Friday, December 17, 2010

Philosophies of men

I have lately found myself thinking about LDS theology's intersection with politics. I am a practicing Mormon, so it makes sense that LDS theology would affect my political views. The reason I have been thinking about it so much lately is mostly due to two LDS friends. These friends hold political views I do not agree with. They choose to share those views in such a way that it is clear that they think anyone not sharing their views is ignorant or stupid or (more likely) both. They also choose to share those views often. In general, I admire the conviction of these two friends and think I could learn a bit from that conviction.

This past week one of them emailed me a ridiculous powerpoint presentation. I read a good portion of it and skimmed through the rest. It consisted of pictures of political, historical, and LDS figures and quotes they made. It basically talked about how there are Gadianton robbers in our day and that we need to fight them. I'll get back to my thoughts on this later, but I responded to my friend by saying "That's pretty special" and questioning the emphasis on politics in the Book of Mormon. He caught my sarcasm and responded with some more content I will talk about later. I told him I would explain myself a bit more. This blog post is that explanation. It will not be concise. It will not be short.

I took the required History of Civilization course at BYU from the Political Science department. I had Dr. Matthew Holland for my instructor (son of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and current president of UVU). I should mention here that this entire post is my personal opinion and is in no way endorsed or acknowledged by Dr. Holland, the LDS church, or anybody other than myself. In his class, Dr. Holland had one lecture where he tied what we had been studying that semester (Plato, Socrates, Machiavelli, etc.) to LDS theology. I found it extremely interesting to see all the parallels in the scriptures to Plato's Forms. He also said that during the semester we had learned about "the philosophies of men." He continued to state that although that phrase has a negative connotation in LDS theology, there are many good, important, and true things to learn from those philosophies.

The one idea from Dr Holland's lecture that I want to highlight comes from the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego (Daniel 3). At this point in their history, Jerusalem has been sacked by the Babylonians and what then remained of the Lord's covenant people carried off into captivity. The Babylonian king took some of the young Israelite men to serve in his court. I will note for the overall point of this blog post that they actually served these captor-kings. In the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, they refuse to worship a golden image, so the king gets mad and is ready to throw them into a furnace. Dr. Holland's point is in how they respond in verses 16-18:
16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.
17 If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king.
18 But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.
The point is to trust in God's will and acknowledge He is in control. These three men did not know if they would be saved, but they did know that God had the power to save them if it was His will. They also knew that God was in control of their nation, including putting them under the control of king Nebuchadnezzar.

There is a counterpoint to this. LDS theology teaches that We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. However, we also believe the men of the American Revolution were inspired by God. There are times in LDS history when, living on the western frontier, Mormons showed some of that revolutionary spirit and frontier justice. There is an interesting and delicate balance to walk there (if any of you are deciding to start a revolution sometime soon).

Remember that the Jews of Christ's time were manipulated by the Sanhedrin into demanding His crucifixion because they were expecting a political savior instead of a spiritual savior. Even in the face of the farce that was His so-called trial, Christ recognized the authority of the high priest. Then there is the explicit example of Christ's teaching on taxes:
19 ¶And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them.
20 And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.
21 And they asked him, saying, Master, we know that thou sayest and teachest rightly, neither acceptest thou the person of any, but teachest the way of God truly:
22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Cæsar, or no?
23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said unto them, Why tempt ye me?
24 Shew me a penny. Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Cæsar’s.
25 And he said unto them, Render therefore unto Cæsar the things which be Cæsar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.
Paul shows similar behavior to Christ in his interaction with the high priest (although with a bit less self control): "Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people." Peter speaks along the same lines, putting those who despise government as the unjust who will be punished. A handful of references is not concrete evidence, but I feel that it is enough to show that the question cannot be settled by latching on to certain quotes or scriptures.

While we are wresting the scriptures, let us consider the most political chapter of the Book of Mormon: Mosiah 29. In that chapter, Mosiah sets up laws to transition his kingdom into a republic. On my mission, I had a very strange district meeting where some rebellious missionaries used verse 29 to attack their district leader. My response to that argument is to look at all the wars which occur from that point until the end of the book: they are all started by men of high birth or lesser judges looking for power. It is also unclear from this chapter how they implemented the "voice of the people." It is nice to think that is a democracy, but how does that work in such a large kingdom? No TVs, no radio, no cars, no trains. I think it must have been more of a republic with elected officials called upon to represent the voice of the people. Kind of like the United States Constitution originally sets up our leaders to not be dumb products of a popularity contest. Moving on.

The biggest problem I had with the powerpoint presentation my friend sent was that it didn't have any quotes from President Hinckley. The presentation was put together in 2007, so the living prophet at the time would have been President Hinckley. Why is this important? Well let's go to last October's General Conference and review Elder Costa's talk and Elder Duncan's talk. They both review President Benson's 14 fundamentals in following the prophet, and I would like to highlight the third one: "The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet." While I am pointing out conference talks, I should mention that Elder Cook's talk from this past conference and Elder Oak's talk from a year ago both provide good guidance on theology and politics.

All this most recent discussion started because I tweeted my support of the DREAM act. The DREAM act looks to be voted on in the senate tomorrow (Saturday). It will probably fail due to the racism and fear-mongering in the country and the spineless politicians in congress. One of my friends is a loyal follower of Glenn Beck. I was first exposed to Mr. Beck in 2007, when my Elders Quorum presidency counselor and I were driving back from service cleaning church trucks in Salt Lake. He turned on Beck's radio program and talked about how awesome it was. I had a hard time keeping a straight face with what I was hearing. He and Palin are the face of the TEA party? When the TEA party first started I thought they had some good points. Now I think they are mostly a bunch of nutters. Their leaders and pundits use an annoying and disingenuous strategy of inserting gross falsehoods in with a bunch of truths, and then repeating that over and over again. Exposed to something enough, anybody believes.

Even the philosophies of men, mingled with scripture.


  1. Thanks for the post. I stumbled upon it by googling blog posts in the past 24 hours with the string "elders quorum." More than I bargained for but enlightening.

  2. Sorry about that. Never know what will pop up in Google! Happy to hear you found it enlightening.

  3. Very insightful. I have to say I agree with a lot of what you say. Glad I read it.

  4. Lots of good thoughts there. I especially like the one about some philosophies of men are good and important. God gave us brains. Now we just need more people to use them.

    I think we've already reviewed my thoughts on the Dream Act and came to a "happy place".