What Kind of Liberals are Mormons?

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.”

40 comments for “What Kind of Liberals are Mormons?

  1. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 3:02 pm

    Although it’s been said that at its onset, Islam was the most liberal paradigm of an Abrahamic religion based pluralistic society to-date? See Karen Armstrong’s /Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet/ and note /The Qur`an 2:256: “Let there be no compulsion in religion…”./

  2. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 3:18 pm

    Although it’s also true that this surah and ayat were revealed before Islam had became triumphant on the Arabian peninsula.

    And if colonial America had a Puritan, illiberal theocracy versus a Quaker-led, liberal pluralism — with a version the latter’s eventually winning out in a liberal America — to what extent of liberalality/ illiberality were the modest/ advanced pluralism within Joseph and then Brigham’s original theocratic formulations?

  3. Seth R.
    May 9, 2006 at 3:28 pm

    What kind of liberals are Mormons?

    Snarky ones.

  4. Melissa
    May 9, 2006 at 4:12 pm


    Christ did not present a plan in the pre-mortal life. The Father presented a plan. Satan then presented an alternative plan seeking glory for himself. Christ volunteered to fill the necessary role of Savior in the Father’s plan. Satan’s plan was not only problematic because of his motives, it showed a deep misunderstanding of the nature of things. Even if Lucifer’s plan hadn’t represented rebellion against God, his plan was not actually a viable option given the nature of pre-mortal spirits. D&C 93:30 tells us that agency is inherent to our existence. “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” I’ve always read this passage to mean (contrary to the popular telling) that God didn’t reject Satan’s plan because he was trying to protect our agency. Our agency is not something that can ever be taken from us—even through a decision by God in a heavenly council. Without agency we cannot exist. Satan’s plan was dismissed because it wasn’t even a possibility.

    As for perfectionist liberalism, there’s much more to be said. I’m on my way to hear a lecture about the “the uses and abuses of death,” but I’ll try to get back to this post when I return.

  5. greenfrog
    May 9, 2006 at 4:17 pm

    The submission route identified with Islam also appears in various strains Mormonism’s authority structure and one’s role within that structure.

    I’ve been instructed on more than one occasion from the (local) pulpit that obedience to a leader’s wrong/incorrect/uninspired/contrary-to-God’s-will instruction is nonetheless the correct action for one subordinate in the hierarchy. Mind you, I’ve not heard that from the Conference Center pulpit. From that source, the message comes out as “you will never get an incorrect instruction from the (this) pulpit, so confirm and conform.” In either version, submission is highly valued, suggesting that perfectionist liberalism is not.

  6. Sideshow
    May 9, 2006 at 5:25 pm


    I think Moses 4:3 disputes some of your claims:

    “Without agency we cannot exist” and “agency is inherent to our existence” vs. “the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him” — this seems to say that God gave us our agency, implying it wasn’t an inherent quality of our existence before that. That may be because agency requires the power to act on our decisions, which may have been what God provided.

    “God didn’t reject Satan’s plan because he was trying to protect our agency” and “Satan’s plan was dismissed because it wasn’t even a possibility” vs “because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man” — this seems to clearly say that God rejected Satan because of his rebellion and his attempts to destroy our agency. God may not have needed to “protect” our agency, but Satan’s punishment seems a direct result of his attempts to destroy it. I don’t know of a definitive statement that says that Satan’s plan wasn’t viable, although I’m aware that’s a common belief (which I agree with). Maybe Satan could have reduced agency by making people immediately experience the consequences of their actions, or only providing them with one choice, or not having any commandments for people to break.

  7. May 9, 2006 at 5:40 pm

    Melissa: Your claim seems a bit too positive to me. I think that the scriptures are actually ambigious on the point. Consider this from the Book of Abraham:

    Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones; And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born. And there stood one among them that was like unto God, and he said unto those who were with him: We will go down, for there is space there, and we will take of these materials, and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them; And they who keep their first estate shall be added upon; and they who keep not their first estate shall not have glory in the same kingdom with those who keep their first estate; and they who keep their second estate shall have glory added upon their heads for ever and ever. And the Lord said: Whom shall I send? And one answered like unto the Son of Man: Here am I, send me. And another answered and said: Here am I, send me. And the Lord said: I will dsend the first. And the asecond was angry, and kept not his first bestate; and, at that day, many followed after him.

