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The fate of Believing Mormons and Menu Mormons

December 5, 2010

Bruce at Millennial Star wrote a post yesterday synthesizing two different members’ of the Community of Christ’s reactions to various events in the church’s (the CoChrist’s) history, and while I think that was intriguing on the whole, what really caught my eye were the four concluding paragraphs, which I will now proceed to copy and paste into this article:

I suspect the real lesson of the RLDS for us LDS is not that we should or should not give women the priesthood, nor even we should or shouldn’t <fill in the blank here with progressive ideal.> The real lesson of the RLDS Church for the LDS Church is that trying to simultaneously embrace everyone is not (currently anyhow) a road to long term religious vitality. While I am not prepared to say that religiously liberal beliefs are always a death wish (though often this is the case), there really is no doubt that as of yet no on has ever made a vital and growing religion out of this approach.

Some, however, have been more successful than others. The Church of England has capitalized on their more secular and cultural roots to embrace both religiously conservative and liberal points of view. But they have the added advantage of being a state religion supported by taxes. And I’m still not sure I’d call them a “success” either. In a similar fashion, Liberal Jewish religions have strong ethnic and cultural roots to pull upon.

Likewise, I suspect that three generations from now, there will still be a Believing Mormon community and a “Menu Mormon” community. Yet, I do not think these comparison are all fair. For example, I suspect a huge percent of the future Believing Mormon community will be decedents of Believing Mormons today. By comparison, I suspect that no matter how many generations you flash forward in time that the Menu Mormon community will always still be overwhelmingly first generation. The Menu Mormon community is, and probably always will be, a “Rejectionist Community” in that they theologically share primarily a common rejection of other people’s beliefs. If the LDS Church disappeared tomorrow, the Menu Mormon community would as well.

We should certainly have a strong desire to integrate those who “practice but do not believe” as far as possible into the LDS Church, but not at the expense of the religion itself. To me, this is the real lesson of the RLDS to the LDS. A religion (well, particularly Christian religions) exists to allow those that share a set of beliefs to strengthen each other’s beliefs. When the RLDS (and any liberal Christian sect) made a move towards trying to embrace ‘both sides’ they did so at the risk of no longer being a religion. Yet, I do not blame Religiously Rejectionist communities for wanting to integrate with their more conservative counterparts, for they lack a life of their own. I have not yet even worked out my personal answer to this very real dilemma, but I’m virtually certain the RLDSs approach is at least somewhat causally linked to their current situation.

Bruce’s framing of the “Rejectionist community” and of the interplay between it and the believing community was what interested me, if you didn’t catch it.

In the “Let’s be like Jews” fantasy that many people have about Mormonism, there is this idea that if secular Jews can find a place within the community (despite their secularity), then why can’t Mormons? But Bruce brings up a point that I think is true; secular Mormons are “first generation.” Not to say that Secular Mormons are all converts that dropped out…but rather that there are not going to be a whole lot of secular Mormons who come from secular Mormon families. Rather, the part of the Menu Mormon/New Order Mormon/non-believing cultural Mormon experience that binds us together is the fact that our families are not menu/new order/nonbelieving.

We are each first-generation pioneers “out of” Mormonism, but when we make that trek, we are unlikely to continue immersing out children in the Mormonism we grew up in, in the hopes that they will have the same experience we did (because most of us wouldn’t hope that on anyone.)

I don’t think it’s true that if the LDS church disappeared tomorrow, the Menu Mormon community would too. Certainly, there’d be a narrowing of who’d be in it. Some reasons wouldn’t make sense anymore (e.g., religious rejectionists of the church who were tied to it because of things like the church’s continuing involvement in politics wouldn’t really have a raison d’etre without a church to be involved in politics.) Nevertheless, others would still have reason to exist: supposing the LDS church disappeared tomorrow, that wouldn’t mean our memories would disappear (unless Bruce’s hypothetical includes that). And the thing that the rejectionist religious community for Mormonism (not just Menu Mormons but also former, ex-, post-Mormons, and Mormon Alumni) must do is process what a significant chunk of their life even means or meant.

But certainly, would we carry that on to our children? I don’t know about you, but for me, the answer is easily no. That will be just one part where I wouldn’t want my kids to be able to relate to me on. (I’d also like them to be perpetually ignorant about things like racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but I don’t those are going away any time soon. [and I’m not trying to equate the church on the whole with these, but I think the bad experiences that many face CERTAINLY are relatable])

There was one thing that Bruce said that kinda bothered me as was said:

Yet, I do not blame Religiously Rejectionist communities for wanting to integrate with their more conservative counterparts, for they lack a life of their own.

The thing is, for most of us, it’s not like we choose to gain a life of our own. The religious beliefs we are rejecting (without which we would have no shared reference) were in many cases foisted upon us. Even if not, we nevertheless invested a great deal of time and effort into them. I would not blame someone trying to salvage a great part of his life from being declared scrap.

