My Thoughts on Someone Else's Thoughts on Why Young People are Deconstructing Their Faith
At my suggestion, Rick Satterfield's temple website now has all the temple matrons (female) listed along with the presidents (male). This started late last year, but he's very busy. I don't know if my feminist blog posts have had any tangible effect on things within the church, but I know that this suggestion did, so I can die happy because I'm not useless.
Two Fridays ago, a full week before I expected to hear back from them, I got an email from the FSY people saying in part, "We regret to inform you that we will not be able to hire you for this particular job at this time." I was pretty qualified with my teaching experience and they were desperate for male counselors, so I first assumed it was because of my blog and/or social media posts. That was a known risk that almost dissuaded me from applying in the first place, but I wasn't about to lie or censor my true feelings and beliefs about anything. Anyway, while they have a right to try to hire those whose values and believes they feel are in line with their own, the chance that they've managed to only hire young people who agree with the church position on same-sex relationships is zero. Another possibility that occurred to me was that they'd discriminated against me for being socially awkward, but while that was a definite possibility and a thing that has been done to me throughout my life, I gave them the benefit of the doubt because the first option was sufficient and reasonable enough. In either case, though, I assumed they had been spineless and dishonest (albeit no more so than most people) to write "we will not be able to hire you" instead of "we have chosen not to hire you."
But on Monday I found out the real reason. Several FSY sessions have been canceled due to low enrollment. For a moment, that news made me feel better about myself and their honesty. Then it alarmed me. At worst, this means that a sizable percentage of the rising generation is not interested in church stuff at all - and everyone knows the church has a severe retention problem with this generation, but I wouldn't have thought it this severe. At best, it means that the leaders who have been hyping this thing up in vain are out of touch with the youth's actual wants or needs - and that problem has been apparent since Brad Wilcox's talk earlier this year went viral for all the wrong reasons, but I wouldn't have thought it this severe. I think it's a real shame because EFY, the North American precursor to FSY, was a mind-blowing, life-changing experience for me at age seventeen. It's hard for me to comprehend that any young Latter-day Saint who cares about or believes in church stuff at all wouldn't want to go. Granted, being surrounded by thousands of church members wouldn't be the same thrilling once-in-a-lifetime event for anyone who's grown up in Utah as it was for me.
Speaking of cynical young church members, I read this very balanced, very relatable article on "Five Real Reasons Young People Are Deconstructing their Faith." I'll resist the impulse to quote the entire thing and try to just go through each of the reasons. The author notes, "Depending on who’s using the word, deconstruction can be a complete demolition of Christian belief, a critical re-appraisal of one’s faith tradition, or an honest acknowledgment of doubt and questions." For me, deconstruction has been a process of rejecting and trying to replace false paradigms that I was implicitly or explicitly taught in the church. For example: everything spoken in General Conference is scripture, scripture comes straight from God's mouth and isn't filtered through human culture or limitations, scripture and science describe the same things and consequently the latter must be reconciled or rejected, prophets and apostles never make serious mistakes with long-term consequences, the "traditional" gender roles promoted by the church aren't sexist, and same-sex love is less authentic or meaningful than opposite-sex love.
Right now there's a big push within the church from scholars and laypeople alike to deconstruct the implicit paradigm of prophetic infallibility that simply doesn't hold up under any amount of scrutiny and often causes people's faith to shatter altogether. What most of them fail to acknowledge is that these incorrect assumptions didn't just grow up in a vacuum, but have been actively promulgated by generations of church talks, manuals, and magazines. Encouraging members to put exclamation points next to everything the prophet says and question marks next to everything else they hear or read is functionally little different from claiming the prophet is infallible. One article I read recently conflates "fallible" with "imperfect" (a much broader term) and then claims, "When a prophet is speaking or presenting a message in his official capacity as prophet, seer, and revelator, he does so under the direction of the Lord. His imperfections outside of his role as prophet do not limit his capacity within his role as prophet." If that's true, then prophets are infallible. We can't have it both ways. We can't pretend fallibility doesn't actually mean anything. We can't say we don't teach that prophets are infallible, and then claim that prophets have no human limitations in their role as prophets - which, by the way, would reduce them to nothing more than God's ventriloquist dummies. It also leads to the unhelpful circular logic that if a prophet is wrong about something, he wasn't acting within his role as a prophet (but you're not supposed to say so until after he's dead).
