Should Mormons be Socialists? An Interview with Dennis Potter

By Nathan Kearsley

Dennis Potter is an associate professor of philosophy at Utah Valley University. His research has been in the philosophy of religion, philosophy of logic and mathematics, and the philosophy of the Vienna Circle. In the past, he has published articles on philosophical theology and on the nature of diagrammatic argument in mathematics. His current research focuses on the philosophies of logic, mathematics and religion in early analytic philosophy.

Nathan Kearsley (NK): According to Mormon doctrine what are some reasons that convey the idea that Mormons should be socialists?

Dennis Potter (DP): Well, one of the aspects of Mormon theology is the emphasis on the familial relationship that we have with everybody else on the planet. So having this basic familial relationship would seem to entail that we ought to treat everybody on the planet as if they were family. The concept of a family is a group where we have some special kinds of obligations to the people in that family, and if you broaden out that concept to all of humanity, then basically you say we have a special obligation to everybody in the world. So you can’t advocate an economic system in which everybody looks after themselves and no one is their brother’s keeper. Saying that we are our brother’s keeper is saying we ought to help take care of other people. That’s one aspect of Mormon theology that entails that.

Also, I think that it’s clear that early Mormons practiced a communal economic system and there are at least two areas in the Book of Mormon that seem to entail a more communal approach to economics. One is in Fourth Nephi, where the people of God, the Nephites, are finally living righteously. When they’re living righteously, they’re living communally. They’re living in a society where they have all things in common and there is no hierarchy. There is no division of rich and poor among them and everybody is free. So that pretty much sounds like sort of an anarcho-communist situation that they were in, which certainly wouldn’t be consistent with a capitalist, dog eat dog, every man out for himself kind of society. Clearly in the Book of Mormon when the Nephites get proud they usually accumulate wealth and a division between the rich and the poor occurs as a result of that pride, and that seems to be an obvious indicator of the unrighteousness of a society when there is a division between the really wealthy and the poor, and that’s exactly what we have in capitalism. Capitalism is an attempt to justify that.

So I think Fourth Nephi shows us that we have to recognize that Mormonism has some real reasons to opt for either socialism or a communal approach to economics, and there are also in the Book of Mormon some pretty pointed critiques that can be leveled and used against capitalism. For example, King Benjamin in Mosiah 3 or 4, somewhere in there, says to the people, as he’s giving his famous sermon, that you cannot justify not giving to the poor on the basis of the idea that the poor deserve their lot. And in fact if you try to justify not giving to the poor on the basis of that, then you’re even worse off and he says that because, aren’t we all sinners? None of us deserve anything. That’s a claim about the reasons for poverty and wealth, and that somebody is not rich because they deserve it or because they merit it, and somebody is not poor because they deserve it or they merit it. But that seems to be at the basis of capitalist ideology at least in the United States. It seems like that’s how we justify having an economic system in which it’s everyone for themselves and you’re on your own basically. Unless you can get a good job, there are some safety nets, but not a lot. We have this economic system that we want to justify.

Some people want to even deregulate the markets more and get rid of the social safety net entirely. People like Milton Friedman. You can’t possibly justify that perspective if you’re going to accept King Benjamin’s address. That kind of went on to your second question, huh?

NK: Yea, kind of. Why is it that so many people in the Mormon Church today align with the more right-wing ideologies?
DP: Well, I should clarify and make it clear although I used to be Mormon I’m not anymore and so I don’t know if I could get into that mind set to really understand why, psychologically why, they’re doing that. I do think that you can give some maybe general explanations that are sociological or historical. So for example, the early Mormon community was very communal in their economic activities. You know the United Order was an attempt at that. I think it’s actually a myth about the United Order that the selfishness of the Mormons killed it. I don’t think that that’s at all obvious. I think that it’s more likely that the incoming non-Mormons and the capitalist economic system coming into Utah from outside the state, that that’s what killed it. The railroad, the mining, you know, all of those things. But I’m sorry, what was the,…

NK: Why do so many people in the Mormon Church align themselves with more right-wing ideologies?

