Interview with Connor Boyack, author of the new book ‘Latter-day Responsibility’

Connor Boyack, author of the new book “Latter-day Responsibility,” is a controversial figure among Latter-day Saints. Readers may be aware of his book “Latter-day Liberty,” which I reviewed here. Many people love him, probably more seem to dislike him. So, M* addressed some of the controversial issues in the following interview.

Please note: we will be leaving comments open. It would be appropriate to ask questions that I don’t ask in this interview. However, please note that personal insults and attacks will be deleted. It is OK to ask a (non-snarky, non-trollish) question in a respectful manner, even if the question is a difficult one. It is quite another to simply leave a personal attack.

1) Give us a brief summary of your new book and why you decided to write it.

Liberty is a fundamental and eternal principle, but it cannot exist without its counterpart: personal responsibility. In my new book, I explain in detail some of the many responsibilities we must each perform if we truly wish to defend individual liberty and live free.

As I survey the liberty movement generally, I see a profound lack of discussion and advocacy regarding this counterbalancing principle. Who in the liberty movement talks about personal responsibility? Where are our advocates, institutions, and rallies to encourage responsibility? Focusing only on freedom means that we’re fighting half of the battles, and are thus more likely to lose the war.

When I wrote Latter-day Liberty, I didn’t intend to write another book–at least not for a very long while. But as I was driving home from a book signing one day, the spirit basically presented me with the entire structure of this book, and I quickly recognized that it needed to be written, and soon. I think it’s a message that Americans once understood but have strayed from significantly, so I hope in offering my book that we can begin to increase awareness and fulfillment of our various personal responsibilities. Only then we can really begin fighting for freedom.

2) I agree that a free society needs responsible people. One of the primary claims made by progressives is that people will not act responsibly. Therefore, progressives say, it is incumbent upon moral people to ask government step in to help these people who cannot help themselves. They say private charity is not enough. How do you answer this?

When has private charity ever been allowed to show that it was enough? Even the colonies had taxation-based Elizabethan poor laws to help manage a social safety net. Of course, while it is illegitimate to compel others to help provide for the poor, it is our collective fault for not proving that it can be done. Private charity needs to get creative, organized, and competitive to show that the government is not needed in this area, and that people can and will step forward. Michelle King’s submission for Libertas Institute’s recent essay contest highlights this idea pretty well.

3) Many of your suggestions in “Latter-day Responsibility” are very simply things we hear about in General Conference all the time (being debt free, being prepared, etc). What is special about your book?

Aren’t most LDS non-fiction books a rehash of what we hear in conference? 🙂

Personal responsibility is indeed a tune we’ve heard sung before, but offering these ideas in book format allows for much greater depth and fluidity than can be had in a 15 minute conference address. I also consistently tie the idea of responsibility, in each of its areas, to the cause of liberty. Framed in this way, this second book becomes a prequel of sorts to my first, Latter-day Liberty. Taken together, they help Latter-day Saints see a “big picture” about why all of this is important and how it all ties together–a perspective that they may not piece together on their own by listening to each of the ideas presented separately in General Conference.

4) Can you tell us when you first started becoming politically aware? You are one of the best-known political activists in Utah – what made you get so involved with so many political projects?

It was around 2005 when I was attending BYU that I first began to “wake up.” I attribute my introduction to political affairs to a variety of sources. I had an employer who would continually expose me to new ideas and challenge my assumptions, and was a good sounding board for things I was learning about. Shortly after, I was invited to a preview screening of Aaron Russo’s “Freedom to Fascism,” which introduced many new ideas to me that I hadn’t yet heard about. From there, my graduation (in the totally unrelated subject of Information Technology) in April 2006 provided me with an abundance of free time to delve into primary sources and begin consuming book after book on politics, history, and economics.

I take the scriptures seriously. When we are told to awaken to our awful situation, waste and wear out our lives exposing hidden things of darkness, warn our neighbor, and be anxiously engaged in a good cause, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out. Ultimately, for me, it’s as simple as that. I’m trying to do what I believe God wants me to do.

