Thursday, June 4, 2009

He Said: Mormons and Civil Disobedience

As a conservative member of the LDS Church I have always been taught in Article of Faith 12 "We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law." For the most part I have always strictly adhered to the laws of the land except occasionally speeding.

As a history major at BYU I learned that we as Latter-day Saints try to adhere to the laws of the land except on occasion when religious principle clashes with the law.

Bored in Vernal covers the historical roots of plural marriages for the living, but I say that a spiritual form of the practice remains.

Even though polygamy was officially abolished by 1904, LDS leaders still practiced a limited form of civil disobedience in that they continued the practice of spiritual polygamy. I am aware of Ezra Taft Benson being sealed to a deceased distant cousin in the 1940's. I suspect he wasn't the only one to receive that honor. So vicariously apostles and other high ranking church leaders participated in a religious ceremony which did not require a marriage license and entered into spiritual polygamy. Apostles and other worthy priesthood holders whose wives died naturally could also remarry and be sealed to other spouses one at a time since they were not in violation of the laws of the land. Despite fundamentalists' contention that the church fell we have an unbroken chain back to Joseph Smith that does not violate the law in the strictest sense. An interesting aside is that recently some of the more well-known Fundamentalists such as the LeBaron brothers are now being baptized for the dead in our temples. I would consider the continuation of polygamy a form of civil disobedience skirting on the edge but adhering religiously to both the law and religious principle. Plural spiritual marriage is a way to keep the practice alive while still adhering to the law.

In fact, this is the way that I would say civil disobedience continues to be practiced in the Church. In studying LDS history there have been many examples of civil disobedience or just plain not following the law when it comes to Latter-day Saints worshiping according to the dictates of their own conscience.

As early as the late 1930s and early 1940s totalitarian regimes like the Nazis, Facists and Communists resisted the Church's efforts to gain official sanction to worship or send missionaries in to their countries. During the Nazi regime our efforts were opposed. Kahlile Mehr wrote about mission president Wallace Toronto's failed attempts for 29 years to gain official recognition in Czechloslovakia under both the Nazis and later the Communists (See “Czech Saints: A Brighter Day,” Liahona, Sep 1997, 10). Mehr described Toronto's experiences:

In 1949 the Communist government began to restrict the missionaries. Still, baptisms rose from 28 in 1948 to 70 in 1949. (see “Jirí and Olga Snederfler: A Closer Look at Two Czech Pioneers,” page 16).

Late in January 1950, two missionaries disappeared. No word of their fate was received until 11 days later. They had been arrested for entering a restricted border zone and were accused of spying. The Communist authorities released the two elders in prison on the condition that all the missionaries would be evacuated. A Czech governmental decree liquidated the mission on 6 April 1950.

For the next 14 years, Czech members kept their faith in silence, unable to worship publicly or to enjoy any regular contact with the Church beyond Czech borders. From his home in Utah, President Toronto continued to provide what assistance he could. When possible, he corresponded and sent financial aid, clothing, medicine, and Church publications. During those years, he applied nine times for a Czech visa—and received nine refusals.

It was not until 1964 that the official presence of the Church once again entered the nation. President John Russon of the Swiss Mission and Lynn Pettit, an early missionary in Czechoslovakia, arrived in Prague. Word of their arrival spread, and a small group met at a member’s home for a celebratory testimony meeting.

Meanwhile, President David O. McKay advised Wallace Toronto to apply again for a visa, saying, “[The members] have been carrying on underground long enough. They need the authority of their mission president.” Within a week the Torontos received visas. They visited members in Brno and Prague.

In July 1965 President Toronto returned to Prague, intent on reestablishing the Church. Although he was well received by many governmental officials, the secret police arrested him and evicted him from the country. Mission growth would be suppressed for another 25 years before reemerging in a new epoch of freedom.
This is just one example, that has been repeated in various countries during the 20th century.

In Islamic and Communist countries which have strict laws concerning religion there have been sizable groups of Latter-day Saints who either were converted elsewhere and returned to their native countries or went there for work opportunities. In such countries LDS members have learned to be creative in finding ways of worshiping without alienating these militaristic governments. The last few years I have participated in civil disobedience myself when I attended church each week. In the country where I lived it was expressly forbidden that anyone meet in a formal or informal religious gathering of any kind other than the official state religion. This is not uncommon in many countries throughout the Middle East or in Asia.

