Mormonism and Ayn Rand

Art Deco design of an Ayn Rand postage stampObjectivist writer Ayn Rand has been in the news recently because in 2005, Romney VP pick Paul Ryan said that Rand was “[t]he reason I got involved in public service.” Although Ryan has recently tried to distance himself from Rand, by all indications, he was a Randite as late as 2009, when he argued that “Rand did the best job of anybody to build a moral case of capitalism.” As far as I can tell, nobody knows whether or not Mitt Romney agrees with Rand’s “moral” view of capitalism, but it is worth considering whether there is any place for the ideas of Ayn Rand in the Mormon worldview. I don’t think there is.

In many ways, Ayn Rand’s views as a whole are incompatible not just with Mormonism, but with all religion, as she was an atheist who rejected all forms of religion and altruism. Her philosophy was self-centered: the only morality, in her view, was the promotion of heroic self interest. She earnestly embodied the philosophy expressed by Gordon Gekko in the movie Wall Street that “greed is good.”

Despite the presence of anti-Christian elements within Rand’s philosophy, right-leaning Christians such as Paul Ryan and many others have overlooked Rand’s anti-altruism and strident atheism to embrace the “greed is good” part of her philosophy as a moral justification for capitalism. Undoubtedly, Mitt Romney is an altruist, as evidenced by his years of unpaid service in the LDS Church. I have no reason to think that Paul Ryan is not altruistic as well. But it is possible to be an altruist in specific circumstances yet also believe that as a general principle, the rational pursuit of individual gain and self interest is a form of morality.

Although Rand’s philosophy does not seem to have made a huge impact among Mormons, there are undoubtedly at least some Mormon Randians. Interestingly, it appears, based on partially-redacted data available on the LDS church website new.familysearch.org, that some of her fans have probably proxy baptized her into the Latter-day Saint faith. I suspect that some Mormons may be drawn to Randianism because a large fraction of Mormons happen to be conservative libertarians, and Rand provided a kind of “theology” for this corner of the political spectrum.

But it seems difficult to square Rand’s philosophy with Mormon scripture. The faith’s founding scripture, the Book of Mormon, frequently condemns those who “set their hearts upon their riches.” (Hel. 13:20). The book warns, “But wo unto the rich, who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor, and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also.” (2 Nephi 9:30). The pursuit of wealth, and the class pride of the wealthy over the poor, are repeatedly cited as the reason for religious apostasy, environmental disaster, and military defeat. The book envisions an ideal, utopian state as one where “they had all things in common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor.” (4 Ne. 1:3). Nothing seems further from the anti-collectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, who wrote, “This miracle of me is mine to own and keep, and mine to guard, and mine to use, and mine to kneel before! I do not surrender my treasures, nor do I share them. The fortune of my spirit is not to be blown into coins of brass and flung to the winds as alms for the poor of spirit.” (Anthem).

Could LDS Church involvement in Boy Scouts be coming to an end?

It now appears that at least one board member of the Boy Scouts of America is thinking of overturning the organization’s traditional policy of barring gays and lesbians from admission either as leaders or as scouts. James Turley, CEO of Ernst & Young, has said he is working to “encourage dialogue” on the issue. The issue of revisiting this policy came to a head when Jennifer Tyrell, a lesbian mother, was ousted as a den leader in April 2012. Seeking to change the policy, she launched an online petition directed to Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, who is also on the board of the BSA. Speaking for AT&T, Stephenson implied that the corporation did not agree with the policy, but he argued “that change at any organization must come from within to be successful and sustainable.”

From near the beginning, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a proud sponsor of BSA, and remains the largest single sponsor of scouting units. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court case BSA v. Dale upheld the First Amendment right of the BSA, as a private organization, to discriminate against homosexuals. During that case, the LDS Church led a small group of other churches in submitting an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief in support of the right to ban gays and lesbians. This brief, written by Von G. Keetch, a Salt Lake City attorney the church has hired on other occasions, suggested that the churches might “part company with Scouting altogether” (p. 25) if sexual orientation became an impermissible basis for discrimination by BSA. In a statement to the Salt Lake Tribune, Keetch suggested more positively that the LDS Church would withdraw from Scouting in those circumstances. Keetch, of course, is not part of the LDS hierarchy, and that would not be his decision to make.

