Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On Being a Liberal Mormon: Two Defenses and an Attack

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

One week before election day here in the United States, let’s consider, both politically and philosophically, a couple of recent, superb, highly thoughtful books which ask Mormons to embrace–in one case explicitly (Richard Davis's The Liberal Soul), in the other case only implicitly and probably unintentionally (Terryl and Fiona Givens's The Crucible of Doubt)–a highly contested label: “liberalism.” And while we're at it, let's also consider one relatively prominent voice of opposition to that embrace, and see if it makes its case. (Preview: I don't think it does.)

Of course, the label/identity/accusation “liberal” isn’t just contested amongst members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It's been a long time since President Herbert Hoover and his challenger, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, argued during the presidential election of 1932 over which them advocated "true," and not "false," liberalism. Ever since the civil rights movement a half-century ago, and especially since the rise of the culture wars of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a term which once connoted merely the desire to defend and expand individual rights, liberties, and tolerance has gotten tied up with claims about religion, sexual morality, welfare, the size and scope of government, race and gender, social norms, citizen duties and obligations, and much more. It makes, to say the least, for a pretty complicated package of ideas.

This complication, though, is maybe even more fraught for Mormons--particularly American Mormons--since for those of us who presumably, at the very least, feel it important to pay special attention to the statements of general authorities, attending church involves having to negotiate a social landscape where past leaders like Harold B. Lee and Ezra Taft Benson made it pretty clear that they didn't see any possible overlap between being a faithful member of the church and holding to "liberal" ideas. Those statements, and many others like them, are mostly 30 or more years old, and it might be easy to attribute them to a generation of leaders that were speaking to conditions that, with the 1978 revelation of the priesthood and the end of the Cold War threat of communism in the early 1990s, don't apply any longer. But any lifelong member of the church knows better than that, I think. The reformist impulse which modern liberalism carries with it means that those who agree with that impulse face serious challenge when the church officially adopts, as it has in most (though not all!) recent political debates, a stance in defense of "tradition," "authority," and other positions easily interpreted to be anti-liberal. And, given the aforementioned tangle of ideas, it becomes very easy for those positions to be tied to claims about minimal tax rates, strong property rights, and a host of other nominally "conservative" positions which may actually have next to nothing to do with the contemporary teachings of the Mormon church, but which have a long history of scriptural proof-texts and Utah-centric unofficial general authority statements to back them up.

It is that history which Richard Davis's book is most directly attempting to push back against. The Liberal Soul is not a deep work of political theology or theory, nor a nuanced discussion of political ideology or interpretation; it is not a book written to definitively advance a new Mormon political philosophy. On the contrary, its claims are modest (and its implied audience is also; while Davis frequently makes national or international connections in his arguments, it's pretty obvious that his primary hope it simply to convince his fellow Utah Mormons that a legitimately faithful "liberal" alternative to the locally dominating right-wing Republican or libertarian readings of Mormonism actually exists). For Davis, the "liberal soul" spoken of in the King James Version translation of Proverbs 11:25 presents to us all a divine ideal of generosity, open-mindedness, and collective concern (an ideal similarly invoked in Isaiah 32:5, James 1:5, and Alma 1:30 and 6:5); he does not claim that such scriptural language mandates any specific set of public policies. But by the same token, he wants to help his readers see that the reverse is also true. As he writes near his conclusion: "The marriage of LDS faith and right-wing or libertarian politics is not the sole perspective for understanding the relationship between the gospel and the role of government....There are multiple interpretations of the gospel's intersection with government, not just one" (p. 162). Thus The Liberal Soul is an attempt to put forward a reading of Christianity's call to generosity which suggests that collective political action towards greater economic and social equality and welfare is as legitimate a response as any other.

