Jun 15, 2009

Liberalism: Mormonism's Self-Destruction?

It's no secret that the LDS Church seems to attract a lot of right-wing conservatives, particularly in America. Utah and Idaho (both of which have a high Mormon population) are perhaps the most conservative states and Mormons vote overwhelmingly Republican. Politics aside, Mormons are reknown for their socially conservative views and lifestyle, which many associate with Republican political values.

I came this statement by someone who regards himself as a liberal Mormon:

"Mormonism has a small minority of liberal leaning thinkers, leaders, apostles, but the mainstream is towards the right. If Mormonism would liberalize it would not have as many converts."

Mormon Heretic has been hosting a very interesting and enlightening interview with members of the Community of Christ on his blog. For those who aren't aware, Community of Christ (CofC) is what used to be The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS). It's been interesting to read how the RLDS evolved into what it is now, which elements of the early LDS Church it kept, and which ones it has abandoned. The CofC, which permits women to hold the priesthood, is more open-minded about the prospect of same sex marriage, and rejected polygamy from the very beginning, would seem to be an attractive alternative to Mormons who are socially liberal and/or who reject certain teachings throughout LDS Church history. Fire Tag, a CofC commenter on Mormon Heretic's blog, shared his very thought-provoking perspective. (You can read the entire thread here.) He made it clear that this was simply his personal opinion, not the church's official policy, and that the CofC was seeking to revitalize its institutions, even though he personally felt that it wasn't what God wanted them to concentrate on doing:

“Attempts to revitalize our congregations may succeed here and there for a time. Congregations have been revitalized in the past with no discernable long-term effect on the larger church’s growth. An apostolic leadership will, of course, continue to look to see how we can maintain and reinvigorate our institutions in order to try and carry out our mission. Yet, sooner than we wish, our denominational infrastructure, regardless of how desirable it might be to have, is going to disappear for most of our people; most of the people of the West have already launched our society’s future toward another course. “Evolutionary pressures” from that society are driving us toward a time of increasing individual ministerial autonomy in which church leadership cannot even monitor, let alone direct, most of what our people do in the name of Christ. And most of that work will not be carried out through congregational structures or programs.

The recently published Pew Religious Landscape Survey confirms the increasing disconnect between denominational life and religious life in the United States, with more than half of American adults either having left the denomination in which they were raised or regarding themselves as religiously unaffiliated, even though 83% of the adult population still regards itself as religious.

For our denomination to adapt the gospel faithfully in our cultural setting, and hopefully even to thrive, requires that we become a denomination that glories in sending people OUT of our denomination, to where God calls them to best serve in the culture.

So, to reiterate, I believe our continued value as a corporate entity to the work of the Lord at this point in history involves the church supporting our people in dispersing out of our “corporation” and moving wholeheartedly into participation in the multiple, cross-cutting communities that make up a modern society. This is almost like the early Christians moving into the catacombs of Rome where they could refresh themselves beneath Rome’s notice, yet continue to provide enriching ministry to their neighbors in their daily lives as God opened doors. None of the turmoil of the Empire could ever dig them out of the society once they were so dispersed, and these “meek of the earth” did inherit the Empire.

In our time, such distributed efforts will send us into fellowships with groups made up of differing Christian, non-Christian, and/or secular backgrounds. The unity or preservation of our faith community and its institutions will no longer be primary, for the time has come for many of us to expend ourselves. Should that not be enough to fulfill our part in the mission of transforming the world, then we can best hope that God will grant us the opportunity to prepare the path for the work of our successors, and perhaps even allow the youngest of us to participate in the movement of our successors.”

I think that many of us Mormons who would like to see the LDS Church become more liberal have this vision of it flourishing and people easily accepting the faith if it would just let go of what some regard as very archaic teachings and practices. But would it result in the Church's self-destruction?

Imagine next year that the priesthood is extended to women. Or five years from now same sex sealings are being performed in the temple. What would happen? Would the "God fearing, gun toting, flag waving" conservatives abandon the Church? Would it attract liberals or would they remain generally uninterested in organized religion? Does the Church need to attract conservatives in order to survive and maintain its structure?

What do you think would happen to the LDS Church if it were to become more liberal?


Jason Steed said...

