The Catholic Thing
Mormonism and Natural Law Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 19 August 2011

With the increasing likelihood that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President, it is important for Catholics and other Christians to reflect on some concerns raised by Damon Linker in a 2007 New Republic article. Linker argues that Mormon theology does not have important resources that traditional Christians have at their disposal, such as natural-law theory.  

Although LDS writings say little specifically about the nature of moral law, they do say quite a lot about the nature of laws and principles that include moral laws. The founding Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr., maintained that laws and principles are eternal and unchanging: “Every principle proceeding from God is eternal and any principle which is not eternal is of the devil. . . . The first step in the salvation of man is the laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” 

Smith seems to affirm a view of government that is in the natural-law tradition, that the purpose of government is to promote the common good as well as protect those rights that are grounded in unchanging moral laws. For instance, in the Doctrine and Covenants (132: 1, 3, 5), part of the LDS canon of scripture, Smith states: 

We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man. . . .We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign. . . . We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold their respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments. . .and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as their own judgments have best calculated to secure the public interest.

So, for LDS thought the moral law is eternal and unchanging, can be known by human beings, and applied to practical matters such as the formation of just governments and just laws. To use the language of jurisprudence, there is an eternal law from which human beings may derive natural law that ought to be employed to assess whether the positive law is truly just.

    Mitt Romney and Mormons believe in lots of things, including natural law.

Mormonism teaches that certain basic realities have always existed and are indestructible even by God. In the dominant stream of LDS thought, God, like each human being, is another creature in the universe, though not merely such, for each has an eternal patrimony integral to the constitution and purpose of the cosmos. Nevertheless, in the Mormon universe, God is not responsible for creating or sustaining matter, energy, natural laws, personhood, moral principles, the process of salvation (or exaltation), or much of anything. Instead of the universe being subject to Him, the Mormon God is subject to the universe.

In light of this, let us carefully consider Linker’s argument in his New Republic piece. He writes:

The obstacles to Mormons developing a binding moral theory go beyond the church's generalized suspicion of autonomous reason; their concept of God seems to deny the very possibility of such a theory. Unlike the God of Catholics and Protestants – who is usually portrayed as the transcendent, all-powerful, all-good, and all-wise creator of the temporal universe out of nothingness – Smith’s God is a finite being who evolved into his present state of divinity from a condition very much like our own and then merely “organized” preexisting matter in order to form the world. As a result of this highly unorthodox revelation, there is simply no room for a natural morality in Mormon theology, since Mormonism tacitly denies that the natural world possesses any intrinsic God-given moral purpose. Everything we know – or could ever know – about right and wrong comes entirely from divine commands communicated to humanity by prophets. The idea of appealing to a higher principle against the word of a prophet – the idea, in other words, of using one’s own mind to cast moral or intellectual doubt on the veracity of a prophetic pronouncement – therefore makes no sense in the Mormon conceptual universe.

Linker’s argument is flawed in several ways. It is, first, an uncharitable reading of Mormon thought. For it isolates the office of prophet and the exaltation and authority of God from the essential components of LDS metaphysics. Although the LDS prophet may offer new revelation, his authority is neither boundless nor under his absolute control. His pronouncements are limited by certain eternal principles – such as those articulated by Smith and other Mormon prophets – as well as the moral and religious requirements of the LDS canon of Scripture and the numerous teachings of the church’s General Authorities.

For, as we have seen, the LDS universe is shot through with teleology, moral and otherwise. The Mormon God is bound by an unchanging moral law outside himself that is part of the infrastructure of an eternally existing cosmos. This, of course, does not mean that one may not raise philosophical questions about the coherence of having a moral law without a moral lawgiver that is identical to the Good. Rather, it means that Linker locates the dispute between Mormons and traditional Christians in the wrong place. It is not a question of whether one can know a natural moral law that exists. It is over whether or not that natural moral law is merely part of the furniture of the universe or ultimately in the Being of God.

