Why I am a liberal Mormon part two

Why I am a liberal Mormon Part two

In part one of this post I began by talking about the values Mormons place on the acquisition of knowledge and why that is fundamentally a liberal value for me. I will now continue by talking about how this relates to my commitment to free speech and my decision to intern at FIRE ( Foundation For Individual Rights In Education) a group that defends and advocates for student speech of all sorts including deeply unpopular views and beliefs.

Of course, I might as well begin this post with the most obvious objections to my position. Firstly, the LDS church has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with free speech and expression rights. I will talk about the positive aspects later, but I might as well begin by talking about the violations. Firstly, Joseph Smith was arrested for the destruction of a critical local press, which ultimately resulted in the jailing that culminated in his murder 1. Secondly, the Salt Lake City council a few years back attempted an outrageous and disturbing policy of banning any form of free speech on formerly public city space. 2. Thirdly, church owned Brigham Young University does have a history of being unfavorable to critical academic freedom and the church has even gone so far as to excommunicate members that have voiced critical comments even on such controversial issues as proposition eight 3.

This, there is a lot of ground to be critical of past actions on free speech grounds and yet, when one looks at the fundamental scriptures of the church or other actions of the early church one sees scripture that fully recognizes the need for robust speech and for a society that allows for unpopular opinion ( in this regard the church was actually often more progressive than comparable 19th century norms)

Freedom of religious expression was radically defended in the society chronicled in The Book of Mormon

Alma Chapter 30

7 Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.
8 For thus saith the scripture: Choose ye this day, whom ye will serve.
9 Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him.
10 But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished.
11 For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.

Notice explicitly that non belief or doubt in god is protected! This was a pretty radical position even in the most recent Bush administration.

Modern day revelation is no different

D&C 134 states

2 We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.
3 We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign.
4 We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.

7 We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.

9 We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.
10 We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.

Thus, the church views the right of members to express their religious views to be invaluable and fundamental.

Thus, the church views the right to excommunicate and deal with disobedience on the part of its members to be a free speech matter, which gives it the right as a private institution to deal with member conduct. This is a position I tend to agree with on a constitutional and legal basis.

Many other states and territories at the time of Joseph Smith had laws that featured legal discrimination against Muslims and Jews and yet according to prominent LDS historian Richard Bushman

“But by the time he got to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith saw the city as more open. One of the first ordinances passed by the Nauvoo council was a toleration act specifying that all faiths were welcome in the city and listing a number of them: Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Latter-day Saints, Catholics, Jews and “Mohammedans,” as Muslims were called. There was probably not a Mohammedan within a thousand miles, but it was a gesture of openness to every religion4.
Nauvoo, then, was to be a diverse city, indicating that Joseph Smith’s civic idealism went beyond his own people to envision a much more cosmopolitan society. Nauvoo didn’t develop that way; it came to an end too soon, but that is what he projected.”

Thus, Joseph Smith

I will not go into any long detail in this post regarding the church’s history with polygamy and its legal challenges to laws banning the institution which culminated in ultimate legal failure in the decision of Reynolds v. United States5, except to point out that this is a position that is now held by the ACLU and other fairly liberal/libertarian bodies6. The church thus advanced an uncompromising stance of religious expression rights from its inception.

In More recent days, Elder M. Nelson of the Council of the Twelve Apostles gave a masterful talk on the values of free speech and expression in the growth of the spiritual kingdom

“Major religions proclaim the existence of a Creator-God-whose power and will are superior to any human construct, including the laws of man. Adherents of faith groups can feel secure in their right to follow divine direction only if a nation’s laws allow freedom of religious expression. Those same laws also protect the rights of others to believe, or not to believe, as they choose.
Some nations may acknowledge these rights only to obtain accreditation in world organizations, which demand such laws as a condition of membership. Others of nobler purpose extend these rights out of concern for their citizens who are believers, or out of respect for God, from whom these rights are derived.
Fundamental religious rights include: the right to believe or disbelieve; the right to worship, either alone or with others; the right to assemble for religious purposes; the right to own or occupy property for the purpose of worship; the right to perform religious ceremonies; the right to possess and distribute religious media; and the right to establish rules for fellowship in a religious society.4”

In the same talk, Elder Nelson makes a strong statement for absolute religious neutrality in regard to government.

