My Middle Way Mormonism

Over at Wheat & Tares, a number of bloggers have written takes on what they’re calling “Middle Way Mormonism.”[fn1] Although their takes differ marginally from one another, they’re all fairly complementary. And by and large, I think they represent an interesting, and important, take on Mormonism, and one that I want to engage with.

Though they don’t lay out a precise definition of Middle Way Mormonism, the contours seem to be something like this: a Middle Way Mormon is a member who recognizes fallibility and institutional weakness in the church, but stays in the church. And, if that’s roughly what they’re talking about, I’m clearly a Middle Way Mormon. (Also, so are you. And so it your rabid Mormon uncle, with the anti-government takes and the bunker filled with MREs. More on that in a minute.)

The W&T bloggers largely see (in their experience and the experiences of their loved ones) Middle Way Mormonism being triggered by some traumatic episode—a discovery about something in church history or practice, something that brings with it pain and disillusionment. That traumatic episode leads, almost inevitably, to a changed relationship to the church. That changed relationship may result in an temporary or permanent equilibrium, but that equilibrium risks being difficult and uncomfortable to maintain. (FWIW, these are all my words and takes on their excellent posts, and I hope the W&T bloggers will forgive me if I’ve flattened some of the nuance, or misinterpreted some of the assertions, in their posts.)

Kristine and Andrew expressly recognize that not everybody moves to Middle Way Mormonism as a result of trauma; Andrew says that he has

met several folks who grew up reading Sunstone and Dialogue and so their belief was already informed by the warts and messiness of history and theology — they didn’t have a “traumatized believer” stage because there was no surprise.

Personally, I fit comfortably into the non-traumatized believer mold here. (A quick interjection: what follows isn’t meant to be normative. I’m not suggesting that mine is the only—or even the best—way of approaching Mormonism, only that it’s mine.) But it’s not the result of growing up with Sunstone and Dialogue and academic Mormonism. Frankly, I grew up reading Transcendentalists and Existentialists, and Heller and especially Vonnegut. Church was somewhere I went on Sundays and often weekday mornings, but the Mormonism I experienced didn’t strike me as having the depth or importance to warrant real intellectual engagement.[fn2]

I didn’t grow up knowing that Joseph Smith was a polygamist. Or about the Salamander letter. Or multiple versions of the First Vision or seer stones or post-Manifesto polygamy. But I also don’t remember when I learned that stuff.[fn3] It clearly didn’t traumatize me.

And partly, I got lucky in when I grew up. In the early 90s, the church (at least, where I lived and where I experienced it) wasn’t making stark political statements. I mean, yeah, we didn’t like abortion, but we weren’t the ones in front of the clinic with angry faces waving signs. And I’m sure the 90s Southern California church wasn’t a welcoming place to the LGBTQ community. But I also don’t remember ever hearing anything (positive or negative) about LGBTQ individuals at church. And yeah, women’s roles were severely constrained, but the whole ERA thing had happened more than a decade earlier. So, while I didn’t think the church warranted my intellectual engagement, it was a comfortable place to be, and I had time to grow into my engagement with it.

And that engagement led to Middle Way Mormonism for me. But here’s the thing: we’re all Middle Way Mormons.[fn4] Or, at least, the vast majority of us are. Some have undoubtedly made a clean break from the church, and there may be some active members who accept, uncritically, everything that the church and its leaders do and say, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. But most people are somewhere in the middle, even if they don’t recognize themselves in that middle. (It’s kind of like tithing—for all the talk of paying on net vs. paying on gross, we all pay on one net or another.)

It’s important, I believe, that we recognize the expanded Middle. Why? I think one problem that many people who recognize that they’re living in the Middle Way have is that they feel lonely.[fn6] But once we recognize that we’re all living in Middle Way Mormonism, maybe we can be more empathetic toward, and accepting of, people whose Middle Way is different from ours.

But, of course, if we all recognize that the church is flawed (perhaps fatally, hopefully not irredeemably), why stay at all? I can’t speak for you, of course, but I’m an institutionalist. I believe in the importance and power of institutions to make life better, for me, but more importantly, for others. I also recognize that every institution has flaws, and most have real, and significant, flaws.[fn7]

Still, I’m a progressive. I believe Dr. King that the arc of the moral universe bends (eventually) toward justice. And I believe that an institution has more power to bend it than I do individually. And I also believe that, as a member of the church, I have the ability to incrementally help it bend that way. Perhaps not noticeably, and not in a way that will be cited in a 2118 history of the church. I may have an ego, but I’m also a realist.

But I believe in the power of ideas. And I believe that, by espousing and living my ideals, I can put those ideas into circulation (whether on blogs or in Sunday School classes or anywhere else), and those ideas, in turn, may eventually become part of the fabric of ideas that will underlie future decisions. And as my ideas (and your ideas, and everybody else’s Middle Way ideas) enter into the common lexicon of Mormonism, they will eventually help to bend the moral universe of the church toward justice.[fn8]

Does it have to be Mormonism? Of course not; there are countless imperfect institutions and individuals working to ensure that the universe bends the right way. But here’s the thing: each one of those institutions and individuals is flawed, each one fatally (though, again, hopefully not irredeemably). Each of us muddles in the middle in everything we do. That doesn’t mean to stay uncritically in any institution we happen to be part of. Some institutions’ flaws are both fatal and irredeemable, and some institutions work to bend the moral arc of the universe away from justice. And it’s important that we learn to discern when an institution is irredeemable or unjust, and that we learn what we should do in those circumstances.

But irrespective of what institutions we’re part of, we’re going to be in a tenuous middle equilibrium. And we’ll have to learn to muddle through that middle.


[fn1] You can read Happy Hubby’s post here, Kristine A’s here, Andrew S.’s here, and Cody Hatch’s here. And, after I drafted this post, Andrew wrote a new post with some additional thoughts. They’re worth reading, too, but I didn’t have time here to engage with what he added.

[fn2] Again, not normative. I disagree with teenage-me, but teenage-me didn’t have access to the libraries, books, and background that today-me does.

[fn3] If I had to guess, maybe high school? Some in college? Maybe I didn’t learn some until law school? I really don’t know.

[fn4] (Okay, that’s a little bit of an exaggeration. Most people aren’t Mormons of any sort, either TB or Middle Way or ex-. At 16 million members or so,[fn5] we make up 0.2% of the world’s population; the other 99.8% are not any kind of Mormon.)

[fn5] Yeah, not all of those 16 million would identify as Mormon, but for purposes of this particular calculation, I don’t care.

[fn6] I really wanted a GIF of INXS singing “Need You Tonight” subtitled with “I’m lonely” here, but this was the best I could do, so you’ll have to subtitle it with your imagination.

[fn7] And when I say I’m an institutionalist, I don’t just mean with respect to the church. I’m a big fan of the U.S. judicial system, of universities, and, frankly, of democracy in general. Yes, our current politics are fatally (though, again, I hope not irredeemably) flawed, but I believe and hope that those flaws will be corrected. And speaking of correcting the flaws in democracy: if you’re reading this the day I posted it, it’s election day! If you’ve voted, awesome! And if not, why are you reading my post right now? It’s time to vote!

[fn8] And what if they don’t slide into the accepted discourse? Such is life. Kristine and Andrew wrote about how Middle Way Mormonism is probably unsustainable when members stay in the church with the expectation that they’ll change it. And I think that’s absolutely right. The change I’m talking about is more quixotic: it’s the same kind of change I expect to effect as a tax academic. I’d be surprised (happy, but surprised) if a legislature adopted my ideas directly, and credited me. I mean, they certainly could, but it’s probably unlikely. OTOH, I teach a lot of students. And I publish in a lot of law reviews, and my articles are edited by students and read by a number of people. And those students, and those other readers, will become lawyers and legislators, and what I teach and write will be part of their intellectual makeup. And maybe, imperceptibly and eventually, my concerns could inform their decisions down the line. It’s not a simple and obvious causal connection, but it may be a connection nonetheless.

