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.