Tentative Notes Toward a Theory of Liberal Mormonism

In 1955, Louis Hartz published a famous and deeply influential book called The Liberal Tradition in America.  Therein he argued that American politics actually functions on an extraordinarily narrow spectrum, that the American left and American right share far more philosophical principles than they would dare admit to their own followers (or to each other).  According to Hartz, American politics is dominated by liberalism, in the philosophical sense: the inalienable right to property, a democratic commitment to common participation in the social contract, the notion that the individual is the basic unit of society, and thus we should talk about “rights” in individualistic terms.

Hartz was probably wrong; countless quibbles can be raised, certainly (there’s a long tradition of Americans merrily seeking to deny other Americans those individual rights, for instance).  But even if he’s wrong about politics, his wonderful image of American politicians squabbling over one square inch of real estate on a miles wide political spectrum is fun nonetheless, and, actually, perhaps useful for putting together a working theory of liberal Mormonism.

I’ll posit here that self-identified “liberal” and “orthodox” Mormons (or, as they call each other, “TBMs” and well, “liberals”) are similarly gunning at each other over a similarly small patch of real estate: a type of religious humanism pretty close to Hartz’s liberalism.  Both “liberal” and orthodox Mormons subscribe to and celebrate Joseph Smith’s expansive vision of human potential.  No Mormon of any type buys into original sin.  Virtually all Mormons treasure concepts like agency.  Some Mormons draw upon this humanism to rail against institutional authority; other Mormons draw upon it to urge each other toward constant repentance and righteousness.  Bruce McConkie’s seemingly unreal expectations for the moral performance of the Saints and John Dehlin’s celebration of individual choice are rooted in the identical soil of Mormon humanism.

Of course, these philosophical similarities should not obscure the real differences of policy and procedure that divide these camps: of course these exist, and of course they’re real.  But the point is that they are just that – differences of policy. Because, perhaps, they are so focused upon individual behavior, individual expectations, individual rights, Mormons tend to not think much in terms of the abstract and structural, but rather in terms of the experience of each Saint at a time.  This is why Mormons are so good at the personal essay – the narrative of conversion or de-conversion.

But it also means that there’s some interesting continuities here that deserve further study.  Those continuities imply that the language Mormon conservatives use may have more in common with Americanism than most Mormons think; they also imply that “liberal” Mormons impatient with the church may be speaking in a more deeply Mormon vernacular that they might realize.  And realizing how narrow our conversation to date has been, perhaps it’s time for Mormons to look over their shoulders at all the sidewalk before and behind, and start thinking about whether or not there might be a Mormonism more deeply radical than the ones lying before us today.

  • Ignacio m. Garcia

    I appreciate Matt’s comments here and they made me think of when I go to visit my daughter in Texas, the one person in their ward that I end up talking to and finding much common ground with is the head of the Tea Party in that area. He, like I, seeks to organize his neighborhood on LDS principles of shared responsibilities, food storage, etc. He believes we should be living the law of consecration as I do–I was a young socialist once–and there are number of other things we have in common. We usually avoid the differences though when we don’t we don’t argue. So there is much common ground, though the different take on them can make us rather adament adversaries. But what I really want to say is that there will be some significant theological challenges from the Saints of color that will be coming in the near future. I think that both conservative and liberal Mormons will be surprised and while they will find some commonalities with those Saints, they will both find some some stark differences. I experienced it as bishop a few years ago. There we mixed some orthodoxy with some rather liberal or radical views. I remember in our ward we were very strict on white shirts, ties, “appropriate hair cuts” but we boycotted grapes and lettuce in support of the farm workers, marched in protests against police brutality, and our Mia Maid president led a school walkout in her middle school. We are law abiding citizens but share social security numbers, advise on how to avoid the “migra”, and rail against the rich even while we listen attentively and appreciative to the wealthy high councilman. And we usually vote against the conservative member running for office. And while liberal are “long past” the Native Americans and Latinos are Lamanites phase, we cling to it as a sense of identity. I could go on and on, but I think we all get the point.

  • http://www.themormonbookreview.com kirkcaudle

    I really liked this post. Thanks Matt.

  • David Naas

    A good essay, which should be read by those who cannot understand how both Mitt and Harry can be good Mormons. Political rightwingers (at church) are always amazed when I point out certain passages in the BoM that _could_ be interpreted in a “socialist” sense. But, as years go by, and the legacy of Bruce, Ezra, and Joseph Fielding fades, so may the attachment to certain issues which weren’t even relevant during the Cold War. (Remembeing always that a “liberal Mormon” is not much different from a Burkean Conservative when it comes to politics.

  • Rob

    Good article. I think the David Naas illustrates the issue pretty well. He says there are some passages in the BoM that could be interpreted in a socialist sense. He is right. The Bible too. “all things in common”, right? But you see that I think is the problem. Both “liberal” and “conservative’ Mormons are reading their political bias, their politics into the scriptures. Those things are not in the scriptures, but rather they are the dark glass through which we read the scriptures. That is why I thank God for modern prophets who can explain to us the proper way to see these things when acting in their prophetic office. It is so easy to see how past generations fell into apostasy because that same process is happening now, example in the “conservative” vs. “liberal” Mormon debate. Thankfully we have modern prophets to keep us on track to explain to us just HOW different communism/socialism and the law of consecration are ( and if you don’t realize there is a difference, I suggest you go back and read some GC talks during the 50s. The GA’s spend a lot of time explaining it.) because otherwise we would all go astray.

    That said, I think Hartz was right. The split between the current Democratic and Republican Parties is not ideological as it is made out to be. They’re both on the left of the political spectrum. They both accept expansive, authoritarian government as the answer to all our woes. With the exception of a very few individuals (such as Ron Paul, Thomas Massie, and Judge Andrew Napolitano ), the argument is really just over what version of big government is going to dictate your life. Its an argument between the left side and right side of the left wing of political ideology.

  • tweedmeister

    I am ex-Mormon and my wife an active but liberal Mormon. While more liberal LDS ideas might have helped slow my exit from the church, I don’t think I see anything fundamentally changed between liberal or conservative Mormonism. True, many conservative Mormons look down their noses at my wife because she voted for Obama and listens to NPR, but she is still accepted enough to be in the stake Relief Society presidency. But while they think enough of my wife to put her there, she still has to listen to the same old drivel in sacrament meeting and Sunday school, people still spouting the same radically un-American (meaning anti-Obama) rhetoric right from the pulpit with no interference by the bishopric.

    But more than this, both liberal and conservative Mormonism is largely the same for people like me. Liberal Mormonism still includes Joseph Smith, whom I consider to be a false prophet who practiced serial adultery and who introduced secret, fundamentally anti-American practices (Council of Fifty and use of Blue Lodge Masonry–i.e., the temple endowment–to swear polygamists to secrecy) , and who routinely lied to the public and to the body of the church. And the church still remains a system that routinely divides families along lines of belief and obedience to LDS strictures. These fundamentals do not change between liberal and conservative LDS ideals.

    • fluffycatisfat

      Tweedemeister…all I can say is…Yesssss! 100% spot-on!