Why Mormonism is NOT (primarily) a religion

By: Andrew S
July 18, 2012

Over a year ago, I wrote an article detailing why cultural Mormonism doesn’t exist. The revelation was surprising for me, because I labeled (and continue to label) myself a cultural Mormon…and further, I know many folks who either explicitly label themselves as such or who implicitly have some sort of connection to Mormonism, even if they weren’t religious. The idea of people “leaving the church, but not leaving the church alone
may be poorly understood, but at its core, there certainly are things about Mormonism that keep people engaging with it even when they do not believe in its truth claims.

The gist of my realization that cultural Mormonism didn’t exist was that my foundation for it — the correlated church — is impermanent and illusory. We like to think that the church is consistent across time and space, but the fact is that the Mormonism I grew up in is very different than the Mormonism someone who is younger or older than me would grow up — and that’s true even with correlation! In this way, multiple people can assert very different things about Mormonism, and each person will think their version of Mormonism is the right one. (Interestingly, this isn’t just true of Mormon culture, but of course, for Mormon religion as well…Beyond a limited few basics, people will often have extreme differences on what is orthodox belief.)

Despite my 2011 post, I find myself still talking about cultural Mormonism. I find myself reading posts like LovelyLauren’s here, that don’t understand why people who don’t believe in the foundational faith claims of Mormonism would identify as Mormon. I find myself trying to separate very different phenomenon that often get lumped together in the cultural Mormon sphere. People like Rachel at Times and Seasons try to understand why believing members sometimes appear to be threatened by “new order” Mormons.

And in the conversations at these places and others, an idea planted itself in my brain and took root...true believers in Mormonism are not a majority of the religion. They are just a vocal, and very active minority.

Obscured Salt Lake City Temple

Mormonism as a religion is too ill-defined

In my discussion on the illusory nature of cultural Mormonism, I pointed out that anchoring cultural Mormonism to correlation is problematic because correlation changes — subtly, and almost imperceptibly if you aren’t a huge nerd watching for any changes to the manuals — over time. However, even if we stick in one time and space, Mormonism is still too ill-defined…and so we have outsiders like Tim McMahon who look at folks like Dan Wotherspoon and accuse him of following some other religion (the religion of Fowler’s Stages of Faith) and calling it Mormonism:

I don’t think Wotherspoon is at heart a Mormon. Rather he’s a Fowlerist who happens to be practicing his faith within Mormonism. He pursues a religious M&M; where Fowlerism is the center of his faith and Mormonism is the thin candy shell around it. Mormonism is just a tool he is using but the goals and objectives of Fowler Stage 6 are his ultimate aims. Where Mormonism conflicts with Fowler Stage 4 (or 5 or 6) he chooses Fowler over the authority of any Mormon scriptures or Mormon leadership. Wotherspoon isn’t calling people into Mormonism but rather into Fowlerism.

The discussion focuses on Fowlerian stages, but Tim’s contention essentially is that Mormonism institutionally supports and prioritizes one stage — the LDS church institutionally supports a literalistic faith, or a faith that demands conformity to institutional authority figures, whereas Dan sees Mormonism as supporting a more paradox-comfortable, symbolic, and universalizing faith.

…without being too focused on Fowler’s specific stage numbers and names, I would hope that you would be able to see that the “stage” that Tim believes captures Mormonism would normally be “labeled” as a “true believing Mormon” position (even if this term is fraught), while the “stage” that Dan seeks would more likely be labeled a liberal or new order or unorthodox or heterodox Mormon position. I would hope as well that you would be able to further see that the institution — much to many of your chagrins — does prioritize certain expressions of faith over others.

However, this fact does not necessarily mean that the former “stage” is authentically Mormon and the latter “stage” is a different religion. Every thoughtful, faithful Mormon will have some sort of nuance to the literal belief structure that will add some sort of complexity into the mix…and yes, they will rely upon ideas from within Mormonism and quotes from Mormon leaders that they believe gives the faith the power to be that adaptable. To quote from Dan’s second comment defending his position:

…Everything I suggest is grounded in scripture (wider Judeo-Christian and Mormon), the sensibilities of the universe Mormonism points toward (uncreatedness of all, fundamentalness of agency of all existents, eternal progression, genuine power only exercised via persuasion not coercion, etc), and my own spiritual experiences.

Commenter Katie adds:

…I think the reason you see these sorts of conversations arising out of Mormonism as opposed to, say, Jehovah’s Witness or fundamentalist Christian corners (there is no JW equivalent of the bloggernacle, for example) is because Mormonism has profoundly expansive theological resources. Resources like the quote CJ shared, or the idea of the uncreated, eternal nature of the human soul and our potential for eternal progression, point to a HUGE cosmos that far transcend the mentality of “pray, pay, and obey” that you often (but not always) find in the pews.

In the end, I believe it will all work out for our good: the tension between institutional discourse oriented around Stage 3 type belief and the massively expansive Mormon cosmos is part of what makes Mormonism so dang effective and compelling, IMHO.

