That’s not left! This is left!

I am constantly irritated by the appropriation of the terms “liberal” and “leftist” in Mormon culture. Outside our religious community, such terms describe political and economic orientations. In Mormon discourse they apparently denote religious orientation. This is confusing and frustrating to individuals such as myself (you know, actual leftists).

I don’t really know where I fall on the spectrum of belief in Mormonism. Honestly, I don’t want to know. I know I don’t fit into any other church. I know I’m Mormon. Beyond that, distinctions–liahona or iron rod, liberal or conservative, left or right, orthodox or neo-orthodox–will only make me cut myself off from people I categorize differently. I try not to think about it.

Given that I don’t track our intra-church divisions all that much, I am always surprised and confused by the use of political terms in religious conversations. For example: I have seen the term “left” used as a label for those who don’t think the Book of Mormon is historical, or for those who don’t think it’s really scripture.

But “left” has been used in political conversations for a very long time, certainly longer than we’ve been talking about Book of Mormon historicity. And what have leftist politics to do with beliefs about the historicity, ahistoricity, or scriptural status of the Book of Mormon? If any relationship exists, it must in fact be an inverse relationship. The politics of the Book of Mormon are clearly to the left of today’s economic politics. The book paints the best society as one in which everyone has enough–“There were no poor among them”–and no one takes more wealth than they need. Further, one of the primary characteristics of unrighteous Book of Mormon societies is massive disparity of wealth. In unrighteous societies, widows and orphans starve while those in power dress to the nines. While the Bible alludes to protection of the poor, the Book of Mormon is both specific and emphatic in its designation of communal economic systems as the righteous ideal.

It follows that belief in an ahistorical Book of Mormon weakens the scriptural argument for socialism–if the post-Resurrection Nephites never actually existed, they can’t have lived as proto-socialists–and belief in a non-scriptural Book of Mormon eliminates the scriptural argument for socialism almost entirely. (Hey, the Bible alternates between “feed the poor” and “abandon all your belongings to live as an itinerant beggar”, neither of which really looks like socialism). So the understanding of scripture that Mormons refer to as liberalism or leftism actually undercuts political liberalism or leftism. Why have we conflated the positions? Why did we make our framework for thinking about doctrinal and theological controversies unnecessarily confusing?


  1. Taryn, what are the politics of the Book of Mormon? That’s something of a mess right there. At times it is fiercely independent, libertarian — at others it it decidedly authoritarian. With regards to wealth distribution, there’s the 4th Nephi model, which we all love, but there are other descriptions of income redistribution in the book that don’t seem so….socialist.

    Now, I agree that we should not conflate political liberalism with its doctrinal one. But I’m not sure it’s really as common to do so as you suggest. I’ve seen it, but not that often. Maybe the conflation happened as we began to demonize the left as moral degenerates post-WWII. Communists = godless, etc.

  2. There are is some fun research on these points. See here and here, courtesy of our friends at FARMS. Still digging for good Dialogue articles on point, but there’s gotta be some.

  3. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    Steve, I’m not so interested in the politics as the economics, two issues I consider separate. Give me some citations for other BOM economic models. (I believe your assertion that they exist; I just haven’t paid much attention to them, maybe).

    I think they’re both odd. What have either social or economic liberalism to do with our literalist vs. nonliteralist religious disputes?

    I suppose I just think it’s odd we’ve conflated the terms at all, really.

  4. Citations?? Don’t you know I’m the ideas man, not the details man.

  5. Taryn,

    First, you’re absolutely right to note the leftist economic tendencies of the Book of Mormon.

    Second, I think you miss one major factor, though, which is that most church members don’t think of left and right in economic terms. Rather, they think of them in social terms. Leftists or liberals aren’t people interested in distributive justice — they’re people interested in legalized abortion and gay marriage. Through that lens, it’s easier to cast the Book of Mormon as being opposed to leftist ideals.

    Third, to some extent in the United States, leftist politics are perceived as anti-war politics. Of course this is not always true in a meta sense — see, e.g., Lenin and Mao and FARC and Nicaragua and a dozen other instances worldwide — but nonetheless, in the local setting, leftist ideas are often associated with anti-war ideology relating to Vietnam. To the extent that this association is true, then relatively pro-war scriptures — particularly those relating to Captain Moroni — seem opposed to leftist ideas.

    So I think that the current perception is understandable. Wrong, but understandable.

    (And FWIW, Mormons certainly have no monopoly on miscasting the terms left and right. Political pundits mix things up all the time. Left can mean John Kerry, or Foucault, or Katha Pollitt, or Andrea Dworkin, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or a hundred different things, depending on who you ask. And for that matter, leftists do the same. You’ll hear left folk regularly characterize every tin-hat dictator of a third-world country as right-wing and discuss “right-wing militias” and such, despite the fact that John McCain and Fulgencio Bautista have just about nothing in common).

  6. Taryn,
    As much as I dislike the left-right, liberal-conservative divisions in Mormonism, I’m afraid it’s not something unique to us. I don’t know where or how it started, but we regularly hear about “liberal” or “conservative” Christianity; the liberal denominations are often more likely (or at least portrayed as more likely) to reject miracles, the divinity of Jesus, etc., while the conservative denominations tend to accept Biblical inerrancy. I agree that it’s an unpleasant conflation, causing us to divide ourselves from our brothers and sisters, but the idea the a “liberal” would reject the historicity of the BoM maps well onto the larger Christian world, where denominations that reject divinity and inerrancy are likely to be labelled “liberal.”

  7. Give me some citations for other BOM economic models

    I know some libertarians who cite King Noah and his taxation as a negative example of tax and spend policies.

  8. The problem with citing other BOM economic models is that it is hard to find much in terms of lasting civilizations — so often the nephites were fighting off extinction or just starting a nascent community that sometimes I get the impression they rarely had other than raw survival economics for much of their existence.

  9. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    J. Stapley,

    Yes, I’ve encountered that, usually from people defending assertions that we should dismantle existing redistribution programs. I think it’s a really weak argument against taxation, honestly. Noah was an evil and oppresive king; he was collecting taxes for his own enrichment. Taxation put in place by a democratically elected representative government for the purpose of building basic economic equality is a very different thing.

  10. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:


    So you’re saying you couldn’t find other economic systems, then? :)

  11. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    Kaimi and samdb: Yep, I think you’re right.

    Gee, that’s not an exciting response, is it? Sorry about that.

  12. Eric Russell says:

    The Book of Mormon definitely supports a welfare system of some sort, but I have always interpreted that to mean in a private sphere. King Benjamin, for example, is clearly giving personal direction to individuals, not pushing a public policy program.

    Is there any evidence that The Book of Mormon advocates a public welfare system?

  13. rleonard says:

    I would be careful conflating ancient sparsely documented economic systems and trying to relate them to todays economic systems. I would also warn lefty’s and righty’s not to think that the scriptures back up their world view and that Jesus is either a Dem or A repub. He is the Son of God.

    Also I think that beware of Pride is the main lesson I take from the BOM regarding material posessions.

    Left wing economic systems create their own disparities. AKA Soviet high level communists living in their own custom areas and shopping at stores not open to the regular “comrade”.

