My own politics ocillate between liberalism (in the grand historical sense) and conservatism.
I am constantly torn between Burke or perhaps Wendell Berry and Hayek or perhaps Schumpeter. What does this mean in practical terms? It means that I love commercial dynamism and tradition. I love the vision of slow organic growth and chaotic, decentralized destruction and creativity. I love the richness of authority and community and the possibility of liberty and individualism. These are not, I am quite aware, entirely consistent loves. (Love isn’t about consistency is it?)
I dislike the shallow, talk-radio ideologues of the contemporary American Right who want to insist there is no real tension or contradiction between these loves. I also dislike the administrative state, bureaucracy, central planning, the sanctimonious vacuousness of most contemporary constitutional law and the cant of rent-seeking trussed up in the garb of progressivism. (I’m talking about you, UAW!) I think that Woodrow Wilson was a prig. I don’t think that Carter was a great president or a great ex-President. I don’t trust Jefferson or FDR.
I think that Calvin Coolidge was a courageous man of principle. I love John Adams — although not necessarily the version of him served up by David McCullough and Joseph Ellis; spare me hagiography or (worse!) psychology. I also love Abraham Lincoln, although of course, he was a protectionist, a great expander of the government, and, ultimately and to his lasting glory, a violent attacker of tradition and established hierarchy. (Did I mention that my loves are not entirely consistent?) I think that living in a politics dominated by the clash of Disraeli and Gladstone would have been glorious. I find enduring a politics dominated by the kerfuffling of Obama and McCain (or worse Bush and Kerry) is demoralizing. I fervently believe that Winston Churchill was the most heroic statesman of all time.
More than any of this, however, I am a Mormon. I love the Restoration.
One of the persistent puzzles of my life is how I make sense of my political and religious sensibilities. As a matter of biography, I can’t say that one emerged from the other. Likewise, as a matter of logic, I don’t think that one forms a set of first principles for the other. Rather, when I carefully examine my own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings what I find is a swirling chaos of affections and prejudices. Reflection is not a matter of building an edifice on sure foundations. Rather, it is the exertion of finding an orderly way of navigating the roil of my own reactions to the world.
It is possible, of course, to read Mormonism as a kind of liberalism. For example, one could see in Joseph Smith the iconoclast and the liberator, the prophet who turned his back on the prejudices of the past, opened himself to the perfectibility of man, and thrived on the creative destruction of theological innovation upon innovation. Imagine yourself as a Mormon in the 1830s and the 1840s, squint so as not to notice the apocalyptic expectation of judgment upon the nations, and one’s Mormonism looks liberal, progressive, and even revolutionary. Likewise, one can read authors like Talmage, Widsoe, Bennion, or to a lesser extent B.H. Roberts and feel that Mormonism is a kind of reasonable and balanced expression of optimism on the human condition. Education, an open mind, and belief in gold plates and anthropomorphic deity all combine in a vision of enlightened progress.
There are also, of course, ways of reading Mormonism as a kind of conservatism. I went to college firmly decided against having anything to do with Mormon history or Mormon studies. This was the early 1990s and the whole project seemed impossibly rancorous. More even that that, however, my parents had lived at or near the center of so much of Mormon intellectual life in the 1980s that turning my back on Mormon studies was a way of both asserting my independence and avoiding the treacherous emotional politics of their divorce.
What changed this was B.H. Roberts. During a hot, humid, p-day afternoon in the mission office in Pusan I started reading a battered copy of The Comprehensive History of the Church. I was enthralled by Roberts’s account of the Raid of the 1880s. Beneath the veneer of objectivity, one could feel his boiling sense of outrage. I am quite glad that Mormonism is monogamous. I think that I have a pretty realistic sense of the difficulties and the heartaches of nineteenth-century plural marriage. On the other hand, my reaction is detached. I am not horrified or angst ridden about it. I can understand, sympathize with, and even admire the nineteenth-century polygamists, while being utterly content that their marital world has passed out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On the other hand, my emotional reaction to reading about The Raid was intense. I found myself sharing Roberts’s sense of the wrong, the sense that there was something obscene about law and a distant government violently shredding a community and way of life that had been so laboriously built. This emotional reaction captures my conservatism. Indeed, the power of the emotional reaction stays with me, even though on an intellectual level I think Mormonism’s forced abandonment of polygamy was fortunate, even providential.
The relative length of these musings says something about my own liberal and conservative impulses. The liberal sentiment in my religious experience was captured neatly in a paragraph, one that ended with the rather trite summation of mid-century Mormonism’s faith in the ultimate absence of contradictions. It was clean, reassuringly progressive, and a little shallow. Capturing the conservative impulse took a detour of several paragraphs through personal and communal history. The result was richer, but also conflicted, tragic, and possibly reactionary. (I don’t care for polygamy. How dare the nineteenth-century feds try to destroy polygamy! Wait, do I want to go the barricades for polygamy?)
Try as I might, however, there is no sentiment for Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis in my Mormonism. Their is some hope and relief in that.