What Power?

December 2, 2003 | 4 comments
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Yesterday, Nate wrote that “Wasatch Front Mormons often times fall into the trap of thinking of the Church as a powerful institution.” There is probably a lot of truth to this–and I found Nate’s reflections on the financial situation of the church very interesting–but I found it strange that he connected this observation with the idea that most (or at least many) Wasatch Front Mormons think “separationist arguments are primarily about limiting Church power.” I found it strange for two reasons. First, because I think Nate’s rather cavalier endorsement of strict separationism as beneficial to the church is far from obvious (but more on that another time). Second, because while I haven’t lived in Utah for about 10 years, his description doesn’t fit what I remember as, and what still seems to be, the reality.

Consider two recent articles from the Deseret News, here and here. The first presents the often-discussed antagonism between orthodox Catholics and certain (usually pro-choice) Catholic politicians in a Mormon context–that is, in the same way that there is a constant tension between Catholic politicians “voting their conscience” on the one hand and the official positions of the Roman Catholic Church (regarding abortion, contraception, etc.) on the other, is there also a tension between Mormon politicians’ preferences and the official line of the church? The answer is, apparently, “no.” According to the article:

“What about LDS politicians? Are they expected to vote in accordance with church teachings on such issues as abortion and same-sex marriage? What about other issues the church might have a stake in, such as the development of the Crossroads Mall? Are LDS politicians ever called on the carpet by church leaders?
‘I think the leadership makes a distinction between policy and practice,’ says University of Utah political science professor Ted Wilson. So someone like Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who is LDS, can come out as an abortion-rights candidate, ‘as long as he doesn’t personally get involved with an abortion situation,’ says Wilson….
Wilson says he has never heard of politicians being chastised by church leaders because of a political position. Ditto, says Farmington Mayor Dave Connors, who once voted to keep the town’s swimming pool open on Sundays. ‘I never felt any pressure one way or the other from any church source on that issue,’ says Connors, who is LDS.
In describing his position on the pool closure, Connors uses the very phrase that infuriates Catholic bishops: ‘I said I wouldn’t be in the pool on Sunday, but it’s not my right to tell someone else what they should do on Sunday.’”

By my count, LDS scholars and politicians echo the line about “strict separation” about six times in that piece. They express disbelief that the church, at any level, would ever institutionally call someone on the carpet or interfere with a vote of “conscience.” All of which is a legitimate position, I hasten to add. But it does seem to mitigate against Nate’s picture of Wasatch Front Mormons drunk on their (perceived?) power. Yes, yes, you can trot out all the usual arguments claiming the church runs Utah: why look at Utah’s liquor laws! What about that pari-mutual betting thing back in the 90s? Or the anti-ERA campaign in the 70s? Why the church is acting like a…theocracy! I say, baloney. If anything, we have become, over the past century, far too reluctant to enegage in any kind of theocratic thinking. Am I endorsing Constantinianism in Utah? Hardly. I am only pointing out that, in matters of power, it seems to me that most Wasatch Front Mormons are (unfortunately?) far more instinctively liberal, in a philosophical sense, and hence attached to the modern secular order, than Nate gives them credit for.

The other article asks a similar, though less provocative question: given that Mormons make up 70% of Utah’s population (and even more along the Wasatch Front, I might add), why have so few members attempted to create alternative, LDS-based educational programs, especially in light of (once again!) the Catholic example of creating extensive parochial school systems wherever a sufficient number of Roman Catholics exist (and this includes Utah; fully one-third of all the parochial schools in the state are Catholic). The answer is, again, simple: according to the article, “‘It has long been the policy of the church not to consider providing elementary and secondary schools where there are adequate public schools available to our members,’ Elder Henry B. Eyring, church commissioner of education and a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, said in an e-mail interview.” There are relevant historical and financial reasons for this policy, which Eyring discusses; but fundamentally, what you have is a dominant assumption, apparently shared by a large number of Mormons, of the value of the (contemporary American) division between private and public: secular facilities are adequate, assuming (one presumes) that private faith is not interfered with. Again, one can point to various complaints about Mormon majoritarianism: hey, what about that lesbian volleyball coach that the good folks of Spanish Fork tried to get fired? And again, I respond: these are exceptions that prove the rule. More than 100 years after accepting the terms of the federal government in embracing statehood, it seems to me that most Wasatch Front Mormons continue to internalize the lesson about keeping their business out of the public realm.

