Over at the Washington Post, there is a story: “The Rise of the Liberal Latter-day Saints.” The subtitle is “the battle for the future of Mormonism.” I’m not buying it. I think the battle for the future of Mormonism was fought two or three generations ago, and Liberal Mormonism lost. The sudden emergence of Mormon Trumpism in the membership but also in local leadership and possibly in senior leadership may be the most visible evidence that there is simply no such thing as Liberal Mormonism, but the event itself (the decline and fall of Liberal Mormonism) goes back to the Fifties and Sixties: the influence of Ezra Taft Benson, the rise of Correlation, the knee-jerk reaction of LDS leadership against sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and anything else that wasn’t firmly rooted in the Fifties or earlier. There is no Big Tent Mormonism (see image). There is no Liberal Mormonism.
Let’s Define Some Terms
Before talking about the story, let’s get our terms straight. The terms “liberal” and “conservative” are generally used in political discussions. You can be a Mormon liberal (a Mormon who has liberal political views, at present in the US primarily Democratic) or a Mormon conservative (a Mormon who has conservative political views, at present in the US primarily Republican). That’s not what the term “Liberal Mormon” is about. It’s not saying what kind of political liberal you are (a Mormon one). It’s saying what kind of Mormon you are (a liberal one). So what kind of Mormon are you? Remember that liberal and liberty come from the same root.
The other association to keep in mind is the parallel between “Liberal Mormonism” and “Liberal Protestantism.” Here’s from the Wikipedia entry for “Liberal Christianity“:
Liberal Christianity, also known as liberal theology, is a movement that interprets and reforms Christian teaching by taking into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics. It emphasizes the importance of reason and experience over doctrinal authority. … Liberal theology grew out of Enlightenment rationalism and romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was characterized by an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, a utilization of modern biblical criticism and participation in the Social Gospel movement.
It that sounds like you, you may be a Liberal Mormon. In terms of the Christian parallel, the opposing branch of Protestantism over the course of the 20th century was Fundamentalism, rebranded as Evangelicalism and now often referred to more generally as “conservative Christianity.” Liberal Protestantism lost a lot of market share to the conservatives over the last one hundred years. Liberal Mormonism was always a much smaller slice of the pie compared to the place of Liberal Protestantism within the larger Protestant world. I think Liberal Mormonism has basically shrunk to zero over the century.
So that’s the difference between a Mormon liberal and a Liberal Mormon. There is going to be some overlap, but it is certainly possible to be a Liberal Mormon (that’s the kind of Mormon you are) as well as a Mormon conservative (you lean toward conservative political views, but happen to be a Mormon). I don’t think many Mormons make this distinction. They see the two terms as more or less interchangeable. Oh well, it’s not the first time mainstream Mormons use confusing terms or use terms confusingly.
There is no Liberal Mormonism
Yes, there are Liberal Mormons. Following the quote above describing Liberal Christians, these are Mormons who “tak[e] into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics” and who lean towards “an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, [and] a utilization of modern biblical criticism.” These are scattered individuals, a few in this ward but maybe none in that ward. But there is no Liberal Mormonism, that is any organization or institution within the LDS Church proper that embodies those views. Certainly not leadership or CES. Certainly not Correlation or the BYU Religion Department. Once upon a time, two or three generations ago there was just a bit of Liberal Mormonism in some of these places. Hugh B. Brown. Eugene England. A few professionally trained instructors at a few LDS Institutes. But that’s gone now. There is no Liberal Mormonism, at least within the LDS Church.
I suspect the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church) would stand up about now and shout, “Hey, take a look at us, we embrace Liberal Mormonism.” But some would object that they have moved far enough along that they are more like Liberal Protestants than Liberal Mormons. Perhaps a Community of Christ member can weigh in on this.
About the Article
The article starts off noting President Nelson’s plea for social distancing and masks, then noting “the statement has caused Latter-day Saints on the far right, long accustomed to having their beliefs reflected by church leaders, to face the kind of cognitive dissonance that liberal members have had to contend with for decades.” Well, cry me a river. Deep down, we’re all cafeteria Mormons.
In the article, there is the contrast between Big Tent Mormonism, welcoming just about anyone into the congregation and full fellowship, and, uh, Actual Mormonism (my term, not in the article), which is welcoming to some and rather unwelcoming to a lot of others. You see what I’m doing there: Actual Mormonism, existing in the real world as the LDS Church, is Small Tent Mormonism (while at the same time supporting something like eighty thousand proselyting missionaries and embracing the metaphor of a stone rolling down a mountain to engulf the whole world, go figure). Big Tent Mormonism is just a dream. It doesn’t really exist except as a blueprint for a possible future, and not a likely one.
Okay, there might be ten or fifteen wards, generally in university towns, that try to practice Big Tent Mormonism. They are like small eddies where water flows upstream for a few yards at the edges of a river cascading madly down a narrow canyon. Perhaps they are a saving remnant. If Abraham came knocking, looking for ten or twenty righteous ones, that’s where I’d send him. If Diogenes showed up with his lantern, searching for an honest man, that’s where I’d tell him to look. But these wards are contrary eddies in the river, not the wave of the future.
