quid esse debet

I am conservative, which means I am liberal, and this because I am a Mormon.  Let’s first consider what these three descriptors mean and then consider how they are used.

Conservative comes from the Latin conservare, which means to preserve.  It is a compound of the verb servare, which means to maintain, to keep, even protect, and the prefix con from the preposition cum.  That preposition means “with.”

Liberal comes from the Latin adjective liber which means free or unrestrained.  It was used by the Romans as a designation for a child of parents who had been freed from indentured servitude before the birth of said child.

Mormon comes from the Book of Mormon.  Within that text it serves as the name of certain locales/geographical features and of one of the principal narrative figures within the text.  Without that text it was first used as a designation for the followers of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and producer of The Book of Mormon.  When first employed it was meant derogatorily; it has since been appropriated as a generally socially acceptable self-designation by individuals affiliated with the mainstream Latter-day Saint movement which is headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.

All three of these terms, conservative, liberal, and Mormon, are relative.

Conservative and liberal as adjectives are often (though not exclusively) employed in social and political contexts and illustrate one’s relationship with and/or stance on change.  A hypothetical conservative is, ostensibly, hesitant toward and suspicious of change.  An equally hypothetical liberal is ostensibly the reverse; eager for and open toward change.

Conceptually, neither conservative nor liberal are inherently connected to any of the social/political ideas[1] (of any chronological origin) with which they are often associated.  They are terms relative to the socio-political circumstances of a given period of time.  Movements deemed radical (essentially liberal) by the conservatives of one era are esteemed by the conservatives of another; movements espoused by liberals at one point are derided by those of another.

Mormon as an adjective admits of some variety.  A practicing member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could self-identify as a Mormon.  Just as well could an individual, once a practicing member, now withdrawn, identify as a Mormon.  The “Mormon movement” has not been in existence long enough to allow for the development of a discernibly “Mormon” haplogroup, making self-identification as Mormon unrelated to any ethnicity; despite however much or many familial concern or concerns may be present (or not), there is no “Mormon ethnicity” to which one may demonstrate loyalty or disloyalty.  Largely one’s “Mormonness” rests on one’s desire to either identify or be identified with the movement as a religion, a culture, or both.

So much for who can be a Mormon; what does it mean to be a Mormon?  In observance of the strictures of this essay, we are concerned here only with a hypothetical Mormon’s compatibility (or otherwise) with the adjectives conservative and liberal; essentially, what is a hypothetical Mormon’s relationship with and/or stance on change?

As with all matters relative, it depends.

Mormonism presents itself as a restoration of lost salvific principles.  At play in such a paradigm are two theoretically competing worldviews: tradition and revelation.[2]  Tradition involves reliance on fixed ideals, is rigid, and interprets the present as sufficiently met when negotiated in light of the accumulated experience of the past, whether or not one could judge the store of experience complete.  Revelation involves a continuous evolution of the understanding.  It implies a lack of completion as a constant characteristic of lived mortality but as an institutional and individual mechanism it supplies (temporary) solutions to the ever-changing present.

An institution or community founded upon tradition alone does not require additional light and knowledge.  One guided by revelation is not dependent on an accreted storehouse of knowledge.  The rounded Mormon is conditioned by both; this is illustrated by the implications of the term restoration.

The initial premise of the Mormon restoration is the recovery of the primal Christian institution.[3]  This was (and is) a commonly pursued objective by sundry protestant sects.  The Mormon difference emerges upon consideration of the notion of dispensationalism.  This concept holds that a fixed number of principles which constitute a doctrinal and/or institutional fullness have been made available to mankind at various epochs in the past.[4]  This extends Mormonism backwards chronologically beyond primal Christianity and creates potential for the assimilation of all cultural developments that could buttress the Mormon message; it allows Mormonism to appropriate quite nearly anything that precedes (and proceeds) it for its own enlargement.[5]  The obligation placed on the rounded Mormon to consider tradition is theoretically weightier than that pressed upon any other, essentially as large as the humane tradition itself and increasing in step with the march of time.

It would appear then that conservatism, the maintenance of tradition, constitutes the lion’s share of the Mormon intellectual cosmos.  Perhaps it would, except for one of its defining tenets: revelation, an inherently liberal concept.