Again, I hasten to add: that’s not a bad lesson to have learned. Nor is it indefensible. On the contrary, there is great value in refraining from trying to determine too firmly just what the content of the public square should be. But while I have more than a few problems with the “Christian Right” (as Kaimi put it), I do think that they–and many other political and religious thinkers who have little or nothing to do with such movements–have a point in fearing that there has been too much willingness to consider any substantive use of “power” in regards to ordering our communities to be, somehow, inappropriate; the result being that said power has not been diffused, but rather allowed to collect in forms which are not easily made subject to the (proper) demands of democratic accountability. Let me put a more specific point on this argument by invoking a classic dispute with relevance to “separationist” concerns: I’m one of those who believe that the Nazis need not have been allowed to march through Skokie. Were something similar to develop in downtown Salt Lake City–and some, looking at the growing anti-Mormon protests which attend every general conference, believe such might be the case–then I personally would hope that the church along the Wasatch Front would (humbly) recognize that the power to order a community is not always to be avoided.

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4 Responses to What Power?

  1. Nate on December 2, 2003 at 1:20 pm

    A couple of points:

    1. I actually don’t think that the Church runs Utah politics. On the other hand, I do think that Mormonism runs Utah politics. An issue for another post…

    2. I think that Russell is confusing several sorts of seperationism. First, there is legal seperationism, which stands for some fairly strong disestablishment principle, e.g. no school prayer, take down creche at city hall, etc. Second, there is political seperationism, which stands for some notion that religious institutions ought not to be involved in politics. Note, this is different than legal seperationism. I don’t think that liquor laws pose an establishment issue, even if they result from political involvement by churches. Third, there is rhetorical sperationism, which stands for the idea that one ought not to invoke religious arguments in public discussions. In my post, I meant to refer to the first — that is legal — kind of seperationism.

    3. I think it is safe to say that many Wasatch front Mormons resent such things as constitutional prohibitions on school prayer, etc. However, I think that legal seperationism largely works in favor of Mormons. I don’t want my children being required by the state to recite crypto-Protestant liturgy in school. And maybe I am just being a a liberal reactionary, but the “Christian Nation” folks who rallied around Judge Moore scare me at times. I don’t want them to be able to construct a civic religion that I am required to participate in which is a thinly veiled version of Evangelical Protestantism.

    4. That said, I don’t think that I am in favor of seperationism in its other two manifestations. Thus, I am not opposed to institutional involvement in politics by churches. Nor do I oppose the use of religious arguments in the public realm. (Although on this point I am what Michael Perry calls a “chastened inclusionist,” that is while I think there is nothing ipso facto illegitimate about invoking religious arguments I think one must be cautious.)

    5. I actually agree with Russell that the Mormon retreat from theocratic thinking represents a loss of sorts. We no longer have very peculiarlly Mormon ways of thinking about politics. On the otherhand, I think that philosophical liberalism is more than simply an intellectual disease that we must combat. It strikes me as a valid way of coping with many of the current political condundrums that we face. In addition, I think that there are deep resonances within Mormon theology with basic liberal assumptions, a claim that I know Russell disagrees with…

  2. Russell Arben Fox on December 2, 2003 at 2:00 pm

    Responding to your comments:

    1. I think I can guess what you’re getting at, distinguishing “Mormonism” from the “church,” though perhaps I’m wrong. I’d need to hear more.

    2. Interesting breakdown of the various “separationisms.” I’m not the three you mention are as distinct as you present them, but its a useful analytic nonetheless.

    3. “Being required by the state to recite [a] crypto-Protestant liturgy in school”? I didn’t know I’d opened the door that far. But let’s follow this line of reasoning anyway. How about “being required by the state to HEAR a crypto-Protestant liturgy in school”? Or how about merely “being ALLOWED by the state to RECITE a crypto-Protestant liturgy in school”? Would you be opposed to both? Neither? How far should we go in trying to nail down all these externalities? Drawing fine lines between hearing/reciting, between being exposed/allowed/required, between who or how this or that is being done, seems to me to be profoundly beside the point. (This is, perhaps, the great disconnect between lawyers and philosophers.) What I want to know Nate, and what I think is actually relevant, is this: what’s wrong with a crypto-Protestant liturgy? Is it a good thing? Is it a bad thing? In general, or just for Mormons? Why, or why not? These are substantive questions, involving the nature and order of the community, and I don’t see why we should (necessarily, in all cases) use separationism as a way to avoid asking them.

