A “Secular” Case for the Church

A little bit more about my own story relating to developing some alternative views of the church and coming to gain a as I said testimony of what I see as an “imperfect” church. The series I’m working on at the JI gives come context for ways in which historical research has influenced me, and over time I’ve seen myself becoming increasingly different. Spiritual experiences, however, have  helped me to be okay with that, though the journey has been a struggle at times. I’ve felt a sense of calling to find ways to make my research helpful to others, but, again, that’s often seemed a little confusing how to do so.

I felt this confusion much more acutely in my first months as bishop. I felt like I had a lot to sort out, but during the process I did feel like I gained a number of insights helpful to me.

One interesting experience I had while bishop was a prompting I felt a year a two in: “you need be working on making a secular case for the church,” it said. I took that to mean the good that church membership does IN THIS LIFE. I’d been thinking somewhat along these lines in terms of my historical research, but this seemed framework seemed more sociological, not my training, so I wasn’t really sure where to begin. I was aware of some stuff on health and social benefits of religion, but that was not an area of my expertise at all.

But after feeling that prompting I started thinking of what I was doing as a bishop in those terms. During my first year as bishop, this TED talk from David Brooks showed up in my feed and played a big role in how I thought about this topic. Brooks starts with his own feeling of isolation during his divorce and his realization that career success isn’t what had made life meaningful. Human connection was most important, and he lists off many ways in which our society is becoming less connected and the negative impact that is having. To paraphrase, “We don’t want interpersonal freedom, what we want is commitment.” Covenant might be the term we would use in the church and I pointed out to my ward a few times when I showed them this video that we covenant WITH EACH OTHER when baptized.

I also thought about these issues when working with recent converts and would ask them what they found appealing about our church. Many male converts reported feeling lost, looking for a home, a way to progress, overcome problems, desiring personal growth, and self esteem, and feeling like the church provided what they were looking for. As I reflected on hearing these vital things we humans need, it struck me that it’s churches that do best to provide such things and that our church with its lay ministry does have a particularly good system.

It was in that context that I found John Dehlin’s statement that I quoted on another post particularly helpful: “Is there healing and growth and happiness? [outside of the church] Yes. Is there a system that’s as packaged to provide people with identity, meaning, purpose, spirituality, community, friendships, resolution about the afterlife? Is there a package that you could just drop into, live it, raise your kids in it and have a community and blossom from it? No.”

Related to my observations on our ward’s converts, there’s a ton of data to suggest that men in our society are really struggling. There are all kinds of indicators, but a big one is that the US life-expectancy has actually declined due to “deaths of despair”—suicide, cirrhosis due to alcoholism, and opioid overdoses—deaths which disproportionately afflict men. My sense is that struggling men affect women with a recent report that the majority of men no longer see themselves as dating, which would make it increasingly difficult for women to find partners.

Such despair, lots of people point out, are the things that churches (and ours especially) help with: loneliness, lack of structure, and nihilism. Dehlin’s statement in itself, of course, isn’t “proof” of such claims, but my observations point in that direction as well. I very much agree with Dehlin that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a wonderful system of living, one that ought to be embraced and shared.

I’m quite interested in this “system” that I see as both divine and temporally quite useful. As President Nelson said in his last conference talk: “Here is the great news of God’s plan: the very things that will make your mortal life the best it can be are exactly the same things that will make your life throughout all eternity the best it can be!” I can’t really PROVE these claims, but do believe we have some evidence of a wonderful lifestyle just like Dehlin and President Nelson suggest. And as I said in a previous post, I do not see everything we do in the church as PERFECT, but do believe it has quite a bit to offer.

More thoughts on this “system” in coming posts.

29 comments for “A “Secular” Case for the Church

  1. Amen. Happy Easter everyone, He is Risen!

    Oh death where is thy sting, oh grave where is thy victory?

  2. I tend to agree with you that the church is good for men. But from my female perspective, not so good for women. 50 years ago, RS provided many of women’s needs that sort of balanced the advantage of life meaning and connection that priesthood and church connection gives men. But when RS was put firmly under priesthood, then on Sunday, then lost the work meetings, and finally the lessons made exactly what the men are learning in priesthood, without giving the women anything like the leadership opportunities that men get, well there is nothing left to do for women what the church does for men. Yes, our society has changed and with over 50% of women being in the work force the old Tuesday morning RS just would not cut it in today’s world. But now treating men and women totally differently, yet having RS be nothing but the same lessons the men get, it not only does not meet the needs of working women, but it has lost everything that made it valuable to women back when most were housewives and didn’t work outside the home.

