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Mormonism’s Crisis of Faith

Backlash against an obituary of its late prophet Thomas S. Monson reveals the existential doubts gnawing at the modern church.

George Frey/GETTY

In the Old Testament, there is a story about Nebuchadnezzar II, the great king of the Neo-Babylonian empire, that holds the root of Mormonism’s unique interpretation of Christian theology. The king is tormented by a cryptic dream in which he sees an enormous statue of a man, forged from four different metals, destroyed by a stone that was cut from a mountain “without hands.” The stone then becomes a mountain itself that grows to fill the whole earth. Wise men and astrologers throughout the empire try and fail to decode the dream to the intense dismay of the king, who, in a fit of rage, orders the slaughter of all wise men in his kingdom. Concerned, Daniel asks God for a crash course in dream analysis. That night in a vision, God reveals to Daniel the entirety of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and its accompanying interpretation. Daniel then explains to the king that the statue’s four different metals represent successive kingdoms of men, beginning with Babylon. And the stone represents the indestructible and eternal Kingdom of God.

Most mainstream Christians understand this story in eschatological terms, the Kingdom of God referring to the new world order that will be instituted and presided over by Jesus Christ following his Second Coming. But Mormons have taken the Kingdom of God, in this context, to mean The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the Mormon Church itself. In Mormon circles, in fact, “stone cut without hands” has become shorthand for the church and the gospel it preaches.

That world-conquering confidence has long been the beating heart of the Mormon Church. To Mormons, the breakneck speed with which the church has grown from just six members at its founding in 1830 to more than 15 million in 2017 represents Daniel’s prophecy fulfilled. But a recent controversy surrounding a New York Times obituary of former church president Thomas S. Monson shows how wobbly that confidence has become, as Mormonism struggles to adapt to a changing world that, in a reversal of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, threatens to overwhelm it.

Mormonism’s exponential growth has been a comfort and a testament to millions of Mormons for decades. The gospel must be true. How else could this religion have expanded so rapidly? Though I am no longer a practicing member, that’s how I felt growing up in the church. In Sunday school once, an elder stood up in the middle of class, brandishing a magazine rolled up like a stick. He explained, gesturing to the curled pages in his hand, that an article had just been published declaring Mormonism to be the fastest growing religious sect in American history. And if current growth trends continued, he said, there could be 265 million members of the church worldwide by 2080. At the time, the Mormon church was on pace to become the first new major world religion of the twenty-first century.

But the good news that once allayed the fears of the doubters and hardened the resolve of the faithful has evaporated. Mormons don’t source the bulk of their faith to rapid measures of growth, of course; religious conviction can’t be measured like gross domestic product. But the latest numbers make it hard to seriously claim that the Mormon interpretation of Daniel’s prophecy has come to pass, or even that it may yet. In fact, church growth has cooled to its slowest pace since 1937. Mormon supremacy is no longer the foregone conclusion that it was when I was a young believer.

Mormonism isn’t alone in its struggle to expand in this century. Americans are abandoning religion in startling numbers across “all regions of the country and many demographic groups,” according to Pew Research. The Mormon church’s 1.7 percent annual growth is still quite good in these dire times for religion. But it’s less good when you consider that the church maintains a massive force of more than 70,000 full-time proselytizing missionaries worldwide, and barely manages to tread water.

In the face of these challenges, the church has placed its bets on entrenchment. Long criticized for its problematic positions on civil rights, a crisis of attenuating membership offered—and still offers—an opportunity to adapt to changing attitudes and project a fresh, more compassionate image. Instead, under the guidance of Monson, who died last week at 90, the church in the past ten years has doubled down on exclusion. In 2015, it announced a new policy barring the children of same-sex couples from receiving essential, saving ordinances like baptism. It also declared members of the church who are in same-sex marriages—even loving, monogamous ones—apostates subject to excommunication. Later the same year, it reaffirmed its policy excluding women from entering the priesthood. While it’s true that some conservative religious sects in America are growing, the overall trend hasn’t supported the notion that stricture and rigid tradition are an effective antidote to declining religiosity.

Shoring up the base, to use a political analogy, may be an effective short-term tack. But it’s a terrible strategy if the goal is broad appeal, let alone to “fill the whole world.” This isn’t just a marketing directive for Mormons, but its mission statement and self-proclaimed divine destiny. So why not change with the times? Monson’s obituary in the Times, and the feverish response to it, offer some clues.

The Times’s write-up on Monson is a fairly standard one. It’s a reckoning with his legacy that attempts to define the man in relationship to the world in which he lived. Monson presided over a period of unprecedented openness about his church’s checkered history on civil rights, the piece notes. (The church has a long history of its leaders opposing racially mixed marriages and the civil rights movement.) And he expanded the role of women in the church’s missionary work. But he also held the line on some of the church’s most controversial policies, and introduced others that roiled even some of its most faithful members.

“Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend,” Times reporter Robert D. McFadden wrote. “Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.”

The intense love many Mormons reserve for their leaders dances on the precipice of worship. And Monson’s recent passing, whom devout members regarded as a “prophet, seer, and revelator,” was a deeply somber event. The backlash to the piece was swift and ferocious. A petition calling for the Times to rewrite the obituary gathered more than 30,000 signatures within a day of its creation. It has since crossed the 200,000 mark.

“Instead of highlighting the positive aspects of his life, or a neutral statement about the facts of his life,” the petition reads, “they decided to attack and disparage his character and used his obituary as a political statement against him and the church as a whole and tweeted a click-bait headline to attack even further.”

McKay Coppins, staff writer for The Atlantic and faithful Mormon, weighed in, too. “In the days since Monson’s death, much of the press coverage has couched the LDS leader’s legacy in the context of culture war, or politics, or institutional infighting,” Coppins wrote. “The New York Times obituary, for example, defined his life’s work by the things he didn’t do—such as his refusal to alter the church’s stances on same-sex marriage and female priesthood ordination.”

Faced with such public pushback, the paper responded in the form of an interview with obituaries editor William McDonald. McDonald conceded that McFadden might have added a bit more color to the piece to help readers understand why Monson was so beloved by his followers. For example, as a young bishop, Monson is said to have tended with particular care to the more than 80 widows in his congregation, comforting each one with small acts of kindness and telling stories with his signature sing-song prosody. Faithful members will be quick to note that similar accounts of intensely personal gestures of kindness and charity followed Monson throughout his life. But McDonald stood firm on the broad strokes of McFadden’s obituary.

“I think the obituary was a faithful accounting of the more prominent issues that Mr. Monson encountered and dealt with publicly during his tenure,” McDonald said. “Some of these matters—the role of women in the church, the church’s policy toward homosexuality and same-sex marriage, and more—were widely publicized and discussed, and it’s our obligation as journalists, whether in an obituary or elsewhere, to fully air these issues from both sides. I think we did that, accurately portraying Mr. Monson’s positions as leader of the church, and those of the faithful and others who questioned church policies.”

He’s right. The Times reserves obituaries for notable and influential people, and it writes them with the same rigor and impartiality as any other piece of hard news. To highlight positive aspects of Monson’s personal life at the expense of an unsparing look at his record, as many comments on the petition demand, would be an abdication of journalistic duty. But the bigger issue underscored by this episode points to a fatal flaw built into the structure of the church, rendering it ill-equipped to handle such scrutiny.

There are no elections in the Mormon church. Though its members may fiercely disagree, it is, in effect, a dictatorship. The very existence of the church is predicated on the principle of divine revelation. Its president is ordained not only as the one true living prophet for the church, but for the entire world. He is the only man on earth with the power and authority to speak on behalf of God regarding doctrinal matters. And what’s more, church members have been promised that they will never be led astray by their prophets. When a Mormon prophet speaks, it is as if God himself is speaking. And his words are recorded and regarded as scripture just the same as if it were Moses or Isaiah standing behind the pulpit. This is why Mormons, by and large, have ultimate faith in the pronouncements of their leaders.

It’s easy to see the appeal of maintaining a monopoly on ideas and information, at least from the perspective of the church. This top-down structure reinforces the notion that church leaders are divinely inspired and set apart. And it intentionally echoes the familiar Biblical trope of a lone wise sage, chosen by God to be his mouthpiece in a wilderness of sin. Moses hiked to the top of a mountain wrapped in thickset clouds and rattled by thunder and lightning, and after 40 days and 40 nights he returned triumphantly, bearing the Law and the Truth, written in stone by the finger of God.

This model worked very well for an emerging religion in the nineteenth century. It doesn’t work so well now when advances in science have cast doubt on many of the church’s core teachings and every member is armed with the most powerful reference tool in human history, the internet. In light of these developments, other religions have woven evolution, the Big Bang, and civil rights into the fabric of their faiths. But even if the Mormon church wanted to adapt in the same way, it would have quite a time doing so. Because, by canonizing the words of its modern prophets, to later revise that doctrine in light of secular advances would be to discredit scripture. Imagine if, after Moses’s death, his successor Joshua had decided to grab a hammer and chisel and make some light edits to the Ten Commandments.

So now church leaders must constantly contend with the words of previous prophets, or risk throwing the entire enterprise into question. And to complicate things even more, the church’s membership has been conditioned to defend a crystallized dogma at all cost. If the church doesn’t find some way to free itself from the burden of its own theology, it will be left behind, and the remaining stalwarts will be forever destined to complain about obituaries in The New York Times. If baptism rates continue to fall, it may want to start with a re-interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream.