On Being a Liberal Mormon: Two Defenses and an Attack

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

One week before election day here in the United States, let’s consider, both politically and philosophically, a couple of recent, superb, highly thoughtful books which ask Mormons to embrace–in one case explicitly (Richard Davis’s The Liberal Soul), in the other case only implicitly and probably unintentionally (Terryl and Fiona Givens’s The Crucible of Doubt)–a highly contested label: “liberalism.” And while we’re at it, let’s also consider one relatively prominent voice of opposition to that embrace, and see if it makes its case. (Preview: I don’t think it does.)

Of course, the label/identity/accusation “liberal” isn’t just contested amongst members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s been a long time since President Herbert Hoover and his challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, argued during the presidential election of 1932 over which them advocated “true,” and not “false,” liberalism. Ever since the civil rights movement a half-century ago, and especially since the rise of the culture wars of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a term which once connoted merely the desire to defend and expand individual rights, liberties, and tolerance has gotten tied up with claims about religion, sexual morality, welfare, the size and scope of government, race and gender, social norms, citizen duties and obligations, and much more. It makes, to say the least, for a pretty complicated package of ideas.

This complication, though, is maybe even more fraught for Mormons–particularly American Mormons–since for those of us who presumably, at the very least, feel it important to pay special attention to the statements of general authorities, attending church involves having to negotiate a social landscape where past leaders like Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson made it pretty clear that they didn’t see any possible overlap between being a faithful member of the church and holding to “liberal” ideas. Those statements, and many others like them, are mostly 30 or more years old, and it might be easy to attribute them to a generation of leaders that were speaking to conditions that, with the 1978 revelation of the priesthood and the end of the Cold War threat of communism in the early 1990s, don’t apply any longer. But any lifelong member of the church knows better than that, I think. The reformist impulse which modern liberalism carries with it means that those who agree with that impulse face serious challenge when the church officially adopts, as it has in most (though not all!) recent political debates, a stance in defense of “tradition,” “authority,” and other positions easily interpreted to be anti-liberal. And, given the aforementioned tangle of ideas, it becomes very easy for those positions to be tied to claims about minimal tax rates, strong property rights, and a host of other nominally “conservative” positions which may actually have next to nothing to do with the contemporary teachings of the Mormon church, but which have a long history of scriptural proof-texts and Utah-centric unofficial general authority statements to back them up.

It is that history which Richard Davis’s book is most directly attempting to push back against. The Liberal Soul is not a deep work of political theology or theory, nor a nuanced discussion of political ideology or interpretation; it is not a book written to definitively advance a new Mormon political philosophy. On the contrary, its claims are modest (and its implied audience is also; while Davis frequently makes national or international connections in his arguments, it’s pretty obvious that his primary hope it simply to convince his fellow Utah Mormons that a legitimately faithful “liberal” alternative to the locally dominating right-wing Republican or libertarian readings of Mormonism actually exists). For Davis, the “liberal soul” spoken of in the King James Version translation of Proverbs 11:25 presents to us all a divine ideal of generosity, open-mindedness, and collective concern (an ideal similarly invoked in Isaiah 32:5, James 1:5, and Alma 1:30 and 6:5); he does not claim that such scriptural language mandates any specific set of public policies. But by the same token, he wants to help his readers see that the reverse is also true. As he writes near his conclusion: “The marriage of LDS faith and right-wing or libertarian politics is not the sole perspective for understanding the relationship between the gospel and the role of government….There are multiple interpretations of the gospel’s intersection with government, not just one” (p. 162). Thus The Liberal Soul is an attempt to put forward a reading of Christianity’s call to generosity which suggests that collective political action towards greater economic and social equality and welfare is as legitimate a response as any other.

