Writing on our new Religion in the News website in the wake of the excommunication of blogger-podcaster John Dehlin, eminent scholars Jan Shipps and Sarah Barringer Gordon make the case that these are hard times for Mormon orthodoxy. Thanks to digital media, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints simply cannot control the message the way it used to. This, they argue, helps explain why it has begun to address issues like polygamy about which it has been mum for a century. And to seek out a middle path on gay rights.
Shipps' and Gordon's larger point is that Mormonism is not alone. Wherever centralized religious authority exists within reach of the Internet, voices challenging it will be just a click away. The interesting question has to do with how the the authority responds.
Back in 1972, National Council of Churches researcher Dean M. Kelley published a book that became a species of gospel in American Christianity. Why Conservative Churches are Growing contended that whereas the liberal churches were hemorrhaging members because they had sold their doctrinal birthright for a mess of political pottage, the orthodox were prospering by holding their flocks to high standards of belief and practice.
The key to success thus seemed to be the old time religion, or a reasonable facsimile thereof. Evangelical Protestantism blew Mainline Protestantism out of the water. Catholic bishops undertook to recover their pre-Vatican II mojo. Orthodoxy became American Judaism's growth stock. And Mormonism itself battened down the hatches.
Now this orthodoxy is being challenged, and not only by digital media. In the Southern Baptist Convention, shrinking numbers have forced a dialing back of the hard line. In Catholicism, the new Vicar of Christ just isn't with the program.
Preaching to the assembled cardinals yesterday, Pope Francis declared that Jesus is not afraid of a church that reaches out to those on its margins.
He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity. He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp.
Those who prize the straight and narrow in every tradition will no doubt find a sufficient number of fellow travelers. But it looks as though the religion that will prosper in this century will be messier and more out-of-control than those inside their camps imagine.