What it means to be Mormon, Part 3
By John D. Turner
14 Oct 2007

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, - Revelation 12:7

In order to understand Mitt Romney, his stance on issues, and his apparent “flip-flops” on certain issues of particular importance to conservatives, it is important, I believe, to understand two key doctrinal concepts of the Mormon faith. The first is called “Agency”. The second, tightly intertwined with the first is the “pre-existence”. These two doctrines are major departures from “traditional” Christianity as understood by much of the modern Christian world.

Once again, I want to emphasize that my intent here is not to evangelize. If you believe all this is just a bunch of hooey, that’s fine with me. I am not trying to convert you to my beliefs. I am trying to provide a context for understanding Mormons, and Mitt Romney in particular.

Agency, or free agency, or moral agency is a fundamental principle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Basically stated, agency is “the ability to make choices for oneself, as well as the ability to learn the difference between right and wrong and to make ethical and moral decisions.”[1] It is important to note that this does not insulate us from the consequences of the actions we take. The word “free” does not imply that actions are without consequence, but rather that agency is a gift freely given to us by God. In direct opposition to the view held by many that our lives are predestined, that we have no choice over what we do, Mormons believe that not only do we have free will, but that free agency was part of God’s plan from the beginning.

Depriving one of agency is a serious thing. There are occasions where it is permitted, such as in the case of crimes such as murder, rape, slavery, and other activities where someone has criminally abused their agency to infringe on the agency of another in such a manner as to keep that person from making their own choices.

The Mormon concept of free agency derives from another major difference between Mormons and mainstream American Christianity, that being the concept of life before mortality, or the “pre-existence”. We believe that before the Earth was created, we existed as created spirit beings of our Heavenly Father. We also believe that we were involved in that war in heaven spoken of by John in Revelation, and quoted at the beginning of this article. The war itself was fought over the mechanism by which the spirit children of God the Father (our souls, if you will) would return to him after experiencing mortality. The primary point of dispute was the concept of Agency.

The plan was that our spirits would be united with a physical body and we would enter into mortality. That way we could learn things, grow, and be tested in such a way that was impossible as spiritual beings. This was necessary if we were to progress further. During this time, all memory of our previous existence would be removed, including our sure knowledge of God the Father, so that our actions would truly be our own. We would face uncertainty, new experiences, moral conundrums, all the facets of “real life”. Mormons refer to this as a “veil” being placed between our previous existence and our current existence in mortality. At some point after we die, the veil is lifted and we once more know what we knew before, and how we did on our test. For many, this knowledge will be bitter indeed.

From the beginning, God provided instruction to his children concerning what they were supposed to do and how they were supposed to live. However, because God’s children would not remember the pre-existence once they passed into mortality, everything would have to be taken on faith. Over time, without a sure knowledge, the instructions, indeed, the nature of God would be corrupted by the imaginations, musings, and passions of men; much in the same manner as a message in that childhood game “gossip” gets distorted when passed by mouth from the beginning of the line to the end. The lack of sure knowledge pretty much guarantee that people would fall into sin, and since no unclean thing can enter into the kingdom of heaven, would also necessitate a Savior to atone for the sins of each person so that they could indeed return to the presence of God the Father. Jesus Christ volunteered to become that Savior.

There was another, Lucifer, who made a counterproposal. Lucifer’s plan eliminated the need for a Savior, and guaranteed everyone would return to Heavenly Father at the expense of free agency and incidentally, further progression and testing. Since this would obviate the need for mortality in the first place, God the Father chose to stay with the original plan. Because Lucifer’s plan guaranteed a return, there were some who thought his best; heaven after all, was a good place to be. Why take a chance on not returning? These, along with Lucifer (better known now as Satan), rebelled (the war in heaven) and were cast out.

All those who have ever lived upon the earth, who live here now, and who will live here in the future come from those spirits who followed God’s plan in the pre-existence. Even the worst among us originally made the proper choice to follow God’s plan, not Satan’s, and chose to come here.

This is a short, thumbnail sketch of a topic which is central to our religion. Simplistically stated, anything which follows along the lines of preserving our free agency is good, anything that subtracts from our free agency is bad. We are provided guidance (and a few rules), but our choices are our own, as are the consequences of making a poor choice.

You will note that this concept of free agency and individual consequence is somewhat different from what many Christian faiths believe. Much of Christendom believes in predestination, although exactly what this means varies. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with the term foreordination. We have a concept of foreordination as well, but it means something completely different than what most Christians would mean by the same word. And while some Christian denominations do have a concept of free agency, and most believe in life after death, few if any have a belief in life before mortality.

This is all very interesting but how does this help me understand Mitt Romney’s position on, say, abortion, where he once championed the right to choose, and now, conveniently, stands against it. How can he be sincere and how can I trust him not to “flip flop” again?

To me, flip-flopping has little to do with whether or not a person changes his or her mind about an issue. We constantly re-evaluate things in life in view of new information, and sometimes we change our minds. To be restricted from changing our minds in light of new information would be just as bad, if not worse than someone who can’t make up their mind in the first place. As a thinking, rational human being, we have to be able to change our minds when presented with new facts or insight.

