Academic journal article Albany Law Review

A Liberal Theocracy: Philosophy, Theology, and Utah Constitutional Law

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

A Liberal Theocracy: Philosophy, Theology, and Utah Constitutional Law

Article excerpt


The territory, and later the state, that became known as Utah was dominated by a religious community that had been persecuted for its beliefs and practices. Many observers understandably might expect that the Utah Constitution, as well as other legal and political institutions, might reflect both that experience and the unique religious and cultural beliefs of that community.(1) In particular, the. fact that this community is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which originated in the northeastern United States, migrated to the American Midwest, made a unique mass exodus to the basin of the Great Salt Lake, and which adheres to a religious tradition and set of theological beliefs that are unknown to the rest of Christendom, adds to the fascination with which jurists, scholars, and many other people have regarded this aspect of Utah's political, social, economic, legal, and constitutional history.(2)

However, the Utah Constitution does not reflect practices and beliefs such as tithing, abstention from all stimulants (including caffeine), patriarchal rule, or the moral certainty in a particular vision of human redemption. It is, in many respects, a conventional American state constitution that reflects a particular history of political persecution and isolation more than it reflects obvious theological influences. Nonetheless, the fact that Mormons conspicuously and strongly have dominated, demographically, culturally, economically, and politically, Utah's modern history must not be disregarded.(3) There are institutional, and even theological, influences present here, but they are not, necessarily, obvious. A closer examination reveals both the conventionality and uniqueness of the Utah constitutional tradition in this, and other, respects.

II. The Relationship of Mormon Theology and Liberal Humanism

The express political and religious price of statehood for Utah was the abandonment of both the practice of polygamy and the theocratic system of government within that territory that had been established there by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- whose members are conventionally known as Mormons. The more profound, and more subtle, price was a de jure acceptance of the basic value system that had been embraced by American society, and is reflected within its economic, political, and legal (especially constitutional) institutions. That price proved to be less onerous to the residents of that new state than might have been anticipated.

There are two explanations that may account for the relative ease of transition between the theocratic community of Deseret(4) and the American state of Utah. The first explanation is derived from the American value system, especially in relation to the constitutional norms that it has produced. It has been well established that American society and its constitutional tradition participate in the broader liberal democratic tradition that has embraced most of the industrialized world.(5) That ideological tradition is, however, a very flexible one; beyond its core principles there is great scope for variation regarding the precise interpretation and application of those principles, which include liberty, individualism, autonomy, property, and (as a part of a later and continuing process of ideological evolution) equality. The malleability of liberalism lies in its adaptability to social, cultural, economic, and political change and the corresponding institutional developments.(6) The different regions of the United States have provided an excellent example of this variety; state constitutions provide the basis for the exhibition of liberal values that are specific to a particular community and the competing beliefs that have shaped it and made it unique.(7)

These beliefs are so varied that it has proven to be difficult to find an American consensus regarding their precise parameters at the federal level. …

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