Practical Apologetics: Defining the middle path in Mormonism

Rachel’s post a couple of weeks ago, The Threat of New Order Mormons, attracted so much discussion that I would like to follow up with my own discussion of middle-path Mormons. Various terms are used to describe those who self-categorize themselves as something other than fully active, fully believing Mormons: Uncorrelated Mormons, Cultural Mormons, New Order Mormons, Liahona Mormons, and so forth. My view is that there are many paths that lead away from full activity and belief, so it is wrong to expect one label to adequately describe what is actually happening. It’s clear these members move away from the center of Mormonism on some items of belief or practice, but which items are the problem for any given individual varies across the population. Here are some different half-way paths.

1. Half-attenders. These are the folks who only show up at church once or twice a month. Within the church, these people are referred to as “less active.” They are welcomed when they attend and are missed when they don’t. Few people feel threatened by some else’s sporadic attendance.

2. Half-contributors. These people may pay some tithing and do a bit of home teaching here and there. A half-contributor with 100% attendance is more likely to be denied a temple recommend than a half-attender who pays a full tithe. Holding or not holding a temple recommend constitutes an objective marker of sorts between fully active members and everyone else (although most ward members don’t generally know who holds a current recommend and who doesn’t in the ward). Those without a recommend have, in a sense, chosen a middle path or, in some cases, had it forced upon them by circumstances.

3. Half-conformers. These people feel impelled to move outside LDS behavioral norms, from little things like skipping the white shirt or skipping priesthood meeting to bigger things like drinking, smoking, stealing, and the like. Those in the first two groups can be fairly stable for long periods of half-attendance or half-contribution, but there seems to be more tension for the half-conformers, who tend to fade away after a few months or years.

4. Half-believers. This is the middle path that gets all the attention, but even within this group there is a lot of variation over which doctrine or piece of LDS history is objectionable: each person has their own list. A better way to distinguish between half-believers is the extent to which half-belief is disclosed. There are half-believers who haven’t told anyone. There are half-believers who disclose their doubts only to the bishop or a few close friends. Then there are the half-believers who just can’t shut up about the issues on their list and start stirring up trouble for other ward or family members. These are the ones who give the middle path a bad name.

A couple of contrasts are worth noting. Most people know when they fall into one of these categories and are often tense or anxious about attending church. I think a good deal of that emotional turmoil is generated internally rather than a reaction to the comments or feelings of other Mormons. Most bishops and ward members are happy to see any brand of half-way Mormon attend church on Sunday. The growing emphasis on “the Rescue” has made most LDS more aware of the problem (there are a lot of non-attenders) and less judgmental of those who return, whether they return to full activity or only manage partial activity.

Second, to the extent there is any threat posed by New Order Mormons (to use the terminology from Rachel’s post), it comes primarily from the half-believers who just can’t restrain themselves from voicing their doubts or disbelief in every conversation. That group is a fairly small percentage of the total half-way population. Mormons are much more likely to encounter arguments critical of LDS beliefs from the media and from the Internet than from a half-believer (or even a non-believer) in church or one’s social circle.

My conclusion is that there really isn’t much threat here — most Mormons deal with their own families, their own activity, and their own issues without much influence from other ward members or family members. If there’s a threat, it is more likely to come from the media or Internet sites that specialize in criticizing LDS doctrine and history. Interestingly, the Church has, over the last few years, poured resources into meeting that challenge by establishing the LDS Newsroom (to try and correct media misrepresentations) and by supporting FAIR and FARMS (whether formally or informally).

Perhaps there’s a glass half empty versus glass half full thing at work here. I tend to compare half-way Mormons with zero Mormons who don’t ever attend, who contribute nothing, who have no concern with LDS standards of behavior (i.e., commandments), and whose beliefs have only weak ties to LDS beliefs. If that’s your comparison, half-way isn’t so bad. I know it is harder to think that way when a fully active family drifts toward sporadic attendance or when a stalwart member unexpectedly recites his list of faith issues in a meeting with the bishop.

Any middle paths that I missed? Are we better off keeping middle-path Mormons within the big Mormon tent (my view) or is there an argument to get them off the fence, either in or out of a smaller tent?

72 comments for “Practical Apologetics: Defining the middle path in Mormonism

  1. I am afraid I cringe at your use of the word “half.” It is a loaded and demeaning word. At the beginning you describe individuals who are less than fully active or fully believing Mormons. You then develop a list of categories that begin with half.

    By your logic a person who has trouble with one tenet of doctrine (or what people consider doctrine) would become a “half-believer” This simply does not follow either mahtematically or logically.

    In addition, the use of “half” is a dog whistle for not a “real” Mormon. The connotation of the word in this sense is like the phraes half-baked, half-assed, half cocked, half a man, half bad and half a mind.

    You have an interesting idea, but it needs refining. Possibly using your words “less than”. For example Less than a TBM (LTATBM in text talk) and then indicate specific area of divergence.

  2. I will leave to others the inevitable firestorm over labels, since I find that several labels apply to me most days and most labels apply to me some days. But if we’re going to categorize, let me suggest an additional dimension. In each case there are varying degrees of acceptance by the individual. At one end of that dimension, some feel guilty or ashamed or repentant about their “less than” position. At the other end of that dimension, some feel and even assert a full communion while being “less than” from certain points of view. This latter direction heads down the road sometimes called “big tent Mormonism”.
    It seems to affect others differently whether I act chagrned or embarrassed about “missing” Priesthood Meeting, or act as and even assert that it’s perfectly OK to attend to the Sacrament only.

  3. My husband fell visibly into the “half-conformer” category by refusing to wear a white dress shirt for anything other than going to a temple session. He’d had quite enough of that on his mission. But when he got called into the bishopric, he was sat down and told that in order to fulfill the calling, he had to wear a white shirt and a dark suit (both of which we then had to buy for him). He’s willing to do that because it’s the cost to support our bishop, even though he thinks it is silly and may even be alienating to some people that the leadership is always dressed in business attire.