“Therefore, care must be exercised to assure that government remains truly neutral in matters of religion, not only in lip-service and constitutional guarantees, but also in impartial application of the law.14 Individuals and institutions are naturally inclined to seek preference over others, but the state must not yield to those inclinations. To discriminate in favor of one religion, using non-religious labels such as “culture” or “history,” is to discriminate against others. If the state allows dominance of any one religious institution over another, discrimination results, allowing unequal treatment and regrettable restriction of other religious societies.5”

Elder Nelson also draws the corollary to the right of religious control over membership which is equally vital.

“Religious freedom allows the right of individual followers of a faith to exit from that faith.6”

This idea is deeply rooted in the LDS conception of a theo-democracy in which members sustain each other through common consent and in which each individual member is encouraged to confirm the church’s truth for his or her self.

Most importantly, Nelson talks about inter-religious tolerence, ever so vital and precarious a topic

“Every religious group, while perhaps a majority somewhere, is also inevitably a minority somewhere else. Thus, religious organizations should and do show tolerance toward members of other religious denominations.7”

As a church, we therefore have a huge tradition of supporting religious freedom, we hold as our foundational cornerstone a scripture which shows a society that ideally contains no laws proscribing religious freedom or lack of belief, and Joseph Smith advanced a society in which non-members could live freely among members. The church history is not free of warts, but on the whole shows a remarkable intellectual and ideological compatibility with the first amendment.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nauvoo_Expositor
2 http://www.rickross.com/reference/mormon/mormon91.html
3 http://www.abc4.com/mostpopular/story/Man-faces-possible-excommunication-from-LDS/6Cvu_py9FEOIv-LmCuK8pA.cspx; or http://www.heraldextra.com/news/local/article_a2ab9b4a-efea-5e24-8da9-4807a6de6ea7.html or http://www.lds-mormon.com/sepsix.shtml
4 http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=148
5 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reynolds_v._United_States
6 http://www.acluutah.org/bigamystatute.htm
7 http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/45645/Elder-Russell-M-Nelson-Freedom-to-Do-and-to-Be.html
8 Ibid
9 Ibid
10 Ibid


Why I am a Liberal Mormon Part One

Why I am a liberal mormon

This post is going to be rather ambitious and therefore probably quite lengthy. I am attempting to answer the question of why/how I can be a Liberal Mormon from two directions. Firstly, I hope to answer my Latter Day Saint friend’s that are believe that a true LDS member can not identify his/her self as Liberal. I hope that not too many of those that I hold dear hold this view, but I know that it is a prevalent view and that I have heard variations of it voiced. Secondly, I hope to respond to my non-LDS or secular friends who look on to me with shock and wonder how I can so betray my liberal views and values by joining a church that they view as reactionary, backwards and unjust in so many areas. I know that this view is commonly held by even some of my closest friends and so I hope that I can address some of their wonder and disbelief at my choice. I hope to show that the LDS tradition is fundamentally a liberal one at its core that more so than even the standard Christian tradition embraces the acquisition of knowledge, freedom of expression, pacifism, peace and the need for a more just and equal society. As such, I am very proud to identify as part of this tradition and to place myself politically on the most consistent position on the political spectrum.

I will be quoting extensively from the LDS scriptures including the Book of Mormon, D +C, and the Books of Moses and Abraham as well as likely from the Old and New Testaments. For my non LDS readers, I use these not in an attempt to convince through scripture but to show my textual and scriptural basis for my beliefs

This post will be broken up into at least a few posts. The first will deal with the matter of a tradition of intellectualism and seeking knowledge, which is present in LDS tradition

I am shocked by how often LDS members received a poor reputation from being closed or narrow minded and unwilling to take other perspectives into account. While there are undoubtedly members that fit this categorization, the LDS tradition more than any other religious tradition is one based on finding and discerning truth.  The thirteenth article of the LDS faith follows the words of the Apostle Paul and states. “ We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.1” Thus, we have an exhortation and an obligation to search out the good in all various ideas of the world and to build our understanding on the basis of collected and experienced truth.

