Since Planted was published, I’ve received lots of e-mails from people who are reconsidering, renegotiating, or otherwise transitioning in their faith or membership in the church, as well as from concerned family members of those who are struggling.
By show of hands, how many of you personally know someone—a friend, a family member, someone in your ward—who has recently not just slipped into inactivity, but proactively left the church over historical, doctrinal, or contemporary issues?
It’s even more clear to me now than when I wrote the book that there is a lot of confusion out there, and a lot of very real pain, felt by sincere people who are trying to figure it all out. Many of the people I’ve heard from haven’t yet left, and are holding on with their fingertips, trying to find a way to stay in the church with intellectual, spiritual, and emotional integrity. But many others have already left, and no amount of reclamation work is going to bring them back, because their feelings are so deep, and often their paradigms have shifted so profoundly.
For some who have transitioned out of the church, they may have had different outcomes if they had found satisfactory answers or a sympathetic community sooner. I recently had a long lunch with an old friend I hadn’t seen since graduate school, when he was a gung-ho member of the ward. We hadn’t been in touch for years, but he reached out to me by e-mail, said he had read Planted, and wanted to talk. He told me how over the past couple years he started questioning the church, primarily because of information he encountered on various websites and podcasts. Within a few months he went from full activity to total anger and bitterness, leaving the church entirely and wanting absolutely nothing to do with it. He has mellowed a bit, thanks in part to attending a post-Mormon support group. He can now attend sacrament meeting with family members, but is still contemplating removing his name from the records. At lunch, we had a great conversation, and were both very honest about where we’re at in our respective faith journeys and why we feel the way we do. A couple days later he e-mailed me and wistfully said, “If only I had reconnected with you first.” Emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually, he feels it’s simply too late to put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. I wrote Planted to try to preempt some of those tumbles, and to give all the king’s horses and all the king’s men—and women—some ideas on how we might help keep people on the wall, or, failing that, at least understand what happens and act with compassion when they fall off.
To me, it’s essential to actually hear the voices of those who are struggling. No one narrative is representative of the whole. But as one example of the type of person who is doing all he can to hang on and stay in, I want to read, with permission, excerpts from an e-mail I recently received:
Most of the stuff I’ve read [online] that attacks polygamy and [Book of Mormon] translation issues tend to spin the quotes and facts they use pretty hard, and it’s amazing how good they are at lulling you away into not critically examining their claims and doing your own research. It’s little wonder to me why people leave the church so quickly after learning some of these issues because there are people out there that have mastered the craft of presenting their information as infallible and their opinions as iron clad. . . .
I know there’s a certain stigma around [this online] material, and I completely agree that it’s toxic. But once a seed of doubt has been planted and you begin to lose trust in what you’ve always believed, that stigma starts to fade and you start thinking you need to get your information from somewhere. . . .
I feel kind of exhausted with examining these types of controversial issues. . . .
So, I believe. . . . I really do. At times I’ve wondered if I believe mostly because want it all to be true so badly. I want there to be more to life, and I want to know that our family relationships and existence perpetuate after we die. I want it to be true that somebody is hearing and answering my prayers, and the feelings that I have in my heart are coming from a source greater than myself. I want to believe that forgiveness of sins is possible, and that Christ truly lives. . . .
There are still things that I think will always be puzzling to me. There is a plausible narrative that you could construct (and many people do) about it all being a lie. But there is also a plausible narrative that you can construct that it is all true. Sometimes I feel like I’m having to make allowance for a lot of ambiguity and shortcomings of men…
So…where do you think that leaves me? At this point I feel like my personal beliefs aren’t quite in line with most members of the LDS church. . . . [I am] in line with the core doctrines and beliefs…but I just feel like once you’ve wandered down that rabbit hole…if you decide to stick around for a while I think it forces you to confront the fact that our past leaders have made mistakes, and our history as a church is pretty messy and unclear in a few spots. It leaves me uncertain about where exactly to draw the line on what to consider infallible doctrine and what to consider the opinions of sincere, but flawed leaders called of God.
This captures so much of what I’ve heard from so many people: new discoveries on the Internet, feelings of confusion and doubt, being wary of the stigma associated with doubt, mental and emotional and spiritual exhaustion, grappling with prophetic fallibility, and remodeling the house of faith in the midst of both uncertainty and newfound wisdom.
