Could there be a Mormon political party? Should there be?
(Note: this post is not about Mormon political beliefs, but rather Mormon political possibilities. Not quite as fun, I know. If you need controversy, visit here to find out how I want all of you to vote. Thank you.)
My first question could be answered historically, if one chooses to approach the issue that way. The People’s Party was the official vehicle for Mormon political power in the Utah Territory from 1870 to the early 1890s. It was a party backed by the LDS Church, with the Deseret News as its mouthpiece, and it commanded the allegiance of practically all Mormons during those two decades, with the result that the Utah Territory was basically a one-party polity for a couple of decades. (The non-Mormon Liberal Party won the occasional local election in places like Toole, but that’s about it.) So yes, plainly there can be a Mormon political party, and a pretty successful one too.
But the conditions which made that political party possible no longer exist in the United States, much less anywhere else. The classic definition of a party is a “faction”–a distinct group that identifies with a defined territory or polity, has various interests regarding or intentions for that polity, and which coordinates various activities for the sake of gaining and holding onto political power so as to promote those interests or intentions within that territory. If a party is unanimous, with the total support of all who dwell within a given space, then it can’t be considered a “party,” as it does not represent a distinct faction within that space. However, while Mormons today are a significant social, cultural, and religious faction in the U.S. and some other countries as well, nowhere does the church appear to actually idenitify itself with any given polity in such a way as to see itself as a potential (or even rightful) wielder of political power. This was the case in the 1870s and 1880s; after running Utah for the first twenty years after its incorporation as an organized U.S. territory in 1850 in pretty much same way the original pioneers had imagined it be run–that is, theocratically, as the State of Deseret–the non-Mormons (and ex-Mormons, particularly the Godebites) in the territory started the Liberal Party, and the church suddenly realized that it would actually need to win some elections to continue on as before. Hence, the People’s Party, the Mormon faction of Utah dedicated to maintaining Mormon control. But there is currently no place on the planet that the church looks at the way it looked at Utah in those days; especially today, as the church continues its transformation into a truly international body, there is little or no interest on the part of most of us Mormons in seeing our church as a political faction within a specific territory or state. So no–maybe there once was a Mormon political party, but there cannot be one today. The First Presidency laid down the law in that regard over a hundred years ago, in a 1903 statement:
[The Church] is solely an ecclesiastical organization. It is separate and distinct from the state. It does not interfere with any earthly government….[It] instructs in things temporal as well as things spiritual….But it does not infringe upon the liberty of the individual or encroach upon the domain of the state….The Church does not dictate a member’s business, his politics, or his personal affairs. It never tells a citizen what occupation he shall follow, whom he shall vote for or with which party he shall affiliate. Sermons, dissertations and arguments by preachers and writers in the Church concerning the Kingdom of God that is to be are not to be understood as relating to the present. If they…convery the idea that the dominion to come is to be exercised now, the claim is incorrect.
One could, of course, be cynical and claim that this statement was of a piece with the church’s long and not always entirely forthright struggle with the U.S. government, and thus should be taken as a statement driven by expediency more than principle. But let’s assume otherwise–let’s assume the leaders of the church really have decided that, for the time being, there is nothing which the church wishes to do that would involve it, as a church, in actual party politics. But does that exhaust the possibilities for a Mormon political party? Obviously not. You could have, for example, a political party that advocates positions which are–among other things–congenial to Mormon concerns, Mormon rights, Mormon interests, and individual Mormons could come to form an important part of the coalition of voters which supports that party. Such a party might become “Mormon” in the sense that there would be a strong presumption that supporting such a party would be incumbent upon Mormons who, as Elder Oaks put it in a sermon of his titled “The Weightier Matters,” feel it important to “use [their] influence to establish public policies that encourage righteous choices on matters [which] God’s servants have defined as serious sins.” (And, presumply, the same would go for those things defined as important virtues as well.) Again, assuming one chooses to read apostolic and First Presidency statements charitably, with an eye towards identifying their unity, one could conclude that while the church feels no need and no desire at this time to seek political power in a given sphere in its own name, it does think Mormon teachings about various political disputes, as elucidated by the prophets, can and should contribute to the formation of public policy through the political process where and when possible. And in the U.S., and most everywhere else where the church has a significant presence, that means working through parties.
