Can a Mormon be a liberal?

Can an active, practicing Mormon also be a political liberal? Yes.

In today’s Deseret News, Professor Ralph Hancock, from BYU, asked and answered this question. Though he’s a conservative, Professor Hancock likewise answered the question in the affirmative. Mormons can be liberals, liberals can be Mormons. We Mormons tend not to be liberals, but as I’ve written before, that’s probably more a matter of geography than ideology. Utah’s very Mormon, very Western, and very conservative. But Wyoming and Montana are not Mormon states, and are also very conservative. They’re all western states, and westerners tend to vote Republican, often for reasons having to do with land-use issues unrelated to religion.  I’m a Utahn, a practicing and believing Latter-day Saint, and a committed liberal. I don’t see those positions as being remotely incompatible. On the contrary; I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon.

Say what? Yep. As a Mormon, I believe that the Book of Mormon is holy scripture. And in the Book of Mormon, evil is consistently identified with a lack of charity, with a failure to care for the poor and needy. Greedy selfishness was the sin of the Gadianton robbers, for example, the über villains of the last half of the Book of Mormon. It was the primary reason the Nephites fell.  A haughty unwillingness to succor the poor is even the primary sin of Sodom (Ezekial 16: 49-50), and not sexual sin, as is commonly supposed.  Above all, I believe in the great sermon by King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon, found in Mosiah chapters 2-4. Benjamin says clearly that even suggesting that poor people are poor because of bad choices they’ve made in their lives is sinful (Mosiah 4: 17-21). We’re all of us beggars before God.

Professor Hancock, of course, disagrees that programs in which a central government attempts to alleviate poverty are what the Book of Mormon is talking about:

Where I disagree with my Mormon liberal colleague is in his rather capacious confidence that a federally driven police of welfare aid and income redistribution is an effective means of lifting up the disadvantaged. Davis observes that a root meaning of the word “liberal” is “generous,” and since generosity is a Christian virtue, a more liberal welfare state is more generous and more Christian.

I leave it to readers to scrutinize each step in this logic; I simply note that Christian charity seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification. It addresses the body by addressing the soul.

I would respond as follows. First of all, a Christian charity that ‘seeks the good of the whole person,’ is a Christian charity that extends from the premise that faults in ‘the whole person’ are what have left him/her poor. That’s pretty much exactly the kind of attitude that King Benjamin proscribes. Poor people tend not to be much interested in ‘moral and spiritual edification.’  They want to become less poor. If they have to listen to well-meaning platitudes along the way, fine, but mostly they want help. Paternalistic head patting has no place in policies alleviating poverty.

Let me be specific. I believe that what the vast majority of poor people really want is a job and a paycheck. So first and foremost, I support raising the minimum wage, making it possible for a hard working person to support his/her family. If a single parent wants a job, I support providing child care assistance. I support, short term, subsidizing housing, and for families struggling to make ends meet, food stamps as a temporary aid program. If a person struggles with a drug addiction, I think we’d be better off seeing his/her problems as a matter of public health, not criminality. And, of course, I think all citizens, of whatever country, have an absolute right to access to quality health care, preferably in a government-administered single-payer system. And I think that the richest country in the history of the world can and should do more to fight poverty internationally.  Too many children go to bed hungry throughout the world. We can help, and should.

None of this is remotely incompatible with the values of the Restored Gospel. The notion that the scriptures preach private charity only, that the scriptures are anti-government is preposterous, ideological and naive.

Professor Hancock also decries what he calls “extreme lifestyle liberalism,” which he calls ‘amoral.’  We liberals, he says, embrace such extremes as gay marriage and abortion-on-demand, which in his view come from viewing people not as moral agents, but as products of their environments.

Gay marriage is now legal in 35 states, in the sense that courts continue to find bans on gay marriage unconstitutional, violative of the Fourteenth Amendment. My guess is that by this time next year, all fifty states will be performing same sex marriages. To favor expanding the blessings of marriage to all our brothers and sisters does not logically follow the proposition that human beings are products of our environments. On the contrary, it comes from viewing all people as moral agents, as citizens and therefore equals. But it’s an issue that’s soon to become moot anyway.

So once again, it comes down to abortion. And the disagreement between liberals, such as myself, and conservatives, like Professor Hancock, on abortion, arises from a natural and inevitable disagreement over natural law, over the rights pertaining to all citizens. A fetus grows inside a human body, in a womb especially (and miraculously) intended for that task. A woman has the right to make the most basic decisions regarding her own body. A fetus, however, might become a human being, with all the rights of personhood.  So how do we balance those rights? Where does the right of the fetus to possibly become a person outweigh the rights of the woman to decide what will happen within her own body?  Especially given the uncontestable reality that not all fetuses survive to term. Women’s bodies spontaneously and naturally abort far more fetuses than are artifically aborted medically.  A baby is an infinitely precious and wonderful gift.  A gift from God, I believe. But it’s naive and foolish to not admit that carrying a baby to term can have a serious physical impact on the body of the woman giving birth.

