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.
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.
…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
This 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.