What the Mormon Moment Wrought

What the Mormon Moment Wrought
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The "Mormon moment" was supposed to be a coming out party for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The party was real, but instead of changing how the world viewed Mormonism, Mormons began to change the way they viewed their church.

The LDS Church now faces new challenges brought on by the emergence of troublesome details from the past. In this information age, the LDS Church has lost the ability to control the flow of information. This has required the LDS Church, for perhaps the first time, to be open and transparent about the unpleasant details of its history.

At their most recent General Conference, Elder Quinton Cook of the quorum of the twelve apostles stated that the LDS Church has never been stronger. This might be a response to Elder Marvin Jensen, then LDS Church historian, who admitted in 2012 that members were "leaving in droves." While Elder Cook's statements were statistically correct, he left much unsaid. But the fact that Elder Cook had to even address this topic suggests that all is not well in Zion.

When a Mormon decides to distance him or herself from the Church, they often do so in an unofficial capacity -- meaning they technically remain members. Elder Cook did not mention activity or attendance statistics in his assessment. He also did not account for the thousands of active members now struggling with doubt. While doubt has always gone hand-in-hand with faith, current developments are providing unique challenges for the LDS Church unimagined just a few decades ago.

The church was founded during an unfortunate time. During Joseph Smith's time, many believed in institutionalized racism, had wide spread belief in magic, a missionary like support of U.S. imperialism, and a fancy for astronomy. But the Church was also founded recent enough to have all the journals, documents, and history recorded and preserved which is now being disseminated to Church membership on a mass level and scrutinized by historians and members both. 

For decades the Church was able to control the flow of information and key narratives of Church history and Church leadership. Until now, the majority of the LDS Church had no reason to question the twin narratives of the divine mission of the Church and the role Church leaders have as prophets. Unpleasant details such as Brigham Young's racism, Joseph Smith's polygamy, and odd-ball doctrines such as the Adam-God theory were either swept under the rug or ruled as "anti-Mormon literature."

This worked well, until it didn't.

Countless members have asked themselves why they have never heard of such details before despite a lifetime of devotion and activity in the Church. They also wonder how to reconcile their belief in the divine nature of the Church with the troublesome accounts of Church history and early leaders. This is perhaps why, at the most recent general conference, several members voiced their opposition to Church leadership -- a stunt that has not happened in decades.

Restoring faith and trust is now required, yet it will be a difficult task for current Mormon leadership. LDS leadership has a limited ability to set the agenda and is instead forced to respond to the concerns of the members. This has been exasperated in part because the Church has essentially become a-theological. The introduction of new revelation and the articulation of past theology doesn't seem like a top priority for Mormon leadership. 1995's "The Family, a Proclamation to the World," the closest document to new theology that the Church has produced in recent years, contained no new ideas or new insights and is already over 20 years old.

The Church's a-theological strategy has also limited the ability of the Church to respond to contemporary concerns such as gender equality and homosexuality. Elder Oaks recently admitted the need for more revelation on these issues when referring to transgender issues stated that the Church did not have much experience and had "unfinished business in teaching on that."

New insights and theological clarity is needed now more than ever. The lack of theological engagement and the limited amount of new revelation limits the authority of Church leadership in the eyes of Members searching for answers.

Recent attempts by LDS leadership to address these concerns don't seem to be on track to restore trust and build faith. One element of the strategy is the promotion of dialogues that openly deal with problematic topics, yet maintain the positive narratives the Church has always promoted. The signature element of this strategy has been the publication of several academic styled articles on the Church's official website. These articles discuss the problematic topics in Mormon history including polygamy and race issues.

While a step in the right direction, these articles are not officially endorsed by the First Presidency and have been low key in their publication. The production of these historical narratives certainly cannot be an end solution for doubting Mormons. One member who opposed the First Presidency during the sustaining vote of the most recent general conference did not begin to doubt until he read these same topic pages, which was his first encounter with problematic elements of Mormon history.

The Church has relied on two additional strategies to deal with troublesome teachings when it has become evident that they are no longer valid, accurate, or true. The first is to ignore the teaching. Beliefs such as Missouri being the location of the garden of Eden, divinity of the U.S. Constitution, plural or polygamous marriage as a requirement for exaltation, and the earth being 7,000 years old, have been all but ignored in recent decades. Hoping that these doctrines will just go away is a strategy bound to fail.

The other tactic has been to reclassify doctrine as personal views of past church leaders, despite the fact that these views were at the time taught and accepted as doctrine. While this is particularly true of Brigham Young and race issues, there are also examples of teachings from other prophets as well. This denial of doctrine allows the church to separate itself from false teachings without confronting the consequences. While Church PR wizards can dub past teachings as rumor and folklore, spin can go only so far when past teachings are easily available thanks to Mr. Google.

What changes could the Church make to regain trust and encourage faith?

Using modern revelation to correct past teachings would be a good first step. Instead of ignoring bizarre teachings and denying responsibility for the incorrect ones, the Church should authoritatively declare incorrect doctrines as false and provide clarification where necessary. Admission of error has not been done in the past for fear that by correcting the mistakes of past leaders it would diminish the authority of present leadership. While it is ultimately up to God to decide what he reveals, the history of the LDS Church demonstrates that revelation comes after a question is asked: the first vision, the restoration of the priesthood, and the reversal of the priesthood ban, to name but a few examples.

The LDS Church has built its name as a living church with modern revelation. To successfully navigate through these perilous times, leadership would be wise to return to their roots and provide members with more theology, not less. If LDS leaders did so, they might realize that to err is human, but to change is divine.

Matthew Crandall is an associate professor of International Relations at Tallinn University

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