How persuasive is the reading Davis puts forward? I would say "very much so," but then I am already mostly--though not entirely--in Davis's ideological camp. The first and, I think, most important chapter in the book, "Government is Ordained of God," which carefully makes the point that there is no non-disputable reason why people cannot or should not democratically organize themselves around the governmental provision of public--as opposed to merely personal or familial--goods, and even more carefully criticizes the embarrassing anti-communist obsessions of Benson and other Mormon general authorities who tended to see any defense of public resources as gospel-threatening socialism, is one I strongly agreed with. As Davis continues his analysis through the book, his bone-deep moderate liberalism is demonstrated again and again, thus lessening my agreement with him somewhat, though never my admiration for what he was doing. He shows little interest in making direct use of Mormonism's legacy of consecration (which he at one point clumsily refers to as "communitarianism"); while he speaks highly of economic equality as a goal closely tied to the Christian respect for persons, and at one point subtly snarks that this goal "may not be possible today given the broad acceptability of seeking personal gain over community good," he mostly strikes a distinctly Rawlsian note, using redistributive taxes and minimum wage laws as examples of government actions which can reflect the generosity and public concerns of citizens (pgs. 29-39). Rather than contemplating the collective or class responsibility of oppressors to the oppressed in the form of reparations, he presents Joseph Smith's appeal to the federal government for restitution from the mobs in Missouri as an early ancestor of affirmative action (pgs. 45-50). Rather than proposing radical alternatives to the welfare state, he defends entitlement benefits, noting in response to criticism about waste and fraud that the LDS church's welfare program, like any "large bureaucratic organization," suffers from waste and fraud as well, only since "the Church's system is not transparent to the public or even to the Church's membership," almost no one knows about it (pgs. 67-68). Ultimately, there are almost no traces of social democracy or socialism in Davis's arguments; his liberal Zion is a pluralistic one of generosity and charity, where arguments against capitalism are rare, and entrenched inequalities are to be addressed through humane appeals, church assistance, and government amelioration. In that sense, Davis is staying true (for better or worse) to one of the dominant streams of political reflection in Mormon scholarship: that "Mormon theological views...follow the tradition of radical Protestantism, track quite closely the tenets of philosophical liberalism, and are supportive of American constitutionalism," as R. Collin Mangrum put it over 25 years ago.

There are multiple ways in which this stream of thought can be challenged, of course; Ralph Hancock, while expressing admiration for much of Davis's book, poses one of them by claiming that the liberal generosity at the heart of The Liberal Soul is a basically an "amoral view of humanity," a "secular ideology" of physical physical and social succor which should be contrasted to a true Christian charity that "seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification." Hancock's concern about liberalism taking the our eyes off where our treasure ought to be is a well-grounded one--and yet, what I think is most interesting about his particular line of criticism of Davis's thesis is that it, too, exists within (and thus implicitly supports) the essentials of the liberal worldview.

True, both Hancock and Davis eschew the hyper-individualism of mainstream American libertarianism, insisting instead that individual rights (to political expression, to guns, to property, or whatever) need to be expressed in connection with a sense of the common good. Moreover, Hancock's claim that what might be called contemporary liberalism's reformist and egalitarian impulses have transformed that worldview into a "liberationist" movement, especially in regard to sexual matters, might be understood as a criticism of liberalism overall--but if it is, I can't help but think it's a rather odd one. Through Hancock's many online writings on this topic (see here, here, here, here, and here for a start), the huge majority of which have focused on his conviction that same-sex unions cannot and should not be accepted as socially or morally respectable "marriages" in light of either the dictates of the gospel or the requirements of civilization, he has nonetheless, so far as I have seen, never denied that the individual (the unit which does the choosing to marry, after all) has a fundamental, ontological claim of worth in that gospel and to that civilization. He does distinguish between what he labels "practical" and "theoretical" liberalism (though sometimes he prefers to refer to them as "classical" and "new"), arguing that the latter ideology has freed individuals from the "moral discipline" which enabled them to exercise their choices via the genuinely workable political liberalisms of the past. But for all that, he does not dispute the position of the individual, that being who possess some kind of genuine independent agency--or in other words, some real "liberty"--as the category through which these moral baselines are to be expressed. He does not, in short, make firm arguments in behalf of natural law or economic superstructures or any other politically salient worldview, whether socialistic or actually traditional, that would suggest that we need to build our applications of the Christian gospel through something other than pretty much exactly what Davis calls for: namely, a generosity towards and respect for all individuals.

(In fairness, I should note that some of Hancock's arguments suggest a kind of anti-individualistic familolatry, in which what he takes to be the authoritative revelation/definition of the family, via Christian sacraments and ordinances, is conceived as holding paramount political value, above that of the person, the community, or--on my quite possibly flawed understanding of his speculations, anyway--the law. That is, I think, a genuinely fascinating anti-liberal framing of the political question. But given that, aside from his losing fight to stop same-sex marriage, I'm unaware of any suggestions of Hancock's regarding how this notion might be operationalized, economically or socially speaking (fathers acting as pater familias over the property of their wives or the marriages of their children, perhaps?), I can only conclude that his disagreement with Davis, practically speaking, actually just comes down to one--very conservative, in the mainstream American political sense--liberal Mormon challenging another--in this case somewhat more progressive, again in the mainstream American political sense--liberal Mormon over how he understands his faith.)