Some quoted in the article see things differently. Jana Riess notes the demographic shift in which younger LDS favor more progressive views, at least in larger numbers than older LDS. Patrick Mason “see[s] multiple futures for Mormonism,” some of which include a larger role for progressive or liberal views. Kathleen Flake notes “the current moment in America might be described as ‘the post-truth era,'” suggesting (she doesn’t come right out and say it) that the Church is likewise moving into its own post-truth era. That explains a lot, doesn’t it? That tells you the rank and file membership isn’t getting friendlier with “modern knowledge, science and ethics” and the leadership isn’t moving toward “an acceptance of Darwinian evolution [and] a utilization of modern biblical criticism.” Honestly, to one who embraces those views, the whole momentum of the Church, at all levels, is moving in the opposite direction. To one who embraces those views, there is almost nothing to celebrate in the LDS Church of 2021. Either hunker down and hope for a change of course in ten or twenty or thirty years, or just get off the bus.
The balance of the article looks at LGBT and women’s issues by way of interviews and stories of those who feel marginalized. That might be news to some outside the Church but you’ve probably read similar stories before. The closest thing to a hopeful statement comes at the end, where it is noted (following Kathleen Flake’s line of thinking) that “perhaps the one constant in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a certain degree of turmoil — sometimes followed by profound change.” We’re getting the turmoil. Let’s see if we get any change.
Reading the article, you might get the impression that there is a steadily growing pool of Liberal Mormons inside the Church. You might get the idea there is a sizeable minority of local leaders or senior leaders who are thinking along those lines or hoping for that sort of future for the LDS Church. I think that’s largely unfounded. Yes, there may be some members who, inexplicably given standard LDS indoctrination in Primary and Seminary, grow up with Liberal Mormon thinking, and there are some who shift their thinking in that direction as young adults or middle adults or even old adults. But at the same time the Church is good at pushing them to the margins or right out of the Church. It’s not a formal disciplinary thing, just a sense of being unwelcome in most places and, from time to time, someone just waking up and saying, “What am I doing here?” Some stay, some go, but it’s hardly a growing movement within the Church. It’s not growing. It’s shrinking.
So what do readers think? Is there a future for Liberal Mormonism? What’s a Liberal Mormon to do, apart from subscribing to Dialogue, finding an under-the-radar LDS study group, or hanging out at a few interesting LDS blogs?
Yep. As I said elsewhere in relation to this article: “If there’s really a so-called rise of liberal Mormonism, show me where the institution is transforming the ultra-orthodox platform—correcting teachers, repudiating former statements, or issuing new and unambiguous policies.”
Aside from individual wards in unique situations, as the OP describes, there is absolutely nothing like this. Zero. No discipline for DesNat types; no disavaowal of past detritus; and even statements tepidly requesting masking and vaccinations during a literal pandemic had less teeth than the infamous “oral sex” letter of the early 1980s. Dave B., you hit the nail on the head.
Bro. Jones is correct. I lived in Seattle for a few years and there was definitely a different kind of vibe up there in the university wards, but that was regionally (and generationally; it was full of young people) specific. There are a couple of things that make Liberal Mormonism impossible:
1. Most left-leaning folks either eventually just leave or get so tired of shoveling sh*t agains the tide that they stop resisting. I know that I’m absolutely exhausted from fighting against all of the harmless and all of the harmful nonsense that most mainstream members believe. Honestly, once my spouse and I retire and move out west, I don’t plan on ever going back to church. I’d much rather just hike the Wasatch Plateau and eat at Gordon Ramsay’s pub in Caesars Palace than sit through a single sacrament meeting.
2. The conservative nature of the church (and by that I mean both the big “C” and the small “c”) is baked in. It takes a while to figure this out because Mormon rhetoric still contains empty phrases like “continuing revelation” and there used to be language (there isn’t any more) about how important gaining one’s own testimony is. Contemporary Mormonism has gotten rid of that kind of talk and has instead chosen to emphasize obedience and the language of perfection and purity, things that are antithetical to modern liberalism. And the fact that the church has embraced and championed similar demagoguery to what the cult of Trump champions is just one more nail in the coffin of Liberal Mormonism. Once you make bigotry of all kinds, as well as the oppression of women, core parts of your doctrine and then doubled down on it for 175 years, it’s really impossible to change too much as an institution.
3. Leadership: It’s clear that yes, the senior leadership is getting quite old and that, yes, more women are speaking/praying in conference. But neither of those things changes the facts that there will be younger conservative TBMs to take senior leadership’s place and that women’s “progress” in Mormonism is so tiny and incremental that I, at least, won’t see women being given the priesthood or equal leadership roles in my lifetime. The church may be hemorrhaging a good number of liberal members and young people, but it’s still quite effective at indoctrinating a certain kind of young man and convincing him of his own righteousness and leadership destiny. This kind of brainwashing leads to what is called “priesthood alignment” and, sadly, it works. As long as even 10 percent of that particular kind of zealous young man stays active in the church, we’ll never run out of senior leadership clones.
I know the purpose of this blog is not to make everyone happy, but I feel some level of despair after reading this. I consider myself a “liberal Mormon” in a mixed faith marriage with an orthodox Mormon. Although I don’t accept many doctrinal claims I find some degree of utility in the community and I (foolishly??) hope for positive, liberal change. The idea that truth seekers have only a marginal role here deeply saddens me.
I like Brother Sky’s analysis. I see a Church getting smaller in terms of active TBMs and one in which, outside of Africa, isn’t really growing at all. The Church will get more progressive as the older folks (hey I’m 56 so that includes me) die off. Once Bednar is “retired”, we’ll see a more progressive organization that reflects the values and beliefs of all our 20-somethings today. That’s probably 20-30 years away.
There are only Conservative Mormons. Anyone who does not fit this mold is an ex-Mormon whether they have had their names removed or not.
Looking at Dave’s three factor test:
1) consideration of modern knowledge, science and ethics
2) an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, &
3) a utilization of modern biblical criticism.
… it appears that I am a Liberal Mormon. I also tend to be center left politically.
