Sectarianism vs. Assimilation

Which should we be more strenuously avoiding, and how?
Clark Goble suggests that the Church in “the last decade and a half has focused on building on common ground. But that has also (IMO) had unfortunate doctrinal consequences on the population as well as I believe leading to the decrease in conversions the last 5 – 8 years.”

I don’t think I’ve heard the suggestion before that downplaying our differences has decreased our attractiveness to potential converts. But it would kind of make sense if it did. If it did, that is, because I can easily see it going the other way. As a missionary, I felt that my efforts to build on common beliefs with non-members were richly rewarded. And I found there were lots, though not many common religious beliefs in largely secular and otherwise Buddhist/Shinto Japan. Of course, Mormon beliefs are drastically different from the Japanese mainstream already, so perhaps this is not a good test case. There wasn’t the remotest danger of merely assimilating!

I am sure that in the past we have fallen into the opposite pitfall of sectarianism (and still, do, though perhaps less). J.S. Mill points out the evil of sectarianism, thus: “Every truth which men of narrow capacity [i.e. most everyone who is human] are in earnest about is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world, or at all events none that could limit or qualify the first.”* This overemphasis of points of difference, to the distortion of the whole body of truth, is something we Mormons sometimes fall into regarding, say, the word of wisdom, or our grooming standards, in our popular discourse.

In part, perhaps what looks to some like assimilation is actually just a recovery from the sectarian tendencies of a besieged minority. We feel less besieged, so we are more free to emphasize our core teachings, casting off sectarian distortion, even if this makes our boundaries more blurry or porous. But J.S. Mill thinks, “Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil.” Mill suggests that assimilation is the Charybdis, here, that would swallow us completely, rather than merely damage or distort our message. How should we be steering our course?

*J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Hackett, 1978), p49

26 comments for “Sectarianism vs. Assimilation

  1. I was recently sitting in a BYU religion class and heard the professor, a highly acclaimed LDS scholar, comment on this very issue. He said that every time we find common ground in our missionary work, we’ve just given that investigator one less reason to leave what they currently have and come to what we offer. I agree. The LDS message is profoundly different, and that’s why it matters. It is the existence of profound, unique truths that were once lost to the world that needs proclaiming. Many have found this approach to open doors for conversion, as opposed to the ‘common ground’ method. I have personally found this to be the case. Of course common ground sounds appealing and positive. But common ground is cheap and easily available from any sect. We’re different.

  2. President Hinckley’s missionary message as repeatedly been “Keep all the good that you have. Come and see if we can add more.” To me that sounds like finding common ground to _and_ bringing out the important “more” and different of the faith at the same time. Elder Packer’s recent article on the light of Christ seems to say we ought to appeal to that light which is in all–something common, to lead them to a greater fulness of light. Showing common ground will only give a person another reason not to accept the fulness of the gospel, only if we don’t bring that fulness out by the power of the Spirit and in the way we live–ways that help them see where we have something more.

    Sarah’s right that we are different. But, with other Christians, we believe in Christ. Like others, we believe in God. With those of many faiths, we believe in doing good, living honestly, being moral, etc. I don’t think we should ignore those things. There are causes that we join in–causes that will do good (feed, shelter, protect, ensure a better society) and in that sense build God’s kingdom and do God’s work, though in a different way than missionary work. The common ground helps in these areas.

  3. When I was serving a mission in 1983-84 the first discussion was about Christ. We were instructed not to talk about Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon. The result was that after the first discussion when we asked if we could come back a lot of people said. ‘Why, we believe the same?’
    I was happy when they changed that policy and asked us to use the Book of Mormon in the first discussion.

  4. The problem is:

    If we aren’t that different from the other Christians, there isn’t much reason to join the LDS cause.

    What’s the point of being Mormon, if you can believe the same things AND not have to pay tithing by simply attending the Methodist church.

  5. Check out R. Laurence Moore’s RELIGIOUS OUTSIDERS AND THE MAKING OF AMERICANS and Rosabeth Kanter’s COMMITMENT AND COMMUNITY for some scholarly discussions that relate to this issue.

