Can there be a Faithful Liberal Mormonism?

I have rediscovered my faith in Christ in recent years and come to terms with my Mormonism. My quest seems to be one of finding where it is that I fit within Mormonism.

I am not talking about political liberalism. While political liberalism is my primary area of academic interest, this is not a post about the tired and boring question of "Can a Mormon be a Democrat?" Instead, I am thinking of liberalism in a religious sense.

I often hear (or see) references to True Blue Mormons (TBM). This might also stand for a True Believing Mormon. A TBM is somebody who fully accepts the LDS narrative about church history and the scriptures. I do not know what this fully means, but it is usually used in a negative sense by those who either do not consider themselves to be a TBM or no longer consider themselves to be a TBM. In a sense, the TBM is usually used as a straw man.

I am not a typical True Blue Mormon, but I am hesitant to not be categorized as one.

In many ways, I consider myself to be a liberal TBM…or am I a True Blue Mormon Liberal. I think I like True Blue Mormon Liberal (TBML). Now this will drive those who hate labels absolutely nuts, but I think categories can be useful. I think that is part of the social scientist in me.

My labels do not define me. There is a reason that I am constantly making up new labels for myself.

Some might not like the use of the term "liberal" since it largely has a political connotation. I am indeed a liberal in the political sense. However, "liberal" is also a term with significant theological meaning. Since Mormons have largely avoided the larger theological discussions of larger Christianity, it is not a term that is often used in a theological way by Mormons. However, Harold B. Lee in at least one instance used the term in a theological way. (Note: he did not do so kindly.)

Let me share what makes me a TBML:

Religious Liberalism

I am religious person. I am not always a good example of a religious person, but faith and spirituality are important to my life. I also appreciate that others value faith and spirituality…even if they experience faith in ways differently than I do. Now, one thing that makes me a religious liberal is that I do not think that any one religious experience is the one correct religious experience. However, this religious liberalism still allows me to appreciate and respect those with more traditional or orthodox approaches to my religion and other religions. I would hope that they would offer me the same respect, but I do not view such mutual respect as a pre-requisite for my respect for them. Respecting others is a duty, though a duty I struggle with.

I, also, have a respect for the secular. All things of beauty, good, and virtue should be appreciated. For me, Kant and Beethoven are secular spiritual.

Scripture

I love and value the scriptures. My views of the scriptures are rather unorthodox, but they are my own and I do not expect anyone else to view the scriptures as I do. Can a Mormon view the scriptures in a way different from Sunday School manuals and CES texts? Well, I am a Mormon…and I do.

I love the Book of Mormon. The writings of Jacob (Jacob 2) and the speech of King Benjamin (Mosiah 1-5) are amongst my favorite ancient accounts of moral life and moral society. I learned an appreciation and love of the gospel of Jesus while studying the Book of Mormon. I recognize that others may come to Christ by other means, but the Book of Mormon is central to my Mormon identity and Christian faith.

Joseph Smith

I think that my view of Joseph Smith sets me apart from both the traditionalists and the DAMU (disaffected Mormon underground). I think that Joseph Smith was a prophet…a prophet of God. He was the driving force behind the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon (I will address the Book of Mormon more below). He founded one of the great religious movements of the 19th Century, one which extended into the 20th and 21st.

I am not sure if I would have gotten along with Joseph Smith if I had lived in his day. Like Brigham Young, he seemed to be a rather controlling figure. I would likely have been more comfortable with Oliver Cowdery.

But I think we often mistake the role of prophet with that of Messiah. The narrative which castes Joseph as an all-around wonderful guy is nothing short of cheesy. It is also a flimsy narrative which easily crumbles. However, if we look at Old Testament prophets little seems to point to them as perfect, or even pleasant, personalities.

I recognize that church history is not as rosey as it seemed in seminary. However, American history is not what it seemed like in high school, either. With further study, I have discovered greater detail and nuance. Yet, much like my study of Jefferson and Lincoln, I appreciate knowing better the human side of Joseph Smith. It may not be the Joseph Smith that I sometimes hear about in church or a visitor centers. But I also recognize that Abraham Lincoln might not be as awesome as I portrayed him in my American Heritage lectures (though he was awesome). We all do this at times when talking about those we love and those who are our heroes. Nothing wrong with having heroes, but we should recognize that our hero-worship does not make good history…and it makes for really bad metaphysics.

Peace and Justice

One thing that classifies me as a religious liberal is my focus on peace and social justice. The well-being of actual human beings matters more to me than the afterlife. I believe that there is an afterlife, but I think that the here and now is of equal significance and it is of more immediate concern.

The TBML tradition is a long one. It includes the likes of Lowell Bennion and Eugene England. It includes others, I am sure, but I think that Bennion and England are particularly illustrative of the tradition that I am thinking of…and the movement that I envision. Richard Bushman and Dialogue under the editorship of Kristine Haglund are also examples.

