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What does Evangelical Christianity have to offer to disaffecting Mormons?

January 31, 2012
Marlin Jensen

Alas, Poor Marlin, we knew thee...

This week seems to be popping with news pieces relating to Mormonism and the problems that the church faces with its membership. First is the Reuters special report on how Mormonism is besieged by the modern age. This includes some fabulously juicy, candid, and most likely off-the-cuff (Alert: sound file) remarks by (soon-to-be emeritus) Quorum of the Seventy and church historian Elder Marlin Jensen, some of which I will paste for you here:

Did the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints know that members are “leaving in droves?” a woman asked.

“We are aware,” said Jensen, according to a tape recording of his unscripted remarks. “And I’m speaking of the 15 men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church. They really do know and they really care,” he said.

Not since a famous troublespot in Mormon history, the 1837 failure of a church bank in Kirtland, Ohio, have so many left the church, Jensen said.

“Maybe since Kirtland, we’ve never had a period of – I’ll call it apostasy, like we’re having now,” he told the group in Logan.

The Reuters article made its way through the various Mormon internet communities for which I’m a part, and then came a similarly themed article from the Salt Lake Tribune’s Peggy Fletcher Stack. From that article, we get slightly different comments from Elder Jensen:

“Never before have we had this information age, with social networking and bloggers publishing unvetted points of view,” Jensen said in an interview Monday. “The church is concerned about misinformation and distorted information, but we are doing better and trying harder to get our story told in an accurate way.”

The church “has made no effort to hide or obscure its history,” Jensen said, but some aspects — such as polygamy — “haven’t been emphasized often because they were not necessarily germane to what is taught at present.”

Jensen insists critics overstate the LDS exodus over the church’s history.

“I have heard that our overall activity, especially in the United States, is as good as it’s ever been,” he said. “To say we are experiencing some Titanic-like wave of apostasy is inaccurate.”

But ah well, thus is the consequence of the various sources…

Whatever the causes of the increase in disaffection rates (and regardless of whether the level of apostasy is “Titanic-like” or not), the interesting part is that 1) it’s happening, 2) media sources are reporting about it, and 3) the church is officially responding and addressing these charges.

I think that 1) isn’t so much of an interesting topic to discuss. But I wonder…why 2? Is it because of Mitt Romney’s prominence in the Republican nomination process so far? Can we see even more scrutiny of the church if he becomes the Republican nominee? And as for 3, what will the church ultimately do? Will it be a step in the right direction? How much can the church do that would be effective in preserving membership?

But even though these three questions could be subject for discussion, that’s not what this post is about (as you could’ve guessed from the title). But I’ll meander for a little bit longer before addressing the title.

Between the Reuters and Salt Lake Tribune articles is a “Who’s Who” in public Mormonism. You’ve got Armand Mauss in Reuters, Robert Millet in Salt Lake Tribune, and then…John Dehlin.

What will we do with John Dehlin, Part 2

How is it that John Dehlin gets around so far? First he gets a huge photo in the New York  Times for seeing the Book of Mormon  musical, and now he’s the go-to guy on anything related to disaffection.

Then again, I guess Marlin Jensen/John Dehlin controversies go back. Way back. (OK, this is low, even for me. I promise I’m not upset about that. I just happened to stumble on it…again.)

…anyway, what’s interesting for this week is that John and Mormon Stories just coincidentally happened to release the preliminary results for the Why Mormons Leave survey (prettified PDF here).

…At this time, I probably should just admit that I’m just jealous of people who have networks and can market and whatnot.

Tim M.

Tim M, of LDS & Evangelical Conversations

BUT, even that wasn’t the point of this post. See, up until this point, it’s all people who are insiders to the Mormosphere (well, with a loose definition of who is “inside”…) commenting on a Mormon phenomenon. But that’s when I saw Tim’s post at LDS & Evangelical Conversations: An Open Letter to Fellow Evangelicals.

It actually feels a bit creepy to read that post…it feels like I’ve inadvertently eavesdropped onto someone’s conversation about me. This is, after all, an open letter to fellow evangelicals, and I am certainly not one of those.

But hey, it’s about me, and I can understand that Tim is concerned for people who are not saved in Christ, or whatever. And how can I resist when he has lines like this:

Your Mormon friends and neighbors in this time of change will need friends. I’m alarmed and discouraged by the great many ex-Mormons who become secular agnostics or atheists.

If you guessed, “You can’t,” then you’re right!

I can understand Tim’s basic point. I liked points that he raised years back in the same vein (e.g,. We push them out… into what?) If the LDS church does not teach a saving faith, but it’s having problems on its own, then evangelicals shouldn’t have to stoke the flames. Especially when stoking the flames doesn’t really help to convince anyone that evangelical Christianity is a good thing. In any case, when Mormons have faith crises, evangelicals should be there to support.

