What does Evangelical Christianity have to offer to disaffecting Mormons?
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.
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.