The Great Liberal Death Wish?

Here is an empirical question that I don’t really know the answer to: Can a “liberal” view of the Book of Mormon support itself over time? By a “liberal view” I mean a view that rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon but continues to regard it as divinely inspired fiction. I realize, of course, that “historicity” and “fiction” are themselves very slippery terms, and that there are a variety of positions claiming “historicity” ranging from something like Blake Ostler’s expansion theory of translation to one that views the Book of Mormon as entirely accurate in every detail.

Generally speaking, the debate over Book of Mormon historicity is couched in terms of truth. We assume that the important issues regarding the question center around the nature of the Book of Mormon and the intellectual legitimacy of talking about it in certain terms. I am curious, however, about another, demographic question, namely can those espousing a liberal view of the Book of Mormon successfully transmit that belief and with it some religious commitment to Mormonism and the Restoration to the next generation. In other words, do active Mormons with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon have children and grandchildren who are active Mormons who have a liberal view of the Book of Mormon, or do their children simply exit Mormonism altogether? A related question is whether or not someone can convert directly to being an active Mormon with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon, or if any conversion from non-Mormon to active Mormon with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon must first go through an active Mormon with a traditional view of the Book of Mormon stage.

I am not asking a logical, ethical, or epistemological question. I am not asking whether or not it is intellectually acceptable to hold this or that belief. Rather, I am asking the sociological question of what actually happens generationally and institutionally if one adopts a liberal view of the Book of Mormon. Regardless of the intellectual merits, I wonder if such a view is demographically stable or if it simply constitutes a way station on the path toward the gradual contraction and perhaps obliteration of the Mormon community through generational attrition. I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions, although I freely admit that I am suspicious of the ability of a liberal view of the Book of Mormon to maintain itself across generations. (I doubt, however, that it would result in the end of any Mormon community, but I suspect that it would be one with serious problems of replication.) On the other hand, I have come to realize that in many ways, I was raised with what some people would regard as a fairly liberal view of the Book of Mormon. I have always assumed — basically because this is what my parents, especially my father taught — that the Lehites were a tiny minority of the ancestors of Native Americans, that the Book of Mormon occurred in a limited area, that it is probably inaccurate as to some (much? most?) historical detail, etc. This is hardly the “liberal view” that I outline above, but no doubt there are many would regard these beliefs as dangerous concessions to the skeptics. Ultimately, it seems to me that what we need is hard data rather than anecdote.

105 comments for “The Great Liberal Death Wish?

  1. Kaimi
    July 8, 2005 at 1:32 pm


    I could be wrong, but I believe that there are a lot of people who become Christians without ascribing to a literal view of the Bible.

    Why wouldn’t a similar phenomenon be possible for Mormons?

  2. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 1:37 pm

    Kaimi: I agree that it could be possible. For all I know, it happens all the time. I suspect that most people convert to Mormonism without necessarily having clearly defined views about the nature of the Book of Mormon, but I could be wrong. With regard to the Bible analogy, I wonder if anyone has done any studies on this issue. My understanding is that fundementalists strands of Christianity are growing quite a bit faster than liberal strands of Christianity, which in some cases are shrinking. I really, however, don’t have hard information on this.

  3. lyle stamps
    July 8, 2005 at 1:41 pm

    Kaimi: Is it that people “become Christian” w/o a literal belief in the bible, or that they change from a ‘traditional’ to a ‘liberal’ church that doesn’t believe in the literal bible? My initial guess, given that ‘liberal’ churches tend to be losing church members and conservaitve churches gaining members, is the latter.

    Applying that to the LDS Church, we end up with a situation where Mormonism loses the ‘historicity’/literal belief and declines in numbers per the Protestants.

  4. Jim F.
    July 8, 2005 at 1:53 pm

    When Nate says this is an empirical question, isn’t he asking, not whether it is possible, but whether it actually happens? I think that is a very interesting question.

  5. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 2:00 pm

    “When Nate says this is an empirical question, isn’t he asking, not whether it is possible, but whether it actually happens?”


  6. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 2:06 pm

    … a view that rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon but continues to regard it as divinely inspired fiction.

    I think your suspicion about such a view having generational instability is quite justified.

    Your own personal “liberal view” that you describe still accepts that Lehites actually existed. So I don’t think it’s really dangerous or much of a concession. And I think it might have a firm basis in the text … though the Nephites (and no doubt the Lamanites too) seemed to have their adventurers who who were dissenters or curious enough to wander off far away and disappear.

    Nate wrote (describing this somewhat “liberal” view): that the Lehites were a tiny minority of the ancestors of Native Americans, that the Book of Mormon occurred in a limited area

    My wife and I read the Book of Omni this morning and I was amazed to ponder once again that we believe TWO groups traveled from the Holy Land to the Americas, over the ocean, at roughly the same time period. When I think of that accomplishment, it is not hard for me to imagine that some Nephites and Lamanites journeyed over land as far as they could in one direction or another (not to mention Hagoth’s ships). So I think this is one area where LDS could have their cake and eat it two — that is, accept to some extent both limited and extended perspectives of Nephite/Lamanite geography.

  7. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    of course I meant “cake and eat it too” … good heavens.

  8. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 2:08 pm

    The problem with comparing Nate’s question to a liberal approach to the Bible is that the Book of Mormon stands as a witness of literal elements in the Bible. Indeed, the BoM itself–the text as well as it’s manner of coming forth–claims to be built on a foundation of witnesses. And this is where we get into problems regarding it’s convincing power of the truth, that is, if it is strictly a modern document. I think there is great doctinal inconsistency in leading an investigator to believe that the BoM is not historically true as well as doctinally true. The BoM came forth as a fulfillment of promises made by God to certain individuals who are written of as being real historical figures in the book, and who were in fact some of the very writers of the book. The promises were an answer to their plea that a record of God’s dealing with their people would be preserved as a witness to future generations of the veracity of God’s dealings with his children. I have great difficulty in seeing how it can stand as a witness unless the witness is true.

  9. A Nonny Mouse
    July 8, 2005 at 2:15 pm

    I would suggest that it is possible to have a liberal view of the Book of Mormon and instill faith in your religion to your posterity. As an example, I would hold up the “Community of Christ” which has done this very thing. They’ve institutionally adopted a liberal view of the Book of Mormon, and, as near as I can tell, haven’t lost droves of members. Of course, they’re not growing particularly spectacularly either…

    Of course, this also requires a tweak of the definition of Mormon, which above seems to mean “Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” but I think the parallels are worth noting.

  10. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 2:15 pm

    Jack: Your argument assumes that theological consistency has important demographic results. I don’t see that there is any reason to assume that this is true. The fact that a “liberal” view of the Book of Mormon has logical problems (or that a traditional view has logical problems for that matter) doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be demographically unsuccessful. Again, I am less interested in the theological debate here than in what is emperically the case.

    Do we have counter antecdotes of people raised from earliest childhood on the Book of Mormon is inspired fiction theory who go on to life long activity and service in the Church?

  11. July 8, 2005 at 2:16 pm


    I guess the problem I have with the question Nate’s posing is that the converse is also as interesting a question: how sustainable is it to hold a literal view of the BoM, that it is entirely accurate in every detail?

    Of course there are no data to support or refute one position or the other – I can’t imagine that anyone’s looked into this. But interesting nonetheless. Which reminds me, don’t let me forget to post up the final round of our old round table up at BCC next week.

  12. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    The Community of Christ actually did lose people in droves when it liberalized its theology, a fact attested to by the proliferation of RLDS splinter groups. This is a slightly different question, however, than the one that I am asking. How successful has the Community of Christ been at transmitting its liberalized version of Mormonism to the second and third generation? Is it too early to know?

  13. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 2:23 pm


    I too [not two] am in favor of both a limited geography wherein most of the Nephite history takes place AND a greater mobility and knowledge of the surrounding geography than typically ascribe to the Book of Mormon peoples. Otherwise it would be akin to saying that the Jews had little comprehension of the surrounding terrain, which is patently false.

  14. john fowles
    July 8, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    Steve asks how sustainable is it to hold a literal view of the BoM, that it is entirely accurate in every detail?

    This is a straw man, in my opinion. I don’t think that many Latter-day Saints take this view. Most haven’t even formulated opinions, I would guess, on the real distance between Nephite cities or numbers of dead in battles, or even the editorial license likely taken by Mormon abridging approximately 1000 years of ecclesiastical history and only vaguely referring to the broader secular history.

    Danithew makes a good point: Nate’s supposed “liberal view” of the BoM still proceeds from the fundamental belief that Lehi was a real person who left Jerusalem with his family shortly before its destruction, traveled across the sea and established an existence in the New World somewhere. In this amount of literalism acceptable to most with a “liberal” view of the BoM? It seems a rather orthodox view to me, Nate.

  15. Wilfried
    July 8, 2005 at 2:41 pm

    Remarkable question, Nate, and difficult to understand for the convert I am. I will concentrate on your side remark: “A related question is whether or not someone can convert directly to being an active Mormon with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon, or if any conversion from non-Mormon to active Mormon with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon must first go through an active Mormon with a traditional view of the Book of Mormon stage.”

