Is Mormonism going to evolve, and can I make it work for me?

I had a young man email me with a couple of questions.  After writing up my response to him, I thought my response might make a good post on MSP.
Here’s the question:
Is it possible, do you think, for a fundamentalist religion like Mormonism to evolve to become a “liberal” religion (if only it could happen more quickly!)? 
He also asked how he could make a place for himself in the religion despite not being a fundamentalist.  Here’s my response:
Regarding your question: Can fundamentalist religions evolve to become “liberal” religions?  The short answer is, “yes.”  The long answer is, “It takes time and, well, is complicated.”
Let me explain… All religions are in a constant state of change.  Some are more open to change than others, but all have to change, or else they will die.  Why?  Because there are two primary factors that drive religious growth and decline within any given population: being seen as “legitimate” by the broader cultural value system but retaining a unique niche.  You can think about religions – especially in the US – as quasi-corporations.  They either want to increase their market share or at least maintain their market share.  In order to do this, they can’t be so extreme that the majority of the potential “consumers” reject them.  For example, Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist Church – the one that protests at funerals all over the place and is extremely anti-gay – is almost universally despised across the US.  As a result, no one is joining.  They are not “legitimate” according to broader cultural values because they are openly hate-filled.  So, they don’t grow.  In essence, Westboro Baptist has no “legitimacy” but a very clear market niche – if you really hate gays and want to be public about it, join Westboro Baptist.
Now contrast that with, say, The United Church of Christ.  The United Church of Christ is a liberal Christian religion.  It, too, is not growing.  Why?  Because it is 100% legitimate – it agrees with science, embraces alternative sexualities, etc. – but it is not really unique.  In fact, it is an ecumenical church, meaning it will accept baptisms from other liberal Christian denominations.  Basically, The United Church of Christ doesn’t have anything unique about it; it’s just like dozens of other liberal Christian denominations in the US.
In order to grow (if growth is possible, depending on demand for religion, but that’s a different issue), a religion has to find the right balance between “legitimacy” and “niche appeal.”  The LDS Church does an okay job with this.  But, and this is where my answer to your question comes in, the result of maintaining legitimacy is that the religion is constantly growing more “liberal.”  For instance, 40 years ago, blacks couldn’t hold the priesthood.  Today they can.  Just 25 years ago there were penalties for revealing temple ceremony covenants; those are gone.  110 years ago the religion practiced polygamy; that’s gone.  And, also about 40 years ago, the LDS Church thought aversion therapy – strapping gay men into chairs and making them vomit when they watched gay porn – was a good approach to curing homosexuality; that, too, is gone.  What’s happening?  As cultural values in the US have shifted, so, too, have the policies of the LDS Church. And those policies have all shifted toward greater cultural legitimacy, which is almost universally more liberal (technically, more progressive).  Ryan Cragun and Michael Nielsen published a book chapter in which they detailed this entire process.  In short, as the LDS Church tries to remain a culturally “legitimate” institution, it is forced to get rid of the more bizarre and inhumane elements of the religion.  The result is a general softening of Mormonism over time.  In fact, the FLDS is a closer approximation of the Mormonism of the 1800s than is the LDS Church, because they have refused to legitimize: they are still racist, polygamist, etc. (though, of course, don’t tell a member of the LDS Church that; they won’t like hearing it).
So, the general trend for any religion that wants to remain “legitimate”, which is certainly a desire of the LDS Church today, is toward becoming more progressive.  However, there is also a motivation not to adjust too rapidly to prevailing cultural norms.  If the LDS Church suddenly became just like The United Church of Christ, what would make them unique?  They wouldn’t have anything they could “sell” to “consumers.”  So, in order to remain unique they have to continue teaching that The Book of Mormon is authentic (though, of course the General Authorities today know the problems with that claim), they have to continue claiming the prophet receives revelation (despite not receiving anything that would qualify as a revelation for decades), they don’t want to be too friendly toward homosexuals and women, because that would make them too liberal, and their base is extremely conservative (both religiously and politically).  In short, the LDS Church is liberalizing, but slowly.  And, if the leadership is smart, they will continue down the same path – slow liberalization – in order to balance their legitimacy and niche appeal.  It is possible that a new leader could revolutionize the religion and it could become liberal very quickly, kind of like Methodists in the US did, but that’s unlikely.
