The Liberal Soul, by Richard Davis

The Liberal Soul, by Richard Davis December 1, 2014

“How can a good Mormon be a Democrat?”

If you’re Mormon and politically conservative, you’ve probably asked yourself that question. I certainly have, though it’s been a very, very long time. (Another question on my mind back then: “Why do people hate the Backstreet Boys?”)

I had thought a lot about my faith and my politics—I’d read my Pres. Benson and my Rush Limbaugh, my Joseph Fielding Smith and my Ayn Rand—and I’d concluded that the one led pretty directly to the other. The War in Heaven was fought over free agency,1 the communists had tried to destroy free agency, and liberals were just communists with better PR. There were clear good guys and bad guys in this fight. Why weren’t all Mormons with the good guys?

Sigh. Oh, to be young and oversure of everything again.

Anyway, Richard Davis, of BYU’s political science department, has written a book for people like my teenaged self. Like my teenaged self, he has given a lot of thought to the relationship between his faith and his politics, but unlike me, he has concluded that his Mormon convictions should make him more liberal, not less.

His argument begins with the scriptural notion that Mormons should be liberal souls: generous, optimistic, broad-minded, and concerned about the poor. Certainly this was Joseph Smith’s approach to life: “A man filled with the love of God is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race.” Using this meaning of “liberal,” Joseph taught that God himself is more liberal than we can easily believe.

I think most Mormon conservatives wouldn’t disagree so far, though my curmudgeonly soul bridles a bit at the “optimistic” part of the definition. Nor would they disagree, I suspect, with the next step in his argument: liberality of soul should lead a person to care about the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and the environment. But with one more step the fight begins. According to Davis, caring about these issues should lead us to want the government to do something about them.

The arguments that arise at this point should be familiar to anyone who’s argued politics extensively with people of the opposite party. (And if they’re not familiar to you, that’s reason enough to buy the book). Conservatives tend to think that government is inefficient, ineffective, and untrustworthy, and that government entitlements discourage virtuous and responsible conduct. Davis disputes these notions, and adds that government is often simply necessary: private do-gooding lacks the scope, the resources, and the coercive regulatory power to tackle problems like crime, national security, poverty, and health care.

That said, Davis’s book isn’t about hashing out the comparative competencies of government and private actors. (Such work quickly degenerates into empirical questions anyway, many of them unanswerable.) It’s about articulating a moral vision.

To Davis, government is not something separate from and opposed to the rest of society. Instead it’s part of society, and a servant of society. The government’s goals will generally be society’s goals, and its virtues and vices will generally be society’s virtues and vices. If the government is amoral, shortsighted, and belligerent, chances are that the citizenry shares those flaws. If a people really cares a great deal about the poor, then its government will probably try to help them.

Really what Davis wants is Zion, of one heart and one mind, a community free not just of poverty but of the deceit, mistrust, selfishness, and anger that characterize so much of today’s politics. He wants people to see government as “instituted of God for the benefit of man” (D&C 134:1)—and then to get about the business of benefitting man, cooperating instead of squabbling over who gets what benefits and who foots the bill.

“Imagine that the libertarians are right,” Davis seems to say, “and that it’s robbery for the government to take our money and give it to the poor. Even then, why would a liberal soul complain? Wouldn’t it be more Christian to consent to the robbery, and rejoice that your money is feeding the hungry?”

This attitude should sound at least a little bit familiar:

I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also. And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away. (Matthew 5:39–42)

In other words: that I have rights does not always mean I should stand up for my rights. That I own something does not always mean it’s good for me to keep it.

I suppose I’m tipping my hand. Yes, I find Christ’s teachings about the poor inadequately reflected in today’s Mormon culture and politics, not to mention the Doctrine and Covenants’ teachings about economic equality or modern prophets’ warnings about materialism and consumerism. And though Davis is too friendly to chastise us as he might, he does call our attention to early Mormonism’s radical economic experiments and to the scriptures’ teachings about wealth and poverty. I hope we take them seriously.

All that said, do I ultimately find his moral vision compelling?

Well… no. I don’t. Conservatives calling liberals naïve is almost a cliché, but there it is: I found The Liberal Soul a very naïve book. This is not due to the author’s character—he is not naïve himself. Rather, it is due to his desire to present his vision simply and clearly, with as few complications as possible.

But the complications he leaves out are, I am convinced, the defining political problems of the modern world. That The Liberal Soul does not address them makes it read something like a guide to bridge-building that begins, “Step 1: Assume there’s no gravity.”