5) You also must admit that many of your projects are very controversial. You received substantial criticism for helping to sponsor the Spencer W. Kimball billboard. How do you answer the criticism that you were twisting the prophet’s words and that the billboard was not appropriate?

I readily admit the obvious! The Warlike People billboard project did indeed receive a lot of criticism, though by no means would I consider it “substantial.” We received far more praise and support than otherwise. To the allegation that we were twisting the prophet’s words, I would often simply reply: how? Our website contains no commentary (nor did the billboard itself), we link to primary sources (from which we excerpt very long sections for our website), and let these individuals speak for themselves. Some critics would respond that the context in which Pres. Kimball’s “we are a warlike people” statement has no application to the current geopolitical landscape. To that I would reply: I thought we were to “liken unto ourselves” the words of past prophets? If somebody concludes that what Pres. Kimball (and many other church leaders) said in the past about war has zero relevance today, then that is their choice. I and others emphatically disagree, and believe that people today are even more “warlike” than when Pres. Kimball penned those words almost four decades ago.

As for the controversy thing, I guess I don’t factor that into my determination of what to do and say. I try to speak up for what I believe in, and what I feel is right. As trite as it is, the primary song “do what is right, let the consequence follow” is a guiding principle of sorts for me. Prophets in past dispensations have stood up to authorities repeatedly and condemned their wickedness. That was controversial. Should we not follow that same pattern today?

6) There is a perception that the liberty movement is filled with yes-men and yes-women (I have heard them called “groupies”) who tend to follow people like you blindly. How do you answer this charge?

Before answering this charge, I laugh at it. A lot.

Folks in the liberty movement are among the most stubborn, independent, and analytical people I’ve ever encountered. The “cat herding” analogy comes to mind. Whenever I organize one of my projects, I’m peppered with questions from these supposed yes-men to justify the message, the approach, the strategy, the wisdom of it all, etc. In fact, I would say that it’s usually quite the opposite. While any movement will have its loyal “yes-men” (including the liberty movement), most of the people I rub shoulders with forge their own path and while they are supportive of like-minded folks like myself, very few consider themselves “followers,” let alone do they behave as such.

My experience has been that compared to other ideologies and movements, libertarian/independent folks are extremely educated and, as a result, opinionated. They know and study the issues, they question sources and challenge assumptions, and by nature are resistant to blindly following anybody. It may appear to some that there are “followers” in the liberty movement, but they generally follow with eyes wide open. And if any group can be condemned for its yes-men, would it not be the tyrannical states throughout history? It seems, to me, that collectivism produces (and takes advantage) of blind followers far more than individualism. I’d say that this allegation is the least of our concerns in the liberty movement, and perhaps one of the least accurate ones.

7) A very large faction of the liberty movement was involved in trying to convince the Church to be more open about finances. This caused a significant amount of criticism of the Church that was echoed by anti-Mormons and ex-Mormons and various doubting groups. Do you regret your involvement with these groups?

I did not sign the petition nor was (or am) I supportive of it. I also don’t know of many in the (LDS) liberty movement who signed it. I wouldn’t consider myself involved at all.

8) What comes first, your libertarian beliefs or the Church?

The gospel of Jesus Christ outranks and outweighs my political ideology, absolutely. I sometimes call myself a “LDS libertarian,” and the priority in that term has meaning. I’m a disciple of Christ first, and libertarian second. Where conflict exists, I side with the gospel. Though, as I explained in my first book, I find significant congruency between the two.

9) How do you handle areas of disagreement with Church policy? The Church has spoken out against gambling legalization and drug legalization and obviously against same-sex marriage. What are your opinions on these issues, and how do you reconcile any differences with the advice and sometimes the political involvement of the Brethren?

The church has also spoken out in favor of so-called “anti-discrimination” ordinances, liberalization in Utah’s alcohol laws, and other things. So it’s definitely something that any Latter-day Saint of any political ideology must address and reconcile, as positions advocated by leaders of the Church don’t only come into conflict with things that libertarians support. I know Latter-day Saint conservatives and liberals alike who espouse contradictory stances and have had to grapple with the issue.

