Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., a liberal Democrat and a Mormon, stands on the Senate steps on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, during a news conference.
I am a Mormon conservative, but I recommend "The Liberal Soul" to any who cannot imagine a Mormon liberalism.

Can a Mormon be a liberal? Richard Davis, my colleague at Brigham Young University, in "The Liberal Soul," has recently answered “yes.” Davis, who is also a Deseret News columnist, was good enough to join me on Friday, along with a few-score BYU students and faculty, to consider this question.

As an empirical matter the question answers itself. Though American Latter-day Saints have strongly trended conservative and Republican for decades, there are obviously many Mormons who are liberals and Democrats, and I can understand Davis’ irritation when fellow believers confront him rudely with the question "How can you be a Mormon and a Democrat?" Davis’ book performs a useful service in laying out very reasonably the case for a Mormon liberal soul, and this without excluding conservatism.

I am a Mormon conservative, but I recommend "The Liberal Soul" to any who cannot imagine a Mormon liberalism.

I was happy to find points of agreement with Davis. He defines his liberalism in opposition to a fairly extreme and simplistic economic libertarianism, which I have been known to criticize myself. He is right to criticize the view that less government is always better and that government has no legitimate role but the protection of individual rights, especially property rights.

I agree with Davis and with the whole Western tradition of political philosophy going back to Socrates — including notably the Founders of our Constitution — that individual rights can only be defended within the perspective of a concern for the common good. As a matter of theory, the justification of rights cannot be severed from a larger purpose, and as a matter of political practice, no rights can be secure that cannot win the enduring loyalty of the people as a whole. Individual rights cannot be defended in abstraction from the common good.

So a Mormon liberal and a Mormon conservative succeeded in limited but significant agreement on a point of political philosophy. On the religious side, we also agreed that a prosperous people (such as we are) can all too easily become complacent in their prosperity, come to regard their material success as evidence of righteousness, and tend to ignore the poor on the assumption that they deserve their condition. Needless to say, conservative Republicans are not immune to this attitude. (And, of course, prosperous capitalists are not alone in indulging feelings of superiority; liberal intellectuals have their own elitism, based more on learning than on income.)

Where I disagree with my Mormon liberal colleague is in his rather capacious confidence that a federally driven police of welfare aid and income redistribution is an effective means of lifting up the disadvantaged. Davis observes that a root meaning of the word “liberal” is “generous,” and since generosity is a Christian virtue, a more liberal welfare state is more generous and more Christian.

I leave it to readers to scrutinize each step in this logic; I simply note that Christian charity seeks the good of the whole person and considers material well-being in the context of moral and spiritual edification. It addresses the body by addressing the soul. Secular ideologies attempt to address basic problems of humanity “from the outside in,” as if human beings were simply products of their material environment and not moral agents.

This amoral view of humanity has become increasingly dominant in liberalism, and it shows itself in the extreme “lifestyle” liberalism (pro-abortion, gay “marriage”) that increasingly dominates the leftist agenda. This “liberationist” agenda must be taken into account in assessing the question of Mormonism as it may relate to contemporary liberalism.

So there is no question that one can be a Mormon — indeed, like Richard Davis, a good and faithful Mormon — and be a liberal and a Democrat. But it is still a good question whether it is worth the trouble, given what liberalism has become.

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.