Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 4.
Freedom of Conscience
Individual Right or Social Responsibility?
L. Jackson Newell

[p.31]Levi Zendt, a central figure in James Michener’s novel Centennial, was raised in a small Amish town in Pennsylvania. He chafed under the pious expectation of his elders, rebelled against the orthodoxy they pressed on him, and was shunned as a teenager for his unwillingness to do what they wished him to do. With the aid of an understanding grandmother and a few dollars from her apron pocket, Zendt rode out of town stopping only at the village orphanage to whisk away Elly, the love of his young life. The two of them followed the trail of westering Americans in the early 1840s, making their way to St. Louis behind their prancing steeds, but trading them there for two trusty oxen that would eat less and pull harder on the long overland trail to Colorado.

Young Levi and Elly resolved to homestead on the edge of the prairie in the evening shadow of the Rocky Mountains. She died shortly from a rattlesnake bite, but the story traces Levi’s long life on the Colorado frontier. In Michener’s tale, Levi becomes an irrepressible force for education, civilization, and peace. As the area he homesteaded becomes a village, and then a town, and finally a small city, Levi raises his voice for schools, builds libraries, and stands for justice in a wild land. He seeks to understand, and then to reconcile, the bitter differences in perspective taken by cattle ranchers and sheepherders, by Scottish and German settlers and Arapaho and Shoshone Indians. Levi Zendt is full of compassion for all who are [p.32]treated shabbily by the severe weather and harsh culture of his time and place.

In his later years, Levi makes a pilgrimage to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the village of his birth. There he begins to see what he had not consciously realized until that time. Although he had foregone the trappings of the religion of his youth—the forms of Amish worship—his life had been a near-perfect expression of the essential values he had been taught as a boy. I might say, though Michener wouldn’t have put these words in Levi’s mouth, that Levi had done what the elders of his youth had dared only to preach.

An intriguing question for all of us engaged in the present humanist-Mormon dialogue is whether Levi Zendt was a Christian or a humanist—or whether, in fact, such labels have any meaning. In one fashion or another, I’ve asked over a generation of university students to ponder this question. Nearing ninety years of age, Mormon academic and author Lowell Bennion captured the essence of this quintessential dilemma with the simple stroke of an artist: “If you doubt God,” he recently said in an interview, “I hope you will not doubt what God stands for—truth and justice and mercy.”

My topic is freedom of conscience and, with proper respect for Webster, I define freedom of conscience as the quality of living consciously and consistently within the framework of one’s highest ideals. Freedom of conscience is the freedom beyond all freedoms, the ultimate freedom. Americans, more than most peoples, assume that freedom is measured by the number of options open to an individual at any moment. We have massed the point. Freedom is the ecstacy we experience when, over the long haul, we achieve the noblest aspirations we have carried in our hearts and minds.

Speaking and acting in accordance with our conscience hardly banishes pain or sorrow from our lives, but it certainly does spare us regret, remorse, and shame. “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promised land,” Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed shortly before his assassination, “and I don’t fear any man anymore.” Be we believer or skeptic, whatever words we use to describe the rare but exquisite confluence of the conscious self and the universe, we know it as liberty and feel it as joy.

Mortimer Adler, among others, has written about great ideas that have defined civilizations (Six Great Ideas [New York: Collier, 1981]). [p.33]Such ideas are the substance of conscience, the touchstones of ethical lives. I am talking here about the essential values of world cultures that have stood out above all others. I call these “enduring ideas” because no individual, nor any society, can exist one day without encountering, consciously or unconsciously, the need to confront and make decisions about these human values.

From the ancient Greeks, we draw three: goodness, truth, and beauty. From the European enlightenment, three more: liberty, justice, and equality. From most of the great religions of the world, I think we must add three more: peace, mercy and love.

Now the Greeks had no corner on goodness, beauty, and truth, or even on the articulation of those values, and the same is true of the intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment. But these were two times and places in history where civilization seemed particularly adept at stating ideals and struggling to realize them in human institutions and behavior. In the same way, the major religions of the world have been porters of the venerable and humanizing concepts of love, mercy and peace.

Most of the struggles in our society and around the globe today can be seen as quests to reconcile the competing demands of two or more of these nine enduring ideas. Courts wrestle with justice and mercy, Congress with liberty and equality, religions with love and truth, and perennial negotiators in the Middle East with peace and justice. To understand these ideas, to see them more consciously at play in our own hearts and in life around us, is to hold out the possibility of gathering wisdom in any human soul.

Many words have been spent, ink spilled, and good will squandered over the clash of some of these values in the institutional life of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the summer of 1993 the Mormon church had become so immersed in its struggle to control free expression among its membership that it began to appear that nothing mattered as much as obedience and orthodoxy. As church “disciplinary councils” were urged into action, and some members’ lives were tragically disrupted, particularly the “September Six,” the intellectual, feminist, and homosexual communities engaged the conflict with such zeal that it bordered on obsession.