How persuasive is the reading Davis puts forward? I would say “very much so,” but then I am already mostly–though not entirely–in Davis’s ideological camp. The first and, I think, most important chapter in the book, “Government is Ordained of God,” which carefully makes the point that there is no non-disputable reason why people cannot or should not democratically organize themselves around the governmental provision of public–as opposed to merely personal or familial–goods, and even more carefully criticizes the embarrassing anti-communist obsessions of Benson and other Mormon general authorities who tended to see any defense of public resources as gospel-threatening socialism, is one I strongly agreed with. As Davis continues his analysis through the book, his bone-deep moderate liberalism is demonstrated again and again, thus lessening my agreement with him somewhat, though never my admiration for what he was doing. He shows little interest in making direct use of Mormonism’s legacy of consecration (which he at one point clumsily refers to as “communitarianism”); while he speaks highly of economic equality as a goal closely tied to the Christian respect for persons, and at one point subtly snarks that this goal “may not be possible today given the broad acceptability of seeking personal gain over community good,” he mostly strikes a distinctly Rawlsian note, using redistributive taxes and minimum wage laws as examples of government actions which can reflect the generosity and public concerns of citizens (pgs. 29-39). Rather than contemplating the collective or class responsibility of oppressors to the oppressed in the form of reparations, he presents Joseph Smith’s appeal to the federal government for restitution from the mobs in Missouri as an early ancestor of affirmative action (pgs. 45-50). Rather than proposing radical alternatives to the welfare state, he defends entitlement benefits, noting in response to criticism about waste and fraud that the LDS church’s welfare program, like any “large bureaucratic organization,” suffers from waste and fraud as well, only since “the Church’s system is not transparent to the public or even to the Church’s membership,” almost no one knows about it (pgs. 67-68). Ultimately, there are almost no traces of social democracy or socialism in Davis’s arguments; his liberal Zion is a pluralistic one of generosity and charity, where arguments against capitalism are rare, and entrenched inequalities are to be addressed through humane appeals, church assistance, and government amelioration. In that sense, Davis is staying true (for better or worse) to one of the dominant streams of political reflection in Mormon scholarship: that “Mormon theological views…follow the tradition of radical Protestantism, track quite closely the tenets of philosophical liberalism, and are supportive of American constitutionalism,” as R. Collin Mangrum put it over 25 years ago.

There are multiple ways in which this stream of thought can be challenged, of course; Ralph Hancock, while expressing admiration for much of Davis’s book, poses one of them by claiming that the liberal generosity at the heart of The Liberal Soul is a basically an “amoral view of humanity,” a “secular ideology” of physical physical and social succor which should be contrasted to a true Christian charity that “seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification.” Hancock’s concern about liberalism taking the our eyes off where our treasure ought to be is a well-grounded one–and yet, what I think is most interesting about his particular line of criticism of Davis’s thesis is that it, too, exists within (and thus implicitly supports) the essentials of the liberal worldview.

True, both Hancock and Davis eschew the hyper-individualism of mainstream American libertarianism, insisting instead that individual rights (to political expression, to guns, to property, or whatever) need to be expressed in connection with a sense of the common good. Moreover, Hancock’s claim that what might be called contemporary liberalism’s reformist and egalitarian impulses have transformed that worldview into a “liberationist” movement, especially in regard to sexual matters, might be understood as a criticism of liberalism overall–but if it is, I can’t help but think it’s a rather odd one. Through Hancock’s many online writings on this topic (see here, here, here, here, and here for a start), the huge majority of which have focused on his conviction that same-sex unions cannot and should not be accepted as socially or morally respectable “marriages” in light of either the dictates of the gospel or the requirements of civilization, he has nonetheless, so far as I have seen, never denied that the individual (the unit which does the choosing to marry, after all) has a fundamental, ontological claim of worth in that gospel and to that civilization. He does distinguish between what he labels “practical” and “theoretical” liberalism (though sometimes he prefers to refer to them as “classical” and “new”), arguing that the latter ideology has freed individuals from the “moral discipline” which enabled them to exercise their choices via the genuinely workable political liberalisms of the past. But for all that, he does not dispute the position of the individual, that being who possess some kind of genuine independent agency–or in other words, some real “liberty”–as the category through which these moral baselines are to be expressed. He does not, in short, make firm arguments in behalf of natural law or economic superstructures or any other politically salient worldview, whether socialistic or actually traditional, that would suggest that we need to build our applications of the Christian gospel through something other than pretty much exactly what Davis calls for: namely, a generosity towards and respect for all individuals.

