In the August 22nd issue of Christian Century, there was a plethora of pieces on Mormonism due to Mitt Romney’s official nomination as the GOP presidential candidate. Most saw, read, and praised the thoughtful piece by Kathleen Flake on Mormonism’s scriptural canon. Others were somewhat bemused with Richard Bushman’s list of “essential books on Mormonism” (which I personally found somewhat puzzling). But there were also pieces behind the CC’s paywall that deserve attention: Ed Blum’s incisive review of Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, and a very nuanced and important essay by Patrick Mason on “Visions of Zion: Changes in Mormon Social Ethics.” Not only is it great to see the CC spend so much time on Mormons, but even better to see them give the space to thoughtful and leading scholars in the field. Since many here probably don’t subscribe to the magazine, I thought I would gist Mason’s thoughtful piece.
Mason, as most here know, is the recently-appointed Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont. This essay explores the origins, development, transitions, and common themes through nearly two years of mormon social thinking. Framed, of course, around Mitt Romney and what his Mormon background can tell us about his social views–Mason rightly hedges by noting that Romney’s “open and deep commitment to the LDS Church should be counted as only one of many formative influences in his life”–the essay asks important questions: ” is there a Mormon social ethic, and if so, what does it look like? Is Mormonism “concerned” about social issues, or is it oriented primarily toward the preaching of the gospel and the salvation of souls?”
What follows is a careful and sophisticated historical look at various trajectories in Mormon social thinking, especially surrounding the ideals and realities of “Zion,” from Mormon communitarianism to libertarianism, from marital reform to support for traditional marriage, from peace-centered scriptures to broad support for imperialist endeavors. (He also quotes from a letter I was not aware of to demonstrate how far the Church moved from its 19th century communitarian vision: “In a 1947 letter to a prominent liberal Mormon academic, the church’s First Presidency asserted that ‘the social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.’”) More than anything, his careful look at how Mormonism transitioned in the 20th century, partly in reaction to the social gospel movement, made me all the more excited for his now-in-progress work on Ezra Taft Benson.
The final lessons on continuity emphasize the consistent emphasis on morality, and to provide the best insight to his closing punch, below are the final two paragraphs:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is exceptionally good at teaching personal morality, and expends a considerable portion of its time and other resources in encouraging its members to pursue lives of individual integrity and moral rectitude. As a bishop and then stake president, Mitt Romney would have spent countless hours working with the unemployed and others in need of church welfare assistance; providing marriage counseling; organizing activities for children and teenagers that encouraged them to live the gospel principles of chastity, temperance, honesty, and hard work; planning weekly worship services designed to meet the diverse needs of a congregation of several hundred people; training other members to succeed in their respective church assignments; stewarding the congregation’s finances; administering priesthood blessings of healing and comfort; coordinating missionary work and encouraging temple attendance; and countless other responsibilities aimed at the spiritual and moral uplift of his flock. Even if he had the inclination, there would have been little time to run a soup kitchen, march against war, or lobby Congress on the pressing social issues of the day. Members of his congregation may well have done all those things—with his blessing. For the LDS Church’s priesthood leadership, however, engaged social action beyond the bounds of congregation simply is not a major part of the job description.
It is common for Mormons to sneer at what they see as an increasingly degenerate world in which the Ten Commandments have become, at best, suggestions. Considerably less time and attention is paid in mainstream Mormon circles to social ethics than individual morality. No doubt the theological and cultural resources exist within Mormonism for a more robust social ethic to develop, but for at least the past century the emphasis in the church has been on personal righteousness and family togetherness, not on social welfare as a whole. It is perhaps telling that the first scriptural reference in the entry on “Ethics” in the quasi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism references 1 Peter 1:15-16: “Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written: ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (NRSV). The longing for Zion has by no means been erased in modern Mormonism, but whether for better or worse the radical, socially transformative vision of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young has been thoroughly domesticated.