Now let me share what I wrote back to him (edited here for readability):
You are exactly the type of person I wrote Planted for – a real seeker who is willing to put in the time and the work, not someone who is ready to bail at the first sign of trouble. . . .
As I read your…message, two lines stuck out to me:
“So, I believe. I really do. . . . I want to believe.”
“There are still things that I think will always be puzzling to me.”
This is pretty much exactly where I find myself. And of course it is reminiscent of the New Testament: “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Mormonism is distinctive among successful global religions in the sense that it was born in the Enlightenment age. . . . One thing that has happened is that many Mormons, operating in modes similar to Protestant fundamentalists, have sought to gain or impose the same type of modern scientific certainty on their religious faith as they do the natural world. Thus all the hullabaloo about scientific and archaeological evidences for the Book of Mormon, etc. Now I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with formulating rational grounds for belief—to the contrary, I think the anti-intellectual strain within Mormonism (and American culture more broadly) may be even more problematic.
But it’s ultimately a question of parallel and in some ways competing epistemologies. The scientific revolution has wrought wonders in our world because we have been better able to apprehend our natural world through rigorous inquiry. Some people believe that there is nothing that escapes those naturalistic tools and methods. . . . I personally believe that there are elements of the cosmos and the human experience that go beyond what could ever be perceived, measured, or fully understood through naturalistic methods, no matter how refined. I would count among these things the central claims of Christianity: the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the reality and workings of the Holy Spirit. These are, quite literally, articles of faith that can neither be proven nor disproven by a naturalistic, rationalistic, Enlightenment approach to knowledge.
One of the problems we have in Mormonism is that we have loaded too much into the Truth Cart. And then when anything in the cart starts to rot a bit, or look unseemly upon further inspection, some have a tendency to overturn the entire cart or seek a refund for the whole lot. We have loaded so much into the Truth Cart largely because we have wanted to have the same kind of certainty about our religious claims—down to rather obscure doctrinal issues—as we do about scientific claims. . . .
Over the years the church leadership and laity have also done our religion no favors by putting more in the cart than the cart could possibly bear. . . . Many of the things which trouble people are things that we probably should never have been all that dogmatic about in the first place. I find that a little humility about our doctrine, especially given the contingencies of its historical development, goes a long way in remaining satisfied with the whole. . . .
The CES Letter [formally, “Letter to a CES Director,” which he cited as one of the online sources he had read] is emblematic of this all-or-nothing approach to religion. . . . The letter is nearly a perfect inverse of the version of Mormonism it is reacting to. Jeremy Runnels may have written the letter, but it was actually an inevitability—someone, sometime, somewhere was going to write that letter, because it was the obvious response to a certain style, tone, and mode of Mormonism that culminated in the highly doctrinaire, no-retreat-no-surrender positions taken by certain church leaders and members especially in the second half of the twentieth century. I would actually agree with the CES letter’s basic notion, that the Mormonism it is responding to is unsustainable. Where I disagree is that I don’t think the Mormonism it is responding to is actually the real, only, or inevitable Mormonism. Certainly, that was some people’s Mormonism, but it’s not my Mormonism, and I don’t think it’s the Mormonism that is going to endure in future decades and centuries.
One of the key tasks before us is developing a better, more sophisticated, and frankly more Christian theology of prophets and prophethood. We have treated our prophets too often as demigods. We do not believe in prophetic infallibility. This cannot be said enough, and it cannot be taken seriously enough. We give it lip service but too often do not believe it, nor consider its implications, other than the intellectually lazy conclusion that the whole thing must either be all true or a complete fraud. . . . We need to think harder about why we should…sustain prophets and apostles whom we know will occasionally be wrong about certain things. We don’t always know what those things are except in hindsight, because we were usually all wrong together. . . . We still have a lot of work to do. . . .
I sincerely hope you can find a way to stay with and in and for the church, because we need people like you.
