What does the CoJCoL-dS offer me? — the wrap-up!

I hope you’ve enjoyed my series of articles analyzing the strategies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!

Here they are, in case you missed any:

Now you may be wondering why this subject interests me so much. Of course I’ll start with the standard answers to the #1 exmo FAQ (If you’ve left the church, why won’t you just leave it alone?)

Being raised Mormon played a big role in making me the person that I am. That’s never going to change — I’m not going to magically, retroactively get a new past just because I don’t want to continue to practice Mormonism indefinitely. It’s a little like High School — I see no point in staying there forever, but that doesn’t mean that I hate it or that I didn’t learn anything of value from it or that I wish I’d never done it.

As I’ve said, I have every right to my own stories — and I strongly reject the believers’ claims that my perspective on Mormonism is less valid and/or more biased than theirs.

That said, there are a whole lot of aspects of my past that I don’t spend so much time analyzing, so why this one in particular?

Some of it is just random. My first experiences with socializing on the Internet were centered around ex-Mormon websites, and that led to being linked into a community of friends centered around that shared experience. Also, since I moved to Europe (and integrated myself into a new, European life), following Mormonism is a way of reconnecting with the culture I left behind.

But in addition to all of these personal reasons, I actually think that Mormonism is objectively interesting.

Some outside of Mormonism think it’s fascinating that people would believe in a prophet who’s “obviously a con-man” — but, honestly, I don’t think that part is unique at all. At best — because Mormonism started more recently than many other religions — the paper-trail is still warm. And that can help shed light on what other religious leaders might look like if we had perspectives on them written by someone other than their own followers. But I don’t think it’s that exceptional.

What I think is more interesting is that people would venerate an organization that is obviously a for-profit corporation. Just because the leaders aren’t living lives of conspicuous consumption like wealthy televangelists, believers don’t seem to mind giving 10%+ of their income to a real-estate corporation that is amassing great wealth apparently just to invest it and amass some more. That’s that point that’s kind of always in the background in all the articles in my series linked above.

I hope you’ve found my analysis interesting. I certainly had fun coming up with it and writing it all out. I welcome further discussion!

What the CoJCoL-dS Offers: Retro Morals

In the second episode of this series, I claimed that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers a lot of nothing — but then in the most recent installment I mentioned a substantial selling point:

And the church will be right there to constantly pat you on the back for how superior you are as a person than people who fail on any of the points above.

The CoJCoL-dS offers the comforting belief that the customs of the good old days were, in fact, more moral, more righteous than their more modern counterparts. A hilarious case-in-point would be tattoos and piercings:

Personally I follow the Mormon rules on this issue. I have no tattoos, and I have only one piercing per ear — the allowed amount for women. My husband has none, and he’s clean-shaven.

Do you know why?

It’s because I was born in 1971 — and back when I was forming my ideas about what looks good, tattoos and multiple piercings weren’t fashionable. Similar story for my husband, born in 1969. Consequently, I think excessive tattoos and piercings look kind of weird, not attractive.

But the difference between me and the leaders of the CoJCoL-dS is that I recognize that this is simply a personal aesthetic preference — not a statement of morals or ethics.

The part I find hilarious is the fact that the church allows exactly one pair of earlobe-piercings (and for women only). So they can’t pretend that they have some consistent principle about body modification. It’s simply that whatever random thing happened to be stylish in the US in 1980 is righteous — and more recent fashions are sinful.

This canonization of the good old days is the main reason why the CoJCoL-dS can’t stop doubling-down on the gay issue. The church can’t evolve unless its members want it to, and it is unfortunately stuck in a bit of a feedback loop of bigotry.

Back in the 1970’s, one selling point of the CoJCoL-dS was that it was the church that let you say, “Hey, it’s not that I’m a racist — it’s God!” More recently it has been offering the same feature for sexists and homophobes. Each of these iterations affects the composition of the membership because it attracts bigots and repels people who care about equality. This loop builds a situation where it’s impossible for the church to forcefully root out bigotry because too many of the members see it as a feature and not a bug.

Honestly there are a lot of things I love about my Mormon heritage. It annoys me to see the Mormons mainstreaming their unique theology to align it with (Evangelical) Christian theology — as if the beliefs of the Christians were somehow objectively less nutty. But it seems that the members of the CoJCoL-dS have chosen to merge with US Christianity’s worst element: Religious Right politics. So instead of seeking real religious freedom for fellow minorities like the LGBTQ community, the Mormons are willing to help bully them in hopes of getting a seat at the mean girls’ table of the Religious Right.

