Rachel’s post a couple of weeks ago, The Threat of New Order Mormons, attracted so much discussion that I would like to follow up with my own discussion of middle-path Mormons. Various terms are used to describe those who self-categorize themselves as something other than fully active, fully believing Mormons: Uncorrelated Mormons, Cultural Mormons, New Order Mormons, Liahona Mormons, and so forth. My view is that there are many paths that lead away from full activity and belief, so it is wrong to expect one label to adequately describe what is actually happening. It’s clear these members move away from the center of Mormonism on some items of belief or practice, but which items are the problem for any given individual varies across the population. Here are some different half-way paths.
1. Half-attenders. These are the folks who only show up at church once or twice a month. Within the church, these people are referred to as “less active.” They are welcomed when they attend and are missed when they don’t. Few people feel threatened by some else’s sporadic attendance.
2. Half-contributors. These people may pay some tithing and do a bit of home teaching here and there. A half-contributor with 100% attendance is more likely to be denied a temple recommend than a half-attender who pays a full tithe. Holding or not holding a temple recommend constitutes an objective marker of sorts between fully active members and everyone else (although most ward members don’t generally know who holds a current recommend and who doesn’t in the ward). Those without a recommend have, in a sense, chosen a middle path or, in some cases, had it forced upon them by circumstances.
3. Half-conformers. These people feel impelled to move outside LDS behavioral norms, from little things like skipping the white shirt or skipping priesthood meeting to bigger things like drinking, smoking, stealing, and the like. Those in the first two groups can be fairly stable for long periods of half-attendance or half-contribution, but there seems to be more tension for the half-conformers, who tend to fade away after a few months or years.
4. Half-believers. This is the middle path that gets all the attention, but even within this group there is a lot of variation over which doctrine or piece of LDS history is objectionable: each person has their own list. A better way to distinguish between half-believers is the extent to which half-belief is disclosed. There are half-believers who haven’t told anyone. There are half-believers who disclose their doubts only to the bishop or a few close friends. Then there are the half-believers who just can’t shut up about the issues on their list and start stirring up trouble for other ward or family members. These are the ones who give the middle path a bad name.
A couple of contrasts are worth noting. Most people know when they fall into one of these categories and are often tense or anxious about attending church. I think a good deal of that emotional turmoil is generated internally rather than a reaction to the comments or feelings of other Mormons. Most bishops and ward members are happy to see any brand of half-way Mormon attend church on Sunday. The growing emphasis on “the Rescue” has made most LDS more aware of the problem (there are a lot of non-attenders) and less judgmental of those who return, whether they return to full activity or only manage partial activity.
Second, to the extent there is any threat posed by New Order Mormons (to use the terminology from Rachel’s post), it comes primarily from the half-believers who just can’t restrain themselves from voicing their doubts or disbelief in every conversation. That group is a fairly small percentage of the total half-way population. Mormons are much more likely to encounter arguments critical of LDS beliefs from the media and from the Internet than from a half-believer (or even a non-believer) in church or one’s social circle.
My conclusion is that there really isn’t much threat here — most Mormons deal with their own families, their own activity, and their own issues without much influence from other ward members or family members. If there’s a threat, it is more likely to come from the media or Internet sites that specialize in criticizing LDS doctrine and history. Interestingly, the Church has, over the last few years, poured resources into meeting that challenge by establishing the LDS Newsroom (to try and correct media misrepresentations) and by supporting FAIR and FARMS (whether formally or informally).
Perhaps there’s a glass half empty versus glass half full thing at work here. I tend to compare half-way Mormons with zero Mormons who don’t ever attend, who contribute nothing, who have no concern with LDS standards of behavior (i.e., commandments), and whose beliefs have only weak ties to LDS beliefs. If that’s your comparison, half-way isn’t so bad. I know it is harder to think that way when a fully active family drifts toward sporadic attendance or when a stalwart member unexpectedly recites his list of faith issues in a meeting with the bishop.
Any middle paths that I missed? Are we better off keeping middle-path Mormons within the big Mormon tent (my view) or is there an argument to get them off the fence, either in or out of a smaller tent?