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Critical inquiry is an important part of public discourse and can be a valuable way to invite introspection within any given community. Dr. Jana Riess has attempted to invite more of that reflection in her new book, The Next Mormons – and I believe she’s sincere in wanting to help promote thoughtful adjustments that can better support young people in her faith community.
Throughout her intensive investigation of the narratives and experiences of current and former members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however – there is very little attention to her own narrative and interpretive standpoint. As a result, most readers will struggle to discern between the data – and larger arguments being made about the data.
As a way to help others consider this in their own assessment of Jana’s findings, I share here (and in the previous part of the essay), ten illustrations of her own socio-political narrative influencing both the data generation – and the larger arguments and conclusions being made about that same data.
Given the degree to which people are looking to Jana’s text as a crucial guide to ascertaining what’s happening with departing members, this kind of scrutiny seems important. Ultimately, I argue that the narrative implicit throughout Jana’s text is precisely what has helped distance so many from this faith community – with a subtle, corrosive effect on individuals’ relationships to prophetic leadership, in particular.
After four more examples of this particular socio-political narrative in action, I conclude the essay with a larger discussion of broader implications. In all that follows, I remain committed to the idea that thoughtful, good-hearted people (including Jana and myself) can disagree profoundly about important questions. As long as we can remain in conversation about those differences, I’m convinced there is a lot to still be learned together!
7. A narrative of sexual orientation. The Next Mormons takes for granted the prevailing narrative about gay rights in America today, starting with the idea that sexual orientation represents a next phase in the unfolding civil rights movement of the 60’s. Within this overarching frame, rather than considering disagreements about sexuality and identity as reasonable differences between otherwise thoughtful people, disagreement is positioned as akin to bigotry.
Rather than setting out to “silence” or “coerce,” however, it’s important to acknowledge that activists and allies genuinely believe they are doing essential work to fight and advocate for a group of human beings who are fundamentally different on an essential, core level, compared with those who experience predominantly heterosexual attraction. That’s how Jana describes it too – referring to individuals coming to know, for instance, “that a fundamental part of your core identity did not, in fact, conform.”
Once this view of identity is taken for granted, core teachings about the family are easy to see as “antigay rhetoric” as she once puts it, or later in the book: “Theologically, believing in prophets whose teachings have undermined your very existence is challenging in a way that most heterosexual Mormons will never have to experience.”
Jana goes on to quote an interviewee’s despairing conclusion that “An eighteen-year-old LGBT person who wants to stay in the church must stay single and be alone for their entire life….there is no hope of a better future.”
“Undermin[ing] your very existence”…questioning a “fundamental part of your core identity.”…”no hope of a better future.”
If that’s what I really believed the Church of Jesus Christ was imposing on a vulnerable group, I’d be frustrated too! But as I’ve written about extensively, these accusations involve a great deal of substantial misrepresentation of our teachings.
At one point, Jana does mention a counter example of a man who gently rejects the term “gay,” because “homosexual to me implies a permanency…that I may not subscribe to….the term homosexual means I’m only attracted to men, that I’ll only ever be attracted to men. But I have hopes that one day I will be able to be attracted to a woman, that I will have a family.” (138)
Why does this Latter-day Saint young man do this? Because of what the prophets have taught about identity, marriage and family.
Rather than something “ordained of God,” however, Jana once again frames our emphasis on what she calls “a particular configuration of the nuclear family” and “the heterosexual nuclear family” as largely arising from a unique period of time that “served Mormon interests” well as a “postwar brand identity.” In her view, this emphasis on marriage and the nuclear family was largely an effective strategy that helped the church “create its distinctive religious identity in the crowded American religious landscape.”
Previous Latter-day Saint efforts to defend man-woman marriage are likewise portrayed as hateful attempts that the Church tried its best to keep secret. She repeats placard slogans (“Would Jesus spend tax-free dollars to support hate and injustice?”) that protested Latter-day Saint efforts as contrary to the spirit of Jesus, rather than precisely in line with Christ’s revealed will in this day. And contrary to the repeated insistence of living prophets, Jana later asserts, “Gay Mormons are still essentially second-class citizens in the church.”
While affirming and confirming the larger cultural narrative of sexuality, the text repeatedly undercuts and casts doubt on prophetic teaching and the orthodox narrative of sexuality within her own faith community.
8. A narrative about singles. Although the acute pain of not having a companion is widely acknowledged among Latter-day Saints, there are meaningful differences in how we explain that pain. I’ve written previously about how easy (almost unavoidable) it has been in society today for men and women to download larger cultural narratives about what love, attraction, and romance is supposed to feel like – which expectations can profoundly mess with otherwise happy possibilities in relationships.
