Trying to identify the core doctrines of Mormonism is a project doomed to failure, I think, because it sets up an unworkable categorical distinction between core and periphery, and makes the unsupported assumption that doctrine forms the core of Mormonism in the first place. A better way to approach the question is to think of religious belief as a complex system of teachings, narratives, and practices. While not a system of formal logic, the system is largely coherent, although it is also a dynamic system that includes tensions between its elements. External pressures and inner tensions constantly cause the system to realign its various constituents, so that changes in organization or practice can alter doctrines, and doctrinal innovation invites practical changes, often in unpredictable ways.
This approach makes it possible to ask questions that would make little sense in the search for “core doctrine.” Is re-enacting a handcart trek a core doctrine? The idea seems ridiculous. But there are important questions that remain unanswered, like: What do these re-enactments tell us about how the Church views its relationship with American society and with its past? What teachings or narratives do the re-enactments support? What changes might lead to a prohibition on trek re-enactments, or what changes in narrative and doctrine would a prohibition lead to? What if a trek were to become an annual obligation? The Church has taken a particular historical path to get where it is today, and its doctrines are interconnected with its history. The Mormon Pioneers can’t be labeled a doctrine, let alone a core doctrine, and yet that historical episode is an inseparable part of the inner logic of Mormonism.
The concept of “core doctrine” also focuses too much on statements of belief in isolation, although the various tenets and practices are tightly linked to each other as well as to our texts and our history. Take the practice of baptizing children at the age of eight, for example. One might imagine that eight is an arbitrary age so that instituting baptism of four-year olds or infants would be a simple administrative change. But baptism is deeply connected to our understanding of church membership and sin and repentance and agency and the Fall of Adam and the Atonement, not to mention the writings of
Moroni Mormon in the Book of Mormon, the established course of a Mormon childhood, the organization of the Primary, and participation in temple dedications and the women’s session of General Conference. One administrative change creates pressures throughout the system, so that a seemingly small change to the Mormon practice of baptism results, sooner or later, in a fundamentally different church.
One could also think of the inner logic of Mormonism as the parameters of Mormon belief, seen most clearly perhaps in comparison to basic Protestant teachings. Protestantism opted for a priesthood that emanates from the congregation, the Bible as the ultimate arbiter of truth, the sufficiency of faith, and salvation by grace; Mormonism chose a priesthood conferred by one bearer on the next, prophetic leadership, the necessity of salvific ordinances, and pre-existent and perpetual human agency. The reason we don’t emphasize grace is that it occupies a much different place in the logic of Protestantism than it occupies in Mormonism, and Protestant theology can’t be simply grafted into Mormonism without causing a massive rearrangement of Mormon beliefs.
Because the inner logic of Mormonism is functionalized through its mental representation in Mormon minds, there are differences to some degree between every member, and one person’s understanding may be highly incomplete or even defective (from the perspective of other community members). But the inner logic of Mormonism is not purely subjective and democratic. Something is likely to be closer to the center of Mormonism’s logic when it is expressed or supported by the following (this list is incomplete and unranked, but support from more of these items suggests more centrality):
- Scripture, particularly verses that are frequently discussed or interpreted
- Authoritative discussion, especially recently and in General Conference
- Local and unofficial discussions
- Curriculum, manuals, and official publications
- Popular and unofficial publications
- Church history and historical narrative
- Monuments, pageants, and public commemoration
- Liturgy, hymns and musical tradition
- Daily lived experience, customs, and important life events
Besides the support of one or more of these categories, there is also the factor of logical consistency. The Church and most of its members are unlikely to accept innovations that result in a massive self-contradiction. The Church is not going to establish in its curriculum, for example, an approach to the New Testament that assumes that Jesus was not divine and that the accounts of his resurrection are fictional.
Overall I think the inner logic of Mormonism is fairly robust, able both to resist many pressures and to accommodate others. Substantial change comes at a cost, however, as both the beginning and the drawn-out end of plural marriage showed. Large sudden changes can result in schism, and too large of a change could bring the whole system crashing down. While a few people might be able to believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet but there is no God, removing the plank of theism would probably bring the whole house down for the vast majority of Mormons. Exclusive claims to authority may not match your personal style, but the whole project of the Restoration doesn’t make much sense without them; Mormonism’s concept of its place in history is also part of its inner logic.
So I am deeply skeptical about most proposals to simply renounce some bit of offending doctrine or some irritating practice. What is usually proposed as the simple appendectomy of an outmoded teaching turns out on closer inspection to be the amputation of a vital organ deeply connected with Mormon scripture and history and religious practice and a half-dozen other teachings. If the operation were to be carried out, it would kill the patient every time.
This is not at all to say that the Church cannot change. I am instead saying that the Church is constantly changing in response to both internal and external pressures. External pressures can lead to internal rearrangement. Gaps develop that are eventually filled. Change is limited, however, by the structure of Mormonism’s inner logic. The Prophet can announce relatively dramatic changes because doing so reinforces one of its central planks. People who hope for changes that run counter to the Church’s inner logic should have tempered hopes, although they stand more chance of success by arguing on the basis of Mormonism’s inner logic than on the basis of external standards.
It is at least useful to recognize when something belongs firmly within the inner logic of Mormonism, especially in those cases where it’s an aspect of the Church that you may not particularly like. Since it can’t be easily removed, at least not in any human lifespan, the problem instead becomes finding some way to make something positive out of it if possible.