There have been five changes in the Church in the last fifty years that seem to have altered the shape of the modern church and its direction. They are:
- A move from the Church as a single tribe “the blood of Israel” or a large family to a collection of super families or affiliated tribal groups.
- A move from blue collar ethos to white collar professional standards (with a change in image and expenditures that make sense to white collar professionals and that alienate blue collar members).
- A loss of Church centered social organizations and programs — so that if your family organization or tribe does not provide them, the Church offers no social connection for you (which also works to drive members who are not part of a tribe away from the Church).
- A move from being mostly Democrats to mostly Republican.
- Correlation. The term means many things, but it expressly means the Hellenic Greek Philosophy of Idealism as applied to religious thought (in the form of presentism).
This essay discusses these changes and what they have come to mean.
The Blood of Israel
In the 1960s and 1970s, a now noted Methodist graduate student encountered the Mormons in Utah. Her name was Jan Shipps. She was shocked to realize that the Utah Mormons acted like an ethnic group or a tribe — with the amazing feature that you could join it rather than be born into it. Usually an ethnic group needs much more in the way of blood relationship and it takes a few hundred more years to set up than the Mormons had obtained.
But for a Mormon, every where you went you had people who treated you and acted like extended family. They shared culture and background and, honestly, often generational roots and classic ethnic heritage. But the Church in general acted like one large tribe or one large family and it had the mythos or central culture story of being of one blood, the “Blood of Israel.”
That has changed. Now it is much more important to be part of a large family in the Church. People are often told that as converts they are not really suitable as marriage candidates. General authorities as a class tend to come from a group of elite family groups. People tend to rely on their family groups to meet important social needs rather than the “extended” family of the Church or society as a whole. There is actually less engagement in the common social sphere rather than more.
In addition, many Church employees and Church related businesses (e.g. the manufacturers of temple clothing, etc.) are tied into the kinship groups. In many places (though not all) the Church is not so much one extended family as a collection of tribes or clans with outliers no longer able to join the extended family or tribe, to become part of “the Blood of Israel” just by joining the Church. In fact, the Church rarely uses the phrase or meme “Blood of Israel.”
Slowly, but surely, the Church is moving from being “of one blood” to being a collection of tribes or super families with everyone who is not a part of those excluded.
The Blue Collar Divide
From the 1900s to the 1960s, the Church had a working class, blue collar ethos and was proud of it. It was a collection of people who showered after they had put in a work day rather than before (to use someone else’s phrasing). In many, many ways, the Church was very egalitarian blue collar. If there was a building project, everyone was expected to put in time. If a building needed cleaned — everyone participated.
If we had had the current system of cleaning chapels that we now have, general authorities would be telling stories of how they and their families had cleaned the chapel last week — much like we heard stories of general authorities whose first callings in the Church were things such as picking up song books or other humble tasks.
This was reinforced by the Church’s financial condition. Since this discussion is focused on the changes from the 1960s to the present, let us look at the Church then. Under David O. McKay, with the financial issues, general authorities often served a great financial sacrifice.
The Church very much presented as being run by a lay clergy and volunteers and the lack of compensation and frugality was part of the ethos and public presentation of the Church.
People could drive by President Kimball’s small plaster house. It looked like a 1200 square foot three bedroom, one car garage home. Some general authorities served on boards of Church owned businesses and they were compensated for that like other board members, but many were very much blue collar in their clothing, life style and expenses.
That fit the blue collar image of the Church. Since the 1960s there has been a divide.
Now, the image of the Church is tied to that of white collar professionals — and successful white collar professionals. We look at Romney and Cannon for our role models.
Mission Presidents are expected to present as successful professionals. Mission homes are residences suitable for professionals to live in (and, honestly, testing has shown that presenting to the public this way has a positive impact on missionary work and success). They have allowances for decoration to both improve the presentation and to give comfort to the families living in them.
When we look at those who serve in callings, at stipends and compensation and reimbursements (all of which are different things with different legal meanings) we benchmark against successful white collar professionals instead of against typical blue collar “average joes.” Those who are a part of the white collar professional class see that as natural (and reinforcing the “improved” image of the Church). Those who are blue collar often see it as excess.
Outsiders, who are mostly professional class, for the most part see the change as a positive improvement. Those who have blue collar roots do not. While historically it created improvements in the Church’s outreach, the recent actions by Pope John Paul have shown that once a Church establishes that it is “successful” — once that happens — voluntary retrenchment is seen as a very positive thing. Forced frugality is seen as failure. Voluntary frugality is seen as a positive.