    So, goody goody for the church being good for men. Ummmm, when is it going to get around to being good for women in the same way?

    Meanwhile, I will support my husband remaining active because it’s good for him, but you know, God has daughters too.

    P.S. Stephen, I am feeling a bit guilty here because you do have a good point that from a secular standpoint, the church is good for men. And I am feeling like my snark may come across as an attack and I don’t mean to address any attack towards you cause you’re one of the good guys. So, let me get serious. Why are men struggling in society in general? Because they are not adjusting well to loss of privilege. Women have changed and no longer accept subservient status. And the church is one place they have not had to give up privilege. So, it is good for men because it has failed to adjust to a changing society. It gives men a place where they can still be treated as special, they can maintain their privilege. Men have community because the men run things and 90% of the women are feeling like they don’t fit for whatever reason. For single women, they don’t fit because they are single. For childless they don’t fit because they are childless. For working it is because they work. For stay at home moms, it’s because most women work, for empty nesters, it’s because the church has no use for us. So, no women feel they belong. This isn’t a problem of individual women, but a failure by the church to provide a community that brings women together. So, It isn’t really a sustainable position for the church because the church is losing its women. And children 3/4 of the time follow their mother’s religious choice. So, unless the church changes it will keep losing its youth. So, sure, the church currently is good for men, but it is hemorrhaging members.

  3. @ Anna,
    I feel that you have fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of Christianity and, more specifically, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s not about rectifying power imbalances – Christ doesn’t seem to care about earthly notions of power at all, which is why He upset so many people among His disciples, rulers, and leaders from both Rome and Israel. Neither should his saints care (though all too many DO care, men and women alike). It’s about relationships between God and His people, and between the people within a covenant community.

    That sense of community I do feel the church leadership is struggling to build. That seems to be partly because people within the church refuse to unify around prophetic vision in any meaningful way, and partly because the leadership is trying to remove scaffolding before the building is structurally sound. They’ve axed a lot of programs which perhaps weren’t particularly helpful in furthering the work of God, but which helped build community, and they haven’t figured out how to replace them yet. But neither have we as members of the body of Christ stepped up to help build that community, so I see both members and leadership as culpable.

    Personally, though, as a single woman I keep going to church not because I feel that it’s useful for me, but because I want to be useful to God.

    Isn’t it the case that the imbalance in power between God and man is incalculably large? If all you want is for everyone to be on perfectly equal footing, well, Satan had a plan that would’ve attempted that.

    Ultimately, I reject your assertion that just because I’m a woman and single the Church has no place for me, or that men do well only because the Church makes them hierarchically superior. That is simply untrue, as Christ made it quite clear that those who want to be part of His kingdom must be humble servants to His people. That in no way excludes women, nor does it elevate men – though some imperfect (or actively bad) leaders may certainly interpret God’s instructions in ways that do just that.

    Thank you, Stephen Fleming, for seeking to make a secular case for the Church. Ultimately, I feel that no secular reason will be completely adequate to stay indefinitely in a religion, but your research and your views will hopefully help some decide to come and stay in the covenant belonging that the Church can provide.

  4. Anna and E. C., you certainly highlight a point I wanted to make in previous posts about different experiences with the church, and, Anna, I agree that women’s experiences particularly highlight those differences.

    Anna, I can very much see the frustration you describe (something we talk a lot about in the group I mentioned). When I shared some of this stuff with them, I got a similar reaction from the group, especially the women. “So would you say the church is better for men than women?” one asked me bitterly, and had me a bit back on my heels.

    My intent isn’t to get these women to submit to the patriarchy as I do have a genuine belief that the church is a good but imperfect place that can be made increasingly better by their presence and continued striving. As the new bishopric, they’ve done some interesting stuff and I expect more from them in the future.

    And yet, I do want to share these useful items I’ve noticed along the way and do believe the struggling men, ones who make bad partners or refuse to be partners, do have larger negative effects beyond their own lives.

    I’d say you’re right about men struggling with transitions, but perhaps we could think about useful ways to help that transition. My wife and I have done the role-reversal thing for about 24 or our 26 years of marriage (including the last 20) but they still called me as bishop (pickings were slim!) and she’s now the YW president. So we’ve been different than the norm, but have wanted to participate anyway, and our wards had plenty for us to do.

