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What are Mormonism’s dependencies?

November 30, 2009

When I was first getting into linux, I didn’t realize the value of using the package managers. I thought I could just download a tarball or an .rpm and then install. I mean, isn’t that how Windows works? Just download the .exe and go?

The problem? Either compiling would fail or the program would miss functions when used. Why? As I soon found out, I often missed crucial dependencies…software packages that my desired software needed to work properly.

In an ideal world, I thought every programmer should make self-contained standalone products…I wanted to be able to just use a new function without having to download several other dependencies…but lacking that, I discovered a sweet consolation: a package manager that would deal with dependency hell for me.

When I see people propose changes to Mormonism (or other religions), sometimes I get the impression that they are like my old self…blissfully unaware of the dependencies that hide behind religious and cultural dynamics.

I guess this sentiment seems obvious to me now, but I was reading a blog that put things rather thoughtfully.

The Mormon model offers a lot that the rest of the nation would like to emulate. For example, stable marriages, high levels of education, low levels of child poverty, high levels of private charity, a strong civil society, low abortion rates, low levels of out of wedlock births, low levels of suicide, and low levels of the public health problems associated with alcohol and tobacco (are there any public health problems associated with caffeine consumption?).

There are, of course, other element of the model about which the nation is not favorably inclined or ambivalent. For example, large families, early marriages, high levels of intense (and heterodox) religious belief, and high bankruptcy rates.

Many of the demographic consequences of the Mormon social model are largely not severable from each other. Early marriage and low out of wedlock birth rates, for example, go hand in hand in the Mormon social model. Intense religious belief drives the willingness to break from the national social norms about alcohol, tobacco, marriage and childbearing. Large families create the economic interdependencies that help make marriages more stable, and can be a factor in making bankruptcy necessary in hard times.

A glance of the interdependencies of the Mormon social model makes it easy to understand how modernizing leaders in the Third World, like Ataturk, chose to keep not only functional parts of colonial culture, but also dysfunctional ones like Western fashion conventions. Culture is a package deal and the linkages between different parts of the package are often non-obvious. For example, while low alcohol consumption is a key to Mormon public health, high alcohol consumption is central to making the rich French diet less of a health problem for the French. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, culture is key to explaining commercial aircraft accident rates and transitioning South Korean flight crews to English was the lynch pin necessary to reduce commercial aircraft accidents on Korea Air.

I think that what Oh-Willeke says is interesting. Seeking a beneficial trait often involves maintaining dysfunctional traits along with it, because of interdependencies.

What I wonder is…what are lurking interdependencies? Oh-Willeke has an interesting hypothesis later on (regarding homosexuality and religious groups with large families, like Mormons today and Catholics in the past), but I feel that one is a bit premature. But couldn’t there be other interdependencies (and related “externalities” to religious doctrines and practices) that are more readily apparent?

When bloggers assess the viability of “middle way” or “new order” Mormonism, could the source of the doubt in these novel approaches be from recognizing that there is a dependency between the success of Mormonism and its “rigidity”?

Other than crazy science knowledge that’s way over my head, one of the motifs I sense from the commenter FireTag‘s comments is this…lamentation…an urgency…he is a member of the Community of Christ, which I dunno…maybe it could be seen as the Latter-day Saint church in a parallel universe (except fortunately, we can see this parallel universe from our own.)  His lamentation comes from this seeming fatalist realization that the CofChrist will soon dwindle into complete irrelevance. This cannot be reversed, it seems, so instead, the goal is to immortalize the church not through its name but through values like peace and justice (for which the church acts to promote).

What does this morbidity have to do with anything? Well, if you could imagine…the split in parallel universes between the LDS church and the CofChrist happened after Joseph Smith’s death. So, we can see that the main LDS church went westward with Brigham Young and got into many of the things that Brigham Young did…whereas the CofChrist avoids many Brigham Youngisms (many of which are embarrassing remnants for the modern church.) So we can see how the two churches differed doctrinally, theologically, and effectually. The different positions of the church today can reflect the differences in “dependencies” from way back when.

