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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Excavating Socialist Thought in Mormonism: Re-reading Hugh Nibley


[This is a slightly expanded version of a review essay cross-posted to the Religious Socialism blog here; it is the companion of another essay which reviews contemporary interest among liberation-minded Mormons here.]

Making a connection between American Mormonism as it presently exists and socialism is a serious stretch. Voting data have consistently shown that a large majority of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the official name of the Mormon church) in America strongly identify with conservative causes and the Republican party. Mormon leaders–both political and ecclesiastical–have condemned all forms of socialism for many decades. The church is organized around an all-male priesthood--with homosexual behavior and gender fluidity officially denounced--and for most of the 20th-century that priesthood was explicitly forbidden to Black Mormons as well. While the globalization of the church, demographic shifts, and top-down policy changes have led to a moderation in the anti-radicalism which characterized the in the church second half of the 20th century, no one can look at, for example, former Republican presidential candidate Senator Mitt Romney, and conclude that his community will embrace socialism any time soon.

Still, times can change. The Mormon Church, like many other early 19th-century religious movements, rejected the capitalist forms which were then emerging alongside America’s expanding industrial footprint, and embraced Christian communalism instead. In both some of its earliest congregations in Ohio and Missouri, and then later even more robustly in Utah, following the church’s violent expulsion from its base in Illinois in 1846, many Mormons practiced, from the 1860s through the 1890s, what was called the “law of consecration,” “the united order,” or “the Order of Zion.” What this meant, in practice, were varying experiments, from one community to the next, with the collective ownership of property, unified decision making in economic matters, and the establishment of systems of stewardship and welfare; the goal was, in the words of an early revelation to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, that all in Zion would be “of one heart and one mind,” and there would be “no poor among them.”

None of these experiments long endured the Americanization of Mormon society which followed after Utah’s admission to the United States. By the 1910s and 1920s, though socialist organizers saw much local success, among Utah’s miners and laborers, almost no connection was made between their party-building efforts and the communal orders which many Mormons had committed to only a few decades earlier.

Hugh Nibley, a long-time and famously contrarian professor of religion at the Mormon church’s flagship university, Brigham Young University, passed away in 2005. He never identified as a socialist, nor reconciled his church’s communalist history with its leadership’s subsequent denunciations of radical politics. But what he did do was interpret the scriptural and doctrinal teachings which motivated those early experiments, and used them to condemn the exploitative and environmentally destructive capitalist practices of most of the 20th-century Mormon church’s American membership. His relentless criticism made Nibley popular with Utah’s small Mormon Democrat population--but aligning Nibley’s project with a possible Mormon contribution to Christian socialism is an unfinished project.

Last year, a group of young(er) Mormon scholars took up Nibley’s attacks on America’s capitalist ethos (many of which were collected in 1989 book titled Approaching Zion) in a small volume titled Reapproaching Zion. [Full disclosure: I am one of the contributors.] These writers are not necessarily sympathetic to socialism (some, in fact, are clearly opposed to it), but through their engagements, an outline of what a Mormon Christian socialism might involve can nonetheless be discerned.

While the authors examine Nibley’s ideas from distinct legal, economic, and philosophical perspectives, themes of pluralism, community, and limits are perhaps most important. By basing his condemnations of profiteering, careerism, and inequality on the various ways that early Mormon settlements constructed their distinct Zions--sometimes involving something as simple as storehouses of food which any member of the community had free access to, but sometimes involving collectivized working and living arrangements--Nibley’s writings underscore the perils involved in assuming any singular response to all economic evils. Building alternatives that truly empower people in their communities, but do not make those communities into exclusive localist tyrannies, is a tension-filled exercise.

Some of the authors speculate on the kind of arrangements that might enable diverse, yet still egalitarian, economic practices to extend beyond a single family, church congregation, or business, and how much localism, self-sufficiency, or even isolation might be necessary in order to preserve those arrangements. Others, grasping the hard nettle entailed by those possibilities, argue that Nibley showed how any committed Zion community--and, by extension, perhaps any committed socialist society--would have to accept a level of wealth that is lower that which profit-driven financial speculation and individual competition often generates. This idea is hardly new to anyone familiar with the intentional communities which Christian radicals have built over the centuries: a commitment to non-exploitative labor often means a commitment to work that is embedded in an equally shared common life, and such work is mostly incompatible with being outsourced, expanded, or specialized. Within Mormon circles, which has no tradition of monasticism or vows of poverty, the idea that economic limits are connected to the religious command to build a Zion community where there is no poor is a rare argument indeed.

