Theo-democracy and the Redemption of Politics

April 26, 2004 | 19 comments
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I am finding it difficult to get very excited about politics this election year. Given that we are faced with momentus issues of war and peace this is a bit odd. This seems like a time when politics really matters. Part of the problem is that I am considerably less than enthusiastic about either candidate. However, I find that I am increasingly less interested and passionate about politics. In college I played at being a political activist. I worked on campaigns, did voter registration drives, etc. (In retrospect I admit that my political involvement was largely about meeting girls.) After college, I worked in Washington, D.C. because I wanted to be in politics. (And it happened to be where my wife was going to graduate school.) Hence, I am not an inherently apolitical guy. My current political funk leads me — of course — to theo-democracy.

In 1845, Orson Hyde gave a sermon at Nauvoo in which he taught:

    God presides over all things — both temporal and spiritual — both Church and State. He orders the events of nations, and controls the universe at pleasure; and if his servants are like him, if they partake of his spirit and of his disposition, they will seek to be co-workers with him in all things. The policy of God’s kingdom being perfect, it must, of course, embrace every good thing, whether temporal or spiritual, that can possibly contribute to he happiness and perfection of man. . . .
    . . .
    . . . The Latter-day Saints think proper to lose sight of this distinction [between spiritual and temporal] by uniting the two in one, and calling every thing an ordinance of religion that can tend to man’s perefection and happiness; whether it be to plough and sow fields, to buy and sell goods wares and merchanize, houses or lands; to go to the polls and vote, to prayer meeting or to the sacrament of the Lord’s supper. All these, with us, are ordiances of religon; and whatsoever we do, we will to do all to the glory of God. (emphasis added)

Notice the way that Hyde embeds the political activity of voting in a much more comprehensive religious world. Now, as it happens, I very much like liberal democracy and political pluralism. I have to admitt a certain relief at not being called upon to live in a theocracy (or a theo-democracy). On the other hand, when I look at the brute mathematics of elections and realize how truely insignificant my vote is when it comes to determining the outcome of anything, I can’t help but feel a certain envy for the theo-democratic Mormons of the past. I can’t help but thinking that political activity embedded in the rich meanings of loyalty, covenant, prophecy, saints, and kingdom would be more satisfying than the politics of private decision, CNN, and soundbite.

Of course, there are alternative myths to give voting and politics power. There are myths of political community and America. There are even lingering Mormon political myths. We have the admonition to “prayerfully consider” issues and candidates. We even have some rare issues where the Church itself calls upon (some of us) to become politically involved. But none of these myths seem as powerful to me as the ones built around raw struggles for power, in which the unified saints, surrounded by hostile gentiles go to the polls en masse and as a block to insure that “our” people win. I have read enough history to know that this is a problematic myth. The defensive politics alluded to by Hyde were in large part responsible for creating the hostility that ultimately overwhelmed those defenses. (In large part, but not entirely: just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you!) Still there is something powerful and illicitly appealing about the politics of theo-democracy and I can’t help but feeling some sense of loss, especially when I contemplate the meaning of my choices this fall.

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19 Responses to Theo-democracy and the Redemption of Politics

  1. lyle on April 26, 2004 at 12:19 pm

    Nate:

    What would a theo-democracy look like? There is probably a good compare/contrast paper to be written re: Mormon & Muslim church & state images. What about a “consensus” based ‘government’ like the United Nations?

    If the Twelve decide by revelation & consensus…why not let consensus alone rule political decisions as well. Practically, this would have the effect of freezing government. (Libertarians applaud). So, it wouldn’t work everything. Sidenote: It would serve to ‘force’ (shudder) folks into incremental steps (and also cries of slippery slopes) & only those that were approved by all.

    So…perhaps a super-majority? Congress & state legislatures can only vote for measures that enjoy 60% or 75%?

    I think you speak well not only for yourself; but for far too many others as well. To my short memory, never has our country been so divided. Never have I worked so hard to promote one candidate, while also striving to remind others that the other candidate has good qualities as well. As each candidates shoots for 50%+1, they alienate the principled voters on both sides; who then take their anger out on the ‘other’ candidate rather than ask for their candidate to be more faithful & less flip-floppy.

  2. Adam Greenwood on April 26, 2004 at 12:34 pm

    Nate,
    Once you join us social conservatives you can get that old time religion back. You can feel that your voting is God-service and your activism a crusade. Just in case you’re tempted . . .