The trend seems to indicate greater support for 1 & 2 within the membership. but I see very little progress on the third factor. In fact, I see more of a doubling down in legacy scriptural interpretation and analysis. I suspect that is the case because modern biblical criticism undercuts the validity of the BoM and many of JSJ’s proclamations.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Toad, I’m not trying to be Mr. Doom and Gloom. But the WaPo article was written in such a way that the average East Coast liberal might read it and think, “Wow, it looks like those Mormons are coming around.” Nope, from the inside it doesn’t feel like that at all. Just a few years ago there were some positive signs: Elder Uchtdorf was in the First Presidency, the Gospel Topics Essays were coming out, and as the Church was gaining more public visibility (the Salt Lake Olympics; Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy) it seemed to be gently moving forward in assimilation mode. Now, ten years later — back to retrenchment. Uchtdorf has all but disappeared, but Oaks is everywhere. The Gospel Topics Essays have fallen out of favor with the leadership and may simply disappear one day. The leadership adopted and maintained an overall hard line on LGBT. Most recently, Elder Holland dropped the hammer on BYU. There just isn’t much good news. The article is, I think, misleading in its depiction of the direction the Church is heading.
The Arab scholar and religious leader Ali Bin Abi-Taleb once said that keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man. This quote is directly applicable to this situation
Far too many members have embraced the views of ignorant politicians and elevated those views to religious doctrine. This goes for those in both sides of the aisle.
The so-called liberals want the Church to water down the commandments to the point that all can frolic in the big tent like crazed weasels, without one moment of guilt.
The so-called conservatives want the Church to adopt the policies of a politician who uses speech so foul it would send a nun into cardiac arrest.
It is time for all sides to recognize that politics must be kept out of Church meetings. Religious doctrine must be based in truth, not political whims.
The Church cannot continue to house vast hordes who have given up their thought processes to the tantrum-based rants of politicians of both major parties. Indeed, the hordes have not put the time or effort into studying the political issues so they can make intelligent decisions themselves.
The short answer is that there will come a time, sooner or later, when there will no longer be room in the tent for those who spend more time watching hotdog eating contests on television than they do in spiritual and political study.
Our family had to endure one of the worst sacrament meeting talks recently by a man who couldn’t be older than 27 who completely went off the rails saying some really hurtful things about the queer community. It broke my heart.
I was so confused afterward as I it was my understanding that the younger generation wasn’t supposed to care about this stuff. They are very accepting. Then it hit me: all the young, accepting types have left the building. The only young types remaining tow the party line that intellectuals, feminists, and the LGBTQ community are the trifecta of evil in the world today. Essentially, what Brother Sky and others have said.
My generation, the 40-somethings, are still trying to have our cake and eat it too. But like others have mentioned, I’m getting tired of cake, and it’s not really that good anyway. So I can stay and bend myself into a pretzel to believe all the things, or I can leave and maybe have a shot at peace. I’m still trying to decide what’s next. But while my wife and I have found a few friendly people we can muddle through all this together, I wonder who my kids will have to lean on if they stay.
I didn’t go to my Bishop to complain about this talk, but once when we were chatting I asked his opinion. Basically he said he didn’t much like it either but what could he do? He felt powerless to this talk. Contrast that to the stories of people having their microphones turned off if someone didn’t like their affirming talk, and here we are.
So I agree, notwithstanding those few of us hiding, there are no Liberal Mormons.
Great post, thanks for the link to the article. I could be wrong, but it seems to be an inevitable battle. The church as an institution versus the church as a spiritual path. Or as I sometimes try to explain myself to family or friends, there is the Church, and there is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see very little overlap on that Venn diagram these days. To belong to a church institution means that some personal experiences or beliefs get trounced upon by institutional leaders who invoke the assertion that the Gospel of Christ and the LDS Church are the same sphere. I have become more content and more able to find personal spiritual growth when I separate the institution from the gospel. It also allows me to criticize the Church in a manner that I hope leads towards positive changes.
It appears from the article that other members (mostly living outside of the Mormon Corridor) have been able to do the same. I recognize the pain suffered and determination to live their religion. I applaud their efforts, and am grateful for their charitable view of the institution despite its flaws and past harm done. Forgiveness and repentance are certainly part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps we will see the Church as an institution live up to those ideals one day.
Every time I go to church on Sunday or *shudders* watch general conference I think of that little kid in the Simpsons that went to the grand opening of a Krusty Burger. In the linked video, the Krusty Burglar represents Liberal Mormonism.
I once believed I could balance my spiritual journey differentiating between Church and Gospel by gleaning the best and being forgiving of human leaders. In the end, however, I’ve realized my narrative of God and of the Gospel are so far outside of the Church that I’m now very far from my association with the Church..
Specific points of narrative disconnect that now led me to no longer claim status as a Mormon: Nelson’s God who loves only conditionally; Benson’s marriage of religion and politics to forcefully continued to this day; the less than second-class status of women, singles, LGBTQ+ people, including outright hostility towards them; the prideful, unapologetic nature of leaders; the anti-intellectualism within the Church; the near constant gas-lighting by church leaders toward members; the black and white thinking on nearly everything, especially on aspects of its narrative of itself; the demand of loyalty above everything; the narrative of exclusivity about the Church and Christians in general; polygamy; the blacks and the priesthood fiasco; lack of transparency on finances; the constant insistence (since its inception) of how the world will end because of the evil of men and that God alone can fix it (which of course, leads to all sorts of problems), the literalness of Satan; and the list goes on.
