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?