(In fairness, I should note that some of Hancock’s arguments suggest a kind of anti-individualistic familolatry, in which what he takes to be the authoritative revelation/definition of the family, via Christian sacraments and ordinances, is conceived as holding paramount political value, above that of the person, the community, or–on my quite possibly flawed understanding of his speculations, anyway–the law. That is, I think, a genuinely fascinating anti-liberal framing of the political question. But given that, aside from his losing fight to stop same-sex marriage, I’m unaware of any suggestions of Hancock’s regarding how this notion might be operationalized, economically or socially speaking (fathers acting as pater familias over the property of their wives or the marriages of their children, perhaps?), I can only conclude that his disagreement with Davis, practically speaking, actually just comes down to one–very conservative, in the mainstream American political sense–liberal Mormon challenging another–in this case somewhat more progressive, again in the mainstream American political sense–liberal Mormon over how he understands his faith.)

All of which leads us, believe it or not, to The Crucible of Doubt. The connection between The Liberal Soul and this book isn’t obvious or direct, but it is, I think–at least when one looks at the this graceful, thoughtful, and profoundly rewarding book with a certain set of interpretive lenses–undeniable: the Givenses, whatever their intentions, have in fact written the finest defense of being and choosing to be a faithful liberal Mormon since the days of Richard Poll, Hugh B. Brown, Eugene England, or Lowell Bennion.

The “faithful liberal Mormon” perspective which their book lays out is by no means necessarily a political one (though, in practice, it is often difficult to keep those implications out of one’s exploration of the idea–Gene England certainly didn’t). There isn’t an ounce of politics in The Crucible of Doubt, and on my reading the word “liberal” barely makes so much as a single appearance. The connection with liberalism is sufficiently subtle that smart, serious readers of the book can bypass it entirely, focusing quite reasonably instead on processing the ideas and suggestions which the book makes for addressing the problem of doubt in the contemporary Mormon church. But notice the tenor of those ideas and suggestions! Again and again, Terryl and Fiona Givens want to suggest that the doctrinal notions that Mormon believers may have thought themselves to have received could be wrong, or at least incomplete, and that the only way to resolve–or even just to achieve a degree of peace in regards to–any doubts they have about those notions is to develop greater “openness.” Openness in regard to what? Well, to the moral incompleteness of tidy cultural explanations for suffering (chp. 2), or to the lack of spiritual reward which too often characterizes church attendance (chp. 3), or to the genuine inconsistencies the faithful will encounter in trying to reconcile contradictory scriptures (chp. 4), or to the frustrating reality that Mormon leaders are chosen for anything but genuinely meritocratic reasons (chp. 5), or to the plain fact that popular Mormonism’s too casual claims to holding a monopoly on truth are simply incoherent (chp. 7). What is the point of all that openness? The point is, the Givenses make clear, is that it is exactly in conditions of “incertitude, when we are open to the “indeterminacy of it all,” that we become, as individuals empowered to make choices, able to “act most authentically, calling upon intuition, spiritual intimations, or simply yearning” (pg. 32).

Now let me make a rather controversial–but, again, I think strongly defensible–leap into the political: exactly how much distance is there between that above statement, and the bête noire of religious conservatives and their supporters (including Ralph Hancock!–see here and here) everywhere, the statement made by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion in the abortion-rights-defending case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”? Now the Givenses might not care for this comparison, and might respond, for example, by claiming that any truly “authentic” choice will be one which responds to those “spiritual intimations” which will, of course, because they come from the same God who stands as the center of the doctrinal claims of the restored church, greatly limit just what kind of “self-definitions” any particular person might be able to righteously–and therefore legitimately–be able to come up with. Which is a good–and arguably anti-liberal–response! Except, of course, for the problem that, if taken too far, such a response would complicate, and perhaps even undermine, one of basic themes of their beautiful, poetic, evocative book: that of the individual chooser who must work out what they believe for themselves.