    I think that the best interpretation of “one among them that was like unto God” is to read it as referring to Christ. And in Abraham it seems to be the case that it is this “one among them that was like unto God” that is proposing the plan. Now we might want to say that it was actually God’s plan, with Christ acting as floor manager, but you don’t find this in the text. Of course, in Abraham Satan doesn’t propose anything, other than that he be the one sent.

    Even supposing that we take Satan’s plan to rest upon some sort of a metaphysical mistake on his part, we are still left with the quesiton of what role freedom plays in our hierarchy of values.

  8. Mark Butler (II)
    May 9, 2006 at 5:57 pm

    Common LDS theological discourse has the concept of “agency” hopelessly confused between “free will”, “freedom” and “delegated discretion”. Certainly Satan’s plan could reduce our freedom or curtail our discretion, but to it is almost incoherent to suggest he could deprive us of our free will.

    It is equally problematic to suggest that God gave us our free will. Without free will, how can we be said to exist at all? What God certainly gave us is our freedom to choose without undue constraint, as well as discretion (or authority) within the scope of various stewardships, the first of which is our own life.

    The idea that God gave us our “will” as opposed to our “agency” (properly speaking) has serious theological problems relating to theodicy, moral responsibility, and personal identity, problems most apparent in Calvinist theology but still rather serious in Arminian “create souls out of nothing” theology or its LDS materialist equivalent.

  9. Sideshow
    May 9, 2006 at 6:24 pm


    I think your quote actually supports the “God’s plan with Christ acting as floor manager” perspective. For example, you might see the one like unto God giving instructions about the implementation of the plan (floor manager style), and later God asking who he should send (as if it were his plan) and Christ (and Satan) volunteering. While it’s not at all clear that it was not Christ’s plan originally, Christ’s response to God in the face of Satan’s challenge in Moses 4:2 — “thy will be done” — leans toward the “the plan was God’s” interpretation (slightly). I vaguely remember something about Christ’s plan being a suggestion that things be done the way they have been done before, which if correct means the plan was not originally developed by either. That would explain the ambiguity. Does anyone have a reference for that?

  10. MikeInWeHo
    May 9, 2006 at 7:06 pm

    There are some confusing semantics involved here, because Nate’s second sentence presents a definition of “liberalism” which sounds quite similar to how many American political conservatives describe themselves. I would argue that his definition of “liberalism,” while correct in the technical sense, is different from what the word “liberalism” means in the mind of most Americans and especially Church members.

    Nate, are you trying to make the point that American political conservatives are in fact the true liberals? I felt perhaps that was embedded in your post.

  11. May 9, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    “think that the best interpretation of “one among them that was like unto Godâ€? is to read it as referring to Christ”

    Not really.. this seems to me to be a pretty good description of Michael.

    If not, who is “like unto the Son of Man”? Why would Abraham describe Christ two different ways in the same narrative within the same scene?

    “The given name Michael or Micha’el (מִיכָ×?ֵל / מיכ×?ל “who is like God” or “likened unto God”;

  12. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    So then, Mikeinwesttinseltown,, “Capital C” Conservatives are Jeffersonian (not necessary as president) “liberals”?

  13. May 9, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    Also interesting to note the syntax used by the “one who is like god”… he says:

    “We will go down…”

    Where have I heard that phrase before…?

    … I just realized I’m threadjacking.. .my apologies..

    Nate, you phrased your post interestingly: “What Kind of Liberals are Mormons?” Sort of shuts down the argument against the idea that Mormons are liberals right from the outset. Was this purposeful or am I over-analyzing? (Not that I necessarily disagree with you, in fact I probably don’t, just curious about your intentions)

  14. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 9, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    Although it is easy to understand why it might be misunderstood that there was more than one plan, there was, indeed, only ONE plan – the plan of our Father. The Savior and the adversary each had different responses to the plan. God chose to send the Savior as the One who would make the plan possible. Lucifer rebelled against the plan. It is clear, however, that because of the Savior’s role in the plan, He worked very closely in setting up the foundation for the plan (creation, Atonement). Interestingly, the adversary made the other aspect of the plan (the Fall) possible. (I always find that a bit comical that he hated the plan and rejected it and rebelled, and yet was still instrumental in bringing the plan into motion).

