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Update: Here is the audio file, which includes the remarks of my debate opponents, as well as rebuttals (not included below). It’s 55 minutes long.
This afternoon I participated in a debate at FreedomFest in Las Vegas regarding the political implications of Mormonism. I represented the libertarian view, Paul Mero of Sutherland Institute represented the conservative view, and Rory Reid, Harry Reid’s son, represented the liberal view.
Here are my remarks.
At a Brigham Young University forum in 2007, Harry Reid, Rory’s father, said “My faith and political beliefs are deeply intertwined. I am a Democrat because I am a Mormon, not in spite of it.” In a 2009 speech, Paul Mero stated that “I’m a conservative because I am a Latter-day Saint.” In my book Latter-day Liberty, published in 2011, I argue that the doctrines and teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in fact support a libertarian political philosophy more than the others just mentioned, and will aim to explain why in these few minutes of time I’ve been allotted.
In a revelation given to the early Latter-day Saints in 1831, God told his followers to “be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign” (D&C 58:22). Similar counsel for Christian conduct is found in the New Testament when Jesus told his disciples to render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s (Matthew 22:21). The question politically-minded Christians must ask is: what belongs to Caesar? If we are to be subject to “the powers that be,” then which powers are legitimate and worthy of our support?
Other scriptures offer an answer. In section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants, another book of scripture within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it states that “we believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments…” (D&C 134:5). This important qualifier suggests that legitimate government powers, or “Ceasar,” must be restrained such that the individual rights of each person are properly protected—and only then is such government worthy of our complete allegiance.
Similarly, one of our church’s “Articles of Faith” stipulates that Latter-day Saints “believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This statement of submission to political authority is often misinterpreted to argue that Mormons must subject themselves to political rulers and the laws of government. The actual statement only says, however, that we are subject to such rulers in their obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. The obligation to be subject to the powers that be requires that those powers be legitimate and lawful. If Latter-day Saints are obligated to support the existing political system inasmuch as that system obeys, honors, and sustains the law, then what is true law?
In a theocratic system, the law is what God says it is. As our lawgiver, he is of course free to create and enforce what laws he will, and for whatever reason (see Isaiah 55:8–9). But until Christ reigns, and while we are to be subject to the powers that be, the law necessarily takes a different shape. Left to govern ourselves, the law becomes, as Frédéric Bastiat said, nothing more than “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.” Man-made government’s only legitimate role in our lives thus becomes the defense against aggression upon our persons or property. All other additions to government’s role and authority are illegitimate usurpations and a deviation from the underlying natural law that justifies the use of force only as a method to defend against aggression and impose justice.
As children of God, we are equals and lack the moral authority to unjustly impose anything upon one another, even (and especially!) righteousness and obedience to God’s commandments. Abstention from drugs and alcohol, sexual morality, fidelity in marriage, keeping the Sabbath day holy—these and so many other areas in which government currently interjects itself may only legitimately be promoted through persuasion. We are to persuade others to follow in Christ’s footsteps, not beat and tax them into compliance. Employing the government to achieve such ends—a stance supported by conservatives and liberals alike—requires abandoning true law and violates the inherent and inalienable rights of the affected persons. As our scriptures state, “the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never suppress the freedom of the soul” (D&C 134:5).
This is one of the most significant distinctions between libertarianism and the interventionist political philosophies of conservatism and liberalism. Many libertarians recognize the importance of families, charity, compassion, and equality, but believe that societal ideals such as these may only legitimately and morally be realized through persuasion. This harmonizes closely with God’s own pattern for promoting righteousness, as explained in the following quote by one of our faith’s leaders: “…God’s chief way of acting is by persuasion and patience and long-suffering, not by coercion and stark confrontation. . . . He always acts with unfailing respect for the freedom and independence that we possess.” Using the coercive arm of the law to enforce compliance to a moral standard is anathema to the way God himself works. Why, then, do individuals believe that they can employ such means to realize their desired goals?
The end goals of conservatism and liberalism are, in many cases, important and worthy of our support. What form that support takes, however, is a significant point of contrast whereby libertarianism stands alone in harmony with the gospel of Jesus Christ. The common theme among liberals to feed the hungry, aid the poor, educate the ignorant, and otherwise offer assistance to those in need is something that every Christian has been commanded to do. Realizing those objectives through the state, however, creates a circumstance in which righteous ends are realized through unrighteous means. In other words, liberals endorse the use of coercion as a means to force people into helping their fellow man, confiscating an individual’s property through taxation in order to satisfy an apparent need on the part of another person to whom that stolen property is redistributed. By promoting social welfare through government programs, persuasion is abandoned and replaced with force. Of course, nowhere did Jesus state that his commandments to love and serve one another may be fulfilled through force. The opposite is true, and thus the libertarian position of realizing these important goals through peaceful, voluntary, charitable means is supported by Christ’s teachings.
Similarly, conservatism embraces the fleshy arm of the state to enforce the ends it deems most important, such as with drugs, marriage, obscenity, and other issues relating to morality. While not all libertarians will agree with the importance of adhering to these and other of God’s commandments, the political philosophy of libertarianism provides for the most moral method of promoting these societal standards. Whereas conservatism also endorses the use of coercion against those who engage in such activities, libertarianism recognizes that living a life of Christian conduct, or simply living a moral life and abstaining from such vices, is accomplished through a voluntary adoption of the underlying principles and lifestyle. We cannot and should not force a person to conform their behavior into compliance with God’s commandments.
Liberty is, in the words of one of Christ’s apostles, “the privilege to be free and to be unrestrained in all activity except that which interferes with the equally sacred rights of others.” And that, in a nutshell, is libertarianism.
[5 minutes ad-lib rebuttal]
The Mormon faith is based on certain key fundamentals, one of which is the concept of moral agency—the unrestrained ability to make our own decisions and be held accountable for them. We believe that God’s plan of saving his children and allowing them to return to his eternal glory is predicated upon this agency, such that individuals may choose whether or not to obey him. When Adam was placed into the Garden of Eden, he was taught God’s law and made to understand the various choices he might make. After telling Adam what he could and could not do, God noted that “thou mayest choose for thyself” (Moses 3:17). Even when disastrous decisions might negatively impact another person, God respects our agency and allows the consequences to unfold. How arrogant of mankind to intervene so often to “play God” and attempt to restrict another’s agency or to force a person to behave a certain way to avoid certain consequences.
This alternative was Satan’s counterfeit proposal to God’s plan of salvation. Satan was and is the polar opposite of peace and persuasion, ruling instead by coercion and control. This dichotomy between contrasting personalities was expressed well in the following quote by a church leader:
“But the spirit of that contention [between God’s and Satan’s followers] did not cease to exist. It has existed and has come down to us through the ages; one side contending for individual liberty and the rights of man, and the other side contending for rule by force and by compulsion. That was essentially the issue in that great conflict before the world was. Christ stood for government by persuasion, by long suffering, by kindness and gentleness and love unfeigned. The other power was for government and salvation for all, to be secured by the spirit of force and compulsion…”
Libertarianism, more than any other political philosophy in existence, upholds government by persuasion and the protection of individual liberty and the rights of man. Conservatism and liberalism each resort to government ruling by the spirit of force and compulsion in their varying areas of interest, content to mandate compliance to their preferred societal standard and imprison those who resist.
But the agency of man—the ability to make choices and reap the consequences—is as necessary to live morally and righteously as it is to live wickedly. If even God won’t force his children to obey his commandments and adhere to his “order,” then what right do we have to force one another to do so?