Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Things Change

Reach Upwards has links to an interesting discussion titled "Mormonism and Democratic Politics: Are They Compatible?." The article centers on the strange transformation of the LDS Church from the "most radical" of all groups to the "most Republican" of all groups. The primary speaker at the event is a Richard Bushman who appears to hope that the LDS returns to its radical roots to become a force for "social progress."

There are many groups such as Mormons for Social Equality and Justice that wonder why the modern Mormon church abandonned its socialistic past for its Republican present, and hope to see the group flip flop back into the arms of radicalism.

The early LDS Church was utopian. They established communes. They denied property rights. The group even had a mini sexual revolution in the form of polygamy. Fundamental polygamist cults still cling to these progressive goals. The adherents in the cults have little or no property. Everything is owned by the group. In matters of health care, the members only receive the care the collective grants (this is the ideal of universal care). Even sex is harnessed for the advancement of the collective. Although the polygamists hold to myths of eternal families, in practice one finds that wives and children get re-assigned according to the vagueries of collective politics. Young girls get assigned to old men as a reward for group loyalty.

The only real difference between the various Mormon polygamist cults and modern progressivism is that the cults want to raise the religion to a state, while modern progressive want to raise the state to a religion.

Mormonism v. Classical Liberalism

Bushman tells us the story of how Smith gradually began embracing the classical liberalism of the Republican party. Basically, ss Smith's utopian ventures fell apart and his list of enemies grew, he routinely found protection in the rights granted by the Constitution.

For that matter, a central theme of the Mormon experience is that the Constitution of the United States has protected the right of individual Mormons to think and speak as they will, and it has protected the right of the group to exist.

Mormons today are both extremely patriotic and are among the staunchest supporters of "The Constitution."

Unfortunately, Joseph Smith added a nasty twist to the Mormon view of the Constitution. Smith took the stance that the Constitution was revealed by God. It was revealed by God specifically to protect God's prophet and the new church that would come into existence in the Latter Days.

This notion that the Constitution is a holy document revealed by God is completely at odds with the classical liberal tradition of the Republicans that the Consitution as part of a thought process.

This fundamental difference that cuts to the heart of the Rule of Law. In the classical liberal tradition, the Constitution is the product of a thought process. In order to interpret the Constitution, you need to replicate the thought process.

The view that the Constitution is a product of revelation means that the Constitution must be interpreted through revelation. The idea that Constitution must be seen through revelation leads to the situation where the seer, relevator and prophet can make the Constitution mean whatever he wants.

NOTE, the Mormon view of the Consititution is really not that different from the modern progressive view. The modern view is that the Constitution is a living document. The Constitution is just pile of words whose meanings ebb and flow with political tides. The modern progressive view that the Constitution is a living document leaves the interpretation of the document in the hands of the cultural elite who (linquists, etc.), who change the meanings of words.

The Mormon view that the Constitution is a product of revelation leads to some very strange things. For example, the last session of the Utah legislature saw a Mormon thinker arguing that the 14th Amendment was Unconstitutional. My guess is that he came about this bizarre conclusion because the Amendement was not part of the original revelation. The Classical Liberal tradition would hold that the thought process of the Amending process trumps that of the founders, and would hold that the 14th Amendment is Constitutional.

IMHO, the views that the Constitution is a product of revelation or that the Constitution is a leading document lead to the negative situation where the empowered elite redefine our rights to fit their designs.

In the case of Mormonism, it appears that Smith thought that the protections of the Constitution only applied to him. While Smith found shelter in the protection of speech, he burnt the presses of his exmormon critics.


I strayed from Bushman's article. Bushman concentrated more on the issue of inclusiveness. His theme, after all, is that Mormon thought is a better fit for the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. The ideal of inclusion is fundamental to Democratic thinking.

Bushman notes that the ideal of inclusiveness was built into the Navou Charter. He also notes that Mormonism has gradually become more inclusive with time. For example, we notice that the Mormon Church extended the priesthood to blacks barely a decade after the civil rights movement.

This question of inclusiveness is really central to modern progressive thought. Early utopians such as Sidney Rigdon thought that the social uptopia would come with people splitting off from the corrupt mainstream society, and forming communes. The people living in communes would achieve perfection. The rest would rot or be smited.

Unfortunately, the communes kept falling apart. The obvious reason wss that outside corruptions infiltrated the commune. For the communes to thrive, they had to be exclusive. Everyone in the commune must be part of the collective. The people of the collective should not associate with those outside the collective, lest association lead to corruption.

Bushman's presentation on Mormonism starts with Navou. To get the full picture, I think you need to start with the earlier communes.

IMHO, the Navou experiment is in stark contrast with the devastating failure of the Missouri venture.

It appears that, in the Missouri experiment, Mormons were actively trying to create an area that was exclusively Mormon. This led to a great deal of friction with others pursuing the American Dream of pioneering the frontier. The final collapse of the Missouri experiment came with Sidney Rigdon declaring an extermination war against exmormons and gentiles in the area. The Governor of Missouri responded to the Extermination War with the infamous Extermination Order.

Joseph Smith was not part of the Missouri debacle. I suspect that is was clear to the settlers of the day that the exclusiveness of the Missouri experiment led to the extermination politics that punctuated the failure of the venture.

I applaud the founders of Navou for adding inclusiveness to the Navou charter. Exclusiveness of earlier ventures led to mistrust and eventually to extermination politics.

The question in my mind, however, is if inclusiveness is a primary tenet of Mormonism, or if it is a side issue pushed upon Mormonism by realty.

Bushman suggests that inclusiveness is a fundamental tenet of Mormonism. The history of the LDS Church seems to indicate that it is not. While the Navou Charter made reference to inclusiveness, there seems to have been a great deal of friction between the Mormons, exmormons and gentiles in and near Navou. This friction led to Smith's assassination by an unknown assailant.