    This does point out a problem with the “half-conformer” category. Skipping a white shirt (an unwritten but not doctrinal expectation) is not the same as breaking the word of wisdom, and I don’t think it is a predictor for falling away from the church.

    Great post, by the way. I like the way you’ve broken the issue into different categories of full-to-noncompliance.

  4. My qualms with the “half” label aside, I think the church should focus more on helping them feel welcome in the meetinghouse and less on figuring out how to get them off the fence. Especially in the case of those that are very self-aware of their “middle-way” status, it’s really a very personal decision and often feels outside one’s ability.

  5. “Drinking, smoking, stealing, and the like” – the subtext of that phrasing is that actions which hurt others (stealing) are morally equivalent to actions that don’t (drinking… which can be taken to an extreme, but in itself is not harmful). This is the problem with rules… They divorce our innate, divine common sense from morality.

    Why would it be wrong for someone with doubts or an unorthodox view to speak out? If the church is a big tent, shouldn’t that mean it is also a forum of open discussion? If its not, how can anyone’s faith be taken seriously? Imagine trying to form genuine love in a relationship where each partner’s mistakes implicitly have to be ignored. I think the analogy is fitting.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. Rachel (#3), I did note that avoiding white shirts and skipping priesthood meeting are the small and fairly harmless ways nonconformers can do their thing. There’s always creative nonconformity: he should try wearing a bow tie on Sunday.

    Stan (#1), thanks for the comment. It’s hard to think of terms that are more descriptive and less calculated to offend than my half terms. There are some half-way Mormons who would be offended by any term. We certainly have a right to talk about full activity versus half activity, and these are the most descriptive and least offensive terms I can think of. If you are willing to use the term “TBM,” you can hardly complain about offending people (many Mormons object to that term).

  7. How about we just call each and every LDS person a “sinner?” It is completely accurate and offensive to all save the most humble among us.

  8. Dave,
    Your labeling schema is sorely in need of a “Half-Awakers” category that includes the bored, the underslept, the exhausted, the “too hot in their suit and ties in the middle of summer”, those who ate too big of a breakfast or lunch, and those of us that could be considered to be the very dull.

  9. Why you would lump in stealing under the behaviors for “half-conformers” is beyond me. Let’s not forget that stealing is a crime and slipping it in the same sentence as not wearing a white shirt is ludicrous. I hope this was a simple mistake but marginalizing people who don’t conform by putting that on equal terms with criminal activity is beyond reprehensible.

  10. Competent categorization.

    The open dissenters are a problem, but I think people who don’t believe in the church but accept callings, continue to teach, etc., because they haven’t told anyone and don’t feel any need to are more problematic.

  11. That’s interesting about the white shirt stuff. Maybe the church needs unimportant conformity so the rebels can rebel in ways that aren’t important either.

  12. One last comment.

    I think the real issue with ‘halfways’ isn’t their attendance or not, its the recent proliferation of halfways groups that allow them to construct a mutually reinforcing identity that way. Individual movement in and out and partly in/partly out isn’t destructive to the institution, its counter-institutional development that’s partially built around rejection and designed in part to discourage movement further in.

  13. re 10,


    In some senses, the halfways creating halfway groups is also partially built around acceptance and designed in part to discourage movement further out. That’s the thing about being “halfway” — you can look at it from either side of the aisle.

  14. If we have been members of the Church for a decade or more, we know of people whose level of participation and personal belief has varied over that time, sometimes one way sometimes the other, and sometimes both over a period of years. The Church does not seek to excommunicate people who have dropped below temple recommend worthiness, perhaps because it knows that people often repent and recommit to the Church as various life events persuade them that, yes, after all, they really do believe in the reality of living prophets, etc. After all, we are all not only enlisted, but also on probation. And the commitment of those of us who think of ourselves as fully committed to the Gospel includes the promise to care for everyone in the Church, including those who are less than fully committed. They are not dead weight, but are the “least” among us who offer to us the opportunity to show how we would treat the Savior.

  15. Tim (#9), take a deep breath. I distinguished between “little things” (shirts or skipping a meeting) and “bigger things” as examples of nonconformity. So it’s wrong to say I lumped not wearing a white shirt in with committing a crime — I did just the opposite, I distinguished between them.

    Distinguishing between conformity that matters and conformity that doesn’t is tricky. A good discussion on this point is found in Wilfried’s recent T&S post “EFY, hair, and culture.”

  16. Andrew S.,
    the main value of peripheral membership as opposed to no membership is the better opportunities for the peripheral member to become less peripheral. If peripheralism is made into an ideology and institutionalized, peripheral membership ceases to have value. Then there’s also the institutional angle. Institutionally-speaking, organizations that have as core commitments partial rejection of LDS core commitments are dangerous in a way individuals aren’t unless they are clearly defined as other, which halfway Mormons are insistent not be done.

  17. Dave, you’re doing a disservice to Richard Poll’s ideas by including Liahona mormons in your initial list of synonyms for not fully active and not fully believing members. Have you read his talk, given in a sacrament meeting no less, where he first used this label? If not, here is the original,

    If you have read it maybe you should go back and read it again. His distinction between iron rod and liahona mormons had nothing to do with belief, faith, committment or activity; it was about how we understand personal revelation and god’s hand in our lives.

  18. KLC (#18), thanks for the comment. I think you are right as far as Poll’s original use of the label goes. However, as used presently for self-characterization, some people use Poll’s terms more broadly: TBMs are “iron-rodders,” which makes Liahona Mormons not TBM or, as in the terms I used in the OP, a half-way Mormon in one or another sense. Maybe that’s not fair to fully active Mormons who are familiar with Poll’s article and want to self-identify as Liahona Mormons without thereby announcing they are half-way Mormons in one sense or another. On the other hand, I have never met a single member in real-life who self-identifies as a Liahona Mormon.

