Mormon Envy

Jason Micheli —  July 31, 2012 — 7 Comments

No, this isn’t about Mitt Romney so don’t get your boxers in a twist. Although I will say that the number of people asking me about the orthodoxy of Mormonism- whether Mormons are Christian- is steadily increasing as the campaign heats up (the answer is more complicated than what you’ll find on Fox or MSNBC so I won’t waste anymore space on it here).

No, this isn’t about Mitt Romney.

It’s about youth and young adults. And faith.

We have two new full-time youth directors coming on board in the next few weeks and one new full-time children’s director. So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how best to equip them to succeed and how best to impact the religious lives of children and youth.  My thinking has gotten me to re-reading many of the youth ministry books that were gathering dust on my shelves.

One of them, one of the best, is Almost Christian by Kenda Dean. It’s an analysis of the groundbreaking National Survey of Youth and Religion. The results of the survey revealed that the vast majority of Christian youth, especially white Mainline Protestants, were incredibly vague and inarticulate about their faith. The religion these youth ‘practice’ is so unrecognizable from historic Christianity, in fact, the authors of the survey termed it instead ‘Moral Therapeutic Deism.’

As the name suggests, MTD believes: 1) a God exists who ordered the world and watches over life on earth, 2) God wants people to be nice, 3) the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself, 4) God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem and 5) good people go to heaven when they die.

This is where the Mormon envy comes in.

Only 40% of the youth surveyed said religion was an important part of their life and only 8% said they attended worship weekly, participated in a youth or small group AND said they felt close to God and that their faith is important to their lives.

But the overwhelming majority of that minority were…you got it…Mormons.

Why?

Survey says:

Because Mormon youth see the faith modeled by their families and congregations.

Mormon youth are significantly more likely to hold religious beliefs similar to their parents (73%), attend worship weekly (43%) and talk about religious matters in their families more than other teenagers (80% once a week or more). They rate the importance of faith in their lives as extremely high and engage in practices like fasting (68%). For four years of high school, Mormon teenagers rise at 5:00 AM to attend seminary, typically taught by a parent, and Mormon families commonly practice family devotions.

All together, Dean writes, these experiences, conversations and practices cohere ‘to impress Mormon youth that Mormonism is not an activity they choose nor a church they attend. It is literally a way of life, and affects every choice they make…Parents take to heart their responsibility to get young people ready…to be fully engaged, articulate and participative church members.’ 

And there’s the rub about passing faith on to youth. It’s evident in Mormon youth and it’s reaffirmed by the National Survey on Youth and Religion. Your sons and your daughters will have the faith you model for them.

Too many youth practice a benign, vague Moral Therapeutic Deism BECAUSE that’s the religion of their parents and because too few mainline churches have expectations of them beyond MTD.

Too often parents turn to youth ministers and pastors and rely on them to make their kids Christian, to sort of inoculate them against the world, after their kids have already spent most of their childhood and adolescence receiving the implicit message that religion isn’t a big deal.

Survey says: if faith isn’t a big deal to you, it will never be a big deal to your child.  That’s the bottom line. If you can’t talk about faith or religion with your child just like you would talk with them about baseball or politics, then all the best youth ministers in the world won’t do any good.

So parents, as we prepare to welcome three new staff people, keep in mind: when it comes to faith and youth, you get what you are.

Jason Micheli

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7 responses to Mormon Envy

  1. Hmmm… this seems like a roundabout way of praising brainwashing children. Because let’s be real: Mormonism is extremely conservative and thus does not allow for questions and critical review of their doctrines and dogma. Is this really the way we want children to absorb a faith? Rejecting and disobeying Mormon principles does not merely bring about stern admonishment or loving accountability and immediate forgiveness. There’s some pretty harsh judgement. I submit such rigid and forced conservative faith systems are what have lead to MTD because historical beliefs do not hold up to the level of today’s scientific knowledge or merely our own rational/philisophical thought. Encouraging a system like Mormonism may sound good on the surface, but it’s not real – their children’s acceptance of the Mormon ideals is probably directly linked to their need for social acceptance within that culture.

    • Well, I could’ve easily said ‘Amish Envy’ instead.
      While I definitely take theological issue with Mormonism and would place them outside Nicene Christianity, I think it’s a mistake to generalize how Mormonism gets practiced and passed down. I know enough Mormons myself to wager that the same spectrum of diversity that exists within Mainline Christianity exists within them. Having said that, I think ‘culture’ is the point. Mormonism actually tries to create a religious culture/community NOT a voluntary society that may or may not be a priority. Your belief that conservative faith creates MTD isn’t borne out by the abundant evidence. It’s modernist Christianity that’s incapable of regenerating itself. That we think of ‘indoctrination’ pejoratively, as brainwashing,is but an indication of how formed we’ve been the modern secular story, forcing the faith to conform to our assumptions rather than the other way around. How do we expect our children to apply modern knowledge etc to the faith absent the actual foundation of the faith. Teaching biblical criticism before teaching them the bible makes no logical sense.
      The irony of course is that either way we’re indoctrinating our children; telling our children to ‘make up their own minds’ etc is surely inculcating a very particular worldview in them. And either way the point still holds- 9/10 our children will have the faith, Christian or secular, we’ve modeled for them.

