Patrick Mason’s “Mormon Social Ethics” in Christian Century

By September 5, 2012

In the August 22nd issue of Christian Century, there was a plethora of pieces on Mormonism due to Mitt Romney’s official nomination as the GOP presidential candidate. Most saw, read, and praised the thoughtful piece by Kathleen Flake on Mormonism’s scriptural canon. Others were somewhat bemused with Richard Bushman’s list of “essential books on Mormonism” (which I personally found somewhat puzzling). But there were also pieces behind the CC’s paywall that deserve attention: Ed Blum’s incisive review of Gutjahr’s The Book of Mormon: A Biography, and a very nuanced and important essay by Patrick Mason on “Visions of Zion: Changes in Mormon Social Ethics.” Not only is it great to see the CC spend so much time on Mormons, but even better to see them give the space to thoughtful and leading scholars in the field. Since many here probably don’t subscribe to the magazine, I thought I would gist Mason’s thoughtful piece.

Mason, as most here know, is the recently-appointed Howard W. Hunter Chair in Mormon Studies at Claremont. This essay explores the origins, development, transitions, and common themes through nearly two years of mormon social thinking. Framed, of course, around Mitt Romney and what his Mormon background can tell us about his social views–Mason rightly hedges by noting that Romney’s “open and deep commitment to the LDS Church should be counted as only one of many formative influences in his life”–the essay asks important questions: ” is there a Mormon social ethic, and if so, what does it look like?  Is Mormonism ?concerned? about social issues, or is it oriented primarily toward the preaching of the gospel and the salvation of souls?”

What follows is a careful and sophisticated historical look at various trajectories in Mormon social thinking, especially surrounding the ideals and realities of “Zion,” from Mormon communitarianism to libertarianism, from marital reform to support for traditional marriage, from peace-centered scriptures to broad support for imperialist endeavors. (He also quotes from a letter I was not aware of to demonstrate how far the Church moved from its 19th century communitarian vision: “In a 1947 letter to a prominent liberal Mormon academic, the church?s First Presidency asserted that ‘the social side of the Restored Gospel is only an incident of it; it is not the end thereof.’?) More than anything, his careful look at how Mormonism transitioned in the 20th century, partly in reaction to the social gospel movement, made me all the more excited for his now-in-progress work on Ezra Taft Benson.

The final lessons on continuity emphasize the consistent emphasis on morality, and to provide the best insight to his closing punch, below are the final two paragraphs:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is exceptionally good at teaching personal morality, and expends a considerable portion of its time and other resources in encouraging its members to pursue lives of individual integrity and moral rectitude.  As a bishop and then stake president, Mitt Romney would have spent countless hours working with the unemployed and others in need of church welfare assistance; providing marriage counseling; organizing activities for children and teenagers that encouraged them to live the gospel principles of chastity, temperance, honesty, and hard work; planning weekly worship services designed to meet the diverse needs of a congregation of several hundred people; training other members to succeed in their respective church assignments; stewarding the congregation?s finances; administering priesthood blessings of healing and comfort; coordinating missionary work and encouraging temple attendance; and countless other responsibilities aimed at the spiritual and moral uplift of his flock.  Even if he had the inclination, there would have been little time to run a soup kitchen, march against war, or lobby Congress on the pressing social issues of the day.  Members of his congregation may well have done all those things?with his blessing.  For the LDS Church?s priesthood leadership, however, engaged social action beyond the bounds of congregation simply is not a major part of the job description.

It is common for Mormons to sneer at what they see as an increasingly degenerate world in which the Ten Commandments have become, at best, suggestions.  Considerably less time and attention is paid in mainstream Mormon circles to social ethics than individual morality.  No doubt the theological and cultural resources exist within Mormonism for a more robust social ethic to develop, but for at least the past century the emphasis in the church has been on personal righteousness and family togetherness, not on social welfare as a whole.  It is perhaps telling that the first scriptural reference in the entry on ?Ethics? in the quasi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism references 1 Peter 1:15-16:  ?Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written:  ?You shall be holy, for I am holy?? (NRSV).  The longing for Zion has by no means been erased in modern Mormonism, but whether for better or worse the radical, socially transformative vision of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young has been thoroughly domesticated.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Did they make any comment on why they devoted this issue to Mormonism? I think of the Christian Century as an internal issue for liberal Protestants and was surprised at the emphasis upon Mormons.

