Making Peace: Personal Essays
Why Utah Mormons Should Become Democrats: Reflections On Partisan Politics
[p.85] Over one hundred years ago, in September 1891, there occurred in Huntsville, Utah, a strange incident. In this American town on a bright late summer morning with young cottonwoods and Lombardy poplars turning bright yellow along the streets and pockets of gold aspen and deep-red maples visible on the surrounding hills, Mormon church leaders went from door to door, assigning one family to be Democrats, the next to be Republicans. Thus were Mormons attempting to accommodate gentile political ways as a prerequisite for Utah statehood. David O. McKay, one of the most openly Republican of church presidents, confirmed this story of how his hometown of Huntsville had once divided by alternate houses, while Joseph Nelson, head of the Saltair Corporation, reported that in his Salt Lake City ward his bishop stood and declared all the Saints on one side of the aisle Democrats and all those on the other Republicans.1 In Rockville, in southern Utah, leaders divided the community down Main Street.2 Whatever the mechanism, in the early 1890s Mormon leaders, from the First Presidency through stake presidents down to bishops and other local leaders, were energetically engaged in a remarkably paradoxical enterprise. They went about proving that the rank-and-file was independent of political influence from the church hierarchy by directing Mormons, against their inclinations, to join the Republican party.
As everyone in Utah knew, a wholesale onslaught on Mormon beliefs had been led by the national Republican Party. Its initial platform [p.86]had promised in the 1850s to eradicate what it termed the “twin relics of barbarism”—slavery and polygamy. In response, Mormons formed the anti-Republican People’s Party, and applications for statehood were denied as increasingly punitive measures were passed against Mormons by the Republican-controlled national government. But by 1891 church leaders had become convinced it must disband the Mormon party to avoid “carpetbaggers,” Republican appointees from Washington, as they did in the devastated South, exercised insensitive, tyrannous control that essentially disenfranchised the local people. Church leaders knew that if things were left to chance, most Mormons would become Democrats and in reaction gentiles would become Republicans, perpetuating the bitter political/religious division that had plagued Utah territory since the formation of the anti-Mormon Liberal party in 1870.
The insight and intentions of the First Presidency are revealed in a letter written in May 1891 to John W. Young, who had long served as unofficial liaison to national Democratic party leaders. President Wilford Woodruff and his counselors George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith informed Young that the political field in Utah was “ripe ready to harvest,” but that Mormons were anti-Republican in their sympathies and thus likely to “rush into the Democratic ranks.” They believed it was “of the highest importance that this not be the case.” Consider their reason, which helps explain their controversial and still sometimes maligned actions in directing people who naturally would be Democrats to become Republicans: “The more evenly balanced the parties become the safer it will be for us [Mormons] in the security of our liberties; and … our influence for good will be far greater than it possibly could be were either party overwhelmingly in the majority.”3
That statement shows remarkable foresight. It demonstrates, I believe, greater understanding of the basic strength of our political system than that of anti-Mormons of that time, mostly Republicans, who were willing to use any means, however unconstitutional, to destroy Mormonism as supposedly un-American. And it shows better insight into the nature and value of political parties than that of many Mormons today, mostly Republicans, who believe that Truth resides with their party and who therefore seek overwhelming supremacy.
[p.87]I believe things have come to such a pass that many Utah Mormons should choose to become Democrats—not because the Democratic platform is “truer,” certainly not because its leaders and candidates are “better.” Utah Mormons should become Democrats because for about twenty-five years Democrats have been a steadily dwindling minority in Utah, and thus Republicans are developing the attitudes and practices of one-party rule. Those attitudes and practices are more dangerous than the actual
beliefs or programs of either party.
I believe some Utah Mormons should become Democrats for precisely the same reason the First Presidency encouraged some to become Republicans in 1891, which is well worth reading again: “The more evenly balanced the parties become the safer it will be for us in the security of our liberties; and … our influence for good will be far greater than it possibly could be were either party overwhelmingly in the majority.”
