The Rise and Fall of the LDS Church
by Ed H. Yong
The Secrets of Success
Success is a fuzzy word. It is measured by numbers and statistics. In 1920, the Mormons numbered roughly half a million on the face of this planet. By 2000, the number has risen to more than 10 million. That is a 2000% rise in 80 years. This is success.
Rodney Stark famously predicted in 1998 that the Mormons who make up the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) church will increase to 265 million by the year 2080. That is, it will be the only major world religion to have emerged since the rise of Islam in the 7th century. This is success.
If Albert Einstein is right when he spoke of success as 1% genius and 99% labor, then is it wrong to speak of religious success as 1% truth and 99% marketing? After all, the business of religion is first and foremost communication. So if some groups are doing this right and succeeding, then others must be doing this wrong.
The LDS case study is unique not so much because it is phenomenal, but because it is well publicized. Other groups that egressed from mainline Christianity and took off in roughly the same period as the Mormons are now either bigger (Seventh Day Adventists: membership 20 million) or faster (Jehovah's Witness: 6% p.a.). It is uncertain whether or not such religious "successes" are attributable to the "Force" logic tells us it usually boils down to sound management.
The LDS church is run like a corporation. Take as an analogy, Coca-Cola. Both enterprises originated in America by Americans and became multinationals based in America. Coca-Cola has its secret recipe which gives us the drink, the LDS has its gold plates which gives us the Mormon scriptures. Both are led by a CEO slash Prophet and assisted by managers slash counselors. Both are heavy media users. The former pitches its sales from giant billboards and Super bowl ads. The latter relies on direct selling missionaries and Olympic sponsorships.
Both are market leaders. Coca-Cola is a blue chip on the Dow and the LDS is a huge denomination in the Pacific Northwest. While Coca-Cola may sometimes suffer the unholy reputation of being "asinine" i.e. great company lousy stock, the LDS church excels. It ranks as the 7th biggest denomination in America, but it outgrows the Catholics at 1st place. Coca-Cola prints its financial data annually to woo investors. The LDS advertises the social demographics of Utah like a prospectus to the potential churchgoer, the lowest abortion, intoxicated driving and divorce rates in the nation. This is the puff: "If you have faith (and money), invest in us. We are risk averse, morally conservative and global-minded."
So obvious is the LDS corporate example that TIME in a 1997 cover story dubbed it "Mormon Inc." drawing attention to a little known empire of media, finance and real estate. Clergy and laity wear their same dark business suits to church, which is run on such boardroom formalities as meetings, interviews and quorums. Each Sunday service begins with a corporate communion, and then subdivided into various auxiliary departments of welfare and education. Decisions are made by heads of departments, which are then delegated to members for execution of service-oriented assignments. Sales patterns are audited regularly. Missionaries report their tracting results to District Leaders who report to Zone Leaders who report to the Mission President.
The diffusion of corporate philosophies into religious affairs makes many churches nervous. It is a root of evil they claim, but it can also occasion much good. How else can you manage 11 million members in 25,793 congregations that speak 175 languages in over 150 countries? The same curve that measures the revenue of a corporation, measures also the membership of a church.
Critics point out that the Bible warns that the church should not be overtaken by moneychangers. On that same token however, the Bible does not prohibit the church from cooperating with moneychangers. About 140,000 LDS members volunteer part-time in church duties, effectively a total waiver of USD 531 million in wages per annum. And yet with the paid full-time clergy of mainline Protestant groups, their memberships actually decrease. In 1996, the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 1.9% of its 2.7 million while the LDS added 3.3% to theirs. During the 1980s, the Lutherans (ECLA) had to retrench staff to meet a budget deficit that ballooned to USD14.8 million, at a time when they were already losing members.
Since religion is by far the single largest service industry in the world, it needs to be managed by leaders who are well-versed in spiritual and secular disciplines. The overwhelming majority of those at the upper echelons of the LDS hierarchy are highly educated professionals. Of the 2 counselors and 12 apostles that surround the Prophet, there are at least 4 MBAs, 2 JDs and 13 Doctorates: including 1 mechanical engineer, 1 surgeon, 1 nuclear physicist, 1 former mayor and 1 former Supreme Court justice.
Such an oasis of talent is a huge asset to churches today. Anything from the lack of market research to the insensitivity of market trends can crowd out the most faithful of churches. That said, marketing the church is essential for the "organizational survival" of the church in a market-driven environment (George Barna 1991). Many do not realize that the world's second largest congregation in terms of attendance, the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, started out with a targeted "customer survey"!
Religion in the modern century is all about image. People want to invest in leaders not followers, the Bill Gates not Paul Allens. The idea of a Prophet on earth that is God's sole representative sounds very persuasive. Just as any marketing exec from Nike will tell you that "people never buy shoes, they buy everything else but the shoes," one must therefore understand that people do not just shop for the truth, they shop for moral authority, social stability and future certainty. When you give your sheep a shepherd, you get more than your own sheep, you also get your neighbor's sheep by virtue of herd instinct. This underlies the phenomenon as to why a sizeable portion of LDS converts come from other denominations.
But for authority to succeed, it must be authoritative. And for authority to be authoritative, it must be exclusive. It is thus not surprising that the fastest growing religions in the world are those that preach exclusivity. By comparison, those that try to accept or incorporate other beliefs experience modest growths. The Bahai Faith and Vatican II are two examples.