Nibley himself notoriously lived out this rare ideal (Mormons tell the story of church president Gordon B. Hinckley speaking at Nibley’s funeral, and him observing that there wasn’t a single car in the church’s parking lot that day that wasn’t fancier than the 1976 Datsun Nibley drove for the last 30 years of his life). This gives rise to the accusation that Nibley idolized poverty, which some see as contrary to elements of both Mormon history and theology. Such claims introduce a connection to a longstanding socialist debate. For some, the promise of socialism is a more democratized distribution of the goods of wealth. But for others--and here the Christian socialist tradition speaks loudly--the socialist ideal is appealing exactly because it puts limits upon what the economist Joseph Schumpeter (borrowing from Marx) called the “creative destruction” of capitalist wealth-creation itself. In this sense, Zion--or any kind of Christian socialist community--is worth building in that it prioritizes social goods over distributable ones, meaning there will be more of the former and less of the latter. In attacking Nibley’s description of the Zion communities which Mormons ought to build as primarily small, agrarian, and static, and thus comparatively poor, some of his critics are misunderstanding exactly their point.

Finally there is the question of universalism. Socialist movements have long had their globalist as well as localist instantiations, from Marx’s “working people of all countries” to the Paris Commune. Nibley’s critique of commercialism involved a critique of the dependencies which extensive commercial transactions create, and how those connections can draw people away from the covenants that keep the faithful committed to the Zion ideal. But obviously, as a Christian faith shaped by the evangelical impulse, the drive to make expansive connections is essential to Mormonism, as their own missionary culture makes clear. The negotiation of those rival impulses suggest the need to reflect upon the proper political space for socialist development, whether national or local, and the variety of communal and egalitarian forms that may best reflect the level of economic democratization possible in on different spatial levels. Despite many arguments which lean heavily in the direction of the small, self-sufficient, egalitarian village, the ideal of Zion as Nibley sketched it out nonetheless integrated urban and rural environments. The socialist cause has a similar need to attend to the same diverse demands.

Religious socialism is by its nature an aggregation of insights, drawn from every tradition which recognizes that the integrity of individuals depend upon constructing communities which grant them equal economic and democratic power. Mormonism’s history has many such insights, though learning from them involves digging past close to 150 years of official disregard.

Hugh Nibley’s own intellectual excavations were in the name of a Zion ideal, which many might see--because of its religious foundation, sense of limits, and pluralist structure--as opposed to their preferred socialist one. I find this unfortunate. As Charles Marsh wrote regarding Christian influence on the civil rights movement, the drive to build “beloved communities” takes place “in, through, and outside the church.” To whatever extent scholarly reflections upon one Mormon troublemaker’s attempt to describe and urge upon his fellow Mormons a mostly lost communalist ideal can become part of such a collective building project, it is worth exploring--even if the church tradition out of which these reflections emerge may seem a most unlikely source.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Two Pedantic Problems with Representative Estes's Post

Dear Representative Estes,

Thanks for sharing your reasoning about your January 6 challenge to the Electoral College results, thus your challenge to the certification of President Biden's election. I am in complete sympathy with your statement that "all of us are appalled at the violence, destruction and loss of life that took place at the Capitol on January 6," and I heartily endorse your closing call for your readers to "join me in praying that our country has a renewed commitment to civil discourse." That is all very well said, and I appreciate your including it.

However, you also included a couple of statements that trouble me. Once is simply wrong, and the other misunderstands something that is implied by the first. So forgive me, but I feel a need to play the professor here for a moment. You wrote:

"The Founding Fathers did not want Congress to select the president. Nor did they want the judicial branch, or even governors to do so. That was the responsibility of the state legislatures."

Of course, this isn't correct; the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution stipulated that it was the members of the Electoral College chosen by the states that would select the president of the United States. Those electors are chosen in accordance with procedures established by the respective state laws which obtain in the different states, and since those laws are written by elected state representatives, I suppose you could argue that "state legislatures" are ultimately doing the selecting. But by jumping those steps, you set up the foundation for your action (specifically that "I, along with a majority of the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives, raised objections in regards to what we believed was evidence that several states violated their own laws in administering the 2020 election as they pertained to the office of the president") in a way that side-steps an important truth.

That truth is that those state laws regarding the appointment of electors, just like the state laws regarding all electoral matters--voter registration, absentee ballots, etc.--are subject to constitutional challenge, such as any citizen (including yourself, Representative Estes) may bring. The rights laid out in the amendments to the Constitution have been extended and applied by the Supreme Court many times over the past 232 years to enable citizens to defend the principle self-government. And, of course, when citizens, or their elected representatives, bring forward such constitutional concerns, it is the place of judges in our system to make an adjudication as to the validity of the concerns so expressed.

What is the point of emphasizing this? Simply that when you allege that state legislatures "violated their own laws," what you are actually doing is alleging something constitutionally nefarious when elected representatives, or the election officials they appoint, adjust their statutory requirements (including deadlines and the like) regarding mail-in ballots, or ballot drop boxes, or more, during the pandemic. They did this not just to compensate for the change in voting patterns which the health concerns of the pandemic introduced, but also because if they didn't make such adjustments, they would be subject to exactly the sort of legal challenges which your own column vaguely refers to (though I note that, while you invoke the Constitution multiple times, you only ever call what the state legislatures or state election officials did "improper," not "illegal"). The whole point of these election laws is to support the exercise of constitutional voting rights by the people; when circumstances stand in the way of the exercise of those rights, officials of government are obliged to act. 