Some may think this is simply a partisan plea by a disgruntled Democrat. Not so! I am a lifelong Republican, a descendant of Willkie and Dewey supporters. I voted twice for Nixon and twice for Reagan. I grew up hearing how my grandfather was kept in near starvation through the latter part of the Depression by anti-Mormon Democrats in Idaho. They swept in with Franklin D. Roosevelt and gave all the work painting state buildings to their incompetent cronies, who, as my grandfather said, besides depriving him of a living, “couldn’t paint worth a tinker’s dam.” I often heard my father, a hard-pressed farmer in southeast Idaho, fulminate about Roosevelt’s federal farm agents, many the sons of pork-barrel politicians. With no knowledge of local people and land conditions, they wasted money and tried to impose useless and destructive controls.
Despite all this I sincerely believe that I and other Utah Mormons should become Democrats—at least until the parties are nearly equal in strength again in the state. In fact, it might be good for church leaders to encourage some shifting. This would make clear to Mormons the fundamental Constitutional principle that American freedoms are based on: separation of powers and prescribed checks and balances, strongly aided by the development of the two-party system. If those checks and the party system are kept strong and balanced, they create [p.88]a process of government that is the surest guarantee of our liberties and of civil peace, much more sure than the particular content of any person’s or party’s ideas about what our government should do.
Political parties have generally had the opposite effect of that anticipated by the framers, who deplored partisan politics as too polarizing to society. Instead parties have reduced partisan polarization; they have helped keep politics in the United States mainly non-ideological, forcing partisans to compromise their demands, trade favors, unite with strange bedfellows to get part of what they wanted, and in turn help opponents get part of what they wanted. This has provided a basis for cooperation among people of different religions, races, and sectional interests; it has tended to shrink volatile dogmatisms into manageable issues and has effectively translated what I think was the most profound and inspired insight of James Madison into reality.
In August 1786, just ten years after the Declaration of Independence and only five after the Articles of Confederation had been ratified, America’s great experiment in creating a “new order of the ages” was failing so completely that George Washington wrote to John Jay, “What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves.”4 But at about this same time Madison, an intellectual and political leader from Virginia, set out to do something. He had been engaged in six months of intense study of books on history and government sent him from Paris by Thomas Jefferson. He now took time off from his studies to attend a convention at Annapolis on regulating trade among the states. There, together with two friends, the strong federalist Alexander Hamilton of New York and Governor Edmund Randolph of Virginia, he successfully led the delegates in making a unanimous call for another convention. It was to be held the next May in Philadelphia and to have a greatly expanded agenda, essentially to amend the Articles of Confederation.
In the meantime Madison wrote two papers and shared them with Washington, Randolph, and the rest of the Virginia delegation. When the new convention began on May 28, 1787, Randolph rose with a prepared sketch for a new Constitution. It was what became known as the Virginia Plan and was based on the papers by Madison. It moved [p.89]the convention beyond its announced purpose and gave the edge to those favoring a strong national government.
By the second week, in a reconsideration of the means of selecting members to the proposed two-house Congress, a basic roadblock became visible. Some worried that states with small populations like Rhode Island would be “subject to faction,” rent by the passions of minorities, while others suspected that the large states like Massachusetts were so unwieldly as to be impervious to effective democratic government but inclined to anarchy and misrule. Madison turned these apparently mutually supportive arguments against each other. Drawing on his long study of republics and confederacies, he pointed out in an argument he later developed fully in The Federalist, letter 10, that all civilized societies are divided into numerous sects, factions, and interests; that whenever a majority is united by a common interest or passion, the rights of the minority are in danger; and that neither honesty, respect for character, nor conscience had succeeded in restraining the majority in past societies from infringing on the rights of the minority. In fact, he reminded his colleagues in a sentence that should burn with memory and caution for every Mormon, “Religion itself may become a motive to persecution and oppression.”
What remedy then? It was brilliantly simple, original, and crucial in removing the roadblock to an acceptable Constitution: To enlarge the political sphere and thereby create a community with so many interests and parties that, in the first place, a majority would not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest different from that of the whole people, including minorities, and that, in the second place, in cases where the majority did have such an interest, they would not be able to unite in the pursuit of it.5
Madison thus provided delegates a way to believe that the evils they had seen flowing from an excess of democracy, rather than being increased in a national government and growing country, would actually be decreased as they counteracted each other. And as delegates acted on that faith to create our country, Madison became a prophet of how a pluralistic society can in fact work with unique success. The stability and internal peacefulness of our country have resulted from its governmental structure and what noted writer on education and on govern-[p.90]ment Daniel Bell calls America’s “constitutional culture,” with its many checks and balances, including the two-party system.6 Our system encourages the formation of shifting coalitions in ways that safeguard the liberties of all citizens, particularly minority groups, whose rights are always most at risk in any democratic society.