    Another quick note is that income disparities from what I have researched are greater in Blue states like california and less so in red states like utah.

  14. amen rleonard to your first two paragraphs. Then you disembarked to crazy town.

  15. I would also give pause in calling what happened in 4th Nephi an “Economic System.” Their equality was simply a by-product of their righteousness, not the other way around. I doubt they actually had measures to insure that equality persisted–for there was no need. Also note, that the economic system ended up failing.

  16. rleonard says:

    Hey Steve,

    In the left wing economic system Soviet Bloc the high level leaders lived high on the hog in special neighborhoods and shopped in special stores not open to the regular people. This is well documented. Human nature being what is is this should not surprise anybody.

    Also check out economic disparity in the red states vs economic disparity in the blue states. You will be shocked as I was. Economic disparity is more pronounced in Blue states.

  17. rleonard, I’m not shocked by your findings, but rather the way in which you’re trying to make some kind of correlation between economic disparity and Blue states. Are you saying that one causes the other? Or are you trying to say that Blue staters are hypocrites? That’s the problem. Either way, threadjack!

  18. Is there any evidence that The Book of Mormon advocates a public welfare system

    How about Mosiah 21:17 “King Limhi commanded that every man should impart to the support of the widows and their children, that they might not perish with hunger; and this they did because of the greatness of their number that had been slain.”

    Here King Limhi, the political leader, apparently issues an edict of redistribution. Was it voluntary? Could the selfish opt out? On my reading, I tend to doubt it.

  19. Mark B. says:

    I don’t think anybody who “disembarks” goes anywhere. You can “embark” to crazy town, so long as a “bark” goes there–actually, the original meaning of the word, which was limited to ships, has been expanded–thus, one can embark, for example, in the service of God, and that embarkation can presumably include travel by foot or by air or by train or even by car.

    But you can’t disembark to anywhere. You got off the boat, and here you stay.

  20. #12- The distinction that we now use between public and private is derrived from the enlightenment. I do not think ancient people would think in such terms, so I do not think that we need to provide evidence that the economic system was public.

    I agree with the jist of the post b/c I think we should be careful in how we use labels. Yet, I do think that many people use the term to denote where someone stands on the status quo. For example, leftists were often for women’s sufferage even though that was not primarily an economic issue. Thus, if someone’s values conflict with the status quo, then I think it is acceptable to refer to them as a leftist even if the issue is not economic.

    Oh, and I definately think that the economic morality of the Book of Mormon is entirely relevant to people’s contemporary discussions of economics.

  21. Mark B., in this case it’s all relative to the mainstream good ship Lollypop. He got off at Crazytown, and the ship continued on. You can too disembark to somewhere! Maybe disembarked at Crazytown is the better way to put it.

  22. Mark,

    Would it be correct to say that one “disembarks to” a place if it’s possible that one could leave the ship in more than one direction? Suppose the ship is moored in between Pier 2 and Pier 3, and has a ramp leading to each. Would it be incorrect to say “Steve disembarked to Pier 2” in that case?

  23. There is a lot of talk here about how the BOM doesn’t specifically describe Public Welfare, and that is fair debate. What I can say is that there is no-where in the BOM or the Bible for that matter where a Lassez-Faire Capitalist system is supported. Where does it say survival of the fittest? Where does it say helping the poor collectively as a society is an evil? Where does it say that pursuit of money and focusing on personal financial interests over the common good being a virtue?

    As for the Communist states, they were a good example of communism, and a bad example of the left, just as Nazi Germany is a good example of Nazism, and a bad example of the right.

    I agree with the original blog poster though, I believe in the Church, I have a testimony, and the simply fact that I vote Left does not immediately mean I am a doubter and a Religious “leftist” whatever that means. My faith and my choice to follow Christ and the scriptures is what leads me to vote “left”. I feel it is our responsibility as outlined in the scriptures to collectively as a society help the poor.

  24. Taryn,

    “Why have we conflated the positions? Why did we make our framework for thinking about doctrinal and theological controversies unnecessarily confusing?”

    Great questions.

    In the priesthood session of last General Conference, President Hinckley had the following to say:

    “Why do any of us have to be so mean and unkind to others? Why can’t all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

    There has been too much meanness in America these past ten or so years. Too often I’ve heard this member isn’t a true Mormon because he backs this or that, which are antithetical to the Republican party. This hijacking of religion will actually backfire and undermine Christianity in the end.

    and finally, rleonard, in response to #13, I have many citations that show that Blue states like California and Massachusetts are better at education and have lower divorce rates than Red States. We can go back and forth on which philosophy actually keeps the Gospel better.

  25. Perhaps some of our confusion stems from remembering such counsel as this talk from President Harold B. Lee — The Iron Rod

    I’m guessing you would say he uses the term “liberal” in a rather pejorative sense. Though to me, his characterizations seem quite appropriate.

    WRT Book of Mormon social economics — perhaps their socialist system would prove less appealing if we recognized first of all that the system was based in very closely integrated church and state. Nephite prophets and leaders recognized that good government and a healthy society were the product of righteousness. Not a consequence of a certain economic model or theory.

  26. What usages of “left” in political, economic, and Mormon contexts have in common is that they denote a desire for changes in the traditional power structures, and the ideas they have historically promulgated, in those various spheres.

  27. Mark Butler says:

    The default semantics of conservative and liberal in politics and religion go back thousands of years. Conservatives are the defenders (conservers) of the historical status quo with regard to God, king, and country. Liberals of various sorts are the peple who are rebelling or at least in favor of dramatically reforming, for whatever reason, the traditional regime.

    Looking backward it is hard not to symphathize with different liberals and different conservatives according to circumstance, and often to sympathize with both simultaneously.

    Martin Luther was a radical liberal in religion, in the long run too radical, greatly aiding the rise of modern antinomianism from the very beginning. But who can argue that the Church of the time wasn’t in need of serious reform?

    Or what about the Founding Fathers? At the time they seemed the very epitome of enlightened liberalism, and yet in a dozen years or so, a much more radical variant of liberalism in France made the Americans look like Burkean conservatives (which they were, most of them anyways).

    Due to the traditional cooperation of the Church and State, the terms ‘left wing’ and ‘right wing’, which I understand to date to the French revolution, were associated with opposition to the ancien regime on the left, and defense of the ancien regime, both Church and State on the left.

    The history of Mormonism has almost nothing to do with it – we just picked up terms in common usage. Conservative or rightist for the people who are the most avid defenders of the status quo orthodoxy, and leftist or liberal, for those that believe it should be sufficiently relaxed – that there are things that have gone seriously wrong somewhere, and of course a wide gamut roughly in between.

    [I am not the same guy as the “Mark B.” on this thread by the way]

  28. Mark Butler says:

    If one thinks of a ship as going on a circuit or route that visits many ports of call, one can certainly coherently say “disembarks in or at Crazy Town”.

  29. Christian, by your definition, the evangelical Christian Right today would be a prime exemplar of the “left.”

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    I think it’s an issue of semantics. If we don’t want to use the terms liberal and conservative, we need reasonable substitutes that people will actually use. Any recommendations? Iron rodders and liahonans? Signaturi and FARMSters? What would be the appropriate vocabulary for what Mormons commonly mean by the religous use of the terms liberal and conservative?