While many members of the main LDS church would like to see liberalization, it seems that even a change here could have drastic consequences down the line.


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  1. I’ve been working for two days editing a paper on modeling plant-soil feedback systems, so this concept of interrelatedness is particularly interesting to me right now.

    Here are some other examples that I can think of: Mormonism does a terrific job at getting young men involved in religion, which is something not many organized religions have gotten the knack of. However, its counterpart is that it does so at the expense of marginalizing women (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “Well, if women get the priesthood, then they will do all the work and all the men will go inactive” or something to that effect).

    Mormonism has also done a good job at championing the idea of the nuclear family (Mom + Dad + kids). The downfall to that, though, is that it comes with the idea that any and all non-traditional family structures are sub-par: same-sex unions, families without children, divorced families, step-families, etc.

    Mormon church is consistent – you can go to a ward anywhere in the world and it will be similar to the one you left – same lessons, set up, 3-hour block, etc. The downside is that Mormon church is BORING – you get the same stupid lessons every 4 years on a rotating basis, and you can’t “ward shop” for a congregation that is a better fit.

    • very astute pro/con dependencies…

    • Problem is, on the other hand, men are actually sometimes more marginalized in a ward than the women are.

      But I also think that’s more a symptom of society-at-large than something uniquely Mormon.

      Note: I’m not saying women aren’t marginalized too. I just think the genders are marginalized in different ways.

      • I definitely can see what you’re saying (in a Mormon context), but I also wonder how it actually would work.

        For example, when people insist, “Well, girls are more spiritual…more controlled, refined, whatever…Boys are raging with sinful temptation and must control themselves.”

        …but is this really marginalization when at the end of the day, boys still have the priesthood? Boys, however less spiritual they are, are entrusted with the crown.

      • FireTag permalink

        There is another — shall I say management? — aspect to this. When everybody has priesthood as a ticket to heaven, then priesthood stops being a character-trait of the actual leadership on earth.

        In church or civil government, leaders have to grant titles to their supporters and grant them access to certain powers in order to maintain support and morale. This clogs up the decision process, so the leaders create a new level of authority between their level and that of their supporters and fill it with their closest supporters — a privy council, or to speak. The original title gets devalued and marginalized, and the privy title matters. After a while, the process repeats.

  2. Great thoughts! Very good point.

    When I see people propose changes to Mormonism (or other religions), sometimes I get the impression that they are like my old self…blissfully unaware of the dependencies that hide behind religious and cultural dynamics.

    I agree completely with the idea of interdependency between the desirable/undesirable parts of culture. However, how constant are the interdependencies within mormonism (or any culture), really? It seems to me that the pros/cons/distinctions of mormonism are different today than 50 years ago, just as there will be a somewhat different set 50 years from now.

    Those things that are interdependent (and those that, surprisingly, are not) may not be evident until the culture’s emphasized values change…as [I think] they inevitably will.

  3. Simplysarah:

    That’s the thing…they don’t have to be all that constant at all. It then depends on the preference for the organization to stick with tradition (in which case we’d expect core parts of the org. to be constant…and then the interdependencies would naturally be constant) or to progress.

    As you say, we don’t really know until the culture emphasizes value changes…we can see it subtly and slowly, even now.

  4. FireTag permalink


    Well, you’ve nailed ME pretty well — lamentation is a pretty good word. But there is a slight difference between me and my church here. My church is trying to find a role to immortalize itself as a peace and justice church — to find a safe harbor for itself within the American protestant left and in the third world.

    I’m the fatalist here because Christianity is ultimately claiming to follow a Lord for whom immortality wasn’t the goal. Righteousness seeking to preserve itself doesn’t redeem the world, because nobody’s that righteous. Self-sacrifice is necessary, so hopes of immortalizing itself will lead my Chirch astray. If we are immortal, its because the universe functions that way, not because we follow the right checklist.

