Here is an empirical question that I don’t really know the answer to: Can a “liberal” view of the Book of Mormon support itself over time? By a “liberal view” I mean a view that rejects the historicity of the Book of Mormon but continues to regard it as divinely inspired fiction. I realize, of course, that “historicity” and “fiction” are themselves very slippery terms, and that there are a variety of positions claiming “historicity” ranging from something like Blake Ostler’s expansion theory of translation to one that views the Book of Mormon as entirely accurate in every detail.
Generally speaking, the debate over Book of Mormon historicity is couched in terms of truth. We assume that the important issues regarding the question center around the nature of the Book of Mormon and the intellectual legitimacy of talking about it in certain terms. I am curious, however, about another, demographic question, namely can those espousing a liberal view of the Book of Mormon successfully transmit that belief and with it some religious commitment to Mormonism and the Restoration to the next generation. In other words, do active Mormons with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon have children and grandchildren who are active Mormons who have a liberal view of the Book of Mormon, or do their children simply exit Mormonism altogether? A related question is whether or not someone can convert directly to being an active Mormon with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon, or if any conversion from non-Mormon to active Mormon with a liberal view of the Book of Mormon must first go through an active Mormon with a traditional view of the Book of Mormon stage.
I am not asking a logical, ethical, or epistemological question. I am not asking whether or not it is intellectually acceptable to hold this or that belief. Rather, I am asking the sociological question of what actually happens generationally and institutionally if one adopts a liberal view of the Book of Mormon. Regardless of the intellectual merits, I wonder if such a view is demographically stable or if it simply constitutes a way station on the path toward the gradual contraction and perhaps obliteration of the Mormon community through generational attrition. I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions, although I freely admit that I am suspicious of the ability of a liberal view of the Book of Mormon to maintain itself across generations. (I doubt, however, that it would result in the end of any Mormon community, but I suspect that it would be one with serious problems of replication.) On the other hand, I have come to realize that in many ways, I was raised with what some people would regard as a fairly liberal view of the Book of Mormon. I have always assumed — basically because this is what my parents, especially my father taught — that the Lehites were a tiny minority of the ancestors of Native Americans, that the Book of Mormon occurred in a limited area, that it is probably inaccurate as to some (much? most?) historical detail, etc. This is hardly the “liberal view” that I outline above, but no doubt there are many would regard these beliefs as dangerous concessions to the skeptics. Ultimately, it seems to me that what we need is hard data rather than anecdote.