If you want to define Mormonism as a religion, the trouble will be to nail down the boundaries. Perhaps you think Dan Wotherspoon is too far out — under a mere delusion that his “aspirational fantasy Mormonism actually maps to reality“…or perhaps you think he is applying higher level, yet fundamentally Mormon principles. Whatever you think about Dan, I would say that for whatever person you want to call a “true believing Mormon,” you will find similar diversity of viewpoints about what can be viewed as authentically Mormon. This is, in part, why the term “TBM” is so fraught — in addition to coming with some nasty negative connotations, it tries to simplify what authentic Mormonism is.

The Church Doesn’t Play By These Rules, Anyway

TSouth America at night from spacehis entire discussion hinges on the idea that Mormonism as a religion can be characterized by a body of beliefs that one assents to…and if you don’t assent to these beliefs, then you should not call yourself Mormon. In her post (and subsequent comments) on Bloggernacle Labels, LovelyLauren states things thusly:

…if you believe nothing about the church anymore, I don’t think you should say that you’re Mormon…

…at the point you no longer believe, you shouldn’t be able to identify yourself with the believers. It’s an insult to see someone who openly attacks the church call him or herself Mormon and I think it isn’t fair. At the point you leave, you should be willing to leave the cultural identifier behind as well.

As I mentioned before, I think there are many different phenomena being conflated here, and that’s a different discussion, but I don’t think LovelyLauren’s thoughts are uncommon. What intrigued me was the response from the commenter “Internet Browser”:

…frankly, I am still a Mormon in that my name exists on many a list with a membership number, and there are missionaries as well as members of my technical ward who label me only as “inactive.” Yes, the term “exMormon” is probably not entirely accurate for me because I am just an inactive, non-practicing Mormon.

This is an interesting comment precisely because the rules that the church plays by when it comes to defining Mormons isn’t to use how many people believe x or do y (e.g., how many people have temple recommends) or even how many people attend church regularly (i.e., “active” members)…but rather, to use a count of how many people have been baptized, and have not either explicitly resigned or been excommunicated.

This is why you’ll see folks like John Dehlin point out all the time that most members are inactive. Peggy Fletcher Stack recently wrote in the Salt Lake Tribune of the “missing Mormon” phenomenon in Brazil — there is a 900,000 difference between the number of Mormons the church has on the rolls for Brazil, and the number of people that self-identified as Mormons in Brazil’s 2010 census. Lauren’s ideas make sense, but they aren’t ideas that even the church plays by.

Most Members Do Not Engage Religiously With the Church

From what we know about the inactivity rates of various parts of the world…or what we know about the discrepancy between the membership numbers of various countries in the world and those countries’ census data measurements, we may not be able to conclude that most Mormons are “liberal” or “cafeteria” or “new order Mormon.” (In fact, the data would suggest that is not the case either.) At the very least, we can conclude that rather than most “Mormons” interacting religiously with Mormonism, most Mormons do not. In fact, most Mormons do not interact with Mormonism at all. How is that for paradox?

This leads to an interesting conclusion. Looking at what is spoken from the pulpit gives us a skewed view of what Mormonism actually is — in the same way that reading the recent news about Mormons being pro-gay may give a skewed view about changes to Mormon positions on homosexuality. In both cases, by listening to what is vocal, and seeing what is visible, we miss out on the silent, invisible, absent majority.

And whether our goal is to bring the inactive back to activity and orthodoxy…or to encourage the disaffected/liberal/new order members to speak out about their views so that they can raise consciousness about the existence of such heterodox members, essentially the same thing is happening in both cases: we are leaving the 1 that attends church and engages with commitment for the 99 that don’t.

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66 Responses to Why Mormonism is NOT (primarily) a religion

  1. ji on July 18, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    A Mormon is a person who–

    (1) has or wants to have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and takes action on that faith by repentance, baptism by immersion by one holding the Lord’s priesthood for the remission of sins, and the gift of the Holy Ghost;

    (2) once had faith, but no longer does; or

    (3) is a descendant of someone who had faith.

    The Lord Jesus Christ desires that we all come to faith and that we assemble together to support each other. We rejoice when the prodigal returns, and hope for that day when all are safely gathered in.

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  2. Dan Wotherspoon on July 18, 2012 at 8:35 AM

    I feel so “used”! :)

    Good, thought-provoking piece, George.

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  3. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    re 1,

    ji

    I find your three definitions of Mormon interesting, especially with how they contrast with what you think Jesus wants…so, if Jesus wants people to come to faith, does that mean that he doesn’t necessarily want people to be Mormon, because Mormons can also be 2) those who once had faith, but no longer, and 3) a descendant of someone who had faith?

    re 2,

    Dan,

    Thanks for commenting! I think I still lean toward buying Tim’s argument (e.g., if the institutional church supports stage 2 or stage 3, then that is the institutionally appropriate form of Mormonism)…but I am intrigued by Katie’s comment in particular that since stages 4, 5, and 6 don’t require institutional validation in the first place, it doesn’t matter if they are institutionally supported…and secondly, the fact that there is a Bloggernacle, that there are people who are at stage 4, 5, and 6, and identifying as Mormon, shows that Mormonism can handle and support it in a broader sense.

    In any event, the fact that most Mormons (the ones on the rolls who would not self-identify in anyway) wouldn’t really fit on any stage wrt Mormonism still poses issues.

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  4. ji on July 18, 2012 at 9:19 AM

    Andrew (no. 3) — I think perhaps you already know the answer to the question. The Lord Jesus Christ desires all to come unto him in faith and with repentance, and he has restored his priesthood in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to gather all those who will come.

    The word “Mormon” is irrelevant and possibly distracting.

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  5. [...] 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, [...]

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  6. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    re 4:

    ji,

    But if you have faith in another denomination, then that is more of a priority than being in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…in other words, the church may be good at gathering people, but it may not gather everyone who has faith, or produce faith in all those who are gathered.

    At least, I think that’s the answer…is that the answer you’re trying to get at?

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  7. Will on July 18, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    What a load of crap.

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  8. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 9:47 AM

    re 7,

    Will,

    Then take a break for this post. Come back next post. I believe in you; I believe that you can close this tab on your browser and not re-open it just to call things loads of crap!

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  9. wreddyornot on July 18, 2012 at 10:39 AM

    will will ./?/!

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  10. Howard on July 18, 2012 at 10:51 AM

    Interesting and thought provoking point of view. Formal Morrmonism may be a right of passage something like the narrow part of an hour glass!

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  11. Bob on July 18, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    I guess there is a ‘paradox’ in Big Tent Mormonism. The tent has to be big enough to even hold Will.

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  12. Kullervo on July 18, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    I don’t think you have unpacked the idea of “religion” nearly enough for this discussion.

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  13. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    Bob,

    We can hold Will. I just wouldn’t want him to feel as if he’s wallowing in a load of crap…that can get kinda smelly…

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  14. EldoonFeeb on July 18, 2012 at 12:04 PM

    If there are 14 million Mormons, there are at least 14 million ideas about what proper Mormonism is. All religion is a personal construct. We can’t avoid it. We each perceive and comprehend the same information and experiences differently. Our neurons make different connections. Our memories are imperfect. A handful of eye witnesses to an event will all give different accounts.

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  15. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    re 12,

    Kullervo,

    Please, do elaborate.

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  16. Howard on July 18, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Perhaps we should think of those who have left the church but can’t leave it alone as alumni rather than exes.

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  17. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 1:01 PM

    re 16,

    Howard,

    There are people who have already had this idea: http://www.facebook.com/Mormon.Alumni

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  18. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 1:12 PM

    Ultimately, I guess if there’s anything I want to reiterate from the post, it’s the final lines:

    And whether our goal is to bring the inactive back to activity and orthodoxy…or to encourage the disaffected/liberal/new order members to speak out about their views so that they can raise consciousness about the existence of such heterodox members, essentially the same thing is happening in both cases: we are leaving the 1 that attends church and engages with commitment for the 99 that don’t.

    I know some folks who really dig Elder Wirthlin’s 2008 conference talk “Concern for the One.” I think it’s because they often feel like the one — even if they attend church.

    And many folks like to point out that if you are liberal/heterodox/new order/middle way/disaffected, you shouldn’t feel like you are alone, because there are others who feel the same way.

    But I want to point out something a little different…in the big scheme of Mormon things — of all 14 million — most Mormons are “the one.”

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  19. [...] less than a quarter of them self-identify as Mormon. Andrew S followed up with an interesting round-up/analysis of the discussion, concluding that “If you have been baptized, and you have not resigned or [...]

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  20. LovelyLauren on July 18, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    I am fine with you quoting my post, but in the future, could you please ask first?

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  21. Andrew S. on July 18, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    re 20,

    LovelyLauren,

    It is not normally required protocol to ask people if it’s OK to cite what they have publicly written in blog posts, but I’ll make a note to ask in the future.

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  22. Kullervo on July 18, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    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.”

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  23. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 4:28 PM

    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.

    I guess…my questions would be something like these: do you think it foolish to try to distinguish between a “religious” Mormon and a “cultural” Mormon? Do attempts to distinguish between the two count as “working definition[s]” that are “too narrow”?

    Also, how does cultural myopia affect things, given we are having an insider discussion? In other words, we’re not talking about religion in this platonic sense…but in Mormon terms…all we have to do is be consistent with Mormon cultural terms — granting that there are a number of these to work from.

    (p.s., I’m not sure if you want to continue the conversation here or over at Irresistible (Dis)Grace or both places, but I *have* written just a little bit more here.)

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  24. Kullervo on July 18, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    Yuck, my long comment just got eaten.

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  25. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    I checked the filter…nothing from you in there, so I can’t save any comment that may have gotten trapped there…D:

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  26. Bonnie on July 18, 2012 at 6:28 PM

    Stopping by between crises to say … I wonder why it matters what we think Mormonism is. It seems pretty clear that Jesus Christ named his church because he wanted it to be clear that it was his church, not Joseph’s or Brigham’s or Thomas’ or mine.

    Naturally, making an argument that the church is outlined by prophets presupposes that we believe in those prophets, but that’s kind of the point of a prophetically revealed church. This whole discussion sounds very much like a club that was formed with a specific set of principles, joined by a lot of people who had other motivations, and then hijacked by them when the founding principles became onerous.

    Um, hello?

