Which should we be more strenuously avoiding, and how?
Clark Goble suggests that the Church in “the last decade and a half has focused on building on common ground. But that has also (IMO) had unfortunate doctrinal consequences on the population as well as I believe leading to the decrease in conversions the last 5 – 8 years.”
I don’t think I’ve heard the suggestion before that downplaying our differences has decreased our attractiveness to potential converts. But it would kind of make sense if it did. If it did, that is, because I can easily see it going the other way. As a missionary, I felt that my efforts to build on common beliefs with non-members were richly rewarded. And I found there were lots, though not many common religious beliefs in largely secular and otherwise Buddhist/Shinto Japan. Of course, Mormon beliefs are drastically different from the Japanese mainstream already, so perhaps this is not a good test case. There wasn’t the remotest danger of merely assimilating!
I am sure that in the past we have fallen into the opposite pitfall of sectarianism (and still, do, though perhaps less). J.S. Mill points out the evil of sectarianism, thus: “Every truth which men of narrow capacity [i.e. most everyone who is human] are in earnest about is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world, or at all events none that could limit or qualify the first.”* This overemphasis of points of difference, to the distortion of the whole body of truth, is something we Mormons sometimes fall into regarding, say, the word of wisdom, or our grooming standards, in our popular discourse.
In part, perhaps what looks to some like assimilation is actually just a recovery from the sectarian tendencies of a besieged minority. We feel less besieged, so we are more free to emphasize our core teachings, casting off sectarian distortion, even if this makes our boundaries more blurry or porous. But J.S. Mill thinks, “Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil.” Mill suggests that assimilation is the Charybdis, here, that would swallow us completely, rather than merely damage or distort our message. How should we be steering our course?
*J.S. Mill, On Liberty (Hackett, 1978), p49