By Ralph Hancock
Part 3 of 3 of “Mormonism in the public square”
In the first two articles in this series, I have examined the relationship between religion and politics and shown the impossibility of keeping these completely separate, especially as fundamental moral questions are more and more a matter of very consequential political and legal contests. I have also shown that the New Liberalism goes far beyond the classical liberal task of facilitating free debate within a society of diverse interests and opinions; it now asserts itself as a substantive moral vision centered upon extreme freedom emancipated from all accountability to any higher moral standard.
Now I come to my most important point, which to me seems rather obvious but is somehow in fact quite controversial: This New Liberalism is not remotely compatible with basic LDS beliefs.
The New Liberalism posits open-ended individual self-expression — including, notably, sexual expression, however that may be defined by the individuals’ desires or supposed identity — as a fundamental right, as essential to the “dignity” of the person. The opposition of this view to the Restored Gospel could not be clearer: the Gospel situates sexuality within a distinctive view of the eternal destiny of the person, and subordinates sexual desire and expression to that definite purpose and to the commandments that serve that purpose. It is fundamental to LDS teaching that the family is eternal, and therefore that sexuality must be expressed within the bounds that serve the person’s interest in the eternal family.
All this and much more is clear to every LDS who is even passingly familiar with the great Proclamation to the World on the Family published under the authority of the First Presidency and the Apostles in 1995. This Proclamation would seem to present an insuperable obstacle to LDS wishing to reconcile their New Liberal commitments with Church teaching.
- Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.
- …Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.
- …We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.
The opposition seems clear. But in fact, as I have learned, a significant number of LDS who consider themselves and would like to be considered faithful are ready to discount the authority of the Family Proclamation and to subordinate it to the New Liberalism that they have adopted as an authoritative moral touchstone.
For them, a practically self-evident syllogism dictates this discounting of the Proclamation’s teaching:
The Church teaches moral truth;
the New Liberalism (equality, progress, sexual freedom) defines moral truth;
ergo: what the Church really teaches, or must one day teach, is the New Liberalism (and not the Family Proclamation).
A significant division is thus emerging among LDS: on the one hand, the overwhelming majority of faithful LDS cherish the clarity and power of the prophetic teaching of the Family Proclamation; on the other, a small but active, articulate, intellectually ambitious and mutually reinforcing (in the bloggernacle, in particular) set of New Liberals have redefined the moral core of the gospel to reconcile it with the views now dominant among cultural and intellectual elites more generally.
These are self-described Mormons who have surrendered the moral citadel that governs basic beliefs about the nature and purpose of human existence to the dominant forces of secular culture. Religion thus becomes a hollowed-out shell occupied by the moral vision of the New Liberalism. According to this vision, the one fixed, sacred point of the moral universe is the idea of every individual’s equal right to define the meaning of his or her own existence.
Elder Maxwell understood very well, already decades ago, the political implications of the new amoral moralism:
Decrease the belief in God, and you increase the numbers of those who wish to play at being God by being ‘society’s supervisors.’ Such ‘supervisors’ deny the existence of divine standards, but are very serious about imposing their own standards on society. (The Prohibitive Costs of a Value-free Society, Ensign, Oct. 1978)
Just like many other readers of Meridian Magazine, I would prefer not to raise what may be vexing political questions in religious contexts. I certainly would not give a talk about the New Liberalism or any other political tendency in Sacrament Meeting. Nor would I make a point of bringing up such a subject as a home teacher, and of course not in the context of an ecclesiastical interview. Still, it remains the case that each of us possesses, more or less deliberately, a moral vision that is, on the one hand, deeply shaped by our religious commitments and, on the other, deeply implicated in our political convictions.
Many Latter-day Saints are actively involved, as they should be, in articulating moral-political concerns in publications, on editorial pages, and in blogs. Many of these writers, especially among the rising generation, seem to me to accept rather uncritically the basic assumptions of the New Liberalism. I think it is important to question these assumptions. (Of course there are “conservative” assumptions that are worth questioning as well. I have been known to take up this task myself. But it seems clear to me that in our times the moralistic relativism of the New Liberalism is the greatest ideological obstacle to fully embracing Gospel teachings. That is why I feel it my duty to point out that “liberal” or “progressive” views that many take to be simply rational are in fact highly questionable.)
In questioning the assumptions of the New Liberalism, I am saying little more than is being said with increasing frequency and emphasis by our Church leaders, including in General Conference addresses. New Liberal Mormons are ever hopeful that the Prophet and Apostles will follow their lead and jump on the progressive bandwagon – or at least stop resisting it in such embarrassingly retrograde fashion. These Progressives could not have found our most recent General Conferences very encouraging of their efforts to re-interpret the restored Gospel according to a New Liberal vision. On the question of the definition of marriage and sexual morality, in particular, the authorities whom we sustain could hardly have more emphatic — as readers can confirm, if they wish, by reviewing speeches by Elders Bednar, Ballard, Perry, and Hales, just for example. [Editor: Also, from the most recent (October 2013) conference, remarks from Elders Oaks and Nelson are especially instructive on these topics.]