Two other moments stand out for me in that four-month process of compromise and shifting coalitions that produced the document we honored much in the years approaching and including its bicentennial in 1987. Those moments are particularly important to my argument for political pluralism as an essential ingredient of national peace. They are the decision to give the war-making power to Congress, not the president, and the decision not to give either Congress or the president the power to impose what were called “sumptuary laws.”
I begin with the second: In late August, as the Convention moved into its final stages, George Mason of Virginia moved to enable Congress to enact laws designed to regulate personal behavior on moral and religious grounds. He argued, in a way that sounds reasonable to most Mormons and conservative people generally, “No government can be maintained unless the manners [by which he meant private moral behavior] be made consonant to it.”7 After a few speeches in opposition, the Convention voted down the proposal, and, except for the unfortunate fourteen-year experiment with Prohibition of liquor from 1919 to 1933, our system has generally avoided wholesale infringement upon people’s private morality.
Why would I, a teetotaling Mormon who believes that smoking, drinking, and promiscuity are among civilization’s most destructive evils, want government to stay entirely away from trying to control those things—except as they directly victimize others? For two reasons: First, I want freedom of conscience in areas of personal faith and morality for myself, and I must therefore protect it for others. Second, I do not want to live in a society, like most of those in the world, driven by the conflict and violence that result from attempts to coerce faith and morals—conflict and violence such as was clearly produced under Prohibition and by the earlier attempt to control Mormon [p.91]polygamy and which currently surrounds the abortion issue.
Daniel Bell’s twofold explanation for the stability of our government for over 200 years is instructive. First, there is the unexpected stability in pluralism that Madison predicted, built on coalition-forming between interest groups and thus protection of the interests of potentially rebellious minorities. Second, we have reduced conflict by largely avoiding legislation in areas of personal morality. As Bell points out, for most people such areas are non-negotiable. They often involve deep personal convictions which cannot be adjusted or compromised, and when compliance is forced, that compulsion gives rise to deep resentments and eventual rebellion. The arena of law should be reserved for procedural matters and areas where we directly harm others or restrict their rights. These matters are generally clear and acceptable, or are at least negotiable, meaning we can compromise and live with the compromises. When we cannot compromise our consciences or we feel personally infringed upon, conflict is often the result.
Apostle Brigham Young, Jr., reflecting, I am confident, his father’s view, confessed during the polygamy persecutions of 1884, “I am willing, in political matters, to … let the majority rule … But in the things pertaining to conscience no man, no set of men … can control me before my God … I am a free man in relation to these matters, not bowing to any majority nor to any party.”8
Majority control over conscience was precisely what happened in polygamy, and Mormons should remember it well. As Daniel Bell pointed out to a BYU audience in the fall of 1986, “Cultural conservatives should be political liberals.”9 In other words, those, like Mormons, who want the freedom to practice their strong and unusual personal religious beliefs and ethics should be among the most active in promoting a system where all are free to do so, even those whose beliefs and actions are repugnant to them, as long as those beliefs and actions do not unavoidably and significantly infringe on the rights of others.
Mormons should also be among the most active opponents to anything like George Mason’s sumptuary laws, such as Prohibition, to “blue laws” such as Sunday closing, etc.—that is, laws that try to control private morality or activities between consciously consenting [p.92]adults, no matter how perverse. We should be against any governmental coercion upon teachers or curriculum, especially in areas of religious views, organic evolution, human sexuality, and partisan politics. We should even be against prescribed school prayer, including so-called “moments of silence,” whenever, however subtly, those publicly mandated forms act to coerce young minds. Spiritual and moral coercion not only violate the most central value of the Constitution but the central values of the Mormon religion, the very ones that lead us to revere the Constitution.