These are the most central problems for me. I simply don’t believe in nor can I support a God or an institution that actively supports, encourages, and believes such narrow and destructive narratives about the world, about God, and about itself. And the thing is, I think what I’ve just listed is a liberal view of things. So, n0. No, there is no liberal Mormonism.
Normally I would agree but we know two things that were not considered. I one the Brethren badly want to be Relevant and they can only accomplish that by growth. We also know that the Church when pushed hard enough it can pivot to stay relevant. (Polygamy and Blacks in Priesthood). If the youth of the Church continue to move to more liberal views then we will see the Church change to retain them. Without the Youth, they become a Small Weird Rich Church.
I have a hunch that the average ward has got cafeteria-style beliefs all over the map, but people know what they can and can’t say so most keep their traps shut. I do not think that everyone to the left of Trump has left the building (yet). One reason I believe this is that when I used to teach GD, I would occasionally try to present a slightly controversial opinion in a way that would not be too offensive, and I noticed that as soon as the lid was opened there would always be several people who would start to feel emboldened and sort of join in. However, looking at the line of upcoming church presidents, I am worried that the slow purging will only continue over the next 20 years at least.
Chadwick: “My generation, the 40-somethings, are still trying to have our cake and eat it too.” And I think that’s because we have a higher sunk cost. My kids don’t even recognize good in the Church at all because it is so much worse morally than just general societal norms. They hear the fascism and lies and LGBT-bashing and sexism, and they think those of us who are older, who have been a part of this our whole lives, are completely insane. They don’t realize that it really wasn’t always like this. It didn’t have to come to this. Maybe Dave B. is right, that this was inevitable. I grew up in a university-town run branch of the Church, and yes, it was one of those cool eddies in the torrent of crazy.
I also tend to agree with JCS on this one that politics in general just ruins Church. It’s only getting worse, though, not better, the more the parties are relying on a negative view of the other party to garner support. We used to be able to hold different views without those views creating divides in our wards. I don’t see how that can happen anymore. I literally don’t know of one sane person in our new ward. I haven’t met anyone I can relate to yet, after a year (spotty attendance due to Covid, but talks and lessons have given me zero hope). The biggest problem I see is that Oaks in particular is very powerful right now, essentially the de facto leader of the Church, and he is INCREDIBLY political. The Church is going to die on this hill for those of us who are liberal (not politically, which I’m not, but the definition in the OP). I have also been wondering if Uchtdorf’s depressed demeanor in the last GC that was remarked on is related to this. He has to see that there won’t be anything left worth saving in another 2-3 years.
So the problem with the Mormon movement is that it is so centrally organized that you can’t have individual branches like you have in most major Christian movements and Judaism where you have at least two or three flavors (Liberal, Orthodox, UltraOrthodox) that stem from the same origins, and recognize each other but have significant real local variations in approach and beliefs. In contrast, many US United Methodist Churches are formally fully supportive of LGBTQ rights while the global UMC is not, yet at least for now, they fit under the same umbrella.
Since the Brighamite branch of Mormonism refuses to formally recognize any other branch of Mormonism that grew out of Nauvoo, it seems unlikely there could eventually be a formal Liberal Mormon version within a global Brighamite church.
But I wonder if things like Dialogue Sunday School (or whatever its official name is) isn’t showing a path to something that could be viable as an alternative. I mean, I am fairly certain that many that attend DSS are not going to their regular ward meetings on those Sundays and that at least some like myself never go. But there is as much of an LDS worship community there as you get in most wards except that there isn’t the chance to work together to do service projects, etc.. But what if groups of Liberal Mormons locally just decided that rather than going to regular Mormon church most weeks, they were going to get together on some Sundays to do something together that looked like real worship but made no attempt to be an LDS service, aka a fireside or such. And would get together regularly as a group to do a service project they found meaningful? You could pray and sing hymns and speak together and do everything that feels spiritually fulfilling, using LDS themes, but without the need for any church authority. Yes, these types of gathering were started in the 80s and discouraged by CoJCoLDS leadership, but as a Liberal Mormon, I don’t really need to recognize their opinions as having meaningful authority over my religious life. So i would be game.
One of the things I like about UME worship services that I usually attend now is that there doesn’t seem to be anyone claiming that it has to be done their way because they have authority. Yes there are pastors and yes there is communion, but I don’t get the sense that the pastor would ever say to someone you aren’t worthy to take communion if you don’t believe exactly in some way and I don’t hear preaching that indicates they think they have a strangle hold on truth.
Other than communion and asking for offerings, one could easily transfer a UME worship service into an informal gathering of Liberal Mormons who wanted to use their Mormon background and heritage as a way of discussing pressing spiritual matters and being renewed together. And as long as those in the group didn’t really care if they retained membership and callings within the formal LDS church, they could pretty much do what they wanted. And I am guessing that many could still retain formal ties within Mormonism if they desired.
In my experience, there appears to be little to no room for big tent Mormonism within the church. Even in more urban, liberal, areas, often the leaders embrace and practice Conservative Mormonism. There is one cookie cutter. If one doesn’t fit the cookie cutter it is difficult to find space within the church.
I’ve seen defections in my family—2 of my kids, my spouse, my sister and her husband, 2 nieces (not my sister’s kids)—to name a few—nearly all having lived their entire lives in Utah. If you had asked me 20 yrs ago if that would happen, I would’ve told you no.
I remember Holland talking about his inactive, non-practicing father’s reactivation into the church. Holland’s hardness is puzzling.
Bednar and his strong conservatism will continue to ascend in leadership.
I don’t see any path, any space, for big tent Mormonism.