  31. I have seen a few comments make the following assumption: If the people are righteous then just economic systems follow. I am suspicious about such an assumption because it makes righteousness a purely individual matter and something over and above our activities and social relationships. Liberation theology makes a distinction between personal sin/righteousness and social sin/righteousness. On this view having a righteous people would necessarily imply having a just social/economic order. Thus, instead of saying “the people were righteous therefore they had a just social order”, one would say “the people were righteous meaning they had a just social order.”

  32. Mark Butler says:

    If one applies an appropriate low pass filter (a backward looking one, of course) Christian’s definition works just fine.

  33. The King Limhi verse is the only one I know of offhand that speaks of that kind of public redistribution in a favorable light. And these were the loser people compared to the Alma group. As you may have noticed, they were also the people that kept attacking the Lamanited and losing. So they are not really the best example one could hope for.

    Contrast this with Alma’s group where Alma, the High Priest, also commands them to care for the widows. But a few verses later the text goes out of its way to point out that this was done “of their own free will”. This is very not good for the socialist view.

    Then there is Alma 4 which goes off about the evils of inequality. The solution? Alma the younger leaves the government and starts preaching. The text does not so much as hint that the solution was public redistribution. It makes clear that the real issue was to preach away the pride of the people Also not good for the socialist story.

    Lastly, I am very much opposed to the pride that results from inequality. That is an obvious evil in the scriptures. But that does not mean socialism is preferable. The difference between conservative and liberal, for me, is not about whether or not poverty is bad, but whether or not we should use other people’s money to fix it. So no, I don’t think the BoM is socialist in its leanings. And I bet Ezra Taft Benson, the great prophet of using and studying the Book of Mormon, would stand by me on that one :). I think Marion Romney gave a talk along these lines at some point.

    Having said all that, I don’t want you to get the idea I’m a wild-eyed income tax evader. It is not difficult tp come up with reasonable arguments for taxation. I just think it is facile to ignore the liberal/conservatibe distinction about property rights (rather than, for instance, hating the poor).

  34. The politics of the Book of Mormon are clearly to the left of today’s economic politics.

    I don’t agree with your statement. Yes, 4th Nephi speaks of there being no poor:

    …and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift.

    These conditions existed “because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.” In other words, there were no poor because all people decided to live righteously, with love for one another, not because they all decided to set up a state government which would forcibly redistribute their wealth. I don’t see it as socialism that the Book of Mormon is encouraging, but Christ-like love and compassion for each other.

    Vs 3 also speaks of how all people were made free. How is Socialism and the freedom that the people enjoyed in 4th Nephi compatible with one another?

  35. But I would like to add that I think Socialism is the best system in theory, and if our circumstances permitted our society to function as such, with a prophet and other righteous people at its head, then I would be all for it.

  36. Jared E.,

    In a healthy representative democracy, the government doesn’t force any sort of policy or program on the people. The people, or their elected and recallable representatives, impose policies and programs on themselves. If we, in our Christ-like love for each other, were to decide to use our government to organize a democratically chosen redistribution of wealth, well, that would certainly be in keeping with the Book of Mormon.

    Misrepresentation of an argument doesn’t actually refute it. I’m well aware that totalitarianism is bad–even if I were stupid enough to see it as a valid form of government, the Book of Mormon would have corrected my error.

  37. J
    In a democracy, the majority do force policies and programs on the monority. Anyone here in favor of Planned Parenthood and the governments history of funding it? To say that an individual who does not believe in the redistribution of his/her wealth, is not being forced to participate is just plain not true.

  38. I’m sorry, that should have been addressed to Taryn.

  39. Jared,

    The verse does not say, “and they did deal justly with one another THEREFORE they had no poor among them.”

    The verse says “And they had all things common among them, THEREFORE there were not rich or poor.”

    The economic disparity changed b/c they held all things in common, not b/c people kept their promises.

    I actually think various forms of socialism are very compatible with that verse. Not all of course, any totalitarian form of socialism would not be. In fact when the verse speaks of the people being made free, they are made free b/c they are no longer poor or bonded. Liberation from proverty and freedom go hand in hand.

  40. And besides, my original post said nothing of ‘a healthy representative democracy’, I was speaking about Socialism.

  41. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:


    I’m glad you can see the virtue in such a system. Why, though, should we agree to share our stuff only if our leaders direct us to it, and if they have political power? If we know what’s right, we ought to do it.

    Remember, We didn’t lose the United Order because our leaders didn’t advise us to live in it–they advocated it strenuously, as a commandment, at a time when the Utah church functioned as the sort of theocracy you describe. We lost the United Order anyway because we refused to live it.

  42. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jared E.,

    RE: majority rule: well, if you want to live in an anarchy, be my guest. Please don’t do it in the U.S., though.

  43. Johnny,
    Not to be overly defensive, but my post said “therefore there were not rich and poor”, it didn’t say “THEREFORE they had no poor among them”

  44. Taryn Nelson-Seawright says:

    Jared, one more thing: lots of socialists like democracy. And lots of capitalists don’t. The two are not the same.

  45. If we know what’s right, we ought to do it.

    I completely agree. I think personally caring for each other is the way to go, that’s what I think was taking place in 4th Nephi. And yes, the United Order did fail because we refused to live it. What makes you think the secular society we live in, which is not christian based would do better?

    if you want to live in an anarchy, be my guest. Please don’t do it in the U.S., though.

    There are other types of political systems, not akin to Socialism and majority rule, which are not anarchistic.

  46. I’m sorry, I totally screwed up the formatting of my last comment. But you get the drift…

  47. Johnny,

    The economic disparity changed b/c they held all things in common, not b/c people kept their promises.

    I never said that their economic disparity changed because they kept their promises. 4th Nephi says they dealt just with each other, i.e. they were Christ-like in their dealings with each other.

    In fact when the verse speaks of the people being made free, they are made free b/c they are no longer poor or bonded.

    Perhaps this is what the verse means, but you are a long way from showing that this freedom from poverty came from a governmental redistribution of wealth.
    Oh, and I very much agree with your statement that “Liberation from poverty and freedom go hand in hand.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  48. Taryn,
    OK, I know a lot of socialists who do like democracy, but I don’t know any capitalists who don’t. Maybe there are some out there who don’t like it. Can you give me some referances of some who have written about why? And those capitalists who don’t like democracy, which form of government do they prefer?

  49. Am I like, totally threadjacking? Weren’t we talking about the scriptures? I’ll shut up now.

  50. Steve Evans says:

    Jared, I think when you’ve posted five comments in a row, it’s a sign.

  51. Jared E,

    Some of them prefer oligarchy. Or the variant of capitalism known as “crony capitalism.”

  52. Excerpt from Harold B. Lee’s “Iron Rod” speech of April 1971, clarifying the origin of our use of the term “liberal” —

    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.”