One might look at the 96 years separating the First Presidency’s statement and Elder Oaks’s 1999 sermon in light of broader political and religious trends. Say the church, for most of the past century, has accepted the mainline Protestant, philosophically liberal, 20th-century mainstream American opinion that churches, as corporate bodies, have fairly limited interests; their teachings, whatever their value or vehemence in terms of public policy, ought to be expressed only by individual members who organize themselves outside the church itself. For some, this has always seemed like a wholly natural and appropriate decision, one which follows the principle of separation of church and state. I suspect, however, that part of the reason why this idea was so widely accepted in first place was because most of American denominations did not feel the surrounding polity to be threatening the dominance (or at least influence) of their teachings in any truly deep way, the way the church had thought the Liberal Party would threaten Mormons in the Utah Territory. As long as America’s Christian civic religion remained strong, then there was little reason for churches to act collectively in regards to particular issues. In recent decades, however, this opinion has broken down somewhat, and with perhaps good reason; there is arguably more moral conflict in the public square in the U.S. today than anytime since the Civil War, and consequently many churches have reversed their willingness to eshew the party spirit. (It should be noted that this idea never really did fully penetrate American Catholic parishes and African-American churches anyway.) This breakdown is a plausible explanation of many contemporary events, in Utah as well as elsewhere. The reversal hasn’t been total (though some would say we’re coming close to that); in all likelihood, the diverse and cosmopolitan (and coalitional) character of much contemporary American life will prevent any religious body from desiring true party independence. Still, we’ve already seen the church expanding the possible interpretations of Elder Oaks’s remarks in the direction of more “partisan” action in connection with campaigns over same-sex marriage; perhaps, with Mitt Romney possibly on his way to the Republican nomination for president, should we Mormons note the trends, reconstruct a distinctly Mormon political and participatory voice, and thereby re-embrace the party spirit as well?
In a series of important essays (“Beyond Politics,” “In the Party But Not of the Party,” “The Uses and Abuses of Patriotism”), Hugh Nibley argued no. Politics, he noted, is a matter of dialogue, the “free discussion of people running their own common affairs.” In a truly righteous society, one moves beyond politics–not because discussion is at an end, but because discussion becomes a matter of understanding God’s will rather than agreeing or disagreeing with it. So long as we are not being ruled by God directly in our polities, then we are stuck with the limited and ultimately limiting world of human dialogue, a world which Nibley is convinced always eventually breaks down. So, we should play the political game for as long as necessary, but we should never confuse God’s will with that game; there are enormous category differences between them. And it seems that Nibley saw parties as a cause of just such confusion:
There is…virtue in politics even at the human level. The energy, the dedication, courage, loyalty, selflessness, zeal and industry, the intelligence that have gone into the political actions of men are immense, and the excitement, color, dash and humor bring out some of the best in human nature. But…there are various levels at which the political dialogue takes place…differing as widely as a chess match from a slugging contest. Let us by all means retain the drive and dedication of politics, but do we still need the placards and the bands, the serpentine parades, funny hats, confetti, squabbling committees, canned speeches, shopworn cliches, patriotic exhibitionism, Madison Avenue slogans, to say nothing of the bitter invective, the poisonous rhetoric, the dirty tricks and shady deals, payoffs, betrayals, the blighted loyalties, the scheming young men on the make, the Gadianton loyalty, the manipulated ovations and contrived confusion of the last hurrah? The furiously mounting infusion of green stuff into the political carnival of our day is enough to show that the spontaneity is not there, and even if some of it may remain, those running the show know very well from tried and true statistics that all the sort of this is to be got with money–lots and lots of money–and with nothing else.
There is very little I can disagree with in this statement. It is true that American political elections are often trivial, driven by professional interests and media spin, dependent upon pumping up the hysteria of voters on behalf of illusionary narratives, filled with sharp tricks and sharper words, dominated by powerful insiders, mostly disconnected from typical voters and far removed from any actual policy discussion. The influence of money on every step of the campaign process is huge, antidemocratic, and profoundly corrupting. (One of Nibley’s few political heroes was Senator William Proxmire, the progressive Democrat from Wisconsin who, towards the end of his political career, rejected campaign contributions and became a passionate advocate of campaign finance reform.) Yet, to the extent that Nibley is attacking the party spirit here, I have to disagree with him. Nibley’s contempt for political machinations–a contempt which is echoed in the aforementioned mainstream liberal opinion regarding the mixing of churches and politics–has its roots in St. Augustine: the City of God cannot and must not be identified with any given City of Man, and the building of a virtuous, Christian life is best when unsullied by the attraction of worldly power, wealth, or influence, even when seen as aiding righteous causes. It’s a good argument, and an influential one; indeed, the Augustinian tradition, via the Protestant Reformation and the Puritans and their subsequent Congregational legacy, ended up giving shape to a distinctly religious argument in favor of strict separation for much of the first century and a half of American history. Nonetheless, the argument founders on the conviction (a conviction that Nibley shares) that the achievements of politics are always, “at best negative.” But that simply isn’t so.