Mormons and traditional Christians differ in many ways; but the attempt to pick a fight between them over belief in a natural law is not one of them.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books including Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft and The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast Growing Movement, a finalist for the 2003 Gold Medallion Award in theology and doctrine.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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written by Manfred, August 19, 2011
Professor Beckwith: Is Mormonism true? Is "traditional Christianity" true? Is either Divine in origin? There is no religion named "Christianity". Trained, serious, Roman Catholics have determined by now that none of these "religions", including American "Catholicism" (the Kennedys, Pelosy, Biden, Kmiec, Cuomo, pere et fils, and millions of others!) have any relevance to us whatsoever. These religions are fakes and frauds, the "false prophets" of which Christ warned us.
written by Scott, August 19, 2011
Professor Beckwith--

Thank you for your interesting article. As a practicing and devout Mormon, I also take exception to the excerpts of Mr Linker's article that you included above. I am perfectly free to reject, or to merely put up with, or to embrace, the words of the prophets, living or dead. But if I recognize that God speaks to His children through His prophets, then I cannot expect that the consequences of rejecting His prophets will bring me closer to Him.

A brief aside to commentor Philip: It seems that you spoke to many about what Mormons believe ('masters' on the subject, as well as former members)--but somehow neglected to discuss this with a practising Mormon, whom you even claim as friends. There is very little that is secretive about the LDS Church if you ask someone who understands their faith; the core doctrines and words of the Church's General Authorities are provided online on the Church's website ( even provide a search engine, if you're looking for something specific. I have been through the Temple ceremony and a surprising amount of those words are already in the canon available to every member (that was my biggest surprise when I went through for the first time--that I had heard it before!). As far as your concerns with Mr Romney, I think his record in Massachusetts shows he lacks the inclination to institute a strict Church line in his politics. His record in MA presents enough contradictions to his stated platform that lead me to favor other candidates over him.

I was one of 'the virtuous boys on a bike' and am certainly capable of researching the Church's history of my own volition (though my interests tend toward science, rather than history). But do the scriptures contain less of God's word because Joseph Smith organized a bank that failed, taking some members' money with it? Am I excused from serving my fellow man because hundreds of years ago, a few Utah settlers killed some innocent people? May I paraphrase Brigham Young and say that "my religion is to know the will of God and do it." My study of the Book of Mormon and Bible, and my 'experiments' with the commandments contained therein lead me to the firm conclusion that God is real, that following His commandments brings everlasting joy, and that He gave His Son so that I can have a chance at salvation.

May we continue in our daily efforts to serve Him who sustains us daily.
written by Ray Hunkins, August 19, 2011
Thank you for this article professor. I know nothing of Mormon theology but I live in a part of the country where there is a large presence of LDS members. Observant members of that Church are generally wonderful people. They view family as very important, are thoughtful of others, and live moral lives. They are generally quite conservative in habit. outlook, and politics. During a campaign for Governor of my state several years ago, I found many supporters among members of the LDS church. They were emphatic in their views on the social issues. Of course, Roman Catholics and Mormons found common cause not long ago in California on the issue of gay marriage.
written by Scott Rose, August 19, 2011
I have to respond to Philips misguided statements. I am a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aka Mormons and I couldn't disagree with you more.

You make a serious mistake in referring to former members of the Church of Jesus Christ as "masters" of the subject of Mormonism. The reason they are former members is either because they didn't understand the doctrine or they didn't live it. I would hardly call someone in that position a master of the subject. Quite the contrary.

You say Mormonism is secretive and i would say it is as open or more open than any other religion. You may attend any meeting at any time. We worship on Sundays as most Christian churches and anyone is welcome to attend the worship meetings including Sunday School, Priesthood Meeting, Sacrament Meeting and Relief Society Meetings. All of these meetings teach those attending about the divinity and sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. If you are speaking about our temples, they are only open to faithful members ie those who follow closely the teachings of Jesus Christ such as being morally clean, being honest with others, no lying, cheating or stealing etc. Of course if you really want to know about temples everything that is done there is available on the internet, so look it up on Google, it's all there and pictures to if you need them. There you go, the Mormon secrets are now revealed to all. And yes the young missionaries know the same things as the life long members or any of it's volunteer leadership.

