by Pete Busche:
"From small beginnings…"
Every missionary for the past ten years knows the opening phrase from the 19-minute Joseph Smith "film." With over 15 million members (in the official Church statistics, the actual number of active members open to wide speculation), the growth of the Church is undeniable. Also undeniable are the identity/paradigm shifts that have taken place and MUST continue to take place to respond to changes in the world. It began with the influx of thousands of European converts combining with the tiny band crossing the West.
With the changes to family structure (polygamy/no polygamy?), demographic makeup (still very white, but soon will likely become majority non-), "hastening the work" (from "proselytizing unto the Lamanites," to now covering the world in zealous adolescents), etc. we ask ourselves, "Who are we? What does it mean to be a Mormon?"
Mormonism: A Comparison to Judaism and Catholicism
To anyone who reads blogs such as these (I'm a long-time MMM reader, first-time writer), it is clear Mormons are in the middle of a major identity reconfiguration. Will big tent Mormonism survive the recent excommunication purges? Can a conservative, slowly-progressing Church respond to a generation of Millennials that largely supports Marriage Equality, real diversity, openness, and transparency?
I personally believe the growth can lead in two directions:
- The Church (as leadership, but just as importantly—we as members) can constrict control, draw a strict line in the sand, and define a tight standard for those worthy to be called "Mormons." This would likely further alienate many, weaken growth, and relegate the church to a minor-mainstream American Church. Or…
- Perhaps the Church could take a page out of the book from more mature religious groups with millennia of experience. Essentially A. own your history, yep, even the bad stuff and B. realize different levels of involvement/belief will exist and simply hope for the best.
For the first nearly 200 years of its existence , the LDS Church has had two types of members: active/faithful (obedient in all, questioning little/none), and inactive/non-members (apostate, "Gentiles"). More recently, "less-actives" have been added to the mix. In Judaism there exists myriad levels of belief and activity: Secular, Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, etc. There are regionally-based and ethnicity-based forms. Some celebrate Hanukkah and Passover but have no belief in God. Despite all of this, they share the Jewish identity. Being Jewish is fundamental to their culture and doesn't disappear when one doesn't adhere to every line of the Talmud.
I believe the pervasiveness of Mormonism is reaching a similar point in its maturation process. With the recent historical posts (on polygamy, blacks and the priesthood, the historicity and translation of the Book of Mormon; all of which can be found here) put out by the Church, there is finally a recognition and a coping taking place within the Church. Acknowledgement by President Uchtdorf of fallible Church leaders is a crucial part of the process. Greater encouragement for teaching historical truth will help Millennials (like myself) learn to confront and deal with the past, and not experience a sense of betrayal from misinformed foundations.
As to the B (see above) of Church progression: that remains up to us. Consider the following people:
- A young family looking for a good Church to raise their kids in—they question Joseph Smith but like the message of eternal families
- An openly gay member with strong beliefs in the church, wants to attend each week with his partner and even serve in the ward with a calling
- A neighbor who loves to play basketball, join in social events with the community, but rarely attends church on Sunday
- A non-believer, grew up strong in the Church, but has since left the belief system but still lives a fairly Mormon life—doesn't smoke/drink/sleep around and feels a strong connection to Mormon history and culture, has Mormons as their closest friends
I sense more hope and lean towards the 2nd direction for Mormons: We will learn to live with and love all types of Mormons. There will be John Dehlin Mormons, Joanna Brooks Mormons, Givens Mormons (perhaps my personal favorite), Wendy Montgomery Mormons, but just as well: Sheri Dew Mormons, McConkie Mormons, and Greg Trimble Mormons.
And that's just fine. It means we're maturing as a religion and can further our efforts for inclusion and understanding.
"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies. There are some members of the Church whose testimony is sure and burns brightly within them. Others are still striving to know for themselves. The Church is a home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or the height of our testimony." from LDS.org
Pete Busche is a long-time Utah resident who studied at both BYU and currently at the University of Utah. He loves politics, anthropology, Wilco, and playing Goldeneye 007 with his wife Jessica on their N64. Twitter: @petebusche.
Image credit: Jerry Ferguson (used with permission).