Liberal, conservative, and fundamentalist Christians—stereotypes or useful categories? At PlaidBerry, a Christian blog, there's a post distinguishing reasonable conservative Christians from extreme fundamentalist Christians as well as from arrogant, amoral liberal Christians. Sound familiar? It probably wouldn't surprise you to learn the author of that post is a "reasonable conservative Christian." I wonder whether the popular Mormon dichotomy (conservative versus liberal Mormons, iron rodders versus Liahonans) might be improved by upgrading to a trichotomy similar to the one used in the linked post (i.e., fundamentalist, conservative, and liberal Mormons)?
First, disclaimers: This is a religious perspective, not a political one. It is possible to be a conservative Christian who is politically liberal, and vice versa. Furthermore, one will never come up with descriptions of the categories that makes everyone, or even most people, happy. The question is: Are there fundamental and systematic differences in the religious views of different Mormons that can be illuminated—better understood—by distinguishing different categories or styles of belief?
The sectarian reflex, never far from the surface, is likely to engage here, moving some to say "there is only one kind of Mormon (my kind!), and anyone who has different beliefs isn't a true Mormon." That's one view of Mormonism, and obviously if you feel that way this exercise doesn't make much sense. But there is plainly a range of LDS opinion on some questions of doctrine or history, so it makes sense to consider the range and essence of some of those differences. There are differences of opinion in higher leadership as well as in the rank and file, so it can't be dismissed as simply a question of righteousness or being "in tune" with God. Here are some stabs at distinctions.
Liberal Mormons. Those who prefer to downgrade the overemphasis on legalism and emphasize instead charity and forgiveness? That's unfairly dismissive of conservatives, I think. How about those who can wink at the stronger forms of BoM historicity or informal prophetic infallibility, but still come to church every Sunday?
Conservative Mormons. Those who are comfortable with legalistic formulations, historicity, and informal infallibility, but are willing to tolerate both the left and right wings without much anxiety or difficulty. These Mormons adopt what might be called the classic Sunday School approach to doctrine: Almost any answer will do; what's really important is that you show up every week and sign the roll.
Very Conservative Mormons. (This seems preferable to "Fundamentalist Mormons," as "fundamentalist" has a negative connotation these days, plus the term might lead to confusion with modern Mormon polygamists.) Christian "fundamentals" seem to be (1) every word of the Bible is true or inspired; and (2) the Christian story of Creation (whether ID or simpler versions) trumps science and evolution, and the two are incompatible so one must choose one or the other. The parallel issues that define the fundamentals of Mormonism would be (1) every word of the Prophet is true or inspired; and (2) the Mormon story of the Book of Mormon and its Nephite civilization trumps science and archeology, and the scientific evidence is simply wrong if it is in conflict with the accepted Mormon account. Furthermore, Very Conservative Mormons are likely to think these fundamentals are normative for LDS membership and that those who hold differing views are closet apostates.
I think the majority of Mormons are in the Conservative group, including many local leaders. What distinguishes these, I think, is a focus on general membership issues rather than doctrinal ones. Those who really take doctrine and "Mormon Studies" seriously, the pseudo-intellectuals and legitimate scholars, sort of gravitate to the left or the right, with more going right that left. But there are a few LDS scholars trying to promote a version of ecumenical dialogue and engagement, trying to hold a Conservative middle line without adopting the full Very Conservative programme.
Assuming you're not irretrievably opposed to the idea that a range of religious opinion is acceptable under the umbrella of Mormonism, can you offer improved or alternative descriptions of the essential points of difference between the different groups? While a careful reader might discern my sympathies, I'm really more interested in describing the differences than evaluating them. Plenty of time for that later.