For starters, I think there are a variety of things that can be meant by "becoming more liberal." I am a progressive Mormon -- very far to the left, economically, and center-left socially -- and I would LOVE to see Mormons as a community shift to the left on many political (and especially economic) issues. I would also like to see a great deal more tolerance, compassion, and charity toward those whose lifestyles are...well...less "Mormon" than ours.

But as much as I'd like to see Mormons "become more liberal" in these ways -- ways that are, I believe, perfectly compatible with the Gospel as we currently know it -- I am less interested in seeing Mormonism "become more liberal" (note the difference between Mormons and Mormonism).

I don't think Mormonism as a religion -- doctrinally, or in its teachings and policies -- needs to "liberalize." That is, I don't think the Church needs to, say, extend the priesthood to women -- unless revelation says otherwise. I just think Mormons need to pay better attention to what the religion actually teaches, and need to become more diverse (and yes, more liberal) in their application or implementation of the religion in the social, economic, and political sphere.

I do NOT think this would lead to the self-destruction of the Church -- on the contrary, I think this would broaden the Church's appeal (rather than quartering us with the Religious Right, whose appeal is very narrow).

Liberalizing the religion itself, though, might indeed have deleterious effects -- depending on the ways in which, and the methods by which, such liberalization occurred. But this so-called liberalization would have to be inspired -- I do believe in revelation, etc., and that changes to the religion must come through those means.

In the meantime, though, I think we lefties can speak out and do some missionary work within the Church, among our fellow Mormons, to try to push the people toward a more egalitarian, inclusive, other-centered (and yes, more Christ-like) view of the world. That's what the Gospel is all about -- without any changes to doctrine and teachings being necessary.

Anonymous said...

Please permit me to correct one error in the post. The Community of Christ as an institution does NOT support same sex marriage.

Indeed, it is trying to find a way (so far unsuccessfully) to deal with the issue before it explodes in the face of attempts to be a world-wide church. It is rapidly running out of time because of changes in US laws in states such as Iowa where it has concentrations of membership. It also fears physical persecution for saints in Asia and Africa if it endorses same sex marriage in the US, as well as backlash among its own conservatives, which still probably form a majority of members in the US.

What the Community of Christ DOES have are leaders among the highest GA levels who sincerely believe that same sex marriage must be considered as valid in our theology because that theology emphasizes "the worth of all persons". And it also has key leaders among the rising generation of priesthood who are getting very close to significant Lutherian protests -- how close is anybody's guess at the moment.

If you want a "fly on the wall" view, see this discussion.

Thank you very much, FD, for asking the questions you're asking here. I'm sure I'll have some comments as the discussion develops here, and will be happy to answer any questions about what I wrote.


Mormon Heretic said...

FD, thanks for the links to my blog! And FireTag, thanks for all the thought provoking comments!

There are many reasons why the CoC is shrinking. Many people in the CoC see shrinking membership as a result of the CoC's turn to more liberalism. While that may be true, FireTag made the case that other reasons (perhaps unknown) may also contribute to the shrinking membership.

I do not claim to be an expert here, but let me throw in my 2 cents. It appears to me that the recent turn to the theological left in the CoC has had the effect of creating many more schismatic divisions within the CoC. Obviously this doesn't help increase membership, but may not fully account for all the reasons it was shrinking before the turn toward a more liberal theology.

I think a church can make liberal changes, but they probably need to be made across a slower time period. For example, the move away from polygamy in 1890 could be considered a liberal move for the LDS church. Another liberal move could be the lifting of the priesthood ban in 1978. With 88 years between liberal moves, the church has continued to grow. Perhaps women will be granted the priesthood in another 5-50 years without substantially harming the growth of the LDS church.

I think the CoC in the last 30-40 years has made many radical changes, such as allowing women the priesthood, changing the name, allowing polygamist members to join, no more patriarchal prophetic succession, more tolerance for gays, more intellectualism, no more belief in the historicity of the BoM, etc. I think with all the changes, it is really hurting the conservative base. Perhaps if they slowed down to changes every 80-90 years, like the LDS, it would not alarm the conservative base so much. Certainly Joseph's radical theology (polygamy, godhood) of the 1838-1844 time period lay the foundation for schism. From 1830-1838, the church was much more mainstream, though consecration and political bloc voting also were problematic in this early time period. I will note that polygamy inspired schisms within the LDS church because some members still think monogamy is liberal.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Fire Tag, thanks for that clarification about same sex marriage. I've edited the original post.

adamf said...

