Why, Yes. I am a Liberal Mormon.

Joni Hilton over at Meridian Magazine asked this morning, “Are You a Liberal Mormon?” (NOTE: The original post by Hilton was removed. Here is the text.)

Sister Hilton, it is very sweet of you to ask.

Yes, I am a liberal Mormon.

Some might not like the use of the term “liberal” since it largely has a political connotation. I am indeed a liberal in the political sense. However, “liberal” is also a term with significant theological meaning. That said, it is not a term that is often used in a theological way by Mormons. I am going to focus here on the theological usage.

Let me share what makes me a Mormon liberal:

Religious Liberalism

I am a religious person. I am not always a good example of a religious person, but faith and spirituality are important to my life. I also appreciate that others value faith and spirituality…even if they experience faith in ways differently than I do. Now, one thing that makes me a religious liberal is that I do not think that any one religious experience is the one correct religious experience. However, this religious liberalism still allows me to appreciate and respect those with more traditional or orthodox approaches to my religion and other religions. I would hope that they would offer me the same respect, but I do not view such mutual respect as a pre-requisite for my respect for them. Respecting others is a duty, though a duty I struggle with.

I, also, have a respect for the secular. All things of beauty, good, and virtue should be appreciated. For me, Kant and Beethoven are secular spiritual.


I love and value the scriptures. My views of the scriptures are rather unorthodox, but they are my own and I do not expect anyone else to view the scriptures as I do. Can a Mormon view the scriptures in a way different from Sunday School manuals and CES texts? Well, I am a Mormon…and I do.

I love the Book of Mormon. The writings of Jacob (Jacob 2) and the speech of King Benjamin (Mosiah 1-5) are amongst my favorite ancient accounts of moral life and moral society. I learned an appreciation and love of the gospel of Jesus while studying the Book of Mormon. I recognize that others may come to Christ by other means, but the Book of Mormon is central to my Mormon identity and Christian faith.

Joseph Smith

I think that my view of Joseph Smith sets me apart from both the traditionalists and the DAMU (disaffected Mormon underground). I think that Joseph Smith was a prophet…a prophet of God. He was the driving force behind the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon. He founded one of the great religious movements of the 19th Century, one which extended into the 20th and 21st.

I am not sure if I would have gotten along with Joseph Smith if I had lived in his day. Like Brigham Young, he seemed to be a rather controlling figure. I would likely have been more comfortable with Oliver Cowdery.

But I think we often mistake the role of prophet with that of Messiah. The narrative which castes Joseph as an all-around wonderful guy is nothing short of cheesy. It is also a flimsy narrative which easily crumbles. However, if we look at Old Testament prophets little seems to point to them as perfect, or even pleasant, personalities.

I recognize that church history is not as rosey as it seemed in seminary. However, American history is not what it seemed like in high school, either. With further study, I have discovered greater detail and nuance. Yet, much like my study of Jefferson and Lincoln, I appreciate knowing better the human side of Joseph Smith. It may not be the Joseph Smith that I sometimes hear about in church or a visitor centers. But I also recognize that Abraham Lincoln might not be as awesome as I portrayed him in my American Heritage lectures (though he was awesome). We all do this at times when talking about those we love and those who are our heroes. Nothing wrong with having heroes, but we should recognize that our hero-worship does not make good history…and it makes for really bad metaphysics.

Peace and Justice

One thing that classifies me as a religious liberal is my focus on peace and social justice. The well-being of actual human beings matters more to me than the afterlife. I believe that there is an afterlife, but I think that the here and now is of equal significance and it is of more immediate concern. This aspect of religious liberalism is a major focus of this blog.

The Liberal Mormon Tradition

The Mormon liberal tradition is a long one. It includes the likes of Lowell Bennion and Eugene England. It includes others, I am sure, but I think that Bennion and England are particularly illustrative of the tradition that I am thinking of…and the movement that I envision. Richard Bushman and Dialogue under the editorship of Kristine Haglund are also examples.

While I hope for a broad acceptance of many approaches to Mormonism within the Church, Mormon liberalism must also tolerate, if not love and accept, those with more traditional (or maybe institutional) views and beliefs. Likewise, I have had to develop a greater tolerance.

Eugene England and Lowell Bennion were both minority voices. Both found themselves at the wrong side of the LDS Church Education System. Both men vocally opposed exclusion of blacks from the Mormon priesthood. Yet, both still loved Mormonism and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is not to say that this is not difficult, if not downright painful, at times.

Bennion and England had their own unique reasons for why they thought the Church was true. I admit, the idea of a true institution is…well…strange. Maybe there are some better theological parsing of this idea of a “true” church that needs to be done. But when a Mormon liberal says that the Church is true they are expressing a sense of loyalty to the culture and Church which played an integral part in shaping who they are. For me, not being Mormon is as foreign to me as it was for Socrates, as he contends in Plato’s Crito, to consider the possibility of not being Athenian.

