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?