Mormonism and Natural Law

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 & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).