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.