Sunday, December 14, 2008

Is Abortion Murder?

As I was reviewing some of my older posts I noticed that someone had made an additional comment on my post about abortion. Dan commented on the question of abortion being equivalent to murder. As he also pointed out that was not the point of that post. The point of that post was to show that the argument of the pro-life movement (that abortion should be illegal) is not required in order to be in harmony the current position of the LDS church. There are many reasons why someone could believe that abortion should be illegal; equating it with murder is only one. And as I will to show below it is not a very good one.

Is abortion murder?

This is one of the standard arguments used by the far right in their attempts to eliminate access to abortion. It is an almost purely emotional argument, one that sounds good as a bumper sticker or a sound bite and one that collapses under any level of careful scrutiny. And it is one that, for members of the church, skirts perilously close to false doctrine. In an issue such as this it is vital that we not be lead astray by emotional, but indefensible, arguments.

Mormonism provides us with two main arguments against equating murder and abortion.

If we are to equate abortion with murder we need to first understand what murder is. For the purpose of this discussion we can call it the willful destruction of innocent human life. Mormon doctrine (see D&C 88:15 and Moses 3:7) defines the soul as the union of the physical body and the spirit. Implicitly, death is the permanent separation of the body and the spirit. Therefore, for abortion to be murder it must cause the permanent separation of the spirit from the body.

The Mormon doctrine of the pre-existence is a belief that every person who has ever lived, or will ever live, lived before they were born (or conceived) in “heaven” with God as the father of our spirits. This doctrine, relatively unique in Christian theology, implies that life does not begin at conception and that a vital part of what makes a person a unique individual is not involved with the physical container, or body, at all. Therefore, unlike fundamentalist Christian theology, the moment of conception is not the moment of the creation of human life. Human life begins when the spirit and the body are connected into a soul, the destruction of which would constitute murder.

While I personally have heard anecdotal evidence that would suggest that this does not occur until sometime after conception, the only way (according to Mormon doctrine) that we could know when a body and a spirit unite to become a soul would be by revelation to a prophet and president of the church. The existence of biological indicators such as a functioning heart or rudimentary brain waves cannot be taken as definite indicators that a spirit and body have been permanently united. They only imply that the physical vessel that the spirit will inhabit is beginning its biological functions.

As far as I can determine (and if anyone can find any additional information I would be grateful) Brigham Young made one of the only statements regarding when the spirit and body are united, and then only in passing (others have also referred to this statement):

The disposition, the will, the spirit, when it comes from heaven and enters the tabernacle, is as pure as an angel. The spirit from the eternal worlds enters the tabernacle at the time of what is termed quickening, [the time that the mother can begin to feel the movement of the fetus or about the start of the second trimester] and forgets all it formerly knew.
(Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 26 vols. [London: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1854-1886], 6:333)

This by itself is certainly not definitive, but it points out that to assume that life begins at conception is to venture beyond revealed doctrine.

The second argument against equating abortion with murder comes from the church’s statement on abortion, reproduced here on 12/13/08:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.

The Church allows for possible exceptions for its members when:

• Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or

• A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or

• A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.

The Church teaches its members that even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct.

The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.

[I’m indebted to Ronald Dworkin for the structure of the following arguments. While he considers the question of abortion as murder from a constitutional perspective, the form of the arguments are at least as compelling when applied to the above statement by the Church.]

The essential problem with equating abortion with murder and the position of the church on abortion is one of integrity. If we are to consider that abortion is murder then we must treat it as such with all that this implies. The best way too clearly see the results of treating abortion as murder is to replace the term abortion with the idea of a mother killing her newborn, which is indisputably murder. The idea being that if abortion is murder then it should be treated the same way the murder of an infant would be. Below are the results of taking the abortion as murder argument and applying it to the Church’s statement. It will quickly become clear that such an argument cannot stand.

The Church allows that an abortion may be preformed when the “Pregnancy results from rape or incest.” The idea that you could kill a day old infant because her conception was the result of her mother’s rape is truly horrifying, yet if we equate abortion with murder that is what this statement would mean.
The Church allows for an abortion if “A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy.” If we equate abortion with murder then we are saying that the Church allows for the murder of an innocent to save the life of another. Applying this concept with integrity would be the equivalent of allowing a mother to kill her child to harvest his organs if that was what was required to save her life. Again a horrifying idea.
The third exception is when “A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.” Can we image that the Church would countenance killing a child merely because she is terminally ill and her life will end in a few months anyway? Of course not.
The Church states that these exceptions should only be used after revelation, from God to the mother. If we accept that abortion is murder then we are saying that a woman can receive revelation from God to murder her children.

Not only is it clear that the Church does not consider abortion the equivalent of murder, but to declare it as such is to accuse the Church of approving murder.

I believe that the reason that people are drawn to the idea of equating abortion with murder is because it is a clear, shocking, and simple statement on the value of a fetus. Such a position values a fetus as the equivalent of a newborn child. And unfortunately the pro-choice movement has done to little in their arguments to address the value of a fetus; this void has left the fundamentalists with the only statement of value that is easily understood, and gives them the standing to imply that to not value a fetus as equivalent to a newborn is to not value it at all. Such an argument is both absurd, and contrary to the stated position of the Church. I believe that we can still value even the potential for life incredibly highly without the need to equate its destruction with murder.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Yes, Yes, I know

To the three of you who read my blog, yes I know I haven’t posted in a while, sorry. I’m sure you’ve all been running to the computer every ten minutes for the last three months just to check and see if I posted. I had another entry ready to go, but my wife suggested that I tone down the sarcasm and submit it to the Ensign. Who knows maybe they’ll even publish it. If I don’t hear from them eventually I’ll publish it here.

Thanks for your comments to my last post. I’ve got that book you recommend on my list of things to read, thanks for the suggestion!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Other Price of Freedom

First, to quickly get a monkey off my back, environmentalism is not contrary to Mormon doctrine. In fact, it is most definitely in harmony with the gospel teachings about respect, responsibly, and stewardship. But that’s enough of responding to comments made in Sunday School.

The issue today is the cost of freedom. We honor those who have fought and died for our freedom, and indeed it is their sacrifice that has made our freedoms possible. Those who willingly risked their lives in the defense of worthy causes deserve our honor, respect, and gratitude; they have made the ultimate down payment for our liberty. Unfortunately, there are many now who are unwilling to honor that sacrifice by keeping up on the installments. Freedom once bought always comes with a continuing price. That price is the misuse of freedom. This leads many to call for the restriction, or even rejection of freedom.

Let us take our freedom of speech as an example. Our freedom of speech is a constitutionally guaranteed right of self expression. It allows me to express my ideas and others to express theirs. Thus society allows us, as individuals, to judge these differing ideas based on their merits. This system shows a profound trust in us as individual moral agents. We are trusted that we will hear and examine ideas critically and reject those that we find unfit. This responsibility is an individual one; no power is given to the government to intervene to censor ideas that it finds dangerous or abhorrent; each of us must decide for ourselves what it is that we approve or disapprove of and then take upon ourselves the job of controlling our consumption.

