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What challenges will the Mormon church face in its 3rd century?

First Published      Last Updated Apr 19 2016 07:50 pm


Religion » Keeping converts, advancing women’s roles and nurturing sense of community are among challenges facing the Mormon church.

As Mormonism enters its third century, it faces a Goldilocks dilemma: Too much tension with the surrounding culture invites scorn; too little threatens its uniqueness.

But finding just the right balance to ensure a thriving — and distinctive — faith won't be easy.

After pressure from the U.S. government, Mormons gave up polygamy, for example. Despite the demise of Prohibition, however, the renowned teetotalers didn't start drinking. With a nod to American tolerance for diversity, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has softened its language on homosexuality. Still, the religion hasn't signed on to support same-sex marriage.

These, then, are the cultural negotiations every faith must navigate, particularly in a democratic country.



So, what are the Baby Bear options in Mormonism's future?

Too much conflict with the wider society, say on gay rights or women's roles, premier Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss argues, would bring "not only popular disdain but even repression and persecution."

But too little difference between U.S. values and the Utah-based faith, he warns, could make the denomination indistinguishable from American Protestantism or liberal Judaism, giving up "its appeal to potential seekers and eventually getting absorbed into the general religious establishment."

Only the right amount — which the retired professor calls "optimum tension" — will propel the U.S.-born faith into the next century and ensure it retains its religious vitality, its identity, its Mormon-ness.

That was the message Mauss, author of two groundbreaking books, "The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle With Assimilation" and "All Abraham's Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage," delivered recently to students and faculty at Utah State University in Logan.

At 86, Mauss has observed and, as a Mormon himself, lived through nearly half of LDS history. He has watched most closely the developments in the 20th century and notes worrisome trends that need balancing for the institution to remain vibrant.

"To avoid, or even retard, such extensive assimilation," Mauss says, "the church will need a great deal of skill in managing its public image and in resisting the external influences that will constantly be pressing to 'domesticate' the peculiar Mormons."

He points to four internal issues of concern.

Correlation conundrum • The first is an initiative known as "correlation," begun in the mid-1960s as "an ideological movement that arose to centralize and reorganize LDS ecclesiastical experience ... intended to help integrate and manage the rapid growth and spread of the church to various parts of the world outside the U.S."

But correlation gave birth to "unintended consequences," Mauss explains, including "a reduction in the power and autonomy of women," a changed and less-sociable three-hour "consolidated Sunday meeting schedule," and an "uncomfortable interdependence of the LDS Young Men program and the Boy Scouts of America."

Under this model, the LDS Church has centralized and focused its message on "ideal" U.S. members, namely those in families, he says, which has marginalized "other demographic categories — the singles, the elderly, the ethnics, and the intellectually and artistically sophisticated."

That also has imposed American or "Mormon corridor" culture and practices on Latter-day Saints in other nations, Mauss says, "partly isolating the LDS members from their local families and institutions."

Unconverted converts • Second, the LDS Church, with its massive missionary force — now numbering more than 85,000 — baptizes hundreds of thousands of converts every year, but tending to the newcomers' spiritual needs typically falls to local congregations, with their all-volunteer clergies.

It puts a "strain in relationships between missionaries and bishops, who do not share the same interest in accelerated baptisms," Mauss says, and can lead to " 'bishop burnout,' referring to bishops and other leaders who sometimes seek releases from their callings out of sheer fatigue, and then drop out themselves from any further church activity."

Female elders? • Third, the LDS Church runs into much debate and even clashes over the "role and status of women," Mauss says. "Ordination for women [to the all-male priesthood] is not the only issue, of course, but it is clearly the most contentious inside and outside the church."

Pressure from within and without for gender equality, he says, "will eventually require considerably more adjustments in the tension level faced by the church over gender roles as the century progresses."

Ordaining women may happen "before the century has ended," Mauss says, " ... since there is no explicit doctrinal barrier."

LDS leaders should be careful, the sociologist cautions, since "in other denominations the ordination of women has been accompanied by the acceleration of male departures from the clergy as an occupation."

Would Mormon men "remain so heavily committed to church activity," he wonders, "when they can so easily escape the extra responsibility by deferring to ordained female colleagues?"

