Thinking Conservatively, Thinking Liberally, Thinking about Truth

By: Steve H - July 11, 2005

I’ve been really apprehensive about the recent trend to see a divide in the church between the “conservatives” and the “liberals.” What I find most difficult is that I see the baggage of these terms coming into the discussion along with the terms themselves, which we might expect.
Dave at DMI recently defined “liberal Mormonism” as:

simply accommodating the conservative Mormon beliefs one acquires as an LDS youth or as an adult convert to the facts of history, science, and human nature. It is an accommodation, moreover, that facilitates continued activity in the Church, a point that is almost invariably lost on conservative critics of liberal Mormons. Those who accept history and science but don’t accommodate simply exit. Those who don’t attribute much validity to history and science see no need to accommodate. “Liberal Mormonism” is, in many ways, a middle ground.

To be fair, Dave, he later says:

Of course, I’m not arguing that every Mormon who takes history and science seriously should be a liberal Mormon. There are other ways of accommodating, some more consistent than others, but most people do some degree of accommodating their beliefs to external evidence or their own personal views that don’t match standard LDS beliefs.

I point this out to note that it isn’t Dave, particulaly that I’m taking issue with. It’s a particular unconsious assumption that comes with self-identified “liberalism” in any of it’s forms. The idea is that the only way you could hold a belief that in any particular context that is labeled, by the “liberal” as a “conservative” idea is to be willfully blind to reality. That is, “conservatism” as a thing is portrayed as unreasoned, unthinking, unable to stand up to scrutiny. The result is that the easy way to get people that fancy themselves “liberal” to reject an idea is to label it “conservative.” At the same time, you can hopefully grab a few converts from the “conservatives,” especially neophytes, simply by making conservative ideas seem unrealistic, rather than confronting ideas on their individual merits. Dave actually seems to have a sense that “conservatives” might have thought out their positions, but even here the idea seems to pop up unconsiously before he can get to expressing that he doesn’t believe it. I think that’s because the words come with a back-story that includes these assumptions.

I don’t tend to see myself as particularly conservative or liberal. On some issues, I’m as conservative as anyone in the blog. At the same time, I consider myself dedicated to thinking that many would consider feminist or materialist, and I don’t always hold conservative views just because they are conservative. (If conservatism has a parallel fault, it’s seeing anything not labeled conservative as transgressive.) What I do believe is that all of our positions are worth thinking through, always with faith in the Lord, faith in his servants, and a real dedication to do whatever the Lord would require of us. The result, I believe is a prusuit of truth. (Perhaps more on that pursuit later, but above all it requires the humility to see our ideas as fallible and to always keep in mind that we could be wrong when we step beyond the familiar.) The labels conservative and liberal simply get in the way.


  1. Shortly before becoming President of the Church, in April General Conference of 1971, Harold B. Lee gave a memorable talk entitled “The Iron Rod.” In it he said:

    There are those in the Church who speak of themselves as liberals who, as one of our former presidents has said, “read by the lamp of their own conceit.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine [Deseret Book Co., 1939], p. 373.) One time I asked one of our Church educational leaders how he would define a liberal in the Church. He answered in one sentence: “A liberal in the Church is merely one who does not have a testimony.”

    I can’t imagine why President Lee would have included this in his talk if he were not in agreement with the sentiment. Perhaps it is true.

    Comment by John W. Redelfs — 7/11/2005 @ 5:20 am

  2. John’s comment, and the President Lee quote, help illustrate the muddle that results when we have only two words to refer to all different categories of beliefs and opinions. At that time, the interpretations advanced by several scholars at FARMS, such as the limited geography theory and the opinion that the Book of Abraham may not have been directly based on the contents of the papyrus that Joseph Smith had, would have been considered hopelessly liberal. Furthermore, the general approach of FARMS types, which involves deciding many questions related to faith via reason and evidence would probably have seemed to President Lee an instance of reading “by the lamp of their own conceit.”

    Yet these perspective find relatively wide-spread acceptance in today’s church. Many Latter-day Saints would still consider them “liberal” in comparison with traditionalist beliefs–as they will probably consider Bushman’s Joseph Smith biography, as well. However, Sunstone types would consider these same works and opinions quite “conservative.”

    If we had more labels, with more specific content, we’d be able to avoid this kind of contradictory-language situation. I’m not sure that we’d be able to avoid the situation of evolving mores that the Lee quote illustrates–but it would be much clearer when we found ourselves in such a situation.

    By the way, there are irrational stock attacks against liberalism that have proven at least as damaging as the “unconsidered” attack against conservatism described above. The very term “bleeding-heart” encapsulates one of these.

    Comment by RoastedTomatoes — 7/11/2005 @ 7:40 am

  3. I’ll have to agree with RT that the Lee quote seems quite anachronistic when applied today. It is amazing how church dynamics have evolved over the last 30-40 years. And gratefully so – it’s a hallmark of our faith, I believe.

