One sometimes hears calls among Mormons of a certain stripe for faithful believers to extend more love and acceptance to people who leave Mormonism. I am well aware of this discourse for the very good reason that I have on more than a couple of occasions initiated such discussions. Yet on further reflection it seems to me that this message has potential dangers for Mormonism as a community that are at least worth thinking through.
The basic point is about barriers to exit. How easy is it, in psychological, emotional, and social terms, to leave the church? The easier it is, the more often people who doubt, are uncomfortable in social terms, dissent from specific doctrines or practices, or in general terms don’t fit with contemporary Mormon culture will leave. It’s a simple cost-benefit question: if the costs go down and the benefits stay constant, more people will make the calculation that leaving is the right decision.
What this means for Mormonism as a community is this: it will become less internally diverse. People who don’t fit well with the current configuration of things will just leave, so the remaining group of Mormons will be the set of people who like the current configuration. Some people, of course, think that our group has already arrived at this destination — Mormons are already, on this account, highly uniform. Of course, this isn’t true, and there is a lot of diversity in our tribe that could in theory be lost. Imagine a church in which, to pick an example, only strict McConkie Mormons remain; although it can be fun to rhetorically exaggerate by claiming that we live in that church now, it would certainly be different from what we face.
To some extent, the pattern I describe can be seen in the church in Latin America (for example), where the social and economic costs of exit from Mormonism are zero to negative for most members — i.e., if anything they would gain by leaving. This is because most of them have few close friends or family members who are Mormon, no emotional attachment to the tradition beyond their religious convictions, and only a weak connection with what is usually a relatively fragile ward or branch community. On the other hand, they live in a society that strongly legitimates Catholic and increasingly Protestant religious identities, usually have extensive networks of friends and family members who affiliate with these faiths, and may even gain professional or other economic advantages by conforming to the dominant religious culture. With this incentive system in place, most people who are Mormon at any point in their lives eventually leave. The church to some extent comes to be dominated by (roughly and with some rhetorical exaggeration) two groups: recent converts, or church employees and their relatives. There is limited diversity in terms of ways of being Mormon in such a community.
Such limited diversity, due to easy and socially painless exit, can be theorized to have a perhaps somewhat contradictory effect if it becomes general in the U.S. core of the church: it may well bind the church to its contemporary beliefs, organization, and practices. After all, any significant change would make the church a less tight fit for the beliefs and preferences of the very uniform remaining group of members. Furthermore, because the social and economic costs of exit would (by hypothesis) be very low, such members would have little difficulty in leaving themselves and, perhaps, establishing a parallel church that removed the objected-to change. So, in this scenario, the church would be forced to remain pretty much how it is now — in theological but also organizational, programmatic, and cultural terms — or perish.
But of course remaining static in these various ways isn’t a viable long-term solution, as newer generations will need gradual change in order for the church to continue to serve their needs and interact successfully with the broader social environment, just as has always been the case. So paralysis of this sort could well be an intergenerational death sentence for the LDS church.
But what of the broader, non-LDS-church-related group of Mormons? Would they not prosper if the LDS church were weakened in this way? I don’t think there would be much of a Mormon community if the LDS church itself fell apart. Unlike Catholicism or especially Judaism, Mormonism doesn’t have millenia of tradition to tie people together as a community. We don’t have a great literature, a profound shared history, a unique cultural location in the world. We’re tied together almost entirely by the church as an organization — through membership in it, rejection of it, or ambiguity toward it. It’s the shared reference point; without it, we would lack a point of unity and would simply disperse.
These arguments are related to Armand Mauss’s Angel and the Beehive argument about tension with the broader society, although I think his argument is a little bit different and probably applies more to another set of issues. His tensions are really about barriers to entry, which are probably important as a motive for converts but aren’t as important for people who are already members. What matters for current members are barriers to exit — the costs of leaving, which are partly theological in the way he discusses but are probably mostly social and cultural. It’s the shunning, loss of family, and so forth that make it hard to leave, and therefore keep Mormonism internally diverse and capable of change over time.
A beautiful, useful short book that may be worth reading to think about how preventing exit can enhance change within an organization is Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. In a series of useful passage, Hirschman, talking about the choice between ending a market relationship with a company (exit) and complaining to management about problems (voice) argues:
…the role of voice would increase as the opportunities for exit decline, up to the point where, with exit wholly unavailable, voice must carry the entire burden of alerting management to its failings. (pg. 34) …The presence of the exit alternative can therefore tend to atrophy the development of the art of voice. (pg. 43)
This destruction of voice when exit is unavailable can be deeply unfortunate because “the possible discovery of lower cost and greater effectiveness [in production or service] is of the very essence of voice” (pg. 43). Thus, when exit is too easy, an organization can fail to discover or implement changes that would benefit everyone.
Of course, this argument is based on the Mormon community. It is about what most enhances diversity among Mormons, and about what is best for Mormonism as a collective in the long term. What is best for Mormonism as a community is not necessarily the sum of what is best for each individual within Mormonism. For marginal or poorly-fitting individual Mormons, a graceful and painless exit from the community may well be individually best. But if that individual best is turned into a general social norm, it would certainly devastate the internal diversity of the community, and may well have long-term consequences for the health and even survival of Mormonism. This obviously does not imply that we should not seek the best for each individual — just that we ought to think about the costs as well as the benefits of an individual focus.