Tim also recognizes that many of the aspects of the status quo regarding Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity make it difficult for disaffected Mormons to consider it. After all, many of the same “tools” that chip away at LDS faith chip away at most religions and denominations as well. Secondly, Mormons have grown up thinking that historic Christianity is apostate, and concepts like the “trinity” are absurd.

What does Evangelicalism offer for me?

But for me, there’s something a lot more immediate. Yeah, a lot of evangelical Christianity seems foreign to me. Yeah, I have problems with the “basics” like the Bible, as well as the Book of Mormon or Pearl of Great Price. But here’s the more immediate point: evangelicals just aren’t pleasant people to be around. This is especially the case when you are a religious minority and they know it (whether Mormon or agnostic/atheist, take your pick.) I cannot stress this more that an antagonistic approach isn’t very persuasive. That coupled with the fact that many Evangelicals (and especially Calvinists) seem to think that how one presents a truth claim is irrelevant if the truth claim is actually true leads to a combination that is particularly ugly.

So, really, what does Evangelical Christianity have to offer to me or any other secular atheist ex-Mormon? I don’t get the spiritual stuff, so that’s a non-starter, and at this time, I’m trying to focus more on practical life improvement (especially like being less of a jerk to people), and all in all, I just don’t see that from evangelicalism.

Or, let me phrase things from a different angle. I think a lot of Evangelicals take our depravity/sin nature/fallenness for granted. And so, it seems logical to assert that people need to be saved, and that people should be willing to do certain things to ensure that they are saved. But what do you say to someone who is 1) not convinced that we need to be saved, 2) not convinced that there is a divine good to save us or a divine bad that traps us in “sin,” or 3) turns off by the traditional framework of salvation, grace, whatever?

I don’t know why it is, but even the atheists who become Christian theists seem remarkably poor at understanding that nonbelievers don’t really care, do you have to start from earlier than square 1.

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14 Comments
  1. Tim permalink

    You really think that smiley guy in that picture is unpleasant to be around? 😛 (incidentally I wouldn’t want to be an atheist in Texas either. I’d hardly want to be a Christian there. )

    I of course think Christianity has the world to offer you, but part of my motivation for writing that post was to suggest we don’t have much hope with ex-mormons. We have a better shot while they’re still Mormons.

  2. Incidentally, do you think you’ve lived up to your own moral code?

    How do you actively plan to improve the human condition? What are you doing about it tomorrow? In 5 years? In 15 years?

    That’s probably how I’d start to engage you on these topics.

    • Well, Tim, I’d respond by asking why you think Christianity improves the human condition. The moral code it presents is terrible, which Christians get around by picking and choosing bits from it, and then filling in the blanks using their own good moral sense.

      • Well I think it improves the human condition by first of all connecting people with their creator, who as it turns out loves everyone deeply. Understanding your own place in the universe as it relates to God is foundational to building a better life.

        In addition I think Christianity teaches a virtue ethic which is far superior to any list of moral pronouncements. I think the virtues my faith espouses (fidelity, hope, love, kindness, self-control, peace, courage, justice etc.) are superior to other character qualities other worldviews promote (though some of them are shared).

        Every single person I know who has lived to be a mature disciple of Jesus has seen their life improved.

        But my question to Andrew wasn’t meant to suggest that the only way he could improve the human condition was to be a Christian. It was simply to ask how/if he was seeking after such a thing.

  3. I agree with you completely on how reformed doctrine leads people to be downright rude. Calvinism tends to lead to hyper calvinism. Evangelicals spent the 1930s-1960s resisting mainstream churches, and the 1970s-1990s devastating their ranks. “Seeker sensitive” is the term for trying to present the church in a way that people will be receptive to and that’s getting a bad rap from the reformed. Right now evangelical Christianity (despite the name) is in a phase where they are trying to solidify their gains not expand and reach out. The goal is to keep evangelicals in the fence and to prevent the children of the explorers who left their mainline congregations from exploring for themselves the alternatives. That’s not going to work.

    As for your point about needing to be saved from sin… as an axiom. You are absolutely right. That is part of Christian culture and one that even x-Protestants still sort of hold onto. That is they may not believe in sin, but they still have these feelings…. Mormons don’t really have the same sort of the theology of the afterlife, so having been raised Mormon you just simply don’t have that cultural button regarding damnation to press. That is also true for example of Jewish atheists where many quite religious Jews don’t even believe in an afterlife at all.

    I guess if I were going to say what evangelical Christianity has to offer is a less strained reading of the New Testament. I can imagine a Mormon who came to believe that Mormon Doctrine and the New Testament were totally incompatible being open to Evangelical Christianity. It seems to me though that for most Mormons the issue is history of the church not Mormon doctrine vs. bible that is where they are falling off.

