What Didn’t Make It Into the Deseret News Article

January 29, 2007 | 15 comments
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Over in the “Notes from All Over” sidebar, I linked to a Deseret News article by Carrie Moore which discusses a recent addition or addendum to the church’s oft-repeated state on political neutrality. (Scroll down to “Relationships with Government,” where you will read that “elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with…a publicly stated Church position.”) I was contacted for the article, and I have to thank Carrie for making me sound far more coherent than I’m sure I actually was; she put together a fine and thoughtful exploration of what this statement might be taken to mean for the church and Mitt Romney’s campaign. But–as is the case whenever you talk to a reporter–there was a lot we discussed (a whole hour’s worth) that didn’t make it into the final piece. Let me hit a few of those thoughts here.

1. Are all “publicly stated church positions” equal? For example, Senator Harry Reid, a Mormon and a Democrat, has voted against the passage of a federal amendment to the Constitution to define marriage as legally binding for heterosexual, monogamous couples only. The church has come out in support of such an amendment, which certainly counts as a “publicly stated position.” Reid’s membership has not been affected by his vote (despite the apparent longings of some); nor has he come in for any sort of public criticism from the church so far as I know. However, how much of that is a function of how he voted against the passage of the proposed amendment? Reid has stated that he believes in “traditional marriage,” and that his opposition to the amendment was driven by his belief that it is foolish to try to write such things into the Constitution, a position that Elder Dallin H. Oaks, even though he disagreed, allowed was a “legitimate argument.” But what if Reid–or some other Mormon elected official–explained his or her opposition to a federal marriage amendment by stating that they accepted the legitimacy of same-sex marriages? What if such an official said that, while they personally regarded homosexual conduct to be immoral, they found nothing wrong with society and the state fully sanctioning homosexual relationships and activity, and thereby allowing people choose for themselves what kind of sexual relationship or marriage they might enter into without any discrimination or disapproval? Perhaps the Church (not just officially, but in the person of all those stake presidents, bishops, and home teachers who would interact with and have to make decisions about this particular Mormon) really would treat them the same way they are currently treating Reid–namely, respect him as a public official who just happens to disagree with the church. Then again, if you got to the point that said official was saying things that arguably conflicted with the Proclamation on the Family‘s specific call to “to promote those measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society”…well, let’s just say that, as yet, this latest statement by the church hasn’t been truly tested yet.

2. My comment about a hypothetical Mormon politician arguing that, despite their “personal” feelings, a certain action ought to be legal so that people could “choose for themselves” is intentionally imitating a longstanding controversy in Catholic circles regarding abortion, because that controversy could be instructive for Mormons in our increasingly mainstream political future. The ground zero for the Catholic argument was probably then-Governor Mario Cuomo’s famous address at the University of Notre Dame in 1984, in which he claimed that he could simultaneously believe that abortion is a grave moral crime and not believe that he had an obligation as an elected official to oppose the extension of constitutional rights to that crime. Elder Oaks, for one, has condemned such an attachment to “choice.” Yet, given the above statement, what actual force does Elder Oaks’s condemnation have? Persuasive and moral force, certainly…but not, if one takes this statement literally, ecclesiastical force. A Mormon elected official who disagreed with Elder Oaks about abortion (or same-sex marriage) could potentially find himself quoting Mario Cuomo, arguing in essence that “there is no Church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief [about the morality of abortion, or same-sex marriage, or the family] everyone’s rule, for spreading this part of our [Mormonism].” The arguments within and about this debate, both the legitimacy and the parameters of it, have defined to a great extent the public image of Catholicism over the past 20 years; whereas today, the popular assumption is probably that such arguments would not be possible amongst the Mormons. (Certainly that’s what Damon Linker thought.) Will this statement, in time, prove that assumption incorrect? Will we, just like every religious body dealing with life in these modern, secular, pluralistic United States, have Mario Cuomos of our own?