The down payment for freedom of speech was made with the blood of our fathers in the revolution, but there are further costs to society that must be paid. For example expressions of racism, sexism, bigotry, and pornography are all misuses of freedom of speech. They do significant damage to our society. That damage is the other price of freedom. There are some who are unwilling to pay this price, who claim that the cost is too high the damage too great, that we use the power of the government to silence these types of expression. However, that we find a particular message abhorrent cannot be used to justify censorship. To quote Ronald Dworkin in his book Freedom’s Law: The Moral Reading of the American Constitution, (italics mine) “…We must not endorse the principle that opinion may be banned when those in power are persuaded that it is false and that some group would be deeply and understandably wounded by its publication…Every blasphemy law, every book-burning, every witch hunt of the right or left, has been defended on the same ground: that it protects fundamental values from desecration. Beware principles you can trust only in the hands of people who think as you do.” He goes on to say”…I know that decent people are impatient with abstract principles when they see hoodlums with pseudo-swastikas pretending that the most monumental, cold-blooded genocide ever was the invention of its victims. The hoodlums remind us of what we often forget: the high, sometimes nearly unbearable, cost of freedom. But freedom is important enough even for sacrifices that really hurt. People who love it should give no hostage to its enemies…even in the face of the violent provocations design[ed] to tempt us.”
Does all of this mean that we should do nothing in the face evils, such as racism? Of course not. Our constitution doesn’t just protect the right of others to teach hatred. We to have a responsibility to make our voice heard to show bigotry, sexism, racism and other degrading speech for what they are. In fact, the best defense against the creeping darkness of ignorance is the dissemination of the light of truth.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Confirm Thy Soul

America the Beautiful. It’s one of the few American patriotic hymns in the Mormon Hymn book. And it’s one of my favorite; every time I sing the line “confirm thy soul in self-control; thy liberty in law” I can’t help but wonder “what does the religious right think about those words?”

A clearer or more succinct summary of liberalism has never been written. It is not the role of government to dictate to its citizens any particular moral/religious philosophy (no matter how loudly the holders of any particular philosophy claim that theirs is superior to all others.) The law should be used to create a landscape of liberty, where every individual can use their freedom to the maximum extent possible (i.e. everyone should be permitted to do anything they want as long as it doesn’t impact someone else’s freedom to do what they want.) Moral control should be (and I would argue can only be) self-control. It is only when an individual has the freedom to not follow a moral code, but uses their freedom to follow a moral code that they are being moral. In other words, I’m only moral when I have the freedom to be immoral, but exercise my freedom not to be. When so called moral behavior is required by law, individuals lose their freedom to be truly moral. Not to mention it is only by allowing others to live by their own moral codes that we can expect them to let us live by ours.

From abortion to homosexuality, it seems like the conservative approach to all of the so called “moral” issues is to take their idea of what is moral and then use the force of law to require everyone else to live their lives in accordance with it. Not exactly confirming your soul with self-control, now is it?

And what about confirming your liberty in law? The Bush administration’s willingness to circumvent the constitution system of check and balances, ignore our freedoms from unreasonable search and seizure, deny habeas corpus, and disregard restraints on cruel and unusual punishment show that even constitutional guarantees can be imperiled when the public is willing to trade their birthright of liberty for the potage of security. It seems to me that the conservatives have it backwards – trying to confirm the soul with law, and leaving liberty to the tenuous self-control of those in power.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Politics from the Pulpit

It’s the fourth of July so its time once again for the “Lets show how patriotic we are by damning liberals” talks in sacrament meeting (actually in my ward today we had a special patriotic themed 3rd hour, it wasn’t any where near as bad as talks/lessons that I’ve heard in the past, the first talk was totally fine it just focused on the history of the constitution.) On a more general note is not uncommon for me to hear members of the church equate patriotism, or even righteousness with conservatism or Republican ideals. It is unfortunate that some Mormons are either so unaware of what Democrats and liberals believe, or so befuddled by the right wing echo chamber that they are unable to distinguish between church doctrine and the political world view espoused by the conservative movement. Let me use examples from actual talks I have heard over the pulpit.

The speakers spoke of the evil of people who expected the government to do everything for them, of the danger of political correctness and the peril of an open mind (“Your brain might fall out.” Yes, that a fairly exact rendition). They sound like quotes from some conservative radio talk show host. While I believe that the speakers (many of whom I have a great deal of respect for) are genuinely expressing what they believe to be true, what they manage to show is that their understanding of the issues is one sided and derived from biased sources. These accusations are fairly typical of the things that conservatives accuse the liberals of, and typical of the way in which some (not many, but some) conservative Church members try and out-flank the requirements of the Church to not engage in political promotion when acting in an official Church capacity (such as teaching, speaking, etc.) Let’s look at each of them.

1) Liberals believe that we should turn our power, money, and will over to the government who will then feed, cloth and house us— alleviating the need for us to work for ourselves, and we are entitled to have the government provide for us. Or, in a related argument, liberals believe that the government should do things for us, rather than being self reliant.

I tried to debunk the false idea of self reliance in my last post so refer to that for issues relating to self reliance specifically.

The root of these arguments, I believe, are totally different conceptions of what our government is and the role it should play in society. The conservative view (as near as I can figure it out) is that the government is an outside force that exercises power over us. We may be able to influence it or direct it, but fundamentally it is an entity distinct from society, and as such it should be limited, and not come in and “do things” for people that they ought to be doing themselves, nor should it be spending the people’s money when they can figure out how to spend it themselves. If this is your view of government, of course the idea of a state-run housing project would be an unacceptable use of government power; people, when they can, should take care of themselves without outside assistance.

What, unfortunately, seems not to be understood by conservatives is that this is not how liberals see the government. Liberals see the government as a part of society not distinct from it. The actions that the government takes are our actions, it is the means by which the entire adult population is able to come together and say, “What do we, as a nation, want to work together to accomplish? What can we accomplish by working together that we could not when working as individuals?” In other words because the government is us, we use it as a tool to accomplish goals that we have all agreed on as important, such a providing health care, or housing, or whatever else we believe we can accomplish more easily by working together. We are not asking some outside entity to provide something to us that we are unwilling to work for; we are mobilizing the community to work together to meet our common needs.

2) Liberals and Democrats are presented as not being willing to call evil evil, or using political correctness to cloak evil in a veil to somehow make it more respectable or acceptable to society, and thus further our desire to cover the world with the evil of. . . whatever liberal position the speaker happens to disagree with.

The fact of the matter is political correctness is of course now terribly politically incorrect, both liberals and conservatives accuse each other of being politically correct whenever they think the other side is using terms that lessen offensive labeling that’s been assigned to the topic or person in question (ie in calling torture enhanced interrogation I would consider Republicans trying to be politically correct so as to make an evil more palatable). Political correctness emerged from an understanding that everyone is different and has differing values and that everyone, even those we disagree with, ought to be treated with respect. This purpose, of course, has quickly fallen away in the caustic atmosphere of present day politics. To often the mockery or denunciation of political correctness is only a justification for rudeness, used to cover ignorance of the issues, or a refusal to engage in a real discussion of them. In short the use of neutral language helps focus the discussion on the issues at hand rather than on the irrational or emotional arguments.

