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Mormonism is not primarily a religion at all, turns out…

July 18, 2012

My latest post, detailing why Mormonism is not (primarily) a religion, is up at Wheat & Tares. This post is the culmination of several posts I have read recently, including Peggy Fletcher Stack’s accounting of the over 900,000 “missing” Mormons in Brazil, “Internet Browser’s” proclamation that as long as he is included on the LDS church membership rolls, he ought to be able to use the label “Mormon” regardless of what he believes or practices, and Tim’s post critiquing Dan Wotherspoon’s use of Fowler’s Stages of Faith.

The basic idea is this: when we try to police who is authentically Mormon or who is following actual Mormon teachings, we quickly run into problems determining what counts as Mormon and what doesn’t. Is it true that a living prophet automatically trumps a dead one? Or in some way, can we reach back to ideas of old, either to support the church or to discount it? Must Mormonism be lived in compliance with authority figures, or can there be a Mormonism that is more expansive?

The whole discussion is a bit academic, because the church itself doesn’t even record Mormons based on what they believe, or what they do. If you have been baptized, and you have not resigned or been excommunicated, you are a Mormon as far as the church is concerned.

This leads to an interesting conclusion — most Mormons don’t engage religiously with the church at all. People who attend church at all are a vocal minority!

  1. As I have always argued, though, the more “Mormonism” is treated as a “culture,” the more bankrupt it becomes spiritually. Religion/faith is about our relationship with God. The Church is a vehicle for deepening that relationship, that’s all. Prophets, in order to fulfill their callings, frequently have to become critics of the culture — ALL culture, “Mormon culture” included.

  2. John G-W,

    I would say that the more Mormonism is treated as a business, the more bankrupt it will become spiritually, but that’s a different topic. Religion/faith may be about relationship to God, but the Mormon religion is about one’s status on a membership record.

  3. I don’t think you’ve unpacked the term “religion” nearly enough here.

  4. Kullervo,

    Assuredly not. I have barely digested your comments from Tim’s blog post…

  5. I can’t say I disagree with what you said about treating a religion as a business.

    However, what you said next seems to contradict what you said in your post… Unless you’re distinguishing between “Mormon religion” and Mormonism as a social/cultural phenomenon.

    This does make me want to think more deeply about the relationship between formal Church membership and spirituality. I guess from the point of view of many in the Church, the fact that I’m not a formal member means I’m beyond the pale of Mormon faith, end of story. Though that’s certainly not how I feel about myself, nor is it how most members of my ward (including my bishop) treat me. At the same time, I guess I do feel strongly that I couldn’t claim to be Mormon in any significant sense without some kind of relationship to the institutional Church — even if that relationship is as an excommunicated but attending/partially practicing member. So I don’t want to totally disagree with what you’re saying about Church membership being an important factor.

  6. As Kullervo has teased, I have not unpacked “religion” fully. Unfortunately, since he hasn’t provided anything more on that, I don’t think I’ll be able to find out how I’m supposed to unpack it more fully for a few more hours…

    From those who view Mormonism as a religion in terms of relationships with the institution (because the institution has priesthood keys), then your not being a formal member makes you beyond the pale of Mormon religion (whether that is the same or different than Mormon faith…I don’t know)…and ironically, since I’m still a member, I’m still in the Mormon sphere. So talk about casting pearls before disaffected nonbeliever swine!

    But I think my point is that Mormonism must certainly be more than people’s relationship with the institution (yes, including relationship with priesthood hierarchy, etc.,) because most people on the rolls are inactive or don’t even identify as Mormon.

    So I don’t want to totally disagree with what you’re saying about Church membership being an important factor.

    But that’s the part you should disagree with most strongly, because that’s the part that is on its face the MOST business-like.

  7. So true! Although it gives me a (small) amount of pleasure knowing that all of my apostate writings are the work of someone the Mormon Church refuses to let go of!

  8. I wish some of y’all could give your church membership to me. ‘Cause y’all are wasting it.

    Here’s why I said this makes me want to think about this more deeply.