All of which leads us, believe it or not, to The Crucible of Doubt. The connection between The Liberal Soul and this book isn't obvious or direct, but it is, I think--at least when one looks at the this graceful, thoughtful, and profoundly rewarding book with a certain set of interpretive lenses--undeniable: the Givenses, whatever their intentions, have in fact written the finest defense of being and choosing to be a faithful liberal Mormon since the days of Richard Poll, Hugh B. Brown, Eugene England, or Lowell Bennion.

The "faithful liberal Mormon" perspective which their book lays out is by no means necessarily a political one (though, in practice, it is often difficult to keep those implications out of one's exploration of the idea--Gene England certainly didn't). There isn't an ounce of politics in The Crucible of Doubt, and on my reading the word "liberal" barely makes so much as a single appearance. The connection with liberalism is sufficiently subtle that smart, serious readers of the book can bypass it entirely, focusing quite reasonably instead on processing the ideas and suggestions which the book makes for addressing the problem of doubt in the contemporary Mormon church. But notice the tenor of those ideas and suggestions! Again and again, Terryl and Fiona Givens want to suggest that the doctrinal notions that Mormon believers may have thought themselves to have received could be wrong, or at least incomplete, and that the only way to resolve--or even just to achieve a degree of peace in regards to--any doubts they have about those notions is to develop greater "openness." Openness in regard to what? Well, to the moral incompleteness of tidy cultural explanations for suffering (chp. 2), or to the lack of spiritual reward which too often characterizes church attendance (chp. 3), or to the genuine inconsistencies the faithful will encounter in trying to reconcile contradictory scriptures (chp. 4), or to the frustrating reality that Mormon leaders are chosen for anything but genuinely meritocratic reasons (chp. 5), or to the plain fact that popular Mormonism's too casual claims to holding a monopoly on truth are simply incoherent (chp. 7). What is the point of all that openness? The point is, the Givenses make clear, is that it is exactly in conditions of "incertitude, when we are open to the "indeterminacy of it all," that we become, as individuals empowered to make choices, able to "act most authentically, calling upon intuition, spiritual intimations, or simply yearning" (pg. 32).

Now let me make a rather controversial--but, again, I think strongly defensible--leap into the political: exactly how much distance is there between that above statement, and the bête noire of religious conservatives and their supporters (including Ralph Hancock!--see here and here) everywhere, the statement made by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his opinion in the abortion-rights-defending case, Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life"? Now the Givenses might not care for this comparison, and might respond, for example, by claiming that any truly "authentic" choice will be one which responds to those "spiritual intimations" which will, of course, because they come from the same God who stands as the center of the doctrinal claims of the restored church, greatly limit just what kind of "self-definitions" any particular person might be able to righteously--and therefore legitimately--be able to come up with. Which is a good--and arguably anti-liberal--response! Except, of course, for the problem that, if taken too far, such a response would complicate, and perhaps even undermine, one of basic themes of their beautiful, poetic, evocative book: that of the individual chooser who must work out what they believe for themselves.

The Givenses fall back constantly on either an implied or an explicit assumption of individualism and diversity in the search for belief, and the Christian need to respond to such--as a church, as family members, and as individual Mormons ourselves--with generosity and open-mindedness (see pgs.79-80, 106-107, and 138 for a start). Nowhere do they do so more persuasively than in what I consider to be the pastoral heart of the book, chp. 8, "Spirituality and Self-Sufficiency," which begins (like Davis's book!) with a quote from Proverbs, this one 5:15: "Drink waters out of thine own cistern, and running waters out of thine own well." That chapter is a ringing defense of seeking for truth and solace wherever we can find it, and of "drink[ing] liberally" when we do. It acknowledges the importance of "shared discipleship...with a larger community," but also insists that we are ultimately "responsible for...finding spiritual nourishment in our own sacred spaces" (pgs. 101-102). It uses what, I think, we have to recognize as deeply liberal--in the sense of placing a priority on the relationships we choose to make--stories to make its point: Bishop Edwin D. Woolley being rebuked by President Brigham Young, and responding with quiet defiance, "[T]his is just as much my church as it is yours"; and an unnamed and doubting young women who finds the courage to speak in church about her lack of belief and her bare longings for her family, and as a result "feel[s] free" (pgs. 103-106). Obviously, there is nothing at all about government or civil rights or economic justice in any of that...but to the extent which Terryl and Fiona Givens want us to fully respect and enlist into the common project of building Zion all baptized individuals in their diverse paths towards God's grace, their arguments are not just fully compatible with Richard Davis's call for American Mormons to take seriously the possibility of exhibiting in our choices the qualities of a "liberal soul"; they are, in fact, direct complements to each other.