    Comment by AmandaHK — September 5, 2012 @ 9:45 am

  2. This is great. Thanks for the summary, Ben.

    Comment by Christopher — September 5, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  3. Amanda: the cover of the issue said something like, “Insides Mitt’s World and Words.” So obviously election-focused.

    Comment by Ben P — September 5, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  4. Thanks, Ben. Patrick always writes things worth reading.

    Comment by David G. — September 5, 2012 @ 11:08 am

  5. Thanks, Ben, for this write-up. I was both pleased and dismayed that my article was deemed “premium” content — it means the editors liked it, but that no one (other than CC subscribers) would read it. Ah, the slings and arrows of scholarship – it’s such a tortured life.

    Amanda, my sense is pretty much what Ben says in #3 — it’s all about capitalizing on the election. But I was impressed (though not terribly surprised, given the quality publication that CC is) that they recruited recognized scholars to give detailed accounts of issues that CC readers would care about, in terms of providing greater insight into Romney and his faith. My sense is that liberal/mainline Protestants, for all their ecumenism, still know very little about Mormonism, so I was pleased that the editors made the decision to devote so much of the issue to the topic, and that they gave me and Kathleen the word count to say something of substance (I hope).

    Comment by Patrick Mason — September 5, 2012 @ 11:29 am

  6. Pat and Ben,

    I suspected that it might have something to do with the election, but it is interesting that they decided to do an issue on it. I suspect that you’re right, Pat, about the knowledge or lack thereof among mainline Protestants about Mormonism. A former pastor of mine moved to Utah recently because his son had moved there after marrying a Mormon girl and converting for her. He’s remarked on how little he knew about Mormonism and how much he’s learned in the little while he’s lived there.

    Comment by AmandaHK — September 5, 2012 @ 11:44 am

  7. Also, Pat – My Church always has a copy of the new Christian Century on the coffee table in our library. I’m not sure how many people read it, but at least it will ensure circulation. It may even provide some distraction for some poor soul during a particularly boring meeting on restoring stained glass windows.

    Comment by AmandaHK — September 5, 2012 @ 11:55 am

  8. The longing for Zion has by no means been erased in modern Mormonism, but whether for better or worse the radical, socially transformative vision of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young has been thoroughly domesticated.

    I really like this. Though I am not certain it is accurate. Was not a tenet of Joseph’s foray into social matters an inclination toward the presidency? Seems like something an influential Mormon would do today. And what of the many mormons elected to high office in Washington? From PTA presidents to the Senate Majority Leader, Mormons are quite well represented in America’s “social” fabric. But marginalized by academia/media because many of thos same Mormons acutally care expressly about personal morality and think it has a real place in society. Such thinking is, frankly, too radical. Excessively transformative.

    Comment by rd — September 5, 2012 @ 3:09 pm

  9. Thanks for this post, Ben–I’ve had a love / meh relationship with CC for years, and I am SO their target audience (at least the youngest part of it). Thanks for letting us know about what sounds like a really fine issue. I’ll be sure to check it out.

    Comment by Tom S. — September 5, 2012 @ 4:16 pm

  10. rd – A good point, worth thinking about. To me, the difference is that Smith & Young were _structurally_ transformative — they challenged the very foundations of the existing political, economic, and social structures. Romney, Reid, and Mormon PTA presidents certainly can have powerful effects, but they all are working within rather than against existing structures. I just don’t see a structurally radical vision (radically reshaping rather than defending the “traditional” family, offering significantly different economic models that challenge rather than uphold free market capitalism, etc.) emerging from contemporary mainstream Mormonism. Whether or not there should be such a radical vision is a different question, of course.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — September 5, 2012 @ 7:05 pm

  11. Patrick, I can agree with that. And there are certainly systemic or “structural” issues that I would guess Mormons and others alike are either too busy, or consigned, to confront.

    Comment by rd — September 6, 2012 @ 8:30 am


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