The Givenses fall back constantly on either an implied or an explicit assumption of individualism and diversity in the search for belief, and the Christian need to respond to such–as a church, as family members, and as individual Mormons ourselves–with generosity and open-mindedness (see pgs.79-80, 106-107, and 138 for a start). Nowhere do they do so more persuasively than in what I consider to be the pastoral heart of the book, chp. 8, “Spirituality and Self-Sufficiency,” which begins (like Davis’s book!) with a quote from Proverbs, this one 5:15: “Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well.” That chapter is a ringing defense of seeking for truth and solace wherever we can find it, and of “drink[ing] liberally” when we do. It acknowledges the importance of “shared discipleship…with a larger community,” but also insists that we are ultimately “responsible for…finding spiritual nourishment in our own sacred spaces” (pgs. 101-102). It uses what, I think, we have to recognize as deeply liberal–in the sense of placing a priority on the relationships we choose to make–stories to make its point: Bishop Edwin D. Woolley being rebuked by President Brigham Young, and responding with quiet defiance, “[T]his is just as much my church as it is yours”; and an unnamed and doubting young women who finds the courage to speak in church about her lack of belief and her bare longings for her family, and as a result “feel[s] free” (pgs. 103-106). Obviously, there is nothing at all about government or civil rights or economic justice in any of that…but to the extent which Terryl and Fiona Givens want us to fully respect and enlist into the common project of building Zion all baptized individuals in their diverse paths towards God’s grace, their arguments are not just fully compatible with Richard Davis’s call for American Mormons to take seriously the possibility of exhibiting in our choices the qualities of a “liberal soul”; they are, in fact, direct complements to each other.

In looking at both these works together, one might be tempted to make use of the aforementioned analytical terms of Hancock’s: Davis, we could say, is presenting a connection between Mormonism and theoretical liberalism (a connection which enlists a reformist, egalitarian sensibility to advance certain causes), while the Givenses are presenting a connection between Mormonism and practical liberalism (a connection which limits itself, in light of background moral assumptions, to emphasizing the centrality of individual conscience in any common project). That’s not really a fair schematic, though, in two ways. First, Hancock presents the liberal ideology as invariably liberationist, which leads him to “question whether it is worth the trouble” for Mormons to attempt to maintain their own moral integrity and faith in the midst of such a progressive wave–but as Davis mostly stays far away from any discussion of progressive culture war issues like same-sex marriage in his book, Hancock’s claim is mostly inapposite to Davis’s project. Second, Hancock presents the fundamentals of the liberal worldview as a valid expression of individual rights insofar as a context of moral discipline remains, and he frequently emphasizes that such discipline is manifest through the “evidence of reason”–but the Givenses’ project depicts certain liberal verities not through any kind of disciplined rationality, but through a language and methodology which is romantic, intuitive, eclectic, and questing to the core. Thus it would seem that the liberalism which Hancock warns his fellow Mormons against might be said to be merely epiphenomenal to–or an atomistic perversion of, perhaps–the very distinct, and distinctly grounded (in the call to individual and collective generosity in the first case, and in the respect for and openness to individual seeking in the second) liberal Mormonisms that Davis and the Givenses either plainly or implicitly want to see emerge. He condemns liberalism as a worldview which threatens both the Mormon faith and Christian civilization entirely, but as he himself does not (yet, anyway) present a persuasive root-and-branch extrication of his own Mormon and Christian claims from the individualistic premises of the liberal order, it’s hard–for me, anyway–to avoid concluding that, after all the sound and fury, Hancock is basically just unhappy with some of the stuff which some liberals choose to believe, and is trying to come up with some way to head them off at the pass.

These are wise books. They make a strong case for liberal virtues like tolerance and diversity and generosity (both individually and collectively, both politically and personally) in terms that any curious Mormon can understand and relate to. And on a more abstract level, they remind all of us (even wanna-be radical leftist communitarians like myself) that liberality and individuality really is deeply entwined in the Christian message, and that even if the Law of Consecration or Christian socialism triumph someday, the responsibility of–and the need to show respect for–the individual chooser must abide. Like Hancock, I’m not a fan of the (I think false) sovereignty which this moral fact implies, but unlike him, perhaps, I want to approach faith and politics in terms of different–perhaps conflicting, but also perhaps parallel–non-liberal constructs of our social and historical existence, rather than fighting on the inside against those whom I happen to believe are getting the default worldview of modernity all wrong. Rather than some historical “moral discipline,” I would argue that the real beating heart at the core of liberal Mormon or liberal Christian belief is a trust in God’s grace: that He really does love us, and really will unfold Himself to us, and really is attending to us as we seek and we share, as individuals and, ultimately, together. If that smells to some like “progressivism,” well, then I can only conclude that I’m grateful to know, after reading these two books, that there are good and faithful people, both knowingly (Davis) and perhaps unknowingly (the Givenses), on my side.