Nobody cheers an elective abortion. That decision is, I believe, never made lightly and rarely made irresponsibly. I remain convinced by President Clinton’s formulation, that elective abortion should be safe, rare, and legal.

But if we want to limit the number of elective abortions performed annually, let’s do it with compassion and kindness. Let’s help with job training, education, health care, child care, to give single moms a better chance to succeed.  Let’s help.  Let’s make adoption easier, cheaper, more frequent. And let’s see if we can join together in toning down the rhetoric of abortion. It’s not murder–certainly not in LDS theology, it isn’t. It’s a tragedy. Can we mourn abortion more than we condemn it?

So, yes, I’m a liberal and I’m a Mormon. I’m a liberal because I’m a Mormon and I’m a Mormon because I’m a liberal.  And those positions aren’t remotely incompatible.


8 thoughts on “Can a Mormon be a liberal?

  1. Starbugary

    Thank you for sharing this. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that you can’t be LDS and be a Liberal that the two are incompatible. I recall during the last election cycle people I know being called into their Bishop’s offices and one person I know even denied a TR over her political leanings. She appealed it to a higher authority within the church and was given her TR but it seems more common than not amongst the LDS that you can’t be both. But you can! I am living proof and it seems so are you. So thank you for writing this and saying it so eloquently, you said things in this post that I’ve wanted to say, and thought about for some time but I lack the platform and I am not as talented a writer as you.
    Its interesting what you said about Christian charity versus Government issued charity. My brother is a disaster management specialist for the DOD. He has managed many disasters over the years from forest fires, to Tsunamis, earthquakes, wars, you name it. He told me once how grateful he was for the church’s welfare program. He shared with me that there are several church’s who volunteer with supplies and aid when disasters happen, the government is usually in charge of the distribution of aid, so the church’s might supply some of the money or things that are needed but his office manages how it gets to those in need. He told me about how several church’s are willing to give aid and help but those who take it must listen to their sermon, or accept a book talking about their church. He told me that the LDS aid packages came in neat containers all labeled as to what they were and the only thing that let one know that is came from the church was a label that said it was donated by the LDS church. People in extreme disaster situations don’t want to hear a sermon they need immediate aid. And if you tie a condition like a sermon or some literature it makes it useless to the govt. workers distributing it as they can’t, they can’t favor one group over another so they end up with a bunch of supplies that could have been used but they can’t be. The entire discussion over charity through religion versus through government is much bigger than this but that is one example of how they can and do work together.
    And as an LDS Liberal I think that as far as abortion is concerned we are having the wrong conversation. Rather than obsess over the legality we should focus on alternatives, as you mentioned prevention, adoption, better healthcare etc.
    There are more Liberal Mormons than I think people realize, thanks again for sharing this!

  2. Hilary Dalton-Zander

    Well, you certainly cleared the Green Monster with this! Bravo! It is wearying to hear the old saw “Liberal = Pro-Abortion” from Hancock. And yet *he* insinuates flawed logic on the part of Liberals (albeit regarding the welfare state)? ! This is baiting, and lazy baiting at that.

  3. Jonathan Langford

    In fairness, I think it’s true that *some* of the poor remain poor less because they lack opportunity than because they lack a particular skillset that makes it easier to succeed in today’s world. Which speaks to appropriate education as often a better long-term strategy for helping them get out of poverty than more direct economic assistance. (I say “appropriate” education because oftentimes, these skills have less to do with formal education and more to do with lifeskills such as how to interact nonconfrontationally with people, or how to present an appropriate image at work.) This is something I’ve seen in my own extended family, as I’ve honestly struggled with the question of what kind of help I can best provide for various family members who clearly need help, but who seem unable to quit their circumstances for a variety of reasons.

    I think it’s also important that those of us who believe that government does have a role in helping people also acknowledge that many who disagree with us (including many within the Church) are also personally charitable and compassionate, regardless of their politics. Yes, I think it’s true that conservative politics on the national and local scales can often become masks for lack of charity–just as liberalism can become a mask for a deterministic viewpoint that absolves individuals of personal responsibility. But it’s not a necessary association.

  4. Anonymous

    You are a liberal because you live in Utah. In other places, you’d be a moderate or even conservative. Here in AZ, I’m closer to a liberal than a conservative. In NY, I was definitely a conservative. Those labels change depending on your peer group.

    So, a liberal is a vegan because of cruelty to animals. A conservative is a vegan because they don’t trust the government to regulate the industry. Result: both the far left and the far right are a lot alike.


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