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:
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.
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.
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.