Comments

  1. Not a deep response here, Russell, but FWIW, I used to have my Book of Mormon classes at BYU read Lowell Bennion’s “The Place of a Liberal in Religion” along with two of his other essays. I then cheekily asked on the test, “According to Bennion’s definition, was King Benjamin a liberal?”

    Funny enough, that first year teaching, I was asked to submit my list of secondary readings for approval. (This was apparently ad hoc, not a formal or regular thing.) The Chair of Ancient Scripture at the time Daniel Judd came back to me and said it was approved. Then, wry grin, he said “the word ‘liberal’ raised a red flag at first with some people, but that’s a great article.”

  2. I think of this in terms of Charles Taylor and the argument that the path/framing matter. Does the individual matter because there is no other meaning than the self-determination of atomistic humans, or does the individual matter because there is meaning external to human beings? Because so much of “liberalism” is based in the former model/framework, I think people like the conservative BYU guy and the Givenses reject the term, even as they hold deeply to the significance of the individual on the second model. I’d be cautious about keeping that central division in mind. (I think Mormon liberals tend to hew to the second as well–I think it’s a Venn diagram like a ball pit designed by Salvador Dali that gets people quibbling when they superficially appear so similar.)

  3. Sam,

    Does the individual matter because there is no other meaning than the self-determination of atomistic humans, or does the individual matter because there is meaning external to human beings? Because so much of “liberalism” is based in the former model/framework, I think people like the conservative BYU guy and the Givenses reject the term, even as they hold deeply to the significance of the individual on the second model. I’d be cautious about keeping that central division in mind.

    Thanks much for the comment! I actually had Charles Taylor in mind while thinking through some of these issues, because I think he and some other communitarian philosophers have done very useful work in teasing out the underlying assumptions behind different rhetorics of “liberalism.” I personally am of the opinion–and here I borrow from both Taylor and Michael Walzer–that the first model is actually, psychologically and sociologically, impossible: there really can’t be, at least not in the fullest sense some critics of liberalism allege, a claim that there is “no other meaning than the self-determination of atomistic humans.” The very fact that we are speaking beings, using language when such claims are hypothetically made, makes us mutually interdependent and morally situated from the get-go. Hence, I find myself unable to accept the anti-Christian apocalyptism too often laid at the foot of the liberal worldview. I am more than happy to list what I see as the pathologies of political individualism, particularly of the libertarian variety, but I think the best way to address that is by working through other construals of human society, as opposed to condemning liberal modernity for having lost its morality–since actually, I suspect, the liberalism of Davis and the Givenes (and Hancock too) remains pretty morally disciplined all the same.

  4. ..”liberal virtues like tolerance and diversity and generosity (both individually and collectively, both politically and personally)…” Who said these are liberal virtues and not conservative ones?

  5. Idiat,

    Who said these are liberal virtues and not conservative ones?

    It’s a historical and philosophical point, not a moral one. Tolerance, diversity, and generosity, among many other qualities, are tied by definition to individual expressions, or otherwise at least involve some recognition of self-originating individual choices. Thus traditionally they’ve been associated with that system of accounting for behavior which prioritizes a respect for the free action of individuals over non-individual, society-wide customs or standards: in other words, liberalism. Being generous with one’s time or resources is a sign of person’s “liberality,” being open-minded in one’s judgment of others is to be “liberal” in your expectations, etc. (Note that generosity is, philosophically at least, different from charity, which suggests we share with others because we actually love them, not simply because we recgonize and feel sympathetic towards them.) In the same way that these qualities have been historically connected to the liberal worldview, there are other qualities more associated with society-wide customs and standards–honor, duty, etc.–that might well be called “conservative virtues.” Of course, there’s no reason why one person might not exhibit both.

  6. Thanks for this very thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Russell. As you know, I’ve been thinking through my own theological critique of liberalism for some time (although I can’t quite claim at this point to have arrived anywhere). I absolutely agree with you, and I’ve been ringing this bell for a long time, that Hancock’s attempted critique falls apart, as you say, because he fails to question his own basically liberal premises. At the moment, I suppose I hang my own anti-liberal hat on the concept of Zion, which I understand in terms of Paul’s body of Christ metaphor. There’s still some hint of individualism there, in that we all have gifts that we bear individual responsibility for exercising, but on the other hand it’s amen to Zion the minute we start turning those gifts to individual ends instead of toward the body as a whole. (In this respect the family focus is interesting.) We also can’t let self-interest lead us to disclaim others, no matter how much we may find them distasteful.