Mormons belong to one of the few remaining religious bodies which still believes the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God. The crucial scriptural passage is Doctrine and Covenants 101:77-80, a revelation to Joseph Smith in 1833. That was only forty years after ratification of the Constitution and not long before Madison died, the last surviving framer and certainly one of those to whom God refers in saying to the Prophet, “I established the Constitution of this land by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (v. 80).
Knowledgeable people may laugh at such a description of those fifty-five mortal men, most of them quite secular, very few of them pious, some dissolute. But after reading the story of their accomplishment in William Peters’s excellent history, A More Perfect Union (1987), I cannot laugh. By devising the first government in history which allowed a group of people consciously to place themselves under the rule of law, these men proved to be extremely courageous and wise. At the same time they achieved a structure that promotes the most fundamental goal of many prophets through the ages, that individuals be able to assume moral responsibility for their own actions.
The revelation I have quoted says that the American Constitution and laws are acceptable to God only as they are “established and … maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles” (D&C 101:77). These principles, as BYU professor Noel Reynolds points out,10 are precisely what is meant by the rule of law. In the Lord own words, “That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in [p.93]the day of judgment” (v. 78, my emphasis). The framers wanted people to be free to pursue wealth and happiness and personal salvation in whatever form they chose and to do so with confidence that laws would apply consistently and equally to all, whatever their private goals. They could make both moral choices and legal contracts with reasonable ability to predict future consequences, confident there would be absolutely no intervention by the whims and arbitrary commands of rulers.
This system guarantees that all can be held morally responsible, both before the law where appropriate and always before their consciences and God; they are accountable for their actions and choices since they are free from compulsion. As Hugh Nibley has written: “The best of human laws leaves every man free to engage in his own pursuit of happiness, without presuming for a moment to tell him where that happiness lies; that is the very thing the laws of God can guarantee. At best, the political prize is negative.”11
Mormons have trouble with this. Natural utopians, we tend to want more from the political system than it can give. We want a positive prize. Republicans in particular tend to want to legislate private morality, to use law to make people good, to force them not just to refrain from harming each other but to be good. Any such effort to do God’s work, to use the power of the state to do what only churches and non-coercive social and cultural forces should do, once led the Republican party into one of the most outrageous intrusions upon human rights in American history, one that ranks with Jim Crow laws and our internment in concentration camps of U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War II.
I mean, of course the anti-polygamy crusade against Mormons. That crusade was doubly pernicious in that it not only violated a fundamental principle that government should not intrude into personal belief and morality, but it adopted unconstitutional means to serve that unconstitutional end. Perhaps most repugnant is that it employed two ancient enemies of the rule of law that the framers explicitly renounced: ex post facto laws, which make past actions criminal and thus remove predictability and moral responsibility,12 and bills of attainder. The latter are declarations of guilt of specifically targeted individuals by legislative bodies rather than by fair trial in court.
[p.94]Led by Republicans, the government passed, declared constitutional, and then brutally enforced a series of laws designed to coerce Mormons into conformity with Victorian America. The Morrill Act of 1862 forbade people from cohabitation in plural marriage; the Edmunds Act of 1882 imposed five-year sentences on polygamists and deprived them forever of the right to vote and hold office; and the infamous Utah Commission, appointed by Republican president Chester Arthur to enforce the Edmunds Act, imposed a religious test oath by requiring that voters and office-seekers swear they had never practiced polygamy. In Idaho mere membership in the church was used as a test to disenfranchise all Mormons, polygamous or not.
