Guest post by Eric.
In a period of rapid social change and tumult in the United States, 1968 has become emblematic: Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. Hundreds of American troops and thousands of Vietnamese were being killed in battle each week. A sitting president was forced to drop out of his re-election campaign. And student protests sometimes turned violent as parts of society seemed to be veering out of control.
But my family and I, like most Americans in those days, found a refuge each Sunday morning morning in church. At the evangelical church my family attended, one in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, worship services were a simple affair. We’d sing a few traditional hymns to the strains of an organ or piano. People would come to church in their Sunday best, women in dresses and men wearing white shirts and ties. And like nearly all other evangelicals at the time (unlike some of the mainline denominations), our Bible of choice was the King James Version, and God was addressed in prayer as “thou.”
Meanwhile, that afternoon, the few Mormons in town would meet as well. Although we viewed them as a cult, they did things much the same way as we did, even singing some of the same hymns to piano or organ and dressing up in the same way. They read the same Bible and talked to God in the same way, even if they may have folded their arms rather than their hands in prayer.
Fast-forward some 44 years and, my, how things have changed. The successor to the church I once attended now hides its denominational name. Gone are the traditional hymns, replaced by a “praise team” performing and leading soft-rock tunes (or perhaps even with rock not so soft), none of it using lyrics older than I am. And Sunday dress? That might be a T-shirt and shorts or jeans. And nobody would notice if the youth pastor had a beard and stylishly long hair (or, for that matter, were female). And the King James Bibles have long been replaced by the New International Version or even its successor. Gone too are prayers with “thees” and “thous,” replaced by “you” and spoken in a decidedly casual tone.
Meanwhile, at least in outward appearance, little seems different at the LDS ward, where the most radical thing that has changed is that members now meet in a three-hour block rather than making two trips to the church on Sundays. They’re still singing the same traditional hymns to piano and/or organ, and the missionaries they send out aren’t dressed or groomed much differently than 1960s business attire, and the male leadership is expected to dress the same. By and large, people still come to church dressed in their Sunday best, and for women that still means dresses or skirts, even though some styles of slacks can be seen as dressy enough for a White House state dinner. And people still carry their King James Bibles and pray in its type of language.
I call this the Mormon time warp. It’s as if the church culture, or at least some manifestations of it, got frozen in the 1960s, perhaps as a way of reacting to society’s cultural upheaval during that time. Meanwhile, evangelicalism has progressed much differently, often adapting from the culture.
The reactions of Mormonism and evangelicalism to the upheavals of the 1960s and accompanying social changes weren’t always that much different. It wasn’t uncommon during the early part of that era to hear about evangelical pastors (stereotypically, often from the South) denouncing rock music and creeping hippiedom. Leaders in popular culture such as the Beatles were denounced from evangelical pulpits. Most tellingly, during the late 1960s and early 1970s a Wheaton College graduate named Bill Gothard was filling up stadiums and arenas with crowds of 15,000 or more evangelical youth of many denominations to warn them of the dangers not only of premarital sex but also rock music, women’s lib and modern fashions. (His influence waned with changes in evangelical culture, and a 1980s sex scandal involving his subordinates along with criticisms of his prooftext-based doctrines ultimately put him on the far fringes of evangelicalism.)
But, despite objections from some quarters, attempts to hold back the cultural tide against evangelical traditions failed to stick.
(As an aside, the different approaches to culture have occurred even though evangelicalism and Mormonism have followed similar paths politically. Through the early 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon for Mormons or evangelicals to vote Democratic; in fact, Lyndon Johnson carried Utah in 1964, the last time a Democrat won there. But since then, probably spurred by social issues, Mormons and white evangelicals have become overwhelmingly Republican.)
At least since I joined the LDS church in the 1990s, I have wondered about the reasons for the Mormon time warp or cultural freeze or whatever you wish to call it. Why the different paths for the two great religious traditions?
If I had written this blog post even two weeks ago, I might have ended right there and asked why, as I did recently in this comment. But spurred in part by a comment from Katie L and my reading of an article in Slate (a good critique of that article can be found beginning here), I believe I have a big part of the answer: correlation, the process begun by then apostle (and later church president) Harold B. Lee in 1960, to centralize the production of curricular materials, a process that came along with increasing centralization in general.
Here are some of the other factors gave Mormons, but not evangelicals, a time warp:
- Brigham Young University has played a huge role in training future LDS leaders; there’s nothing comparable in the evangelical world. When BYU, which operates under direct church authority, reacted to the 1960s upheavals by banning facial hair on men and otherwise pushing back against cultural changes, it set a cultural tone for the church.
- The church’s missionary program has become a rite of passage for LDS males (and not a few females). By not following fashion trends, the church has sent out an implicit endorsement of traditional attire.
- The highest level of church leadership is a gerontocracy, and most midlevel church leaders and the church’s bureaucracy are based in a small geographic area, creating a bubble of insularity for those with the most direct influence on the church. Because what may seem different or even downright weird in other parts of the country is ordinary within the LDS bubble, changes come about quite slowly.
- Evangelicalism is a movement in Protestant Christianity, not an organization. Being as every bit decentralized as Mormonism has become centralized, churches have been freer to experiment with worship styles. Whatever worship style you prefer, you can find it somewhere in evangelicalism.
- Megachurches became a driving force in evangelicalism beginning in the 1970s. A key to the megachurch movement was to make church as inviting as possible to nonmembers, and that often involved adopting the trappings of the culture when there was no doctrinal reason to do otherwise.
It should be noted that there are pockets of evangelicalism that have followed a Mormon-like path in cultural matters and promoted a conservative approach to cultural change. Liberty University (founded by Jerry Falwell), for example, has a dress and behavior code very similar to that of BYU. And Bob Jones University, on the fundamentalist fringe of evangelicalism, has a dress and behavior code much stricter than that at BYU; under most circumstances, students can’t watch movies with a rating harsher than a G, although they can watch PG films with a faculty member and then discuss the objectionable elements. There also are some smaller denominations, generally on the fundamentalist fringe, that use the KJV exclusively and pray in KJV style.
My comments on the slowness of cultural change in the LDS church here should be seen more as observation than as criticism (although there certainly things I would like to see change more quickly than they have). And while there are ways in which I admire the ability of evangelicals to separate culture from doctrine, I also see some areas where they have compromised their doctrines as a result and/or been uncritical of the dominant culture, and I wouldn’t want to see my church follow that path.