Why I am a liberal Mormon part two

Why I am a liberal Mormon Part two

In part one of this post I began by talking about the values Mormons place on the acquisition of knowledge and why that is fundamentally a liberal value for me. I will now continue by talking about how this relates to my commitment to free speech and my decision to intern at FIRE ( Foundation For Individual Rights In Education) a group that defends and advocates for student speech of all sorts including deeply unpopular views and beliefs.

Of course, I might as well begin this post with the most obvious objections to my position. Firstly, the LDS church has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with free speech and expression rights. I will talk about the positive aspects later, but I might as well begin by talking about the violations. Firstly, Joseph Smith was arrested for the destruction of a critical local press, which ultimately resulted in the jailing that culminated in his murder 1. Secondly, the Salt Lake City council a few years back attempted an outrageous and disturbing policy of banning any form of free speech on formerly public city space. 2. Thirdly, church owned Brigham Young University does have a history of being unfavorable to critical academic freedom and the church has even gone so far as to excommunicate members that have voiced critical comments even on such controversial issues as proposition eight 3.

This, there is a lot of ground to be critical of past actions on free speech grounds and yet, when one looks at the fundamental scriptures of the church or other actions of the early church one sees scripture that fully recognizes the need for robust speech and for a society that allows for unpopular opinion ( in this regard the church was actually often more progressive than comparable 19th century norms)

Freedom of religious expression was radically defended in the society chronicled in The Book of Mormon

Alma Chapter 30

7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.
8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.
9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.
10 But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished.
11 For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.

Notice explicitly that non belief or doubt in god is protected! This was a pretty radical position even in the most recent Bush administration.

Modern day revelation is no different

D&C 134 states

2 We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.
3 We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign.
4 We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.

7 We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.

9 We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.
10 We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.

Thus, the church views the right of members to express their religious views to be invaluable and fundamental.

Thus, the church views the right to excommunicate and deal with disobedience on the part of its members to be a free speech matter, which gives it the right as a private institution to deal with member conduct. This is a position I tend to agree with on a constitutional and legal basis.

Many other states and territories at the time of Joseph Smith had laws that featured legal discrimination against Muslims and Jews and yet according to prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman

“But by the time he got to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith saw the city as more open. One of the first ordinances passed by the Nauvoo council was a toleration act specifying that all faiths were welcome in the city and listing a number of them: Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Jews and “Mohammedans,” as Muslims were called. There was probably not a Mohammedan within a thousand miles, but it was a gesture of openness to every religion4.
Nauvoo, then, was to be a diverse city, indicating that Joseph Smith’s civic idealism went beyond his own people to envision a much more cosmopolitan society. Nauvoo didn’t develop that way; it came to an end too soon, but that is what he projected.”

Thus, Joseph Smith

I will not go into any long detail in this post regarding the church’s history with polygamy and its legal challenges to laws banning the institution which culminated in ultimate legal failure in the decision of Reynolds v. United States5, except to point out that this is a position that is now held by the ACLU and other fairly liberal/libertarian bodies6. The church thus advanced an uncompromising stance of religious expression rights from its inception.

In More recent days, Elder M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve Apostles gave a masterful talk on the values of free speech and expression in the growth of the spiritual kingdom

“Major religions proclaim the existence of a Creator-God-whose power and will are superior to any human construct, including the laws of man. Adherents of faith groups can feel secure in their right to follow divine direction only if a nation’s laws allow freedom of religious expression. Those same laws also protect the rights of others to believe, or not to believe, as they choose.
Some nations may acknowledge these rights only to obtain accreditation in world organizations, which demand such laws as a condition of membership. Others of nobler purpose extend these rights out of concern for their citizens who are believers, or out of respect for God, from whom these rights are derived.
Fundamental religious rights include: the right to believe or disbelieve; the right to worship, either alone or with others; the right to assemble for religious purposes; the right to own or occupy property for the purpose of worship; the right to perform religious ceremonies; the right to possess and distribute religious media; and the right to establish rules for fellowship in a religious society.4”

In the same talk, Elder Nelson makes a strong statement for absolute religious neutrality in regard to government.

“Therefore, care must be exercised to assure that government remains truly neutral in matters of religion, not only in lip-service and constitutional guarantees, but also in impartial application of the law.14 Individuals and institutions are naturally inclined to seek preference over others, but the state must not yield to those inclinations. To discriminate in favor of one religion, using non-religious labels such as “culture” or “history,” is to discriminate against others. If the state allows dominance of any one religious institution over another, discrimination results, allowing unequal treatment and regrettable restriction of other religious societies.5”

Elder Nelson also draws the corollary to the right of religious control over membership which is equally vital.

“Religious freedom allows the right of individual followers of a faith to exit from that faith.6”

This idea is deeply rooted in the LDS conception of a theo-democracy in which members sustain each other through common consent and in which each individual member is encouraged to confirm the church’s truth for his or her self.

Most importantly, Nelson talks about inter-religious tolerence, ever so vital and precarious a topic

“Every religious group, while perhaps a majority somewhere, is also inevitably a minority somewhere else. Thus, religious organizations should and do show tolerance toward members of other religious denominations.7”

As a church, we therefore have a huge tradition of supporting religious freedom, we hold as our foundational cornerstone a scripture which shows a society that ideally contains no laws proscribing religious freedom or lack of belief, and Joseph Smith advanced a society in which non-members could live freely among members. The church history is not free of warts, but on the whole shows a remarkable intellectual and ideological compatibility with the first amendment.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nauvoo_Expositor
2 http://www.rickross.com/reference/mormon/mormon91.html
3 http://www.abc4.com/mostpopular/story/Man-faces-possible-excommunication-from-LDS/6Cvu_py9FEOIv-LmCuK8pA.cspx; or http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/article_a2ab9b4a-efea-5e24-8da9-4807a6de6ea7.html or http://www.lds-mormon.com/sepsix.shtml
4 http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=148
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_v._United_States
6 http://www.acluutah.org/bigamystatute.htm
7 http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/45645/Elder-Russell-M-Nelson-Freedom-to-Do-and-to-Be.html
8 Ibid
9 Ibid
10 Ibid


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