Tagging along with the Religious Right — which is dominated by Evangelicals (who will always see Mormonism as a dangerous heresy or cult) — doesn’t demonstrate a lot of self-respect on the Mormons’ part. But it looks like it’s too late for the CoJCoL-dS to turn back and take another path. For better or (more likely) for worse, giving a moral stamp of approval to conservative privilege is one of the biggest selling points that the CoJCoL-dS has to offer.

Strategies of the CoJCoL-dS: The whys and hows of polarization

Any path that bills itself as the one true path for everyone is bound to lead to judgement. Naturally the path will be better suited to some people than to others, and — if it’s what everyone is supposed to be doing — that leads to the conclusion that those who do it well are simply better people; more righteous, more worthy, of better character, etc.

In the case of Mormonism, everyone is supposed to marry heterosexually and reproduce. There is no other path that is equal or greater. Those who fail are pitied, tolerated, given platitudes and excuses — but not respected on the same level as those who follow the path of biological reproduction.

Additionally, if you’re attractive, financially successful, good at public speaking, and generally have the kind of social skills that would put you in the popular clique in Jr. High/High School, then you’ll make a good Mormon. Bonus points if you have musical talents, a low (but not absent) sex drive, and if you’d rather conform than rebel. Ideally your family gets along reasonably well without any major hidden abuse or dysfunction simmering under the surface. It goes without saying that it’s better to have right-leaning political views and to be white. (Double bonus points if you’re related to “Mormon royalty.”)

If that’s you, then boy-oh-boy does the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints want you! And the church will be right there to constantly pat you on the back for how superior you are as a person than people who fail on any of the points above. If you don’t meet the above description, then — as far as the CoJCoL-dS is concerned — you’re the problem. You’re just not as righteous. (See Donna’s recent article for an example of how this plays out.)

A lot of ink has been spilled on the question of how Mormonism trains people to be successful, and the CoJCoL-dS is indeed good at training people to have modern success skills. But they also increase the proportion of the beautiful people among their ranks by creating an environment that is so miserable and odious for those who don’t fit the Mormon ideal that they often just leave.

This is where the polarization dynamic comes into play. The CoJCoL-dS broadcasts the message: “It’s not the church, it’s you. You didn’t pay, pray, and obey enough. You didn’t try hard enough. You weren’t righteous enough.” This message pushes people toward the two poles.

At the one pole we have people whose problems (and not-inherently-problematic differences from the Mormon ideal) simply can’t be prayed away. These folks are further battered by the message that it’s their fault if they couldn’t make an unworkable solution work. If this insult upon injury makes them angry as they leave, then that simply reinforces the church’s narrative: “Their hearts are full of contention; they have turned their backs on righteousness.”

At the other pole we have the people who are winning at Mormoning, and who are encouraged to believe that their success is due to their righteousness — that success with respect to the Mormon measuring rod is an objective measure of virtue. The bonus for the CoJCoL-dS is that the winners’ commitment to Mormonism is reinforced and integrated into their very identity.

I don’t claim that any person or committee within the CoJCoL-dS intentionally developed this strategy of polarization. I think it’s more likely that it’s a cultural strategy that developed over time because it has been effective at maintaining a successful, attractive, and highly-committed core of members. But there have been a number of actions from the Church Office Building that make it look like they’re doing it on purpose. Specifically: spreading lies and slander about those who leave the faith — which serves to make the leavers angrier which, in turn, proves how bitter and angry they are. See, for example, the Thomas B. Marsh and the milk & strippings story.

An example that made a strong impression on me was when the CoJCoL-dS released statements through its newsroom that misrepresented the actions of the Ordain Women movement (see my link roundups here and here). Those who participated in the actions found them positive and uplifting — and they felt they’d made a good connection with the church leaders there at the time. Then for the CoJCoL-dS to turn around and lump them with protesters shouting that Mormonism is of the devil hurt quite a bit. Maybe the folks in the Church Office Building were only thinking of their more orthodox audience when they crafted the statement (that has since been deleted), but maybe they wanted the women of Ordain Women to see the CoJCoL-dS as an institution that will lie about them for the purpose of hurting them. If they’re going to stand up to the CoJCoL-dS and its policies, then maybe the church reasoned it’s better that they leave, and leave angry.

