The Future of the Church is Orthodox

I recently helped conduct a much-overdue national survey of Catholic priests that, among other things, confirmed what most informed Catholic observers already knew: younger priests are much, much more conservative than their older counterparts. While a significant proportion of older priests disagree with fundamental Catholic Church teachings regarding homosexuality, for example, among the latest generation there are few priests that think that contraception among married people is okay. The gulf is pretty big. 

Now, there are fundamental dynamics and background histories at play with the Catholic Church that aren’t relevant to the case of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I do not want to overdraw the parallels. Still, some comparison is useful. 

One explanation for our results is that in the past the clerical collar carried with it a cachet and social esteem among certain communities that they no longer enjoy. (On a related note, I wouldn’t be surprised if members of the 12 receive more jeers than cheers when they travel in certain sections of Salt Lake City.) Yes, in the case of the Catholic Church scandals are part of the story, but it is also symptomatic of a broader decline in authority and religion more generally. Consequently, people who join the Catholic priesthood are more likely to do so out of personal devotion, and they will be more likely to choose the Church when its teachings do not comport with modern day norms.

Similarly, while in the past a significant portion of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lived under a “sacred canopy;” geographic pockets where being a Church member was the comfortable default and came with a certain esteem, this is quickly changing. Now, even if you live in a densely Latter-day Saint community, because of the Internet you are essentially tapped into every possible community and perspective, some of which are openly antagonistic to the Church’s teachings and emphases. In early Utah there were a handful of voices coming from the great and spacious building, now there are thousands. (And contrary to some perceptions, the alternative voices are not necessarily on the left; I get the sense that there are as many people drawn to Joe Roganism and Fox News-ism as their primary moral compass as there are drawn to wokeism, so any efforts to broaden the Church’s tent are not necessarily synonymous with a leftward shift).

Consequently, it makes sense that over time the ones that stay are more likely to be personally drawn to the particulars of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as they are conciously choosing the Church over a thousand other items on the menu in the rich philosophical and religious landscape that is 21st century America. (Anecdotally, it seems one of the first signs that somebody has left the Church is that they start posting more about their new, alternative source of meaning, often a hobby or interest; of course, as an orthodox member I don’t see how any of the alternatives could begin to compare to “Worlds Without End,” but I’m not going yuck somebody else’s yum and I hope they find meaning in their new path.)

I get the sense that the people who disagree in some very fundamental ways with the brethren yet still remain in the Church and try to change it around them have fairly significant personal and sometimes (in the case of BYU or Church employees) professional buy-in. By the time their Overton windows of the Church and their preferred ideology have stopped overlapping, they are ensconced in Latter-day Saint institutions and communities in middle age, whereas the young with a lifetime ahead of them usually just leave the Church. 

Consequently, as we iterate this process across generations and years, the heterodox (and their children, there just aren’t a lot of 2nd generation Sunstone Mormons) select out of the Church, thus keeping the Church relatively orthodox, since at the end of the day there isn’t much of a reason to pay 10% of your money to a religion that is a secondary or tertiary source of direction in your life. In today’s world of a thousand different paths, I suspect that trying to “reform” the Church is a one generation endeavor, since in a society with so many different options it requires much less energy to simply choose your preference than it does to embed yourself in a Church and try to change it from within to match those preferences. 

As religions become less of a piece with the sociocultural background and more of a distinct, consciously chosen choice, I suspect that Catholic priests will be more Catholic and Latter-day Saints will be more Latter-day Saint. Those that do decide to stay in the Church will do so less as a default and more because they have explicitly chosen it over other competing philosophies, ideologies, and ideals.

21 comments for “The Future of the Church is Orthodox

  1. What was disorienting to me recently was discovering the extent to which alternative voices on the political right have supplanted the prestige and importance once held by LDS leaders for many Utahns. I knew Utahns were conservative, but Wow! The rejection of First Presidency counsel during this pandemic (vaccinations and masking) was immediate and stunning. Even CES employees, seminary teachers, etc. ignored it.