In a world where religious choices now come in graffiti and junk mails, the buzzword is product differentiation. Form is in, function is out. The rational consumer thinks that religion in general will make him a better person. So the gimmick is not to sell religion as truth per se, but as a package: "Not only do we have the Bible, we also have a Prophet who oversees the one True Church."
For the most part, the biggest advantage of having an authoritative figure at the fore is not so much leadership, but visibility. When authority is visible, faith is less demanding. It is the nature of humans, as Albert Camus would say, that we generally avoid making difficult moral choices, and so we leave it to our leaders to decide for us. The Prophet fills this role enthusiastically. He is the "charismatic authority" who extends his influence through a continuum of perceived power, and in the case of Mormons, the priesthood hierarchy (Douglas Davies 1995).
In an article in Christianity Today entitled "Why your neighbor joined the Mormon Church?" the evangelical author conceded: "In a day when many are hesitant to claim that God has said anything definitive, the Mormons stand out in contrast, and many people are ready to listen to what the Mormons think the voice of God says. It is tragic that their message is false, but it is nonetheless a lesson to us that people are many times ready to hear a voice of authority." (italics added)
It must be noted that the "myth" of authority is self-perpetuating. Often authority is believed without being spoken! Long before the missionaries have the chance to spiel their testimonies, the public already has an impression of authority. Call it the Nuremberg Effect if you like. The impression is sourced from two things: uniformity and solidarity. When 60,000 Gen X'ers (and counting) sacrifice 2 years of adolescence and submit to a spartan regime of work, dress and conduct, the public turns. The media is mainly responsible for this public perception. Every feature story on the LDS inclines to project the missionaries as a "spiritual army" or "moral police."
Power in the LDS church is concentrated in a handful of individuals at the headquarters in Salt Lake City. For a relatively small dynamic enterprise, this is a plus. Decisions are executed a lot faster in a top-down "autocratic" model than say, the consensual "democratic" models adopted by mainstream denominations. Speed in the context of religion is efficiency. Speed indicates objectivity and creates public confidence.
Take for instance: It took Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide 10 years to reach a final consensus on the ordination of women. In that same Lambeth Conference in 1998, the vote was also cast on homosexuality. It was by no means unanimous: 526 against 70 for, 45 abstentions. The Lutheran General Assembly is more divided: 820 against 159 for (August 1999). After several compromises, the United Methodist Church decided: 628 against 327 for (May 2000). The Presbyterian Synod pending a 1998 appeal by a gay elder in has yet to settle the issue. Meanwhile the savvy LDS has already assured the public that it will never sustain a female priest let alone a gay member, as though the Prophet just had a direct audience with God.
A centralized church allows it to speak out in an official and unopposed manner on social issues. When the Scouts of America were dragged to the courts for its discrimination against gays, it was the LDS that first voiced concern and threatened to pull donations out. The Roman Catholics and some others followed suit. Similarly, abortion is never an issue in the LDS ward. You will not catch pro-lifers and pro-choicers on the same pew arguing the merits of Roe v Wade. The church has simply spoken. Even when traditional churches stay silent on risky areas like cohabitation, the LDS invades it with its Law of Chastity. Believe it or not, it has also canonized a famous 10-point plan to defeat masturbation among teenage boys.
If not for the centralized organism of power, it is practically impossible for a church of this magnitude to insulate itself from theological liberalism and reverse back to moral orthodoxy.
Consider the analogy of a Southeast Asian economy: A handful of elites in a government think tank shapes the path to industrialization. The object is invariably growth but in achieving this object, division becomes a liability. Hence the solution is to defer all ancillary interests — that is, "when you leave less room for debate, you leave more room for ambition."
Likewise, "democracy" is a tardy concept that will wear down the objects of the LDS church. The church requires a homogenous product that can be duplicated rapidly, so it must be wary of liberal discussions that can fragment its policies. Everything from operation manuals right to the type of musical instruments allowed is conceived on the Salt Lake drawing board. Did you think it is an accident that the Big Mac you snarfed in Seattle is the same Big Mac in Tokyo?
Faith ultimately leads to growth, but as the LDS model shows, fiscal prudence is an indispensable mean towards that end. Born out of the pioneer days, the church began as a struggling community uprooted from the Midwest. The hostile environment forced them to rely on no one but themselves and to hone virtues of sustenance and self-sufficiency. The Mormon patriarchs commissioned "business missionaries" to key industries to learn various skills so that they could someday supply their brethren's needs.
Even after the Mormons became the majority in Utah, the church continues to cave in to a "crisis mentality," partly driven by their persecution past and a future apocalypse. This mentality birthed, for good measure, admirable habits of risk management and horizontal integration.