A similar case was the infamous November Policy. A Mormon apostle stated that the CoJCoL-dS’s policy to bar children of gay parents from membership was parallel to their policy of barring children of polygamists from membership. If you don’t fit, they don’t want you to try to squeeze yourself in — and bend the CoJCoL-dS in the process.

I think it would be nice if the success and happiness of those of us who have left weren’t seen as a threat to the worldview of our friends and family who remain in the faith. It would be great if there were a neutral middle ground. But I don’t foresee any changes in the CoJCoL-dS’s polarization policy.

———–

Other posts in this series:

Strategies of the CoJCoL-dS: High demands and polarization

A few years ago there was a lot of discussion in the Bloggernacle about the fact that highly-demanding religions (like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) are currently retaining members better than low-demand religions (like Catholicism). Both types are shedding members, but the more demanding denominations are apparently not shedding them quite as quickly.

I think this claim about the differing rates of attrition is probably true — here‘s an article from a Catholic perspective on how grave their situation is — so let’s analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the two strategies!

Catholicism offers the possibility of choosing pretty much any level of devotion, from full-time (becoming a nun or monk) on the one end of the spectrum down to zero-time (not giving the church a second thought after your parents have you baptized as a baby). My husband, for example, identifies as Catholic despite the fact that he also identifies as atheist (and did not want our kids baptized). Although that particular combination is not common, I think it is pretty common (especially in Catholic-majority countries) to consider oneself Catholic despite going to mass essentially never. I understand my husband’s brother is planning to have his new baby baptized Catholic, even though I’m pretty sure he and the mom aren’t married, I don’t think they attend mass, and who knows what they believe. Viewing the church as simply a set of cultural rites-of-passage doesn’t really disqualify people from embracing a Catholic identity.

On the other hand, with Mormonism (particularly in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints branch of Mormonism), there’s a very strong sense of “you’re in or you’re out.” If you’re in, then you’re expected to fulfill a calling (a job helping to run some aspect of the local congregation) in addition to some additional calling-like tasks: home/visiting teaching, cleaning the church building, and attending temple sessions (in addition to the 3 hour block of ordinary church services every Sunday). You are also expected to pay at least 10% of your income to the church (otherwise people will know you didn’t because you can’t go to the temple!) and wear special underwear and you’re expected to follow the “Word of Wisdom” — that is, to abstain from coffee, tea, tobacco, and alcohol. That’s a lot of work! And it helps keep your social circle confined to the Mormon community.

There exist people who believe the tenets of Mormonism but simply don’t practice (called “Jack Mormons”), but they’re really not integrated or accepted as members of the community the way similarly non-practicing Catholics are. The fact that there’s a separate name for such people is an indication that they’re not really seen as just Mormon — they’re kind of a weird, suspicious alternate category. And if you neither practice nor believe the tenets of Mormonism anymore, then you are actively discouraged from continuing to consider yourself Mormon.

An obvious advantage to the low-demand strategy is that those people who are simply going to participate very little or not at all are at least still members of the community. Of course, the less they participate, the less they are likely to miss the religion if they leave. A high-demand religion, on the other hand, relies on the strategy that people value things that they’ve invested time and energy into. Mormonism gives you not only a community but also a purpose, and it fills your day with stuff to do. And Mormonism encourages people to care a lot about how invested their friends and relatives are in practicing Mormonism. So abandoning Mormon practice can have a huge social cost in addition to leaving you wondering what you’re going to do instead of all that Mormon stuff you were doing — plus it makes you feel like all the sacrifices you’ve made in your life so far were completely in vain, something not many people want to feel. With a low-demand religion, it’s possible to leave incrementally, just by shifting your social circle — hardly noticing that you’ve left.

One of the biggest differences in the two strategies is the amount of polarization. A super-devout multiple-mass-per-week Catholic can be married to a nominal Catholic and still feel like they’re both essentially on the same page. And, from the church’s member-retention point-of-view, the kids get raised Catholic without it being a source of contention or conflict within the family. In majority-Catholic communities, you can easily have whole families that are participating only marginally, whose kids end up later taking a more active interest in the faith — without that being seen as anyone rejecting anyone else’s values or cultural identity.

