Mixing Religion and Government

After welcoming everyone with a “Happy New Year”, the Salt Lake Tribune posted a headline “LDS view on role of governing is distinct.”  What caught my attention was the subheadline: “Church doctrine says it is unjust to mix religion and civil government.”  As I mentioned in a previous post, even Richard Bushman has called Brigham Young’s government in Utah a theocracy, so I was curious to read the Tribune article.

Lee Davidson is talking about today’s Mormons, not Mormons in Brigham Young’s day.  Davidson even asks the question of whether anyone should be afraid of Mormon beliefs.  He quotes current Salt Lake City Mayor (a non-practicing Escopalian):

“I don’t think the rest of the world needs to be worried,” Becker said. “I don’t see in my experience that people of the Mormon faith are different from people of other faiths in their approach to making decisions about politics,” Becker said. “… all of us are affected by our values and principles in terms of how we look at the world.”

I agree that current Mormon attitudes are not to be feared, but I was curious to see what scriptural support Davidson had in his article.

  • D&C 101:80 – [God] “established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose”
  • D&C 134:1- “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man.”
  • D&C 134:9 – “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government”

It seems to me that Davidson is not quoting verse 9 in the same context as it was intended.  The exact quote from Davidson is this:

No arm twisting >> Doctrine and Covenants 134 says “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government.”  So the church says it does not dictate policy to its members who are politicians.

Its mormon.org website says, “The church may communicate its views to them just as it would to any other elected official, but it recognizes these men and women must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies they were elected to represent.”

While I agree with the sentiments Davidson is expressing, I think the whole verse should be quoted.  Here’s the entire verse:

We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.

In a Pew Research Forum interview in 2007, Richard Bushman gives a bit better context for this scripture.  In the 1830’s an 1840’s, it was legal to discriminate against Mormons, Jews, and Muslims in some states.  Even though Joseph was advocating for a theocracy, Bushman says,

One of the first ordinances passed by the Nauvoo council was a toleration act specifying that all faiths were welcome in the city and listing a number of them: Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Jews and “Mohammedans,” as Muslims were called. There was probably not a Mohammedan within a thousand miles, but it was a gesture of openness to every religion.

Nauvoo, then, was to be a diverse city, indicating that Joseph Smith’s civic idealism went beyond his own people to envision a much more cosmopolitan society.

So, the scripture is really advocating an openness toward all religions so that none are discriminated against.  It is not advocating that religion and government should never mix.  Less than a decade later, Joseph would run for U.S. President, and he had no thought to abdicate his role as prophet.

So, do you agree with Davidson’s assertion that “Church doctrine says it is unjust to mix religion and civil government”, or is there a bit more nuance?

2 comments on “Mixing Religion and Government

  1. The territorial government of Utah was a theocracy in just about everything except name. I have not researched the issue on the local levels, but I would be surprised to find that local bishops and stake presidents also were elected as local government leaders.

    I don’t think that church doctrine establishes that mixing religion and state government is unjust. The actual thrust of the doctrine seems to be that all religions should be treated equally and the constitutional edict that no law be passed respecting an establishment of religion.
    The original idea was to prevent the establishment of a state religion, but it seems to have gone much further than that.


  2. As I recall, John D. Lee and Jacob Hamblin both served for a time as the Indian agent. I’m not sure if it was an elected position, but I think it was.

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