But that was the year 2000. Since then, the LDS Church has softened its policy toward LGBT people, and allows gay and lesbian Mormons to function in positions within the LDS Church, so long as they remain celibate. I have heard rumors that certain local church leaders have barred gay men from positions that deal with children or youth, although I cannot find reference to any church-wide polity to that effect. Such a policy, if it exists, would be highly controversial, because it feeds into a stereotype that LGBT people are pedophiles, or that they have an agenda to convert children to their “cause.” For the most part, Americans have increasingly been willing to accept LGBT people within positions of influence with their children, without cause for alarm. For example, according to polls, most modern Americans believe schools should not have the right to fire gay or lesbian teachers. But Mormon attitudes tend to change more slowly than American attitudes in general.

Of course, if the LDS Church were to pull out of Scouting, the only opinion that really matters is the sometimes-unpredictable opinion of church’s leaders. The LDS Church has had a long history with Scouting, but the loss of Scouting would not be catastrophic. Long before Scouting was even invented, the LDS Church had created a Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA). When the BSA came alone in the early 20th century, the YMMIA essentially merged with the Scouting program and became an arm of the BSA. For reasons that have never been clearly articulated, the church’s complementary girls’ program did not merge with the Girl Scouts, and the LDS Church has never supported Girl Scouting, even though it maintains a Young Women organization that serves many of the same purposes.

It would not be far-fetched to expect that if the BSA decided to admit gays and lesbians, that the LDS Church would dissassociate itself with the organization and revert to the YMMIA model. That would not be a huge change, because the church already operates what it calls its “Young Men” organization for boys 12 and older, independently of Scouting. Unlike Scouting, however, the Young Men organization is designed for the spiritual needs of boys, while Scouting is designed more for recreation and to train boys in leadership and self-confidence. If the LDS Church left Scouting, the Young Men organization would have to serve dual roles, as does the present Young Women organization. What would change? Probably not much, except that the young men would no longer be wearing uniforms and badges.

I think it is inevitable that BSA will at some point reverse its policy of discrimination. But as an Eagle Scout with fond memories of scouting, I would hope that that the LDS Church would not pull out of Scouting for that reason. Realistically, any BSA policy change is not going to change how Scouting operates on a local LDS Church level. As far as I know, BSA has never required that local units appoint leaders, or admit scouts, in a way that contradicts the religious values of the sponsoring organization. All that would likely change is that Scouting units would be free to admit gays and lesbians if they chose to do so. So in some non-LDS Scouting units, there would be leaders and scouts who are openly gay or lesbian. That would not affect Scouting in the LDS Church.

Perhaps the LDS Church mighth even see a change by BSA as a positive outcome. There are undoubtedly active Mormon gays and lesbians whose skills would make them ideal leaders of local LDS Scouting units. But BSA policy currently prohibits these men and women from participation. A policy change would give the LDS Church more flexibility to appoint gay and lesbian leaders on a local level. It would also allow openly gay Mormon youth the opportunity to participate in Scouting, which could be a positive influence on their lives.

Arguing that Mormons will be offended, Idaho bans “Five Wives” vodka label

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According to the Utah-based Ogden’s Own Distillery, the state of Idaho has banned the company’s vodka label on the ground that the concept “is offensive to a prominent segment of our population.” That segment is, obviously, Mormons. The label is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Mormon polygamy in the 19th century, a practice which was discontinued by the main body of Mormons around the turn of the 20th century. Part of the label’s humor is the irony that pious Mormons do not drink alcohol.

The fact that Idaho can ban labels like this, without violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of expression, is an interesting historical fluke. Normally, government entities can ban labels only for things like obscenity, deceptive trade practices, and public health or safety. The fact that some members of a prominent religion might not get the humor is not usually grounds for censorship.

But in the area of liquor regulation, there is a giant loophole. The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the one that repealed Prohibition in 1933) gave states the right to regulate the importation of alcoholic beverages in a discriminatory way. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the 21st Amendment not only repealed Prohibition, but with respect to the importation of alcohol, it repealed the Commerce Clause and the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. That means that in the area of liquor regulation, the First Amendment does not apply to states. So, with few exceptions, states have pretty much authoritarian control over the importation of liquor within their borders.

The ban is undoubtedly a fantastic public relations coup for Ogden’s Own Distillery. Idaho has unwittingly given the label prominence and free publicity that the distillery never could have dreamed. Thus, while the label might be officially banned from Idaho, we should expect its sales in Utah and elsewhere to rise.

Romney vs. Obama on religion: will we see it?

A pro-Romney Super PAC has reportedly floated, and then sank, the option of attacking Barrack Obama over his former membership in a church pastored by Jeremiah Wright. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, ABC News investigators discovered that Wright had once implied that the September 11 attacks were an avoidable consequence of U.S. foreign policy mistakes, and in another instance had uttered the shocking words “God damn America!” after a discussion of the country’s racial history. Obama and his family resigned from the church during the 2008 campaign, citing disagreement with their their former pastor’s inflammatory statements.