3) Liberals are often accused of being open-minded (open-mindedness being defined by the conservative accusator as “being without morals, willing to accept everything as equally desirable or acceptable”).

The danger of an open mind is one that seems to be especially fearful to conservatives. The most common argument against open-mindedness being that those who are open-minded accept anything that is presented to them, and don’t evaluate it in any way. In other words, an open mind is equated with an empty mind. It doesn’t take much more than the clear statement of that definition to see the ridiculousness of it, or the silliness of applying such a definition to liberals. Take for example the liberal distrust of big business; clearly we are not blindly accepting in that instance. True open-mindedness is not the blind acceptance of everything. It is a willingness to evaluate new ideas and people biased on their merits, rather then on tradition, custom, stereotypes, or other ways of pre-judging. To be open-minded isn’t to be empty-headed, it is to be humble and acknowledge that one’s own understanding is limited and that, with the addition of new information, old ways and ideas may need to be reexamined, and tradition or traditional ways of doing things may need to be replaced by new ways. The importance of tradition and its place in society is one of the defining characteristics of conservatism, and the lower priority given to tradition by liberals and progressives is one of the ways the movements differ.

In conclusion, it is not so much that these specific issues were raised that bothers me. It is the ignorance that they reveal about what liberals believe, the way in which the language of the political right is used in gospel discussion, and the way the ideology of the right is miss-presented as gospel doctrine that concerns me. We need to acknowledge the extent to which our views of the world (including gospel teachings) are informed by our political views. And if we are going to respect the church’s politically neutral stance we can’t use the pulpit for de facto political posturing.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Self Reliance Myth

Okay, so it’s been a while since my last post. My blog hasn’t gone less-active. I’ve had some troubles at work that have taken all of my mental willpower (such as it is), so my weekends have revolved around empting my head as much as possible, rather than any sort of deep thinking.


One of the greatest ironies of the so called Christian Right has to be the adoption by some Christians of the callous attitudes of the right wing towards the poor. Caring for the poor is one of the fundamental responsibilities of the followers of Christ (Matt 25:34-46), and the idea that the behavior of the poor (ie their “refusal” to work) somehow relieves the rest of us of our responsibility to extend our hand to them is specifically condemned in the Book of Mormon (Mosiah 4:17-18.) The idea that poverty is a personal failing is a tool that the “haves” use to justify their unwillingness to help the “have nots”. After all, if it’s their own fault they’re in the mess they’re in then I don’t have to do anything to help get them out. Can you image going before the Judgment Seat knowing full well the sins you have committed, knowing that you cannot pay for them yourself and having Christ say “You got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out of it” (Matt 7:2)? Wasn’t that the whole point of the atonement? For Christ to help us out of our self-created messes?

If you sat though some of the Sunday School lessons that I have you could easily be forgiven for thinking that self reliance is both the penultimate achievement of any individual, and that every person born is instantly fully capable of complete self reliance. Thus anyone not fully self reliant from the get-go is clearly somehow less worthy or undeserving; that not being totally self reliant is a grievous sin. Both of these ideas are false. Self reliance is a necessary prerequisite for the service of others, not a final condition; if we are not strong enough to carry our own burdens we can’t carry any of the burdens of others. Nor is everyone equally capable in all things – can the mentally slow child of a drug addicted 14-year-old single mother really be expected to pick themselves up by their own boots straps on the day they turn 18? Does that person, turning 18, atomically learn that hard work will bring rewards and knocking off liquor stores won’t, especially when all they’ve ever seen their entire life is people sitting around complaining, committing petty crimes and going in and out of jail? Who would teach a child like that how to work, or even that work has rewards?

The fact of the matter is that none of us is truly self reliant in the sense of not being dependant on others. How many people do you know that grow all of their own food, make all of their own clothes from cotton they picked and sheep they raised, who drive cars they built from ore they mined on roads they paved, who, when they’re sick, perform open heart surgery on themselves? Our society is one of specialization and we are better for it. I can trade my skill as a carpenter for money which I then trade with you for your skill as a surgeon. This means that my self reliance takes on another form. Self reliance in a modern society is the capacity to contribute to that society in a way that can be traded for the necessities of life.

If I become “successful” in this society it is easy to claim that I am self made. That my successes are as the result of my own hard work, and if others work hard like me they will be successful too. Such an attitude takes for granted all of the hard work by others that goes into making an individual successful. Things such as good schooling, a stable home life, proper nutrition, health and access to good healthcare, being taught the value of delayed gratification, student loans, and safe neighborhoods, are all multipliers of individual handwork. Neglect, abuse, indifference, racism, bigotry, sexism, and ignorance all work to camouflage the tools required for success in a society such as ours. Responsibly and hard work are skills, and their use requires practice and a belief that eventually they will bring reward. Practice and belief are not inherited, or in-born, they are learned and thus require a teacher.

As a society and as individuals we have a responsibility clearly laid out to those who do not yet contribute to society in a meaningful way. Each of us should contribute to society to the maximum amount possible, regardless of what anyone else is doing. It is clearly frustrating when you feel like you are contributing more than your fair share, or that others are living off of your hard work. Clearly those in need of assistance have a responsibly to do what they know how to do to mitigate their condition. However, one individual’s neglect of their responsibilities is no excuse for neglecting our own.

As a society we have the responsibility to be our brother’s keeper. We can provide good education in safe schools for children and access to educational opportunities for adults. We can work to understand the complex causes of poverty and crime (I’ll give you a hint: saying, “It’s just because they’re lazy” doesn’t cut it). We can promote positive role-models. We can help strengthen families by providing social programs that encourage rather than discourage stable parenting partnerships. We can provide subsidized daycare so a single mother doesn’t have to work a second job to pay for daycare while she works the first. We can provide access to high quality health care for free so jobs are not lost due to illness. We can provide surrogate parents for children whose own parents are physically, mentally or emotionally absent. We can communicate to others that they are valuable and capable. All of these things require society to work together help those who struggle.

As individuals we also have responsibilities. First we need to be sure that we can carry our own burdens. But if we stop there we have only achieved selfish indulgence. We can reach out to others, not judge, and work to uplift. We can educate ourselves on the struggles of others and learn to view the world though their eyes. We can be more patient, and more helpful. We can understand how to put our own unique skill set at the service of others. We can reach out beyond our class, race, and religious comfort zones. We cannot blame the victim for their victimization, or the poor for their poverty. We cannot give into despair or cynicism. We cannot wait for others to act. If there is a problem in the world, and poverty is assuredly a problem, our response should be, “What can I do?” and not “What should they do?”

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

On Wealth (part one, take one)

Okay, so when my wife proof read this she said it was almost incomprehensible. Clearly I need to clarify both my ideas and the presentation. I thought I would post it anyway, because the point of this blog is to be a place for me to refine my ideas. Let me know what you think.