In the CoJCoL-dS, such a dynamic is really not possible. Varying levels of Mormon belief and practice are typically a huge source of conflict and contention within families. As more people are leaving the situation has been improving (for leavers), but traditionally it has not been uncommon for devout Mormons to cut off, shun, or divorce family members who stop believing. From the church’s member-retention point-of-view, the threat of such social consequences is a major incentive that keeps people from leaving. But there’s a flip side. You can have devout, extremely devoted members who love Mormonism and who — left to their own devices — would never have left, but who start questioning when they realize that the church itself is the source of the conflict in their home. Contrast this with a similar family in a low-demand religion: the devout member doesn’t face the same pressure from the community to “fix” the (possibly non-believing) spouse, and the kids don’t grow up with the impression that the church is a conflict-creating monster that wrecked their family.

Now you’re probably detecting a bit of bias on my part in favor of the low-demand strategy. Yep, it’s true. Each strategy has its pros and cons when it comes to helping the organization retain members. But, naturally, I think that avoiding pointless, family-wrecking conflicts is a much better goal than retaining members.

As a post-script, the hilarious part is that I’m apparently not the only atheist who has made this same calculation. According to this 2008 Pew study, atheists have by far the worst retention rate (in terms of kids raised in atheist households growing up to identify as atheist). The negative interpretation is that kids raised in atheist households are very unlikely to want their own kids to have the same experience. The positive interpretation is that atheists really are serious about not brainwashing their kids but rather honestly expect their kids to make up their own minds — even if that means choosing a different path than the way they were raised. There’s something to be said for not believing in hell — you may be annoyed when your kid starts believing in Jesus, but at least you’re not worried that your kid’s annoying beliefs are going to get your kid tortured for eternity…

But seriously, I think the biggest reason for atheists’ lack of kid-retention is that it’s a world-view without being a culture — it’s not a cultural identity in the same way that being a Mormon, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, or Jew is a cultural identity. Atheism doesn’t have the organizational apparatus or cultural rites-of-passage. So once your beliefs change, there’s really no community or culture to feel a continued connection with.

Anyway, more on polarization in the next segment, one fortnight from now! Stay tuned! 😀

Leadership monopoly, leadership vacuum

One of the biggest selling points of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is its claim that it has “the keys” — the only source of authority on Earth today to speak for God and act for God. Basically the 15 guys at the top (especially the President of the church) have the hotline to God, and nobody else has a direct connection. If you believe them on this, it’s a pretty big selling point. In practice, however, this claim carries some pretty big drawbacks.

For example, it makes it really inconvenient to ever be wrong. There’s no mechanism for correction — admitting an error cracks the entire foundation. It’s not like Science, where you expect corrections based on more/better evidence and improved theoretical models. If Prophet A say “X is true” and Prophet B says, “X is false” — and they were both ordained President of the CoCJoL-dS (hence presumably got their info on X from the God-hotline), then there’s clearly something wrong with the God-hotline.

Consequently the CoCJoL-dS can’t admit to errors, hence can’t address and correct problems. They’re stuck doing a dance of obfuscation, largely through “de-emphasizing” problematic past statements. They just print a new set of correlated manuals every few years, and declare the current Conference issue of the Ensign to be scripture — and with every new print round, filter out all the bits that are to be forgotten. But the old, de-emphasized teachings are still there, under the surface, living kind of a festering half-life in which the members who remember them as doctrine are left wondering whether they’re still doctrine or not.

In a typical Protestant Christian denomination, new ideas can sweep away the old as new leaders rise up through the ranks. If some influential pastor or theologian of your denomination preached that dark skin is “the Curse of Cain”, for example, it’s easy to say “that guy was simply wrong” — without it shaking your faith in your denomination. It’s a little different when the guy you disagree with was “The Prophet” — whose prophetic mantle is the same one that gives your current Prophet his authority.

So the CoJCoL-dS has a strong motivation to say as little of substance as possible. When you don’t say anything, then you don’t say anything wrong.

You may have heard the expression that pinning down Mormons on doctrine is like nailing jello to a wall. The leadership of the CoJCoL-dS won’t give clear, straight-forward explanations of Mormon doctrine and theology on most subjects. Bruce R. McKonkie’s attempt to clarify LDS beliefs in his book “Mormon Doctrine” caused a political battle within the top-tier church leadership for decades, and has since slipped into the land of the “de-emphasized.”

I’ve heard liberal Mormons praise the lack of clarity because it allows members the freedom to believe as they see fit on various doctrinal issues. Except that it doesn’t really allow that freedom. The message from the top leadership of the CoJCoL-dS is that there are right answers to doctrinal questions and the prophets know those answers. (They’re just not going to tell you what the answers are for any theological issue outside the list of Correlated topics.)