I don’t hold out much hope that a new generation of leaders will make significant changes in 20-30 years. LDS leadership is self-perpetuating. The people in charge now choose the new leaders, and if someone doesn’t toe the party line, he can easily be released rather than continuing to trickle up thru the ward and stake level towards area level and general level callings.
In other Christian churches, men (and some women) choose to become pastors or reverends. It’s a career choice. Someone with more liberal views could work their way into a leadership position in a Protestant church. Somewhat more difficult in the Catholic church, but Catholic priests choose that vocation themselves as well. A more liberal-leaning youth membership could eventually influence church leadership in other denominations just by joining the leadership.
Not so in TCOJCOLDS. The current leaders can carefully select against liberal ideas. There are plenty of young members who lean right and conservative. The Church isn’t losing all of the youth, or at least not here in my little patch of the BOM belt.
So many good thoughts in the OP and so many good comments.
This quote had me laughing so hard: “In the article, there is the contrast between Big Tent Mormonism, welcoming just about anyone into the congregation and full fellowship, and, uh, Actual Mormonism (my term, not in the article), which is welcoming to some and rather unwelcoming to a lot of others.” TRUTH.
@angela, I agree re 40-somethings and sunk costs. My kid thinks I’m insane. He just keeps asking me “why don’t you just leave?” because I agree with him on the social issues and try as I might he just doesn’t see the good amidst all that or doesn’t see how you can’t find that good elsewhere without the bad. And I don’t have very convincing arguments for him.
@10ac we are a baby Church compared to the Catholics and Jews and Protestants and I wonder if someday those splinters are a possibility. But we are talking like, hundreds of years of development. Maybe when Jesus doesn’t come as soon as Nelson thinks he’s coming.
@living on the wasatch, I agree they care about growth but if they see that growth as coming from places in subsaharan Africa – well, that’s not a friendly place for women and gay people so I don’t know what that means for Church culture and change.
@chadwick, that sac mtg experience is infuriating. I hate how that stuff gets a free pass but the left-leaning stuff never would. I’ve been a “liberal Mormon” all my life and I’ve watched my liberal Mormon friends drop one by one. Not all, but many, and we are talking RM, temple marriages, fancy callings, all the things.
@OP, I want to believe there’s a future for a pluralistic Mormonism but I think that Mormonism is trying really hard to show us what it is. And I think pandemic / Trump showed me what my neighbors are. And Holland just showed me what my leaders are (using him as the example of course since he seemed to be one of those who gave us hope for the future – so we can almost thank him for relieving us of a false hope). Reality tends to assert itself.
So yeah, sounds like WaPo could use a correction. Fake news!
“, these are Mormons who ‘tak[e] into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics’ “
Since I might be lumped into the category of Conservative Mormon (and it’s no secret here I’m also a Mormon Conservative) despite a few Liberal Mormon leanings, I’ve somewhat felt it was ironically Liberal Mormons who struggled with the science.
I suppose it may be better left for another post, but science, to me, is inherently distrusting of its own results. It wants to be questioned. It’s apolitical. Once it’s infused with politics it’s no longer science, but a political weapon. There is also a money trail that all too often masquerades as the proper vehicle for promotion of science. Those are the things most Conservative Mormons (and for that matter many Mormon Conservatives) are fighting against. It’s not that they disbelieve in the scientific process. They just don’t always trust that’s exactly what is being paraded around as reality.
I won’t deny there a few Conservative Mormons who just refuse to accept a lot of genuine science out there. Someone may have difficulty accepting science that goes against their religious beliefs. But at the same time, someone else may have difficulty in accepting science that goes against their current notions of science (and may actually back someone’s religious belief). Although unlikely, imagine new scientific discoveries thirty, forty, or fifty years from now suddenly start confirming some of the claims of Mormonism that seem at odd with science today. Would a liberal Mormon accept them with the same vigor of some of the things they accept as reality today, or would they be a little slower? What meaning would “conservative” or “liberal” labels have at that point depending on that reluctance? Just a thought.
As for the post, I have a few “liberal Mormon” streaks in me that lead me to believe the tent is indeed a little bigger on the inside, but I can certainly understand why it wouldn’t look that way, especially from the outside.
Many years ago I lived in a regular ward that included family student housing at a university in Southern California. It was amazing. We had an incredible variety of views represented. It was a mix of a student ward and permanent families.
In that ward, I was felt like the uneducated slacker, as I was merely getting a masters degree and not a doctorate. I remember inn Sunday school discussing Rough Stone Rolling and many tough topics it relates. I would have felt comfortable discussing the documentary hypothesis there, had I known about it at the time. It was a special ward where I felt mostly at home, and I still value the time I spent there.
Even so, there were times of discomfort. I remember one time a young mother asked a thoughtful and challenging question in a Sunday school class, to which someone mansplained a snide comment about faith. I found out later that the young mother left the building in tears.
15-20 years later those of us that were there are more all over the map, both geographically and religiously. Several of those people came out of the closet as gay or lesbian, and are no longer married. Several others seem to have distanced themselves from the church for other reasons, including but not limited to the church’s support of prop 8. Many continue to be active in the church, as far as I can tell. And several of them are Trump loyalists; a number that includes both people who stayed in the church and people who left.
At least two of the children that I taught in primary there have grown up and come out as trans. While I think they are lucky to be in families that love and support them, I can only see the church as a toxic environment for trans teens. It saddens me to think that they would have grown up hearing their identity maligned.
That is the only ward in have attended on a regular basis that was like that, although I visited a Massachusetts ward once that seemed similar. Wards in Utah and Idaho are closed minded. There is a certain unwritten order of things that includes:
– if you discuss evolution you are required to sneer. You must either call it a “theory” or pronounce it evil-lution.