Flip-flopping isn’t simply about changing one’s mind. It is about changing one’s position based on political expediency. This is particularly pernicious because it leaves us hanging as to whether or not we can believe what we are being told. If the change of position does not come from the heart, and is merely a political calculus, how do we know that when the political winds shift again, the position won’t shift again as well? The bottom line is trust. Does Mitt really mean what he says, or is he just saying something to get elected. And will he change back once in office? Can we trust him?

Conservatives are right to be wary. We have been burned too many times in the past. While I obviously cannot read Mitt’s mind, and don’t of a certainty know what he is thinking, I don’t think that Mitt is flip-flopping here, despite what the conventional wisdom may say. To me this whole thing sounds like an agency issue.

Why do I think that? While Mitt may have changed his political position, i.e.: pro-choice to pro-life, there is no indication that he has ever changed his personal beliefs concerning abortion, which he opposes. He has stated his personal opposition to abortion time and again. This is an important point as it deals with issues concerning “flip-flopping”, and explains how he can apparently be on both sides of the same issue; “how can you be personally against abortion and yet support it?” The answer is he isn’t. It’s more along the lines of bringing his political position into alignment with his personal beliefs than it is changing his core personal beliefs.

Originally, Mitt stated that his stance on providing a method of safe, legal abortion was due to the death of a relative (the teenaged sister of a brother-in-law) from a botched, illegal abortion. This event occurred early on in Mitt’s life and had a great impact on the way he focused on the issue. It was a personal tragedy that impacted his family.

Family is another thing that is extremely important to Mormons.

Had abortion been legal at the time, there is a good chance that his sister-in-law would not have died. That she made a choice that he personally disagreed with is undeniable. However it was her choice to make, not his to take away from her. As long as she was going to make the choice anyway, would it not be better for her to receive proper medical treatment rather than die at the hands of an illegal abortionist? Erring on the side of life, would it not have been better for abortion to be legal; only one death would likely have resulted instead of two

The LDS Church has not taken a firm stand against abortion in the same sense that the Catholic Church has. Church officials have made statements against the practice; for example, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated in 1999:

“The Church opposes elective abortion for personal or social convenience. Our members are taught that, subject only to some very rare exceptions, they must not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange for an abortion. That direction tells us what we need to do on the weightier matters of the law, the choices that will move us toward eternal life.”

And our current prophet, Gorden B. Hinckley has also said:

“Abortion is an ugly thing, a debasing thing, a thing which inevitably brings remorse and sorrow and regret.”

The Church stands in opposition to abortion. But it is in the nature of counsel, not commandment. There is no passage of scripture I can point to where it says “Thus saith the Lord” or words to that effect. Free agency, as always, is in effect.

Mitt has also stated that his current stance crystallized when he became aware of all the issues involving embryo cloning and fetal stem cell research.

"In considering the issue of embryo cloning and embryo farming, I saw where the harsh logic of abortion can lead--to the view of innocent new life as nothing more than research material or a commodity to be exploited," Romney wrote in an opinion piece in Tuesday's Boston Globe. He also said he believes each state should decide whether to allow abortion, rather than having the "one size fits all" precedent of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. – Source: Associated Press on NewsMax.com, 27 Jul, 2005

Creating human embryos for the purpose of embryonic tissue farming and experimentation is a very different issue from a “free agency” choice made by an individual to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I would expect that the realization of where what began as a simple act of compassion was ultimately leading came as a bit of an epiphany to Mitt.

My own personal view is that it is easy to err out of compassion, which is where I see Mitt’s former stand on abortion. Making abortion illegal does not remove one’s free agency to seek an illegal abortion. What it does is make the temporal consequences of such a decision potentially more severe. I can understand his desire not to see women die from botched illegal abortions. I understand his compassion for them! However I also see the effect such a policy has had on women who have had “safe” legal abortions and later come to regret them, as well as the effect it has had on society at large. On the whole, I do not believe it has been positive.

On a personal level, Mitt’s stance on abortion has not wavered, nor is it inconsistent with views expressed by the leadership of the LDS Church. Politically, he has sided with agency on an individual basis. However, the wholesale farming of human life as a commodity to be exploited, even wrapped in the guise of helping humanity overcome disease and affliction, has forced him to take another look, and he has recoiled in horror. It is my belief that Mitt’s political stance is now firmly in line with his personal stance.

I suspect that in most cases where Mitt’s political stance conflicts with his stated personal stance, you will find at the root, an agency issue.

This is a good thing overall, as it means that Mitt is extremely unlikely, as president, to attempt to trample over your God given right to make your own decisions. Every decision that government makes for you is a decision that you don’t get to make for yourself. It takes away from your free agency.

This is a very complex issue, and like many complex issues, subject to personal interpretation. I hope I have presented it both clearly and properly in the limited time and space I have. As with all simply presented complex issues however, I have probably raised more questions than I have answered.

[1] Wikipedia – Agency, Earth Life.