    I personally cannot imagine a true conversion, certainly in the international realm, without a strong belief in the literal forthcoming of the Book of Mormon, as reported by Joseph Smith, and in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The step a convert takes is so immense, and the sacrifices to make usually so intense, that a liberal view could not bear the weight.

    I would agree with Jack in #8: “I think there is great doctrinal inconsistency in leading an investigator to believe that the BoM is not historically true as well as doctrinally true.”

  16. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 2:42 pm

    Nate: “Your argument assumes that theological consistency has important demographic results. I don’t see that there is any reason to assume that this is true.”

    Nate, it has to be true to a certain extent (if I’m understanding you correctly). I think we would see huge demographic changes if we were any less consistent in our theological approach to the foundational principles of the gospel.

  17. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    John: My only point in referring to my own experience was to point out that I believe that portions of the Book of Mormon are probably “fictional” in the sense of not being literal history in a modern sense. I make no pretensions to heterodoxy with regard to the core question of historicity.

  18. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 2:58 pm

    Jack: You may be right. I suspect that you are. On the other hand, I think that it is possible for internally inconsistent positions to enjoy broad support over long periods of time. My point is simply that the sociological question is seperate from the theological or historical question, and for now at least I am interested in the sociological issue rather than the purely logical one.

  19. Ben H
    July 8, 2005 at 2:58 pm

    The Book of Mormon itself does not claim to be accurate in every detail. The title page, Alma 40:20 and 3 Nephi 8:2 acknowledge the possibility of error. In two places Moroni’s remarks refer to imperfections as though there are sure to be some: Mormon 8:12Mormon 9:31.

    (BTW, I love the search feature on! I’m finally persuaded it is way quicker to look for references online this way even than having the printed book in front of me. Hallelujah!)

  20. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 3:03 pm

    Wilfried: I wonder to what extent, however, conversion requires that one have a particular set of theological propositions. From my experience in watching international converts on my mission (and I went to Korea where conversions and baptisms were few and far between) people frequently joined the Church because of a combination of social networks and not-fully theorized spiritual confirmation. I am not claiming that what I saw was merely a social event, like joining a club or a corporation. There was a real, powerful, and necessarily spiritual component to the conversions I witnessed, which often — as you point out — entailed considerable sacrifice. I am not, however, convinced that these conversions also entailed clearly worked out theological or historical commitments. The converts were committed to what the Church and the prophet’s taught, but largely on the basis of spiritual confirmation of their authority rather than substantive attraction to theological detail.

  21. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Steve Evans asked the (excellent) question: … how sustainable is it to hold a literal view of the BoM, that it is entirely accurate in every detail?

    I don’t think its very sustainable at all … especially since the title page itself concedes the possiblity that human faults can enter into the book. The danger or warning that we get is not to condemn the Book of Mormon for the human faults that might exist therein. This is one of my favorite lines of Book of Mormon scripture:

    And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.

    I always get suspicious of any group or individual who claims that a scriptural book is entirely perfect or complete in its contents. I simply don’t believe any process that involves human writing, copying, transcription, etc. could possibly come into existence without problems.

    Getting back to Nate’s post (though I don’t think this is really Nate’s question) — my feeling is that a person who believes the Book of Mormon is a work of “inspired fiction” should have the courage to quit the Church. Life is too short for that kind of nonsense.

  22. Ben H
    July 8, 2005 at 3:11 pm

    And even if it sometimes happens that people convert to Christianity while embracing a liberal view of the Bible, if this is sufficiently uncommon while the opposite move (through liberal belief to unbelief) is more common, then liberal Christianity is unsustainable (which is what empirical data in recent decades strongly suggest).

    Steve, not even the authors of the Book of Mormon necessarily thought it was accurate in every detail. See, for example, Title Page, Alma 40:20, 3 Nephi 8:2.
    In some of Moroni’s concluding remarks he speaks as though he thinks there must be some errors somewhere, even if he doesn’t know what they are (if he did, presumably he would fix them!) . . . Mormon 8:12,

    Ben H
    July 8, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    And even if it sometimes happens that people convert to Christianity while embracing a liberal view of the Bible, if this is sufficiently uncommon while the opposite move (through liberal belief to unbelief) is more common, then liberal Christianity is unsustainable (which is what empirical data in recent decades strongly suggest).

    Adding to danithew’s point, it’s not just the title page (is that Moroni’s words, or Joseph’s, or?) that shows not even the authors of the Book of Mormon necessarily thought it was accurate in every detail. See, for example, Alma 40:20, 3 Nephi 8:2.
    In some of Moroni’s concluding remarks he speaks as though he thinks there must be some errors somewhere, even if he doesn’t know what they are (if he did, presumably he would fix them!) . . . Mormon 8:12,

    July 8, 2005 at 3:15 pm

    To respond to Kaimi’s first comment: it’s not possible to become a Christian without believing that Christ existed, died, and was resurrected. Someone who believes the bible to be a wholly human invention, even if a repository of profound wisdom, is not a Christian. To be a Christian, one must accept Jesus Christ, the God come to earth, and not merely Jesus Christ, the nice idea.

  23. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 3:18 pm

    Ben H., I think somewhere in Church History, there is a paragraph or two where Joseph Smith explains the title page, that it was actually on the plates and that Moroni wrote it. In one of the earlier editions of the BOM, there is even a title page with a “Moroni” signature. Obviously it’s just his name printed (no John Hancock or anything) but still, it is there. I suppose that earlier edition could have just been wrong … but I still find it interesting that someone wanted to put his name there.

  24. Ben H
    July 8, 2005 at 3:20 pm

    Oh, Moroni does suggest the “imperfections” he has in mind in Mormon 9:31 would not be there if they could have written in Hebrew, in Mormon 9:33. But he does express the sentiment on the title page in
    Mormon 8:17.

  25. Greg Call
    July 8, 2005 at 3:22 pm

    This may be a bit of a threadjack, but it’s a related empirical question: I have met a lot of people who were raised (or convert) with very literal, orthodox beliefs, but over time become more “liberal” (for lack of a better word), while still believing and practicing. Are there folks who are raised (or convert) with a more liberal point of view who, over time, become more orthodox? I don’t think I’ve seen this latter scenario very often, but, like Nate’s question, it would be interesting to have data on point rather than anecdote.

  26. Kaimi
    July 8, 2005 at 3:26 pm


    For a member of a group that often chafes at others’ restrictive definitions of the word “Christian,” you seem awfully eager to impose your own restrictive definition.

  27. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 3:27 pm

    I went and looked it up. Moroni’s name was added to the end of the title page in the 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon. I kind of like the fact that someone wanted to put it there but it appears that his name was not on the plates.

  28. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 3:33 pm

    Er, I mean his name was not on the title page portion of the plates.

  29. Jim F.
    July 8, 2005 at 3:39 pm

    Matt Evans (#22): Like Kaimi, I think you are not playing fair. Many of those who call themselves Christians today would accept the description of the Bible that you say is impossible. They might well say that they believe in Christ, though they do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God in the way that we do nor that he was resurrected in any literal sense. Why isn’t it enough to say that a Christian is one who believes in the truth expressed by the New Testament–but might disagree with us about what that truth is? Why not allow for a fairly broad definition of “Christian”?

  30. July 8, 2005 at 3:54 pm


    Your question is a good one. Elder Holland addressed this general topic in April Conference 2002. Here are a couple of quotes:

    In this I speak carefully and lovingly to any of the adults of the Church, parents or otherwise, who may be given to cynicism or skepticism, who in matters of whole-souled devotion always seem to hang back a little, who at the Church’s doctrinal campsite always like to pitch their tents out on the periphery of religious faith. To all such—whom we do love and wish were more comfortable camping nearer to us—I say, please be aware that the full price to be paid for such a stance does not always come due in your lifetime. No, sadly, some elements of this can be a kind of profligate national debt, with payments coming out of your children’s and grandchildren’s pockets in far more expensive ways than you ever intended it to be.

    Parents simply cannot flirt with skepticism or cynicism, then be surprised when their children expand that flirtation into full-blown romance.

  31. Rosalynde Welch
    July 8, 2005 at 3:55 pm

    Nate, I know you’re trying to look only at the sociological question, not the doctrinal one, but I think BoM historicity stands in a qualitatively different position with regard to church affiliation than other charateristically “liberal” views.

    My parents, to my knowledge and certainly for the purposes of family gospel teaching, accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but they are religiously liberal in other ways: Dialogue and Sunstone are always around, for example, there are plenty of Signature titles in our bookcase, and they’re long-time participants in an intellectual Mormon study group. They’re also, it should be noted, impeccably observant, with family prayer and FHE and church callings and seminary and all the rest. So far all the adult children are active, four out of the five adults have served or are serving missions (and the other got married and started her family), all temple marriages. And, more to your point, I’d say that three of the five have adopted our parents’ (very relatively) liberal religious position, while two have become more conservative than our parents.

