What is the precise nature of Mormon liberalism? Broadly speaking the political philosophy which says that the government ought to limit its control over citizen’s lives and leave them — in so far as possible — free to pursue their own visions of the true, the good, and the beautiful is known as “liberalism.” Among liberal philosophers there are two main camps, so-called “political liberals” and so-called “perfectionist liberals.” One interesting question is to ask if Mormons are perfectionist or political liberals.
Political liberals argue that liberalism is justified by the brute plurality of reasonable beliefs that people in modern societies hold. Some are Christians, some are atheists, some are Muslims, etc. To a greater and lesser extent, these beliefs involve incommensurable claims. They can’t all be right. On the other hand, none of them is unreasonable, and there is no prospect that the diversity of beliefs is going to disappear. Given this fact, liberalism is the best option. It allows those with differing beliefs to peacefully co-exist, and accordingly it is the system that, over the long run, is likely to garner support from the multiple constituencies of our diverse society. One implication of this, however, is that political liberals necessarily subscribe to a very thin notion of liberalism. For example, Islam, which literally means submission, is ultimately about complete obedience to the absolute supremacy of God. “No problem,” says the political liberal. “You can be a liberal because liberalism is not about ultimate, metaphysical questions. It is just about putting together the best social arrangements given the sort of society that we live in.”
Perfectionist liberals have a different view of the matter. For them human liberty is not simply a useful device for managing the tensions of modern society. Rather, freedom is at the heart of what it means to live a good life and be a good person. On this view, we value liberty because the only commitments and obligations that ultimately matter are those that are freely chosen, and the highest human good is to maintain the ability to freely choose. Hence, political liberals support the institutions of liberal society because they are a manifestation of our concern for the deepest good of human beings. On this view, Islam is profoundly anti-liberal, or at any rate it is anti-liberal to the extent that it does not regard the ability to choose — and not choose — to follow Islam as the highest good.
Mormons talk a great deal about agency, choice, and freedom. There is a strong liberal streak in Mormonism (alas Russell is no longer here to express outrage at this claim). There is a sense in which we are liberals, but what kind of liberals are we? For example, one might read the traditional Mormon story about the Council in Heaven in perfectionist liberal terms. Satan and Christ offered two different plans. Satan offered universal salvation without freedom. Christ offered moral freedom with the certainty that some would not be saved. Christ’s plan was the correct one. This seems like the priority of liberty on a cosmic scale. On the other hand, we have other scriptures — most notably the repeated injunction that we become as little children — that seem to point strongly against the perfectionist liberal paradigm. It is no accident that children and child rearing are a consistent problem for perfectionist liberals, whose philosophy ultimately takes the independent adult as the paradigm for humanity.
Figuring out which sort of liberal we are supposed to be, however, strikes me as a better way of thinking about what the concept of freedom means within Mormonism than having arguments about whether we should be saying “agency” or “free agency.”