    It’s an interesting question: do the terms have any value at all beyond the pejorative or propagandistic? It seems to me like there are cases when usage is very descriptive – liberal economy or liberal democracy, both of which may be libertarian, but not necessarily supported by the left. But people who use the term like that know exactly what they are talking about – as typically does their audience. I’m not so familiar with a usage of “conservative” that similarly actually means something.

    Like you Steve, I find myself on the conservative end of many positions, however, like feminism, I think that giving up on liberalism is to give away something too precious. Our country and our Church are founded on liberal ideals and started as liberal institutions.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 7/11/2005 @ 11:36 am

  4. Except, RT, that FARMS didn’t exist at the time that Elder Lee made the statement.

    Comment by Rosalynde — 7/11/2005 @ 9:23 pm

  5. I think it’s possible the image of liberalism has changed enough in recent years that there are a lot more people self-identifying as such. When Pres. Lee said this, it’s entirely possible that it was quite accurate, especially if it meant more what Nate Oman is implying over at Times and Seasons in his post on a related topic. That is, I probably agree that if someone feels the Book of Mormon is a fiction, they don’t have a testimony. This strikes me as somewhat like liberal Judaism as I have encountered it. The scriptures are simply useful fictions. I think the sort of “liberal” most of us are talking about here has more to do with mainstream ideas vs. those that might be new or different to some. So perhaps I have been inaccurate in addressing “liberal Mormonism” to some extent in that what I am referring to is a larger set of beliefs that are not entirely mainstream, but which still imply a belief in the historical veracity of the scriptures and a belief in the divine nautre of prophetic utterance.

    Comment by Steve H — 7/12/2005 @ 12:47 pm

  6. Lowell Bennion gave a talk once that was reprinted in Best of Lowell L. Bennion, called “The role of a liberal in religion.”

    He takes a page or two to define exactly what he means. I had my BoM class read it last summer, and reaction was mixed. Some liked it, some didn’t, some felt he wasn’t using the “right” definition of “liberal” (ie. their own defintion.)

    It can be read here. It’s the second of 3 Bennion articles they had to read.

    Comment by Ben S. — 7/12/2005 @ 2:10 pm

  7. Ben,
    Thanks for the link. It seems to me that Bro. Bennion’s talk falls into some of the difficulties I’m trying to address here. It claims all thinking for the “liberal.” In fact, this seems to be the central tenet of it’s definition, and it seems to set up the conservative as simlpy slavish. If we simply say that he’s defining the term in certain ways and we an see that, it would be fine, except that certain ideas obtain the label of conservative or liberal and these sorts of definitions of liberal tend to end up being used to imply that the dieas are simply the result of slavish adherence to tradition, rather than what is often a lot of careful thought and study.
    I’m also troubled by his assertion that a liberal “feels closer to” the prophetic than the priestly in religion, as if they weren’t inseparable, and as if priesthood were a necessary evil.

    Comment by Steve H — 7/12/2005 @ 2:32 pm

  8. Nice post, Steve H. This has been like a chain letter, starting with the T&S post, them my DMI post, now this one. While “conservative” and “liberal” are stereotyping terms that are sometimes used to oversimplify the discussion, it is an important discussion and I use the terms because (1) most people have a pretty good idea what they refer to in Mormonism; and (2) I don’t know better terms that people recognize.

    You said that “conservatism” as a thing is portrayed (by liberal Mormons) as unreasoned, unthinking, unable to stand up to scrutiny. I really don’t think most “liberal Mormons” think that at all. Mormons who are religiously conservative or orthodox (95% of the Church) have good reasons for those beliefs, supported by some scriptures, many GA statements, and some external evidence. Furthermore, liberal Mormons are still Mormons and are therefore fairly conservative themselves on a variety of issues; they are only “liberal” by comparison to religiously conservative Mormons. For example, a coworker once described me (politically) as just to the right of Genghis Khan.

    The problem is that some conservatives limit the definition of “good Mormon” to just themselves and those Mormons who think like they do about every doctrine, scripture, or historical issue that relates to Mormonism. If the senior leaders of the Church would be more candid about their own doctrinal disagreements, it would help rank and file LDS to be more comfortable with a range of opinion on these issues within the general Church.

    Comment by Dave — 7/12/2005 @ 2:42 pm

  9. I’ve been somehow branded the ward liberal, and I can’t figure out why. I am politically liberal, but I make it a point NOT to talk about politics in church meetings. I also don’t think I’m particularly “on the edge” with comments I make in classes or meetings.

    I did wear a beard for awhile and I study literature. And I occasionally wear a colored shirt to Sunday meetings.

    I’m not sure what the label signifies, then, and whether it affects the way people treat or think of me at church. I have a great many friends there, and feel very comfortable, so to all appearances it has not changed people’s outward behavior toward me.

    Which makes me wonder what use or value these terms have except as pejoratives or propaganda that are (hopefully) quickly swept aside in the face of one-on-one personal interaction.

    Comment by Justin H — 7/19/2005 @ 11:43 pm

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