– if you teach Sunday school and say that they church has no official position on the age of the earth (which is technically true, but IMO contradicted by D&C), someone will complain to the bishop. This literally happened.
– all tithing stories are required to include a part where you get exactly the amount of money that you needed, in order to sufficiently harmonize with the prosperity gospel.
– you cannot suggest that there are contradictions between the gospels; they must always be harmonized
I’m tempted to add more, but I’m getting long winded. So I guess what I’m saying is that The OP seems to be right on the money to me.
“Yes, there are Liberal Mormons. Following the quote above describing Liberal Christians, these are Mormons who “tak[e] into consideration modern knowledge, science and ethics” and who lean towards “an acceptance of Darwinian evolution, [and] a utilization of modern biblical criticism.””
Good land. I am about as conservative a Latter-Day Saint as you will find yet I have no problem with the idea of evolution or using modern knowledge and science. ‘Modern biblical criticism’ is a trickier issue as a substantial portion of that is the typical deconstructionist nonsense by unbelievers that openly seeks to tear down religious faith — if you are saying that to believe in “The Science! (TM)” you have to believe in that, well you will have to support that idea a little better because there is some question-begging there.
On the issue of evolution, are there those who are young earthers in the Church? Sure. And there are likely young earthers who are just as intelligent, moral, and careful in their thinking as anybody on this board (though I think they are wrong on this issue). But even if you condemn young earthers Joseph Smith wasn’t one of them — thinking and teaching that the Earth was likely billions of years old. In fact, he was likely closer when he said that than any other person on the planet living at that time as to estimating the actual age of the Earth.
The resistance you typically see often isn’t a problem members have with the science — the problem is with everything that is being attempted to be smuggled in with the science. Let me give you the classic example. “The Science! (TM)” says that same-sex attraction is genetically determined and therefore if you are not supportive of same-sex marriage you are anti-science (an argument far too commonly articulated) — not to mention a hateful bigot that doesn’t care if teenagers commit suicide (because Science!). Leaving aside that the actual current scientific understanding is actually far more complex and nuanced than it is commonly argued, this conclusive scientific determination is then used as a Trojan Horse to attempt to smuggle in normative declarations that are removed from science of any sort. And, when faithful Latter-Day Saints push back, then rather than engaging in a discussion there are those that comfort themselves by labeling any who disagree with normative declarations as science deniers.
It is a comforting notion, of course, that those who disagree with your normative statements are ignorant or stupid. It is likewise a comforting notion that your normative ideas are not only subject to scientific scrutiny but also fully supported by “The Science! (TM).” But it is neither accurate nor conducive to useful discussion.
I must agree with @Jonathan that I think a LOT of conservative Mormons believe in things like evolution – I’ve actually been surprised to hear recently of local seminary teachers preaching against evolution etc because I thought we were pretty well beyond that. So I can see where the OP goes a bit far there.
That said, disagree with much of the rest of J’s comment and the last 1.5 years have shown me that Mormons aren’t quite so pro-science and pro-intellectual as I had thought. I get what you’re saying people about making claims well beyond science (especially in the social sciences), but pot – meet kettle. You’ve got DHO saying that priesthood authorities trump secular experts in literally every subject on which the priesthood authority speaks. That’s a proven recipe for disaster.
Also, I have literally never heard anyone claim that being anti-gay marriage is “anti-science” (although I can understand the argument that it is). I’ve mostly just heard people say it isn’t nice and that the arguments advanced in opposition to gay marriage (like that it’s gonna destroy families / society) lack factual support (which they do) and that we can actually see concrete harms from the way conservative religious and cultural traditions treat LGBTQ folks. So yes those are evidence-based arguments but I agree that to say “if you oppose gay marriage you are anti-science” is overly simplistic and a strange use of the word “science.” I also agree we’d all do well to better understand and more accurately use that term (which describes a process of hypothesis testing and revision, not a set of facts, the misunderstanding of which is why so many people are so mad about science “changing” when in fact that’s science’s job and we’d all – including the young earthers you think so highly of – be so much better off if we were willing to revise our opinions when presented with new information. Alas, I digress.)
I would like to add a fourth to OP’s definition of Liberal Christian; a deep and abiding concern for the environment and the poor.
As a result of my travels and reading, I’ve moved past Liberal Christianity toward Liberation Theology. Christians need to be more proactive in dealing with the inequities in the world. How far we should go is up to the individual, but religion needs to provide a much better mechanism for making the world a better place.
As a result of my travels and reading, I’ve also come to firmly believe in some of the ideas of Process Theology. That everything is in a state of flux. A sort of religious adaptation of evolution. I believe that there wasn’t a Creation per se. There is an ongoing creating. That we are co-creators of the Earth with God. This has lead me to a rather radical form of Environmentalism. .
I think both these theologies, should be acceptable inside the Mormon tent.
I really wanted to disagree, dang it.
Maybe some day . . .
Re: Jonathon on evolution, I do think many conservative Mormons believe in evolution, but I have never once heard someone say so in a church setting, with the exception of perhaps a conference talk where I think Holland acknowledged the possibility evolution for plants and animals, but implied not for humans because a garden of Eden type of story, a fall of Adam event, is necessary for the doctrine of Atonement.
I think the vast majority of Community of Christ members would agree the church is not “liberal Mormonism,” nor perhaps any other kind of Mormonism now. Certainly, even a half century ago the RLDS Church could well have been described as a Mormon sect, at least by outsiders.