    So far I don’t hear Jesus Christ announcing that he wants to kick everyone who doesn’t toe some line out, but at the same time I don’t think we get to redefine his club.

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  27. Howard on July 18, 2012 at 7:02 PM

    This whole discussion sounds very much like a club that was formed with a specific set of principles, joined by a lot of people who had other motivations, and then hijacked by them when the founding principles became onerous. Boy, I totally agree…although we probably disagree who the hijackers were!

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  28. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    Since Jesus never established a church, your comment presupposes a loooooot of stuff. And that’s kinda the point. Everyone’s understanding of what Mormonism is is going to presuppose a lot of stuff that do not necessarily have to be the case.

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  29. Bryan in VA on July 18, 2012 at 7:18 PM

    Referring to the future time when the Latter-day Saint will return to Missouri, Brigham Young referred to those willing to go as Latter-day Saints and those unwilling to go as Mormons. Then he added that a few Latter-day Saints will remain in Utah to watch over the Mormons.

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  30. Bonnie on July 18, 2012 at 8:09 PM

    Andrew, how can we even be talking about Mormonism if we aren’t talking about a church established by Jesus Christ through the hands of Joseph Smith?

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  31. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 8:32 PM

    30

    Bonnie,

    Maybe I’m missing what you’re trying to get at, but what would your answers to the following questions be?

    “How can a Muslim even be talking about Islam if we aren’t talking about a church established by Allah through the hands of Muhammad (pbuh)?”

    “How can we even be talking about Scientology if we aren’t talking about a church that propagates a new, more effective mental health science as was discovered by L. Ron Hubbard.”

    …Now, perhaps you take every religion’s truth claims at faith values and believe them all to be “right” and organized by their divine entities of their choosings…(I know folks who basically do this.)

    But it’s INCREDIBLY easy to think of alternative narratives for other religions…I would say it is also incredibly easy to think of alternative narratives for your own.

    The fact that we or any religious practitioner is here now, in 2012, to talk about their religion, does not say ANYTHING about the origins or the validity of the narrative internally perpetuated by that religion. I’m not saying that things must be black or white. That the narrative must be 100% true or 100% false…but there’s a very long CHAIN of events assumed when you say “a church established by Jesus Christ through the hands of Joseph Smith”

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  32. Mike S on July 18, 2012 at 9:32 PM

    My 2 cents:

    The discussion so far has proved the point of the post. For example, when Bonnie says (correctly according to LDS practices): So far I don’t hear Jesus Christ announcing that he wants to kick everyone who doesn’t toe some line out, but at the same time I don’t think we get to redefine his club the problem is that there’s not really any actual definition of the club.

    There is not a real definition of what it even means to be Mormon but it is as unique as each individual. As a simple example, take any 10 members, as “believing” as you can find in your ward/branch, and ask a few basic questions about Sunday:
    - Is it ok to do your grocery shopping on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to go out to dinner on Sunday
    - Is it ok to pick up a gallon of milk that you really need on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to go out to dinner when you’re on vacation on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to soak in a bath on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to soak in a hot tub on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to swim in a pool on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to swim at the beach on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to play volleyball on the beach on Sunday?
    - Is it ok for BYU’s college team to play volleyball on Sunday?
    - Is it ok for a professional football QB to play spots on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to watch a TV Disney movie together on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to watch an HBO movie together on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to go to a movie in a theater together on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to go to dinner at the City Creek mall on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to shop at Nordstrom on Sunday?
    - Is it ok to shop ONLINE at Nordstrom on Sunday?

    If you were to poll the “top ten” people in your ward, I would almost guarantee that they have different answers to these simple questions. And when you expand this out to everything it means to BE a Mormon, there are nearly limitless combinations.

    So, since “actions” don’t necessarily define being “Mormon”, how about beliefs? Take something as foundational as the Book of Mormon.
    - Is the Book of Mormon a word-for-word literal translation, worked on and translated by Joseph Smith as he looked at the plates and studied them by candlelight?
    - Is the Book of Mormon a word-for-word literal translation that was “read” by Joseph Smith on a stone, with the words not disappearing until they were absolutely correct?
    - Is the Book of Mormon a portrayal of thoughts from the plates expressed in 19th century language and idioms, but not necessarily a direct translation?
    - Is the Book of Mormon an inspired book dictated from the mouth of Joseph Smith, but perhaps only loosely based on stories from the plates?
    - Is the Book of Mormon an inspired book from Joseph Smith, important for our day, but with fairly significant liberties?
    - Is the Book of Mormon a inspired book containing revealed truth, much in the same vein as the Bible, the Qu’ran, the Bhagavad Gita, etc., yet perhaps not necessarily based on historical fact?

    Which of these is true? Is someone required to believe a single specific one of these options to be considered a “Mormon”? Which one of these is the “truth” and which others are a “redefinition” of the club?

    This could go on and on. Ultimately, there is NOT an absolute set of beliefs and practices that defined Mormonism. We don’t define gross vs net on tithing. We don’t define caffeine use. We don’t define many, many things.