  6. I wonder what role internal Mormon diversity plays in this?

    Do we have our cake and eat it too if we have, say, Stephen Robinson et al. palling around with the evangelicals but at the same time we have pockets that emphasize the other stuff, maybe even praxis pockets, e.g., private, church-tolerated attempts to live communally, etc.?

    Or does this just create message-confusion and too much bickering?

  7. Does it have to be one or the other? Both serve their purposes at different times and in different ways.

    As for assimilation, isn’t the whole point that as Mormons we are living the restored gospel? There are many people out there who believe they are living the gospel but who do not understand how far their version has drifted far from the truth. Yet, as far as other Christian religions are from the truth we know, they are still based on the same ideas of atonement and worship, the same Bible and the same Christ. Admittedly, I don’t know how this would hold up against other religions, or in other cultures, but in talking with people I know it is almost always helpful to find similarities and common ground to start the discussion. If finding a few common grounds makes it easier for them to come to a sacrament meeting or meet with the missionaries so they can learn about what really sets us apart, then so be it.

    However, once people are receptive to learning more, it is the differences that attract them. In my experience, what makes others interested in exploring the Church is seeing how members live what they believe, everyday. Actions speak louder than words, and should not be downplayed or adjusted to fit a certain culture. I don’t believe that this is sectarianism, it is living what we know to be the truth. But, even if it is sectarianism, it is what sets us apart to non-members and what leads people to know that our Church is more than idle words, and in fact is the truth.

  8. Why don’t we talk about gathering scattered Israel in the missionary discussions? It seems like the largest analytic in our own sacred books–the Abrahamic covenant–is left out of the picture. Our own most cherished self-understanding as Ephraim never comes up. Why?

  9. I am not so sure the effort at locating common ground has much to do with declining converts. The missionaries have to get around to JS and the BofM eventually: you can run but you can’t hide. I think the decline has more to do with retention rates, i.e. the realization that these large numbers are not staying in the church, so we had better be careful before we baptize them. I also wonder what the internet has done. I have a feeling the ability to google Mormonism may lead to more questions than answers, not the kind of thing that brings the numbers up.

  10. I have never served a mission, but I find that the common ground thing helps to break the ice when somebody who has never heard of the church, or has only heard freaky or inaccurate things, asks me questions about it. But after establishing that we all believe in Christ, the Bible, etc, then I will introduce why we are different. I think people are more apt to listen initially if they don’t feel immediately like we are some bizarre cult.

  11. There has been a trend away from emphasizing the doctrines that distinguish us from our neighbors.

    Take the Lorenzo Snow couplet: “As man now is, God once was. As God now is, man may become.”

    This is powerful medicine and it drives Evangelicals nuts. I can certainly see that deemphasizing the concept may lead to less confrontations with the Baptists. But it really does seem like a pretty central concept to our entire religion and it’s reflected in temple ceremonies to an extent. I can personally confirm that most faithful Mormons I know firmly believe the Lorenzo Snow statement as doctrine. So I don’t think we can just marginalize it the way we do with Brigham Young’s misunderstood Adam-God statement. Brigham Young’s statement is more or less isolated and isn’t reflected in our ceremonies, General Conference talks, or in the hearts of everyday Mormons, to be honest.

    Lorenzo Snow’s couplet however, is very central to the cosmic view of most practicing Mormons. I just don’t see how you can marginalize this concept. It seems crucial to the LDS concept of self-identity.

    I also think that while Snow’s statement may infuriate traditional Evangelicals, it has a huge appeal with a lot of other “non-Mormons.” It’s an exciting and inspiring idea and really grabs people’s attention. This one of those doctrines we could easily rally around if we wanted to.

    Yet current church policy seems to be to avoid talking about it. It isn’t spotlighted in the missionary discussions either (although I could be wrong on that score …).

  12. Yes, indeed, William. “Death comes equally to us all, and makes us all equal when it comes.”

  13. Seth;

    When Evangelicals criticize us as beyond the pale for President Snow’s comment I always ask: “Do you believe that God lacks the power to make us like him, or does he simply not want us to acheive his level?” It has to be one or the other. I have never gotten any response that was on point.

