In Memoriam: Big Tent Mormonism

fallen_tentThe term “big tent Mormonism” has appeared frequently in online LDS discourse over the past 5 years, usually in the context of some good-natured navel-gazing on the part of liberal Mormons in regards to whether–or, to what extent–there is a place for them within the Church. It is a term that implies there is room for a wide variety of belief, practice, and diversity of viewpoint within the bonds of LDS membership. As far as I can tell, it was first coined by Greg Prince at the 2011 Washington D. C. Mormon Stories conference, though discussions on the diversity of thought found in Mormonism, especially in regards to its liberal members and members struggling with doubt, certainly pre-date Prince.

A 2013 General Conference talk by Dieter F. Uchtdorf infused the LDS community with hope that “big tent Mormonism” was something the leadership wished to encourage. In the talk, President Uchtdorf said:

None of us is quite as Christlike as we know we should be. But we earnestly desire to overcome our faults and the tendency to sin. With our heart and soul we yearn to become better with the help of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. If these are your desires, then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us!

Events of recent years have yielded a few small, hopeful signs that President Uchtdorf’s talk was not an outlier. The Church took some small steps that progressive Mormons applauded. Among them it:

  • Allowed women to serve missions at age 19 instead of age 21 (October 2012)
  • Allowed women to offer opening and closing prayers in the general sessions of General Conference (April 2013)
  • Denounced racist statements made by one BYU religion professor to a reporter (though some of his teachings on race were still taught in the official manuals for his class)
  • Ousted the apologetics faction from the Maxwell Institute, allowing the MI director to install a coterie of scholars less focused on defense of the Church and more ready to engage with mainstream scholarship on Mormonism. With much of the work produced by the former faction being viewed by other LDS scholars as inconsequential and unnecessarily polemical, many saw the ouster as a victory for a healthier Mormon intellectualism. [1]

For the longest time, while the church had not offered any direct endorsements of LDS feminism or “struggling with doubt” groups like the Mormon Stories community, it had allowed groups and Web sites like W.A.V.E., All Enlisted, Ordain Women, StayLDS, and the liberal side of the Bloggernacle to operate unmolested. The church had not engaged in any high-profile excommunications of Mormon feminists, homosexuals, or intellectuals since the mid-90s. “September Six” member Maxine Hanks was even readmitted to church membership in 2012. Many believed the church had put its heavy-handed days behind it, that it was now allowing space for doubt and dissent on a wide range of issues.

The status of “Big Tent Mormonism” has since taken a turn for the worse. A series of disciplinary actions, decisions, and policies have hit hard at progressive ideals and values. And while some will disagree with me, I contend that these actions decisively signal the demise of “Big Tent Mormonism.”

These actions include:

  • The September 2013 excommunication of Denver C. Snuffer, a Utah lawyer who can best be described as both fundamentalist (not the polygamy-advocating kind) and progressive.
  • The June 2014 excommunication of Kate Kelly, founder of Ordain Women. I argued in the Salt Lake Tribune at the time–and still maintain–that Kelly’s excommunication sent a clear message that Mormon feminists are not wanted by the church. Some tried to counter to me that it was Kelly’s activism that got her in trouble, not her feminism. It would seem proponents of such views have a profound misunderstanding of what feminism is. Kelly’s excommunication was followed by a wave of disciplinary actions against other member of Ordain Women, including members who had never joined in the Temple Square protests but had only added their profile to the Ordain Women site.
  • The February 2015 excommunication of Mormon Stories founder John Dehlin
  • President Thomas S. Monson’s insistence on calling only white males to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. A full 1/3 of the church’s top leaders have died and been replaced under his Presidency, and all five spots went to Utah-born white males ages 57 – 64.
  • Most recently, the new policy barring the children of cohabiting gay couples from joining the church, denying such children the “blessings” of baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and (for the boys) Aaronic priesthood ordination, and setting a high bar on their attempts to enter into membership as adults.

Previously, one might have been able to view the LDS church as more progressive on homosexuality than many of its Christian peers (yes, I know that isn’t saying much). It did allow for the ordination of chaste, openly homosexual men, and theoretically such men could serve as high as bishop (though I am not sure any openly gay men have ever been ordained as such). [2] A few years ago, liberal Mormons heralded Mitch Mayne as “the first openly gay Mormon to serve in a bishopric” (though the Church Handbook specifies that Mitch’s calling—executive secretary—is not formally part of the bishopric, many Mormons perceive it as such). However, this policy now places Mormons among those with some of the harshest and most anti-homosexual of church policies.

Years ago, in a talk at the SLC Sunstone Symposium (2010), on a panel that included the now-excommunicated John Dehlin, I compared liberal Mormons to the velociraptors in the original Jurassic Park, creatures that were described as throwing themselves against the electrical fence of their pens to test for weaknesses (it was meant as an endearing comparison, I assure you!). I said that liberal Mormons had no way of knowing just how far was going to be too far for LDS leadership, that they would just have to throw themselves against the fence of orthodox Mormonism (whatever that is) and hope they did not get zapped.

