Trends in Mormonism – Pressure Points

I’ve been posting recently about trends in Mormonism, especially in the last 5-10 years. The list is not exhaustive by any means, but it’s food for thought. Last week I talked about:

  • rise in the academic study of Mormonism
  • interfaith partnerships
  • visible humanitarianism

Certain trends are associated with internal and external pressure upon Mormonism to change. Each one provides an interesting case study in how Mormonism adapts. I’ll touch on three in this post and three more in the next.

Increasing public scrutiny.

First, Mormonism has been subject in recent years to increasing public scrutiny. It’s been about 5 years since the Proposition 8 battle in California and just over a year since the Mitt Romney presidential campaign. Both of these events have focused the public attention on Mormonism, including Mormon history, beliefs, and values. Add to this the award-winning Book of Mormon musical on Broadway, and the continual stream of books and articles about Mormon-related polygamist books. As people ask tough questions about Mormonism, the LDS church continues to try to control public perceptions about itself. It seems to me that they usually handle this scrutiny by saying as little as possible of substance, while redirecting attention in other directions. It’s hard to know what kind of pressure this scrutiny is exerting on LDS leadership, but their response seems careful and nuanced. They aren’t panicking, but continue to look for opportunities amid the scrutiny to press their claims to the world.

How the Book of Mormon is presented.

Second, we’ve seen changes in how the LDS church presents the Book of Mormon, both to the public at large and to its own members. There has been pressure for years surrounding the archaeology of the Book of Mormon. Outsiders have questioned the historicity of the Book of Mormon on many grounds. Mormons dispute among themselves about which geographical scenario they think best fits the Book of Mormon narrative. But more significant pressure has come in recent years from the DNA analysis of populations. Recent DNA research suggests that most Native Americans carry largely Asian, not Middle Eastern, DNA. Because of this, the LDS church has had to backpedal in the last couple of years in some of its claims.  For example, the introduction to the Book of Mormon once said that the Book of Mormon peoples the “principal ancestors” of the American Indians.  It was recently changed to call them “among the ancestors” of the native Americans. An essay posted by the church on lds.org in late January says that “what seems clear is that the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples likely represented only a fraction of all DNA in ancient America.” (On a side note, this makes it problematic to identify which Native Americans are actually descended from Lehi and are thus Lamanites, and which are not.) When I was growing up in the LDS church, it was almost universally understood that the American continent was largely unpopulated when Nephi and his family arrived, and that every Native American was simply a Lamanite. But Mormonism has a short memory, and seem to be very deft at navigating such changes without creating many ripples among its members.

Common practices publicly criticized.

Finally, let’s consider a couple of cultural practices in Mormonism that have created pressure by raising complaints from outsiders. One is the exclusion of non-members from temple weddings. This issue comes up frequently on social media and some blogs. Family members are offended that they cannot attend their daughter’s (or cousin’s, etc.) wedding because the marriage is solemnized in a location that non-members (and some members) cannot enter. It seems to me that the church has largely ignored these protests. They are personal and sporadic, and have never amounted to any kind of significant public movement. It’s not likely that this kind of pressure, even if it were more organized and concerted, would result in change, because it would affect something very fundamental about Mormonism. By contrast, consider the complaints made against the church for practicing proxy baptism for the dead on Jewish Holocaust victims. This protest arises from a sense that the ethnic heritage and identity of deceased Jews is compromised by baptising them as Mormons. The complaint has been expressed in a concerted manner from influential Jewish organizations whose intention has been to catalyze change. In response, the LDS church has changed it’s policy – even though the new policy continues to be breached by zealous members.

Next post: pressure on Mormonism from trends relating to race, feminism, and homosexuality.

 

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Trends in Mormonism: 7-9

As we move into the new year, I’ve been posting about recent trends in Mormonism. Mormonism has changed a lot since I left the LDS church in 1973, but I’m focusing on the last 5-10 years. I don’t claim that my list is exhaustive by any means, or that my observations can be objectively verified. But it’s food for thought. These ideas were first shared in October at the Church Planter’s Summit hosted by Loving Utah. Last week I talked about:

  • the democratization of information
  • increasing public dissent within Mormonism
  • a softer touch by the LDS church in handling dissent

Here are three more possible recent trends.

