In questioning the assumptions of the New Liberalism, I am saying little more than is being said with increasing frequency and emphasis by our Church leaders, including in General Conference addresses. New Liberal Mormons are ever hopeful that the Prophet and Apostles will follow their lead and jump on the progressive bandwagon – or at least stop resisting it in such embarrassingly retrograde fashion. These Progressives could not have found our most recent General Conference very encouraging of their efforts to re-interpret the restored Gospel according to a New Liberal vision. On the question of the definition of marriage and sexual morality, in particular, the authorities whom we sustain could hardly have more emphatic -- as readers can confirm, if they wish, by reviewing speeches by Elders Bednar, Ballard, Perry, and Hales, just for example.
If in my analysis I have gone beyond the clear and consistent teaching of our leaders, it is simply in beginning to trace the roots of the moralistic relativism that increasingly surrounds us, and in naming it the New Liberalism. Of course I speak only for myself, but I think I am providing a service by connecting some dots in intellectual and political history. I have been very careful to distinguish the increasingly dominant New Liberalism from an older liberal, constitutional tradition that the Church, since the days of Joseph Smith, has always wanted to befriend, and with which it wisely made peace in order for Utah to become part of the United States.
Still, if you think my characterization of the New Liberalism is unfair, or that it doesn’t generally apply, I suggest the following experiment: find a person who now calls himself or herself “liberal.” Ask him (or her) what he thinks of this proposition: The sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife. It is a very good bet the self-identified liberal standing in front of you will not accept that proposition.
Or, if you don’t want to conduct the experiment, look up what scientific opinion surveys have to say about the correlation between a self-identification as “liberal” and views on marriage, family and sexuality. (Of course it is worth noting that one can find many “conservatives,” especially those of “libertarian” leanings who will also reject the proposition. This is indeed a worthy topic for another discussion. But at least among “conservatives” you will find vastly more who support the proposition of the Family Proclamation than among “liberals” – which is to say, I’m not just making words up to suit my argument or to caricature groups I happen to disagree with.)
Let me be clear that my most fundamental concern is not with political tactics and related opinions. The strength of the New Liberalism is certainly growing in our society; I think we should do all we can to resist it, if we care about our families and our communities, but we cannot be sure we will win. How we should cope practically, politically with the collapse of a moral environment broadly supportive of certain basic LDS principles is a difficult question on which reasonable and faithful LDS can differ. The Church leaves it largely to individual members (including political candidates and office holders) to judge how best to negotiate necessary compromises in a world we can only control at the margins, if at all.
It is our duty to help make the world as good as it can be, but I do not expect all LDS to agree on the political implications of this duty. For example, faithful LDS who completely support and live by the word of wisdom may disagree on the tricky question of just what public policies regarding the sale of alcoholic beverages are best for Utah or for any other political entity. The same holds true for still more fundamental questions concerning sexual morality and our understanding of the family (absent direct guidance from our Church leaders).
Such tactical political questions are worthy of careful discussion in the light of basic moral and religious principles and of our best estimates of what may be possible. But, again, my fundamental concern here is not with public policy (however important), but with the souls of Latter-day Saints. If we disagree concerning what is politically possible, we should agree on what is optimal, at least where basic moral and religious principles are concerned.
The danger of the New Liberalism is that it is not merely a political doctrine in the practical, institutional sense; it tends increasingly, rather, to insinuate itself as a comprehensive understanding of morality and of the meaning of human existence. It presents itself as a rival to our most basic moral and religious principles, and so, if accepted uncritically, it tends to undermine, often subtly and quietly at first, Latter-day Saints’ convictions concerning moral norms governing sexuality and the family.
It is no accident that increasing numbers of young Latter-day Saints, in particular, find themselves being convinced that to be truly moral in today’s world is to be “tolerant,” “accepting,” and “compassionate,” which the New Liberalism has redefined to mean: every person is entitled to define right and wrong for himself or herself, and God would not have us “impose our values.” But this redefinition is based on the New Liberalism’s own assumed highest value of “self-expression,” or the freedom to define good and evil for oneself. To accept the New Liberalism as somehow “rational” or “progressive” and thus beyond questioning is a grave error, and one that is eroding moral structures without which a good life is impossible, not to mention a life worthy of a Latter-day Saint.
I conclude that it is time to recognize the New Liberalism for what it is, and to question its claim to the moral and rational high ground. Neutrality is a comfortable path of least resistance, but we have reached a point where, if we truly love our neighbors and our communities and therefore care about the moral environment in which we all live, we must openly resist the influence of the New Liberalism.
(An earlier version of this argument was presented at the FAIR conference in Provo, Utah, August 1.
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