Over the last week, Wheat and Tares has been running a series on “Middle Way Mormonism” with posts by Happy Hubby, Kristine A, Andrew S, Cody Hatch, Hawkgrrrl, Stephen R Marsh, and Churchistrue. On Tuesday, Sam Brunson at By Common Consent took up the mantle, arguing that we should look at most members as Middle Way members. Several W&T bloggers commented on the post, pushing back at Sam’s “expanded” Middle Way argument. After looking at data from Jana Reiss’ 2016 Next Mormons survey, I agree we need to be cautious about putting most members in a Middle Way category, at least as the term is used here at W&T. The numbers just don’t support it. However, we may have more Middle Way members than many people think.
First, let’s take a look at what Sam said at BCC.
But here’s the thing: we’re all Middle Way Mormons.[fn4] Or, at least, the vast majority of us are. Some have undoubtedly made a clean break from the church, and there may be some active members who accept, uncritically, everything that the church and its leaders do and say, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. But most people are somewhere in the middle, even if they don’t recognize themselves in that middle.Sam Brunson, “My Middle Way Mormonism”
Now let’s take a look at the groundbreaking research by Jana Reiss. The Next Mormons survey contains responses from 1,156 self-identified Mormons and 540 former Mormons. For those interested, more information on the methodology and background is available at thenextmormons.org (the book comes out in March 2019).
Two months ago, Dr. Benjamin Knoll wrote a piece for the Religion in Public blog, “The two kinds of American Latter-day Saints: a Mormon typology.” Applying procedures from the Pew Research Center to the Next Mormons survey results, Knoll identified two types of active members: Faithful and Obedient (62%) and Relaxed but Engaged (38%). These categories were based on many factors, but since we’ve been mainly talking about a Middle Way path in terms of belief, let’s look more closely at a few beliefs of each group.
Faithful and Obedient
- 98% “fully believe and/or have faith in most or all of LDS Church teachings.”
- 82% believe “they should obey their leaders even if it conflicts with their individual conscience,…”
- 92% “believe that the LDS Church is the only true faith…”
Based on what I’ve seen in conversations of Middle Way Mormonism over the past week, these levels of orthodoxy just don’t fit, yet this accounts for the majority (62%) of active members in the survey.
Relaxed but Engaged
- 60% “believe or have faith in most or all of LDS Church teachings.”
- 79% “value individual conscience over counsel from their leaders…”
- “About a third believe that the LDS Church is the one true faith,…”
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Prioritizing individual conscience over authority figures meshes better with many of the posts, like Hawkgrrrl’s here at W&T. A majority of these folks also reject the exclusivity claims of the Church. As Kristine A put it in her post, “I have a full belief that many people access and participate in the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a variety of churches and ways — and that Mormonism is a place just as credible as anywhere else to do so.”
But that 60% who “believe or have faith in most or all of LDS Church teachings” makes me question declaring everyone in the Relaxed but Engaged group as walking a Middle Way path. As Churchistrue wrote in his post, his version of Middle Way are those who “have unorthodox beliefs or lack of belief in traditional Mormon beliefs in many ways.” That 60% probably wouldn’t qualify.
So let’s dive deeper into that question of believing or having faith in most or all of the teachings. Last year, Knoll wrote a different article using the Next Mormons survey data, “How Many Mormons ‘Just Believe’ In Their Church’s Teachings?” In this article he laid out how all self-identified Mormons in the survey responded to each part of the question.
49.1% “I believe wholeheartedly in all of the teachings of the LDS Church.”Benjamin Knoll, “How Many Mormons ‘Just Believe’ In Their Church’s Teachings?”
33.9% “I believe many or most of the teachings of the LDS Church.”
12.2% “Some of the teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe.”
3.1% “Many or most of the teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe.”
1.8% “I do not believe in the teachings of the LDS Church.”
It’s the lower three categories that I would peg as more consistent with the Middle Way we’ve been discussing. Knoll elaborated further on this group who doubt some, many, or all teachings of the Church.
Might this 17% simply be inactive members who have distanced themselves to some degree from their faith community? Not entirely. Among Mormons who say they attend church at least once a week (74% of all Mormons in our survey), 9% expressed some degree of doubt. Among those who say they are “very active” (55% of all Mormons), 6% expressed a degree of doubt. Even among those who are current “temple recommend” holders (a subgroup of active Mormons who pass an interview with an ecclesiastical leader in which the individual is required to affirm belief in core Mormon doctrines, about 52% of all Mormons), 4% expressed at least a degree of doubt in LDS church teachings.Benjamin Knoll, “How Many Mormons ‘Just Believe’ In Their Church’s Teachings?”
Knoll says that even among those who doubt some or all church beliefs there members who attend church weekly, self-identify as “very active,” and even hold temple recommends. Now that sounds more like a Middle Way approach. Knoll continued,
While these numbers may be small, it is significant that one out of every ten Mormons sitting in the pews each week expresses skepticism in their church’s teachings. In absolute numbers, this represents somewhere in the ballpark of a quarter of a million active, practicing Mormons in the United States who are uncertain of their beliefs in LDS Church teachings.Benjamin Knoll, “How Many Mormons ‘Just Believe’ In Their Church’s Teachings?”
A quarter of a million active members. Even if the percentages are small, that still seems like a lot of people trying to make a Middle Way path work.
What do you think? Do you interpret these numbers in a different way? Is this consistent with your understanding of the Middle Way?
Lead image from Pixabay.com.