  7. RAF, I confess that political science/political philosophy are not remotely my areas. My sense as I read in bioethics is that in point of fact many of the elaborations from secular liberalism do fail to demonstrate a meaningful bootstrap for moral conviction, focusing instead on the process of self-determination rather than any sort of content. I don’t think it means that the Apocalypse is coming, but I’m left feeling like there is a deep incoherence at play. Who are the philosophers of secular liberalism who aren’t susceptible to Taylor’s criticism? (I’m asking to learn, rather than to posture.)

  8. Sam,

    Who are the philosophers of secular liberalism who aren’t susceptible to Taylor’s criticism?

    Maybe I misunderstood your earlier questions, or didn’t express myself clearly in my response, but my answer to your question here is an immediate “There aren’t any.” I really do strongly believe that liberal philosophy–and by that I mean Hobbes and Locke, John Stuart Mill and James Madison, Friedrich Hayek and Anthony Kennedy alike–either misunderstands or is in denial about the essentially interdependent and communal character of all human existence. Freedom of choice is a fine idea, but the philosophical anthropology which some might argue issues in individual rights and liberty and nothing else just isn’t, in my view, either sustainable or even coherent. So far as that goes, presumably you and I and Ralph Hancock are all in agreement–we all don’t like philosophical (or secular) liberalism! But part of my philosophical point in this post is that it is, as I think Davis and the Givenses demonstrate, we may–and in fact may be obliged to–appropriate elements of that worldview and use them to flesh out important areas of Christian thought and practice. Hancock is relentless in what apparently seems to him as a nigh irresistible liberalism-becomes-progressivism-becomes-sexual-self-definitionism tide, yet on my reading, with only a couple of possible exceptions, he isn’t doing anything different from Richard or Terryl and Fiona, philosophically speaking: his preoccupation with a historical moral discipline that supposedly shaped individual choices along righteous lines only underlines the fact that he’s beginning with a bottom-line respect for individual human agency and choice, just like they do. In your first comment, you suggested that this wasn’t liberalism but rather just “hold[ing] deeply to the significance of the individual” in the context of an external (and eternal) moral context, but I would respond that that doesn’t actually get you outside of the all the concomitant implications of individual liberty (Locke and Madison and Anthony Kennedy were all believers in the Christian God too). A truly non-liberal context has to have, I think, a different philosophical anthropology entirely. The one I find most persuasive–a basically Taylorist one–is one which presents the historical articulation of the individual as involving something very different from atomistic self-definition, since that just can’t be an option for human beings, whatever they may be confusedly think they’re doing, full stop. The benefit I see of that perspective, at least insofar as this argument goes, is that I can appreciate and agree with the liberal virtues which these books celebrate, and not feel obliged to bracket my praise of them lest I unintentionally give license to an individualism I can’t stand, because the kind of Christian individualism which Davis and the Givenses defend doesn’t necessarily do the things which Hancock and others apparently fear it will.

  9. Jason,

    I suppose I hang my own anti-liberal hat on the concept of Zion, which I understand in terms of Paul’s body of Christ metaphor. There’s still some hint of individualism there, in that we all have gifts that we bear individual responsibility for exercising, but on the other hand it’s amen to Zion the minute we start turning those gifts to individual ends instead of toward the body as a whole.

    While there are probably all sorts of details down in the philosophical and theological thickets which we disagree upon, basically I sign up for what you say here whole-heartedly. I am fairly quick–maybe too quick–to take “the body as a whole” to be analogous to “the community as a whole,” and thus do I operationalize my anti-liberalism in a social and economic way; that may not be your preferred route. Like you, I recognize that Hancock may really be on to something in his sacramental idealization/idolization of the family; I’m too convinced of the historical role of social and economic structures to see “the family” as a particular and uniquely significant non-individual category of moral thought, but I can’t deny that, if he really does develop that approach, it would enable him to transcend a lot of the challenges I pose in this piece. (It would also make it that much harder for him to be accepting of what Davis and the Givenes have done, I think, but that’s another issue.)