Now, Bennion and England, like Hugh Nibley, were willing to challenge Mormon culture. But, they did so out of love. Afterall, it is the gospel of repentance.

An Invitation

Sister Hilton, I am not looking to recruit anyone to be a liberal Mormon. It is just who I am. You seem to think you know a lot about me, but I do not think you really do. After all, I do not watch R-rated movies and I think iced-tea is nasty.

I invite you to read Approaching Justice. I am sure it will confirm plenty of the things you already think about liberal Mormons like me. However, it will also give you some insight into how I think and why.

I am mostly just a father, husband, friend, and Mormon who is doing his best to love God and love my neighbor. My best is not very good, I admit that.

I am glad I have fellow church members who are willing to help me and struggle along side me.

I am especially glad for a Savior who does not view me as a liberal Mormon or anything else Mormon. He sees me as Chris. He loves me as I am and sees me as I might become.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post originally ran on October 31, 2013. Yes, it was a Halloween post. Also, see my brief reflection about Meridian Magazine pulling Joni Hilton’s post.

23 replies »

  1. Chris, nicely said. I found Joni Hilton’s cached post to be demeaning, condescending, and she badly needs a trip to Europe.

      • Love your article, especially about Joseph Smith, it is a huge disservice to everyone to not talk about heroes as they were, flaws and all. Everyone (sans Christ) has imperfections so it isn’t the lack of imperfections which makes a hero, but what one does despite their imperfections.

  2. religious liberals are badly needed in the United States and “western world,” desperately needed in the fight to save an increasingly anemic and faltering political liberalism that needs the backbone that comes from having a steady moral core and unshakable respect for life and human dignity. There’s a bigger meta-battle going on right now—and always is, just louder now—between nihilism and more traditional human values, unmaking vs. making, meaninglessness vs. meaning, a macro-battle that transcends R vs D, is deeper than the political combat that’s so visible, and in this meta-struggle we (liberals) need all the religious liberals we can get… we desperately need meaning, need light in the blackness.

    Myself, I’m kind of a religious and philosophical weirdo. Lacking time to fully explain with a 4000 word essay, I’m what happens when a Jewish mother teaches at a Jesuit college so her oldest son (me) grows up on campus, later is a student there, so 2/3 of my life so far is spent in and around Jesuit thinkers, and I absorb the respect for all life and activism against fascism and militarism, etc. What sucked me into your blog were the posts “Jesuits and metallica,” and “I am no longer a Democrat,” plus a soft spot for Mormons… I feel like the neighborhood Mormons were some of the only kids who’d talk to me in high school (class of 2000). That and a certain fascination I have with what I call “Old Testament Christianity,” a uniquely American approach that was most-developed by the Puritans and shows up a lot in Mormonism… ya’ll (Mormons) are maybe even more “Old Testament,” than the Puritans, if you think about it, the temple, the priesthood and other elements in your bag are deeply Jewish at root…
    Thanks and keep on blogging,


    • Nick, I am glad Approaching Justice was able to suck you in! I like the Old Testament/New Testament distinction. I am trying to claim a space for a more New Testament approaching to Mormonism…something like that.


      • Smith is more Moses or Abraham like than Jesus like. You guys are inseparably OT right down to living in doppleganger Israel next to the doppleganger Dead Sea, and the resurrection of the Levtic priesthood with its original Jewish sensibilities intact for the most part, which I respect deeply, find very beautiful…. Of course I do understand the urge to go “more NT,” but I think this has more to do with manglings of the OT that certain types of Protestant “sola scriptura” thinking gets into, which I don’t really hear from Mormons (I don’t consider ya’ll Protestant in the usual sense of the word nor could you be accused of being sola scriptura). For us with a Jewish background who read Torah in Hebrew transliteration within context of oral tradition, the Protestant “literalism” seems completely wrong, taking it out of context and taking 20th century mistranslations “literally,” embracing the letter of the law while missing the spirit. For example, the context of Leviticus is rules for the men of the Levitic priesthood, and its prohibitions on certain narrow activities were never meant for bumper stickers or yelling, its spirit is different entirely. But for the most part Mormons don’t have that problem, do get the spirit of the law RIGHT and don’t mangle the Torah, maybe Smith read Hebrew? of course context always helps but you guys get closer to the gist of Torah than most Christians IMO… this is the main part of my deep respect for Mormonism

  3. “Now, one thing that makes me a religious liberal is that I do not think that any one religious experience is the one correct religious experience.”
    Ephesians 4:4-6, “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
    There is only one faith. http://downtownministries.blogspot.com/

  4. Sticking Up for Joni

    I have been surprised by the number of articles and comments
    written in the last week about Joni Hilton’s article, “Are You a Liberal
    Mormon?” I want to defend Joni.