  32. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 4:06 pm

    But Jim,

    You’re not applying Matt’s comment to Mormonism–which I think is the whole idea. What if a MORMON said they didn’t believe in a literal Savior, or Joseph Smith, or living prophet? Suddenly we find ourselves groping for definitions.

  33. b bell
    July 8, 2005 at 4:09 pm

    “mainline” christian churches that adopt liberal attitudes in the past 40 years have experienced serious membership declines. Including a really low birth rate. This is a common theme discussed in conservative Christian Circles. Liberal Mainline churches that are rapidly shrinking include but are not limited to:

    Northern Baptists
    Some of the Lutheran Churches

    This is happening in Judiasm as well. Reform/Conservative Jews are having far fewer children and more mixed marriages than the orthodox/Hasidic. This has led to the rise of more conservative politics in Isreal as the liberal Reform Jews are slowly dwindling in numbers as the more conservative branches of the religion have larger families.

    I would say that Mormons that flirt with liberal attitudes on the BOM are walking down the same path as the above mentioned groups. If the LDS church “goes liberal” it will lose its religious/demographic energy.

    This also plays out in US politics. Amongst the White population in the US the states with the highest white birthrate which is linked with religious observance overwhelmingly voted Republican in 2004. White Democrats simply have fewer children. I would guess that this will play out over the next few election cycles as well.

  34. July 8, 2005 at 4:09 pm

    As a purely empirical question, I would bet heavily on the proposition that liberal beliefs about the Book of Mormon are intergenerationally transmissable, at least in a fair percentage of cases. The social-science and psychological research on socialization suggests that most identities and social beliefs that don’t encounter massive resistance in the exterior environment will be fairly intergenerationally transmissable. This is even more the case when we realize that a lot of recent research suggests that beliefs and attitudes are substantially genetically determined.

    I would suggest that a more common situation may be for a single individual, in a single generation, to go from orthodox belief to liberal belief to disbelief. Then the kids would be raised in an unambiguous environment with a set of (dis)beliefs they would most likely pick up for themselves.

  35. Wilfried
    July 8, 2005 at 4:09 pm

    Nate, in response to your remark in #19 “The converts were committed to what the Church and the prophet’s taught, but largely on the basis of spiritual confirmation of their authority rather than substantive attraction to theological detail”.

    An expected nuanced comment:

    Yes, most converts take the step to Mormonism on little more than the missionary discussions and (some) reading in the Book of Mormon. Indeed, through spiritual confirmation. And the acceptance of what they have been taught, which was the initial question, is literal.

    Other converts, with a more intellectual background (and time and ressources to study), may go deeper into detail, mostly on their own. We have had such converts, e.g. former Catholic priests or protestant pastors. Their acceptance of the message would still be literal, as has been mentioned above. But I would also imagine very few would encounter the alternative of a more liberal explanation, unless a lenghty critical study would bring them to the point of learning about such an approach.

    Another matter is what you mean by “fully theorized spiritual confirmation”. When has a level of “full” been reached?

  36. July 8, 2005 at 4:13 pm

    The birthrate observations raised by b bell are fascinating–but a rather different question. The (few) children of white Democrats will probably turn out to be Democrats, as well–there just aren’t as many of them as there are white Republican kids… In other words, the Democratic party identity still transmits generationally (on average), but still the group declines.

  37. Jed
    July 8, 2005 at 4:24 pm

    In its most extreme iteration, the inspired fiction thesis turns JS into a liar and a scoundrel. The problem is the gold plates. Smith talked as though they were real. These descriptions can be ascribed to one of three possibilities: 1) Smith lied about them and the 11 witnesses were party to the deception; 2) Smith manufactured plates and deceived the 11 witnesses; 3) Smith was telling the truth when he said he found ancient plates as directed by an angel.

    Options (1) and (2), which are held by some inspired fiction theorists, do not have the moral backbone to keep a person or their children in the church. Why would anyone follow the teachings of a person who lied about his basic, core, animating claims? If the person can’t be trusted on the big issues, why should he be trusted on anything? Continued Mormon practice, then, amounts to sickness, delusion, lonely desperation, or, in a healthier spirit, the pleasure of association with friends.

    Option 3 allows for a wide latitude of belief and activity in the church. As Eugene England remarked long ago, the Nephite prophets were people too. All people, even prophets, work within a limited horizon of understanding, even if granted an expanded horizon from time to time.

  38. b bell
    July 8, 2005 at 4:32 pm

    Roasted tomatoes,

    Religious fervor and demographics are linked. I would argue that any attempt by the LDS Church to “go liberal on BOM” would be a disaster. I am also curious to see if doctrinally Liberal LDS Families have large numbers of children and if those children stay active over time as adults. Other religious sects that go liberal seem to have issues. Has anybody observed over a long period of time a Doctrinally liberal LDS family? I have not. I have seen a politically liberal large LDS family have lots of long term success in the gospel. But they were doctrinally orthodox/conservative.

    Based on the experience of other denominations I would argue that doctrinally liberal LDS families would not transmit LDS doctrines to well to the kiddo’s and would even have fewer kids. Probably more religiously mixed marriages as well which also often leads to inactivity.

  39. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    RT: Even if beliefs are intergenerationally transmissable (ie we tend to believe what our parents teach us) to what extent is the complex of beliefs and behaviors of active Mormons with liberal views of the Book of Mormon (aka AMWLVBMs) transmissible? Maybe your reference to “social identity” already answers this question. Also, your statement contains the provisio about “massive resistence.” It seems to me that Mormonism creates a certain amount of resistence that the Church — with varying degrees of success to be sure — manages to overcome in transfering beliefs and behaviors to a new generation. In other words, it seems to me to be emperically the case that some beliefs are intergenerationally transmissible even in the face of resistence. Is a liberal view of the Book of Mormon such a belief?

  40. July 8, 2005 at 5:00 pm

    Nate, I should explain a little bit what I mean by massive environmental resistance. It turns out, for example, that a lot of the children of 1940s US socialists and communists also grew up to be radical leftists–in spite of a lot of societal pressure to the contrary. Same with children of Scientologists. The kinds of beliefs that tend to do more poorly are the kind that are somehow beyond the pale, much more than these marginal-but-not-entirely-nuts ideas. A liberal Mormon belief system and social identity doesn’t seem wackier or more marginal to me than Scientology…

    I don’t know for sure about the specific case of liberal Mormons, but I do know that a major lesson of a lot of social research over the last fifty years is that most beliefs and social roles can be taught to children reasonably well. Generational change does matter demographically, but usually at the margins (e.g., children of racially conservative Southern Democrats in the post-Civil Rights era have tended to gradually become racially conservative Southern Republicans–the smallest change in identity and belief system they could make while eliminating terrible cross-pressures). Until there’s systematic empirical evidence to suggest that liberal Mormonism is unlike most other identities and social roles, I would bet on it being fairly teachable to children.

    Of course, neo-Naziism is probably also fairly teachable to children. We really can’t evaluate the moral status of a belief system on the basis of whether you can pass it on to the next generation.

  41. ed
    July 8, 2005 at 5:06 pm

    If I’m reading Nate’s first paragraph correctly, by “liberal views” he means essentially those that deny that Joseph had real plates of ancient origin.

    My vote: I don’t think such views are sustainable, at least not without massive changes to church teachings and practices. On the other hand, I think a range of views such as Ostler’s expansion theory that don’t require accuracy “in every detail” ARE likely sustainable. I think the important dividing point is the existence of the plates…without them the whole prophet/authority thing would just be too fishy for most people.

  42. Ben H
    July 8, 2005 at 5:12 pm

    Okay, RT, your points probably stand with regard to beliefs and habits in general, but it seems we have pretty good indication that liberal versions of Christianity and Judaism don’t follow the general trend. Those seem to be tough to transmit. Not that they can’t be transmitted, but that transmission is weak enough that they tend to wane substantially with the generations.

    I only know one good test case of liberal Mormon parents and their children. In the case I know, near as I can tell the children over 18 believe in God and are inclined to some form of Christianity, but are not very happy with any particular form, and regard Mormonism as unfit for serious consideration.

  43. N Miller
    July 8, 2005 at 5:33 pm

    As I grew up, my parents were conservative in both religious and political views. I came home from the mission field and saw how they had wained from thier religious views and started to question the reality of the Book of Mormon and Brother Joseph’s claims on the book. Well, as stated earlier by Jed and others, if one can’t believe what’s in there, why continue? Friends? Maybe, but if you honestly believe that it is all a fraud, then can you still adhere to the organization and it’s beliefs? My parents couldn’t either and ended up leaving.

    Off topic, but I find it interesting, now that my parents have left the church, to see how they react to certain things. For example, they left the church five years ago, but when my brother announced that he was getting sealed in the temple, they announced to the family that they decided not to attend the ordinance, as though they had a choice. That’s a liberal view if you ask me.

