Thursday, July 22, 2010

An addendum on agency

I've been reading Prince and Wright’s book David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, and Chapter 12 makes pretty clear that during the strong anti-communist period of the mid-twentieth century, rhetoric in the church, and even from President McKay certainly did equate free agency with some level of political freedom, which seems to contradict my latest post on agency.

In General Conference after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President McKay (then a counselor in the First Presidency) said, “To deprive an intelligent human being of his free agency is to commit the crime of the ages.... So fundamental in man’s eternal progress is his inherent right to choose, that the Lord would defend it even at the price of war” (Conference Report, April 1942, 71-73, quoted in Prince, 280).

That said, I still believe the scriptural reference to agency has little to do with political freedom and more to do with man's innate ability to choose, as in this report about President McKay (then church president) in the Los Angeles Times points out:

"People under Communist domination will some day rise against their rulers, the world leader of the Mormon church predicted today. White-haried Elder David O. McKay, Salt Lake City, said free will – the freedom to choose between right and wrong – is the people’s most valuable possession. ‘No power on earth,’ he said, ‘can take that freedom away’” (“Head of Mormons Predicts Revolt in Red Countries,” Los Angeles Times, April 26, 1954, quoted in Prince, 292). As Prince and Wright observe, President McKay’s prophecy was true.

The second statement suggests that free will, free agency, transcends political constraints as I suggested in my original post.

That said, given the history of that period, it's not hard to see how some members might also make similar arguments to today’s that government policy which is seen to limit political freedoms might also be interpreted as limiting free agency. They can make that argument, but I do not agree with them.


  1. But how do you separate political freedom with man's innate ability to choose? if our ability to choose means anything, surely it means the right to live our lives as we see fit...and in our modern age, we can't do that without getting involved, to some extent, in the political process. The cost of stepping back is a high one: letting other people decide "right" and "wrong" for us. If I believe in freedom, don't I have an obligation to say so? It's easy to pay lip service to the idea of standing up for the powerless, as Jesus instructs us to do; it's quite another thing to actually do it. If I say, for example, "oh, well, I'm not gay, so gay rights issues don't effect me, so I'm going to ignore them", am I being a Good Samaritan or a Pharisee?

    I'm well aware that my political views make me unpopular in certain circles--or, at least, cause others to view me with suspicion. But I'm not doing what I'm doing because it's controversial, or to get attention. I'm doing it, because I honestly believe that it's morally right. Others' occasional chagrin is, to me, a small enough price to pay for following the prayerful dictates of my conscience.

  2. I agree that the scriptural term agency is not the same thing as political freedom. Political freedom is one of the many things that have been tacked on to the original idea of agency through the years. Don't get me wrong, I despise communism or any other responsibility/freedom limiting big government system.

    If agency meant political freedom, then God's plan to give mankind agency has not been very successful. I believe men and women around the world are given agency regardless of the political system they are under.

  3. CJ, your question is a valid one, and clearly there are many Latter-day Saints who take your view. David O. McKay on MANY occassions spoke out against communism and its freedom-limiting as being morally wrong.

    My point, however, is that even in the face of less political freedom, we still make our choices whether or not to obey. A totally free society is not required in order for someone to exercise agency. But clearly a free society mirrors the freedom our Father in Heaven's plan gives us, if it imposes consequences for poor (evil) choices.

    Of course coming to agreement about what the evil choices vs. the righteous choices are will also be a problem in any free society, and the one you raise is today's prime example.

    The distinction I would hope to draw, and one that church leaders had to sort through in the mid-20th century, is that living in one system of government vs another is not necessarily an enabler for more righteous living. I speak not of a place that restricts religious freedom, of course. But saints who live in socialist countries are not inherently less righteous (nor do they necessarily have less agency) than those who live in the United States.

    Of course, you have agency (and freedom) to say whatever you like, and I believe you should follow the dictates of your conscience as you do. Of course others are also free to agree or disagree.

    Matthew, I agree with you. One of the founding principles of our government is that it derives its power from the people, not from some divine source (like kings) or from itself. One might argue today if the system still functions as it should, but the fact is that the governed always have power to change their government if they see fit.

  4. No, political freedom and free agency aren't the same thing; one facilitates the other. Sure, we all have agency, but the fact of having agency isn't the same thing as having the freedom to follow the dictates of your conscience. I had a professor in college who grew up in Soviet Russia; he and his classmates had to gather in a series of dirty basements to study the Bible, because religious observance was forbidden. He used to tell stories of trying to pray, while rats were gnawing at his feet. Sure, he had the agency to pray, but is ruthless suppression of free religious expression, therefore, no big deal?

    All too often, we think about political expression in terms of what we don't agree with. But, today, on my blog, I wrote about Jennifer Keeton, a graduate student who's been told by her school that unless she renounces her religious beliefs, she won't be allowed to graduate from her program. What are those beliefs, exactly? That homosexuality is against God.

    Sure, she has agency; she can decide that she doesn't want to graduate from school, after pouring her heart and soul into this program for two years. But why, exactly, is this a desirable outcome? Why should she, and potentially hundreds of thousands of other Americans, suffer because her views aren't politically correct?

    It seems to me that working to create a society where people are free to live as they believe God is commanding them to live, without having to become martyrs to their cause, is surely more part of God's plan?

  5. CJ,

    You and I are in agreement: No they are not the same, but YES living in a free society is better (and more in keeping with God's plan). The Book of Mormon teaches this lesson very clearly, and the examples you cite are spot on.

    In the final weeks of my mission I met a gentleman who learned of the church after WWII through a young woman he saved from rape at the end of the war. Her family taught him the gospel, but because they lived where they did, there was no authorization to baptize him, and he worshiped with the Saints for nearly 30 years (including serving a 10 year prison sentence for duplicating copies of sections of the Doctrine & Covenants so another congregant who had children did not need to) without the blessing of baptism. When he reached an age to receive a government old age pension, he was allowed to return to his native Germany where he found us and was finally baptized.

    Clearly the blessings of living in a free society facilitates and enables the Lord's plan to allow us to come unto Him, and to be agents unto ourselves.