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Ralph C. Hancock
Friday, September 20 2013

Mormonism in the Public Square Part Two: The Sleight of Hand in Relativism

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magic trick

Read the first article in this series, “How Did America Get this Crack in its Foundation?” here.

In the first article in this series, I summarized a common contemporary view of the relationship between morality and politics as follows:

“But now society has fundamentally changed. It is no longer based on a moral consensus, but on the acceptance of diversity. ‘Pluralism’ has replaced moral-religious homogeneity as the basic character of modern societies like ours. So, even though we may not approve, personally, of many lifestyle choices among our fellow citizens, it is not only politically necessary but in fact a moral duty to respect the diversity of lifestyles that flourish in a pluralistic society.”

Pay close attention to the italicized assertion. For this points up a significant sleight of hand that plays an essential role in what I will call the New Liberalism. For the claim is not only that our political circumstances are such that we must accommodate and work with people with different moral views than our own. That is obvious, and our LDS leaders have provided excellent counsel and encouragement in our efforts to do just that. But their tendency is to go much further and to transform this practical accommodation into a new kind of moral imperative, the imperative of a respect for “diverse lifestyles,” which shades into the assertion that it is somehow wrong to affirm the superiority of one way of life over another.

With this sleight of hand that passes silently from necessary accommodation to the denial of real moral distinction, many are led, often in the name of “rationalism” or “public reason,” to deny the reasoned connection between religion, morality and political freedom that I set forth in the last article. Thus many fall, sometimes without knowing quite what is happening, under the influence of a new morality that presents itself at first as the simple recognition of new political realities.

Liberalism Then and Now

To clarify this change that has come about in liberalism in recent decades and to see the dangerous implications of this change, I propose a simple but helpful distinction between Classical Liberalism and the New Liberalism.

Classical liberalism is practical and relatively modest in its aims; it is compatible with a traditional and religious view of morality and the family; in fact, it presupposes such a view. The New Liberalism is theoretical in the sense that it affirms its own theory, not only of political arrangements, but of human existence and its purposes. The New Liberalism thus aims to replace traditional, religiously-grounded morality with its own view of human meaning.

Classical liberalism limits itself to political questions in the narrower sense: it affirms certain definite individual rights, limited government, constitutionalism, the separation of powers, and is designed to encourage and to work in the social context “pluralism” of interests, opinions. But the pluralism of practical liberalism is not absolute, since it assumes a common, traditional framework of private morality, supported by a somewhat diverse but morally consistent religious belief.

There can be no more “mainstream” or consensual statement of the Founding generation’s positive view of the role of religion and religious morality in society than that of the Father of our Country, George Washington:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. .. [and] great pillars of human happiness, [the] firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” (Farewell Address)

Hardly anyone, or anyone of influence in 1787 or for a long time thereafter, would have considered Washington’s warm endorsement of religion and religious morality in any way controversial.

No Authority above Human Beings

The New Liberalism has roots that go deep into modern philosophy; the theory behind what I call theoretical liberalism derives its radical premise from this distinctively modern proposition: there is no authority above human beings.   In America this premise remained largely buried under the actual practice of liberalism, as moderated by morality and religion, but it lay there like a ticking time-bomb that would eventually explode.

We can say that the explosion of theoretical liberalism into the actual practice of American democracy was ignited in the cultural and political upheaval of the 60s and 70s, which eventually brought into the mainstream (especially the academic and media mainstream) the countercultural ideal of “liberation” from all traditional “hang-ups.” The injunction to “do your own thing” sounds like a quaint relic from the time when now-aging baby bombers (like me) were young, but that’s just because the idea itself of liberation from traditional morality is now so common, so conventional, even so politically correct.

This explosion of the New Liberalism in recent decades may account for Elder Hales’ observation in the most recent General Conference that the gap between the Church and the world has gone from “this big” to “THIS BIG”. (Remember Elder Hales gesturing wide with his arms.) Classical liberalism left some cultural and political space in which religious morality could prosper. (Of course this meant there was also a space in which alternative religious and moral visions might conflict – it suffices to consider the predicament of Mormons under a largely Protestant moral consensus about 120 years ago.) The New Liberalism increasingly tends to impose its own comprehensive moral vision.