    Whenever I’m fuzzy on something like this, it helps to see how the prophets interpret the scriptures, and basically everything I see in their teachings and our curriculum points to one plan — Father’s plan — and then the two responses to that plan. Gospel Principles gives a really clear explanation — Heavenly Father presented the plan; He told us we would make mistakes; we learned we would need a Savior:

    We needed a Savior to pay for our sins and teach us how to return to our Heavenly Father. Our Father said, “Whom shall I send?� (Abraham 3:27). Two of our brothers offered to help. Our oldest brother, Jesus Christ, who was then called Jehovah, said, “Here am I, send me� (Abraham 3:27).
    Jesus was willing to come to the earth, give his life for us, and take upon himself our sins. He, like our Heavenly Father, wanted us to choose whether we would obey Heavenly Father’s commandments. He knew we must be free to choose in order to prove ourselves worthy of exaltation. Jesus said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever� (Moses 4:2).
    Satan, who was called Lucifer, also came, saying, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor� (Moses 4:1). Satan wanted to force us all to do his will. Under his plan, we would not be allowed to choose. He would take away the freedom of choice that our Father had given us. Satan wanted to have all the honor for our salvation.

    I think the temple can teach us Whose plan it is as well.

    President Gordon B. Hinckley said that the temple “becomes a school of instruction in the sweet and sacred things of God. Here we have outlined the plan of a loving Father in behalf of His sons and daughters of all generations. Here we have sketched before us the odyssey of man’s eternal journey from premortal existence through this life to the life beyond. Great fundamental and basic truths are taught with clarity and simplicity well within the understanding of all who hear� (“The Salt Lake Temple,� Ensign, Mar. 1993, 5–6).

    From the temple prep manual:
    Premortal Life
    1. We are spirit children of God, our Heavenly Father, and we lived with Him before coming to earth (see Romans 8:16–17).
    2. Heavenly Father called a great council in heaven (see Abraham 3:22–23). He presented a plan for our eternal development and happiness, which is called the plan of salvation. We chose to follow His plan.
    3. In harmony with the plan, Jesus Christ, the Firstborn Son of Heavenly Father, volunteered to be our Savior (see Moses 4:2; Abraham 3:27).
    4. Lucifer, another son of God, rebelled against Heavenly Father’s plan and “sought to destroy the agency of man.� He and his followers were cast out of heaven and were denied the privileges of receiving a physical body and experiencing mortality. Throughout the ages, Satan, as Lucifer is now called, has tried to make all mankind miserable like himself by tempting them to be wicked (see Moses 4:1, Moses 4:3–4; 2 Nephi 2:17–18).

    Some other quotes:

    What a wondrous experience [referring to D&C 76] for the Prophet Joseph and Sidney. For more than an hour, the Lord showed them our premortal life, earth life, and life after death. As a result of that revelation, mankind’s understanding of Heavenly Father’s plan for our eternal happiness and peace was expanded and enhanced to a remarkable degree.
    M. Russell Ballard, “Marvelous Are the Revelations of the Lord,� Ensign, May 1998, 31

    • We attended a Council in Heaven and heard the Father’s plan presented, and we chose to follow Jesus Christ, who offered to come to earth as our Savior and Redeemer (see Abr. 3:24–28).
    “Before Birth,� Liahona, Feb. 2001, 36

    We lived in the presence of God our Holy Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in a premortal existence. There we gained an understanding of the Father’s plan of salvation and the promise of help when we would be born as mortals on earth.
    Richard G. Scott, “Truth Restored,� Ensign, Nov. 2005, 78

    Our Father in Heaven wanted our growth to continue in mortality and to be enhanced by our freedom to choose and learn. He also wanted us to exercise our faith and our will, especially with a new physical body to master and control. But we know from both ancient and modern revelation that Satan wished to deny us our independence and agency in that now-forgotten moment long ago, even as he wishes to deny them this very hour. Indeed, Satan violently opposed the freedom of choice offered by the Father, so violently that John in the Revelation described “war in heaven� (Rev. 12:7) over the matter. Satan would have coerced us, and he would have robbed us of that most precious of gifts if he could: our freedom to choose a divine future and the exaltation we all hope to obtain.
    Through Christ and his valiant defense of our Father’s plan, the course of agency and eternal aspirations prevailed. In that crucial, premortal setting, a major milestone was passed, a monumental victory was won.

