Is Mormonism Sustainable for Today’s Kids?
One day I was walking home from church with my then six-year-old son when he told me that his class had talked about how Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon.
I would have thought nothing of it — except that the topic had caused me grief as a young LDS missionary in southern California, circa 2003.
Back then I’d been knocking on doors with my companion when we heard a group of young guys mocking Mormons through an open window. We listened for a while and then, like any good missionaries, we knocked on their door.
The guys answered, wide-eyed. Then they invited us in, trying to stifle laughs. They said they’d just watched an episode of South Park that was all about the Mormons. They asked us how much of the episode was true. Specifically, they were wondering whether Joseph Smith really looked at a stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon.
This was the first time I’d heard of such a thing. Joseph Smith looking into a hat? I told them that of course it wasn’t true and that you couldn’t believe everything you saw in a cartoon like South Park. Instead, I explained, Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon from golden plates.
They listened politely and then denied our request to take the missionary discussions. We left feeling good that we had helped set the record straight in some small way.
But, it turns out, we hadn’t set the record straight. We had just repeated what we had been taught in Sunday school. I later learned that, yes, Joseph Smith did look at a stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, and I felt embarrassed that I first heard this fact secondhand from a bunch of college students who had seen a cartoon on Comedy Central.
So — to return to the scene with my son — I knew I had a choice. I could double down on the narrative I’d been taught in church at his age. Or I could teach him the narrative that I’d first encountered on my mission and had confirmed in reputable sources since.
I decided to tell him the truth, figuring he’d accept whatever I told him.
“Did you know,” I said, “that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by looking at a stone he placed in a hat?”
“Really?” my son asked.
“Yep,” I said. “He put a stone in a hat, looked at it, and then said the words that became the Book of Mormon.”
To my surprise, my son started laughing. I had expected him to say, “That’s cool,” or “That’s interesting” and move on. But he laughed. And I couldn’t blame him. The idea of a man sticking his head in a hat to look at a stone is… even odder than the idea of a man translating a book from golden plates.
At that moment I wondered: How would this kid ever leave home at the age of 18 to proselytize about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
Really, I’m asking: How?
I love so many aspects of my LDS upbringing and heritage, but I feel stuck.
What would happen when I told my son the other uncomfortable stuff I’d learned as a grownup — stuff about the Book of Abraham papyri, the Late War, the Kirtland Safety Society, and so on? Or what about when he discovers the differences in how men and women are treated, or the Church’s current and historical treatment of LGBTQ+ people?
Will a kid like this stay Mormon his entire life? And even if he does, will his kids?
Orthodox members might say that my son and I should just ignore such things and instead stay true to the covenant path.
But I want to say to them: If you don’t wrestle with these things, one day your kids or grandkids will.
Many of them already are.
The Stone Slows Down
Every Mormon knows the lore that the LDS Church is the stone cut out of the mountain without hands prophesied in the Book of Daniel — a stone that will grow until it fills the whole earth.
It’s a prophecy that held power in my childhood. LDS Church membership had grown 400% in the three decades prior. If it kept at that pace we’d be looking at roughly 2.5 billion Mormons in 2120, well on our way to filling the planet.
But time has a way of surprising us. At the turn of the 21st century, the LDS member growth rate slowed and the number of full-time missionaries dropped.
By the 2010s, the trend was hard to miss. Church leaders changed the missionary age from 19 to 18 for males and from 21 to 19 for females, hoping to turn things around. Despite an initial surge of missionaries, however, the growth rate still fell, dropping below the average population growth rate in 2020.
So I have to ask again:
Is Mormonism sustainable?
“We All Need a Container”
This question — is Mormonism sustainable? — came to a head for me a few months ago when I was talking to a man who’s running an innovative and exciting LDS-adjacent project.
During our conversation, he said something that lodged in my brain.
“The ‘spiritual but not religious’ movement is a dead-end,” he said. “We all need a place to belong, a tradition. We all need a container.”
When he said this, I felt pulled in two directions.
First, I agree that we all need a container. My kids need a container, a place they can call home. I’ve felt power and safety in belonging to a community throughout my childhood, and I want that for my kids. My spouse and I certainly can’t raise them alone, and Mormonism has a lot to offer here.
I also share this man’s dissatisfaction with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, which is prone to magical thinking, arrogance, and abuse, as I recount here. From my perspective, this crowd too often ignores the marginalized (e.g., children, the elderly, the poor) in favor of luxury retreats that, without tremendous care, can become little more than navel gazing.
And yet the “spiritual but not religious” crowd at least isn’t under the thumb of a hierarchy that could excommunicate them for “incorrect” belief. And there’s something to be said for venturing out into the wilderness, even for a retreat. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that any healthy spiritual journey requires some time in the wilderness. You can ask questions freely in the wilderness. In the wilderness it is silent enough to hear the voice of the divine.
The wilderness, however, is lonely. And it’s dangerous. We’re a social species, meant to be in community with each other. And it helps, I believe, to belong to a community that focuses on matters of the heart and includes the elderly and kids.
Which brings us back to the need for a container and the question of whether Mormonism is sustainable for tomorrow’s kids.
Is Mormonism the only possible container? What if it’s simply not a sustainable container for my kids? What then?
I ask out of desperation. I know that I could take the position that many post-Mormons have taken, which is to reject all religious structure and instead embrace the default surrounding culture of American consumerism. But I look at contemporary pop culture and don’t see much to be excited about. Nearly half of U.S. kids now say they persistently feel sad or hopeless. That’s terrible. I’m hoping for something better.
So I don’t have an answer. But I recently found a paragraph in a book called Faith After Doubt by former pastor Brian McLaren that lights me up.
“Imagine,” he writes, “if religiously connected people joined with their nonreligious counterparts … Imagine that they integrate the best resources they can find from religious traditions, brain science, education, sociology, psychology, anthropology, and art, gleaning anything of value from anywhere they can find it, systematically helping people to achieve the most advanced forms of moral development possible.”
That’s the kind of community I want to belong to. It’s the kind of community that feels sustainable for my kids — and their kids, and so on. Believers and nonbelievers working together, united around timeless values from a variety of religious and secular traditions. In such a community the question wouldn’t be whether someone belongs to the LDS Church. Some people might, and others might not. In either case, everyone would be centered in having vulnerable, heartfelt conversations about wellbeing for all ages (including kids).
Is it possible? I don’t know. But right now it feels like the option with the most promise.