    But, THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE. At the end of the day, the Mormon church is meaningless except for the point where it points people to God. The ultimate relationship MUST BE between an individual and God. Period. To the extent that living certain principles and reading certain scriptures and refocusing with certain ordinances points us back to God, it is invaluable. But the Church is just an organization filled with imperfect people trying their best.

    This is what bothers me most about people trying to define why someone else shouldn’t consider themselves “Mormon-enough”. If someone feels they are Mormon, if they’ve at least been baptized at some point in their life, and if they feel that acceptance helps them somehow be a better person, that should be fine.

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  33. Bonnie on July 18, 2012 at 10:32 PM

    My point, Andrew, is that sociological discussions of Mormonism are entirely different than theological discussions of Mormonism. You can’t use sociology to alter theology and then vote on it. Unless a religion decides to alter its own theology, it’s unaltered. Sociologically altered theologies do not last.

    Islam is the religion established by Muhammad (peace on his and everyone else’s soul) presumably under the direction of Allah. When Islamic groups diverge from their roots, they become something else. I’m not talking about the evolution of practice; I’m talking about founding theologies.

    To answer Mike’s questions, I really don’t care what people do with themselves on Sundays, and I don’t answer questions about what is appropriate for someone else. But if we’re talking about founding theologies, I care. I believe that Mormonism was founded by Joseph Smith under the direction of Jesus Christ, and that he and those who have followed him are acting on divine authority. So I guess he gets to decide the boundaries of his church. I don’t think “a minority” of Mormons believe that, and I don’t think it should surprise anyone that those who practice a religion are adhering to founding theologies.

    He’s not in a hurry to complete the harvest and narrow the big tent. I think the reason for that is that it’s less important how we define the boundaries and more important how we define the focus. If I’m living a life of faith, I’m not playing about on the boundaries, I’m pushing for a life of oneness with Christ. What’s the point of defining the boundaries? That’s just exclusionary.

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  34. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    re 33,

    Bonnie,

    Of course, Mormon theology is also not very easy to nail down…We in the PRESENT continue to redefine and re-interpret what we think people in the PAST believed or did. And we will continue to do this reinterpretation of the past in our futures, all the while thinking that the “roots” of the religion are somehow constant and asociological…

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  35. Bonnie on July 18, 2012 at 10:54 PM

    Sociological Mormonism, then, is dependent on Theological Mormonism. Mormonism, by definition, is primarily theological. It is primarily a religion, not a culture. That’s my bone of contention. To say, “If you want to define Mormonism as a religion, the trouble will be to nail down the boundaries” misses the point that Mike makes – that it’s not about the boundaries. Religion is about the core, the focus. To make it about boundaries is to become Pharisaic and to destroy it.

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  36. Bonnie on July 18, 2012 at 10:57 PM

    I don’t have any trouble defining Mormon theology. You’re talking about history. I haven’t noticed any of the Articles of Faith morphing over the years.

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  37. Howard on July 18, 2012 at 11:18 PM

    No the Articles of Faith haven’t morphed they have been added to in so many pharisaical ways and policed by the more orthodox among us.

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  38. Bonnie on July 18, 2012 at 11:24 PM

    Bah. Howard. I confess to rampant humanity on behalf of Mormons everywhere. Have you never been inspired by the wonderful theology of people who are trying, of General Conference, of something true blue and beautiful? We’re all working on becoming the theology we embrace. That we aren’t there yet is not reason to sit dourly and point sourly.

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  39. Howard on July 18, 2012 at 11:35 PM

    Sorry Bonnie, but I tire of commandments of minutia and marching in place!

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  40. Andrew S on July 18, 2012 at 11:48 PM

    re 35,

    Bonnie,

    Theological Mormonism cannot even be uttered without reference to sociological Mormonism. You don’t have the words without sociological context.

    re 36,

    The Articles of Faith are themselves reinterpreted and re-appropriated over time and space. In many ways, that’s what’s so good about the Articles of Faith — they are more a mirror that people can look into things what they will, rather than being straightforward, pre-interpreted, ready-made or set-in-stone pronouncements.

    re 38,

    I think it is absolutely wonderful that people are working on becoming the theology they embrace…I also think it is absolutely wonderful that Mormons can embrace seemingly contradictory things and still nevertheless straightforwardly and unironically call it Mormon theology.

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  41. Bonnie on July 19, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    I believe in God the Eternal Father and in his son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost. There. Uttered without sociological context. Baptism by immersion for the remission of sins. No sociological context. You can’t talk about sociological Mormonism without referencing theology, but you can the converse. The culture is derivative, not the theology.

    Scratching my head about reinterpreting the AofF. Pretty set in stone. Trinity defined. Original sin clarified. Atonement pre-eminent. Whether or not one can drink caffeinated drinks – yeah, not in there. Theology. Not culture. The interpretation hasn’t changed.

    We agree on the benefits of working on contradictory-appearing things. Perhaps we are simply on different sides of the elephant. But there’s nothing ironic about that. Life is short. The theology offers us plenty to work on. Repent. Forgive. Give. Repeat.