  10. I’m a Marxist and a recent convert… figure that one out :P I’m in the UK and tbh I read about the difficulties of Latter-day Saint ‘liberals’ and ‘Mormocrats’ in the USA with bemusement. Democrats and most other self-describing liberals really make very meagre demands and are still pro-austerity. Or is it more the social policies and aesthetic things like same-sex marriage that cause Republicans to say “you can’t be liberal and Mormon”? I know in the Book of Mormon there are prophets who condemn high, oppressive taxation, but that surely has no relevance today unless there was somehow an ancient American civilisation with a capitalist economy. (Sorry for adding naught to the discussion, haven’t read the books)

  11. I’m a Marxist and a recent convert… figure that one out :P

    Excellent, William! Glad to hear it. That makes, by my count, about nine of us. We’re a growing tribe! As for the substance of your comment, I’m certain the Davis would agree with you that, today anyway (as opposed to 30+ years ago), it really just is “social policies and aesthetic things like same-sex marriage” which keeps alive, from the heights of Hancock’s philosophical arguments to the mutterings of your local elder’s quorum president, the “you can’t be liberal and Mormon” conceit. Of course, party politics and regional demographics in the U.S. (as well the church’s emphasis on obedience) being what they are, those social concerns very frequently get bundled up with other anti-government ideas and scriptural proof-texts, but still: Davis himself, at least (as he explained to me when we talked about this at a political science conference some months ago), believes that the Democrats would be a genuinely viable state-wide party in Utah (probably not a regularly successful one, but still, viable) if the same-sex marriage albatross didn’t force every single possible Mormons-and-liberals compromise into the gutter.

  12. This is a thought-provoking post, and one that, for me, tends to expose some of the limits of human language as a tool for communicating ideas. :)

    I don’t even know what it means to be “liberal” any more, either in the Church or in American politics. To me it seems (and I do tend to be literal and action-oriented) that we are obligated to be community-minded, to “build Zion,” and to care for one another, if you will; but I don’t think we fulfill that obligation in a liberal (or Christian) way by doing it through government action. Democracy itself is in many ways deeply illiberal and coercive; many of the American Founders were wary of it for precisely that reason and built safeguards for the rights of the minority into the Constitution. In any democratic action – a declaration of war, a tax bill, a roads appropriation, what have you – anywhere from a paltry few to 49.9% of the population has an unfavorable outcome forced on them. While some level of this is unavoidable, the question becomes how much of it we’ll tolerate (as citizens or as Christians).

    Which, I suppose, brings us back to our pendulum. We should be striving toward “a divine ideal of generosity, open-mindedness, and collective concern;” but we need to be exercising our individual free will to get there. I haven’t yet read The Liberal Soul, but the notion that “collective political action towards greater economic and social equality and welfare is as legitimate a response as any other” doesn’t quite sit with me assuming I understand that statement correctly. Since such action necessarily involves coercion, I don’t think we get any brownie points with God for our charity if we force people to care for the poor against their will or in a way they aren’t comfortable with (even ignoring the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of such programs).

    So – pendulum. We should be concerned for our fellow humans and serve God by serving them. We’re not always good at that; our pendulum is misaligned. We’re self-centered by nature. So the adversary can use our desire to show concern and do right by pushing us into doing right through some kind of central mechanism, where we can pay our taxes or make our donations and let someone else do the heavy lifting, and we can make sure we’ll have resources by coercing everyone into contributing by mandating it. We then justify secular government action with Christian-sounding pithy quotes and platitudes.

    Then the pendulum swings back, and those who object to the coercive aspects, instead of working on caring for the poor in some other way, actually (and insanely) start arguing that the poor don’t deserve to be cared for, as the OP mentions. As if that mattered, as if we’re God’s instruments to make sure they don’t get what they don’t deserve. King Benjamin must be rolling over in his grave (Mosiah 4:24).

    By this time, the train is completely off the tracks, to mix a metaphor. One side of the argument forces you to be “charitable” at gunpoint, the other side doesn’t think you have to be charitable at all. Where in all of that is the Savior, or the gospel? Satan’s got us again.