If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d call it a conspiracy. If I were a cynic I’d call it a lie. As I’m neither we’ll have to call it one of the greatest delusions/illusions of the American Dream. It seems to be believed by most of middle class America. The further up or down the ladder you go the fewer there are who believe it (though for very different reasons.) The delusion: that it is possible to become wealthy through hard work and/or ingenuity. Mormons are especially susceptible; given the theological history they share with the Protestant movement and its adjunct, the Protestant work ethic, combined with the narrative of the Book of Mormon, which can be understood as tying the economic success of a nation to the righteousness of its people.

First we will deal with the delusion itself, then some of the consequences of that delusion.

“Wealth is the result of hard work.” That statement without a doubt is true. It is the similar sounding “If a person is wealthy it is as the result of their hard work.” that is false. With very few exceptions (sports and movie stars, ironically) can anyone become wealth purely by being paid for what they, themselves, do.

There are several paths to wealth in our country: you can inherit it, you can start or personally own a business, or you can become wealthy as a result of investments (basically be a part-owner.) While some of these paths require hard work by the person who becomes wealthy (for example running and owning a business), they all require hard work by someone other than the person who becomes wealthy.

In the case of inheritance this should be easy to see; children typical have nothing to do in the creation of wealth by their parents.

How does a business owner make her wealth on the work of others? Let’s use a small burger franchise as an example. For the business to be considered successful there needs to be a profit. Profit is money that is left over after all the bills have been paid (including payroll.) So let’s imagine that, in addition to owning the burger joint, Jill also manages it. She balances the books, chooses promotions, deals with market, orders supplies etc. For this amount of work she is paid, and rightfully so – that is hard work. Out front is Jim. Jim flips the burgers, sweeps the floor and serves the customers. Again, for this work, Jim is paid. At the end of the month Jill sits down and pays the bills: the bank for the loan, the suppliers, landscapers, etc. She pays out payroll for herself and Jim. Any money left over at this point is called profit. Whose work created that profit? Clearly both Jill and Jim, but who typically keeps the profit? Jill. In other words Jill is not becoming wealthy based on her work alone, she is get wealthy because of Jim’s work too; the more employees the greater the effect.

The stock market exaggerates this. Lets imagine that I was ready to retire today, and that I had gotten my first paycheck 46 years ago (at the age of 19 in 1962), and I took that money and with it bought one share of stock in GE for $75 (check out Yahoo Finance for historical stock prices. Here the finance can get a little trickier for those that don’t understand stocks. To compare historical stock prices with today’s you need to account for splits. Basically, if the stock has been split and you owned one share worth $75 you would then own 2 shares worth $37.50 – or so the theory goes. GE’s stock has split multiple times since 1962. So in order to compare today’s prices with that $75 you need to use what is called the adjusted price, which accounts for the splits. The adjusted price for one share of GE stock on the 2nd of January 1962 was $0.20.) So my original investment increased 166.65 times (not percent) from $75 to $12,498.75. In other words I “made” $12,423.75, but I did nothing. I didn’t work, let alone work hard. If we leave aside market fluctuations induced by speculation (something it is reasonable to do given the long time frame) what gave me this increase in value was the fact that GE became a more valuable company. This is due to hard work, the hard work of the employees of GE. (Or, for the cynics, the laying off of those employees.)

In both of the above cases what is making an individual wealthy is, in part or in full, the hard work of someone other than themselves, and this only measures the hard work of individuals directly associated with the wealth. There is also a lot of other hard work that goes into the creation of this wealth: the work of the teachers at the public schools who educated the employees, the work of the police forces that help protect the property, the physical infrastructure of the nation that allows for the transportation of goods and energy, the system of laws and government that has created an environment stable enough for long term investment, environmental regulations require that natural resources be managed in such away so as to be continuously available from generation to generation, social safety nets that give people the freedom to take risks without the fear that if they fail their families will stave to death, bankruptcy laws that allow people to recover from mistakes and go on to make meaningful contributions to society rather than eternally crushing them with debt. In other words no one ever gets wealthy from their hard work alone.

So if we are able to free ourselves from the delusion that our own hard work has made us wealthy what does that mean? First of all it means that with wealth come responsibilities, such as duty to acknowledge the role of others in the wealth creation process, to facilitate that process for others, to create wealth in a way that is mutually enriching for everyone involved rather than exploitive, and to use the wealth in a way that benefits the society as a whole (see for example see the requirements in the Book of Mormon in Jacob 2:18-19.) Second, it means that the insidious corollary of the delusion, “If wealth is the result of hard work then poverty is the result of a lack of hard work” is false. This sort of logic is often used by conservatives to justify lack of support for social welfare programs (I’ve heard conservatives say that those on welfare are there simply because they are unwilling to work, as if jobs and the skills to work in them appear magically to everyone by virtue of being alive.) After all, if poverty as a result of personal failure (or “sin”) then it is easier to see some how foist off the idea that the poor deserve their poverty. The Book of Mormon debunks even this type of reasoning (see Mosiah 4:16-18) Third, this also debunks what I call the Self Reliance Myth, which is the belief that it is desirable or even possible to achieve success on the basis of one’s own labors. Each of these points will be the topic for upcoming essays.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Constitution and the Sermon on the Mount

It had been my plan to write this week on social responsibility. I had some great analogies, too, but after I read this article in the New York Times I decided that I needed to address another issue.

For those that won’t take the time to read the article let me summarize. As we are all aware, in Pres. Bush’s attempts at waging a “war on terror” (can you think of a more ironic term?) numerous prisoners have been taken. The trouble is, once you’ve taken prisoners, what do you do with them? The Bush administration has tried numerous approaches: rendition, Guantanamo Bay, etc. The linked article talks about another approach, similar to rendition: turning prisoners over to the government of Afghanistan, knowing full well that they will get a trial so bad that it wouldn’t pass muster in most third world counties. Many countries (including Great Britain) are refusing to prosecute these prisoners because of lack of evidence. In Afghanistan, these men are being sentenced to more than 20yrs in prison in trials lasting less than an hour (some as short as 10 minutes), with no witnesses (for the prosecution or defense), no chance to prepare or even present a defense and the only evidence is the accusations by the Americans that they are bad men. To call this a farce of justice would be an insult to farces. This is the kind of thing we were raised hearing was done by the communists of the Soviet Union, and that one of the reasons that we were better than them was because we had a justice system that required, among other things, a right to a fair trial.

This is just one more evidence of the Bush administration’s successful attempts to do an end run around the Constitution. Add this to the cynical attempts to redefine torture in such a way that actions (i.e. waterboarding) that the United States has prosecuted as war crimes and torture since the Spanish American War are suddenly not torture any more, thus letting Pres. Bush say, “the United States doesn’t torture,” and not technically be lying. Or the practice of extraordinary rendition, where a person is kidnapped off the streets and shipped with no trial to a country known to practice torture, who is then asked to “assist” in getting information from them. Or the claimed authority to declare a U.S. citizen an enemy combatant and thus refuse them access to the courts to challenge his detainment. Or the fiasco of Guantanamo Bay, holding people for years with out any way for them to contest their detention, and choosing Guantanamo precisely so they could claim that it is beyond the reach of the U.S. courts.

