Mormons are leaving the LDS Church in record numbers, according to recent press coverage. Though much of the story attributes the inactivity or loss of members to the internet and their learning historical and other material that contradicts their ideas of Mormonism, there is undoubtedly much more to the story.
While I cannot write an blogpost based on a social science study of disaffection, for which I refer you to the work in process of Jason Singh and E. Marshall Brooks, I can speak to the issue as an anthropologist who studies religion and particularly Mormonism.
I am skeptical of the internet as the primary cause of this change. From Tahrir Square to this loss of faith the internet is blamed for all kinds of social movement and breakdowns in authority. While it undoubtedly plays a role, as scholar after scholar points out, it is more hyped that an adequate cause.
In the Mormon story, there is a telling mediating factor. People claim that Latter-day Saints are finding out things on the internet that run counter to ideas on which they built their faith. Laurie Goodstein writes, in the New York Times, "that people find on the internet things that contradict[... ]the church’s history and teachings.”
She notes that Hans Mattsson, once an Area Authority, dismissed these concerns when members brought them to him at first. Then he found out that there was evidence Joseph Smith engaged in polygamy with women as young as fourteen. This made him doubt.
On the internet are found things that contradict what the LDS Church teaches about itself on which people have built faith. This notion intrigues me. It has several parts: 1) building faith, 2) Church teachings, and 3) contradiction.
I want to start with the notion of Church teachings. While it is hard to know exactly what people are referring to here, it is worthwhile noting that in the broader Mormon community there are few issues, if any, that have not been ventilated including Joseph Smith\s polygamy. Information is there, not only on the internet, but within the Latter-day Saint Community, and yet there are people who continue to have faith in Mormonism, and even the Church.
As a result, I do not think the real issue is with details, such as Joseph Smith’s polygamy or even the age of some of his partners, etc. Rather it is an issue of why people do not know about these things when they have been discussed for a long time now in LDS networks.
The question might be rephrased to say why have official Church teachings, despite the writings of a broader Latter-day Saint community, not represented things that are troublesome and found ways to build faith with them.
The answer may lie, in part, in two things: 1) an idea of “faith promoting” or “faithful” history and gospel discussion, and 2) the development of Correlation along with the increased power of the Church Office Building bureaucracy (as Daymon Smith analyzes it).
The first notion, expounded by Elder Boyd K. Packer and many other people roughly requires that things that do not support the story of Mormonism, in the way they understand it, should be brushed aside. Another notion often accompanies it, especially in the writings of Elder Packer, that faith is primarily a matter of inner commitment and that religious discourse and teaching should be about expressing that commitment in words like “I know ... it is true.” rather than through discussion or weighing of ideas and evidence.
An inner commitment builds on a notion of individualism akin to that of the Sheilaism described by Robert Bellah. It sees communities, and Churches, as built from individual commitment and then hides from itself and others the social fields and forces that enable and support an apparent inner commitment.
Elder Packer et. al following this notion this transformed Mormonism in lock step with the social transformations of American suburban life, i.e. a faulty focus on individual commitment and character, such as those Bellah discussed.
Of course, it is not fair to lay all the blame at the feet of this idea. Mormons left the villages that were the historical home of a strong Mormonism and moved to suburbia, in the process adopting the values and norms of suburbia. However, initially they maintained their Mormonism as a demanding community which absorbed most of their time and energy.
However, the reduction of Mormon life to a three hour block on Sundays and scant activity during the week, in order to focus on the nuclear family, broke the community strength that was building a strong enclave of Latter-day Saints, for one of individuals making contractual, I mean faith commitment, to the Church and using the nuclear family as the primary place for nourishing this faith.
Just as that nuclear family is breaking down in the face of contemporary economic life, so too it as a social organization in which a strong commitment to Mormonism could be forged has fallen apart and there is precious little community any more to give cohesion to the people and avoid a larger crisis of loss of commitment.
The second thing mentioned above, Correlation, arises in relationship to this. Correlation, with its control over materials and the wording and ideas contained within them was driven by norms that can loosely fit under the “faith promoting” category, although awkwardly so.
For me, though, that seems less the issue than does the substitution of hierarchy and power from above, in a reworking of the notion and relations of priesthood leadership. Importantly, Correlation was part of a power grab and bureaucratization of the Church, following the patterns of the military and the modern corporation. This centralized power and administration replaced most of the social organization--i.e. the former horizontal life of densely integrated wards and stakes--for command directed power relationships.
This pattern seemed to fit well with the notions of individual commitment and character as base. But it destroyed any kind of religious society that could have absorbed the shocks. In the process “Church teachings” as an idea, around which strong notions of obedience and non-critical discussion were promoted, came down the lines of power and replaced the folk-wisdom and the complexity of non-credal Mormon religious practice and belief.
In the process of consolidating this (which including censoring of historians and intellectuals, as well as persons with ideas that seemed contrary) the Church lost from its official inside the very people and social ties that were processing and grasping the complexities of the Mormon story. An inside of faith and propriety was constructed against an outside of heterodoxy and problems.
That these complexities found their place in the internet is no surprise. They already were in libraries and journals. To return to the New York Times article, the problem is less the existence of this information, than the circling of wagons of “orthodoxy” through Church Office Building power and Correlation built on a weak basis of individual commitment.
As my grandmother, who immigrated from England to the US for the Chruch would say “you make your bed, you lie in it.” The Church is now experiencing the predictable effects of the “reformations” of its mid to late twentieth century self.
I hope that, instead of simply focusing on information that seems to run counter to Church teachings, discussion on loss of members will also include a consideration of the mistakes made in the twentieth century, often for very good reasons, and rethink how to build a solid community of Latter-day Saints, rather than simply a body of individuals with a testimony.