    I remember when our Orem, Utah, ward (now we’re in California) called all working women into the YW presidency including my wife c. 2011. I thought it was a big enough deal that I posted it on Facebook and joked about the legitimacy of the Maya calendar since this seemed like end-times behavior. A friend joked that he’d understand if the sun came up in the West, but another noted that a YW leader had just been released in her ward for working, so that what my ward was doing was hardly uniform. And yet, I’m guessing that wouldn’t be seen as nearly as radical now.

    So I do very much believe in a good but imperfect church that can improve and do very much see some of these younger people as playing a role in that improvement. The church moves slowly in such directions, and though I know that can be frustrating, I also think that can have some utility also. I think this Dehlin interview with sociologist Ryan Cragun highlights this point at the 1:36:15 point to 1:40:00 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TUgsDLPXEdo).

    I might frame this a little differently, though. As I see it, religions, imperfect though they may be, have tapped into very many important human needs over the millennia, that I worry can be lost in what I see of our current zeal to fix things. Things DO need to be improved, but I think caution is a good thing as sometimes, I think, some baby can get tossed out with the bathwater. So I’d say a blending of past wisdom with current reform is a wise and useful thing.

    Anyway, thanks for your input, Anna, and do want to express my condolences with what you’ve gone through.

  5. Thanks for chiming in, E. C., and I do very much want to validate your experience in the church as a single women. “Secular” reasons probably won’t be the big draw for most members and potential converts, but in the impression I got to start thinking about the church in those terms, I also noted what I see as something of a shift in this younger generation of how we might define the question of “what is a good institution?” Our culture’s background of high rates of Christianity would lead to debates between churches of which was the “right one” which often meant, which one would get people the best afterlife (heaven v. hell, or highest kingdom etc).

    A useful consideration, but I’ve noticed that people talk less and less in those terms these days when talking about institutions. Instead the question seems increasingly turned to “what good does the institution do here on the earth?” And I think that is a good question also, and think that President Nelson was hinting toward that in the quote I cited. Based on what I shared in my post, the good the church does, I believe, will become increasingly important, even if I do not see the church as perfect. And I do see the good the church does in people’s lives here on the earth as divine.

  6. @ Stephen F,
    I totally agree that the focus of interest has shifted from ‘is this church true?’ to ‘what good does this institution do?’, which is why I think your viewpoint is valuable. Christ did point out that we would know good by what it produced – “by their fruits ye shall know them” is a great way to sort out good from bad. It’s also evidently true that for some the good the church does is outweighed by what they see as bad fruit that has overtaken the good, so your efforts are clearly needed.

  7. E. C. The point of this post according to the title was secular reasons for the church. So me understanding Christianity or not is beside the point. If the church is not good for most women, then that is a problem from that *secular* standpoint. And that’s what this post was dealing with. Is the church good other than just from a standpoint of it gets you to heaven? Is it good in your life now? You say it is and good for you. I was pointing out that for myself the church was harmful to the point I left a church that I loved. I left for SECULAR reasons. That is what Stephen is talking about, so I think my view is on topic.

    Second, I feel that the church made me hate God, (for reason I won’t waste your time on because you don’t care to extend me the love of mourning with those who mourn) so from my experience you are just totally crazy, but hey, I forgive you because I do understand Christianity. From what you call a Christian standpoint, I should suck it up but I just refuse to have my relationship with Christ destroyed by that kind of “Christianity”. And when the church treats women with the same love and care that Jesus Christ did they will go a long way toward solving that problem that makes many women have bad experiences. So, perhaps our experience is just too different and our definite of Christianity is defiantly different. I want a Christ who acts Christlike.

    So, you can have your experience with the church and I am fine with that. You have not experienced my life, and you obviously have not talked to the 100s of other women who are unhappy in the church. Honestly, I am happy for you to have had a good experience. But please stop being so judgmental of those who have not been so lucky. It doesn’t help us want to come back. At all. Stephen’s approach at least keeps me in open conversation about what the church does right, wrong, and room for improvement. Your attitude reminds me of all the good reasons that I left.

    And Stephen, first of all, thank you to being open to my point of view. I know it isn’t the kind of Molly Mormon view some will think I should have. Second, I don’t know what the answer is. The church has had one “ideal” for women and it just doesn’t fit all women, and in fact it divides them into factions. Women go to church and see the differences and can’t get over those differences to make friends. There is so much emphasis on marriage and family, that it becomes 90% of what church is. If you read on the feminist blogs, you can get a sense of this divide. Men have been allowed to have a career as well as fatherhood and priesthood, so they are less divided by the children status. And priesthood has spiritual sides to it that women don’t get. If the church changes too fast, it would cause chaos.