What is the Constitution? Is it a mere set of rules and regulations that we attempt to squirm around, squeezing through every little loophole we can find? Is it a list of highly specific and unrelated rights written by men a long time ago who couldn’t possibly have imagined the problems we face today, and thus at best is only applicable in the exact ways we imagine that they imagined? Or worse, is it simply irrelevant altogether – a quant anachronism from a kinder, simpler, time? When we find it inconvenient do we look for ways to avoid its requirements, simply taking the action it forbids in places beyond its reach?

Or is it a statement of our highest ideas of government, our aspirations, our hopes and dreams, our goals? Is it a coherent document where every part reinforces and informs every other? Should we spend our time looking for ways to live and express the ideals embodied in it in every action that we take, whether or not those actions are explicitly addressed? Should we be finding ways to understand its abstract principles and apply them to new problems? Is it an expression of values or only a short list of restriction on governmental authority, to be gotten around whenever we find them inconvenient?

In what is still one of the most radical sermons ever preached, the Sermon on the Mount, Christ taught “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) If we want to know how to treat prisoners that are captured we should first look to this scripture, and ask how would we want to be treated. Attempts to give a rational answer to this question, when confronted with the immediate prospect of having to follow though with the answer could skew our judgment. Fortunately, we don’t need to make calls like that under that kind of pressure. As a society we have taken the time to answer questions such as, “If I were accused of a crime how would I want to be treated?” It was the answer to this question that lead to many of the provisions of the Constitution (see for example the 5th and 6th amendments.) We have a justice system in-place based on a thoughtful and rational attempt to answer this question; the Military Code of Uniform Conduct is another such statement of values, as is the Geneva Convention. Should we be spending our time trying to wiggle out of these, or looking for ways to uphold them?

We cannot defend our Constitution by looking for ways to avoid its requirements, even if they are technically legal. When we participate, encourage, or are complicit in sham trials such as those used in Afghanistan we declare to the world that we do not believe in what the Constitution stands for. We cannot say “well that’s just the way they do it there,” especially when the people in question were held by the United States, are being prosecuted solely on the basis of U.S. acquisitions, were only turned over to Afghanistan because the evidence was too weak for even the military tribunals at Guantanamo, and are being prosecuted at our request. Like it or not you can’t be ethical, moral, just, or fair on a technicality. Remember the scripture “if you seek, you will find?” If we are looking for ways to avoid the obligations that the constitution places on us (such as is being done by the Bush administration) we will find them. But if we are looking for ways to uphold our principles we can find those too. It is a matter of what we choose to look for. Will we look for ways to do our duty, and show the commitment to justice, integrity, fairness, and human decency that the constitution demands of us, or will we look for ways to avoid that duty, to do whatever we feel we need to? Where should our focus be?

Sunday, March 30, 2008


Can a Mormon belong to an organization that supports abortion rights? Are Mormons required to be Pro-Life? Is it possible for a Mormon to hold to the teachings of the Church and be Pro-Choice? All of these are different ways of asking the same question. I think the abortion issue is one of the biggest problems members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have with the Democratic Party. Isaiah teaches us to beware of those that call evil good and good evil. One of the ways that this happens is for us to take simple problems and make them complex, another is to take complex problems and over simplify them. Abortion is a very complex problem, and there is no simple solution. If you ever hear anyone say (regardless of which side of the issue they are on) that they have an easy answer— run away, fast. For this entry I will not give my personal opinion on abortion, partly because it is not fully formed yet, and partly because that’s not really the point. Today I mostly want to answer the question “Are Mormons required by their beliefs and/or church to be “Pro-Life?”

First I think it is important to clearly define what it means to be Pro-Life. In order to be Pro-Life you must hold all of the following opinions:

1) The decision about whether or not to have an abortion is a moral question.
2) Society has a large enough interest in the outcome of that decision to warrant a role in the decision making process.
3) It is proper for society to act though its senates or legislators to influence the outcome of that decision in favor of not having an abortion.
4) The final decision about whether a woman should have an abortion should be made by the government, rather than the woman herself.
5) The best way for the government to enforce that decision is to deny women legal access to abortion, and punish those who find a way to circumvent that denial of access.

Next we need to look at what the Church has said about abortion. Abortion is one of the very few political questions that the Church and its leaders have directly addressed. Because the leadership of the Church is made up of various individuals who may or may not have spoken about this topic over a number of years, and because even the views of a single individual may be refined over time, rather than look at the words of any one individual for the Church’s position, we should look to the most recently published official position. This, I believe, represents the consensus view of the Church leadership, and communicates to the members of the Church their direction on this issue. The following is a direct and complete quote from the Church’s web site quoted on 3/30/08, and can be found here:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes in the sanctity of human life. Therefore, the Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience, and counsels its members not to submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for such abortions.
The Church allows for possible exceptions for its members when:
• Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or
• A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or
• A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth.
The Church teaches its members that even these rare exceptions do not justify abortion automatically. Abortion is a most serious matter and should be considered only after the persons involved have consulted with their local church leaders and feel through personal prayer that their decision is correct.
The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.

Let’s compare this statement to the five opinions needed to be considered Pro-Life:

1) The decision about whether or not to have an abortion is a moral question.

Yes, the church clearly and forcefully proclaims that the decision whether or not to have an abortion is a moral decision.

2) Society has a large enough interest in the outcome of that decision to warrant a role in the decision making process.

The existence of a published opinion on abortion is a statement that the Church believes in the very least that it has a role to play in that decision making process. And by counseling its members “not…to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange” abortions I believe that it can be convincingly argued that the Church leadership holds that larger society also has a role, although the closing statement clearly places limits as to the types of involvement the Church is willing to support.

3) It is proper for society to act though its senates or legislators to influence the outcome of that decision in favor of not having an abortion.

Here is where the argument that the church requires its members to be Pro-Life breaks down. The closing sentence reads: “The Church has not favored or opposed legislative proposals or public demonstrations concerning abortion.” In other words the Church had the opportunity to call for legislative action on this issue and specifically rejected that opportunity.

4) The final decision about whether a woman should have an abortion should be made by the government, rather than the woman herself.

5) The best way for the government to enforce that decision is to deny women legal access to abortion, and punish those who find a way to circumvent that denial of access.

Again the Church leadership clearly made the conscious choice not to call for government action. In another entry I think it will be worth looking at the place that moral agency holds in Mormon theology and how that relates to the abortion question.

While it is clear that the Church strongly disapproves of abortion – in most cases – it is also clear that Church leaders had the opportunity to address the fundamental argument of the Pro-Life movement (namely that abortion should be prevented by force of law) and clearly decided to remain neutral on that issue. Again, let me be clear, the Church is not neutral on the morality of abortion, only on the legality.
So does the Church require that its members be Pro-Life? No. Can members of the Church be Pro-Choice? Yes, at least if their position is a position about who should be making the decision, and not about the morality of the abortion itself. Can a Church member be part of an organization that supports a women’s right to determine for herself whether or not she will follow the Church’s teachings? Absolutely.

