This is the third in a series of posts answering questions by a non-member who is curious about Mormonism. The actual question has been restated to help with a more intelligible answer.
I'm trying to figure out how the political conservatism and the theological liberalism of Mormonism doesn't clash. It seems open to a wide source of religious information, but adhere to social and economic conservatism. How does a non-authoritarian religious culture mesh with an authoritarian political culture?
This has been the hardest question to answer based on my own conservative beliefs. It just seems natural that Mormonism and conservative ideals go together. Obviously there are liberal members of the LDS Church, with Sen. Reid as an example. Even the current Mormon U.S. Presidential hopefuls are considered by many conservatives as liberal, where others have noted they are pragmatic rather than ideological. I think the pragmatic assessment is closer to Mormon politics more than a conservative or liberal label, but it does lean conservative for definitional purposes.
Strictures of Authority
To understand the conservatism in the LDS Church and its members is to acknowledge the authoritarian nature of its structure. It starts with a strict Priesthood line of authority that Joseph Smith claimed came directly from Jesus Christ through administration of Angels. He testified that the Resurrected angels of John the Baptist and then Peter, James, and John literally gave him the Keys to teach, organize, and preside over a new Christian era. No one has any authority except it be given to them within the Priesthood positions they have been given by others above them. All members are under the authority of the leading Prophet and President of the LDS Church, who is currently Pres. Thomas S. Monson. It has been that way since Joseph Smith as explained in D&C 28:6-7 about his position, "And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church; For I have given him the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations which are sealed, until I shall appoint unto them another in his stead."
Discussion have focused on the populist teachings and doctrines found in Mormonism and how much they influence its course. To a degree they can as history has shown what the members think about the most often is confronted by the leadership. Sometimes it means a change and other times an entrenchment. Regardless of the outcome, little is normalized until after the President and Apostles who are at the top decide to issue instructions or by example. Personal revelation for individual members no matter what position is taught to be important, but no one is given the right to use those to determine the requirements of belief or actions for others. To again quote D&C 28 with verse 6, "And thou shalt not command him who is at thy head, and at the head of the church . . . " It is only when called and set apart for specific positions does a Mormon have any authority over others, but not for anyone above them. Since those in charge of the Church are at times two generations behind those in other organizations, any changes if they occur can be considered by the more liberal as slow. It might be said that the leadership continues to live under the old foundations when the new generations hold to more recent views. Conservatives might say this is to ensure that the word of the Lord is not overtaken by the whims of temporary fads.
Probably the next reason Mormons remain mostly conservative is the beliefs about the traditional structure and importance of the family. Despite the historic practice of polygamy, a nuclear family of man, woman, and child has remained the template. The father was the head and breadwinner of the household while the women had children and took care of the home. The last few decades this has officially been relaxed with concerns about modern living conditions and single motherhood, but ultimately the nuclear family is theologically a requirement. This continued and consistent belief has been challenged by the modern world and therefore Mormonism has been thrust into the conservative side of the argument. An important proclamation by the LDS leadership warns, "that individuals who violate covenants of chastity, who abuse spouse or offspring, or who fail to fulfill family responsibilities will one day stand accountable before God. Further, we warn that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets." The political ramifications of placing the traditional family structure as the pinnacle of eternity is not hard to recognize.
History of Subjugation
The place of individualism and secular government in relation to the LDS Church is a complicated subject. Perhaps nothing, not even theology, can explain well why Mormonism contains so many conservative members. What can be known is that Mormonism and the United States it was founded in have had a rocky relationship. At times it has been more liberal than its aggressors and then after what has been called "the assimilation" it became more conservative compared to social trends.
Race has been a huge part of the history of the United States, and no less Mormonism. Very few who criticize the history of blacks and the LDS Church have acknowledged the liberal views it held during the life of Joseph Smith. He often proclaimed that blacks would be no worse than whites if let free. A few blacks were given the Priesthood before the ban took effect during later years. Neighbors took just as much issue with the theology as they did the neutral or abolitionist tendencies among converts. The violent clashes were Southerners against a largely Northern church membership the farther west they headed. Liberals have argued that the anti-black positions during the Brigham Young years was in part a reaction to older criticisms that had a psychological impact. The Mormon leadership, they at times argue, were trying to prove to their past antagonists there was nothing to fear and that became entrenched in theological teachings. Later on during the social revolutions in the 1960s and 70s the antagonists became different and the Priesthood once again was offered to all. This is all, of course, if certain assumptions are maintained about history and intentions.
The more telling examples of Mormons becoming more conservative because of the U.S. Government is polygamy and communal economics. The former has been discussed, but it was after a long protracted battle with U.S. laws that the traditional family structure became absolute. Just as equally was a more liberal economic structure called the United Order where possessions were shared with the community. It depends on what period of Mormon history is examined how much of a communist plan was used. Practices went from a near complete sharing of land and capital to a central gathering of excess materials that was then handed out for individual ownership. The constant political, policing, and military engagements against Mormonism took its toll. The economic structure of Mormonism became capitalistic near the time of capitulation of other Mormon peculiarities. A conservative highly capitalistic country forced a more unconventional populace to conform or be disbanded. Historians have uncovered letters and records that prove that was the Government's ultimate plan.
The reverence for the U.S. Constitution in Mormon theology as divinely inspired mixed with the reality of the same country that enshrined the documents not acting upon its own rules has created a strain of conservatism that is both the same and different than the wider population. The nuclear family and all political positions that give it primacy are highly supported. Mormons intermingle with a group that could easily turn against them because the past has proven they are more powerful and dangerous than the liberals who are currently antagonistic. Mormons are wary the government can help people without forcing itself upon those it claims to protect. This creates a fierce independence from both the liberals and conservatives that is more practical than purely ideological. At the moment conservatives hold to ideals of God, Country, and morality that are shared with Mormons. That could change if the priorities of the left, particularly the rhetoric of anti-religiosity and supremacy of the Government to dictate economics, were to shift to a more libertarian viewpoint. Time will tell.