    I mean, for me, if the church cared 1/100 as much about those women who have been abused by men as it cares for the Joseph Bishops of the world, and loving them into repentance, I would never have left. And I don’t know what it would take to get top leaders to even begin to understand the spiritual damage done to survivors. But they still seem to blame the woman whether she was 3 and raped by her father or 36 and beaten by her husband. But over and over we see the church defend their right to protect the abuser and allow abuse to continue, to say nothing of the healing process after the abuse ends. Just forgiving does not undo the injuries.

    But I am not your average woman and the church needs to improve the experience for average women-speaking from a strictly secular point of view.

  8. The Savior was speaking to his disciples when he said, “by their fruits ye shall know them.” So let’s be careful that we don’t set the church on a course that is meant to satisfy the world’s notion of good fruit–because the world doesn’t always judge righteously. And often the good fruits of the Kingdom are judged to be poison by the world–sometimes even with the best of intentions!

    And so, in a certain sense the church will always have to be “true”–if for no other reason than it’s fruits should be–generally speaking at least–a product of the Lord’s revealed will.

  9. I’m not surprised that this post got some pushback, Anna (and to some extent E. C. too), and I hope you know, Anna, that I do acknowledge the negative experience you had with the church. I suppose I would just reiterate that people do have different experiences and that you and E. C. are free to disagree but probably won’t convince each other. And I’d reiterate my agreement over plenty of room for improvement, while also believing that the loss of community as a result of less volunteer associations like churches, also has negative effects on society.

  10. I think women are very split on whether or not the church is good for them or not. I’ve seen numerous discussions on various website and in various groups about this topic, and those conversations quickly become passionate on both sides. I don’t think it’s true that *most* women are unhappy in the church, but I do think it’s true that enough are that we need to take their experiences more seriously. Mostly I think that both sides need to work to listen to and truly see each other. And I do mean *both* sides.

    I would say that overall I’m happy being a woman in the church even as I still see room for improvement. In response to the questions posed in Stephen’s post, in the secular sense the church gives me community, structure, purpose, (sometimes) a chance to develop skills related to my profession (I’m an organist by training), leadership skills, chances to grow out of my comfort zone through callings, etc. Our family has moved numerous times, and because of the church we know we have instant family no matter where we go. We will have a ward ready to receive us, we will likely be given callings to keep us busy and help us get to know people. I agree with what E.C. said about the challenges of the church removing programs that built community in favor of “home-centered, church-supported” initiatives. This something that does cause sadness for me, and I’m glad that in some places some activities are being left in place. I see some wisdom in focusing more on the home, but I think people need opportunities to grow and socialize outside their homes as well. The last two stakes I have lived in have had very robust music programs, especially on the stake level (stake choir, concerts, etc.). I’m so glad they haven’t axed these programs like my mother’s stake in Utah has.

  11. I feel like the best case for the idea of secular belonging in our faith tradition would be made in the 1970s-1990s. But since that time, my personal view is the community actually has very little to offer other than a bunch of rote meetings at your assigned time every Sunday. Road shows, scouting, activities committees, budgets, home and visiting teaching, all gone. Replaced with the occasional linger longer and a youth program that, from my perspective, is simply a poor man’s youth league.

    I remember as a kid having Halloween parties complete with a spook alley (my chapel had a basement used as the scouting room and we had the haunted house down there), Christmas parties complete with a Bethlehem market, incredible road shows, and a scouting program that would have made me a real contender on the show Survivor, including monthly campouts to places like Arches, an abandoned Aragonite mining town, and cabins deep in the high Unitah mountains. My kids are getting none of this.

    If I truly wanted community, my office has regular happy hours, an annual holiday party, opportunities to attend sporting and art events for which we have tickets, etc. Social media allows us to find and join local hiking groups (which I attend), puzzle groups (which my wife attends), etc. Even our PTA has meetings with refreshments and the opportunity to get involved in helping kids improve the quality of their education.

    So respectfully I disagree for a secular argument for our church in 2024. Maybe my stake is just lame. As the kids say, prove me wrong.