Now, if those actions themselves violate someone else's rights (as apparently former President Trump believed they did, since he insisted over and over that he'd won the election by a landslide, and had been robbed of his victory by electoral fraud), then they need to go to a judge and make their case. Which Trump's lawyers did, dozens of time, with a total of 46 out of 54 lawsuits being almost immediately dropped, dismissed, or ruled against for a complete lack of evidence (the rest are currently in the midst of the appeals process). Meaning, in short, that the system which we have determined, over and over and over again, that the claim that state legislatures had vacated their responsibility in regards to the means by which appointed electors make their selection is simply groundless. Rather, it was their view that election commissions, governors, state judges, or even committees of legislators themselves, in these several states, had acted responsibly in the determinations they made about statutory election requirements. In the eyes of the courts, there simply was no demonstrable constitutional harm done here. Which means that, strictly speaking, in accordance with how our constitutional system is supposed to work, your belief that, for example, "the Democratic majority of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania unilaterally violated the U.S. Constitution," is simply nonsensical, because the Supreme Court of the United State itself said so.

Of course, if you want to insist that your love of the U.S Constitution obliges you to disregard the judicial functions which that same constitutional system sets up, that's a political belief which you have every right, as a citizen, to advocate for, and you'd find me agreeing with you partly as well. (You and me, Representative Estes: down with the imperial judiciary, and down with the power of judicial review!) But note that I called that a "political belief," because that's what it is--a belief about what ought to have happened in our polity (which presumably is, in your case, at the minimum: "election officials shouldn't adjust statutory requirements for ballots in the name of supporting voting rights during a pandemic without a complete change in state law"--though maybe, to be frank, the political belief here is actually just: "Donald Trump should be president"). Which leads me to another concern I have with your column. You write:

"In America, we must be able to use the legal processes prescribed in the Constitution without fear of retribution by those who hold the levers of political power."

In your column you speak on a couple of occasions of the "legal and political processes" of government, and as a way of expressing a general point, that's fine. But if you're going to specifically refer to "the legal processes prescribed in the Constitution," then I have to remind you of everything in the previous five paragraphs: the actual "legal processes" which follow from applying the Constitution as written involve petitioning judges to consider potential constitutional violations, and they didn't find any (in fact, usually Trump's lawyers, knowing they had no evidence that met the standard of scrutiny and not wanting the get disbarred for lying to a judge, mostly averred that there wasn't any fraud at all). So you may want to rephrase this to speak of "political processes" alone, rather than legal ones.

Am I saying that when you and other House Republicans objected to certifying the Electoral College votes, that you were doing something illegal? Of course not; as a member of Congress, it was perfectly legal for you to vote however you wished. But the idea that you were legally obliged to so act, or that your actions followed any kind of legal necessity, is silly. You made a political stand, as is your right, but you had no legal rationale for doing so.

And remember, that making political stands--that is, standing up on behalf of a political belief--is a symbolic action. It's not necessarily just symbolic, of course: when one votes, or engages in a protest, or writes a column for a local newspaper like you did (or writes a blog post in response to it like I am), there are often real-world consequences in play: someone might get elected or not, someone might be arrested or not, someone might be persuaded or not. But even those real-world consequences exist in relation to the symbols and associations which surround them. You recognize this yourself; you associate your action with enabling "millions of Americans the ability to voice their opinion" and with honoring "my constituents and the Constitution." So let's think about the particular moment, and some of the other associations which were in play at that moment, when you stood up to be counted as challenging the legitimacy of electoral votes which dozens of courts (many of them filled with Republican judges) had found legitimate.

The Capitol Building, just hours before you voted, had been attacked by a mob determined to do what you did, only much more violently and directly: oppose the certification of President Joe Biden's Electoral College victory. Five people died as a result of that violent attack--the worst which the Capitol has experienced in over 200 years. There were people looking for the person who is in charge of the House you are a member of--Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi--with the apparent intention of kidnapping or killing her. Are you responsible for them? No! (Or at least, certainly not nearly as much as former President Trump, who fed them the delusional nonsense which led them to make the attack.) But in the final moment, I fear your actions fell symbolically on the same side of the rioters. After all, you were, at the very least, being motivated (or at least so you claim; I'm writing all this under the assumption that you were sincere in your column, and not just covering up the simple self-interest of keeping the Trumpist voters in the Kansas Republican Party on your side) by the same legally groundless political convictions about supposedly "improper" state electoral determination which Trump employed to fire up the mob in the first place. You may say that you were solely acting on behalf of Kansas Republicans who embraced Trump's dismissed claims about fraud, and you may genuinely believe that. But you can't wish away the symbolic weight which the House carried at that moment, in the wake of insurrectionary violence which was only a few steps logical steps removed from your political cause.

You could, I suppose, embrace this association, and simply insist that while the rioters were utterly wrong in their methods, they were not utterly wrong in their cause. I suspect you'd denounce that as a terribly unfair connection to make, and you'd probably be right. But is it an unreasonable connection to make? That, Representative Estes, I don't think is the case at all.