  44. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 6:06 pm


    I agree with your thoughts on the existence of the plates as being a “dividing point”. But there are other dividing points as well. There is still a question of textual historicity regardless of whether or not there were real plates in JS’s possession that will (imo) at some point have an influence on whether or not people are staying in the church. When members of the church testify that the BoM is true, I think the vast majority are expressing, not only a witness of the Spirit, but how that witness confirms to them the book’s reliability. One may argue that it’s reliability does not have to be rooted in it’s historicity. But, I think it does in that the BoM’s power in leading one to conversion is not found so much in how it outlines what one needs to do in order to be converted, but rather, by speaking to the reader as a witness that conversion is possible and desirable by showing forth the conversion stories of others. If those stories are not real, as the record purports, then (imo) the book looses it’s power as a witness and therefore does not have sufficient convincing power to lead the earnest soul along the path of conversion. Then again, one may argue that it is possible to be converted without the BoM–which is theoretically true–to which I would respond by saying that the Lord has always aided the conversion process by supplying witnesses, and in our day and age the BoM is one of those witnesses. Indeed it is the greatest of witnesses outside of direct revelation.

    Sorry, Nate. I know I’m not answering the real question.

  45. Larry
    July 8, 2005 at 6:15 pm

    Jim F.,

    Is the point you make one of inclusion for the purposes of social interaction, or one of redefining the meaning of Christian for ecclesiastical purposes?
    I thought that if one were Muslim he would be a follower of Mohammed; if one were Buddhist, she would be a follower of Buddha; and so on.
    Why would we have to be so inclusive as to make anyone a Christian who denies the very foundation of Christianity, but lives an okay life and claims to be as good as any Christian they have met?
    Are we philosophically consistent in allowing that argument, or are we apologetic about what a Christian really means?

  46. Kaimi
    July 8, 2005 at 6:21 pm


    Is liberalism (as you’re using it here) really a death wish? Or is it a higher entity on the food chain?

    As you’ve framed it, conservatism feeds off of non-believers. And liberalism feeds off of conservatism.


  47. Kaimi
    July 8, 2005 at 6:25 pm

    And hey, if you’re right that liberalism leads to non-belief — well then, in the next generation, your liberals will be plain-vanilla non-believers, ripe for conversion into conservatives again!

    And thus the great cycle of life (cue Lion King music) is demonstrated by the interactions between the different options of Mormon hermeneutics.

  48. Elisabeth
    July 8, 2005 at 6:35 pm

    Jesus is my favorite liberal.

  49. Nate Oman
    July 8, 2005 at 6:37 pm

    Kaimi: Although I have my doubts about liberal Book of Mormon interpretations’ ability to replicate themselves over time, I am ultimately agnostic. I suspect that my substantive views tend to color my perception of the the emperical reality. It seems to me that this really is an empirical question…

  50. July 8, 2005 at 6:39 pm

    Cheers, Elisabeth–but Jesus was really more of a radical than a mere liberal!

  51. Elisabeth
    July 8, 2005 at 6:53 pm

    A radical, a feminist/humanist, a liberal, and a perfect human being. No wonder Christians have so much difficulty following in His footsteps.

  52. A. Greenwood
    July 8, 2005 at 7:09 pm

    Jesus believed in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. No liberal he.


  53. July 8, 2005 at 7:16 pm

    Adam is right, of course. Jesus does not hold the “liberal position” on the Book of Mormon that Nate descibes But no one need take our word for it — one can ask Jesus about it directly.

  54. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 7:17 pm

    “A radical, a feminist/humanist, a liberal…”

    A wine-bibber, a glutton, a sinner–it’s all a matter of perspective, I guess.

  55. danithew
    July 8, 2005 at 7:19 pm
  56. Kingsley
    July 8, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    Jesus is my favorite conservative patriarch. It is so fun to cram great historical figures into our current, cute little catagories!

  57. Heather P.
    July 8, 2005 at 7:36 pm

    And check out footnote a a few verses before danithew’s (#55)

  58. B
    July 8, 2005 at 7:53 pm

    People who take a liberal approach to the Book of Mormon are swimming against the tide in the church. They must feel strongly about following their own heart and mind, wherever that leads them, otherwise they would give in and go with the flow. I think they would not be very concerned about making sure the next generation followed precisely in their footsteps. Instead, they would prefer that their children and grandchildren follow their own hearts and minds, wherever that leads them, whether toward a more conservative approach or an approach similar to the parents’ or out of the church entirely. If liberal believers aren’t trying very hard to push their children in a particular direction, then it’s no surprise if the children go every which way.

  59. July 8, 2005 at 8:15 pm

    I am asking the sociological question of what actually happens generationally and institutionally if one adopts a liberal view of the Book of Mormon

    I suspect you enter the same collapse that overtook the Communities of Christ when they took that view to heart.

  60. Kingsley
    July 8, 2005 at 8:25 pm

    If one were to reject the story of Moroni and the plates (yet still consider oneself Mormon), does that mean one would also reject (e.g.) the restoration of the Priesthood(s), the arrival of Elias et al. at the Kirtland Temple, the sundry visions of heaven and hell, future and past, and so on? If no, why reject the first and not the second? If yes, what does one mean by “Mormon”?

    It seems to me that Bushman is right, that Joseph principally put us back into sacred history rather than merely reveal a new ethical philosophy.

    I take it that a fellow calling himself a Christian while rejecting the miraculous is saying he subscribes to an ethical philosophy which Christ either (a) uniquely revealed, the product of a good mind, or (b) uniquely lived, the product of a good heart, or (c) both.

    C.S. Lewis responds with: a good-hearted, good-minded person does not go around making up lies about being God. Jesus is either God, or mad, or a liar.

    The fellow above counters with: yes, well, we do not have any actual documents from Jesus; only from overzealous disciples who made a lot of stuff up.

    A Mormon who rejects the miraculous cannot make the same argument about Joseph Smith.

    So that Joseph Smith is either telling the truth, or he is mad, or a liar.

    Or so, all tortuous, incredible psychologizing aside, it would appear.

    His ethical philosophy is straight from the Old and New Testaments. To accept him for that, and not for the principle role that Bushman attributes to him, is to not really accept him. It is like saying, “I love everything about your personality but your personality itself.”

    Joseph may have introduced (or reintroduced) a system of ideas, but he said he got them from buried books and the dead men who wrote them. To embrace the one and spurn the other is a form of death and burial, too.

  61. July 8, 2005 at 8:31 pm


    CHAPTER 32

    5 The vile person shall be no more called aliberal•, nor the bchurl• said to be cbountiful•.

    Figured I had to quote that too.

    BTW, look at religion in Europe.

  62. M.J. Pritchett
    July 8, 2005 at 8:42 pm

    As long as you are asking sociological questions, I would be interested if there are other factors (education, wealth, marital stability, health, residence inside or outside the Mormon culture core, group orientation, ethnicity) that might predict a parent’s ability to pass on activity in the church to his or her children.

  63. July 8, 2005 at 9:16 pm

    With respect to M.J.’s comment, I propose a hypothesis: members of the church in Latin America will be unusually unsuccessful in transmitting Latter-day Saint beliefs to their children. In addition to the high rates of inactivity and defection among adult members through most of the continent, the strong presense of Catholic values in most of the educational system may tend to counterbalance the efforts of family and church.

    This could, of course, all be explored with a big, giant longitudinal survey. Why don’t we all donate $25,000 and fund it? Or get Huntsman to do it, like (as I understand it) he did the Nauvoo temple. Short of something like that, I’m afraid this stuff remains speculative–if empirical.

  64. Mark N.
    July 8, 2005 at 10:09 pm

    Somehow, it makes me extremely nervous to consider that lines such of the following might be fictional:

    And if they are not the words of Christ, judge ye—for Christ will show unto you, with power and great glory, that they are his words, at the last day; and you and I shall stand face to face before his bar; and ye shall know that I have been commanded of him to write these things, notwithstanding my weakness.


    And now I bid unto all, farewell. I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen.

    And there are numerous instances in the books of Enos, Jarom and Omni where the writers (the various caretakers of the plates during this period of scant reportage) presume to address the reader as “you”, speaking to him or her directly. It would trouble me that this character would address me personally, testifying as to the history of the plates under his care, when all the while such testimony might be false.

    If we consider the BofM to be fictional, are we saying that the being we know as Jesus Christ may not have, in reality, visited the American continent after His resurrection?

    Ouch. If we can’t believe that, it seems to me we’re in a world of hurt here.

    At the same time, it seems entirely plausible to me that the book of Job is a work of uplifting fiction, and that Song of Solomon probably doesn’t belong in the Bible at all.

    I guess that what I’m saying is that, given the manner of presentation in the BofM, I have a very difficult time believing that as a work of fiction it’s supposed to be as much of a testimony builder as it is as a supposed true history.

  65. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 10:28 pm

    Mark N.: “If we consider the BofM to be fictional, are we saying that the being we know as Jesus Christ may not have, in reality, visited the American continent after His resurrection?”