    With regards to the comments made by Anna and E.C., I suppose that both things can be true at the same time. E.C., if you have the emotional capacity, I would encourage you to visit the Instagram post made by the Church on March 17. Over 17,000 comments of participating members of the faith community sharing their experience as a women in the church. I don’t think it would be fair to claim all these women fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of Christianity (your words). Perhaps their experiences have something to offer.

  12. Jack, I agree that the Lord’s way is the best, but we do get scriptural standards as guide for measuring such things that I don’t think we should call “worldly standards.” In other words, I would balk at the claim that we seem to generally make in the church is that the definition of good or bad is whatever the church and its leaders do. That seems a little to broad for me and I do think the leaders are capable of mistakes.

    Lisa, I think you give a pretty good list of your positive experiences which I know are pretty common. Simply put, polls have shown the church having rather higher rates of active women then men which suggests some indication of many women liking it.

    That doesn’t mean that many do not, Chadwick. Again, can we be capable of acknowledging varied experiences?

    And Lisa and Chadwick, I don’t doubt that we have seen a decline in programs and I wonder if one cause of that is a trend I’ve noticed of increasingly smaller wards in many areas. Small wards, and the seeming resistance to consolidate them to make them larger, make programs harder and I think have other negative effects as well. I think I’ll do a post on that at some point.

    But I’d disagree, Chadwick, that just because the social aspect has declined from some high point in the ’80s, that the church no longer has any secular value. Again, many commentators argue we’re facing a social crisis as a whole that churches play a big role in ameliorating. I’d argue that churches have become increasingly important, ours included, despite the flaws.

    I like the insights these guys had on the issue, particularly around the 7:15 mark https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SMWl2r1ZmBw

    I thought this whole conversation was good too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf84WHEtWBY

  13. And it’s wonderful to hear of all your local social opportunities, Chadwick, but there’s a ton of reporting arguing that such connection is not the norm.

    And I think a few more quotes from that Dehlin interview highlight this point and the particular merits of our own church.

    1:42 “To this day, I don’t think that secularism has figured out how to create community and identity and meaning and purpose and spirituality in a secular way, in a way that religion has been so successful. So I don’t want people to ruin their lives. In that way, I think it’s unethical to try to persuade people to leave the church.”

    1:58 “Ironically, I still love the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I’m grateful for the influence it’s had in my life. I think it’s been a net positive influence. I feel fortunate to have been born into this church and to have been raised in this church. I feel like it’s been good for me. I feel like it’s helped a lot of people. I may even believe that it’s done more good than harm in the world. I want it to be happy and healthy and successful and I want it to just get better and do better. I still love Mormons. I still love the church. I just want to see it improve and harm less people. And that is my Heavenly Father’s honest truth, [arm to the square] I say raising my right hand to the square, forever and ever, amen.”

    2:19 “For all the stuff we’ve done with Thrive and Oasis, we haven’t figured out secular community in a way that feels as good as … Freaking ex-Mormonism can be toxic, where it’s just like crabs pulling each other into a boiling vat of water, just like cannibalizing each other. Ex-Mormonism can be beautiful and amazing and super toxic and awful. We’ve never been able to create anything to approximate the type of loving supportive affirming community… And yeah, I miss knowing everyone in my community where I live and being able to once a week meet with them and serve them and having them serve me. That fellowship of getting to know people in your neighborhood and loving them and them loving you and suffering through things with them. So yeah, I miss that… That’s another reason I’m not trying to destroy the church or explicitly take people out of it, cause I don’t know if we as ex-Mormons or as secular people have figured out for sure a better way. [the the quote from the OP] That’s why I’m not eager for the church to die. So I’m not eager to pull people out of it. Cause I don’t know of a sure bet better way yet.”

  14. Hopping on to say I’m enjoying the discussion. Thank you to everyone offering food for thought. A few quick comments:

    @Chadwick, I think a big cause of the loss of programming is that there are fewer SAHMs these days. In my opinion, society as a whole, including in the church, fails to recognize the amount of time and energy SAHMs provide their various communities. Men can’t take YM on big activities if they’re helping hold down the fort at home. Women can’t put on huge cool activities if they’re working (a matter of time available, but also energy and where they’re getting their life satisfaction from).

    I have zero problem with women working, so I’m not making a judgement on that, I just think we’ve discounted the effect it has on a community to have fewer women available during the day – basically the tradeoffs of women pursuing their individual life vs putting most of their efforts into communal life and the Church has cut programming bc there’s no longer enough women available to keep all the big stuff going.