If some of the changes were made that you mentioned, I am sure there would be many who would leave, but I doubt it would cause a schism at this point. I think any major decision would be worked through by the FP and the 12, and with such a big issue like gay marriage or women and the priesthood they would have to all be convinced. If they were, I think MOST members would tow the line.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Jason, that's an interesting opinion. In fact, I think that a lot of the resentment and hurt feelings that many liberal, unorthodox Mormons struggle with would be lessened if even just Mormons and not necessarily Mormonism were to liberalize.

Economically, I'm also pretty far left to the norm for American Mormons, but outside of America I'm probably fairly average in terms of what non-American Mormons believe is acceptable in terms of gov't intervention, welfare, social programs, etc. As I've said before, I don't think that God is a socialist, libertarian, or anything. I think there is good and bad across the entire political spectrum and God lets us figure it out. An American friend of mine once lamented how Ezra Taft Benson's conservative opinions seem to be the end of all political discussion among Mormons. Personally, I think it's a shame that some Mormons feel like there's no place in the Church for them simply because they think it's OK to have to pay income tax or because they believe in socialized medicine. Just a couple of days ago I read a comment by a conservative Mormon who said that liberal Mormons are "a burden to the Church and then he went on to express his dismay over Harry Reid being deluded in his choice of political party. Yikes. :D

"I would also like to see a great deal more tolerance, compassion, and charity toward those whose lifestyles are...well...less "Mormon" than ours."

A Facebook friend of mine was telling me about a man in his ward who battled alcoholism, but was faithful in every other way. He tried to attend church despite his weaknesses, but eventually the gossip and looks got to be too much and he had enough. He found no support and sadly, his alcoholism took over and he died of alcohol poisoning.

I have another friend who was told by a sister that she couldn't wear pants to church and so she felt less-inclined to return to church and was inactive for many years before finally coming back.

These are examples of how Christlike we apply Gospel principles is probably in a lot of ways more important that how "liberal" or "conservative" the principles and policies are in themselves.

derekstaff said...

I've heard that many feared a great exodus from the Church when it liberalized to eliminate the priesthood ban. It didn't happen. Some left, but most seemed to accept the change as part of the plan of the Lord, and it opened up the Church to many people who are concerned about bigotry and would have dismissed the Church outright in previous decades. The same would happen, IMO were the Church to more fully embrace the liberal ideology.

Not that popularity should be the guiding factor in the decisions of the Church. Our leadership has always proclaimed that do the Lord's will, not what is popular. In the world, but not of it. I believe that the liberal ideology more accurately reflects the Lord's will, and so embracing it will bring blessings to the Church.

Jason, I think I understand what you mean. Many take "liberal" religion to mean a diminished emphasis on traditional commandments. I would certainly not advocate a "liberal" perspective on the law of chastity, or spousal fidelity, or tithing, or Sabbath observance, etc. I would never recommend that sort of liberalization.

The Faithful Dissident said...

With the current political climate and Prop 8 still so fresh in our minds, with most Mormons having been strongly for it, I think that a lot of conservative Mormons would feel spiritually traumatized if the Church suddenly liberalized its stance on gay marriage in the near future. But, I don't think it would result in a mass exodus of conservatives. A few, perhaps, like what happened after the priesthood ban was lifted.

The Faithful Dissident said...

MH said, "I think a church can make liberal changes, but they probably need to be made across a slower time period." I think that will be the case IF the Church's stance on homosexuality ever changes. I don't see it happening virtually overnight out of the blue like with the priesthood ban.

TH said...

FD: You bring up an important question...if the LDS were to go more liberal would that lead to the LDS's decline. The CofC is in some ways asking that same question dealing with the same sex marriage issue and other issues. The point that keeps coming up for me regardless of how these questions get answered is this:

If the church is primarily worried about its own survival more than even doing what it believes God wants to be done, then doesn't it become like the pharisees that Jesus spoke against?