To explore in more detail the thinking behind the liberation theory of the 60s and the New Liberalism it has spawned, we could cite the fundamental philosophical texts of the movement, such as German émigré Herbert Marcuse’s potent if inconsistent blend of Marx and Nietzsche. But the United States Supreme Court has spared us the trouble of chasing down philosophical sources by reading right into the Bill of Rights the radical doctrine of the liberation of the individual from any authoritative moral framework or higher power. A remarkable and authoritative statement of this new, theoretical liberalism is this amazing pronouncement by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

Here the U.S. Supreme Court, or rather 5 members of it, constitute themselves High Priests of the New Liberalism by presuming to answer for the American people the ultimate question of what is to be held sacred, what is the character of the ultimate moral authority: their authoritative answer is that the meaning of existence is the individual’s own power to define the meaning of existence, unlimited by Nature or by God.

Now, I realize that this radical formulation is hardly shocking to a contemporary audience, even an LDS audience, precisely because this New Liberal rhetoric has become quite conventional, almost routine, practically a matter of common sense, at least among cultural elites.


  1. Again, you have summarized the essence of "progressive liberalism." While such thought gives the appearance of "freedom," it is indeed the manner in which one becomes entrapped in the wrappings of the entity who desires nothing but our separation from a infinitely loving and just Father in Heaven. So long as we fall for the lies of false progress, false compassion and "equality," we can never be truly the sovereign individuals that God intends us to be. Rather, we will be trapped in a false religion that ultimately leads to the conclusion that there as those that are superior in thought and heart who must replace our relationship with the Eternal God of Truth and Light. We have come to a time where such casual thought cannot be afforded. We must look to the truth and light that our Heavenly Father has provided, for it is the only way that we can truly progress.
  2. Well received article. It clears up the difference between the liberalism of the Founding Fathers and the "New" version which lacks accountability and foundation.
  3. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” To me, this is the definition of freedom of religion--is that not what religion is about--understanding our concept of existence, meaning, the universe, and the mystery of human life. If we believe in freedom of religion, why is Justice Kennedy wrong to say that is the part of the essense of liberty?
  4. I'm still unconvinced that "moral relativism" is really at hand in "New Liberalism." Now I will concede that there are some who can arguably be called moral relativists, but they are extremely few in number and their ideas haven't actually gained much traction in society. Honest to goodness moral relativism certainly isn't reflected in the ideas of modern-day US liberals. Consider this following: Isn't it a given that different societies have different interpretations of what is right and wrong and that they develop laws that reflect predominant social mores? What exactly is "traditional morality?" Are you suggesting that humans across space and time agreed about what was moral and what wasn't until the rise of these so-called "New Liberals?" The Greeks and the Jews in Jesus' time certainly didn't. Neither did the early Christians in Paul's time. In fact many rank-and-file LDS don't agree on what is moral and what isn't. Consider the fact that many LDS people in good standing, including high ranking leaders, differ over the question of whether or not lawfully married men and women can engage in activity in the bedroom with each other that is immoral. This was a huge question around the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair. I recall local leaderships asking rather invasive questions about activity in the bedroom with one's spouse during temple recommend interviews and holding firesides to inform husbands and wives of what they could and couldn't do with each other. But, alas, the brethren appear to have adopted a policy of don't ask don't tell with regard to intimacy practices between spouses. The same goes for birth control. Should I then say that the LDS church is moralistically relativist simply because it tolerates a variety of different approaches to family planning and intimacy? Simply because someone has a different interpretation of what is moral and what is not than you doesn't make them a moral relativist.
  5. Very well written. It explains so much that has been a puzzle for so long. It all makes sense now. Ah yes the 60's and 70's. So many unfortunate changes are linked to those times. It makes me sad to look back.
  6. This whole second article boils down to the author bemoaning the fact that subjective morality is no longer being imposed by the force of law. Those complaining are always the ones whose subjective morality is no longer being enforced. We LDS were victimized 125 years ago by those whose subjective morality was enforced by law. Why haven't we learned from that experience? What does the Pearl of Great Price say about using force to exact subjective righteousness from others?
  7. Thank you for a very enjoyable and clarifying article. I have long perceived this "moral relativism" but was unable to clearly describe it to others. To differentiate, between classical liberalism and the new radical liberalism. It worries me and shows me even more the necessity to "hold to the iron rod" and to listen to our prophets. Thank you again.