    I’m not saying that’s how the terms were originally used by Poll. I’m just saying that’s how some people use the term now.

  19. This post seems to echo the Parable of the Labours and Elder Uchdorf’s “Don’t Judge” Post. Once we start to concern ourselves by looking at what others do, instead of ourselves, we create a hostile environment for those who are struggling or simply don’t fit in because of circumstances beyond their control (for example, those who are ostrocized because they don’t children, or the unmarried guy at 31 who now has to go to the family ward).

    President Benson warned of pride and the effect that it can have. If people are concerning themselves about whether or not Bro Smith is wearing a blue shirt, Sis Jenkin’s kid is a little wayward, or that
    Bro Jensen doesn’t do his home teaching then the question isn’t about you and your relationship with Christ or your Spirituality, but what others think of you. As a Church people should care less about what others are doing and more about their own Spiritual journey.

  20. Dave, if some people use it as you indicate then some people are not only wrong they are twisting a useful and illuminating distinction into something deadening and divisive. And simply following the crowd as they twist it isn’t doing anyone any good. In fact, Poll’s talk speaks directly to the ideas in your post, here’s a quote from it:

    “My thesis is that there are two distinct types of active and dedicated Latter-day Saints. I am not talking about “good Mormons” and “Jack Mormons,” or about Saints in white hats and pseudo-Saints in black. No, I am talking about two types of involved Church members who are here tonight, each deeply committed to the Gospel but also prone toward misgivings about the legitimacy, adequacy, or serviceability of the commitment of the other.”

  21. And the commitment of those of us who think of ourselves as fully committed to the Gospel includes the promise to care for everyone in the Church, including those who are less than fully committed.


  22. re 17,


    I disagree. The peripheral members still have increased opportunities to become non-peripheral members than non-members. So, you should pick which you would rather want: someone staying in longer as a peripheral member, or someone being driven out, because peripheral membership has no value other than to make people less peripheral (and that’s not going to happen in many cases.)

  23. So would Nephi be considered a Liahona Mormon or an Iron-Rod Mormon?

    Seems like a false dichotomy to me.

  24. Dave, deep breath taken.

    I obviously read your qualification of “bigger things”. Despite this distinction I think it is a poorly constructed list of LDS non-conformity…just own it. Drinking a beer and stealing (again, a crime) are not moral equivalents. My point is let’s be careful where we make the distinction on immoral behavior how we attribute that to members in the church whose behavior doesn’t qualify as orthodox.

  25. Dave asks, “Are we better off keeping middle-path Mormons within the big Mormon tent (my view) or is there an argument to get them off the fence, either in or out of a smaller tent?”

    The commission from Christ is to “follow me,” and Christ is a big tent figure. He spent his time with sinners, tax collectors, the poor and the needy. He didn’t spend his time with those who thought themselves holier than the rest. By concentrating on what other do or don’t do, then the Church is taking its eyes off of Christ and worrying like Pharasees about other people. The Gospel worries about what a man or woman is and is becoming, not what they do. By making a smaller tent, Mormonism moves closer being a Pharasidical system where Spirit of the Law doesn’t matter.

    The attitude of this question and of the post that spawned it, is a question of whether or not members should fear those who are not at the same level as them Spiritually. By considering if the tent is too big, the real question is whether or not to make Prodical Son’s out of those who don’t conform to cultural and Church expectations.

    The Pharasee’s were critizied by Christ for making cultural expectations the law.

    Right now the Church is doing a pretty good job of creating its own critics and apostates. The last thing that Mormonism needs to do is to create more enemies by kicking out someone who lives the Gospel but doesn’t live up to cultural expectations. To do so, would be to hedge up the “law” and require people to conform to that which is not Gospel or Doctrinal.

    The fact that this question is even being entertained should scare believers. It makes the “hospital for sinners” into a “preserve for the righteous”.

  26. Heaven help Adam if he ever feels himself shaken. The rigid ethics of Javert must absolutely be clung to if one’s God is so exclusive.

  27. Tim (#25), of course I own it — my name is on the post. The items listed were not in a category I labeled “immorality,” it is a list of examples of nonconforming conduct or conduct which is outside LDS norms. So I think you are criticizing something I did not say in the post. As already noted, I distinguished between minor and major nonconformity.

    I’m not sure I’d agree that there is not a moral component to drinking. Most people who drink also drive, which often results in DUIs for them and perhaps injuries for innocent people in other cars when there’s an accident. It is the rare family law case that doesn’t involve charges, often mutual charges, of irresponsible drinking. Try telling the relative of someone who was killed by a drunk driver that drinking has no moral component. Try telling a child who was taken into protective custody by the state because a parent driving them home from school blew .12 at three in the afternoon there’s not a moral component to drinking. People who don’t “own it” are those who drink and damage the people around them. For all I know that’s you — you are obviously in denial (like most drinkers) about the harm drinking does if you think it is no big deal.

  28. The half-conformer category is where nearly all the church discipline action is found, the church (instead of the member) mulling over whether it would be better if the person were not considered a member in full fellowship.

  29. Dave, sorry this has degenerated into name calling. I had a difference of opinion and if I missed your point I’m sorry. Didn’t intend to hurt your feelings.

    With that said, I’m off to the bar before I go damage people around me because…”for all [you] know that’s [me]. #28

  30. John, I’m not sure that’s true. I think many who face discipline are the secret half-conformer. Conforming in public and doing something quite different in private. Although perhaps that’s what you mean.

    Some of the conforming is silly of course (beard, white shirts) and for years I didn’t frequently wear white shirts. Although I can see it for leadership due to what it communicates in our society. I think we have to make a distinction between conformity for conformity sake which is bad versus simply being aware of what our actions might unintentionally communicate.

