A Modest Terminological Proposal

June 24, 2004 | 33 comments
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Or maybe not so modest. You all decide. Here it is: can we T&Sers, and perhaps in time the bloggernacle community in general, come to an agreement, if only for purposes of discussion, on what is and is not meant by “liberal” and “conservative” in Mormon contexts? Because it seems that everytime these labels arise, confusion abounds.

In the thread following Jim’s post “Politics in the Church”, several people–Aaron, Steve, Jeremy, and others–have pointed out that it is not clear that those who are described or who describe themselves as “liberal Mormons” are, in fact, “liberals,” at least insofar as contemporary American political vernacular goes. Similarly, it’s not clear to me that “conservative”–with, again, the implication of political “conservatism” in the contempory American political context–fits up very well with the actual beliefs of those who label themselves or are labeled as such. (Kristine observed that, in the thread following my post on Elder Packer and beards, “conservatives” are feeling “oppressed” by my and others’ criticism of his comments–and yet, so far as I can tell, nothing political has come up in that thread at all. A while back, Nate started a huge thread by attacking “liberal Mormons”; yet despite his very careful specification of whom he was and wasn’t criticizing, things still got terribly out of hand.)

The problem is a simple one: being “liberal” and being “conservative” mean different things to different people. “Liberalism” can denote an attitude, a philosophical orientation, a set of policy and voting preferences, and so forth. Similarly, “conservativism” can be used to describe a set of beliefs regarding the economy, or gender roles, or Book of Mormon historicity, and so forth. It should go without saying that while there is often overlap between these several definitions, none of them necessarily entail one another. When I teach my political ideologies class, this is the point I have to make more than any other–labels must be used carefully, because what might be accurately described as “liberal” in one context might be nonsensical in any other.

So, here is my proposal: henceforth “liberal Mormons” are people who identify themselves as Mormon and whose political preference result in “liberal” voting habits. Similarly, “conservative Mormons” are Mormons who vote in accordance with “conservative” policies. I’m not crazy about these labels, as they’re quite banal–“liberal” and “conservative” are rich terms, and we ought to be able to use them more broadly. But unless one makes it very clear that the terms are being used philosophically, I think conversational safety and charity requires us to limit their use. The second and more interesting part of my proposal follows: what ought we to label those who have an “orthodox” or “traditional” relationship to church leadership and doctrine vs. those who have a more “heterodox” or “independent” perspective? There’s the old stand-by: “Iron Rod” vs. “Liahona,” which has the advantage of being well known, and which certainly gets us away from the “liberal vs. conservative” morass. But can we do better? I’m open to suggestions. Either way, I really think allowing for terminological overlap between the political and the churchly–however many real-world instances of such overlap there may be–is much more trouble than it’s worth.

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33 Responses to A Modest Terminological Proposal

  1. Davis Bell on June 24, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    I think the terms “Iron Rod Mormon” and “Liahona Mormon” are problematic, although they may be the best we’ve got, and I do appreciate that they’re both respectful (I like them rather more than I do the “Letter of the Law” vs. the “Spirit of the Law” formulations, which is basically as Pharisee vs. Christ set up).

    How about Self-righteous Taliban vs. Moral Relativist Hippy? ;)

  2. Steve Evans on June 24, 2004 at 1:41 pm

    Not to toot my own horn, but I tried to discuss this in the nascent days of BCC. See here. Like you, we were largely unable to come up with a workable definition or categorization. Unlike you, I received no comments…

  3. lyle on June 24, 2004 at 1:48 pm

    Russell:
    1. Let’s follow Davis’ suggestion, i.e. use humor in creating the labels…so as to keep the dander down (and up the downward dog while you’re at it :)
    2. Politically, are there terms that folks use to “self-describe”?
    3. Once self-descriptors are chosen, they have to be vetted for opposition. I.e. liberals doesn’t work, cuz it is invective for some (conservative) & stolen for others (classical liberals).

    Honestly, why are we still following conventions created during the French Revolution?

  4. Kristine on June 24, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    But Russell, aren’t you Exhibit A as to why even one’s voting record isn’t a very good index of whether one is “conservative” or “liberal”?

    And I’m not sure “orthodox” or “heterodox” will work for religious orientation, either. I’m probably as heterodox in my thinking as anybody, but also quite orthopractic, so I don’t like it when people call me a “liberal” Mormon and assume I’m also liberal in practice.