    I have acquired some expertise on our demographics, and, as they say, demographics are destiny. I can demonstrate that our growth and decline has been statistically independent of anything we have done institutionally for at least 125 years, so I am fatalistic about that changing by any of our institutional actions now.

    But I’m TB(RLDS) to the core. That’s the authentic me. I trace my priesthood back to the hands of Joseph Smith, relying on the authority given him to be valid, just as a TBM does. (Big difference — my priesthood passes on through my daughter.) So I focus on ways to get the mission done without my institutions, because my institutions are going away.

    Thus, the dependency for me that matters personally and motivates the lamentation and urgency as a TB is this: I’m stuck with a BofM prophecy, from the mouth of Jesus, that says that the failure of the gentiles to embrace the gospel will have very bad consequences for said gentiles. That prophecy is about the behavior of society — not the righteousness of church members — and neither right nor left, secular nor religious, is actually arguing that our society is living at levels approaching its best moral standards (even as they argue what the standards should be).

    I’m also stuck with observations of events in the environment, economy, and the political system that heighten that sense of urgency — and I can make arguments for that urgency without going much beyond the pages of Scientific American, The Jersusalem Post, or the Wall Street Journal.

    Now a TBM still has reason to hope the prophecy never gets activated — but maybe less than they trhink. Mormon membership peaks in about 20 years from what limited data I’ve seen people discuss in the Bloggernacle. So if a TBM faces that, then one of the dependent questions they have to ask will be: “Does 2% or so of the US population constitute “acceptance of the gospel” by the gentiles?”

    That’s a question the third wayers won’t have to consider, so maybe that’s an advantage.

    • madamcurie permalink

      This is interesting, as even in my TBM days I was never concerned with the number of percentages of gentiles who became LDS. Perhaps it shows a selfishness and inward focus that I wasn’t all that concerned with their ultimate fate. Or perhaps somewhere inside I always rejected the notion that those who don’t accept the restored Gospel are doomed – since no one else in my family is LDS, this is much more likely to be the case.

      • I think there is also a fatalism in the church. This attitude that, “Well, of course the church and its members will be a persecuted minority.”

        The funny thing is is that members will often “have it both ways.” If the church grows, this is a fulfillment of prophecy. If the church is marginal in the general population, this too is a fulfillment of prophecy.

  5. Thus, the dependency for me that matters personally and motivates the lamentation and urgency as a TB is this: I’m stuck with a BofM prophecy, from the mouth of Jesus, that says that the failure of the gentiles to embrace the gospel will have very bad consequences for said gentiles.

    I hadn’t thought of it like this. But that’s probably because as someone out of the dependency loop on this issue, I don’t have to consider it (like the third wayers).

    But it is true…even TBMs have to confront the fact that the church may at best peak at about 2% of the population…I think instead, many people deny fatalism instead. They cherish free will and agency, and assert boldly that they can break statistical models and predictions. Church decline and growth may be statistical, but all miracles are black swans. Economic models are great for statistics, but by definition, they always fail to account the statistically unlikely freak events that redefine eras.

  6. FireTag permalink

    MC and Andrew:

    Another dependency that relates to this is the Mormon view of divine law as functioning “legally” imstead of “naturally”. Behavioral laws are more like the law of gravity than an act of Congress.

    Individuals don’t live and die on earth (and the prophecy is about consequences in THIS history, not the afterlife) simply because they are righteous or not. Good Christians died when Rome was sacked. Terribly corrupt people were spared. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. So do depressions or droughts.

    As Andrew notes, decisions made in the early Restoration era (and not necessarily by either of our denominations) may already severely limit today’s options.

    My own observations suggest to me that America and Europe’s view of themselves as the nations that decide things critical to world history at the moment may be a bit parochial.

    China, Iran, Russia, and/or Israel appear more decisive in what may happen over the next couple of years 00 and we are so wrapped up in our own internal political party debates we may be unaware.

