“Subject to Kings,” and Myths of Legitimacy

January 9, 2004 | 24 comments
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I just finished watching Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and was again awed by the speeches, especially the Crispin’s Day speech. Who isn’t?

I also noticed the aweful brutality that Shakespeare accepts as a matter of course. Henry, to take one instance, threatens beseiged Harfleur with rape, rapine, and infanticide unless they open their gates. Of course, the medieval Law of War allowed such things for beseiged sites that held out past a certain time with no prospect of a relieving force, but it grates the modern conscience.

I also noticed how seriously the play took the idea of hereditary succession. What to us is the accident of a 51% majority was to them the accident of birth. That got me thinking.

We believe in being ‘subject to Kings, rulers, presidents, magistrates, etc.’ The contours of the obligation may be in dispute, but that there is some content within the contours is not.

Here’s what I wonder: is that obligation a passive one (an obligation to obey), or is it an active one (an obligation to sustain)? I suspect that the obligation is an active one. It is just, I hazard, to serve both as a draftee in WWII and as a volunteer soldier in the invasion of Iraq.

If so, then I argue that we might have some duty to uphold the legitimating myths of whatever era of government we find ourselves in. If we were medieval schoolmen, perhaps it would be our duty to try and uphold the principle of hereditary succession. Today, it may be our duty to uphold the idea that the will of the people should govern, and that majority voting can capture that will.

I understand that the idea of legitimacy that upholds our society may not be as simple as that. It may be some idea of the Constitution, of divine favor for this country, or a concept of justice that legitimizes our society in the mind of many. Whatever it is, I think we have some duty to uphold those myths, to try to give them content, and to defend them against attacks.

That’s why I’m uncomfortable with with the theoretical work showing democratic choice to be irrational in a great many cases. Condercet’s paradox, below, is just one example. These things may be true–in fact, I’ve no doubt they are true–but they are also dangerous. “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes.” They are best kept to scholars, or else qualified with some kind of general affirmation of the system. Ignorance is often bliss, as Moses Maimonides learned when he decided that philosophy should never be taught except to sober persons above 30 years of age.

P.S. This should not be construed as an attack on Nate. His post was merely the starting point of a trajectory that, continuiing on through Henry V, brought me here.
Nor should commenters assume too quick that I’m advocating a general thoughtlessness. I’m not exactly sure what I’m advocating myself. I’m just trying to put my finger on why a lot of the critiques of democracy make me uncomfortable, though I share them.

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24 Responses to “Subject to Kings,” and Myths of Legitimacy

  1. Kaimi on January 9, 2004 at 1:56 pm

    It’s a very interesting question. The obvious problem is with very bad regimes. In those regimes, church members may find that their beliefs conflict with official actions.

    We see, for instance, Helmuth Hubener’s stake president (bishop? I don’t recall all the details) criticizing him for his resistance to the Nazis, and essentially taking sides with the Nazis and against Hubener.

    Similarly, church members were encouraged not to resist communist East Germany. We hear the oft-told story about members receiving a temple in East Germany and how it sprung from the fact that members visiting Switzerland to be sealed to their families did not defect.

    A duty to obey a country like Nazi Germany or communist East Germany seems repugnant to me.

    For that matter, we know that laws change regularly. Church members may disagree with legal positions. Did church members have a duty to “obey, honor, and sustain” slavery? To “obey, honor, and sustain” segregation laws? For that matter, do they have an obligation to “obey, honor, and sustain” laws today which permit abortion?

    These are difficult questions. The scriptures seem to indicate that at some point, wicked laws can be ignored. On the other hand, the East Germany experience may indicate that the threshold for not sustaining a law or legal regime as wicked is very, very high.

  2. Nate Oman on January 9, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    Section 134 suggests that members did not believe it right to meddle with slavery.

    Also, Helmuth Hubener was not criticized by his local leaders. He was excommunicated, although admittedly this may have been a move to protect other members of the church from the Gestapo.

  3. Kaimi on January 9, 2004 at 2:33 pm

    Nate,

    I admit it’s been a few years since I read “The Price”, but I am reasonably certain that it discusses some confrontations with local leaders.

    As I recall, Hubener used church resources to print out flyers and was berated by local leaders for that. Also (again from memory) I believe that the stake president (bishop?) was vocally critical after his arrest.