  4. Tim,

    Smiley guy is ok…until religion gets into the picture. Then things may turn for the worst. But usually, smiley guy keeps it ok.

    I of course think Christianity has the world to offer you, but part of my motivation for writing that post was to suggest we don’t have much hope with ex-mormons. We have a better shot while they’re still Mormons.

    And I think that the loss of hope/burning of bridges when people become ex-Mo happens first when they are Mormons.

    Incidentally, do you think you’ve lived up to your own moral code?

    How do you actively plan to improve the human condition? What are you doing about it tomorrow? In 5 years? In 15 years?

    That’s probably how I’d start to engage you on these topics.

    I would say that I haven’t because I know that I’m just trying to get on my own two feet professionally (and I’m aware that if I’m not careful, I can get sucked into work work work with no time for service.)

    But, when I think about the issues I care about…the issues that I am most driven to help improve the human condition, they aren’t things that evangelicals have a good track record — not in practice, nor in theory. Gay rights and minority rights issues are basically the only thing that gets me going in a political process I am so close to just giving up on.

    Although I guess that’s an area where you probably could get a Mormon but not an ex-Mormon. As long as they have conservative, traditional values to be transplanted, then why not?

    CD Host,

    I guess if I were going to say what evangelical Christianity has to offer is a less strained reading of the New Testament. I can imagine a Mormon who came to believe that Mormon Doctrine and the New Testament were totally incompatible being open to Evangelical Christianity. It seems to me though that for most Mormons the issue is history of the church not Mormon doctrine vs. bible that is where they are falling off.

    I guess I’m relatively biased, since I only participate in the parts of the disaffected Mormon community that tends to become secular/atheist/agnostic, and so my linking to John Dehlin/Open Stories Foundation’s similar slanted, most assuredly NOT random, study may not help, but for whatever it’s worth, it seems there are three factors with similar levels of importance in many disaffection cases:

    (First %age is those for whom it was a “strong to moderate factor,” while the second %age is “primary factor)
    I lost faith in Joseph Smith 81% 39%
    I studied church history and lost my belief 84% 39%
    I ceased to believe in the church’s doctrine/theology 87% 38%

    So yeah, there’s a lot of issue with Joseph Smith and church history, but also church doctrine and theology. Losing faith in the Book of Mormon is right behind (with 79% saying it was a strong to moderate factor), so maybe that’ll lead to people who may not be cool with the BoM, but still are cool with the NT (just need a different way to read it)?

    But anecdotally (since I haven’t done or read a study on this particular detail), a lot of people I see losing faith in the BoM also tend to use the same tools to write off OT and NT. They aren’t looking for another way to read the OT or NT…it all falls off.

  5. The reason Tim offers to turn to Evangelicalism is precisely why I returned to Mormonism. It was my connection with my Creator that brought me back.

    As a corollary… It seems to me that the folks who are most deeply connected to Mormonism — those who are least likely to leave — are those who have and nurture a deep connection to God. And Mormonism offers that to the average member far more effectively — if you ask me — than Evangelicalism does.

    After I left the LDS Church in 1986, I encountered a number of eager Evangelicals of various stripes who did their best to bring me into the Evangelical fold. I attended Bible studies, prayer breakfasts, and healing services, when to churches ranging from moderate Evangelical to conservative Fundamentalist to Pentecostal. Ultimately, I was turned off by a number of things, not necessarily listed here in order of importance:

    1) the condescending — offensive even — attitude toward Mormonism (the attitude that it is a Satanic cult is way too prevalent in these circles);

    2) the attitude that “I know what you’re supposed to do with your life better than you do”

    3) doctrinal rigidity that came across as formulaic and simplistic

    4) in some (here I’m talking mainly Pentecostal/Fundamentalist) circles, an attitude that if you experience any sort of physical ailment, pain or struggle, it is your fault because of a lack of faith

    There were things that appealed to me — such as the faith in a personal, loving God who cares for me and guides me. But the other stuff pushed me ultimately into more mainline/liberal/nonevangelical churches.

    I encountered the arrogance problem among Catholics too. When I was exploring Catholicism at a monastery, I encountered the attitude of, “Ex-Mormon who’s become Protestant? A shame he didn’t make it all the way to the truth.” Not a great way to draw people in.

    Nobody’s perfect… Mormons least of all. But it’s my connection with my Creator that enables me to transcend those human limitations and, as I said, it’s in the Mormon context that I experience that connection most profoundly.

  6. Isn’t it interesting how many of your points (especially 2) apply to Mormonism, at least from my experience? I would say it’s just part and parcel with religion in general…

  7. Andrew: I think I ended with my statement with the phrase, “Nobody’s perfect… Mormons least of all.” I guess that was my way of acknowledging precisely that.