A rise in the academic study of Mormonism.

There is an increasing number of programs in Mormon Studies at secular American universities. In 2008 Claremont Graduate University in California opened the first such program outside the state of Utah. Many schools are also adding courses and graduate fellowships. A new crop of young scholars is exploring Mormonism from an academic perspective, and are being published by some of the top academic publishing houses such as Oxford University Press. The American Academy of Religion has a subgroup dedicated to studying Mormonism. While there is a great interest in Mormon history in the context of larger patterns in American history, Mormon studies is not just about history. Scholars trained in sociology, philosophy, psychology, gender studies, and more are publishing in academic contexts. Even though many of these scholars are LDS, such studies are not “faith-promoting” in the sense that Mormonism has always portrayed its history and practices in a way that bolsters its truth claims. Rather, they are approaching LDS history and sacred texts from a “religious studies” perspective. In religious studies programs, scholars examine religion as a human creation, focusing on the sociological, cultural, anthropological, political, and psychological aspects of religious life. Unlike the past, this approach is detached from apologetic or polemical interests. That is, studies are not designed either to prove or disprove Mormonism, but simply to apply the tools of rigorous academic study to all things Mormon.

Interfaith partnerships.  

For decades, Mormonism has been concerned about its public image and has been careful to cultivate a positive image with other faith groups. I suspect this has a lot to do with the LDS priority of preaching the gospel to the whole world.  A positive public image opens the door to the Mormon message. But until the 1990s, Mormons generally stayed away from inter-religious dialog and partnerships. This probably reflects their heritage as victims of persecution, along with their geographical and cultural isolation. But in recent years, Latter-day Saints seem to be more willing to engage in formal dialogue directly with members of other faiths. I also see an increasing desire to partner with other faiths on shared moral causes and in common public events. I still think this has a lot to do with Mormonism’s desire to present a great public image. This increased involvement in faith partnerships may also reflect a greater confidence among Latter-day Saints about being accepted in the larger faith community. It would be hard to deny that it is also driven by genuine concern over public issues of morality and the erosion of religious freedom, issues where Latter-day Saints find common cause with people of other faiths.

Visible humanitarianism.

The LDS church has always had an exemplary strong program of assistance for its own members. I can’t find data to quantify this, but it seems to me that the LDS church has put the spotlight more in recent years on humanitarian aid to people outside the church. (They started keeping track of humanitarian efforts in 1985.) The church’s website references efforts like sending over 160,000 lbs of food and emergency resources to victims of Haiti earthquake 2010. Humanitarian efforts are certainly touted by individual members as a reason for pride in their church (although this kind of aid represents less than 1% of the church’s annual income, averaging $50 million/year since 1985). Along similar lines, the church is focusing on visible community service, as groups from local wards wear bright yellow “Helping Hands” jerseys identifying them to the public. This is commendable; many churches perform such service. Missionaries are increasingly being deployed on service projects in the neighborhoods where they live. (This may be because there are so many missionaries this year, and perhaps not that many prospects.) Two young missionaries helped me landscape a house I own in Salt Lake City, for which I was very thankful. (It also gave me a chance to have some great conversations with them.) In any case, locally and globally, the LDS church does seem to put more emphasis on helping others outside their own membership more than in the past.

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Trends in Mormonism: 4-6

In this current series of posts, I’m engaging in a new year project to identify some trends I see in the world of Mormonism.  Last week I highlighted these three:

    • An increasing diversity of “Mormonisms”
    • Developments in missionary activity
    • Demographic losses

Today, as trend number 4, let’s start with what I’m calling the democratization of information.  The availability of information via the internet makes the distribution and “ownership” of information much less top-down and more horizontal.  Information easily travels from person to person rather than through official hierarchies.  This means institutional gate-keepers have a much harder time holding their constituents to the official version of things.  This is true in every institution in our society, including religions.  The phenomenon certainly affects Mormonism.  (See this article to learn more.)  One practical result is that Latter-day Saints are increasingly aware of “trouble” items, such as unsavory episodes in LDS history or discrepancies between official and non-official accounts of past events.  It makes it harder to the LDS church to let past doctrines and practices recede into memory – like polygamy and racism – as the prevailing culture changes.  Another practical result is that individual Latter-day Saints are more prone to adopt idiosyncratic versions of their faith, as they pick and choose from the wide-ranging available perspectives rather than simply adopting the one official view of things.

