by Walter E.A. van Beek
Chair, Anthropology of Religion, Tilburg University, The Netherlands
Part I here.
2.1. Case: inactive members in the Netherlands
In order to answer this question (what processes of identity construction does the church generate in various types of religious adherence?), I shall concentrate first on “the International” church, i.e. a part of the church outside ” Deseret” as this is the main arena for the Mormon Church to become a “Church for all the World”. The case is from the Netherlands.
For some context, let us visualise a mean Dutch Mormon unit, ward or branch, the mean of a 10 unit Dutch stake, half branch, half small wards. The composition of 1998 is as follows:
Members of record: 198
Mean sacrament attendance: 56
Families: 143 (of which 18 visited by Home Teaching)
Melchezidek Priesthood: 24 (of which 10 inactive)
Non-ordained “future elders”: 44 (of which 43 inactive)
Women 100: (of which 76 inactive)
Young men: 7 (of which 3 inactive)
Young Women: 5 (of which 2 inactive)
Children: 18 (of which 4 inactive)
The activity rate of 28% is considered normal in the Netherlands, reflecting a similar reality elsewhere. This means that 72% did not attend once in the past three months, a sign of inactivity for Mormons. For the moment we assume that the 28% reflects self identifying Mormons, a reasonably safe assumption that we shall return to later anyway. But the large majority of the members, the ones who never show up, or the “Fleeing Flock” as Decoo characterises them, how about them? To what extent do these 72% define themselves as Mormons? If they consider the margin, how is this composed? The general answer to that is quite straight forward: they do not consider themselves to be Mormons; but some nuances are called for. What is the pattern of disaffiliation, and conversely, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Mormon identity construction in this area?
About a quarter of them, 20% – 30% hardly recall anything about being a member anyway: they have been blessed or baptised as a child, entering with their convert parents. When their parents opted out, often soon after baptism, they left the church, never to return again. They hardly remember, they do not know about the church, and they routinely do not want to get reacquainted with the church. It holds no interest to them. They sometimes asked to be struck from the record, but are seldom motivated enough to write an actual request.
A small fraction, 5-10% has been a “baseball baptism”, during the “Dyer Days” of the European missions. They are aware of their baptism, and on the whole resent it. They do not even want to write a letter asking the removal of their names from the records. Another similar fraction, very difficult to ascertain, seems to consist of “social drifters”, migrants, some psychiatric patients. They drifted into and out of the church, as a survival routine.
One sixth has a personal memory of one particular missionary; they investigated the church-cum-missionary and were baptised by that missionary, if allowed. When that missionary was transferred, they gradually, or even immediately, drifted out of the church. In some cases, they took a personal interest in more than one missionary and then stayed in longer.
One single 65 year old man had a huge collection of missionary photographs in his home, showing this only to his home teachers. He had started as a new convert with one special elder that was replaced by another one, when his “baptism -elder” left”. When he grew older, his attachment to the boys did not diminish, but his resentment that they inevitably left increased, and he started complaining about unjust mission rules, transferring these “wonderful boys” ever so often (each 3-5 months). Eventually he stopped coming and left the church: the emotional strain became too much.
It is not only the converts who opt out when someone else leaves. Instances in which a second generation member leaves when a
convert leaves in whom he had put his trust, are known as well.
Another quart, 20-30% has been a full member of the church for a considerable stretch of time, but after some changes in their course of life, opted out. The majority of them married outside the church and followed their new spouses to another church, or to a secular existence. Usually the latter. The minority among them felt itself disaffiliated by the church, when they experimented with drugs, became pregnant before marriage, followed their homosexual leanings or became a single mother. Some of these disaffectations resulted from divorce, a phenomenon on which I shall return later. Not always these changes were so dramatic: when people move to another city, at a much larger distance from the chapel, they tend to lose their links with the church.
On the whole this group felt that their life course had taken them out of the church; theirs was not so much a conscious choice as a “growing away from” the church. For a few of them it was the farewell to a youth, often a very satisfying one: “I have had wonderful years as a young women in the church”, one of them said, “but now I have found my husband, and I am back in my old church, together with him. But I did have a great time in the church”. And in fact, she had been very active, in her ward and in the Young Women’s organisation of the stake. But she never came back to the church.
The remainder, another sixth, offers the most complicated picture. This is the group of the “disenchantment”. Decoo distinguishes between normal and serious disenchantment; here, the latter is meant: a thorough revision of the ideas and ideals operative at baptism. Clashes with – or between – members, some rows, conflicts or quarrels were totally unpalatable for them. Often they cited these incidents, plus some doctrinal problems, often the black prohibition on priesthood. When told that this not longer holds, they seem to be hardly interested. These people usually want out of the church, their names struck from the records. When asked, they often follow up on it. They tend to be quite unsympathetic to the church, due to bad memories or long cherished grieves against (people of) the branch they were baptised in.
The second part of this category could be classified as “overexposure”: children from former leaders, returned missionaries and leaders of small branches with too many tasks, they often have opted out. Theirs is a very definite choice, often not in pain or grudge, but a conscious choice, manifesting some anger tempered with the relief of not having to deal with the pressure. Often they do not want out, but still consider themselves nominally Mormons, or do want to remain on record as their parents would be hurt otherwise. Here, also, is the phenomenon of “leakage at the top”: some of the disenchanted have held leadership positions, such as branch president, bishop, counselor of stake president and stake president.
Not on the records, evidently, are the excommunicated members, though disfellowshipped are. My impression is, conform the literature on the US, that this is but a minute fraction of the total drop out of the church. As a rule of thumb, the three Dutch stakes excommunicate not more than one person per year.