As important as these matters are, and continue to be, it is vital that we think beyond them, beyond free inquiry alone. Freedom of [p.34]conscience and free expression are not ends in themselves, but means for the liberation of the human spirit. They are qualities of mind that enable us to address courageously the great issues of our time. Like a new baseball mitt, freedom of conscience has a wonderful aroma, but it is of little value until you break it in … and take the field.

My personal list of the major issues on the field of human affairs in our era is a long one, but I want to present what I regard as the most crucial three. At the top of my list I place biological survival. Threats to the global ecosystem are now so pervasive and severe that the vast majority of us—including public officials, religious leaders, and academics—will do anything to shield ourselves from the awful reality. All the while, we are sucking the earthly battery dry of its reserve of carbon energy, stripping away that precious six-inch layer of top soil on which production of almost all our food and fiber depends, poisoning our water, and despoiling the blanket of air without which we cannot breathe.

There are many reasons for the eco-crisis, but the explosion of the world’s population during the last several hundred years overwhelms all the others. The rise of science and the use of technology are both a cause and an effect of the Malthusian curve. We have already exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity for human beings, in the judgment of many scientists, with or without technological advances and agricultural miracles.

The control of population growth, even the reduction of the human population by drastically reducing birth rates in North America (where each child consumes far more of the earth’s resources than anywhere else) and worldwide, is the single most important step that we can take to assure survival—not just for the human species, but perhaps for all higher animal life on this planet.

The second most grave problem facing our society and the larger world today is the disintegration of viable family units. I refer not to the family unit, but any family unit or set of family units that can exist together and be pervasive enough to assure the loving and healthy rearing of children everywhere. The number of unloved and unwanted children today is appalling, and also relates to the above-mentioned problem of excessive population growth. When I say “unwanted,” I speak not only of unexpected pregnancies but more importantly of children who are de facto orphaned by parents who [p.35]simply deride, somewhere along the line, that they no longer wish to accept the responsibility to rear them. This problem is epidemic, striking families across the socio-economic spectrum and children of all ages and races.

The traditional family has almost vanished as a result of twentieth-century changes in economics, demographics, science, and technology. As Rollo May has said, “We are living at a time when one age is dying and the new age is not yet born” (The Courage to Create [New York: Bantam Books, 1975], 1). At any moment in history, however, we are only one generation away from barbarism—because even that is a generous estimate of the time we have to introduce each newborn child to the enduring ideas that hold civilizations together, and to inspire each child with a sense of safety and duty and responsibility. Nobody can reasonably believe that we’re making headway on this front.

The answer, of course, is not to turn back the dock and rediscover the nuclear or “traditional” family. It can’t be done, not as a universal institution or anything close to it. In cases where such families do survive and flourish, at least those where gender equality is highly valued, it can be a source of great strength for all its members, and for society. But this experience is no longer common.

Most children in the ghettos of Los Angeles, Rio, or Hong Kong—and probably even Salt Lake City—are now living without their two biological parents, and many are out of contact even with one. The latest demographic studies suggest that less than half of the children in the United States today live with both of their biological parents, and many are experiencing the breakup of a series of short-term “family units” before reaching adulthood (see Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “Dan Quayle Was Right,” Atlantic Monthly, Apr. 1993).

My third-ranking problem which warrants our action is the maldistribution of wealth and privilege within our society—and within and among every society around the world. Every year more mansions creep up the mountain slopes ringing Salt Lake Valley and every year more homeless and hungry men, women, and children huddle in Pioneer Park and beg along our main streets. Our local economy, like the world economy, is geared to capitalize upon and reward the advantages of formal education and training. As the work of the [p.36]world takes place increasingly in huge institutions (or is regulated by huge institutions), there is not so wide a berth as there once was for the variety of people, personalities and motivations that impel us to work and to give our energies and talents for the common good. Homelessness and hunger, here and abroad, are not simply problems of shortages, or even of lacking skills; they are also problems of human motivation.

Like the first two problems, then, the maldistribution of wealth is one that has highly complex causes and severe consequences. War and revolution are the inevitable outcomes of stark differences in the human condition, and reform has always been the best antidote to revolution. The twentieth century has seen a variety of radical and even bizarre experiments to address the disparities between rich and poor, and between the powerful and powerless. Most have collapsed in tragic and bloody heaps. Reform is almost always the more humane road to lasting, positive change.

In searching for Mormon and humanist responses to my list of the three most pressing global problems, I place my hope for the resolutions in three institutions: education, democracy, and a regulated market economy. In an increasingly technological world economy, the importance of education appears self evident. The work of the world is no longer accomplished by muscle power. Happily, it is also true worldwide that the higher the level of education the lower the birth rate. Significantly, education is also essential to the full functioning of the other two institutions—democracy and a regulated market economy.