3. And if we do have such figures, how will politically active Mormons–not just politically informed ones, but those deeply involved in political elections and agendas–react? We talk about Zion, we talk about being of one mind and one heart, we talk about common consent and unity. Yet, those who live in predominantly Mormon areas of the country are well aware that within this unity there is a fair amount of disagreement; that Democrats and Republicans and liberals and conservatives can serve together in Relief Society presidencies and on High Councils and things don’t fall apart. Call this “tacit” or “institutional” knowledge–it’s why Mormons who live in Utah often sigh at accusations of “theocracy,” because they know–even if they can’t necessarily give principled, legalistic, comprehensive answers as to why church leaders do or don’t do what they do–how complicated things really are. And yet…there is an obvious limit to the range of “complicatedness” in Utah, and northern Arizona, and southern Idaho, just given the sort of majorities in place there. What if that range is extended exponentially–to, for example, the whole country, via a presidential campaign? Mormon activists like Gayle Ruzicka are smart and experienced people; they know how the world of politics works. But will they be able to make the jump to the kind of pluralism and diversity in Mormon opinion which the church’s statement seems to allow for on the national stage? Or will–when push comes to shove, and big-league Mormon candidates are dealing with national platforms and agendas that would be radically unpopular in Provo or Rexburg–the old “good Mormons can’t be good Democrats” notion continue to lurk about, perhaps for always?

There was more, but that should enough to chew on for now.

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15 Responses to What Didn’t Make It Into the Deseret News Article

  1. Jay S on January 29, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    I enjoyed your position, one little nitpick though. You stated
    \”there is an obvious limit to the range of “complicatedness” in Utah, and northern Arizona, and southern Idaho\”. I want to quibble with your geographic characterization. While there are some parts of \”Northern Arizona\” that are in the \”mormon corridor\” The mormon part of arizona isn\’t a north/south thing, as much as it is an east west thing. Thus towns like Snowflake, St. Johns, all the way down to clifton, thatcher etc are the mormon part of arizona, with a swath around mesa/phoenix as well.

  2. mfranti on January 29, 2007 at 7:37 pm

    “a certain action ought to be legal so that people could “choose for themselves”

    I just like to hear others say it, even if it is out of context.

    all joking aside, this was a very nice post. thank you.

  3. KyleM on January 29, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    Re: Origional point 1

    Opposition of a federal ban of SSM, or any other moral issue, would be pretty easy, at least given Elder Oaks pre 1992 interpretation of the reservation of state powers.

    “The particular powers that are reserved to the states are part of the inspiration. For example, the power to make laws on personal relationships is reserved to the states. Thus, laws of marriage and family rights and duties are state laws. This would have been changed by the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (E.R.A.). When the First Presidency opposed the E.R.A., they cited the way it would have changed various legal rules having to do with the family, a result they characterized as “a moral rather than a legal issue.” I would add my belief that the most fundamental legal and political objection to the proposed E.R.A. was that it would effect a significant reallocation of law-making power from the states to the federal government.” Dallin H. Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” Ensign, Feb. 1992, 68

    That said, I disagree with his interpritation of this part of the constituation. Moral amendments have been common, and the guarantee of rights is a moral issue in itself.

  4. Chino Blanco on January 30, 2007 at 12:48 am

    Great post.

    Not sure I understand this bit:

    Mormon activists like Gayle Ruzicka are smart and experienced people; they know how the world of politics works. But will they be able to make the jump to the kind of pluralism and diversity in Mormon opinion which the church’s statement seems to allow for on the national stage?

    Does the Eagle Forum in Utah have an MO distinct from the other EF state orgs? I’m having a hard time seeing where the church’s statement introduces some kind of new tension … what am I missing? Wouldn’t the EF agenda remain the same, independent of whether the church does or does not profess political neutrality? iow, I’m not sure I see how a shift in the church’s position would alter the landscape in any meaningful way for the EF.

    Just as with the apparent waxing and waning of the importance of states rights in Elder Oaks mind, depending on the issue at hand, I’d expect the EF to take advantage of the “good Mormons can’t be good Democrats” prejudice whenever it served their purposes, and to avoid doing so whenever it does not. To the extent that the church’s professions of political neutrality might actually embolden the membership to diversify their political points of view, I suppose it might mean a little extra work for the EF folks, but my sense is that GMCBGD is not all that useful a meme for the EF project outside a pretty limited geographical area, hence my question: is there really any kind of jump to be made here?