    Dr. John A. Widtsoe, former member of the Quorum of the Twelve and an eminent educator, made a statement relative to this word liberal as it applied to those in the Church. This is what he said:

    “The self-called liberal [in the Church] is usually one who has broken with the fundamental principles or guiding philosophy of the group to which he belongs. … He claims membership in an organization but does not believe in its basic concepts; and sets out to reform it by changing its foundations. …

    “It is folly to speak of a liberal religion, if that religion claims that it rests upon unchanging truth.”

    And then Dr. Widtsoe concludes his statement with this: “It is well to beware of people who go about proclaiming that they are or their churches are liberal. The probabilities are that the structure of their faith is built on sand and will not withstand the storms of truth.” (“Evidences and Reconciliations,” Improvement Era, vol. 44 [1941], p. 609.)

    Here again, to use the figure of speech in Lehi’s vision, they are those who are blinded by the mists of darkness and as yet have not a firm grasp on the “iron rod.”

  53. I’m actually living in Africa right now and find that capitalists often get a back rap. I look around me here in a developing country and notice that the only progress being made (visible progress) is the capital investments – from shops, cafes, restaurants, strip malls, etc. When a country has 53% unemployment, it is these small entrepreneurs that provide the jobs. Sure, the government has a function that it is arguably not performing, but I applaud the capitalists in this society.

  54. Steve Evans says:

    Jim, thanks for contributing to the discussion. How exactly is your quote relevant to Taryn’s questions?

  55. Steve,

    The discussion started with Taryn wondering why we use “left” and liberal in thh Church in the way we do. Jim thought the quote helped show why. And I’d agree.


    I don’t think anybody here is defending oligarchy or crony capitalism. This is one of the problems with using the Marxist phrase “capitalism” rather than competitive markets or secure property rights. It is less descriptive of what is actually being favored.


    When you say there is no reason we cannot share, you seem to mean share in a sense with which my 3 year old would be very familiar. “Sharing” involves somebody else giving things up so I can control stuff! The divide around here is not between people who think we should help the poor and people who think we shouldn’t. Rather it is between people who wish to use the tax system to make others “share” and people who are not sure about that or are rabidly opposed to it.

    For example, the BoM advocates praying for others. But that does not mean it advocates a govt program requiring you to spend X minutes a day praying for others or you’ll go to jail! It is the part where we bring in police power where you lose people, not the part where you hate poverty.

  56. Jared E., #48, an outstanding example of an anti-democratic capitalist would be Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. In fact, most of the military coups against democratic regimes in Latin America during the 20th century had a pro-capitalist agenda.

    Frank, let’s avoid the tired debate about whether democracy is a valid systen or not. We’ve had it so many times, and we all know that you’re an anarchist of sorts, so let’s leave it at that.

  57. This is a very fun post. I started writing a comment and it just got longer and longer and longer, so I decided to turn it into a post over at T&S. If you are interested, here it is.

  58. Jim Cobabe’s citation of Harold Lee (52) documents that the liberal conservative distinction is really about the relationship of reason and revelation.

    Political economy is secondary.

  59. #48 Jared, you might want to take a close look at the Federalist Papers especially numbers nine and ten.

    There are also quite a few political economists such as Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan, and even Mancur Olson who identify how democracy may interfere with the efficiency of markets.

    The political scientist Samuel Huntingdon argues that authoritarian dictatorships are better suited to develop third world economies because democratic governments are subject to redistributive pressures. For a recent update, you might want to read Fareed Zakaria’s work.

    IMO, the most important work is Joseph Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy that analyzes how the creative destruction of the market conflicts with democracy.

    I don’t want to debate the point forever. Suffice it to say that there are quite a few philosophers and political economists that are committed to market economies while raising questions about democracy.

  60. Jared,

    There’s also a long and glorious tradition of the U.S. intervening to remove democratically elected socialist governments in Latin America and replacing them with capitalist-inclined dictators.

  61. “Frank, let’s avoid the tired debate about whether democracy is a valid systen or not. We’ve had it so many times, and we all know that you’re an anarchist of sorts, so let’s leave it at that.”

    I wasn’t having that debate. I was talking about the role of the state. How can the role of the state not be related to political views on socialism?

    Also, I’m not even remotely close to being an anarchist, though perhaps from way over there on the liberation front it is hard to tell the difference between conservative and anarchist. :)

  62. Adam Greenwood says:

    In practice, there is a correlation between leftist politics, leftist cultural views, and ‘leftist’ theological views. Saying leftist is thus mostly accurate.

  63. Adam, I’m not sure that’s true. There’s a strong tradition of religious and social traditionalism or conservatism accompanying leftist politics in both Latin America and Europe, and there’s a much stronger religiously traditional left in the U.S. than we usually acknowledge. (Jim Wallis’s group, for instance, is comprised almost entirely of religiously conservative evangelicals). The fact that we assume a correlation between political leftism and religious liberalism (in the sense samdb outlines above) does not mean there actually is a correlation.

  64. Indeed, SV. You have a very literalist reading of the words *poor* and *equality*. According to samdb, that makes you a literalist conservative. :-)

  65. Serenity Valley,
    I very much agree with your statement in #63. I would definately not describe myself as a political liberal, but probobly would define myself as a liberal Mormon (despite the quotes given in post #52). Perhaps we need to coin a new phrase… Any ideas?
    And thanks Hellmut and RT for the references.

  66. Re the Chile discussion, I was serving my mission there when Dan Quayle came to visit Patricio Aylwin (the freely elected president who succeeded Pinochet’s regime).

    There was a editorial cartoon in one of the papers showing Quayle publicly congratulating and thanking Aylwin for the strong Chilean economy, with Pinochet standing offstage, behind a curtain (think Wizard of Oz), saying, “You’re welcome”).

    For every LDS family I knew who had a family member disappear in the 1970s and who defiantly displayed a picture of Allende next to Joseph Smith, Christ, and the prophet, I met another LDS family who proudly displayed a picture of the General next to Joseph Smith, Christ, the prophet and (oddly) John F. Kennedy.

  67. Jared, Kevin Barney said something similar about the need for replacement terms further up on the thread, and I think you’re both correct about it. We do need something. It would give us much more ideological flexibility, and perhaps make civil conversations easier, if we could separate our own and our fellows’ religious ideas from political ideas. If we were all able to mix and match those things as we saw fit, it would be much harder to stereotype each other.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t got any suggestions, but I second both your requests.

    Mark IV, how do you read poor and equality, if not literally?

  68. Re 65…

    “Liberal Mormon” spoken through a paper towel tube sounds awfully similar to “Lieberman”.

  69. I have my own variation on Dave’s three paragraph rule: when your comment exceeds three paragraphs, make it a post. I also have another rule: when a thread exceeds 30-50 comments, focus your piece of it with a new post. Both rules come into play here, where I respond to RT/JNS’s #29.

  70. Kevin and Serenity,
    Since both of you write at BBC (and since no one actually reads my blog), why don’t one of you write a thread, with maybe a poll or something centered around generating a new name for not-so-orthodox Mormons?

  71. Re 70 –

    I’m going to be ridiculed again by the Utah residents for saying this, but in my world:

    “Artificial orthodoxy not formally dictated by official doctrine or policy, no matter where the observer lives” = Utah Mormonism

    Everyone else is “not a Utah” Mormon.