    As a RS president in a very diverse ward (in just about every way you can think of), it’s been such a a hard lesson to learn that I cannot please everyone. I’ve lurked on the bloggernacle for years, reading stories about terrible leaders, vowing that I would never be that leader. But it turns out that no matter how hard you work, how much you try to provide, how welcoming you are, you will be “that terrible leader” to someone.

    Not to say that we don’t keep trying, but I’m with Stephen in that we all need to give a little more grace, all learn to sit in hard conversation with each other and be better at listening first and arguing second.

    I think until you’re in a position to become intimately involved with such a wide variety of people’s stories, you just have no idea what’s behind everyone’s opinions and fears and faith and reason. When I started in this calling, I was so sure I had all the answers to ensure everyone was happy in my ward. After 2 years as RS president, I’ve never been more sure that I will never have all the answers and will never succeed in doing it “right” for everyone.

  15. And I guess I should say, more on topic, that I lean towards thinking that the answer lies in helping each individual find their own reason for church. But, again, we can only provide opportunities. And, as a leader, it sure would be helpful if ward members gave each other space to find their reason for church, rather than being so busy defending our own space that we shove each other out.

  16. @Stephen Fleming: “That doesn’t mean that many do not, Chadwick. Again, can we be capable of acknowledging varied experiences?” I’m happy to acknowledge a varied experience if one is offered. From my perspective, the OP seems to be saying the community has value from a secular lens simply because it exists. Is that your point? I guess I was hoping for more.

    I will acknowledge that Lisa actually provides a list of secular benefits, including music training, leadership opportunities, and the opportunity to quickly meet new people upon relocation. Is this what you had in mind? If so, I agree the church (along with many other organizations) can provide these secular benefits.

    @jes, yes that’s an excellent point.

  17. Chadwick, let me try to be more succinct.

    1) Yes, the loss of community it a big loss so those communities we have have value, including the church.

    2) Religious institutions often provide greater sense of commitment and religious meaning that are also quite important. That’s probably a big reason why Dehlin said he didn’t felt like his attempts at “secular community” worked as well as churches or our church in particular.

    3) Our church, I believe especially provides these key aspects. High levels of commitment and lay leadership without paid clergy (at the local level) and expectations for lots of people to be involved and to give a lot. A belief system and history that both help to enhance those aspects as well.

    I believe it’s those traits that led to Dehlin’s summation I quoted in the OP: “Is there a system” or “package” that does as well at the very vital list as the church? he asked, and said the answer was “No.”

    I can’t make the argument that such a package is unique, but I would argue very strongly that it’s hardly a dime a dozen, and thus quite worthy to embrace and celebrate even, in my opinion.

    And just to state again, this is not to claim that there aren’t flaws and real hurt. That’s the risk of human interaction. But as the Ezra Klein podcast that I linked to above stated at minute 50: “I choose the problems of community over the problems of not having community.” And that’s how I feel too.

  18. Jes, that’s a good point about working women. At-home moms did provide a tremendous amount of communal labor to their communities that can go missing among those with less time. I’ve had conversations with youngish mothers in my ward recently who’ve said that they now feel somewhat lonely and isolated as at-home moms because there aren’t very many others to hang out with. One even said that she felt like she needed to work to avoid social isolation.

    And the ward calling my wife as YW pres who is extremely busy as a high school principal is facing a lot of challenges. She really wanted to do the calling, but is now learning how hard it can be, especially with a lot of extremely busy working women as counselors/advisers. It’s been tough for her.

  19. Stephen, I agree that religion offers the best community support. There’s a ton of literature that supports that claim. And I’d hope that the church would be a bastion of security for all members because of the community of the saints–though, sadly, we know that some folks don’t feel welcome in that community. That said, we have to remember that the church’s success as an organization and as a community — in spite of whatever deficiencies there may be — are a manifestation of its living qualities. And by that I mean the influence of the Holy Spirit and other gifts that flow through the channels of the priesthood. It’s this living quality that a secular organization will have the most difficulty duplicating–and it’s certainly the reason as to why folks like John Dehlin will never be able to duplicate what the church does in that regard.

    And so I guess what I’m saying is–sure there’s lots we can do to better our local church communities. But the real key to solidifying the community of the saints is found in the covenants that we make as a people–which are the means of unlocking the heavenly–or living–aspects of the community. Whenever the scriptures speak of the community of Zion there always seems to be a two-pronged description–the first part having to do with the temporal welfare of the community and the second having to do with it’s spiritual welfare. And it’s the second part, wherein all are made partakers of the heavenly gift, that cannot be obtained without the powers of the priesthood.