Comments

  1. When dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was in college, Orson Scott Card published Saintspeak, a tongue-in-cheek dictionary of LDS terms (now available online at Signature Books: http://signaturebookslibrary.org/saintspeak). Most of its entries were purely humorous (and still funny today), but a few were meant seriously, such as his definition of “radically orthodox Mormon”:

    “A Latter-day Saint who believes without question only those doctrines that are clearly set forth in the standard works or that have been accepted as revelation by the uplifted hands of the Saints in General Conference. The radically orthodox Mormon takes part fully in all aspects of Mormon life, but does not believe that all Mormon customs are necessarily ordained by God; he or she will gladly try any suggestion for improvement, and gladly abandon any practice that does not work. Radically orthodox Mormons seek truth everywhere–in prayer, in gospel study, in Church meetings, and in the world–and will embrace any idea that is good. However, even though they are constantly learning, they almost never argue about doctrine because their faith is that God will make clear what must be clear, and if there is a difference of opinion, God will resolve it when resolution becomes necessary to our exaltation. Radically orthodox Mormons would give up anything, including their lives, if the Lord required it, but will not give up one friend for the sake of winning an argument. It is practically impossible to tell a radically orthodox Mormon from an orthodox one; it may well be that no one is radically orthodox in all aspects of life. But the difference between them is profound, for while both are meek and teachable, the one listens while the other also sees.”

    Seems like “middle way” Mormonism has been around a while! Indeed, I think the members that *truly* perceive only black and white are rare, and even a lot of those we might perceive to be on the extremes turn out to be “middle way” when we know them well enough to know what their individual issues and concerns and compromises are.

  2. It feels almost tautological to say “we’re all middle way” or “we’re all cafeteria” (earlier terminology. But it makes an important point and I would not want to lose the value of the middle being the 80% solution rather than one of the 10% tails. So kudos.

    But but . . . as a proudly middle way person (with public creds, no less!) I think there’s something missing when we go to the “we’re all” formulation, something missing about the lived experience of people who are writing and talking and claiming “middle way” as an out group label. One way to say it is to pick up the idea of trauma but maybe expand the edges. It seems to me that there is always (there’s that word—but I’m going to use it) some kind of trauma:
    —history or doctrine doesn’t make sense (the most talked about these days)
    —practice is offensive (the Exclusion Policy is a very common example, just this past weekend again)
    —someone says “you don’t belong, you should leave” (push or pull, defined by others)
    —you can’t answer a temple recommend question honestly, or you believe if you do you will ‘fail’, or you feel you can’t or won’t sit for an interview (bundles up a bunch of different traumas that collectively are surprisingly common)
    —you can’t with integrity perform appropriately in a calling —say what you’re supposed to say, be on Church’s side (this is me, for one).
    —you are of a category, class, race, gender, that is excluded or not valued (lots of easy examples, but just try being divorced, or never married over 30, or a woman).
    —a really important prayer wasn’t answered—someone died when they shouldn’t have, some “inspired” decision flopped miserably.
    —etc.

    I know there many, including a number of BCC permas, who experience some or all of these experiences without feeling trauma. But coming at it the other way, I believe that every one of us who is using “middle way” as an out-group identifier has experienced one or more of these experiences and it WAS felt as a life changing trauma.

  3. Chris, that’s fair. And I was going to say something about whatever disagreement I have with Andrew and Kristine as being more semantic than anything, but the post ended up not going in that direction.

    And the semantics here strike me as this: if “middle way Mormon” means somebody who has been traumatized and remains nonetheless, I’m probably not part of that group. The church has done things that I love, and has also done things that anger me and drive me crazy, but nothing that causes me personally trauma. (Partly, that’s my personality. Partly it’s that I’m a straight white guy.)

    But I’m reading their use of “middle way Mormon” as something broader than just those who stay in spite of trauma. And if that’s what it is (and again, like Humpty Dumpty, words can mean whatever I want them to, especially if I get to define them!), we are all middle way. And that has a different value. It’s not solidarity in out-group status, but its empathy in recognizing that the middle way decisions I’ve made may differ from the middle way decisions you’ve made. And clearly, of course, as egoistic individuals, I’m going to feel like my decisions are objectively good and true and True, and frankly are orthodox and not at all middle way. And that egoistic focus lets me disregard the decisions I’ve made, and condemn the ones you’ve made.

    But if we’re all middle way Mormons (and we are!), then I don’t have the same pedestal to stand on, while condemning you, because I’m forced to deal with the fact that I’ve chosen what to embrace and what to overlook, what to improve, and what to give up on.

    So I’m focused on the idea that the middle way is recognition of structural and institutional imperfections as part of the project. And that’s an entirely different purpose and strategy than using the middle way as an outgroup signifier (which has its own importance and place).

  4. Love the post, Sam!

    A few things — while I am personally inclined to problematize clean notions of orthodoxy and apostasy to get on board with the idea that *everyone* picks and chooses some things, and therefore, everyone is some form of Middle Way Mormon, I don’t think this bears out in people’s lived experience. Even if defining the package of traditional beliefs is sometimes fraught and different people will include different things as part of their bundle of “core” beliefs, there still nevertheless is a perception that some things are more likely to fit in that bundle than others. So there is still a perception (for many) when someone harbors enough beliefs that don’t fit in that bundle, and policing (whether formally or informally) regarding not aligning to that bundle.

    Recognizing the expanded middle doesn’t resolve any of these issues, because the tension many middle wayers experience is because *everyone* doesn’t recognize this expanded middle, and they certainly don’t accept it. That is, the loneliness of the Middle Way cannot be evaporated simply by forcing others in the same box, because those others will push back at any implication that they are also in the Middle Way (or, rather, that even if they are, that theirs is anything like yours.) To borrow your tithing example, even if it’s utterly true that we’re all paying on some form of net, this doesn’t change the fact that people think their form of net is “better” than other forms of net.

    Anyway, all of these things make “muddling through the middle” a lot less comfortable for many people — especially when they become aware that they can no longer profess the sorts of beliefs that were comfortable for them in the past, and were comfortable in their ward environments. Or especially when they are living the issues that you have mostly not really had to (many of us definitely are more acutely aware of what is said or not said about LGBT issues, because it’s not merely academic. Many are acutely aware of the severe institutional constraints on women’s roles because they live it; the church’s opposition to the ERA is not just a relic of history but a symbol of its ongoing commitments.)

    In fact, notwithstanding that I agree there can be people who live the Middle Way without undergoing a “traumatic belief” state, I want to emphasize that any worthwhile definition of the Middle Way to me must include people who are acutely aware of these and other types of issues, and whose continued engagement with the church must reckon with these issues, rather than setting aside these issues as someone else’s problem, a historical concern, a concern somewhere else but not in this ward, etc.,

  5. Thanks, Andrew!

    A couple responses to you: first, I don’t want to suggest that silence on LGBTQ issues isn’t a problem, or that the ERA fight is merely a relic of the past. My point was that those issues weren’t as salient to me–as a straight teenage boy–back in the early 90s. Which meant that *I* had the luxury of being comfortable with the church (or, more likely, choosing my discomfort), in a way that my kids are unlikely to be able to enjoy (because today’s church has ensured that they are acutely aware of its problematic stances on LGBTQ issues and gender issues).

    And while I agree that most who choose to believe that they’re not picking and choosing don’t recognize that they are, in fact, picking and choosing, I don’t know what to do about that except to open up the acceptability of picking and choosing. Sure, there will always be people who claim that their net is in fact gross, or that their net is the best net there is. In fact, I’d put myself squarely in that camp. I know I’m a smart and moral person, so the things I choose to do must clearly be the best, smartest, and most moral things. The trick, I think, is to somehow convince myself that, even if my choices are the best, smartest, and most moral choices, others’ choices are not inherently worse, dumber, and more immoral. (That’s not to say that some of their choices aren’t one or more of those things, but it’s critical that I don’t label them as worse, dumber, and more immoral just because they’re not the choices I made.)

    Which is to say, institutions are problematic. They’re made up of people with varying experiences, goals, responses to information, etc. And every institution will have those problems. And not every institution is for everybody. But I don’t think it’s hypocritical, or really all that uncommon, to associate oneself with something that is imperfect and sometimes bad and sometimes good. I also don’t think it’s imperative to continue to associate oneself with something that’s imperfect and sometimes bad and sometimes good. But I do think an expanded empathy for those who don’t believe they belong is a good, and I think we can develop that empathy most easily when we recognize that we also don’t belong.