    As for expectations I’d just note that you can’t judge based upon appearances how spiritual someone is. There are people who play act well and put it over on many and then there are people who might not appear that spiritual simply because they don’t act in a way that draws attention to themselves. This distinction between appearances and private action is important but I think the way the Pharasee label is thrown around is unfortunate. (And ironically so since it is so often applied to people they think are making the same judgement)

  31. Half-attenders are missed? “Realizing that someone wasn’t there last week when you see them this week” is not the same thing as “missing.”

  32. From what I gather, there are very true “full-Mormons”.

    – Probably only 30% of baptized Mormons actually attend church, making the majority of the Church “half-attenders” or less.
    – Of those that attend, a smaller percentage are full-tithe payers, making them “half-contributors” or less.
    – Even for those who pay a full tithe, home teaching rates tend to be quite low, making them “half-contributors” or less.
    – In my ward, fully 1/3 of the men wear non-white shirts on any given Sunday, making them “half-conformers” – even among those who show up, pay their tithing, and do their home teaching.
    – And even in all those, there are many who struggle with or reject teachings of prophets like Adam-God or polygamy or banning the priesthood, so they are “half-believers”.

    So, if you add all of these up, there is probably less than 5% of the church’s 14 million who AREN’T “half-something”. Luckily, the vast majority who make up the “halfs” aren’t nearly as judgmental as the minority “fulls”.

    And besides, the halfs are in good company. Joseph Smith drank beer, lied (shaded the truth) about participation in polygamy, etc. And according to these criteria, would be a half.

  33. Julie,

    “The rigid ethics of Javert must absolutely be clung to if one’s God is so exclusive.”

    Word. Javert has come to my mind many times as I have read some comments over the months/years.

  34. Tolerant people don’t call their fellow members ‘Javerts’ or express gratitude that there aren’t more like them.. I’m not personally insulted because y’all are just pixels, but if you don’t want to be hypocrites you may want to stop being hypocritical.

  35. By the way, y’all should be as impressed as I am at my restraint in not citing Revelations 3:16. Thanks in advance for your plaudits.

  36. “By making a smaller tent, Mormonism moves closer being a Pharasidical system where Spirit of the Law doesn’t matter. The Pharasee’s were critizied by Christ for making cultural expectations the law.”

    Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocritical legalism, not their dedication to strict rules of righteousness.

    As I have argued elsewhere:

    “It was the fact that the Pharisees insisted on conforming rigidly to the open, visible religious practices while in secret rejecting the Lawgiver himself and conspiring to have him unjustly put to death that made them truly hypocritical.”

    It is those modern members who hypocritically produce the outward appearance of belief when they in fact do not believe that literally reject the Spirit of the Law and become Pharisaical.

    Because there are sometimes serious cultural and family consequences to being honest about lack of belief, people will often sacrifice their integrity and adopt this kind of hypocrisy. But that doesn’t mean it is not hypocritical and Pharisaical.

    When that kind of hypocrisy is actually encouraged and cultivated by an institution or group, then it becomes insidious.

  37. Tim (#30), sorry the discussion didn’t turn out better.

    I hope people recognize this was not a post designed to encourage labeling Mormons, whether fully active, partially active, or not active. What the post does try to do is reject the idea that NOM or cultural Mormon or any other designation for those who distance themselves from the LDS Church are a homogeneous identifiable group. They’re not, and the discussion in the OP identifies some of the areas of difference. That’s a valid topic to address, and the only way to explore the differences is to use words. Also, recognizing heterogeneity in that large pool argues against the idea sometimes circulated in LDS circles that the primary reason people distance themselves from the Church is that someone has offended them. There are lots of reasons.

  38. #24 Wasn’t Nephi a fruit of the tree of life Mormon, who like his father, paid no heed to scoffers or those pointing fingers. It probably took a lot of iron rod and liahona to get him there, but the fruit is delicious and available to everyone who wants it. Certainly the Lord sees a lot of Jean ValJean in all of us.

  39. One problem with this schema is that it suggests belief is quantifiable, or comparable between people. It seems to me that when one is dealing with terms as messy and fraught as “faith,” “belief”, and maybe “hope,” it’s more than a little silly to quantify them as half or full. Isn’t the doubter who attends exercising faith, or at least demonstrating hope that there’s still a place for her in the fold of God? Who’s to say whether that represents more or less commitment than that of the person for whom belief and affiliation are comfortable and uncomplicated.

    We remember Thomas (Didymus–twin) for his doubts, but he was also the one who said “Let us also go, that we may die with him [Jesus].” We are all hopelessly twinned, I think, belief and doubt warring in us day by day, sometimes moment by moment. I don’t think there’s a chart or schema that can begin to adequately take account of even our own commitment and belief, let alone that of others whom we see only “through a glass darkly.”

  40. I was so relieved to see Mike S’s 33, since that pretty much matches my experience. Most of the LDS who I know are half-something. We all need the atonement to make us whole.

    A huge percent of my ward has physical issues that prevent them from attending church as often as they like, certainly less than half. Many of them have current temple recommends, even though they know they can never travel to the temple again.

    If I lived in Utah, I am sure that my family would be considered major non-conformers.

    And a lot of us have major gaping holes in our testimonies. It’s just that, as Elder Anderson said in his “You Know Enough” talk, we are not upset about that hole, and carry on with what we DO know.

    And this is an interesting thing, why the same historical fact or belief can bother one person more than another?

    Through the years, people have tried to tell me why they don’t pay tithing/attend/whatever, because if I only knew, I wouldn’t (insert behavior) either.

    They are sometimes shocked to learn that I *DO* know, it just doesn’t upset me as much as it upsets them. We’re just all different, and it’s a big tent, so I prefer to avoid the labels.

