It is not enough to understand what liberty is in the abstract or know why it is important. Liberty-loving Latter-day Saints must also “correctly apply the principle to the policy,” or otherwise use their freedoms irresponsibly and “gradually lose their freedoms.” (136) Having laid the foundation of liberty, Connor Boyack takes the second half of his recently released Latter-day Liberty: A Gospel Approach to Government and Politics to show how this love of liberty should dictate Mormons’ approach to a wide range of political issues. In part one of my review, I offer what I see as the fatal flaws in Boyack’s theoretical foundation, no others more crippling than his short-sighted sense of liberty and his related lack of prudential concern for practical realities. In part two of this review, I lay out a case that touches on how these same flaws poison the application of his principles and lead to a dangerous mix of idealism and irresponsibility.
Boyack is right, of course, that LDS must learn to correctly apply true principles if they wish to preserve their liberty. Mormons are increasingly faced with a public sphere that threatens their values (and, in turn, their liberty) and obliges them to engage politically. But this is old news for anyone bearing the battle scars of Prop 8 and its aftermath. When most Americans think of the LDS Church’s involvement in politics, marriage is the singular issue comes to mind. Sure, those in Utah and Arizona might also think of immigration, but marriage remains the central concern. This makes it all the more curious that in a book laying out “a gospel approach to government and politics,” Boyack fails to tackle the most salient political issue members of the Church face today. While Latter-day Liberty addresses five policy questions — war, immigration, education, the war on drugs and welfare — I have chosen to focus on one of these issues in depth —immigration — rather than giving insufficient attention to each one. Along with my section on immigration, I also address the topic of marriage and show how Boyack’s conception of liberty leaves him unable to reasonably confront this most pressing issue facing Mormons in the public sphere.
Immigration and Responsibility to One’s Own
The debate surrounding immigration has caused more than its fair share of contention on both sides of the aisle in Utah and around the country in recent years. In his treatment of immigration, Boyack shows he is cognizant that the passions surrounding this issue run deep and where passions rise, reason and even faith often recede. Realizing this, Boyack is careful to root his call for an open door policy in a combination of libertarian principles and what he sees as the immigration standard set forth in the Book of Mormon. If the United States will be just with immigrants, Boyack argues, it must return to the open door policy that existed for the first century of American history.
While it is technically correct to say the United States had an open immigration policy for its first 100 years, this is misleading as immigration was largely controlled through federal naturalization laws during this period. At the time, few immigrants came to the country unless they could become a citizen. Boyack’s appeal to Founding principles, however, turns out to be immaterial because he finds the greatest authority for his position in a passage from the Book of Mormon’s book of Helaman:
And behold, there was peace in all the land, insomuch that the Nephites did go into whatsoever part of the land they would, whether among the Nephites or the Lamanites.” (Hel. 6: 7-9)
Boyack sees this passage as providing the ideal for which LDS should aim as they address immigration, but it is clear this is not an ideal Boyack has shelved for another day. For him, this ideal is actionable policy right now, and it is only held back by our immigration system’s racist and protectionist roots.
Let us stipulate that the United States’ immigration policy does indeed have a jaded past. Does this obviate government’s responsibility to protect the interests of its citizens today? Does the proposition that “all men are created equal” require that a country welcome everyone, regardless of practical concerns? Once again, the Founders did not think so. George Washington argued that while the government could give “bigotry no sanction,” it must require that “they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.” For Washington, citizenship and even immigration had to be tied to moral character and good citizenship. While all men had “inherent natural rights,” these rights did not include being a bad citizen.
This concern for good citizens, however, was an outgrowth of a broader understanding that informed the Founders’ thinking. While Boyack argues that the truth that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” necessarily expands beyond our own borders and demands that we respect the right of individuals to freely migrate as long as they have not harmed another person (196-197), the Founders drew the opposite conclusion from these same principles. Far from dictating open immigration, the equality principle teaches that as every individual has the right to rule himself and associate with those whom he pleases, so it also allows for countries to establish rules for immigration. As homeowners have the right to permit or deny guests, so a country’s people has the right to reach a consensus about who may be a part of their body politic.
But this doesn’t fully answer Boyack’s argument. Even if government can legitimately restrict immigration, it doesn’t follow that it should. Boyack still insists that “today’s immigration laws cannot in any fathomable way be reconciled with a regard for individual liberty.” (195) Even more, those who argue to restrict immigration fail to consider the example given above from the Book of Helaman and even the more basic counsel to love one’s neighbor.
Could it really be this simple? John Adams Center President Ralph Hancock recently reminded us, regarding this same issue, that “[no] more than an individual can a nation afford to run faster than it has strength.” While eliminating all obstacles to immigration may seem like the moral, liberty-loving, and even compassionate thing to do, Hancock reminds us that doing so without prudence does not serve the country or even immigrants trying to reap the benefits of American opportunity. Statesmanship requires that political figures not only consider the pure ideal but also the practical realities that nearly always prevent its attainment, and even show why its radical imposition does more harm than good.
Apart from the more technical concerns related to jobs for immigrants, statesmen must remember that strong countries always rely on the degree to which its citizens are dedicated to some common idea of what is good and just. In other words, what is America all about? The United States’ founding ideas are beautifully captured in the Declaration of Independence, the writings of the Framers and more broadly in its intellectual and religious heritage. Any immigration policy must do its best to preserve these common convictions.
