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.
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.
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.