    (Oh, and before I start on that… When you said “treating it as a business,” I understood that to mean treating everything in terms of numbers and finances and aggregate outcomes. I thought you were referring to a mentality, rather than specific practices such as maintenance of membership rolls… I don’t think defining the Church boundaries in terms of formal membership necessarily makes it “business-like,” at least not in a BAD sense.)

    Priesthood keys and this whole idea of “what is sealed on earth is sealed in heaven” does militate against my being counted… And that has been a source of a fair amount of pain for me. At the same time, there is built into Mormonism a sense that in a system administered by mortals, a certain number of administrative errors will be made that can and will be corrected in the millennium or in the next life or whatever. There is a sense in which absolute divine justice can never be countermanded or contravened by mortal confusion or error here below, sealing keys nevertheless.

    That’s implied in D&C 121, where it’s stated that the moment we act unrighteously, “Amen to the priesthood or authority of that man.” In other words, we can hold formal keys or formal authority, but if we exercise them unrighteously (or ignorantly), there is some sense of what Martin Luther called “the invisible Church,” in which we stay connected through faith and by God’s justice/mercy, even when the outward institution rejects us.

    The “visible church” is important, nonetheless, despite mortal error. We need to try to make it work collectively/institutionally. To do so is an important sign of faith. So, for instance, my sustaining the leaders by attending conference, listening carefully, and trying to apply the principles; attending Church; living the word of wisdom; putting tithing in a bank account, awaiting reinstatement of membership, etc.; all are important ways of showing respect for the institutional church as a repository of divine authority. And I do believe in the divine authority… I don’t believe that the divine authority is negated by the occasional human error.

    That’s my convoluted (or some people call it “sad”) perspective, for what it’s worth.

  9. In much the same way that the precise line between Mormon and not-Mormon is fuzzy at best and nonexistent at worst, the precise line between religion and not-religion is fuzzy at best and nonexistent at worst. But with religion it’s actually worse, because most of our notions of “what is [a] religion” are extremely culturally myopic. They were developed by religious insiders to define religion and non-religion from their insiders’ point of view, so they quickly break down when we try to extend them laterally (across global cultures) or temporally (into more religiously diverse time periods, like now).

    “Mormon” and “religion” are not natural categories: they are mental/social/cultural constructs, and as such, they wind up not always fitting reality cleanly and perfectly.

    This doesn’t (in my opinion) render them useless: just because we can’t say where the line between religion and non-religion is doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the clear cases of each. But I suspect that your working definition for “religion” here is too narrow anyway: there is certainly a lot more to “religion” than “a body of beliefs that one assents to.”

  10. John GW:

    I think that the church’s membership records practices are very much part of its mentality of treating everything in terms of numbers and finances and aggregate outcomes…in other words, when it keeps track of memberships as Baptisms – Excommunications – Resignations, it is not paying attention to anything spiritual. It is not paying attention the beliefs or activity of its members, but to rules on one hand, and metrics on the other. On the one hand, it clings to bright-line rules (and thus, it doesn’t count folks like you because you break a rule — regardless of your holistic spiritual circumstances)…on the other hand, it is trying to create a number that looks favorable for marketing purposes (14.1 million members and growing strong!) — regardless of the holistic spiritual circumstances of MOST members.

    In accounting-speak…the membership figures are much like the bottom line of any corporation. It needs an auditor, because its membership records are materially misstated…but even more, the discernment of the spirit could be like the internal controls…in which case not only are the records materially misstated, but there is material weakness in the internal controls — the church reports bad numbers and doesn’t even have the gift of discernment to be aware that it’s bad numbers!

    Here’s the thing…the “visible church,” at least, so far as it relates to Mormonism, rejects the existence or legitimacy of the “invisible church.” The people who advocate for the “invisible church” are people like yourself who have no institutional credibility.

  11. Kullervo,

    Wait…the line between Mormon and non-Mormon is fuzzy at best and non-existent at worst? Maybe I’m just not getting the way you’re framing this…

    that being said, I can see your point about the definition of religion often being culturally myopic. And I’m willing to go for a definition of religion that is more expansive than “a body of beliefs one assents too” (especially in Mormon discussions which so often focus on orthopraxy — the body of *practices* one engages in.)