    Howard W. Hunter, “The Golden Thread of Choice,� Ensign, Nov. 1989, 17

    36863, True to the Faith, Plan of Salvation, 115
    In the premortal existence, Heavenly Father prepared a plan to enable us to become like Him and receive a fulness of joy. The scriptures refer to this plan as “the plan of salvation� (Alma 24:14; Moses 6:62), “the great plan of happiness� (Alma 42:8), “the plan of redemption� (Jacob 6:8; Alma 12:30), and “the plan of mercy� (Alma 42:15). The plan of salvation is the fulness of the gospel. It includes the Creation, the Fall, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and all the laws, ordinances, and doctrines of the gospel. Moral agency, the ability to choose and act for ourselves, is also essential in Heavenly Father’s plan. Before you were born on the earth, you lived in the presence of your Heavenly Father as one of His spirit children. In this premortal existence, you attended a council with Heavenly Father’s other spirit children. At that council, Heavenly Father presented His great plan of happiness (see Abraham 3:22–26).
    In harmony with the plan of happiness, the premortal Jesus Christ, the Firstborn Son of the Father in the spirit, covenanted to be the Savior (see Moses 4:2; Abraham 3:27). Those who followed Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were permitted to come to the earth to experience mortality and progress toward eternal life. Lucifer, another spirit son of God, rebelled against the plan and “sought to destroy the agency of man� (Moses 4:3). He became Satan, and he and his followers were cast out of heaven and denied the privileges of receiving a physical body and experiencing mortality (see Moses 4:4; Abraham 3:27–28).

  15. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 7:47 pm

    Isn’t it only “utterers of scripture in their own right” who can answer these questions canonically? While members are otherwise free to conceptualize them how they choose.

    Combining Nate’s apocrypha thread with this one, I’d say — although by definition completely non-canonically, of course! — that Joseph, within his successfully reenactment of a legitimate form of “premodern” scripture creation, in his instance happened to do so by his combining his father, Joseph Smith senior’s, charismatic Universalism with his mother, Lucy Mack Smith’s, tendencies for orthodox Evangelicalism . . . resulting in Joseph’s taking Evangelicalism’s canon as his tabla rasa but with any kind of sources whatsoever as were available to Joseph being allowed to supplement his inspirations. And since I take the book of Moses as allegory, apart from the strictures of further, authoritatively prophetic pronouncements, members should be free to interpret it any way they choose.

  16. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    And, “methinks” the allegorical subtleties in m&m’s delineation directly above to be truly powerful!

  17. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 9, 2006 at 7:57 pm

    sheesh, that last post was long…sorry!

    I vaguely remember something about Christ’s plan being a suggestion that things be done the way they have been done before, which if correct means the plan was not originally developed by either.
    I don’t know if I have heard that, but there is scriptural support for the fact that agency existed premortally, probably from the time of our spirit birth. We grew and progressed to a certain point until a mortal experience was necessary. Al. 13 indicates that agency brought about different “callings” in the high priesthood in the premortal state, based on “faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith.”

    Alma 13:4
    4 And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.

    We also hear about the Atonement being infinite and eternal. Its reach spans beyond this life, covering our lives before and the choices assuredly made after death as well.

    Consider also D&C 93:38-
    38 Every spirit of man was innocent in the beginning [think “same standing”] from Al. 13 perhaps?]; and God having redeemed man from the fall, men became again, in their infant state, innocent before God.

    We have two innocent states — as spirits in the beginning, and again as mortal infants — which implies a loss of innocence premortally, which implies that agency has always been around — and so has sin.

    God gave his children their free agency even in the spirit world, by which the individual spirits had the privilege, just as men have here, of choosing the good and rejecting the evil, or partaking of the evil to suffer the consequences of their sins. Because of this, some even there were more faithful than others in keeping the commandments of the Lord. Some were of greater intelligence than others, as we find it here, and were honored accordingly….
    The spirits of men had their free agency, some were greater than others, and from among them the Father called and foreordained his prophets and rulers. Jeremiah and Abraham were two of them. . . . The spirits of men were not equal. They may have had an equal start, and we know they were all innocent in the beginning; but the right of free agency which was given to them enabled some to outstrip others, and thus, through the eons of immortal existence, to become more intelligent, more faithful, for they were free to act for themselves, to think for themselves, to receive the truth or rebel against it.

    Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., edited by Bruce R. McConkie, 1:, p.59

  18. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 9, 2006 at 8:00 pm

    I’m doing s’more searching, and am finding some instances (mostly in the past) of “Satan’s plan.” I still think it is more accurate to say it was a response to God’s plan, as both the Savior and the adversary responded with “Here am I; send me.” I don’t imagine Satan would have had anything to say had there not been a plan presented in the first place. He tried to alter the plan, but didn’t come up with the full idea of it all — there is no support of the thought that he had anything to do with the idea of a mortal experience, creation, etc. He just wanted to execute the plan in his way. And I think it’s interesting to wonder how he went from “son of the morning” to completely rebelling and wanting God’s power. I don’t imagine that happened all in a day. Makes one wonder what he spent his “time” doing before the Grand Council….

  19. Maximilian Wilson
    May 9, 2006 at 8:37 pm

    RE: #8 Mark

    Interestingly enough, the JST OT Manuscript 1 which eventually became Moses 7:32 says, “The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency;” but an alternate (and later) translation in OT Manuscript 2 says, IIRC, “I gave unto them their intelligence, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, man had his agency.”

    Presumably this revision is intended to highlight a doctrine which the Prophet felt was insufficiently plain in the first rendering, although there must obviously be elements of the prior version which are conveyed correctly in the word choice. My personal feeling is that it is, in fact, nonsensical to speak of the absence of free will–nobody /acts/ unless he chooses to–but that one of God’s major contributions is to allow us to “revise” our choices after the fact through true repentance. That is, it is the triumph of the spiritual will over the carnal will; to become what you really, consistently wanted to become, instead of where your own foolishness managed to carry you.

    “Holy, holy are thy judgments, O Lord God Almighty—but I know my guilt; I transgressed thy law, and my transgressions are mine; and the devil hath obtained me, that I am a prey to his awful misery.” (2 Nephi 9:45)

    Of course, I could be wrong.

    Max Wilson

  20. Mark Butler (II)
    May 9, 2006 at 8:53 pm

    The key scripture for “Satan’s plan” is Moses 4:3 :

    “…Satan rebelled against me and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I the Lord had given him and also that I should give unto him mine own power”

    What we know about Satan’s plan is this:

    1. He sought to severely constrain agency
    2. He requested divine endorsement (c.f. D&C 29:36)
    3. He was persuasive enough to turn a very large portion of the hosts of heaven to his side. (Something rather unlikely for a man without a plan).
    4. The purported advantage of Satan’s plan was that none would be lost (i.e. all would be saved in some degree or another, no sons of perdition).

  21. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 9:05 pm

    Ryan in # 13 seems to be asking, “Nate, are you asking, ‘How black is off-white?'” lol. Which brings up the ambiguity of the “liberal vee conservative” duality. For example:

    Is my own puposes in the bloggernacle essentially a conservative one or a liberal one?

    As someone who, as James said, is tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, much were the Sophists of old, I in my relativism seek my Socrates, that is someone who, fully understands the problems brought forth by the Sophists, is one who yet reconciles them. Why do I do this? ‘Caus my superego is deeply imprinted with these same symbols that m&m so forcefully extrapolates; and yet this whole enterprise had at one time come crashing down for me and so now I want to find its true essence, its most enlightened and highly evolved formulation! Thus, to ME my purpose here is essentially a CONSERVATIVE one. As explained above. But to many here, they might be construed as pretty radically liberal? In that my hoping to find “finesses” to my superego setpoints of Mormon theology and practice, would involve a much more nuanced Mormonism than is found in the Ensign, y’know?

  22. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 9, 2006 at 9:31 pm

    In the spirit of the gospel, I promise to do better re proofreading my posts.

  23. May 9, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    According to The Constitution: A Heavenly Banner (by Ezra T. Benson, often quoting Joseph Smith in this section), first the Father presented the the plan. Then Lucifer “sought to amend the plan, while Jehovah sustained the plan.” Then there was a war in heaven where Christ and all who followed him stood for freedom of choice while Satan and all who followed him stood for coercion and force.