  6. Thanks, Sam. This is very sensible. Especially the part about effecting incremental change in the Church. Most of us can do a lot more from the inside as improvers than from the outside as critics.

  7. Sam,

    Totally understood that your point was more a reflection on your own experiences and how you yourself perceived those issues. I think what I’m saying is — I chafe at the suggestion of someone being Middle Way *because* they have “the luxury of being comfortable with the church” (rather than this state just being incidental.) [This is definitely making me wonder how much I think trauma actually should play a role in this concept…..]

    Obviously, in a maximalist definition of the Middle Way, then this certainly can fit in (along with every other experience), but I do think this gets at the heart of how your last paragraph is going to be lived out.

    There has been this trend I’ve noticed where the church or stalwart apologists will pay lip service to the idea that people in the church aren’t perfect and that the leadership is fallible…and yet, these claims always remain in the abstract or hypothetical. Whenever it comes to actually grappling with fallibility and identifying issues to be changed, then nothing can be found (or very minor issues.)

    I’m not saying you’re doing *that*. But the impression I’m getting here is that you say institutions are problematic, and you can kinda speak academically to things you know others have expressed as problematic, but I actually have no sense for whether you have seriously grappled with that.

    To loop back on your middle paragraph (back on tithing on net vs gross). Some people don’t have the luxury of “knowing that [they are] smart and moral” or that their choices are the “best, smartest, and most moral choices.” They don’t have to convince themselves otherwise — their lived experience is that a lot of other folks are continually telling them otherwise: that they are not smart, that they are not moral, and that their choices are suspect.

    And I think it’s within *that* tension that the middle way really gains depth.

    That being said, I like where you’re going in a lot of ways — I think a crucial element of the middle way is acknowledging that different folks have different choices and that those other choices aren’t necessarily worse, dumber, or immoral because they differ. So, I’m on board with that. And I still think people can get there without trauma. YET, to me, reading that you get to this position by “convincing yourself” that others’ choices aren’t worse seems a bit off.

  8. reading that you get to this position by “convincing yourself” that others’ choices aren’t worse seems a bit off.

    To be fair (to me!), this is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Attorneys and law professors are notoriously egotistical and (outwardly, at least) overly self-confident. So I’m drawing a caricature of myself (exaggerated, but not unrelated to reality) to illustrate the point that I want to make: that empathy depends on recognizing that I’m not better than those around me, even if the subjective voice inside my head is convinced I am. (And, fwiw, I tried to signal both how insanely seriously I take this AND how unseriously I take it through the light sprinkling of GIFs and Simpsons references.)

  9. I suspect, in spite of the carefully worded post, this discussion will suffer the same problem most feminist posts do: no one can agree on what “middle way” really means, just as no one agrees on what “feminist” really means. Middle way has some pretty negative connotations to it for a lot of members, even if, as you indicate, under certain definitions we all fall into that category.

  10. No, we’re not all Middle-Way Mormons. That claim just rejects the relevance of the whole discussion at W&T. There are some who decide to simply leave the Church, either disappearing into complete inactivity or executing a formal termination of membership. They are plainly not MWMs. And there are many who have no interest in LDS history or doctrinal shifts, who at first encounter think the Gospel Topics Essays are anti-Mormon productions, who don’t watch football on Sunday, who pray over every meal, who believe everything that’s printed in the Sunday School manual, who say yes to every calling, and who believe everything they are told in Conference, even the contradictory statements. Not MWMs either.

    I’d put MWMs at about 5% of the active LDS population.

  11. Dave B., three things:

    (1) Did you even read the OP? I explicitly mention people who make a complete split from the church (and the billions who have never had anything to do in the church) as not being Middle Way Mormons. (And, to be fair, I prefer the hyphenation between “Middle” and “Way” too, but I’m trying to be respectful of those who launched the term.)

    (2) So you’re saying that people who don’t engage with history aren’t picking and choosing? Because that’s absolutely not the case. They may not be consciously choosing to accept some things and ignore others, but they are, in fact, doing that; neither scriptures nor prophets speak univocally.

    (3) 5%, huh? You’ve got (a) a solid definition, and (b) some sort of data to back that up? Or are you talking your perception of the people you interact with?

    Because if you’re talking anecdotally, I’ll counter you with my anecdote: upwards of 90% not only are Middle Way Mormons, but know they are. Of course, I live in a liberal city that isn’t the native home of many Mormons, so I recognize that my surroundings aren’t necessarily representative of Mormonism at large.

    But this does underscore why I think my expansive vision is important: people believe that their perception of others is, in fact, objectively true, while, in fact, it’s colored both by our own experience and by our own expectations. If we understand and expect that all of the ward members around us are making moral choices about how to engage in Mormonism, we’re not going to assert that most are essentially ignorant and dumb sheeple, accepting uncritically everything. Instead, we’re going to recognize that everybody is fighting to be good and to fit into a large, one-size-fits-none organization in hopes of bettering themselves, their neighbors, and the world around them. And we can be empathetic to the fact that the choices they’ve made may differ from the ones we’ve made, and that doesn’t make them bad people or bad Mormons (if they choose to stay Mormons).

  12. Geoff - Aus says:

    Where I live the unquestioning member is defined by a number of beliefs that have little to do with the restored gospel, and I no longer hold those beliefs, and I am not allowed to express my beliefs publicly at church.
    In Australia last year there was a debate, and then a vote on gay marriage. Mormons voiced their opinion as opposing, and have since been recruited actively by the extreme right of our conservative party. So a good mormon not only believes in the restored gospel, unquestioningly supports anything coming out of SLC, but also accepts the agenda of the extreme right; opposes sex education that includes gays (safe schools), deny climate change, oppose feminism and denigrate women especially on the moderate and left of politics, oppose muslim immigration, etc.
    The church is now alligned with the extreme right politically. Perhaps it already was in Utah, and thats part of accepting everything from SLC.
    If for example you are not of the extreme left, you are isolated. I have not held a position that didn’t involve cleaning, given a talk, or taught a lesson, for 10 years. There may be other members in my ward who think like me but it will be difficult for us to find each other.

  13. From the OP, which I read: “But here’s the thing: we’re all Middle Way Mormons.[fn4] Or, at least, the vast majority of us are.”

    Sam, I can’t tell if you think MWMs are naturally antagonistic or condescending toward orthodox or mainstream Mormons or if you’re throwing that last paragraph at me personally, but I think that view is misplaced. If anything, MWMs have made a conscious choice to remain in fellowship and activity with their ward and the mainstream members. Those who are antagonistic or condescending in the way you describe are much less likely to stick around.

  14. Geoff, that sucks. And I’m sorry.

    Also, to the extent someone who exercises any kind of hard power reads this: that needs to be remedied. Like, stat. Especially since, while some of those positions would hold currency in the US church, some of them are explicitly contrary to what the church here has said (especially w/r/t Muslims, immigration, and climate change).

  15. Cody Hatch says:

    Sam, thank you for your post. I appreciate your interaction and thoughts. These kinds of discussions make this blogging thing worth it because it pushes me to see more than my limited perspective.

    With that said, I would push back on utilizing such a broad definition of Middle Way Mormonism, for if everyone is middle way, then nobody is. From my perspective, perhaps a better term would be “Tightrope Mormonism”, because I see the middle way as being a bit of a tightrope act, trying to balance the pull of the former confidence since disintegrated, with the pull of being authentic to one’s beliefs in an environment frequently hostile to such candor. As a result, I see some sort of trauma as being (mostly?) necessary to be in the middle way. Perhaps there are varying degrees of the trauma’s severity, but there had to be some sort of internal battle/struggle/wrestle where a choice is made, against an opposing inertia, to remain in and try to make it work. I don’t see how there can be an opposing inertia without some sort of trauma that would otherwise move the person “out” were they not actively trying to stay “in”. For there to be a middle it seems there must be two extremes (“out” and “in” in this case) that pull upon that person, forcing them to explicitly choose a middle way between the two extremes.

