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Holding political positions outside the mainstream of Mormondom, I’ve found it interesting to see how people react as they try (or, in most cases, don’t try) to understand how I can argue that the gospel of Jesus Christ harmonizes with libertarianism.
The last 48 hours serve as a microcosm of the responses I’ve received over the years as I’ve strengthened and advocated these views. Two days ago, for example, I was told that supporting the right to free speech of those whose speech I actually don’t agree with means that I support Satan’s plan against agency.
After calling out a woman for advocating the genocide of an entire nation, Libya, for the actions of an extreme few, and suggesting that her cry for mass slaughter of innocent people was an evil thing to do, I was called a “raving lunatic” by this woman yesterday morning.
Then, in the afternoon, I was called out for “priestcraft” when referenced in a question about my advocacy of Mormon libertarianism on BYU’s 100 Hour Board, a forum for BYU students to receive answers to their random questions within four days. Some of the answers, provided by anonymous, volunteer students, are laughably misguided.
But they deserve a response.
The question reads as follows:
I recently watched a political video that a friend posted on Facebook. In the video an LDS man, Connor Boyack, was saying that if Mormons studied and applied the principles taught in the Book of Mormon and the words of modern-day prophets, they would all be Libertarians. I have also seen articles in which Liberal or Conservative Mormons have claimed the same thing about their own party. What do you think about this way of thinking?
Do you believe that if we all studied the gospel enough we would all come to the same conclusion on political matters?
Three respondents—all anonymous—chimed in to offer their two cents about the video in question (one in which I explicitly state that I am supporting lowercase ‘l’ libertarianism, not the uppercase ‘L’ Libertarian Party—but the questioner apparently missed this and uses the capital ‘L’ version). The first person said that in his political science class, his fellow students concluded that the prevailing political philosophies “contain elements of truth that can be found in the gospel” and that “a good member of the Church could support any of the three” they were considering in class. This ability for Latter-day Saints to support wildly contrasting (and conflicting) policies is justified, according to this BYU student, because “God’s will for us” is that “The Church is officially politically neutral.” Um, what?
But then there’s this: “The idea that our Heavenly Father would desire all of us to support a particular position but refuse to reveal it runs contrary to everything I know about His nature.” Silly me, I thought God has revealed his will on a variety of positions, such as stealing, murder, adultery, self-defense, the family unit, war, and on and on and on. But perhaps our friendly BYU student only reads the children’s illustrated version of the scriptures which leaves some of these weightier matters out.
“I believe that individuals can receive divine guidance for themselves on political matters,” he continues, “but that is as far as their stewardship goes and claiming that their answers apply to other people is inappropriate.”
Let’s illustrate an example:
1. God says “thou shalt not murder.”
2. I say “you and I should not murder.”
3. This BYU student says “that’s inappropriate, you’re not acting within your stewardship!”
Of course, the divine guidance he’s referring to saturates the scriptures, which are specifically given to God’s children so that they can liken them unto themselves. This counsel isn’t circumstantial, to be obeyed or ignored according to one’s wishes. It’s universal to all of God’s children, and thus one is not wrongfully stepping outside his stewardship by suggesting that another one of God’s children adhere to a general commandment to which we are all subject.
The second student to attempt an answer at the question about my video “reject[ed] the video’s thesis” because “the principles of the gospel transcend political ideologies or do not specifically inform the kinds of policies at the core of those ideologies.” It is clear from the rest of his rambling comment that he does not understand the political ideology he is commenting about, which as I argue in Latter-day Liberty, can be and is informed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This person did introduce an interesting argument, however, when further “reject[ing] the videos’ premise.” He argues that my advocacy of the fusion between libertarianism and Mormonism “sounds an awful lot like someone saying, ‘If you just studying [sic] the gospel more/better, you’d agree with me.'” To my knowledge, I have nowhere said anything of the sort. I recognize that serious students of the gospel may come to a different conclusion than me, even one I feel is completely wrong. Numerous scholars have invested significantly more time than me in reading and studying the Constitution, but that doesn’t mean that their interpretation of its text is inherently improved by virtue of their investment of time and attention. So, too, with the gospel; I’ve had interesting discussions with life-long gospel scholars who I feel have missed the mark when it comes to things like agency, peace, the golden rule, and other important gospel topics.
Finally, the third respondent—the brief and pointed reply. This one deserves to be quoted in full:
Any person using their religion to convince someone else to do something unrelated to that religion is practicing priestcraft. Each member of the Church is encouraged to choose for themselves what is right for their own personal needs and beliefs. No political party is completely right, but none of them are completely wrong. Nothing is ever that easy.
First off, Mr. “Crowley” horribly misunderstands what priestcraft is. Priestcraft, as defined in Webster’s 1828 dictionary, entails the “management of selfish and ambitious priests to gain wealth and power, or to impose on the credulity of others.” In other words, it means using the gospel to line one’s own pockets or amplify one’s perceived authority. It is not, as Crowley claims, “convinc[ing] someone else to do something unrelated to [their] religion.”
Perhaps in time this student will learn that the gospel of Jesus Christ exists to be applied to life, generally—not just to the narrow subset of activities that are appropriate for non-controversial discussion in Sunday School. But Crowley believes that religious things shouldn’t be used to suggest a course of action on things “unrelated to that religion.” What, then, is our religion in his eyes? And what subject matter does it specifically include and exclude? I side with Joseph Smith’s expansive view, which effectively means that our religion is extremely comprehensive:
Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth. . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.
Our religion deals as much with war and theft and murder and agency and drugs and all sorts of interpersonal problems as it does with faith and repentance and baptism. The Crowleys of the world would have us cram Joseph’s sweeping view into the narrow confines of a politically correct box that you can purchase at Deseret Book (which, of course, wouldn’t actually be priestcraft).
As I ponder these misguided comments, and my own admittedly imperfect responses to them above, I can’t help but recall experiences serving a mission for the LDS Church in Honduras a decade ago. On numerous occasions I encountered a person who thought they knew what the Book of Mormon was about, but actually didn’t. Some thought it was Joseph Smith’s journal of digging for gold, others thought it was an altered version of the Bible, and many claimed it to be a novel of sorts, conjured up in the mind of its uneducated, teenage author.
Our response was direct and invitational, each time the same: read the book. The best and only efficacious way to combat this ignorance, and the popular myths passed on through hearsay, was to encourage people to read the book and find out for themselves. This makes sense, for how can a person understand something he has not taken the time to actually understand?
So, too, with our friendly BYU students. I’m not even sure they watched the video referenced in the question. Even if they did, however, it is not a sufficient substitute for reading the book I was very briefly discussing. In order to understand my claims—why I believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ strongly supports a libertarian political philosophy—one must take the time to read the arguments in detail.
I realize that many people claim to lack the time, and few have the interest, to investigate my claims. (My experience was similar with encouraging people to read the Book of Mormon.) But without an honest inquiry into the arguments made by somebody with whom you disagree, I believe it is problematic to opine on their positions. Doing so leads to the awkward allegations that one is supporting Satan’s plan, is a raving lunatic, and is engaging in priestcraft. They may be comforting conclusions to make to justify and perpetuate one’s ignorance, but they end up leading people into a proverbial ditch.