As you can see, I don’t think that we can just blame the doubters for not believing enough. Indeed, in some cases they were set up by being asked to believe too much, either in the absence of actual data or in doctrinal propositions or theological frameworks that could not stand the test of time, let alone a basic smell test. Take two examples from my mission. First, I repeatedly and passionately bore testimony that as a young man Joseph Smith was absolutely not engaged in treasure seeking or money digging. Second, I read and discussed with other missionaries various talks by General Authorities teaching that blacks were “fence-sitters,” or otherwise “less valiant,” in the pre-existence, which explained why they were “cursed” in mortality. In the first case, I certainly did not intend to lie to anyone, but that’s precisely what I did because I hadn’t been taught any better. The second case is more pernicious to me, with moral and ethical implications that make me shudder as I look back. But as missionaries we were simply doing what the rest of the church and its leaders had been doing for almost a century and a half—filling in theological and historical blanks with what were really some rather reprehensibly bad explanations, because we felt like we had to have a solid doctrinal basis for everything, even if we were making it up. And if a General Authority said it, well then, it must be dictated straight from heaven. I’ve had to repent for my own un-Christian acts and words, and have been able to reconcile myself to the fact that the church that sent me out as an official representative didn’t arm me with better and more accurate information. However, many people have not been able to make the same peace. They feel that they were betrayed or set up by the very institution that had taught them to be honest and true.
Part of our baptismal covenant to “mourn with those who mourn” is to try to understand, empathetically and charitably, what those with sincere doubts and questions are going through. Most people who become disaffected from the church—many of whom are returned missionaries, endowed in the temple, and have served faithfully in major callings—fall into one of two very broad and overlapping categories: what Richard Bushman refers to those who feel either “switched off” or “squeezed out.”
The switched-off group includes those who encounter troubling information online or somewhere else, usually regarding our history or doctrine. This new knowledge doesn’t square with what they had previously learned in all their years in the church—sometimes by way of direct contradiction, but usually by revealing parts of the story that we don’t typically share in our three-hour block on Sunday. There is a standard list of problematic subjects, most of which are now discussed at some length in the church’s excellent Gospel Topics essays on lds.org, and which for a half century have been the subject of intelligent analysis in print sources like Dialogue, the Journal of Mormon History, and numerous academic books. But most people are not consulting the peer-reviewed scholarship, and far too many church members are still unaware that the Gospel Topics essays even exist. In recent years many thousands have found their way to the previously mentioned “Letter to a CES Director,” a slick but in my opinion intellectually amateurish document that has midwifed countless people out of the church. Unfortunately, for many who land there, the “Letter” is the culmination of their quest for knowledge rather than being just one data point among many.
In any case, once they discover these new facts and realize they are not just the inventions of malicious anti-Mormon propaganda, many people start to wonder what else they haven’t been told. They begin to see duplicity rather than sincerity in the church’s presentation of its doctrine and history. Skepticism and doubt begin to overcome trust and faith. One of the ironies we haven’t fully appreciated in our discussions of doubt is that to some degree our church culture is responsible for many people’s reactions to troubling information. Whether consciously or not, they are simply applying what they learned in well-intentioned but ultimately damaging Primary and youth lessons, such as when the teacher offers the class a bowl of ice cream, then dumps a small amount of dirt on it and asks if anyone wants it now. Of course they say no, and the teacher points out that this is what just a little bit of sin does—it ruins everything. So those who see a little bit of dirt in church history are acting in ways that seem entirely commensurate with what they have been taught their whole lives—God cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance, so we turn away from sin and touch not the unclean thing. Unable to manage the cognitive dissonance, these people’s relationship to the church becomes tenuous, and often breaks. Many feel that they cannot participate with integrity in church meetings where certain details are either neglected, covered up, or denied. In short, they have become switched off. Some of these people not only leave the church, but also abandon Christianity and even theism, since God, Jesus, and Mormonism had always come as a package deal in their minds.
The second group in Richard Bushman’s perceptive typology are those who feel “squeezed out,” like they just don’t fit in at church. Usually this comes about more because of current issues than past ones, though historical and doctrinal concerns may be contributing factors. Oftentimes those who feel squeezed out fully embrace the basic principles and ordinances of the gospel. But they feel alienated over things like the dominant and unreflexive political conservativism among most American church members, or heartfelt questions about whether girls and women have all the opportunities for spiritual growth and recognition in the church that boys and men do, or how the church fails to adequately minister to and often hurts our LGBT sisters and brothers. Feeling isolated, alienated, judged, and sometimes pressured, these Saints sense that there is simply no place for them in the church in spite of their core beliefs. They feel squeezed out, and many of them leave us.