As it turns out, quite a few Mormons have since been zapped. Church leaders have set parameters on just how big their tent is, and the answer is, “Not very big.” There may still be a wide diversity of beliefs, but members are only welcome to retain their membership so long as they do not speak out too loudly against the actions and teachings of current leadership. This leaves room for, broadly speaking, only three categories within Mormonism: the Good, the Disciplined, and the Silent. The Church is certainly not signaling that it will come to the table and parley with liberal Mormons on the positions they advocate for any time in the near future.


What does the future hold for liberal Mormonism and the fallen proponents of “Big Tent Mormonism”? Certainly Mormon identity and voice transcends what comes out of Salt Lake City. But can liberal Mormonism survive under the censure of Salt Lake City? By continuing to contribute their time, tithe and talent to an organization whose current leaders seem to want them gone, are liberal Mormons not, in some sense, building their own organizational gallows? Or can they weather the storm in hopes that future leadership will be more sympathetic to their views?

Only time will tell. In the meantime, may “Big Tent Mormonism” rest in peace.


[1] That said, some have argued persuasively that Mormon apologetics–with its championing of models like the Limited Geography theory, its disdain for the teachings of past prophets, and its acceptance of large swaths of secular biblical scholarship–is just another kind of Mormon liberalism. The church’s ouster of the former MI team could be viewed as yet another rejection of liberal Mormonism in that regard.

[2] My source for this was an interview with “Silus Grok,” an anonymous gay Mormon blogger at the now-defunct Nine Moons. It seems neither the Podcast nor any transcript of it is online anymore, but I referenced the matter years ago here.


In Memoriam: Big Tent Mormonism — 9 Comments

  1. What is this? A center for ants?! It needs to be ….. at least 3 times as big!

    -Derek Zoolander

  2. Pingback: So, You've Heard Mormons Don't Like Gay Couples and Their Kids? (or, The New Policy Sucks) - Nearing Kolob Nearing Kolob

  3. “Silus Grok” identified himself as Christian Harrison before the demise of Nine Moons. Christian still participates in the Bloggernacle…

  4. I see the Tent as ever expanding across the globe, inviting those who seek to worship with the Saints to join in. I never perceived it to be a council where all could come to debate doctrine and policy, to raise their voices in distraction to the message of the Restoration. The invitation is still there to all those who wish to worship and not lead or change the direction with their own personal interpretation. Silence seems to be a problem for some of those in the tent and perhaps they would be more comfortable under the Big Top.

  5. Appreciate your thoughts Jack. As you know, this is an issue that I care a great deal about. I think there’s another way to look at it, particularly if you widen your historical scope. I’d use an analogy to Dr. King’s statement that the arc of history tends toward justice. The arc of Mormonism tends toward “enlarging [our] stakes.” Big Tent Mormon history has already won. Big Tent Mormon scholarship on scriptures is still in the thick of the war, but I think quite clearly winning. If one compares Big Tent Mormon Feminism, we’ve made really significant (if clearly inadequate) institutional changes in the last 4-5 years, and perhaps even bigger cultural changes. I even think there’s something to say for what’s going on with our LGBTQ community. I found John Gustav Wrathall’s comments quite inspiring: “I recognized, in the hugs, the hand clasps, the worried queries into my welfare, the expressions of love and support [from my ward], that the LDS community has crossed an important threshold. It has crossed the threshold between a time when this burden, this challenge was mine and mine alone to bear, to a time now where this has become something we all as a whole church must come to terms with. I’m not sure where this will end, but I trust it will be a better place.” Despite institutional positions, Mormons as a people have significantly changed between 2008 and today.

    There’s a great deal to be said for our anti-secessionist spirit combined with our trajectory toward loving one another in our diversity. We are a people. As a people, we’re unavoidably embedded within a greater society, and the intersectionality of our individual identities continues to create tensions and casualties. But quite unlike your metaphor of velociraptors throwing ourselves against the electrical fence to probe for weaknesses, I see a non-metaphor of all of us — liberal and conservatives alike — working hard to follow Brother Brigham’s admonition to mine the gold from the hills –albeit different hills — in order to pave Zion’s streets with gold.

  6. I think this is why the policy has had such an impact among certain groups, it signals the end of the promise of inclusion voiced by Presidents Uchdorf and Eyring, not just for gays, but for feminists and intellectuals and those who had doubts but sought solace and community in the church. It is not just the codification of an unremarkable position against gay marriage, it is seen as a broader statement about who is welcome in the church and that social activism is no longer required for charges of apostasy (it is important that gay marriage is classified as apostasy, not sin like fornication, adultery, or dishonesty). The impact of the policy is not just in the policy, but in its implied message and in the whiplash of a perceived movement from inclusion to exclusion. That is why many people described learning about the policy as “a punch in the gut.” It is the feeling of hope leaking away.

  7. I think we can all be proud of gay LDS who have stuck with the Church despite the challenges — and the challenges are significant and unremitting. And I am encouraged that mainstream members and some local leaders, as well as the usual assortment of fringe critics and progressives, are publicly dismayed by the policy. But at the end of the day, this is a very top-down church and, as noted above, the new policy along with the commentary and classification shows unmistakably that whatever degree of inclusion the senior leadership managed to display in recent years is now over and done with. Our institutional vision has permanently narrowed. It is a very disheartening development.