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.