As Thomas Jefferson perceived so clearly 200 years ago, free institutions cannot flourish or even survive without an educated citizenry. Democracy can’t work without education, real education of the type we call liberal. And regulated capitalism can exist only with wise and courageous public officials and politicians.

As the former Soviet Union and its satellite states revealed, when indoctrination replaces education the result is a dependent citizenry—politically, economically, and morally. And where training is thought to suffice instead of education, free institutions and responsible economic production will not be found.

Vigorous, free, and liberal education is where I put my faith and where I have been fortunate to put my energies throughout my [p.37]career. I’m more convinced than ever that those of us who devote our lives to the education of children and adults are investing our energies at one of the most crucial points in the complex web of human experience today.

Robust democratic institutions offer hope for responding to the ecological disaster, the imperiled notion of family (in any form), and the disparity between rich and poor. Elected officials must pay attention to the interests of the poor, so long as the franchise is universal. By the same token, elected officials must respond to the disintegration of families and the moral, physical, and spiritual suffering of children.

Recent assessments of environmental damage in the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations make it clear that governments that are not responsible to the people are not responsible to the earth or to other creatures that inhabit it. The worst environmental disasters in history were caused and covered up by authoritarian regimes.

Unquestionably, market economics has been the source of many of the worst assaults on the global environment, but, paradoxically, modern capitalism is our best hope for responding to these disasters. Given the number of people who are swarming around this earth today, it is clear that without responsible economic development we will burn every twig, eat every fruit, and despoil every spring with our own excretion. Responsible free market economics, made possible by liberal education, in the context of a sturdy democratic political system, not only offers the best hope of reducing family size and world population, but also of raising environmental consciousness and responsibility. We must work to improve these institutions, and we should turn our attention increasingly to the problems that matter most. We must find some way to get beyond the obsession with church policies and politics in Utah and beyond the humanist-religionist impasse in the larger American society.

One way we might do this is by recognizing the contributions that can be made to these more fundamental problems by both Mormons and humanists. Having spent a good portion of my life as a Mormon outside of Utah, I have seen the positive effects on people who embrace the faith and the doctrine of the LDS church. I believe there is ample evidence that interest and pursuit of education increases [p.38]dramatically with membership in the Mormon church, and I would wager that participation in the political process, and even economic independence (and the capacity to contribute more than one gives to the economy), also increase. However, one must get outside of Utah to see this clearly.

On the other hand, I can’t give the LDS church high marks in other areas. It can cause people to be dangerously dependent on leaders rather than to think for themselves. It also provides encouragement and rationale for extremely large families. In the areas where it is dominant, the conservative political weight of Mormon culture augers against the exploration of almost all solutions to poverty, illiteracy, and the troubled family—except those prescribed by Mormon leaders.

Here is where humanists make one of their crucial contributions. One of the difficulties of the Mormon world view is the belief that a divine plan exists which assures that everything will work out just fine in the end. Don’t worry about the survival of civilization or of life on earth, the Millennium will come, and must come, anyway. Don’t worry about overpopulation, we have been instructed to populate and replenish the earth and bring those spirits down from heaven.

A humanist perspective is much more realistic about our human responsibility to respond to contemporary problems. We need the desperately sober and highly rational world view of humanism, and we need the sense of responsibility that comes with it. I do not believe we are going to be rescued by miracles, be they technological or divine. But we might do much to rescue ourselves through courage, good sense and hard work.

Both Mormonism and humanism provide a healthy response to the pervasive cynicism that engulfs the contemporary world. Both give me good reason to believe that it matters greatly what I do. Both call you and me to consider the interests of those far away from us in time and place, and both, at least at their best, demand a high degree of commitment to common endeavors. I for one refuse to dichotomize Mormonism and humanism, or Christianity and humanism, or to pit them against one another. I regard myself as a Christian humanist—rather than a secular humanist—acknowledging that the broad ethics of Jesus, as distinct from the institutional church, have a powerful claim on my philosophy and actions.

[p.39]I owe a personal and intellectual debt to both Mormonism and humanism. Certainly, I understand the singular enduring ideas far better because I have seen them through both of these lenses. Taking a cue from the story of Levi Zendt, and from the wisdom of Lowell Bennion, I hope we can all—skeptics and believers—recommit ourselves to the highest and most enduring ideals of human civilizations.

There is no greater hope for humanity, nor any greater threat to tyranny and injustice, than a free and responsible conscience, coupled with the courage and will to act. The celebration of our freedom must be dwarfed by, and given meaning through, the dedication of our energies to the relief of suffering and the advance of human dignity worldwide.

L. Jackson Newell is Professor of Educational Administration at the University of Utah.