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Perspective: Jonathan Rauch underscores ‘civic theology’ of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the University of Virginia

Jonathan Rauch says the ‘civic theology’ of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a contemporary model of a healthier and mutually supportive relationship between constitutional democracy and a self-sustaining Christian faith

SHARE Perspective: Jonathan Rauch underscores ‘civic theology’ of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the University of Virginia

Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

One of America’s leading public intellectuals, a self-described atheistic Jewish gay man, is neither eager to see the flight from Christian churches, nor is he buying an all-too-convenient “society is to blame” explanation for this phenomenon. In a tour de force of intellectual courage and candor, senior Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch delivered three stunning lectures late last month at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Rauch warned that the deterioration of American Christianity threatens America’s pluralistic democracy. He also warned that our democracy is threatened by the reactive response of some American Christian thought leaders who blame our liberal democracy for the demise of their own church communities.

Rauch argued that, unfortunately, contemporary Christianity in America (largely speaking here about evangelicalism) has become too “thin” and too “sharp”, i.e., too secularized, and not because of what pluralistic democracy has done to religion, but because of religion’s self-inflicted wounds of commercialization and politicization that deviate from its missions of helping to form community and providing for moral formation. 

As a counter to these trends, Rauch proposes alignment — in contrast to alliance — between democracy and religion in our constitutional order. Religionists should acknowledge, said Rauch, that pluralistic democracy brings vitally important social and material goods to society that religion can’t provide by itself. That said, Rauch also suggested that secularists should recognize how the moral formation and the meaning, upon which our democratic institutions rely, come in large part from religion, and that the state can’t provide meaningful substitutes in this realm. Although democratic and religious institutions may find themselves from time to time in tension, they should seek the well-being of one another.  


Jonathan Rauch, author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth,” speaks at the Braver Angels National Convention at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pa., on Friday, July 7, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Rauch therefore encouraged Christians in their public engagement to draw more self-consciously from the teachings and example of Jesus Christ to fear not, to imitate Jesus Christ more closely, and to forgive others. And he encouraged liberals and progressives to be more welcoming of religion. “We should even, perhaps, cherish religion,” said Rauch. “And when we disagree with a faith tradition,” he continued, “we should do so respectfully and give it a second or even third hearing; and when we criticize faith, we should do so in a spirit of humility, recognizing that the great faith traditions have been around a lot longer than liberalism.”

Rauch used the bulk of his final lecture to shine a generous light upon what he calls the “civic theology” of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because he sees within the Latter-day Saint tradition a contemporary replicable model of a healthier and mutually supportive relationship between constitutional democracy and a self-sustaining Christian faith.

Drawing from Latter-day Saint scripture on moral agency and several recent speeches by President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Rauch presented the church as a contemporary successful example of a morally demanding, countercultural Christian tradition whose practice and doctrine embrace an ethic of patience, negotiation and mutual accommodation consistent with the Founders’ vision for our republican form of government.

And although some observers might see the Latter-day Saint example of accommodation as a tactical and pragmatic response by a minority religion, Rauch methodically uncovers deep theological underpinnings for the church’s pluralistic teachings, such as President Oaks’ admonition that “We should not expect or seek total dominance for our own positions.” He does so by providing a very close reading of President Oaks’ recent speeches on constitutionalism and religious liberty to the worldwide church, to the University of Virginia and to a Notre Dame Law School religious liberty summit in Rome.

Rauch describes President Oaks’ argument as “a sophisticated case for an alignment between God’s moral constitution and Madison’s political one. He sees patience, negotiation and compromise not as means to ends, to be jettisoned if the results seem unsatisfying, but as social and spiritual ends unto themselves.”

Combining President Oaks’ teachings with other Latter-day Saint scripture and teaching on moral agency, Rauch extrapolates the following civic commandment: “If I impose my will politically to limit your agency, I have deprived you of a pathway toward godliness; and so, indeed, I have sinned.” Thus, Rauch finds within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints “something really quite impressive: a fully formed, coherent, and scriptural foundation for Madisonian pluralism. It is the polar antithesis of Christian nationalism and Christian dominionism. … It provides an account of Christian citizenship which is not defensive, fearful, or self-isolating, but which embraces the messy, frustrating process of negotiation as bringing Americans closer to God.”

Rauch went on to note how this Latter-day Saint approach “also rejects the radical version of progressivism which would impose secular law on all aspects of civic life, regardless of religious practices and objections. Instead, it supports a balanced, negotiated approach in which the two sides make room for each other. In that respect, it provides for accountability to both God and the Constitution.”

Rauch received formal feedback during the lectures from three University of Virginia professors — sociologist James Davison Hunter, political theorist Danielle Charette and religious historian Kathleen Flake. They raised questions about whether Rauch’s critique of contemporary Evangelical Christianity had been painted in too broad of strokes and whether his plea for traditional Christian traditions to embrace pluralism in ways analogous to the doctrines of the Latter-day Saints would be persuasive. But to a person, commentators and audience alike found the project important, timely and provocative. Hunter further noted that Rauch’s achievement “is all the more remarkable by virtue of the fact that he is an outsider to the traditions he is writing on and speaking about.”

Too often, the news emerging from our colleges and universities is about illiberalism and cancel culture. But by this observer’s witness, even the potentially volatile contemporary challenges at the intersection of religion and democracy can still be probed and debated with humility, intellectual curiosity, critical inquiry and open exchange. When Rauch’s original thoughts on these issues finally emerge as a published book — which they will — our national discourse will be elevated by his keen observation and unique perspective.

Paul S. Edwards is the director of the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University.