  4. clark goble on January 9, 2004 at 2:42 pm

    While I completely agree that the National Socialists and the East Germans were repugnant, let’s be honest. Can we truly say they were more repugnant than the Romans? As bad as the Nazis were they didn’t have public shows with thousands where their political or religious oppositions were ripped to shreds by animals. The Romans did far worse acts of genocide and debauchery.

    Perhaps we should keep that in mind when reading Christ’s admonitions regarding governments…

  5. clark goble on January 9, 2004 at 2:42 pm

    While I completely agree that the National Socialists and the East Germans were repugnant, let’s be honest. Can we truly say they were more repugnant than the Romans? As bad as the Nazis were they didn’t have public shows with thousands where their political or religious oppositions were ripped to shreds by animals. The Romans did far worse acts of genocide and debauchery.

    Perhaps we should keep that in mind when reading Christ’s admonitions regarding governments…

  6. Kristine on January 9, 2004 at 2:49 pm

    At the beginning of the war in Iraq, we had an interesting discussion in Sunday School. The teacher, who likes to present the Fox News version of the scriptures, was rhapsodizing about how great it was to know that, as Church members, we should support the war because we are religiously bound to be subject to our president. Not unlike Matt, he interpreted “be subject to” as an obligation to actively sustain. Which begged the question of whether it would be the religious duty of a French member of the Church to oppose the war (naturally, I posed the question in the sweetest, most uncontroversial possible way!). It became clear that most of the class members liked the ‘subject to kings’ clause when the king was doing what they liked, but were not content to let subjects of kings with opposing views be subject to their own misguided governments. Some class members even concluded that French and German church members should be leaders in protesting their governments’ policies.

    I think, contra Kaimi, that the problem may not even be with very bad governments, but with governments with whom church leaders (or members?) differ. The Articles of Faith, after all, were already well known when leaders of the church went into hiding rather than submit to agents of the U.S. federal government. And it isn’t as though Mormons don’t have scriptural warrant for opposing bad rulers (1 Nephi 4, anyone?)

    I’d say the Mormon approach to these issues has both the virtues and the faults of being entirely pragmatic, rather than being based on any consistent application of principle or dogma.

  7. Kristine on January 9, 2004 at 3:02 pm

    Adam, say some more about how one would go about “sustaining” some founding myth which logic or research demonstrates to be false. Is it just a matter of “willing suspension of disbelief” or should we be actively ignoring or even trying to refute threatening theories? (Maybe an example from a recent thread: if we believed that it was contrary to the doctrine of the church to believe in evolution, would it be acceptable to just privately ignore the fossil record, or are we under obligation to be active proponents of intelligent design theories, even if we have our doubts about the scientific legitimacy of those theories?)

    Is it wrong to willfully “sustain” something you know to be false? Don’t you have to be able to believe the proposition you are sustaining? Is “upholding” a myth you don’t believe in lying?

  8. michael reyes on January 9, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    I had the same impressions as Adam when reading Thucydide’s The History of the Peloponnesian Wars and Homer’s The Illiad. The Greeks, despite their enlightenment, were probably worse, in light of modern values, than any of the modern dictators accused of crimes against humanity.

  9. Adam Greenwood on January 9, 2004 at 4:00 pm

    My sense is that any legitimacy myth in this world of ours will be false to some degree or another. I could be wrong, but I think the ultimate justification for most governments is simply that order is almost always better than disorder, and that even if a new order is sucessfully achieved it will still be imperfect (‘the elites you will always have with you’), so why bother in many cases.

    However, this tepid defence of the existing system of things is in no way sufficient to counter-act the very motivating greed, power-lust, and antinomianism that will seek to tear things down. We know what happens when the ‘best lack all conviction.’ So we must imbue our own system, and its legitimating myth, with the goodness that belongs to its results–order. I don’t know that we have to lie to do it–certain statements in certain contexts will normally be understood to not be factual statements, precisely. But I do think we need to find some source of devotion to our system and not talk about its flaws and failings without bringing up the balancing good.

    And if I were a French member in France, I would all my life try to maintain a certain idea of la France.

  10. Dave on January 9, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    Adam,

    While your post has generated an interesting discussion, I think you are mistaken in actually taking the 12th AOF at face value. Consideration of 19th-century LDS history suggests it should not be interpreted as a normative statement.

