Among all the insults that a Mormon might throw at you, few epithets are as damning (in their eyes) as “liberal.” My goal in this post is specifically not to rehash the familiar and troubling political imbalance among Church members nor to decisively crush all criticisms that liberals can’t be good Mormons. Rather, I merely want to examine my own (dis)comfort with the label.
On one hand, I am totally comfortable with being known as a Mormon. I suspect that most of my frequent readers will need no explanation on what that means, but for the sake of some others and in order to point out exactly where I stand, I will make it explicit. I believe that divine beings, including God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost, are real and not merely mythological constructs of a particular culture or religion. I believe that human beings are offspring of these divine entities and possess divine characteristics and potential that are unique in nature. I believe that man, through (mis)use of a divine gift of choice or agency, is fallen from its noble potential, but that through the historically real sacrifice of Jesus Christ (the Atonement), men can be redeemed from their own errors. I believe that in 1820, Joseph Smith did in fact have a direct experience with the divine (the First Vision) through which he was called to set up an institution that continues to enjoy divine approbation. I believe that part of Joseph’s role was the revelation of the Book of Mormon, which I believe has an inspired origin. I believe that another part of Joseph’s role was the receipt of a power and instrumentality (the priesthood) through which we can experience part of God’s power in the Church. I have tried to state the preceding in language that might be understood by non-Mormons, and is broad enough to bring me into agreement with most who claim to be Mormons. Obviously, we may differ on details, but I am satisfied that what I have stated above qualifies me as a Mormon, and excludes me from any other religious affiliation (with the possible exception of the UUs).
At the same time, I am very at home with being called politically liberal. Among many other things, that means that I am in favor of a strong and comprehensive social safety net, progressive taxation, civil rights, pacifism, abolition of the death penalty, protection of the environment, promotion of the interests of the impoverished and oppressed, adherence to international law, universal health care, increased economic equality, and generally the proposition that enlightened government has something positive to contribute to the life of humanity, and something that the raw logic of the market cannot offer. I am generally uncomfortable with platforms, statements of principles, and mission statements; however, I can generally sign on to many of the sentiments of the 2008 Democratic Party platform (which has been criticized, rightly IMO, here) or to the Euston Manifesto.
My comfort with each label in isolation is not matched by my comfort in their combination, at least as applied to me. By my own discomfort, I mean no criticism of those who have adopted this label, such as this person (who happens to be a personal friend). Your mileage may vary.
The convergence of “liberal” and “Mormon” has two possibilities, as alluded to in the title: liberal Mormons and Mormon liberals.
My discomfort with the title of “liberal Mormon” comes from the fact that it tends to imply, among Mormons, something more than simply my political leanings. It suggests that there is something not-quite-orthodox about the way I practice Mormonism. In particular, it suggests to some that I am less than “faithful”- that I have compromised some of the high ideals of Mormonism for my own selfish desires. While the gory details of my testimony might differ from your average Iron Rod TBM, I attend church, hold FHE with my family, go to the temple, pay tithing, and obey the Word of Wisdom, etc. in what I imagine is the same way as 99% of the other active members of the Church. I think I sin no more, and perhaps somewhat less, than those who consider themselves within the orthodox mainstream. An objective observer, not seeing inside my thoughts, would be hard pressed to label my practice of Mormonism as in anyway liberal. I am also uncomfortable with the way in which the label “liberal Mormon” seems to qualify my “Mormon-ness”, either by asserting that I am not 100% Mormon, or that my identity as a liberal must take precedence over my Mormon self- like saying “Oh, I’m not a Mormon; I’m a liberal Mormon.”
My discomfort with being called a “liberal Mormon” is matched by my unease with its mirror twin, “Mormon liberal.” The reasons behind my discomfort are also parallel. Again, I fear that such a label implies that there is a special Mormon nature about my liberal political views. While my personal belief is that my Mormonism is a complement to and support of some of my liberal positions, my liberal identity does not derive in particular from Mormonism and the development of that identity was largely independent (though simultaneous) of my spiritual growth within Mormonism. You might have a hard time distinguishing my politics from a liberal Jew, liberal Protestant, or liberal Catholic. To put it more succinctly, the two simply do not intersect on a frequent basis. Also, I worry that “Mormon liberal” places a higher value on my Mormonism than on my liberal identity. Some might question the sincerity of my liberal views, claiming that they are held merely to be “different,” or to be “cool” within the Mormon circles that I travel. But I believe that certain of my positions are currently as an inseparable and dear part of my self as my testimony.
Of course, I anticipate growth and change in my political views over the course of my lifetime, but the same is true of the content of my testimony. In neither case do I anticipate an imminent and radical departure from my current worldview, religious or political.