While I hope for a broad acceptance of many approaches to Mormonism within the Church, Mormon liberalism must also tolerate, if not love and accept, those with more traditional (or maybe institutional) views and beliefs. Likewise, I have had to develop a greater tolerance.

Eugene England and Lowell Bennion were both minority voices. Both found themselves at the wrong side of the LDS Church Education System. Both men vocally opposed exclusion of blacks form the Mormon priesthood. Yet, both still loved Mormonism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not to say that this is not difficult, if not downright painful, at times.

They didn’t start a website about staying LDS. Instead, they actually stayed. Not to prove a political point, but because they loved the Church. They even thought it was true and not because they thought the Church or the hierarchy were perfect. Bennion and England had their own unique reasons for why they thought the Church was true. I admit, the idea of a true institution is…well…strange. Maybe there are some better theological parsing of this idea of a "true" church that needs to be done. But when a True Blue Mormon Liberal says that the Church is true they are expressing a sense of loyalty to the culture and Church which played an integral part in shaping who they are. For me, not being Mormon is as foreign to me as it was for Socrates, as he contends in Plato’s Crito, to consider the possibility of not being Athenian.

Now, Bennion and England, like Hugh Nibley, were willing to challenge Mormon culture. But, they did so out of love. Afterall, it is the gospel of repentance.

We have some great examples of True Blue Mormon Liberals in recent Mormon history. The question that remains is this: "Did Mormon Liberalism die with Bennion and England?" Oh, it sure feels like it sometimes. Much of what passes as Mormon liberalism in the forms of Sunstone Symposiums, Mormon Stories, and the bloggernacle (as well as their Facebook extentions) are little more than Nietzschean cynicism. They are critical, negative, and (I admit) sometimes insightful. Yet, they suffer from much of the similar troubles that face Mormon culture in general, in that they are very cliquish and dominated by insiders.

I think that By Common Consent, Dialogue, and Richard Bushman are signs that liberal Mormonism may still have a pulse.

The new directions within the Neal A. Maxwell Institute are promising developments. This is not because the Maxwell Institute is in any way a Mormon liberal institution, instead it seems to be a sign that liberal Mormon thinking is welcome within the fold rather than being something that should be purged.

A key to surviving as a True Blue Mormon Liberal is to recognize that there may be a large segment of reactionary apologists (religiously) and/or Skousenites (politically) within Mormonism, but to also recognize that they do not define Mormonism…no matter how hard they try to dominate that discussion.

Do not let them make you bitter! Again, this can be very difficult. Trust me…I know how hard it can be. The only way in which the reactionaries can define Mormonism is to let them.

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About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • Agni Ashwin

    “But I think we often mistake the role of prophet with that of Messiah. The narrative which castes Joseph as an all-around wonderful guy is nothing short of cheesy.”

    Are you implying that Messiahs are “all-around wonderful guys”?

  • ldsgirl

    I wondered what TBM was, tried to figure that out, and tonight I was going to post the question. But now, Chris, I don’t have to….thanks, from your TBML follower! It seems that maybe FB may bring us together, now that we who have different ways of looking at the same thing are able to share. The big question is this: are we brave enough to go there, or afraid that our own viewpoint is so weak that it can’t stand the strain?

    • trytoseeitmyway

      I’ve heard the acronym “TBM” used disparagingly so often, it is difficult to think of it in neutral terms. And there are certainly better terms.

  • bamball

    You mirror my sentiments, but with a better sense of editing and word placement. I have come to the conclusion that I am a liberal because of my faith. I am not liberal because I choose to be contrary for contrary’s sake. Which leaves me sometimes feeling like early penitent Paul–a devout man with an undeniable view of his own destiny & testimony, seeking to make peace with the Jerusalem followers that never stopped skeptically considering him as more than the ultimate outsider (first by his past judaic associations and later by his promotion of uncircumsized gentile corruption of the “true” Jewish-Christian identity).

    Somehow the Book of Mormon has been cast by the general conservative church as a conservative document, but to me, it’s absolutely not, just as the New Testament is as liberal in context as the early 19th century LDS church was to the rest of American Christendom. It’s not a political thing. Politics often obscures and obfuscates by using vocabularies that are narrow-minded and historically-challenged–by folks on both the left and the right.