To consider another scriptural example, Alma 27 recounts another instance in the Book of Mormon where the Nephites freely accept the Anti-Nephi-Lehies as refugees. While this may seem like an instance supporting Boyack’s open door ideal, the Nephites only accepted them after they had met specific conditions. As Hancock has argued regarding this scripture, “it would have made no sense for the Nephites to welcome the Anti-Nephi-Lehies as fellow citizens if the latter had not first joined the church and forsaken the ways of war.”
Countries face several moral obligations when it comes to immigration — not only to their own citizens but also to those sharing in a larger brotherhood. While statesmen must recognize the dignity and even dire situations of many immigrants, they must also balance these concerns with their supreme moral obligation to their own citizens. It is true, as the Church has reminded us, that compassion plays a role in immigration policy. We must remember, however, that compassion must be guided by wisdom and the prior contractual obligations to one’s own.
Libertarianism and Marriage
In a book devoted to instructing Latter-day Saints about the true political principles taught in the Gospel and these principles’ proper application, marriage is conspicuously absent. While it is always easy to criticize authors for that which they do not cover in their work, same-sex marriage’s permanent presence in Mormon politics makes it impossible to overlook in any treatment on Mormon approaches to public policy. Perhaps it could be argued that LDS have heard enough on this topic, and that a book would be better used to reason with them on issues where the tie between gospel teachings and political principles is less recognized. While Mormons have indeed been inundated on the marriage front, an overwhelming number still struggle to articulate their support in terms that don’t solely rely on prophetic revelation. It would seem then that a book relating natural law principles to this political elephant in the room is desperately needed.
Boyack writes that LDS must learn to properly apply the principles of liberty to the political issues of the day, but I wonder whether the libertarian principles he lays out allow the defense of state-sanctioned marriage. I do not doubt that Boyack’s understanding of liberty allows him to argue that gays do not have a constitutional right to marry, that marriage is an indispensable private institution, and even to defend Church leaders against LGBT activists’ attacks. Likewise, I do not doubt Boyack’s sincere willingness to follow God’s voice as given through His prophet. As valuable as these things are, however, they do not amount to a reasoned account of why the LDS Church might exert such large amounts of capital (financial, political, spiritual and human) to ensure government properly defines marriage as being between a man and a woman. Even more, it fails to consider that the reasons Church leaders give for political involvement might be discernible by reason and not only revelation.
If liberty is defined as the right to act as one pleases as long as these actions do not harm another person or their rights, why would society not allow two men or two women to marry? This is as far as many on the Left, and even many libertarians, take this question before jumping on the same-sex marriage equality train, but Boyack’s understanding of government allows him to take it one step further. If it’s true, as Boyack argues, that “the proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act,” then what is government’s role in marriage? The problem is that Boyack’s theoretical premises have created a radical individual autonomy that fails to consider how rights function in a community. While libertarianism can protect the right of any two individuals to associate with each other, it cannot give a principled reason on why the government should be involved with marriage in the first place. Boyack’s philosophy can protect churches’ right to perform marriages, but it cannot reason why the LDS Church is interested in preserving the government’s role in upholding marriage. Rather, his philosophy leaves him wondering how a moral government could ever be involved in marriage and why the LDS Church leadership doesn’t forego the fight and simply let America’s churches handle the matter.
The answer to these questions, I believe, lies in the fact that the very idea of limited government depends on families and other private institutions forming moral and self-reliant people worthy of being entrusted with the maintenance of a free government. Most LDS are familiar with the Church’s teaching that the family is the “fundamental unit of society,” but I suspect many have not thought out the full ramifications of this statement. As I have argued at length elsewhere, “[if] the family is the most basic and fundamental unit of society, we cannot redefine its nature . . . and, at the same time, expect not to suffer a fundamental societal breakdown. Where government and society have failed to create a strong marriage culture — take American inner cities for example — this has already happened. . . . With each change and its subsequent repercussions, we are left with nature’s stubborn reminders that we cannot remake the world to fit our will without facing the enduring tremors of the earth’s resettling.”
The marriage debate then is not about punishing homosexuality but holding up the goods of marriage and family — goods that free government desperately relies upon and without which it would cease to exist. Government does not and should not play a coercive role in marriage. It would be naive, however, to assume that the government’s subsidiary role in preserving traditional marriage was not indispensable in the creation of a marriage culture.
Readers owe Boyack their gratitude for encouraging them to think seriously about the proper application of principle to political policies. It should be noted, however, that even the best application of principle does little good (but much harm) if the principle is flawed from the beginning. What I show in theory in the first part of this review, we see now in practice. To be sure, libertarianism is a valued asset in the conservative movement. It speaks to the beauty of human liberty and warns of the dangers that government’s administrative encroachments may create. Even more, libertarianism reminds us of the first principle that governments exist to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” for its citizens. The problem, then, with libertarianism is not in its love of liberty but in its shallow understanding of liberty that tries to conceive of agency as being something separate from moral agency or responsibility. Yes, governments exist to secure the blessings of liberty, but securing such blessings means more than maximizing choices. Rather, it requires creating and preserving the conditions in which a moral and lasting liberty can flourish.