For a lot of years now, some ex-Mormons have fantasized that the LDS church is in its death-spiral, circling the drain. The truth is out, they say, and there’s a mad scramble for the exits.
Of course, this has been wishful thinking, as the slow and steady trickle of active members leaving hasn’t been all that noticeable, except of course to those who want to see it.
I’ve always said that the way to know that the number has reached critical mass would be to watch for the church to start dealing with the apostasy publicly. Sure, there were a few conference talks dealing with the subject, but they were lost in a sea of pablum about modesty and tithing.
Then came the Swedish Rescue. At the time (2010), I wasn’t really aware of the meeting and its results, but I had seen the rather lame printed packet the church had prepared. My impression was that it was just one more “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” moment. I thought Sweden might have been an anomaly, as I hadn’t heard of any similar disaffected groups anywhere else in the world.
I think we can all agree that the church’s response was inadequate, to say the least, and probably did more harm than good. For one thing, they clearly have lost some of the core membership in Sweden, by which I mean people who attended meetings, paid tithing, attended the temple, and served in leadership positions. What is worse, the contents of the meeting have been made public, and it’s become clear that their top historians had no answers for struggling members other than to suggest that the “bad” stuff was coming from Satan.
When I read and heard the contents of the rescue meeting, it really hit me hard. I expect local leaders to be caught off guard and tell struggling members to ignore the issues (and shut up about them), but it was another thing entirely to see Marlin Jensen and Richard Turley wave off question after question because there wasn’t enough time to address them. Presumably they had time to prepare and probably knew most of the questions in advance (I certainly would have), but they seemed completely unprepared to give any answers whatsoever. Elder Jensen, however, had plenty of time to hammer home the idea that these doubts and questions came from Satan and were not sufficient to raise real concern about the truth of the church and gospel. The kicker, if the reports are to be believed, was Elder Erich Kopischke’s ultimatum for people to suck it up or leave, combined with a warning for attendees not to share anything with other members.
It seems the church has learned at least a few things from the rescue experience. First and foremost, don’t send anyone official out to discuss the issues. Instead, they’ve sent out (or at least haven’t objected to) Richard Bushman and Terryl and Fiona Givens to hold meetings with doubting members. I have tremendous respect for Richard Bushman, who in my view epitomizes the faithful historian, acknowledging the problems but finding reasons to believe. The Givenses, however, don’t add much to the conversation, in my view, as they seem to approach Mormonism from a sort of aesthetic point of view, admiring Joseph Smith’s creativity and seeing it as evidence of his prophetic calling. And as others have pointed out, Terryl Givens is every bit as dismissive of the problematic as anyone else. You really can’t resolve someone’s problems if you refuse to acknowledge that they are problems, and that is why I don’t think the Bushman/Givens meetings will bear much fruit for the LDS church.
That the church’s woes have now reached the front page of the New York Times is disastrous for the church. We have seen the usual hyperdefensiveness in the responses of members and quasi-church publications but no real response–again, there’s not really much they could say, is there? The Deseret News’ response, for example, painted a picture of weak-minded members letting trivial issues derail their faith. It’s telling that the article linked to several apologetic sites but not to the actual Times article.
Has the apostasy problem reached critical mass? I think I may have been wrong before in assuming that the numbers of people leaving would drive the church’s response; I suspect it may be just the opposite. Relatively speaking, the number of people who have left is pretty small, though obviously large enough to merit these groping responses from the church. But now the issues causing people to leave are being broadcast in venues the church could not have imagined. What is driving the process isn’t so much the disaffection of core members but rather the incompetence and cluelessness of the church’s response. In my view, the church’s big issue now isn’t how to respond to disaffected members but rather how to reverse the perception that they have something to hide and that they are more interested in controlling the message than in saving souls.
Make no mistake: The LDS church is not going away anytime soon, but this is clearly a transitional moment fraught with peril for the church. Long gone are the days when they could hide or downplay truths that were not “useful.” The sad thing is that the wounds the church is suffering are self-inflicted. Back in the late 1970s, the Church Historian’s office, led by Leonard Arrington, embarked on a more open and honest portrayal of church history. Unfortunately, senior church leaders, led by Boyd K. Packer and Ezra Taft Benson, succeeded in banishing the new staff and restricting access to the church’s historical archives.
So, since that time, we as members have been presented a rather sanitized and slanted view of the church and its history and origins. One of the reasons for the increase in apostasy recently is the jarring disconnect between the squeaky-clean church history members are used to and the reality, which is, well, rather ugly in many ways. We were presented a Joseph Smith who was a combination of Superman, Abraham Lincoln, and Jesus, and it can be quite a shock that he wasn’t.
It may surprise some people, but I don’t see the Packer/Benson approach to reflect real intent to deceive; ironically, the idolization of Joseph Smith is a result of their own need to see Joseph as the great man they believe he was. Of course, another reason is clear: People like Packer and Benson are afraid of the unvarnished truth because they believe it might shake members’ faith in the church. I’m convinced that this “faith-promoting” approach reflects a deep-seated need to protect Joseph Smith and protect the faith of the membership. The repackaging of Joseph Smith has been so successful that they can’t walk back from it without causing real shock and trauma for members.
Fortunately for the church, there is an example of how to “adjust” the church’s teachings away from the dogmatism of the past. When I was a young man, the other main branch of Mormonism, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), walked away from many of its core teachings, de-emphasizing the Book of Mormon and other Mormon scripture and adopting a more ecumenical and liberal Christian theology. Significantly, they acknowledged that, contrary to one of their foundational beliefs, Joseph Smith did indeed introduce and practice polygamy. They even went so far as to rename the church to “The Community of Christ” to further distance themselves from Joseph Smith and Mormonism.
At the time, I and many other Mormons saw this as proof positive that the RLDS church was in apostasy and would dwindle away because they had “watered down” the true teachings of the restoration. Indeed, the RLDS/CofC experienced major upheaval and schisms, though ultimately the church weathered the loss of some 6000-7000 members to “restoration” branches, while maintaining a membership of over 250,000.
If I were to guess, a similar reorientation of the LDS church–though I don’t see it as going as far as the CofC–would result in schisms in the church and the loss of some members. The church would probably lose more as a percentage of members than the CofC did simply because the LDS church has been much more rigid in its acceptance of the sanitized history and has promoted a sort of hero worship towards Joseph Smith and his successors. But in the end, the church would survive, just as the Community of Christ has survived. In a weird way, I would be sad to see the church lose much of what makes it unique. I am not suggesting any actions for the church to take, but my guess is that, in the long run, the church will follow the lead of its smaller cousin.
The one response that I am sure will not work is the traditional circling of the wagons and denial of the problematic. The Swedish Rescue and Bushman/Givens tour tell me the church agrees and is trying to navigate a better course. At this point, I can’t predict what that will look like or how successful it will be.