    My sense is that it’s not a gross misrepresentation to speak of Christ’s plan and Satan’s plan, even though there was technically only one plan presented with an amendment proposed (according to Benson).

  24. Mark Butler (II)
    May 9, 2006 at 11:13 pm

    This is what Joseph Smith had to say on the subject:

    The contention in heaven was—Jesus said there would be certain souls that would not be saved; and the devil said he could save them all, and laid his plans before the grand council, who gave their vote in favor of Jesus Christ. So the devil rose up in rebellion against God, and was cast down, with all who put up their heads for him” (TPJS, p. 357).

  25. Mark Butler (II)
    May 9, 2006 at 11:20 pm

    Here is one of the best scriptural references for Satan’s motivation (and a rather fine example of KJV translation):

    The LORD hath broken the staff of the wicked, and the sceptre of the rulers. He who smote the people in wrath with a continual stroke, he that ruled the nations in anger, is persecuted, and none hindereth.

    The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet: they break forth into singing. Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us.

    Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?

    Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee. How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!

    For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.

    Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit. They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms; That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?

    All the kings of the nations, even all of them, lie in glory, every one in his own house. But thou art cast out of thy grave like an abominable branch, and as the raiment of those that are slain, thrust through with a sword, that go down to the stones of the pit; as a carcase trodden under feet. Thou shalt not be joined with them in burial, because thou hast destroyed thy land, and slain thy people: the seed of evildoers shall never be renowned.
    (Isaiah 14:5-20)

  26. Adam Greenwood
    May 9, 2006 at 11:34 pm

    Nate O.,

    So to the extent that one believes both that freedom is an end in itself, and that freedom tends to lead to other good things like societal peace, etc., I see no reason why a Mormon (or anyone else), couldn’t be both a perfectionist and a political liberal, as you’ve defined them. I also think its very possible for a person to believe that freedom is an end in itself but to reject classical liberalism. It only requires believing that in some sense leaving people alone doesn’t leave them free. I imagine that Russell Fox would argue some variant of it were he here, and I would probably use a different variant to defend the ways in which my own politics differ from libertarianism.

    Come to think of it, one should probably also be able to accept many of the premises of political liberalism, as you’ve defined it, (freedom is good because it leads to social peace, and (implied) social peace is good), but still not be a libertarian or a classical liberal because they reject that social peace or what have you is an overriding good.

  27. Mark Butler (II)
    May 10, 2006 at 12:31 am

    Does anyone really believe that freedom is an end in itself (as opposed to say a philosophers stone out of which any dream can be constructed?)

    One way to look at freedom and society is to make an analogy with material states and thermal vibrations:

    A refrigerator conservative believes there is one true solid configuration and believes that any excitation should be quelled to preserve it. Any annealing should be driven from the top down.

    A room temperature conservative believes that there are many good solids with various degrees of flexibility, so we need just enough disruption to counter negative growth trends and either release or heal developing fault lines – a sort of ordered liberty where existing structures are preserved, largely by voluntary “covalent” bonding, but not held together so strongly that other molecular regimes cannot succeed on their own merits.

    A contemporary liberal tends to be pro-liquid to the point of disdaining nearly all solid structures except periodic servitude on the hot plate and voluntary service in other liquid maintaining institutions.

    A radical libertarian strongly prefers the gaseous state of matter, and believes all molecules should be self-propelled rather than borrowing energy from their neighbor.

  28. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 10, 2006 at 2:03 am

    My sense is that it’s not a gross misrepresentation to speak of Christ’s plan and Satan’s plan, even though there was technically only one plan presented with an amendment proposed (according to Benson).

    Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, but I still think it’s important to not forget that neither the Savior nor the adversary had the power to create life or a world without God’s help — both of which were absolutely essential to the plan. Without an earth and a mortal state neither the Savior nor the adversary had anything to volunteer for. Therefore, it was the execution of the plan (how will we deal with the “progress and return” elements) that were on the table. Both the Savior and Satan volunteered to be “saviors” but Jesus preserved the elements of agency and glory to God. The adversary rebelled and is now trying to run his own show — which is ironic, because ultimately he only has power if we allow him to….

