Friday, March 27, 2009

Liberal, intellectual, progressive Mormons

I've been thinking about what the above terms mean and how they are understood in the Mormon community. As we well know the basic concept of a liberal or intellectual is understood with suspicion in some parts of the Mormon community. Both terms being understood as signaling an individual's distance from and opposition to institutionally defined orthodoxy and the social / political norms of the community (or a portion of the community). These labels are often closely linked to two things:

1) Academic work done on church history that reveals aspects of the historical narrative of Mormonism that have been omitted from official institutional historical narratives. Or that offers different perspectives on Church history. Additionally, such work calls into question (not always intentionally) the motives and accuracy of the institutional historical narrative of Mormonism.

2) The labels are often applied to individual members who go through a sort of crisis of faith when they come into contact with the details of the more challenging aspects of church history. These interactions appear to be defined by specific challenges to the individual's understanding of Church history which then leads them to question other aspects of the institutional narrative of Mormon history and theology.

There are other things that these labels might name but from my reading of Mormon publications such as Dialogue, Material produced by the church, by reading Mormon blogs, and listening to things such as the staying LDS podcasts. There is no doubt that, for what ever reasons, there is a strong link in the Mormon imagination between questioning official historical narratives and the idea of being liberal or intellectual, both understood as pejorative terms. Be that as it may, it should be obvious that neither of these forms of historical challenge have an inherent relation to an individual being an intellectual or liberal. In fact I think the opposite may be true.

As a convert something that stands out to me is that the broadening and sometimes questioning of historical narratives seems to come from people who are lifetime members of the church and who actually strive to be traditional in their beliefs and understanding of Church history. Their crisis of faith seem to arises when credible historical sources articulate historical narratives that are dissonant with the understanding of the church that was developed through church attendance, official church materials, as well as family and community teachings. So these individuals come to feel misled and even betrayed by the institutional church for creating an incomplete or even white washed history. These feelings arise not because the individual in question is an intellectual or a liberal, they arise because the individual is deeply committed to traditional orthodox views of the Church. These individuals are clearly not liberal, and they may or may not be intellectual. They are traditionalists striving to understand how new and challenging information fits into their orthodoxy. If they were liberals or intellectuals to begin with they would have had access to a host of tools that would allow them to encounter new historical information without it becoming a crisis.

As for the historians who study church history they may or may not be liberal or intellectual. Mostly they are academics, (which is not synonymous with being an intellectual) but one would hope that their primary identity is as historians. This does not mean that historians have universal notions of how to do history, or what is defined as critically rigorous when it comes to methodology, or the ability of historians to draw conclusions. It just means they are committed to do the best work they can with the training, tools, resources that they have access to.

All this is to say that despite a cultural mislabeling of personal crisis of faith or challenging historical work as liberal or intellectual. These terms needs to be reclaimed by Mormons who self describe themselves as such, so that a more accurate and positive description can be fostered. In short we should be defined by what we believe rather than by what we don't.

Finally, lets get rid of some of the other basics incorrect assumptions.

1- Being liberal or intellectual is not defined by a dichotomy between orthodoxy / heterodoxy; in which the liberal is defined as holding unjustified and incorrect beliefs that can not be reconciled with accurate and true beliefs found only within a certain notion of orthodoxy.

2- Being liberal or intellectual is not defined by a dichotomy between faith / doubt; where in the liberal is a defined by their doubt in contrast to the robust faith of more conservative or mainstream Mormons.

3- Being liberal or intellectual does not mean that one poses a threat to the faith or beliefs of others. Quite the opposite is true. Liberal theology traditionally provides avenues of exploring many different ways to hold and express our religious commitments, it probes scripture and uses a variety of tools to deepen understanding and provide greater appreciation of history and theology.

4- liberal theology is not a set of ideological values applied to theology, it is more a set of methods, and positive values, approaches to and tools for reading and interpreting scripture, theology, and history that in essence are there to strengthen the community, deepen our understanding of and commitment to living out our religion.

So this has been fairly limited in scope, in another post I will go into the positive work and values of liberal theology and why liberal Mormonism should be thought of as a necessity rather than something to be suspicious of.


  1. Hi Doug

    I love this !!!! I am a permablogger on MM and think this would do well

  2. James,

    thanks a lot, that is nice of you to say. And that reminds me I need to do a follow-up post.