Yesterday, Jana Riess published a short article at Religion News Service, titled “Oh, now I get it: Purging the word ‘Mormon’ is a bid for the mainstream.” Jana always has interesting thoughts to share. You should go read the piece. In it, she cites a few other changes made during the Nelson era (LDS Sunday meetings shortened to just two hours; eliminating what she terms “quaint outdoor theatrical pageants”; missionaries now have a mildly relaxed dress code and can call their families once a week) to argue that making the term “Mormon” verbotten within the LDS community was, in fact, a sign of an ongoing LDS move toward assimilation: “On the whole, President Nelson’s various changes in the church have succeeded in helping the institution exist more comfortably in the world.” I don’t really agree with that observation/conclusion. It doesn’t feel like assimilation to me.

The Assimilation/Retrenchment Model

Before continuing, I need to explain why the terms “retrenchment” and “assimilation” carry such weight in this discussion. In 1994, LDS scholar Armand Mauss published The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1994). That’s a book you really need to go read if you haven’t yet. In the book, Mauss laid out and supported a model that sees the LDS leadership sometimes guiding the Church and the membership toward less tension and more engagement with the surrounding religious and secular culture of the United States — that’s assimilation — and sometimes toward maintaining or increasing the distance and separation between that surrounding culture and the Church and its membership — that’s retrenchment. That model continues to receive attention and to spur further discussion in LDS quarters in large part because the Church (as guided by LDS leadership) continues a sort of zig-zag approach. Sometimes it zigs toward a more reasonable approach (only two hours in church on Sunday). Sometimes it zags toward strange Mormon quirkiness (one earring is fine; two earrings is a sign of rebellion against God and His Church).

I can’t really expect you to go read the book before continuing with this post, so here’s a short post that nicely review the model: “The Angel and the Internet,” over at Times and Seasons. Like Jana Riess, the T&S author (in 2010) saw signs of assimilation, spurred in part by the blossoming discussion of all aspects of Mormonism and the LDS Church on the Internet. Ironically, the Church setting up a “” site (and the later “I’m a Mormon” campaign) were seen as signs of a move toward assimilation: Hey, we’re not weird, we’re just normal Christians, normal Americans. Now, a decade later, Jana Riess sees the Church’s abandonment of the term “Mormon” as a move toward assimilation. So is it a zig or a zag? You can’t really argue that embracing the term “Mormon” is a sign of assimilation but also that abandoning it, almost condemning it, is also a sign of assimilation.

Does It Feel Like Assimilation?

Keep in mind Mauss’s original metric: whether the LDS leadership is seeking to increase or lessen tension between the Church and its membership, on the one hand, and the surrounding culture, on the other. Which way is the Church heading at the moment, right now? What is the general tone you hear in the last few General Conferences? Is it a move toward involvement with and a certain degree of acceptance of that surrounding culture? Or insistence that the Church and its membership pull back from that approach and maintain LDS distinctiveness, rejecting some or many aspects of contemporary culture?

My gut feeling is we are still in retrenchment mode. By which I mean, of course, that LDS leadership is still in retrenchment mode. They’re the ones with a hand on the rudder. Engaging in the gay marriage fight, then losing it so completely, certainly induced a degree of siege mentality in the leadership. That is evident in the frequent leadership talks on defending religious freedom, which just doesn’t make a lot of sense to many listeners because there is really no aspect of our religious freedom which is under attack or at risk. No, but obviously LDS leadership feels that they and the Church are under attack, because they lost the gay marriage fight (and got burned in the process) and because they can’t figure out how to deal with the ongoing mainstreaming of LGBT issues and rights in American law and culture.

If you go back to that T&S post and read the comments, you will see a couple of comments left by Armand Mauss himself. In one of those comments, he makes an interesting observation which sort of extends his model. Referring to his own 2004 comments in a T&S 12 Questions piece, and opining as to whether the Church (in 2004) was currently in retrenchment mode or assimilation mode, he said (caps in original):

I wrote what is quoted there in 2004, before we started seeing the new Public Affairs thrust now underway. It seems to me that most of what I said in 2004 still applies, even though retrenchment might be on the wane in some respects. In my 1994 book, I did not distinguish adequately between the INTERNAL membership of the Church, where all the retrenchment has been taking place, and the EXTERNAL audience, where an assimilationist posture has been dominant since the turn of the 20th century, in one form or another.

That distinction between internal and external messaging is a great point. That’s more or less what I think is going on: internal retrenchment with a degree of external assimilation, or, as I put it in the title to the post, retrenchment masquerading as assimilation. And to bolster my claim that the Church (and the LDS leadership) is still retrenching, consider this additional commentary by Mauss in that same comment in the linked T&S post from 2010, in which he is uncharacteristically blunt:

We will know that retrenchment is truly in retreat when we are no longer expected to accept the literal historicity of the Book of Mormon; when the Family Proclamation has been modified to make it more assimilationist; when missionary service is no longer considered as the “normal and expected” choice for boys of 19; when Correlation has been loosened to permit local adaptations in curriculum; when the curriculum no longer assumes literal (and near-inerrant) interpretations of scripture; when the mission of CES includes reconciliation of faith and reason, rather than only sheer indoctrination; and when we are no longer told regularly over the pulpit that ours is the only true and living church on earth.

If even just one or two of those things happened, it would certainly be a sign that something has changed. But there has been pretty much no change on those positions. Retrenchment is still the order of the day, punctuated but not meaningfully modified by the occasional public statement or event that sounds a different tone. It’s like a basketball move: fake left, dribble right. Don’t be fooled by the fake.

The Jana Riess article is getting some attention. Over at T&S there’s a new post and discussion responding to her piece as well, “Not Assimilation, But Alliance.” More good points.

What do you think?

  • Is proscribing the term “Mormon,” at least for internal LDS discourse, a sign of assimilation or retrenchment?
  • More generally, is the Church, as guided by LDS leadership, presently pulling away from engagement and participation in wider American culture (retrenchment) or is it moving for more participation and less disagreement/tension with the broader culture (assimilation)?
  • You don’t have to agree that the Church is still in retrenchment mode, but if you do (and even if you don’t) name one or two things the Church could do in the next couple of years that would signal a true shift towards assimilation.
  • Remember that one of the points Mauss made was that there is no simple formula like “retrenchment bad, assimilation good” to apply here. As society shifts over time, retrenchment might be the right move at one point (perhaps the mid- to late-19th century), then later assimilation might be (early 20th century). So apart from the more or less empirical question of whether the Church is right now in retrenchment or assimilation mode, there is the larger and more reflective question of what the Church’s position should be and which direction we should be moving right now, in 2022.