The Next Mormons (Jana Riess) - A Review

THE NEXT MORMONS: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church. By Jana Riess. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019. 312 pages.

                I have been fascinated with Mormonism from an early age. I’ve always been interested in history, even as a relatively young child, and the story of the Mormon move west is full of historical elements. It all started when my family visited Salt Lake when I was a child. I remember the museum at Temple Square that told the story of the Mormon trek across the country to Utah. Then there was the Tabernacle with its famed organ, which we heard played. While we couldn’t enter the Temple, it is a rather imposing building. My family was composed of good Episcopalians, so we had no interest in converting, but the story was intriguing. In addition, I had a number of friends growing up who were Mormons, and they were good people and loyal friends. We didn’t make much of each other’s churches, but we knew we were different. Later on, as I entered my teenage years, my interest in history led me to read Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith—No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. That was an eye-opening experience, that was further compounded after I became active in a Pentecostal church. At that point, I began looking deeper into Mormon theology and the evangelical critiques of Mormon theology and practice. I would even debate the missionaries who knocked on our door. I saw myself as a younger version of Walter Martin (those who know the name will know what I mean).

I offer this up this personal introduction as a way of explaining why I asked for a review copy of Jana Riess' book The Next Mormons. The subtitle was also intriguing, as it speaks of “how millennials are changing the LDS church.” Knowing that change is afoot in my own denomination, I was intrigued to see how millennials were changing things among Mormons. While the book is focused on explaining how Millennials are changing the LDS church, but it is more than that. It is a book about how this American-born church is being impacted by American culture, but also global culture, for the LDS church is a global body.

The author, Jana Riess, comes at the topic from a scholarly perspective, but at the same time, she is a practicing member of the LDS church. Although she is by confession a Mormon, that confession rarely comes into play. Instead, she tries to keep a respectful scholarly distance from a subject that must be of great concern to her. She brings to the conversations the academic tools as one who holds a Ph.D. in American Religious History. Not only is she a historian, but she is also a journalist. Both of these backgrounds help her engage the subject. There is history in the book, but this is really about what’s happening now. That requires a different set of tools, including that of the sociologist. We see that at play throughout, as she invites us to take a deep dive into the current state of the LDS church.

The foundation for this book is a sociological survey she helped conduct. It is titled "The Next Mormons Survey.” Riess and political scientist Benjamin Knoll created the survey, which focused on interviews with 1,156 Mormons and 540 former Mormons of all ages. Thus, this is a comparative study. Riess writes that "We wanted to understand who Mormons are, what they believe, and what generational differences may pertain among them.”

One thing stated up front is that the LDS church, while still growing, has slowed down. Whereas it was growing at about a 5-6% clip per year in the 1970s to 1990s, more recently it is growing at about .05 percent. There is growth, but it barely registers, which might give a bit of solace to the rest of us who have watched the LDS church grow at seemingly exponential rates.  In other words, the same challenges affecting other traditions are starting to hit it as well. Part of the change is to be found among millennials.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One focuses on foundations. In three chapters, Riess notes the continuity of religious belief among Mormons over time, but even here she reveals that change is taking place. What is continuous across generations is that they believe Mormonism gives them peace; they affirm the idea of eternal families (a strong element within its attractiveness); and they appreciate the emphasis on Christ as savior. When it comes to believing in God, there is still a strong affirmation of belief, but older generations are more certain in their beliefs than younger ones. Having laid out the basic religious/theological affirmations, Riess moves to the Missionary experience and its implications for Mormon life. It is interesting that Millennials are much more likely to have gone on missions than earlier generations. Finally, she takes us on a tour of the rites of passages, such as baptism, temple endowments, and ordinations, all of which occur within the Temples, and are open only to Mormons in good standing.

I will note here that Riess shows tremendous respect. While she is a convert to Mormonism, she shows not only respect but objectivity. I should note that in the book she doesn't identify herself as a Mormon, and her references to Temple activities are based not on personal experience but the stories told by others.

