Church ‘Doctrine’ and Judicial Activism

(This post represents my pre-mission thinking about when and how the words of general authorities can be viewed as scripture. My views have changed considerably in this regard so that I am much more ready to consider the words of general authorities to be binding especially if spoken over a general conference pulpit. I think this post still represents a very interesting look into how legal philosophy can be analogized into the realm of spirituality)

(For an official look into the question of what constitutes doctrine you can check out a talk entitled The Doctrine of Christ by Elder Christofferson

Who are the judicial activists and the originalists in the church today?

In my ward this past Sunday during Elder’s Quorum we got into a pretty interesting discussion on what constitutes doctrine. We discussed whether or not talks given in General Conference can be considered ‘ scripture’ and ‘doctrine.’ Many people suggested that every talk in the Ensign is inspired and that any word a leader issues in an official context is revelation. I of course took the more cautious stance that only things canonized by the church or released by the presidency on the whole can truly be considered ‘scripture’ but that conference talks, ensign articles etc should be considered inspired guidance and that we should follow that guidance unless it conflicts with our conscience and our interpretation of what is absolutely and fully doctrine. Even then, we must be cautious in our opposition so as not to deny the authority or office of those speaking and we accept the consequences that should follow if we are wrong and do not follow inspired council;

Since I am planning on studying constitutional law, I quickly turned my conceptualization into a metaphor. Scripture for me serves as a constitution of sorts while talks given in conference/published in the Ensign (Not declared or presented as revelations) represent lower level laws and the private writings of General Authorities are quite similar to Dicta in legal opinion or resolutions which express the sentiment of congress—which have no legal power. We have an open cannon and this means that just as the constitution can be amended so to can our cannon be added to. Yet, the process for adding to the cannon like adding to the constitution is more laborious than passing a normal law. Typically, constitutional amendments require either a super majority in both houses of congress or a super majority of the states consent. Likewise, a revelation added to the cannon requires the consent of the general authorities and the consent of the body of the church at large. Of course, there are things that do not fit easily fit into this categorization. Something like the Proclamation on the Family which is signed by all the First Presidency and the Twelve would fit in higher in authority than regular laws and lower than a constitutional amendment: There isn’t a great legal equivalent. However, for me this is a pretty good real world illustration of how I construe authority. I should also add that in terms of scrutiny, a typical question of judicial review, I would give the words of the prophets the most lenient form of scrutiny possible. I would look to recover the most consistent and spiritually uplifting message from anything that I thought violated the established cannon.

What was interesting for me when thinking about this way of viewing doctrine is that legal attitudes in this regard would probably be exactly opposite of the tendency of members towards broader legal argumentation on a politically legal vs conservative axis. Thus, liberal Mormon are more likely to be strict constructionalists in that the actions or wording of one seventy or GA is unlikely to override our understanding from scripture. In contrast, conservative Mormons are more likely to take the words of Modern day authorities as binding and overpowering past precedent. Conservative Mormons are quick to view as binding new fad theories such as banning R Rated movies or not drinking soda. They are also more likely to let the precedent set by a single GA become normative in their mind. In regard to women’s issues, Liberal Mormons tend back to the actions of Joseph Smith in establishing the Relief Society while conservatives will quote from a General Conference talk by Mckonkie.

Of course, this is not always the case. Liberal Mormons were very quick to take the words of David O. McKay or anyone else that spoke out against the Priesthood ban as a reason to overturn the policy without the need for revelation. However, I see in their effort to lower the status of the Negro Doctrine from Revelation to Policy intent to follow the type of jurisprudence suggested above.

The same is true for scripture reading where liberal members are more likely to be orginalists in the sense that we would want to place scripture in the context of those that uttered it and not draw unwarranted conclusions to things such as the internet or coca-cola. In contrast more conservative members might be more likely to aggressively liken scriptures to themselves and thus come up with all sorts of rules and principles for things far beyond the scope of the revelator.

I’m not sure how much further one could take this analysis but I did find it striking and interesting to my law school bound self.

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