A response to comments

Thanks for the question about WW II, zacarrie. Based on the criteria I wrote about last time, was US involvement in WWII justifiable? The short answer is yes. However, we need to acknowledge the United State’s role in contributing to a situation where war could develop. As with any historical situation, it is impossible to speculate what might have been, but responsibility needs to be taken for the brutal terms forced on Germany at the end of WWI, and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, caused in-part by the US senate’s refusal to ratify its terms. Both of these contributed to an environment that allowed someone like Hitler come to power. As for the situation with Japan, there were other opportunities to avert war; prior to the attack at Pearl Harbor there was an ongoing negotiation with the Japanese government, which was being put under enormous pressure by several hostile US policies. There is evidence that FDR had worked out an agreement to be presented to the Japanese, which may have met some of their concerns. This was never presented, for reasons that are lost to us now.

Avoiding these missteps may or may not have averted war, we will never know. However, it is important to understand the way that WWII unfolded to see if our participation was merited. Points to consider:

1- The United States did not start the war. In both theaters the axis forces resorted to violence first. In other words, had the enemy not acted, had they not launched the ships, or put the tanks into action, there would have been no war.
2- The axis forces were actively attempting to conquer their enemies, and to become the political rulers of the conquered lands against the will of the citizens of those lands.
3- The enemy actually had the power to make these invasions stick. For example, had England not responded with violence, there was clear and convincing evidence that they would have been placed under Hitler’s rule.
4- It is true that the US had not been invaded by Hitler; however its territories had been violently attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. In the European theater, allies of the United States had been invaded and were in danger of collapse. I believe that aiding other countries in defense from invasion can possibly be used as one of the justifications of war. But only if careful consideration is given to the other conditions mentioned before, and it can’t stand alone as a sole justification.

A simple check for me is to boil it down to relationships with individuals. If I see someone in the act of trying to kill someone else, and the only way to prevent that murder is to kill the attacker, am I justified? I would argue yes. If you try and boil the justification for the Iraq war down in this way it would go something like this: The guy down the street has punched me in the nose and says he wants to kill me, and the guy across the street hates me. I know they hate each other, but they live on the same side of the street, so I’m going to kick down the door of the guy across the street and kill him before he gets any ideas. In our justice system I would rightly be charged with murder.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


The topic for today is war; specifically, where should the teachings and doctrine of Mormonism lead us when trying to understand the current situation in Iraq. And how can they inform a response to the call for action some on the right (such as Vice-President Cheney) are advocating towards Iran.

What does Mormonism teach about war? The book Mormon Doctrine, ironically, is not actually an official publication of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint, despite having been written by Bruce R. McConkie, later called to be in Quorum of Twelve Apostles for the church (the twelve apostles is the second highest governing body in the church. The first edition of the book was published in 1958; Elder McConkie was called to his office in 1972.) Nonetheless it does provide a good summary of Mormon thought on a wide variety of subjects. So it makes sense to start an investigation of war with the words of this esteemed church leader (the italics are mine):

War is probably the most satanic and evil state of affairs that can or does exist on earth. It is organized and systematic murder, with rapine, robbery, sex immorality and every other evil as a natural attendant. War is of the devil; it is born of lust. (James 4:1)…

…Words are incapable of expressing the human depravity that has accompanied war in every age, but the era of time known as the last days [i.e. the current era] is the one in which the most extensive and wicked of all wars have been and will be fought…

…all wars are in their nature evil…

…Self-defense is as justifiable where war is concerned as where one man seeks to take the life of another… Righteous men are entitled, expected, and obligated to defend themselves; they must engage in battle when there is no other way to preserve their rights and freedoms and to protect their families, homes, [and] land…

It is evident from the above quotation that war is a great evil, one that can only be justified in the most extreme of circumstances. As Elder McConkie puts it “…when there is no other way to preserve their rights and freedoms and to protect their families, homes, [and] land…” If we are going to justify entering into “…the most satanic and evil state of affairs that can exist…” we should only do so with the utmost of caution, and skepticism; and only after thoughtful debate and deliberation to ensure that appropriate objective criteria are met.

It has been suggested by some that we turn to the Book of Mormon for guidance on what these appropriate criteria are. After all, many chapters of the Book of Mormon are about war. What does it have to say about when a war may be justifiable? The first evidence is negative evidence; never in the whole of the Book of Mormon can there be found a single instance of any group, who is identified as righteous, launching a war or invading enemy territory even when they had clear and compelling evidence that they where about to be attacked. For example, Alma 47 and 48: in these chapters servants of the enemy defect, bringing word of a political change; the old king has been murdered and has been replaced by a man who has promised to use his power to wage war. Even in these circumstances, no pre-emptive strike is launched; no sorties are sent into enemy lands. The country is mobilized and defenses are prepared but no attack is launched upon the enemy until an actual invasion is underway. And at no time does the battle ever shift to the point that enemy lands are attacked, let alone invaded or conquered.

According to the Book of Mormon there are several conditions, all of which must be met, to justify war:

1- Life and land and rights must be threatened by an enemy that wishes to take them away by forcible subjection (Alma 43:9-10, 43:46-47.)

2- The enemy must actually have the power to follow through on their threat to deprive the conquered of their rights, land, and life. (Alma 43:14, Alma 48:4)

3- War should be in defense against invaders. In a part of The Book of Mormon, later than that discussed above, the people are under threat, not from another nation, but from a secret band of robbers, very analogues to the situation that the United Stated finds itself in with the terrorists. The people were demanding that they go out into the wilderness and take the fight to the enemy. The response is instructive: “The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands; therefore we will prepare ourselves in the center of our lands, and we will gather all our armies together, and will wait till they shall come against us; therefore as the Lord liveth, if we do this he will deliver them into our hands.” (3 Nephi 3:21 see also vs. 20 italics mine)

David O. McKay, head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from 1951-1970, in his 1967 book entitled Secrets of a Happy Life, discussed conditions that could be used to justify war. He said the following (italics mine):

[A condition for war] is not a real or fancied insult given by one nation to another. When this occurs proper reparation may be made by mutual understanding, apology, or by arbitration.

Neither is there justifiable cause found in a desire or even a need for territorial expansion. The taking of territory implies the subjugation of the weak by the strong.

Nor is war justified in an attempt to enforce a new order of government, or even to impel others to a particular form of worship, however better the government or eternally true the principles of the enforced religion may be.

In short, Mormon theology teaches that war should never be waged, except as an extreme last resort, after all other possible remedies have been thoroughly exhausted, and only then against an enemy in the act of invasion. War may be thrust upon us, but we should never seek it out, never make the fist attack, never consider it as a tool by which to achieve policy objectives, and never enter into it hastily or when motivated by fear, anger, or a desire for revenge. The Iraq war was preemptive, launched in fear, backed by inadequate intelligence and based on a flawed ideology, clearly not justifiable. But that is a topic for another day.