  20. As a struggling liberal man looking for community, this post and the experiences related in the comments encapsulate pretty well why I’m both attracted to and repelled by the idea of joining the church. (Along with other reasons regarding the Usual Stuff, but also responding to a lot of LDS authors like Terryl Givens.) I feel like it may be most ethical to just struggle, sometimes. At least I’m not harming anyone else. But I have often felt that if I’d been raised in the church, and been active, I’d at least be happier than I am now. Maybe actually better off and maybe not, maybe making the world better and maybe not, but happier. But one’s own happiness and fulfillment, especially as a man, is hardly the most important thing.

    Not claiming this is a compliment to the church. I’m hardly someone a ward would be proud of! Unless the church has a weird membership target.

    Anyway–Christos anesti in a couple days!

  21. ST,

    Talk about weird–I’m like the ward hermit. I have long hair and a long beard and I live in my little cave–and the ward is kind enough to bring the sacrament to my home on Sundays.

    We’ll take you as you are, brother.

  22. How does a secular argument for the LDS church differentiate from a conservative secular argument that all religion and cultural institutions and forms are good?

    Inherently David Brooks and other conservatives are arguing that maintaining and conserving (hence conservative) institutions and forms is necessary for continuing to build and improve society. They are reacting to philosophies and movements that were trying to revolutionize aspects of society which inevitably criticizes and calls for rebellion from, destruction, reform, replacement, radical change of existing institutions. Trying to make the church change is often criticized by the other writers of this blog because progressive Mormons are asking for big changes that would fundamentally change the church. Conservatives tend to prefer slow and steady changes that keep the fundamentals or core components of institutions the same while allowing some components to change and evolve.

    Leaving the church is in a tiny way an act of rebellion and a mindset shift that makes me skeptical of this argument that there is a reason that this church has a secular foundation of support. There are lots of church’s that provide community and cultural traditions. My parents were both converts – although my mothers grandparents were Mormon and were originally converted in the 1830s and moved from Kirkland to Missouri and then Nauvoo to Iowa and finally to Utah and Idaho. My mom grew up sometimes attending the Nazarene church. Even in Idaho and Utah there are other churches that have community and culture and institutions that build the community and connect people. Why this church?

    I ask in particular because I tried for years for figure out this same kind of thought process you describe – the church is good and the community of believers I loved and that commitment and dedication are good for me and my family. Until it wasn’t. I think mostly I was afraid to leave. I was afraid of what I and my family would lose and afraid to deny what I had spent 45 years of my life devoted to and the people I cared about within it.

    The church itself argues that the reason to stay is that it is the one institution that has all the truth and authority and the rest are an abomination. I can totally get behind an argument that the people and the church are good. But I can’t see how to fit this more secular argument with the actual truth claims of the church. If the church is right then we should tear down all the other institutions and replace them with the leadership of the Mormon church. We send out missionaries and I was one of them to pull people out of their church and into ours. Which is because the Mormon doctrine is that we have the whole truth and the world needs us – not that the world needs to have cultural And religious institutions in general for good
    Conservative society. That it is the church of Jesus Christ and the others are not. This is why the council of 50 set Joseph apart as like the president and king of the whole earth. They don’t accept that anyone else has the power and authority of god.

    And this is the doctrine behind not changing anything within the church. If god made this church and its leaders are his prophets and then it is hard to argue they are wrong. This is why leaving the church is a rebellion. It means accepting that they don’t have that authority and inherent rightness and turning away from that.

  23. Jack, I don’t mean to say that I do not believe in divine things, only that I felt impressed to think in some of these more “secular” terms of human needs and institutional support.

    ST, I’m sorry to hear of your struggle. I do think the church has a lot to offer, but don’t want to downplay a considerable amount of potential frustration with the decision to join. I do feel called to hang in there, but no doubt experiences vary. Again, I like the line, “I choose the problems of having community over the problems of not having community.” I’d be very interested to hear more of your story.

    Brian, in terms of “why this church,” I’m clearly not making a “one and only” argument, but do think the church has a lot to offer and give my summary in the comment at 3:29pm yesterday to Chadwick.

    I do want to repeat that I feel that I do understand frustration with the church. A line from the Dehlin interview that I’ve been quoting that I also think is relevant is when he said something like, “the church can be really good for people, but I feel like I need to help provide an outlet for people who feel like they just absolutely cannot stay in it. To tell people in that situation that they cannot leave is quite devastating, so I want to point out to such people that they do have alternatives.”