If so, then church survival/growth can't become the trump answer to any important issue.

The Faithful Dissident said...

"If the church is primarily worried about its own survival more than even doing what it believes God wants to be done, then doesn't it become like the pharisees that Jesus spoke against?"

Could it be that God, in a way, wants both?

Could it be that whatever God ultimately wants and intends for us hasn't yet been achieved but eventually will be? We've seen the Church liberalize on several issues (such as women's issues, birth control, and even homosexuality to a certain degree), usually gradually and carefully, over time. The lift of the priesthood ban is the only one I can think of off-hand that happened from literally one day to the next.

Anonymous said...

God does not fail, so I have no doubt that God's ultimate purpose for the LDS church will be fulfilled (just as it will for the CofChrist) even if we were to oppose it.

We can often be surprised along the way, however, as to just what that purpose turns out to be. In 1830, were any of the founding generation planning on ending up in Salt Lake City? Peter regarded the cross as Jesus' self-destruction and tried to fight against it.

I wouldn't pretend to know where the LDS will or even SHOULD be 5 years from now. I'm learning as much or more about your faith and issues as a denomination as you are learning about mine from these discussions.

However,when we claim to be called to transform the world into Zion, and then propose to do so on a time scale far longer than the world is taking to transform itself on its own beyond our comprehension, we are not taking our claimed calling seriously. If you stop taking it seriously, after a while, you'll have to change your acronym from LDS to MDS -- Middle-day Saints. :D


derekstaff said...

I think Fire makes a great point. We should be frontrunners, trailblazers, not bandwagoners and tailgaters.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Middle-day Saints... LOL, that is really funny, Fire Tag. :D When it came to our view of black people back in the day, perhaps Old-day Saints was more like it. :D

"However,when we claim to be called to transform the world into Zion, and then propose to do so on a time scale far longer than the world is taking to transform itself on its own beyond our comprehension, we are not taking our claimed calling seriously."

I think that's how a lot of us are feeling. When it comes to issues like race and homosexuality (at least acknowledging that it's how they're born), it's frankly embarrassing to see how the world progressed much faster than we did. We pat ourselves on the back for giving racism the boot, but the truth is that some in the Church were trying to stop racial equality in America in the days that Martin Luther King was marching. So, to me personally, it's not so much a problem that we weren't so ahead of the times, but that we were lagging behind. I think it'll be the same thing with gay issues.

derekstaff said...

I always am a bit skeptical when people talk about the need to change very gradually. All too often, this leads to stalling. "Yes, yes, it would be great to be more forward thinking on this issue, but we need to be cautious so we don't rock the boat and unsettle the comfortable." Debate is forestalled, nothing changes, while the world for which we should be a guiding light is passing us by.

Mormon Heretic said...

FD, I think the case can be made that the lifting of the priesthood ban was not overnight. Certainly, Pres McKay allowed some blacks the priesthood on a case by case basis. In 1969, there was a vote to lift the bad, which was later rescinded. Of course, many of these changes were very quiet, not public.

The Faithful Dissident said...

Very true, MH. I'm sure that those "behind the scenes" saw it coming as they had been preparing for it.

TH said...

Derek wrote -- I always am a bit skeptical when people talk about the need to change very gradually. All too often, this leads to stalling.

I think this is a great point and also one that makes this issue so challenging as others have already pointed out in this thread.

Small change over a long time can lead to big changes (the formation of the Grand Canyon, the development of a person or animal from a zygote), and sometimes those changes are best not rushed (premature babies have a much lower survival rate, I believe). However, as Derek points out, that logic can also be used to keep things from changing, or to keep things from changing enough quickly enough. As FireTag alluded to, only God is big enough to really understand the big picture of what needs to happen when. But we still each have the responsibility of participating in that as best we are able. After all, the LDS and RLDS/CofC churches would not exist, we would not even be having this discussion if Joseph hadn't heard the Spirit telling him that it was time to go a new way.

Aaron said...

I don't understand how nutters like Glenn Beck can stay in the church and yet intellectuals have to walk a very fine line and keep their heads down or else they get excommunicated.

Stephanie said...

As a conservative, I wouldn't leave if the church becomes more liberal. I am not a conservative first and then Mormon second.