    I suppose I should have noticed the trend when so many Latter-day Saints wholeheartedly embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric. LDS faith and practice certainly looks differently when viewed through an ideological lense. Confirmation bias comes into play and voices or perspectives outside one’s chosen primary ideology lose credibility. In my opinion, the danger isn’t that younger Latter-day Saints will become more Latter-day Saint, but that they will dismiss elements of their religion, favoring right-wing ideologies in their place. False gods, indeed!

  2. Yeah, I can see this happening. My kiddos are losing interest in the Church before their teen years because of the sexism and homophobia (and out of sheer boredom, honestly) and since as you note they don’t have a lot invested and a lifetime ahead of them (unlike me) they have no incentive to do the hard work to make it work.

    I am not a reformer, that’s a thankless job and a lost cause, rather I’m someone who is trying to live my own path within the Church and make that work since I value the community and since I would at least like to try to model that form of engagement for my kids in case they are interested (and some still are so far, so another reason to remain engaged). So I do think *maybe* there’s an alternative world where it’s not necessarily reformers all leaving but the Church becomes a bigger tent because it has to in order to survive because people insist on staying on their own terms. To go back to the data you’re looking at here – yes, Catholic *priests* are more conservative – but are parishioners necessarily? I know plenty of liberal Catholics who still attend so priests may not be a total proxy, although I can see it eventually driving more liberal folks out. Maybe similar for Mormons.

  3. “How intellectually amazing the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is. The gospel is truly inexhaustible. It is marvelous; it is a wonder.

    “Yet orthodoxy is required to keep all these truths in essential balance. In real orthodoxy lies real safety and real felicity. Flowing from orthodoxy is not only correctness, but happiness. Orthodoxy is especially vital in a time of raging relativism and belching sensualism. The world’s morality is constantly being improvised. Some views are politically correct one day, but not another.”

    –Neal A. Maxwell–

  4. @Old Man It bothers me when people claim to have always believed something that has only recently become politically apparent or fashionable, when that belief was actually quite fringe in the past, but in this case I can sincerely say that I kind of saw this coming. For one example, the fact is that there has always been kind of a collective conservative ignoring of the anti-hunting rhetoric that has occasionally been spoken from the pulpit; it’s clear that political conservativism is kind of its own ideology, and if the Church never existed Utah would probably still lean right. There was sort of this perception that we’d all become latte-drinking liberals once religion died out, but the rise of Trump from his base of people who identify as evangelical but don’t actually go to church argues against that.

    @Elisa: I wish you the best in your path and in your desire to make it work. I do think Catholicism has a very strong “cultural Catholic” component that isn’t as big of a thing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (I believe even Dan Savage identifies as cultural Catholic). However, if we limit it to those who “pay the tithing and do the believing” to quote Sterling McMurrin, I wouldn’t be surprised if the base of people actually funding Catholic Church operations, showing up for mass, and attending confession has shifted in the more orthodox direction. I might be wrong though.

    I do think the tent is getting bigger in terms of church members not subtly encouraging people to not come to church; , I just think that even with a friendlier Elder’s quorum people who fundamentally don’t see the Church as providing the best ideology will just look elsewhere, kind of a Tinder of life philosophies situation.

  5. I’m confused by analyses like this. Orthodoxy or heterodoxy as discussed here seems fully social and political, or at best behavioral in the sense of mere attendance and tithepaying. There seems to be little consideration of orthodoxy in the sense of faith and actual belief. Is the Church merely an organization with fractured/fracturing political and social behavior — or is there really any Church at all without a shared set of faith claims? More than whether or not members wear masks or treat Church officers with respect or derive “esteem” from living among people who share membership, I’m interested in the persistence of those faith claims. Do Church members continue to believe in angelic visits, and the divinity of scripture, and continuing revelation in the special sense we have taught? Do we believe apostles are literally special witnesses of Jesus Christ, and do we believe that Jesus Christ was the creator of this world, the literal Son of God, that he was resurrected, and that we, too, will be resurrected? It’s those sorts of things that define orthodoxy for me — and which I think are light years ahead in importance to whether or not someone works for “reform” of whatever their social and political priorities are.