In looking at both these works together, one might be tempted to make use of the aforementioned analytical terms of Hancock's: Davis, we could say, is presenting a connection between Mormonism and theoretical liberalism (a connection which enlists a reformist, egalitarian sensibility to advance certain causes), while the Givenses are presenting a connection between Mormonism and practical liberalism (a connection which limits itself, in light of background moral assumptions, to emphasizing the centrality of individual conscience in any common project). But that's not really a fair schematic, though, for two reasons. First, Hancock presents the liberal ideology as invariably liberationist, which leads him to "question whether it is worth the trouble" for Mormons to attempt to maintain their own moral integrity and faith in the midst of such a progressive phenomenon--but as Davis's elaboration of a liberal Mormon political ethic manages to stay mostly far away from any discussion of progressive culture war issues like same-sex marriage, Hancock's claim is mostly inapposite to Davis's project. Second, Hancock presents the fundamentals of the liberal worldview as a valid expression of individual rights insofar as a context of moral discipline remains, and he frequently emphasizes that such discipline is manifest through the "evidence of reason"--but the Givenses' project depicts certain liberal verities not through any kind of disciplined rationality, but through a language and methodology which is romantic, intuitive, eclectic, and questing to the core.

Obviously, there are more possible expressions of a Mormon liberalism than is contained in these two books. But, taking them as our starting point, it makes one wonder if the liberalism which Hancock warns his fellow Mormons against--a kind of absolutist demand for sexual self-definition--might not, in fact, be an essential feature of that ethos, but rather be merely epiphenomenal to--or an atomistic perversion of, perhaps--the very distinct, and distinctly grounded (in the call to individual and collective generosity in the first case, and in the respect for and openness to individual seeking in the second) liberal Mormonisms that Davis and the Givenses either plainly or implicitly want to see emerge. He condemns liberalism as a worldview which threatens both the Mormon faith and Christian civilization entirely, but as he himself does not (or not yet, anyway) present a persuasive root-and-branch extrication of his own Mormon and Christian claims from the individualistic premises of the liberal order, it's hard--for me, anyway--to avoid concluding that, after all the sound and fury, Hancock is basically just unhappy with some of the stuff which some liberals choose to believe, and is trying to come up with some way, without denying their shared premises, to philosophically head them off at the pass.

These are wise books. They make a strong case for liberal virtues like tolerance and diversity and generosity (both individually and collectively, both politically and personally) in terms that any curious Mormon can understand and relate to. And on a more abstract level, they remind all of us (even wanna-be radical leftist communitarians like myself) that liberality and individuality really is deeply entwined in the Christian message, and that even if the Law of Consecration or Christian socialism triumph someday, the responsibility of--and the need to show respect for--the individual chooser must abide. Like Hancock, I'm not a fan of the (I think false) sovereignty which this moral fact implies, but unlike him, perhaps, I want to approach faith and politics in terms of different--perhaps conflicting, but also perhaps parallel--non-liberal constructs of our social and historical existence, rather than fighting on the inside against those whom I happen to believe are getting the default worldview of modernity all wrong. Rather than some historical "moral discipline," I would argue that the real beating heart at the core of liberal Mormon or liberal Christian belief is a trust in God's grace: that He really does love us, and really will unfold Himself to us, and really is attending to us as we seek and we share, as individuals and, ultimately, together. If that smells to some like "progressivism," well, then I can only conclude that I'm grateful to know, after reading these two books, that there are good and faithful people, both knowingly (Davis) and perhaps unknowingly (the Givenses), on my side.

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