The second trend may be related.  I observe an increase of public dissent within Mormonism.  There has always been dissent with the LDS church.  But with information being so much more available, and lines of information being so much more horizontal than in the past, dissent now has a more public face than ever before.  The role of John Dehlin and the Mormon Stories podcast is an example of this.  Communication technology makes it easier for dissidents to share their stories and ideas, and to talk to each other, than in the past.  I’m not sure that a generation ago the general public would have known about the dissent of the Swedish group represented by Hans Mattson. (See his story reported in the New York Times.)

Related to this, the third trend I see has to do with the handling of dissent.  The LDS church seems to be handling dissenters with a softer touch than in the past – at least at present.  Twenty years ago five BYU professors were excommunicated, apparently for publishing work critical of LDS doctrine or leadership.  (The basic story can be found here.)  There have been others excommunicated since for scholarly work that runs counter to LDS church claims.  I’m not saying excommunications aren’t happening.  But I’m not aware of excommunications of scholars recently.  Perhaps I’m just not paying attention.  Or perhaps, at present, the LDS church feels more threatened by a public image of being repressive than by actual dissent itself.  Of course, this could change if the the form, level, and content of dissent changes to something the church see as more threatening.  (For random stories and notes about LDS excommunication, click here.)

 

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Trends in Mormonism: 1-3

As I mentioned in my last post, I thought a good year-end project would be to share some of the trends I see happening in the world of Mormonism.  That will be the topic of the next few posts.  I don’t claim that my list is exhaustive by any means, or that my observations can be objectively verified (although some of them can).  But it’s food for thought.  These ideas were first shared in October at the Church Planter’s Summit hosted by Loving Utah – a church planting network.

First, I believe we are seeing an increasing diversity of what I’ll call “Mormonisms.”  In other words, while Mormonism has some very strong traits that create uniformity across the LDS culture, in recent years I think Mormonism is fragmenting into a variety of different cultural sub-groups that reflect different ways of experiencing what it means to be Mormon.  (See this article by Armand Mauss.)  Many of us have observed over the years that Mormonism in Utah is different in many ways from Mormonism outside Utah.  There is obviously a difference between those who are temple-active versus those whose activity centers around the ward.  Most would admit there are differences between those born into the LDS Church as compared to converts.  I think there are growing differences in how different generations experience Mormonism.  Many Mormons are cultural only; others are true believers.  Some take an intellectual approach.  Some are closet doubters, while others are openly dissident.  While Mormonism is a strong cultural identity, we cannot assume that all Mormons feel the same about being Mormon, have the same experiences as Mormons, or understand those experiences in the same ways.  It makes sense that we would connect with and share the good news of God’s grace with each sub-cultural group somewhat differently.

The second trend has to do with the LDS missionary effort.  In the short term, there are a lot more missionaries than ever before, since the LDS church lowered the age of eligibility in October of last year.  Young men can now serve at age 18 instead of waiting until they’re 19, while young women can serve at age 19 rather than age 21.  This created a surge in missionaries, since now there are 18, 19, and 20 year old boys on the field instead of just 19 and 20 year olds.  But once the older missionaries begin to finish their terms, the number of missionaries will fall back down, at least somewhat.  But it’s possible the total numbers will still reflect an increase over the past, since more young men will not have that extra year between high school and missionary service where they may decide not to go on a mission after all, for whatever reason.  We can also observe that the LDS church is continually adapting its missionary methods.  Missionaries are doing less and less door-knocking and cold-calling, and devoting more of their efforts to internet interactions and other uses of contemporary technology (read about this here).  A few years ago the missionary lessons became less rigid and more interactive.  We can expect that the Mormon missionary movement will continue to adapt as ways of communicating adapt in our culture.  I’ve also observed – although I can’t quantify this absolutely – that an increasing part of the missionary force is being dedicated to member retention and reactivation compared to proselytizing new converts.