Little is known of the LDS sprawling portfolio since it stopped publishing detailed financial data in 1959. But we know this much — that it is incredibly self-reliant, debt free and well diversified. Shearson Lehman Hutton brokers almost all of the church's investments, most of which are channeled into traditional sectors. Real estate is big on the hit list: The LDS makes 2% of the US population but owns 1 million acres of agricultural land, larger than the size of Rhode Island. Their corporate web skulks other Big 4 spin-offs too: like construction, insurance and media (John Heinerman & Anson Shupe 1985). In a speech during the 166th Semiannual General Conference, the Prophet discussed financial accountability:
"We have all funds carefully audited. We have a corp. of auditors who are qualified CPAs, who are independent from all other agencies of the Church and who report only to the First Presidency of the Church. We try to be very careful... We treat them carefully and safeguard them and try in every way..." (emphasis added)
Long term goals require patience. And by far the smartest long-term investment is education. The largest privately owned college in America is (surprise!) Brigham Young University (BYU), an old-boy flagship of the LDS. While brain drain may be a problem for mainstream ecclesiastics, BYU with its 32,000 students virtually promises an unbreakable supply of human resource into the LDS organism. Having friends in high places wield enormous goodwill, at least on paper. Not to mention that these same alumni will also be serving in church administration on top of their secular duties. No theological training is necessary.
Ever asked a Mormon why he is encouraged to stock a year's worth of food in the pantry, clothes and fuel? In an unlikely doomsday scenario, the church can function like an autonomous economy. It will have enough cattle ranches and peanut butter to feed itself, and surpluses to trade. It will have farms to relocate into, with adequate financing options to start anew. It will have the pools of talent to restore its infrastructure, and the necessary communication networks to keep distributions alive and its economy breathing. Marvel yet, it will have the resources to spare for the consumption of needy onlookers and passers-by, at interest of course. It will transcend wars, borders and stock market crashes.
In Ricardian analysis, it is assumed that a perfect laissez-faire market has an infinite number of cutthroat competitors. Welcome to the 21st century world of religions. When 4 billion people vie for essentially the same Allah, Jesus or Jehovah, brand recognition seriously helps. If the President of the United States can hire spin doctors and ad agencies to churn public relations, why not the President of the Global Church?
The task: Give the church a friendly face and a valid social cause. The answer: Shed the "underground" image and advertise the church as a mainstream feel good denomination.
By the turn of the 80s, Mormons are no longer aliens that abduct young girls. Although Hollywood is still by no means kind, Mormons are now painted as cadet-toned straightjacket missionaries who put Encyclopedia and Amway peddlers to shame. More often than not, they will turn the other cheek and swallow abuse, the kind of salesmanship Zig Ziglar would teach. On the stump, the church trumps family values in degenerate America. It now sits as a member of World Congress of Families in Geneva, and defines its role in contemporary society just as Focus on the Family and Planned Parenthood do. In fact, every LDS commercial is a portrait of a happy family with lovey dovey kids.
This image would never kick start so successfully but for the tireless PR of the current leader, Gordon B. Hinckley. At 93 years of age, he is nimble enough to attend press conferences, dedicate temples and badmouth polygamy on Larry King Live. His job is to make the ordinary guy on the street associate Mormonism with orthodox Christianity, as if they roll off the same tongue. Kudos, he pulled it off! The ordinary guy probably has 10 minutes of Bible exposure in his lifetime, and so "if it looks like chicken and tastes like chicken — it must be chicken!" In an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, he was asked why the LDS is still sometimes referred to as a "cult." A clever response followed:
"I don't know what that (word) means really. But if it has negative connotations, I don't accept it... But look, here is this great church now! There are only 6 churches in America with more members. We are in more than 150 nations. You will find our people in business institutions, high in educational circles, in politics, in government, in whatever. We are rather ordinary people doing extraordinary work." (aired Easter Sunday, 1996)
The biggest sales push is yet to come in the 2002 Winter Games. After all, the church lobbied for it. Journalists are welcome to free personal tours to the largest mission training facility and genealogical research center in the world. The former has a laboratory to teach 54 languages and the latter records the names of 2 billion individuals. Missionaries who eagerly speak Norsk, Svenska, Amharic or Croatian will hug the tarmac on Temple Square to pass out tracts. Members who make up 70% of Utah are expected to open their houses to give curious tourists some good old-fashioned Mormon hospitality. Throughout the event, a media relations team will be on standby to provide assistance — so that you will leave happy, and spread the word!
Christians, are you listening?
The Systemic Decline
The trend of growth is exaggerated. Rodney Stark's projection of 265 million is moot. He is not wrong, but he is not stark right either. Technical analysis warns that looking at data from different angles will give us different interpretations. It is possible that Stark had projected from a "shoulder" at a time when the church grew in exponential rates. Hindsight however shows that growth had probably peaked during the mid-1980s.
The statistics are interesting. Forget absolute numbers, focus instead on the rates of conversion growth (GC = total of converts / total membership) and growth per missionary capita (GM = total of converts / total missionaries). Two readings stand out:
This is a 35% drop in annual growth since 1989.
This is a 35% drop in productivity since 1989.
|Total||7.30 mil||7.76 mil||8.12 mil||8.41 mil||8.67 mil|
|Total||9.02 mil||9.34 mil||9.70 mil||10.07 mil||10.35 mil||10.75 mil|
In 1975, the church stood at 3.57 million members. By late 2000, it passed the 11 million mark. The pattern of growth was not constant. What we see is that it tracked a "bell curve" that steeped for most of the 80s and flattened out in the 90s. For the past 10 years, the number of converts per annum hovered at 300,000 (margin error 2%). Fortunately, the pace of internal births continues to outstrip world population growth at 1.33% p.a. (UN Revision 1998). At these rates, the church will probably stagnate around 40 to 50 million for most of the 21st century.
