How Big Can the Tent Be?

After GenConf (and frequently in my day-to-day interactions honestly), I wonder how big can the big tent of Mormonism be? What are the limits of its expansion? Where are the walls of the tent? Does it have walls? Should we choose another metaphor? Are we suggesting that we want to be a part of a circus religion with all this tent business? What’s going on?

Elder Holland’s talk during GenConf was hailed as a strong proponent of ‘big tent Mormonism’, but I’m somewhat skeptical of that assertion (which I mentioned somewhat in my post last week). Holland seems to be promoting something like slightly bigger Good Ship Zion Mormonism. Now, does this mean that there’s no hope for big tent Mormonism? No. It just means that it is still a sort of fringe-y approach.

But back to the original question. If Mormonism embraces all people regardless of their beliefs is it still Mormonism? Does that lack of definition serve to break down what’s there until it is a meaningless defining term? Probably. I think anything that becomes that open is no longer useful as a descriptor (we’ll set aside for now the discussion about whether it is valuable or actually harmful to have descriptors and delineations). That said, I think there’s room in Mormonism for far more people than currently feel comfortable there.

Though it is possible that as we make certain changes or allowances for more progressive or currently heterodox belief, we may actually tip the scales in such a way that more traditional or conservative believers no longer feel comfortable or welcome (that doesn’t strike me as a likely immediate outcome, but I think it would be foolish to dismiss it as a possibility). Now, it may be that we think that such believers deserve to feel discomfort for any number of reasons. But they would likely make the same argument about the current situation. That I should feel uncomfortable because that discomfort will ultimately motivate me to accept more traditional (read: for them, more correct) beliefs and be better for me in the long run.

So what do we do with this? What things can we change to allow more people to feel like they belong? Do we want more people to belong? Would we rather remain a small, tiny fraction of the population and leave everyone else to lesser eternal glories (gotta save some celestial real estate)?

Given my post last week, I know that the things I would identify as being open to change and being relaxed/softened/adjusted would be viewed by others as fundamentally altering Mormonism and stripping it of what makes it unique and the ‘one and only true’ church. I think these are conversations worth having and that the stability that we seem to have from correlation and other moves like that may in fact be creating an organization that is less stable overall. (For more on that, read this fantastic piece from By Common Consent.)

Perhaps we need to rock the boat a bit and make room for all sorts of people and maybe making everyone a little less comfortable. Introducing a sense of challenge to our beliefs and thoughts. Having this sort of environment not only would allow for more to be welcome, but also produce stronger beliefs, while simultaneously introducing a bigger sense of epistemological humility (which I think is of utmost importance). At least, that would be the case ideally. It may also introduce tensions and divisions—schisms if you will. The Church could splinter into factions at war with one another.

Yet, I think if there’s enough love between people even in disagreement that won’t be the case. Especially if we begin to preach the necessity of disagreement and argument. That working out truth through contestation and paradox is a healthy way of finding truth. Then rather than those that disagree being seen as sowing the seeds of contention and therefore tools of the devil, sparking disagreement would be seen as a holy endeavor, a god-blessed work.

That may be a bit of a tangent from where we started, but I think it all relates and works together. I think our current trepidation towards disagreement is connected to our inability to fully embrace those that think differently than us, alienating those that may have perspectives that differ from the norm on any number of issues.

But, if we open up and allow for more fleshed out disagreement, and more than allow for, but actively encourage it as an effective way of reaching truth, I think some of those concerns will drift away. Now, that obviously will not immediately make all people feel more welcome. Doctrines and policies and culture will still be hostile towards LGBTQIA individuals, may still leave women feeling like second-class citizens, will still leave the legacy of racist Church practices from the past and arguably racist scriptures that remain canonized. However, I think, a culture of disagreement will do great work to start pushing the walls of the tent outward to a place where those issues can be discussed more openly and more vulnerably without the threat of being ostracized or disciplined.

How should those efforts take place? What can each of us do? I try to engage in conversations to offer counter-perspectives when I feel that something is wrong or harmful or problematic. I strive to speak up for marginalized members and to offer constructive thoughts on changes that can be made. If we have children we can raise them to be more open to and accepting of disagreement. We can practice disagreeing respectfully in settings where it is more accepted before implementing those efforts in venues where that may be less common. We can try to constantly challenge ourselves, doubt our certainty and be open to being wrong.

There are certainly some walls that can’t be torn down without threatening the very identity of Mormonism. The walls I would chose are probably different than yours and that’s where the rubber meets the road, I suppose. And where we need to engage in disagreement to make our community more welcoming for as many as desire to come follow Christ.



One thought on “How Big Can the Tent Be?

  1. This is a fascinating piece. It’s probably the church-related question I ask myself most often — does there come a point in opening up that we are not “Mormon” anymore? I know this is a real concern for those with more orthodox concerns — if we don’t use excommunication as a tool for defining boundaries, they might say, we encourage the adoption of unorthodox or even harmful beliefs. It’s a slippery slope argument, but not entirely without merit. Is a “Buddhist Mormon” a Mormon? Is a “fundamentalist Mormon” a Mormon? And I think we all agree on some boundaries, so who has the authority to define and enforce those?

    It’s interesting because it seems we had a time in the church’s history when debates at the top level were more common, or at least more public, and thus the church felt more comfortable with diversity. I could be wrong, but Orson Pratt vs. Brigham Young, Hugh B. Brown vs. Ezra Taft Benson, these were debates which were — to one degree or another — in the public eye. The leadership tolerated dissension in its own ranks as long as everyone still supported each other. I can’t think of any parallel in our modern day — Faust and Packer, for example, didn’t clash nearly as much even though they seem to come from different political perspectives. I wonder if such public debate could ever return?


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