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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guest Post: I'm CB. I'm a Professor, a Liberal, and a Mormon: A Measured Response to Joni Hilton

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Cougar Buckeye is a convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a transplant to Utah from Ohio. He has been married for six years to his wife and has three small children. Joining the church was one of the hardest decisions CB ever made, but also one of the most rewarding. He's still trying to adjust to being a Liberal Midwesterner in the heart of Conservative Zion. Read Cougar Buckeye's first guest post here.

Like many of you, I recently read Joni Hilton's editorial for the Meridian Magazine where she skewers so-called Liberal Mormons. While some responses have utilized snark or sarcasm to counter Sister Hilton's argument, it is my goal to discuss the various possible interpretations of her article, as I see them, and the greater meaning that we can get from the dialogue which resulted from article and the various replies to it. In the interest of full disclosure, I am an active Mormon, hold a leadership position in the ward, work for the Church, and have a testimony of both the Gospel and the Church. I am also a self-described politically liberal/progressive Mormon who tends to (but not always) vote Democratic. I'm married and have three kids. These issues likely color my response to Sister Hilton's article and the thoughts and feelings of those who agree with her piece. Cards on the table: I do not agree with it.

One Interpretation

One issue I see in Sister Hilton's piece is that she feels that Liberal Mormons are lunchline Mormons. What do I mean by a lunchline Mormon? Someone who picks and chooses which aspects of the Gospel they agree with or want to believe in. In this case, both are a pejorative term that, I believe, fundamentally misstates how people tend to feel about the Gospel and the Church. To use one of Sister Hilton's examples, she argues that Liberal Mormons do not support all aspects of the Proclamation on the Family. Its unclear what she is referring to here, but one could guess that she is arguing that Liberal Mormons support same-sex marriage, while more Conservative Mormons do not (as stated in the Proclamation). I don't wish to get into a same-sex marriage debate here, but want to gently suggest that many Mormons (Liberal, Conservative, Moderate, or whatever they may be) see the Proclamation in with a similar kind of lens which leads to different views—typically with the lenses of their political ideology. For example, how many Mormons judge women who work outside the home or stay-at-home dads while ignoring that the Proclamation clearly states that families should adapt to their individual circumstances? How many of us look at the Proclamation and try to fit in it into a Western conception of the family, ignoring the fact that this is a global church?

My point here is that many (most ... the vast majority of ...) Mormons see the Gospel and the Church through various lenses. Perhaps this is the product of the finite nature of the human mind, or maybe we attach greater meaning to certain aspects of the Gospel and less meaning to others in order to ground our faith. For example, I frequently cite King Benjamin's discourse or the various consequences of forgetting the poor (the Saints not being protected in Missouri, the destruction which occurred prior to the Savior's arrival in the Americas, etc.) because I believe strongly in social justice, social welfare, and equality. I'm sure that my more conservative friends do the same with other passages of scripture, general authority talks, and the like. Each of us also have certain aspects of the Gospel that we must put on our shelves with the understanding we will comprehend them later. To illustrate, I know people who do not understand why men can be sealed to more than one woman in their lifetimes, why men of African descent could not hold the Priesthood, or why women do not hold the Priesthood. Our ability to understand and have firm testimonies of certain aspects of the Gospel and not others is part of our progression, perhaps. Our testimonies are constantly evolving as we think, pray, mediate, and study over our earthly lives.

A Second Interpretation

Throughout her article Sister Hilton seems to make reference to culturally liberal Mormons. For example, she references trips to Europe, being fashionable, or believing that some callings are intellectually beneath them. Overall, this seems like a stereotypical caricature of what we might think of as highly-cultured, progressive, or non-mainstream individuals. The issue, it seems to me, is that Sister Hilton conflates culture and doctrine. Culture is not doctrine. Further, why do we care if some Mormons have traveled the world, like trendy fashions, or fancy themselves as intellectuals? One of the things about the Church which most fascinates me and truly strengthens my testimony is that both the Church and the Gospel appeal to a diverse range of people. Men and women; people of various races and ethnicities; people from across the world; Conservatives and Liberals; and people from many other backgrounds. The truthfulness of the Gospel and the broad appeal of the truth is probably what led to the bold declaration that the Gospel would be taken to people of all kindred, nations, and tongues. The diversity of people in the Church is truly amazing and should be celebrated, not be ridiculed or minimized.