    But it seems to me like there is a clear line between some who has never engaged with any of the practices OR beliefs OR community of Mormonism, and someone who has. Even when you recognize that the “practices” and “beliefs” and “community” collectively identified as “Mormonism” may change over time, or in different locations.

  12. Kullervo – I agree, the term “religion” is impossible to define in a universal way. You can only define it from the point of view of a particular, specific religion. I rather like James Carse’s statement in The Religious Case Against Belief that any given religion is actually a community that has a common language for debating what religion is. That’s as close to a good definition as I’ve seen anybody give…

    Andrew – I think what you’re generalizing about the Church only if you ignore how people behave at the micro-level. I don’t experience that harsh, cold, business-like attitude in my ward. (Though I don’t deny that plenty of people have been treated that way.) I agree with Joshua Schwimmer (don’t know if you listened to the Mormon Stories podcast…) that about 50 percent of people in the Church live the Gospel, and about 50 percent don’t. Give or take a few percentage points. Wheat and tares.

    The institutional commitment (including an attempt to keep Heaven’s records here on earth) is important because it provides such an important context for the exercise of faith. It is such an important test. And if it’s a test, yes, plenty of folks, on all levels of the Church, fail it. But that doesn’t make the test any less important.

  13. John GW:

    Interestingly, on FB I had to debate your very point on the micro-level…the person with whom I was discussing was making the point that his fellow ward members (and particularly his Bishop) do, have that harsh, cold, business-like attitude.

    even more, it’s a total toss up of who you’ll get in your ward…whether it’s 50/50…I don’t know. I still think that’s skewed. What is it out of? 50/50 of the people who actually go to church? (My entire point is that if you want to talk about the measure of center for a “person in the Church” — take your pick, median, mean, mode, whatever — then you probably won’t pick someone who actually attends a Mormon chapel at all.)

    If plenty of folks fail the test, that doesn’t necessarily make the test any less important…but it does raise questions about the flaws in the methodology of the test….

  14. The line-drawing problem of constructed categories is not implicated by clear cases. Thomas S. Monson is clearly “Mormon,” whereas Kim Jong-un is clearly “not-Mormon.” That is unproblematic. But neither Monson nor Kim are anywhere near the dividing line between Mormon and not-Mormon.

    NOMs, Mormon splinter groups, excommunicated believers, on the other hand, implicate the problem in one sense (who is Mormon?). Different ideas as to what constitutes Mormon doctrine or practice implicates the problem in another sense (what is Mormonism?).

  15. John, it’s not “impossible” to define, unless you insist on a categorical definition that has clear lines. It’s not somehow self-evident that it has to. It’s possible to proceed with talking about religion in a general sense while acknowledging the problems with line-drawing at the fringes.

  16. It has always seemed to me that Mormonism is a sociology rather than a religion. The converts I have known have always emphasized the uxorrios nuclear family dynamic that ts at the core of Mormon thought. And belief has a best a tertiary or even an irrelevant role in Mormonism aside from the sociological aspects. Hence, Mormons can believe one thing on July 17 and a completely different thing on July 18 without any problem. In fact, once that change has been made they will argue, without shame or irony that the previous belief or practice never reflected the theology ( Yes, I’m looking at you, Etch).

    The endless meetings, activities, and checking up on one another create a hive mentality so that all the worker bees exult in their homogeneity.

    • Seth R. permalink

      I was thinking of an image of the shark tank at the Denver Aquarium with sharks and a variety of fish swimming behind large plate plexiglass windows. I had an image of two of the fish looking through the glass at the people on the other side and one remarks to the other “those poor humans – look at them all – trapped behind the glass like that…”

      Vajra, who are the real conformists in our society? The people at church – or the people outside of it. Who is really conforming to what society expects and demands?

      A month ago, I had a small church leadership meeting at a ward member’s house on Sunday. It was a nice day, and it was just around the block – so I walked. I left my suit jacket behind, but had the white shirt, tie and slacks on.