DP: Oh yea, so my point was that early on in the Mormon church there were some progressive tendencies at least with respect to economics, and those I think provided a challenge for the rest of America to accept Mormons. Mormons live in this weird way communally and practice polygamy and they do these weird things that don’t fit into the kind of way the rest of America wants them to do things. You know, kind of the way the FLDS [polygamist off-shoot of the mainstream Mormon Church] people probably seem, you know, way outside the boundaries of modern society now. They seem odd and strange to us, right? Well I think Mormons probably seemed that way too. So to be accepted in the rest of America, and this is Thomas Alexander’s line in his book “Mormonism in Transition,” it seems like they became more American than the Americans, in order to become accepted. It’s almost as if Mormons felt that they had to be even more conservative, even more politically conservative, than the Evangelical Christians who were criticizing them. And in the United States of course, that means advocating a free-market economy and embracing capitalism, embracing the search for wealth and so on. It’s actually ironic that Mormons are becoming more that way, because if Mormonism is correct, the Book of Mormon is supposed to be a prophecy about what will happen to the people of God in this day. And it’s a prophecy that says they will do the same thing that the Nephites did, and that’s exactly what they’re doing, the same thing the Nephites did because they’re embracing wealth, they’re embracing capitalism, they’re proud I think.
NK: Even though currently most people in the Mormon church (the members in the United States, at least) are right-wing, do you see that there is any possibility for change or to go in a different direction, more towards socialism?

DP: Well, part of the reason that I left the church is that I don’t see any way it will change. The contemporary church basically put aside all of what I thought was really interesting about early Mormonism. Namely, the emphasis on communal life and the really radical view about the nature of God, and the very strong humanist view about the nature of human beings, that we aren’t necessarily bad in the way that traditional Christianity says that human beings are fundamentally corrupt. There are just a lot of things that are positive about Mormonism which to a large extent don’t play any kind of role in the contemporary church. And the contemporary church looks like a corporation. They even dress like they work for a corporation. It’s come to mimic, actually, almost capitalism in the world.

Now, that said, there are some features of the institution of the Mormon church that if somebody wanted to, at the top, they could use to start a great cooperative economic venture and in fact every time there’s a humanitarian disaster they do. Whenever there’s a disaster they use this institutional structure of the church to help people in those cases. And that’s communal activity right? That’s activity where we’re taking care of people. Well, they could just use that, the very efficient bureaucracy of the Mormon church, and we could use that to build up socialism using it as the structure instead of having the government as the structure. I mean honestly, a ward [local Mormon congregation] is a really well-functioning unit. They could use the wards as sort of a basis for socialism. A ward can be a collective economically and it seems like we can do that. But of course, I don’t have any belief that’s the trajectory of Mormonism right now. I think that if anything, Mormonism will solidify its place on the right as part of the Christian right in the United States.

NK: What do you think the attitude towards war and violence should among Mormons? Does Mormon doctrine advocate pacifism or militarism? Should Mormons only fight in self-defense or is it okay to fight in pre-emptive wars, like in Iraq for example?

DP: There’s no simple answer to that question, I think, in Mormon theology. I think Mormon theology on this issue has, what Eugene England would say, is one of those paradoxes. Both views are represented in Mormonism. In particular in the Book of Mormon we have, you know, a famous heroic character Captain Moroni, who is depicted as a righteous person and is depicted as leading the Nephites into war justifiably. At least that’s how the story is told. So that seems to justify, at least under certain conditions, the use of violence, maybe in defense of freedom, in defense of liberty, and maybe in self-defense or something like that.

But to leave the analysis of what the Book of Mormon says about war at that is to leave it very thin I think, because one thing to notice about Captain Moroni is that when he engages in war with the Lamanites he would rather convert them if he could. You know, he even offers that as a possibility to them. If you convert and lay down your weapons then we won’t have to kill you right? But they don’t. And he has to kill them. He doesn’t get any converts. He doesn’t increase the membership of the church.
But another group in the Book of Mormon called the Anti-Nephi-Lehies, at one point, they realized that they had been horrible in their use of violence in killing people in the past and they feel very guilty about this and so they bury their weapons and make a vow never to use them again. Unfortunately, after they make that vow, enemy soldiers come to attack them and instead of fighting they resist only non-violently at most and are killed. Some of them are killed. Maybe a thousand or two thousand, I can’t remember exactly what the story says. And then as a result the enemy combatants stop fighting, stop killing and are converted to Christianity. It seems clear to me the message is, at one level maybe you can justify going to war but it’s never going to be the best option. The best option is going to be resisting the use of violence in a non-violent way. So I think that the most consistent position that comes out of Mormon theology would be a non-violent one, committed to pacifism in the technical sense.
But it’s important to recognize that the word pacifism is not based on the same cognate as the word passive. It has to do with peace and not necessarily with not resisting. All sorts of, including illegal modes of resistance, can be non-violent, at least in the sense of not lethal, not causing somebody to die. But, anyways that would be my view about the theology. But I would recognize that in Mormon theology there is at least that possibility that you could justify war in certain circumstances.