Grace & Middle Way Mormonism

A lot has been written of late on so-called “middle way Mormons.” There’s not really much consistency what people mean by the term. The idea seems close to what in prior decades some disparaged as cafeteria Mormons or jack Mormons. (I don’t think that a good thing to say, mind you) That is people who still have ties to the Church and often even attend services but typically don’t follow major observable practices. When I was young the usual culprit was Word of Wisdom. By my 20’s I found there were those who still had a loose testimony but weren’t following the law of chastity, paying tithing, or other such things. Many of those people eventually just completely fell away but some, especially after they started having children, made efforts to come back. The question becomes whether middle way Mormonism is a new phenomena or just a new name for a common long term phenomena.

The focus I commonly hear today is that many of these people are more focused on practical social justice. They think too much focus on chastity, wearing garments, attending the temple, or following exactly the Word of Wisdom actual distracts from the core of the gospel which is charity. LGBT and feminist issues often are a particular concern for these people. Somewhat different from the past, middle way Mormonism is often a self-designated term. That is it’s not an unfortunate pejorative by overly judgmental members. It’s also not usually seen as a failing but just a completely valid choice that should be respected.

My own view is that we really are seeing a significant change in part driven by the changing demographics of marriage. I think it actually started when I was young. I was late to marriage and the difference between being single in my early 20’s versus later was quite pronounced. Part of that was due to having singles wards but part of it also was just the broader social connections. Once you don’t have that social engagement, the pressures to move into what I’d call more worldly society is extremely high.

It appears, although I may be wrong, that this has just grown since the late 90’s when I saw the demographic change as accelerating. This in turn is, I think, moving many of the rising generation into being more akin to what I see in many forms of Protestantism. More uniquely it now isn’t just something commonly seen among over 25 singles but across a wider swath including younger singles and married people.

The question becomes how to react to this phenomena. If Jana Reiss’ statistics are to be believed, on average about 1/4 of people attending Church each week are these “middle way Mormons.” While I’m not sure, I have a sneaking suspicion a reflection of these changing social norms is that the recent push to focus on our religion in terms of a Grace that takes all people where they are is. The actual theology of Grace hasn’t changed in the Church that I can see. However what people want from Grace has. My sense is that the younger generations want our religion to be quite different.

When I was growing up the focus was on learning and knowing the truth. Once you knew the Church was true, then that imposed upon you duties to build up the kingdom in practical ways. Both in terms of covenants that restrict ourselves (in ways that we saw as ultimately beneficial to us) but also in terms of callings and sacrifices where we help other people.

It’s hard not to notice discussions and interviews with people propounding the “middle way” that restrictions that don’t provide immediate benefits or callings that seem like hassles get dismissed. Likewise practices that are part of broader national social norms get prioritized. I don’t want to say those are always wrong. Often I agree with them. However socially within the Church it seems like the emphasis is that the Church should adapt to me and not my adapting to the Church. This in turn reflects a shift from seeing the Church in terms of duties to seeing the Church in terms of how it is fulfilling me.

This isn’t unique to younger members in the Church. You can see this as a broader social shift in the United States. Arguably the rise of the so-called “me generation” (the baby boomers in the 1970’s) was the start of this shift. All social organizations became judged the way we judge a movie or any other activity. Gratification rather than duty became the focus. While I think the size of this effect was exaggerated, I think the phenomena definitely was there. Further I think it’s expanded since then. It’s worth noting that the broad popular media judgment was that the “me generation” shifted into the outright selfishness of the 80’s epitomized by Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” cry in the film Wall Street. All these generational labels are usually unfair and far too broad. But there is a sense that there’s been a trajectory since the late 60’s that judges everything in terms of the individual. Even ethics has shifted along those lines.

Is this broad trajectory behind the rise of middle way Mormons? Is it a bigger problem today, then when I was young in the early 90’s? It’s hard for me to know. I just hit my 50’s. I live in Utah County in a married ward. I’m probably among the least able to make a judgment on this. If the movement is broad and growing – a middle ground between traditional Mormonism and the rise of the disengaged Nones – then perhaps we should ask what we should do about it. I’ll confess though that while focusing more on what the Church does pragmatically for people is important, I also fear this shift to seeing religion as just an other consumer good. I truly think that even as we adapt the part of our church structure that don’t work, we also have to do a much better job explaining why truth and duty matter. Church simply isn’t a consumer good. The consumerist view of religion is, in my view, a deep and problematic change in our culture.[1]

  1. I discovered after writing the above that I’d actually made a similar critique of consumerist religion a year or two ago in “Religion as Consumerism.”

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