The Priesthood, Power, and the Rule of Law

In light of the sensationalist press coverage of Mormon fundamentalism, the LDS Church is eager to disassociate itself from more traditional forms of Mormonism.

Whatever the historical and theological relationship between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism may be, there is, of course, a big difference between the LDS and the FLDS churches: The LDS Church submits to the sovereignty of the American people.

That’s why mainstream Mormons do no longer practice polygamy, which allows LDS Mormons to participate in American social life and reap the benefits of the market economy.

Hobbled by the laws of a liberal democracy, the LDS Church is much more mellow and less abusive. By contrast, the FLDS Church models what Mormonism might be like if it had been left to its own devices: a community controlled by the whims of semi-educated men who isolate their followers and interfere in intimate family affairs.

Recognizing the difference in the daily lives of mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons, gives me a measure of appreciation of the federal government’s influence on our religion. The greatest presidents for Mormonism were not Joseph Smith and Brigham Young but Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The Republican party emerged to confront the “twin evils of barbarism” slavery and polygamy. Eliminating the cornerstone of female subjugation in Mormonism, Lincoln’s agenda would ultimately subjugate the Mormon prophet to the rule of law.

This web site shows that many members enjoyed a modicum of protection from priesthood abuse, Mormonism became more humane and the Mormon leadership became more effective.

Although LDS leaders like Heber Grant aggressively opposed the New Deal, the LDS Church would not have become an organization of such wealth had it not been for the resurrection of the middle class, which rested on the progressive income tax, public investment into infrastructure, and the right of employees to organize unions.

Thanks to Franklin Roosevelt, Mormons could afford to pay tithing during the fifties and sixties, which would finance the LDS Church’s consolidation and expansion. Reaganism, by contrast, characterizes an era where convert retention would collapse because we are now reduced to targeting primarily poor people for conversion. There is more to missionary work than American political economy but upward mobility, clearly, provides special opportunities for a missionary church.

Finally, had Roosevelt not united the American people to assert American power globally, Mormon outreach efforts abroad would have been much less privileged.

If one looks at the big picture, it becomes clear that Mormonism prospered to a large degree because the United States government imposed its blessings against the will of our leaders.

To appreciate the consequences, one only needs to compare LDS social life with that of our fundamentalist cousins.

Lord Acton’s response to papal claims of infallibility applies equally to Mormonism: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

While Mormon prophets have never invoked infallibility, they have expected and enforced compliance. More often than not, such campaigns have done more damage than benefit to Mormonism, on occasion at the expense of basic decency and humanity.

Thanks to Abraham Lincoln and his Republican heirs, the rule of law shields mainstream Mormonism from its worst self-destructive and abusive aspects.

The Brethren deserve credit for acknowledging the sovereignty of the American people, which bestows the benefits of the rule of law on Mormons. Most of the credit belongs, however, to the United States Constitution, which empowers secular government to spare us the worst implications of our theology.

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71 Responses

  1. Seth R. says:

    Yeah, well… I’ve been striking out a lot this week.

  2. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    speaking of ‘power’…
    I think ‘the brethern’ are faking ‘power’.

    I think they’re passing up a natural power of kindness & genuine sincerity they MIGHT have in favor of the bullying kind of power that say, the Dalai Lama has.
    btw, I saw him in Ann Arbor sunday instead of going to church…
    a Monk didn’t need his ticket to the presentation, so he GAVE it to me.
    Kindness is a hallmark of Buddhism much more than Mormonism….
    ‘just my opinion’

  3. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    oops I phrased that backwards, Didn’t I!
    Of Course the GAs have a sort of intimidation…whether they realize it or not…IOW, it’s apparent in varying degrees thru their personality/character… their personal style.
    Dalai Lama personifies Kindness, sincerity.
    GAs project authoritarianism, intimidation… Each to different types & amounts.
    BKP on one end of the spectrum, perhaps wirthlin on the other.
    Oaks actually makes me ill.

  4. Kullervo says:

    I’m not a religious studies scholar. I’m not claiming to be one. And you’re continuing to put words in my mouth.

    I realize that the social sciences are not the same as the physical sciences. I used the analogy because I think it’s hypocritical of the New Atheists to make fun of religious people for being oblivious to the physical sciences when the New Atheists are gleefully and hard-headedly ignorant of the social sciences.

    Furthermore, I haven’t said that Religious Studies doesn’t say some pretty negative things about religion. The academic discipline has a hostile relationship with Theology for a reason.

    But again, my questions are these: if Hitchens wants to talk about religion’s effects on society, why wouldn’t he want to see what people who have been studying exactly that have to say about it? And why are you hostile to the idea of doing research and seeing what the academics have to say about it? That is destructive anti-intellectualism and the kind of thinking that leads really bad places.

  5. Kullervo says:

    The New Atheists call religious people stupid for being willfully ignorant of the physical sciences, why shouldn’t I call you stupid for being willfully ignorant of the social sciences?