  72. Mark Brown says:

    SV, # 67,

    Actually, that is a good question that deserves more consideration than my comment implied.

    What does equality mean? Beats me, but I’m pretty sure there is a lot of room there to allow for individual differences and circumstances. I know a woman for whom a really good, well tuned piano rises to the level of necessity. I don’t need a piano, so does that mean we are unequal, in any meaningful way? You and RT probably own a lot more books than most LDS folks, but that doesn’t make you plutocrats, and lots of people who own few book are not poor – they just don’t read books. If middle-class people in the Phillipines heard us talking about poor people in North America, they would probably laugh in our faces.

    You expressed frustration in your original post about the way we project meaning onto the words liberal and conservative. My point is that we do the same thing with the words poor and equal.

  73. Mark, I’m taking your comment to mean that you don’t read poor and equal literally?

  74. SV, I don’t know. Pathetic, huh?

    I guess what I mean is that those words have been used to describe such a variety of conditions that they have lost much of their meaning. Don’t you agree? So, I don’t know how to understand them literally.

  75. When I think of liberal or “left” issues, I usually think of situations like the one shown at this link. Basically, the depiction in that cartoon gets to the heart of the matter. Real liberals accept things that real conservatives don’t. Real conservatives accept things that real liberals don’t. And Mormon liberals pretend not to accept things that real conservatives accept, but never really accept what real liberals accept.

  76. Mark,

    Your comments are correct, in the sense that there’s a lot of room for debate over exactly what counts as perfect equality or perfect lack of poverty. On the other hand, in a world where some people starve to death every day while others have plenty to eat, the debates over fine points of comparison always strike me as a bit irrelevant.

  77. Adam Greenwood says:

    Serenity Valley,

    You may deny it if you wish, but in the United States the correlation is almost incontrovertible. I will be the first to deny that there is any *necessary* or *perfect* correlation. But there is one. Given that, criticisms of the terms ‘liberal mormon’ and ‘leftwing mormon’ are political moves and not truth-oriented moves. If our Authoress really wants people to disassociate the two, she and her fellow-travelers should take more trouble to be forthrightly orthodox instead of trying to avoid the issue.

  78. Adam Greenwood says:

    By the way, I think there’s more truth to the idea of one being a liberal both theologically and politically then there is to one being leftwing both theologically and politically. Things like resistance to authority, the privatization of truth, and so on, are more characteristically liberal than they are left-wing.

  79. DKL,

    Man, that was really weird.

    I feel a strange desire to have a 16×20 of it in my office.

  80. Mark Butler says:

    queno (#71), In Korea there is a tradition that the sacrament must be white bread, and all the crusts must be removed. Is that Utah Mormonism? Or what about the tradition that every chapel is open from ten in the morning to ten at night for students to study and socialize? Or the tradition that every chapel have a ping pong table? Or that gospel doctrine classes be taught with reference to the semantics of Chinese characters on a black board? And so on.

  81. Rarr, I have a Rarrr strange desire to Rarrr speak like a Rarr bear now. Thanks DKL

  82. Adam, it’s not incontrovertible. I’ve known plenty of traditionally religious leftists. A friend of mine from college who was raised on a socialist commune populated by hardcore evangelical Methodists comes to mind.

    It’s true that the traditionally religious left hasn’t had much of a public voice for the last generation or so, but remember, it was the evangelical black churches that organized the Civil Rights movement; and the fight for fair labor laws and legalization of unions included plenty of traditionalist christians, both lay and clergy. And the early Saints were, in a Mormon sense at least, religious conservatives; they were also perhaps the single best example of economic leftism in United States history.

    Inasmuch as political leftism is connected to social progressivism in our country, well, socially progressive movements have always involved plenty of traditionalist religious types. There was the suffrage movement, for instance; it covered the full spectrum of belief, from early religous liberals to early evangelicals to, well, restoration polygamists like Eliza R. Snow. (Can you get any more literalist than, “Hey, we’d better practice Old Testament polygamy”?).

    Your perception that the positive correlation between leftism and religious liberalism is “almost incontrovertible” is just that, a perception. And it’s also inaccurate.

    Finally, I’m not avoiding the issue of orthodoxy. I just don’t care about our squabbles over it. And I would like you to spell out exactly what you meant here:

    …Criticisms of the terms “liberal mormon” and “leftwing mormon” are political moves and not truth-oriented moves.

    Are you implying that in complaining about terminology I’ve been dishonest somehow?

  83. Wow, seems like a pretty long-winded discussion for the simple issue of agreeing to use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” (glossed as “left” and “right”) in discussions about modern Mormonism.

    I don’t agree with attempts to load a bunch of social-political baggage onto those terms, whether as discussed in this post or as done by LDS leaders attempting to co-opt the terms (see #52). We need handy terms that most people agree on in order to talk about issues in modern Mormon religious culture — and “liberal Mormon” and “conservative Mormon” (or “orthodox Mormon”) are useful starting points for many such discussions.

    I don’t think most people automatically map “liberal Mormon” as “Democrat,” “socialist,” or “dissenting apostate.” It mostly means “not necessarily accepting everything that a conservative or orthodox Mormon readily assents to,” and I think everyone understands that. If someone wants to then move a particular discussion forward to talk about socialism or equality or apostasy or historicity in detail, they can be more specific as required by the discussion.

  84. Adam Greenwood says:

    Serenity Valley,

    I am saying that political liberalism is correlated with theological liberalism in modern-day American. You take me to be saying that political liberalism is *perfectly* correlated with theological liberalism *historically* and *world-wide*. I’m not. Hopefully our discussion can now be more productive.

  85. Adam, I’m saying that it is at best a recent correlation, and a weak one.

    Dave, thanks for addressing my original post. I’d say, though, that as shown in this thread, at least some Mormons do conflate terms as discussed above. In any case, what you say brings up some questions. Am I the only one who gets tripped up with this terminology? Is this just a result of the fact that I’m a relative newbie to the conversations of adult Mormons?

    I can see an argument for that with “liberal”–it’s widely used in both religious and political contexts in the U.S. I’ve only ever seen Mormons use “leftist” as religious terminology, though, usually in the bloggernacle.

  86. Oh, Adam, by the way, you haven’t answered my question–what did you mean to say with that bit about political vs. truth-oriented moves?

  87. Frank, not only should we question the normative value of King Limhi’s command because of his spotty success, the command was also *before* he was converted. Maybe Mormon included the command to give the reader a sense of his fallen and degraded state. : )

    Taryn, majorities must exercise their power righteously. You presumably don’t think Utahns should vote to require everyone to attend church on Sundays. If you share my reasoning for this, it is because the righteousness demanded by the commandment to keep the Sabbath is emptied when it is forced. Righteousness cannot be coerced. I believe I am commanded to assist the poor, and to love my neighbor as myself, in the same way, and believe that I lose the blessings available to me if it is coerced. The distinction I make between righteousness that can be coerced, and that which cannot, is by distinguishing affirmative from negative commandments. It’s okay to enact negative commandments in law (DO NOT steal, assault, murder, adulter, sell pornography, abort or abandon your children) but not affirmative commandments (DO pray always, be baptized, attend church, pay tithing, pay fast offerings, serve others, love others as yourself, give generously).

