Any guest or new blogger obviously runs the risk of repeating topics that have been worn into the ground. Apologies in advance if that is the case here, but it seemed to me that possibly missing in the current debate, er, discussion, over a certain issue in California and how church members ought to respond to it, is more explicit treatment of the question of conscience.
How sacred is conscience to Mormons? There are a lot of great platitudes in the eleventh article of faith, and statements from Joseph Smith suggesting his willingness to fight for the right of Methodists or Lutherans to worship as Methodists or Lutherans. But do these sentiments extend only to the right to join any church you please? Or do they extend as well to exercising conscience within a given church after youâ€™ve joined it?
I know, a lawyer should be discussing this, not a historian. But I mean this primarily as a spiritual and theological and historical question rather than a legal one (despite its overlap with first-amendment issues, for you Americans out there).
I donâ€™t remember much about the sacrament meetings I attended as a kid in the 60s and early 70s, as I was mostly drawing or poking my sisters or dreaming about getting home to watch the (LA) Rams. Also, I have never been very politically minded. But the thing I remember most (along with Sister Xâ€™s overly long testimonies) was the regular denunciation of Communism and the Soviet Union because of their suppression of â€œfreedom.â€
When I was a little older and started studying questions of religious tolerance and freedom, it struck me that you could argue that a person in the USSR actually did have â€œfreedom,â€ in the sense of being free to think and feel what s/he wantedâ€”as long as s/he kept it completely private. That sort of â€œfreedomâ€ obviously wasnâ€™t acceptable to the people giving talks in my ward, or probably a lot of other American wards. Freedom, it was implied, had to include a more public dimension.
Later I learned about religious arrangements in the 17th century Dutch Republic, one of the most religiously mixed and tolerant states of early modern Europe. Some of the Dutch lamented this openness of religion, but many were proud of it, especially the guarantee of freedom of conscience to just about everyone (not Trinitarians, atheists, and a few others, but thatâ€™s another story). Yet if you look a little closer you see that freedom of conscience did not include freedom of worship. True, the Dutch did not establish an official church, to which all had to belong in order to be legal and fully Dutch. But they did declare a â€œpublicâ€ church (the Reformed), which alone had the right to worship in public. Those preferring any other church had to worship clandestinely, out of the public eye, in churches made to look like houses, and otherwise keep their faith to themselves. Thus even among the famously open Dutch, freedom of conscience did not include, in theory, a public dimension.
And there are many more. A famous example from the Mormon tradition is in Mosiah 24, when the imprisoned followers of Alma were forbidden to pray aloud (no freedom of worship) but they prayed in their hearts anyway (still freedom of conscience). Again, I donâ€™t think thatâ€™s a level of freedom of conscience that we would like very much, or that we would even call freedom of conscience. It seems to me that in Mormon culture we would generally think a conscience is free only if it had at least some public dimensionâ€”in other words, if youâ€™re free to let some other people know as well how you feel, rather than keeping your thoughts and feelings to yourself. But does that apply only in other settings?
Of course itâ€™s debatable how public oneâ€™s expression needs to be, but I guess thatâ€™s what I want to address.
What does freedom of conscience mean to Mormons, especially in its public dimension? If we say that weâ€™re free to feel and think otherwise on this or that issue, but not to say so in public, is that freedom of conscience?
And if not, do we really care? Is freedom of conscience truly sacred? Not sacred? Somewhat sacred? The most sacred aspect of religion? As sacred as John Steinbeck put it in East of Eden? â€œAnd this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.â€
Another way of putting it: whatâ€™s the point of saying that conscience is sacred if conscience is only private and no one knows its content anyway? The notion of conscience being sacred seems to me to assume that oneâ€™s conscience may be different from others and that those others know about itâ€”and actually help preserve it. We hear often about the stripling warriors of the Book of Mormon, but I admire their pacifist parents at least as much, and even more those neighbors who moved in to protect their parents from violating a vow that was based originally on their consciencesâ€”and Iâ€™ll bet a lot of those neighbors didnâ€™t necessarily agree with the position of the pacifists.
It seems a little pointless to say that conscience is sacred if conscienceâ€™s only legitimate condition and expression is one that agrees with everyone elseâ€™s, especially yours.
Yet Iâ€™ve gathered from discussions with students and others that we do tend to regard conscience as sacred mostly when that conscience agrees with ours. Thus many Protestants, and Mormons, would regard Martin Luther as heroic for sticking to his conscience, while Catholics long regarded him as a monk who lacked humility. Joan of Arc was another who many regard as standing up bravely for her conscience, but she was condemned by authorities as a witch, deceived by the devil. Or the founding fathers were major dissenters to the British, but most Americans give them more laudatory names. Itâ€™s a common habit, when we donâ€™t agree with someone elseâ€™s conscience, to try to turn the issue into something elseâ€”usually a lack of humility, or too much pride, or satanic deception. But to truly value conscience in the abstract seems to require more, in my view, than merely protecting the like-minded.
There are many reasons to value conscience more broadly, but it seems like the most fundamental is the notion that the .01% (or whatever) that makes us unique and causes us to feel and think things that perhaps no one else quite does may turn out to be rightâ€”for us at least, perhaps for others as well. Plenty of ideas now regarded as great truths came through people who in their time were once labeled â€œdissenters.â€ This doesnâ€™t mean that someoneâ€™s conscience is always right, personally or broadly, or that truth comes only through dissentingâ€”simply that conscience perhaps ought to be treated carefully in all discussions, on all sides. Do we believe that? If so, how do we show it, including in the current debate?