In 1887 the Republican Congress moved directly to attack the organization behind the practice of polygamy. The Edmunds-Tucker Act disincorporated the church, confiscated most of its properties, disenfranchised all polygamists and all Utah women (Mormon or not), abolished the Perpetual Emigrating Fund that subsidized immigration from Europe, and took over the Mormon-dominated public school system. No wonder that James Henry Moyle, who witnessed this period as a young man, could write that reading the Republican-controlled Salt Lake Tribune for that time demonstrated that
there was no fundamentally American political principle that [the crusaders] would not have sacrificed to achieve their ambition and determination to secure the political control of the Utah Territory and the destruction of Mormonism … Not a few of them placed no limit on the executive and judicial action which they would take to secure for the minority control of the majority and to deprive the majority of its most fundamental political rights.13
Moyle was an ardent, lifelong Democrat and devout Mormon. Though he eventually served as a mission president for the church, he suffered much humiliation under the cloud of anti-Democrat feeling that strangely developed among Mormons after the partitions of 1891. Mormons soon forgot their former evil treatment at the hands of Republicans, and Moyle was amazed and sorrowful that church leaders, in trying to prevent people from going overwhelmingly Democrat (which, in a moving passage of devotion to his leaders, Moyle says they were [p.95]right to do), unintentionally made Utah Mormons overwhelmingly Republican. He regrets mainly the great confusions and personal tragedies these efforts produced, especially the tragedies that befell Mormon Democratic Party leaders B. H. Roberts and Moses Thatcher. He feels deeply the “great injustice to the Democratic Party that was perpetuated in the ingratitude and partisan excesses that followed.” He concludes, in a lesson for Mormons and non-Mormons today, that it is futile for even great men “to be both political and ecclesiastical leaders at the same time in a government where political parties are controlling and voters divide on political lines … In America politics and religion should never be entangled.”14
My concern is that religion and politics are being entangled again in Mormonism, not among high-ranking leaders so much as among local leaders and in Mormon popular culture. It is no longer merely a joke that a good Mormon cannot be a Democrat, and Mormon Democrats are constantly on the defensive, seeming to feel a need to apologize for even being Democrats, whatever their particular views. The response church leaders feared in 1891 is also occurring, though now in the opposite direction: Non-Mormons and disaffected Mormons are gravitating to the Democratic Party, so that the political division is becoming a religious one.
One of the most troubling elements of this polarization is the growing Mormon tendency to find absolute or at least superior, even divine, truth in the Republican Party platform. At the practical level our system depends, I believe, on a difficult skill suited to that quality the framers called “the genius of our people.” It is the ability to energetically pursue a program or idea in the political marketplace and then calmly to accept its defeat or modification through compromise and even to lend support to the “winners” in a genuinely united community. It is a skill based on recognition that the finest truth or law or program is never the creation of one person or partisan group but rather the result of the passionate conflict and combining of ideas and proposals in a democratic context.
I was somewhat pleased to see the Republican victories nationally in November 1994, because it seemed to me that many Democrats in [p.96]Congress, like the Republicans in much of Utah, had during forty years of control begun to adopt the dangerous habits of one-party rule—cronyism, disregard of opposing points of view, failure to pursue new ideas—and I thought a shake-up and new lines of debate and coalition might help us find new solutions. But when the leader of House Republicans, Newt Gingrich, after the election announced he would “never compromise” with President Clinton, he revealed an ignorance of the basic strength of our political system that was breathtaking. When both Republicans and Democrats belittled Clinton’s State of the Union address as too full of compromise, too much a combination of left and right, liberal and conservative ideas, I despaired that our political discourse had descended permanently into small-minded partisanship and resentment.
The kind of political skill and virtue I am trying to advocate is based on the notion articulated by Milton in Areopagitica, his great defense of freedom of the press and of expression. Milton’s surprising idea is that virtue and truth are made pure and whole not by being cloistered and protected from exposure to contrary, even “evil” actions and ideas, but by the opposite: full engagement in a tempting world and a full marketplace of ideas to which we respond with reasoned criticism and rethinking and, yes, even changing our mind and compromising.
Three hundred years after Milton’s essay, Walter Lippmann, writing in August 1939, just as liberty was under worldwide assault at the beginning of World War II, reminded us that our vaunted ideal of freedom of speech and political expression is not merely an abstract virtue or matter of simple neighborly toleration but an absolute practical necessity: “We must protect the right of our opponents to speak because we must hear what they have to say … because freedom of discussion improves our own opinions.”15 He points out that in our system we pay the opposition salaries out of the public treasury because like a good doctor who tells us unpleasant truths, an opponent can help us be more healthy.