  41. Kristine (#41), thanks for the comment. I certainly admit that one can’t easily quantify belief or faith. I also agree that faith and doubt tend to be curiously intertwined for many people. I see faith and doubt as two matched sides of a coin rather than two ends of a spectrum: you have few doubts, you need little faith. You have lots of doubts, you need lots of faith to carry on.

    As for the schema, I think it offers an improvement over the current “who offended you?” approach some LDS leaders have recommended. If a local leader or sympathetic member thinks there might be a half dozen possible reasons someone has edged away from the Church, they are more likely to listen carefully to what that person has to say, rather than listen for 60 seconds then start issuing advice and recommendations.

  42. I am SOO out of my depth yet so intrigued. before i started reading the blog i was under the naiive impression that those coming to church are attempting at being 100% good mormons, so may of yous have already given up on that ????
    why can we not all at least attempt that ?
    alastor (20) it is UCHTDORF.sorry.
    with a t
    he is german as am i.
    it would be nice if we could all be nice to someone who comes to church after many weeks or months of not attending even though they might smell of cigarettes. they might need all the church they can get as does everyone else except some of us have our lives together in a more organized way, there but for the GRACE OF GOD go we who have some kind of a LIFE.
    as a new baptizee i can still not believe that someone would settle for being half a mormon when being a mormon seems to be, to my imagination, a perfectly attainable goal for any human being …

  43. > bigger things like drinking, smoking, stealing

    So it goes from drinking to smoking to STEALING?

    According to that line of thinking it could also be drinking, smoking and then MURDER, or drinking, smoking and then CHILD MOLESTING!

    Something is wrong with your brain dude.

  44. 45,


    Dave is not saying that things are a chain…drinking -> smoking -> stealing.

    What Dave is saying is that in the LDS church, there are multiples classes of non-conforming acts…if you wear a non-white shirt or don’t attend priesthood meetings, that’s non-conforming, but there really is no impact in a church institutional sense.

    But if you drink OR smoke OR steal, then that will have institutional consequences for you within the church (e.g., no temple recommend at least…disciplinary action at most.)

    I say this to avoid saying the more pithy “Something is wrong with your reading comprehension dude.”

  45. stealing what. stealing someone else’s is petty theft on a par with major crime. stealing someone else’s girlfriend… stealing by eating stuff inside the supermarket instead of paying for it. grand larceny ? auto ? …what with those drunken teenagers who steal a car for a joy ride. being drunk can easily lead to crimes . why is that such wrongbrained thinking

  46. With respect, I do not see the Middle Way as half of anything. To me, it is a committed, disciplined path of balance:

    1. Balance in perspective past/present/future, as highlighted in President Dieter Uchtdorf’s July Ensign First Presidency Message: We are in the Middle of our eternal lives.

    2. Balance in emotional extremes, avoiding polemics about unprovable issues of faith. The Middle Way focuses on truth, on learning exactly what the facts are, and avoiding judgment on those facts. The truth of the church lies in the middle of all polemical advocacy, in that place where faith personally edifies in unspoken ways.

    3. Balance as opposed to false dualism. So many talks propose that the Church is either all true or the biggest fraud in existence. This forces people who discover inconvenient facts about church history and doctrine to become rapidly negative when they discover it isn’t ‘all true’. The Middle Way tries to see both sides, and harmonizes the idea that really flawed people can have really inspired ideas, and really wonderful people can make really awful mistakes. Balance for those things we don’t fully understand or know is called “suspended judgment”.

    The Middle Way is not mediocrity or indifference to me. It is an authentic way of life. I practice and remain active and devoted to Mormonism. I do not feel the need to believe that any single aspect of it is literally true, but rather that what the Church teaches and how we interact is important and helpful for an authentic life, provided ‘truth’ remains the primary focus.

  47. Campers:

    I come late to this difficult topic with its many different perspectives. I did not sleep last night thinking about it. I offer the following muddled observations based on my personal experience that I think are not unique, as therapy for my insomnia.

    1. I find the vast majority of active members seem astonishingly ignorant of the difficult areas in Mormon theology and history. I live in the US South with its infamous education system and have relatives in Utah. It seems to apply in both places. I find myself censoring practically every church-related conversation I have with the members of my ward if I don’t want to introduce them to some problem (that has been discussed over and over and over on the internet).

    2. At the same time any snot-nosed pre-teen can spend 10 minutes with a key board and conjure up what would have taken me as a young adult 30 years to find, admittedly from less than reliable unoriginal sources. It seems two LDS churches are emerging: ward house Mormons and Internet Mormons. My 86 year old father calls them the Know Nothings and the Do Nothings. (He also humorously applies the same terms to the US political parties and to his children and grandchildren from time to time).

    3. Funny thing- most ward housers have access to the internet (with the exception of some of the elderly). I find this dichotomy of exposure perplexing. I offer one possible solution based on the advice given to me many years ago by a wise doctor in my ward. He told me that in order to stay active he had to “check his brain in at the door,” and he advised me to consider doing the same. I wonder if the ward housers with internet access conveniently forget what they read on the internet or perhaps politely pretend ignorance? Is this vast ignorance largely contrived?

    4. A clear majority of the members on the records are inactive. At least 50% in every ward. Probably closer to 90% in my ward. As a ward level priesthood leader in the past I felt it to be my responsibility to attempt to understand why. So as to both facilitate their return and to make changes that might diminish the future exodus. The stock reasons (sin, or “offended”) typically offered in folklore and correlated material do not seem to apply in most cases and have proven to be entirely useless to me in efforts to reach them.

    5. Inactive members would not typically share with me or any other active member why they left when I asked in any official capacity or even just as a fellow ward member. Perhaps I lack manners and come across as rude or intrusive. So in an effort to comprehend what they are thinking I assumed that the accounts (negative testimonies) of those leaving the church published on the internet might be exaggerated, yet address similar concerns and therefore would be instructive. It is obvious to me that few making comments on this relatively enlightened website have a working familiarity with this, um, literature, (shall we call it?)