Rather than draw attention to the influence of broader secular narratives, Jana’s own exploration of singles’ pain centers, somewhat predictably, on the influence of the Church’s own teachings about family – writing about what she calls “the church’s barrage of pro-marriage rhetoric” and a perception that the Church is “worshiping the nuclear family.”
The subsequent analysis takes for granted that judgment and shame associated with this focus on family has caused singles to walk away – for instance, highlighting the story of a woman concluding that “she could not stay in the LDS Church and also hold on to her sense of self – worth” since she could not bear what she described as “facing a life of not ever having love.” The Church’s emphasis on motherhood is also portrayed as (almost inevitably) inducing a “crisis of identity in the church” for many single women.
As with questions of sexuality and gender, I would argue that the legitimate pain that can arise around questions of marriage and singleness is exacerbated significantly when the issues are framed as zero-sum choices between staying faithful and finding worth or love –as The Next Mormons frequently does.
9. A narrative about judgment. Two contrasting narratives are shared by Jana when it comes to judgment in the Church.
(Part I) Harsh judgment as fairly omnipresent among members. When asked about changes to help retain members, Jana told the Tribune, “One of the things we can’t seem to address in the larger church headquarter level is this issue of judgmentalness in the culture. While calling for more attention to “our own behavior as members of the Church,” she suggested a need to “stop blaming the people who left for leaving.”
While admitting there were also “stories of love and acceptance” it was the stories of judgment that clearly took center stage in her own telling of a faith community portrayed by more than one interviewee as “not welcoming, not loving.” “I heard so many painful stories,” Jana writes – telling Doug Fabrizio, “judgment appears to be pretty important in people’s feeling the church is or is not a hospitable place for them.” When asked, “it would be pretty difficult to fix, wouldn’t it?” she responds, “Yes, it would involve a pretty major cultural shift.”
In the absence of whatever monumental shifts Jana hints at, her own faith community ends up looking pretty bad. “Feeling judged” shows up as the top reason why women said they left the church – and tied for first for Millennials. Based on this, others are already describing these numbers as “The Root Cause for Why Members Leave.”
The picture is one of relentless, insidious judgment: Singles are judged, black folks are judged, gay people are judged, and former members are judged.
(Part II). Harsh judgment as vastly overstated among former members. In sharp contrast to this, Jana writes extensively about harsh judgment among former members toward the church as an overstatement: “There is a prevailing narrative within certain segments of the LDS Church that when people leave, they do so because they ‘got offended.’”
That narrative is naïve, Jana argues – and to think otherwise is self-serving:
What’s appealing about the “got offended” narrative is that it wholly and conveniently blames people who left without requiring those who remain to engage in any serious introspection about the ways they may have contributed to those departures. As such, I don’t expect it to disappear anytime soon, but it would be nice if we remember that this story has been constructed to exculpate the faithful, not to explain the actual choices of dissenters.
That’s what that concern with offense is all about: excuses…reasons to not look at our own stuff.
Jana goes on to detail all the many reasons to explain people’s departure –mapping all 30 of them out in a way allowing detailed frequency comparisons. Most center around some kind of harsh accusation of wrong-doing in our faith community – starting with its own core teachings.
10. A narrative of the past and future. Despite her own earnest efforts to be objective in this study, an accusing portrayal of church history is hinted in her own analysis. At one point, for instance, readers are asked to take for granted that Joseph Smith had written, rather than translated, the Book of Mormon (something Jana acknowledges is how the text reads, but told me was an oversight on her part).
By listing reported frequencies associated with common frustrations without any further discussion – for instance, “Joseph’s mendacious behavior toward women” or “DNA evidence that Native Americans do not have Middle Eastern ancestry” – readers are left with an impression that facts are being examined here, rather than accusing perceptions.
Moving forward from the 19th century, Jana offers a new interpretation for past growth Latter-day Saints often see as reflective of God’s blessing. Noting the period in which Latter-day Saint membership grew the most, Jana argues on RadioWest that it wasn’t so special after all: “so was everyone else. We like to focus on the miracle growth the happened during the war as a sign of God’s favor. If that’s your favorite theology, you’re going to have to rethink what God is favoring.”
Looking forward, she adds, “We are now participating in the same decline that is affecting everyone else” [when it comes to U.S. growth rate]. When it comes to people walking away, Jana adds, “we can say with confidence that Mormon retention is declining from one generation to the next” – a theme she underscores on RadioWest: “it turns out that Mormons are losing adherents – particularly rapid with the younger generation…the trajectory is definitely heading downward.” She adds, “the problem not going away – it’s a bit alarming.”
More than simply walking away, as emphasizes repeatedly, Jana believes these people are “not coming back” – as she explains it, because fertility rates are falling (and children can be a big reason people rekindle their faith).
Not growing. Not staying. Not coming back.