    For myself (I wrestled with this for years) and others I know who walk that middle way, there is a sense that they cannot go back to their former beliefs – they cannot return to Plato’s cave, for lack of a better explanation. In order for that to be the case, some sort of bubble had to burst – there had to be some sort of revelation that cannot be undone. The Middle Wayfarer cannot return to the time before said revelation, yet they do not want to exit completely; so they struggle in a limbo.

    Crucially, in regards to my piece at W&T, I think perspectives such as yours are crucial in widening that middle way, making it easier for people to remain in that no-man’s land. When their community says, “I get it. I know there is pain. I’ll sit with you through the struggle and I’m here no matter what. You don’t have to choose. You can remain in the mystery and just take it one step at a time,” it makes walking that middle way less strenuous, and it can be so refreshing to those struggling in the middle way.

  16. If we understand and expect that all of the ward members around us are making moral choices about how to engage in Mormonism, we’re not going to assert that most are essentially ignorant and dumb sheeple, accepting uncritically everything. Instead, we’re going to recognize that everybody is fighting to be good and to fit into a large, one-size-fits-none organization in hopes of bettering themselves, their neighbors, and the world around them.

    I just wanted to respond to this point.

    My quibble is that I don’t think the organization is “one-size-fits-none.” To the contrary, I think it fits a particular demographic fairly well — this is why we can speak of the privilege of being white, middle class, straight, male, conventionally believing, in the church….because the church often does fit well for these folks.

    That’s why I think that even if everyone is picking and choosing things, certain choices seem qualitatively different in that they can drastically change the overall fit.

    That’s I think why faith transition is so often described as a crisis or trauma. It’s something different than the norm — even if the norm is not as solid as some might think. I don’t know how to express this, but many people begin their relationship with Mormonism thinking that it fits well, until one day it *doesn’t*. I don’t know how to emphasize this strongly enough to point out that there is definitely a lived experience difference here that gives color to using different terminology for different folks rather than calling everyone Middle-Way (even if the latter isn’t necessarily technically wrong.)

    Dave,

    You commented:

    Sam, I can’t tell if you think MWMs are naturally antagonistic or condescending toward orthodox or mainstream Mormons or if you’re throwing that last paragraph at me personally, but I think that view is misplaced.

    I think this is a misread on Sam. Sam is saying (and I think we both disagree) that the category we would call “orthodox” or “mainstream” doesn’t really exist. Anyone who we might think of as orthodox actually also picks and chooses.

  17. Dave, keep going for the next two or so sentences, where I say, “Some have undoubtedly made a clean break from the church, and there may be some active members who accept, uncritically, everything that the church and its leaders do and say, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff.” And also the footnote, where I talk about the vast majority of people not having any relationship at all to Mormonism.

    Beyond that, I’m not sure how to respond, in large part because, I have to confess, I’m confused about what you’re arguing for or against. And that’s probably on me. But I’m not entirely sure how to answer your question, because I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking.

  18. Andrew, fair point. You’re right that it doesn’t fit *none*. And I suspect that’s a big part of where we disagree: I think the set of people the church fits is smaller than I’m reading you to believe it fits. And I guess my take on many (though of course not all) of the people who it appears to fit is that it doesn’t, in fact, fit them, that they’re contorting to make it fit. Some are better at contorting in silence than others.

    Of course, I asked Dave for data above, and I clearly don’t have anything beyond anecdote to back up my perception. And, in the end, it may all be semantics: perhaps you’d argue that people who can make the fit work do, in fact, fit. And on that, I wouldn’t argue, because that turns largely into a question of definitions.

  19. Sam,

    Yeah, I think we’re getting to what I would consider a good understanding of the disagreement here — this really depends on how many people are contorting in silence vs how many people simply aren’t contorting (or even if they are, their contortions are so minute as to not rise to their own conscious awareness.)

    Like, to get back to the core of the clothes analogy. I can totally accept that “One size fits most” doesn’t really fit anyone — someone who gets a tailored shirt will quickly experience the difference between a shirt that *REALLY* fits them and something that is designed to satisfice. I get that many people are going to be comfortable enough with it that they won’t feel any need to get a different shirt. There are *tolerances* allowed in these sorts of things, so I get your point that ultimately, these folks may still be making their own silent adjustments.

    BUT I think it is meaningful to distinguish between those for whom the shirt, while not a perfect tailored fit, is good enough to not raise complaints…and those for whom the shirt produces large enough tensions that raise the question of whether they should alter it or abandon it.

    I don’t have hard data beyond anecdotes (that’s why I am a blogger!), but I’m just operating on the idea that even if there are people contorting in silence, there is a meaningful difference at some point for people who are so inconvenienced that they feel prompted to speak out about the poor fit. And I am assuming that if someone is contorting in silence, then they are in a qualitatively different category than those who contort out loud. Even without doing a scientific survey, it seems that there’s an appreciable number of people who think the church works so poorly for them that they abandon it…an appreciable number of people who think that the church works so well that complaints are illegitimate, and then a portion of people in between who certain have complaints, but aren’t abandoning it.

  20. The difference between the traumatic experience and the non-traumatic experience is what makes this whole discussion personally compelling for me. It feels like I am part of a group that is separated by a chasm. Everyone in the group is grappling with the shortcomings of the Church as an institution. On one side of the chasm, where I am, we are not experiencing crisis and inner turmoil over these questions. It sounds like that’s where Sam is too. On the other side of the chasm I see people who are suffering in a way that I am not. If I have something that could help relieve that suffering, I want to figure out what it is. I am looking for a bridge over the abyss.

    I don’t care whether the label of Middle Way applies to me. I just want to know how not to be separated from people whom I care about and with whom I identify deeply. In all the work of defining what the Middle Way is and who is in it and who is out of it, I hope the end will unify and not divide.

    (Of course, unity works only if we don’t bleach out the crucial differences. This is the peril of saying that we’re all in the Middle Way.)

  21. Loursat: Your comment reminds me why I stick around at BCC. There are so many people commenting (and blogging) here who are not like me but whom I would like to break bread with.

    Sam and Andrew and Dave B. (did I miss anybody in on the numbers game?): I’ll throw my anecdotally driven hypothesis into the ring. As percentages of adults in the pews on a typical Sunday:
    >5% middle way and open about it (me on the back bench, open collar tailor-made blue shirt, about whom the teacher and everyone else has an idea what they’re getting if they let me speak)
    >20-30% in addition, middle way and working their journey mostly in silence (the people who thank me for an anti-exclusion policy “testimony” that they felt but were unable or afraid to say themselves)
    >And then I’d go 50/50 on the balance–the balance being those who are satisfied with (Andrew’s) ready-made shirt–50/50 between those who welcome me and those who would rather I wasn’t there.

    I’m somewhat more interested in the trajectory. My guess is that my [5%] out-spoken middle way number is fairly stable. Individuals moving in and out of that class, but the percentage staying about the same historically and into the future. My guess is that my [20-30%] quiet middle way number has grown in the last decade and will continue to grow.

    What the institution thinks about this is a whole other matter. I do not think Sam speaks for the institution (I could wish, but . . .) And I can’t leave off the fact that the phrase “middle way Mormon” itself is anathema in certain influential circles. Both the “middle” (I have heard Revelation 3:16 too many times) and the “Mormon.”

  22. For the purposes of this discussion, the data from Jana Reiss and Benjamin Knoll’s “Next Mormons” survey may be helpful. They divided active members into two categories: Faithful and Obedient (62%) and Relaxed but Engaged (38%). I suspect we’d find most middle way examples in the “Relaxed but Engaged” group. https://religioninpublic.blog/2018/09/26/the-two-kinds-of-american-latter-day-saints-a-mormon-typology/

  23. Mary Ann, thanks for the link! I think, though, that the typology in my head doesn’t quite match up with Reiss and Knoll’s categories. That is, I’m indifferent as to whether the people I’m talking about are orthopraxic or not; in my head, a significant number are. That is, you can recognize the failings of the church and still not drink coffee. Alternatively, you can view the church as absolutely perfect and drink several gallons a day. I’m not, here, concerned with actions as much as belief.

  24. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    So where’s orthodox belief in all this – the perception of concepts like Celestial Kingdom as not just reality but ultimate reality, independent of other concerns? Interesting because I would calculate that few in my small Kansas ward would describe themselves as MW. On the other hand, only one quarter of members on our rolls are active. Out here you’re you’re either all in or basically out. Perhaps you describe an urban phenomenon.