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  42. Hedgehog on July 19, 2012 at 1:31 AM

    For me I guess the definition of Mormon would be anyone or group that takes the Book of Mormon as a work of scripture, however literally or allegorically they choose to view it, and accepts JS as a prophet. I don’t think it is a term the LDS church can claim to own, however much many members and leaders might wish otherwise.
    Just as the term Christian includes those who claim to follow Christ, and take the Bible as scripture (and we like to argue the term term includes us on that basis). Just as Islam covers those who take the Koran as scripture, follow Allah and accept Mohammed as prophet.
    There are pretty much squabbles in all those groups as to who may or may not be the true believers. Nothing new really.

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  43. Andrew S on July 19, 2012 at 6:53 AM

    re 41,

    Bonnie,

    Your statement has no meaning without sociological context. In other words — what does it mean to believe in God the Eternal Father and in his son Jesus Christ and in the Holy Ghost? You assume a whole lot of stuff about what this means that immediately separates you from a lot of folks who would make the same exact sort of statement, but would have different assumptions and presuppositions behind things.

    You scratch your head about reinterpreting the AoF, but then you use terms like “trinity” and “original sin” and “atonement” without realizing that the Mormon approaches to these things 1) differ from other uses of the term, 2) are very much reactions to other uses of the term, and 3) have evolved over time with respect to itself.

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  44. Mike S on July 19, 2012 at 8:05 AM

    Bonnie:

    I agree with what you are saying, but the problem is interpretation. Take your fundamental example of the articles of faith:

    #1: We believe in God the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost.

    Over a billion Christians would have no problem with this statement, yet many of them would argue against “Mormonism” because of how it is interpreted. And even within the Church, this statement has been interpreted differently by different leaders. Brigham Young and Adam-God theory. Christ physically begotten from a physical union of God and Mary. A spiritual union. Book of Mormon references to God and Christ being One. Other references to them being separate. So, when you say it is “easy” and basic, it’s not as clear-cut as you imply.

    Or pick ANY of them:

    #3. We believe that through the Atonement of Christ, all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel.

    Again, a billion people will agree with you in principle. But what are the “laws and ordinances”. Drinking wine will currently keep you out of the temple and keep an investigator from even being baptized Mormon – hence restricting an ordinance. So is it a law? Not really. Christ Himself used wine in the main ordinance He implemented to REMEMBER baptism on a weekly basis. And wine was used in our own temples for this ordinance until around the time of US Prohibition. So was that change an “eternal law” or a concession to US sociological trends of the time? Again, interpretation.

    #12. We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

    Unless it has to do with a country’s immigration laws, in which case we DON’T believe in supporting the laws. Or in speeding. Or in whatever.

    It could go on and on, but even something as fundamental as the Articles of Faith is subject to interpretation – both by the Church’s hierarchy as well as the individual members. These articles of faith aren’t really that unique to the LDS faith, but with different phraseology could be accepted by billions of people.

    Yet look at the things that “define” Mormonism to the world – no alcohol, guys in white shirts, no Coke??? (still gets brought up in articles), polygamy, successful businessmen, hard workers, no tattoos, covered shoulders on women, etc. Not necessarily bad things, but these aren’t really based on any eternal laws per se.

    So, Mormonism is really and ultimately an individual thing.

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  45. IDIAT on July 19, 2012 at 8:23 AM

    I think the Gospel Principles manual is the best overall measure of belief. I understand the nuances of the Articles of Faith, although many are unique to being LDS. But overall, if you believe in the beliefs/doctrines laid out in the Gospel Principles manual, I would say you are a believing and practicing Latter-day Saint.

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  46. Adam G. on July 19, 2012 at 9:17 AM

    This post is pretty naive about how institutions work. It is also, whether deliberately or not, perverse. In modern times, the first step of enemies of an institution is to claim that it can’t be coherently defined because of the messiness of the real world, therefore it doesn’t exist. What one would destroy, one first deconstructs.
    Deconstruction is a power play.

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  47. Andrew S on July 19, 2012 at 9:51 AM

    Adam,

    I’m not saying “The institution can’t be coherently defined because of the messiness of the real world, therefore it doesn’t exist.”

    I’m saying, “The institution as defined, with the messiness of the real world, is very different than what most folks assume it is.”

    …but then again, isn’t this the basic gist behind messages like, “The Gospel is perfect, but the people are not” in coordination with statements like, “The church is run by people”?

    Please feel free to enlighten me on how institutions work at your leisure, instead of just hinting that the post is naive about it (without explaining at all why).

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  48. Mike S on July 19, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    #46 Adam G: This post is pretty naive about how institutions work. It is also, whether deliberately or not, perverse. In modern times, the first step of enemies of an institution is to claim that it can’t be coherently defined because of the messiness of the real world, therefore it doesn’t exist.

    I certainly understand the sentiment of this comment, and agree in many ways. At the same time, I think posts like this are extremely important. Let me explain:

    It’s the political season. Politics are messy. But that’s a good thing. I would be very frightened if Obama and the more left-leaning wing of government got full-control for years. At the same time, I would be just as frightened if the more conservative right-wing part of the Republican party had full-control for years. Our founding fathers wisely realized this an designed a system that is messy – where contrasting viewpoints are given and, hopefully, an ideal “middle” ends up existing.

