From the mid-1950s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) went through a phase of re-emphasizing its distinctiveness in relation to wider American culture, but during the Hinckley era, starting in 1995, the pendulum of church culture has swung somewhat toward assimilation, writes Armand L. Mauss in an essay published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought (Winter 2011).
Mauss reflects about developments in Mormonism that occurred in the nearly two decades since he published his book The Angel and the Beehive (University of Illinois Press, 1994). At the grassroots, little may have seemed to change. But LDS leadership has been partly softening the tone on a number of topics, including some distinctive Mormon doctrines that are controversial in the eyes of other Christians, such as “heavenly parents, the eternal progression of God from a mortal state and the potential human destiny of godhood.”
While there is a desire to reshape the image of Mormons, these are not merely statements for public consumption: a look at recent church manuals shows that some traditional LDS teachings “have been eliminated or seriously watered down.”In relation to scholarship, independent scholars not employed by the church “have lately enjoyed a tacit acceptance by leaders.” There is more openness toward dealing with controversial issues and generous access to church archives is given to these scholars.
In the same way, the Department of Public Affairs of the LDS Church had been quite proactive toward the media and willing to deal with questions and criticisms. Quite remarkable has also been the embrace of social media and the encouragement to faithfully engage in discussions on church teachings; Mauss also observes the absence of efforts to discipline individual dissenting bloggers.
Church leaders are obviously aware that it is not possible to keep full control of the way the church is discussed. According to Mauss, the processes that can be observed over a long time span seem to be “two steps toward assimilation and only one back toward retrenchment;” in the long term, the result should be a well-assimilated community—remembering that the growth of a movement sometimes means, from a sociological angle, finding an optimal level of tension. Mauss ends by wondering what other course corrections might be around the corner and what the consequences will also be not just for the LDS faithful in the United States, but for Mormons around the world.
(Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, P.O. Box 58423, Salt Lake City, UT 84158)