By all counts, this is still a simplistic projection. More importantly, it fails to factor in structural trends that currently besiege the LDS church.
Each year, more and more resources are poured into the production of temples, wards and missions. This massive outlay represents fixed costs that are justifiable by a corresponding increase in membership. Since 1998, the church has planned the construction of about 47 temples, the most recent one in Nauvoo, Illinois costing USD23 million. This is an incredibly sharp rise considering that in 1997, there were only 51 temples in operation. Two years later, there are 68 temples in operation with 47 soon on the way.
Owing to the stiff policy of expansion, we find that fixed costs are rising a lot faster than productivity. Despite a record number of missionaries, their performance fails to match an equivalent increase in value added capital. For instance in 1989, the church operated 228 missions that produced 318,940 converts. In 1999, there are 333 missions in operation that produced only 306,171 converts. This is an alarming loss of efficiency, akin to "throwing good money at bad assets."
As the reader might observe from here and subsequent points, there seems to be an ongoing dilemma between an expansionary policy and one that is consolidatory. It is almost as if there are two political camps in the LDS upper house, each lobbying for what they perceive is the best interest of the church. Even in a "divinely appointed" institution, power struggles are not uncommon (Michael Quinn 1997). It remains interesting to see whether the legacy of expansion borne by Gordon Hinckley will be as actively carried on by his looming successor.
Until then, there is sort of a Catch 22 situation. The church will continue to raise its international profile for the sake of reputation and standing, but at the same time it has to come to terms with its systemic decline — an "aging symptom" that has already struck all of the biggest mainline denominations in America. The onus will fall squarely on Mormons to buck this trend, given that Protestant, Catholic and Jewish preferences have all slided across the board since World War II (Princeton Research Center 1993).
For the first time in history, there are now more Mormons living outside the USA. There are more than 130 translations of the Mormon bible, reflecting a global export drive to tap into newer and less saturated markets. The startups and variable costs for such an export strategy are enormous. So the real issue on every economist's lips is this: "can the LDS recoup its investments?" Or to paraphrase: "Is this export strategy going to be profitable enough?"
Profitability is not a wishy-washy spiritual effect. It comes in the giving of tithes, a 10% church tax on members' disposable incomes. The problem is that of the USD 5.2 billion in annual tithe collection, 94% comes directly from the pockets of local Americans (Joel Kotkin 1997). Not only are foreign members much poorer, many of their countries impose restrictions on the remittance of church giving. To add salt to the wound, Americans are leading the rate of departure from LDS among the demographic groups (see below). In other words, the parent tree cannot afford to bear fruit overseas when the same tree continues to be chipped away at home.
The church must therefore ask, in the face of extremely uneven profit-loss distribution, whether it should still push for an all-out export-led growth. There are still untapped opportunities in affluent North America: the LDS has yet to break the Baptist stronghold in the South, the Evangelical stronghold in the Midwest or the Roman Catholic stronghold in Mexico.
In the long term, LDS branches overseas will have to be more financially independent because they can no longer rely solely on parent financing. This is a step towards decentralization, something that is seen as inviting splinters from the church. But this may well be an inevitable consequence of church globalization. (Joan Ostling & Richard Ostling 1999)
Mormons do not stay Mormons forever. They are not immune. Due to the increasing "social and cultural homogeneity" among churches, denominational loyalty is shrinking as ever (Robert Wuthnow 1988). About 33% of Americans have switched denominations, while 70% become inactive some time during their lives. Fully 80% of adults have attended churches other than their own. Weekly church attendance in America is unchanged for the past era at barely 44% (University of Michigan 1997 Survey). When it comes to tithing, only 4 in 10 Mormons actually meet the stipulated threshold of 10% (Omaha World Herald 23 April 2000).
In religious America, we find that the LDS church is losing significant market share. According to Saints Alive (July 2000), there are some 1 million local Mormons who have renounced their church — a huge clip off the 5 million on record. This might sound somewhat sensational, but bear in mind that opposition towards the LDS church has greatly intensified in the past few decades.
Three groups are primarily responsible:
- The Counter Cult Movement — A largely evangelical community which have sprung up to reach Mormons and disseminate literature that encourage genuine theological comparisons, and ultimately a return to biblical Christianity.
- The Ex-Mormons — Or otherwise known by church members as "apostates." They are usually born into the church but have left; having grown disillusioned with its stringent practices and "mind control" of organized religion.
- The Civil Libertarians — Those members and their supporters who feel marginalized by the church, and demand inter alia greater academic freedom in BYU, equal treatment to homosexuals and constitutional separation between church and state.
It is uncertain whether these efforts have resulted in a net outflow of Mormons. One thing for certain however is that religious America is over-saturated. The combined strength of secularization, negative publicity from ex-Mormons and the rise of evangelicalism leave the Salt Lake players little choice but to expand more fully overseas.
Statistics lie. They are not a barometer of the true net growth of the church. Many denominational churches have registration mechanisms that make it almost impractical for any exiting member to remove their name on the register. This "burnout" procedure is deliberate, supposedly to allow time for members to rethink their decisions to leave. In the end, most people just ignore and move on with their lives because they are "fed up with arguing with the church".