    But I’d be happy to hear other ways to distinguish commandments we should and should not impose against those who don’t share our views.

  88. Mark Butler says:

    In what way were say, John Wycliffe, or William of Ockham, or Martin Luther, or William Tyndale, or the Lollards, or the Hussites, or the Radical Reformation not significantly both theologically and politically liberal?

  89. Mark, I never said you couldn’t be simultaneously theologically and politically liberal. I just said that plenty of folks are, or have been, only one or the other.

  90. Adam Greenwood says:

    Serenity Valley,

    I’m saying that its a strong correlation. It is recent, but the usage you criticize is also recent.

    Here’s my explanation on politics v. truth: some campaigns for word changes come because the words are inaccurate and others come because the words have negative connotations, though they aren’t really misunderstood (this is what framing is all about). Since I don’t think the implied connection between religious and political liberals is inaccurate, I see the attempt to change our vocabulary in this regard as more in the second class.

  91. Adam,

    The problem, of course, is that the correlation is inaccurate. If I thought otherwise, I wouldn’t have written the post.

  92. Adam Greenwood says:

    So that’s where we disagree. I think the correlation is accurate–I’m surprised you disagree, frankly (especially given that you earlier thought there was a weak correlation)–and I disagree that there would be something per se wrong about trying to reframe negative word usage even if it wasn’t inherently inaccurate.

  93. Adam, the point Serenity makes about the vastly different configurations of “left” and “religious” over time really is relevant to the terminology issue. By contrast, accepting the present configuration as normative and codifying it in language forecloses possibilities that have existed and may exist for other–maybe better–alternatives. Take a look at William Jennings Bryan, best known as an economic populist/leftist who foreshadowed the development of the (rather attenuated) American welfare state, but also famous as the spokesperson for Biblical literalism in the Scopes trial on teaching evolution. He, in conjunction with Serenity’s other examples, show that there have been many configurations of religious leftism. If such configurations are absent today, it may reflect some inattention on the part of religious people to the morals and values of the scriptures–which are more repetitious about economic themes than they are, even, about sexual ones.

  94. Frank MacIntyre: I feel a strange desire to have a 16×20 of [that cartoon] in my office.

    That’s because you’re the man, Frank.

  95. Mark Butler says:

    If the Democrats wanted to be taken seriously by the religious mainstream again, they could do a lot worse than emulate the example of Williams Jennings Bryan. Instead though they practically chase people like him out of the party.

  96. Mark Butler, so far the Democrats haven’t chased away Jim Wallis and the Sojourners crowd; in fact, the party seems to be courting them. Maybe that’s a hopeful sign that the connections between religion and politics are in fact changing in America?

  97. I don’t agree with attempts to load a bunch of social-political baggage onto those terms, whether as discussed in this post or as done by LDS leaders attempting to co-opt the terms (see #52)

    It is largely irrelevant whether you or I “agree” with the application of such labels. My point in quoting President Lee’s talk was to demonstrate that it was common practice in the church long before any of you were even born.

  98. Mark Butler says:

    I am glad to hear it. It is not healthy not to have a reasonable party to defect to when one’s current party gets too stupid, or hidebound, or arrogant, or whatever.

  99. Tom Manney says:

    DKL, you’ve thrown a bomb in the room and then run off. I don’t understand what you’re saying at all. Would you mind clarifying?

    I’m glad this subject was raised because I repeatedly made an ass of myself about a year ago when I made a lot of posts working under the assumption that the blog’s “liberally-minded” sub-title was political, not theological. Mea culpa.
    Jim Cobabe hits the nail on the head with his point that BoM societies had very cozy church-state relationships. The Nephites were proud to brag of their religious tolerance and officially neutral stance, but the revolving door between church and state leadership and the prevalence of morality laws based on religious beliefs tend to undermine that a bit.
    At least in terms of current politics, religious governing is a very conservative idea. But it could be argued that through most of America’s history liberal movements were often religiously grounded — abolition and desgregation come to mind, Quaker pacifism, and even Prohibition.
    And speaking of desgregation, I’ve been thinking lately about how utterly similar Nephites’ views of Lamanites are to the way white America has traditionally regarded other races (blacks, Indians, Communists, Muslims) — pretty much as subhuman threats to their existence. For example, the Anti-Nephi-Lehies don’t get to just join the church like any other converts. They are crossing a bridge from primitivism to enlightenment and so they bury their weapons and make an additional covenant as a condition of their conversion — a covenant that literally kills them to keep — so that the Nephites would trust them, not perceive them as a threat. I know that the Book of Mormon portrays it as a covenant they volunteer for, but it just strikes me as a higher standard than Nephites are expected to live up to. It smells of an underlying assumption that the Nephites — white, delightsome, literate and progressive — are inherently more civilized, even though Ammonihah, King Noah, the Amulonites and numerous other groups show that the whites had every bit as much willingness to slaughter and make war.

  100. Adam Greenwood says:

    “Adam, the point Serenity makes about the vastly different configurations of “left” and “religious” over time really is relevant to the terminology issue.”

    No, its relevant to the *political* issue. Its not about accurately reflecting the current state of affairs, its about using language as a tool to shape future possibilities.

  101. Tom, I think that the cartoon that I linked to looses something in the process of explaining exactly how I want it to apply to this issue. But here goes:

    The cartoon depicts a woman and a bear discussing whether “they” (presumably some authority) will let the woman and the bear go to the prom together. The bear says that they’ll let him and her go together because he lives in a subdivision and he’s an American.

    This is the kind of thing that might sound eminently reasonable to a liberal, but the conservative will point out (quite rightly, I believe) that it doesn’t matter where he lives or what country he hails from, you just can’t have a bear at the prom. I envision the liberal screaming something about discrimination, and the conservative saying, “But it’s a bear, damn you.” And there’s really not much to argue about.

    So the bear represents gays, illegal immigrants, and every other debtor classes that the liberals want to push onto mainstream society. Being American and living in a subdivision represents all of the lame excuses that liberals have to justify their desire to foist extreme elements upon mainstream culture. And the prom represents all the areas that they try to foist them upon; viz., the military, marriage, adoption, and, well, proms.

    And there ends up being nothing to argue about, because the liberals just don’t get why living in a subdivision and being an American isn’t a sufficient condition for going to the prom.

  102. Adam/DKL/Whoever, you’re only correct if you think terminology should only be relevant to one place and time. If we’re interested in comparison or history, you’re entirely off base.

  103. Adam Greenwood says:


    I think that most of the time, when our American contemporaries talk about leftwing theology or leftwing politics, they are only making claims about the contemporary state of affairs in America. I agree that outside that context, one should not use those terms without some attempt at clarification.

  104. RT,

    I think it is safe to say that the term “liberal” is not usefully static over time or space. Nor is the communist China “right-wing” meaningfully connected to the American “right-wing”. So if we are looking for one-word universal terminology, that thar battle is already lost.

