Is the Church Too Popular?

Fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.

Ye are…a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few,

As a marginal religious minority we tend to crave a sort of mainstream acceptability that is always just beyond our grasp (or at some points in our history much, much farther than our grasp). However, a case can be made that this sort of outsider status is a feature, not a bug. 

In the sociology of religion there’s a “strict churches are strong” hypothesis that suggests that, paradoxically, churches that are more strict are actually more vibrant, as demanding more from members winnows out less committed freeriding members. I sometimes wonder if there’s a “less popular Churches are stronger” effect for much the same reason.  

When an institution carries a lot of cachet is attracts ambition, people who want to piggy back off the institution for their own personal glory, usually subsuming the missions and goals of the institution under their own personal desire for honors. The most obvious case in our own history is John C. Bennett (there are more contemporary thought leader types I’d put in this category, but I don’t want to turn this post into some referendum on them so they will remain nameless.) 

In just about every institution, when the personal incentive structure conflicts with the presumed goals of the institution the former wins out. The key, perhaps, is to make an institution unpopular enough that no creature of ambition worth his or her salt would try to leverage the religion for their own purposes. When social, political, financial, and religious elitism are intertwined, when the things of God become just another thing to be elitist about it’s battery acid on the long term viability of a religious institution because it compromises the integrity of its leadership class. Of course there are in-group honors. Even though Scientology is extremely unpopular I’m sure its leader David Miscavige still has his sycophants, but probably nothing like the case of, say, pre-reformation Roman Catholicism, when social, political, and religious power were more tightly united. 

Of course, as we’ve painfully learned, the lack of political cachet comes with its own dangers, and we don’t want to be so unpopular that even the pure in heart won’t even make a cognitive space for the possibility that we’re onto something. Still, I suspect the optimal popularity equilibrium is lower than we might think if nothing else based on our history. Simply put, if God wanted us to be popular our history would have been very different. We are meant to be a peculiar people. Plus. if one holds to the premise that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only institution with the official imprimatur of almighty God, maker of “the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them,” being concerned about whether somebody from our ranks made it into the A-list is patently silly. 

Like many other Latter-day Saints I’ve at times wondered why things couldn’t be easier, why the dissemination of the gospel is like swimming upstream in molasses. But the fact is that more and more, for somebody to really be a member they have to really crave what we are offering. They have to want it. And while those converts are agonizingly rare, layer upon layer we become His peculiar people. 

10 comments for “Is the Church Too Popular?

  1. A reflection on the original posting…

    Well, we are called to be the salt of the earth, so with that perspective it makes sense that we are few. A little salt sprinkled in a barrel of pork saves all the pork in the barrel, and somehow I think this is God’s plan. God made a decision a long time ago to make his covenant with Abraham (making him as salt) and to officially ignore everyone else in the world (leaving them as pork), with the promise that all the world (the pork) would be blessed through Abraham’s seed (the salt). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claiming lineage as Abraham’s seed, is blessing the whole earth.

    If the earth is a barrel of pork, and God’s chosen people are the salt, it makes sense that the salt is few. Who wants a whole barrel of salt?

  2. Imagine a consummate Church insider exploiting the unpopulatiry of the Church to ramp up the paranoia of members and rally support for even more unpopular positions that align with their (the insider’s) personal ideologies. Could he not come at least as close to hijacking the Church as did John C. Bennett?

    We actually know the answer to that. It is yes–it has happened twice (at the same time) in my lifetime and we are still suffering from the effects thereof. So forgive me for not pining for less popularity.

  3. @JI: That’s a good point. God obviously cares very much about and has particular plans for non-members beyond them becoming members, so what does that mean for us to act as the “salt” for the non-member and will never-be-members world?

    @Last Lemming: Ramping up support for unpopular opinions that leaders hold in good faith, while you might disagree with them, is a much different kettle of fish than using the Church for personal prestige. I suspect people doing the latter typically want to push the Church in a more faddish direction so that their religious affiliation does not compromise their elite status in other realms.

  4. When I was young, growing up in a very blue part of the country, the Church wasn’t exactly “popular” but it wasn’t disliked. We were weird but harmless (think Stranger Things’ visit to Utah). That changed when society decided to endorse same-sex marriage and the Church objected, strongly and publicly. So at least in my area I’m now much more concerned about being “so unpopular that even the pure in heart won’t even make a cognitive space for the possibility that we’re onto something” (a great insight) than about being too popular. The only people I see managing to “piggy back off the institution for their own personal glory” are those who attack it–some of them are quite popular. But that may be a function of the circles I generally move in.

    I agree that this is a feature, not a bug. It’s been observed that the descendants of polygamous families were extraordinarily faithful; I suspect the unpopularity of the Church at the time, due to polygamy, was a bigger factor in that than polygamy itself. Not that we’re anywhere near that level of unpopularity (yet?).

  5. Nephi makes it clear that our numbers are few because of the wickedness of the world. From 1Ne 14:

    12 And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few, because of the wickedness and abominations of the whore who sat upon many waters; nevertheless, I beheld that the church of the Lamb, who were the saints of God, were also upon all the face of the earth; and their dominions upon the face of the earth were small, because of the wickedness of the great whore whom I saw.

    And so, according to my simple logic, so long as the world continues to be wicked the church is going to be unpopular. And so it has been in every age. It’s an heritage of the saints to be held in contempt by the world.

    That said, if we’re not held in contempt by the world then either the world is becoming better or the church is becoming worldly. It’s my hope that as we cross the broad threshold of the Millennium we’ll more and more of the former.

  6. I agree generally with this, and with Jack’s pointing to Nephi’s vision, which is the traditional text I see people go to when discussing the unpopularity of the church. But I’d also point to Terryl Givens’ excellent recent essay on the church’s unpopularity, where Givens make the obvious point that we can be disliked for the RIGHT reasons and disliked for the WRONG reasons, hence his conclusion: “We are not in a popularity contest. But if we are to be disliked, let it be for the right reasons.”

    So I guess my question is—and Stephen, I’d love to know what you think of this—how do we know if we’re disliked for the right reasons? How do we know if it’s because of the world’s wickedness, or our own failures to love and befriend?

  7. good discussion; one question – you start a paragraph with ” When an institution carries a lot of cachet is attracts ambition, . . ” Is there a typo there, or am I missing the meaning of something ? TIA

  8. @RLD: In the “piggy back off the institution for their own personal glory” space I’d also put some economic/social/political elites in LDS-heavy areas.

    Re the polygamy issue, intending no offense to our CoC cousins, I’ve kind of thought as the early RLDS experience as Mormonism without most of the demanding and unpopular parts, so one might think that the Mountain Saints would have withered relative to the Prairie Saints but that’s not what happened.

    @Jack: That pretty precisely tracks my thinking.

    @Bryan S: I would imagine it’s kind of “I know it when I see it” situation. We’ve all been blessed with our own discernment, and we can exercise it to know whether the outsiders have a point or not. I would just hope that we base that decision authentically on our own intuition and the spirit and not because the people in the great and spacious building are making us feel silly.

    @Raymond: I’m not sure where the typo would be, but one way of reading it is that being popular attracts a kind of ambitious person.

  9. If we’re increasingly popular, it’s a fulfillment of the prophecy of the stone rolling forth to fill the whole earth.
    If we’re increasingly unpopular, it’s a fulfillment of Nephi’s prophecy that the church’s numbers will be few.
    Heads I win, tails you lose.

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