Of course, these two categories grossly oversimplify the complex reasons why people choose to withdraw or leave the church altogether. Every person’s story is as unique as they are. It’s impossible for a book, General Conference address, or even scripture to minister to people one by one, as Jesus did, so that’s where each of us comes in. As we saw from the previous show of hands, doubt and disaffection are manifested somewhere in virtually all of our families, wards, and social networks. So even if doubt is a stranger to your own heart, through your relationships with others the challenge of faith crisis, as it is often called, is just as important to you as if you were going through it yourself.
My strong belief is that the most important thing we can do to empathize with and minister compassionately to those who are experiencing doubt and disaffection is to make the church a more welcoming place for those who struggle. It is our responsibility, in our church callings but also as parents and siblings and friends, to create the conditions in which people can feel comfortable working through their questions and doubts in the midst of the body of Christ rather than feeling excluded from it. I believe that a more embracing Mormonism may be the most important factor in helping people more fully embrace Mormonism. I recently read about certain members of a ward who refused to take the sacrament from a young man who had come out as gay but who was declared worthy by his bishop. That is not an embracing Mormonism.
One of the most fundamental and recurring images used in scripture to evoke Christ’s grace and our Father’s love, is that of embrace. Think of Esau, who “ran to meet” his estranged brother Jacob, “and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” as they wept together (Gen. 33:4). Or the prodigal son’s father, who “had compassion” on his son, “and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). Or Lehi’s exultant declaration, “I am encircled about eternally in the arms of [the Lord’s] love” (2 Nephi 1:15). Or Mormon’s description of being “clasped in the arms of Jesus” (Mormon 5:11). When we extend an embrace toward others—literally or figuratively—then we are doing the compassionate, reconciling work of Christ.
What prevents us from being more embracing, not just of those with questions and doubts but of all kinds of people who don’t already think or act like us? I was recently struck by a comment made to me by a work colleague. She and her husband have been looking for a good church community to support them as they raise their two adopted granddaughters. They’ve been attending an LDS ward for a few months now. They love it and are talking seriously about getting baptized. At lunch a couple weeks ago, she was regaling me with the many virtues of Mormonism and Mormons—which I thought was my job!—when she paused and said, “I just don’t get why they’re all so defensive.”
I think her comment was more perceptive than she may have realized. As I look across nearly two hundred years of Mormon history, I see a people who have been motivated first by faith, but secondly by fear. That has led us to think, speak, and behave in ways that are not always welcoming either to outsiders or to those within our midst who have questions, different perspectives, or otherwise don’t fit a certain mold. Having written a book about nineteenth-century anti-Mormon violence, I get that there were really good reasons why our pioneer ancestors were scared. And even since systematic anti-Mormon violence ended, we have continued to endure more than our fair share of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, sometimes innocent but often malicious. Afraid of giving our critics any ammunition, we have closed ranks and presented only what we think is the image of our best selves to the world. Furthermore, we have created the impression of absolute unity in both the leadership and membership that is in many ways a useful fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. I’m not saying that this came out of anything but the best intentions—namely, the survival and unity of the church. But I do think that a lot of the way we have constructed our community has been predicated on fear, which has led to a certain parochialism, risk aversion, lack of moral imagination, reticence to take accountability for past missteps, and the overall defensiveness that my colleague spotted.