However, the CofC is increasingly becoming something of a safe haven for what I’ll just lump together as “disaffected Mormons.” The church even began a targeted seekers ministry (latter-dayseekers.org). Initially some church leaders and members thought this might lead to a major influx of new members, but that hasn’t necessarily been the case. Still, offering a safe haven has been valuable.
Many local congregations take a similar approach. The CofC presence along the Wasatch Range has historically been minimal. Our SLC congregation has expanded considerably in the past few years. A notable online effort by our Toronto Centre congregation (centreplace.ca) has reached out to many LDS folks through its Sunday morning Beyond the Walls worship service streamed live at noon ET, as well as other ministries through the week. Their superb efforts are serving as an example to other CoC congregations in approaching hybrid ministry (online & in-person). If you’ve ever wondered what a CofC worship service is like, this would give you a hint.
I would locate CofC far closer to Protestant churches such as UCC and United Methodist, while still maintaining uniqueness. While we share some terminology with our Mormon cousins (such as priesthood offices, although its expression is much different), when it comes to acceptance of women and LGBTQ ministry, for example, there’s little comparison.
Oops, “safe haven” not “safe have”.
One of the things the Church does best is adapt and survive. We are usually very late and reluctant to change, but do change when we have to. We are living through a period of change and it’s hard to know how it will shake out. I think the liberal push for change that started 10-15 years ago has been beat down. Most of the vocal liberal Mormons have left or given up hope. However, the Church has made changes in response, even though they have come late and may be too little. I feel like there is a deflated tone on blogs like this and among people who have been trying to fight this fight for several years.
I am a fly-under-the-radar liberal Mormon and it’s worked well for me. I am lucky to be in a ward that is very accepting and among other people who are less orthodox. The older orthodox members in our ward have a couple or most of their kids who are now out of the Church. I try to find common areas of agreement when I teach and present and introduce what I see as more expansive, big tent ideas in a gentle way. For me this has worked, I get some things out of Church, enjoy the social aspects and service opportunities. I’m able to largely ignore things I don’t like and will get up and leave with lessons or talks that bug me. I pick and choose how I practice and enjoy the cultural and social aspects of being a Mormon. It’s kind of a don’t ask don’t tell detente that seems to work. As I’ve been at this for a while, I’ve figured out there are quite a few people in our ward doing the same thing. I’m not sure if that is true for just Utah where it’s easier to be a Mormon at this level, or if this is also going on churchwide. If you are outspoken and passionate about change, this would probably not work very well for you. People in my ward seem to know I’m more liberal and I would definitely not be considered for any leadership positions, but they seem content to leave it at that. I’ve never had anyone ask me about why I don’t usually wear garments or any of those other particulars. But, I know that in some wards there are busy bodies who want to hunt out and expose people like me.
Thanks for the fine comments, everyone.
Chadwick: “I didn’t go to my Bishop to complain about this talk, but once when we were chatting I asked his opinion. Basically he said he didn’t much like it either but what could he do? He felt powerless to this talk.” This is what I call the “weak right flank” problem the Church has. It is hypervigilant about defending itself from threats from the left, but largely blind to and defenseless from threats from the right. Which is an even bigger problem because that’s where the real threats are lurking.
Living on the Wasatch: “We also know that the Church when pushed hard enough it can pivot to stay relevant.” But the pace of social and cultural change has accelerated. So the Mormon pivot, which always lagged society, now lags way behind the times. LDS changes are increasingly of the “too little and too late” variety.
Angela C: “I also tend to agree with JCS on this one that politics in general just ruins Church.” It sure seems like what was once a minor problem has blossomed into a major problem. Perhaps linked to the transformation of the Republican Party from a party with principles and a program (fiscal restraint and deregulation, for example) to just a cult of personality.
10ac: “So the problem with the Mormon movement is that it is so centrally organized that you can’t have individual branches like you have in most major Christian movements and Judaism …” Great point. But when the Church tries to decentralize and give Area Authorities or Stake Presidents more discretion, then some people complain about leader roulette.
Elisa: “I’ve actually been surprised to hear recently of local seminary teachers preaching against evolution etc because I thought we were pretty well beyond that.” Yes, I think most of we *are* beyond that, but lots of Seminary and Institute teachers are still living in the 19th century. Or maybe the 16th century, before the Scientific Revolution. I’ve seen plenty of testimony from folks familiar with the S&I hiring process: they are more interested in recruiting entertainers than scholars or responsible teachers. So S&I deserves all the scorn and ridicule they get for the stupid things they sometimes teach (as doctrine!) to our LDS youth. And then they wonder why youth are leaving the Church.
@felixfabulous, I get how you make that work for you personally. But I don’t see how that signals any kind of larger trend of liberalism if you acknowledge you have a don’t ask / don’t tell detente and won’t have big callings? Doesn’t that suggest that remaining liberals like you will die off or stay quiet and the mainstream Church will continue on its vocally conservative merry way? I think that’s what’s discouraging to people. If you find personal fulfillment, great, but people don’t see a future for their kids.
Anyone remember “wear pants to church day”? We were living in Utah at the time. I wore my purple tie to show support. There were 2 or three other men who were wearing purple ties. One I expected, and one I definitely did not. We were eyeing eachother during YM class ( we were both YM advisors at the time). Didn’t get the chance to ask him why he wore purple.
I think there are a significant number of Liberal Mormon liberals out there, but most of us try to stay under the radar in church settings to preserve our social capital. Thank the Lord for the bloggernacle.