Here’s what I say in Latter-day Liberty about this:

It should be noted that the principles, laws, and ideas discussed in this book are in relation to secular government. While we must “be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign” (D&C 58:22), it follows that we should understand what powers those are and under what conditions they are authoritative and acceptable. The establishment of the kingdom of God will bring with it God’s divine rule over mankind. As our lawgiver, he is of course free to create and enforce what laws he will, and for whatever reason (see Isaiah 55:8–9). Until that time, and while we must govern ourselves, it is imperative that we apply eternal principles to our relations with our fellow men so as not to threaten the agency and individual liberty of others without just cause.

and much later in the book:

As with the other issues presented in this book, the Saints must guide themselves by revealed doctrine, observable principles, and their understanding of truth. Where divine mandates exist, however, an appeal to natural law and liberty must acquiesce to the Lord’s command. Where a divine mandate truly exists to support a law or commit an action, even when in apparent contradiction to natural law and liberty, the matter is different. To the extent that a Church leader’s call to action is based on his own personal opinions, or in absence of any divine mandate or personal revelation to the contrary, we must conform our support of laws to that which we can individually and morally do to our neighbor. Unless God specifically states otherwise, we cannot exert nor endorse violence against another person (which includes fines, jail time, and other punitive government actions) unless that person has directly and legitimately harmed us.

These passages of course require the context offered in their surrounding pages, so they may not make full sense excerpted here. What I’m basically saying is that if it is in fact God’s will that we support a certain law, even if that law violates individual liberty, then I would absolutely follow God’s command. He is my King and I wish to obey him. If, however, the “church policy” carries no such divine support and instead is based on opinion, cultural tradition, or something else, then my personal opinion is that the liberty position is the correct one. The trouble, of course, is discerning what is and is not coming direct from God. It is admittedly a fine line for many people to straddle. It’s hard for me to say how I handle it since there’s no exact science in the muddy process. I default to supporting church policy, though there have been personal exceptions to that general rule.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

13 thoughts on “Interview with Connor Boyack, author of the new book ‘Latter-day Responsibility’

  1. I agree that we need responsible citizens to make our nation work well, but when in our history have we ever really had a nation full of responsible citizens? I frankly can’t think of such a time. And does this burden of responsibility fall equally upon our corporations and other institutions? Finally, if I may be so bold, I would be reticent myself to claim that the spirit prompted me to write a political book. Someone who disagrees with me may feel just as strongly about something they wrote. Claiming divine inspiration just might make me appear to be claiming prophet-like power and authority, which, surely, you are not claiming…unless you are.

  2. Don, the first part of your comment includes a good point, which I actually bring up in the interview. The second part does not. Everybody is entitled to divine inspiration: this is an essential part of our religion, ie, direct inspiration from God on things big and small in your life. People feel inspired not to drive down certain roads at night, they feel inspired to go hug their wife when she has had a tough day, and they inspired to move to a new city and take an new job, and sometimes they feel inspired to write a book. This does not make you a prophet, it makes you somebody trying to be in touch with God, which we should encourage. When somebody says they were inspired by the Spirit, it is a personal thing that does not mean they are claiming to be a prophet but instead claiming to try to be in touch with divinity and how it affects their personal life and personal decisions.

  3. I am not at all reticent in claiming what I know to be true: the spirit prompted me to write this book. (And it’s not really a political book.)

    Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that I discharged my duty in the best way possible. Prophets were prompted by the spirit to write what they did in the scriptures and yet many of them recognize their imperfections and apologizing for them. I may not have written this book perfectly, but I definitely was prompted by the spirit to make the attempt.

  4. Conner,

    I am looking forward to you new book. Your article here is very good, expecially about Libertarianism and our church.

  5. The answer to number #9 doesn’t pass the test.

    Justification #1: Some conservatives/liberals are opposed to things espoused by church leaders too. So what? They are also wrong.

    Justification #2: The higher law given by Christ is not here and we setting up laws to maximize agency until that happens. Fair enough, but the church isn’t actually making that argument. So opposing church council in these areas is also wrong.