The statistics tell us nothing about denominational commitment. We know that for the most part, LDS growth has been overseas driven. In countries where Mormonism is far less culturally entrenched, it is hard to maintain the retention rate of members that is competitive to the Motherland. Those social historical structures that make Mormonism attractive, like the Pioneer Days and biography of Joseph Smith, are geographically removed. Furthermore, given that the majority of overseas members are first generation converts, the family traditions and sense of community which keep them there are also absent.
Finally, the statistics do not indicate what the level of church participation is. Rumors abound that many Third World families are baptized into churches due to incentives like food and shelter. But this aside, it is hard to imagine a struggling father of five children in Brazil or India dedicating 20 unpaid hours each week to church activities or bishopric duties. This is perhaps a wake-up sign that full time pastoral staff is desperately needed to keep members on the books!
The Trend of Stagnation
At least in the context of sociology, trends matter more than the truth. Why? Because most people are sold on to the social cohesion of the LDS community before they are even interested in its theology. To put it flatly, the public tends to be converted first by culture, then gradually by theology. This gives us an insight of a fundamental LDS strength.
On the flip side, we find that the hyped up statistics show very positive results and concurrently reveal some disturbing trends. The statistical information itself leads us to believe in something markedly different from the intelligence of the information. To arrive at a satisfactory interpretation, we should examine these LDS trends in light of social, religious and geopolitical undercurrents in contemporary society.
The biggest strength of any entity is usually also its biggest weakness. The LDS church is big and institutionalized but it is also visible and over-exposed. Visibility slows movement. The fastest growing churches are those that deliberately make themselves "invisible" and mushroom underground in forbidding countries like China and India. Those evangelists who smuggle Bibles do not wear white pressed shirts and badges, and do not necessarily belong to any single institution or marquee, but they collectively sprout more converts in a month than Mormons do in a year!
Let us be realistic: 60% of the world live in countries that are hostile to Christianity. If the LDS is serious enough to fulfill their scriptural mandate, to create a "global Mormon tribe," then it must do a lot more than just wait cross-fingered for Beijing or Teheran to approve missionary visas. At an age where a Korean pastor can infiltrate Pakistan and stage a 100,000 people rally (Manmin World Mission, 20-Oct-2000), the LDS technique seems like a historical anachronism.
There is nothing wrong in knocking doors or using proper channels of immigration. It is after all, a matter of efficiency and opportunity cost. Take for example: LDS missionaries are required to teach six 45-minute "hit-and-run" discussions to potential converts. Contrast this with the friendship based approach of plain-dressed "undercover" missionaries teaching English in a classroom, or striking conversation in a teahouse. Modern religious institutions use "events" to promote their cause but postmodern churches know the power of "relations."
Institutionalization and denominationalism go hand in hand. Logically, you can't have one without the other. The prospects however are not encouraging. For 6 mainline denominations (ECLA, UMC, DOC, UCC, Presbyterian & Episcopal) the trend as Russell Chandler remarked has been to lose an equivalent of "a 530-member church every day of the year!" On the other hand, churches that have embraced a deregulated and fluid "Acts 2" paradigm have soared. An "Acts 2" paradigm affirms transparent and informed leadership that is able to provide a corporate Spirit-filled experience and above all a Christian trans-identity that is genderless, classless and cultureless.
Think Vineyard Fellowship, think Assembly of God, think Megachurches, think Metachurches. They comprise of small and independent Pentecostal or Evangelical groups that rarely identify with any particular denominational "establishment." Together they represent the fastest growing segment of global Christianity. One survey points out that in 1990, 89% of the 500 fastest growing churches in America are Evangelical.
A recent article published in the Lexington Theological Seminary Bulletin (Vol. 30) warns that secular and pluralist cultures have essentially "disestablished" denominational Christianity, short of a "death." Research on baby boomers found that those who seek religious satisfaction are extraordinarily "skeptical of denominations" and suspicious of institutions and leaders. (Wade Clark Roof 1993) Tough times indeed for denominational churches — they have to come to grips with a public of "spiritual consumers" who have shifting loyalties, question authority and demand high-quality instant gratification service.
This brings us to perhaps the most painful question: "Can the denominational LDS church survive in a post-denominational era?" Or rather, can the church alter its presentation and restructure its dynamics without threatening to tear itself apart? The stakes are high — most of the 100 or so LDS splinter groups have severed from the church due to mutations in doctrine (polygamy: United Order Effort), policy (ordination of blacks: Apostolic United Brethren) and leadership (successor to Joseph Smith: Reorganized LDS).
Mormonism is a homogeneous culture. To be exact, it is a religious subculture that was born in America, flourished in America and concludes in America. This is how the Mormon grand narrative sounds like: "The Church is restored in America 18 centuries after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is presided by a lineage of white male American prophets. Jesus appeared to the Americans because the rest of the world apostatized. Therefore, it is the only legitimate church and will be rebuilt as the New Jerusalem when Jesus returns. The revealed location is Independence in the state of Missouri, hometown of President Harry S. Truman."