  5. Russell Arben Fox on January 30, 2007 at 9:17 am

    Jay S., mfranti, Chino–glad you all found the post interesting.

    Jay S.–sorry for the geographic mistake; I’ll keep that in mind for the future.

    KyleM–I’ll have to look up that article; thanks for the excerpt. I wonder if Elder Oaks would declare his mind to have changed on this issue if pressed? I suspect not; in the long interview that the church’s public affairs office conducted with him and Elder Wickman, he claimed that with regard to matters of marriage “the federal government, through the decisions of life-tenured federal judges, has already taken over that area [from the states].” So I guess he would argue that he would rather be consistent in his opinions about state-national relations, if he could, but since–in his and apparently the official church’s view–the current legal situation has changed things, he can’t be.

    Chino–you ask if the the Eagle Forum under Gayle Ruzicka in Utah “has an MO distinct from the other EF state orgs?” Probably not, when you get down to bare bones procedures. However, what I was getting at in my point #3 above is the fact that the overwhelming majority of Utah EF members are Mormon, and its quite clear from considering their rhetoric and arguments that they link Mormon scripture and beliefs very closely with their agenda. The result is that, for many of these people, their conservative agenda becomes relevant for thinking about not just other members’ beliefs, but their faithfulness and membership as well. Now, this doesn’t mean Gayle Ruzicka is sending her minions out to oppose each and every Mormon Democrat in the Utah Legislature; of course she doesn’t, because of a clear local understanding–something that I suspect is often unnoticed by outsiders–of just how much political leeway really does exist within the church.

    Now, my thought question is: take the church’s new statement on neutrality, and extend it to the national level, where existing agendas aren’t at all bound by the dominant beliefs and understandings of the Mormon corridor. Say we don’t just have one guy out in Massachusetts, a Republican who nonetheless says a lot of pro-choice things–Utah Republicans were happy to donate to Mitt Romney’s campaigns back in the 1990s, despite his positions; after all, he was a rising star, he was taking on the dread Senator Kennedy, and he was just one guy–but suppose instead that we start getting a decent number of pro-choice or pro-same-sex marriage Mormon politicians, the way the Catholic hierarchy woke up one day in the 1980s and realized that there was a bunch of Catholic politicians, running for office outside of traditional parish strongholds, that were voting in support of abortion rights. It was a huge realization, one that fundamentally altered the way of a lot of Catholic thinkers operated. I’ll I’m saying is that, if this statement plays out nationally even remotely like I’m imagining, our own little Mormon political culture’s adaptation to the new reality probably won’t be any less contentious.

  6. John Mansfield on January 30, 2007 at 11:42 am

    Brother Fox, touching your third point, a piece I wrote last month Lame Ducks and the Las Vegas Temple may interest you and your readers.

  7. AHLduke on January 30, 2007 at 12:47 pm

    How much of a Mormon politician’s choice to vote against the expressed preferences of the Church leadership be attributed to the fact that the legislator is not voting for himself but voting the wishes of his constituents? I don’t know whether this theory of representation and voting is en vogue or on the outs with political scientists these days, but it has always seemed pretty reasonable to me. Then again, in the specific case of Reid, I don’t know whether his NV constituents would have supported the Constitutional amendment or not. As for the rest of us, we are completely responsible for representing our own opinions, whether or not they conflict with Church direction is part of our own accountability. But I for one am willing to give Senator Reid a pass on this one.

  8. mfranti on January 30, 2007 at 12:58 pm

    “How much of a Mormon politician’s choice to vote against the expressed preferences of the Church leadership be attributed to the fact that the legislator is not voting for himself but voting the wishes of his constituents?”

    i don’t know too much about how that stuff works but this makes sense to me. an elected official represents his constituents, not his church. Right?

