Radical Retention


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

15 thoughts on “Radical Retention

  1. Kat says:

    I appreciate your article and the thoughts behind it. I myself am in that 1% and find myself swiftly moving to the outsider 20%. While I have spent years being on the front line of speaking up and trying to change from within, recently it is my children who are paying for my liberal position. Specifically my oldest daughter, who has been a beehive for almost two years now, finds Wednesday night an exercise in defending our vegetarianism, her gay uncle or her academic, feminist parents from both the girls and the leaders. While I love the gospel I find myself choosing to protect my children from members by withdrawing. We have to choose between “activity” or alter our principles on social issues, which would mean altering our relationship with the gospel itself. I love my brothers and sisters in the church, especially those who are languishing in our position, but I increasingly find myself loving them from a safe distance.

  2. kristin barrus says:

    Excellent article

  3. mormongandhi says:

    Great article, Jason Brown! I really like this part: “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.”

    As truth-seekers, we should indeed always be willing to think critically, also in matters related to the gospel. We were given a mind and a heart to think and feel with. Perhaps that is what is meant with “one heart and one mind” – with “an eye single to the glory of God”, and therefore that our minds and hearts must be united in the pursuit of truth, and in the willingness to be challenged on our beliefs and potentially admit that we were wrong. More truth and knowledge, right? Isn’t that eternal progression?

    In addition, thank you for the practical ideas at the bottom of the article on “radical retention”…

  4. Ken S says:

    The reason the majority of the members of the church are conservative is because the gospel principles are conservative. The principles of the Gospel attract the honest in heart. The liberals and their social agenda have destroyed the United States. They will not, however, destroy the Church because its leaders are unyielding on the truth.

    • Marcus says:

      “The reason the majority of the members of the church are conservative is because the gospel principles are conservative”

      That was possibly the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in a long time.

      First, because the majority of the church members world wide is NOT (by the US definition) conservate.

      And secondly, the gospel is NOT conservative, it’s living, with new revelation added to the old. That is per defenition tha actual opposite of “conservative” I know you use the word as it’s used in the US, and if you’d like to make that argument, have a look at the paragraph above.

      I live i Europe, and there are not a grain of a “conservativenes” in our wards. If the poll would be taken here, it would show up “very” liberal according to your standards.

      … sigh

  5. J. Madson says:

    Ken #4

    lol. I know I shouldnt laugh since I hear this nonsense all the time, but you must be right. I mean its so clear to me. The scriptures dont read we should renounce war and proclaim peace, they meant to say renounce peace and proclaim preemptive war. Oh and that stuff about being equal in all things, liberal social agenda to destroy the nation. Jesus actually meant that the free market would determine who floats and who sinks oh and no handouts.

    Take some time studying the goats and sheeps parable. Or go read the previous posts a few back on social justice or warfare. The reality is that the gospel is neither conservative nor liberal. The gospel cuts across political lines and boundaries. And many of your so called conservative principles are not gospel at all. And more aptly anti gospel.

  6. Joseph says:

    “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?”

    I would probably have to answer yes. That’s probably why my comments on this blog are so inordinately long. While I do feel there are legitimate reasons for keeping quiet at times, I will definitely keep this in mind and try speaking up when I should.

    Of course, I haven’t been completely silent, and I have probably had more positive than negative experiences. I tend to agree with J. above and see Gospel principles cutting across political lines. So I’m generally not afraid to speak up when something said is clearly just wrong.

    I am going to use the “bloggernacle” right now, however, to do something I probably wouldn’t do in person:

    Ken S #4
    Go to hell. Truth is eternal, not conservative. And we aren’t even close to having all truth yet, so you might do well to withhold judgment. (Actually, in certain moods, I probably would say something like that in person were someone to approach me the way Ken has in this blog)

    With that out of my system, I’d like to do something on the “bloggernacle” I wish I could say in person:

    Kat #1,

    I hope your experiences get better. I’ve found that even when I get persecuted for my being left of the Republican party, such persecution lasts only for a little while and then passes. Like Jason, the author of this post, I’ve even found that endurance can bring respect.

    What is happening to you and your children is wrong by church standards and should be addressed directly if it continues.

