This is the second in our five-part series titled “Mormonism, Agency, and Politics.” In the first post we discussed the importance of agency in Mormon doctrine. In this one we address Satan’s strategy of limiting our agency.
Agency was one of the principal issues to arise in the premortal Council in Heaven. It was one of the main causes of the conflict between the followers of Christ and the followers of Satan. Satan said, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). In saying this, he “rebelled against [God] and sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3). His offer was rejected, and he was cast out of heaven with his followers (see D&C 29:36–37). -Gospel Principles, Chapter 4: Freedom to Choose
There are at least two ways to understand Satan’s proposal. The first is the most widely held and oft repeated. This understanding says that Satan’s proposal to remove our agency would be enforced by making us choose the right. He would remove our freedom to choose by forcing us to make correct choices.
It is important to note, however, as we explain in part one of this series, that agency is not simply freedom. It is much more, much richer, and much more substantive than that. Moral agency, as Elder Anderson teaches, is the ability to choose between good and evil: not the freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want.
An other way to understand Satan’s proposal takes a different approach. Rather than removing agency by removing our freedom, this perspective argues that Satan wanted to remove our agency by removing the difference between good and evil. By removing this distinction, Satan would have effectively removed our freedom to choose between the two: our agency. The Gospel Principles manual demonstrates how devastating it would be for us to not have oppositional choices:
We cannot choose righteousness unless the opposites of good and evil are placed before us. Lehi, a great Book of Mormon prophet, told his son Jacob that in order to bring about the eternal purposes of God, there must be “an opposition in all things. If not so, … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11). -Gospel Principles, Chapter 4: Freedom to Choose
These oppositional choices are distinguishable from one another because of the law that separates them:
And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. -2 Nephi 2:13
If Satan were to have removed the law, then there would be no sin. There would have been no difference between good and evil: whatever we did would be counted as righteousness. We wouldn’t have had the choice between good and evil, because there would be nothing distinguishing the two from each other.
There are two very different ways of interpreting the idea of moral agency. On the one hand, agency is removed whenever freedom is restricted. On the other, agency is removed only when the distinction between options disappears. The way we define agency has profound impact on how we apply it in our lives and in our politics. In the next two posts, we will explore the political implications of each of the above views of agency.
Part 1: The Importance of Agency
Part 2: Restricting Agency
Part 5: Freedom vs. Agency