Now let's address your concerns about Romney's or any member's allegiance to church leadership. The leaders are men who have spent their lives serving and worshipping our Lord Jesus Christ. They sacrifice their time, money and abilities to lift humanity in every part of the world. Their message and council is typically based on strengthening church membership in their devotion to the Savior or to keeping His commandments. The world is a difficult place to live and i appreciate their admonition. I have my agency of course and can do as I choose just like the former members who are feeding you with only snippets of the truth. I can tell you this, if any of the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ taught or told the members to do anything that was contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, even they would be excommunicated like your friends. I can do whatever I choose and so can Mitt Romney but wouldn't you like someone in Mitt's church to encourage him to seek counsel from God in humble prayer if he were elected president? That's the advice these leaders give. Isn't that scary.

Oh and one final thing. The Church of Jesus Christ isn't run like a pyramid. There is no one at the bottom. That makes me smile. In Christ's Church we are all equal except for perhaps the fact that we love sinners a little more.

In Christ and for His sake,
Scott R.
written by Ted M, August 20, 2011
Dear Phillip,

Your pride in thinking you know about Mormons when you do not has germinated into error in your views.

Your themes are that Mormons are "pure sheep because of the lies implanted in them so that they rarely question their faith" or their leaders, and that their leaders are hypocrites. The facts contradict your polemic.

Leaders of the Church from Brigham Young to present-day apostle Dallin Oaks have urged members to do nothing without the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. One of many such statements by Brigham Young: "What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually." Brigham Young, (12 January 1862) Journal of Discourses 9:150.

Current-day Apostle Dallin Oaks:

"Members who have a testimony and who act upon it under the direction of their Church leaders are sometimes accused of blind obedience.

"Of course, we have leaders, and of course, we are subject to their decisions and directions in the operation of the Church and in the performance of needed priesthood ordinances. But when it comes to learning and knowing the truth of the gospel—our personal testimonies—we each have a direct relationship with God, our Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, through the powerful witness of the Holy Ghost. This is what our critics fail to understand. It puzzles them that we can be united in following our leaders and yet independent in knowing for ourselves.

"Perhaps the puzzle some feel can be explained by the reality that each of us has two different channels to God. We have a channel of governance through our prophet and other leaders. This channel, which has to do with doctrine, ordinances, and commandments, results in obedience. We also have a channel of personal testimony, which is direct to God. This has to do with His existence, our relationship to Him, and the truth of His restored gospel. This channel results in knowledge. These two channels are mutually reinforcing: knowledge encourages obedience (see Deuteronomy 5:27; Moses 5:11), and obedience enhances knowledge (see John 7:17; D&C 93:1)." Dallin Oaks, April 2008 General Conference.

I find it interesting that you would preach your conspiratorial allusions to a Catholic audience, when they were subject to the same unfair arguments when John Kennedy was running for office--that somehow a secret conspiracy of Catholic leadership would control him like a puppet and thus take over our great country.

Incidentally, thank you Professor Beckwith for a thoughtful and respectful article. I feel bad that Phillip hijacked your forum to change the subject, and I apologize for taking his bait, but I feel compelled to respond to untruth when I find it.
written by Howard, August 20, 2011
It's hard to get past the first line: "With the increasing likelihood that Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for President...." Really. So Republicans who hate Obamacare will embrace Romneycare. Republicans who care about the unborn will ignore his record as governor. Maybe; after all, Republicans do stupid things like nominate Bob Dole for president, but then again, maybe not. Certainly not if they are to have a chance of winning the general election.
written by Doug H, August 20, 2011
Professor Beckwith, thank you for a fair article. I know we Mormons and the more mainstream Christian communities have a lot of doctrinal and theological differences, but I never imagined that the question of whether Mormons believe in natural law and our ability to know it (if very imperfectly) was one of them.
written by Frode, August 20, 2011
Professor Beckwith, I would like to thank you for your thoughtful article. I have been a Mormon all of my life and have grown tired of the same old worn out questions that are perpetually repeated. They reflect an intellectual laziness that has always prevailed on the subject of Mormonism. Rarely does anyone read the teachings of Joseph Smith, let alone quote him. Conventional wisdom amongst non believers of Mormonism assumes those who practice are unwise, uneducated and naive sheep who are ignorant of Church history. They believe the only truly enlightened are those who have left the Mormon Church. Like all generalizations there is a thread of truth and an abundance of ignorance in both conclusions. Professor thank you again for your thoughtful article, it is a refreshing change from the norm.
written by Ethan, August 21, 2011
There's a serious flaw in the article wherein it states that "Mormons" (Latter-day Saints, of which I am one and have been for over 30 years) believe in a God that is somehow under or lacks influence or control with or in the Universe (likely better stated as the Multi- or Pluri- verse as our doctrine hints strongly at an infinite plurality of cosmos). The God which I worship is in complete unity with the universe. There is no subservience nor is there any impotence with regard to the totality of the cosmos/creation. I worship a God that, while distinct in his being from, is in unity with the universe. He and Law are perfectly unified same. True fundamental Law and God are one in unity.