    Jason, was the Gallup Poll strictly the United States? It seems to me when I served my mission most of the missionaries I knew from Canada were not anywhere near as conservative as those from the U.S., and many were outright socialists. And I remember back in ’08 when Romney was getting attacked here in the U.S. for being Mormon (by the Republicans, not the Democrats), Brazil, a fairly left-wing country, was celebrating the presence of the LDS Church, and most of the positive comments were coming from pretty left-wing politicians (so much for your “the Gospel is conservative” notion, Ken). I think many conservative U.S. Mormons are going to be a bit surprised when they wake from their in-bred sheltered existences to the fact that they’ve been drowned in a wave of converts from outside the U.S.

    Well, there I go with another long comment on the bloggernacle.

    • Kat says:

      Thank you. I hope that they do.

      We (our family) is trying to walk a line between “activity” and keeping true to principles. Our first job as parents is to love and protect our children. We are teaching them righteousness by “word and deed”. Sadly this places us at odds on Sundays. We take our children with us when we work at shelters, donate food and time and work at co-ops, which causes problems on Wednesdays. We talk about Christ and his teachings, we read the scriptures. We took the 14th article of faith literally and expose them to Buddha, Krishna and Allah. We read Nibly, King, Plato and Bouvoir. Which causes problems every day. People like Ken at #4 make it clear to us and to our children that there is little to no place for us within the Church.

      I had an epiphany recently that I would like to share. We constantly hear that the people and the Church are seperate. That you cannot judge the one by the other. However, our church is not constructed of brick and board, it is a living church made of blood and bone. If you cannot know the content of one by the other how ever will you know it at all? Christ said we would know his children by their works, we must know his church by the people.

      Take that however you like. It was freeing for me.

      • Kate says:


        I really appreciate your contribution here, esp about the ol’ tired “that’s not doctrine, that’s just people” argument.

        I am constantly amazed at people who seem to read between the lines so easily… lines between what is constantly said, repeated, read from the pulpit, highlighted, written on the board, published etc… and… what is apparently “true doctrine” untainted by any of this other stuff.

        It must be nice to live in this “true doctrine” world and be totally unaffected by what the large majority of members around you do & say, but I do not live in that world.

    • ken S says:


      Thanks, that was a Christ like response. I’m sorry the truth offends you, I’ll lie to you next time to make you feel better.

      • Joseph says:

        Ken S,

        You’re welcome. And no need to apologize, I wasn’t offended. It wasn’t the truth, just your opinion, which you are welcome to. Just realize I’m going to disagree.

  7. Tariq says:

    The scriptures say, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” When the fruits of the Church are a bunch of right-wing nuts who are more loyal to the teachings of FOX News than they are to the teachings of Jesus, then we’re in a bad situation. Any organization, no matter how good it is, will always have a few bad apples, but when most of the apples are bad, then you can know that something is wrong with the tree. Something is seriously wrong with the Church these days, and it goes much deeper than just a few annoying Glenn Beck fanatics. The recent shameful episode that happened in a Nevada stake concerning a fireside with Harry Reid is indicative of the growing right-wing nationalism and just plain meanness within the Church.

    Jason Brown’s article is excellent, and I hope it is widely read by members of the Church. I also appreciate the discussion so far. It is sad and unjust that good people like Kat have a hard time in the Church, while blockheads like Ken # 4 strut around the church halls with impunity. I very much hope that more liberal, progressive, and radical Mormons stop biting their tongues. These right-wing Mormons have had their way for far too long, passing off their idiotic homophobic, war-monger, capitalistic, sexist, and racist attitudes as the gospel, and going completely unchallenged when they do it. People outside of the Church can criticize the Church’s increasing right-wing nationalism until the cows come home, or even until the fat lady sings, but nothing will really start to change until Mormons start to confront other Mormons about this issue. Liberal, progressive, and radical Mormons, let loose your tongues!

  8. Forest Simmons says:

    Part of the problem is that some Bishops and Stake Presidents have the precise opinion that Ken #4 has.

    This makes it harder to speak out, especially if one fears losing a temple recommend for sympathizing with liberals.