  3. Adam Greenwood on April 26, 2004 at 12:57 pm

    I agree that voting merely to do your duty to vote is pretty thin gruel. I think our own current practice of sustaining leaders shows us another–we vote to be judged.

    The voter still ought to go to the ballot box, even if he won’t influence the outcome, and declare before God, in all the solemnity of civic ritual, where he stands.

  4. brayden on April 26, 2004 at 1:01 pm

    The opening sentences from Hyde’s statement makes it sound as if we live in a theo-democracy, whether we want to or not. If God orders the events of nations, we don’t really have much of a choice about who gets elected into office do we? Or am I misreading Hyde?

  5. Nate Oman on April 26, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    Brayden: In one sense you are right. On the other hand, we no longer get specific voting instructions from church leaders. My great-great-grandfather was called on a mission to be vote in SLC, where the Gentile controlled city government was excluding Mormons from the polls. The Church was trying to flood the city with rural Mormon voters to regain control of city government.

    That sort of thing doesn’t happen so much any more, recent examples of anti-SSM activities notwithstanding. (Note: If you want to talk SSM please go here — http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000159.html )

  6. john fowles on April 26, 2004 at 2:02 pm

    Nate,

    This is actually a touchy subject even though it might seem innocuous at first glance. I share your occasional longing for the those long-gone times when results were possible through theo-democracy. However, much like your experience, when I contemplate such times, I think of the real problems it caused the Saints and the calamity our own ancestors endured largely because of it. (Of course, the voting issue, I believe, was to a large extent mere pretext for the persecution of the Saints. In the eyes of the persecutors, it somehow legitimized their murders, rapes, arson, and the forced migration of the Saints.)

    The reason this can be a touchy subject, though, is because of the mindset that allowed such voting practices to happen in the first place. That is, it reminds us how clear the line was b/n good and evil at one time in Church history. On a simplistic level, good was what the Prophet said was good and the Saints would vote accordingly. What is actually so wrong with that? If we have a testimony of the Prophet, the only thing that would stand in the way of this approach would be pride. That is, as Nephi pointed out, “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God [i.e. how the Prophet says to vote in such a "theo-democracy"], for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 N.9:28). On a slighltly deeper level, each individual LDS still had a clearer view in their own mind of good and evil, and was willing to choose the good over evil, even if it was inconvenient or intellectually unsophisticated to do so, and even if that which is objectively evil happens to be the current pet social issue of “progressive” groups. (I realize that the term “objectively evil” can engender much controversy on this forum because it affirms an objective morality, a right and wrong divorced from circumstances or even biology. Also, if something is evil because it is evil in the eyes of God, some could argue that it is not objectively evil but still only subjectively evil, i.e. what God thinks is evil is still only subjective because it is only God’s opinion–someone else might have an equally valid “alternative” opinion.)

    In other words, we are far away from the days when the Church membership agreed on good and evil, so such a theo-democracy would not even be possible today, even if it were advisable (which I believe it is not–better for the Church to avoid politics until the Millennium). It seems to me that the platforms of political parties alone should be enough to allow us to judge a party and to vote accordingly. After all, if a candidate subscribes to such a platform, with its attendant implications for moral issues, then the personal qualities of the individual matter less because of the obligations that arise from the political platform. But the fact that the socially repugnant platforms that abound today do not deter LDS shows what has happened to moral consensus in the Church. And the fact that those who are willing to consecrate “blind obedience” (i.e. follow the Prophet) to the words of the living prophet are scorned in virtually every aspect of social life, including forums like this, indicates the difficulties of theo-democracy in the PC, skeptical, information age.

    Of course, there have always been members who were unwilling to follow the Prophet, even in the bygone days of theo-democracy. But back then, they were simply called apostates, and didn’t command respect as “thinkers” who claimed that their criticism of the Bretheren was merely constructive, progressive, social participation for the good of the Church, or some such thing.

  7. Dave on April 26, 2004 at 4:40 pm

    Nate, I’m afraid I have little affection for either theo-democracy (which I see as a prescription for religious fascism) or Mormon block voting (which inevitably polarizes the political community and invariably worked against Mormons wherever it was practiced). I actually think the Church does a pretty good job staying out of politics, despite attempts by some candidates and some critics to drag it in. I hope the official involvement with various anti-SSM initiatives doesn’t signal a permanent new policy.