    The entire thrust of 19th century Mormon history was to achieve independence and distance, both politically and geographically, from the US government. A more accurate statement of Mormon intent as revealed by 19th-century Mormon history would be, “We prefer not to be subject to anyone, whether king, president, governor, or magistrate.” Nothing wrong with that; we value independence.

    As for “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law,” again consider the record of 19th-century LDS history. It took considerably more than the 12th Article of Faith for the Saints and their leaders to finally come around to a sincere commitment to obeying the law. They asserted every argument and attempted every artifice to avoid obeying the law.

    So whatever the 12th AOF is, it certainly should not be taken as an accurate statement of what 19th-century LDS leaders felt to be the proper relation between Mormon believers and the state. The important question of what that relation should be in the 20th century should start from a different text. Or perhaps from no text.

  11. nate oman on January 9, 2004 at 5:11 pm

    Dave, if I understand your argument it goes like this.

    1. The AofF are a 19th century text.
    2. 19th century members did not treat the AofF as normative.
    3. Therefore, it is useless for understanding our current commitments.

    I don’t see that this follows. It seems that the implicit assumption is that a text can only be normative if it was so understood by its contemporaries. I don’t see that this follows. For example, section 137 is also a 19th century text. However it was not normative for 19th century LDS since it wasn’t added to the cannon until the 1970s. Alternatively, you could be making a point about meaning, arguing that the the 19th century text cannot mean what Adam takes it to mean given 19th century practice. Don’t get me wrong. I like a bit of originalism as much as the next guy, but, to modify H.L.A. Hart’s phrase, this sounds like a theory of authority masquarading as a theory of meaning.

  12. Adam Greenwood on January 9, 2004 at 5:21 pm

    Not to muddy the waters even further, but I would argue for some duty to obey, and sustain, the law even without the Twelth Article of Faith. I quoted it because it is our incarnation of a general principle.

  13. Dave on January 9, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Nate,

    In his original post, Adam quoted the 12th AOF as, seemingly, the basis for an “obligation” on the part of 20th-century Mormons, with a discussion as to whether that should be considered a passive or an active obligation.

    I was simply showing that 19th-century LDS leaders, perhaps with some justification, felt no such obligation to be subject or to to obey, and that the 12th AOF should not, therefore, be taken that way. And I would agree that the interpretation of a text where plain meaning and original intent are in direct conflict is problematic.

    Of course, the text here isn’t really binding. The real question at issue, I suspect, is whether LDS leaders would affirm or adopt what is written in the 12th AOF. Plainly, 19th-century LDS leaders would not (or, if they did so, they would be dissimulating). On the other hand, I think 20th-century LDS leaders would affirm it and I’m sure they have. They even affirm speed limits, a rather dated approach to traffic regulation (keep in mind this is a California driver speaking).

    Adam, I guess I would agree it states a general principle, and one that most people would agree with. It’s the exceptions that generate discussion and debate.

  14. brayden on January 10, 2004 at 3:21 am

    This is a great discussion. I’ve been mulling these same things over in my head over the last couple of days as I finish teaching a course on collective behavior and social movements. The question was brought up in class (after we read a book about Mississippi’s Freedom Summer), how would the U.S. be different today if Freedom Summer had never taken place? This is a thought experiment of course. Would a change in American society, which most people now consider to have been a good one (the eventual eradication of Jim Crow laws in the South), have been possible without willful resistance against entrenched authority? In this case the authorities that were resisted were local ones. Although they may not have been kings, the local Democratic party leaders might as well have been.

    Although Freedom Summer is not a case of civil disobedience, there are many examples where civil disobedience instigated a change in public opinion regarding an instance of injustice. Do Mormons believe it is sometimes necessary to resist (through something like civil disobedience) regimes that are ruling unjustly in order to facilitate progress? I think so, but I’m neverr sure how to reconcile that with the 12th AofF.