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7 Comments
  1. Bnielson permalink

    I do want to clarify one thing, Andrew, though you’ll probably still disagree with me.

    What I meant is that I do not believe the Rejectionist community *as a community* could survive the disappearance of the LDS Church. I certainly do accept that individually all of you would continue to have to work to make sense of your lives. And perhaps I’m over stating this, because I could certainly see very small communities of inter-support continuing to exist. But I simply do not believe any sizeable community (more than say 2 or 3 at a time) could or would exist after the disappearance of the LDS Church. The onus for you guys to get together and start blogs and write to each other would be so strongly diminished (in my opinion anyhow) that I think it would definitely spell the death of the Rejectionist community as well.

    Here, do this as a thought experiment: imagine that tomorrow Thomas S. Monson declared that from now on all the demands of the Rejectionist community were now going to be met. i.e. Book of Mormon is probably not historical, but you can believe what you want, gay marriage is now accepted, all Churches are equally true (despite the logical absurdity in that statement), etc. All of them. In short, we are imagining that you guys have achieved a 100% victory in every way shape and form.

    In this case, we aren’t even talking about the disappearance of the LDS Church. So this is a much smaller test case. But would the “Rejectionist Community” still be around? Or would it fundamentally change them too? Perhaps even having them disappear all together into the Believing community at that point. (i.e. they are one and the same.)

    But in this thought experiment, I have no doubt that the LDS church would cease to exist within, say, two or three generations. And they’d be virtually dead from that moment on. There would simply be no compelling reason to be Mormon any more. Period. People who grew up Mormon might stick with it if they didn’t’ have the courage to seek ‘truth elsewhere’ but that’s about it. And most future generations would simply not care and would not join. There would be a precipitous drop off from that moment forward until the LDS Church was a non-factor in the world.

    Now of course this thought experiment is ridiculous. In reality, what would happen is that there would be a giant schism and then the Rejectionist community would reject this Reformed Mormon Church (who would probably be the majority) instead. But let’s just pretend like instead either no one schismed or the schism was so small as to be a political non-factor. Would the Rejectionist community have any need whatsoever to exist? No, it wouldn’t.

    This is why I am convinced that the Rejectionist Community is 100% dependent upon the Believing community. You guys have nothing without us and that’s the truth. I do not say this to downplay the value of that community. Indeed, I find much in them quite valuable within the Rejectionist community (that is why I used to support Mormon Matters even back when it was overwhelmingly Rejectionist in nature). But you guys – as a community — do not exist without us in my opinion and I think this is a fact that is all too often overlooked. Likewise, I think it overlooked that you guys to get massive meaning out of your lives by Rejecting us. We are your religion still, in oh so many ways, and we do provide religious value to you still. This is why I’m so interested in somehow integrating the Rejectionist and Believing Communities. I *want* you guys to be able to participate with us and get as much out of us as you wish to receive.

  2. Bruce,

    Before getting to the thought experiment, I’m wondering why you think the collection of individuals into a community requires the church? For me, if you can’t quash the individuals trying to work out their lives, then you can’t quash them getting together (yes, in groups LARGER than 2 to 3) — because that is exactly where the community forms. The latter follows from the former (esp. with the internet). The only way to get rid of the rejectionist community is to get rid of the rejectionist individuals…which would require people to either forget their past or come to grips with it. We don’t “come to grips” because of continued offenses in the presence (but be clear: when I say “we” I mean the community…of course, individuals come to grips all the time…so the disaffected community cycles its numbers basically — blogs shut down and other blogs pop up, for example) — but supposing we could come to grips, there’s still the fact of “forgetting the past”… (This is why I agree that after a generation, the community would die — because it would not pass on to the children.)

    With respect to your thought experiment, absolutely the rejectionist community would exist. Not only that, but the rejectionist community would increase in size. Supposing that the church comes out now and says that gay marriage is now accepted, etc., etc., (although I’m wondering what a 100% victory for the community would even look like…the problem in this discussion is that it’s already *not* one community or another; different people have different disagreements — for example, I doubt most rejectionists are looking for the church to say “every church is equally true”), it can NOT erase its past. So, you first have to ask: how many people who have been burned by the church would go back if the church reversed its position on every controversial issue for these people? And the sad answer (the reason *why* the church probably won’t liberalize) is that when these kinds of people leave, they *don’t* come back. The burnt bridge cannot be reconstructed without divine intervention.

    But then you have to ask another question: how many people who are cool with the way the church currently is would leave if the church reversed its position on every controversial issue? And this is where the rejectionist community would thrive (you call this greater community a “schism”…I say that part is ESSENTIAL. If you pretend that no one schisms or pretend that schisms are so small as to be a political non-factor, then you might as well consider the CURRENT rejectionist communities to be political non-factors — and yet we exist).