    I suspect that your experience in Washington DC leaves you more dissatisfied with regular cast-your-ballot political participation than the average voter. Not that you fit the profile of the average voter, of course. I suppose relocating to Washington DC would cure your sense of political melancholy.

  8. Nate Oman on April 26, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    Dave: What exactly is your working definition of “religious facism”?

  9. Dave on April 26, 2004 at 7:03 pm

    Nate, I suppose my loose definition of religious fascism would be a theocracy or theo-democracy that subordinates due process, individual rights, and rule of law to other imperatives (perhaps not openly or even regularly, perhaps only when needed or convenient).

    A theocracy or theo-democracy that did none of these things would be a plain vanilla democracy. I didn’t equate theo-democracy with religious fascism, I just noted the first is a step toward the second.

    How exactly do you see theocracy or theo-democracy as different from the liberal democracy or political pluralism that you (and I) like very much?

  10. Adam Greenwood on April 26, 2004 at 8:20 pm

    Perhaps we can clarify the definition further. All negative connotation aside, would you consider I and other social conservatives to be ‘religious fascists’? I’m not asking this for the purpose of taking offense.

  11. Dave on April 26, 2004 at 8:34 pm

    Adam, of course not, nor would I throw that label around perjoratively, applying it to this or that group of people. I don’t even consider social conservatives to be theocrats or theo-democrats. Americans whose religious views inform their social policies, to my mind, are simply pluralists pursuing their own particular policy preferences like anyone else. I don’t see the labels “theocracy” or “theo-democracy” coming into play until one’s theological views or institutional religious status start affecting one’s right to hold office, vote, or exercise various civil rights.

    Which is why I’m curious exactly what the content of the term “theo-democracy” is and how it differs from the messy but functional secular democracy we’re familiar with.

  12. brayden on April 27, 2004 at 2:53 am

    Dave has a good point. From a political scientists’ perspective religious voters simply have different preferences than a non-religious voter. It is not the preferences that make the system (since we are all likely to have different preferences but find agreement on a number of things); the rules make the system a democracy. So the question is, how would the rules of theo-democracy differ from our pluralist version?

    Or you could simply take the easy way out and say that, while we think we are voting our individual preferences, the democratic outcome always reflects God’s will. This was my original thought when I read Hyde’s statement. Wouldn’t it be an affront to social conservatives if it turned out that God wanted abortion legalized all this time?

  13. Nate Oman on April 27, 2004 at 10:57 am

    Dave: My problem is that I am not quite sure how you are using language like “rights” or “due process.” Are we talking in a technical, legal sense, or are you using them in some broader political sense. Suppose that the Church was to require that we vote for candidate X on pain of excommunication. This would not violate any legal right to vote or right to due process. On a broader view of these terms I am not sure.

  14. Russell Arben Fox on April 27, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    Nate, a couple of points:

    1) Isn’t it incorrect to describe Hyde’s admonitions in terms of “theodemocracy”–or, as you put it, “political activity embedded in the rich meanings of loyalty, covenant, prophecy, saints, and kingdom”? I don’t have access to the sermon you’re citing, so for all I know he did in fact use that term. But from what I’ve read, “theodemocracy” was Smith’s (not necessarily well-thought-out) neologism for an environment in which the faithful would sustain the laws of God through popular acclaim. The people’s rights would thus be synonymous with their submission to a clearly understood theological order, and vice versa: said order would become the warp and woof of one’s standing in the community. In other words, your fairly standard vision of a people united by and through religious principles; one of the most common communitarian interpretations of the gospel’s implications, and one which Brigham Young in various ways (not all of which were internally consistent) attempted to establish on an economic and/or local level for at least the first several years of the State of Deseret. Hence, to invoke that term in connection with “raw struggles for power, in which the unified saints…go to the polls en masse and as a block to insure that ‘our’ people win” seems to be inappropriate; a true theodemocracy would not depend upon the vicissitudes of political mobilization, since membership and participation itself would have arisen as a function of a prior and continuing “mobilization.” (The legitimacy of the leadership in various Puritan townships, for example, did not depend by and large upon the successful organization of the congregational support; the congregation itself defined the township.)

