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Barriers to exit from Mormonism are…better for the church?

March 2, 2010
broken exit sign

This exit isn't too inviting here...

Over at By Common Consent, there was a post challenging the case that is often made for making the church easier to leave. As J. Nelson-Seawright writes,

What [less barriers to exit] means for Mormonism as a community is this: it will become less internally diverse. People who don’t fit well with the current configuration of things will just leave, so the remaining group of Mormons will be the set of people who like the current configuration…Imagine a church in which, to pick an example, only strict McConkie Mormons remain; although it can be fun to rhetorically exaggerate by claiming that we live in that church now, it would certainly be different from what we face.

I thought that this was an interesting idea to play around with, but there was something to which I couldn’t put my finger on.

It seems to me that, even now, with a seemingly strict/high barrier to exit system, we don’t have the open diversity of voices. Even if there are different opinions and perspectives, I don’t think it is true on a church-wide level that people feel comfortable being in any ward and expressing varying opinions.

J N-S points out that the weakening of the church would have distinct impacts for the cultural Mormons.For, as he writes too:

I don’t think there would be much of a Mormon community if the LDS church itself fell apart. Unlike Catholicism or especially Judaism, Mormonism doesn’t have millenia of tradition to tie people together as a community. We don’t have a great literature, a profound shared history, a unique cultural location in the world. We’re tied together almost entirely by the church as an organization — through membership in it, rejection of it, or ambiguity toward it. It’s the shared reference point; without it, we would lack a point of unity and would simply disperse.

To this, I think I must agree. Especially when I get to that last line. When I talk about a shared language of Mormonism, shared experiences of Mormonism, it centers around some activity (or a history of activity) within the church. “Traditions” are forged based on orthopraxy and obedience to the LDS presentation of the gospel (admittedly with regional variances…what exactly does the Word of Wisdom advise against? Coke?)

JNS quotes Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, to make his case:

…the role of voice would increase as the opportunities for exit decline, up to the point where, with exit wholly unavailable, voice must carry the entire burden of alerting management to its failings. (pg. 34) …The presence of the exit alternative can therefore tend to atrophy the development of the art of voice. (pg. 43)

Reading this gives me one idea. Hirschman (and Nelson-Seawright) seem to advocate for the particular institution or the particular firm. So, in this case, voice is critical because it helps the firm. It is an internal control mechanism.

But couldn’t there be market control mechanisms For example, with exit as an option instead of voice, firms are alerted to failings based on who leaves (especially if an exit is costly to the firm…they would be motivated to find out why people are leaving). Exit along with an outside voice would be potent (e..g, a person leaves, and then blows the whistle.)

I see how this wouldn’t necessarily work for the church, however. Perhaps, just like Big 4 accounting firms, the church doesn’t care about (and indeed, expects) regular attrition and churn. While the church doesn’t have formal severance processes quieting people about their experiences, the membership and the leadership do have informal processes of devaluing the voices of those who leave (those are apostates! Can they be trusted?)

In the end, I liked a comment after the post: I guess Judaism still remains Mormonism’s not-so-secret cultural crush.

StillConfused raises a different idea, which I think is interesting. What if, instead of working on barriers to entry (Armand Mauss’s Angel and Beehive) or on clamping down on barriers to exit, we worked on the hurdles in the middle? (One commenter kinda points out that what happens IN the church community can by itself lower barriers to exit.) I think the reason there is little “voice” in the church is not because people are all leaving, but because even the New Order Mormons or the middle way Mormons, or whoever else who wants to stay, is pressured — whether officially or unofficially — to fit to certain lines. I suppose members would say that people are rarely excommunicated for unorthodoxy, but one can fail to get a temple recommend. One can become socially unpopular. Lose callings. Etc.,

Of course, JNS really shakes things up later. He says that mere disengagement counts as a subset of exit. Meaning, not only are we looking at people who resign or are excommunicated or disfellowshipped, but also people who become merely inactive. With this being the case, then I have to agree with a certain commenter and say that Mormonism really doesn’t have the high barriers to exit we normally like to think it has.

So I guess the church would really need to address less actives and inactives and make disengagement less appealing?


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  1. I read this same post and couldn’t really wrap my head around it. People who want to leave the LDS Church but can’t because of various social impediments (like spouses who would divorce them or parents who would disown them) end up as zombie-saints. They don’t function well. They may stumble around the corridors, but they’re not really present. And, as you mention, the “diversity” that these LDS refuseniks bring to the church is functionally useless because no diverse beliefs are allowed to be voiced. I just can’t see how compelling religious practice produces anything of value to anyone.

  2. zombie-saint…I’m going to have to find more ways to use that term…

  3. Institutions like this need to be weakened. This blog is an activists efforts. Every little effort helps.

  4. Activists? Who? Where?

    I know some people who want to be activists, but they go about things in quite a different way. It’s actually kinda fascinating. For the LDS church, for example, the idea is to fit into the community to have credibility, not rock the boat too much etc., That way, when you do say something a bit different, people already know you for being a good guy. Mormon Matters had a few posts on this.

  5. I think the reason there is little “voice” in the church is not because people are all leaving, but because even the New Order Mormons or the middle way Mormons, or whoever else who wants to stay, is pressured — whether officially or unofficially — to fit to certain lines. I suppose members would say that people are rarely excommunicated for unorthodoxy, but one can fail to get a temple recommend. One can become socially unpopular. Lose callings. Etc.,

    So true.

    I was kind of thinking of commenting something along these lines in response to his post.

  6. Carson N permalink

    This is just another playing out of Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:

    Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

    It’s incredible to me how backwards the idea is that the church should create artificial barriers to exit in order to save itself. So, in other words, we have a problem that is causing people to leave, and that problem will solve itself if we force them to stay instead.

    How about let’s go back to the drawing board and think about what benefits people instead of what benefits the corporation.

  7. Thanks for the comment Carson, Pournelle’s Iron Law looks like a good fit for this, in my opinion. It’s unfortunate that its conclusion seems to be true (e.g., that the second type will gain control of an organization…)

    • FireTag permalink

      So, does that mean that the type 1 people who want to work for the goals of the religious organization must either learn to do without the organization, or constantly pray for RE-Restoration?

      • I’ve read people who seem to take both positions.

        I don’t think it’s the case that type 1 people must “learn to do without the organization,” but rather, they recognize that the organization isn’t everything. For example, teachers don’t quit from bureaucratic schools and school districts…but they do find ways to get around the bureaucracy to make an impact on students.

  8. FireTag permalink

    Your point is applicable at first, I agree, but what I think makes it an “iron” law is that the bureaucracy eventually surpresses such maneuvers.

  9. Unfortunately, I’ve seen plenty of cases and am in agreement that that usually happens.

    I have also seen plenty of once idealistic teachers burn out. It was one of a few factors that made me decide never to become a teacher.

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