Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

High-profile excommunications may harm Mormon retention rates in the long run

By Benjamin Knoll with Jana Riess

Gina Colvin

Podcaster and blogger Gina Colvin recently announced that she is facing a disciplinary council from the leadership of her local congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is because she recently received a baptism and confirmation in the Anglican Communion and participates regularly in her local Anglican congregation in New Zealand. This is an issue to LDS leaders, however, because the current LDS Handbook of Instructions defines “apostasy” as including members who “formally join another church and advocate its teachings.”

Colvin’s disciplinary hearing comes shortly on the heels of the excommunication of Mormon activist Sam Young, who drew public attention to the issue of sexually explicit questioning during clergy interviews with adolescents.

Elsewhere, podcaster Bill Reel is currently undergoing a disciplinary procedure for his aggressive criticism of the LDS Church and its leadership.

Colvin, Young, and Reel are among several high-profile Mormon activists to face disciplinary action and (potential) excommunication in recent years. From the perspective of LDS leadership, excommunications are necessary to protect other members of the church from whatever “spiritual threat” is being posed by the ideas, words, and actions of those being disciplined. It is an exercise in boundary maintenance.

Are rank-and-file Mormons grateful for this protection? Do they support their leaders disciplining and excommunicating those who are guilty of what the Church defines as “apostasy”?

The 2016 Next Mormons Survey specifically asked self-identified American Mormons how “troubled” they are by the excommunications of “feminists, intellectuals, and activists.” (See here for survey information and methodology.) The survey found that:

  • Nearly three in five Mormons (57%) say that they are very troubled (26%) or somewhat troubled (31%) by these excommunications.
  • Among those who are active and attend church at least weekly, 50% are troubled.
  • Among those who say that they believe all or most of LDS Church teachings wholeheartedly, 53% are troubled.
  • Among those who are current temple recommend holders, 43% say they are troubled.
  • Among Millennials, the numbers are higher: 66% say they are troubled.

By almost any measure, these high-profile excommunications appear to be worrisome to roughly half of faithful and active Latter-day Saints, and two-thirds of younger members.

These excommunications should be worrisome to LDS church leaders as well. We asked Latter-day Saints in our survey to report, on a scale of 0-10, how confident they are that they will remain committed members of the Church for the rest of their lives. Not surprisingly, this was a high number on average (8.3). For those who said they were very troubled by the excommunications of activists, intellectuals, and feminists, however, this average dropped by 10%.

This may seem like a small figure, but a 10% drop in the confidence of long-term commitment to the Church due to feelings on a single issue is significant. (Among those who say they attend church somewhat or less regularly, this average dropped by nearly 20%.)

Based on this information, it’s important to gauge how effective and worthwhile excommunication is as a tool for Mormon boundary maintenance. It’s not just that excommunication ostracizes the individual who is being disciplined (and often their spouses, children, and immediate circle of friends). It’s that it may also negatively affect other members in the pews.

Do those who leave the LDS Church because they are troubled by high-profile excommunications outnumber those who are leaving because they have actually fallen prey to whatever is being written or said by these accused “apostates”?

Excommunication appears to be successful in deterring some members from behaviors the Church is aiming to curb, whether it’s publicly criticizing religious leaders or becoming a member of another denomination while remaining a Latter-day Saint. But it may also have the unfortunate side effect of chilling the enthusiasm and commitment of other Church members, particularly younger ones.

Is it worth it, in the long run?

 

Benjamin Knoll is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He specializes in American public opinion and voting behavior, specifically in the fields of religion and politics and race/ethnicity and politics. Along with Jana Riess, he is the co-director of the Next Mormons Survey and is the co-author of She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, Oxford University Press (2018). 

 


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This story is available for republication.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

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