    6. The vast majority of personal accounts I have read do describe a sort of Journey of Discovery. (This issue is central to the future of the LDS church.) The nascent apostate begins with an idealistic, rosy yet perhaps brittle perspective that is sustained for a variable length of time by immersion in church callings and correlated material and the orthodox practice of Mormonism. Testimony is first threatened then shattered by the discovery of disturbing problems in history or theology. The process is extremely painful; similar in degree to a divorce, loss of a child or major illness like cancer or bypass surgery. The particular problems might vary initially and the time course is also highly variable from minutes to decades. But eventually the apostate finds most of the other problems with history and doctrine to also be faith destroying (or confirming of a new faith contrary to prior beliefs). They usually settle into a place where they are in somewhat general agreement with other apostates against many if not most LDS issues while experiencing various difficulties in their relationships with believing family and friends, not always of their own making.

    7. I have consulted many apologetic sites such as FARMS and FAIR and other sources. Most of this material does not answer the concerns for me or them. Perhaps we are too stupid or lazy or faithless. These defenses seem to substitute quantity of ink (electrons?) for quality of material. (I see my own sins best in others). Attacking the messengers seems ubiquitous. Double standards of what is admitted as evidence abound. Logical fallacies are not uncommon. A few cheap shots seem to suffice when preaching to the choir but do little to satisfy the disturbed seeker of answers. Arrogance from both sides drips on the floor like blood in a slaughter house. It is hard to generalize and I do think a few sites (like Jeff Lindsay’s) do a little better than most. But it seems to me Hugh Nibley’s memorable list of characteristics of an anti-Mormon paper might equally be turned back on ourselves and be valid in too many cases. In short, I think we are losing this war of ideas on the internet. Our attendance numbers and tithing checks show it.

    8. The burden of proof is upon us. Christ said “go ye into all the world.” He did not say defend your beliefs by forcing others to prove them wrong. We are the ones making outrageous claims in the general context of our culture. It is up to us to persuade others of our beliefs. Mere plausibility is not a resting point for me, it is in fact a rather weak and vulnerable place.

    9. The need for short, clear, powerful, and convincing answers to these questions in history and doctrine has never been greater. The era of ignorance of problems in our theology and history is ending. Educators are needed. One solution to the Journey of Discovery is the Inoculation Effect. Our youth should be exposed to these problems in a loving and supportive setting. Then they are not easily disturbed later and they are in a better position to deal with the problems after decades of awareness and perhaps thought. We might lose some. But failure to do so sets them up for their own Journey of Discovery that often leads right out the front door of the church.

    It is not time for faithful historians to be tired and give up and iterate the same unsatisfying answers over and over and over. If it doesn’t work, perhaps trying something else is better than exhaustion. It is not helpful to point out personal weaknesses of those struggling with their testimony or to judge them. Their attacks on us faithful members may even be vicious, while secretly the attacker is not entirely beyond all rational thought forever.

    The parable of the Good Samaritan seems applicable here. We need to recognize the person struggling with their testimony to be in need of spiritual succor. We need to bind up their wounds, not bind up their mouths with duct tape. Or tie them up with ropes of theological knots. Or macerate their brains with spiritual egg beaters. What exactly those wounds might be and how to best heal them is difficult for me to understand.

    I know what a bandage for a small laceration looks like. It is a white woven mesh made of cotton and is 4 x 4 inches. The suture used by surgeons is often black silk or blue nylon. What I do not know is what the bandages and suture for loss of testimony look like. But I think I can guess what it is made of. I presume compassion, authenticity, respect and integrity are key materials.

    I also want to point out that the Samaritan was of considerably lower status than the beaten Jew. It is not a high status Sanhedrin Jew of the direct lineage of David helping a worthless dog of a Samaritan. We need to somehow socially place ourselves beneath the apostate not above them.

    I submit that when we genuinely bind the spiritual wounds of others our own wounds and faults are miraculously healed. I’m still working on that one but I believe it to be valid. Legitimate compassionate assistance and friendship given to a brother or sister struggling with testimony might take us both to a better place. This is not happening often enough in my experience and is difficult in the modern LDS church. Do we have the faith in the Lord to at least try a different approach to the testimony loss of our brothers and sisters than what is currently not working?

  48. Meldrum the Less,
    Well said!

    Loved this: We need to bind up their wounds, not bind up their mouths with duct tape. Or tie them up with ropes of theological knots. Or macerate their brains with spiritual egg beaters.

  49. Then there are the half-believers who just can’t shut up about the issues on their list and start stirring up trouble for other ward or family members.

    while i’m sure such people exist, i never encountered one in my 30 years are active church participation. i’m curious to hear about other people’s encounters with people like this in their “real life” wards (as opposed to on the internet, where they are clearly easy to find). how did that go down?

    the type of trouble i did see stirred up from time to time was from members who believed a little too strongly. in their own private non-doctrinal orthodoxies, that is (the white shirts Dave mentioned is a good example of this). that kind of nonsense caused real friction from time to time.

  50. #49 Meldrum the less: I also want to point out that the Samaritan was of considerably lower status than the beaten Jew. It is not a high status Sanhedrin Jew of the direct lineage of David helping a worthless dog of a Samaritan. We need to somehow socially place ourselves beneath the apostate not above them.

    I love this imagery.

    #46 Andrew: if you wear a non-white shirt or don’t attend priesthood meetings, that’s non-conforming

    I live on the Wasatch Front in a very LDS neighborhood. In my ward are general authorities, stake presidents, bishops, etc. It is full of active, successful, and engaged people who genuinely care for each other. And on any given Sunday, at least 1/3 of the men will be wearing a “non-white shirt”.

