I don’t think that we can just blame the doubters for not believing enough. Indeed, in some cases they were set up by being asked to believe too much, either in the absence of actual data or in doctrinal propositions or theological frameworks that could not stand the test of time, let alone a basic smell test. Take two examples from my mission. First, I repeatedly and passionately bore testimony that as a young man Joseph Smith was absolutely not engaged in treasure seeking or money digging. Second, I read and discussed with other missionaries various talks by General Authorities teaching that blacks were “fence-sitters,” or otherwise “less valiant,” in the pre-existence, which explained why they were “cursed” in mortality. In the first case, I certainly did not intend to lie to anyone, but that’s precisely what I did because I hadn’t been taught any better. The second case is more pernicious to me, with moral and ethical implications that make me shudder as I look back. But as missionaries we were simply doing what the rest of the church and its leaders had been doing for almost a century and a half—filling in theological and historical blanks with what were really some rather reprehensibly bad explanations, because we felt like we had to have a solid doctrinal basis for everything, even if we were making it up. And if a General Authority said it, well then, it must be dictated straight from heaven. I’ve had to repent for my own un-Christian acts and words, and have been able to reconcile myself to the fact that the church that sent me out as an official representative didn’t arm me with better and more accurate information. However, many people have not been able to make the same peace. They feel that they were betrayed or set up by the very institution that had taught them to be honest and true.
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In recent years many thousands have found their way to the previously mentioned “Letter to a CES Director,” a slick but in my opinion intellectually amateurish document that has midwifed countless people out of the church. Unfortunately, for many who land there, the “Letter” is the culmination of their quest for knowledge rather than being just one data point among many.
In any case, once they discover these new facts and realize they are not just the inventions of malicious anti-Mormon propaganda, many people start to wonder what else they haven’t been told. They begin to see duplicity rather than sincerity in the church’s presentation of its doctrine and history. Skepticism and doubt begin to overcome trust and faith. One of the ironies we haven’t fully appreciated in our discussions of doubt is that to some degree our church culture is responsible for many people’s reactions to troubling information. Whether consciously or not, they are simply applying what they learned in well-intentioned but ultimately damaging Primary and youth lessons, such as when the teacher offers the class a bowl of ice cream, then dumps a small amount of dirt on it and asks if anyone wants it now. Of course they say no, and the teacher points out that this is what just a little bit of sin does—it ruins everything. So those who see a little bit of dirt in church history are acting in ways that seem entirely commensurate with what they have been taught their whole lives—God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, so we turn away from sin and touch not the unclean thing. Unable to manage the cognitive dissonance, these people’s relationship to the church becomes tenuous, and often breaks. Many feel that they cannot participate with integrity in church meetings where certain details are either neglected, covered up, or denied. In short, they have become switched off. Some of these people not only leave the church, but also abandon Christianity and even theism, since God, Jesus, and Mormonism had always come as a package deal in their minds.
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My strong belief is that the most important thing we can do to empathize with and minister compassionately to those who are experiencing doubt and disaffection is to make the church a more welcoming place for those who struggle. It is our responsibility, in our church callings but also as parents and siblings and friends, to create the conditions in which people can feel comfortable working through their questions and doubts in the midst of the body of Christ rather than feeling excluded from it. I believe that a more embracing Mormonism may be the most important factor in helping people more fully embrace Mormonism. I recently read about certain members of a ward who refused to take the sacrament from a young man who had come out as gay but who was declared worthy by his bishop. That is not an embracing Mormonism.
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I was recently struck by a comment made to me by a work colleague. She and her husband have been looking for a good church community to support them as they raise their two adopted granddaughters. They’ve been attending an LDS ward for a few months now. They love it and are talking seriously about getting baptized. At lunch a couple weeks ago, she was regaling me with the many virtues of Mormonism and Mormons—which I thought was my job!—when she paused and said, “I just don’t get why they’re all so defensive.”