A Third Interpretation

Is Sister Hilton referring to politically liberal Mormons? Members of the LDS Church who vote Democratic? If so, it is important to note that the church has consistently and repeatedly reinforced its political neutrality, while also noting that various aspects of the Gospel can be found in the platforms and ideologies of all political parties. Similarly, one could extrapolate that no political party does or maybe even can encapsulate all of the Church's stances and aspects of the Gospel. Generally, Democrats (the national Democratic Party) support same-sex marriage and abortion rights, which are (more or less with various nuances) opposed by the Church. Conversely, President Uchtdorf has indicated that the Church primarily favors President Obama's plan for immigration reform—which stands in contrast to the position taken by many Republican politicians who favor Arizona-style immigration laws at the national level. Many politically liberal Mormons believe that the Church's welfare principles and scripture favor the continued existence of the welfare state, while many politically conservative Mormons argue that the principles of self-reliance indicate that the welfare system should be limited, if not eliminated. In the end, we should realize that politically liberal, conservative, or Mormons of other political persuasions are welcome in the Church and that such diversity is good for the Church and its culture.

Ultimately, it might be best for the Church, members, and politics if we stop trying to make political discourse or attitudes fit the Gospel. It can become a toxic mix. I've sat in a number of Sunday School classes where very offensive things were said about politics, sometimes on issues that had nothing to do with the lesson at hand. Short of this, maybe we should take seriously the injunction of President Hugh B. Brown who said that members must "develop maturity of mind/emotion which enables you to differ with others on politics without calling into question their integrity." We should also remember Elder Marlin K. Jensen's words that "everyone who is a good Latter-day Saint is going to have to pick and choose a little bit regardless of the party that they're in and that may be required a lot more in the future than it has in the past."

A Final Point

Are Mormon liberals those who simply have questions about the Church and the Gospel? If so, we should remember President Uchtdorf's recent injunction that members of the Church are encouraged to ask questions and even those who ask tough questions about the Church have a place within it. There is nothing inherently wrong with questions about one's faith. Questions about faith led to the first vision. Questions about my own personal faith led me to join the church. Each of us asks questions in order to strengthen our testimonies and our faith. In my view, we should admire those members of the church who so openly ask questions and share their concerns—particularly if they remain active in the church. This group seemingly follows President Uchtdorf's advice to "doubt our doubts before we doubt our faith." Even if our brothers and sisters go inactive or go as far as leave the Church because of their questions, we should show great love for them simply because they are our neighbors, friends, family, and spirit siblings.

The commonly cited "we choose to be offended" will likely be invoked when people make points similar to Sister Hilton. I agree with Elder Bednar; however, we should also consider that we also choose to offend. Sister Hilton, in my view, wrote an overtly judgmental piece that will hinder more than help and will likely push away the very people she portends to be concerned for. Our actions and words should be centered in love and charity, which will ultimately increase their activity in the church, strengthen their testimony, and help them feel included in the fold. All too often, the judgments which we render on others create divisiveness in our wards, branches, stakes, and church. I'm not sure why we care if some Mormons are liberal or others are conservative, regardless of how one might define it. Why do we care if some Mormons believe slightly differently than others? These are not decisions for us to make or be concerned with. A testimony of the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, modern-day revelation, living Prophets, and the Book of Mormon seemingly makes someone a Mormon. Any judgments about beliefs, ideas, and questions are ones which ultimately must be rendered by our Heavenly Father, not us. He and our advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, will look upon our hearts and make the most righteous judgments possible. Until then, it is our job to love, respect, and have charity towards all—not to ostracize those outside of own individual and narrow definitions of the Mormon mainstream.

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