  6. I think Stephen acknowledges that “conservative” is no longer synonymous with “orthodox.”

    I’ve said before that devout is a better descriptor than “orthodox,” for a lot of the reasons that Ardis mentions. I’m guessing that social science prefers more easily observable characteristics, but I think that the analysis would be much the same if you looked at devotion: the future is devout.

    Stephen: so doesn’t this suggest a major flaw with “The Next Mormons”? It seems like what the book often describes are the next non-Mormons, people without enough commitment to the Church and its teachings and practices to be a major factor in its future.

  7. @Jonathan: Yes, conservative is not the same as orthodox, hence the rise of the unorthodox conservative perhaps best represented by the anti-vaxers. For my purposes here orthodoxy is defined as being in line with the current emphases and rhetoric of the Church. The vast majority of people aren’t 100% tip top orthodox, so I don’t mean heterodox as a slur. It’s obviously a judgment call as to where somebody falls on the scale or whether there is “fundamental” discordance with the brethren, but generally speaking disagreements are weighted according to the rhetorical emphasis at the time. If one general authority said something once that you disagree with, that affects your “orthodoxy” score less than if you disagree with something that is being said more consistently across the pulpit.

    Re “The Next Mormons,” my reading of the book was that it was much more measured in its claims about the future than some people assumed based on the title, but yes, I assume that all things being equal the unorthodox (whether on the right or left) will leave the Church at a higher rate, so you can’t just linearly extrapolate a cohort forward without taking this into account. Again, because the heterodox are also on the right, I’m not sure if that will move the Church “left” or “right” relative to the background environment (probably depends on the issue).

    @Ardis: Orthodoxy is all of the above. It most certainly includes the traditional historical truth claims, but I emphasize the social issues because that’s where the change efforts are. There aren’t a lot of people saying “you know, the Church needs to receive another revelation about how the there were no gold plates.” I think most people (minus a few people in the Latter-day Saint studies space that I won’t name) intuitively grasp that the Church without the historical/doctrinal truth claims is a non-starter as a vibrant religious organization.

    But yes, now that social pressures to be active in Church are less, I wouldn’t be surprised if tithing-paying Latter-day Saints are more likely to believe in angels than, say, 30 years ago (albeit probably not as much as 100 years ago).

  8. “I get the sense that there are as many people drawn to Joe Roganism and Fox News-ism as their primary moral compass as there are drawn to wokeism.”

    This is optimistic — I bet there are way more conspiracy theorist members of the church than there are progressive ones. Conspiracy theories seldom get as frequent and pointed denunciations as [insert progressive topic du jour].

    “I do think Catholicism has a very strong ‘cultural Catholic’ component that isn’t as big of a thing in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

    I think that there are enough Catholics, geographically dispersed enough, that identifying as a Catholic doesn’t imply that you have a certain view; it’s rare that you’ll be assumed to represent the Catholic Church, and that you’ll be associated with everything prominent it does.

    Meanwhile, outside of the Mountain West (where “cultural Mormonism” is a Thing), claiming to be Mormon/LDS/however you term it can carry significant social costs: people expect you to represent the church and to reflect on everything the church does.

    At present, those costs primarily show up in areas of activism where the Church has made a name for itself: the LDS Church is known for one thing in LGBTQ+ circles, for instance, and that one thing is the Prop 8 campaign. If the Church went full Prop 8 on vaccination or immigrant rights, or even LGBTQ toleration/anti-discrimination, on a national level, conservative Mormons outside of the Mountain West might feel similar discomfort in their social circles and experience a reluctance to claim Mormon/LDS identity for themselves.

  9. The term “wokeism” is a bit of a stumbling block in an earnest discussion like this when that’s generally the term used by people who take a drive-by disparaging approach to the related body of thinking. That aside, though…

    I echo some of Ardis’s confusion and share the suspicion that has something to do with the frame evoked by birth control opposing priests — one which suggests “orthodoxy” is associated with strict-father conservatism rather than beginning with the idea that orthodoxy is cross-cutting and may as easily support social equity and nurture as anything else. And that’s *before* we get to the truth that the church *internally* is already heterodox. Everyone eats at the cafeteria, and the specials aren’t all that’s on the menu.

