Lately more and more Church members have begun to wonder why the Church is so supportive of the United States military. We’ve experienced a long tradition of this, beginning with the Mormon Battalion in 1846. When the U.S. Army requested 500 men to join the service in the conflict with Mexico, Brigham Young responded positively despite the fact that our people were in the middle of a forced exodus from the country. This story is proudly retold in our Church lessons and manuals, making it a seminal moment in the formation of our military philosophy. Isolation in the West kept members physically separated from the conflict of the Civil War. But by the time of World War I, Mormons had become involved in the military machine.
Shortly before the Second World War, the United States instituted the draft system. With the deemphasis on the doctrine of gathering to Utah, and the advent of World War II, the Church had to face some tough issues. For the first time we were confronted with the problem of having significant numbers of faithful Latter-day Saints on both sides of a military conflict. In the April Conference of 1942, an official statement was made by the First Presidency that although the gospel of Christ is a gospel of love, every citizen has an obligation to come to the defense of their country when a call to arms is made.
“The state is responsible for the civil control of its citizens or subjects, for their political welfare, and for the carrying forward of political policies, domestic and foreign, of the body politic. For these policies, their success or failure, the state is alone responsible, and it must carry their burdens. All these matters involve and directly affect Church members because they are part of the body politic, and members must give allegiance to their sovereign and render it loyal service when called thereto. But the Church itself, as such, has no responsibility for these policies, as to which it has no means of doing more than urging its members fully to render that loyalty to their country and to free institutions which the loftiest patriotism calls for.” (First Presidency Message, Conference Report, April 1942, pp. 88-97)
This statement is included in full on the Church’s website as representative of our public policy. Perhaps the preeminence in the Book of Mormon on war in the defense of one’s freedom influenced the decision to support government in waging war. Other Christian religions, notably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, encountered the same quandary and formulated quite different policies. At the time of World War I, it was recommended that Witnesses serve in the army only if compelled, and then to request positions in a non-combative role such as medical service. However, by the time of the Second World War, they refused to assist the war effort in any way, to salute the flag, and even to vote.
Since the 1942 CR statement was made, there has been a general reluctance to speak against any military action taken by countries wherein dwell large numbers of Latter-day Saints, especially the United States. During the Vietnam War, Mormons were urged not to be conscientious objectors, but to enter the military and serve their country. Church statements at the time emphasized the propriety of war in defense of our families, religion and country. In the several wars which have ensued, LDS members in the military are urged to see themselves as defending not just their own nation but also the freedom of religion that it ensures for the Church. I don’t know if it is just my personal experience, but I rarely hear talks or prayers in the Church urging peaceful solutions to national conflict. Instead I hear prayers from the ward level to temple prayer circles where the Lord is asked to bless our members who are serving in the military. There is a subtle acceptance of military action inherent in these types of prayers which grates on me.
I think it will be very interesting if Mormon rhetoric concerning participation in military efforts will begin to soften now that the President of the United States is more committed to exploring greater options toward pacifism than past administrations have done. Lately President Obama has been involved in a global nonproliferation regime concerning nuclear weaponry. As part of his vision for a world without nuclear weapons, he drafted a proposal which was unanimously accepted at a U.N. Security Council meeting on September 24.
This is a complicated issue, which may involve even more conflict, given that Iran may resist the resolution. However, I have great hopes for the way this is heading. I also see many younger Latter-day Saints who are committed to the issue of pacifism. Since military service is currently voluntary, young men and women do not feel undue pressure from the Church to serve their country in this manner, as they have in the past. Thus, an LDS generation is growing up with more of an opportunity to formulate their own responses to a call to military service amid a political climate which is more conducive to pacifism than ever before.
Will we soon see the cessation of hawkish patriotism in Sunday School lessons and Church talks and prayers? Will more LDS leaders arise in the traditon of J. Reuben Clark, who affirmed: “Moral force is far more potent than physical force in international relations. I believe that America should again turn to the promotion of peaceful adjustment of international disputes?” Or will civil and religious duties continue to be cited as justification for participation in military conflict?