  105. Frank and Adam,

    Even if we want terminology that covers the U.S. as recently as ten years ago, conflating religious liberalism with political liberalism is descriptively problematic. The current Republican-Evangelical alliance only fully gels in the 2000-2004 elections… We don’t need to reach as far as China or as long ago as the 19th century for this particular conflation to cause serious descriptive and conceptual problems.

  106. Adam Greenwood says:

    I think its a mistake, RT/JNS, to conflate party affiliation and political beliefs. They overlap but they aren’t the same thing. In any case, the correlation between religious conservatism and voting for GOP presidents goes back for quite some time, much further than 2000-2004. The significant thing that happened in 2000-2004 was that religiously conservative Catholics started voting for the GOP primarily. This had already happened with Evangelicals and Mormons more than 10 years ago.

    In any case, I think you’re simply wrong if you feel that most uses of the term ‘liberal’ or ‘left’ conflate religion and politics. The context is usually clear.

  107. Steve Evans says:

    “I think you’re simply wrong if you feel that most uses of the term ‘liberal’ or ‘left’ conflate religion and politics.”

    Adam, I agree that it’s by no means a total conflation, but I don’t think that church leaders or church members uniformly make the clear separations that you’re describing. At least in the EQs and sunday schools I’ve attended, ‘liberal’ is a common catchall for cultural liberalism and political leftism. The raw truth of it all, I think, is that if people really thought about it, most uses of the term would not conflate — but people are not as careful or thoughtful in their usage as perhaps they should be.

  108. Adam, there is a correlation between religious conservatism and voting for GOP presidents that goes back a long time. However, it continues to be a more modest correlation than we sometimes imagine. The same is true for the correlation between the self-described ideological right and religious conservatism. Neither of these correlations is anywhere near strong enough to support a claim that the concepts of political and theological liberalism are identical. The empirics are just against you here.

    For example, in the 1996 American National Election Survey, there are questions in which respondents place themselves on a scale from “liberal” to “conservative” with respect to politics. There’s a second question in which respondents specify whether the Bible is “the actual word of God,” “the word of God, but not literally,” or “not the word of God.” On the Bible question, the difference between the first and second categories nicely tracks the difference between a theological “conservative” and a theological “liberal.”

    Of theological conservatives, 52.8% described themselves as from somewhat to extremely conservative in political terms. By contrast, of theological liberals, 43.1% placed themselves in the same range. A conflation of theological and religious conservatism thus misclassifies a substantial number of theologically liberal by politically conservative Americans as of 1996.

    On the other end of the political scale, 13.8% of theological conservatives describe themselves as in the somewhat to extremely liberal range in politics. This compares with 23.2% of theological liberals. Once again, the conflation you advocate misclassifies an important number of theologically conservative but politically liberal Americans as of 1996.

    Overall, in 1996, there is a relationship between political and theological conservatism–but the statistical relationship is by no means strong enough that we would be justified in describing the two concepts as identical; the ordinal correlation between the two scales is only 0.21. That’s statistically meaningful but modest.

    How does that compare with the pattern in 2004? 56.1% of religious conservatives now report being politically conservative, as compared with 39.3% of religious liberals. At the other end, 15.1% of religious conservatives report being politically liberal, as compared with 23.1% of religious liberals. Overall, the ordinal correlation is a stronger but still not perfect 0.29.

    So, there’s the data.

  109. JNS,

    That is very interesting data, I’ll have to dredge through it some time and look for something to post on.

    Perhaps part of the problem, JNS, is that you are attacking a position which I don’t think Adam holds. There is no question that, as you say, the political/religious relationship is not “identical” nor even anywhere close to that. Perhaps Adam will be surprised by the lowness of the correlation, or perhaps not. I think that what he said was that there was an obvious correlation, which is true.

  110. Frank, an obvious–although in this case barely statistically significant–correlation doesn’t in any way justify Adam’s argument that treating political and religious liberalism as interchangeable is descriptively adequate. You’d have to have much more of a perfect correlation for that to be true. So Adam’s argument does indeed require a relationship in which the two measures are identical except for small discrepancies and, perhaps, measurement error.

    Furthermore, Adam has kindly given us a standard for when it’s inappropriate to conflate two concepts. (The debate here, of course, is over whether it’s appropriate to conflate political and theological leftism/liberalism.) In his comment #106, Adam says:

    I think its a mistake, RT/JNS, to conflate party affiliation and political beliefs. They overlap but they aren’t the same thing.

    In the 2004 National Election Survey data, the ordinal correlation between party affiliation and liberal/conservative self-description is 0.64. If it’s a descriptive mistake to conflate concepts when a correlation in the neighborhood of 0.6 exists, it’s surely also a descriptive mistake to conflate concepts when a much weaker correlation in the 0.2 to 0.3 neighborhood exists. According to Adam’s standard, we’ve got to always be careful to distinguish between theological and political leftism.

  111. JNS,

    “Adam’s argument that treating political and religious liberalism as interchangeable is descriptively adequate”

    Perhaps I haven’t been following close enough, I don’t see where he made that argument. Your party affiliation example has Adam noting, as you did, that two things aren’t identical. But I think we all understand that. I was going off his repeated denials that the correlation was perfect. I suppose we’ll need the enlightened Mr. Greenwood to tell us what he meant.

    In other news, I downloaded that data you used cuz it looked cool. I am trying to figure out why you call the correlation “barely statistically significant”. The regression of the 7 point political scale on the bible question (in 2004) gives me a t of -9.27. That sounds pretty stat. significant to me! Are you using some other set of variables or perhaps you were referring to the 96 data?

    In fact, the religious data seems to be a far better predictor than most other demographics I looked at, like marriage, being black, age, or rough income codes. Combined, those explain about 7% of the variation (adjusted), while the Bible question explains 10.5% by itself. Far, far, far from explaining all the variation, but, as far as predictors of individual behavior go, pretty good.

    Those last numbers, by the way, are not based on linear correlations, but on using dummy variables for every value.

  112. Frank, there’s a much bigger difference between irreligious people (the third category in the Bible data) and religious people than there is between the theologically conservative and theologically liberal religious folks. You’ve got to throw out those cases. You also need to use some analytic technique which is appropriate for a categorical dependent variable.

    Above, I was reporting Spearman’s rho, which is a bivariate correlation that was designed for categorical data.

  113. “You also need to use some analytic technique which is appropriate for a categorical dependent variable.”

    If I was trying to publish it I would, but that is almost never going to change a t-stat of 9 into insignificant. In any case, I still am not able to reproduce your result.

    I throw out those who don’t think the Bible is the word of God at all (15% of the sample) and I still get a whopping rejection of independence (Spearman’s or t-stats, it doesn’t matter). What number did you get?

  114. Adam’s original comment that ‘saying leftist is mostly accurate’ might make some rough sense to a person who 1) is both a religious and political conservative and 2) considers anyone whose religious views are not conservative to be a religious liberal (i.e., both nonliteralists and nonbelievers). According the 2004 NES data, if such a person meets a political liberal, he can conclude that the person he just met is a religious liberal (according to his personal definition), and be right 4 out of 5 times.

