[dropcap]F[/dropcap]or a religion idealizing a unified Zion, Mormonism is kinda bad at unity. In the succession crisis after Joseph Smith’s death, some followed Brigham Young, while others followed Joseph Smith III and others still followed Sidney Rigdon or James Strang. Polygamy introduced new splits: those who abandoned the practice and those who continue to practice. Splits still abound within the fundamentalists.
Even within the largest of the Latter Day Saint denominations, metaphors for Mormonism as a map or a spectrum are not new. Typologies multiply like heads of the hydra. Iron Rod vs Liahona. Chapel Mormon vs Internet Mormon. Sunstone Mormon. Orthodox, heterodox, unorthodox Mormon. Conservative, liberal, progressive. Ex, post, former. Neo-orthodox. New Order Mormon.
In blogging in particular, we can recognize the fractures and factions. For example, most of us here are familiar with the term the Bloggernacle. And even if we don’t use it, we are familiar with the blogs on the Mormon Archipelago aggregator.
…Similarly, if you consider yourself ex- or post-Mormon, then maybe you’re familiar with the blogs of Outer Blogness (even if maybe not the aggregator itself.)
…and if you tend to think that both the Bloggernacle and Outer Blogness are dens for apostasy, then perhaps you are more of a fan of the blogs of Nothing Wavering.
Through these aggregators, one can see the spectrum of Mormonism, and one can choose where he or she will travel.
…So then…if the idea of a Mormon spectrum is not new, and sites for aggregating various places on the spectrum are also not new, then what can yet another site — “The Mormon Spectrum” — offer to a saturated field?
[dropcap]M[/dropcap]ormon Spectrum popped up almost overnight. As a reference to a specific website (as opposed to the general metaphor), everything seemed to happen around July 30th. When I arrived at Sunstone’s annual Salt Lake City Symposium on the 30th, the site had its own table and representatives eager to share it with the Mormon world. And it was not just Sunstone — I saw posts go up on several major Mormon Facebook groups…Mormon Stories Podcast Community, Mormon Hub, A Thoughtful Faith, Mormon VIP Lounge, to name a few. But I also saw posts on the exmormon sub-reddit, links at MormonThink, blog posts explaining why it came to be at Main Street Plaza, and so on.
Within my blogging circles, I heard quite a bit of skepticism. Wasn’t it just duplicating the efforts of every other aggregator? Even more, many people complained that whatever methods were being used to categorize sites was, to say the least, idiosyncratic — I personally noticed with slight befuddlement that in the “Unorthodox Mormons” section, Main Street Plaza (the primary group blog for the Outer Blogness disaffected Mormon blogging aggregator) and Millennial Star (the primary group blog for the Nothing Wavering conservative/orthodox Mormon blogging aggregator) sat right next to each other. Even more? in the ex- and post-Mormon websites section was listed Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought right underneath the CES Letter.
…certainly, Kristine Haglund, Steve Evans, and several other folks associated with Dialogue would likely not appreciate being thought of as an exmormon resource, much less one situated along with the CES Letter.
But, despite the criticisms I heard, when I viewed the site, I saw two things that intrigued me.
Firstly, when you go to the main page for Mormon Spectrum, you are presented with a colorful choose-your-own-adventure. As the site says, it collects resources for each of its defined types: Orthodox Mormon, Exploring Mormon, Unorthodox Mormon, and post/ex-Mormon…but you get to choose which materials you will view.
Secondly, when you click to “view resources,” the site takes you to a description of its typology — what it defines an orthodox Mormon as being, etc., One will not actually find any specific blogs from this main “choose-your-own-spectrum-location” page. In fact, the only substantive resource that is easily accessible from every page on the site is at the bottom of every page: the recommendation to Explore, Discover and Choose What Works for You via a map of in-person communities.
(To get to the lists of blogs, forums, Facebook groups, and podcasts, one actually must go to the left-side menu [not shown in the above picture], and drill down to see those options.)
I was curious about these two things, and when Alison Udall, one of the main promoters of Mormon Spectrum in the many Facebook groups, sent me a Facebook message asking me where I thought my solo blog, Irresistible (Dis)Grace, should go, I took the opportunity to ask further questions about the site and its goals. Certainly, you can read up about a lot of the site on its own about page or on Alison’s post at Main Street Plaza explaining why the site has been developed, so I will only cover a few elements.