  25. Aussie Mormon says:

    Not everywhere in Australia is like that Geoff. Maybe somewhere in Queensland, but Queensland is like that in general, not just Church members.

  26. Sam, as a middle way mormon do you believe the 13 articles of faith? If not all of them, which one(s) don’t you believe?

  27. I think those of you who feel like you are perfectly orthodox don’t really understand human nature. My family of origin, and my ward would consider me an orthodox believer, I am sure. I am not a boat rocker by nature. Have always had a temple recommend, a calling, have a large family with small children and stay home to care for them.

    I sit quietly, or give orthodox answers. I am definitely a middle way Mormon who reads blogs like these to stay sane. I know a lot of people in my ward who are the same way. Maybe not on blogs, but who roll their eyes at LDS modesty standards and let their daughters wear what they want, or don’t think anything of stopping to get some bread on their way home from church. A teenager I know who works at McDonald’s said that he was always so surprised working at McDonald’s drive through when people from the ward would come through for coffee. They would stammer in shock when they would see him, saying that it was for a friend, but no one was fooled.

    The more orthodox you look, the less likely a friend or neighbor is going to let their guard down around you. Even as a more true believing member, I would never have told anyone at church that I loved to watch “Friends” unless they confessed first. We all pretend for each other, it’s our heritage.

    I knew which of my friends’ parents growing up only drank coffee when camping, or only whiskey when they had a cold. Or who would not wear garments while on vacation, or who didn’t actually pay tithing unless it was the month their kid was getting married.

  28. I agree that this idea of trauma is a bit stretched. As to we’re all middle pathers, in a sense, but I don’t think that does justice to the intended meaning of Middle Pather. Middle Path conveys to me the idea that someone doesn’t believe a core teaching of Mormonism (i.e., the Book of Mormon isn’t historical) but continues to appear active and maybe somewhat believing in other Mormon ideas. In that sense, I think that there are actually very few middle pathers. Most actives seem to accept most of the core teachings of Mormonism. If they start rejecting some of them, that means that they often leave the church. But the Middle Pathers are the extraordinary bunch. To me these seem like the Adam Miller types, who almost completely recast Mormonism as something that would be unrecognizable to both the average rank-and-file believer and ex-Mormon as actually Mormonism in order to justify being Mormon.

    As to institutions being flawed, yes some are more flawed than others. But why does someone have to belong to an institution?

  29. “We all pretend for each other, it’s our heritage.”

    I think Mormom has nailed it.

  30. The last time I spoke in sacrament meeting, so many people told me how “brave” and “honest” my talk was. It made me a little paranoid. What on earth had I said, and should I not have said it? But we really are used to pretending, only speaking the truth quietly in secret corners with people we’ve figured out are safe.

  31. What does it mean if I like to drink beer? Serious question…

  32. Kristine A says:

    Sam I think everyone is a cafeteria mormon, I don’t believe everyone is a middle way mormon. In my post I separated people who grew up with nuanced beliefs away from those who arrived there from a traumatic experience. We don’t have the same tensions with the institution. To be able to stay I had to drastically reorganize my relationship with the institution to make myself independent of it in a way. I had to re-order personal inspiration above institutional inspiration. It’s a drastic shift for those who grew up with little concept of personal inspiration that exists outside of already confirming institutional messages.

  33. wreddyornot says:

    Maybe I’m not understanding this all, but I think there are pointers, pinkies and thumbs. I don’t think as many choose a middle, but there seem to be quite a lot of rings, even if it’s more awkward than a thumb or pointer. But maybe I’m misunderstanding. I get told I do a lot by rings and often all I can think to do is use a middle. (I’m wondering now who will be taking up toes?) My best to you all.

  34. John Mansfield says:

    Matthew 7:13-14 and 2 Nephi 31:18-21 seem worth thinking about in considering the nature of “ways” and “paths.”

    Also coming to memory was an occasion when my wife, in response to Howard Hunter’s call to church members to make the temple the symbol of their faith, felt that she should speak to a woman she ministered to as a visiting teacher about receiving the endowment. My wife’s counsel was that if she believed the teachings of the church without reservation and felt fully supportive in furthering its work, then receiving the endowment was probably in order. That woman decided to be endowed in the temple.

  35. John Mansfield: Not to be (intentionally) argumentative, but because I think it’s a useful illustration, when one’s perspective changes from being Mormon to being Christian-who-communes-with-Mormons (describing myself of course) those very verses—Matthew 7:13-14 and 2 Newphi 31:18-21–remain important but mean something different than when I first heard them in (an LDS Church) Sunday school.

  36. “And maybe, imperceptibly and eventually, my concerns could inform their decisions down the line. It’s not a simple and obvious causal connection, but it may be a connection nonetheless.”

    Really great attitude, Sam! I find it very helpful.

  37. “I just want to know how not to be separated from people whom I care about and with whom I identify deeply.”

    This resonates deeply with me, Loursat. By Sam’s definition (a Middle Way Mormon is somebody who “recognizes fallibility and institutional weakness in the church, but stays in the church”), I’m a Middle Way Mormon, but I chafe at that label, because I don’t want to be divided from the most average member in the pews on any given Sunday; I fundamentally reject the idea that there is anything about my Mormonism that is not fundamentally compatible with absolute mainstream church membership. Put differently, I don’t believe that fallibility and institutional weakness are at all a challenge to doctrinal Mormon orthodoxy (though I acknowledge they might be a challenge to cultural orthodoxy), so I reject the need for some alternative way or path necessary to accommodate those recognitions.

    I don’t mean to deny these labels to those who find some comfort in them. I’d much rather have somebody identify himself as a Middle Way Mormon than leave the church. But for me, personally, I hate these labels, because I refuse to believe that my recognition of institutional fallibility makes me a second-class citizen in the kingdom of God. I don’t believe it makes me any kind of hyphenated or asterisked Latter-day Saint. I don’t believe that it does so for anyone else, either. I believe that the Latter-day Saint prophets and other leaders that church members most revere today were themselves acutely aware of the church’s fallibility and institutional weakness. And I think labeling members who have doubts or recognize institutional weakness as anything other than normal, mainstream, Latter-day Saints perpetuates and strengthens the false idea that a person must reject the notion of institutional fallibility to be a member in good standing.

  38. Maybe my comment is just another way of saying what Sam said: that by that definition, virtually all (or all) church members are Middle Way Mormons.

  39. Interesting topic. Lots of active LDS approich different elements of Mormonism differently. Just the lifestyle stuff….. aka sabbath observance,WOW, callings etc generate a lot of different decisions for people. So in a sense there has always been a large element of middle way Mormonism.

  40. JKC, your comment describes well the way I see my place in the Church. I make no apologies for my convictions. I believe that I am in no way second-class or less-than in my faith; I refuse that status. I’m also not inclined to call myself Middle Way. And that fact gives me pause about Sam’s argument. We who chafe at a particular label should hesitate to argue that the label really applies to everyone. That feels close to appropriation: a way of cramming everyone into my box.

    Above all, I don’t want to think of the place where I am as a box. If the place where I am doesn’t have a name, so much the better. I hope that resisting boundaries will make me more available.

  41. Sam can speak for himself, but his argument that everyone is a Middle Way Mormon reads to me like another way of saying that being a Middle Way Mormon is not different from just being a Mormon. But I understand what you’re saying Loursat, and I’m inclined to agree.

  42. Yes, JKC. I read Sam’s essay as open-hearted and kind. I think he wants to show that the Church has room enough for the Middle Way. That’s also how I read your comment. I fully agree with you on that. I’m doubting, though, that saying we’re all Middle Way is the right way to get there. As I try to put myself in the shoes of a Middle Way Mormon, I don’t think that idea would help me very much. I suspect that saying we’re all Middle Way elides a crucial difference instead of healing it.

    Now, from my personal point of view, saying that we’re all Middle Way feels pretty good. As much as I feel comfortable with my place in the Church, I’m still aware that in important ways I am different from many in the Church who claim for themselves the voice of orthodoxy. I want it to be known that a person like me belongs in the Church, with all of my peculiarity, and claiming a label feels good. But if applying this label to myself eclipses other people, it’s not the right label.