  7. Thanks for taking the time to ponder my post.

    Just to be clear, I don’t think that cultural institutions are incapable of being reformed for the better. I suspect, for example, that positive reforms of the LDS denomination are not only possible but likely, for example.

    But, there are really only a few ways that reforms can work. One is that the reformer understands why the pieces fit together as they do at a very deep level, allegorically, like an expert Linux programmer (the biologists who discovered that prey species often benefit from predators would be another).

    The trouble here is excessive self-confidence. Lots of people think they understand linkages and are wrong, and it is very hard to show that fact until you screw it up. (Would Martin Luther have posted his 95 theses if he knew that the Council of Trent would follow and make half of the Roman Catholic Church even more conservative, or produce the Thirty Year’s War? Would Gorbachev proposed glosnot in the USSR if he knew how painful abandoning the old system would be?)

    One of the important reasons that religious systems thrive generally, is that they protect a threatened culture from some form of threat. This is why the Irish Catholics who were persecuted by British Protestants for eight centuries are the most fervant Christians in Europe, while French Catholics, whose faith was the established religion from Charlamagne until the French Revolution are comparative slackers.

    The Utah based branch of the LDS thrived, while the Community of Christ has had comparatively lackluster growth, in part because the former was actively persecuted for much of its history, while the latter was not. The reason for the persecution or cultural threat doesn’t matter much and can change over time. If one wants to save the Community of Christ (FWIW, my kids went to preschool in a program hosted by a church of that denomination), one needs to find someone to cast as an urgent threat to its members way of life (ideally a genuine and viable threat), and fast.

    A second path is incremental, often unnoticed reform. You see this a lot in law. Conventional wisdom changes so much that people assume false histories about what key texts mean without even trying. For example, most people believe (falsely) that the Bill of Rights does and always has given people rights vis-a-vis state and local governments. The notion is so embedded in our idea of the constitution, that few people realize that it was entirely non-existent for the first half of the life of the U.S. and not well established for the next quarter of the life of the U.S. Similarly, most people aren’t aware that the notion of a subconscience was not well established before Freud and so they underestimate his contributions to our very worldview and read it into much earlier writings anachronistically. Mormon rethinking of its attitudes towards race has something of this character.

    The third path is externally imposed dumb luck. There is, for example, little doubt that mainstream Mormon abandonment of polygamy, a major doctrinal reform, was a result of external pressure in a quest for Utah’s statehood and institutional survival. But, it turns out that polygamy’s most usefulness to the LDS church as an institution was that it made people hate it and try to wipe it out, not that it was particularly functional or necessary for the church internally. Indeed, the lingering association, despite being disavowed, no doubt continues to help sustain the sense of LDS as a threatened institution whose members must stay active if they want it to survive. Reform was imposed from the outside, but if the anti-polygamists had really been thinking strategically, they would have all said, “ho-hum” and LDS would have been some unimportant little cult in the middle of nowhere notable only for the highly literary novels people would write about it every couple of generations.

    External pressure can produce reforms, but the effects are often unintended. The Romans certainly had no idea when they destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70 AD (give or take) that this would spawn Rabbinic Judiasm and Christianity because the hole in the religious ecosystem that this opened up. The animals of the Levant, who no longer faced routine sacrificial slaughter, however, probably would have thought that this was a very good move if they had been capable of understanding what was going on. (Karma eventually caught up with them, however, and produced Thanksgiving.)

    One footnote on dietary laws. Today, they can seem a bit silly. But, dietary laws may have been the root of religious diversity itself. The more disease prone an area is, the more likely it is to have a diversity of religions with a diversity of dietary laws. When the killer mutant flu that impacts only people under the influence of caffine strikes, the Mormons will save us all.

