Monday, August 23, 2004

The Bureau of Righteousness?

Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it rather clear that we are to support our government. Often, tension surrounds this issue. People must face the question of what to do when their government pursues un-righteous policies. It seems like most church leaders sustain the idea that we are to push for what we feel is correct, but obey the directives of our government. If the government errs, then the burden of guilt lies with those who have made the decision. But does this really help us figure things out in when complications arise?

Often this line of reasoning gets criticized as being too simplistic or naive. It is hard to see the line between a push for change and an active undermining of the government. When is it okay to disagree with the government’s position? Is it limited to discussions of abstract ideals? Are minor acts of civil disobedience (like strikes) okay? Are elections the only time one can really be critical in a constructive way? Unfortunately I think it is easy to get caught up in this pharasitically prone wrangling and miss the more radical nuances in a mormon view of government.

When individuals are instructed to support different governments along different paths, it is natural to glean a rather universalist view of government. Basically one is as good as another. Every government is going to have some good and bad points. What matters is that by supporting them, they will tend to get something accomplished that will ultimately help us out. In other words a government should be supported not necessarily because of its rating on a scale of absolute righteousness, but rather because it can provide organization for its citizens. I think the oft used examples of saints in the former soviet union (particularly East Germany) come to mind.

But what are the consequences of acknowledging and even fighting to support various morally skewed governments. In other words, in what directions can a relativistic view of government lead us?

1. It may be that we put too high a value on the importance of a morally correct government. We may err when we judge the absolute morality of a society. Attempts at judging the righteousness of a society or government are pretty much useless. This happens because judgments are made from outside of the rules and conditions that spawned the government. For instance a view that democracy is the best solution for many poor African or Islamic countries may be will intentioned, but ultimately naive. One type of government is rarely more absolutely correct than another. However, can’t we argue that any time two moral choices exist, one may lead to greater good than another? If this argument holds then one government must provide its citizenry with a greater chance for good than another. If there is a greater chance to do good within one society then there is most likely also a greater chance for righteousness within that society. Of course this argument assumes that righteousness is highly correlated with freedom.

2. Another consequence of a universalist take of section 134 is a progressive view of government. Over a long enough time period most governments will tend to a create a better state for its citizens. In other words maintaining a strong government through some long or short periods of oppression and despocy will eventually lead to a better and perhaps more righteous government. In this case one would probably have a view of righteousness as that which ultimately leads to the greatest good for the most number of people.

3. Government may be functionally irrelevant to righteousness. This builds on the separation of church and state that occurred during the end of the 1800’s. This may also mean that one’s gross environment has relatively little effect on righteousness. To be extremely righteous in this lifetime may not be related to the morals within one’s society. This would mean a fairly strong relativistic view of sin. It would also mean that the only function of government is to keep us free enough to exercise some level of agency. Most any government can reach this level.

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