  8. "But let me note that there is a huge and momentous step from the celebration of human freedom or moral agency to the emancipation of the human will from any authoritative structure of meaning."...Anarchism and tyranny are one step away from this relativism! Thank Goodness, for a foundation for freedom in the truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  9. To David H “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Existentialism in its extreme gives each individual the right to define and structure his/her own universe as he/she sees fit. This idea works best if each individual never has to encounter another individual. The minute another individual enters the scene, a social exchange becomes necessary. What do I do when this new individual does not agree with me? What if this new individual says a red light means go when I prefer it to mean stop? And what if this individual also believes that all vehicles should drive on the left side of the road when I prefer the right side? As we add more individuals, ideas and preferences to our social system, we will have chaos unless we agree on some rules. Rules are predominantly made by a majority because consensus is basically impossible in a society of free thinkers. And then what do you do with the ones who don’t agree with the majority rule? If they don’t conform to the established traffic rules, the deaths due to the chaos on the roadways would not be acceptable, so how do you get a free thinker to conform without infringing on his/her right to define and structure his/her own universe as he/she sees fit? Now we are back to your original quote: “At the heart of liberty” does not mean that it encompasses ALL that is liberty. I heard a story of a man who came to America in the 19th century, got off the boat, went down the street and punched a man in the nose. He indignantly said to the arresting officer, “But I thought this was a free country.” The officer wisely replied, “This is a free country, but your freedom ends where this man’s nose begins.” The genius of Ralph Hancock's article is the question: WHO gets to make the RULES that tell me where my freedom ends? Is it only the most politically influential man or should God's rules also not be included in there somewhere?
  10. laverl09 gets right to the heart of the matter by asking, "WHO gets to make the RULES that tell me where my freedom ends? Is it only the most politically influential man or should God's rules also not be included in there somewhere?" It used to be that the one with the biggest army made the rules or whose religion had the most power. These often ignored the wishes of the people. Democracy ws an improvement, but the rights of the minority were often ignored and trampled. Benjamin Franklin is alleged to have said that democracy is 3 wolves and a sheep voting on what to eat for lunch. Democracy isn't great is you are the sheep. The best way is through a constitutional republic where the rights of all are protected and all are treated equally under the law. This is what our divinely inspired constitution does. In order to maximize agency, individual freedom must also be maximized. This is confirmed in D&C 101. Should we have the freedom to punch someone in the nose? Obviously not. Freedom is not anarchy. our freedoms should only be restricted to acts that cause objective/demonstratable harm to others. We can't murder, assault, rape, rob, swindle, extort, defraud, etc... Being offended by the acts or opinions of others is not being harmed. You do NOT have a right to NOT be offended by others. Under the above scenario, people have maximum freedom and should also be held responsible for any objective harm their acts cause others. Where does religion/tradition fit into this? that is left to the individual to decide how subjective religious beliefs will modify their own behaviors within the freedom society gives them. Bro. Hancock seems to bemoan this. I would like to ask him and others who agree with him which religion should hold sway. I am sure that he would be less than thrilled if Sharia Law was given some sort of government recognition. There are many Muslims in Dearborn, MI. Many billboards are in Arabic. Should they be allowed to vote in Sharia Law within their city limits? If not, why should society at large adopt Judeo-Christians values via the force of law? Keep in mind the wolf/sheep analogy. We LDS and other Christians may want to have the law reflect our values. We may want to have Christian prayer and scripture reading in the schools. The problem is that when we advocate that, we become as the wolves infringing upon the minority sheep. We LDS have been the sheep in the past. We should not want to be wolves. Let's maximize agency by maximizing individual freedom and eschew forcing people to eschew SUBJECTIVELY bad behaviors as was done to our ancestors 125 years ago.
  11. Moral relativism has challenges in competing with rules that are based in the Bible, but for the last sixty years its main ally in the USA has been a body of judges who have overruled the statutes and even the Constitutional standards enacted by the moral consensus of the American people, expressed through our legislatures, and imposed their own anarchic theory that upholding that inherited moral culture is per se invalid because it does not tolerate moral relativism. That is precisely the announced rationale of the Supreme Court in creating from thin air new "constitutional rights" to kill one's own unborn child, to engage in promiscuous sexual relationships, and now to have government enforce that new moral standard against those whose conscience remains grounded in the inherited morality that was the basis of our laws only four decades ago.
  12. After seeing the near vicious conflict that the prophet Joseph Smith III (1832 - 1914) had with our own blessed LDS church over plural marriage (D&C 132: 1 - 66 versus 1 Timothy 3: 1 - 13, Titus 1: 5 - 9), I found that it is best to leave the ultimate judging of the morality and ethics of others to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Judah) (1 B.C. - 33 A.D.): John 8: 1 - 11 Leviticus 20: 10 - 21 Deuteronomy 22: 10 - 23
  13. This article causes me to reflect on the serious misuse of the phrase "separation of church and state." The constitution upholds our right to practice our religion WHEREVER we may be and protects us from the interference of government in our religious worship. Those who wish to pray in school have the right to do so. Those who wish to be excused have the right to do so. BUT--when we seek to erase from public life every whisper of the love of God and to proclaim that there are no universal principles of morality, we are destined to reap the same destruction of past civilizations.

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