    No. We’re saying that there is no Christ, period. That’s how far one has to be willing to go when sliding down the slippery slope of accepting the BoM as purely fictional.

    I share your sentiments.

  66. Jeremy
    July 8, 2005 at 10:30 pm

    I agree with those who have questioned the “either/or” nature of the historicity question. There are several points of transmittal between the ostensible first recording (by Nephi, Mormon, Moroni, et. al.) and the Latter-day Saint reading the modern blue-bound version, and each of these points has its own issues. For example, I remember being somewhat shaken as a youth or missionary when I heard or read one of the apostles (was it Oaks?) state over the pulpit that Joseph only initially used the plates for translation, but eventually stopped using them altogether and transmitted the remainder of the text of the BoM by inspiration/revelation, without referring constantly to the figures contained in the actual physical object being translated. At the time, that seemed to me a rather liberal conceptualization of historicity.

    Also, in relation to the aforementioned fallibility admitted by the authors, one could conceivably beleive that, say, Mormon really wrote on plates, but doubt the historicity of what he wrote, etc. etc. (I’m not saying this, I’m saying somebody else could.)

    I guess what I’m saying is that there are two possbly extricable questions of historicity: did the plates exist, and did the accounts in them really happen.

    Some of the comments here take the tone of caution: don’t think too liberally, because statistically it might put you in danger. Surely the positivistic quality of one’s historicist belief would lead one to more positivist apologia, no? Otherwise, what’s the difference between the relativism that constitutes the supposed danger of the liberal “non-historicist” view and the relativism that might compels one to argue for historicism on grounds not related directly to truth claims? In other words, wouldn’t “because it’s right” be a more meaningful argument for the historicist view than “because it keeps our numbers up”?

    I should state that I suppose my own attitudes about historicity are fairly orthodox, but I also know plenty of devout saints who still agree fervently with the statement “the Book of Mormon is true” while holding wildly divergent and perhaps dynamic views of what “true” means.

    Also, I think that most of us lack the learning and empirical data to make any meaningful claims about historicity; that is, whatever the historicity of what we believe, and however we regard the issue of historicity, I believe the idea of myth compels us in stronger ways. That is, even though I may take a fairly historicist view of the BoM, it may not be the historicity of it that compels me to explore and implement its teachings. After all, the BoM itself tells us time and time again that empirically verified factuality is often not a very strong conversion tool; Laman and Lemuel’s undeniable firsthand exposure to divine power didn’t do much for them in terms of religious conviction. Likewise, L. Tom Perry (I think) recalls a conversation with a group of leaders of other faiths in which one of them said “If you’d just show us the plates, we’d believe you,” to which Elder Perry replied (and I paraphrase), “Baloney. It wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”

    So, perhaps a historicist view is crucial, but that view is, for most, a view arrived at through largely spiritual (or otherwise non-empirical, and thus, paradoxically, sort of ahistorical) ways.

  67. Jeremy
    July 8, 2005 at 10:35 pm

    Mark N.: “If we consider the BofM to be fictional, are we saying that the being we know as Jesus Christ may not have, in reality, visited the American continent after His resurrection?”
    Jack: No. We’re saying that there is no Christ, period. That’s how far one has to be willing to go when sliding down the slippery slope of accepting the BoM as purely fictional.

    That seems a little harsh! My “mainstream Christian” friends would surely take offense that a Mormon would be turning around and saying they’re not Christian, because they don’t believe in the BoM!

  68. Richard T
    July 8, 2005 at 10:46 pm


    I have a Jewish friend, currently 30, who was raised by Jewish parents who didn’t believe in God. Under their direction, she attended temple (still does), named her kid Noah, maintains a Kosher diet and observes all Jewish holidays. I enjoy working with her and she and her family would probably be ideal neighbors, she has definite opinions on right and wrong, etc., but she calls her religion a fairy-tale and says she learned this from her parents.

    “Why do you still adhere so strictly to Jewish customs and religion?” I asked her one day in a rather long conversation about our faiths. “It’s who I am. I love it all, even though I don’t think there’s any real truth to the Hebrew Bible and even though I don’t believe in God, per se.”

    I don’t know any Mormons who fit that mold, but here you have a Jew who maintains an emphatically Jewish lifestyle while being an atheist; and she attributes it to her parents. We worked together for several months and became friends before she was willing to discuss any of this with me, so it could be said that she didn’t openly espouse these beliefs. Many of her faith, those who attend temple with her each week, would probably be shocked to hear her opinions, and she might not actually tell them.

    In her case, social identity trumps religion, and it keeps her and her family close to the flock. As I’ve considered this further, I’ve known several other Jews who feel the same way.

    Come to think it, isn’t this similar to the Latin who clings to his Catholicism more as a social identity than as an espousal of certain doctrines? He attends mass, has his children baptized with religious zeal, but is quite indifferent to subjects of Biblical historicity and Catholic doctrine in general.

    Could another angle to your question be: Is the Mormon identity strong enough to keep those who espouse liberal views, and their children who are taught those views–perhaps even atheistic views–within the fold, so to speak?

  69. Taylor
    July 8, 2005 at 11:02 pm

    This is an interesting question, but I am not sure that the answer tells us anything about the whether or not a liberal view of the Book of Mormon is sustainable in and of itself.
    If I understand what you are trying to get at, presumably the results of such an empirical study would give legitimacy to either the liberal or conservative view of the BoM as empirically more likely to create sustaining faith. However, I think that the problem with such a question as it is currently set out is that it considers that a liberal beleif in the BoM is held in a vacuum. It assumes that the determininig factor for whether or not one’s family stays in the church is rooted in beleif about the historicity of the BoM.

    To the extent that a liberal view leads to inactivity, I don’t think that it is the liberal view per se, but rather the conservative view that cause the person who holds the liberal view to eventually become inactive. It is difficult to remain an outsider intellectually for a long time, especially over three generations. My guess is that it is not the liberal view in and of itself that leads to inactivity, but rather the burden of being considered heretical or viewed with great suspicion that proves to be a hostile ground for one’s faith.

  70. July 8, 2005 at 11:25 pm

    Kaimi and Jim,

    Mormons reject definitions of “Christian” that exclude Mormons because they’re bad definitions, not because Mormons think they and everyone else can write “Christian” on their forehead and have equal claim to being a Christian. Though some people use Christian as an adjective — as a descriptive term for someone altruistic or charitable or intolerant — Christians are those who accept Christ as their Redeemer. Those who admire the fabricated words of the fictitious character Jesus are not Christians, and someone who admires or believes in the Bible, but not in Christ, doesn’t march under the Christian banner, and I see no reason to consider them Christian. It’s a disservice to language and religion to say that someone can reject Christ yet be a Christian.

  71. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 11:26 pm


    In response to your comment (#67) I’m talking about those who accept the BoM as inspired but not historical. Not those who do not believe it is inspired in the first place. How many of your mainstream Christian friends believe the four gospels to be pure fiction? I’m sure that most of them don’t. But if they did they would have to be willing to entertain the idea that Christ was merely a fictional character–which brings up a whole slew of questions regarding the reality (or non-reality) of the atonement.

  72. Stephanie
    July 8, 2005 at 11:48 pm

    Richard T – since we’re using labels liberally around here, I think there are non-believing Mormons akin to your non-believing Jewish friend. They are called “New Order” Mormons or “Post” Mormons. Not sure the difference between these two, but I think both groups identify themselves as “cultural” Mormons (maybe not Post Mormons as much) and don’t necessarily believe in the Book of Mormon or Mormon doctrine

  73. Jack
    July 8, 2005 at 11:54 pm

    Taylor: “My guess is that it is not the liberal view in and of itself that leads to inactivity, but rather the burden of being considered heretical or viewed with great suspicion that proves to be a hostile ground for one’s faith.”

    How far are you willing to take that example? Does this include our fundamentalist friends who insist that the commandment to live polygamy is still in force? Perhaps, in a technical sense you are right–that the conservative masses are going to give such folks the collective “fish eye”, and therefore, our fundamentalist friends are going to feel ostricized. But that would be like me throwing a friend out of my house because he would not desist from bringing in drugs, p-rn, profanity, etc.. Yeah, I realized the action of kicking him out, but he is primarily responsible for it.

  74. Jack
    July 9, 2005 at 12:01 am

    My example is in the exteme, of course. If you’re merely talking about those who hold to a fictionalized view of the BoM, that’s a different story (bad pun).

  75. Taylor
    July 9, 2005 at 12:15 am

    “Does this include our fundamentalist friends who insist that the commandment to live polygamy is still in force?” Yes, I think it does.

    What is at issue here is the sociological power of a culture of authority of leaders and unity of opinions. These two forces work to push out the “extremes” of opinion at either end of the spectrum.

    Your example doesn’t work at all. In order for there to be a parallel, your friend would have to strictly adhere to the standards of not taking drugs, viewing pron, or using profanity, but *thinking* about their overall importance differently from you in your *shared* appartment. If you could agree to allowing them to think such things in your presence, you might be able to still be friends.