Lippmann shows how dictatorships defeat themselves by liquidating or terrifying into silence the very voices that would help them avoid or correct inevitable errors. It is precisely such opposition and de-[p.97]bate, especially concerning such a crucial matter as making war, which our Founding Fathers placed firmly in an open, contentious body like Congress, because they knew that there, rather than in the patriotic but narrow, cloistered vision of a single person like Oliver North or H. R. Haldeman, the best decisions would be made and most effectively changed if they needed to be. It is there where what Lippmann calls “the indispensable opposition” most effectively operates and where Reagan, as well as Nixon, should have turned to tell and hear the truth. As Lippmann concludes, “A good statesman, like any other sensible human being, always learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters. For his supporters will push him to disaster unless his opponents show him where the dangers lie.”16
Good Democrats or good Republicans are not those who believe their party has all truth and who yearn for complete victory and one-party government control. They are rather those who seek the engagement, compromise, enlightening debate, checks on natural aggrandizement of power, etc., that the process of interparty conflict makes possible. They are like Todd Britsch, who, while he was Dean of Humanities at BYU, said to me, “I do not feel good when I have power to implement my ideas without argument and opposition. I’ve learned that without strong rebuttal and rethinking they are likely not to be very good ideas—and may be very bad ones.” Good Democrats and Republicans are those who realize that the political process is strongest when the parties are nearly equal in strength—and good Mormons, believers in our inspired Constitution and desirous of political peace and effectiveness, would work, or even change affiliations, to bring that about.
Let me illustrate the danger I feel in devotion to supposed one-party truth. In the spring 1987 run-off election for Brigham Young University student body officers, two students who had had some experience in negative campaigning in state political elections used such methods to defeat a student they found objectionable simply because he was a “liberal Democrat.” The candidate, who had led strongly in the primary and thus was likely to win, had been president of Response, a club that sponsored the Peace and Human Rights symposium held at [p.98]BYU each year. He had participated in an on-campus anti-Contra demonstration and had signed a petition published in the Daily Universe calling for U.S.-Soviet arms reduction.
The two students, according to a report in BYU’s independent Student Review, “were committed to the perpetuation of a conservative political philosophy at BYU through the perpetuation of politically conservative [student] leaders.”17 Their campaign consisted of allegations about the candidate’s financial management and criticism of his bringing to campus “leftist speakers.” The candidate, and others, responded in a campus Universe article with statements such as Yes, he brought liberal speakers to campus—along with conservative and moderate speakers—as part of the function of the symposia to educate people to a range of views, and Yes, there was an $800 deficit listed on the Response account, but it was an accounting error and had been removed.
The two students printed a flyer which quoted only the admissions but not the explanations. When asked why they did this they responded that to print the explanations as well would have limited the “rhetorical effectiveness” of their flyers.18 These actions were probably the reason the candidate lost, and they reveal a profound and dangerous misunderstanding of our political process as well as Christian morality by some young Mormons.
Lest anyone think that such intolerance and misunderstanding of our system occurs only at BYU or among conservatives, let me tell about my alma mater, the University of Utah. Because the U was founded by Mormons and remained predominantly Mormon until well into this century, there was much church influence, and the increasing non-Mormon faculty at times felt somewhat beleaguered. In some departments there is probably still a Mormon clique that sometimes controls things unfairly. But when I was a student in the 1950s I found in all the humanities and most of the social science departments an almost complete swing to the opposite condition. Nearly all teachers were non-Mormons or had left the faith, and I found in many classes and on most public occasions a subtle but unmistakable disdain for things Mormon.
Sometimes the disdain wasn’t so subtle. Religiously pious themes and term papers by Mormon students were belittled among the faculty [p.99]and graduate students. The “local culture” was openly stereotyped as ignorant, repressive, and prejudiced. A faculty member asserted at a public forum that it was inconsistent for a Mormon bishop to be a university professor because commitment to any particular set of beliefs precluded the necessary scholarly skepticism and objectivity. Which left unspoken the interesting question of what professors were to profess—apparently only criticism of religious or conservative beliefs or fostering of particular political and moral crusades. And that professing was done under what I believe is the most dangerous cloak for unexamined beliefs and assumptions, the aura of “objectivity.”
In 1975 I found that things were getting worse. My visits to the U, and a stint teaching a class in the extension division, revealed that many professors thought of the university as a small island of light in the great darkness of Mormon country. Their mission was to disabuse the Mormon students of their conditioned naivete and to belittle their church and culture—if in no other way by simply not taking it seriously. Even though 70 percent of students were LDS, many professors and graduate assistants seemed to feel no obligation to respond to that reality in their teaching, the way their liberal convictions would have led them to respond in any university with predominantly black or Jewish students—by learning about and engaging in respectful dialogue with the ideas and art and literature and institutions and people of the local culture.
