Thursday, February 23, 2012

Baptists, Mormons, and Choice

Thoughts on Baptists and Mormons and Choice:
Moral Agency, Soul Liberty, and the Importance of being able to Make Choices

In Latter Day Saint’s (Mormon) doctrine, the notion of moral agency distinguishes the rightness of choices, such as whether to drink alcohol, from the freedom to make those choices. One may be appropriately free to choose to engage in some action, but morally wrong to exercise that freedom. For instance, when Mitt Romney first decided to run for public office, he told church leaders that he would say that he opposed abortion personally, but that such private beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on others. Romney argued that this view was acceptable under the Mormon doctrine of moral agency.

Francis Wayland, Baptist minister and president of Brown University (1827–1855) credited Roger Williams (briefly a Baptist himself) with establishing the commonwealth of Rhode Island on the fundamental principle of "perfect freedom in religious concerns; or, as he so well designated it, 'Soul Liberty.' No man of his age had so clear conceptions of the rights of conscience as the founder of Rhode Island, and no one had ever carried them so honestly to their legitimate conclusions. I go further: no one has yet been able either to take from or add to the principles of religious liberty which he so simply and powerfully set forth. They stand as imperishable monuments to his fame, like the obelisks of Luxor, on which the chiseling of every figure is now just as sharply defined as when, three thousand years since, they were left by the hand of their designer."

Amongst Baptists, the doctrine in question is also called “soul competency.” Whether “soul liberty” or “soul competency” the basic concept is that each person has the liberty (is competent) to choose what his/her conscience or soul dictates is right, and is responsible to no one but God for the decision that is made.

Jimmy Carter, speaking to a Baptist gathering, asked a rhetorical question: "How many believe that the Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade was appropriate and should remain unchanged, or that all abortions under all circumstances should be prohibited?" After giving several other examples, he concluded, “You see the divisive nature of these kinds of questions and they are the cause of the separations and divisions that have debilitated so much the world Christian church." He went on to liken such divisive issues to a controversy in the early Church saying that such questions should have “the same historical status as eating meat offered to idols.”

Jimmy Carter, like Mitt Romney (at least early in Mitt’s political career, if not now), understands the issue of abortion to best be left to the realm of private belief. Romney understands it in terms of the Mormon doctrine of “moral agency.” Carter understands the issue in terms of the Baptist doctrine of “soul liberty.” Both Mormons and Baptists have deeply held religious beliefs concerning the ability of the individual to make a choice. Both Carter and Romney have referenced these religious beliefs when speaking to the issue of abortion and both have given theological reasons for their positions.

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