    Recently, I have come to the conclusion that I was given the insights and attitudes that may be different than others, maybe even as a gift of the spirit, it wasn’t my conscious choice to “think different”. I am tired of shaming myself for feeling like my patterns of thought and method of spiritual journey are wrong. I have noticed many who have passed through their own Atonement journey, coming out on the other side with more empathy and outreach to those who are the contemporary equivalents of Christ’s dinner companions (Matt. 9:10-12). Often these are the folks that feel like they don’t fit in any more, which should say less about them, and more about the state of the Church membership as a whole. The prophet Jeremiah wasn’t talking to godless atheists, he was wrestling with those who were the church at the time. But all this makes me sound like a narcissistic blogger who knows better than everyone else, which is absolutely not how I view myself. I just want answers as to “Why do I feel these things? Wouldn’t it be much easier to just fit in?”. But maybe the answer to those two questions is easy, obvious–and on view on about every page of scripture, no matter where in history the book falls open.

    • Lisa Henry

      I’m glad you posted in the LDS and Left of Center facebook group today. I agree with you and struggle with loving others who think differently, yet needing a place to express myself where my (formerly moderate, now considered liberal) politics and my faith can converge.

  • Lana

    Thanks for sharing. I’m not Mormon, but the post was eye-opening. Also, rock on with the Nietzsche reference. He’s my favorite philosopher right now.

  • TomW

    As one who endorses the take of Harold B. Lee and others at the link you cited in your writings, I nonetheless appreciate your perspective. And perhaps one day, when we are all in a better position to understand the details which are yet beyond our imperfect mortal reach, the TBMLs in our midst will fully embrace those things which they presently struggle to make peace with.

  • E B

    I am probably considered a traditionalist myself and am deeply politically conservative, but my own views and understanding of spirituality both within and across faiths have deepened over the years with additional experience and discussions and even places of residence. I’ve attended church in settings rural, suburban, urban, international, and Utah. Mormons don’t have a monopoly on gift of the Spirit, and God is inclusive and loving towards all His children, etc. I agree with another commenter that the more “liberal” I get in my religion by being more conscientiously inclusive of all kinds of people the more I defy tradition. The more I personally recognize that we are in different places but are all along a path back to God the more I realize they don’t always see that way (just as I did when younger). But I also believe the more we act “liberally” the more we act in accordance with the gospel.

    I like how you mentioned culture and institutional and doctrine. These distinctions are important to understand but I don’t think a majority of Mormons do understand them. First, the doctrine is the gospel of Jesus Christ embodying all truth and love and it never changes (no matter the desires of men). Second, the church which teaches the gospel and administers ordinances. Being led by humans, it is subject to error both past and present and local and Church-wide but gives us all ample opportunity to practice the gospel by loving and forgiving anyway. Third is Mormon culture which doesn’t always have much to do with either the gospel or the Church. Just traditions, not necessarily rooted in doctrine. It’s most pervasive in areas of higher concentrations of Mormons, mostly but not exclusively in the western United States.

    http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com

    • trytoseeitmyway

      It sort of depends on what you mean by “liberal.” I suppose that to Chris Henrichsen, “liberal” only refers to inept and bureaucratic attempts to meet the individual needs of some people, by using money taken from other people without their consent to pay salaries, pensions and other benefits to employees who are fully prepared to do half of what they are in theory expected to accomplish. But that’s just one aspect of liberalism today. The rest of liberalism is enabling self destructive and socially harmful behaviors and focuses political salesmanship on the evasion of the consequences of poor choices. It’s hard to justify that kind of liberalism even if one doesn’t believe in God, much less for those who do. This is why married people are overwhelmingly conservative and why the unmarried are liberal. This is why regular church-going people are overwhelmingly conservative and why atheists or those who can’t even be bothered to think about it are liberal. This is why mature people are overwhelmingly conservative and callow youth are liberal.

  • David Tiffany

    I think it is better to let the Bible describe mormonism. You said you believed Joseph Smith was a controlling person. I believe that as well. In the letter that Paul wrote to the believers in Galatia in Galatians 3:1 says, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.”
    Bewitched: “cast a spell on and gain control over (someone) by magic.”
    When reading the letter Paul wrote to the believers at Galatia, we find they had been saved from judgement soley based on faith in what Jesus did at the cross. The Galatians then were decieved into thinking that they had to ensure they remained saved by obeying the law. This is how some had gained control over them.
    I believe mormons have been twice deceived. They are first taught a gospel that is different from the one that Paul and the Apostles taught, and Paul says those who follow that will be eternally condemned, and then they spend the rest of their lives trying to obey the law, which cannot save them.
    http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

    • trytoseeitmyway

      It would be more interesting if this guy had any idea what he was talking about. He must be in a cult or something.

  • noel

    Thanks for sharing your point of view. When I was LDS I was troubled over the negro/priesthood issue and wrote to Lowell Bennion regarding the matter. He graciously responded explaining his position regarding this issue. Greg Prince said once that Joseph Fielding Smith tried to get him kicked off the staff at the University of Utah Institute of Religion but that President David O McKay refused to let him do that. In his letter Bennion finished with the words “don;t expect perfection of yourself or the church”.

  • Wesley FreshJumper Olsen

    Wow, I thought I was alone. Thank you.


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