many assumptions here. I find it so hard to negotiate these trade offs as a pattern for life.

  47. Susan
    June 24, 2004 at 11:18 pm

    Jim: I’m still thinking about your Huebner example. Do what you think is right. Feel just fine if the church comes at you. God will sort things out in the end. There are so many assumptions here. I find it so hard to negotiate these trade offs as a pattern for life.

  48. June 24, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    “So voting for Nader constitutes civil disobedience?”

    No, but voting for Nader (or the Socialist Workers Party candidate, or the Greens, or any number of other third party candidates who, like Nader, have no chance of actually being elected to office) can be undertaken as an expressive act, with little or no relationship to any specific electoral strategy. Similarly, many acts of civil disobedience and protest are primarily expressive, undertaken not with an eye towards affecting outcomes but with a concern for making a stand as a citizen and human being. There’s a huge range of political acts and choices lumped together here; all I’m saying is that many of them share, if nothing else, similar conceptions of what is authentically political. (Whether such are worthy or defensible conceptions is another question.)

  49. June 25, 2004 at 3:24 am

    “Some of those who commit acts of civil disobedience and protest do so because they cannot authentically express their views otherwise.”

    This is what bothers me. People break the law not to achieve anything but simply to express themselves. People who feel the need to infringe upon others simply to express themselves are, in my book, guilty of pretty egregious selfishness.

    Exactly how can this be justified? And why *can’t* they express themselves by writing books, creating blogs, and so forth? Because it isn’t about expressing themselves, its getting people to listen whether people care or not.

  50. Dan Burk
    June 25, 2004 at 6:16 pm

    Just popping in from a travel layover.

    Clark writes: “This is what bothers me. People break the law not to achieve anything but simply to express themselves.”

    This is, pardon me, an incredibly bizarre statement in a nation with a commitment to freedom of expression. Expressing yourself IS achieving something.

    He continues: “And why *can’t* they express themselves by writing books, creating blogs, and so forth? Because it isn’t about expressing themselves, its getting people to listen whether people care or not.”

    Are you seriously asserting that, say, burning your draft card to protest a war is an illegitimate choice because it is more effective at attracting public notice than other modes of communication? That people are legally or morally required to chose the form of communication that is least effective? Or the one that is most convenient for the audience?

  51. Nate Oman
    June 25, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    Dan writes:
    “Clark writes: “This is what bothers me. People break the law not to achieve anything but simply to express themselves.”

    This is, pardon me, an incredibly bizarre statement in a nation with a commitment to freedom of expression. Expressing yourself IS achieving something.”

    Actually it isn’t. There are lots of thoroughly respectable American theories of free expression that don’t rest on the notion of the inherent value of expression. Oliver Wendell Holmes and the whole Progressive tradition in free speech jurisprudence comes to mind. Furthermore, our free speech jurispudence even in the post-1960s, expression-as-inherent value guise still makes distinctions about the value of speech independent of the question of whether or not it is expressive, e.g. commercial speech. Furthermore, our free speech jurisprudence, as far as I know, does not recognize a right to violate a law merely for expressive purposes. In order to have a good free speech claim you have to show that the law being challenged somehow burdens speech, preferrably on the basis of content or viewpoint. Hence, our legal commitment to freedom of expression actually seems fairly consistent with the position Clark seems to adopt. The law is hardly everything, but espousing an opinion about the limits of free expression that closely tracks First Amendment doctrine hardly places one bizarrely outside of the mainstream.

  52. June 25, 2004 at 7:05 pm

    Dan, I think it is illegitimate because the goal of the communication isn’t communication in terms of two people communicating but one person making themselves feel good. I was going to use the M word to describe it, but decided that might not be in the best of taste, although I think it captures my feelings well. Even the effectiveness of attracting notice isn’t effectiveness of communication but effectiveness of making the self noticed. The focus is always on the self. And to me that is pretty much the definition of selfishness.

    I’ve noticed since I moved to the United States this focus on the self as being most important and it is, I think, one of the most unfortunate weaknesses of Americans. It is unfortunately something in politics that bothers me a great deal. I think it ends up being tied to the issue of rhetoric and tone as well.

    Last week I was listening to an interview with P J O’Rourke who was commenting on talk radio. He pointed out that all this yelling and anger really wasn’t directed at their political foes, whether left or right, but to the converted. Their focus was always preaching to the choir, as it were. So what was the point to it all? (Beyond the effectiveness of making money) Beyond the obvious importance of galvinizing ones base to vote, I think that a big problem with political discourse is that the politics of politics has been lost. (i.e. diplomacy, coming together, compromise) This is even now seen as something negative. And political speech is not aimed at persuasion but rather keeping ones self-confidence. It is always self-oriented rather than other-oriented. And as a consequence the other is devalued, ignored, and therefore easily demonized.

    I’ve been trying to put my finger on why I felt Rush Limbaugh or Al Franken or Michael Moore weren’t the problem but merely a manifestation of something deeper. But I think you put your finger on it. Those entertainers are really just manifesting the same phenomena that caused the draft card burning and many forms of protest. It is the devaluation of politics in general. Politics ceases to be about compromise and agreement and becomes instead tactics and strategies of devaluation of others and grandizing and fulfillment of the self and ones group.

  53. Dan Burk
    June 25, 2004 at 7:55 pm

    Clark — I understand your point a little better, and have long felt that Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern are two peas in the same narcissitic pod.