Part Two focuses on "Changing Definitions of Family and Culture.” As anyone who knows something of Mormonism, this is a culturally conservative religious community. It values family above all things. But there are some cracks showing. Nevertheless, even if Mormon Millennials are becoming more liberal than their parents, they still are generally more conservative than their peers. Among the four chapters in this section, one focuses on single Mormons, who are trying to make their way in a faith community that emphasizes marriage and childbearing. There is a chapter on Millennial women and the way they are navigating shifting gender expectations. Again, they are more conservative, generally, than their peers, but cracks are showing. Women are still excluded from leadership, but there is some pushing against the grain going on. There is an important chapter on minorities and racial attitudes. This is quite illuminating, as the LDS church is and has been largely white. It is important to remember that until 1978 excluded African American males from the priesthood and Blacks generally were excluded from participating in the Temple rites. In other words, you could attend "sacrament meetings" but not truly become a Mormon. Riess goes into the various defenses of this policy, shares stories of the challenges facing minorities, to this day, and the demographic numbers that reveal the challenges. Then, there is the role of LGBT folks within the church. Since the LDS churches were strong backers of Prop 8 in California that was designed to prevent marriage equality, and until just recently (since the book was published) overturned a ruling from 2015 that forbade the baptism of children of gay and lesbian parents. Things are still difficult, but there are changing attitudes, especially among Millennials.

Finally, in Part Three, Riess focuses on Passages of faith and doubt. Here she focuses on religious practices among the upcoming generation. What do they find important and valuable? Interestingly, on some issues, they are more traditional than earlier generations. At the same time, they are more likely to show doubt. There is a chapter on social and political views, comparing current and former Mormons. The chapter on attitudes toward Religious Authority is quite revealing. Millennials are less likely than older generations to trust their own spiritual feelings but are more likely to trust local leaders over general authorities. In fact, there is a lot of distrust of general authorities among Millennials. The final chapter in this section speaks to the perspectives of Millennial former Mormons. Why did they leave? Where do they go from there? Interestingly men are more likely than women to seek a different religious home, but in general most former Mormons, male and female, don't look to join other religious communities. They may even continue attending sacrament meetings but stop going to the Temple and wearing the special Temple garments (Riess discusses these garments, but not in any detail). It is attitudes toward them that she is interested in, not descriptions of them.  

As she concludes the book, she raises the question: To what degree will the LDS church adapt and accommodate to changing cultural mores. Because they value continuing revelation, they have been able to adapt over time. Will that happen again? As she reminds us, there is both an other-worldly dimension to Mormonism, and a pragmatic side. The church has sought to keep these in balance. The question is, where will this lead them. One important test case will be how they handle the question of LGBT inclusion. She notes that what until recently was seen as an asset—the focus on the traditional family—may not be an asset going forward. How will Mormons navigate this going forward? The leadership is male, largely-white, and the greatest authority is vested in the oldest generations. Riess is hopeful, but uncertain as to the future. Thus, she closes the book with this observation:  "The LDS Church has accommodated change before, and it can do so again. The issue is whether it will choose to" (p. 235).

As I noted at the beginning of the review, I have long been fascinated by the Mormon church and its story. Personally, I find many of its beliefs and practices to be rather odd, and they often run counter to everything we know about history and science—the stories about the origins of the indigenous American population being the most important problems. What is interesting is that Mormons are generally well-educated, and the more educated they are, the more devout. So, while I may not understand how one embraces doctrines and beliefs about American history that I find odd, I know that the same is said of some of the positions I take. This is why we are called faith communities.

So why read this? Is this simply a book that would be of interest to Mormons, and perhaps a small segment of the population who, like me, are deeply curious about this story? Is it a book that religious scholars would find interesting? The answer is yes, but I think others will find it to be intriguing. It might provide insight into one’s neighbors whose beliefs and practices are different from your own. I think that religious leaders no matter what the tradition, will find the observations about changing views and understandings of Millennials, will be of value. Again, this is an academic study, filled with a lot of numbers and charts and graphs, but Riess is not only a good scholar, she is a good storyteller (see her memoir Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor for a good example). That combination of scholarship and story-telling ability make for something that is definitive but accessible. It is definitely worth exploring in an age of increasingly rapid change that is proving to be a challenge to every faith community. This might serve as a lens through which we can look at our own communities, if, like me, we’re not part of the LDS church.

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