A response to comments

Thanks for your comments everyone! I’m actually quite flattered that anyone would take the time to read through these entries, let alone take the time to respond. I actually want to write at least one entry on government welfare, and the difference between safety nets and spider-webs, but that will be for another day. For now my response to the concerns about a welfare system will be limited to this: from the Book of Mormon – Mosiah 4:16-26, and Jacob 2 (up to vs 21, but especially 17-19), and from the Bible – James 2:14-17, and Romans 15:1-3.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

What is a liberal? (part 3-Fraternity)

In my first essay I laid out three central facets of liberalism – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. However, the term fraternity doesn’t quite cover the exact concept that I’m using it to represent. Perhaps, after reading this essay, someone can find an English word (or any other language for that matter) that works better; if you do, please let me know.

Fraternity is the idea that all of humanity belongs to one family, that what happens to any one individual impacts all of us. It is the genuine concern for the health, safety, and general well being of all people. It is a concept taught by every world religion (including Mormonism.) The only people in Western society that I’ve heard actively argue against it are regarded as extremist (neo-Nazis, etc.) It is a minimum requirement of Western civilization that lip service must be given to the ideas of inclusiveness and caring.

So if fraternity is so universal, why include it as a distinctively liberal trait?

Liberal and conservative thought each hold many of the same principles, but it is not only that someone says a particular concept is important that tells you how that concept will affect their actions; you have to understand how they value it relative to other concepts. For example many liberals value tradition, stability, and security, and many conservatives value fraternity – but which way do you go when tradition, stability, and security, can only be achieved by reduction of fraternity? How quick are we to devalue the humanity of others? In the interest of contrast let’s take some of the more extreme examples. If we as a nation had seen the people of Iraq as equally valuable and “worthy” of life would we have been as quick to invade on such scant intelligence? Would we have been able to shrug off the mounting civilian death toll for as long as we have if those civilians had been in Los Angeles rather than Baghdad? Do we feel as bad about the deaths of children the world over from preventable illnesses as we do about the deaths on 9/11? Which would be a greater benefit to the world, ridding it of terrorists (which kill typically kill by the dozen, hundreds if they get lucky, and very rarely managed to get into the thousands) or ridding it of malaria (which impacts 300-500 million and kills 1 million a year and can stunt the mental and physical growth of survivors)? The total cost of the Iraq war has been estimated as high as 2.7 Trillion dollars, and is currently costing 12 Billion a month; the cost of one full course of treatment for malaria – 50 cents. When we love our neighbors as ourselves we are committed to seeking the welfare of all people and to valuing their welfare as highly as our own. Love and concern for the well being of others should supersede just about every other consideration and always be paramount in governing our actions.

Without a doubt, concern for the welfare of others is (or should be) fundamental to Mormon theology. In fact, in the Book of Mormon, concern for the welfare of others is listed, among other things, as a prerequisite for baptism: “…as ye are desirous to come into the fold of God…and are willing to bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light; yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…what have you against being baptized?” (Mosiah 18:8-10) Indeed the Bible (which Mormons also hold to be scripture) teaches that the entire point of all the scripture can be summed up in the commandment to love (Romans 13:10, Galatians 5:14), and that followers of Christ should be identified by their love for others (John 13:34-35.) A command is even given to love your enemies (Matthew 5:44-47) and that that love is not some vague sort of abstract wish that your enemies will “see the light” and become as righteous a you are; it is actively working for their benefit (Matthew 5:40-41, 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Luke 10:27-37)
Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity together are the three main facets of liberalism. They are the highest ideals of a liberal society and inform an approach to the regulation of societal interaction that I believe is a required foundation for a free society. In my coming essays I will refer back to, and expound on each of these ideals frequently in an effort to show both the benefits they bring to society, and that it is not only possible to be a liberal and a Mormon, but that I believe that it is inevitable.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

What is a liberal? (part 2-equality)

Equality is, perhaps one of the most elusive qualities in modern thought. Almost all argue for it, or claim to be advancing its cause, but there seems to be very little agreement as to what equality actually means. In his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence, the historian Jacques Barzun argues: “In arithmetic equality is a simple idea; once grasped, never unsure. In society it is complex and elusive. Thinkers who argue from a state of nature find it easy to say that all are born free and equal; but that is only because in that imagined state there are no standards to measure people by and at birth no talents to compare.” He concludes his arguments a few paragraphs later:

There is but one conclusion: human beings are unmeasurable. It follows
that equality is a social assumption independent of fact. It is made for
the sake of civil peace, of approximating justice, and of bolstering
self-respect. It prevents servility, lessens arrogant oppression, and
reduces envy—just a little. Equality begins at home, where members of the
family enjoy the same privileges and guests receive equal hospitality without
taking a test or showing credentials. Business, government, and the
professions assume equality for identical reasons: all junior clerks, all second
lieutenants, earn so much. In other situation, as in sports and the
rearing of children, equivalence based on age, weight handicap, or other
standard, is computed so as to equalize chances. That is as far as the
principle can stretch.

It is obvious that not everyone is “equal” in their various talents. It would be absurd, for example, to wish that everyone in the country had a statistically equal chance at becoming president. What would our government be like if our president was chosen by lottery? We are all much better served by allowing those with the better ideas, talents, skills and popular support compete for the job. Clearly if equality is going to have meaning in society it is necessary to recast the broad-brush approach to equality.

If we are going to argue that equality is important to free society, then we need to address Mr. Barzun’s objection regarding a lack of standards. By what standard can we rationally say that equality has meaning for society? The answer, in fact, is found in Mr. Barzun’s initial objection. At birth everyone is the same, that is to say, in a free society no person should, by accident of birth, be disqualified from full membership and participation in society- thus all are equal. A unique feature of Mormon theology supports this idea– the refutation of original sin by the Mormon conception of the cleansing power of Jesus Christ. The impact of this is stated in the Book of Mormon (2 Nephi 2:26.) This extends to racial, gender, ethnic, and religious lines–“. . . he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God . . .” (2 Nephi 2:26 emphasis added)

To fully avoid Mr. Barzun’s more sweeping argument, we must speak specifically of political equality. Political equality is not an individual’s possession of the same amount of some trait when compared to others, but society’s lack of a trait, namely the assignation of value, position, or reward to individuals based on criterion other than merit (those arising from circumstances of birth or other uncontrollable events.) Therefore political equality is not a measurement where everyone measures the same against some standard. Equality is society’s lack of irrelevant standards imposed at birth. Conceiving of equality as lack of unmerited judgment is also reinforced by, and itself reinforces, the idea of individuals as moral agents. For example if we cannot use race as a measuring stick then we must use some other measurement; one that reflects on the merits of the situation for which measurement is required. If a black man is applying for a position as professor of law, it should be his law credentials that are under review, not his race. Merit can be developed, or not, by individuals exercising their moral agency. We cannot assume that some people, by virtue of birth, are more worthy to participate in public discourse than others.