    I agree that the rejectionist community would be fundamentally changed…and that the rejectionist communities wouldn’t see eye to eye…but in a way, we already see that. ex-Mormon atheists rarely see with ex-Mormon evangelicals. We have very different problems with the church (so a 100% victory for one isn’t a 100% victory for the other), etc.

    In a way, I don’t think we disagree. It reminds me of my discussion about “mere atheism.” Atheists aren’t really saying anything at all as atheists. However, people who are atheists are saying lots of things under different hats — as scientists, as political secularists, as empiricists or rationalists — and many of these hats may have influenced *why* they are atheist…but atheism itself is nothing to make a meaningful community over.

    But what I am saying is that I don’t think you understand the depths of the church. Get rid of the current institution (whether through radical change or through annihilation) and you don’t eliminate people who keep that institution well alive through their memories, their experiences, etc., To the extent that these memories and experiences do not pass on (e.g., to children), then I agree that the rejectionist community will vaporize…but this is a longer process than what you think.

    Basically, when you say “you guys — as a community — do not exist without us,” I don’t think “us” is “the church as an institution.” us instead must be “the church’s legacy” — which doesn’t go away just because the church accepts gay marriage or drops its position on exclusive truth or ceases to exist in corporate form.

  3. I actually agree with most of what Bnielson says in this reply. I’ve taken part in many tight-knit social communities whose only reason for existing was 1 area of common territory. Without that 1 piece of common ground we probably wouldn’t have been drawn together. For example, as an ESL teacher in Japan I gravitated towards other Westerners who, truth be told, probably wouldn’t have been my friends in another less isolated environments. I also experienced the same thing with other Mormons on several occasions when living in isolated areas. I became friends with other Mormons who I’d never have been drawn to but for that 1 piece of common ground. I don’t see it as much of an insight really. It’s just a description of human nature. Believers wouldn’t be so tight without their myths and imaginary enemies, and the non-believers would likewise dissipate without the common ground of their badgering relatives.

    If my kids were no longer being indoctrinated into the thought-numbing culture and if I weren’t regularly being vilified in their meetings, I certainly wouldn’t feel the need to blog about it like I do or meet up with others who have similar frustrations.

    What I disagree with is that I’d have nothing without them. What I’d have is healthy, free-thinking and independent children and less common ground with other non-believers. My time and social circles would center around some other piece of common ground as they do now…just without the Post-Mos. Sounds like paradise to me.

  4. Bruce accused me of “spinning” in a post where he framed liberal faith as akin to lifeless “rejectionism” — a framework I vigorously reject! :P (In the end, one thing Bruce and I both admitted to was using spin.) :)

    I think this is telling of the fundamental conflict between Bruce’s and my world-views: In Bruce’s world-view, liberal religion is “trying to embrace ‘both sides'”! It’s no wonder if you a black and white world-view, the very idea of nuance is senseless — you’re trying to embrace both white and black! You can’t be on both sides in kind of paradigm.

    If you lived on an island and you had the religious belief that your island was the only land in the universe and that the people on your island were the only people in the universe, you might have a very contented world-view that provided easy, comforting answers to all sorts of questions. The problem comes when people from another island build a boat, sale across the ocean and visit your island. In other words, as wonderful as your world-view was, it was relatively ineffective of describing world as it is, and it was relatively ineffective at predicting reality.

    Likewise, the tradition LDS world-view, while possessed of very happy and comforting answers to various questions, can be shown to contradict reality in several places as starkly and as thoroughly as the islander’s world-view. (An obvious example is Book of Abraham authorship.)

    For people who are only familiar with literalist/conservative religion, the only real religion for the islanders is continuing to insist that the traditional dogma is true, despite the evidence. For them and for the who reject this religion altogether, true religion therefore becomes “believing in things which are obviously false” — a definition in fair keeping with the apostle Paul’s utterly unhelpful definition of faith.

    If that’s your effective definition of religion (whether or not you agree that the things in question are, in fact, false), the very idea of a liberal religion — which both understands that the traditional beliefs about the island were a myth, but does not use that understanding to simply throw away or totally “reject” that myth out of hand — is fairly incomprehensible.

    However, in my opinion, this is the only option for creating cultural Mormons in the second generation. In other words, if you do value your heritage and cultural traits as a secular Jew might without wanting to be a part of the LDS Church for various reasons, I believe Community of Christ is the most viable option.

  5. Seth R. permalink

    As I’ve said before, “liberal” religion’s biggest problem is that it gets all its reference points from the conservativism which it hates.

    That’s not a great recipe for finding your own message and identity in any context.

  6. Wayne permalink

    Bruce neglects to mention that the Catholic church itself has”liberal” and “conservative” arms that coexist within the same church. Sure they disagree with each other but they are still the same body. There will always be pick and choose followers and by the book followers in every religion, because every single person by virtue of thier individuality sees the same thing differently.

  7. Never fear, the Scremaing Nephite is here!

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