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.

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