Whereas Christianity has historically been molded to personify a particular people group — that is, a theology of "liberation" for Latin Americans (Gustavo Gutierrez), African Americans (Martin Luther King), Asians (Bastiaan Wielenga) etc; it is hard to see how anyone can duplicate an extremely ethnocentric model onto a foreign culture diametrically opposed to it. Africans can worship the Jesus that transcends national identity, but can they also worship a culture that exalts the American ideal — which in itself really is an extension of American imperialism. In effect, the America that conquered and plundered now offers grace to save and heal.
The question fascinates: "How can a homogeneous culture absorb and accommodate a mosaic of multicultural faces?" There are two responses. Yes, it does and no it does not. Either way, Mormon culture is transplanted on other paradigms to a point of subversion. The church expects proper attire preferably the western suit and tie for male members — an American expression of its national costume! The church subjects its members to job-like interviews, it sets the optimal age for marriage and the optimal family size, and it even regulates sensitive things like diet and underwear. In short, the church is the most important external relation outside the family unit.
To understand Mormon culture is to understand its limitations. People are increasingly ethnocentric and are conscious of mimicking the unpopular West. (Samuel Huntington 1993) There is a resurgent anti-American sentiment in Pan Arab, Continental Africa and Southeast Asia, regions where an LDS initiative will not be readily welcome. Surprisingly, Mormonism also does not find favorable acceptance in Judaism. Orthodox Jews find it hard to stomach that the LDS religion that purports to be Jewish in origin can be so insensitive to Jewish civilization.
For instance, Mormons claim that their scriptures were written by Jewish forefathers in "reformed Egyptian." As an Old Testament people who emancipated themselves from slavery to the Egyptians, the idea of bearing testimony of Yahweh in the language of oppressors is quite offensive. Further, Mormon scriptures relate the migration of a tribe of Jews to ancient America who had supposedly kept to their faiths and traditions — but there is no whatsoever mention of basic Jewish practices like circumcision, dietary laws and Sabbath observance. Not only does Mormonism lack the legitimacy of exegesis and anthropology, it also lacks a concrete aspect of Jerusalem Theology. That is, it does not have anything to say about the eschatological significance of Jerusalem: the holy city and temple of the Jews; except that New Jerusalem will be in Missouri!
Inasmuch as other churches have worked diligently towards multiculturalism, we have yet to see any effort towards ethnic representation in the LDS hierarchy. It has been 24 years since the ban on black priesthood was finally removed, but where are their faces: In the 1st Presidency? In the Apostles? In the Quorum of Seventies? In like manner, roughly 2.5 million Hispanics in South America call themselves members but the church has still to cede 20% of its Executive to them. Apologists are quick to cite that the LDS Indian Placement Program for the American natives is peerless to other church schemes. Sadly, they fail to recognize that it takes a lot more to reconcile power imbalances than free education and job placements.
It was John Naisbitt who pronounced the death of the Nation state, and in its stead is the rise of the Network. Unbeknown to the LDS church, this may well be a doomsday prognosis. The most extensive and divisive propaganda against the church is disbursed through the internet — ironically, the medium of choice for guerilla protesters at Seattle, Davos and Melbourne. So worried is the church that internet missionaries (or in cyberlingo: "net-mishes")
The anti-Mormon campaign has made a huge detrimental impact for three reasons:
- They are invisible — The church can censor the newspapers, radio and television that missionaries consume, but they cannot block its members from accessing the internet. In fact, the literature is so overwhelming, it is purpose defeating to even attempt to trace or refute them.
- They are invincible — For every Mormon apologetic website like FARMS or SHIELDS, there are mobs of alternatives that link to one another. Killing one off will automatically spark an uproar among proponents of free speech and allow the victims to free-ride on "martyrdom." This was exactly the aftermath of the church winning a court injunction against the internet-based Utah Lighthouse Ministry (UTLM) for posting a link to an ominous church website, but eventually losing the public relations war.
- They are effective — It is interesting to note that while people have a healthy distrust of institutions, they find the internet credible. Already there are far more hits on anti-Mormon websites than there are on pro-Mormon ones. Testimonies of those who left the church abound and are hugely popular. For example, the bulletin board on "Exmormon.org" receives an average of 1 million hits a month, or around 30,000 a day. It maintains email newsgroups that swell in subscription, even from Mormon "lurkers" who are curious to exit the church.
The weakness of the effort to thwart these critics is exacerbated by the church's indifferent or outwardly "agreeable" approach — for good measure though. Lest it becomes involved in a frenzy of negative dog-eat-dog publicity, the church will never associate itself with its apologetic forums or websites. For example, it is a deeply unsatisfying anti-climax to read Robert Starling's stirring critique of the "Godmakers" films only to find in the end that he is not representing the official views of the church! And the list goes on and on.
Because the church is so media-friendly, you will not find a concerted defense of church doctrine. This shoves an additional incentive for critics to play hardball. Sandra Tanner, who heads UTLM observes: "The church is so concerned about PR, that I can't imagine them wanting to be involved in a lawsuit that would get everyone in the internet mad at them." Chances are, the church will back off because it does not want to lose the popular vote. This is in essence a replay of the student protests in University of Utah last year for the removal of names from church record; and Jewish protests against the church for baptizing Holocaust victims into membership — including the heroine Anne Frank!