    So I do agree that leaving is a needed option for many. But as I’ve said here (and more in upcoming posts) I do think such institutions do a lot of social good.

    And I certainly don’t think in terms of needing to eradicate other churches, and I’ve not heard church leaders speaking like that. I’m aware of our scriptural statements like that, but I think our leaders have been dealing with the reality that ours is one church among many and have so for more than a century. No doubt people like to feel like their institution is the best. I suppose it’s human nature to be a bit jingoistic.

  24. So much of the church rhetoric is all about it being the one and only true church. And quotes often from the first vision where supposedly God himself calls all other churches abominable.

    For just the first example that comes up from conference talks if you search “one and only true church” in the gospel library app:

    Boyd K Packer – The Only True Church” from 1985

    He quotes the first vision and D&C multiple places to make his case that only the LDS church is true

    “ Our missionaries sift through thousands to find one convert. Our harvest may seem impressive, but we are but gleaners. As the scriptures have foretold, we gather “one of a city, and two of a family.” (Jer. 3:14.)

    Some have recommended that we confine ourselves strictly to evidences of the gospel: happy family life, and temperate living, and so on.

    Could we not use the words better or best? The word only really isn’t the most appealing way to begin a discussion of the gospel.

    If we thought only in terms of diplomacy or popularity, surely we should change our course.

    But we must hold tightly to it even though some turn away.”

    The church doesn’t see itself as part of a Christian community of churches but set apart and the one true church.

    I disagree. I think they are wrong to hold themselves apart and ultimately the lds church is becoming less peculiar and more like other conservative evangelical churches as it tries so hard to fit in and be accepted.

    Maybe you are right and there are secular reasons to be part of the church, but the leaders of the church don’t believe secular reasons are enough

  25. I am afraid my tone may read more critical than I meant it to be. I love what you are trying to do, just a lot of hurdles to maneuver over and around.

  26. Thanks, Brian. No doubt this is a different framing than what we hear in general conference, but as I keep saying in these posts, I forsee increasing variance in how church members will frame their reasons for staying. I really like what jes said about “helping individuals find their own reasons for church.” I do believe we have a lot to offer despite our flaws.

  27. When I read the title I thought that this post was going to be more about getting church members to accept certain secular ideas, not an argument for attending church for secular reasons. But I want to share what I thought about when I read the title anyway.
    I think that the church should teach good ethics. We should teach sufficiently that if someone leaves the church that they aren’t left adrift with no guidance. If your entire moral/ethical framework is “Obedience” and “Follow the Prophet”, you’re not going to be making good decisions when you have no prophet. We should be matching the “world” when it comes to ethical behavior, and then exceeding it. Having talks and lessons which belittle worldly ethical standards like consent don’t help.

  28. The golden rule–ethics–is good as far as it goes. But it doesn’t guarantee transformation. And so while there’s certainly an ethical dimension to the gospel it must be rooted in–or grown from–the doctrine of Christ. It’s good to be good–and there’s a reward for being good. But to become perfect in Christ requires transformation–and it’s during the process of transformation that the Lord’s disciples become better than good as they grow in the pure love of Christ.

  29. Alas, jader, preparing people to leave the church isn’t a high priority at the moment. Ethics can no doubt be taught in many venues, and I’d say the church does teach those beyond simply being “obedient to the prophet.” I do get that many who leave can feel disoriented, particularly those who want to embrace all the vices the church told you not to do. I’m not sure the church would be able to help people with that mindset very much, but do think that other venues could potentially be helpful.

    Jack, I’d argue that many of the “religious” aspects like “transformation” can be viewed in a secular way too. Again, I think of Dehlin’s big list of the things the church does so well and he lists “resolution about the afterlife” as one. Such views, he’s saying, help people here and now, even if we think of afterlife beliefs as “religious.”

    I’m thinking of what Ann Taves said in her book REVELATORY EVENTS, where he talks about Mormonism, AA, and A Course in Miracles. This is her conclusion:

    “While I view the Lord of Mormonism, the Higher Power of AA, and the Voice of the Course as creation, they were—as I’ve been saying—motivated collective subjectivities that envisioned spiritual paths that can and do transform people toward particular ends (salvation, sobriety, reality). These goals must, of course, be evaluated. While people will continue to disagree regarding their validity and value, the power of the paths to transform is—in my view—quite apparent.”

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