  14. I think there are two different dimensions to this subject– one doctrinal and the other cultural.

    From a doctrinal perspective we could not be more different from all mainstream Christian denominations. The very foudation of Mormon belief, the Trinity, is so radically different from that of Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc. that any discussion of commonality with them is at best strained. The differences in doctrine are only amplified from there. Really, to say from a doctrinal perspective that we have anything in common with other Christian religions is disingenuous.

    From a cultrual perspective we have a lot in common with other Christian denominations. While our doctrines are radically different they tend to drive similar behaviors– charity work, family unity and cohesiveness, evangelism, etc. I think these are the areas of commonality that church leaders want us to emphasize in order to “get our foot in the door.” Mormons do have their own unique culture but we do share a lot with other Christian denominations. By emphasizing the cultural differences that do exist (i.e. Word of Wisdom, Temple Marriage, Tithing) we can refer to the doctrinal principles that lead to those cultural behaviors and amplify the differences that make the Restored Gospel unique and appealing.

  15. The world’s becoming too small for a classic kind of sectarianism a la Lehi–or what have you. However, the charge to leave the world is still in force and so the only real alternative that we have in order to survive is to convert the world. IMO, God is preparing the way for such a change in the world by pouring out His spirit upon all flesh. Therefore, what we have is an enlightenment in the world which has the effect of creating a common groung thereby opening hearts to the messege of the restored gospel. But, this is really only a way of breaking the ice. In the long run each individual will have to come to grips with just how great the dichotomy is that exists between the Kingdom and the world. This is why I like our “strange” beginnings. They serve as a good reminder that the fulness of the gospel will lead one into a sectarian “wilderness” of sorts. Certainly the presence of Temples ought give the same reminder.

  16. Ben, you mentioned: “I don’t think I’ve heard the suggestion before that downplaying our differences has decreased our attractiveness to potential converts.”

    Well, if I may, I have said this for years. A decade ago, in my article “Feeding the Fleeing Flock”, Dialogue (Spring 1996), I wrote:

    How should we define and communicate LDS distinctiveness? On the one hand, the Church has mounted a strong public relations campaign to emphasize our common Christian heritage with other denominations. On the other hand, our LDS heritage from the beginning has emphasized the state of apostasy in which the rest of Christianity now wallows. (…) How far can we go in both directions simultaneously? Ultimately there is a big difference between being a Christian church and the one true Christian church; and only the latter posture is consistent with our extensive proselyting effort. Sometimes we seem to water down our doctrinal distinctiveness for the sake of good public relations, preferring instead to emphasize social and moral conservatism (obedience, life-style conformity, sexual chastity, anti-abortion, and the like), all of which are important in their own right as products of conversion to the doctrine; but they do not make us distinctive by comparison with either Roman Catholicism or conservative Protestantism. Most LDS converts prefer to deny any connection with traditional Christianity, having rejected it as an apostate remnant. They come to us to be fed on strong doctrine, and we run the risk of losing them if our conference sermons, lesson manuals, and press releases become too generically Christian.

    Now, ten years later, I would add nuances as to our possible and positive relations with Christian churches and other religions in general, but I stand by the matter of doctrinal distinctiveness to attract converts.

  17. Wow, these comments have brought it home to me how differently we are perceived by different people. I guess by the time some people think we are just an annoyingly clean-cut strain of Christians with funny buildings we worship in, while others think we are devilspawn with horns, the question of whether to emphasize similarities or differences is kind of silly. It completely depends on who you’re talking to, what you need to bring up. In general, though, it doesn’t seem to be common for people to think we are just like everyone else.

    It is common, however, for people to have important misconceptions. Interestingly, it seems to me sometimes their misconceptions are true! Take the Lorenzo Snow couplet. The problem isn’t when people think we believe it. The problem is when they think it runs counter to the Christianity of the Bible. Maybe the trick is to present this teaching in a way that shows its beauty, when people are used to hearing of it as a scandal. It’s a subtle challenge to correct their misconception because what they know is the truth, only they know it the wrong way.