      Aside from a few fellow Mormons, I was probably the only guy in my entire city dressed like that, and the only person in the city who would dare walk around a normal suburban neighborhood dressed like that. Who else in my neighborhood never touched a cigarrette in his life, never drank alcohol or coffee in his life, and never had sex with anyone but his wife (not stuff I’m proudly taking credit for – my church made me do it)? Who else combines that with this much work on Sunday, and has done it as consistently and for as long a time as I have in my life. Who else lives like this.

      Let’s face it – in my town – I’m a complete freak. No one normal behaves like this. Who would put up with it and ask for this much bother?

      Who are the real conformists?

      It seems to me that, more often than not, an LDS Ward serves as an act of social group defiance AGAINST conforming to society. Maybe we are the real free originals and the real prisoners are the ones behind the glass.

      • I would describe it as still conforming to the fashion and mindset of 1958. Kosher. Hallal. Vegetarianism. Teetotalism. Won’t dance. Christmas is Papist. Bugs not features.

        • Seth R. permalink

          Irrelevant – since 1958 was, well… over 50 years ago.

          I suppose you think the SCA chapter at your local community college is “conformist” because they are “conforming to the fashion of Renaissance Europe?”

          The attributes of conformity you are speaking out against apply to conforming to ones living and existing peers. Conformity to dead ones dilutes your argument pretty much to the point of meaninglessness.

          It seems your main gripe with Mormon norms is that they don’t conform to yours.

          Somehow I don’t feel particularly bothered by that.

          • Have you looked at the mishies’ “uniform”? Or those flowery sacks the sister wear? How about the notations of gender that permeate Mormonism? Patriarchy and the dorky Peter priesthood? Or any Conference talk given by any of the gerontocracy? Or the political stances of the MOrg? Exactly how do their ideas differ from others of their age, class,and political persuasion? Pretty repressed 50s dontchathink? Short sleeved white shirts with really bad ties? Someone call Jesus and tell him some of his whited sepulchres are missing.

          • Seth R. permalink

            You’re not helping your argument at all Vajra.

            It’s obvious that this isn’t about “conformity” for you – but rather about your own personal sense of aesthetics. You look down on, and judge the mental fitness of an entire group of people simply because they don’t match up to your own personal sense of fashion and style.

            It’s rather arrogant of you.

          • Although I don’t recall saying anyhing about “mental fitness”, taking Brother Etch as my guide, I’m sorry you are offended…

          • Seth R. permalink


            Because when you said those within active LDS culture were all conformists – you meant it in a positive way. As a sign that active Mormons exercise vigorous individual thought and are of upstanding character. You didn’t mean to imply that their moral and intellectual fitness was compromised in any sense.

            Uh huh.

          • In response to “vigorous individual thought” I give you The Book of Mormon, the Book of Abraham, the Kinderhook plates, Mark Hoffman, and follow the profit. As for upstanding character? No evidence that Mormons are any more or less upstanding than anyone else. I must warn you, however, you are very close to becoming a parody of Mormon self-pity.

            You described yourself as “a complete freak”. Who am I to disagree?

          • Seth R. permalink

            Well, if you’ve given up this line of argument – then I guess we’re all finished here.

        • I just want you both to know that your exchange has been one of the SADDEST exchanges I have ever witnessed in blogging.

          (Well, I mean, excluding youtube comments and comments on news sites…)

          • Seth R. permalink

            Really Andrew?

            I’m pretty sure I’ve had worse moments than this before.

          • I don’t see most of the mess you get yourself into, so I can’t confirm or deny…

          • Sorry, Andrew. Truly.

          • Vajra, don’t apologize to me…it’s just…whatever point it is you’re trying to make, you’re not making it well.

            And I’m saying this as someone who *might* be inclined to agree with you…if I knew whatever you were talking about.

          • Seth R. permalink

            Well, some of those moments were on your blog, I believe.

          • this is the worst of those moments. I may be blanking out the past to preserve my sanity, though.

  17. Categorical definitions with clear lines are precisely what I’m talking about… But, like you, I agree we can find working definitions that more or less work. As a teacher of religious history, I do that all the time. So I guess we’re in fundamental agreement.

