By Common Consent: Reflections on Mormon Political Theology

In a recent Sunday School discussion, D&C 20:63—”The elders are to receive their licenses from other elders, by vote of the church to which they belong, or from the conferences”—was referenced as an example of church government by common consent. [1] The notion of voting, however, seems more democratic than LDS church government typically is. In this case the general membership is not voting to select elders, but to grant them licenses, authenticating them to function elsewhere. My question is: why go through the formality? Why can’t the person in authority to ordain elders simply issue the license and have done? In addressing this question, I suggest that Richard Baxter’s work of political theology, A Holy Commonwealth (1659), offers a helpful analogue to LDS practice.

Baxter’s treatise starts from the premise that God is the universal sovereign, and that human magistrates exercise sovereignty over limited spheres by delegation from God. By way of advancing this argument, Baxter attacks Sir Henry Vane’s A Healing Question (1656), which advocates popular sovereignty through the argument that government derives from the people. (Baxter partly misunderstands Vane, but that is another issue.) On the question of sovereignty—in Schmittian terms, who decides—Baxter unequivocally sides with God. Given LDS belief that people must be “called of God” in order to serve (Article of Faith 5), we would seem obliged to take Baxter’s side in this debate.

Further evidence bears this supposition out. An explicit LDS reference to government “by common consent” comes in D&C 28, the first part of which establishes Joseph Smith as the sole person authorized to receive revelation for the church as a whole. The idea of common consent comes up by way of repudiating Hiram Page’s claims to receive revelation through a seerstone—suggesting that such claims can only be substantiated through a vote of the church. The nub of the issue appears in verse 10: “[M]y servant Joseph shall be appointed to preside over the conference by the voice of it[.]” Whether this verse predicts the outcome of the vote or ordains it, the exercise can hardly be described with any accuracy as popular sovereignty. God is sovereign, and the people can assent to or dissent from the divine decision as expressed by the chosen vessel, Joseph Smith. [2]

To understand why the people’s voice matters in this arrangement, it is useful to turn to Baxter. Human consent occupies a central place in Baxter’s theology, in which justification occurs when a person acknowledges God’s sovereignty. [3] In politics as well, Baxter maintains that although magistrates acquire their sovereignty from God, their legitimacy depends on the assent of the governed. The people do not choose their rulers, but they can choose to be ruled by them. In this way, Baxter reads the familiar authoritarian scripture, Romans 13:1 (“The powers that be are ordained of God”), right through the human rulers on whom the focus usually falls to the ordaining God behind them.

Baxter offers several reasons for insisting that the people properly have a role. First, Baxter posits a basic human freedom that entails a right to consent. No more can God force people to heaven than can human rulers rightly compel obedience—even if both God and rulers have a right to expect it. [4] Second, following Luther’s Two Kingdoms theory, Baxter places both the magistracy and the church within the Kingdom of Men; that is, both are fundamentally human institutions in which God’s acknowledged interest is expressed indirectly (fol. c2v).

A key passage for thinking about the church as a body of divinely empowered humans is Paul’s metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12-14. There, the Paul compares the diversity of spiritual gifts to the diverse members of the body, arguing that each has need of the others. Given that the very concept of membership in the church owes to this metaphor, one might draw the conclusion that membership amounts to a kind of office. In the political theological terms of the chapter on Dante that concludes Kantorowicz’s The King’s Two Bodies, and in keeping with the insistance on basic human freedom in both Baxter and LDS teaching, this office could be called dignitas. What I am suggesting, in other words, is that the principle of government by common consent rests on a fundamental human claim to dignity, a claim so basic that even God must honor it.

With office comes obligation. If voting in the Church sometimes resembles a rubber-stamp parliament, it ought not so to be. What matters, though, is not the appearance, but the actions that correspond to it. The fact of human dignity means that our leaders have an interest (or a spiritual stake) in us. Their capacity to perform depends in part on their understanding our interests accurately. We are obliged, therefore, to make sure that our leaders know what those interests are.

Now, the Church is structured along more complex lines than a simple sovereign-subject binary will admit, in that everyone holds callings and has some kind of stewardship over others. This structure involves us in multiple networks: in some we are the person to be sustained (even if only as a home or visiting teacher), and in others we are in a position to sustain others. The office of dignitas equips us to function in both of these roles.

Most importantly, however, this highly interconnected dignity works—or should work—to direct our attention to the interests of others. Our own interest in being understood correctly should invite us to better understand others. If God ordains people (including us) to positions of stewardship, the legitimacy of this action crucially depends on everyone’s acting in the offices to which they have been called.