Loss of Community
It used to be that a “Mormon Church” was a community center. A common by-word was that you could tell the LDS chapel because it was in constant use every night of the week. Members expected the road shows and dance festivals and athletic leagues and steady dinners and other activities to provide a community core that embraced them. Many of these were tied to fund raising or other activities and they consumed a good deal of time and effort.
That has ceased. Social needs are no longer expected to be met by the Church (with the goal that members by going out into the community will bring the community back to the Church).
Thus rather than the Church being a community — one that met social and emotional needs — it has gone to a Church that serves a basic, simplified ration of religious training, and encourages the members to find service opportunities on their own. The change is that members now need to find social opportunities on their own and to study and learn the gospel (beyond the simplified curriculum) on their own.
This ties into the change from one family or tribe to many families and tribes and the growing alienation of those outside of the super families that dominate the core of the Church.
David O. McKay and his sons were all Democrats. Utah governors were always Democrats. That has really changed. The Church has gone from a more liberal Church in many ways to one that is more conservative politically. That makes for a real disconnect at times between older Church publications and newer ones and between the expectations of some members
The term means many things, from streamlining the number of publications to uniform building design.
In this discussion it relates to the Hellenic Greek Philosophy of Idealism as applied to religious thought (in the form of presentism).
This is the idea that there are about fifty core religious concepts and that when you look at any scripture or talk or historic writing any person can, armed with those concepts, find the eternal truth in them.
In the worst form this is proof texting on a grand scale. To quote from Wikipedia:
Prooftexting (sometimes “proof-texting” or “proof texting”) is the practice of using isolated, out-of-context quotations from a document to establish a proposition in eisegesis. Such quotes may not accurately reflect the original intent of the author, and a document quoted in such a manner, when read as a whole, may not support the proposition for which it was cited. The term has currency primarily in theological and exegetical circles.
This is to be distinguished from quotations from a source deemed a hostile witness, which inadvertently substantiate a point beneficial to the quoter in the course of its own narrative. Even when lifted out of context, those facts still stand.
Many Christian ministers and Christian teachers have used some version of the following humorous anecdote to demonstrate the dangers of prooftexting: “A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, ‘Then Judas went away and hanged himself’ (Matthew 27:5b). Finding these words unhelpful, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, ‘Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”‘ (Luke 10:37b). In desperation, he tried one more time. The text he found was: ‘What you are about to do, do quickly.'” (John 13:27)
It tends to do the following things:
- It inhibits any change as it solidifies current thought as the eternal thought from which there is no growth or change.
- It destroys any reading of texts in context or for deeper meaning. The deeper meaning is the bullet point understanding imposed on the text from the list of core concepts.
- It turns the entire gospel into a very simple story, and religion into a simplified approach to everything.
Basically, every class and every story becomes Gospel Essentials (the introductory classes for new members of the Church). The message of any president of the Church becomes the same as any other and the manuals based on their sermons and teachings tend to become interchangeable. It is as if they did not have distinct ministries, messages and missions.
For a longer discussion of what Hellenic Idealism means in this context see this essay:
- Idealism: beauty is a property constructed in the mind, so exists only in descriptions of things.
- Hellenic (or Platonic) Idealism: beauty is a property that exists in an ideal form independently of any mind or description.
- Aristotlean realism: beauty is a property that only exists when beautiful things exist.
- Anyone who is famous has beauty (neo-calvinism/popular culture).
What is interesting is just how these frameworks can be applied to almost anything. Sociology, popular Marxism, and, of course, religion.
Platonic thought is found every time someone reads scripture and assumes that any particular concept refers only to a specific ideal form, that can be discovered without regard to the context of the person doing the discovery. Thus the modern discussions about faith (which is used in several different ways) where instead of acknowledging the different uses, every use of it is treated as fungible and the same as any other.
Or John Taylor and quotes from him about Priesthood — which he used in three very distinct ways (brotherhood, authority, and the power of God delegated to man) as if every time he talked he was saying the same thing.
Those are examples of Hellenic Idealism applied to simplify and redact the past to what we have in the present. It leads to Presentism (link is to the wiki explanation — this essay is already too long).
That is a huge change from the 1960s when they were seen as very different, very human, each with a unique mission and service to perform.
You can see the impact of the changes in many places. For example, rather than general authorities flying coach (as they did in an era when there were no frequent flyer miles at all), they now fly enough that they generally get free upgrades for all their flights (like just about any professional who flies a lot).
