Mormon liberals, liberal Mormons, and the inadequacy of labels

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.

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10 thoughts on “Mormon liberals, liberal Mormons, and the inadequacy of labels

  1. I am so tired of this whole conservative/liberal divide. Just last night an old mission companion of mine asked me, “Is your school liberal?” I told him that I had no clue what that meant (and I don’t), and the only time I know anything is ‘liberal’ is win someone who self-identifies him or herself as ‘conservative’ throws out the term to indicate that they think it is evil or something.When people ask me if I’m a ‘liberal’, it seems to usually imply a second question such as “Do you even have a testimony?” “Are you trying to be different?” “Are you against the Church?” or “Are you one of them?”. Often I usually discover that they have no clue what they mean by ‘liberal’ and only know that if I answer in the affirmative, there is something immoral about me.To give them something, I often identify myself as a ‘progressive Mormon’. And when they ask what that means, I just say that my politics and faith in the Gospel push me to want to see more social equality and community building.That usually ends the conversation, and neither of us still know what we’re talking about.

  2. Being liberal and being Mormon is an uncomfortable place. It is not so, in my opinion because of the two ways these world views mesh. Rather, it is difficult because, just as you point out, it is hard to get either orthodox Mormons or orthodox liberals to understand that. This often means that you are left to be a man without a country. I certainly appreciated the conversation you introduce here. I think it is an important one to have. Generally speaking, I agree with your observations. This was a very thoughtful post and–in my opinion–was one that was worth writing.

  3. Excellent, excellent post. I finished reading “Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics after the Religious Right” by E.J. Dionne a while ago. While the book was talking about the right/left divide in the Catholic church, I thought a few of his points could apply to the LDS church as well, even though I got the impression that the Catholics have more balance between right and left than Mormons do.Where the book fell short for me was that he seemed to blend being politically liberal with religiously liberal. Maybe Catholics have a harder time separating them out, or I could be hypersensitive because of my experiences in church. There is definitely a difference, and your post did an great job of articulating them.

  4. Thanks for all of the comments, they were quite helpful. I understand the frustration of the labels. As a people, we have not quite learned to distinguish a politically liberal stance from one that is religiously liberal. In my experience, those often tend to travel together, but on many occasions they don’t. I don’t suppose that to be a religiously liberal Mormon means that you wouldn’t necessarily vote on the far-right politically. So the label too often obscures as many things as it illumines.In some sense, its a problem of demographics. With apologies to the two of you who have called Utah home, the political culture there is dysfunctional enough that people are bound to have strange ideas about liberals. To be a liberal in Utah, you would have to really run against the tide on political issues. You grow up not knowing many liberals, so the whole idea is strange to you. So in speaking of liberals more broadly, members of the Church (primarily in Utah or influenced in some way by Utah’s culture) assume that liberals are some type of subversives. There is some truth to that of course. Part of being liberal (or the opposite of conservative) is a discomfort with the status quo. But it isn’t that we are all trying to tear down the existing institutions.Speaking of great books on “liberals,” I am in the midst of “Left in Dark Times” by Bernard-Henri Levy, one of the leading contemporary French intellectuals. Its his own intellectual autobiography of a break with the radical left, the Communists and Socialists, and an embrace of a liberal philosophy that rejects the extremes of moral relativism, apologies for Communism, etc. Of course, in the American left, we don’t have extremely radical leftists, though I guess the WTO Seattle protesters sort of count. Nevertheless, I think the book does an excellent job of cutting away the notion that there is a coherent and unified Left, which is all about everything that is Good (and for that matter a unified and coherent Right which is inherently Fascist). If you can swallow a lot of the European and French references, which are difficult to understand for something like me, not well-read in contemporary French philosophy or politics, its a worthy read.

  5. Interesting thoughts. I think there may be more overlap between Mormon and Liberal than most Mormons care to admit, specifically the law of consecration. What do you think? Where do you think the LOC fits in the liberal-conservative spectrum? Do you think we, as a Mormon body, will ever be asked to live it? Do you think we will be able to?

  6. I was recently attacked on my person blog for some mildly liberal (in my opinion) comments about the current election. I have identified myself as a “liberal” to those who know me and occasionally give a political opinion on my blog (which is also filled with deep topics such as “what color should I paint my front room?”). The comment from ‘anonymous’ truly took me by surprise. Basically my entire testimony was called into question based on my expression of a political belief. I’m still rather amazed by it. I am not sure if it is someone I know personally or an anonymous internet commenter, but nevertheless, it was disheartening. I turned the comment into a blog entry http://bandanamom.blogspot.com/2008/09/anonymous-shows-true-colors.html which prompted a discussion on waters of mormon. I don’t think I ever truly realized how difficult it is for some people to reconcile the idea of liberalism with mormonism. For me it has always felt like an easy fit.

  7. Bandanamom,I hate to tell you, but if you are committed to voicing any kind of opinion that could not comfortably be said from the stage of the Republican National Convention, then you have to be prepared for this kind of vitriol. I read your post, as well as the comment it was based on. Whether you are liberal or conservative politically, I think that kind of comment is evidence of a desperately sick political culture within our Church. In spite of their professed allegiance to the Gospel, most Anon commenters I have interacted with have neglected the second Great Commandment and demonstrate no grasp of Christ-like virtues.

  8. Sorry to all, I’ve been out of town the past couple of days on a company retreat.Anon, first of all, congratulations for being the first anonymous commenter to actually engage substantively with a post. If I had prizes to give away, you would get one.To address the substance of your post, I think the law of consecration is an extremely important part of Mormonism’s future. IMO (and this is pure speculation), the future imposition of the law of consecration will be what separates the celestial kingdom-bound Mormons from the rest. I know some think it is going to be this Prop-8 stuff in CA, but I think that is pure nonsense. For all those currently wringing their hands about “socialism” and wealth redistribution re: Obama, the United Order is going to be a real pain. When Mormons complain about high taxes and welfare, it always smacks of the rankest hypocrisy and ignorance to me.

  9. I am a Mormon myself and I don’t consider myself, and my other Mormon friends, anything else other than sharing similar beliefs in God. I don’t approve of categorizations, liberal and conservative, within our church, because they will divide rather than unite. I seek truth wherever I can find it. I strongly encourage you study The Ten Commandments and see how socialism and conservatism breaks those laws. The fact is you’ll see contradictions in both philosophies. I invite you to study the Law of Consecration as being a choice not a communal requirement. And remember the words of Thomas Jefferson:”I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” I do not believe God uses force or we would have accepted Satan’s plan.Best regards my Mormon friends.

  10. I am curious then how you feel about abortion. As long as we are dealing with stereotypes, then the stereotype would be that liberals are pro-abortion. Are you? If so, how do you reconcile this with church policy? What is church policy now?

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