    Luckily, in my ward at least, people seem to have moved past the superficial and try to focus on what is truly important in the gospel. That’s why it really bothers me when people even consider someone with a non-white shirt as a “Half Conformer” as suggested above. To me, it says more about the spiritual maturity of the person offering that opinion than the person with a random color shirt.

  51. In my various wards, the inactive have been pretty open about their inactivity. Except in one case, a Journey of Discovery had nothing to do with it–in that case, it was the problems of theism in general that were at issue, not anything specific to Mormonism. The assumption that evangelistic internet accounts of people who leave the Church are representative is an ill-founded assumption.

    There seems to be an effort to replace a simplistic departure narrative with a simplistic counter-narrative.

  52. Dave,

    i think this post is, on the whole, well though out and fair. but i do think your section on “Half-conformers” is missing the mark in a couple of ways.

    first, “stealing”? some people make a conscious decision to break with the church on the question of stealing?

    second, and more importantly, you’re ignoring the many ways that some fully active, temple-worthy members choose to non-conform with LDS behavior norms, whether those norms are semi-official or purely cultural (sabbath shopping, R-rated movies, caffeine, lax about garments, delaying marriage & children, women working outside home, consumer credit debt, birth control, in vitro, sterilization, tatoos & piercings, voting pro-choice, pro-gay marriage). basically, for anything that isn’t explicitly required to get a temple recommend, you will find some group of faithful members who ‘keep their own counsel’ or grant themselves a dispensation. and such selective conformance can indeed be stable over a long period of time.

    are these “half-conformers” in a different category from those who choose to non-conform on a temple litmus test issue?

  53. @Adam #11

    Maybe the church needs unimportant conformity so the rebels can rebel in ways that aren’t important either.

    so in your view, when Rachel Whipple’s husband didn’t wear white shirts he was just being a ‘rebel’, and if ‘the church’ hadn’t provided some ‘unimportant conformity’ for him to safely rebel against, he would have been tempted to rebel in a more dangerous way like alcohol or adultery.

  54. Two points, One: Too long ago at BYU, we spent so much energy outwitting things like dress standards that we had none left to occupy the administration building and destroy files, as some of our agemates did at other institutions. Thank you BYU.

    And two: One of the men in my current ward whom I respect a great deal might fall into some of the “half” or “part” categories, but when he stands to bear his testimony, and he does, he bears witness of what he knows to be true. He doesn’t waffle, give travelogs or lectures, talk about his family, or extend beyond what he personally knows. He says what he knows to be true and then he sits down. Thank you Dave.

  55. Dave Banack and others: I have been perplexed greatly over this OP. I myself went through a journey of discovery about so many church things in recent years. This journey came after serving for more than 30 years in bishoprics, high councils, quorum presidencies, and almost countless other priesthood leadership positions. What I would love to hear from you and others is your personal stories of how you have dealt with the troubling issues, and not in the traditional “apologetic” way. Hence, my interest in the OP originally because it said “practical apologetics”. How I have longed for priesthood leadership to be the apologetics and tell us their down-to-earth practical apologetics. That is why for me, and apparently for many others, the Mormon Stories and similar bloggings of NOM has been so welcome to me, so much is down to the very personal level. Instead, what has come across is a discussion of how to label me in “halves”. A half-attender, no, that’s not me, I try to attend as much as I did for 30 years, but I admit to making up reasons to help out in Primary (playing piano or helping some kid I know in nursery who’s screaming) in order to avoid Sunday School rote reading lessons and Priesthood Meeting’s correlated lessons. A half-contributor, well, yes, since my journey recently reached an impasse, I still give, but not 10% of my gross anymore, though I still hold my recommend so I can attend my children’s weddings. Half-conformers, well, your examples were spot-on. Even when I was TBM, I tried so hard to get bishops and stake presidents to give up on the white shirt thing, to give up on the women offering opening prayer in sacrament meeting ban, etc., but to no avail, though before learning so many other things, I chalked it up to individual power struggles by men who were too proud to admit their mistakes. Half-believers, I think you way over exaggerated those who can’t shut up. In more than a dozen different wards and more than 5 different stakes outside of the Mormon corridor, I have only once heard someone who couldn’t “shut up” and he was excommunicated while I was in the bishopric, and now I shudder at how Jesus must condemn me for my part in it. His only offense was to preach in sacrament meeting that perhaps parts of the Bible are really good stories, but not literally true. I kicked him out, and now, knowing what I do, some 20 years later, I have written to him and apologized for the awfulness of it. The bishop at the time felt pressured by so many members, me and my family included, to get rid of him, and yet he was so nice! He played Santa Claus for the ward and used to be the bishop himself! Awful we were. I propose calling a specialist in each stake or even in each ward, the Ward Apologist, or the Stake Apologetic Specialist with lots of priesthood authority behind him or her.

  56. so in your view, when Rachel Whipple’s husband didn’t wear white shirts he was just being a ‘rebel’, and if ‘the church’ hadn’t provided some ‘unimportant conformity’ for him to safely rebel against, he would have been tempted to rebel in a more dangerous way like alcohol or adultery.

    Yes. Or worse things even, like voting Democrat or embracing Canada.

  57. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Palerobber (#55), perhaps the “half-conforming” title could be improved. That category is intended to describe those who pull away from full Mormon orthodoxy/orthopraxy by way of conduct or behavior. Other categories illustrate those who pull away from orthodoxy/orthopraxy by not attending, by contributing less money or time, or by adopting or broadcasting unorthodox beliefs. I could clog up that simple schema with a lot of qualifiers (not every guy who skips a tie on Sunday is making a statement; most active members don’t conform to every cultural or doctinal practice that defines LDS orthopraxy) but that would just obscure my main point: there isn’t a Middle Way, there are many Middle Ways.