I think her comment was more perceptive than she may have realized. As I look across nearly two hundred years of Mormon history, I see a people who have been motivated first by faith, but secondly by fear. That has led us to think, speak, and behave in ways that are not always welcoming either to outsiders or to those within our midst who have questions, different perspectives, or otherwise don’t fit a certain mold. Having written a book about nineteenth-century anti-Mormon violence, I get that there were really good reasons why our pioneer ancestors were scared. And even since systematic anti-Mormon violence ended, we have continued to endure more than our fair share of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, sometimes innocent but often malicious. Afraid of giving our critics any ammunition, we have closed ranks and presented only what we think is the image of our best selves to the world. Furthermore, we have created the impression of absolute unity in both the leadership and membership that is in many ways a useful fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. I’m not saying that this came out of anything but the best intentions—namely, the survival and unity of the church. But I do think that a lot of the way we have constructed our community has been predicated on fear, which has led to a certain parochialism, risk aversion, lack of moral imagination, reticence to take accountability for past missteps, and the overall defensiveness that my colleague spotted.
Circling the wagons was an effective pioneer tactic, but was also a telltale sign of vulnerability and weakness, not strength. Shifting analogies somewhat, for too many years we refused to yield to dissenters and critics even an inch of territory—including some pretty rocky, barren outposts that should never have fallen within our borders and definitely weren’t worth defending. This no-retreat-no-surrender mentality has only fueled the CES Letter and other polemics, which have made the claim that a series of apparent infelicities, contradictions, gaps, errors, and transgressions invalidate the entire Mormon system. They can effectively make that argument, and lead many thousands of people out of the church, because too many Latter-day Saints, including many of our leaders, have over the years essentially made that same all-or-nothing argument. In the process we constructed an edifice that was too rigid and brittle to withstand the storms of scrutiny that have been unleashed especially in our Internet age.
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without forgetting our past or wilting in the face of opposition, I believe it’s time for Latter-day Saints to move forward with the courage of our convictions. I would suggest that doing so will go a long way in addressing the current predicament of doubt and disaffection that so many of our members are experiencing. Mormonism is a young religion, still finding its legs. For its first century it necessarily focused on origins and basic survival in the face of tremendous persecution and hardship. In its second century the church successfully emphasized stability, respectability, and growth. Only now, as we approach Mormonism’s third century, are we in a position where we can think bigger and bolder. I believe that Mormonism’s challenge and opportunity in the 21st century will not be simply to survive or even to grow, but rather to contribute, to give something novel and unique that the world desperately needs and can have no other way. What will be our community’s gift to the world in this century and the centuries beyond? As we figure it out together, we will galvanize the commitment of our own members, especially our Millennials, who don’t just want to belong to a church but yearn to join a movement that they understand to be relevant and to make a real difference in the world.
Living Mormonism with the courage of our convictions will allow us to embrace a wider cross-section of those who may currently feel switched off or squeezed out. The gospel revealed through Joseph Smith is grand, sweeping, and capacious—not narrow, petty, and restrictive. Whatever you think about the Prophet Joseph, you can’t say he thought small. It was the audacity, not the conservatism, of his thought that captured the imaginations of the early Saints.
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As part and parcel of embracing our doctrine of God, it’s encouraging to see more members courageously embracing our theology of Heavenly Mother and the divine feminine, rather than simply perpetuating the patronizing stance that she can’t bear us talking about her. And even with the question of women’s ordination to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods off the table, we are beginning to improve in discussing the priestly roles that women serve both in temples and in the everyday church, though of course we still have a long way to go.
It’s encouraging to see greater courage in our Seminaries & Institutes, BYU Religious Education classrooms, and even a few Sunday School classes, which are demonstrating that holistic discipleship means educating people’s minds as well as their hearts. We are seeing that people can not only tolerate challenging information but indeed are strengthened by the faithful presentation of the whole truth. Facts are stubborn things. When our members, and especially our children, see that their religion can be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as any other topic of study, and doesn’t need protective hedges of dumbing-down, denial, and deferred questions, then they will have greater courage in living out their Mormonism.
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This is a hard one for many people, but I am seeing us begin to courageously explore what it really means to sustain fallible prophets and apostles, and to develop a robust theology that sustains our sustaining. The chapter in Planted that I get the most comments on is chapter 6, “In All Patience and Faith,” which addresses prophetic fallibility while maintaining the conviction that God does reach down and call a few mortals among us to dedicate their lives and best efforts to proclaiming the gospel, leading the church, and calling us to repentance. One of our community’s gifts, as Latter-day Saint Christians, is that we declare that God points us to prophets, apostles, and the church—not because they can save or redeem us, but because they are the temporal means by which he orients us to our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ.
