It’s politics season again in America, which means that discussions are heating up on Facebook, in living rooms, and in ward foyers around the country. As someone who has had a fair number of these discussions myself, and as someone who falls solidly on the left side of the political spectrum, one of the arguments I hear most often from my fellow Mormons suggests that I’m in favor of Satan’s plan. In fact, this is one of the most frequent themes of hate mail sent to the LDS Democrats caucus leadership in Utah. Liberals, the argument goes, want to take away our agency. Liberals want to pass laws that, while well-intentioned, actually enact one of the devil’s top priorities since before the Earth was formed: “Satan rebelled against [God], and sought to destroy the agency of man” (see Moses 4:1-4).
The principle of agency is particularly salient in an election year in which a self-described “democratic socialist” is running far to the left of Hillary Clinton and giving her a run for her (Wall Street)** money. If Democratic policies like progressive taxation and universal public schooling are evil, democratic socialism is even worse. Socialism must be what Satan daydreams about while listening to mainstream Democrats extol his premortal plan.
This adds significant eternal weight to a number of political discussions had among Mormons. Should we raise taxes and use that money to help other people? Well, if we do, then Satan wins. Should we increase regulation of a particular industry, or should we leave it up to them to do the right thing? Well, one makes Satan happy because it thwarts agency, and the other honors God’s plan. Which do you think is a better idea?*
But there’s a problem with this mentality about agency: it’s wrong. Not only is it overly simplistic to say that Satan’s plan relies exclusively on coercive force (here’s a prominent Mormon libertarian debunking that notion over at LDS Living), but agency is not actually something that can be restricted here on Earth. That battle’s over. God won, Satan lost. We have agency.
In other words, there’s a difference between freedom and agency. You restrict my freedom when you put me in a jail cell, when you put speed limits on my roads, or when you take my taxes (or my tithing) to spend on welfare (or on ward houses). You restrict my freedom when you throw me in jail (or remove my access to temples) when I don’t pay. But in none of those cases do you remove my agency. The only way you do that is go back in time and change the outcome of the war in heaven.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s Elder Dallin H Oaks on this topic:
First, because free agency is a God-given precondition to the purpose of mortal life, no person or organization can take away our free agency in mortality.
Second, what can be taken away or reduced by the conditions of mortality is our freedom, the power to act upon our choices. Free agency is absolute, but in the circumstances of mortality freedom is always qualified.
Freedom may be qualified or taken away (1) by physical laws, including the physical limitations with which we are born, (2) by our own action, and (3) by the action of others, including governments.
Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency. When Pharaoh put Joseph in prison, he restricted Joseph’s freedom, but he did not take away his free agency. When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular time in a particular place, but he did not take away their free agency.
During my nine years at BYU I read many letters to the editor in the Universe that protested various rules as infringements of free agency. I am glad I don’t see those funny arguments anymore, probably because I no longer have to read the letters to the editor in the Universe.
Freedom is obviously of great importance, but as these examples illustrate, freedom is always qualified in mortality. Consequently, when we oppose a government-imposed loss of freedom, it would be better if we did not conduct our debate in terms of a loss of our free agency, which is impossible under our doctrine. We ought to focus on the legality or the wisdom of the proposed restriction of our freedom.
There’s no problem, in other words, with a debate about the virtues of limiting freedom in one way or another. Should we expand the tax base in order to pay for single-payer health care? Should we limit a woman’s access to contraceptives or abortions? Should we restrict the freedom of Wall Street executives by imposing stricter regulations? Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t. But regardless of what happens, we can be sure that Satan’s agency destruction plan is not gaining any ground.
Not even a crazy socialist can beat God in a war He’s already won.