    Having said that, you must recognize that there are plenty of activists whose purpose for drawing public attantion is not simply political masturbation, but to legitimately animate public opinion. It may not be politics in the sense you would like to see, but it is the reason that India is no longer a British colony, the reason that we pulled out of Vietnam, the reason we no longer have segregated drinking fountains.

    Nate — note that you have to go back a ways to find a First Amendment theory that doesn’t consider community, dialogue, pluralism and other non-political positive externalities of expression. I don’t think that anyone today would endorse the Progressive theory as the sole purpose of the First Amendment, if they ever really did. And I picked the O’Brien scenario specifically because it contemplates communicative activity directed purely to a political statement, rather than to the regulation that burdens speech.

  54. June 25, 2004 at 8:25 pm

    Dan, the issue though in what you now say is effectiveness in change. i.e. instead of being self-focused it is result focused. Ghandi’s goal wasn’t simply to make people feel superior. He honestly felt that non-violent resistence could achieve something.

    I think, however, that the vast majority of protestors don’t think that they are really achieving much (or if they do they are often being amazingly naive). I honestly think that for most civil disobedience the goal is self-aggrandizement.

    There are exceptions and I’m more than willing to acknowledge those. But even in the anti-war protests of the recent Iraq war, I honestly came away thinking that the goal was less Iraq than to connect to the 60’s, to have a party, or to make one feel important or to give meaning to ones life.

  55. Nate Oman
    June 25, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    Dan: You are right about the waning of the Progressive theory. On the other hand, I think that I am correct that generally there is no constitutional right to violate laws for the purposes of expressive fufillment. You have to show that the law somehow targets speech.

  56. Dan Burk
    June 25, 2004 at 10:30 pm

    Nate — I am misunderstanding you, or we are talking about different things.

    I oppose the Vietnam war. I burn my draft card on the courthouse steps. I am arrested for destroying government property. I go to jail or pay a fine, but if I am lucky the cumulative public effect of my protest and many others ends U.S. involvement in the war, possibly ends the draft, and might even change or repeal laws penalizing draft-card burners.

    Even if it doesn’t do any of those things, I have still gotten my message out. I have “acheived” something, even if it wasn’t social change.

    We could even say, a la Herbert Marcuse, that I have been paid a backhanded compliment by my fine or jail sentence: “We, the public, regard you as an autonomous individual who opposes the war, we respect your right to do so, and we are going to fine or jail you for the steps you took to express that sentiment. If we thought you were deranged or lit your draft card on fire by accident, we’d let you off.”

    None of this has anything to do with whether or not the prohibition on draft card burning targets or unnecessarily burdens speech. I can certainly use my arrest to challenge the anti-draft-card burning ordinance under the O’Brien test, but that’s really small potatoes in the scheme of things and not the purpose of my protest.

  57. Nate
    June 26, 2004 at 12:24 am

    We probably are talking past one another. I simply wanted to point out that the idea that breaking the law for purposes of expressive fufillment is not so universally established as part of the American way that criticising it is beyond the pale of normal discussion, ie bizarre. As exhibit one, I pointed toward our First Amendment jurisprudence that, O’Brien notwithstanding, does not think that this mode of expression is valuable enough to merit constitutional protection. Of course this doesn’t mean that Marcus (and the rest of the Frankfurt school for that matter) is wrong. Just not obviously right.

    I have no other point.

  58. Frank McIntyre
    June 26, 2004 at 1:32 am


    You gave three examples. Ghandi, segregated drinking fountains, and Vietnam. None of these is less than 30 years old. I submit once again that, even if some of those issues did justify civil disobedience, for Bishop Burton to suggest that no such issue justifies it right now seems a plausible interpretation of his talk.

  59. lyle
    June 26, 2004 at 10:03 am

    Dan: For a future thread, perhaps an examination of is there an LDS trend towards: using, not using, liking, not liking…’foreign’ stuff.

    i.e. your use of foreign intellectuals to make an argument about American rights…is somewhat puzzling to some; while others applaud it.

    I state no position at this time. Just observing.

  60. June 26, 2004 at 11:21 am

    “But even in the anti-war protests of the recent Iraq war, I honestly came away thinking that the goal was less Iraq than to connect to the 60’s, to have a party, or to make one feel important or to give meaning to ones life.” (Italics added.)

    Clark, I’ll happily grant that a great deal of civil disobedience is motivated by immature, selfish concerns. But then again, a great deal of voting takes place for rather rote and mindless reasons. And in any case, it is simply not true that the affective elements of our lives are purely self-centered; to use your own language, to discover/articulate a “meaning” in one’s life through situating oneself politically, up to and including placing oneself in situations or creating situations that may violate laws or the normal operations of daily life, is an act that opens up spaces which can empower and include others. (Hannah Arendt wote some excellent essays on this point.) Accounts of the lives of many prminent individuals who participated in civil disobedience during the civil rights era often reveal little or no concern with orchestrating a message that would result in effective change, but a great desire to “stand up” as a human being in the face of those who, for instance, would routinely refer to a grown African-American male as “boy.” This was an expressive, and consequently empowering, act.

    Obviously, I’m not defending any particular act of civil disobedience here. I’m just defending the affective aspect of some instances of such.

  61. June 26, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    I’ve just been reading D&C 98, in relation to another thread, and came across this, which seemed relevant to this thread:

    4 And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.

    5 And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.

    6 Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;

    7 And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.

  62. jim smith
    January 31, 2005 at 11:44 am

    why is it iraqi terroist are killing us but when we capture them we feed them and give blankets and waste our money on them but they continue to kill sons and daughters of America.

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