Book Review: When Millennials Reign In The Evolving Mormon Church

NOTE: A version of this review was published 3/30/2019 by the Association of Mormon Letters

By R.B. Scott

If the compelling data and trend-lines laid-out in Dr. Jana Riess’ coolly hot Millennial Pink fabric wrapped new book ( The Next Mormons: how millennials are changing the LDS Church) had emerged from Oxford University Press a few years earlier, perhaps leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would have been better prepared for the tumultuous events that unfolded in 2015, a year that, by turns, proved deeply troubling and pivotal for many members, young and old.

This was particularly so for many members of the huge and eclectic Bay Ward in San Francisco.  Its roster numbered more than 1,200 people (enormous by LDS Church standards), apparently the intended outcome of ecclesiastical gerrymandering years earlier that partitioned most of the city’s edgy and struggling precincts into one ward while zoning-in more fashionable neighborhoods like Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights and The Marina to the aptly named Golden Gate Ward.  No surprise that many The Bay Ward members had disengaged because they also identified personally with the LGBTQ community and, as a result, felt unwelcome at church. 

To minister to those estranged members, the attuned former bishop, Don Fletcher, and his gay executive secretary, Mitch Mayne, had quietly initiated a reactivation message that seemed to be working– “the Lord loves you just as you are.”  The succeeding bishop, his counselors, priesthood quorum and relief society leaders set to work transforming the inherited theme into a sustainable program: *Come Home, Just As You Are. *

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in late June 2015 that gay citizens had the constitutional right to marry, the Bay Ward’s emerging program seemed prescient, even inspired, particularly when the First Presidency sent a softer, conciliatory advisory to all regional church leaders in the U.S. and Canada noting that while the court had not altered church’s view of same sex marriage. It reminded:  *The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree. We affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same‐sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. Indeed, the Church has advocated for rights of same‐sex couples in matters of hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment, and probate. *

The refreshing avowal stood in stark contrast to its approach in 2008, when, just as voter support was foundering for Proposition 8, the referendum that would outlaw same sex marriage in the California, the church hastily came to the rescue with much-needed cash and muscle. It’s successful intervention simultaneously produced both admiration and contempt for its organizational strength.

Compared to then, the horizon in June, 2015 appeared to be brightening.

Then came the startling backslide four months later. The ailing, but still impetuous, President Thomas Monson summarily issued a hastily drafted diktat that seemed to catch even his counselors and many in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles off guard.  They had little choice but to endorse their leader’s decision to exclude gay members and their minor children from saving ordinances, priesthood ordinations and church callings.

In San Francisco, the tension in the room was palpable as High Priests and Elders listened intently to their stake president, flanked by the bishop, as he attempted to rationalize the “Christian kindness” in the policy.  Few seemed to accept the lame authorized talking points he was peddling.  Finally, in frustration, the stake president played the ultimate trump card: “Remember this came from God.”

“That’s just it,” fumed one Millennial, a returned missionary.  “I know it DID NOT come from God.”  His emphatic in-your-face protest turned heads that Sabbath afternoon. And, it evidenced how many Millennials (and many others) are coming to redefine their personal relationships with God and church leaders, most of whom they once regarded as nearly infallible.

The emotional outburst unintentionally foreshadowed what The New Mormon Survey (NMS) has now confirmed: the church membership has become increasingly independent over the past half century, a trend that is accelerating as Gen X and Millennials take charge, a trend that may likely accelerate as succeeding generations come of age. 

The NMS survey of  1,156 “active” Mormons, and 540 “former” Mormons was designed by Dr. Riess and Dr. Benjamin Knoll, an associate professor of politics Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Riess, who converted to Mormonism while studying to be a Protestant pastor at Princeton, earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University in American Religious History, studying with noted Mormon historians, Drs. Richard and Claudia Bushman. Riess also writes the  popular “Flunking Sainthood” column for Religion News Service. Their research was reported out in the book The Next Mormons released this month (March 2019).

Some professional pollsters and critics have already quibbled a bit with the sample size, methodology and analysis. Nevertheless, if I had a say in the matter, which I don’t, I’d recommend that copies of The Next Mormons be required reading for every full-time missionary and church leader, and shared by them with any serious prospective member eager to get a realistic, balanced report of Mormons today and a measured forecast of what the future may hold.    

