Seeking for Righteousness

The Personal Blog of Kaimi Wenger

Can a Mormon Support the ACLU?

This discussion will be a lengthy elaboration on a prior post addressing why I, as an LDS member, support the ACLU. The prior post discussed whether LDS members should support the ACLU given its litigation against the church.

I received a thoughtful response to my post from my brother Craig, who wondered if other aspects of the ACLU’s political beliefs are at odds with church beliefs. This post will address that question, which turns out to be quite complex.

Two notes up front: First, this discussion is written from the point of view of an active Latter-Day Saint who is also an ACLU member. I will discuss scripture and church belief; readers who are not interested in somewhat in-depth religious discussion are forewarned. The second note is that, to keep the posts readable, I will split this discussion into three posts on the blog. And now let us move on to a few threshold points which are central to the discussion.

First threshold point: The need to examine more than just religious litigation

One issue to address up front is the need to examine the ACLU in more areas than solely religious litigation. My earlier post discussed the ACLU’s religious litigation and concluded that such litigation was not irreconcilable with church beliefs. However, it is conceivable that the ACLU may have other beliefs which are not reconcilable with church membership. That is, an organization could be compatible with church membership based on its position on religious litigation, but could be anathema to church membership because of beliefs in other areas.

The general proposition from which to begin, then, is that for ACLU membership to be consistent with church membership, such a position should be free from conflict not only in the religious-litigation arena, but in all substantive areas. If an ACLU position is found to be irreconcilable with church doctrine, then church membership may not be consistent with ACLU membership.

Second threshold point: The distinction between religious commandment and legal law

The second threshold point, which is vital in this discussion, is the recognition that an act may be spiritually condemned — it may be a sin — while at the same time legally permitted — it is not a crime. (The reverse, of course, also holds true — an act may be a crime but not a sin).

This characteristic is inherent in non-theocratic legal systems (and, it could be argued, it exists in some theocratic systems as well, to the extent they are not based on correct doctrine). The United States is a non-theocratic legal system. As LDS members, we may support non-theocratic legal systems, and indeed are encouraged to do so. (See Article of Faith #12). (Some theocratic systems are also spoken of highly in scripture; but, the government of the United States, which is non-theocratic, is explicitly approved in scripture).

Because we are encouraged to support this non-theocratic system, an LDS member can believe acts are sins, independent of any determination by the state that such acts should or should not be considered crimes. There are numerous examples of sins that are not crimes: Everything from alcohol consumption or pre-marital sex, to non-belief in Christ or non-payment of tithing, are sins — yet they are generally not crimes. (It is also true, of course, that some sins are crimes, but this is not a universal correlation).

Understanding the sin / crime distinction is central to reconciling church and ACLU membership because, at their core, the two organizations focus on different areas entirely. The church is concerned with spiritual laws, on obedience to commandments which will result in eternal life in the world to come. The ACLU is focused on temporal laws, and on the effects of laws that govern our physical acts. The church focuses on which acts can draw God’s condemnation, while the ACLU focuses on which acts can draw the state’s condemnation. They operate largely in independent spheres.

This discussion foreshadows much of the later analysis. At this point, it is sufficient that the reader realize that certain acts can be sins while not being crimes — that is, that there exists a sin / crime distinction — and that this distinction is entirely consistent with LDS doctrine.

A related note is necessary here: The Scriptures do indicate that societies in which temporal laws deviate too sharply from spiritual laws will face the anger of God. (See, e.g., Mosiah 29:27). The import of this principle on behavior is not clear. LDS members should strive to instruct and set an example for their neighbors. Should the sin / crime differential become too great, the scriptures tell us that society will be ripe for destruction. However, church members are not encouraged to go against the democratic or legal process (Mosiah 29:26).

The conclusion on this point is that the sin / crime distinction exists, and that LDS members should expect it to exist. It is not itself a bad thing. However, too broad of a sin / crime gap can lead to God’s punishment.

Third threshold point: Balancing of good

The third and final threshold point is what I will call the balancing of the good. Many organizations have beliefs or teachings that stretch across a large number of subject categories. The church is such an organization; so are many political organizations including the ACLU.

In considering the merits of an organization, it seems to me to be necessary to consider the balance of good — that is, if an organization has taken several positions on several different subjects, that a church member weigh the total (how many positions she agrees on, how many she does not) in order to decide whether or not to support that organization.

This principle is common in politics. A person may vote for a Democrat because he agrees with that candidate’s view on the environment, even if he disagree with her view on abortion. A voter may vote for a Republican because he agrees with a candidate’s view on taxes, even if he disagrees with her view on gun control. Balancing of the good is a practice that church members (and other people) are accustomed to engaging in.

Examples of Balancing of the Good

A few examples can help illustrate the principle of balancing the good. For one example, consider the American Heart Association. It has published papers about how drinking 1-2 glasses of red wine per day can cut down on cardiovascular disease. The AHA does not make an across the board recommendation, because they say that alcohol use for this reason should be discussed with the physician, but notes that “Moderate intake of alcoholic beverages (1 to 2 drinks per day) is associated with a reduced risk of CHD in populations.” This statement — that drinking wine can be good for one’s health — is a position counter to the Word of Wisdom.

A second example can be found in many (if not most) scientific organizations. For our example, we will use the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian Institution, a wonderful museum and resource, also supports the theory of evolution. Such a position is counter to the stated beliefs of the church on that issue.

Can an LDS member donate to either organization? Certainly. The LDS member may quite reasonably feel that the good work done by the AHA is important enough to support them, despite its statements on alcohol use, or that the Smithsonian (or other museum or scientific society) is important enough to support despite any disagreement on creation. The same principle could apply to donation or assistance to Catholic charities, even though they have contrary beliefs on the priesthood and the authority of the Prophet, or to donations to one’s alma mater, even if the school leadership has expressed beliefs contrary to church doctrines.

Balancing of the good is a practice that LDS members can and should engage in. Church members should not reserve their generosity for perfect organizations, but should actively strive to improve society, even through (or especially through) imperfect organizations, as long as those organizations have a balance which favors the good.


To recap the points discussed thus far, they are:

(1) Church members should examine all facets of ACLU belief to see if it conflicts with church doctrine;

(2) The existence of a sin / crime distinction is not counter to church belief, provided the gap between the two is not too great;

(3) Organizations should be judged on a “balancing of the good” test.

I will now discuss some substantive areas of church doctrine and ACLU belief, and move on to the second post in this series in order to do so.

August 29, 2003 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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