The Value of a Problematic
It then might be asked, what is the significance of the distinction between communitarian and liberal political theories? Why does it matter? The answer to this question lies in the issue of whether or not the language and arguments that we use in political discussions are coherent and compelling. In October conference of 1999, President Hinckley offered an account of why the Church becomes involved in political issues. He stated, â€œWe regard it as not only our right but our duty to oppose those forces which we feel undermine the moral fiber of society.â€ This statement invokes a powerfully communitarian image a politics. To speak of the â€œmoral fiber of societyâ€ implies an interconnectedness of identity and activity that suggests â€œpossibility that common purposes and ends could inspire more or less expansive self-understandings and so define a community in the constitutitive sense, a community describing the subject and not just the object of shared aspirations.â€
In contrast, writing in the nineteenth century in response to laws punishing polygamy, President George Q. Cannon argued, â€œSo long as we do not intrude upon our fellow-men or interfere with their rights and happiness, it is not their right to punish us.â€ He repeatedly hammers away at the claim that Mormon polygamy does not harm others or encroach on their â€œrights.â€ Although he never quotes or cites him, many of President Cannon’s arguments in favor of religious liberty for polygamy are reminiscent of those made twenty years earlier by John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Mill, discussing â€œthe language of downright persecution which breaks out . . . [about] the remarkable phenomenon of Mormonism,â€ wrote, â€œ[I]t is difficult to see on what principles but those of tyranny they can be prevented from living there under what laws they please, provided they commit no aggression on other nations, and allow perfect freedom of departure to those who are dissatisfied with their ways.” In a similar vein, President Cannon asks, â€œWho has been coerced by us? Towards whom have we been aggressors?â€ The entire language of moral and personal autonomy that Cannon invokes is as profoundly liberal as is the moral language of President Hinckley is profoundly communitarian.
Reconciling these two approaches or deciding which is correct is beyond the scope of this paper. It may be that communitarian and liberal arguments can be fitted into a single coherent system. It may be that one approach is decisively correct while the other approach is decisively mistaken. Nothing in this essay provides any way of adjudicating such points, either within or without of Mormonism. What this essay does provide is a problematic, a way of thinking about the issues in peculiarly Mormon terms. Clearly both elements of each theory can be found within Mormon theology. If their placement were random, then it seems that LDS doctrine would offer nothing more than a grab bag of proof texts for Mormon partisans of one side of the other of the debate. However, this is not the case. There is a pattern to the distribution of ideas, a pattern that suggests a movement from liberal origins toward a communitarian telos.
It is within this paradigm that Mormons must confront this philosophical divide. It is not clear that the paradigm itself offers an answer to the question. One might argue that origins and ontology should be privileged over goals and process. Politics, it could be argued, should be based on what is universal, and in a theology that offers the possibility of differing points along a continuum of connectedness it may be that only our origins are completely shared. Such a view need not preclude the possibility of Zion and community, but it would be conceived of in liberal terms. In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that a minimalist liberal state is desirable precisely because it allows the possibility for groups of free individuals to pursue their â€œprivateâ€ utopias.
On the other hand, one might argue that the language of freedom and agency derived from Mormon ontology is too thin to support any meaningful sort of politics. One might argue that human beings are defined by their connections with others, and thus such connections cannot be treated as accidental or politically irrelevant. Communities must be thought of as communities and not simply as aggregations of individuals precisely because our condition in the second estate means that who we are is always constituted in part by the community in which we find ourselves embedded. We may have occupied some idealized liberal position of autonomy in the shadowy time before the council in heaven, but it is far too late in the play for us to now speak in terms of our origins.
Which of these arguments is correct and what other arguments one might make is not an issue that I take a position on in this essay. However, what these arguments do suggest is that even if it is difficult to identify uniquely Mormon answers in the liberal-communitarian debate, it is possible to identify a uniquely Mormon way of carrying on that debate.