    This is, of course, a highly selective reading of the data. Both JNS’s comments in #108 and #110 and the fact that this person would be right 2 of 3 times if he classified everyone he met as a religious liberal provide useful context.

  115. Good point, Dan.

    Of course, in the NES, the Bible question divides between strict literalism and what amounts to AF 8, so I think the LDS Church, Adam included, would come out as liberal under that definition. But I think your broader point makes sense.

  116. Frank, are you using the weights? With them in place, and throwing out the irrelevant cases and the nonresponders (which I’ve just done), you ought to get a Spearman’s rho between the Bible question and the liberal/conservative question of -0.171. This is statistically significantly different from zero–but clearly marginal in comparison with the correlation between ideology and party identification. With the same corrections in place, the correlation between ideology and party identification is 0.579.

    By the way, the bivariate correlation between the theological liberal/conservative variable and party identification is a mere 0.049, and is not statistically distinguishable from zero.

  117. Dan–I think you’ve nailed Adam’s problem; he doesn’t understand (or perhaps acknowledge) the difference between religious liberals and nonbelievers. In fact, your point becomes even sharper if we instead distinguish between believers (liberal and conservative) and nonbelievers–the empirical divide in terms of political ideology there is more dramatic.

  118. JNS,

    OK, well it sounds like you are getting the same thing I am namely, the relationship is clearly statistically significant. And yeah, I looked at both weighted and unweighted but the results are pretty much the same either way. Good to know. I don’t think anybody (even Adam) doubts that party affiliation tracks political ideology better than one’s views on the literalness of the Bible. And it is interesting that religiosity tracks ideology better than it tracks party.

  119. Frank, nice that the two of us have reached consensus. Let me spell out the implications of our consensus for the broader discussion.

    1) Forms of religiousity are clearly very important in current American politics.

    2) The most important issue regarding religiousity is the distinction between believers and unbelievers. The distinctions involving kinds of believers–the original topic of this post–are less closely connected with politics, although still interesting.

    3) Political liberalism or leftism are sharply distinct, in a current descriptive sense, from theological liberalism or leftism. A change in terminology may be helpful in preventing people from assuming that these two concepts are more closely related than they are. In either case, it’s always important to keep the two concepts distinct; a sizeable chunk of people are political conservatives but theological liberals or vice versa.

    In other words, the data strongly support Taryn’s original position that these two concepts need to be kept descriptively separate. Adam’s claim that the distinction is political rather than descriptive in nature is disconfirmed.

  120. JNS,

    I’m fine with 1 and 2. I don’t think the data in question really speak to the most interesting part of Taryn’s post– which is how these things play out among Mormons. But regardless, one would probably find the same thing– a sizable correlation that is far from perfect.

    Right now we use “Religious” and “Political” and”Economic” as adjectives to “liberal” to differentiate the types. I find that that usually suffices. Perhaps others don’t think it does but I don’t see much relief on the horizon. I agree with Steve that people could be more precise in how they use this terminology (and a whole host of others).

    Frankly, it seems to me that most political terms of this type are pretty much a wreck, so we’ll probably just have to muddle along and blame the political scientists for not imposing clearer terminology. I mean, classic liberal is so far from modern liberal in the economic arena that the two are barely on speaking terms.

  121. JNS,Dan,

    Here’s another way of thinking about it. Supppose the liberal/conservative scale is a little bit too amorphous, and thus people self-categorize in ways that others might find questionable. So suppose a hypothetical P. liberal defines “liberal” as

    1. Supporting government funding of abortions or
    2. Supporting gay marriage.

    Among those who take the Bible literally: 22% favor 1 and 11% favor 2.

    Among those who do not take the Bible literally (but still believe it): 40% favor 1 and 38% favor 2.

    Thus the Political liberalism of the Religious liberals is double on the first and quadruple on the second. The liberal would probably, based on these sorts of litmus tests, see that there is a rather strong relation, especially if they saw gay marriage as a key topic as opposed to, for example, tax policy, where the relationship is probably quite weak.

  122. Frank,

    I just don’t know if your #121 adds very much to the conversation. There is still a relationship–and the fact that it is stronger than the overall liberal-conservative scale suggests that you are over-privileging these two issues. But also note that a huge number of people would be miscategorized by failing to distinguish between theological and political liberals.

    This discussion, of course, can’t reasonably be about whether there are connections between religion and politics. Of course there are. The discussion is about whether those connections are strong enough to justify equating the two concepts. And the survey evidence–including your new intervention, which I find conceptually tricky–clearly show that the concepts are distinct. Sizeable numbers are conservative on one scale and not on the other, etc.

    Anyway, thanks for the discussion!

  123. Frank MacIntyre and HP/JDC, if you thought the bear prom cartoon was good, you’ll love this one. (That’s one I posted on M* as being representative as conflicts between Daniel Peterson and others. The participant who has been called chicken-head represents Daniel Peterson, in my interpretation.)

  124. Oops, that preceding comment has a malformed link tag. Try this one:

    Frank MacIntyre and HP/JDC, if you thought the bear prom cartoon was good, you’ll love this one. (That’s one I posted on M* as being representative as conflicts between Daniel Peterson and others. The participant who has been called chicken-head represents Daniel Peterson, in my interpretation.)

  125. DKL,

    You’re a never-ending font of bizarrity. I printed that bear one up. We’ll see if I can work it into a lecture.


    “and the fact that it is stronger than the overall liberal-conservative scale suggests that you are over-privileging these two issues.”

    I’m basically talking about why some people might view the correlation as strong but others as weak– namely if some see liberal and coservative as being largely about certain social issues like the ones I noted, while others see it as being about a much broader range of issues (like the 7-point scale would pick up). If some do this, then there will be a stronger correlation under their definition because they are not using the generic, subjective definition, but rather using more objective but narrow criterion based on certain issues.

    Is that a better way or worse way? I don’t know. Mostly it is just a different way that gets at different things. But it does explain why some see the correlation as strong while others don’t.

  126. Frank (121),

    I guess I’m just slow. From your numbers, I don’t see where you get a 2 to 1 ratio or a 4 to 1 ratio.

  127. Dan,

    Abortion: 22% favor vs. 40% favor (about 2:1)
    SSM: 11% favor vs. 38% favor (about 3.5:1, but quadruple is more fun to say).

    So if a hypothetical liberal or conservative views SSM as being a large part of what it means to be conservative, then, for that person, the religious divide between liberals and conservatives is obvious.

    Under no condition, of course, are the two types of liberalism the same, nor has anybody except JNS’s straw-Adam ever contended that they were. Just as economic and social liberalism differ from each other and from judicial liberalism and who knows what else.

  128. Can’t remember I saw this, but someone the other night made a comment that “politically, I don’t care if I’m right or left, just as long as I’m correct.”

  129. Anthony Nelson says:

    I am looking for the story when Harold B Lee was given the charge to dismantle one of the programs he had spent much of his life working on and said to the effect I will work as hard to dismantle this as I did to create it. Can anyone help me find this event.


  1. […] On July 13, over at By Common Consent Taryn Nelson-Seawright posted about the nature of economic and political liberalism and leftism amongst Mormons. The post and the related 127 comments can be found at: […]

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