B.H. Roberts and the Mormon Political Left by Chris Smith

B.H. Roberts and the Mormon Political Left by Chris Smith April 16, 2012

FPR would like to thank Christopher Carroll Smith for this guest post. Chris is an emerging Mormon Studies scholar out of Claremont Graduate University, in the tradition of Jan Shipps.

B. H. Roberts, a member of the First Council of the Seventy, is better known for his efforts as an apologist than as a politician, but this is a man who was regarded by some of his contemporaries as the most prominent Democratic orator in the state of Utah. Roberts, in fact, was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1898, but the House refused to seat him because he was a practicing polygamist. Roberts also played an important role in shaping the state constitution when Utah was admitted to the Union.

In addition to his influence, Roberts was significant for his sheer unconventionality. He earned ecclesiastical censure on more than one occasion for openly opposing the brethren’s use of ecclesiastical influence to advance the Republican cause. Roberts regarded such behavior as nothing short of “damnable,” and he wasn’t afraid to say so in public editorials. In his mind, the principles of the Democratic party were “self-existent;” “eternal as God is, and . . . no more to be created by man than gravitation.”

So with that in mind, I’d like to briefly summarize a few of Roberts’s political positions, which I think provide a fascinating counterpoint to the political talking points we usually associate with the Mormon faithful. (The following summary is based on D. Craig Mikkelsen, “The Politics of B. H. Roberts,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 9, no. 2 [Summer 1974]: 25-43.)

Economic Justice

A major early issue for Roberts was the limitation of corporate power. “One great evil that threatens our land and which promises to overthrow the institutions of our country more than any other danger,” he wrote, “is that of corporate power, and unless a limit be placed upon the lines of business in which these corporations may engage, there is no end to the evil that may result from the building up of these mighty corporations.” Roberts wanted the state constitution to include anti-monopoly provisions and a ban on state subsidies of private enterprise, “warning that otherwise legislators would be incessantly courted by men begging public aid to build private fortunes.”

Later, in the early 1930s, Roberts embraced the doctrine of socialism: “a new economic policy, for a new age, to take the place of the capitalistic system and its spirit, wherein shall exist more equality and more justice than in the age now passing; a policy wherein there will be a more consistent division of the profits of the conjoint products of capital and labor than heretofore; where the wealth produced by that conjoint effort shall not forever flow into the possession of the ‘one,’ while the ninety and nine’ have but empty hands!” In other words, we are the 99%.

Legal Alcohol

Roberts was a staunch opponent of any effort to legislatively prohibit alcohol. In his view, prohibition compromised free agency. “There is no identity between the L.D.S. Church’s Word of Wisdom and what is known as Prohibition,” he wrote. “The former rests upon persuasion. … The other, State Prohibition, should be enforced with fines, imprisonment and often it has proven to be at the cost of life.” If the Church turned the enforcement of sobriety over to the state, it would “grossly depart from the high moral and spiritual grounds upon which its supplanted Word of Wisdom has been placed by the Almighty.”

In addition to compromising agency, prohibition also compromised respect for the law. Because they are easily evaded, such statutes “teach a community to disregard law,” which is “a greater evil even than the evil you attempt to crush by law.” In these comments, made prior to the passage of Prohibition at the national level, Roberts showed extraordinary foresight. History would bear him out, as America’s cities found themselves torn by gang violence and other crime linked to the illicit trade in alcohol.

Peace through Internationalism and Disarmament

Roberts regarded World War I as “the most righteous and holy of wars,” because he was confident that it would result in the suppression of nationalism and the dawn of the age of peace prophesied by Isaiah. In 1918, Roberts traveled around Utah preaching in favor of joining the League of Nations, while J. Reuben Clark and Reed Smoot traveled around preaching the opposite. When the nation eventually voted not to join the League, Roberts felt it had defied the will of God. In his view, it was “the duty of the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to put forth every effort within their power to further the probability of the limitation of armaments among the nations of the earth.”

Figurehead for the Mormon Left?

I think what I find most striking about Roberts’s views on each of these issues is that they were so deeply and profoundly informed by his religious principles. Ordinarily we associate progressive politics with secularism, but there have, of course, been efforts over the years to build a “Christian left” on the foundation of a “social gospel”. Roberts, I think, points the way toward a social gospel with a uniquely Mormon tenor, and the potential for a Left as conscientiously Mormon as Cleon Skousen’s Right.

Tell me how wrong I am in the comments!


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