    4. Glad to hear it. But I think Michael Perry, while an excellent thinker, still fundamentally fails to grasp the real nettle of the issue. David M. Smolin, an evangelical scholar, has published a couple of critiques of Perry which are, I think, right on the money.

    5. I also believe that “philosophical liberalism is more than simply an intellectual disease that we must combat.” It is a profound, valuable, world-historical intellectual accomplishment. I don’t think questioning its consequences necessarily means doubting its worth.

  3. Nate on December 2, 2003 at 3:16 pm

    I suspect that our disagreements over establishment probably are at least in part a result of professional training. I would say that 1. Required recitation is out; 2. Recitation by state officials is out; 3. Recitation by private individuals which others will unavoidably hear is probably just fine. (I say probably because there are difficult issues involving captive audiences.) Thus, my primary concern is state coercion. My secondary concern is state orthodoxy. Finally, I have very little concern with private religious activity. I realize that the public/private distinction is one of the bete noirs of communitarian thinking. On the otherhand, I think it is tenable and useful. Furthermore, it has the virtue of providing articulable limits on collective coercion. This is a real issue, and not one that can be easily solved by putting power in scare quotes. There really are people in the real world with guns who will force you to do certain things if you break the law. Placing real, administrable limits on the scope of this activity matters. Indeed, historically I think it matters much more than does abstract political theorizing. For example, I think that the rise of the limited, liberal state in England and America has much more to do with the humble writs of tresspass and habeas corpus than with Hobbes, Locke, or Mill.

    Furthermore, I don’t see such line drawing as a question begging exercise. If you cannot draw lines and set articulable limits on particular principles, then I would submitt that political theorizing runs the risk of becoming vacuous. A theory that breezes past line drawing as the activity of lesser minds runs the risk of being “profoundly beside the point,” to the extent that it provides no operationalizable guidance for collective conduct, which is what I thought political philosophy was supposed to be about (at least in part).

    As for the inclusionist debate, I will have to look at Smolin’s work, with which I confess I am not familiar. I would love to be persuaded to not be chastend, as I would make Mormon discourse more fun. My view on this is shaped by the fact that I don’t find the exclusionism of folks like Audi, Rawls, or Ackerman compelling. In my view, Audi is incoherent and Rawls and Ackerman are question begging. On the other hand, I agree with Rawls that pluralism is a brute fact of contemporary political life, a fact with which religious believers must reckon. Perhaps this is what pushes political religious discourse towards natural law and Catholicism…

  4. Adam Greenwood on December 2, 2003 at 6:53 pm

    What, exactly, is wrong with reciting a pseudo-evangelical prayer? Evangelical Christianity is Mormonism with 3/4 of the interesting parts taken out, but what’s left is usually acceptable. For instance, the Historian quotes an anti-Mormon tract over at the Metaphysical Elders. When he gets to the money part, the great prayer/ffirmation that the tract is supposed to have convinced you of, I had no problem at all agreeing with it. In fact, I found it somewhat inspiring.

    Here’s the prayer:

    Dear Lord Jesus,
    I know that I am a sinner and need Your forgiveness. I believe that You died for my sins. I want to turn from my sins. I now invite you to come into my heart and life. I want to trust You as Savior and follow You as Lord. I give you my life—make me the person You want me to be and help me daily to live my life for You.
    Thank you Jesus,
    Amen

    I doubt school prayer would include anything even as juicy as that, but I can dream, can’t I?

    Let’s take a worst case scenario, in which the prayer actually contains some objectionable doctrine, I don’t know, an affirmation of the Trinity or of the Bible as the one true word of God. I can live with that. I prefer that my children grow up in a world where they see religion taken seriously and publicly, than one in which their very belief is a shameful secret we keep at home. Let’s remember that God’s anger is only kindled at those who deny his hand in all things, that the Apostasy by no means put an end to all truth, and that the great growth of the Church in this country occurred against a background of a muscular Protestantism. We can hold our own against the Prods, boys, even find some common ground with them, it’s the laughter of the Great and Spacious building we needs must fear.