  5. Davis Bell on June 24, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    I think the terms “Iron Rod Mormon” and “Liahona Mormon” are problematic, although they may be the best we’ve got, and I do appreciate that they’re both respectful (I like them rather more than I do the “Letter of the Law” vs. the “Spirit of the Law” formulations, which is basically as Pharisee vs. Christ set up).

    How about Self-righteous Taliban vs. Moral Relativist Hippy? ;)

  6. Russell Arben Fox on June 24, 2004 at 2:11 pm

    “But Russell, aren’t you Exhibit A as to why even one’s voting record isn’t a very good index of whether one is ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’?”

    Yep, which is why I use those terms philosophically, if I use them at all. But I’m in the minority; most American citizens (unfortunately, I think) fall roughly into the “liberal/conservative” binary; there just aren’t that many populists/leftists/whatever out there, and even fewer of them are Mormon. Hence, “liberal” and “conservative” are the labels that are going to get used within the American church. I’d just like, if only on this blog, to be able to use them more consistently and coherently, something I need to work at as much as anyone else. (Politically speaking, the more Mormons move beyond those labels, as far as I’m concerned, the better. But in the meantime…)

  7. jeremobi on June 24, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    Lyle hints at the key problem when using the terms liberal and conservative: Americans almost never use these terms as they were understood in the French Revolution, elsewhere on the continent, nor in Britain. S.M. Lipset reminds us that politically relevant Americans are classical liberals (no old order to conserve, no radicalism in rebellion). If I’m a free marketer am I liberal or conservative? Is a pro-high migration stance liberal or conservative? Is support for wilderness protection in U.S. national forests a liberal or conservative stance? Sorry, no easy way to cut through the conceptual mess in this country.

  8. Nate Oman on June 24, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    The odd thing is that philosophically, I think that Russell is probably quite a bit more “conservative” than I am, and he seems to vote Democratic. I think that philosophically, I am quite a bit more “liberal” than he is, and I tend to vote GOP.

  9. jeremobi on June 24, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    Right, Ghandi was liberal, but so is the Chicago School. The Tory party is conservative, but so, in his own way, was Stalin. Go figure.

  10. clarkgoble on June 24, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    The big problem with such labels is that they tend to avoid actual discussions about beliefs or ideas. Further they have such different meaning in different contexts. One can be theologically conservative, economically conservative, socially conservative, conservative as in libertarian, neoconservative, and on and on.

    Even within those categories there is a lot of diversity. For instance what is a theological conservative? For instance Bill Hamblin and Bruce R. McConkie are both theologically conservative but have fairly different perspectives on many issues. (Say the way the flood is to be read)

    I’d say that while there are some generalizations you can make, in terms of actual discussions they are not that helpful.

  11. Bob Caswell on June 24, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    I too, like Steve, have attempted to develop my own system of labeling Mormons. But as Clark just pointed out, any sort of system breaks down at some point. Unlike Steve, I’ll try and make my links work. :-) For any interested, check out:

    The Two Types of Mormons

    More on Black & White Mormons vs. Gray Mormons

    P.S. Steve, send me an email with the link to your site.

  12. Aaron Brown on June 24, 2004 at 3:41 pm

    These are some nice thoughts, Russell, but I’m afraid it’s a lost cause. American and Mormon use of conservative/liberal terminology is too entrenched, and I doubt a speech code at T&S would work, particularly given the “open forum” nature of the community.

    The best we can probably do is to draw and redraw careful distinctions over and over and over again, all the while accusing each other of oversimplifying and stereotyping each other’s stands.

    Aaron B

  13. BTD Greg on June 24, 2004 at 4:14 pm

    Part of the problem here–other than the fact that most people don’t feel the need to reconcile their political and religious views–is that the conservative/liberal descriptions are too simplistic. I think it’s useful to think in terms of the “poltical compass” quiz grid, with economic issues (conservative vs. liberal) along the x-axis and social issues (libertarian vs. authoritarian) on the y-axis. Someone’s political orientation can be thought of as a combination of these factors, and plotted 2-dimensionally on a graph.

    My hypothesis is that what most people would suppose means “religiously liberal” and “religiously conservative” is more closely corrolated to libertarian and authoritarian measurements, respectively. This makes sense, I think, because religious beliefs are generally closer to social beliefs than economic ones.

