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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