A friend mentioned to me they were reading a Dialogue article from 2011 titled, “Mormonism in Western Society: Three Futures” by Frederick Mark Gedicks. Even though it was written 7 years ago, most of the issues mentioned about the direction of church membership are roughly the same: Most growth is in the southern hemisphere, stagnant or declining of the already small membership in Europe, baptism rates in the US declining, and declining rates of holding on to youth and young adults. Gedicks goes on to opine about the probable ways the LDS church can engage with Western Society. He outlines three of scenarios or paths that he thinks are most likely to be adopted.
The author clarifies he is not talking about fundamentalism as in FLDS, but returning to the roots. He explains:
Fundamentalist Protestantism was (and still is) characterized by resistance to modernism, scriptural literalism, insistence on absolute and unchanging truth, and nostalgia for earlier eras when Americans were thought to be more faithful to their God.
The academic meaning of “fundamentalism” is now used more generally to describe religions that endorse strict and uncompromising fidelity to their authorities, doctrines, and practices, without making any compromise or concession to contemporary life. This academic meaning preserves the dual original meaning of antipathy to current values and yearning for a return to the more righteous ways of the past.
This would be characterized by rejecting contemporary values and emphasis on God and the commandments being unchanging. Even if society is changing, God and the church are not. I usually hear this more informally called “doubling down.” For me this is certainly has much more of a black and white feeling of, “You are either with us or against us.”
Gedicks outlines the second path the church could go would be that of social conservatism. This would be to align the church with conservatives much more than progressives. This would mean aligning with other conservative churches, such as the Catholic Church, to stand united against secularism. By joining or even forming these coalitions, the church would look for other religions desiring the same end results for issues/discussions in society. Social Conservatism does not seem to necessitate dramatic changing of doctrine, but more alliances and cooperation with other religions and conservative groups. I do think this isn’t one in the same as most members being “solid Republican.” I see that being a bit more cultural, but certainly being heavily influenced by church leaders.
The last path that Gedicks put forward is assimilation. This isn’t hard to understand what he is describing in this path. It is simply trying to be more like the other religions you want to be a seen as part of or at least being seen as an equal. I don’t see this is a situation where the poplar Star Trek quote of, “Resistance is futile” because assimilation is inevitable, but I have a hard time not including such a geeky yet related quote.
The church has taken a bit of this path before. It gave up its rather unique practice of polygamy. It has changed its policy and doctrine around race several times. It has even given a green light to Diet Coke, but it has not taken the truly drastic step of allowing beards at BYU.
There can be a danger in “overdoing it” and losing a separate identity. If too much assimilation occurs, then you just seem to be “one of the group” without much of anything different from other groups.
Reading this immediately made me think of Armand Mauss and his book, “The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation.” I had forgot the subtitle, but remembered the theme very well laid out in the book. Mauss describes how the LDS church as always been in tension between being “like the other respected Christian churches” and simultaneously wanting to be “peculiar” and having something more than the other churches possess. It is balancing somewhere between being the same as others or being way too different on the other end of the spectrum. I think this is playing out in last few years and even months. The LDS church poured enormous amounts of money and energy into the “I’m a Mormon” campaign and then with the “Meet the Mormons” film, only to have recently decided that they don’t want to be called “Mormons” or even “LDS”. I get the feeling that many in the church want to say, “We are just like you – just enough to make you want to join the church, but then we want to be unique and better!”
Gedicks proceeds in his paper to discuss the ramifications of each of the 3 paths. If that interests you I would encourage you to read the paper in its entirety (link here).
Others Definitions of Potential Paths
I really liked Patrick Mason’s presentation at FairMormon in 2016. It was titled “The Courage of Our Convictions: Embracing Mormonism in a Secular Age” Mason describes two paths he finds worrisome that the LDS church could go down. One is “EFY-ification” and the other seems to me to be a combination of “Fundamentalism/Social Conservatism.” Mason gives a concise description of these two paths.
I will admit that I have two fears for the church that I love and am totally committed to. First, I fear for what I call the “juvenilization” of Mormonism, or the “EFY-ification” of the church, or the “Gospel According to Internet Memes.” When it’s adults in the room, let’s respect one another enough to talk like adults. Most people can handle complexity and nuance. We can stretch beyond what we learned in seminary, though we are so rarely invited to.
My second fear is for the fundamentalist takeover of Mormonism. I’m not referring to fundamentalism in terms of polygamy—I’m pretty confident we’re totally past that phase of our history. Instead, this is a reference to what I think is the rather remote possibility of a process similar to what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990s, when theological fundamentalists took over the churches, seminaries, and governing bodies of the denomination and either pushed out liberals and moderates or made their lives in the church so miserable that they left on their own, thus leaving only the fundamentalists to control the whole denomination. There are occasional signs that moderates and liberals are simply not wanted in the contemporary LDS Church. We have already lost too many who feel, incorrectly in my estimation, that the church is simply a shill for the Republican Party and Family Research Council. But for the most part I’m optimistic that the center will hold, and that Zion will transcend the ongoing culture wars.
It is good to hear someone that may not be a liberal calling out that the church, or at least the church culture, does not feel welcoming to many liberals.
Issues on direction of religions has split other religions into definable sub-groups (see examples of Schisms). It isn’t like Mormonism doesn’t have a few hundred groups within its family tree. Even today we see offshoots such as those that adhere to the teaching of Denver Snuffer, those that didn’t agree Brigham Young was God’s chosen successor to Joseph Smith, and several groups that feel Wilford Woodruff’s manifesto stopping the practice of polygamy wasn’t from God.
So which path is probable?
For me I see a bit of a shift since President Nelson has become the prophet that makes me feel a leaning towards fundamentalism. I would also assume there are differing views from even the top leaders on what direction is best, even if they wouldn’t describe any of the paths as bluntly as described above. I know it isn’t the exact same situation, but in business I have seen good conversation when working on issues like reducing costs. But when revenues start dropping (or lack of growth of membership in this case) it can cause a panic and many that feel more drastic changes need to be made.
So which way does the church seem to be going from your perspective?