As a result, no one is surprised to see them in first class. Professionals and those who fly a good deal, see that as natural. Blue collar members are often offended at the thought, complaining of the “waste” (even though, of course, almost all of it comes from free frequent flyer upgrades).
Rather than staying in member’s homes and eating with them (which was the standard), the policy is now that general authorities stay at hotels and buy meals (and, I would note, that while they are older on the average than they used to be, they are much healthier in spite of being older. This has been a major health improvement for general authorities).
Not only do they stay at hotels, they stay at hotels that have the marker “white collar successful” and they dress not as “blue collar, Sunday go to meeting clothes” but as “successful white collar professional dress.”
White collar members take pride in this. Many blue collar members are alienated by this change. Often outsiders are more willing to meet with Church leaders and treat the Church better as a result.
Church families are broken down into groups of extended kinship groups (which often works to exclude those who do not have large families). That is also reflected in who is called as a general authority and who serves on the general boards of the Church. It impacts who interacts with general authorities (as they no longer stay in homes and have a social circle created by family and friends, not their local ward) and as a result, who is known and treated as a known commodity.
Inclusive social events like road shows, relief society dinners, dance festival and the like are all distant memories (and now the domain of Mega Churches) — making the extended tribes even more important. More and more people who leave the Church do so without any social ties to bring them back.
Interestingly enough, many who leave the Church do come together to form social groups that have activities to replace what the Church once had and no longer provides.
There are counter forces. The new service to refugees under the direction of the Relief Society may well grow into something serious. The Church Essays are more nuanced and more detailed. The Maxwell Institute has gone from apologetic efforts back to the scholarship that marked it at its origins.
Like the Pope, the LDS Church is now seen as successful enough that voluntary financial restraint by leaders may well become a marker for service and sacrifice that will not alienate the target group the Church is aligned with. In fact, a move towards austerity may well be the sort of thing that creates a positive image.
Instead of staying at Motel 6 being seen as proof of failure, it edges on becoming a marker of humility and proof of the humanity of leaders.
While there does not seem to be an inclusiveness in leadership (to the extent that there has been too much in the way of judgmental scorn heaped on some people over their appearance), that may change as well. I cringe at some of the things that have been said judging women purely on their appearance.
All of these shifts mark changes that are slowly spreading out from the center. In parts of the world where the church is inclusive and brings everyone in, with charity and kindness it is still an extended family much like an ethnic group and not devolved into tribalism. In places where it is becoming a playground for quasi-elites (people who want a better quality of member and who socially exclude those who are too poor or otherwise socially lacking), there is a lot of exclusion — and the church is shedding half of its members or more because that many are rejected. (Pro tip. 50% of any group will be in the bottom half).
It is fascinating to see parts of the Church that are acting like that.
In similar fashion, because historically when the Church has mission presidents who share the local poverty, missionary success falls and when the mission presidents present as white collar professionals, missionary success increases there are changes which are reflected in the stipends and the allowances for things such as clothing and decorating and cars that create a gap with many who do not share a white collar professional ethos. The Church’s image has improved enough that it may well be able to endure a more fiscally conservative approach (or it may not — I don’t know).
Let us be clear. I can see the social patterns that others have described and collate them into a single place (this blog post) but I do not know what the Church is doing to adjust, counter and lead out from where things are.
The elements in this essay all reflect the changes that have come over the Church in the last 40-50 years. These changes are:
- A move from one large family to affiliated super family, clan or tribal groups with the natural exclusionary effects that can have while benefiting the members of the super families.
- A move from blue collar ethos to white collar professional standards (with a change in expenditures that make sense to white collar professionals and that alienate blue collar members). Even the protest groups in the Church tend to take on white collar values and approaches.
- A loss of social organizations and programs — so that if your family organization or tribe does not provide them, the Church offers no social connection for you (which also works to drive members who are not part of a tribe away from the Church).
- A change in the political flavor of the prevalent members of the Church from Democratic to Republican (though not without limits and counter-forces).
- Simplification of Church teachings and doctrine in the style of Hellenic Idealism so that everything means the same and proof texting is not a defect but a virtue (and not without push-back. Consider Elder Packard’s talk on that subject).
Those are the shifts that have affected the Church from where it was in the 1960s to where it is now. Who knows which changes it will face in the future.
The big questions
- What do you think?
- What have I missed? — Seriously, I could well be wrong on 95% or more of my observations. What have I missed, where have I gone wrong, what should I have seen or included?
- Where do you think the Church will go in the next 30-40 or even 50 years?