  14. lyle on June 24, 2004 at 4:21 pm

    BTD: great idea. perhaps instead of using the libertarian x axis of economic liberty & the y axis of individual liberty, a 3D model could be developed to include the religious orthodoxy/orthopraxis model, along a z axis.

    or: we can learn from our feminist brothers & both hyphenate and use the above, i.e.:

    1. I am a social conservative/economic liberal (hyphen) liberal othropraxis/conservative orthodox.

    or perhaps any theory/descriptor that is “thick” enough to adequately describe will ultimately entail too much & be too cumbersome for use.

  15. Nathan on June 24, 2004 at 4:32 pm

    Like many, I’ve previously tried to define the terms as they relate to Mormonism specifically, not to one’s secular politics — or rather, to delineate how the terms appear to be used by the proud self-declared of either camp. My comments, for those who may be interested, are here:

    http://www.tachyon-city.com/archives/00000402.html

  16. Jeremy on June 24, 2004 at 4:48 pm

    “a 3D model could be developed to include the religious orthodoxy/orthopraxis model, along a z axis”

    Yeah, but discarding the inevitably sloppy qualitative label for the numerically quantitative label has lots of problems, especially when you’re using a spatial metaphor: you have to track somebody’s religious orthodoxy along an axis marked by negative or positive values–and the inevitably mixed metaphor of “negative or positive values” puts us right back where we started. :)

  17. Bob Caswell on June 24, 2004 at 4:52 pm

    Nathan, I couldn’t figure out how to post on your site, so I’ll post here.

    After reading what you said, it seems like you fall into the classic trap of defining it as a spectrum rather than the cut and dry two teams approach only to state right after that you’re somewhere in the middle.

    Don’t most of us feel that way? There’s some spectrum, but we’re in the middle. We’re never extreme.

  18. Ben Huff on June 24, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    I think if we tell ourselves, “Oh, now we’re clear on what these terms actually mean, therefore we can actually rely on them to be useful descriptors”, we will be deluding ourselves and making misunderstanding more likely, not less. Better to cut our losses and just remember they are vague. Any binary terms are going to be blunt instruments, especially in this crowd!

    I’m particularly dubious of any binary opposition that is supposed to cover all the possibilities, and for that reason favor “liberal” and “conservative” just because it’s a known evil. I am suspiciious of “Iron Rod” vs. “Liahona” terminology because it seems like “Liahona” is bound to become (or at least double as) a euphemism for “lost in the mists of darkness”

    But more, not necessarily binary terms might be good. I like the term “cafeteria Catholic” I’ve heard around here at Notre Dame : )
    I don’t think I’ve noticed many cafeteria Mormons, though. But I know some “cultural” Mormons, which overlap with others I’m tempted to call “post-Mormons”.

  19. Ben S. on June 24, 2004 at 6:14 pm

    Someone asked about self-labels. I like to explain to people who ask about the NIV study bible I bring to Church, or the books on my shelf, that I’m orthodox but non-traditional:)

  20. lyle on June 24, 2004 at 6:23 pm

    ben H: the problem with the ‘cafeteria’ term though is that it is used as an insult/derisively; to refer to both

    Catholics (it was in several articles describing Kerry’s faith, or lack thereof); and
    Mormons (the term has been used to attack & call such types to repentance in GC in the last 5 years or so)

  21. dp on June 24, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    “So, here is my proposal: henceforth “liberal Mormons” are people who identify themselves as Mormon and whose political preference result in “liberal” voting habits. Similarly, “conservative Mormons” are Mormons who vote in accordance with “conservative” policies. “

    This seems exclusionary – as an Australian, whenever I use the terms “liberal Mormon” or “conservative Mormon” I’m certainly not thinking about voting preferences. Would the term active Republican mean a member of the Republican party who had 100% Church attendance? Surely not, which begs the question of why the opposite is considered true.

  22. Philocrites on June 24, 2004 at 9:44 pm

    Wouldn’t it make more sense to let “liberal Mormon” and “conservative Mormon” refer to degrees of theological and cultural flexibility within the religious sphere, and let “Mormon liberal” and “Mormon conservative” refer to the political ideologies of various Mormons?

    After all, it seems that “liberal Mormon” and “conservative Mormon” tend to refer to questions of orthodoxy much more than to questions of political allegiance.

  23. Jim F. on June 24, 2004 at 9:59 pm

    dp and Philocrites, this makes sense. “liberal” as an adjective moidfying Mormon means someone is liberal with regard to things Mormon. “Mormon” as an adjective modifying “conservative” means that conservative person is also a Mormon.