    I spent several hours Friday night listening to John Dehlin’s interview with John and Brooke McLay… And also spent some time on his new “whymormonsleave.com” in the last week or so. I’d have to concur that there’s data galore here and elsewhere to support the charge that Mormons are indeed guilty of points 1, 2, 3 and 4.

    I would say these kinds of attitudes are part and parcel not of “religion” per se, but of human nature. And there are plenty of religious communities — mostly mainline and liberal — that have done a pretty good job of deconstructing the kind of legalism/authoritarianism that makes religion… hmm… searching for a better word than demonic, but can’t find one.

    By the way, if you listen to stories like those of the McLays, I think the evidence also clearly supports that the problem lies not in some sort of conspiracy of the Church leadership, but in Mormon popular culture. If you listen carefully to some of these stories, one of the things you realize is that a major part of the problem lies in how the disaffected believer him or herself projected certain perfectionistic ideals both on him/herself and on the Church… They struggle mightily to make everything (including themselves) fit with these perfectionistic ideals, and when they can’t (of course they can’t!!!!) everything comes crashing down like a house of cards.

    I would argue that there’s a mighty good reason for this. It’s because we cannot invest in human institutions or human beings the kind of faith that we should be placing only in God. To do so is idolatry. Good, old-fashioned idolatry. There’s a reason why “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” is the First Commandment.

    When this kind of faith comes crashing down, Heaven rejoices (and so do I). I actually find the McLays’ story inspiring and hopeful — an example of how the edifice of false religion needs to be torn down in order to make way for something authentic.

    So I insist — and what I’m saying is only a part of the puzzle, of the bigger picture — the problem resides not in the doctrine or the religion per se, but it what human beings add to it. And when I say “add,” I’m not talking doctrinal changes, I’m talking an attitude of legalism and perfectionism.

    The bigger picture is the personal connection with the creator, which transforms everything, which transforms our whole life and our whole way of looking at literally everything. I’ve been able to nurture that best within the LDS framework. Not among Evangelicals or Pentecostals or Catholics or mainline Protestants or even new agey Wiccan or Pagan types… But within the LDS framework. Though I see others nurturing it perfectly well in other frameworks… It makes me suspect that “true religion” is something invisible that hides at the heart of every religion; though I can’t speak for it personally except from the point of view of somebody who’s found it within the Mormon framework.

  8. John,

    OTOH, I don’t think Mormon popular culture exists in a vacuum. The *church* has things like “lengthen your stride” and “do it,” not *Mormon popular culture.*

    The church emphasizes *saved after all we can do*, not the culture.

    Furthermore, for the disaffected who, as you say, “projected certain perfectionistic ideals both on him/herself and on the Church,” it wasn’t just because they did it just because. Rather, there were pressures from family, ward, etc., to do so. That’s why being *imperfect* isn’t well accepted by the family/friends of the disaffected. When that “kind of faith comes crashing down,” you say Heaven rejoices…but most of the parents, friends, fellow ward members of the disaffected *do not*. They think of the disaffected as having a huge moral fault or error, not as having graduated to a mature spirituality.

    • I’ll have a post at W&T on Thursday to go further into it, but I’ll spoil the takeaway now.

      The people, culture, and church are all interconnected. We cannot separate these factors because organizationally and ideologically, these three aspects are interrelated. The church *is* perpetuated by people, so organizationally, it cannot be divided from people.

      But at the same time, the church’s goal is to change people and to create a different kind of community/society. So, in this way, ideologically, the church cannot be divided from people or culture either.

      So, when we find faults with people, then we have to look at why these faults exist, what the church could be doing to perpetuate these faults, or what the church is failing to do to help people overcome these faults.

      It seems you answer these questions with things like “the personal connection with the creator, which transforms everything. which transforms our whole life,” etc.,

      But everyone doesn’t seem to be transformed within Mormonism. Everyone doesn’t seem to be even getting close. And, even more, the church doesn’t seem to be self-aware of this fact — it doesn’t seem to be self-aware of the fact that many people are pushing a legalism and perfectionism that they shouldn’t be, and so it doesn’t speak out against those unrealistic goals/expectations.

      Instead, the church as a whole says things like, “gays r bad, so are intellectuals,” etc.,

      EDIT: I’m getting a bit off topic, and one thing I would say is that I think that evangelicalism definitely has some of these same flaws.

      However, I think that evangelical Christianity promotes and idea of grace that — when people actually start getting into it — avoid some of the problems that Mormonism has. It seems to me that too often, when liberal/nuanced/uncorrelated Mormons get “around” the problems of Mormon legalism/perfectionism, they do so by hijacking/adopting a model of grace that is not really the same as what the church teaches.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Wherein the media play “Telephone” with the Mormon News « Irresistible (Dis)Grace
  2. The Mormon & Evangelical War for Disaffected Hearts | Wheat and Tares
  3. Main Street Plaza » The Emotional Apostate: The Case for Leaving to Sin and Offense.

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