  9. Ugly Mahana on January 30, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    One thing that I have always wondered at is the relationship between the church and the individual on one side, and the individual and his or her constituents on the other. There is no direct relationship between the church and the constituents. As such, the relationship between the individual and the groups is necessarily distinct as well. Thus, the Church puts forward a position. It has the right to do so both as a corporate member of society and as an association of citizens. Then the individual must decide whether or not to make the church position part of his or her individual creed, and then whether or not to use his or her influence to direct government to the position proposed by the Church. The individual remains free to use any information, bias, or conviction at both in selecting personal creed and a course of action. Having made those decisions, the individual remains seperately liable to the Church as a distinct entity and to the constituents as a distinct body. If the individual adopts a position that is contrary to the wishes of the constituents, then he or she is accountable to them. Likewise, if the individual adopts a position contrary to Church teachings, then he or she is accountable to Church authority. However, the individual does not owe to the Church the influence he or she has as the result of being a representative of the people.

    The argument that consecration covenants give the Church claim to an individual\’s public authority, beyond the moral authority developed as a result of magnifying talents (in public speaking, for example), fails because such public authority does not properly belong to the individual. While the authority to act is given in trust, the authority itself remains the property of the constituency. It is meaningless to consider whether a member of the Church who holds public office could be properly called upon to use the privileges of his or her position to subvert the law of the land because the authority to subvert the law is not part of what the elected official is given. You cannot consecrate what you don\’t have.

    Talk of using public resources or the powers of public office to promote Church interests and positions is similarly unworkable because government \”[derives its] powers from the consent of the governed.\” The Declaration of Independence para. 2 (U.S. 1776). While certain resources or powers may be entrusted to an individual, these resources and powers have not been given with the authority to bestow them elsewhere, which is the characteristic of ownership necessary to make them subject to the consecration covenant. It would be as inappropriate for a man who was both bishop and mayor to use the city firetrucks to clean chapel windows as it would be for him to ask the missionaries to perform residential tax assessments.

  10. Ugly Mahana on January 30, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    And yet, under the right circumstances, both could be done.

  11. Chino Blanco on January 31, 2007 at 12:53 am

    Thank you for expanding on your initial post. The really interesting bit would seem to be whether or not Mormon constituents can/will adopt the Cuomo position as their own, as voters, thereby severing once and for all any link between their Mormon scripture and beliefs and their politics, i.e., if Mormon voters by and large felt they could “simultaneously believe that [X] is a grave moral crime and not believe that [they] had an obligation as [voters] to oppose the extension of constitutional rights to that crime.” In this scenario, which is really just considering what a Mainstream Mormonism might look like, wouldn’t the church leadership become very wary of staking out positions on matters political? Aren’t such political positions already becoming problematic for the church leadership precisely because of the brave new mormon world that looks set to emerge post-the-new-neutrality/post-Romney? Or do you see the leadership forming new alliances that would enable the church to effectively avoid this new world, by say, aligning ever more closely with the evangelicals? I guess my question is, 10 years from now, would ‘activist judges’

    a) be a surprising topic to find being discussed on a Mormon blog or
    b) would antagonism to same be loudly professed and promoted as binding us in spirit with our evangelical brothers-in-arms?

    Glancing over at the right frame and noticing the link under Notes from All Over titled Outrageous: Jail worker refused emergency contraception to rape victim, citing religious beliefs, I gotta go with a)

    Another prediction, in a couple years, you will hear something along the lines of: After long and often bitter experience, we have learned and observed that those measures most likely to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society are not primarily of the political kind, but rather of the sort to be implemented through and integrated with our church membership and service …

  12. tima on January 31, 2007 at 3:32 am

    Excellent post.

    I wonder though, how the politics mix with Members from other countries?
    Take for instance Spain, Zapatero, the current prime minister was elected on a antiwar stance, yet to many Members here, that stance in untenable as a member of the church, yet i am sure that there are many members in Spain that support him.
    I often wonder what Members outside the US think of Members\’ support of politicians in this country that they see a threat (ie Bush).

    I have always wondered what Members outside the States reacted to President Hinckley\’s talk in the April 2003 conference where he admonished us to trust our leaders regarding the war? (he said something to the affect that the government had knowledge (intelligence) that we as a general population where not privy to) Was he simply talking to Members in the States? Say a Member in France, where the government was vehemently opposed to the war, what did they make of that talk, were they to support the US position, or the French position?