    I see our church the same way (or any church or other organization). In religion, there is a tendency to “out-orthodox” others. We see this in the subtle ways things have evolved just in my lifetime. When I was younger, no one cared if 5-year-old girls wore sundresses – now there are articles in the official church publications suggesting that is immodest because 20 years later they might wear garments. It’s just a little thing, but lots of these little things encumber the core. It happened to the Jews. It happens in Islam. It happens, and it’s not good. As a class, Christ condemned this behavior in the New Testament probably more than anything else. He even seemed kinder to the woman caught in adultery.

    That is one extreme where there lists of rules and expectations about what it means to be a “good Mormon”. And if you think that doesn’t exist, try having 2 sets of earrings at BYU and see if you’re not judged for “not following the prophet”. It is an attitude of what is the “most” I can do as a Mormon.

    At the other extreme might be posts like this, where you sit back and ask, what does it really mean to be a Mormon? What is the pure essence of Mormonism? What is the lowest common factor that “Mormons” can have yet still be considered all Mormon? And as we’ve seen, that’s not an easy question to answer either.

    Ultimately, the real answer is likely somewhere between posts like this and the absolutely unwavering “ask an inch and go a mile” you see in some areas of the Church.

    BUT, it is vitally important that posts like this exist. Just like being able to discuss different viewpoints in government leads to a better solution, it is the same in the current Church organization (NOTE: I’m not talking about the gospel – as many of the “rules of Mormonism” are NOT eternal principles). We are better for occasionally stepping back and asking “what does it really mean to be Mormon”?

    And there are very few other forums to even ask that question. This certainly wouldn’t be discussed at church for the sentiments expressed in your comment. It wouldn’t be discussed on many of the “pro-LDS sites” that erase comments that don’t support a certain point-of-view. And they can’t really occur on “anti-LDS” sites, as the negativity would overwhelm any hope of rationally discussing anything.

    So, Andrew, thanks for the post. I don’t expect anyone to agree with you 100%, but if it gets people to at least think, to consider their own biases and preconceptions, and to perhaps step outside the box and see how other “Mormons” different from themselves might think – then it serves an important purpose.

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  49. Andrew S on July 19, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    Aww, shucks, Mike, thanks!

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  50. Chuck Borough on July 19, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    A true Mormon is a person who fully considers himself a Christian and who also believes that nobody, other than Mormons, is in Christ’s church. A Mormon believes that the ordinances of all other churches are null and void in heaven.

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  51. Howard on July 19, 2012 at 11:37 AM

    Adam G,
    This discussion perversely deconstructs another discussion legitimized subjects you believe are currently and should be left illegitimate. Do you find discussion dangerous? If so what is the danger? What do you fear?

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  52. Troth Everyman on July 19, 2012 at 12:51 PM

    I think this post (and following comments) are the opposite of being “naive about how institutions work”. In fact, it captures many of the nuances that occur through slow institutional drift, discusses individual perceptions within an institution, describes how and why and institution may or may not decide to define its borders or central focus, and discusses a variety of alternate narratives for evaluating historical institutional development and future roles. That doesn’t sound very naive.

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  53. hawkgrrrl on July 19, 2012 at 6:12 PM

    I often have a somewhat simplistic view of who is a Mormon: whoever claims to be one is probably enough of one (even if a dry one) to be called one. But recently I read Walter Kirn’s fascinating article about being an ex-Mormon (really just a non-believing, non-practicing member), and despite his claims he was not Mormon, he somehow got on the radar of some kind-hearted Mormon roommates in Beverly Hills who took him in. His non-Mormon girlfriend observed that he was like them even though he wouldn’t have thought so. And this observation gave him pause about the friendliness that the Mormon community embodies, the spirit of pitching in, and the willingness to help one of their own lapsed members with no questions asked. It’s a great article.

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  54. Andrew S on July 19, 2012 at 8:32 PM

    Walter Kirn is pretty excellent. One day I hope to be half the essayist he is.

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  55. Tim on July 19, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    so flattered that you wrote not one, but two posts based on my original discussion. (I guess Dan gets the real flattery since it was his quote that kicked it off).

    I think if you try to point at 900,000 missing Brazilian Mormons as a group that can meaningfully define what it means to be a Mormon, you’ve all but stripped the word of any meaning. They are a statistic, but not a theologically meaningful one.

    These type of discussions point out to me why Christianity has a set of creeds. They serve to define the faith in some sort of lowest-common-denominator sense.

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  56. Hedgehog on July 20, 2012 at 2:28 AM

    Tim wrote: “These type of discussions point out to me why Christianity has a set of creeds. They serve to define the faith in some sort of lowest-common-denominator sense.”
    A set of creeds used to exclude Mormons from the Christian umbrella, by those who use the creeds to define Christianity. Given that most Mormons would argue that we are Christian, and that telling us we aren’t is a particularly hurtful kick in the teeth, that pretty much takes me back to my first comment. For me a Mormon is anyone for whom the Book of Mormon is scripture, and who accepts JS as a prophet. I don’t see how we can cut it both ways.