    I’m curious if Connor can make an argument that works with many libertarian principles but also manages to incorporate the teachings and counsel of the prophets. Not as a way to say do whatever the prophets teach, but when we see the prophets generally counsel “teach correct principles and govern themselves” but then occasionally weigh on specific issues I don’t think we should take these exceptions lightly and consider them mistaken, biased, etc.

    I see a basic premise of Connor’s writing is that the consistency of a libertarian principles is a better way to consider approaches to government. But are all the prophets and apostles just wrong when they deviate from this norm?

    How do we hand wave away their specific counsel for the here and now by saying, “well when Jesus comes it will be different”. Don’t you think they realize that too?

  6. The prophet has not taught that we should support anti-discrimination laws. Michael Otterson, head of PR, read a statement in support of such a policy at a SLC city council meeting. Since I don’t live in that city, and since it didn’t come through normal channels, I don’t feel compelled to abandon my opposition to anti-discrimination laws because of a divine mandate that trumps it. So I continue in my opposition to such laws.

    It’s circumstantial (depending on who has said what, and in what venue, and with what intended application), which is why I said it’s a muddy issue. If the prophet has in fact issued a divinely inspired mandate to do X, and X is in conflict with my political philosophy, then I choose to do X. Barring such prophetic intervention, then I oppose X.

    Remember that government is violence. It is force. It is coercion against others who may be completely innocent. I therefore am extremely reluctant to endorse government policies which violate another’s life, liberty, or property without just cause. If God has endorsed such a violation, well, then, okay. But short of that, I lean heavily towards opposing such policies on moral grounds.

  7. There are areas where prophetic counsel directly contradicts my own political feelings. I have heard modern-day prophets speak out against drug legalization, but I will be voting for marijuana legalization in Colorado in November. If my stake president or bishop asked people to vote against legalization, I would take their advice. But this has not happened, and in fact I am unaware of any recent specific commands against voting for legalization.

    Prop 8 was the clear test of “personal feelings over prophetic guidance.” There was very little wiggle room for a person in California to both support the prophets and oppose Prop 8. But such events are extremely rare, and I think there is usually room for people to make their own decisions (without such specific counsel).

  8. If one bishop or stake president on Colorado said to vote against drug legalization and one of his peers did not make that same demand, who is following the spirit? Who is not? How could you blindly follow your bishop if that demand didn’t come down from the First Presidency? Drug war policy extends beyond the boundaries of your ward and your stake and your region. Since their is not state level priesthood leadership (maybe Romney will fix that) the only authority to tell Coloradans how to vote would have to come from SLC. I don’t believe, though, that the First Presidency has the authority to tell individuals how to vote. They may declare their stance on an issue, but I don’t remember any temple recommend interview questions asking how I voted.

    The Church’s mission is 3-fold; teaching the Gospel, perfecting the Saints, and redeeming the dead. You might be able to bundle political stances under perfecting the saints, but only if the political stances of church leadership was perfect. As long as participation within a multi-party system is allowed and those parties oppose one another (I don’t believe they do, but this to make a point) then church leaders can’t claim one party’s stance is better than another. If politics are involved in perfecting the saints, then the church must declare the perfect party and tell everyone to join it.

    It is not the Church’s role to steer political opinion. When they do, it is personal opinion.

  9. Mit, you can make your own decision: I try to follow my local leaders. They have never spoken out on politics at all, so I don’t expect this to happen. The only point I am making is that there should be room for following local leaders. As I say, you can take a different position, and I have no problem with that.

  10. Also, it is worth pointing out that my leaders (my bishop and/or stake president) are not going to speak out on political issues without clearing it with the Brethren.

  11. I have been a member 58 years (I was baptized as a teen ager, and I have yet hearing of the Church taking a stand for or against any political party. When they do speak it has been on general moral issues. In such a case I listen.

  12. I basically agree with Connor. Obviously, if there is a divine command to violate another person’s agency, then we should do it. But discerning when what leaders are saying is truly divine commandment as opposed to personal opinion or general Church culture is very difficult. I don’t really have any answers on this – I just try to do the best I can in these situations as guided by the Spirit and personal revelation.

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