    I liked this from Pres. Packer:
    After the dark ages of apostasy, when the final dispensation came, God the Father Himself, accompanied by the Son, announced it. He introduced as an echo of the grand council in heaven, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith-History 1:17.) The Only Begotten Son of God, our Elder Brother, would over-see the restoration of the gospel, of the Plan of Salvation.

    As a side note, I had an intersting insight related to this “here am I; send me” part of the PoGP. How often do I respond in my life with a willingness to be “sent” to do whatever…but I don’t include with it “thy will be done”? I can be willing, but unless I am also willing to submit to God’s will in whatever I am to do, my willingness becomes pointless.

  29. Nate Oman
    May 10, 2006 at 7:37 am

    Mike: I think that virtually all Americans are liberals of one stripe or another. I wasn’t trying to make a point about what passes for conservatism in the US.

    Adam: I think that you can be a liberal without being a classical liberal. Rawls is a liberal. He is not a classical liberal. I don’t think, however, that you can think that freedom is only an incidentally useful value and still be a perfectionist liberal. As I understand it, they would say that in order for a set of moral commitments to be truely good they must necessarily be freely chosen and one must always have the option of choosing otherwise.

  30. Melissa Proctor
    May 10, 2006 at 8:38 am

    Turns out I have less time today even than yesterday to answer this post fully so I’ll respond irresponsibly without having read the rest of the discussion and without getting addressing the long tradition of perfectionist liberalism at all.


    Abraham 3:27 does not refer to Christ on my reading of it. This passage seems to refer to Adam/Michael (I think Rev. 12:7 provides some narrative evidence for this). The “Son of Man” refers to Christ (Man of Holiness is a name that seems uniquely reserved for the Father. The Son of Man of Holiness would be Christ. “Son of Man” seems to be an abbreviated version of that title. One who is like unto the Son of Man would be Michael.

    Moses 4:3 does seem to contradict the metaphysical claim I made about agency, but I’m nevertheless unconvinced that God “gave” human beings agency in any sense that might suggest it could have been otherwise. There are too many theological problems associated with such a claim.

  31. Jed
    May 10, 2006 at 2:31 pm

    “Figuring out which sort of liberal we are supposed to be, however…”

    I think we are perfectionistic liberals in parts, profoundly anti-liberal in others. For example, the idea of free intelligences acting in “the sphere in which it is placed” presupposes freedom as a high (although perhaps not highest) good, but only within bounds or limits. I am free to act in my capacity as father or husband or hometeacher, but the minute I overstep my bounds, teaching what I ought not, acting as I ought not, overextending my freedom into the sphere another to act in his or her stewardship (e.g. the prophets), my freedom has become null and void. Amen to my authority, as the text says. In Mormonism, conscience is everything and nothing at the same time.

  32. Blake
    May 10, 2006 at 2:33 pm

    Melissa: How about this — as intelligences we have the inherent capacity for choice; however, until we have a knowlege of good and evil we do not have morally significant choices. The agency given to man in the garden was the agency to choose whether we would love God or evil (Satan). It was a new kind of choice — a morally significant choice. It was a matter of choice of loyalty. Further, because being “saved” entails choosing God, it is a choice that must be made freely because what God asks (indeed, commands) is for us to love him and such love must be freely chosen. So we may have metaphysical freedom as intelligences/spirits without having morally significant choices. We may have such metaphysical freedom without also having agency or morally significant choices, but we are given agency when we can choose whom we will choose as our God and to whom we will give our hearts.

    As for who is speaking — it seems fairly clear to me that it is Christ speaking because he is later identified in the text as the speaker — regardless of the etymological meanings attached to phrases like “like one unto God,” since that is true of all who are in God’s image in certain respects. However, Christ is the perfect image of the Father — and it seems to me that that is what the text points towoard.

  33. May 10, 2006 at 2:55 pm

    But it seems like we could already make morally significant choices in the premortal life, if one-third of us opted for Satan. I don’t know what to make of Moses 7:32, which states that “in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency,” when according to D&C 29:36, Satan turned away a third of the hosts of heaven “because of their agency.” It’s not entirely clear when agency enters the picture.