1 Articles of Faith

One of those views of our church that separate us completely from many other Christian movements is our lack of belief in the infallibility and sole authority of any one set of scriptures. Our belief in continuing revelations is fundamentally a progressive one is that we believe that human knowledge is constantly expanding. The building of God’s kingdom on this earth is a work in progress that will require greater and more full understanding.

Our attitude towards the scriptures of other faiths and those that we do not consider cannon exemplified this attitude. Section 91 of the D+C is a revelation that answered the question of how we should view the Apocrypha or non-cannon works from the biblical period. It is only a few short lines so I will paste it whole

“1 VERILY, thus saith the Lord unto you concerning the Apocrypha—There are many things contained therein that are true, and it is mostly translated correctly;

2 There are many things contained therein that are not true, which are interpolations by the hands of men.

3 Verily, I say unto you, that it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated.

4 Therefore, whoso readeth it, let him understand, for the Spirit manifesteth truth;

5 And whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom;

6 And whoso receiveth not by the Spirit, cannot be benefited. Therefore it is not needful that it should be translated. Amen.”

This perspective extends to non-Christian sources as well. Professor of History and Religion and Brigham Young University, Hugh Nibley, wrote ““in fact, early Mormon leaders saw no reason why Mohammed should not be considered a true prophet, for there have been many prophets, great and small, in the past whose words are not in the Bible.“

Islam and Mormonism

Indeed, so fundamental is our belief in the importance of truth and knowledge, that we believe that our fundamental goal in this world is to acquire light and knowledge.

Moreover, we ascribe the greatness of God to more than his power or omnipotence or any other show of strength. We hold that

“  D+C 93:36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.”

Thus, as we grow in knowledge in accordance to truth, we become like our heavenly father and our mind is illuminated and expanded.

The place where we part ways with secular individuals is in our belief that knowledge of the world in terms of facts or statistics lack use and grounding without a spiritual understanding.

One of our  Church President’s Spencer W. Kimball commented:

“Spiritual learning takes precedence. The secular without the foundation of the spiritual is … like the foam upon the milk, the fleeting shadow. … One need not choose between the two … for there is opportunity to get both simultaneously” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 390).”

It is not through mere empirical knowledge of the world, but through experiential knowledge acquired through faith and prayer that much

As such, we adhere closely to the words of Paul when he exhorts

“The things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. …

But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:11, 14).”

We do not discover divine truths through research or even merely philosophical inquiry,  but through the conscious choice of obedience and faith

“  D+C 93:28 He that keepeth his commandments receiveth truth and light, until he is glorified in truth and knoweth all things.”

“The role of obedience in gaining spiritual knowledge is crucial, as this comment of President Joseph Fielding Smith confirms:

“Now the Lord would give us gifts. He will quicken our minds. He will give us … a knowledge that will be so deeply rooted in our souls that [it] … can never be rooted out, if we will just seek for the light … and the understanding which is promised to us, and which we can receive if we will only be true and faithful to every covenant and obligation pertaining to the gospel of Jesus Christ” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1958, p. 22).”

We view this sort of knowledge as ingrained in the nature of humanity shared by our common sense of morals and a universal consciousness. This is a sort of knowledge that is not based on an individuals level of intellect, but on something that is accessible to individuals of all ages and persuasion if they but open themselves to communication with their heavenly father. Thus, we view a wider knowledge source that is neither biased nor merely available to certain individuals but open ended and free.

What does this all mean in terms of being a liberal Mormon? I tend to be extremely open to reading all sorts of literature, watching all sorts of films, attending religious services of every different faith, engaging in interfaith dialogue and discussions with those of all other beliefs and persuasions etc. I view these as tools in the acquisition of my own knowledge and my own personal growth. Yet, these things in order to truly benefit me must be based on a foundation of what I know to be true and a commitment to obey those commandments that I have covenanted to observe. Without this foundation, all knowledge is ephemeral and fleeting greatness that does not expand my light or intellect.

I think that it is this emphasis on the potential for truth in all things that leads me to be such a strong advocate for free speech, a tradition that is expressed both in the Book of Mormon society and the early church, this will be the topic of my next post.