This strategy can lead to frustrating misunderstandings, for example the Randy Bott affair: Some professional journalists naturally assumed that a professsor hired by the CoJCoL-dS to teach the LDS religion at the CoJCoL-dS’s main university would be qualified to answer questions on LDS doctrine. Nope. The anonymous voices from within the official newsroom indignantly stated: “BYU faculty members do not speak for the Church. It is unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said.” So, in a nutshell, any human you can speak to directly (including pressing for follow-up questions) has no business making statements about what the CoJCoL-dS’s doctrines are. This creates a poisoned atmosphere where simply wanting to have a straight answer on a Mormon doctrinal question is perceived by many faithful members as an attack.

But that’s not even the worst consequence of the CoJCoL-dS clinging to its monopoly on authority. The worst consequence is that it causes the CoJCoL-dS to see its most dynamic young leaders as a threat rather than an asset.

In an ordinary organization, a bold leader with new ideas who gathers a following can energize people, attract new members, modernize practices, and generally revitalize the organization. The problem is that the CoJCoL-dS claims to be the only true hierarchy. The Prophet (with input from God) chooses his underlings, who choose their underlings in the same way, and so forth down the line — down to the leadership of individual classes. And you sure as hell don’t climb that ladder by making waves.

If Kate Kelly built a vibrant and popular organization within the church that pressured the leadership to allow women to hold positions of authority within the CoJCoL-dS, that’s a threat. Because if God wanted women to be allowed into the leadership hierarchy, why wouldn’t he just get on the hotline to the Prophet? Why would he work outside His Chosen Hierarchy and work through Kate Kelly? If the best inspiration isn’t coming down from the top, then why is the leadership hierarchy even there? The leadership can’t abide these questions, so she got the axe.

Lots of members would like the leaders to state clearly that they talk directly to Jesus, but the leaders won’t do it. They may be OK with passively allowing members to believe they are meeting with Jesus in the Holy-of-Holies in the temple, but they won’t state it directly. Unfortunately for the leaders, Denver Snuffer was willing to publish books about his personal meetings with Jesus. But wait–! Why is Jesus coming down to have conversations with Denver Snuffer and not with the Prophet?! So Denver Snuffer got the axe.

Even John Dehlin — whose real crime was simply to develop a huge personal following within the CoJCoL-dS — was a threat the the church’s leadership monopoly, so he got the axe.

The CoJCoL-dS can’t benefit from the vitality of organically-arising popular leaders because there’s no mechanism for including them. And the by-laws of the organization make it difficult for the Prophet to even begin to compete for a following — due to the unfortunate way the Prophet is chosen: he’s the oldest* one in the quorum who’s not (quite) dead yet.

Obviously it’s possible for people of advanced age to be dynamic leaders. But putting people in leadership until the day they die means having leaders who are not merely old, but who are specifically near death. In our wonderful modern era of medicine, people often enjoy ten years or more of life after they’ve passed the point of dramatically reduced faculties. During my lifetime, the CoJCoL-dS has repeatedly faced the challenge of putting on a show of how the beloved Prophet is still on the hotline with God — and running the church — and not, in fact, a vegetable.

So, ironically, the CoJCoL-dS’s insistence that is holds the monopoly on divine leadership has led to a crippling leadership vacuum.

—–

* technically, the one with the most seniority.

What the CoJCoL-dS offers: Testimonies!

There are loads of possible reasons for wanting to join / stay in / participate in Mormonism, but the main official reason is that you know it’s true; you have a testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel, and that the current President of the Church is God’s sole mouthpiece on the Earth. Certainly if you believe that God exists and wants you to practice Mormonism, that is a pretty strong motivation to do it.

But — as even the most faithful believers will tell you — a testimony requires effort. You have to want to get one. And that’s where a lot of the other trappings of Mormonism (like community and culture) play a role.

I read with interest this post by an LDS author listing some of the changes in the CoJCoL-dS during her lifetime (which is about the same as my lifetime since I was born the following year). I can relate to most of them, but the ones that really jumped out were numbers 14 & 15 — road shows and church farms. Neither of these are directly related to “the gospel,” but they’re both projects that build a sense of community.