    Paul, I think you go too far. The differences between our beliefs and those of traditional Christians are kind of everywhere and nowhere. The differences are pervasive, and yet they are differences in the same doctrines. All Christians believe in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who are one God, and that humanity is fallen through Adam, and as a result needs a Savior, Jesus Christ, who dies and is resurrected to save us from death and hell. We all believe in faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Spirit, in prophets and covenants and prayer and charity and a final judgment when the wicked will be miserable and the righteous will be happy. If there are exceptions on any of these points, they are rather exceptional. Mormons, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox all believe in these things. But we do understand them quite differently.

    It seems to me the real challenge is not to choose between sectarianism and assimilation! If our differences could be captured by saying things like, “Well, Catholics believe in the Trinity, but Mormons don’t,” or, “Protestants believe in grace, but Mormons don’t”, it would be easy to keep the truth clear. The real challenge is to stick to the truth. because we believe so much the same things, and yet so differently.

    Perhaps the reason to be cautious about talking about the Lorenzo Snow couplet is that to understand it right requires going to the Bible and showing how we understand it to be only the natural way to understand what Christ teaches. If we let our beliefs be objectified and identified as a list of foreign items, we give up the game. What we need to do is show our brother and sister Christians how we believe the same core elements, and yet we believe them in a radically, beautifully, redeemingly different way.

  18. Wilfried, you posted while I was writing. You have made it clear, again, how crucial it is that we be prepared to present ourselves in a way that responds to the needs and concerns of different people. To those who recoil from the injustice of the traditional account of hell, where people are damned without having even heard of Jesus, we should be ready to bring up our knowledge of teaching in the spirit world, and baptism for the dead, and judgment based on knowledge, and a God who teaches some of his truth to all nations. To those who recoil from demands for faith and a rejection of reason, we should be ready to bring forward the role of the Holy Spirit and the right to personal revelation. To those who recoil from a rejection of human nature as evil, we should be ready to teach that we are children of God, innocent from birth, and able to recognize the truth in part because it tastes sweet to us.

    But to everyone who rejects traditional Christianity, of course we must also say, Christ really did live and die for our sins, and establish his church by priesthood authority, and give commandments by which we will be judged, etc.

    Hence, again, the need to care enough about people to ask and hear where they are coming from, if we are to lead them to understand the truth. But as far as our media image goes, yeah, I think we need to leave no doubt that we have a distinctive message, and as important as this is, it isn’t just that families can be together forever.

  19. Seth – “What’s the point of being Mormon, if you can believe the same things AND not have to pay tithing by simply attending the Methodist church?”

    Your comment reminded me of one definition of “Mormon excommunication”: a ten-percent raise and an extra day off each week.

  20. One of the aspects of assimilation that fascinates me is the cultural (rather than doctrinal) dimension of the process. It is human nature to be comfortable with tradition, and it is refreshing in many ways to observe that the assimilation of cultures well outside of mainstream Utah mormonism forces one to make a distinction between our cultural expectations and the core theology that we believe.

    Specific example? There is a sweet, older black lady in my ward who is a convert, and often on fast Sunday, she sings her testimony. (really belts it out) The first time this happened, I was quite startled, because it is so different from what I’m used to, and my first reaction was that it was inappropriate- but the spirit with which she offers it, and the sincerity of her enthusiasm are indeed moving, and I have come to enjoy it. Elder Eyring happened to be visiting one Sunday when this happened, and towards the end of the meeting stood up to briefly speak. He said (paraphrasing, and probably badly) “I notice that some of you appear a bit uncomfortable… get used to it!” He went on to briefly talk about the growth of the church membership, and that much of it was from very different cultures, etc., and encouraged us to be open minded. (I found his response very refreshing)

    In the context of sectarianism vs. assimilation, I think it is fundamentally important not to resist change on the basis that it’s simply different, but to instead look deep enough to validate change against the core theological principles. Mainstream mormonism doesn’t seem to LIKE change, and that’s what makes the process fascinating to me…

  21. Good to hear from you, Knute! I agree it’s important to keep straight the difference between cultural and theological assimilation. At the same time, I think we are a people, not merely a bunch of people who share a theology, so in some ways our choices in the cultural sphere should be influenced by our theological goal of being one. But perhaps we can say that in our one house of faith there should be many mansions, inviting places for people of many cultures.

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