  34. May 10, 2006 at 3:38 pm

    This is a subject that I think about quite often. But in different terms, I tend to lean toward philosophical anarchism. I have only met one other Anarchist Mormon, but that does not mean we are not out here. My thoughts are that if God himself will not intervene with my Agency then there is no Person/government/authority that has the authority to do so. That is not to say that I don’t support organization. (I hope my use of the word anarchist does not throw anyone off. I know it is a word that carries many many built in misunderstandings, needless to say I am NOT talking about “chaos�)
    I just feel that authoritarian hierarchal systems that support ANY use of fear, intimidation, power (economical/physical), and or the ability imprison (deny physical liberty) are more apt to serve Satan than God.

  35. Kimball L. Hunt
    May 10, 2006 at 6:13 pm

    Dyslexic: If you’ll now simply add such flexibility to an individual’s interpretations of doctrine, all I’d have left to ask you is, Where do I sign up? (before I bite my tongue, that is: realizing in such a Mormonism it couldn’t be philosophical necessary for anyone to give or take such a signature!)

  36. mullingandmusing (m&m)
    May 10, 2006 at 6:49 pm

    The agency given to man in the garden was the agency to choose whether we would love God or evil (Satan).
    It’s not entirely clear when agency enters the picture.

    I think it’s clear that we had agency in the premortal world. (See my post earlier about being innocent in the beginning and then innocent again at birth…which implies loss of innocence in between.) I tend to think that the agency given in the Garden of Eden refers to the choice they were given re: the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

    2 Nephi 2:14-16
    And now, my sons, I speak unto you these things for your profit and learning; for there is a God, and he hath created all things, both the heavens and the earth, and all things that in them are, both things to act and things to be acted upon.
    And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man, after he had created our first parents, and the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and in fine, all things which are created, it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter.
    Wherefore, the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore, man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other.

    Without such a choice, they would have had no potential for opposition; hence, they would have had no opportunity to exercise agency. I think that may be what God meant by “giving men their agency” in the Garden.

  37. Mark Butler (II)
    May 11, 2006 at 11:04 am

    The scripture regarding God “giving men their agency” in the Garden of Eden (Moses 7:32) generally has to be interpreted as “in the beginning”, because agency and free will were clearly operative long before.

    “…for, behold, the devil was before Adam, for he rebelled against me, saying, Give me thine honor, which is my power; and also a third part of the hosts of heaven turned he away from me because of their agency;” (D&C 29:36)

  38. May 11, 2006 at 5:06 pm


    thanks for the good post. I haven’t gotten through all the responses yet, but, once again, you’re serving up quite a bit of food for thought.

  39. May 19, 2006 at 6:38 pm

    As a political philosopher, I think that too much is made out of the distinction between perfectionist and political liberalism. I think that mormons can be either (or neither). It is much easier to accept political liberalism if one is sympathetic to perfectionist liberalism.
    However, I do view John Rawls’ political liberalism as the ideal form of Mormon liberal. Well, I view Rawlsian liberalism as the ideal political philosophy.
    I begin a discussion of Rawlsian liberalism and Mormonism at:

  40. rbo
    May 26, 2006 at 1:48 pm

    We are the most liberal of Christian religions-and by that I mean the most open to outside thought and influences. For example, we do not have a canon, scripture and revelation are ongoing. Oh, I know in practice this might not seem true, espescially if you take “happy valley” as a paradigm for mormon culture. However, my reading of the doctorine is simply this. I have not been translated nor had my calling and election made sure, so I must be lacking in my spiritual progression and overall grasp on truth-that is, knowledge of things as they are, and/or the ability to use this truth appropriately AKA intelligence AKA The Glory of God. I believe in all truth, no matter where it comes from I must accept it. So when my Buddhist friend tells me meditation is extremely important in coming to know God, and I have a confirmation through the Holy Spirit-I must accept it even though the principle was not taught to me over the pulpit. Liberalism is a true principle, but like most principles on earth it has been mangled. The liberalism of the world is this: Liberalism for the sake of being liberal-it allows us to co-exist. The liberalism we believe in is a liberalism which allows us to find, discuss, and diseminate truth in a non-coercive manner so that our various levels of understanding can be increased. Truth as the goal, co-existence with others as a medium, and honest study and discussion as the methods.

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