Third Wave Mormonism, Middle Way Mormonism, New Order Mormonism, call it what you will, it seems to represent a new generation of believers who see plenty wrong with the Mormon Church but, instead of looking to leave they create Mormonism in their own image, reforming it for personal use. Mormonism is becoming for some very much a “personal” faith perhaps best described by the term “Cafeteria Mormonism”. It is a fascinating phenomenon and is explained quite well here. It is a key issue and addresses the question of what is “authentic” Mormonism. How do we recognise this phenomenon and how should we answer it when we meet it?
Cafeteria Mormonism is clearly identified in the recent and growing opposition of many Mormons to the official Mormon support of Proposition 8 in California. As a result many Mormons have gone on to question the official Mormon Proclamation on the Family, attracted by the idea of alternative lifestyles. Less obviously a Mormon might talk excitedly about grace and quote many Bible texts a Christian might quote, sounding like a Christian in the wrong church. Usually we might argue that they were using Christian terms but giving them Mormon meanings. But the Cafeteria Mormon might as easily select a bit of Christian grace to compliment his selection from the Mormon trolley.
He was a monogamist who became a polygamist, a mystic who became a general, an opportunist who became a city mayor and leader of a new religion. He gave the Word of Wisdom “not by commandment or constraint” (D&C 98) and never once felt constrained to keep it. He wrote clearly in the BOM of dark skin being a curse and spoke of the curse of Cain passing through Ham and denying his descendants the priesthood (Book of Abraham 1) and yet he ordained a Negro. Yes there is much in Smith to comfort those who seek a more fluid and flexible Mormonism.
Cafeteria Mormons dismiss the Mormonism of their parents as one great mistake but I find myself impatient with the characterising of the authoritarian Mormonism of the not too distant past as “McConkie Mormonism”. It cannot possibly be ascribed to one man or one generation and nullifies the “anointed” leadership of the prophets of previous generations. If Mormons are finally facing up to the failings of their church, its history and leaders they should be honest and face their own errors and stop vilifying critics as “anti-Mormons” who do little more than mischievously mine for quotes.
I am reminded of the old saying that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Mormonism has been increasingly transparent to the outside world. Its traditional criticism of “Christendom” (which has been vitriolic at times) is increasingly implausible as Mormons themselves deny and/or explain away polygamy, racism, polytheism, contradictions and failed prophecies as misrepresented or the product of a dynamic religion.
I certainly don’t expect Mormonism to be perfectly consistent but Mormonism expects it and promises it. That is the claim of the “restoration” and if some Mormons are saying that it is no longer the case then surely someone ought to tell the prophet? More than that, the prophet ought to tell Mormons so they can relax and look at their religion realistically for the first time, maybe even have a good laugh. That is all critics really want and if we can start the Christian/Mormon discussion again with Mormons understanding that they are allowed to be wrong and change their minds and without pretending it’s the same old church then surely we will begin to get somewhere.