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Conversion for lifelong Latter-day Saints

June 21, 2014

Over at New Cool Thang, Jeff G has written a post detailing how views on how members of the LDS church can lose their testimony. He bases his comments on his own personal experience leaving the church. In one paragraph he writes:

With hindsight, I can say with absolute conviction that one does not simply lose one’s testimony, even if it genuinely feels as if that is what is happening.  Rather, one actively – albeit uncritically – beats down and erodes one’s testimony.   Through training and practice, we gradually chip away at our testimonies with the hammer of the liberal democratic values we are taught in school, on t.v. and in internet forums.  As we choose to evaluate and navigate the world around us by the tools of liberal democracy rather than those of the gospel, the latter not only atrophy from disuse, but are purposefully displaced by the former in their relentless take-over and re-programming of our minds.  I cannot say it emphatically enough: the tradition of liberal democracy is not neutral, passive or benign when it comes to our religious convictions or any other set of competing values.  It is a god which is no less jealous or hungry for the souls of men (or women) than any other.

Although I would probably disagree on the details of what to call the value system of secular societies, I do not disagree with Jeff that many faith crises occur because of a values mismatch.

But I think that the church has an increasingly uphill battle in trying to inculcate its values in the membership.

As I wrote in comments on the site:

I think a lot of causes of disaffection are precisely because we live, learn, and work in a society with profoundly different values than the church espouses and the church’s values can’t keep up in competition.

It’s absolutely not a neutral matter. And for that reason, all the values systems don’t appear as equally interchangeable. But most folks are increasingly steeped in modern values and since the church cannot pull people out of external society, it’s an uphill battle.

For example, we increasingly live in a society (and absolutely prefer such a society) where women have equal participation and autonomy in school, work, etc., so the fact that the church doesn’t operate in step with feminist ideas puts it vastly in conflict with what we enjoy and appreciate in the rest of our lives.

It’s absolutely a values mismatch. But the church has to show why its values should be taken over the outside society’s.

Jeff responded by asking why the burden of proof falls on the church, and I responded by saying that’s because Mormonism is not the dominant ideology. So, we understand that converts to Mormonism must be converted to the gospel, and that this is an area where the church shoulders the burden of proof in trying to reach out to people via missionary work and so on, but this is true for all members. Every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints must be converted to the gospel.

I don’t think my message got to Jeff, as he emphasized he was not talking about converts, but about people already in the church. But my message is precisely for and about people born and raised in the church — there simply is no way to know for sure that someone raised in the church has truly been converted. And I don’t mean this in a “no true Scotsman” sense, where some folks aren’t “really” Mormon. To the contrary, I don’t think one can silo those who eventually leave in a population of “those who didn’t really believe”. I’m just saying that even for people who may consider themselves devout, believing Mormons… Where Mormonism is in their bones… There’s no way to tell whether they have internalized the values of the outside secular society alongside Mormon concepts.

Some have wondered why, say, John Dehlin, would want to stay in the church if he doesn’t believe fundamental tenets. Why would he covenant to live by certain values of he doesn’t?

Certainly there’s something to be said that many lifelong members covenant because that is what is expected of them. Or because they aren’t aware of issues at the time of covenanting that they become aware of later.

But I’m not just talking about this sort of situation. What about those who really were converted? Who weren’t just going through motions culturally? Are they still at risk?

I still think they are. Because the most devout member still is not isolated from outside society. But more importantly, the values of that society, in many cases, do not seem inherently objectionable to them.

Here I give pause. It’s easy to suppose that the incompatible value system aligns cleanly on political lines. That progressive politics are the problem and conservative politics are aligned with Christ. (Indeed, Jettboy has a comment on that thread that says as much.) But I would not be inclined to think that if God exists or has a church that he would cleanly align with any 21st century American political party. I would be inclined to say that as the church is comprised of imperfect people, it has inevitably absorbed certain external values too.

This complicates the issue in several ways. Who’s to say that x policy is God’s value vs. a secular value (whether conservative or liberal or whatever else) that has been assumed by the member to be divine?

But let’s use a non-political example. The church has over time come to emphasize a very literal, objective epistemology. Certainly, many believe this to be divinely inspired, but one could make the claim that this is a leak of an “outside world” (from the LDS perspective, that is) struggle between, say, biblical fundamentalism and modernism.

The problem is that a fundamentalist perspective is essentially playing a similar game to the modern scientific perspective – only not as well. By emphasizing literality, one puts the claims of the church under scientific scrutiny, where those claims don’t hold up well against the secular epistemological framework of “evidence”.

Yet, this is where we are. Moving to a modernist (or even postmodernist) perspective wouldn’t help, because the outside secular society also sees little value in myths and stories. If stories aren’t objectively true, someone might ask, then what’s the point?

So a devout Mormon who literally believes the events of the Book of Mormon, who believes the Book of Abraham to be a traditional translation from papyri, and covenants based on these beliefs, is not necessarily safe. Because the values underpinning this belief are also up to challenge from the secular world – which also values what is literally true, but rejects many of the spiritual evidences upon which Mormonism relies.

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