    Now you may say that makes me a “Conservative” Mormon and
    that we are both wrong, but I never understood Joni to be talking about
    politically liberal persons who are also Mormons. As she said in her
    clarification to her article: “To clarify, I am not criticizing politically
    liberal people, only those who wish to rewrite the commandments to suit their
    purposes, and then justify it under the label of being broad minded. We should
    all be liberal in our fast offerings, liberal with forgiveness, etc. Here the
    word “liberal” means disobedient. Of course I agree with President Uchtdorf’s
    talk we want everyone to come unto Christ, and/or come back. But narrow is the
    way, and those who think “anything goes” when our leaders have specifically
    addressed it, are simply mistaken.”

    Some commented that Joni and all of us should not judge
    other people, referencing the Savior’s statement, “Judge not, that ye be not
    judged” (Matthew 7:1). But Joseph Smith corrected that verse to read, “Judge
    not unrighteously, that ye be not judged.” I don’t see that Joni’s articles
    judged any individuals or called anyone out by name; she held up the standards
    of the Church so that readers could judge themselves. If this is drawing a lot
    of comments, maybe she hit the mark. Certainly, where no offense was intended,
    none should be taken.

    Usually, I hear the term “liberal Mormon” when someone
    introduces themselves. It is a way of saying to me that they are a “Mormon”,
    perhaps, baptized at eight years old, but they want me to know that they don’t obey
    all the Church’s commandments or subscribe to all the official positions of the
    Church. It seems like they are trying to forewarn me that I may see them do or
    see things which are contrary to the teachings of the Church, so that I won’t
    be shocked or to help me choose other company to be with.

    As one commentator said, the meaning of “liberal Mormon” is a
    person partly or completely spiritually apostate. Of course, this only applies
    to matters on which the Church has taken an official position, and maybe that
    is the source of the brouhaha—those commentators who are claiming that it is
    fine to be a “liberal Mormon” are those who believe that they are expressing
    opinions or engaging in activities that the Church has not taken an official
    position on.

    I have always loved that our religion has a “Terrestrial
    Kingdom” in its doctrine. This is the kingdom for those who are “honorable”
    people, but who do not accept the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of
    Latter-day Saints. But it is also the kingdom for those who are members of the
    Church who are “not valiant.” I understood Joni to be saying nothing more than those
    Church members who are “cafeteria Mormons”, picking and choosing what they will
    accept and what they won’t, are not valiant and they ought not to suppose or
    deceive themselves that they will get the same eternal reward as those who are
    valiant and qualify for the Celestial Kingdom.

    Of course, God loves all his children. Without doubt, we are
    commanded to love everyone, including our enemies, but we should not assume
    that because God loves everyone that everyone will get the same blessings or
    rewards. Indeed, I believe God and Jesus Christ have made it abundantly clear
    that they won’t get the same blessings or rewards, and we mislead others if we
    communicate to them that certain opinions and actions are just as good as
    others just as long as you are a baptized member of the Church.

    I agree with Joni that there is a renewed effort by certain
    members of the Church to push an “alternative” Mormonism that we should all
    accept if we are Christianly tolerant. However, sometimes, our broad-mindedness
    can reach the point where our brains fall out and we no longer call sin, sin.

    Yes, all those that are away from the Church or disaffected,
    come back as President Uchtdorf said, but come back obeying the gospel and not
    re-writing it. Let those who are in authority in the Church define what is
    required to be “worthy” for membership and temple recommends. Joni’s point is
    that various prophets have spoken on various issues and that “sustaining the
    prophet” means accepting the Church’s official positions.

    Was Christ a liberal and is Joni a “Pharisee”? I don’t think
    so. Yes, Christ taught that the gospel had been corrupted and had to be
    restored in his day, but he taught with authority; he was a revealer, not a
    commentator or a lobbyist. No person who claims that being a “liberal Mormon”
    is justification for espousing or
    teaching positions contrary to Church doctrine can claim divine authority to
    teach their opinions. Christ judged the Pharisees as been “pharisaical”, but I
    don’t see anywhere that Christ has judged Joni as being pharisaical; on the
    contrary, her effort to get those who need to repent to do so is a very loving
    and Christian act.

    I say, if what Joni said fits, wear it, but don’t attack the

  5. This shaming of heretics also held true in early Church history. One example is where women (occasionally married women) were approached by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young (or other leaders practicing polygamy) to become their wives. In numerous well documented instances, if the women refused and/or brought public attention to the proposal (the practice of polygamy was strictly denounced by church leaders in public for the better part of a decade), they were immediate characterized as whores, liars, and subjected to public shaming of the worst kind to attack their credibility (incidentally, this exact incident is what led to the “falling away” of William Law, the founding of the Nauvoo Expositer, and the subsequent martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum). In hind sight, with the public disclosure of the practice of polygamy many years later, it seems the leaders in question were lying outright, and those women paid the price. People through out Church history have paid similar prices for questioning Church doctrine that was ultimately repealed, such as blood atonement, adam god theory, polygamy, and the priesthood ban. If anything, stories like these prove it takes courage to question your faith and to strive to understand your religion as many of these individuals were often vindicated by subsequent “revelations”.

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