In order to meet we had to gather as private citizens and take extra precaution so as not to draw attention to ourselves. We actually had security rules that stated we were not to enter the residence in large groups and that women needed to adhere to strict dress codes. A long-time member described earlier members as being deported who made their religious attendance known to employers or co-worker. Even though LDS members were meeting at the U.S. Embassy which was officially U.S. ground they agreed in employment contracts not to show any form of civil opposition.

Today members realize that they could still be arrested and deported if someone became angry with them getting together. The law calls for the termination of anyone attending any philosophical group other than the official one of that country, possible arrest, beating and deportation.

In the country described above I was told by a church leader that a former ruler of the country told us that we could meet privately if we didn't draw attention to ourselves. The new ruler hasn't made any proclamation other than the official one that only one religion is recognized in that country. By gathering together we are practicing civil disobedience since there are employment policies which preclude meeting about any ideology other than the official one.

My last form of civil disobedience has to do with immigration law in the United States of America. I lived right on the border in Calexico, California which is a suburb of Mexicali, Mexico. In my ward there are many people who live on the U.S. side who are not American citizens. Members of the church know that they are illegal aliens. In fact many members of the church work for the border patrol. A few of them have a don't ask don't tell mentality. Leaders even know who many of the illegal immigrant members are. They still call them to positions of leadership. Many of the men have been former bishops and members of stake presidencies.

Many of the children of these members are called to missions in the United States. They can't get a passport or VISA but they go on missions. I am not opposed to this practice since it seems to me that they can spend their whole lives going to U.S. schools. I know of one boy who was valedictorian of his high school class but not able to attend college on a scholarship because he had no proof of residence. In such cases it is more humane to either give them amnesty. One boy in one of our wards mother did not get amnesty so our bishop who was a lawyer was trying to help him get a green card so he could serve. It is a complicated mess. One girl we know was raised totally in English and she would have been hard pressed to go to her mother's home which she never knew.

I think the LDS Church walks a fine line in obeying the stated law but in the grey areas it chooses religious worship or conscience in actual practice. In none of the cases I have described is there a clear resistance to any law. It is not against the law to practice spiritual polygamy but actual living polygamy even in legal settings is eschewed. Even in Africa where polygamy is legal or the Middle East LDS worthy males only have one wife. In countries which are restrictive where religious meetings are concerned we are just a bunch of friends enjoying a day together. Even in the case of illegal immigrants the U.S. government ignores the young men in question. They are not revolutionaries trying like Thoreau or Paulo Freire trying to overthrow bad practices they are just trying to practice religion without overturning the apple cart.

1 comment:

  1. Dr. B.,
    I'm not sure that the examples you use are valid in showing that the Church still encourages civil disobedience. In the case of "spiritual" plural marriage, it is not against the law to be sealed to someone who is dead. Your story of Wallace Toronto is inspiring, but these cases are highly individual and not necessarily encouraged by the Church as an institution. For instance, in the case of Helmuth Hübener, a seventeen-year-old third-generation Mormon youth living in Nazi Germany was arrested and ultimately executed by German authorities for the treasonous activity of composing and distributing various anti-fascist texts and anti-war leaflets. When local authorities discovered the arrest, they excommunicated Hübener from the Church, since his activities conflicted with the 12th Article of Faith. Though he was later reinstated, this action shows that the Church has been officially opposed to civil disobedience by its members since the time of the Manifesto.

    Members of the Church who meet secretly in countries where religious activities are illegal border on civil disobedience, but since they do not publicize their actions, their aim is not to actively change the laws, as a strict definition of civil disobedience would entail.

    Finally, there may be many individual Church members who break the law of the land (such as proper immigration procedure), but I doubt such persons are attempting to make changes in U.S. policies due to conscience.

    Thus, I stand by my belief that the Church opposes civil disobedience as a matter of conscience and as a method for bringing about political change. They prefer, instead, to work within the laws, using their money and influence, such as was recently seen in their involvement with Prop 8 in California.