If we are going to have a discussion on Mormonism and Liberalism, it is imperative that we first start with an understanding of what liberalism actually is. It has been my unfortunate experience that within the Mormon culture liberalism is vastly misunderstood. It seems to me that some even go so far as to make liberal and evil synonyms. I can only assume that such beliefs arise out of ignorance of liberal ideals and philosophies– reinforced in part by the superficial, syntactical resemblance of right wing ideologies, such as those preached by Pat Robertson and James Dobson, to Church teachings. To allow our opinions or understanding about any set of ideas, let alone ideas so fundamental to Western civilization as liberalism, to be formed by the avowed enemies of those ideas is as ridiculous as asking the Sanhedrin at the time of Christ to explain his teachings and mission. The result is ridiculous at best.
Asking “What is liberalism?” is a lot like asking “What is love?” Ask a thousand people and you will get a thousand different answers. So in trying to define liberalism, I’m not going to look for some large consensus view of what it means (even though the illiberalness of doing so would create an irony almost too delicious to pass up.) I will explain what Liberalism means to me.
The word liberal quite obviously shares a root with the word liberty. And it is the idea of liberty that is at the very core of what I call liberalism. Another central idea is, of course, equality. And the last idea is fraternity (being a liberal, I feel compelled to point out that this is fraternity in the gender-neutral sense of all belonging to a common family with a common purpose, and concern about the lives, happiness, and dreams of others.) These three ideas are clearly not mutually exclusive; they inform and enrich each other. They form a coherent whole such that if any one of them were lacking the rest would lose both their meaning and their power to form a rational ethical system.
Liberty is the idea that every individual is a complete moral agent, capable of forming moral values and acting in a moral way, and that each individual is therefore responsible for the consequences of his or her actions. This idea is taught with clarity in the Book of Mormon in 2 Nephi 2:26-27 “… [the children of men are] free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon…And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life…or to choose captivity and death…” The concept of the moral agency of individuals is a central teaching of Mormon theology. The creation story of Mormonism starts long before that of mainstream Christianity. It begins in heaven where two plans are proposed, one that would allow mankind to come to earth with moral agency, and one that would not. The plan for moral agency was championed by Jesus Christ, the other by Satan who “sought to destroy the agency of man.” (Moses 4:3) Indeed Mormon theology not only teaches that the constitution was inspirited (the 3/5 clause notwithstanding), but that it was inspired explicitly to allow individuals to act in accordance with their moral agency. In the Mormon scripture the Doctrine and Covenants it reads, “…the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to the futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.” (D&C 101:77-78 emphasis added)
The implications of liberty are, of course, profound; especially the implications for government and other societal interactions. If we understand that it is the existence of moral agency that makes all ethical and moral behavior possible (2 Nephi 2:16, Moroni 7:6-8), we understand that it should be violated as little as possible. It is the role of the government to help ensure that everyone’s moral agency is respected (equality, from the list above) and the government should only intervene to limit the agency of its citizens in those instances where the agency of one individual violates the agency of another. A perfect example relates to laws prohibiting rape, in which one person’s agency regarding sexual behavior violates another person’s agency to control access to their person. A government should not allow the agency of the rapist to compromise the agency of the victim. However, in the case of mutually consensual sexual relationships, no one’s agency is being violated; each individual has the right to determine the value of their sexual activity for themselves. It would not be appropriate for society (even by rule of the majority) to compel compliance with a standard of sexual behavior that the individuals involved reject. It would be understandable for various religious followers to object at this point; after all, God has clearly declared that the value of sexual relations is such that they should only take place between men and women, legally married. However, whether or not God has forbidden some act is not relevant to the question of whether or not society should violate the agency of its participants in order to prevent them from acting contrary to His words. A society is justified in violating agency only to prevent a greater violation of agency. It is equally important to remember that just because society is not justified in restricting agency does not mean that the behavior itself is justified, moral, ethical, or in keeping within any sort of religious doctrine, it only means that the behavior does not violate anyone’s agency.