If in my analysis I have gone beyond the clear and consistent teaching of our leaders, it is simply in beginning to trace the roots of the moralistic relativism that increasingly surrounds us, and in naming it the New Liberalism. Of course I speak only for myself, but I think I am providing a service by connecting some dots in intellectual and political history. I have been very careful to distinguish the increasingly dominant New Liberalism from an older liberal, constitutional tradition that the Church, since the days of Joseph Smith, has always wanted to befriend, and with which it wisely made peace in order for Utah to become part of the United States.
Still, if you think my characterization of the New Liberalism is unfair, or that it doesn’t generally apply, I suggest the following experiment: find a person who now calls himself or herself “liberal.” Ask him (or her) what he thinks of this proposition: The sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife. It is a very good bet the self-identified liberal standing in front of you will not accept that proposition.
Or, if you don’t want to conduct the experiment, look up what scientific opinion surveys have to say about the correlation between a self-identification as “liberal” and views on marriage, family and sexuality. (Of course it is worth noting that one can find many “conservatives,” especially those of “libertarian” leanings who will also reject the proposition. This is indeed a worthy topic for another discussion. But at least among “conservatives” you will find vastly more who support the proposition of the Family Proclamation than among “liberals” – which is to say, I’m not just making words up to suit my argument or to caricature groups I happen to disagree with.)
Let me be clear that my most fundamental concern is not with political tactics and related opinions. The strength of the New Liberalism is certainly growing in our society; I think we should do all we can to resist it, if we care about our families and our communities, but we cannot be sure we will win. How we should cope practically, politically with the collapse of a moral environment broadly supportive of certain basic LDS principles is a difficult question on which reasonable and faithful LDS can differ. The Church leaves it largely to individual members (including political candidates and office holders) to judge how best to negotiate necessary compromises in a world we can only control at the margins, if at all.
It is our duty to help make the world as good as it can be, but I do not expect all LDS to agree on the political implications of this duty. For example, faithful LDS who completely support and live by the Word of Wisdom may disagree on the tricky question of just what public policies regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages are best for Utah or for any other political entity. The same holds true for still more fundamental questions concerning sexual morality and our understanding of the family (absent direct guidance from our Church leaders).
Such tactical political questions are worthy of careful discussion in the light of basic moral and religious principles and of our best estimates of what may be possible. But, again, my fundamental concern here is not with public policy (however important), but with the souls of Latter-day Saints. If we disagree concerning what is politically possible, we should agree on what is optimal, at least where basic moral and religious principles are concerned.
The danger of the New Liberalism is that it is not merely a political doctrine in the practical, institutional sense; it tends increasingly, rather, to insinuate itself as a comprehensive understanding of morality and of the meaning of human existence. It presents itself as a rival to our most basic moral and religious principles, and so, if accepted uncritically, it tends to undermine, often subtly and quietly at first, Latter-day Saints’ convictions concerning moral norms governing sexuality and the family.
It is no accident that increasing numbers of young Latter-day Saints, in particular, find themselves being convinced that to be truly moral in today’s world is to be “tolerant,” “accepting,” and “compassionate,” which the New Liberalism has redefined to mean: every person is entitled to define right and wrong for himself or herself, and God would not have us “impose our values.” But this redefinition is based on the New Liberalism’s own assumed highest value of “self-expression,” or the freedom to define good and evil for oneself. To accept the New Liberalism as somehow “rational” or “progressive” and thus beyond questioning is a grave error, and one that is eroding moral structures without which a good life is impossible, not to mention a life worthy of a Latter-day Saint.
I conclude that it is time to recognize the New Liberalism for what it is, and to question its claim to the moral and rational high ground. Neutrality is a comfortable path of least resistance, but we have reached a point where, if we truly love our neighbors and our communities and therefore care about the moral environment in which we all live, we must openly resist the influence of the New Liberalism.
(An earlier version of this argument was presented at the FAIR conference in Provo, Utah, August 1.)
This article appeared in Meridian Magazine (www.ldsmag.com).
Dr. Ralph Hancock is president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs and a Professor of Political Science at Brigham Young University. He is the author of such works as Calvin and the Foundations of Modern Politics and The Responsibility of Reason, as well as numerous others arguing for philosophy’s openness to religious and moral insight. Moreover, Dr. Hancock has organized and directed more than a dozen scholarly conferences and colloquia concerning philosophical and religious dimensions of public issues. He holds degrees from BYU and from Harvard University.