Circling the wagons was an effective pioneer tactic, but was also a telltale sign of vulnerability and weakness, not strength. Shifting analogies somewhat, for too many years we refused to yield to dissenters and critics even an inch of territory—including some pretty rocky, barren outposts that should never have fallen within our borders and definitely weren’t worth defending. This no-retreat-no-surrender mentality has only fueled the CES Letter and other polemics, which have made the claim that a series of apparent infelicities, contradictions, gaps, errors, and transgressions invalidate the entire Mormon system. They can effectively make that argument, and lead many thousands of people out of the church, because too many Latter-day Saints, including many of our leaders, have over the years essentially made that same all-or-nothing argument. In the process we constructed an edifice that was too rigid and brittle to withstand the storms of scrutiny that have been unleashed especially in our Internet age.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting we simply pack up and go home because there are some battles that we’re going to lose, or have already lost. That’s exactly the slippery slope / house of cards mentality I want us to get out of. Furthermore, I’m not arguing against the virtues of prudence, as individuals or an institution. Of course we want to institute proper safeguards that protect us, our children, and the church we love from a wide range of human frailties and corruptions. Nor am I suggesting that we forget our history of persecution. Indeed, in a best case scenario, our past traumas can have very positive effects in not only strengthening our own community but also our sympathy for others. Social psychologist Ervin Staub calls this “altruism born of suffering.” As he writes, “When victimized/traumatized persons heal from trauma and have certain other constructive experiences, their pain and suffering can become a source of empathy and caring, and of motivation to help those who have suffered, or to prevent suffering.” We have seen this in a remarkable way with the church’s new refugee assistance initiative, “I Was a Stranger.” I had one of my most powerful spiritual experiences in years listening to Elder Patrick Kearon’s General Conference talk in April when he connected the saga of modern-day refugees to our own heritage, teaching, “Their story is our story, not that many years ago.” So rather than either forgetting our history of persecution or constantly nursing our wounds, let’s reflect on the violence committed against our community in the past and say “never again” to similar wrongs being visited on any other minority community today or in the future. Let’s transform our past traumas into a religious, social, and even political ethic of solidarity with “the least of these.”
So without forgetting our past or wilting in the face of opposition, I believe it’s time for Latter-day Saints to move forward with the courage of our convictions. I would suggest that doing so will go a long way in addressing the current predicament of doubt and disaffection that so many of our members are experiencing. Mormonism is a young religion, still finding its legs. For its first century it necessarily focused on origins and basic survival in the face of tremendous persecution and hardship. In its second century the church successfully emphasized stability, respectability, and growth. Only now, as we approach Mormonism’s third century, are we in a position where we can think bigger and bolder. I believe that Mormonism’s challenge and opportunity in the 21st century will not be simply to survive or even to grow, but rather to contribute, to give something novel and unique that the world desperately needs and can have no other way. What will be our community’s gift to the world in this century and the centuries beyond? As we figure it out together, we will galvanize the commitment of our own members, especially our Millennials, who don’t just want to belong to a church but yearn to join a movement that they understand to be relevant and to make a real difference in the world.
Living Mormonism with the courage of our convictions will allow us to embrace a wider cross-section of those who may currently feel switched off or squeezed out. The gospel revealed through Joseph Smith is grand, sweeping, and capacious—not narrow, petty, and restrictive. Whatever you think about the Prophet Joseph, you can’t say he thought small. It was the audacity, not the conservatism, of his thought that captured the imaginations of the early Saints.
So I’m encouraged when I see us have the courage of our convictions in embracing our doctrine of God—the God of the King Follett discourse and the temple—rather than offering mealy-mouthed compromises to squeeze our God into the box of creedal Christianity. Just like the Israelites wanted a king—“That we also may be like all the nations” (1 Sam. 8:20)—for the sake of acceptance and respectability we’ve too often wanted a God like all the nations, rather than the one who has revealed himself to us in power and glory.
As part and parcel of embracing our doctrine of God, it’s encouraging to see more members courageously embracing our theology of Heavenly Mother and the divine feminine, rather than simply perpetuating the patronizing stance that she can’t bear us talking about her. And even with the question of women’s ordination to the Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods off the table, we are beginning to improve in discussing the priestly roles that women serve both in temples and in the everyday church, though of course we still have a long way to go.
It’s encouraging to see greater courage in our Seminaries & Institutes, BYU Religious Education classrooms, and even a few Sunday School classes, which are demonstrating that holistic discipleship means educating people’s minds as well as their hearts. We are seeing that people can not only tolerate challenging information but indeed are strengthened by the faithful presentation of the whole truth. Facts are stubborn things. When our members, and especially our children, see that their religion can be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as any other topic of study, and doesn’t need protective hedges of dumbing-down, denial, and deferred questions, then they will have greater courage in living out their Mormonism.