    If the long–term sustainability of a liberal view of the BoM is to be acheived, that view would have to find a greater degree of tolerance in the church at large. This is probably not going to happen soon so those who adopt such a view and teach it to their children must expect a greater degree of difficulty in sustaining thier childrens’ faith over time.

  76. Jack
    July 9, 2005 at 12:44 am


    Like I said in comment #74, if you’re merely talking about one’s view on BoM historicity, that’s probably a different story. If you’re only talking what’s rattling around in one’s head, then I agree to a certain extent. Sheesh, I would’ve been kicked out a long time ago myself.

    But again, I ask, how far are you willing to take your example even in the realm of beliefs-less action? Are you suggesting that if one–a Mormon–believed that Gordon B Hinkley is a false prophet, the BoM is pure fabrication, the law chastity is merely an old worn-out social value, and in fine, that there really is no God, that the discomfort one might feel when engaging in conversation with one who holds to such beliefs is merely a matter of not being able to condescend from the lofty views of the “status quo” in order to be more tolerant of another’s views?

  77. Taylor
    July 9, 2005 at 12:59 am

    I am not making any argument about whether or not such beleifs are justified or in fact should be held in the church. I am simply responding to Nate’s original question about whether or not from a sociological point of view those who hold “liberal” views about the BoM, or the prophet, or whatever, can be sustained in the church over a long period of time. Just to clarify, my answer to this sociological question is that if one leaves the church, it has more to do with thier position outside of the “center” of the church than it has to do with the overall effectiveness of such beliefs in sustaining faith.
    As for your examples, I think that I still don’t quite understand them. Are you suggesting that from the perspective of an orthodox person, such views as a liberal view of the BoM, or a disbelief in GBH, are so eggregious as to warrant their ostracism as a discipline? If this is the question, I don’t deny that communities such as ours have the perrogative to have limits on what is acceptable belief and behavior. Indeed, I think that such limits are necessary for its survival, as are the limits on any social group necessary for its coherence and identity. I even agree that most of the examples you cite are worthy of exclusion from the community. However, I am not sure that the “liberal” view of the BoM as Nate explained it is necessarily one of those things. Perhaps the “center” can have a little more cushion on its left end (it sure does on the right!). But then again, that is a different issue than the one that I was trying to explain.

  78. Jack
    July 9, 2005 at 2:13 am


    This sentence is at the heart of what I’m reacting to:

    “My guess is that it is not the liberal view in and of itself that leads to inactivity, but rather the burden of being considered heretical or viewed with great suspicion that proves to be a hostile ground for one’s faith.”

    I agree with this–up to a certain point. Even I, one who is more conservative in nature, have to keep my mouth shut sometimes in mixed company for fear of offending someone’s religious sensibilities. But even so, I don’t think your statement is necessarily on target because it is not certain from whence the burden cometh in all cases. Is it not possible that many will hold to their “views” as if to a golden calf, placing them above their commitment to the Kingdom thereby casting the burden upon themselves? I think in many instances those of a liberal disposition become unnecessary martyrs in their zeal to defend their own ideals–even in defending the ideal of defending their own ideals.

  79. Kingsley
    July 9, 2005 at 5:34 am

    True about that martyry feeling, Jack. Who among us has not felt, in the face of sulky or suspicious Sunday Schoolmates, the temptation to think of ourselves as noble Galileos persecuted by zealots? Of course, if we took two seconds to really consider the image, hilarious laughter would result — there is nothing funnier than apostates “consoling” each other in long-winded, bombastic essays — but instead we choose masochistically to suffer.

  80. Nathan Oman
    July 9, 2005 at 11:48 am

    Taylor: I think that you raise an excellent point about the interaction of context and belief. However, it is slightly different than the question I raised in my initial post. What you say about context suggests that those with a liberal view of the BofM tend to slip out of church activity. This is different than the question of whether they pass their beliefs on to their children. One could imagine the transformation of Mormonism into a place where those holding liberal views of the BofM would be very much more at home. One would still be left with the question of how effectively those beliefs are transmitted to the next generation. Obviously, if those holding liberal views of the BofM are not slipping into inactivity, we would assume that they would be more likely to pass their beliefs on to the next generation. On the other hand, it is still possible that they would not be effective at doing so. Again, I am emphasize that RT raises some good points about the effectiveness of early socialization, so I think that this is a genuinely open question. I also don’t necessarily think that the answer to the sociological question answers the question of legitimacy. At best it would give us some sense of the potential social costs (or absence there of) of adopting one position over another.

    FWIW, I think that Mormonism would be considerably stronger if at the grassroots level there was more tolerance for liberal views, doubt, etc. I do believe that the community has an entirely legitimate interest in drawing lines and setting boundaries. I am not quite sure where those ought to be, but I think we would do better if they were a bit farther to the left. (This doesn’t mean that I agree with anything and everything that some theological liberal’s espouse, only that I think they ought not to be subject to the level of isolation and ostracism that they often feel.)

  81. danithew
    July 9, 2005 at 11:56 am

    In comment #68 Richard T. wrote about a Jewish friend who observes kashrut, Jewish holidays and attends temple on Saturdays. Richard writes that this friend is also an atheist and views the Hebrew Bible and religion as a bit of a “fairy tale.”

    For some reason I have the impression (I might want to verify it a little more) that in Judaism in general, what a person believes is much less important than what one actually does. A day-to-day practical obedience to religious statutes and commandments is the more important than the doubts or disbelief a person might have in his/her head. I don’t think there is anything akin to the LDS temple recommend questions in Judaism (again, I could be wrong on this). We are actually required (at least for temple worthiness) to state that we hold to the correct beliefs but I don’t think that is really a Jewish requirement for participation in even an orthodox congregation.

    There’s a Jewish blog (among many) that I check out occasionally that might be of interest in this question. The blog is called “A Hassid and a Heretic.” Of course, I’m not sure this blogger is even all that concerned with obedience as I recall reading a post about breaking kashrut (oh the allure of Chinese food!) at one point.

  82. Mark
    July 9, 2005 at 12:46 pm

    Steve, way back up in comment #11 asked “how sustainable is it to hold a literal view of the BoM, that it is entirely accurate in every detail?

    While that is an interesting question theoretically, in the context of Nate’s question, it has already been answered in the affirmative, at least for several generations.

    In the absence of any reliable data about this, all we an do is speculate. My sense is that, in general, the behavioral aspects of being a Mormon (tithing, WoW, personal prayer, LoC, etc.) have more influence in the long run.

  83. Kevin Barney
    July 9, 2005 at 1:39 pm

    An excellent set of questions, Nate. Without really knowing, I suspect that transmission of a liberal belief, whether to the next generation or to converts, is not really sustainable on a large-scale basis. It may well happen on a small scale. But, I’m a believer (in the same way Nate is a believer), and I can’t even keep my two kids interested in the Church or believing in the BoM *at all*. For those who take the position it was inspired fiction, I have a hard time imagining many children who would keep the “inspired” part; I suspect most would just count it as fiction. I think for the most part the liberal position is one that requires first a more believing experience from which one withdraws. If the missionaries come to my door and try to teach me that the book is inspired fiction, I’m going to buy the noun but not the adjective.

  84. alamojag
    July 9, 2005 at 1:47 pm

    I guess I don’t really understand what it is Nate is asking will be passed down through the generations. A tradition of being a doubter? A tradition of challenging the beliefs of the day? We already have that–Joseph Smith challenged the beliefs of his day when he walked out of that grove of trees.

    If we believe it is “inspired fiction”, how do you decide which is the inspired, and which is the fiction? In essence, it seems to me, that position puts Mormon (or Joseph if Mormon is one of those fictions) in the same place as Paul H. Dunn. As I remember, the problem with his stories wasn’t that they were uplifting, or that they weren’t true; the problem was that he said they were true.

    The next question as we are dividing up the inspired from the fiction, is which parts of the Gospel do we have to live, and which ones we can safely ignore. Are there any real commandments, or are they simply like the Pirate’s Code in the movie Pirates of the Carribean “more like guidelines”? Do I have to pay tithing? Be baptised? Have charity for my neighbor? If all we have is guidelines, what difference does it make if we follow Jesus, Joseph, or Oprah?

    It seems to me for faith to have any real effect, you have to take that Leap of Faith. Are there mistakes in the Book of Mormon? Moroni seems to think so. But I tend to believe that what mistakes there are more more likely to be mistakes of omission. Mormon was compiling his history with an agenda–to bring people to Christ. He also had a series of other lessons he wanted to teach, hence all the “and thus we see” editorials. If there were stories, or parts of some of his stories, that did not fit that agenda, he did not include them. The plates were small, writing cramped, and he knew his time was limited. He was not writing history, he was writing scripture.