Whatever government might be in a perfect world, in this world it is not simply an appendage or servant of society. Davis tells us that governments are as good as the people they govern, but that’s a best-case scenario, not a universal law. It’s difficult for a democratic government to be much better than its people, but there are countless reasons it might be worse: bad electoral systems, gerrymandering, special interest influence, industries co-opting the agencies that regulate them, “power corrupts,” and so on. And on top of it all, the sheer size and complexity of modern government is an insurmountable obstacle to genuinely democratic rule. A large oligarchy, occasionally checked by public opinion, is really the best we can manage. (And, to be fair, usually isn’t half bad.)

But let us ignore for a moment the reasons why government will never be simply an obedient servant of society; let us imagine that’s exactly what it is. Pretend that the government is perfectly loyal to the governed, working tirelessly and exclusively for their benefit.

Even then, Mormons should be worried about the growth of government power, and less eager than Davis to trust government as a tool for building Zion.

I say this because—to be a bit metaphorical—no tool leaves its user unchanged. A sledgehammer and a jackhammer may do the same jobs, but they work different muscles. When we communicate by texting instead of snail mail, we don’t just send messages faster; we send different messages. And government, even a perfectly loyal democratic government, doesn’t merely do society’s will. It shapes the society it serves.

This book review is in danger of becoming a book, so I won’t explain this problem as thoroughly as I’d like. But the heart of my objection is that government—precisely because of the effectiveness, coercive power, and democratic legitimacy that make it so attractive to Davis—tends to supplant other ways of solving problems.2 Taken to an extreme, this supplanting of private endeavor would lead to a regime Tocqueville warned against in his masterpiece Democracy in America:

I want to imagine with what new features despotism could be produced in the world: I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone . . . .

Above these an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood; it likes citizens to enjoy themselves provided that they think only of enjoying themselves. It willingly works for their happiness, but it wants to be the unique agent and sole arbiter of that; it provides for their security, foresees and secures their needs, facilitates their pleasures, conducts their principal affairs, directs their industry, regulates their estates, divides their inheritances; can it not take away from them entirely the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?3

To what extent this prediction has come true is a question whole academic careers have been built on, so I won’t argue the point here—if you don’t hear echoes of Tocqueville in our falling marriage, fertility, and church attendance rates, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Further, even to the extent that Tocqueville’s prediction has come true, it’s difficult to know how much of it should be blamed on our government, how much on our amoral consumer economy, and how much on other factors entirely.

But to the extent that Tocqueville’s prophecy has come true, or could come true, it’s something every politically-minded Latter-day Saint should be concerned about. Put simply, the people produced by such a society are not the sort of people God sent us here to become, and the relationships formed in such a society are not the sort of relationships that God sent us here to form. There are no poor in Zion, but Zion’s more than a place with no poor.

In other words, a government that feeds the hungry is a good thing. Better than good, really—we as a society have a moral obligation to ensure that the hungry are fed. But if the government’s way of feeding the hungry turns us into the selfish sheep Tocqueville described, we’d best be searching for better ways to feed the hungry. The threat to our agency is not, as my libertarian teenaged self feared, that the government will force us to do good. Rather, it’s that it will take away our desire and opportunity to do much of anything at all.

Davis’s answer to this is that an active government gets people involved in politics, and thereby engaged in building and caring for their communities. There’s no space left to argue about it, but I disagree. Most political engagement today is spiritual junk food. You could easily spend all day, every day, engaged in political causes and feel very virtuous without once blessing a single soul in need, without once sacrificing a single thing of value to you, without being forced to confront your own vanities and imperfections, and without forming a single one of the enduring relationships on which real Zion is built.


But, for all that, if you’re a Mormon conservative who wonders how a faithful Mormon can be liberal, The Liberal Soul is worth reading. I hope you will read it, and I hope it will educate you, challenge you, and, especially, inspire you to greater charity for those who disagree with you. I just hope, in the end, it won’t persuade you.

1. A small pet peeve about my fellow Mormons’ use of language: “free agency” is a compound noun, not a noun modified by an adjective. In other words, “free agency” does not mean “a thing called agency, which is free.” It means “the state of being a free agent and able to act for oneself.” I’m fine with us talking about “moral agency”—that is, the capacity to make decisions and be morally responsible for them—but saying that we shouldn’t call it “free agency” because it isn’t free is like saying that we shouldn’t call something a “swimming pool” because it doesn’t swim.

2. Economists call this effect “crowding out,” and it’s not always bad. The “other ways of solving problems” that modern governments have supplanted include things like duels, family feuds, and the Mafia.

3. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop translation, p. 663.

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