I am seeing the courage of our convictions in increased appreciation that different people read scripture differently—and that non-literal readings can also be faithful readings. People like Adam Miller, Julie Smith, Grant Hardy, Joe Spencer, and Mike Austin are leading the way in a new generation of LDS scripture scholarship, and our community is so much the richer for it.
This is a hard one for many people, but I am seeing us begin to courageously explore what it really means to sustain fallible prophets and apostles, and to develop a robust theology that sustains our sustaining. The chapter in Planted that I get the most comments on is chapter 6, “In All Patience and Faith,” which addresses prophetic fallibility while maintaining the conviction that God does reach down and call a few mortals among us to dedicate their lives and best efforts to proclaiming the gospel, leading the church, and calling us to repentance. One of our community’s gifts, as Latter-day Saint Christians, is that we declare that God points us to prophets, apostles, and the church—not because they can save or redeem us, but because they are the temporal means by which he orients us to our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ.
Even with all these positive developments, I believe there are many areas where there is still ample room for improvement. You will have your own list, and may well disagree with mine—but I’ve got the mic.
I believe we need to summon the courage to finally and truly repent for some of our past transgressions. Let’s start with the obvious stuff, like Mountain Meadows, the spurious racial ideologies surrounding the priesthood-temple ban, and generations of patriarchal discourse that relegated women to being reflected light compared to the glory of their husbands and priesthood leaders. Repentance, at least as the church has taught me the principle, requires an admission of wrongdoing and an effort toward reconciliation with those who have been trespassed against. It is more than either just moving on or a lawyerly expression of remorse that bad things may have happened.
I believe we need to summon the courage to authentically incorporate more of the diversity of God’s children into our—rather, his—church. Twentieth-century Mormonism was astonishingly successful at creating a committed core of white, middle-class, upwardly mobile, professional, suburban American nuclear families. We need greater courage to allow members in the international church, having been taught correct principles, to govern themselves. We need greater courage to pursue real and sustained ministries to the urban poor, in this country and around the world. Even without changing our doctrine, we need greater courage not just to tolerate but to do all we can to reach out to and welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters who are hurting so badly right now. That includes partaking of the sacrament when it is blessed or passed by gay boys deemed worthy by their bishop like any other Aaronic Priesthood holder, or not isolating LGBT members and treating them like they have or are an infectious disease. And for heaven’s sake, let’s stop fussing over women wearing pants to church, or men coming with beards or blue shirts. With all the other problems in the church and the world, is that where we’re going to spend our emotional energy?
I believe we need to summon the courage to make secularism an ally rather than a bogeyman. Secularism is here to stay as one of the principal conditions of late modern society. Furthermore, we of all people should be grateful for it, because without secularism, with its bequest of disestablishment and religious freedom, there would be no Mormonism. Secularism is not the enemy—it is the very air we breathe, and the foundation for our modern democratic, scientific, and human rights regimes that we all value and which have led to such a dramatic increase in human flourishing. To be sure, secularization can also include an aggressive campaign toward the privatization of religion, in which it is banned mostly or entirely from the public square. And in their most hostile forms, secularization theorists and champions have predicted the inevitable decline of religion, celebrated any movement in that direction, resisted any indicators to the contrary, and portrayed the stubborn persistence of religion as not only backward but genuinely dangerous. But before dismissing secularists as bigoted cranks, let’s have the courage to listen to their real grievances and fears about what centuries of state-sponsored religious majoritarianism and moral establishments did to atheists and religious minorities—including, let’s not forget, Mormons. Despite the cries of the merchants of fear on both sides, my personal feeling, and scholarly analysis, is that at least in America, thanks to the First Amendment, secularism is still mostly benign and generally beneficial to the flourishing of voluntary religious commitments and communities, including ours.
One of the reasons I’m skeptical of blaming outside influences for our troubles—whether it be secularism, or liberalism, or feminism, or marriage equality, or even Satan—is that doing so can prevent us from engaging in self-critique. On this score I think it’s helpful to occasionally revisit the penetrating opening passage of the 1955 classic God in Search of Man, written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the 20th century:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living foundation; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.