On the other side of things, many religious traditionalists, social conservatives, civic republicans and other communitarians often embrace the positive and moral possibilities of politics, but assume that parties are incompatible with such: once you have a society large and pluralistic enough that a homogenous general will or town meeting or priesthood quorum cannot legitimately speak for everyone–in short, once you have factions–then the common good is lost, the compatability of statecraft and soulcraft is ended, and one best just retreat to one’s own little platoon and work to save what you can there. (Nibley, with his apocalyptic and sometimes almost anarchic mentality, seems to agree with a lot of this as well.) This is a Zion-or-bust-type attitude: once the vision (or polity) is lost, then there’s no point in collectively trying to fight for it. There is, obviously, some truth to this attitude: by the early 20th century, the church could no longer claim that Utah was solely their own place (assuming they ever could) and fight for it accordingly. But things are not that simple. A pluralistic, elitist, or Weberian model of politics will tell you that democratic contests are all about power and administration, nothing more or less; but other models will tell you that democratic contests are expressive, and deal with the construction and movement of ideas. The coalitions that parties build, understood in this way, make and refine identities and communities, with their own common goods. Lincoln’s Republican Party (with its numerous Protestant abolitionist supporters), and FDR’s Democratic Party (with its heavy reliance on ethnic Catholics), were surely far from pure-hearted, unanimous, innocent affairs, but they did aim to positively shape the nature of American political life, and they were successful in that. The meaning of being Protestant or being Catholic in America changed because of these successful partisan endeavors, and conversely these religious groups changed America, and in a very public, civic way. So the party spirit is not, I would say, fundamentally incompatible with the maintenance of one’s own beliefs, teachings, and identity; on the contrary, assuming one is willing to connect and reconnect as necessary to the emerging dimensions and characteristics of the polity one is inevitably a part of, I would say that it can be perfectly concomitant, even beneficial, to them.
This does not mean that I’d like to see the People’s Party resurrected tomorrow. For one thing, Mormonism is profoundly different from what it was 130 years ago; we are far less millennial, far more accommodating of modern democracy and capitalism, and we pay far more individual attention to the Book of Mormon. (That last may not seem particularly political, but as I have argued before, our emphasis on having a personal “relationship” with the Book of Mormon greatly affects the sort of political theology which a party made up of and representing Mormons might hold on to as a background presumption.) For another thing, I think we still have a lot of thinking to do towards figuring out what Mormon concerns, Mormon rights, and Mormon interests really are. (Is Mitt Romney “politically” Mormon? Do we even know how to ask that question?) And, of course, we’re an international church with common lines of authority, like the Roman Catholic church; this lack of true congregationalism means that any political and partisan engagement as Mormons would have to be managed in such a way as to allow–and not unnecessarily supercede or interfere with–any similar engagements abroad. There would be plenty of complications here in the U.S. alone; while we have a federal system that allows for some relatively diverse polities to emerge, basically we would have to deal with changing Mormon political presumptions which emerged during the Utah/Deseret era into some with much more specifically American orientations, and that might be hard enough.
So no, I don’t think that we ought to start running our own candidates. But I do wonder for how much longer it will make sense for the church to aspire to nonpartisan neutrality, and to fail to build connections between its many obvious and already-embraced political commitments. Not only would the avoidance of such coalitional, movement-building thinking appear to continue to buy into a liberal model that, in other areas, the church is increasingly comfortable rejecting; it would also run counter to the sort of religious and secular clashes that are likely to be endemic to American and global politics in the coming decades (if not longer). Moreover, it is simply a stunted view of politics, one which indirectly accepts common definition of religious partisanship as always dangerous or least irresponsible, without actually exploring what a simultaneously sectarian yet civic force for religion might realistically look like and mean in practice. Scholars like Fred Gedicks have argued that avoiding the party spirit has been central to LDS growth, but even he acknowledges that it is debatable “whether a large, worldwide, and potentially powerful LDS church will continue to pursue strategies that subordinate its autonomy to the exigencies of politics and law” in the coming century. I admit to being a party person, a believer in building movements and coalitions, a fan of building identity and community through engaging (and thus changing, and being changed by) one’s polity, someone who even gets into the placards and funny hats on occasion. There’s much our church could do towards refining its own party spirit, and thereby improving others’ spirit as well, should it so choose. After all, it’s not like the precedent isn’t there.