This is the book described by one reviewer as “an honest look at the future of Mormonism,” with another suggesting that it “sheds much needed light on the state of the Church today, as well as where it may be heading.”
At one point, Jana critiques sociologist Thomas O’Dea because in her estimation he had “read the present situation through a narrow lens and then projected that current assessment into the future.” From her own dour interpretation of events and data, I would argue something similar is happening here.
Stepping beyond the data. Rather than “these are the facts of why people are walking away,” I would characterize The Next Mormons as, more accurately, an exploration of the self-understandings of a certain segment of (many former) members, as interpreted by someone who, herself, has substantial critiques of Latter-day Saint leaders. In particular, I’ve pointed above towards ways in which this text will likely confirm and further perpetuate an especially despairing, accusing narrative of our faith – one that many will now take for granted as “evidence-based.”
Rather than simply presenting “facts from the data,” I’ve suggested that something else is going on worth discussing – namely, the degree to which Jana’s own worldview is tightly threaded throughout the analysis in a way indistinguishable to most readers from the statistics themselves.
If Jana limited her conclusions to inferences tied closely to the data, that wouldn’t be a big deal. But like documentary producer Helen Whitney, Jana’s own pre-existing feelings show up in how she has approached these questions and subsequent analysis. And perhaps almost without realizing it, she unfortunately steps well beyond what the data seems to justify, in unfolding a larger narrative of her faith community fraught with accusation and suspicion.
Real-life ripple effects. Rather than academic quibbles,I believe these questions explored above have real-life implications. For instance, one mother spoke of how she was reading the book to try and understand why her children had walked away from the church: What would a parent learn from reading Jana’s book? What would they take away?
It’s hard to imagine readers not taking away greater suspicion of prophet leaders, given the sophisticated analysis reinforcing distrust.
To be clear, I believe Jana wants her book to help the Church, in kind of a tough-love way. What I’m suggesting is that it may do the opposite – reinforcing patterns of “softening,” “flexibility” and less “conforming” to covenants, confirming ideological commitments antithetical to prophetic teaching, and further inciting those frustrated about matters of race and gender. Additionally, the text affirms repeatedly the flatly dishonest notion that the Church of Christ on earth today is somehow at war with a certain group of vulnerable human beings.
Rather than facilitating the dialogue we so sorely need on these questions, this study becomes yet another way of making persuasive case for one socio-political view. If that’s true, this implicit message is clearly not apparent to many observers. “As near as I can tell from following Dr. Reiss’s work,” one reviewer writes, “she approached this research with curiosity and no particular ideological axe to grind.”
Once again, many are looking towards Jana’s text as offering the truth about our faith, as another reviewer noted, “Interested outsiders will find the book helpful to them as they process what it is that makes members who and what they are.” Still another called the book: “a good and accurate view of individual Mormon’s beliefs and outlooks.”
Narratives as reality. On some level, all the foregoing is perhaps unremarkable. Jana is a progressive thinker, after all, and she has interpreted and represented her data from a progressive lens.
Isn’t that what we all do?
Kind of. It’s true that we all interpret the world from our own vantage points – which becomes our simple reality rather than a narrative.
And for Jana, this is reality for her. It’s not a story. It’s just what she is observing.
The difference here arises in the higher authority research conclusions are given – which requires higher scrutiny. If Jana acknowledged her own standpoint, and somehow checked or counterbalanced it, a paper like this would not be needed. But when sufficient accountability isn’t present within a research project, accountability needs to come from the outside – whether from other researchers or the broader public – something that is healthy for both scientific community and our larger public discourse.
I’m not alone in raising concern with imbalanced research.
The urgency of politically diverse research teams. As Dr. Duarte and colleagues wrote in 2015: “Having common values makes a group cohesive, which can be quite useful, but it’s the last thing that should happen to a scientific field.” Reflecting on this broader tendency in academia, they note that when “left unchecked” a group “can become a cohesive moral community, creating a shared reality that subsequently blinds its members to morally or ideologically undesirable hypotheses.”
They go on to suggest that “a shared moral-historical narrative in a politically homogeneous” research team can “undermine the self-correction processes on which good science depends.” This brings to mind a paper led by Jonathan Haidt, raising concern with how politically homogeneous research teams can inadvertently “undermine the validity of social psychological science” through the “embedding of liberal values into research questions and methods” thus “producing conclusions that mischaracterize liberals and conservatives alike.”
I believe that’s precisely what has happened here. Duarte ultimately cautions about “a higher risk of reaching unjustified conclusions” that exists “when most people…share the same confirmation bias” – later arguing that the collective efforts of researchers in politically charged areas may fail to converge upon the truth when there are few or no non-liberal researchers to raise questions and frame hypotheses in alternative ways.”
