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Can a Mormon be a Conservative?

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.

Welfare

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:

  1. Hospitals, physicians, and other sources of medical care.
  2. Job training and placement services.
  3. Help for people with disabilities.
  4. Professional counselors or social workers.
  5. 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)

Progression

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.

Party Lines

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.

Social Issues

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.

Conclusion

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.

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Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Nevada State Personnel Watch.

  2. Oh my goodness! I really enjoyed this post and am debating whether I should print it out or not. It’s incredibly well thought out and insightful. Thank you!

  3. Clark Goble says:

    One problem in all this is of course neither conservatism nor liberalism are univocal totalizing labels. There’s a lot of variety on each side. Rather than talking about the label one should perhaps go deeper and ask what within liberalism or conservative movements are problematic. And there are of course problematic aspects on each side.

  4. Clark Goble says:

    Just to add, I think you err when you create an opposition between any redistribution and the right. Of course the very idea of a negative income tax is associated with Milton Friedman. While not all (or even most) conservatives like the idea it’s still very much discussed among conservative thinkers. Usually engaging with the very good criticisms from others on the right. (Issues such as effectiveness, fraud and so forth) Conservative thinkers even seriously consider conservative arguments for a guaranteed basic income. So this is why I speak of paying close attention to the variety of views and discourse on each side.

    Regarding progression, I think most conservatives (both politically and theologically) are completely open to significant changes within the Church. I think most are uncomfortably with pushing too hard for them or presuming controversial changes with drastic theological implications are coming soon.

  5. What happened to the abortion discussion? The church’s position, as laid out in the Handbook of Instructions, is pro-choice. There are many qualifiers, yes, but this is still a pro-choice position, allowing for abortions in four specific cases.

    From the publicly-available Handbook 2:

    “The Lord commanded, “Thou shalt not … kill, nor do anything like unto it” (D&C 59:6). The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Members must not submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion. The only possible exceptions are when:
    1. Pregnancy resulted from forcible rape or incest.
    2. A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.
    3. A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
    Even these exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons responsible have consulted with their bishops and received divine confirmation through prayer.

    Church members who submit to, perform, arrange for, pay for, consent to, or encourage an abortion may be subject to Church discipline.

    As far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.”

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