    Consider a question like this: What’s the “orthodox” position on the age of the earth? For at least the last half-century and probably another to boot, members of the church have been able to choose between at least two broad positions *from sources inside of LDS discourse*. Joseph Fielding and his team may have succeeded in turning shifting what constitutes *majority* opinion of what orthodoxy is on this topic for a time (to what spiritual or practical use, it remains to be seen), but that simply highlights the malleable and maybe even slipper nature of orthodoxy itself, which implies that saying the future is orthodox is almost tautology: if there is a future, of course it’s orthodox, because orthodox will be whatever the future is. Polygamy was once married (heh) to orthodoxy (and despite the messiness of the divorce, there’s no denying the qualitative change).

    (Or since we started the post with birth control… what’s the “orthodox” position on birth control? Why did uptake for it shift decidedly well before the internet changed the cultural landscape?)

    Now, this can wrap back around to issues of social and historic orthodoxy. Of course there *are* (presently) orthodox positions. And of course, there’s still a canopy — not a lifelong geographic / cultural one, but an effective one in each home that most new latter-day saints meet their early development in before they get the technologically magnified opportunities to partake again and again from the fruit of the tree of knowledge. If you’re going to bet on what the *near* future looks like, of course it will be within a step of what the present canopy looks like. Certainly many who choose to stay are likely to be choosing the present church.

    But it’s hard to imagine that will *stop* any reflection on the distance between that present canopy… and the future chosen by those who do not choose to stay. And that won’t prompt examination about the range of possibilities on offer within LDS history and theology. On top of the ways that people make all kinds of decisions about what *can* be as much as what *is*. Some who choose to stay will choose what they hope will be the future church.

    It’s almost like Armand Mauss had some insights into the underlying dynamics about distinguishing features of a movement and equilibrium with the rest of human society.

  10. @W very good points. Whatever the church is in the future will be orthodox even if that looks different from what it is today.

    Personally, I’m interpreting “orthodox” as “fundamentalist” (I don’t mean that in the super duper fundamentalist way … more of the Pres Nelson fundamentalist way, and yes I do think he’s fundamentalist in the broader sense of the word). So my original comment may not have been totally responsive to the post bc I was interpreting it in a different way.

    Age of the earth probably not that important but literal historicity of Joseph Smith truth claims, BoM, literal understanding of second coming of Christ. Heteronormative nuclear family as king. That kind of stuff.

  11. M: I completely agree on the difference between the Catholic and Latter-day Saint experience. They have thousands of years of culture, we have less than 200, there are going to be differences to the degree in which religion is a placeholder for culture or ethnicity. I also agree on the potential effect of the Church going “prop 8” on immigration rights; however, I would also argue that the non-Utahns in conservative country have to deal with theological suspicion that those in liberal country do not, so I don’t know if non-Utah Latter-day Saints get it more from the left or right.

    W: For our purposes I’m not arguing for orthodoxy as some platonic ideal. It can mean whatever you want it to mean, but I’m a linguistic pragmatist, so for our immediate purposes I’m defining heterodoxy as disjuncture with the teachings of the current leadership; what “teachings of the current leadership” is and the extent to which a particular teaching falls inside or outside the realms of is conditioned on several dimensions: 1) the position and context of the person saying it (President Nelson or an official FP carries more weight than a 70 speaking at a regional conference), and 2) the frequency of which the particular teaching is made.

    So in that case, “the future of the Church is orthodox” is a statement that we’re probably not going to have a large proportion of the tithe-paying Church membership that fundamentally disagrees with the leadership simply because those people select out. Yes, some may choose to stay based on what they hope the church will be, but my point is that there isn’t much reason to do that, since out of the thousands of items on the menu there is some organization that *is* what they want it to be.

    In regards of the allusion to the future positions of the Church: the way the Church is structured revelation is received by a small handful of people, so the analysis needs to happen at that level. I don’t think the “direction of history” attitude has as much predictive power as its proponents claim. The Church also isn’t a closed system, people are able to come and go as they please, so the popular agitation model a la Ordain Women probably won’t work. The question of what that small handful of decision makers will do 50 years from now is highly conjectural. Another post for another day, but even if I didn’t have a testimony of the Proc I would highly doubt for a variety of structural reasons (leadership established by seniority, the heterodox leaving, the orthodox selected for leadership positions, the internationalization of the Church) that there’s a Deng Xiaoping or Juan Carlos in the Quorum of the 12 who is willing to keep quiet about their liberal views on, for example, same-sex sealings until they reach the presidency.