  85. Jack
    July 9, 2005 at 2:16 pm


    I apologize for coming across rudely in response to your comments. If you’ll permit, I think a little clarification is in order. My basic objection to your thesis is this: I don’t think those who espouse views which are left of center tend toward inactivity primarily because they are ostracized by those who are closer to, or right of center. I think liberal minded folk who are committed to the church are tougher than that (e.g., Rosalynde’s parents). IMO, one of the primary causes of inactivety among those left of center (gulp, I’m a little nervious in saying this) is a lack of tolerance on their part toward the “mainstream” whom they (the liberal minded) feel are lacking in intellectual prowess–however true it may be. That said, I don’t believe it is the *sole* cause of inactivity among the left. No doubt, we [I] can do a much better job at being open and considerate toward the opinions of others. Nevertheless, I don’t think your thesis really works because it is not broad enough to include other factors which (imo) have a high degree of determinant value.

  86. Wilfried
    July 9, 2005 at 3:02 pm

    RT in #63 proposed a hypothesis: “members of the church in Latin America will be unusually unsuccessful in transmitting Latter-day Saint beliefs to their children. In addition to the high rates of inactivity and defection among adult members through most of the continent, the strong presence of Catholic values in most of the educational system may tend to counterbalance the efforts of family and church.”

    I do not know the Catholic church in Latin America (I have only a certain image of it, of, yes, deep devotion and strong traditions), but the suggested impact certainly does not count for Catholicism in many West-European countries. Let me limit it to Belgium and Holland, which I know best: here you have a phenomenon where (most if not all) Catholics have lost all literal belief in Bible stories. The demythologisation of the sixties has been profound. Catholic values in the Catholic educational system, compared to past exteriorization, have virtually disappeared.

    That in turn allows for a transfer of Nate’s question: would young Catholics, who get liberal views from their parents and in their own schools, remain active in the Catholic Church? We know the answer. Yes and no. YES (for a portion of them) in terms of continuing some traditions, like marrying in the Church, have their babies baptized, have their kids participate in the Communion highlight at age 12, and be buried in the Church. Purely social function. NO in terms of faith and commitment like young Mormons do. NO in certain aspects of morality: a young couple will live together for years (“in sin”), then one day decide to get married in the Church. And that’s not a problem for the priest. These young people give no heed to Catholic rules pertaining to sexuality, and even abortion may be part of their lives “if necessary”. Consider also that the Catholic Belgian political party voted in favor of abortion and SSM. So, to come back to the hypothesis by RT, the Catholic Church and its values, at least in our area, would have little appeal to doubting Mormons. I never heard of a Belgian Latter-day Saint reconverting to Catholicism.

    But the comparison shows that, like in some other religions (Judaism was mentioned), Catholics may be “active” in their Church, while not believing anything literally any more.

  87. alamojag
    July 10, 2005 at 12:32 am

    I think Wilfried makes an excellent point. Once the core theology is gone, what is left is the social culture. I think that passing on the social culture in Mormonism would be much more difficult. Think of all the cultural milestones: baptism at age eight; for the boys, ordination to the priesthood, deacons at twelve, teachers at fourteen, priests at sixteen. And then the mission at nineteen, and finally the temple marriage. For girls the program isn’t quite as structured, but there is still the Young Women’s program. What else is there culturally? Scout camp, girls’ camp, youth conference.

    Although it happens otherwise, participation in most of those activities usually requires talking with a priesthood leader and answering some questions, most of which talk about the core beliefs and practices. It was hard enough for me to conform to those practices when I didn’t have troubles with the beliefs. As Wilfried points out, these are NOT purely social functions. They require some form of faith and commitment.

  88. Taylor
    July 10, 2005 at 8:31 am

    No need to apologize! You may to a certain extent be right, but I think our difference of opinion is perhaps linked to personal disposition more than anything else. I think that I tend to hold the overwhelming majority responsible for the minorities it excludes rather than blame the minorities for a lack of acceptance of the majority point of view. I don’t expect herculean “tolerance” from a group of people who want to be faithful, but who are routinely silenced, regarded with suspicion, denied important church callings, and who have to constantly defend why they should be members of the church at all. I don’t deny that there are some obnoxious know-it-alls who expect the church to revolve around whatever they happen to think is right, but I think that their vocality is perhaps the result of having no one listen to them ever. If their views were more tolerated, perhaps they wouldn’t feel the need to be so vocal.

  89. Jonathan Neville
    July 10, 2005 at 10:03 am

    Re: #82. Nate said: FWIW, I think that Mormonism would be considerably stronger if at the grassroots level there was more tolerance for liberal views, doubt, etc.

    This is the essence of Nate’s original post. In most wards, one has the choice of: (i) believing and/or teaching the orthodox (“non-liberal”) perspective; (ii) believing a form of “liberal” perspective but not saying anything; (iii) or leaving. Given activity rates of around 33%, most people choose to leave (although I suppose there may be some in category (i) who leave, I can’t think of a single one I know).

    Over time, a person may migrate among these alternatives. Although I’m a (i), I see a surprising number of people in (ii), which is the group I assume Nate is talking about. These “liberal” or “cultural” Mormons can as easily transmit their attitudes to their children as (i) or (iii). In all three cases, the children will make up their own minds. But the durability of any of these categories depends on the perceived value of that course of action compared with the alternatives.

    I suspect that people in (ii) tend to migrate to (iii), but perhaps they would be more likely to remain in (ii) or even migrate to (i) if their views were more lovingly tolerated by (i). In other words, greater tolerance would increase the value of staying in (ii) compared with migrating to (iii).

    Instead, there is a tendency for (i) to shun (ii), almost as if afraid that (ii) might be right after all.

    Consequently, when people in (i) hear/read/think of problems that lead them to (ii), they are more likely to go to (iii) because they know how (i)’s look at (ii)s.

    Wouldn’t it make sense to encourage (ii)s to participate with the hope that they will migrate to (i) instead of (iii)? Or is it true that having (ii)s among (i)s will lead more (i)s away? Which approach is ultimately stronger, and hence more influential? (i) or (ii)?

    Beyond these issues, I question Nate’s original premise that parents can transmit their own beliefs to their children. Kids can research anything for themselves on the internet, and I know very few kids, especially teenagers, who accept at face value what their parents tell them.

  90. July 10, 2005 at 10:51 am


    In much of the news coverage leading up to the recent papal succession, the media emphasized the fact that the large majority of active Catholics are now in Africa and Latin America. Some Latin American countries (Argentina and Venezuela, I’m looking at you!) have the same kind of secularized world and belief system that Europe has. But many others (Peru and Colombia in particular, Mexico also to a substantial extent) remain quite traditionally Catholic. So Latin American religion as a whole really doesn’t look very much like Europe.

  91. A. Greenwood
    July 10, 2005 at 10:53 am

    I’m skeptical that the church would be more successful if more open to the liberal perspective. I think Wilfried’s example shows that the liberal perspective is *itself* a half way house to nothing, not that it is only because of intolerance in the church that liberals leave.

  92. Wilfried
    July 10, 2005 at 11:20 am

    I agree, RT. The way Catholicism is lived is indeed very different from country to country. Or from metropolitan to rural area’s within one country.

    What is interesting to be considered, ref. Adam’s remark in 93, is that a Church can become so liberal, that liberal is the norm, and any “literal believer” would be considered weird or backwards. That’s the case with the Catholic Church in Belgium and Holland. I cannot imagine that among the Catholics here, one of them would suddenly affirm that all the miracles of Jesus really happened as described. When my daughter was in third grade in a major Catholic school here, the Catholic religion teacher told the class that he did not believe in God. God was only a symbol of goodness. Nobody bothered.

  93. Jack
    July 10, 2005 at 4:53 pm

    I would be interesting in knowing, percentage-wise, how many liberals versus how many conservatives are leaving the church. It seems to me that complacency on the part of the conservatives might do just as much damage to conservatives as the intolerance question does to liberals. My guess is that liberals have to fight a little harder to maintain their identity as members and therefore are less likely to lose it because of apathy.

  94. b bell
    July 11, 2005 at 5:19 pm


    In liberal protestant churches (those that still have members) “true believers” are hard to find. Even among the clergy. Most of the “true believers” have left and are now considered evangelicals. This is where a lot of the evangelical growth has come from in the last 30 years.

    If the LDS church went liberal I bet that splinter groups would form all over the place and draw the “true believers” with them

  95. Bryan Robert
    July 11, 2005 at 6:31 pm

    #86 Great responce. Also Jack I have to agree with you.

    We have a few things to consider. First of all you canot compare the LDS church or lifestyle to any other mainstream Christian religion. It is not possible for a person to think the BOM is a work of fiction inspired or otherwise and remain in the Church. It may happen for awhile, but it simply cannot in the long term. Beiefs along those lines are nothing more than a way for the devil to plant seeds of doubt about any and all doctrine of the Church. How can a person say yes I belive that this is the true Church, and that we have a living Prophet. The Prophet says that the BOM in not inspired fiction, but is fact. AND every Prophet before him has testified to that. Well….I dont belive the Prophet on that one…but everything else he says is true. lol Im sorry, but it is pretty much a joke to think that this person will continue to be active long term, unless he is there for other reasons, which were stated.