Obama has one other religious liability, which is the fact that despite his lifelong Protestant background and church attendance, 16% of voters believe he is a Muslim or crypto-Muslim. Romney is smart enough, politically, not to overtly associate himself with such conspiracy theories. So at least for now, the issue of Obama’s religious background is off the table.

Obama, as well, has taken the possibility of attacking Romney’s Mormon religion off the table. Most commentators seem to agree that a backlash is likely to ensue should Obama ever be seen to attack Romney’s religion. The criticism for such a move would be directed back at Obama.

But does anybody really believe that religion will not be an issue in this election cycle? Like it or not, as a result of the Citizens United case, this will be the first modern presidential election in which there will be unlimited and unregulated money from corporations, opinionated tycoons, labor unions, and maybe even foreign countries. This money and the resulting explosion of TV ads cannot, at least in theory, be controlled by the candidates themselves. Citizens United aside, neither of the candidates can control the actions of the press.

If such a religious fight breaks out over the TV airwaves, Romney has a distinct disadvantage. Obama’s religious issues were well-aired by the press four years ago, and it is hard to imagine what new damage they could cause now, four years later. By contrast, only a slim majority of voters are currently even aware that Romney is Mormon. Romney has far more potential to be hurt when his religious views are placed open to criticism.

If Romney were to become President, he would be the first nontrinitarian to hold that office since the 19th century, and he would be only the second non-Protestant. Thus, the issue of his religion is newsworthy and important. But will the media and Super PACs treat the subject of Romney’s Mormonism with a level of serious and accuracy that it deserves? And will care be taken to note that there is diversity within Mormon thought?

Do Mormons believe in “saved by grace”?

Ornate 12th century cross sculpted by Meister des Reliquienkreuzes von ConsenzaThe Christian doctrine of sola gratia says that salvation comes alone through the grace of God. This doctrine dates to the 529 Council of Orange, and is nearly universal within Christianity—from Catholics to Protestants to Orthodox. It says that faith, works, and salvation are made possible only through God’s grace, as a result of the atonement of Jesus. It is a separate issue from sola fide (“faith alone”), about which Protestants disagree with Catholics and Orthodox Christianity. Sola fide is the subject of another post.

By all rights, the doctrine of sola gratia should be one of the fundamental tenets of Mormonism. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was most aligned with Methodism prior to his founding of the new faith, and that alignment is not surprising in view of the earliest Mormon scripture, the 1830 Book of Mormon. In general, this book is conventionally Methodist in its its views about salvation and grace. After the speaker indicates that his people labor diligently to convince people to believe in Christ, he nevertheless notes that “we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all that we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23). Similarly, other passages state that “it is only in and through the grace of God that ye are saved” (2 Ne. 10:24), and “there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” (2 Ne. 2:8). The 1830 Articles and Covenants of the Church of Christ, which served as the “constitution” of the church Joseph Smith’s founded, notes that both justification and sanctification are through “the grace of our Lord.” (D&C 20:30-31).

However, most Mormons alive today would disagree with the statement that we are saved by “grace alone.” At some point in Mormon history, the idea of salvation by grace became suspect to Mormons. This apparently happened during the 20th century, because as late as 1899, a Mormon apostle felt comfortable stating from the pulpit at the church’s annual General Conference that: “When we are in favor of the doctrine of Christ we manifest our faith by our works, and consequently are saved by grace and are justified by faith, because we manifest our faith by our works.” (George Teasdale, 1899 Conference Report, p. 33). This was not only an endorsement of sola gratia, but an endorsement of sola fide (salvation by faith alone). As late as 1954, Joseph Fielding Smith seemed to endorse sola gratia in his book Doctrines of Salvation (2:308-11).

I have not been able to pinpoint the moment when the idea of sola gratia began to lose favor within Mormonism. However, Bruce R. McConkie might have had something to do with at least popularizing the idea that Mormons are saved, at least in part, by their works. In 1958, McConkie identified two types of redemption: an unconditional type that comes by grace alone (Mormon Doctrine, pp. 623-24), and a conditional redemption that “comes by the grace of God coupled with good works” (Ibid., 623.) This “unconditional” redemption, according to McConkie, consists of resurrection of the body, but not eternal life. McConkie’s views on this and all topics were very influential among generations in the latter half of the 20th century. However, his signature book Mormon Doctrine has recently been allowed by the LDS Church to go out of print, in part because of its controversial and sometimes offensive content.

