Friday, March 17, 2006

Joseph Smith and States' Rights

I attended a lecture by James Allen where he discussed the political views of the prophet Joseph Smith in his run for the Presidency of the United States of America shortly before he was assassinated in 1844.

I was impressed with two things during the lecture. First, Joseph's stances on political principles seemed to be driven by the outcome he hoped for rather than the principle itself. Second, if he were alive today, I'm afraid that Joseph Smith might be a <gasp> Democrat!

The question of the day, in the presidential campaign of 1844, was states' rights. This was a few years before the Civil War would bring massive scale violence to the question. While the Mormons were in Missouri, Joseph issued one statement that said in effect, "We're not going to mess with slavery. Each state gets to make its own choice on the matter."

In every other subsequent political statement from the prophet he doesn't give states' rights much credence. He was so frustrated with the way the rights of the Church had been trampled in Missouri that he wanted a strong national government that could protect the rights of the people. Most interpretations of the Constitution at the time agreed with Martin van Buren when he famously told Joseph he could do nothing for him.

Joseph's stance of states' rights doesn't seem to stem from Joseph's pure interpretation of the Constitution, but rather by the outcome that he wanted. He saw that one state was unwilling to protect the rights of the Saints, so he looked for another, higher authority.

In our day, many Republicans argue for states' rights in the face of a very powerful national government. The power structure is exactly the reverse from Joseph's day. Modern Republicans want each state to have the power because they don't like many of the decisions that have been made by the national government.

How often are our interpretations of the law, and especially the Constitution, swayed by the outcome we hope for? This is what people are complaining about when they speak of "activist judges." Joseph seemed just as susceptible to this as anyone today.

Perhaps Joseph, if he were alive today, would have changed his views again to align more with the Republican view, but on the one issue that he really cared about he was more aligned with the modern Democrats.


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  • It is my understanding that in the early days of the church the vast majority would be considered to be on the liberal side of the Americal political spectrum. While today the opposite is the case.

    By Blogger Eric Nielson, at 3/18/2006 6:47 AM  

  • but on the one issue that he really cared about he was more aligned with the modern Democrats.

    You mean the party that wants to ban gay marriage in every state? The one that wants to ban abortion in every state? The one that wants to override state regulations on food safety? The one that wants to impose school testing requirements on every state? Oh, wait...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3/18/2006 10:57 AM  

  • Joseph Smith didn't like states' rights because he didn't like the outcome. Perhaps if he were alive today he would be a Republican because the outcomes of national control are less desirable than states' rights. But it is hard to know for sure.

    I like that Lincoln made a strong stand for national government to get rid of slavery. But I prefer local control now because I don't like all the national policies that cause so much debate today.

    By Blogger Bradley Ross, at 3/18/2006 1:53 PM  

  • There is an appropriate level of government for every government activity. Some activities should be managed at the national level, some at the state, and some locally.

    Part of the problem we have with our national government today is that it has subsumed too many activities that should be handled either by states or even locally. This makes the government so unwieldy as to be able to be properly governed. Part of Bush's problems stem from the fact that nobody can effectively govern the behemoth we have created.

    It is clear that the federal level is the appropriate level for many functions, but if we want good government, we should move each government activity to its most appropriate level. We also need well defined interfaces for interaction between government entities. It is analogous to computing. We used to have big mainframe computers and dumb terminals. Capabilities were limited. Today we have huge networks with multiple nodes and well defined interfaces for network interaction. Government should work the same way.

    By Blogger Scott Hinrichs, at 3/18/2006 5:57 PM  

  • It is really hard to say what Joseph Smith would be - Republican or Democrat. I agree that he would have chosen according to what outcome he desired. That is how everyone decides; no matter if they say they are for "smaller government" or "more rights."

    I personally think that, if he lived today, he would be a fiscally liberal and socially conservative Republican. To be more concrete, I think he would have hated both Clinton and George Bush Jr. On the other hand, I think he would have liked Ronald Reagan and so-and-so with Jimmy Carter.

    By Blogger Jettboy, at 3/18/2006 7:20 PM  

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