Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » The Liberal Mormon: Introduction

The Liberal Mormon: Introduction

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 29, 2011

… Annnndddd part of my readers just clicked away, and another part geared up for battle.

Several years ago on the flight to a Mormon History Association meeting in Tucson, a friend asked me whether I considered myself conservative or liberal. I was uncomfortable with the question. To me those labels meant “Republican” or “Democrat,” and I was and am neither. Years ago I decided that I could be a member of no political party. I have a strong strain of loyalty in my makeup, and loyalty to any party, in my view, means upholding some principles which I might not agree with for the sake of the party’s success. I could not accept that.

Although I rejected (and reject) political affiliation, I told my friend I supposed I was conservative, based chiefly on the recognition that I value and want to preserve the best of the past, and because I tend to work out potential problems slowly before I commit to a new course of action in any part of my life. I conserve; therefore, I’m conservative, right?

But as American politics and social and economic discourse has grown sharply more rancorous in the past three or four years, and as ideologies have hardened to the point where I question whether anyone truly feels the positions they advocate, and as I’ve come to suspect that more often than not people merely parrot the talking points put forth by their party champions, I have been forced to reconsider my position. I still reject party affiliation, and expect that I always will.

But I am no longer conservative.

Or, maybe, I am so conservative that I have circled around the back of the loop to become liberal.

I have become aware of a way of thinking about economics and social policy common to Mormonism in the 1920s and 1930s, a way of thinking that has strong echoes of even earlier Mormon economics and social policy. I have been collecting lessons and talks from that era that address this strain of economic, political, and social thinking, and I love it. It convinces me. It satisfies me. It persuades me to behave differently than I did in the 1980s and 1990s. I want to conserve and perpetuate it. So it’s conservative, right?

But it is so radically different from anything considered “conservative” in anybody’s definition today that I can’t call it that. So by contrast to modern conservatism, and in ignorance of its true name if political philosophers have given it one, I’m calling it “liberal.” Remember what Richard L. Evans said:

Words have a way of being stealthily stolen, and it isn’t safe to place too much confidence in words unless we know the men who use them and what they mean when they use them. It isn’t safe to let words take the place of realities – for a thing is what it is, no matter what we choose to call it.

So with that, I inaugurate a new series at Keepa, a collection of lessons and talks that reflect this old-yet-novel strain of Mormonism, which will appear under the collective title “The Liberal Mormon.” You’ll be ever more able to discern what I mean in this case by “liberal” as more posts go up and you see how I use that word.

I expect that if this series gets any attention, people will want to argue politics. While I generally prefer to keep politics, especially partisan politics, off this blog, it’s okay here with the request that you argue political issues with reference to these older materials. If you only want to rehearse a robot-like ideology, there are other places for you to go. If you want to argue politics with a clear and definite link to these ideas from the Mormon past, be my guest. Be polite. Be Mormon.



  1. Ardis, you rule!

    Comment by Chris H. — September 29, 2011 @ 7:51 am

  2. Thanks, Ardis. I’m looking forward to it. I don’t want to battle either. But I would love to see some of this in historical perspective without political-religious dogmas attached. I may be linking back to you more than usual. Good luck!

    Comment by Grant — September 29, 2011 @ 8:46 am

  3. Hey, Ardis, Does this mean that you are now ready to officially join the True Blue Mormon Liberal Society.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 29, 2011 @ 9:05 am

  4. I majored in political science at BYU and there was for a time a class on “Mormon Political Thought”. In my imagination it covered pretty much what you have described here as “economic, political, and social thinking“, though I never got a chance to find out. I couldn’t fit it into my schedule, and then the class wasn’t offered again before I graduated. Maybe I can make up for the lost opportunity by reading it here.

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 29, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  5. I hope this lives up to expectations. Whether individual readers agree with the ideals taught in these lessons — whether they believe they could be implemented practically or think that they are hopelessly idealistic — I want to acknowledge that these ideas were a significant part of Mormon thought, supported by scriptural statements and practiced to one degree or another as fully compatible with, even the definition of, Mormonism.

    Chris H., TBMLS? Sounds like a Master of Library Science with tuberculosis! (The definition of “Liberal” that I’m claiming for myself will be illustrated by these materials, starting with the lesson published concurrently with this post, rather than by any definition/epithet thrown by either end of the current political spectrum.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2011 @ 9:44 am

  6. Well, I will revoke the the invitation then!

    Comment by Chris H. — September 29, 2011 @ 9:57 am

  7. See, bringing up politics alienates even the best of friends. I shoulda known better …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2011 @ 10:03 am

  8. The TBMLS is not about politics. You are still one of my dearest friends. You are just no longer welcome in my club.

    Comment by Chris H. — September 29, 2011 @ 10:04 am

  9. 🙂

    Comment by Chris H. — September 29, 2011 @ 10:06 am

  10. A Primer on the TBMLS:

    Comment by Chris H. — September 29, 2011 @ 10:10 am

  11. I’m hopeful this series will touch on the apparent contradiction/shift/balance? between the communal Mormonism advocated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and Lorenzo Snow and the fierce independence/self reliance promoted by J.Rueben Clark, Harold B. Lee and Bruce R. McConkie.

    I think this series has the potential to be another popular one!

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 29, 2011 @ 10:53 am

  12. I’m looking forward to this.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 29, 2011 @ 10:56 am

  13. Yay to Ardis who giveth to all readers liberally. And only sometimes upbraideth. And then only when they deserve it.

    Looking forward to this series and yet another peek into our past.

    Comment by David Y. — September 29, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  14. I thought of these lyrics from Supertramp’s Logical:

    I said now watch what you say they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, oh fanatical, criminal.

    Looking forward to this series.

    Comment by kevinf — September 29, 2011 @ 11:38 am

  15. Looking forward to what sounds like an interesting series. BTW, you do realise it’s pretty much only in the US that members get so hung up on these definitions? Everywhere else I’ve ever been, the numbers are so small that you’re either LDS or not. I’d never heard the phrase ‘Liberal Mormon’ before the advent of t’internet.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 29, 2011 @ 12:25 pm

  16. Yes, I’ve heard that, Anne; it’s the reality of my everyday world, though. Apart from the labels, though, it will be interesting to see how Saints elsewhere react to the actual teachings in the projected lessons and talks. Will those be ideas that, apart from the labels, are practiced? forgotten? something in between?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

  17. Yeah for another non-affiliated voter! I have never found a party whose platform I felt was inline with my beliefs. I try very hard not to be judgmental, but I often wonder how members could be involved in any of the major parties in the US.

    In Europe there are parties that would be closer and that I would need to do a much more in depth review before deciding.

    Alas, I live in the US, and so I expect to live my life non- affiliated.


    Comment by Julia — August 29, 2012 @ 10:33 am

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