Opposition is also on the rise from other denominations. For long the 15-million Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) have been witnessing defects of members from its ranks, thanks in no small part to the Mormons. This "sheep stealing" has got to stop, and so it was decided that the Atlanta-based church would stage its 1998 Annual Conference at the Mormon garrisons in Salt Lake City. All 12,000 delegates of "Crossover SLC" were asked to commit three days of tracting door-to-door, manning café tents and distributing 45,000 videotapes of a documentary that falsifies Mormonism. It is high time, they suggested, for Mormons to take a dose of their own medicine!
Opposition, to a substantial extent, is fanned by over-exposure. The trunky publicity of the LDS church makes itself a likely "tall poppy" target of interdenominational angst. Though the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) and Jehovah's Witness (JW) are homegrown offshoots similar to the LDS, they experience considerably less backfire. They do not glamorize their success as the LDS does, and still they outshine the latter. For example, did you hear about the 6 million JW pioneers and publishers who put in 1 billion hours of missionary work to recruit 323,000 baptisms in 1999? Or are you aware that SDAs grow at 11% p.a. (what is that out of 20 million members!) and are actively involved in life-saving medical breakthroughs in their Dorcas Society?
The LDS church has come to a bitter realization that in its ambitious pursuit of growth, many vital interests have been sacrificed. It reeks of two drawbacks typical of "catch-up" competitors: the lack of research and technology and the lack of after-sales service. The first really translates to the church's passive attitude towards the discourse and development of theology. To date, there is no such thing as Systematic Mormon Theology (SMT). The second is the neglect of trained pastoral ministry to meet the discipleship needs of its members. Mormon clergy and laity are often thrown into the deep end of counseling or giving advice on sensitive issues without any experience.
For all its 170-year history, Mormons have relied wholly on their Prophet to interpret and sanction scriptures as he deems fit. Eldon Tanner declared: "When the Prophet speak, the debate is over!" (Ensign, Aug 1979) In "14 Fundamentals In Following The Prophet," a decree by a former Prophet himself, the 1st fundamental informs us that "the prophet is the man who speaks for God in everything" and the 14th warns us to "follow him and be blessed, reject and suffer" (Ezra Taft Benson, 26-Feb-1980). These Prophets are merely lay people who have risen above the occasion, it is extremely rare for them to have any discernible form of theological qualification. While you can expect Jerry Falwell and Benny Hinn to be prolific at Greek, New Testament exposition and the principles of hermeneutics, the same cannot be said of Mormon leaders.
What the Prophet says is scripture, and what he says supersedes past scripture. Twice a year in April and October, he generates "official" scripture in conferences. Other times, he trots to BYU to give devotional addresses or "quasi-official" scripture, but scripture nonetheless. It is not unusual to find prophecies that are inconsistent with one another. For example, the Mormon canon still prescribes polygamy, blood atonement (or human sacrifice) and anathematization of the black race (the "curse of Cain") although these teachings are jettisoned and no longer practiced. Modern day prophecy have distanced away from controversial doctrines, and have been reduced to a sanitized and shallow rhetoric of ethics and self-improvement.
As a result of its "under-developed" theology, we find that Mormon scholars are heavily dependent on outside Christian literature to fill in the gaps. Though we may find guides like the Encyclopedia of Mormonism or Bruce McConkie's Mormon Doctrine, they fall short of the standard and comprehensiveness of extant mainstream scholarship.
Let us examine one pivotal area of Mormonism: the Holy Spirit. Missionaries hinge on the testimony of the Spirit but their supporting literature does not satisfactorily explain or identify it. For instance: "What is, how and when do you feel the Spirit?" The answer, even from the all-knowing Prophets themselves, is inconclusive — it is peace, no it is a burning-in-the-bosom, no it is a small still voice. The plenary and Pentecostal activity of the Spirit is at best speculative because there is no tangible Mormon scholarship on pneumatology (eg what is the role of the Spirit in sanctification?), doxology (eg what is the role of the Spirit in worship?) or dispensational eschatology (eg what is the role of the Spirit in the end times?).
Using non-Mormon analysis, the Mormon Spirit can be easily confused for 1 of 3 things:
- It is an existential energy that contextualizes human freedom and interaction with God, in a "demythologized" world — something that Rudolph Bultmann would think of.
- It is a "pharmakon" that cannot be decided and has no particular detectable characteristic because it is a matter of interpretation — something that Jacques Derrida would deconstruct.
- It is an immanent spiritual agent that "empowers the presence" of God and manifests charismatic gifts and healing — something that Gordon Fee would preach on.