    2) That said, it is true that the sermon you quote involves embedding “the political activity of voting in a…comprehensive religious world.” It might be easy to label Hyde a theodemocrat, and maybe it would be best not to split hairs and just admit such. Still, the Nauvoo which Hyde knew was not and could not be a site for theocratic politics, strictly speaking; therefore, it seems to me that what he was talking about was realizing one’s religious worldview through existing political mechanisms: building and maintaining a “civic religion,” if you will, to bring up a thoroughly beaten if not yet dead horse. A good Mormon, Hyde seems to be saying, one who does not believe that the State any more than any other phenomenon is or ought to be understandable apart from God’s will, will do what they can to politically instantiate that will, to “embrace every good thing, whether temporal or spiritual, that can possibly contribute to the happiness and perfection of man.” Thus the church in Utah (or rather its members, acting collectively) exercises, or ought to exercise, the ability to shape the polity through democratic participation, in the same way in which Baptist ministers and congregations throughout Arkansas (including right here in Jonesboro) work the electoral and city council process to keep their counties dry (alcohol-free). Their critics accuse them of being moral fascists, of course, and it’s true that their actions aren’t simply a matter of religious voters expressing a preference through pluralistic debate (those Baptist ministers make it absolutely clear how they expect all good Baptists to vote, and what they hold the eternal consequences for voting otherwise to be). Still, I would tend to see it, and Hyde, as merely pushing the “rules” of the system, as Brayden put it, in a direction more responsive to popular expressions of moral convictions; a more “populist” reading of our constitutional arrangement if you will. (If I recall correctly, Smith’s major complaint with the pre-14th Amendment U.S. Constitution was that the federal government was too easily tied down by existing procedures and political structures (that is, the states); he wanted and believed the Constitution ought to allow the federal government to be more directly reponsive to the determinations of, and more imemdiately protective of the liberties of, “the people” in general.)

  15. Nate Oman on April 27, 2004 at 2:28 pm

    Russell: Perhaps you are right about the technical meaning of the term theodemocracy. However, I had understood that 19th century Mormons saw their block voting, particularlly in Utah, as a working out of the idea that God chooses righteous men to preside and the people then voluntarily support them. The idea was for the system to work no only in ecclesiastical organizations but also in political organizations. In practice, Church leaders picked candidates and instructed members on how to vote. Furthermore, the elections seldom seem to have turned on issues. Rather they were basically about whether the Mormon won or the Gentile won. Sounds like the raw struggle for power to me. (Mind you, I am not against the raw struggle for power. Better that “we” win than that “they” win…)

  16. Nate Oman on April 27, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    A related point based on as yet incomplete research: If you look at the laws passed in America’s two main theocracies — Deseret and Puritan New England — you see an interesting contrast. The New Englanders, particularlly in their early phase, were big time into “legislating morality,” mainly in the form of legal codes modelled on OT law codes. In contrast, the legislation passed by the state of Deseret seemed mainly concerned with protecting the institutional church and insuring that power was exercised by Mormons. The laws are less concerned substantive violations.

    (Note: I am working on a paper about this and I am in the law collecting mode at this point, so the conclusion above is tenative.)

  17. Russell Arben Fox on April 27, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    Nate, share with me what your research turns up; I’d be interested to read it. There might be something important, in terms of political theology, contained in the different concerns (legally enframing a substantive morality vs. structuring decision-making power) you’ve observed. Though it occurs to me just off the top of my head that demographics might have a lot to do with that difference: Puritan New England was flooded, right from the start, with large numbers of immigrants who were not members of any of the original covenants, hence making it important for these religious communities to define their codes publicly, whereas arguably in Deseret (at least originally, and even later on in Deseret’s more isolated communities) the population was far more self-selected, and hence less in need of codified “instruction” in what membership entailed.

  18. clarkgoble on April 27, 2004 at 3:25 pm

    I always thought the most interesting part of 19th century Utah government was the shadow government. i.e. even if there was a governor for the region, Brigham still was the governor in practice.

  19. clark on April 27, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    Wasn’t the reason morality usually wasn’t legislated was because it didn’t need to be? That sort of thing was handled through the wards and stakes. And of course there are always the examples of extreme action that anti’s bring up at times. The problem was always checks and balances on Bishops. Especially considering how long Bishops served back then and their extreme power.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but I often saw the Utah view of government merely to limit the power of outsiders and was more akin to how we view the relationship of the federal government and other nations. Then the *real* local government was the church.

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