It seems to me that the venture in Deseret had the LDS Church waffling between exclusiveness and inclusiveness. The experiment of Deseret saw the slaughtering of a wagon train of gentiles. Brigham Youngs followers came close to an all out war with the US army when they entered the region.

Today, we see that Mormon fundamentalists are often quite exclusive. In some polygamist groups, you see a great deal of intermarriage as they try to keep it within the group.

For these reasons, I would disagree with Bushman's assessment that inclusiveness is a primary tenet of Mormonism. I think it is something that was forced upon Mormons.

Times they are a changin'

The Bushman presentation at the Pew Charitable Trust is interesting in that it shows how a group gradually evolved into its opposite. Early Mormonism was socialistic. The modern Mormon Church seems to have embraced much of the classical liberal viewpoint. It has embraced the free market, it defends the Constitution, etc.. Both Brigham Young and Joseph Smith were progressive to their core. They would be horrified to find out that the progressive institution that they founded is considered as the most Conservative and the most Republican of outfits.

In this same period of time, we saw "liberal" transform referencing someone who supported small government to someone who supported big government.

Between the Republican Contract with America and the Bush administration, we saw the Republicans transform froma party favoring small government to favoring big government with a socially conservative fixation.

Bushman's article is a great read as it shows the way that things change. My comments are tangental to Bushman as I am less interested in the details of change, but in the process of change.

Should change take place through the process of reason, as is held by the classical liberal tradition that led to the creation of the Constitution? Should it take place through the redefinition of terms and material dialectics held by modern progressives, or should it be something more akin to the process of "revelation" as advocated by Joseph Smith?

We are in a day when people are extremely dissatisfied with the politics. IMHO, the question we are really facing isn't simply the details of change but the process of change.

IMHO, the process of revelation creates a world that thrashes from extremes as demonstrated by the Mormon Church becoming the opposite of its utopia foundings. The material dialectics held by Modern Progressives also has a history of thrashing between extremes. I believe that the process of reason that was developed in the Classical Liberal tradition of the Constitution is really the best path forward.


Scott Hinrichs said...

Kevin, this is a great post. It's often good for Mormons to see how others view them and their religion. I appreciate the fact that you are not writing an overt anti-Mormon diatribe, but are trying to make sense of the development of Mormon culture and how it relates to modern politics.

I would suggest that most Mormons view the establishment of the Constitution differently than you contend. I believe that most Mormons (and this is even included in official publications) see it more like people involved in the framing of the Constitution receiving bits of inspiration that guided their thought processes and perhaps helped people say certain things at certain times during the debate to help shape the Constitution. Mormons don't view the document as a revelation.

Perhaps I am hung up on semantics here, but for Mormons there is a huge difference between inspiration and revelation. The former is a natural process that occurs with everyone while the latter is more direct instruction from God. Inspiration merely provides guidance and can occur almost subliminally in every aspect of one's life. People are free to act upon these thoughts as they wish. Revelations are the divine expression of God's will to a person, and are thought to be infallible.

The Constitution is clearly not an infallible document. Consider, for example, its provisions for slavery. Yet Mormons believe that the Constitution came about almost miraculously and through many inspired thoughts put into the Founders' minds throughout their lives. This same process of inspiration can certainly be at work today when people consider interpreting or amending the Constitution. This doesn't preclude arriving at a conclusion through a thought process. Mormons merely believe that inspiration can, and sometimes does, help guide that process.

I can understand why you disagree with Bushman's suggestion that inclusiveness is a central tenet of Mormonism. However, Bushman was only able to address this briefly in the Pew discussion. If you read Bushman's book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, I think you will find that Bushman's though is actually much closer to your view than you suppose. A significant point is that Mormon tenets change, and Mormons believe that is the way it is supposed to work. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of having a living prophet? Thus, Mormons have no problem with inclusiveness being a central tenet of Mormonism today, although, it was not that way initially.

It is also important to understand that during the Nauvoo era, Mormons were inundated with immigrants from diverse backgrounds, due to their missionary efforts. By the end of the Nauvoo era, three-fifths of all Mormons in the U.S. were recent immigrants. This was a significant factor in the shift to inclusiveness. It was also a factor in the communities established by Brigham Young. He essentially created a new culture that subordinated all of the various cultures (and many of the inter-cultural frictions) these immigrants came from.

You criticize Joseph Smith as violating the Constitution's provisions for freedom of the press. Dallin H. Oaks (a former Utah Supreme Court Justice) made an extensive study of this issue and found that the provisions of freedom of the press that we accept today had not yet solidified in U.S. legal interpretations and implementation of law. In fact, the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press was expressly permitted under Illinois state law at the time, and that law had previously been found to be constitutional. It's easy to judge historical figures by our modern interpretation of matters, but that does not always reflect the reality of their situations as they existed at the time.

I commend you for the good and thoughtful points you discuss in this post.

y-intercept said...

My experience is that the LDS view of revelation runs the gamut from those holding that the world we see is an illusion to a more learned view of revelation as an enlightened reason. I have spoken with Mormons who thought that the answer to the evolution riddle was that there is a factory on Kolob that evolves planets. Adam (aka, The Heavenly Father) got this planet 3000 years ago. They know this through revelation.

I know others who believe that Mormonism was made up, but think the process of enlightened revelation through a political hierarchy puts a needed reality check on pure reason.

BTW, I always feel that my posts on Mormonism are quite anti-Mormon. Of course, that is one of the things I don't like about the way Utah is structured. Us gentiles often find ourselves forced into corners where we are pro or anti-Mormon.