    Committing crimes is conduct that is certainly outside LDS norms. Members are counseled to obey the law of the land. Conduct that some people consciously adopt to distance themselves from full orthodoxy/orthopraxy might be legal (smoking cigarettes) or illegal (smoking pot). I’m obviously not saying every criminal act committed by an LDS person is an intended statement about their views of the Church. But I’m sure most LDS persons committing serious criminal acts are aware their actions put them outside of acceptable LDS conduct and that those acts, if they become publicly known, will affect their standing in the Church. I’m not sure I understand how you can agree that shopping on Sunday or piercings are relevant to the discussion but committing a felony is not.

    Adam (#53), I agree that exit narratives fall almost inevitably into the Journey of Discovery plot, whether or not that actually describes the experience of the individual writing the narrative. That’s the justification offered for the decision but not necessarily the explanation for the decision. [The same holds true for conversion narratives, but that’s a different post.] I view both the Journey of Discovery narrative and the “they were offended” narrative as oversimplifications.

    Meldrum the Less (#49), thanks for the essay. The terminology often used to contrast the approaches you are talking about is Internet Mormons and Chapel Mormons. I would at least agree with this statement: “Legitimate compassionate assistance and friendship given to a brother or sister struggling with testimony might take us both to a better place.”

  58. Joseph McKnight (#58), maybe I’ll take up that topic in my next installment of Practical Apologetics in a couple of weeks.

    In talking about Middle Way Mormonism, I’m not denigrating it. I admire people who, despite the challenges they face and the complications that might arise, choose to remain active in their ward and in the Church. And I recognize that every individual is different and has a different story. No general discussion will describe the actual experience of any given individual.

  59. I could clog up that simple schema with a lot of qualifiers (not every guy who skips a tie on Sunday is making a statement; most active members don’t conform to every cultural or doctinal practice that defines LDS orthopraxy) but that would just obscure my main point: there isn’t a Middle Way, there are many Middle Ways.

    i get that. but what i’m still trying to understand is whether the middle way(s) you’re defining here apply only to those members who are ‘making a statement’ with their heteropraxy.

    imo, it’s not certain types of ‘halfness’ that are more or less threatening to other members. it’s the level of allegiance those ‘half’ people signal that matters most. people who make their allegience clear tend to be accepted in all their varied ‘halfness’.

  60. I’m not sure I understand how you can agree that shopping on Sunday or piercings are relevant to the discussion but committing a felony is not.

    i’m not trying to making a big deal about ‘stealing’, but here’s why i don’t think it fits well with the other examples (both yours and mine): most people aren’t going to start stealing as a deliberate choice to break with the church’s teachings. it’s more likely to be a temptation someone gives in to. some one who is prescribed oxycontin and then slips into addiction would be another example of doing something outside LDS behavioral norms but which likely says nothing about a person’s disposition toward the church, it’s doctrines, or practices.

    now something like drinking alchohol could go either way — for some it may represent a lapse of judgement in the face of social pressure, for others it may be a deliberate choice to ignore the WoW. and this difference matters a lot in how other members will react to such non-conformity (as it should).

  61. so what exactly of the doctrine and WOW do middle pathers ignore or is it different for every middle pather ? I mean what another mormon does is none of my business but it still seems complicated for a newcomer like myself.
    like would I ask my home teacher (or homey as I call them) if they are middle pathers and if they say yes, do I ask if they want me to buy alcohol for them when they come visit so they can have a nice beer while they are teaching me ? or is it mostly dont ask dont tell and equally as Meldrum says, the internet experiences and middle path experiences are totally left out of the ward so that the ward life is not disrupted by someone espouting about their wonderful middle path while 100% mormons become disconcerted…(or what one can learn on the internet, I had that when FARMS was first suspended, I brought it up in the ward, that I thought it was an outrage the way it was handled and people were….wondering why I would even care….so in order not to confuse them poor people any longer, I am keeping it out of the ward)

  62. Christine, I suspect that very few active Mormons self-identify as “Middle Way Mormons” in their wards or branches, nor would most people even know what the term means, so it is probably not a conversation topic to try out in your own ward. [After 64 comments, I’m not even sure that I know what the term means.]

  63. Dave, yet the “what kind of mormon am i” so far elicits almost the most comments of all subjects. Yet again it seems as thouggh as pointed out by meldrum there is an internet persona and a ward persona in each of us.

  64. Joseph McNight- “I propose calling a specialist in each stake or even in each ward, the Ward Apologist, or the Stake Apologetic Specialist with lots of priesthood authority behind him or her.”
    I’ve seen this suggestion before. Made it myself, in fact, though only half-seriously. Every ward needs someone (or several someones) who is well-informed, faithful, and non-defensive.

  65. Funny, I made exactly the same comment to a bishop about six years ago. He asked, “If you could have any calling, what would it be?” I said Stake Apologist, and he just laughed. I suspect that given rising attrition rates, they’re not laughing anymore. Still seems like a good idea to me to have a couple of stake apologists. You don’t even have to call it that — just call a couple of “well-informed, faithful, non-defensive” people as stake missionaries and tell the bishops to use them as a resource. Cost to Church: zero dollars. Benefit to Church: hundreds of defections averted. Ideas don’t get much better than this.

  66. I know for almost sure there is no one in my ward that would have even the slightest interest in doing this. It is not even just for people with a crisis of faith, just people who are interested in debating stuff and relying on a knowledgeable resourceful scholarly type. Maybe in a crisis of faith a person who prays for you is more helpful.

  67. I suspect that given rising attrition rates, they’re not laughing anymore.

    It’s not clear to me in the least that there are rising attrition rates btw. The self-identification rate for Americans has stayed relatively constant. The number of baptisms has about halved since the 1990’s, but that appears to be more complex. But if the number of conversions are down but the population increase is about constant then that entails that there isn’t this huge attrition problem as some have presented.

  68. @ Adam #59

    or maybe the church needs unimportant conformity so the control freaks can control in ways that aren’t important either.

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