To this point it seems as if liberals and most conservatives would have very little to disagree about, (there still is an unfortunate wing of the conservative movement that does indeed believe that race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or national original are significant justification for denial of full participation in society.) The disagreement seems to be one of what factors present at birth deserve consideration, and what consideration should be given. For example, does the principle of equality mean that the children of a billionaire and a welfare mom are inherently equal, and therefore no special advantage should be given to one or the other (is income irrelevant)? Or does it mean that the poverty of the mother should not deny the poor child an education equal in quality to that of the one born into wealth? In other words, should a brilliant poor child be denied the best education by accident of birth, while the spoiled rich child attends all the best schools? And what should the rest of society do about it? The liberal answer would be that the circumstances of the mother should not bear on the child’s furtherance, and that society has a responsibility, by virtue of its commitment to equality, to help the child overcome the disadvantages over which she had no control. Thus allowing her ideas and contributions to be judged against those of the billionaire child on merit alone, uninfluenced by factors extraneous to those ideas. It is liberals’ belief that equality is an aspiration, a goal that society is continually working toward, that distinguishes it from conservative views which hold that equality is an achieved fact, or an inherent characteristic of our society.

This will bring us to our third quality, fraternity.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

What is a liberal? (part 1)

If we are going to have a discussion on Mormonism and Liberalism, it is imperative that we first start with an understanding of what liberalism actually is. It has been my unfortunate experience that within the Mormon culture liberalism is vastly misunderstood. It seems to me that some even go so far as to make liberal and evil synonyms. I can only assume that such beliefs arise out of ignorance of liberal ideals and philosophies– reinforced in part by the superficial, syntactical resemblance of right wing ideologies, such as those preached by Pat Robertson and James Dobson, to Church teachings. To allow our opinions or understanding about any set of ideas, let alone ideas so fundamental to Western civilization as liberalism, to be formed by the avowed enemies of those ideas is as ridiculous as asking the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ to explain his teachings and mission. The result is ridiculous at best.

Asking “What is liberalism?” is a lot like asking “What is love?” Ask a thousand people and you will get a thousand different answers. So in trying to define liberalism, I’m not going to look for some large consensus view of what it means (even though the illiberalness of doing so would create an irony almost too delicious to pass up.) I will explain what Liberalism means to me.

The word liberal quite obviously shares a root with the word liberty. And it is the idea of liberty that is at the very core of what I call liberalism. Another central idea is, of course, equality. And the last idea is fraternity (being a liberal, I feel compelled to point out that this is fraternity in the gender-neutral sense of all belonging to a common family with a common purpose, and concern about the lives, happiness, and dreams of others.) These three ideas are clearly not mutually exclusive; they inform and enrich each other. They form a coherent whole such that if any one of them were lacking the rest would lose both their meaning and their power to form a rational ethical system.

Liberty is the idea that every individual is a complete moral agent, capable of forming moral values and acting in a moral way, and that each individual is therefore responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. This idea is taught with clarity in the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 2:26-27 “… [the children of men are] free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life…or to choose captivity and death…” The concept of the moral agency of individuals is a central teaching of Mormon theology. The creation story of Mormonism starts long before that of mainstream Christianity. It begins in heaven where two plans are proposed, one that would allow mankind to come to earth with moral agency, and one that would not. The plan for moral agency was championed by Jesus Christ, the other by Satan who “sought to destroy the agency of man.” (Moses 4:3) Indeed Mormon theology not only teaches that the constitution was inspirited (the 3/5 clause notwithstanding), but that it was inspired explicitly to allow individuals to act in accordance with their moral agency. In the Mormon scripture the Doctrine and Covenants it reads, “…the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to the futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” (D&C 101:77-78 emphasis added)

The implications of liberty are, of course, profound; especially the implications for government and other societal interactions. If we understand that it is the existence of moral agency that makes all ethical and moral behavior possible (2 Nephi 2:16, Moroni 7:6-8), we understand that it should be violated as little as possible. It is the role of the government to help ensure that everyone’s moral agency is respected (equality, from the list above) and the government should only intervene to limit the agency of its citizens in those instances where the agency of one individual violates the agency of another. A perfect example relates to laws prohibiting rape, in which one person’s agency regarding sexual behavior violates another person’s agency to control access to their person. A government should not allow the agency of the rapist to compromise the agency of the victim. However, in the case of mutually consensual sexual relationships, no one’s agency is being violated; each individual has the right to determine the value of their sexual activity for themselves. It would not be appropriate for society (even by rule of the majority) to compel compliance with a standard of sexual behavior that the individuals involved reject. It would be understandable for various religious followers to object at this point; after all, God has clearly declared that the value of sexual relations is such that they should only take place between men and women, legally married. However, whether or not God has forbidden some act is not relevant to the question of whether or not society should violate the agency of its participants in order to prevent them from acting contrary to His words. A society is justified in violating agency only to prevent a greater violation of agency. It is equally important to remember that just because society is not justified in restricting agency does not mean that the behavior itself is justified, moral, ethical, or in keeping within any sort of religious doctrine, it only means that the behavior does not violate anyone’s agency.


I’m starting this blog for three unrelated and completely selfish reasons; the first is to give me place to attempt to cohere my thoughts on the relationship between Mormon theology and Liberal philosophy. I’ve found that putting things into writing allows me to fully form and flesh out my ideas and beliefs and gives me a chance to see their weakness and flaws. The second is to show off my reasoning and open my thought to comments by anyone who stumbles across my postings. And the third is to stick it to all the ignoramuses and bigots who insist on confusing liberalism with the church of Satan.

I have no idea how often I’ll write. I fully expect my views and thoughts to change and mature as I do. I have no desire to be consistent, only coherent. Although I try to be accurate and fair, I am here giving fair warning that I make no claim to be unbiased. I find much of conservative thought rife with bigotry, racism, jingoism and other forms of intolerance, and I plan to attack those evils any way I can (without violating my commitment to honesty.) I also love to use hyperbole, because it helps to highlight contrasts that otherwise might be missed.

One of the struggles in any form of communication is attempting to get the ideas that are in one’s own head into the mind of another. As groups separate and become isolated from each other variations form in their languages, making communication difficult. The self-imposed isolation of Mormon culture has let Mormons drift away from contemporary society in the language and constructs typically used in examining questions of ethics and morality. The question in writing a blog such as this is do I use the Mormon language, or common American English? For ease of reading I will use American English, and then work to provide translations into Mormon when necessary for greater clarity. Occasionally the differences may become the subjects of essays in themselves (for example, sometime I would love to write an essay called “Pride is Not a Swear Word”, on the meaning of pride and the particularly silly way members of the church have misinterpreted Pres. Benson’s masterful sermon on the subject.) By the Mormon language I mean not only Mormon jargon, but particular mental constructs such as the idea of stewardship. Care must also be taken, because there are those whose language bears a superficial, syntactical resemblance to Church language. These wolves in sheep’s clothing have managed to fool many church members into thinking as they do. We should not be fooled into the belief that just because someone uses words with which we are familiar that they share our ideals. Nor should we fall for the erroneous idea that because the words that are used to express a thought are different from our words that the underlying ideas are incompatible with our own.

Liberalism is a broad set of philosophies, ideas, and life approach. It informs our values, and the moral frame through which we view the world, our place in it and the place of others. The purpose of this blog will be to explore these ideas and their relationship to Mormon theology.

(and yes, for all of you who read this, I am planning on addressing every religious conservative’s favorite topics: abortion and gay rights)