    That said, I’m still totally open to the possibilities here. I’m making an argument that I’m not totally convinced of.

  43. I wonder if Church membership is a little like membership in old communist Russia when they said: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”. Is it like that? Do we pretend to believe and they (leadership) pretend that we do?

    I think most members of the Church, if they are honest, have some real doubts and concerns. But I think that these doubts and concerns are NOT represented openly during the three (soon to be two) hours we share at church. People keep these things to themselves within a ward, only confiding in their close friends where it’s safe. Thus, it appears that everyone is a “believer” or “all in” when in fact that probably is not the case. And keep in mind, I’m talking about the 50% who is there. The other 50% didn’t even show up.

    It’s funny: sometimes I feel very mainstream when reading things like the posts above. Other times I feel like the ward rebel. Who knows?

  44. Mr. Schmidt says:

    Josh H’s comment, and a few others in here, struck me about members keeping things to themselves during meetings, and trusting only a few safe friends with concerns and doubts. Though that is undoubtedly the case for some, I can’t help but wonder if that is not the only explanation. I wouldn’t be surprised if some come to church with the goal of focusing on what (they believe) is going to strengthen them and and lift them up, and will do the same to those around them.

    Is this rooted in a cultural tradition that assumes that one must only discuss positive things to be uplifted? Sure seems like it. Is there at least some doctrinal basis for that assumption? We have at least those statements about light cleaving unto light, etc. Though I assume that a counter argument would be raised that discussing doubts and concerns could be a form of seeking light, and therefore qualify as light cleaving unto light. I can’t say I have a firm conviction either way on that right now.

    Really, I guess I’m just trying to say that perhaps we don’t have as many people discussing doubts and concerns in church because people are trying to build each other up (in their estimation), not just that doubt and concern are silenced.

    Which of course just begs the question. I think it can be spiritually powerful to raise a doubt, or a concern, at church and have the group really hammer at it with their thoughts, experiences, convictions, and scriptures that come to mind in a spirit of love and concern for each other and for discerning where the truth (or at least that portion available right now) rests. But taken to the extreme, e.g. every person just coming every week to gripe about their pet peeves/failings of this or that person, really would drive the Spirit out of the equation and put a damper on things, IMHO.

  45. Peter Bleakley says:

    I agree with points made in the blog and the comments that most members are nuanced and not clones and that members who acknowledge institutional faults should in no way feel or be made to feel that they are any less Mormon or acceptable than anyone else, particularly as I firmly believe that NOT believing in prophet-presidential infallibility or expecting unquestioning obedience to leaders and literally everything they decide to preach or do are fundamental principles of real Restoration Mormonism, not the nonsense about unquestioning obedience and not trusting any external sources of information, or your own rational mind, or revelations from the Holy Ghost that might clash with their ideas that is increasingly being actually taught by apostles in General Conferences and international broadcasts.

    I love what Sam said about the power of ideas to percolate through the members of the institution and eventually transform it is we have the courage to speak up and communicate them in person at Church and on social media. I try to do that whenever I can now because if an idea is good and true it will spread like holy wildfire.

    The game changing problem we face now in the Church though is that several of the perameters that Sam bases our potential equilibrium as Middle Way Mormons upon have shifted.

    We now have a top leadership that is proactively demanding extreme orthodoxy and intolerance of any groups different to themselves. They are not hesitating to re-write fundamental principles and doctrines to do with our relationship with them as prophets, seers and revelators (demanding unconditional and unquestioning compliance – power without any accountability at all, even now appointing and ordaining First Presidencies months BEFORE any sustaining vote by the other quorums or the general membership in violation of the scriptures about Common Consent), who is acceptable to Christ, who the Church is actually meant to be even FOR (only heterosexual temple married breeders according to President Oaks and others in the last Conference) and now proactively excluding and lying about LGBTQ people and children, and bringing back extreme sexism with a message that women can ONLY be fully happy, acceptable or productive in domestic mothering roles and should not restrict the number of children they have – back to the future with bells on! I think this counts under Sam’s criteria of becoming not just fatally flawed but doctrinally irredeemable – literally Lucifer’s plan of unquestioning compliance with autocrasy.

    We really are not all middle way Mormons where it actually matters in real life – as soon as members of the Church are open about doubts or disagreeing with leaders or uncomfortable historical truths they will almost always experience a vicious reaction from other members and leaders. They WILL be called apostates and agents of Satan. To their face. Bybtheir own families and friends often. President Nelson even said that about Presidents Hinckley and Monson and all of us who supported their “I’m a Mormon” outreach, so the role models are modelling that as totally acceptable to everyone. People who speak up
    about any of these matters WILL have their temple recommends threatened or denied.

    For these reasons I actually find it very inaccurate and, as has been mentioned, a form of offensive cultural appropriation to say that the people saying and doing those nasty things to us Middle Way Mormons and rigorously enforcing the atmosphere of terror and hostility towards us that scares many of us into silence and underground Facebook and friendship groups are also themselves Middle Way Mormons who accept that human fallibility is to be expected in the Church they genuinely believe is basically perfect. They really don’t accept that, and they refuse to tolerate the members who do and bully them in subtle or aggressive ways. There are a LOT of local members and higher leaders whose uncompromising militant orthodoxy is red in tooth and claw. As the wolves in sheep’s clothing they are, they are a fatal and irredeemable threat to our survival as an institution and specifically the continued participation of Middle Way Mormons. The plummeting conversion and retention rates under this regime speak for themselves about what it is in reality doing to current and potential convert Middle Way Mormons. They want to drive us out. They are not one of us. They are uncompromising ideological foes and will use all the power the institution gives them to suppress or exclude us.

    So we are going to have to do more than subtly advocate for change now and in the near future. We are going to have to raise a rumpus like Jesus did when facing the exact same situation in his religious institution. And we are sooner rather than later going to have to start voting opposed as the Church won’t plod along in the right direction towards justice without some hard won and radical course corrections.

    The middle way Mormons are going to wake up and take action as their pageants and arts are suppressed, their fundamental religious values preached against by apostles, and their loved ones excommunicated or driven to resignation. The neutral territory in which Middle Way Mormons can live safely is shrinking fast so we are going to have to fight much more assertively to defend it I’m afraid. None of us asked for this but in this season of war veteran and casualty commemoration we are reminded that freedoms come under attack from overwhelming forces sometimes, often from within our own communities, and resisting them can require Herculean effort and sacrifice for many years to restore freedom and peace.

  46. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    Who must you read to write w/ such swooping fluidity? Plz advise.

  47. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    As for the substance of your post, well, the underground you describe is the great unspoken in any ward, isn’t it? – at least until the ultra-conservative meta-ghost of ETB floats away. Then again, the right-wing contagion infects many groups; double-bad when any of these claim to represent Christ.

  48. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    (Replies to Peter, sorry)

  49. Joseph Stanford says:

    All members of the CoJCLDS pick and choose some things and leave others, even if only implicitly, if only because it is humanly impossible to do all of the things taught by LDS church leaders, because of sheer volume of commandments/instructions, and because the things (human) church leader teachings say sometimes contradict each other. But not all have explicitly acknowledged institutional infallibility and “re-order[ed] personal inspiration above institutional inspiration.” To me, the latter is a more useful and meaningful definition of “middle-way.”

  50. Loursat, I’m totally sympathetic to that. And I’m not particularly attached to the label “Middle Way Mormon”; I’m frankly indifferent to the terminology.

    I do want something to supplant the orthodox/unorthodox binary, though. In part, that’s because orthodox/unorthodox creates a hierarchy that devalues some people. And at least equally, it’s because those labels are unwieldy at best, and most likely entirely useless—there’s no objective standard for orthodox belief; it’s something someone (or someones) claims for him- or herself.