@Eliza, I see the Church continuing on its conservative merry way while begrudgingly continually lowering standards to try to stop some of the mass exodus. I feel like lots of people leaving the Church is the topic of most of our ward and stake talks and is an underlying current during Conference talks. I think the Church continually does this dance of trying to pump up the vocal conservatives and say that things will never change while trying subtly to change things enough to make young people want to stick around. I think the latest change to temple recommend questions specifically tried to give room to people who didn’t wear garments all the time while making the conservatives think nothing has changed. In that way the Church is definitely caving to liberalism, while on its face saying it’s not. @JLM, I agree that there are a lot of liberals in the Church and agree that they stay under the radar to preserve social capital and remain comfortable. Anyone who is vocal and pushing for change left a long time ago.
As usual, Wikipedia’s interpretation of liberal theology, and what liberal theology actually is, are two wholly different things. Conservative theology, according to Wikipedia’s typically misleading description, is assumed to be characterized by not taking science and technology into account. Far from the truth! The real difference is that liberal theology adapts it teaching to prevailing cultural and social winds. Rather than base itself on immutable truths, liberal theology sacrifices the truths for the convenience of fleeting social changes.
@Rich Brown Thanks for the heads up on the CoC worship livestream, I will definitely check it out. As far as I can tell, there is no CoC congregation anywhere close to me in TN.
Great post and great comments. So many jumbled thoughts in my head triggered by this one.
Mainly, I think the time for hope for liberal Mormons has passed. Church…at least the experience of being in the church…and what is emphasized by the leadership has really changed since I was growing up. I left on my mission in ’99 and it really felt like we were making it. Hinckley was (pretended to be?) modern and kind and open and pushing things forward. Once he’s gone, we have Prop 8, the POX, the essays (intellectually dishonest trash–a step backwards in my opinion), Obedience!, “religious freedom”, muskets, and Tad Callister calling the slave trade a noble sentiment.
Elisa’s comment about the church, its leaders, and its members showing who they really are in recent times really resonated with me. In regards to whether most members believe in evolution or not, I think a lot of people say what they think is appropriate depending on the situation. Maybe inside they understand to not believe in it puts them in a weird minority among the general population, and thus the rest of us are led to believe we’re all on the same page. I know many of my family, in-laws, and TBM friends certainly do not believe in human evolution. Maybe they accept it in viruses and finches, and aren’t so sure about the age of the Earth, but I think assuming that most members believe in the real origin of the human species is a real stretch. On the other hand, many members and leaders seem to be more openly hostile to politically-left ideas, people who are different from the typical white western Mormon nuclear family, and to reasonable reactions to the pandemic. These new revealed truths about the people in the church really are what got me started on the path out.
And it’s made me angry. This is what we’ve all given our lives to? So many hours of work , so many dollars of tithing, so many years of carrying around guilt and shame and anxiety about not doing enough. Being stunted socially and emotionally in so many ways because we have to be a “peculiar people.” Our leaders today lie, fear the future, fear the “other”, promote violence, push obedience, preach prosperity. Many members are ignorant, hateful, selfish, two-faced, and believe the worst conspiracies shouted by the most wicked of men. They have twisted Jesus into an unrecognizable war monger.
Harsh words? You bet. Convince me otherwise.
Liberal Mormons will remain marginalized, and many of them will become exhausted and leave. But there is no shortage of little Oakses and Bednars and Callisters and Wendys out there to replace those men and women when they die. The church I’m sure will contract. I have no idea what they’re going to do with all those announced temples. But I just don’t see the leadership changing much in the next century.
10ac: You’ll find quite a treasure trove at http://www.centreplace.ca.
So far their Beyond the Walls online choir has recorded about 130 hymns from the CofC hymnal, “Community of Christ Sings.” Also archived are previous Sunday morning worship services on their YouTube channel. Last Sunday had a French Polynesian focus with 4 testimonies, Tahitian choirs, and sermon by Apostle Mareva Arnaud Tchong, one of 5 women currently serving in the Council of 12.
There are also quite a few lectures on history, theology,, philosophy, religious studies, etc.
There was an interesting interview with the author of the WaPo piece on MormonLand this week. She is not LDS but finds the Church culture fascinating. One potentially “telling” thing from her observation is that nobody she interviewed objected to the term “Mormon,” so she didn’t talk to the nutjob faction that appears to be pretty mainstream. I can’t believe how many people are shakily testifying that this is a requirement to show support for the prophet. She also noted that there was a trend among conservatives to use the term “global church” to justify retrograde stances like anti-LGBT and sexism. IOW, we have to hold onto these things to retain our members in Africa and South America. (#logic) Because the gospel isn’t supposed to challenge your bad beliefs and lead to personal change, apparently. The sense was that these conservatives making this argument were like “Aw, shucks. I guess we’ll just have to keep being sexist and hating gay people. Nothing we can do about it.”
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
Here is a link to the Mormon Land podcast (sponsored by the Salt Lake Tribune) that Angela C noted, that features an interview with the author of the WaPo piece:
I was born Mormon and I will probably die Mormon. But I’ve left the institutional Church. Or maybe the Church has left me. Certainly my liberal (university) ward in the 1950/60’s was dramatically different from the BRM church I experienced in the mission field. Intellectually I left the institution Church while on my mission: cheap salesman gimmicks, cheesy 6 discussions, the useless tracking, doctrine i didn’t believe (black ban, anti-evolution, etc.). I’m created my own personal religion. I’m the only member. I don’t need a social club.
All religion needs to rethink how it worships.
JCS: I would gladly frolic in a tent with one dozen starving crazed weasels.
This entire thread is why I won’t allow my children to stay Mormon unless they also go to university. Outside the academy, it’s harder and harder to be both smart/well adjusted and Mormon.