    This is far different then someone that does not believe in the Bible being historically accurate. Most people are in a religion because they were born there. When it comes down to it. Most people dont really know all the ins and outs of what they really beliveve. Mabye the bible is true mabye not. ” I just believe in God”. Most will never read the bible or even put any thought into it. It does not have to be true for them to believe in God, or what their Priest or Pastor says. The BOM on the other hand is the Corner stone of our Church. To be read and prayed about daily. If it is considered fiction, it would condadict close to everything the Church has ever said or stood for. There would be no more Church as we know it.

    Not to thread jack. The orginal question is simple of course. IF those beliefs would not lead to apostacy, they would surely be passed on from parents to children, just as in most cases, other beliefs, habits etc are normally picked up from parents to children.

    One last point sory for the length. I suspect there is nothing Satan would like more than for members to be decieved into thinking that the BOM is fiction.

  96. Jack
    July 11, 2005 at 7:34 pm


    I agree with you in the sense that a belief in a fictional BoM can lead to the unraveling of the doctrinal fabric of the restoration. However, I think I should make it clear that this is my own perception based on how, I personally, read the logic of that doctrine. While it is clear that some who have apostatized don’t believe in a literal BoM, I don’t believe that all who prefer to view the BoM as fiction are on the high road to apostasy (though, it is my hope that they will proceed with caution).

  97. Jack
    July 11, 2005 at 8:38 pm


    Now that I’ve blabbed for three days on everything except your original question, I think I’m about ready to take a stab at an answer.

    In thinking about the idea that today’s conservatism is yesterday’s liberalism (in part at least), I find it difficult to imagine that *wholesale* liberal views are transferable across generations–as the next generation will already be off to new horizons in their effort to continue in pushing the envelope. One may ask if conservative views would not go through a similar turn over as they follow the path of liberal views here and gone. I think the answer is: not at the same rate. IMO the conservative majority tends to adopt liberal views primarily out of necessity, which typically amounts to the absolute minimum required to satisfy that necessity. Therefore, what we have is the liberal element constantly tugging at the conservative element in an effort to move the “whole” forward at a quicker pace. And much to the liberal’s consternation, the majority of effort expended is lost upon the conservative’s slow adaptation to, or rejection of the new–which slow pace is (imo) an imperitive safe-guard. Thus, because of the slower movements of the conservative mass those liberal views which are adopted are actually assimilated into the whole and in process of time become conservative views. So, in the end, the answer is “no”, sort of.

  98. Bryan Robert
    July 11, 2005 at 9:40 pm

    I dont see how any other conclusion could be possible. In a way if you believe the BoM to be fiction you are already in apostasy. How can a person of any resonable intelligence say. I believe in the Prophet and what he says, but not when he says the BoM is real not fiction. If a person says that the BoM is fiction, then they are saying that every Prophet from Joseph Smith down is a lier, and that every person that has prayed, about the truthfulness of the BoM is a lier. I dont see how this is going to be a person who is not in apostasy, or very close to it. Remember we are not praying if the BoM is inspired, we are asking God if it is true. If everyone was not lying about getting an answer, then God would have to be decieving everyone.

    I cant see how there is any room for a “liberal” view of the BoM in our church, and I could only imagine what the Prophet or 1 of the Apostiles would say about those types of views.

  99. Jack
    July 12, 2005 at 4:01 am


    While I personally believe in a literal BoM, I feel a little uncomfortable in suggesting that all those who tend toward a belief in the BoM as inspired fiction are in the throws of apostasy. I think there are some very intelligent and committed folks who are trying to make sense of what they feel are irreconcilible problems in the BoM by adopting a fictionalized view of the text. This, however, does not mean that they don’t believe the text to be inspired. They still hold to the view that the BoM came forth by the gift and power of God as an inspired document. Even so, IMO, they’re going to have to be prepared to swallow an awfully big fish in adopting such a view. They’re going to have to be willing to go so far as to consider everything we have been instructed in from inspired oracles as fiction–right down to the accounts of the Savior’s life. Personally, I feel there is enough evidence in the logic (alone) of the text to support it as literal

  100. Sam Payne
    July 12, 2005 at 11:43 am

    Maybe this is an odd question, but after reading the posts I am forced to ask:

    What (the heck) is inspired fiction????

    Really what do ya’ll mean? One big long parable? A nice story to build faith, kinda like Santa Clause?

  101. Jim F.
    July 12, 2005 at 1:31 pm

    Is this a detour (getting back to something said at #72) or a hijack?

    In #24, Matt said, To be a Christian, one must accept Jesus Christ, the God come to earth, and not merely Jesus Christ, the nice idea, having said Someone who believes the bible [sic] to be a wholly human invention, even if a repository of profound wisdom, is not a Christian.

    Kaimi and I objected to this definition of Christians, perhaps for different reasons. My reason was fairly straightforward: that definition eliminates a large number of people who call themselves Christians. I said (#31): many “say that they believe in Christ, though they do not believe that Jesus was the Son of God in the way that we do nor that he was resurrected in any literal sense.” That position is neither “Jesus Christ, the God come to earth” (at least not as we understand that term) nor merely “Jesus Christ, the nice idea.”

    Larry (#47) asked whether my point was about “inclusion for the purposes of social interaction, or one of redefining the meaning of Christian for ecclesiastical purposes.” I’m not sure what Larry meant. I wasn’t trying to include someone in Christianity for purposes of social interaction, and I certainly wasn’t trying to redefine the meaning of “Christian” for any purposes. I was just noting the meaning that the term “Christian” has. If we use Matt’s definition, we get the odd result that many of the people in the world who identify themselves as Christians aren’t. Perhaps only ourselves, evangelicals, and certain conservative Catholics are Christians, but many serious, practicing Protestants and Catholics would be excluded.

    Perhaps Larry and Matt meant “to be a Christian in the strictest sense” or something like that. Later (#72) Matt also said, “Christians are those who accept Christ as their Redeemer.” But he adds to that a straw man, namely “those who admire the fabricated words of the fictitious character Jesus.” There are very few such persons, though there are many who do not believe in the virgin birth, nor in the literal resurrection, nor that Christ has wrought our redemption in any way that Mormons and other conservative Christians would recognize. They agree that Jesus lived. They agree that he taught and that we can identify many of his teachings. They will usually also agree that he is the Redeemer. What they disagree about is the meaning of those teachings.

    It seems to me that those who deny that Mormons are Christians do so in a very similar procedure: we disagree about the meaning of terms, and those who disagree with us cannot be Christians–by definition. That would require us to use to deny that many European Catholics are Christians: in one sense, we believe in the same things they do, but we don’t give the same meaning to them, so their beliefs don’t count.

    There are two questions: “What does the term Christian mean when it describes a category of religious belief?” and “What does the term mean when it describes those who will be recognized by Christ as genuinely being his followers?” Both terms are useful, but I don’t think we should confuse them. If we are looking only at the meaning of the second term, than I assume that a number of us will, in the end, not qualify as Christians and that many who are not Mormons eventually will. If we are looking at the meaning of the first term, as I said, I think we should allow just about anyone who identifies herself as a Christian to use the title. Thus I suggested the broader definition: “a person who believes in the truth expressed by the New Testament–but might disagree with us about what that truth is.”

  102. Bryan Robert
    July 12, 2005 at 2:31 pm

    I dont see those people being in the Church long term. Once your faith has dropped to a point that you dont believe in the BoM, or the words of the Prophets, or have obviously not prayed and recieved an answer about the TRUTHFULLNESS of the BoM, I think you are on your way out. The BoM is supposed to be taken on faith. Because not everything jives with what we know now, does not mean that it wont change with more discoveries. Many reasons why the BoM was called fake in the begginning are now used to show its authenticity.

    If your faith is in a state where you do not believe the Prophet, why believe or follow him on anything? Satan would has decieved you, and you will eventually leave the Church.

    #102 Sam that is basically what they are saying. Like a big story to teach you or make you feel good. Basically a giant lie, pepetuated by God, and every church leader from JS down. It is so impossible to wrap your mind around the idea that someone could believe in “inspired fiction” yet still remain a strong active member of the Church, that I cant believe logically that anyone with reasonable intelligence can do it long term. They may as Jack said strugle to make sence of things they cant explain or believe in the BoM, but comming to the conclusion that it is a a great lie, will lead them to leave the Church. There is no other possibility.

  103. Sam Payne
    July 12, 2005 at 4:27 pm

    I believe that it is impossible to believe that the BoM is both inspired (from God who can never lie, Ether 3:12, Enos 1:6; [although this reasoning is a bit circular, because in order to believe these scriptures you would have to believe that the BoM is true, which you cannot do if you believe that it is fiction.] who says that it has actual origin ) and fiction (dictionary definition = not true, imaged, etc.).

    I think that the term is a fallacy and self-inconsistent.

    ps sorry for the nested parens, its the code monkey in me.

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