    At the same time (for reasons that are maybe obvious) it’s the fringes that I find both fascinating and telling… I like Thomas Kuhn’s ideas that its the “anomalies” that tell us best about the weaknesses in our worldviews…

  18. I was addressing my comment to Kullervo…

  19. It has always seemed to me that Mormonism is a sociology rather than a religion

    Those words, I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

    • Please explain what I think I mean as opposed to what I mean. Also please explain what those words mean in absolute terms, that is how they are always and everywhere used to express one, and only one, meaning.

  20. Kullervo,

    None of these groups present problems for defining Mormons from non-Mormons — each categorization schema will generally have clear-cut lines on who’s in and who’s out. The fact that there are multiple schemas doesn’t mean that there’s ambiguity from within a schema.

  21. well because why should you benefit from the protections afforded to a person who is a practicing member if you are not?

    although, I am unclear what the benefits are that are afforded to Mormons.

    It’s not like they are persecuted like the Jews

    and unless you tell a person that you are a Mormon, how exactly are they supposed to know?

  22. Nina,

    I shouldn’t benefit from the protections afford to a person who is a practicing Mormon if I am not, but then again as well, the church shouldn’t benefit from the privileges afforded to having a higher membership count, if I am not.

    The benefits of Mormonism are generally more murky — I would say what I am referring to primarily in this post is a sense of legitimacy or right to identity rather than anything institutional — but I would say that the most talked about set of *institutional* benefits are those relating to the temple and/or the priesthood. In other words, if you don’t have these benefits, then you may find yourself unallowed to attend a relative’s wedding (if they are getting married in the temple.)

    …But here, it’s not like every Mormon gets access to the priesthood or the temple…rather, these things have additional criteria of worthiness. But when the church is talking about membership numbers, they don’t mention whether members have a temple recommend or whether they are worthy to have one.They mention a number that more closely represents anyone who has been baptized a Mormon and who hasn’t either resigned or been excommunicated.

    • I am sorta curious why this is considered big news. I mean, everybody’s always known this. And it’s not like it’s not true of every organized religion that keeps membership statistics. In fact, the problem is probably FAR worse for most other religions.

      Like Catholics, for instance. I mean consider “Catholic countries” like France — where virtually everybody who’s not a Jew or Jehovah’s Witness or a member of some other sect is a baptized Catholic. But something on the order of 5% are actually active in the Catholic Church. And 50% consider themselves atheist. So how many of the billion or so members claimed by the RC Church worldwide are actually believing practicing Catholics? At least Mormons have been known to periodically “clean the membership rolls.” Not so in the Catholic Church.

      I mean, as a kid I always knew growing up that there were large numbers of “inactive” Mormons in any given ward. I guess at some level we always knew that the actual active, practicing membership was considerably smaller than the total official membership.

      • Cultural Catholicism is a thing as well. i’m just saying we should recognize and accept the same sort of thing with the church.

        (Catholicism is a bit different in the way that Catholicism actually changes with the local culture via syncretism…Correlation, I think, does a better job of preventing this from happening.)

        I think one thing to point out is that even though we intellectually understand that there are inactive folks, we don’t internalize the sheer number of inactive folks (e.g., a majority of the church).

        • I actually think we did kind of internalize it. Growing up, I internalized it in the sense that I knew it not easy or common to be a full, active, worthy member of the Church. I think I was aware that even most Mormons didn’t live up to those standards.

          However, you are right, we didn’t make those connections when we heard membership statistics being read at General Conference. I think we heard those numbers, and always assumed that it meant members who were active in the Church like us. We never really did any math along those lines, that’s true.

        • I don’t know if you’ve read the biography of David O. McKay by Gregory Prince… There’s an interesting section in there talking about how missionaries in the British Isles in the 1950s went crazy baptizing people to boost growth numbers… (In order to meet absurdly ambitious mission goals set by the mission presidencies.) Only to have half the people who were baptized not even really realize they were Mormon.

    • Technically, I’m counted as a member of the UCC, I guess. That’s where my name is officially on the rolls. But I have attended the LDS Church for 7 years, and by conviction I am a Mormon…

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