In an article published by Deseret News, Ralph Hancock, Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University, examined whether one can be both a faithful, practicing, Latter-day Saint and politically liberal. He concludes that while it’s possible liberalism inherently leads one away from principles espoused by the church. I’d like to follow Hancock’s pattern and see if conservative values are congruent with LDS church membership.
Being both of those things, a faithful Mormon and a card carrying liberal Democrat, it seemed like a fun exercise to turn the tables and examine the congruency between being a Mormon and a conservative.
As Hancock points out in his article, empirically the answer to this question is obvious: of course an individual can be a Mormon and a Conservative. But a deeper look into the basic tenets of conservatism ought to yield a more conceptual answer.
The Capitalist Mentality
One of the most debated topics on Capitol Hill is the ramification of allowing a “survival of the fittest” economic model to play out. The left argues that a distribution of wealth is only fair, as it is unnecessary for such a small percentage of the populace to hold such a great deal of the country’s wealth — especially when a number of individuals don’t have enough to meet the basic necessities of life.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have not been silent on this issue. In an 1875 declaration written under the pen of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles we are taught,
One of the great evils with which our own country is menaced at the present time is the wonderful growth of wealth in the hands of a comparatively few individuals. The very liberties for which our fathers contended so steadfastly and courageously, and which they bequeathed to us as a priceless legacy, are endangered by the monstrous power which this accumulation of wealth gives to a few individuals and a few powerful corporations.
It seems that this declaration paints conservatives into a tight corner with regard to their economic policy; at the very least there needs to be some sort of bridge to gap the principles of capital economics and wealth distribution. The First Presidency goes on in the same document to issue a warning,
If this evil should not be checked, and measures not be taken to prevent the continued enormous growth of riches among the class already rich, and the painful increase of destitution and want among the poor, the nation is liable to be overtaken by disaster; for, according to history, such a tendency among nations once powerful was the sure precursor of ruin.
Of course it would be unfair to assume that just because one espouses capitalism they’re falling into the category of people the First Presidency is warning against, but one must be aware what the prophets have said and the implications of acting contrary to their counsel — no matter which political party one associates with.
It’s no secret that the right and the left have drastically different views of how welfare programs ought to operate. Generally speaking the left wants to help the poor and expand welfare programs in order to assist the needy, while the right wants to reign in spending by cutting programs and pushing citizens toward complete self-reliance.
So what is the church’s stance, and what is taught in the scriptures? The Church’s official Handbook of Administration #1 outlines the purposes of church welfare as follows, “The purposes of Church welfare are to help members become self-reliant, to care for the poor and needy, and to give service.” (Handbook 1 Ch. 5 introduction)
It seems that the church’s stance is somewhere in the middle of what the left and right aim to do. So what is the church’s stance on using government assistance? Further, Handbook #1 in the same chapter advises,
Members may choose to use resources in the community, including government resources, to help meet their basic needs. The bishop and members of the ward council should become familiar with these non-church resources. Such resources may include:
- Hospitals, physicians, and other sources of medical care.
- Job training and placement services.
- Help for people with disabilities.
- Professional counselors or social workers.
- Addiction treatment services. (Handbook 1: 5.2.4)
Further, in speaking of medical assistance the handbook directs, “The bishop also determines whether family members are able to assist and whether the member is fully using insurance, government assistance, and other available benefits.” (Handbook 1: 5.2.4)
These instances certainly don’t mean that the church endorses every element of governmental welfare, but it shows that the church recognizes its place—even in the LDS community. Furthermore, it’s made explicit in the scriptures that Christ both desired individuals to do all they could to provide for themselves and for others to care for the poor and needy without qualification.
This seems to tell us that espousing one particular political party’s stance is problematic; rather we ought to promote self-reliance while doing all we can to assuage the suffering. I mean, the hymn does say, “I shall divide my gifts from thee with every brother that I see who had the need of help from me.” (Hymn #219 Because I have Been Given Much)
At least today the left is synonymous with progress. Conversely, the right is typically seen as attempting to keep things as they are or bring things back to what they once were (e.g. same-sex marriage, abortion, recreational marijuana, etc.). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a living church—a church that continues to progress. In 1978 when the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles revealed to the world that the ban barring blacks from holding the priesthood was lifted it forced a new paradigm on the church. At this same time there existed, in the church, a small number of individuals who had trouble “getting on-board” with the church’s new found stance.
With progression not being an emphasis in the minds of conservatives, it makes it all the more difficult for them to receive drastic paradigm shifts that inherently exist within the church. One should note that being a conservative or liberal doesn’t necessarily affect the way an individual receives changes within the church, but bringing a mindset of conservatism to the religious table will require certain changes in psychology to accept progressive measures.
At the conclusion of his article, Hancock determines, “So there is no question that one can be a Mormon…[A}nd a liberal and a democrat. But it is still a good question whether it is worth the trouble, given what liberalism has become.” It would be worthwhile to point out that both sides of the political spectrum come into conflict on certain points with Church policy. But it’s prudent to mention that simply because an individual, liberal or conservative, aligns with a particular party it does not require him or her to espouse each principle or position taken by that respective group.
There are many individuals that align themselves with a particular party, but break with party principles on certain issues. For instance, there are many liberal members of the church that do not support abortion or same-sex marriage. And there are many conservative members who believe that Medicaid ought to be expanded and that same-sex marriage ought to be legal. Aligning one way or another does not lock an individual into a precise prescription of how to vote.
Perhaps the most recognized difference between conservatives and liberals is their respective stance with regard to social issues. Within this category are the topics of same-sex marriage and abortion.
Same-sex marriage and abortion seem to be the dividing line within the church. An individual may know that many democrats support both of these rights and that’s the end of the discussion, but a further glimpse into the “why” of these issues ought to garner greater understanding.
Same Sex Marriage
It’s no secret that the church has been very open and active in their opposition to same-sex marriage legislation. Most notably their 2008 efforts to pass California’s Proposition 8, which attempted to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
But this is not a religious issue; rather it’s an issue of jurisprudence. The first section of the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution states,
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.
Moreover, in 1974 the United States Supreme Court in Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur reaffirmed that, “This court has long recognized that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the fourteenth amendment.”
These two examples, and there are countless more, illustrate the legal parameters that exist with regard to same-sex marriage. Liberals would say it’s important to remember that while the church has certain standards it is unfair to project those standards into the realm of policy and law—especially when existing laws explicitly forbid it. This separation of church and state is one of the founding principles of the United States.
Much like Hancock’s conclusion about liberals, of course an individual can be a conservative Mormon. And they would find good company in the church, whose membership is predominantly conservative. But it seems that there just might exist certain issues that must be addressed in order for one to fully follow Christ and hold conservative values.