Editor's note: This article from conservative Connor Boyack is a response to Taylor G. Petrey's recent piece, "The failures of Mormon conservativism." Commentator Boyd Matheson has also responded to Petrey's piece here. These opinion articles are part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
Should Mormon conservatives abandon their ideology and reassess their theology?
This appears to be the invitation of Taylor Petrey, who has called for a re-evaluation of “the mingling of conservative philosophies with scripture” in his recent piece “The Failures of Mormon Conservatism.”
As is common in opinion pieces opposing those who firmly and publicly espouse certain long-held values and traditions, Petrey dismisses as “futile” the opposition of many Mormons to the Equal Rights Amendment and same-sex marriage licensure because these legal changes “came about anyway” — as if standing up for one’s values should be subordinated to the ever-changing tides of political correctness and popular culture.
Mormons, he believes, should be politically carried about with every wind of doctrine — something Latter-day Saints have emphatically rejected.
Doubling down on this do-what-is-popular philosophy, the author points out that such political efforts created “bad will among members and potential friends and converts to the church,” and that conservative churchgoers “driv[e] away members with different political values,” leading to a decline in membership.
Some evidence appears to show the opposite — namely that liberal interpretations of (and commitments to) theology lead to a decline in membership. But even if Petrey’s claim was correct, the correctness of a position is not properly judged by surveying the aggregate number of those who agree. Majority opinion does not inherently constitute truth.
Christ himself said that the truth he brought — and the resulting actions the gospel demanded — would turn even family members against one another. So much for only doing whatever others find socially acceptable and politically pragmatic.
Mormon conservatives see themselves as a highly moralistic group — trying to exemplify peace, charity, service and other virtues — and yet Petrey labels them a “moral failure.” This is because, he argues, such persons have “outsourced their morality to the false gods of trickle-down economics and nationalist protectionism.”
We are to ignore that he evidently outsources his to the false god of Caesar.
This is clear in his conclusion, where Petrey states, “the talking point that voluntary charity is superior to shared responsibility in social institutions is unscriptural, anti-democratic, an empirical failure, and morally questionable.” This assertion requires a bit of digesting to understand what he’s saying.
“Shared responsibility” is pseudo-speak for taxation-based government programs — coercing people into complying with the “responsibility” that is dictated to them and enforced upon them by a costly bureaucracy of middle managers who take their money, keep some for themselves, and then distribute the rest as they see fit. This is the virtuous standard below which “voluntary charity” falls in Petrey’s eyes. What a utopia!
Mormons who believe that this type of forced redistribution is not ideal when compared to freely giving of one’s own resources are “morally questionable,” he states, and acting contrary to their scriptures.
Except they aren’t.
Christian doctrine is quite clear that disciples of Jesus are to help those in need. This longstanding mandate applies to individuals — not institutions. Christ did not encourage his followers to lobby Herod to tax the rich and help the poor. His teachings did not condone incarcerating those who objected to such enforced obligations. The Sermon on the Mount did not commission Caesar to remedy what Petrey perceives as an “uneven distribution of wealth and power.”
Even the United Order (an attempt by early Mormons to implement a society-wide welfare program) relied on the voluntary charity of its participants. Based on the law of consecration, it involved personal — not “shared” — responsibility.
While the author is generous in his criticism, he is in very short supply when it comes to what he believes Mormons should in fact believe and do. All we are to understand is that the majority of American Mormons have politically apostatized from their faith and should repent by supporting government programs that heavily tax the rich to give to the poor.
Mormon conservatives are of course not perfect, and they are sometimes at political odds with their theology. Despite mostly missing the mark, Petrey is right to note a theological silence on foreign policy from a people who have been commanded to renounce war and proclaim peace. He also correctly points out the nationalism that permeates conservatism — including among Mormons — leading to political positions that are at odds with the church’s immigration stance.
But the correct application of church doctrine will actually lead one away from what Petrey advocates: to increase personal, not “shared,” responsibility; to support voluntary charity, not forced taxation-based government programs; to serve directly out of love, not lobby legislators out of envy.
The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And the road to Caesar’s kingdom is paved with platitudes about the supposed virtues of “shared responsibility.” Mormons (conservative or otherwise) should steer clear.
Connor Boyack is author of "Latter-day Liberty: A Gospel Approach to Government and Politics."