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Is the Church Too Popular?

Fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.

Ye are…a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

And it came to pass that I beheld the church of the Lamb of God, and its numbers were few,

As a marginal religious minority we tend to crave a sort of mainstream acceptability that is always just beyond our grasp (or at some points in our history much, much farther than our grasp). However, a case can be made that this sort of outsider status is a feature, not a bug. 

In the sociology of religion there’s a “strict churches are strong” hypothesis that suggests that, paradoxically, churches that are more strict are actually more vibrant, as demanding more from members winnows out less committed freeriding members. I sometimes wonder if there’s a “less popular Churches are stronger” effect for much the same reason.  

When an institution carries a lot of cachet is attracts ambition, people who want to piggy back off the institution for their own personal glory, usually subsuming the missions and goals of the institution under their own personal desire for honors. The most obvious case in our own history is John C. Bennett (there are more contemporary thought leader types I’d put in this category, but I don’t want to turn this post into some referendum on them so they will remain nameless.) 

In just about every institution, when the personal incentive structure conflicts with the presumed goals of the institution the former wins out. The key, perhaps, is to make an institution unpopular enough that no creature of ambition worth his or her salt would try to leverage the religion for their own purposes. When social, political, financial, and religious elitism are intertwined, when the things of God become just another thing to be elitist about it’s battery acid on the long term viability of a religious institution because it compromises the integrity of its leadership class. Of course there are in-group honors. Even though Scientology is extremely unpopular I’m sure its leader David Miscavige still has his sycophants, but probably nothing like the case of, say, pre-reformation Roman Catholicism, when social, political, and religious power were more tightly united. 

Of course, as we’ve painfully learned, the lack of political cachet comes with its own dangers, and we don’t want to be so unpopular that even the pure in heart won’t even make a cognitive space for the possibility that we’re onto something. Still, I suspect the optimal popularity equilibrium is lower than we might think if nothing else based on our history. Simply put, if God wanted us to be popular our history would have been very different. We are meant to be a peculiar people. Plus. if one holds to the premise that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only institution with the official imprimatur of almighty God, maker of “the heavens and the earth, the sea and everything that is in them,” being concerned about whether somebody from our ranks made it into the A-list is patently silly. 

Like many other Latter-day Saints I’ve at times wondered why things couldn’t be easier, why the dissemination of the gospel is like swimming upstream in molasses. But the fact is that more and more, for somebody to really be a member they have to really crave what we are offering. They have to want it. And while those converts are agonizingly rare, layer upon layer we become His peculiar people. 

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