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.