Would male participation in priesthood projects wither? Would women eventually become the primary providers of traditionally male-dominated service (putting up chairs, shoveling sidewalks, helping members move, roofing widows' homes) and ministration (overseeing worship services, staffing temples, going on full-time missions)?

LDS historian Claudia Bushman agrees "that ordination of women will be rash and troublesome and that men, who are now so impressively committed, would retreat."

Bushman, an Ivy League scholar who has written extensively about Mormon women, past and present, instead favors "the extension of existing roles for women, with much individual action such as women blessing their babies and each other, new callings for women that would even up the gender ratios on [congregational] councils."

She also would like to see "more imaginative thinking about utilizing singles and our wonderful influx of sister missionaries."

Doubting disciples • The last challenge Mauss mentions is the issue of doubt.

How can LDS authorities "create and maintain a supportive environment in which individual members can struggle with serious doubts without jeopardizing the love and regard of fellow members, or even their church membership?" he asks. At the same time, how can they "maintain boundaries around certain fundamental truth claims that define the very identity of the LDS religion?"

Mormonism, after all, was born in the early 1800s and built upon Joseph Smith taking his faith questions to God and ultimately founding a new religion with "claims of overt divine intervention."

If Ordain Women founder Kate Kelly and "Mormon Stories" podcaster John Dehlin went too far and, thus, were excommunicated, where is the line between a questioning disciple and an antagonizing apostate?

LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson has said that members cross that line when they engage in "public, sustained opposition to the church itself or the church leaders and [try] to draw others after them ... trying to pull people, if you will, out of the church or away from its teachings and doctrines."

Another Mormon apostle, Jeffrey R. Holland, recognized that a "mixture of doubt and faith is a common condition even for those who seek most diligently after the divine," Mauss says, "so that the real issue is not the degree of one's faith but the integrity of one's commitment to whatever degree of faith he or she has."

The sociologist further quotes Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the governing LDS First Presidency, who said in a recent general conference to doubting and disaffected members, " … regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this church."

No matter how welcoming top Mormon authorities seem in their remarks, Mauss says, "it is not clear just how far church leaders, and other guardians of orthodoxy, might be willing to go in reaching out to those saints with serious doubts."

The Internet generation is awash in information, some of which is hostile to LDS claims, Mauss notes. "How much room will there be in third-century Mormonism for varied interpretations and understandings of fundamental doctrines and their traditional meanings? Will responsible scholarship and complete transparency in teaching its doctrines and history continue to be valued and implemented in the church during the coming century?"

Individualism and internationalism • Mormon historian Matthew Bowman says amen to Mauss' list of challenges, while asking some questions of his own.

Mauss describes correlation as a "bureaucratic restructuring and reorganization," says Bowman, author of "The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith." "But it was also a cultural and theological revolution, which gave rise to a powerful sense of Mormon identity and rapidly accelerated participation in the church."

Like Mauss, Bowman does not champion an either/or perspective, saying "strategies of institution building and maintenance often don't quite track onto arguments about preference or ideology."

Bowman, however, does note an additional potential obstacle for Mormonism: the rise of American individualism.

"This poses distinct challenges to communal, hierarchical religions like Mormonism (or Catholicism, for instance)," Bowman says. "We live now in a society which privileges personal preference and self-expression, which encourages us to think of identity as something individually rather than communally constructed, and is suspicious not only of particular authorities, but also of the notion of authority in general, particularly when it asserts itself in arenas like identity and self-expression."

This, he says, is a stronger challenge and indeed lies behind the four Mauss mentions for the 15 million-member faith.

What is missing in these analyses, says Ignacio Garcia, Lemuel Hardison Redd Jr. professor of Western and Latino History at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University, are the challenges posed by the "coloring of the church."

Latinos may be losing their LDS faith at the same or greater rate than Anglo or longtime Mormons, Garcia says, but not because of thorny doctrinal or historical questions they read on a website.

These mostly Spanish-speaking Latter-day Saints "are falling away because they don't find their [congregations] being sensitive to their spiritual needs," he says. "They are worried about losing their jobs, or about immigration reform, or political questions of equality and discrimination."

There are few people with diverse or ethnic experiences among Mormon intellectuals, Garcia notes, or who work for the church.

A conversation that "leaves out the international church or people of color," he says, "cannot predict the future."

pstack@sltrib.com Twitter: @religiongal

 

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