In short, “by common consent” is not democracy or liberal republicanism. It is illiberal not only in that it denies the voice of the people in electing their leaders, but more fundamentally in that the concept of dignity undergirding it is hardly intelligible in purely individualistic terms. Rather, as suggested by the insistence in D&C 1:30 that the Lord is pleased with the Church collectively, but not individually, it seems that individual dignitas comes only through participation in the larger whole. As in Baxter, the concepts of sovereign and subject are best understood as relationships, not individual positions.

This is a political theology that, instead of trying (as in liberalism) to obscure or wish away the decision, attempts to channel decisive power through an ethic of meekness designed to build group identity through intra-group nurture founded on a common dignitas rather than through political friend/enemy distinctions. Even if in practice the Church cannot avoid the political in this Schmittian sense, its concept of a Zion defined by its people being “of one heart and one mind,” with “no poor among them,” does announce an ideal that attempts the closure of political theology declared impossible by Schmitt. [5]

Zion promises a closure of political theology by insisting that the friend/enemy distinction derives from a blinkered perspective blind to the potential for unity in difference. The antidote to politics, in other words, is charity, used in the robust sense of that which enables the eye to say to the hand, “I have need of thee” (see 1 Cor. 12:12-21). Charity is seeing that the obnoxious person—and I am using the word in its Latin sense of “liable to punishment,” meaning that we usually want to knock some sense into such people—is just as engaged in advancing the gospel cause as we are.

People being what we are, this is an improbable vision. We cling to politics, and politics cling to us. Moreover, in the United States at least, we have individualistic liberalism in our bones. Zion will require that we check such baggage at the door—or rather, it will require that we commit our admittedly imperfect efforts to the collective cause of restoration, no matter the baggage we bring.

Indeed, I am increasingly of the mind that, especially in light of LDS Temple theology, salvation itself is best understood as a collective affair. To individuals who ask, “What must I do to be saved?” the answer seems to be, “Get on board the old ship Zion and go to work.” The principle of common consent aims this question at us, week after week: are you on board, or not? Here, too, of course, politics threatens, by offering to tag those who say “no” as enemies. The challenge is to follow the counsel of Henry Jessey by concentrating on how we follow Jesus rather than worrying about how others do (or do not) follow him. [6]

Thus, even though Zion promises the closure of political theology, Mormonism most certainly has one. It demarcates the gap between who we are and who we ought to be, and as such performs a great service. Can we have the charity to welcome even this contribution, accepting the chastisements of the schoolmaster under whose tutelage we’re likely to remain for a long time yet? I hope so.


[1] The Doctrine and Covenants, abbreviated D&C, collects revelations largely given to Joseph Smith in the period 1828-1844. The Book of Moses, quoted later in this essay, comes from Joseph’s inspired redaction of Genesis. Mormons accept both works as scripture.

[2] That God’s sovereignty seems to be a key feature of LDS church government perhaps explains why Terryl and Fiona Givens’ The God Who Weeps (2012) does not have much, if anything, to say about church governance. See my review, in which I suggest that the Givenses aim to solve the theodicy problem by positing a vulnerable God instead of a sovereign one.

[3] See, for instance, Baxter’s famous peppercorn analogy, Aphorismes of Justification (1649), 152-53 [Thesis 30], in which a tenant in default acquires a new lease by offering a peppercorn as token of homage to a mediator who intercedes with the original leaseholder.

[4] Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth (1659), fol. b3r. Thomason E.1729[1]. Subsequent references appear parenthetically in the text.

[5] See Schmitt, Political Theology II: The Myth of the Closure of Any Political Theology (Malden, MA: Polity, 2008 [1970]).

[6] “For, this is one of the Vanities; that (with griefe) I have beheld, under the Sun; that the Spirit that is in us, (even in Professors of the Gospell,) lusteth after things lesseprofitable or pertinent to us; like that of him, who asked, What shall this man doe? which had this check, What is that to thee? follow thou me: (John 21:21-22.)” Henry Jessey, A Storehovse of Provision (London, 1650), fol. A2v. Wing J698.

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2 thoughts on “By Common Consent: Reflections on Mormon Political Theology

  1. I also feel that when we raise our hand to sustain someone to a calling that we will support them and also help them fulfill that calling as asked. I also feel it means that we will not complain about how they fulfill that calling just because they will surely perform it differently than we will.

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