So, there is hope for the LDS Church.
As for your participation… Well, I’m not ever keen on giving advice – I don’t know your particular situation and advice is always contingent on lots of things – but I could suggest one thing: Don’t let the religion USE you; USE the religion!  What do I mean by that?  The LDS Church is a massive organization that survives based on its members’ willingness to give money and do whatever the leadership tells them to do.  If you give money to the religion and do whatever the religion tells you to, you are being USED by the octogenerian leadership of the religion as a pawn.  You’re basically a non-thinking sheep.  But you don’t have to be.  You could selectively agree to callings that you think will actually make a difference in the world, and, in your callings, you can offer a different perspective.  Be the scoutmaster and embrace gay scouts, teaching the other scouts that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.  You could volunteer to teach gospel doctrine and offer non-literalistic perspectives in subtle ways, slowly leading the members away from fundamentalism.  In short, you can help ease the members in your local ward away from fundamentalist thinking by being selective in how you volunteer.  And, if you want to donate, tell your bishop that you will only donate to the humanitarian efforts of the church, not to the missionary efforts or the general tithing fund.  If he won’t accept that as a full tithe, then don’t pay your tithing.  Meanwhile, take advantage of the sense of community.  It is a strong community and it can make you feel very welcome.  But don’t let the community USE you.  USE it for what you want.  Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, your spouse, your kids, your values, etc.  Publicly dissent if the leadership does something egregious.  If your bishop oversteps his bounds, tell him.  Stand up to him.  Publicly advocate for women getting the priesthood.  Publicly advocate for homosexuals being allowed full participation while being sexually intimate.  Read up on masturbation and let young people know that it is perfectly normal and they don’t need to feel guilt over it.  Be the person you want to be.  Yes, you’ll probably get some dirty looks some times, and probably some snide comments from some of the more conservative members.  But they are not the church; you are the church.  You may want to read Levi Peterson’s autobiography.  He has publicly stated that if the LDS Church excommunicated him, he’d still go to church, because it’s his church, not the leaders’ church.  You can still be Mormon and not be a sheep.  And the more people who start standing up to the leadership of the religion, the weaker their hold will be on the religion.  Eventually, they will become more like The Community of Christ, where they literally vote on policies and doctrines.  Right now it’s a dictatorship, but Mormons don’t realize that religion is voluntary.  They don’t have to follow what the dictators at the top of the hierarchy say.  The more local members reject the dictates of the oligarchs, the sooner the religion divests itself of its least desirable elements.


I'm a college professor and, well, a professional X-Mormon. Thus, ProfXM. I love my Mormon family, but have issues with LDS Inc. And I'm not afraid to tell LDS Inc. what I really think... anonymously, of course!

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1 Response

  1. Alan says:

    It’s an interesting theory to link conservativeness with uniqueness (“niche appeal”) and liberalness with sameness (“legitimacy”), but to me that seems a problematic framing. It assumes that the overall milieu is “liberal,” when I think that the country is pretty conservative. Yes, DOMA was just struck down, but don’t forget that most states ban same-sex marriage because citizens in those states think same-sex intimacy is a sin. Thus, allowing same-sex intimacy would be more of the “niche appeal,” “unique” position in those contexts.

    Having said that, I’m also not sure I agree with the position of liberalization over time, considering that historically there used to be a lot more female gods in world faiths generally, and the Church was a lot more tolerant of same-sex intimacy in the 19th century. Perhaps we’re currently in a moment where faiths move toward liberalization as they change, but this is not a constant.

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