  13. Dunno if there’s a way to reply directly to a comment, but thanks Russell for your reply: very insightful, as was the blog post itself. Are you counting among your nine Charles Nuckolls, a socialist anthropology prof. at BYU?

    You mention in parentheses “as opposed to 30+ years ago” – what’s changed? Is it simply that the “threat of communism” is no longer a threat?

  14. New Iconoclast,

    Thanks for the long and thoughtful comment!

    Democracy itself is in many ways deeply illiberal and coercive; many of the American Founders were wary of it for precisely that reason and built safeguards for the rights of the minority into the Constitution. In any democratic action – a declaration of war, a tax bill, a roads appropriation, what have you – anywhere from a paltry few to 49.9% of the population has an unfavorable outcome forced on them. While some level of this is unavoidable, the question becomes how much of it we’ll tolerate (as citizens or as Christians).

    I agree with the essence of your first statement, but would point out that the second conclusion (“coercive”) is only true if one accepts the first (“illiberal”). Yes, democracy–whether direct or representative, whether radical or small-r republican–is illiberal, in that it places sovereignty in the people, rather than the individual, rights-bearing self. And so, you’re correct, most of those most directly involved in writing the U.S. Constitution–who generally, whatever else they believed, accepted the basic Lockean principles of classical liberal government–wanted to protect individual rights (mostly involving the holding of property) against the threat of popular democracy (which they believed, not unreasonably, to typically reflect the interests of the larger number of non-property-holding poor in society). The kind of democracy they came up with was a protective one, where the will of the people would be recognized, but also circumscribed and channeled towards what they believed, in their elite way, to be a rights-protecting common good. For better or worse, though, that constitutional reality was been hollowed out and worked around throughout American history: expanding the voting franchise; the 14th, 16th, and 17th amendments; Progressive party reforms; “one person one vote”; etc. The defense which small-d democrats have always made of all this is simply a rethinking of popular sovereignty, in a Lincolnian sense: if actions are taken for and on behalf of “the people,” then there is no coercion, because “the people,” speaking all together as equals, are doing it to themselves. (This is why serious, anti-government, rights-protecting, original-constitution classical liberals logically have a problem with Lincoln: how dare he use the power of the state to coerce innocent slave-holders to give up their property!)

    I haven’t yet read The Liberal Soul, but the notion that “collective political action towards greater economic and social equality and welfare is as legitimate a response as any other” doesn’t quite sit with me assuming I understand that statement correctly. Since such action necessarily involves coercion, I don’t think we get any brownie points with God for our charity if we force people to care for the poor against their will or in a way they aren’t comfortable with (even ignoring the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of such programs).

    I really urge you to find the time to read Davis’s book, if possible. You may not be converted to his (and my) way of thinking, but hopefully you’ll at least consider his case for the “legitimacy” of this way of understanding Christianity. Obviously, if you are convinced–on the basis of philosophy, or scriptural interpretation, or general authority statements, or whatever–that collective political action “necessarily involves coercion,” than Davis’s claims will seem implausible to you, but, for whatever its worth, I really do honestly believe that he lays down a careful enough case that, even if you don’t agree with him, you’ll be persuaded that looking at things his (and my) way isn’t necessarily as obviously problematic and coercive as you think it to be.

  15. William,

    Are you counting among your nine Charles Nuckolls, a socialist anthropology prof. at BYU?

    Okay, now ten!

    You mention in parentheses “as opposed to 30+ years ago” – what’s changed? Is it simply that the “threat of communism” is no longer a threat?

    Both that, and that, as time has gone by, the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 70s have permeated the Mormon homeland to such a degree that they’ve become unavoidable issues of contestation. Well, probably not “unavoidable,” but for better or worse the institutional church started drawing lines in the sand in regards to moral issues like homosexuality and abortion around the same time and in the same ways the Republican party ended up doing in the 1980s and 90s, so that now, 15 years after the end of the Cold War, moral issues end up being an unintentional carrier of a lot of anti-government, anti-liberal economic and social baggage which, given the Intermountain West’s demographics, probably would have endured anyway…but wouldn’t have been as nearly as strong if it wasn’t for church-approved moral crusades. (Cue Utah Republican senator Orrin Hatch’s famous comment that the Democratic party is the “party of homosexuals and abortion” here.)