Even with all these positive developments, I believe there are many areas where there is still ample room for improvement. You will have your own list, and may well disagree with mine—but I’ve got the mic.
I believe we need to summon the courage to finally and truly repent for some of our past transgressions. Let’s start with the obvious stuff, like Mountain Meadows, the spurious racial ideologies surrounding the priesthood-temple ban, and generations of patriarchal discourse that relegated women to being reflected light compared to the glory of their husbands and priesthood leaders. Repentance, at least as the church has taught me the principle, requires an admission of wrongdoing and an effort toward reconciliation with those who have been trespassed against. It is more than either just moving on or a lawyerly expression of remorse that bad things may have happened.
I believe we need to summon the courage to authentically incorporate more of the diversity of God’s children into our—rather, his—church. Twentieth-century Mormonism was astonishingly successful at creating a committed core of white, middle-class, upwardly mobile, professional, suburban American nuclear families. We need greater courage to allow members in the international church, having been taught correct principles, to govern themselves. We need greater courage to pursue real and sustained ministries to the urban poor, in this country and around the world. Even without changing our doctrine, we need greater courage not just to tolerate but to do all we can to reach out to and welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters who are hurting so badly right now. That includes partaking of the sacrament when it is blessed or passed by gay boys deemed worthy by their bishop like any other Aaronic Priesthood holder, or not isolating LGBT members and treating them like they have or are an infectious disease. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop fussing over women wearing pants to church, or men coming with beards or blue shirts. With all the other problems in the church and the world, is that where we’re going to spend our emotional energy?
I believe we need to summon the courage to make secularism an ally rather than a bogeyman. Secularism is here to stay as one of the principal conditions of late modern society. Furthermore, we of all people should be grateful for it, because without secularism, with its bequest of disestablishment and religious freedom, there would be no Mormonism. Secularism is not the enemy—it is the very air we breathe, and the foundation for our modern democratic, scientific, and human rights regimes that we all value and which have led to such a dramatic increase in human flourishing. To be sure, secularization can also include an aggressive campaign toward the privatization of religion, in which it is banned mostly or entirely from the public square. And in their most hostile forms, secularization theorists and champions have predicted the inevitable decline of religion, celebrated any movement in that direction, resisted any indicators to the contrary, and portrayed the stubborn persistence of religion as not only backward but genuinely dangerous. But before dismissing secularists as bigoted cranks, let’s have the courage to listen to their real grievances and fears about what centuries of state-sponsored religious majoritarianism and moral establishments did to atheists and religious minorities—including, let’s not forget, Mormons. Despite the cries of the merchants of fear on both sides, my personal feeling, and scholarly analysis, is that at least in America, thanks to the First Amendment, secularism is still mostly benign and generally beneficial to the flourishing of voluntary religious commitments and communities, including ours.
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As I wrap up, 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. I have a really smart colleague who once invited the missionaries into his home so he could learn more about Mormonism. When they finished their discussion, with frequent references to their accompanying flipchart, he thought to himself, “That’s it?” Indeed, I fear that in too many contexts we’re feeding our members and investigators a low-nutrition religious diet that leaves them not only with the unsatisfied feeling of “That’s it?” but also leaves them poorly fortified against challenges to their faith. I see signs that we’re starting to do better on this score, but frankly only in patchwork fashion.
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.
In the end, I’m bullish about the future of Mormonism, and its ability to speak to the needs of a wide range of God’s children, including those who find belief and belonging in the church a genuine struggle. In this moment when we are speaking so much of doubt, perhaps it’s helpful to remember that Jesus chided his disciples for their fears as much as, if not more than, their doubts. Remember Paul’s counsel to Timothy: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). I’m convinced that a church that is simultaneously humbler and more self-possessed can capture the imaginations and loyalties of those who feel switched off and squeezed out more than could a church leadership and laity that are constantly on the defensive.
We have a theology that empowers each of us to be anxiously engaged in good causes, to be co-creators and co-participants with Christ in the work of redeeming the world. Flipcharts and risk management will never capture people’s hearts. In our 21st-century secular age, Mormonism will succeed because it stretches people’s moral imaginations, and calls them to a life of faith that is not small and fearful, but rather creative, venturesome, open, and empowering.
Zion calls. Will we have the courage to get there?