Road shows and other amateur theater productions were one of my favorite parts of practicing Mormonism. I also liked the unique/esoteric doctrines of Mormonism — it was fun to participate in the theological discussions that (as I discussed in my previous installment) are being suppressed (“de-emphasized”) these days. Eliminating these varied peripheral components of Mormonism narrows the range of people who will find Mormon practice enriching and rewarding.

Replacing cultural, service, and educational* activities with testimony-building activities is (IMHO) counterproductive. Even if your goal is to build people’s testimonies. Think about it.

Imagine you’ve gotten to know a group of people through shared work on service projects and theatrical productions and through exchanging new insights and information through debates, discussions, and lectures. Then imagine that these same people — many of whom have earned your respect and esteem — occasionally stand up and give a heartfelt talk about how much the gospel means to them. That will be pretty convincing, particularly to young people.

Now instead imagine that you know a group of people, and every time you see them, you take turns reading out of a repetitive manual. And practically your only non-scripted interaction with them comes during the frequent testimony time, in which they give weepy, emotional testimonies. That might be convincing for some people, but I think that for others it’s very off-putting. I imagine a lot of kids react by finding it uncomfortable (even a bit creepy) — not a great way to increase their motivation to be a part of this community.

So, while scrapping varied activities in favor of (super-cheap) testimony activities may look like a good idea to the bean-counters in the Church Office Building, I don’t think it demonstrates wise or long-term thinking. Whipping out testimonies at every drop of a hat can’t help but cheapen them.

——

* non-gospel-related and/or non-correlated

Earlier installments in this series:

The CoJCoL-dS: A little bit of nothing for everyone!

When you picture the Mormon mishies pitching the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to a random Never-Mo, it’s hard to imagine who would find the pitch appealing. Yet it had to have been appealing at some point in the past. In the 19th century, whole congregations were converting. Wagon-trains full of converts were crossing the plains to Utah — often having made a trip across the ocean as well. So what gives?

I think a big part of it was that the United States at the time offered very real economic advantages to poor white people from Europe — even those arriving with nothing (or close to it) — so there was some psychological appeal to joining a group that offered a framework for being a part of that adventure.

But I think an even bigger part of the appeal was that Mormonism was a hip, cutting-edge movement that validated a whole lot of popular beliefs at the time. In other words, there were a lot of popular ideas floating around at the time (as there always is…), and it was appealing to hear someone say “God told me X is true!” when X was something the listener already believed. The prophet Joseph Smith provided new scriptural canonization for a bunch of stuff that (to 19th century eyes) was missing from the ancient books (which, unsurprisingly, dealt more with the pressing issues of their own days).

Here are some of the popular ideas that Mormonism validated (and that are now frozen in the amber of Mormon doctrine):

Temperance and Cold Water: If it weren’t for the Mormon “Word of Wisdom” would anyone remember that part of the Temperance movement included a belief in abstaining from hot drinks?

Dispensationalism: There was a popular Christian idea that all of history (as recorded in the Bible…) can be divided into thousand-year “dispensations” (culminating with “The Millennium”). In the Book of Abraham Joseph Smith came up with an awesome riff on this idea by claiming that these Biblical dispensations correspond to Kolob-days — which also had the advantage of explaining the problem of “days” in the creation. I mean, duh, obviously God didn’t create all this stuff in six ordinary days — it was six Kolob-days a.k.a. six thousand years! I love this charming belief because it fits so logically (except for the fact that changing the creation from six days to six thousand years doesn’t really make the Biblical creation story fit the evidence any better, but he tried).

Conservation of Mass-Energy: This was a cool new scientific discovery that led Joseph Smith to explain that God didn’t create spirits ex nihilo (that would be impossible!) but instead “organized” pre-existing spirit matter.

The Native Americans should fit somewhere in the Biblical worldview — like, maybe, as Lost Tribes of Israel!

The “Curse of Cain”: The corresponding Gospel Topics essay helpfully explains that it certainly wasn’t the Mormons who invented the “Curse of Cain” doctrine (that black people are black because that was the “mark” God put on Cain, and that the curse survived Noah’s flood because Ham’s wife was black) — it “had been promulgated in the United States from at least the 1730s.” But for other random Christians, they can easily dismiss it as a dumb idea that some racist Christians came up with a few hundred years ago (and has since fallen out of favor). Sadly for Mormons, the whole story got canonized in the Pearl of Great Price — hence can’t be so easily dismissed if the scriptures are God’s word and all. This little hiccup isn’t mentioned in the essay, so I assume CoJCoL-dS is going with the strategy of “Let’s just pretend it isn’t there, and maybe no one will notice.”