This leads to the third trend I want to mention.  Mormonism is suffering demographic losses.  The highly active core is shrinking.  (See this analysis by Joanna Brooks, and this report from Reuters News Service.)  The LDS church appears to be losing many of their young people.  The Pew Forum reported five years ago that only 70% of those born in Mormonism continue to identify themselves as Mormons as adults.  Yet only between 25-30% of self-identified Mormons are active in the church.  The attrition rate of converts is also very high – perhaps 50% in the USA and 75% worldwide after the first year.  (For demographic analysis, see cumorah.com)  I haven’t seen the numbers, but I wonder what the retention and activity rates are among Latter-day Saints under 30, who have had greater access to information about Mormonism from a variety of sources than their older counterparts.  The LDS church seems to be recognizing this challenge, as new methods are being proposed to better prepare young members to encounter information about Mormonism from non-official sources.

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Recent Trends: Understanding Change in Mormonism

As we wind up another year and launch into a new one, I plan to consider in the next few posts a number of possible trends in current Mormonism.  A lot has changed in Mormon culture since I left the LDS Church in 1973 and since I came to Utah in 1983, but I’ll be focusing on the last 5-10 years.  My observations are merely my informed opinions, based on living within and evaluating Mormonism over the years.  They lack any objective scientific basis.

To begin with, let me establish a framework for understanding change in Mormonism.  Considering its relationship with the larger American society, Mormonism has historically swung between two poles: antagonism and accommodation.  (One sociologist uses the terms assimilation and retrenchment.)   Along these lines, antagonism emphasizes those elements in Mormonism that are unlike the surrounding society, focusing on its unique roots and values, those distinctive beliefs and practices that mark Mormonism as unique.  This might include its supernatural claims, the Word of Wisdom, family practices, and standards of morality.  An example of an antagonistic stance would the LDS Church’s participation in the Proposition 8 campaign against homosexual marriage in California.

Accommodation, on the other hand, emphasizes those elements where Mormonism at times becomes more like the rest of society, focusing on similarities and commonalities such as the virtues of hard work, financial success, and respectability.  Examples of an accommodating stance would be the “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, and the way Mormonism was presented during the Romney presidential campaign.  The pendulum is constantly swinging back and forth.  Armand Mauss, an LDS sociologist who popularized this framework, wrote in 2010:

 “I see signs now that retrenchment in the Church is slowing down, perhaps even rolling back somewhat, and is gradually giving away again to a more assimilative posture toward American society and the rest of the world.”

Mormonism has always been at least somewhat responsive to external pressure.  The LDS Church has a long history of being willing and able to adapt in order to survive and thrive.  There was a time when American culture corresponded more closely to the values of Mormonism: patriotism, hard work, loyalty, a clean cut image, Ozzie and Harriet, mom and apple pie.  But as America has become less conservative, this shift in values has made Mormonism more out of sync.  Thus in the 2012 election, the biggest critics of Romney and Mormonism came from the political left.

This shifting pendulum between accommodation and antagonism leaves us wondering how far Mormon adaption can or will go.  For example, the courts recently handed down rulings that now permit multiple cohabitation (polygamy) as well as homosexual marriage in Utah.  With polygamy essentially legal, will Mormonism swing back toward the marriage practices introduced by Joseph Smith – a radical form of antagonism?  Will it swing forward to adopt popular cultural perspectives on homosexuality – a radical expression of accommodation?

As we assess changes and trends in Mormonism, my interest has to do with how any such changes might impact the ways traditional Christians share the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with our LDS neighbors and friends.  Watch the next few posts to consider 15 possible trends and pressure points in Mormonism in the coming year.

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