Millennials, like fellow-travelers from the Gen-X and Boomer generations, seem to be steadily, and without many second thoughts, nudging the church back to its roots, to the inspired, governed-by-common-consent organization founder Joseph Smith envisioned but implemented inconsistently. Of course, many from every generation have become so disenfranchised for one reason or another that they took permanent or temporary leave of the church. In fact, one reason Boomers may appear to be more conservative than succeeding generations is that its doubters have either resolved their differences with the church and returned to comfortable activity or defected completely, no longer self-identifying as “Mormon.”

Examined closely, NMS data and analysis confirm that Mormons, like members of other religious groups in America, steadily became more secular and less orthodox as Boomers came of age in the mid-1960s.  This should not surprise anyone.

For instance: circa 1966-68, as my missionary cohorts completed their two-year duty to God, the church became aware that upwards of 40 percent of us were leaving the church, permanently or temporarily, within one year of returning home. The First Presidency launched a few ambitious special events in the Solemn Assembly Room in The Salt Temple it hoped would stoke the fires of missionary service and keep RMs spiritually connected. For very similar reasons, it established Latter-day Student Association for college students, accompanied by an egalitarian fraternity system that resembled the Greek letter frats on campus, without the attendant classism, boozing, and raucous behaviors.  Instead of gathering in frat houses reeking of cigars, cigarettes and beer, members gathered in off-campus squeaky clean church buildings.

Most alarming and unsettling to me, and perhaps church leaders as well, are data from the survey showing scant (well within the margin of error) attitudinal differences between the generations about the former policy, abandoned in 1978, that excluded members of African descent from the priesthood and temple. The overwhelming majority -- 80 percent of Boomers/Silent Generation, 79 percent of GenXers, and 78 percent of Millennials—believe the policy came from God or may have been inspired by God. For the record: count me among the Boomer 10 percent who are certain the abandoned and repudiated policy did not come from God.   

Surveys are not new to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  The First Presidency has commissioned them to gauge how members may react to prospective theological and policy adjustments. However, it prefers to tightly control them from beginning to end, from micro-managing the phraseology of questions to steering how data will be interpreted, and whether findings will be revealed to the world.   

Independent research reports, like the NMS, and its attendant critically interpretive and balanced commentary, are predictively vetted by general and local church leaders and many members as to whether or not the writer/producer has an anti-church agenda, even when the author is a well-known, fully engaged Latter-day Saint with an impressive vita.  

At various points in their careers, the motives and testimonies of respected and faithful academics like the late Leonard Arrington, Richard and Claudia Bushman, Eugene England, Gregory A. Prince, and, even Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the Pulitzer Prize winning historical novelist at Harvard, have been challenged by members and church leaders alike. Loyalty inquiries flowing from their fellow academics often masked petty turf issues and professional jealousies. Riess says she has encountered similar challenges from time to time, but has chosen not to pay much attention to them.  But, for the record, I note that the The Next Mormons is not yet stocked by the Deseret Book, the powerful church-owned book publisher, distributor and retailer, nor by the campus bookstore at Brigham Young University.

Nevertheless, most forward-focused Mormon scholars at BYU and elsewhere, and governing priesthood quorums of the church will likely take stock of the unmistakable trend lines laid out in *The Next Mormons.*  How will the divisive changes Russell M. Nelson championed long before he was ordained prophet and seer a year ago – the hasty decision in 2008 to support Proposition 8 in California, the impetuous fractious policy introduced in 2015 that turned gay members and their children into pariahs in their own church – settle with *The Next Mormons*, and succeeding generations, who in increasing numbers appear to be deeply concerned about equality, fairness and justice  issues, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ members, women and minorities in  general?

How will the *future* of the church assess dramatic recent changes: particularly President Nelson’s instigation of what many see as a wheel-spinning but very costly “branding” adjustments that other recent prophets seriously considered before rejecting them as pointless? Members and the media alike are now being encouraged to identifying the church by its full name and refrain from using well-established and still legally protected nicknames like *Mormon* and *LDS*. The directive impacts all printed materials, signage on buildings, videos, the renowned choir, public service advertising campaigns and on and on and on.  These are adjustments President Nelson lobbied nearly three decades ago as a junior apostle that he now unabashedly attests are nothing short of direct instructions from God.   

Which gives rise to a follow-on question: how is the more independent-thinking, my-way Mormon “Generation Next” reacting to recent detailed accounts that President Nelson receives regular nocturnal instructions directly from the Lord on a variety of subjects? 

Should anyone need reminding, the insights from the NMS survey and the well written interpretive analysis in The Next Mormons reveal that the church, in many ways, is not exactly your grandfather’s Mormon Church.