  2. Hmmm… this seems like a roundabout way of praising brainwashing children. Because let’s be real: Mormonism is extremely conservative and thus does not allow for questions and critical review of their doctrines and dogma. Is this really the way we want children to absorb a faith? Rejecting and disobeying Mormon principles does not merely bring about stern admonishment or loving accountability and immediate forgiveness. There’s some pretty harsh judgement. I submit such rigid and forced conservative faith systems are what have lead to MTD because historical beliefs do not hold up to the level of today’s scientific knowledge or merely our own rational/philisophical thought. Encouraging a system like Mormonism may sound good on the surface, but it’s not real – their children’s acceptance of the Mormon ideals is probably directly linked to their need for social acceptance within that culture.

    • Well, I could’ve easily said ‘Amish Envy’ instead.
      While I definitely take theological issue with Mormonism and would place them outside Nicene Christianity, I think it’s a mistake to generalize how Mormonism gets practiced and passed down. I know enough Mormons myself to wager that the same spectrum of diversity that exists within Mainline Christianity exists within them. Having said that, I think ‘culture’ is the point. Mormonism actually tries to create a religious culture/community NOT a voluntary society that may or may not be a priority. Your belief that conservative faith creates MTD isn’t borne out by the abundant evidence. It’s modernist Christianity that’s incapable of regenerating itself. That we think of ‘indoctrination’ pejoratively, as brainwashing,is but an indication of how formed we’ve been the modern secular story, forcing the faith to conform to our assumptions rather than the other way around. How do we expect our children to apply modern knowledge etc to the faith absent the actual foundation of the faith. Teaching biblical criticism before teaching them the bible makes no logical sense.
      The irony of course is that either way we’re indoctrinating our children; telling our children to ‘make up their own minds’ etc is surely inculcating a very particular worldview in them. And either way the point still holds- 9/10 our children will have the faith, Christian or secular, we’ve modeled for them.

  3. “How do we expect our children to apply modern knowledge etc to the faith absent the actual foundation of the faith?”

    We don’t. That’s the responsibility of adults. Otherwise, you create an easy to burst bubble – UNLESS you add fear, shame and guilt to the mix. More on that later.

    “Your belief that conservative faith creates MTD isn’t borne out by the abundant evidence.”

    What abundant evidence?

    If the Mormons are truly as diverse as you say, there is no need to envy their methods. You’re right, you could have said Amish envy. Or what about Southern Baptist envy? You could have even picked some liberal church like the one led by Rob Bell. But you picked Mormons. I think you did that for a tangible reason and we must adequately explore their methods. Their culture is inexorably linked to their theology and the practice of their religion. Their theology is conservative and it has a belief founded in both Biblical inerrancy and the inerrancy of the Book of Mormon. This isn’t an attack (Mormonism is about as diverse as Catholicism and most other denominations – which are not THAT diverse), I’m just pointing out the theology is well defined and for their culture to exist in that manner, it has to be. So the kind of envy you have of their culture is fine – but they did not arise there solely on teaching their principles. They must be reinforced. How are they reinforced? Mormons are not immune to having to break out heavy doses of guilt and shame and fear to create this culture. Indoctrination IS a perjorative because it implies a lack of criticism. I’m not so much concerned about teaching biblical criticism, as I am the handling of criticism when it arises. I did not need to be taught biblical analysis to have questions when I was growing up. Were these questions met with honest open dialogue? No. I know Mormons, too. The creation of that culture is dangerous in the wrong hands. Sure, Mormons seem to be good people. But their theology has been tied to racism, sexism and homophobia. As well as a rejection of non-Mormon Christianity. So one thing you might note is that the Amish and Mormon culture is exclusionary as well. And it does not apologize for it, nor should it have to. But that begs the question – is that what you really want for your culture? You gotta deal with the collateral damage, too. I just believe the Mormon way is not the ideal way of trying to create the kind of culture you want amongst your own theology.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Culture Wars | Tamed Cynic - August 1, 2012

    […] I wrote a post entitled ‘Mormon Envy‘ in which I used Kenda Dean’s book Almost Christian to reflect on how Mormons succeed […]

  2. Culture Wars | Tamed Cynic - August 1, 2012

    […] I wrote a post entitled ‘Mormon Envy‘ in which I used Kenda Dean’s book Almost Christian to reflect on how Mormons succeed […]

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