One of my former professors, in genuine sorrow, admitted that his department simply would not hire an active Mormon into a tenure-track position. It was extremely hard for me to believe that such blatant and illegal prejudice was possible at a modern state university, but as I looked more closely I could see he was right. They hadn’t hired an active Mormon, despite excellent candidates, in twenty-five years and still haven’t twenty years later. I also found that friends had similar experiences with other departments, one finding that he had been mistaken for a non-Mormon and invited to the separate non-Mormon party for candidates, where he was told frankly about their determination not to hire such intrinsically handicapped creatures.
Since anything a Mormon president or academic vice-president would do about this embarrassing and costly blot on Utah’s fine higher [p.100]education system would be immediately suspect, it seems to me that it is high time for non-Mormon leaders of stature in the administration and faculty to approach the question as an educational rather than a religious issue. They could set the example, showing respect for their Mormon colleagues and students by engaging openly in serious dialogue with them and their faith and culture. They could act on and vigorously promote the assumption that undergirds our Constitution, that all individuals and groups, ethnic or religious or whatever, are potentially equal in the value of their ideas and feelings and must be accorded equal opportunity to work and learn and teach, without being impeded by anything irrelevant to the matter at hand, whether race, sex, or their religion or lack of it.
There may be some still not convinced. Let me return to one of the two actions by the Constitutional Convention that I said were important to my argument that Mormons should become Democrats. Republicans have recently led the way in the massive erosion of a central constitutional principle, the restriction of war-making to Congress. They need some principled, even religiously passionate, opposition.
On August 6, 1787, the Committee on Detail distributed a printed draft of the proposed Constitution to the Convention which provided, “The legislature of the United States shall have the power … to make war.” Pierce Butler of South Carolina suggested that the war power be given to the president, who, he said, “will not make war [except] when the Nation will support it.” But he was the only delegate, then or ever, to suggest that the executive branch be given power to initiate war.
In fact, the danger of a powerful executive was perhaps the chief concern in forming a strong federal government in the first place. “It has been observed that in all countries,” one delegate warned, when they were first deciding in May whether to have a one-person or three-person executive, “the executive power is in a constant course of increase.”19 John Rutledge of South Carolina said, “I am for vesting the executive power in a single person, though I am not for giving him the power of war and peace.”20
During the August 6, 1787, review of the document, Madison moved to [p.101]replace “make war” with “declare war” in the provision giving Congress that power, “leaving to the Executive the power to repel sudden attacks.” And the discussion that followed makes clear that the general concern of the delegates was not to thus narrow the power of the Legislature but only to allow the Executive to respond quickly to direct invasion. George Mason of Virginia, the records of the Convention tell us, “was against giving the power of war to the Executive, because [he was] not [safely] to be trusted with it … He was for clogging rather than facilitating war; but he was for facilitating peace.”21
We have come to a condition, some 200 years later, where the president has effectively taken over the power of initiating war, with almost no opposition from Congress. This encroachment has reached such arrogance that President Johnson intentionally lied to the country and Congress in order to carry on the war in Vietnam, and President Reagan and his executive branch supporters continued the war they began in Nicaragua by secret and illegal means, even when polls consistently showed that a majority of Americans were against it and Congress had expressly forbidden such actions.
Congress is far from faultless. For forty years it has abrogated its Constitutional and morally sensible responsibility to debate carefully, decide cautiously, and then announce clearly to the world a declaration of war. Many Congressmen have violated the Constitution, it seems, out of a misguided loyalty to their president when he is of their same party. Such partisans fail to understand the basic constitutional principle of separation of powers, which means that to fulfill their oath of office they must oppose improper, unconstitutional actions by the president, especially infringement on the separation of powers, even when he is of their own party.
The fault is certainly shared equally by both parties, just as they share about equally the number of Imperial Presidents, beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who improperly took to themselves the war power. But right now Republicans seem most guilty, which is another reason I think more Mormons, who have particular reason to respect the Constitution and oppose war, should be Democrats.