  8. Thanks for another great comment…I’ll try to digest over the next few days.

    What you say makes sense…especially about the finding that religious systems that seem to thrive are those that protect a threatened culture…and I think too that some religions “engineer” the threatened culture aspect by distinguishing themselves from the main culture in ways that are bound to invite some threat.

    The thing I worry about is…it shouldn’t be that religious groups (or groups of any sort) should be running out and finding threats against them…shouldn’t threats arise naturally…the former seems like choosing a scapegoat…choosing an enemy…or something like that. While the latter seems like life.

    However, if the LATTER is true, then why don’t shrinking churches recognize that they *are* facing a threat? If the latter is true, the Community of Christ should already be intuitively aware of the threats that face them…Is this the case? FireTag seems to be very aware…

    I also like your classification of the incremental…but the incremental to me is just…slow. Mormon rethinking of race and society’s cultural embedding of Freudian ideas take a long time. It’s not something I want to hold my breath for.

    On the other hand, regarding externally imposed dumb luck, have you heard about the hypothesis of optimal tension? This hypothesis goes in and out of style like crazy, but it kinda goes with this. Even though the anti-polygamists didn’t go “ho hum,” we see that the Fundamentalists (who have stuck with polygamy, race issues, etc.,) have too much tension with the greater society and so still end up being marginal.

    Interesting comments on diet and religion…I know I once saw research that pointed out that purity in a dietary sense is highly related (if not the same) as purity in a religious sense. The disgust felt in one produces the same emotional reaction as the other, which leads researchers to believe both are evolutionarily related (even if accidentally so).

  9. FireTag permalink


    Very insightful comment, particularly as it applies to the CofChrist. I think I can see examples of your thesis applying to our church in several ways — which may also explain the question Andrew just raised about why we don’t respond to the challenge differently.

    One thing about us is that in the past, our elderly have gathered to Independence in their retirement to be in the embryonic Zion in a way that I don’t think (from lack of reference in the blogs) LDS gather to SLC. That had several demographic effects: a disproportionate percentage of conservative elderly members in and around the “Center Place”, an in-migration flow that made people there think that the church was growing more rapodly than it was, and (because any elder who showed up at World Conference was automatically an ex officio delegate with full voting rights) an effective stranglehold on legislation by Independence.

    The most unnoticed but significant piece of legislation the church passed in the last 50 years was when the First Presidency, arguing that the Conference was spilling out the front doors of the Auditorium (our HQ then), got the ex officio rules rescinded. There are now a few dozen ex officios at conference instead of a couple of thousand. Without this “book keeping” resolution, none of the progressive shifts in the church in succeeding decades could have occurred.

    Another interesting thing is that the leadership did perceive that there was a threat very early because of how they got their theological heads handed to them when the 12 tried to spread the church into non-Western cultures. The Orient cared no more about the theological differences between Restorationists and other Christians than we care about the theological differences between Shia and Sunni.

    As this awareness grew at the same time the conservative grip was lessening, the church began to move sharply to the religious left, because leadership perceived the threat as a kind of “fossilization” that it could fix by changing stances within the church.

    I think this was an insufficiently deep understanding of the linkages, because the analysis I’ve done says that nothing the church can do at the institutional level has had any effect, pro OR con, on our rate of growth since 1880, the earliest RLDS data I’ve been able to recover and analyze. The effect of becoming more liberal (even if correctly so theologically) turns out to change WHO we baptize, but not how many.

    As the awareness of the threat has grown, I fear that O’s thesis about drawing inward is now being confirmed, but with a twist: the leadership class appears to be separating itself more and more from the people as a whole. For example, the latest priesthood guidelines are organized around world church versus local ministers instead of organized around Arronic or Melchiz. offices. Elders are now being grouped with the Arronic as local ministers, with HP’s and Seventies responsible fpr World Church, not local priorities. Even in Independence, there appears to be a “different social circle” between those who work or volunteer in the Temple, and those who work in the local congregations. So there are definitely insiders and outsiders, but the distinction is NOT necessarily between member and non-member.

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