The acceptance of revelation and the presence of it are two different stati.  There are tradition-bound institutions that accept revelation as a thing that was, a thing against which to weigh subsequent innovations, a thing key in stocking a storehouse to be guarded.  Such an institution bears no onus to reevaluate and evolve in the face of and along with the ever-reformulating present.  Mormonism is predicated upon revelation.  Indeed, the very characteristic by which we may identify it as conservative, its appropriation of all culture, was given it by means of revelation.  Mormonism’s cultural conservatism flows from its religious liberalism.  Its insistence on continuous revelation as an institutional mechanism for direction implies the inadequacy of relying solely upon what has come before.

Perhaps one could object that any “new” revelation would have to square with what has come before as a litmus test of orthodoxy.  Certainly there have been statements issued to that very effect from behind very important pulpits.  One should understand however, that such a program essentially nullifies the potential (and any reason) for new communication and reduces Mormonism to little more than a doppelganger of certain tradition-bound institutions already in existence.  It would require of Mormonism to do no more than accept revelation as a thing that was, a thing against which to weigh subsequent innovations, a thing key in stocking a storehouse to be guarded.  Under this view continuous revelation is effectively neutralized.  But Mormonism, in statements issued from behind very important pulpits, insists that open channels of inspiration are vital to its continued existence as a religion, institutional or otherwise.  The result is not tension per se, so much as symbiosis; in Mormonism tradition and revelation cooperate.  Mormonism, like the human body, can only maintain its homeostasis by a regular influx of nourishment from without.  Thus it is both true (to the storehouse of truths already accumulated) and living (constantly updated through revelatory channels).  An acceptance (and the active application) of these two qualities, these two mechanisms, is a (the?) defining trait of the rounded Mormon, in terms of socio-politically oriented decision-making.

As a Mormon, I am conservative inasmuch as I claim in the name of my religion all truths that have come before.  I am liberal inasmuch as I anticipate the addition of further light and knowledge, accepting the possibility for relatively radical social adjustments to be made upon the reception of said light and knowledge.

I cannot thoughtfully align with either of the two major political parties; neither their respective interests nor their interest groups wholly support mine or me as a Mormon.  I can, as a Mormon, comprehend conservatism and liberalism which are no more opposed to each other than is a flowing river to the fixed bed o’er which it rolls.  The very notion of conservatism implies progression, implies liberalism, for one must first be in motion, be progressing, in order to be in a position to conserve anything.  One saves nothing if one is never in motion.  Likewise does liberalism imply conservatism, for in order to facilitate (to even perceive) progress there must be a standard, at bare minimum a starting point, against which to measure new light and knowledge.  One can never progress without the sure footing afforded by that which has gone before.  Apart from these circumstances Mormonism cannot survive or rather, one’s Mormonness cannot be maintained.

[1] It is imperative to understand that in this essay, and in the larger philosophical sense, the terms conservative and liberal are not to be identified with any of the social and economic issues of either the Republican or Democratic political platforms.  It is an error to think conservative synonymous with Republican and liberal with Democrat.

[2] Terryl Givens wrote what I suspect (and anticipate) is an excellent work on cultural tensions within Mormonism titled, “People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture” (2012), which I blindly recommend (I have yet to read it).

[3] This is already a complex matter.  Does this have reference only to what Christ Himself accomplished on the Earth by ways of community building?  Does it include the cultural and theological elaborations of Paul?  What of the Church Fathers from eras discernibly Catholic who taught doctrines consonant with those of Mormonism?  Whatever the answer, the basic Mormon contention is that once there was which then was not but again would be and now is.

[4] These dispensations would not necessarily resemble each other in terms of ritualistic expression and mode of popular dissemination and interpretation of doctrine; different eras and locales imply different cultural values which would each possess different points of emphasis.  Attempts at finding resemblance at any resolution sharper than the general are wrongheaded.

[5] Ether 4:12, Moroni 7:12-14, 24; The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, p.240, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., 5.499, 517; Journal of Discourses, 2.123, 7.148, 8.70, 162, 9.149, 10.251, 11.235, 375, 13.335, 14.280-1, 18.359