    How come we didn’t think of that obvious point sooner?

  24. Bob on June 24, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    As all of the above Bloggers give Liberals a place in the Mormon Tent, are not all the the above ‘Liberals’?

  25. Bob on June 24, 2004 at 11:02 pm

    As all of the above Bloggers give Liberals a place in the Mormon Tent, are not all the the above ‘Liberals’?

  26. Bob on June 24, 2004 at 11:03 pm

    As all of the above Bloggers give Liberals a place in the Mormon Tent, are not all the the above ‘Liberals’?

  27. Dave on June 25, 2004 at 12:10 am

    Wow, this is an awfully tame discussion compared to what I was expecting to see. I use two rules of thumb on this issue: (1) A liberal Mormon is still generally a conservative anything else; and (2) when you use the term “liberal Mormon,” people generally know who you are talking about.

    Someone who exits the institutional Church is an ex-Mormon; liberal Mormons are still in, generally quite happily so. It is an unfortunate mistake to think otherwise. Also, the opposite of a liberal Mormon is NOT a conservative Mormon. I don’t think the term “conservative Mormon” has any meaning, which is half the confusion. If pressed, I would say the best candidate for an opposite to liberal Mormon would be fundamentalist Mormon, but why does there need to be an opposite? What’s the opposite of a Canadian? What’s the opposite of a Catholic? What’s the opposite of a libertarian? The need to have a handy opposite for every group or the urge to classify everyone into one of two opposing groups is unfortunate and wrongheaded.

    It’s odd that the term liberal Mormon gets used online and in Sunstonish discussions, but hardly ever in the Real Church. Not once in my life has someone come up to me at church (or anywhere, for that matter) and said, “Hi, I’m a liberal Mormon.”

  28. dp on June 25, 2004 at 12:42 am

    Dave said:
    Not once in my life has someone come up to me at church (or anywhere, for that matter) and said, “Hi, I’m a liberal Mormon.”
    No one has ever come up to me and said “I’m a conservative Mormon” either. But plenty of members have said things to me that imply one or the other.

    Disclaimer: I have been guilty of offending some online with my liberal use of the term liberal (however some sites/individuals like BCC call themselves ‘liberal-minded’).

    The general stigma about the word is not surprising in light of Elder Harold B. Lee’s General Conference talk wherein he offered the famous quote:
    “A liberal in the Church is merely one who does not have a testimony”

  29. lyle on June 25, 2004 at 2:17 am

    yet another prophetic statement all too easily discarded…

    ;)

  30. Steve Evans on June 25, 2004 at 11:07 am

    So much for this thread being tame. Dave’s statement to that effect must be the “prophetic statement all too easily discarded” that Lyle describes.

  31. lyle on June 25, 2004 at 11:13 am

    ah, the joys of refusing to be trolled?
    esp. after putting in a tone ;) for humor.

  32. Na on June 25, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Bob said:

    [i]After reading what you said, it seems like you fall into the classic trap of defining it as a spectrum rather than the cut and dry two teams approach only to state right after that you’re somewhere in the middle.

    Don’t most of us feel that way? There’s some spectrum, but we’re in the middle. We’re never extreme.[/i]

    I don’t see that as a trap. Political polarization of recent years has tried to teach us that everything is an either/or proposition, and further, that you have to accept all planks of a platform.

    So when I define what I mean by the “conservative” and “liberal” ends of the spectrum, then plunk myself in the middle, it means that I lie somewhere between the extremes (or, if you prefer, platonic ideals) I’ve just described.

    As for no one describing themselves as extremists… Perhaps not in those words, but they’ll express the sentiment. Ask Gayle Ruzicka if she thinks of herself as a middle-of-the-roader or a hardliner. Ask some member who thinks that the Church is an entirely man-made institution with no efficacy in its ordinances if he feels like he’s a centrist, or if he’s on the periphery of Mormon belief. I think you’ll get accurate answers most of the time.

  33. Juliann on June 27, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    So, here is my proposal: henceforth “liberal Mormons” are people who identify themselves as Mormon and whose political preference result in “liberal” voting habits. Similarly, “conservative Mormons” are Mormons who vote in accordance with “conservative” policies.

    ———-

    That is certainly appropriate in political discussions but in theological discussions, *Mormonism* is anything but conservative. We need to differentiate our theology and social/political stands or it makes it difficult to interact with the rest of the world.