Note: This article originally appeared in the Deseret News on May 12, 2017.
Editor's note: This article from scholar Richard Davis is a response to the recent reactions to Taylor G. Petrey's piece "The failures of Mormon conservativism." These opinion articles are part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of faith and thought.
Which is it? Have the predominant conservative forces in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints led church membership on a path to political failure, as Taylor Petrey suggests? Or is the church inherently conservative and therefore the calls for more progressivism essentially contrary to the basic nature of LDS doctrine?
Both views suggest a polar approach that writes out of acceptable LDS thought and practices the views of the other. For Petrey, it is the failure that inheres to accepting Mormon conservative views as LDS Church practice. He considers Mormon conservatism to be “self-destructive to the Mormon community itself.”
However, Petrey’s critics go further in seeking to push Petrey’s views out of the mainstream of Mormon political thought. Paul Mero writes Petrey “tempts members” with his views. He baldly states that “Mormonism is inherently conservative” and calls Petrey’s perspective “antithetical to our worldview.” Similarly, Connor Boyack asserts that the “correct application of church doctrine will actually lead one away” from Petrey’s views. For the critics of Petrey, progressivism is the antithesis of traditional Mormon views and does not fit within acceptable LDS perspectives.
Neither exclusive position should be adopted by church members. Just as political progressivism is not inherently contrary to the moral positions of the LDS Church, so conservatism is not the path to disaster. What this debate suggests is a tendency to write out of the church views that disagree with our own. If the question is which side shrinks church membership, the answer is that kind of demand for conformity will do so.
Over the years, I have talked with many former (or formerly active) members who no longer felt to have a place in the LDS Church because of their more progressive political views. Recently, I heard a conservative member say that he worried the church was becoming too progressive and no longer standing up for values. My guess is that his views are becoming increasingly common.
The conformity that so often occurs within the LDS Church has contributed to this situation where the holders of both perspectives conclude that varying perspectives cannot coexist in the church at the same time. Conservatives have emphasized that theme in the past several decades, effectively disenfranchising those who disagree politically. Of late, progressives have become more vocal. It would be a shame if the same kind of exclusionary tactics are used in the opposite direction.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is neither conservative nor progressive. There is no set political theology that defines the LDS Church. The main point of Jesus’ ministry was redemption, not ideology.
However, we do live in a world where politics is important in the governance of our societies. Naturally, we adopt various political views based on personal backgrounds. Since the gospel is designed for all men and women, it is reasonable to believe that a Christian community like the LDS Church strives to include people of varying views. As the Gospel of Matthew says, “the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.”
Even beyond our backgrounds, the reality is the gospel message leads church members to contrasting conclusions about government, as well as about particular current issues. We should accept that diversity and not seek to impose conformity in political views (or in many other areas either). We can coexist in a pluralistic church if we are willing to do the following: recognize our political views as not something the church and its members should clone, place our political views as lower priorities than gospel principles, and be willing to see others who disagree with us as faithful members as well.
Conformity of political thought within the LDS Church is not essential to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. The “oneness” the scriptures admonish us to achieve will be a oneness in our commitment to discipleship, not a oneness in our approach to lesser concerns such as politics. Celebrating the diversity within the body of Christ, not stifling it, will be the mark of the Zion society we wish to achieve.