Choose Your Own [Mormon] Adventure
[dropcap]U[/dropcap]pon visiting the site, I appreciated that it provided resources for each of several types of Mormon. I understood that this team was trying to allow people to look at the resources they were most comfortable with, but I questioned how sustainable this would be — how could one provide resources for Orthodox Mormons and have ex-Mormon material just a few clicks away?
Alison responded with a bit of personal history that influenced the site:
ALISON: …I grew up in a very traditional/conservative Mormon family and had the impression you were either “in” or “out” as far as the word Mormon was concerned. You were either active or inactive (a Jack -Mormon). Then I experienced my own faith transition and spent several years interacting online hearing the stories of others. I realized there isn’t a “one size fits all” Mormon, but rather a spectrum. So we broke down the areas, along the spectrum, into big umbrellas to make it possible to fit our goals and we focused on who we were trying to help. We knew there would be a lot of nuance, differences and variety within those areas but to create the website with our user driven goal this was needed. That allowed us to separate the content into specific areas with the user in mind.
I pushed back — how could a user-driven website appeal to each group when content they would disagree with would be just a click away? Alison responded:
ALISON: …We defined our target audience as exploring, unorthodox and post & ex Mormons as we felt those were the people that need resources and support. The orthodox member has the church for this.
…Some have criticized us for how we defined the orthodox section and have wondered why we even included it. It was important to me to include this as it is part of the spectrum. Not only that but we certainly hope people are utilizing those official resources as they study and navigate this experience. I welcome the orthodox Mormon to the site and hope they find value in a very easy reference to many of the church’s resources. That being said they are not our intended audience as this member relies on the church for their information and may not be willing to even visit a site like this.
I asked Alison over the course of our conversation about what she thought that Mormon Spectrum brought that other aggregators did not. When I mentioned Mormon Archipelago and Nothing Wavering, she admitted that she had never checked out the Archipelago and hadn’t even been aware that Nothing Wavering even existed. Yet, as the conversation continued, she seemed uncertain about how to incorporate these aggregators — she didn’t want a full list of every blog, but she also couldn’t necessarily determine which categories the aggregators themselves could go into.
It was then that I began to suspect that I was wrong in my initial assumption. Perhaps Mormon Spectrum was not trying to be just another blog aggregator?
More Than Just a Blog Aggregator
ALISON: Part of the goal in the website is to help people understand each other better and what these spaces look like. I had a great conversation with my active believing married daughter, while showing her the website, when she asked “what is an unorthodox Mormon?” These are the conversations I hope others can have so that we can understand each other better…If someone is willing to read the overview page in each section (even if they never look at anything else) I believe they’ll benefit by understanding others the spectrum better.
This explained why the link to resources emphasized the description rather than any listing of sites. But I still had questions about why certain sites were categorized certain ways.
ALISON: Some people may not feel they fit neatly into just one area of the website and we recognize that! Some resources are listed in more than one area and again this is because the design is focused on being user driven. We assumed someone would only be viewing resources within one area and therefore we included all content we thought would be helpful, applicable and interesting to that area of the spectrum. There is overlap and we tried to keep that in mind.
…but over all, in-person conversations and communities continually appeared as a motif.
ALISON: …Mormon Spectrum began with an idea to support/encourage and provide a way for people to find each other through in-person communities. My husband and I experienced the loss of our social network during our faith transition and we decided to move across the country to have a fresh start. We wondered how we were going to meet people as the church had always been our method of developing community and friends. We came across meetup.com and decided to try that. Each week I posted a hike in the outdoor group we organized, and for the first few months it was just the two of us with our dog….5 years later we have over 1,000 members in our group and have a thriving wonderful community. It’s not Mormon related at all, but rather a group that loves to play outdoors.
This experience reinforced the need that everyone has for friends and community and that people are looking for ways to find and connect with each other. Over the last few years, interacting online I’ve noticed how frequently people share the pain of losing their social connections as they move away from being an orthodox Mormon. They often begin to feel isolated from their Mormon community, family and friends. Although online support is wonderful it just can’t completely replace in-person support. Within Mormon culture, community is an enormous aspect and something that provides meaningful, wonderful opportunities for service, interaction and socialization.