The vast ranks of eminently modern believers, including myself and most of you here today, prove that living in a secular age does not in itself compel one to give up on belief. So when it comes to declining rates of faith, affiliation, and trust in religious institutions and authority, the secularism of the modern world is more context than cause. The same can be said for feminism, liberalism, capitalism, nationalism, and all the other modern ideological and structural contexts in which Mormonism operates. The charge of our theology, both because of the incarnation of Christ and the ideal of Zion, is to work in and redeem history rather than escape from or condemn it.
But for too many of our members, Mormonism has become, in Rabbi Heschel’s words, “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, [and] insipid.” When week after week they lurch from thinly veiled political rants in sacrament meeting to faith-promoting rumors in Sunday School to elders quorums that Donald Trump could only describe as “low energy,” then it becomes that much easier for them to leave when they feel switched off or squeezed out. To be sure, each person has a responsibility to him- or herself to do what they can to stay planted in the gospel. This includes the hard work of research and sustained reflection—not just casually browsing a few websites, listening to a few podcasts, and then coming to ironclad conclusions about how the church is deceiving us all.
As I wrap up, I will admit that I have two fears for the church that I love and am totally committed to. First, I fear for what I call the “juvenilization” of Mormonism, or the “EFY-ification” of the church, or the “Gospel According to Internet Memes.” When it’s adults in the room, let’s respect one another enough to talk like adults. Most people can handle complexity and nuance. We can stretch beyond what we learned in seminary, though we are so rarely invited to. I have a really smart colleague who once invited the missionaries into his home so he could learn more about Mormonism. When they finished their discussion, with frequent references to their accompanying flipchart, he thought to himself, “That’s it?” Indeed, I fear that in too many contexts we’re feeding our members and investigators a low-nutrition religious diet that leaves them not only with the unsatisfied feeling of “That’s it?” but also leaves them poorly fortified against challenges to their faith. I see signs that we’re starting to do better on this score, but frankly only in patchwork fashion.
My second fear is for the fundamentalist takeover of Mormonism. I’m not referring to fundamentalism in terms of polygamy—I’m pretty confident we’re totally past that phase of our history. Instead, this is a reference to what I think is the rather remote possibility of a process similar to what happened in the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1990s, when theological fundamentalists took over the churches, seminaries, and governing bodies of the denomination and either pushed out liberals and moderates or made their lives in the church so miserable that they left on their own, thus leaving only the fundamentalists to control the whole denomination. There are occasional signs that moderates and liberals are simply not wanted in the contemporary LDS Church. We have already lost too many who feel, incorrectly in my estimation, that the church is simply a shill for the Republican Party and Family Research Council. But for the most part I’m optimistic that the center will hold, and that Zion will transcend the ongoing culture wars.
In the end, I’m bullish about the future of Mormonism, and its ability to speak to the needs of a wide range of God’s children, including those who find belief and belonging in the church a genuine struggle. In this moment when we are speaking so much of doubt, perhaps it’s helpful to remember that Jesus chided his disciples for their fears as much as, if not more than, their doubts. Remember Paul’s counsel to Timothy: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Tim. 1:7). I’m convinced that a church that is simultaneously humbler and more self-possessed can capture the imaginations and loyalties of those who feel switched off and squeezed out more than could a church leadership and laity that are constantly on the defensive.
We have a theology that empowers each of us to be anxiously engaged in good causes, to be co-creators and co-participants with Christ in the work of redeeming the world. Flipcharts and risk management will never capture people’s hearts. In our 21st-century secular age, Mormonism will succeed because it stretches people’s moral imaginations, and calls them to a life of faith that is not small and fearful, but rather creative, venturesome, open, and empowering.
Zion calls. Will we have the courage to get there?
 I discuss these dynamics further in the Introduction and Chapter 1 of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2015).
 On “embracing Mormonism,” see Chapter 10 of Planted.
 Patrick Q. Mason, The Mormon Menace: Violence and Anti-Mormonism in the Postbellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Ervin Staub, Overcoming Evil: Genocide, Violent Conflict, and Terrorism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 280.
 Patrick Kearon, “Refuge from the Storm,” April 2016 General Conference.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1955), 3.