    I remember the McCarthy days when Elder Benson used the general conference pulpit to proclaim that the world communist conspiracy fulfilled the secret combination prophecy because of a passage in the Book of Mormon where a leader of the Gadianton Robbers invited the Nephites to surrender and partake of all their spoils, therefore it was communism.

    The more liberal general authorities, like Hugh B. Brown, either felt intimidated or they didn’t believe that general conference was the correct forum for broadcasting their political opinions.

    2 Nephi 28:11-16 says

    11 Yea, they have all gone out of the way; they have become corrupted.
    12 Because of pride, and because of false teachers, and false doctrine, their churches have become corrupted, and their churches are lifted up; because of pride they are puffed up.

    [all except our church, of course]

    13 They rob the poor because of their fine sanctuaries; they rob the poor because of their fine clothing; and they persecute the meek and the poor in heart, because in their pride they are puffed up.

    [but surely not in our church]

    14 They wear stiff necks and high heads; yea, and because of pride, and wickedness, and abominations, and whoredoms

    [that cannot be us; we speak stronger than anybody against whoredoms],

    they have all gone astray save it be a few, who are the humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they are led, that in many instances they do err because they are taught by the precepts of men.

    [who are these leaders? who are the falsely led?]

    15 O the wise, and the learned, and the rich, that are puffed up in the pride of their hearts

    [those elite liberals],

    and all those who preach false doctrines, and all those who commit whoredoms

    [commodifying everything via capitalism doesn’t count],

    and pervert the right way of the Lord, wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!
    16 Wo unto them that turn aside the just for a thing of naught and revile against that which is good, and say that it is of no worth! For the day shall come that the Lord God will speedily visit the inhabitants of the earth; and in that day that they are fully ripe in iniquity they shall perish.

    Each person has to judge these things for himself. But remember, that judgement with which you judge …”

    I suggest judging it in the context of Matthew 25, a parable of the final judgement.

  9. Forest Simmons says:

    On labels of “conservative,” “liberal,” and “progressive.”

    I want to conserve the liberality that the scriptures extol. Does that make me a conservative or a liberal? In general we should try to conserve the good and leave the bad behind in our progress towards the future. We believe in eternal progression. Doesn’t that make us all progressives?

    I suspect that the pollsters would consider Republicans conservative and Democrats liberal. But it seems to me that there are only superficial differences between the two parties, especially their leaders. The differences between Bush and Obama are inconsequential on war and peace, torture, financial bailouts for the rich, wire tapping, big pharma support, insurance industry support, off shoring of jobs, buildiing up the Great and Abominable Church of Mammon, etc. Even among the rank and file the two corporate parties, differences are mainly concerning wedge issues.

    The giant corporations like the wedge issues because they distract the public enough to make war profiteering safe in all of the various wars at home and abroad. We have (so called) wars on terror, drugs, ignorance (no child left behind), cancer, poverty, etc. They are all ways of siphoning money from the tax payers to giant corporations that know how to profiteer from these “wars.” The working class bears the brunt of all of these “wars.”

    What do pollsters call people that are against this corporate profiteering, i.e. against the “churches that are built up to get power and gain?”

  10. Forest Simmons says:

    Here’s a partial list of some behavior disapproved by Mormons, roughly in order of increasing disapproval:

    2.smoking tobacco,
    3.ingestion of alcohol,
    4.neglecting the poor and needy,
    5.use of illegal drugs,
    6.robbing the rich,
    7.robbing the poor,
    8.illicit sex
    10.murder in the first degree

    Did I get items 6 and 7 in the right order?

    On which of these nine issues are you pro-choice?

    I would venture to guess that most conservative Mormons would draw the line between items 4 and 5, whereas some liberals would put it between 3 and 4, since they tend to think neglecting the poor is almost as bad as smoking or drinking, if not cussing.

    Do the scriptures make any distinction between items 4 and 7?

    Traditional Goldwater conservatives say that morality cannot be legislated. Does that mean they are pro-choice on all of these issues? Which of these issues is not a moral issue?

    The movers and shakers of the two big parties may give lip service to pro-choice or no-choice on various of these issues, but the only one that seems to really concerns them is item number 6.

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