  12. Stephen C.,

    I don’t know if I’m quite on the mark–but this is my dumbed down version:

    1. Following the living prophets is what constitutes orthodoxy.

    2. Those who are committed to following the living prophets are those who are likely to stay in the church and will, therefore, comprise an increasingly higher percentage of active members as we move forward into the future.

    3. It follows, therefore, that the active membership will become, as a whole, increasingly orthodox over time–or at the very least will not decrease in its orthodoxy.

  13. LDS cannot become too orthodox because in order for tribes to gather, our rituals, ordinances–our culture, and commandments–need to be fluid and free from Ephraim’s leverage:

    -Consider that a Ghost Dance or a Hula Dance may portray the relationship of Covenant-to-Creation with more meaning and value than a Masonic skit.

    -Consider that Ephraim and Judah will need to compromise or negotiate temple liturgy: how many LDS scholars are yet able to engage the learning of a Rabbi?

    Question: If we admitted youth, age 14 up, to all preparatory temple ordinances–would the policy constitute a greater or lesser LDS “orthodoxy?”

  14. @Jack: Yep, that’s pretty much it. The one thing I’d add is that those steps are probably more relevant now that there are more accessible options to choose from than there were in the past.

  15. Well, it is a great post and I like the comments.

    Was Christ orthodox, during His ministry on the earth? The Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Romans certainly didn’t think so. So they got rid of Him (or so they thought). But He redefined orthodoxy.

    And then Christ’s new orthodoxy calcified, and various reformers struggled to create new orthodoxies of Christ,
    Including Joseph Smith. And Joseph Smith’s orthodoxy of Christ must itself now fight against calcification.

    In my opinion, Orthodoxy decays into staleness over time. So I try to be orthodox in my belief as a member of the Church, but I also think subversive behavior (humor, constant re-evaluating of cultural practices) is necessary to keep the Church vibrant. I will enjoy driving my car to church in Utah with my Biden 2024 bumper sticker!

    Lastly, following the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount will always clash, to a greater or lesser extent, with the Church (of which I am a believing member)—and even more so than it’s culture.

  16. Not sure what you mean by “reform.” If you mean by “reform” the direction the church leadership is already heading–active inclusion of women (including increased priesthood language associated with women), active inclusion of minorities in the church, increased understanding of LGBTQ, more mature handling our history–will we not have a new orthodoxy, or at least a new orthopraxy?

  17. It should be mentioned that in at least one context Mormon neo-orthodoxy refers not to renewed fidelity to the teachings of the living prophets but rather renewed fidelity to traditional Christian theology, and then neo-heterodoxy would be more like a re-emphasis of departures from that tradition. That is different than what we are talking about here of course, where the primary church leaders pretty much define orthodoxy as what the church officially believes and teaches.

  18. Christ was a rebel. Joseph Smith was a rebel. And now orthodoxy is the future of the Church?

    Comet you overstate the alleged changes occurring in the Church. If they are happening, it’s at a glacial pace. And occasionally, for every step forward there are two backward.

    I grew up in a progressive Ward in the mid-Western US in the 1960’s. Today’s SLC version is troubling.

  19. Glacial, yes, but in the Armand Mauss sense of maintaining tension with yet nevertheless following the new orthodox trends. Looking ahead, not backwards, and avoiding at all costs getting mired in reactionary, regressive political movements, which we see on the right, and which are claiming the hearts and minds of some traditional church membership. Can you say schism?

  20. Lehi was a rebel–at least with regard to how the intelligentsia at Jerusalem might have viewed him. But what we see through the rest of the Book of Mormon narrative (for the most part) is the established church trying to keep people from apostatizing.

    So what we see at the outset of the exodus pattern might be termed as a rebellion of sorts–as the saints detach themselves from the world. But thereafter the trick is to stay true to the word of God–which (IMO) requires that we do *not* rebel against the Lord or his servants.

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