Editor's note: This commentary by author Hal Boyd is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.
The Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky responded to one of Christianity’s thorny theological queries, the problem of evil, not with a tightly crafted syllogism, but with a person — the Christlike literary figure Father Zossima. Dostoevsky’s suggestion seems to be that evil is principally combated via individual human hearts, rather than, say, abstract schemes.
In other words, to quote Richard Neuhaus, “the kind of people we are is more important than what we can do to improve the world; indeed, being the kind of people we should and can be is the best, and sometimes the only, way to improve the world.”
A few months ago, I sat across from Elder Von G. Keetch — a general authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and one of the nation’s experts on the First Amendment. He holds the rare distinction among the elite coterie of judicial law clerks of having worked for not one but two Supreme Court justices — Warren Burger and Antonin Scalia.
If Elder Keetch were alive today, he would be turning 58 this weekend.
Before his unexpected passing in late January, Elder Keetch was crafting a speech for the annual meeting of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society. He was reading Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ 2017 remarks at the Chautauqua Institution titled “Cultural Climate Change: The Role of Religion in a Secularized West.”
Sacks details the tumultuous landscape for people of faith, and, in broad terms, outlines how the devout might react to it, proffering three potential approaches: attempting to conquer society, withdrawing from society or engaging society to hopefully reinspire it.
Both Sacks and Elder Keetch preferred the latter approach. But Elder Keetch wanted to put down on paper what that scenario actually looks like. He wanted to figure out how that scenario is borne out in a believer’s lived reality.
In other words, he wondered, how do believers engage in the world enough to inspire it without becoming, in the words of Christ, “of the world”?
After my discussion with Elder Keetch, I agreed to send along a few thoughts or, at a minimum, provide a warmup joke or two.
That evening I conducted a literature review of recent works attempting to navigate the stony shoals betwixt the city of man and the city of God. I tried to identify saints from various epochs who found a third way between retreat and attack — saints who lived Jeremiah’s counsel to the captive Israelites in Babylon: “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”
“Build houses and live in them," Jeremiah admonishes. "Plant gardens and eat their produce … multiply there and do not decrease.”
I began rereading Richard Neuhaus’ book "American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile." I revisited excerpts from Rod Dreher’s recently published "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," making the case for a kind of fleeing that, at its best, really serves as a form of fighting against society’s worst sins and superfluities.
Shockingly, however, the next morning I learned that Elder Keetch was hospitalized. I was flummoxed. Only hours earlier he had shown no outward signs of ill health. I redoubled my efforts to draft some thoughts for when he was back at full strength.
I perused R.R. Reno’s book “Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society.” In it, Reno writes, “There is much talk among Christians these days about a pessimistic withdrawal from public life. The current of culture seems to be running against us. We need to be realistic about the challenges posed by the present age, and we certainly need to repair our communities of faith. There can be no Christian society without vital churches. But let’s not sell the public potency of Christianity short.”
Echoing Sacks, Reno seems to say that a Judeo-Christian society need not be prescriptively religious, but it should cultivate a culture of accountability to God and to the highest of human virtues. To quote scholar James Rogers in describing the book, Reno does not argue “that American Christians should ‘Take Back the Public Square!’ — but he does argue that they can have a greater social influence, and that this influence would be a salutary one.”
If, for Sacks, religion should inspire secular society, then, for Reno, religion should also influence it for the better.
But again, the question remains: What should that inspiration and influence actually look like?
Recalling Dostoevsky's Father Zossima, I wondered whether Elder Keetch’s query — What does a productive posture toward secular society look like? — might be best answered with an individual example — a person.
Then, suddenly, some 48 hours after our initial conversation, I learned that Elder Keetch had died. I never imagined his condition would turn fatal.
A week or so later, I decided to attend Elder Keetch’s funeral. I listened to eulogies from the Keetch family, professional colleagues and LDS Church leaders. A picture emerged of a man who, according to the dictates of his conscience and in communion with law, deftly entered the public square to protect America’s first freedom.
And yet, in doing so, he never neglected his real “home work.” Indeed, according to the eulogies, Elder Keetch was the kind of father and husband who maximized time at home rather than maximizing profits. Where practicable, he traveled with family on work trips.
Parrying in the public arena never became an excuse, as it too often does, to skirt the religious principles and responsibilities he deemed worthy of protection.2 comments on this story
Elder Lance Wickman, general counsel for the LDS Church and an emeritus General Authority Seventy, remarked at Elder Keetch’s funeral: “I can say that in the last quarter-century, no one — no one — has had a greater impact on the cause of Zion in the courts — or in the courts of public opinion — than has our beloved Elder Von G. Keetch.”
Elder Keetch’s public impact on faith and family was undoubtedly influenced by the private investment he poured into his own family and his own faith.
So what does it look like for a religious individual to balance public engagement and private devotion — to reinspire society abroad without neglecting it at home?
Elder Keetch, it turns out, answered his own question.
Correction: In a previous version, Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger was misspelled as Warren Berger.