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.)