Since McConkie, other Mormon publications have followed suit in rejecting sola gratia. Spencer W. Kimball’s 1969 Miracle of Forgiveness calls the doctrine of sola gratia “one of the most fallacious doctrines originated by Satan and propounded by man.” The 1979 LDS Bible Dictionary states that “grace cannot suffice without total effort on the part of the recipient.”

Around the 1980s, however, a number of Mormon writers such as Stephen Robinson, Robert Millet, Gerald Lund, Donald P. Olsen, and Hyrum Andrus—so-called Mormon neo-orthodox writers— have begun to revisit the issue of “saved by grace.” An 1981 work by Lund, for example, was published in the LDS’s church’s flagship magazine The Ensign. Olsen and Andrus have presented what are perhaps the most Protestant explanations of grace within the context of Mormonism. For example, Olson states:

[T]hose who truly have the grace of Christ have faith unto repentance, receive baptism and the Holy Ghost, are justified, are in the process of becoming sanctified, have received salvation from sin, and may have received eternal life. These blessings will be theirs so long as they do not fall from grace by trusting in good works or by attempting to earn, merit, or deserve these blessings. (Sunstone, issue 44, Augumn 1984, pp. 21-25.)

So the answer to the question, “Do Mormons believe in ‘saved by grace’?” is: it depends on the Mormon.

Harry Reid: the most prominent Mormon to back same-sex marriage

Following President Obama’s announcement that he now supports same sex marriage, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has announced his own support for same-sex marriage, thus becoming the most prominent Mormon to back equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians.

Reid’s position is somewhat nuanced. Though he supports same sex marriage as as a legal matter, he notes that his “personal belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman.” That “personal belief” is certainly a religious one, and it echoes the opinion of leaders of the LDS Church to which he belongs. In September 2008, just before the vote on California’s Proposition 8, which amended the California constitution to ban same sex marriage, the LDS Church issued a public statement encouraging its members to support political efforts to prevent gays and lesbians from getting married. By supporting equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples, Reid is expressing what appears to be a disagreement with his church leadership on matters of policy, while still agreeing with the church on matters of doctrine.

There was a significant political backlash against the LDS Church’s political effort to pass Proposition 8 in California. The effort led to bad press, and has contributed to at least some defections from the faith by LDS Church members. Since then, the church has been much less aggressive on the issue. The LDS Church is sensitive about avoiding the appearance of giving “orders” to Mormon political leaders. Therefore, it would be uncharacteristic for the church to issue any statement that might be interpreted as a rebuke of Reid. For that reason, I expect the LDS Church to remain silent on the issue for the time being.

Why are so many modern Mormons conservative (Part I)

A recent Pew poll found what was no surprise, that Mormons are as a whole a highly conservative demographic. They are more likely to be conservative even than white evangelicals. As many as 66% of Mormons identify as conservative, and 74% identify as or lean Republican.

The reason why is a bit of a historical anomaly. Mormonism has its roots in 1820s New England and the frontier regions of the western United States in the 1830s and 40s. Its founder, Joseph Smith, was by no means a conservative. Indeed, he was a
religious communalist. His 1830 publication of scripture, the Book of Mormon, proposed and described an ancient, utopian society of Native Americans who “had all things in common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.” (4 Nephi 1:3) In the 1830s, Smith attempted to establish voluntary communalistic orders in Ohio and Missouri. But ultimately, Smith did not have the right political formula to make such economic structures work in antebellum America.

Smith also had little regard for the social and familial conventions of his day. In the 1840s, he quietly introduced the practice of polygamy, himself marrying as many as 30 or more women. While someone in the 21st century might think of polygamy as a conservative institution, in the 1840s, it was considered a form of libertinism, and a threat to the conservative social order. Though Smith lived before the advent of organized feminism, Smith was something of a protofeminist for his era. Though his faith inherited the patriarchal social conventions of his day, by the 1840s, Smith had invited women to join the Anointed Quorum, his closest group of spiritual advisers, as priestesses on an equal basis as men. He also organized a female fraternal and organization, with dreams of making it a parallel, female Mormon priesthood.

It is difficult to imagine what more Smith could have done to upset the conservative social order of his time. And Brigham Young, his successor, took Smith’s radicalism to the Utah territory in 1847. There, Young tried (and sometimes succeeded) to establish communistic or anarchistic economies, and Mormon women managed and published feminist church publications (e.g., the Woman’s Exponent), and agitated for civil rights and the right to vote.

So how did the average modern Mormon become so conservative? I will explore the answer to that question in Part II.