Please avoid misrepresenting our theology in such a manner. We certainly have significant theological differences when it comes to God's attributes, but we do not believe in a lesser God. You set up a false correlation and rest on false extrapolations when you assume that a perfect harmony between God and Law mean a subservience of God to Law. Such false dichotomies are born of the same misunderstanding that you likely feel are leveled against your Catholic faith with regards to seemingly contradictory dogmas in your own faith.
written by Mike S., August 21, 2011
I'm sorry to get all historical in the midst of these salutary theoretical considerations, but I have a question.

During the presidential campaign of 1960, opponents made much of the baleful effects which Catholic theology would have on JFK's presidency. In the light of history, we now see that Catholic theology had rather little effect on JFK's public or private life, apart from the occasional ceremonial posturing.

In fairness even to Mr. Obama, whose policies I do not support, his political initiatives have hardly reflected the hysterical beliefs of Jeremiah Wright, which we were told before the 2008 election was a serious possibility.

What grounds are there to believe that in practice, Romney or Huntsman or Bachman or whoever would be substantially different?

written by rev G jones, August 21, 2011
There is something slightly amusing about a believer in the church of Rome critiquing a member of the LDS Church.

Every group claims to have truth, the question is who or what is the arbiter of that truth. There are only four possible answers:

1. The liberal church would say experience should hold sway.
2. The church of Rome would say the Pope does.
3 The LDS church (in common with Islam etc) would say that their own special extra biblical revelation hold the key.
4 Evangelicals would say that the bible does.

Selah and be blessed.
written by George Hill, August 23, 2011
Thank you for the great read!
written by Mark D. Butler, August 23, 2011
"Nevertheless, in the Mormon universe, God is not responsible for creating or sustaining matter, energy, natural laws, personhood, moral principles, the process of salvation (or exaltation), or much of anything. Instead of the universe being subject to Him, the Mormon God is subject to the universe."

There are serious problems with this claim. The self-existence of everything on that list except perhaps unorganized matter and intelligence isn't a matter of Mormon doctrine at all, and often is the subject of intense extracurricular debate.

D&C 88:7-13 in the Mormon canon strongly suggests that God is the author of all law, and most read that to include natural law as well, although there are some that dispute that conclusion.

More critically, there is nothing in the LDS canon that suggests that the the process of salvation or exaltation is independent of divine authorship or discretion. That would make us into Pelagians, who deny the need for the atonement of Jesus Christ, which Mormons most assuredly are not.

Mormons believe in a significant number of divine ordinances that are required for a full measure of salvation - baptism, laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, and sealing together as families in the Holy Temple. It is an unusual commentator indeed who would conclude that something _ordained_ of God is not of his authorship, origination, or control.

All that said, there certainly are elements in Mormon thought that postulate the self-existence of persons, and some form of natural law logically prior to divine discretion. This is hardly a matter of consensus, however, and never has been.
written by John Mack, August 23, 2011
I find this article condescending and insulting, and I believe nothing that the Mormons believe.

First, any Mormon President would serve under the US Constitution, and that is sufficient. His religious beliefs do not run contrary to the US Constitution, although a case can easily be made that the religious beliefs of some other Republican candidates do run contrary to the Constitution, which places all authority in "We the People," not in God, as every other government at that time did.

The US Constitution explicitly states that there will be no religious test of office.

Secondly, "by their fruits you shall know them." The Mormons lead virtuous lives, and especially practice virtues necessary to a good public life, virtues such as prudence, prudent justice, prudent fortitude and prudent mercy. Their religious authorities explicitly forbid Mormons to speak ill of other religions. I wish Catholics would follow their example.

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