  6. Matt says:

    Kullervo, talk about putting words in mouth … did I call you stupid? No, your words. Foot meet mouth. Now I think the problem is that you’ve blown my defense of Hitchens all out of proportion, making it seem as if I’m choosing between his statement about religious poison and all the findings of religious studies, no, all the finding of social science. It’s a false dichotomy which you’ve constructed out of whole cloth as a trap. Very unfortunate indeed.

    I think it’s probably a good idea to let this, our second in an ongoing dispute over dear ol’ Hitch, go. How about it? Maybe you can post on the subject and we can return this thread to context.

  7. Kullervo says:

    No, you didn’t call me stupid. When will you get it through your head that I’m not religious. I don’t believe in God. Just because I think Hitchens is an idiot, doesn’t mean I’m a believer. That’s your implicit false dichotomy.

    I’m calling you stupid, for willfully dismissing research and academics. Again, I ask you, why do you seem to think that Hitchens shouldn’t actually know about what he’s talking about?

  8. Matt says:

    I’d like to end this inane discussion. Please stop.

  9. Kullervo says:

    Why won’t you answer the question?

  10. Matt says:

    Bullshit question with a bullshit premise. Over and out, buddy.

  11. Kullervo says:

    No way. It’s the essence of your argument, both times we’ve had this argument. I say Hitchens is probably full of BS because he ignores all of the research and academic work on the subject he’s holding forth on.

    You avoid answering it directly, but consistently imply that Hitchens should not have to “do the reading” to be able to be well-informed on a complex topic.

  12. Matt says:

    Earth to Kullervo … write a post and then I’ll comment on your accusations. I’m done here.

  13. Kullervo says:

    Anyway, I’m not trying to trap you or anything. If my question is flawed, you can always “answer the question I should have asked.” And keep in mind, I’m not coming from a pro-religion standpoint here. My position, and I think it’s backed up by a pretty unanimous weight of legitimate scholarship, is simply that religion’s impact on society and human beings is extraordinarily complex, and I question anyone’s ability to formulate it simply. That smacks of agenda-driven rhetoric rather than honest investigation.

    I am also honestly baffled at your defense of Hitchens. Why not say “well, he may be full of shit on some points, but he serves a useful purpose in riling up the fundamentalists and at least getting people to think about some issues that they don’t normally think about since regular people usually don’t read academic journals.” Or maybe you could say “The thing I like about Hitchens is that he’s not afraid to pick a fight with the fundamentalists. even if he’s wrong about a lot of things, he’s got guts that too many people don’t seem to have in our society.”

    Why not say something like that?

    Instead, you seem doggedly determined to defend Hitchens, and more troublesome, you seem to imply that he is better off not having “done the reading.”

    And again I want to stress that I’m not saying Hitchens should learn religious doctrine or church history. But that he should be well-versed in the academic work that critiques religion’s sociological, psychological, and cultural ramifications. Since that’s exactly what he’s pontificating about.

    From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re simply giving the man too much credit. In fact, since you’re essentially crediting him with speaking the unimpeachable truth about something that he’s largely ignorant about, your defense of Hitchens sounds eerily like a believer’s defense of the religious leader of their choice.

    And this is what you’re doing, because Hitchens’s assertions about religion and society could only possibly be discredited by research and observation. I’m not personally familiar with this body of scholarship (like I said, I’m not actually a Religious Studies scholar), other than to know that it has been done and continues to be done. But you’re saying that this body of research, observation, and scholarship is irrelevant.

    At least that’s what it sounds like you’re saying. Do you realize how insane that sounds? Do you see why it sounds like you’re ascribing a kind of inherent infallibility to the man, the kind that is usually reserved for religious leaders?

  14. Matt says:

    I’ll say one more thing and then I’m telling you, go write your own goddam post on the subject.

    You use the words “seems” and “imply” and “sounds like” and “it looks like” and “if, then” entirely too much. And this alone is why you’ve foundered on the rocks of seeing nothing but “insanity” and “stupidity” in your view of my position. Stop doing that would?

    The third time has got to be the frakking charm. Ciao.

  15. Kullervo says:

    Maybe you should try explaining your position without assuming I’m a fundamentalist nutjob or some kind of sneaky religious apologist in disguise.

    I’m giving you room to explain yourself, Matt. That’s what the “seems” are there for.

  16. Kullervo says:

    And “seems” lets me talk about what you’re saying without putting words in your mouth.

    Third time’s a charm? You keep coming back. I still don’t know why you don’t answer–or even address–the question. I’m not trying to trap you.

  17. Wayne says:


    Atheists and Hitchens? How did they get in here?

  18. Kullervo says:

    Well, it isn’t the first time.

  19. Guy Noir Private Eye says:

    (just from the sidelines) the way we interact with each other as ‘Humans’ (yeah, Right)…should be based & formed around Love, according to such as HH the Dalai Lama (just saw him in a.arbor)& Christ.
    Power/authority/intimidation come in a sorry LAST when compared to Love, IMHO.
    Priesthood (Penishood)is just a subset of authority.
    Unless it’s a cop with a badge & a gun pulling me over, I’m not much interested.

  20. Kullervo says:

    So you’re saying you only accept coercion when it’s backed up by violence?

  21. Wayne says:

    Kullervo, Because it can’t possibly be obvious; I made my comment with my tongue in my cheek.

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