And probably many others…

Unfortunately, aside from conservation of mass-energy, these ideas have mostly fallen out of favor. Some of them are downright embarrassingly offensive. So the thing that was once Mormonism’s big selling point is now a huge liability.

It’s sad because it really was a cool, central part of early Mormonism — the idea that people aren’t limited to the old texts and can study and learn and develop new doctrines. Joseph Smith was very big on the idea that people should be constantly learning and discussing doctrine. But as popular ideas fall out of favor or become discredited, it becomes a problem that God confirmed and canonized them at one point. It’s difficult to say “Oh, God didn’t really mean it about that one,” without calling this whole prophetic-revelation thing into question.

The solution that the CoJCoL-dS has hit upon is “correlation“. In essence, the top brass came up with a short list of simple gospel topics for all official teaching materials. So the distinctive 19th-century ideas are still in there somewhere, but members are encouraged to ignore/forget them by filling their church time with repeating the same simple fluff over and over (the “milk” of the Gospel, as it were) — and so avoiding all “meaty” discussions.

This strategy, unfortunately, raised a new problem. Joseph Smith had followed the Protestant tradition of rejecting Catholic pomp, with its vacuous “vain repetitions.” Joseph Smith was all about the “meat” of the Gospel. He felt that his church should be having interesting, engaging doctrinal discussions and debates instead of empty show.

So if you deliberately cut out the showy/symbolic rituals in order to replace them with meaty gospel discussions, and then later the meaty discussions are off limits — what are you then left with…?

Nothing.

And that is Mormonism’s biggest problem.

What Does the CoJCoL-dS Offer?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sends tens of thousands of enthusiastic young adults — carefully trained in sales strategies — all over the world. Why don’t people want what they’re selling? On the flip side, if the prospect of joining Mormonism is so obviously unappealing to the average person, how did the LDS missionary program enjoy periods of tremendous success in the past?

As a long-time insider/outsider observer of Mormonism, I’ve been fascinated by these questions, and also by the question of how long the CoJCoL-dS can continue with this absurdly outdated and ineffective marketing strategy. (Note: no successful company today relies on a door-to-door salesforce — I don’t think anyone besides the really elderly remember a time when it was considered reasonable to listen to a pitch from some random stranger who shows up at your door.) The solution to the riddle isn’t entirely about their marketing strategy — it’s more about what Mormonism adds to your life (and what it subtracts).

Many people speculate that the highest leaders of the CoJCoL-dS know it’s a fraud. I disagree; I think they really believe the God exists and that He’s at the head of the church. My evidence is their random and incoherent strategies for marketing the church and running it. The leaders can’t just ask themselves how Mormonism functions in people’s lives and then (cynically) use that information to craft their program and materials to maximize members’ positive experiences in Mormonism, to inspire them to stick with it. They think they really do hold the keys to salvation and exaltation (which is a valuable enough selling point all by itself!) — and since God is running things, if they could be doing things better, then God would tell the prophet what changes they should make.

As far as retention is concerned, so much of the discussion of the church centers around whether or not the church is true. This makes sense because if its central tenets really are true (especially the claim that there’s an afterlife, and the only way to ace it is through LDS temple ordinances), then it’s a good idea to practice Mormonism. The converse, however, doesn’t necessarily hold: If the truth claims aren’t true, there may yet be reasons to continue to believe and practice Mormonism.

A lot of faith crises begin when members start wondering why Mormonism isn’t working for them; why they’re so miserable in this culture that is supposed to bring eternal joy. When that happens, it can be a relief to discover that it’s not true, and that you can stop pounding your head against the wall of trying to make it work. Of course not all faith transitions begin this way. The people for whom Mormonism “works” are somewhat less likely/motivated to start asking the questions that will lead them out the door, but sometimes they do. Such people are often inclined to construct a more nuanced faith — perhaps pick an alternate definition of “true” — in order to continue in the Mormon community and lifestyle they value.

The people following these different paths can have a hard time understanding each other. One side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to keep believing and practicing this stuff — it’s not true!” while the other side says, “Don’t you see? You don’t have to give up Mormonism just because it’s not literally true!” As I’ve said, the real question is whether you want to.

Mormonism clearly appeals to some people and not to others; it works for some people and not for others. Please join me in this bi-weekly series exploring what the CoJCoL-dS has to offer!