That’s my intent here: to raise alternative perspectives on this analysis, which ideally would happen within one’s own research team (kudos to Lee Beckstead and colleagues for leading the way on this approach). As Rosik and colleagues proposed in 2012: “We believe that the scientific investigation [of sensitive questions] will have the best opportunity to be advanced when studies are jointly conducted by an ideologically diverse group of researchers”—adding that “such a collaborative approach can serve to provide some degree of counterbalance to the current gravitational pull [from various sides].”
Mainlining the Church of Jesus Christ? In the text, Jana does not explicitly encourage a softening and liberalizing of positions – but that’s something easy enough to take away from her overall analysis and conclusions. What if the Church did just that – “softening” or wholly revised our positions on sexuality and gender, not to mention obedience itself…so much so that standards were no longer so personally challenging to youth people in a highly secularized society? Would our future be secured, with the dangers of our present situation averted?
Not if you’re looking at historical data! David Campbell was among the first to note the hemorrhaging of membership in mainline Christian denominations. As Lyman Stone noted more recently, “These churches are dying off at a very quick pace” – pointing towards the 2014 Pew Research finding that “1.7 peopled converted away from mainline Protestant groups for every one convert in, while evangelical Protestants had 1.2 people convert in for every leaver.”
Christian author George Yancey similarly wrote in 2018, “In the movement towards secularization in our society, those in the mainline denominations appear to be the biggest losers….it does appear that the strategy of going along with the culture does not appear to be useful.” After noting the willingness of many mainline protestant churches to “accommodate modern cultural changes” – he says, “their reward for this support is empty pews.”
If progressive ideals point us towards the right path that God inspires, of course, this would still be worth the cost. But to suggest future growth will expand by embracing the mainline Christian model seems to be overlooking enormous data suggesting otherwise.
The biggest thing missing. Although substantial, my critique does not deny meaningful insights arising from the book. For instance, one helpful question Jana poses early in the book is this: “What can we learn from Mormon and former Mormon young adults about the spiritual, intellectual, and emotional experiences that successfully imprint – or fail to imprint – an enduring Mormon identity?”
That’s a fascinating question – one that invites attention to what Jana calls “different paths of negotiation” people take through the myriad choice-points and decisions in their faith journey. As people navigate different pathways through these matters, Jana has highlighted patterns worth discussing. In my view, the key missing element in her conclusion is the role of persuasive narratives like her own in prompting and sparking some of these same socializations.
That being said, Jana does elaborate nicely on what she calls “the push – pull relationship of behavior and belief in Mormonism”: “Adherence to expected behaviors, like sexual abstinence before marriage and keeping the religion’s strict dietary code, is intricately related to belief. In Elaine’s case, a loss of her testimony (belief) led to sexual experimentation (a behavior), which led to a sense that she was unworthy in God’s eyes (a belief) and therefore should not even attend church (a behavior).”
Attention to that kind of evolving, complex relationship between behavior and belief (or narrative) is what I find myself wanting more of here. Aside from this passing mention, it’s not really developed to any degree.
Given this, I’d like to propose another theory alongside her own concluding the book: If and when people walk away, it will not simply be from the larger culture around us, from actions of the Church, or from the tensions between the two. Rather, these decisions arise (and are indelibly shaped) by the particular ways in which individuals narrate and interpret this underlying tension.
That narrative, I would argue, is the mediating, moderating, synthesizing variable that makes all the difference in catalyzing one pathway or another (towards more disaffiliation and disaffection or more trusting connection with the Saints). Although Jana documents all the various reasons people give for leaving, I would argue that she doesn’t recognize or acknowledge sufficiently the extent to which every one of these reasons is embedded in a larger narrative of suspicion and resentment.
Jana concludes that people have not been “able to wholly resist the larger forces at work.” I’m simply pointing out here that these “larger forces” include the persuasive, accusing narratives that she and others have been perpetrating over recent years.
If I was on one of the many panel discussions that have promoted Jana’s book of late, I would summarize my core question as follows: “Your book advances a distinctly progressive narrative of gender, sexuality, and our faith practice as a whole – hinting that an adoption of more of the same would prevent a lot of people from walking away. Are you open to the possibility that many are walking away precisely because they have adopted the very narrative you (and others) have advanced – and as a result, now see the Church out of a lens reflecting inherent suspicion and resentment for those ‘old, white, heterosexual guys’ up top?”
To all who read this and lean progressive, let’s talk about this! It’s possible to hold strong disagreements (as reflected above), without impugning motives. Despite my strong critique, I am not questioning Jana’s motives and intentions – but instead, raising significant concern that her efforts will weaken, rather than strengthen, the faith community she loves.
I’m grateful to Jana for her willingness to correspond about these questions – and pray that by making respectful space to explore disagreements such as these, we can all better hear the voice of the Holy Spirit guiding us all to higher wisdom we all dearly need.