If we wanted to hazard a guess at what the upcoming years and decades hold in store for the church in the United States, the decisive factors will likely be to what extent the country as a whole becomes more secular (or more religious), and how the church correspondingly arrives at a place of higher or lower tension with the rest of society.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the status quo is a fairly reliable guide to the future. But even the status quo in the U.S. is highly varied. There are highly religious areas where Latter-day Saints are the predominant religious element, others where we constitute one point in a varied confessional mosaic, and others where we are an unwelcome minority. There are secular spaces where church members are merely unusual, and some where entrance is all but denied. Sometimes all these places are within walking distance of each other.
Projections based on current trends are perhaps a better guide to the future, and they point toward increasing secularism and heightened tension. But just as no status quo can last forever, not every trend continues to its ultimate conclusion.
So a thumbnail sketch of our possible futures—or maybe just our present fears—might look like this, beginning with a more religious America, with lower tension between the church and society.
America’s Prophet. In a more religious future, the nation re-Christianizes and rechurches, while the church deftly tacks toward the center on a few issues. Damon Linker’s prediction of a socially conservative, economically liberal American mainstream becomes reality. Other candidates for the periodic, ad-hoc position of “America’s Pastor” are disqualified, and Russell M. Nelson or a successor becomes the next dispenser of grandfatherly wisdom and Christian aphorisms. Utah finally gets a Supreme Court justice.
Back to the ’80s. Somewhat more likely is for the church to simply outlast the current controversies over cultural issues, much as it outlasted the controversies of the ’60s and ’70s, by making adjustments in order to find a stable place on the American religious spectrum. In a repeat of this scenario, that Supreme Court seat may not be entirely out of reach.
A more religious America does not necessarily mean less tension with society, however.
No BoM in Gilead. Like a story co-written by Margaret Atwood and Stephenie Meyer, a more religious country could simultaneously be more hostile to the church. (Or if you prefer Golden Age science fiction, see Heinlein’s novella If This Goes On—.) Think of it as the entire U.S. and institutions of all kinds turning into something like your least favorite parts of the deep South. I hear Winnipeg is nice this time of year…
But the uncomfortable fact is that the more likely outcomes are those in line with current trends, and those trends point to increased secularization, so that tension with society rises even without any action on the church’s part. The church has experienced high levels of tension before, in the 1900s, or the 1880s, or the 1840s. In highly secular scenarios matched with low tolerance, however, it’s hard to see a path to a positive outcome.
The fanatics will inherit the church. In a thoroughly secularized and intolerant society, what today seems completely normal to us (and many of our neighbors)—Sunday church attendance, weeknight youth activities, contributing to congregational life through service in auxiliary callings or leadership positions—can be seen as an as intrusive, even harmful monopolization of a healthy human life. If a secular society comes to regard moderate religious faith as something that is indistinguishable from inactivity, then traits of fanaticism will become adaptive for institutional survival. We can either try to become helpful, friendly fanatics, or the only ones who stay will be those who already have fanatic traits. Book of Mormon inerrancy becomes the default position when inerrantists are the only ones willing to teach or attend Sunday School.
The progressively reorganized church. “Reorganized,” like “Mormon” is another institutional designation currently in search of tenants. To maintain current levels of tension with a future society that is much more secular and much less tolerant might require shifting fundamental church teachings in ways that alienate committed members. It might involve disavowing Joseph Smith’s teachings on marriage and Brigham Young altogether, along with everything all prophets since them have taught on gender and sexuality; a retreat from exclusive claims on truth or authority and surrendering the historicity of the Book of Mormon; a Protestant rather than hierarchical view of priesthood; and a more congregational structure. How many members would follow the church to that place is anyone’s guess, but the experience of the Community of Christ may be a guide.
Dwindling in unbelief. Depending on one’s perspective, this scenario is compatible—or even synonymous—with the previous outcomes. The lowest degree of tension with a thoroughly secular society is where members of the church become as secular as the surrounding society over the space of a generation or two. Meetinghouses or temples could be repurposed as community centers, museums, or performing arts spaces, the church’s universities sent off into the world with a clap on the back and a sizable endowment, while Mormon Helping Hands could continue as the Restoration’s answer to the militant monastic orders that survive as charitable organizations. The last prophet could be tasked with redacting and burying up our records for the benefit of some more fortunate generation.