    Perhaps Joseph Smith believes we are more indebted to the ideas represented by a throne, an office, or a judicial seat. In that sense, we are not necessarily expected to be loyal to the specific person occupying the position of authority, but we are expected to sustain the ideals of justice and (perhaps) morality invested in that office. The actions of the Saints seem to suggest that this is the case, as noted

  15. brayden on January 10, 2004 at 3:22 am

    This is a great discussion. I’ve been mulling these same things over in my head over the last couple of days as I finish teaching a course on collective behavior and social movements. The question was brought up in class (after we read a book about Mississippi’s Freedom Summer), how would the U.S. be different today if Freedom Summer had never taken place? This is a thought experiment of course. Would a change in American society, which most people now consider to have been a good one (the eventual eradication of Jim Crow laws in the South), have been possible without willful resistance against entrenched authority? In this case the authorities that were resisted were local ones. Although they may not have been kings, the local Democratic party leaders might as well have been.

    Although Freedom Summer is not a case of civil disobedience, there are many examples where civil disobedience instigated a change in public opinion regarding an instance of injustice. Do Mormons believe it is sometimes necessary to resist (through something like civil disobedience) regimes that are ruling unjustly in order to facilitate progress? I think so, but I’m neverr sure how to reconcile that with the 12th AofF.

    Perhaps Joseph Smith believes we are more indebted to the ideas represented by a throne, an office, or a judicial seat. In that sense, we are not necessarily expected to be loyal to the specific person occupying the position of authority, but we are expected to sustain the ideals of justice and (perhaps) morality invested in that office. The actions of the Saints seem to suggest that this is the case, as noted above by Dave.

  16. Gordon Smith on January 10, 2004 at 2:17 pm

    Brayden mentions civil disobedience above. An inevitable discussuion when the 12th Article of Faith is raised. Brayden wonders aloud how to reconcile civil disobedience with the 12th Article of Faith. Here is an excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”

    “You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’

    “Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distort the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an ‘I-it’ relationship for an ‘I-thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression ‘of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

    The Letter is exceptionally moving and courageous. To read the whole thing, go here: http://www.almaz.com/nobel/peace/MLK-jail.html. The reference to natural law might not sail too far today. I would be interested to hear reactions about this from Nate and Adam, who seem to think about these things a lot.

    Two points:

    1. My sense is that our discourse in the US re “morality” has become secularized so that King’s references to “the law of God” and “eternal law” would seem anachronistic if uttered today. In place of God’s law, I think we have substituted something strikingly similar to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/rights/50/decla.htm). In other words, if we are concerned about the proper domain for civil disobedience, we would stand on fairly firm ground politically by appealing to the Declaration.

    2. As for the 12th Article of Faith, I should have more profound thoughts than I do. A quick story: I was a missionary in Austria from 1982-1984. My mission president was also president of the European Central Districts (Hungary, Poland, Czechosolvakia, Yugoslavia, and Greece). In many instances, he had to resort to deception to service the needs of members in those countries. He told me that when he was set apart, President Monson promised that he would “pass through borders undetected.” That blessing was fulfilled many times. Partly as a result of these experiences, I have always like King’s distinction between just and unjust laws.

  17. brayden on January 10, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks Gordon for that beautiful excerpt. I agree with you and Dr. King that there is a distinction between just and unjust laws. Of course, I’m also skeptical of King’s distinction between natural and human laws. Many segregationists appealed to “existential” differences between the races to justify segregation. They saw race as a natural, God-ordained difference that needed to be enforced through the legal system. It seems to me that almost any law, particularly morality laws, can be justified or repudiated based on some set of principles purported to be “natural.” Now, as a Latter-day Saint I believe in the existence of true, eternal principles but this morality is not likely to be recognized in a court of law as such.

    So I see all laws as human-made. Some happen to be more reflective of God’s laws than others. For example, most would agree that the criminalization of homicide is in alignment with a true law. But other laws are more ambiguously coded. Again, how do we discern which laws are appropriate to break? How can we decide which laws are unjust?

    I suppose the best, most simple, answer would be to follow the Spirit. Any other ideas?

  18. Eric James Stone on January 10, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    I find the question of whether we need to sustain the myths (in the positive sense of the word) that grant legitimacy to our government to be an interesting one.

    Democracy (in the loose sense that includes representative republics) has come to be considered the most legitimate form of government around the world. That’s why even countries that are not democratic in fact try to legitimize themselves with the trappings of democracy. Communist countries called themselves Democratic Republics, and dictators hold elections in which they are elected with 100% of the vote.

    Since it is now the standard of legitimacy for government, I think that harm to question the legitimizing myths. There are three main reasons that I see.

    First, I think people would agree with this quote from Churchill: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    So the general reaction to things like Condercet’s paradox is an aknowledgement that democracy isn’t perfect, but since there’s no preferable alternative, it doesn’t really matter.

    Second, the fact that we tolerate criticism of our government is one of our legitimizing myths, and so the very ability of critics to criticize without being thrown in jail reinforces the legitimacy of our form of government.

    Third, because the policies of a democratic government evolve over time, new legitimizing myths arise when when old ones are disgarded. That’s why Martin Luther King has become part of our mythology, replacing the die-hard segregationists in our national pantheon.

  19. Eric James Stone on January 10, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    In the course of editing the above, I accidentally deleted some words. The third paragraph should read:

    Since it is now the standard of legitimacy for government, I think that it does no real harm to question the legitimizing myths. There are three main reasons that I see.

  20. Greg Call on January 11, 2004 at 1:16 am

    I tend to agree with Kristine that most church leaders statements on supporting governments are probably more driven by pragmatism than principle. In a conference address in 1942 (when the brethren as a whole seemed quite pacifist) David O. McKay made the remarkedly assured statement that “War is never justified in an attempt to enforce a new order of government…however better the government may be.” Certainly that sentiment is not raised in talks on the divine hand in the American revolution.

  21. brayden on January 11, 2004 at 1:24 am

    Has President McKay’s statement ever surfaced during the discussion of the current war?

  22. Clark Goble on January 11, 2004 at 3:10 pm

    Just a nit pick, but you all know my foibles…

    Exactly what does it mean to be driven by pragmatism more than principle. I’m trying to wrap my mind around how that even makes any sense in any of the meanings of pramatic I’m aware of…

  23. Greg on January 11, 2004 at 8:25 pm

    Clark, I just meant I don’t think that such statements were expressions of some eternal principle of “support your government no matter what.” The statements are better understood as addressing the times in which they were issued.

  24. Jeremiah John on January 11, 2004 at 10:52 pm

    The recourse to myths, is in my mind generally and in this case too hasty. There are good reasons from positively sustaining the current arrangement in much of the world from the perspective of natural reason, Christianity generally, and Mormonism in particular. Even in countries where the regime is very defective, we can often marshall rational/Christian/Mormon arguments against becoming violent insurrectionists. If a large minority of Germans has acted as Hubener did–in non-violent resistance–the Nazis would probably have failed miserably.

    The problem here with myths is that, as usual, they corrupt the soul and lead us into spiritually dark paths. One can imagine the spiritual confusion and division within the Church if members in Russia, Brazil, Hong Kong, and the United States all at once followed the counsel to uphold the central founding myths of their sovereign governments. This is because almost no one would uphold these myths *as myths* but as spiritual truths on a par with the Gospel. This leads us to a reason for doing political theology–to provide a way for us to affirm a variety of different secular arrangements on Gospel grounds that allows us to preserve our moral integrity.

    Eric: Chruchill’s quote has always been perplexing to me; I don’t know that is says much. Except that is simply asserts: “Democracy is the best form of government possible. But then again it’s horrible compared to what we might want.” I wonder what he means by democracy, and what he’s comparaing it to. As for the “other regimes which have been tried” he was probably thinking about the totalitarian regimes of his day, which were among the worst regimes the world has ever known. So Churchill wasn’t saying much.

    Concordet’s Paradox does not try to assert that democracy is imperfect, but rather that democracy is basically an incoherent or sham concept as it is often understood. The idea is that the ‘rule of the people’ makes little sense because we cannot imagine a way that the people could rule through elections. I don’t think, however, that we as LDS are bound by this argument, however–there are plenty of good criticisms of it in political science.

    Gordon and others: Whenever I ask my students in political theory to do a debate over some issue, very often they come up with an endless stream of examples which purportedly support some general claim. If we believe that there is a coherent, consistent Mormon argument to be made (or discovered), then we have to make an argument that accounts for what happened during Freedom Summer, WWII, etc., but can hardly be dependent on these empirical cases. There are plenty of examples of violent and non-violent resistance which went well and poorly. What we need to figure out is how we are to believe and act given this wide range of possibilities.

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