Mormonism and the State

Mormonism and the State January 25, 2008

Many skeptics of Mitt Romney on both the right and the left are concerned that he would impose his Mormonism on the State, constituting a dangerous mixing of religion and political power. I am confident that there is no basis to such a concern and represents either bigotry or ignorance. However, the more interesting concern for me is not how Mormonism will affect the State, but how the State will affect Mormonism.

The story of Western notions of religion is tied to the rise of the nation-state. Nationalism came to replace religion in early modern Europe as the primary identity marker for citizens. Instead of religion as the basis for solidarity and political motivation, the state took the central place of allegiance. However, it is a mistake to assume that religion disappeared from the public square in this period. In actuality, religion played a crucial role in nation-building. Anthony Marx explains: “The monarchs and elites of early modern Europe…often sided with one domestic religious faction against another the basis for building and channeling loyalty based on confessional passions….with authority ultimately bolstered by exclusionary forms of faith, reinforced by enmity and encoded in nation.” Though religion was cordoned off from other forms of power in official discourse, in actuality, ruling elites engaged religion as an effective tool for solidifying their authority. This tool continues to be utilized in American politics on both the right and the left.

At the same time, in the process of modernization in the West religion began to play a diminished role in the political life of the state. Ostensibly, this was designed to counteract the violent history of religious wars that had been fought in the previous centuries. Across Europe, different Enlightenment thinkers engaged in a redefinition of religion. Kant, Hume, Hobbes, Locke and others sought for a “universal” basis on which society could interact. They limited the role of religion so that those of different faiths (viz., Protestants and Catholics) would be able to live together in harmony in the same nation. In order for this to be accomplished, religion had to be redefined as more private and political allegiance to the state had to take top priority.

In the modern period, the redefinition of religion came to be increasingly associated with religion as “belief.” (Romney’s recent “Faith in America” adopted this view of religion, which has become canonical in American politics.) When religion became “belief,” it was private, interior, and could be safely sequestered from other ways of life, especially the political.

This definition has come under serious attack over the last decade, prompted by the work of Talal Asad. Asad, influenced by “practice theory” sociology, questions this definition of religion. He argues that it overemphasizes “belief” at the expense of practice. However, even more problematically, it treats religion as a set Thing, something that has an essence. He explains: “My argument is that there cannot be a universal definition of religion, not only because its constituent elements and relationships are historically specific, but because that definition is itself the historical product of discursive processes.” Any definition of religion is historically contingent, representative of the values of the society. It cannot be separated from other aspects of society because it is always bound up with them. Building on Asad, Bruce Lincoln argues: “Religious discourse can recode virtually any content as sacred, ranging from the high-minded and progressive to the murderous, oppressive, and banal, for it is not any specific orientation that distinguishes religion, but rather its metadiscursive capacity to frame the way any content will be received and regarded.” Religious belief and practice gets its authority from the interaction of historically specific forces. There is no “essence” of religion. It can only be understood in the way in which it is utilized.

I think that Mormonism has generally take this more robust notion of religion as a set of practices, not just a set of “beliefs.” But, I think that Asad correctly notes that religion is inseparably bound up with politics, perhaps most especially when we try to distinguish the two. There is no doubt that Romney has made his Mormonism a matter of his “private” life, attempting to draw boundaries between his role as a political figure and a religious believer. How will the discursive processes surrounding Romney’s candidacy affect Mormonism? Will the State increasingly exercise this kind of discursive control and definition of religion on Mormonism, restricting it to the narrow corner of private belief?

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