  13. sinema on January 31, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Interesting. I was informed years ago that a stake president in East Germany was a member of the Communist Party. The Church really does stay out of politics. Harry Reid receives no criticsim for being a member. I think that some may pick on Mitt Romney because of his non-liberal views and blame it on the Church.

    Every time I go to Salt Lake I am amazed at the vitriolic letters to the editor denouncing the Church. It only happens in Utah.

  14. Russell Arben Fox on January 31, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Excellent comments, Ugly, Chino, Sinema, and Tima; thank you.

    Tima–

    The really interesting bit would seem to be whether or not Mormon constituents can/will adopt the Cuomo position as their own, as voters, thereby severing once and for all any link between their Mormon scripture and beliefs and their politics…

    In all fairness, one should note that Cuomo himself, and many other people, did not and still do not think that declining to attempt to make the law conform to specific moral or religious beliefs is the same thing as “severing once and all any link” between their politics and their moral and religious beliefs. Cuomo’s argument, in particular, was that abortion, while an evil, is implicated in so many difficult economic, social, and gender-related concerns that it becomes an evil that needs to be tolerated. I’m not convinced by his argument, but I wouldn’t say that in making it Cuomo had simply given up on the idea of integrating faith and politics.

    [C]onsidering what a Mainstream Mormonism might look like, wouldn’t the church leadership become very wary of staking out positions on matters political? Aren’t such political positions already becoming problematic for the church leadership precisely because of the brave new Mormon world that looks set to emerge post-the-new-neutrality/post-Romney?

    If you were asking this question as recently as ten or even five years ago, I would have said “yes.” All through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, while evangelical churches and early organizations like the Moral Majority were finding their voice after decades of political silence, the church developed a pretty consistent argument that, while it claimed the right (which, of course, no one would deny them) to weigh in on certain matters of moral or regional importance (the ERA, the MX missle, etc.), it was an institution overwhelmingly concerned with its specific mission, and therefore was neutral as to all larger political trends and arguments. But I’m not sure that’s true anymore….

    Or do you see the leadership forming new alliances that would enable the church to effectively avoid this new world, by say, aligning ever more closely with the evangelicals?

    Which answers the above question. Over the past decade, and especially over the past five years, it seems to me that a significant number of general authorities and prominent public and intellectual figures in the church have started to adopt the moral and philosophical perspective of the Christian Right, meaning an embrace of natural law-type arguments about the sanctity of marriage, the civilizational role played by the traditional family, and so forth. This is, to be sure, by no means a complete or uncontested transformation (as I argued here); nonetheless it’s there, and it suggests at least the possibility that the church could evolve into a political entity with a specific set of “issues” with and an “agenda” regarding the wider the culture, in exactly the way people today look at the Catholic hierarchy or the Southern Baptist Conference as political. (And please note–I don’t think that would necessarily be a bad thing.)

    After long and often bitter experience, we have learned and observed that those measures most likely to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society are not primarily of the political kind, but rather of the sort to be implemented through and integrated with our church membership and service …

    That’s a fascinating hypothetical statement; I wonder if we’ll hear it anytime soon.

  15. JKC on January 31, 2007 at 11:25 am

    tima,

    “…the current prime minister was elected on a antiwar stance, yet to many Members here, that stance in untenable as a member of the church,…”

    I’m well aware that there are plenty of Mormons who support the Iraq war. But I was surprised to see you say that they link their stance on the war so strongly to their membership in the church. Most pro-war Mormons that I know justify their pro-war stance with the same tired arguments that the rest of the GOP uses. Maybe two or three years ago, I would occasionally hear the “terrorists are Gadiantons and therefore Bush is a good guy” argument, but it was uncommon, at least among my friends and acquaintances, and it’s been a while since I heard that line of reasoning or anything like unto it. But even those Mormons that did have some kind of religious justifications for their pro-war stance never took it to the point that they asserted that it would be “untenable as a church member” to have the opposite view. Maybe my Mormon friends are more reasonable and tolerant than the average, I don’t know. I wonder what the experience of others would show.