April 1, 2010 by Jason Brown
Update: This article is cross posted over at mormon matters
I’ve been kicking this post around in my mind for a while now so it came as no surprise when I found a Gallop Poll article entitled “Mormons Most Conservative Major Religious Group in U.S.” A whopping 59% of active Mormons consider themselves conservative; another 31% moderate, and only 8% liberal. In addition, 16% of active Mormons consider themselves “very” conservative, compared with only 1% as “very” liberal.
What surprised and saddened me even more than this disproportionate political bias was not that a majority of Mormons (inside and outside Utah) are conservative, but that 61% percent of “lapsed Mormons” (those who self-identify with Mormonism but seldom attend church meetings) consider themselves liberal or moderate; liberal “lapsed Mormons” are 20% alone. So that means, that 6 out of every ten people who do not regularly attend church, yet maintain ties, do not identify with the Republican Party or the conservative movement. These statistics do not count the thousands of people who have left the church permanently or no longer identify themselves with Mormonism due to feeling isolated, alienated or estranged by the politically conservative majority.
Following are a few personal experiences and ideas about how liberal and radical Mormons can begin to turn the tide on this state of affairs and make the church a safe space for those of us who do not self-identify as conservative or Republican.
First and foremost, those of us with radical or liberal worldviews (I myself most closely identify with libertarian socialism), must not be afraid to speak up, put forth and defend radical and liberal interpretation of the Gospel in our meetings, and actively challenge interpretations that we disagree with. Could it be that the growth of the Mormon “Bloggernacle” in recent years has been a result of those of us too afraid or timid to speak up in Sunday School, Relief Society or Priesthood? Now, for some of us speaking up in church may sound like a daunting task, and indeed depending on who is teaching it can be; there is very seldom much time, and sometimes the topics come with a lot of cultural and historical baggage. Perhaps many of us have not spoken up during church because we fear that it will create contention or that we will be looked down upon. Although I am not exempt from biting my tongue in church, or letting a Republican talking point pass for a Gospel principle, I am almost always pleasantly surprised when I do choose to speak my mind during church meetings.
For example, during the Proposition 8 debate in California I was visiting my hometown in Southern California. I attended church. It happened to be testimony meeting and member after member was getting up to praise the wisdom of the proposition and expound the threats that its failure would present to the Church and the family. As I sat taking this in, my pulse quickened, my heart raced, and before I knew it I was in front of my childhood ward (including the area authority) denouncing the Proposition. I spoke from the heart, and as my voice shook, I declared that as a Christian my primary responsibility was to the Sermon on the Mount and that I believed it to be bad politics to get involved in a civil rights issue which would inevitably put us on the wrong side of justice (again). When the meeting was over, I was mobbed by old friends, scout leaders, Priests’ Quorum advisors, and new members. Many agreed with me, some thought I was crazy, some strongly disagreed with me; but they all expressed loved for me and wanted to thank me for expressing my heartfelt convictions. One woman, who stayed at a distance until all the others were gone, came and with tears in her eyes thanked me. She was a new member, and her son is gay. She had been feeling so alone and conflicted about the church’s involvement in this issue. We talked, hugged, and she left with a smile. On that day I had spoken my mind on a very controversial topic and although many members did not agree with my interpretation of the Gospel, I left the meeting feeling fulfilled and part of a community that loved me.
This is the climate that I know can exist in wards all over the world, but that many of us are afraid to bring about. I tell this story because I strongly believe that there is a place both in the Gospel and the Church for radicals and liberals. We can still be of one heart and one mind while disagreeing on the particulars of interpretation and application of Gospel principles.
Another personal experience: During Sunday School here in New Haven, Connecticut where I currently attend church, we were on the topic of helping the poor. This was a few weeks before President Monson decided to include helping the poor and needy in the now four-fold Church mission. A woman visiting the ward said that she and her husband had worked with homeless people and believed that it was wrong to give them anything because this deprived them of the opportunity to pull themselves up by their boot straps and take personal responsibility for their own bad choices; and besides, any money given to homeless people would inevitably be spent on booze anyway, so why support their immoral habits? Now, I personally have tremendous respect for the appeal to personal responsibility that many of my Republican and conservative friends make when discussing issues of social justice and poverty. However, this sister did not understand what the scriptures plainly teach concerning those who would seek our aid. So, in a calm fashion I raised my hand, and began reading the words of King Benjamin in Mosiah 4.
“17 Perhaps thou shalt say; The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just—18 But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. 19 For behold, are we not all beggars?…”
King Benjamin here is uttering a strong condemnation of those of us who would refuse to give of our substance to the poor. However, the sister articulated a very common view in our society that poor people are poor because of bad choices. However, the radical Christ calls us to repentance. If someone asks of us, we must give; even if we can smell the alcohol on their breath. But this is not all. As Joseph Smith makes clear, we are to be actively engaged in a good cause (D & C 58:27), and working toward a society where there are no poor among us (Moses 7:18). Meaning, we are not just to give a regular fast offering, or a couple bucks to the guy outside the supermarket, but actively working toward a society where the structural and root causes of poverty are eliminated. We disagree on the appropriate institutional scale of implementing such a task in society, but nevertheless we are incontrovertible called to the task. The Sermon on the Mount, 3 Nephi, King Benjamin, the D & C, indeed the entire Book of Mormon all contain radical critiques of social inequality, seeking wealth for wealth’s sake and contain numerous admonitions to radical Christ-like love and economic cooperation. Sorry, Brother Beck, but social justice is the essence of the Gospel, and the fact that someone like Glenn Beck can read the same scriptures as me and not see that is appalling.
One might ask if I would simply flip the Gallop Poll statistic for a 60% liberal slant. My simple answer is no; what I really want is to see a healthy proportion of all political and social viewpoints; one that doesn’t automatically exclude social justice, preemptive war, the environment, or helping the poor as Gospel topics because they are too “political” while piously rallying the troops around “moral” issues such as prayer in school, abortion or gay marriage. That is a double standard that is only possible because of a overwhelming politically conservative bias by Church members and hence church programs. I am calling for this because it is in the tension between ideas that truth is found; as Lehi says to Jacob: “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things, for if it were not so…righteousness could not be brought to pass” (2 Nephi 2:11). A diverse and healthy representation of political and social interpretations of the Gospel will lead us closer to true principles than close-minded political or religious dogmatism.
Brothers and sisters, do not allow conservative politics to pass as neutral theology, it is dishonest at best, and destructive at worst. It is driving good people out of the church and becomes a positive feedback loop: the more conservative the church culture becomes, the less tolerable it is for liberals and radicals. So, to all of you Beck-ites out there, this is our church too and we are not leaving.
Here are a few ideas for shifting Mormon culture:
- Participate in Mormon May Day on May 1-2. See www.mormonmayday.org for more details in the coming days
- If you haven’t already, read Approaching Zion by Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley
- Then, give Approaching Zion as a gift to at least one person this year
- Begin to compile a list of your favorite scriptures on social, environmental, and political topics
- Start a discussion group
- Set a personal goal to make at least one comment in your church classes
- Invite a less active radical or liberal member to your house for dinner to see if you share similar views