Mormon Democrats might have had enough independence, as Republican presidents during the past ten years rushed us into wars, to point out [p.102]that this country has not been subjected to “sudden attack,” in the sense clearly intended by the framers, since Pearl Harbor. They might have asked why, given this fact, we have had a series of horribly costly wars in which tens of thousands of Americans soldiers and millions of our opponents have been killed and trillions of dollars wasted on massive destruction of both lives and the environment. They might have found impeachable offense in President Reagan’s condoning of assassination, preemptive strikes, secret building of permanent bases in Honduras in violation of law and treaties, and his continued, arrogant disregard of the judgment of the World Court that we were to stop our unlawful interference in Nicaragua, a legitimate government which had committed no illegal or aggressive act against the United States.
Too many Mormon Congressmen have apparently become more Republican than legislators or Mormons. They seem more committed to the obsessive hawkishness of their party, which has allowed them to endorse violent efforts to overthrow governments we do not like, than to the teachings of Mormon prophets who categorically reject such acts. The Book of Mormon is quite clear on this, condemning all violence except defense against attacks within our borders (see Alma 24:17-19; 25:32-33; and 43:45-46). David O. McKay, speaking for the First Presidency at the beginning of World War II, outlined for modern nations the conditions under which such purely defensive war is justified, emphasizing carefully the limitations, especially this one: “Nor is war justified in an attempt to enforce a new order of government … however better the government … may
The United States directly violated that prophetic principle in Vietnam, Grenada, Angola, Nicaragua, and the Gulf War. Yet most Mormons approved, apparently willing to accept this kind of argument from government and party leaders: “We’re for peace in Nicaragua [or Angola or wherever], but you can’t have peace without democracy.” That is simply a way of saying we will use force to make other governments do as we want. Such an argument could have been used, just as rationally and probably more morally, to support intervention in South Africa for the disenfranchised black majority, but was not. Nor should it have been—in that case or in the others, where our intervention only led to escalation and perpetuation of violence. In the meantime South [p.103]Africa is achieving peace and reconciliation because of the self-sacrificing commitment of both white and black leaders to non-violence.
You can see how important it is for some Utah Mormons to become Democrats. First, it might produce some national leaders who could help stop the executive branch usurpation of power over war that right now most threatens our Constitution and our honor as a nation, our economy, and our lives. Second, it would produce a vital two-party system in Utah, one that could prevent a destructive Mormon/non-Mormon split and lead, through constructive dialogue and compromise rather than lazy ideology, to more innovative solutions to pressing state problems. Third, it might help us all to learn the basic lesson of our Constitution, that virtue and truth are the province of no single person or party—in fact, are best found in the process of civil debate, which includes listening because we want to, adjustment, compromise, and then honest and honorable acceptance of the results until new ones are created in the process.
The principle I am arguing for suggests that while Mormons in Utah should become Democrats, those in Democratic strongholds like Massachusetts and Chicago should become Republicans. Not only should qualified Mormons be hired in the humanities and social sciences at the University of Utah, more non-Mormons should be hired at BYU and invited to speak about challenging, controversial, “non-Mormon” subjects. I am suggesting that all military interference in other governments and lands should be renounced, even at the risk of communist or Islamic fundamentalist subversion there. That we should not only switch parties easily to help keep things balanced and the dialogue vital, but we should work against passage of laws about what are clearly private matters, even Sunday closing laws and imposed school prayer.
Is he saying (you might be asking yourself) that we should be less certain about the truth, the virtue of our political positions, that we should be more willing to listen to opponents and change our minds, more passionate about the process of give and take in developing new truths than about which side we are on? Is he saying that anti-religious partisanship is as dangerous as religious partisanship, especially when [p.104]mixed with politics or education?
And is he even saying that what he has said in this essay, despite his very best efforts to speak the truth, is surely a little and might be a lot wrong, that it ought to be argued with and modified?
Yes, you’ve got it. That’s exactly what I’m saying.
1. J. D. Williams, “Separation of Church and State in Mormon Theory and Practice,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Summer 1966): 37. See also Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Gustive O. Larson, The “Americanization” of Utah for Statehood (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library, 1971); and Edward Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986).
10. Noel B. Reynolds, “The Doctrine of an Inspired Constitution,” in “By the Hands of Wise Men”: Essays on the U.S. Constitution, ed. Ray Hillam (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1979), 1-28.