On January 27, 2015, in the wake of the Vatican Summit on marriage, the Church made national headlines, calling a news conference and issuing a statement defending LGBT rights. Elders Oaks, Holland, and Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve, along with Sister Marriott of the Young Women general presidency, attempted to stake out a middle ground between religious freedoms on the one hand and gay rights on the other. The conference was not so much about LGBT rights as it was about rights in general. Elder Holland best summed up the proceedings when he said, “Accommodating the rights of all people…requires wisdom and judgment, compassion and fairness.” He called everyone in the political sphere to “the highest level of statesmanship.” He didn’t elaborate on this statesmanship, but I would like to think, in the tradition of the Federalists, that statesmanship involves, above all else, a healthy skepticism of the State.
The biggest problem with the Church’s handling of the gay marriage issue thus far is not that it has clung too ideologically to the past and refused to “change with the times.” Quite the contrary. The Church has not clung strongly enough to the past, to its past, a past which included, among other things, fleeing blood-thirsty mobs in Missouri who all, incidentally, had the sanction of the State. As Latter-day Saints, we should not forget that the exodus to the Salt Lake Valley had a lot to do with escaping what was perceived at the time to be a tyrannical United States government.
How much has changed in 170 years? In his portion of the conference, Elder Oaks cited multiple examples in which he believed the State transgressed the Constitution, denying, at every turn it seemed, both the freedom of speech and of religion. These examples were instructive. What the examples should have indicated to the careful listener is that the State, as an institution of legitimized coercion, cannot be trusted to keep within the bounds it has set for itself (history has shown that self-imposed boundaries, because they are self imposed, can be changed more or less on a whim). And because the State cannot be trusted to keep within these bounds, the power it has over the populace should be radically curtailed or eliminated completely. The famous free-market anarchist Murray Rothbard said that the idea of a limited government that stays limited is truly utopian.
Elder Oaks, during his portion of the broadcast, exhibited this same kind of utopianism, you could say. He was right that the list of State atrocities against religion is “expanding”; however, the examples he provided, while indicative of bigotry and hatred, were not open-and-shut cases of rights violation. One such example was that of Christian student groups in the California university system. The student groups, according to Elder Oaks, were denied recognition by their respective universities because the groups required their leaders to share their Christian beliefs. The university system, he said, forced the groups to “compromise their religious conscience.” In situations like this, private-property anarchists are wise to point out that free speech issues are most of the time easily resolved when thought of as property issues. Though this case is complicated by the fact that the universities are state universities (paid for in part by taxes), it is clear that if one accepts a state’s right to taxation, then each university in question has property rights to its buildings, facilities, and, yes, money, and can therefore make demands on people using them. I do not, then, have a right, for example, to set up a table on a public sidewalk in order to sell my baseball cards to passersby. The State makes certain demands on people using their sidewalks.
In using the term “utopian,” to describe the Church’s ambivalence toward the State, I do not want to suggest that the Brethren are naïve or idealistic about the function of government. I mention Rothbard and his quotation, instead, to point to a kind of axiom that exists deep in the minds of all non-anarchists: that is, the government is good as long as, and in so far as, it doesn’t bother me. For the anarchist, though, there is no such thing as a government that doesn’t bother everyone all the time. The lifeblood of government is taxation, and what are taxes if not a gigantic bone in the throat?
During the news conference, all three speakers rightly defended the freedoms of religious people to worship according to the dictates of their conscience. Elder Holland quoted from the Doctrine and Covenants. Sister Marriott framed the debate between gay rights and religious freedom. Elder Oaks expounded principles, listed and numbered them. While he spoke, one could sense a simultaneous aversion to, and endorsement of, the State. Early in his remarks, there was a yearning for a better time, hundreds of years ago, when the government still respected the First Amendment. By the end, Elder Oaks was invoking the State and its LGBT laws—which the Church was “on record as favoring”—as if to anticipate objections from the gay community. So what’s wrong with defending the government when it does good and defending yourself from the government when it does bad? Isn’t it normal to agree sometimes and to disagree other times?
I would say, in most cases, yes. However, there is a difference between agreeing with a principle and agreeing with praxis, the process by which a principle is actualized. I might, for instance, agree with people taking home more money at the end of the week but disagree (for various reasons) with a minimum wage law. The Church—and all religious institutions—should do its best to endorse principles and, outside its own welfare program and disaster relief, leave praxis to the politicians. Some might call this “utopian.” What happens when—not if—the State violates religious freedoms? Doesn’t this thrust the Church into the political sphere?
The answer is no. Latter-day Saints should know better than most Christians that the Church (with a capital “C”) is not equal to its membership. The Church is perfect, we like to say, but the members are not. Therefore, when religious freedoms are in jeopardy, it is these imperfect members, in their capacity as citizens, the church with a lowercase “c” in other words, that should respond politically. There is a long history of church leaders speaking not for the Church but for themselves. Joseph Fielding Smith, for example, denounced the theory of evolution, while the Church remained, officially, undecided on the matter. J. Reuben Clark wrote extensively about the evils of communism. I see no reason why things should be different now. This distinction between principle and praxis—that the business of revelation exists, and should exist, independently of politics—helps to explain why the Prophet Joseph Smith ran for President of the United States in 1844. When churches (with a capital “C”) get involved in politics, it not only grants legitimacy to the State and its coercion, but it strips churches of their revolutionary potential; it makes the church, its members, and its doctrine handmaidens of the State, subject to the wiles and caprices of special interests.