Is the church facing a "crisis of theology?" Not entirely. However, the absolute power of prophecy and the lack of theological discourse mean that it cannot provide adequate responses to the trends and interests that affect its congregation. It loses relevance and credibility. The voices of lobbies and minorities are silenced and ignored. For instance, how do you respond to the growing trend of egalitarian feminism. Already, some have clamored for the recognition of a "Prophetess" who presides over the Relief Society (Maxine Hanks 1992). Or what do you do when the church is accused of not having a proper "ecotheology," or a Mormon ethic for the environment? (Richard Foltz 2000) Indeed Mormon senators and representatives who convene in the US Congress have regularly ranked bottom in environment voting scores. (League of Conservation Voters 1999)
If the church decides to engage in open-ended discussions and reexamination of its doctrines, it will risk alienating a lot of members. Theological revisionism is a stumbling block to growth. How can its members trust a church that keeps changing its mind? How can a church maintain respect when it already has such a colorful history of revising its doctrines? More perplexing to members is that the leaders do not clarify the status and effect of the church's labyrinth of teachings, and emphasize instead on bare basics. In one incident when TIME reporter David Van Biema asked Prophet Hinkley what he thought about the classic God-was-once-a-man doctrine, which his predecessor Lorenzo Snow had taught, he sloughed:
"I don't know that we teach it. I don't know that we emphasize it... I understand the philosophical background behind it, but I don't know a lot about it and I don't think others know a lot about it." (4-Aug-1997, italics added)
The inescapable consequence from the increasing Mormon-Evangelical academic dialogue, such as that between Stephen Robinson and Craig Blomberg in 1997, will be for the church to shy away from past tenets that the mainstream public find grossly unacceptable. This irregular pattern of behavior will motivate more and more members to research into the histories of the church. Take careful note that the LDS commitment to such dialogue stands on a slippery slope. Modern scholarship will subject the Book of Mormon to rigorous inquiries from archaeology, form criticism, Marxist dialectics and epistemology. In fact, evaluations in the past have gone so far as to reduce this book to a work of fiction!
It is therefore high time for the LDS church to reconsider and renovate its spiritual faculty. If the church can eke the spiritual gratification that members look for, it will compensate for the shortfalls of science, history and cryptic teachings. The religious public of today seeks substance over form, experience over beliefs. The church has to rethink the custom of conscripting 14-year olds to "home teach" delinquent adults and families, and the endless repetition of testimony-bearing stumps on weekly sacrament meetings. By rushing converts to the responsibilities of priesthood without the sufficient investment of training or discipleship by qualified professionals, the church risks embedding a culture of mediocrity — one that has no quality control.
At the end of the day, the church must cultivate a belief system that is informed not induced. Not everyone is a missionary who has to spend two years to do nothing but believe. Members should be given participation and independent access to the information that cultivates this belief — a process that "empowers" the consumer to think and reach an informed conviction.
The Future of Survival
Religion in the 21st century is a search for identity. Despite the incoming tide of global ecumenism, the reality is Protestants have become more Protestant, Orthodoxes have became more Orthodox and so forth. Ecumenism at the present stage is really a call to establish common denominators amid the diversity of groups. The Lausanne Covenant (1974), Chicago Statement (1978) and COCU Consensus (1999) are some veritable initiatives that have united churches by downplaying their differences. The fear that constructive dialogue and ecumenism will further undermine the loyalty of members remains unfounded, interdenominational cooperation thus far has not compromised the thriving identities of individual groups.
Where does the LDS church fit into all this? On one hand, it is ostracized by the conservative coalition and sits like a pariah on the fringe of the mainstream. Whilst Protestant-Catholic understanding may have accelerated in recent times, the evangelical opinion on Mormons leave much to be desired. When asked why he called Mormons a "cult," Bob Jones III of the right-wing Bob Jones University said on impulse: "Mormonism is pantheistic!" (Larry King Live, 3-Mar-2000) On the other hand, there is a resistance on the LDS part to reform itself. To elbow its way into the mainstream is to betray the "restorationism" of Joseph Smith that set the LDS apart from the rest of the generic non-LDS "abominable church."
The strongest identity and legitimacy of Mormonism have always been "social proof." It may not have the strength of tradition like the Orthodox community. It may not wield the weight of martyrdom like the Protestant forefathers. It may not broker world peace and humanitarianism like the Catholic papacy. But it does have a set of values that exhibits darn good demographics. It may not be super-spiritual, but it is a remarkable story of "social engineering" — with real results! This is its comparative advantage, its niche. The onus is on the LDS church to highlight these results as a triumph of Mormon values rather than as a triumph of Judeo-Christian values.
The LDS church has arrived at the crossroads. It is caught between the political agenda to move mainstream and affect the "larger culture" (Jan Shipps 1997), and the innate desire to guard its values and traditions more jealously in a transient environment.
Shawn Skalebund of Northern Arizona University sketches the picture: "Just at the Israelites were left in the wilderness for forty years to try and find themselves... I see the Mormons going off to the Great Basin to be left alone to worship how they may but in the years since have lost their way — meaning they really don't know who they are anymore. They have lost the meaning of trying to forget oneself for the good of the whole, the community, the holy, the creation."
There is finally the million dollar question: "Will the church ever reach mainstream?" In the Zeno Paradox, it was illustrated that for an entity A to reach B, it must first reach a point in-between, i.e. C; and for C to reach B, it must first reach D and so forth. Frustrating as it is, it underlies the principle that a full transition or transformation can never take place, because it undeniably entails the baggage of history, integrity and identity. Rather, we should view Mormonism as part of a larger movement that shapes the religious landscape in the new millennium, and not simply as an institution that seeks to expand its territorial wings.
Implicit from above is a twofold response. The spectator outside will do no wise to stem the flow of this prodigious movement. The constituent inside can do no wise to stop it from happening either. Let nature take its course and if needs be, patience and understanding of the times.
© 2000 Ed H. Yong
All Rights Reserved
(Posted with author's permission.)
Utah Lighthouse Ministry would like to thank Ed H. Yong for giving us permission to post his excellent article. However, readers should note that the opinions expressed are those of the author and may or may not correspond with UTLM.ORG.
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