Future of Mormonism
Mormonism in the New Century
I see this process in the evolution of the LDS religion from the time of Joseph Smith to the present. Space here does not permit the kind of detailed analysis that would allow me to support my observation with specifics, but I believe that short versions of these cycles can be seen during the 19th century, and longer ones in the Mormonism of the 20th century. The assimilation mode starting with the 1890 Manifesto is pretty obvious and has been identified and detailed by many scholars. My main interest has been in the retrenchment mode that started shortly after the middle of the 20th century and is detailed and argued in my 1994 book.
However, the LDS retrenchment since 1950 has not taken Mormonism all the way back to its 19th-century peculiarities and cannot do so (a point implicit in "Moving Targets," a recent, though as yet unpublished, paper by my young colleague Ryan Cragun). Furthermore, I see signs now that retrenchment in the Church is slowing down, perhaps even rolling back somewhat, and is gradually giving away again to a more assimilative posture toward American society and the rest of the world. This process is at least a concomitant, if not a direct consequence, of the greater role and sophistication of the Church's public relations program in the strategy of the leadership at all levels of ecclesiastical organization. It is a strategy aimed at persuading the world, but Americans first and foremost, that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is an authentic, respectable Christian religion entitled to a place in the ongoing civic conversations about the world's future.
This new posture of diplomatic outreach by the church leadership can be seen in many ways, perhaps most conspicuously in the greatly enhanced resources devoted to humanitarian service in different parts of the world. Yet the formal Public Affairs program of the Church, in both its professional and volunteer expressions, is far more pervasive. An expansion of the role of Public Affairs has been necessitated in part by outside scandals and events over which the Church has had no control (e.g., the unexpected resistance to the Romney campaign from both secular and religious sources; and the resurgence of the dormant "polygamy" issue both in the news and in popular entertainment). It has been necessitated also, however, by certain internal developments that were part and parcel of the retrenchment motif from mid-century to the 1990s (e.g., expansion of temple-building and genealogical activities; renewed emphasis, even accompanied by political action, on traditional family life and gender-roles; increased emphasis on obedience to ecclesiastical authority, including control of the intellectuals). All of these developments, and others that could be cited, have combined to require a renewed effort by the LDS Church to reconstruct its public image in more positive directions.
A certain return to an assimilative direction inevitably follows from this public relations posture. As examples I would cite 1) the growing rapprochement with the Catholic Church and increased outreach to Jews, Muslims, and others, with a corresponding decline in the special -- and seemingly exclusive -- overtures toward Protestant Evangelicals with whom LDS interests seemed more convergent during the retrenchment of recent decades; 2) the public muting of certain traditional (but not essential) doctrines and literature that were once considered by the faithful and critics alike as indispensable marks of Mormon identity (e.g., key doctrines from the King Follett Discourse; identification of all American aborigines as Lamanite descendants; and the dropping of McConkie's classic Mormon Doctrine); 3) efforts to neutralize the "secrecy" charge by bringing key opinion leaders from various religions to visit new temples before dedication, and by giving greater access to archives for non-Mormon (and even some ex-Mormon) researchers; and finally, 4) a rapprochement with Mormon scholars themselves (though not ever publicly announced, of course), including many who are independent of church employment or sponsorship. These scholars are now once again writing books and articles on delicate and controversial subjects, and participating in forums like Sunstone, Dialogue, and the Mormon History Association, without reprisals from conservative church leaders. The appreciative acknowledgements, and even some tacit support, by church leaders for new academic initiatives, conferences, and endowed chairs in Mormon Studies would also be part of this new accommodation of independent scholarly work on the LDS religion, history, and culture.