    At the same time, I don’t like “cafeteria Mormon” as a descriptor. Partly it’s aesthetic—while there are some hipster high-end cafeterias, its connotation is (in my mind) elementary school school lunch. But also, it implies choosing, and only choosing those things that appeal to you. And that doesn’t strike me as the way participating Mormons act. We might prefer the chicken nuggets of religion, but we also try the bitter greens if they’re served to us. And the things we accept or not are based partly on taste, true, but also on feeling and compatibility and personal revelation and inspiration and familial obligation and sense of duty and sense of mystery and so many other things that pointing to our decisions as picking and choosing purely based on personal taste strikes me as so simplistic and wrong as to be useless. (In fact, if we want to limit Middle Way Mormonism to those who have suffered some sort of trauma, they’re kind of in the opposite position as a cafeteria customer, unless the cafeteria we envision them in is, in fact, an elementary school cafeteria where all of the food is disgusting.)

    All that to say, I’m perfectly happy to leave “Middle Way Mormon” as a label for those who have suffered trauma, and use an alternative label for myself (and, frankly, everybody else in the church) if that’s more comfortable. But again, I want a universal label that encompasses the fact that we’re all trying to make a go of this religion thing, and that, while our issues and struggles and choices may differ, our personal practice of Mormonism isn’t better than those who engage it differently from us.

  51. Some of us believe that all members are MWM to one extent or another. But I wonder how many members look at web sites like bycommonconsent. Don’t many of our fellow members believe these kinds of sites are “of the devil”? If President Nelson can claim that Satan is pleased when we use the term “Mormon”, I’m sure many members are happy to claim that anything but LDS.org is anti-Mormon. I guess what I’m saying is that while many of us have doubts and questions (the great majority), I bet only a small minority are on these kinds of sites.

    How many of you are open about your time here? Or is that a private matter? I only tell 3 or 4 close friends and my wife. No way I open myself to phony judgement.

  52. josh H,

    In my observation, a lot of folks in the bloggernacle have really great and accepting wards. Not knocking them for that, but it’s a different experience in other places. I wouldn’t be surprised if many BCCers are open about their blogging here.

    Stepping back to the general conversation, though…

    After reading through a lot of these comments, I’m thinking more about the difference between terms like “Cafeteria Mormon” and “Middle Way Mormon”. I still think there’s something lost in saying everyone is Middle Way Mormon, even though I would probably be pretty amenable to the claim that everyone is some type of cafeteria Mormon. However, I appreciate that the term ‘Cafeteria Mormon’ may have a lot of baggage that people don’t want.

    I would like for Middle Way folks to be more institutionally accepted (so I understand the desire to make such a term more inclusive), but I still think it’s important to acknowledge that today, we aren’t there, and there are meaningful differences for most people in most ward environments.

  53. Amen, Sam. I think I agree with every word of that comment. Thanks for articulating it so well.

    For what it’s worth, I would state my objection to the term “cafeteria Mormon” like this: to my ears, it trivializes the experience of conversion and faithful perseverance. I don’t just choose my beliefs and religious practices on a buffet line. The way it feels to me, my religion has chosen me as much as I have chosen it. I understand that the metaphor is meant to shock us into recognizing that no one is perfectly orthodox, and it does this by forcing us to see religious life in a mundane light. But a metaphor that is good for shocking us is not necessarily a metaphor that is good for understanding the complexities of spiritual commitment.

    I’m really grateful for this conversation and for the W&T bloggers who wrote such insightful posts and who have commented in this thread. All of this has helped me.

  54. “that’s because orthodox/unorthodox creates a hierarchy that devalues some people”

    Come on, clearly there are some participants at church who are more rooted in tradition and will stick to the script and those who are wishy-washy and sort of half-believe, half-practice. Middle Path is a real thing. I read numerous stories of those who don’t fully believe core beliefs but still attend. Many on the bloggernacle, bloggers and commenters, seem to be like this. To say to the questioners and non-believing attendees, “hey, most of the rest of church-goers are just like you,” feels a bit disingenuous.

  55. I’m as open about reading BCC as I am about being transgender. It’s on the long list of things I announce to anyone I meet, just so they aren’t caught unawares, like my views on Eve’s transgression and how I believe the crucifixion isn’t what killed Christ. Then I go into my annoyance of right wingers who have to have a group to hate and left wingers who are for the poor as long as the poor are elsewhere. /sarcasm

  56. To the quick detour: I don’t go around announcing that I blog for BCC, but that’s just because it’s not really the kind of thing that slips naturally into conversation (“Hey, I’m a tax law professor, I just wrote a book, and I blog at By Common Consent and the Surly Subgroup!”). But afaik, almost everybody in my ward knows I do—I’ve had ward members come and talk about a post I’ve written, or a post that someone else here has written. And I don’t think anyone’s ever batted an eye when they found out. Like Andrew said, where I live, everyone’s fine with it.

    And Andrew and Kristine, I’m going to apologize for misunderstanding how you guys meant “Middle Way Mormon”; I’m happy to hand it back to those who need it as an identity because of trauma or marginalization. I don’t particularly care what label, if any, we substitute in my post, but again, I want something that will do the work of clarifying that we’re all striving, all muddling, and all enjoy some mixture of orthodoxy and unorthodoxy, and that that’s not a bad or sinful or devilish thing.

  57. No, Wilson, it’s not “most church-goers are just like you,” it’s “you are every bit as much a member as other members.” There are clearly differences. But those differences don’t create different categories of members. “Members” is one category. Maybe that’s only semantic, but I think it’s important.

    FWIW, I certainly don’t hide the fact that I blog here. Like Sam, I don’t announce it, but I’ve had ward members talk to me about stuff I’ve written here (and even quote it over the pulpit once). And it’s not like my ward is some liberal enclave, either. It’s a wonderful, tolerant, accepting ward, but the members here are not in any way, I believe, fundamentally less orthodox than the rest of the church.

  58. Geoff - Aus says:

    It is my perception that there is a direct relationship between politics and where you stand on the church. Conventional, unquestioning members are to the right, and see their right wing issues as part of the church, and questioning those is an indication of lack of faith.

  59. I also posted on this topic at W&T, but a few days later than the others.

    My stance is that becoming aware of and embracing that you don’t really swallow everything handed down from leaders is the ONLY sustainable approach. Call it cafeteria, call it Middle Way, call it orthodox with a side of common sense–the point is the same. Kristine A talked about a certainty crisis rather than a faith crisis, and I think that’s a more apt descriptor. People who seek certainty as the goal (e.g. “knowing” is better than “having faith”) are fooling themselves. As a result, we have arrived at a church culture in which many people pretend to more certainty than they can possibly have in matters of faith, and they use that willingness to pretend as a litmus test for others in the community. This kind of pretense and certainty relies heavily on belief heuristics and being willing to ignore things that simply don’t fit. Trauma only occurs in direct proportion to how much certainty one had in the institution’s (or leaders’) infallibility prior to discovering those areas of cognitive dissonance. Those who never really bought into the supremacy of certainty are less prone to a traumatic letdown. This includes Sam’s description of the church environment not stimulating intellectual engagement (or taking its arguments too seriously?).

    Now, I could be wrong. Maybe that approach of certainty is totally sustainable because the culture reinforces it so much, but IMO that’s just a vocal minority that silences dissent. That vocal minority appears to be much bigger than it is, though. In private conversations, there is a lot of nuance out there.

  60. Angela, is it willingness to pretend to certainty, or is it adopting the vocabulary of certainty to describe something that everybody recognizes isn’t really certain in an objective sense? Maybe a little of both? “Pretending” to me suggests a degree of dishonesty that I’m not sure is really warranted.

    That’s not to say that the vocabulary of certainty has its own problems, as using the vocabulary of “mere” belief can be looked at with suspicion. But I’m not sure I’d agree that everybody is pretending all the time.

  61. *does not have

  62. JKC: I’m not sure I know where to draw the line between pretense and diction. I suppose it depends greatly on the individual. Saying you know when you really just believe could be motivated by many things, including:
    1) Exaggeration to make a more dramatic point.
    2) Taking one thing in which you believe as a heuristic for believing in the whole (e.g. “I believe God protected me in this instance, therefore I know the church is true”).
    3) Mimicry of the acceptable language rolled out by BRM and other authorities whose doctrines have forever altered the culture.
    4) The idea that has been taught that a testimony is found in the bearing thereof, that using the language of certainty increases one’s certainty (there’s psychological evidence to support this).

  63. I agree with that.

  64. Sam-I asked a question a few days ago. You might have missed it amid all the comments. Or, you may not want to answer. I thought I would try again. I’m interested in learning more about your ideas.