This brought into context why the site de-emphasized orthodox Mormons. As Alison said before: orthodox members have the church for this.
Yet, by entering the world of in-person progressive and former Mormon communities, I sensed that Mormon Spectrum was entering a far more fraught space. Purposeful, secular communities — especially ones that can maintain the social cohesion of religions like Mormonism — are rare. Various online Mormon celebrities have tried — John Dehlin with Mormon Stories Communities of Support, John Larsen with the Living Community — only to discover that communities are super difficult.
So, I asked: who was Mormon Spectrum and were they up to the task?
ALISON: …In February of 2015 I got together with several other people and we brainstormed about how to support others. I shared my idea of the in-person directory/communities and asked if any of them were interested in helping me. My good friend Steve Holbrook agreed. I began posting online about the project and searching for existing groups that people had created
…As we thought through it more thoroughly we recognized that the ability to find resources and online support were also super important for people going through this. So the website idea expanded and we decided to tackle the website as well as the in-person directory. The process of researching and gathering the content that would go into the site began while simultaneously continuing to expand the in-person group directory. I also reached out to find someone that would be willing to help me actually create the website since I don’t have those skills. Jason Howard responded and said he was interested and after we spoke on the phone he agreed to donate his skills and time. He is our amazing website designer/developer and took my ideas and content and turned them into something beautiful. We reached out to a few others and invited them to be a part of our team and they became the small group that reviewed content, suggested edits, offered skills and experience as needed, and were there when we needed to bounce ideas around.
…But what was their affiliation? Who really was behind Mormon Spectrum?
ALISON: I also made a very conscious decision to not align with specific well known people/organizations during the creation of the website or to house it within any existing non-profit foundations. This was important to get broad support across the spectrum and to truly show it was neutral. This website is owned by Mormon Spectrum Foundation – a non-profit we created. We received no money from anyone outside of our small team or any organization in creating it. We donated the funds, skills and time needed to create it.
While Alison was adamant to claim independence — to be broadly supportive across the spectrum — she also pointed out that rather than sponsoring its own events, it would be a centralized hub where other groups could list their own events, and in some instances, the Spectrum would show support to those events.
ALISON: Right now the groups that are listed within the MSiP directory are groups that were created by individuals all over the world. We don’t tell them how to name their group, what process to use in vetting or running their groups. We just offer them visibility on the directory so people can find them. We don’t plan on creating Mormon Spectrum groups ourselves…there are some newer groups that have named themselves after the spectrum because they liked it but it isn’t something we are spear-heading. We do plan to promote the benefits of in-person communities and encourage people to start them in their area if the map is empty where they live.
We might decide to show support/visibility to events now/then. Steve Holbrook runs the Post Mormon group in his area and they have John Dehlin coming to do an evening. We posted about that event to show support and put our logo on there. We are happy to do that for other events that people are doing and show support and help them get visibility. I reached out to folks in ATF [ed: A Thoughtful Faith] and a few well known people to let them know we were going to do that with the John Dehlin event and would love to do that for stuff they are holding. We certainly want to do that for our three groups we are trying to support: exploring, unorthodox and post & ex.
Reflecting the Spectrum
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s an introvert and homebody who is more at comfort behind a keyboard than out and about meeting people, I don’t know how often or even if I will use Mormon Spectrum that much. As someone whose primary internet mediums are blogging and Facebook, I sympathize partially with those who say it looks like a duplication of effort — but I recognize that with the in-person component, there is still something there, even if it’s not for me.
Certainly for a site that has existed for less than a month, the ambition is palpable, but so too is its promise. Yet, still, as mentioned before, communities are super difficult.
No matter what happens with Mormon Spectrum…whether it can remain a bright light highlighting the myriad of Mormon communities and resources or whether it refracts (as through a prism) into a thousand dazzling disparate wavelengths (…as fits the Mormon story), it just goes to show, in contradiction to Gordon B. Hinckley’s father, that cynics can contribute, skeptics can create, and doubters can achieve.
(Addendum: for a few brief thoughts that didn’t make it here on orthodoxy as “official”, check out this followup post.)