2.2. Comparison with the disaffectation in the US
Before going into the identification processes, some comparison of the Dutch/European leave-taking processes, with the US ones. Some patterns are obvious. Doctrinal matters are very secondary, conform to what Bahr and Albrecht have found for the USA. If mentioned, they seem to serve as a post hoc rationalisation. Also, very few people leave the church for one reason only; it usually is a compound of factors. What is dominant is the idea of biographical reconstruction: their lives have taken a different turn, on a course in which the church had no longer a viable part. The first variant is after a more or less involuntary membership, our first category. They, in fact, cannot be considered to have been members at all. Postulating their number against the Dutch membership, some 1800 members of record should not be there. But their names will never be removed, and they number only slightly less than the active Dutch membership! The most active and conscious reconstruction of their lives is in the second category, those who have “lived themselves” out of the church. They do include a fair number of rapid baptisms, reminiscent of the old battling point between missionaries and members: the missionaries have an interest in baptism, the receiving members in activity, in retention. Their internalisation of the norms and rules of the church has been less than complete, but more importantly, they never developed a Mormon network among their peers.
Another commonality is the difference between disbelief and rejection. Disbelief in the church teachings is often cited as a factor. In retrospect it might play a larger role than in the actual process of leave taking, and it may serve as a rationalisation. But it does fit in with common element in Dutch society, where disbelief in religious teachings is a normal phenomenon, well respected and accepted.
One inactive member of 76 years of age, told that she had been a member long ago, some thirty years ago. She had had a good time, no problems with the other members. But some of the elements of doctrine seemed not right (she had forgotten what it could have been), and as her education was above the church average (using her own words) it was hard for her to accept on authority. She then returned to her Dutch Reformed church, but not in an active way. She is interested in Evangelicals (EO), but does not attend church any longer. Maybe, when in an old age home, where she hopes to go soon, she will attend the Reformed services again.
Disbelief need not lead to a change in self definition as a Mormon, but it does block church attendance. If people disbelieve the teaching, for whatever additional reason, they stop going to church, but they sometimes want to remain on record. It is hard to assess to what extent they define themselves as Mormons vis à vis a third party; my guess would be that they will no; but faced with active members, especially the ones they know, they will still define themselves as “members of the church” (though not as Mormons, nor as “Latter Day Saints).
Rejection is different; the category of those who feel to have been “tripped into” the church is very rejective. Also some of the “bleeders at the top” or “overexposed” actively reject the church. Yet, often they do remain on record, while emphatically denying to be a member. They have a kind of “love-hate” relationship with the church, struggling with it, but never free, each with his or her own story. Like a divorce.
One returned missionary explained that the church had “destroyed him”. After his – prematurely released – mission, the devil had attacked him, he explained. Christ had allowed the devil to mark him, to lay his hands on him. The brothers in the church had not given his case enough attention; they did, in fact, give him a priesthood blessing, but then did not follow it up in an intensive way. They had disappointed him. He now considered the Mormon church as “one of the schools that educate towards Christ, not the only one”. In fact, though he did not come to church, he still was a missionary, teaching his people ( Surinam immigrants in the Netherlands) about the church.
What is clearly different from the US situation is the importance of family matters in church affiliation. Bahr and Albrecht note that divorce is one major motive for disaffiliation, as one of the divorcees tends to opt out of the church. This seems less the case in the Dutch church; though divorce seems on the rise, a minority of the partners takes his or her leave. Moving to another branch or ward is standard (sometimes not even that), with the concomitant irony that stake conferences become meetings places for ex-partners. In the relatively small units, a divorce in an active couple is a disaster, for which the unit has no set behaviour pattern. Nor have the unit or stake leaders.
The main difference is the non-return of the inactive member. Whereas in the US the inactive members, often dropping out at adolescence, pick up church attendance when they have to raise a family. In the US the majority of the disaffectation seems to be short term. Thus, the authors distinguish between engaged and disengaged non-believers, and between engaged and disengaged believers. In their data of 100 LDS on record 26% remain life long in the church (of which 4% as non-believers), 64% move out, of which two thirds move back in again at some time. This seems the largest part of the church actives: the people who have taken dip into the “outside”.
In Europe, at least in the Netherlands, this is not the case. People do not return on their own steam, and people who move out, stay out. The “Fleeing Flock” does only with exceptionally return to the fold. Several factors account for this non-return, most having to do with the general structure of European social life. In the USA raising a family is considered the primary reason for opt for or return into a church; a church environment is considered good for bringing up children. This is not the case in the Netherlands, nor in most countries of Europe. Having children is no reason to join a church. The insistence on family values of the Mormon church is not a sales pitch in the Netherlands, neither among the members nor among the disaffiliated. In fact, it is closely associated with the Christian Democrat Party (CDA), which has moved out of power and is moving out of fashion. So the adolescents who leave the church, often as children of active parents, usually do not return. They marry someone from outside the church, sometimes from another religion, and for the great majority do not affiliate to any church. This tendency has nothing particularly Mormon: in the Netherlands people who move out of a church, do not move in again. At present, this amounts to the great majority of the population, at present more than 70% of the population does no longer count itself member of a church. So, the Dutch ex-Mormons follow the pattern of the general population. In order to assess the impact of the non-return, the drop out of children is of relevance. Our impression is that half of the children from full-member families stays active, and one third in half-member families, with a greater drop out in more socially vulnerable categories, such as minorities. Marriage is a reason to leave the church, slightly more for girls that for boys. The relatively few “returnees” in the Netherlands, is found in this category.