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  57. Andrew S on July 20, 2012 at 7:03 AM

    re 55,

    Tim,

    If there’s a post I was thinking about, I will generally try to take at least a post on my personal blog, and one here. Technically, there were three posts on the original discussion…

    As for the missing Brazilians, I think this is a point I made poorly. The logic with missing Brazilians is NOT that we should take seriously that missing Brazilians are what defines Mormons, but rather that if we prioritize what the church institutionally defines as a Mormon, then our best conclusion is to count missing Brazilians in.

    So, in your post, you have an idea about what Mormonism is. You think that what Dan believes is outside of that Mormonism. But where does your idea of Mormonism come from? In many of your comments, you prioritized the institution — the authority of the Mormon leadership, “a stated value of Mormonism is that Thomas Monson is the one who tells Mormons where Mormonism truly points”, and so on.

    But what I’m pointing out is that if you want to prioritize the institution and leadership’s words, then hey…just listen to what they say every General Conference…there are 14.1 million members and the church is growing!

    And if we believe the institution on this point, then the institutional definition of what a Mormon is is actually a whole lot broader.

    But if we don’t do this…if we say, “OK, the statistic is really absurd. It’s absurd to use the institution’s definitions here,” then that leaves us with how we will actually define what it means to be Mormon. All I’m pointing is that you can’t speak of Mormonism as its own Thing to which Dan Wotherspoon can be contrasted…nope, Dan Wotherspoon is a data point as part of the Mormon thing.

    These type of discussions point out to me why Christianity has a set of creeds. They serve to define the faith in some sort of lowest-common-denominator sense.

    When Protestant denominations are reporting membership numbers for the faith, do they institutionally take out those who are known not to assent to creeds? Do they institutionally take out those who haven’t attended in a long period of time (for whatever value of “long” you want?)

    If creeds define the faith in some sort of lowest common denominator sense, then I would expect it to play out in membership stats.

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  58. Brian on July 20, 2012 at 9:31 AM

    Even though I now believe in nothing Mormon, the church proundly announces every conference that me and about 8 million like me are indeed Mormons when they give the ever-advancing 14 million burgers-served number.

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  59. Tim on July 20, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    I think the point about “sociological affiliation” and “theologically descriptive” is a relevant idea.

    but yes, you’re correct that the institution “says” those Brazilians are Mormon. But what does the institution call those Mormons to? How do they suggest they practice their faith.

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  60. Mike S on July 20, 2012 at 11:33 AM

    #58 Brian: Even though I now believe in nothing Mormon, the church proundly announces every conference that me and about 8 million like me are indeed Mormons when they give the ever-advancing 14 million burgers-served number.

    This is the supreme irony of the whole discussion. The Church counts literally EVERYONE who’s been baptized as their members when talking about how large it is and how quick it’s growing.

    Yet at the same time, there is a vocal minority of the 14 million who try to then define a bunch of these people as “less” – as Half-attenders or Half-contributors or Half-conformers or Half-believers.

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  61. Brian on July 20, 2012 at 3:19 PM

    “This is the supreme irony of the whole discussion.”

    Yep. My wife and I are in the same boat as far as non-belief. She grew up Mormon. I was a convert. She still refers to herself a Mormon. I do not.

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  62. hawkgrrrl on July 20, 2012 at 3:46 PM

    Well, the rub is that the church doesn’t know who believes and who doesn’t, and while we know how many butts are in seats there are no other churches that count membership that way. Most cannot. The one thing I like about the broader counting is that it makes us responsible for the broadest possible group of people. If people don’t want to be counted, they can resign. If they don’t want to resign, why should they care if they are in or out of the records?

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  63. Brian on July 20, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    “If they don’t want to resign, why should they care if they are in or out of the records?”

    I know for me, I don’t care how the church counts its members. I think the institutional church, and some members, want to use the 14 million number as living, breathing evidence that the church is marching forward to the world-wide spread of truth. The same feeling of the old, prideful “the caravan moves on” mantra. The conference inclusion of the membership numbers (why do that at all if not to make the members feel good about the church’s growth?) seems to give some the misplaced idea that there is an esprit-de-corps about the 14 million similar to the 2,000 stripling warriors. If membership numbers were declining, we all know that we would skip the membership count in conference.

    The church wants to create the same kind of pride that is created when my son, who many would call a “famous Mormon”, is referred to as a Mormon in the Utah press especially. Sure, he is a Mormon. A non-believing one. Yet it doesn’t stop the use of his name many times to generate an impression and a somehow a pride in Mormonism.

    I have no problem with the numbering. The flaunting of the numbers, as if if proves something, does grate on me, however.

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  64. hawkgrrrl on July 20, 2012 at 8:20 PM

    I agree that posturing and patriotism is irritating and prideful. I do think the 14M number can be cited without it turning into the Days of 47 parade. It’s useful IMO to know our size relative to other faiths. The 14M probably serves that purpose adequately.

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  65. [...] and will post about soon on the new Worlds Without End), because I want to devote more time to the problems of defining Mormonism as a religion and how that creates problems to defending or making a case for Mormonism as a [...]

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  66. [...] things matter. In the billions of people on this earth, Mormonism is already marginal. But for the 13.1 million members that the church (not unproblematically) would like to claim as Mormons, the church needs to address how it will, in the future, keep these guys from joining the other [...]

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