    Sam, as a middle way mormon do you believe the 13 articles of faith? If not all of them, which one(s) don’t you believe?

  65. Angela, I think I agree with your position, but with one reservation. I think you’re right that in the long run we’ll all come to the point of embracing our lack of perfect certainty, perfect orthodoxy, or perfect conformity. It’s a matter of reckoning with reality. The question is how long is the long run. I think you have a great insight in pointing out that the pivot point is becoming aware of the way that one deals with the need for nuance. Many people can sustain a lack of awareness for a very long time. Many members of the Church have a lot of nuance in the way they live and think religiously, but they are not very aware of those nuances, and they feel no dissonance about them.

    Or maybe I’m not having the right conversations with the silent majority that you’re talking about. Any tips for how to find those conversations?

  66. Ryan Mullen says:

    JFK, as a middle way mormon, I wrote my own personal 13 articles of faith earlier this year. It was profound experience to tuss out what it is I really believe. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

  67. > do you believe the 13 articles of faith? If not all of them, which one(s) don’t you believe?

    This reads a little like a loyalty oath, which is maybe why everyone was happy to ignore it. “Are you now, or have you even been, someone who disagrees with an Article of Faith?” Or are you hoping to make the opposite point, that “Middle Way Mormons” don’t actually vary too much on the important doctrinal basics?

    Either point seems a little superficial to me, mostly because the Articles of Faith are not a great summary of what currently constitutes the core of Latter-day Saint doctrine and identity. My bishop would probably be more troubled if I told him that I don’t feel close to God in the temple than if I confessed that I’m not 100% convinced that the New Jerusalem will be built on the American continent

  68. Loursat: I think you’ve restated my position very accurately. As to tips for discovering nuance in conversations with others, here are a few examples that have opened that door:
    1) discussing the plight of gay Mormons, including pointing out the pitfalls of mixed orientation marriages which were the go-to solution until quite recently
    2) stating my belief that polygamy is not and never was divine (because it’s so damaging to women, nearly everyone is careful in how they defend it if they even try)
    3) discussing a point of counsel from a church leader that just doesn’t sound right but isn’t a barn-burner either. (e.g. Kimball stating that it doesn’t matter who you marry so long as they are a worthy member in good standing)
    4) talking about church leaders whose messages most resonate for us as a contrast with those who do not for whatever reason (we’ve all got favorites, and there are deep reasons for this)
    5) pointing out differences of opinion between church leaders on various topics that allow for disagreement (e.g. evolution was attacked by both JFS and BKP but is taught as scientific fact at BYU)
    6) discussing now defunct policies that nearly everyone agrees were terrible (e.g. Priesthood ban, and even the church’s opposition to the ERA). Knowing the history better than they do and simply pointing out that the facts differ from the narrative.

    It’s all in how you approach it, though. I find these topics interesting to discuss, and most people in the church seem to also. I don’t care if they agree with me or not. I just say what I think, and let them have their own conclusions. Being willing to state something that isn’t the party line (but without anger or an agenda to change the other person) is the starting point.

  69. Mr. Schmidt says:

    “Being willing to state something that isn’t the party line (but without anger or an agenda to change the other person) is the starting point.” I think that is a powerful tool. I also think that we should be willing to change our own mind as well.

  70. pdmallamoyahoocom says:

    “As a result, we have arrived at a church culture in which many people pretend to more certainty than they can possibly have in matters of faith, and they use that willingness to pretend as a litmus test for others in the community. This kind of pretense and certainty relies heavily on belief heuristics and being willing to ignore things that simply don’t fit.”

    Angela C – word up!

  71. On certainty vs. uncertainty, even more liberal LDS people tend to be more certaintist than non-believers. They tend to be absolutist about belief in God, Jesus’ eternal nature, Joseph Smith seeing God, the Book of Mormon being ancient, the idea that you can actually have a testimony, and a few more core beliefs. That’s saying a lot. The liberal folks are just claiming that they are less certain than the LDS orthodox, but they’re still certaintists on a number of issues.

  72. I think that you’ve heard lots of “There are two types of people in the world” anecdotes. For a while in the church there were either Smith men or Tanner men (I believe that Smith is referring to Joseph Fielding Smith). Or there are Iron Rod members or Liahona members. You then read a post where someone identified as a Middle way Mormon and you thought “I don’t seem to identify with the ‘others’, so I must be a Middle Way.” But then you didn’t really fit into Middle Way (lack of traumatic experience), so you want to include everyone into it.
    And once everyone is special (evil chuckle) no one will be.
    Perhaps there are really four kinds of LDS members, but 3/4’s of us see the other 1/4 and think that since we’re not in that 1/4, we must be non-orthodox, or fringe, or something like that. Why is that?
    I think it’s from who speaks up in class. Not that many of us don’t want to contribute to the conversation in class (and I’m sure we do), but it seems to be the Bible-Fundamental\Prophets-Never-Lead-Astray types who make comments in class which are never corrected. They’ll say something like “Noah’s flood covered all of the Earth, even the top of Mt. Everest.” Perhaps you’ll see someone else nod in agreement. If you’re the teacher, you might take the comment in stride and try to move the lesson along. Or if your a member in the class, you don’t speak up because some sort of rebuttal is going to take time, requires nuance to understand, and you don’t want to drag the lesson down into a tangent. So you let it slide and hope no one else keeps going down that tangent either.
    Because of this peace keeping desire a certain type (in this thread they appear to have taken on the label of orthodox), has their say and there’s rarely any pushback.
    It’s okay to not be a Middle Way Mormon, and not be the “others” that they found themselves to have been traumatically ripped away from. You can be a third or fourth category. Perhaps you can call yourself a Sammite.

  73. I don’t know that I’m completely getting it, but I do think there’s a difference between “Middle Way Mormonism” as the W&T bloggers are describing and “everyone is Middle Way.” Like, I agree everyone picks and chooses, but I still think there’s a difference. I’ve since left but I would have been Middle Way in the W&T sense for a decade or so. On the other hand, my husband is a liberal Mormon with unorthodox views and unorthoprax behavior on some things, but I don’t think he fits the definition. In reflecting on why that is, I wonder if it has to do with the extent to which your awareness of the problems *self-consciously* puts you on the edge of in-group inclusion per standard institutional norms. And I think the temple recommend interview is probably the best way to define standard institutional norms.

    So, for example, I was aware of the struggle I felt to answer the temple recommend questions “correctly.” For a time I didn’t hold a recommend because I felt I couldn’t say I had a testimony of the brethren. Then I nuanced the questions considerably in order to reclaim it. The last time I got a recommend, which was a couple of years before I finally left the church, I answered them without explanation or discussion, but I was aware of what I was doing. I had deconstructed and reframed the process enough that I said to myself, “The TR interview is about my relationship with God, not the man asking me the questions or even the church itself.” I drank coffee but knew the WoW says it’s given by way of greeting, not commandment, so I answered the question yes; I did not believe the leaders were particularly inspired but “sustained” them in the sense that I hoped they’d be better; I knew the BOM was a 19th century creation but I said I had a testimony of the restoration because I found value in unique Mormon theology at the time; etc. This was something I spent a lot of time and emotional/spiritual energy on. I was aware, and struggled with the awareness, that the standard institutional norms did not hold a lot of space for my nuanced approach (e.g. many bishops/stake presidents/GAs likely wouldn’t have given me a recommend if I’d answered completely candidly), but intentionally chose to engage on my terms anyway.

    My husband, on the other hand, doesn’t believe the Mormon leaders are infallible; occasionally drinks a beer; thinks women should be ordained; supports LGBTQ+ inclusion; and it simply doesn’t give him pause. He doesn’t wrestle with the contradictions. He believes his views are acceptable within the bounds of Mormon orthodoxy. Whether or not they are (I don’t think they are), he does not have an awareness that they’re not. He understands he’s an outlier in the ward, but his understanding of what Mormonism is has plenty of space for his approach, whereas my understanding of what Mormonism is caused me to wrestle deeply with whether or not there was space for me. We have another friend who is similar to my husband: he has a lot of unorthodox views, drinks the occasional alcoholic beverage, and has no sense of self-consciousness about being on the edge of the in-group.

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