Now, getting back to the other article. Point 1: Trust in Large Institutions is Declining All Across the Board. The author notes that this is for good reason, and that "Younger generations appear far more eager to hold institutions accountable for their misdeeds and misconduct than the institutions themselves, especially regarding sexual abuse, sexism, racism, and fiscal irresponsibility." I believe my church is a fundamentally good institution and that most of the people in leadership positions are good, but I still don't entirely trust it. It's let me down before and it will again. It wasn't transparent about its history until the internet and hemmoraghing membership gave it no choice, and it still isn't transparent about its finances. My last bishop gave useless advice about a situation he didn't understand and was less than honest with me. He isn't "the church", but as a leader or even just as a member, he is inseparable from it. The church is the people. Without the people it's nothing. "And since the church claims to hold itself to a higher moral standard, institutional failures and distrust will always cascade and ripple outward." (When this author says "the church" he's referring to "a multitude of denominations, movements, and traditions from all over the world centered around the life and teachings of Jesus," but most of what he says is word-for-word applicable to mine.)
Point 2: We Live In a More Diverse, Accessible, and Global World. The author notes, "In contrast to previous generations, Christians Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to attend school, work alongside, and develop relationships with people who live, look, and believe differently. Relational proximity has massive implications for cultural acceptance, social awareness, and interpersonal empathy." This isn't a bad thing - nobody should believe in a religion for the sole reason that they were born into it - but it is a challenge. Of course, most Latter-day Saints in the world are used to being a minority and have lived with this challenge for as long as they've been Latter-day Saints. I suspect that those are Utah are far more likely to be thrown for a loop as the population diversifies or they venture out onto the internet and encounter different, often openly hostile perspectives. Personal acquaintance with LGBTQ+ friends and family members who no longer have to remain closeted in this day and age is also a huge factor in young people, including myself, rejecting what the church teaches about their lifestyles. From the USU English department alone, I'm acquainted with five LGBTQ+ people who have left the church because it made them miserable, and one who has stayed but whose beliefs are far from orthodox.
Point 3: High-Performance Christians are Simply Burning Out. "No one loses a lot of sleep if the spiritually apathetic or consumer-centric churchgoer deconstructs their faith. But when it’s a popular Christian singer/songwriter, a former missionary, a member of the worship team, or a heavily-involved church volunteer, people start paying attention." Yeah, some of the people who leave and subsequently devote all their free time to ranting about their former religion aren't much of a loss, but the church is also losing some of its best and brightest people. Some remaining members look at their departures as "the separation of the wheat and the tares," which is not only uncharitable but flat-out wrong. The tares in the parable are deceitful and actively trying to cause trouble, and the whole point is that you can't tell which ones they are until Jesus (not you) gets rid of them. I've burned out a little myself. It's impossible to maintain the enthusiasm I once had for sharing the gospel with the entire world when the world overwhelmingly seems to not give a crap.
Point 4: The Prideful Prioritization of Conformity Over Unity. "If everyone in your church is expected to look, talk, think, and believe exactly like you, your church isn’t as welcoming as you assume. Instead, you’ve created a culture that sacrifices unity for conformity." (emphasis in original) Young people want to discuss their legitimate questions and doubts without just being told to study their scriptures and pray more, and they don't care if men wear pastel shirts to church or women have multiple ear piercings. The church has progressed by leaps and bounds in this area but still has a long way to go.
Point 5: The Acceptance of Political Idolatry and Conspiracy Theories in Christian Communities. "It’s difficult to put into words how discouraging it can be to watch the very people who taught you the value of discernment fall into conspiratorial rabbit holes or succumb to inflammatory misinformation. Or, as Carey wrote in a blog post, “When Christians lose their minds, people lose their faith.” (emphasis in original) This. This. A thousand times this. When I see how stupid a significant number of middle-aged American members of my church are on social media, I become legitimately afraid that if I ever get married, my wife will turn into a moron on her fortieth birthday. I don't have much of a desire to affiliate with people who think that Trump is the rightful US president and critical race theory is Communism. Even without the conspiracy theory aspect, I have very little patience for the kind of people I used to be who think their political views are the only ones that a righteous Saint can hold and aren't shy about saying so. I'm not sure what part of "principles compatible with the gospel may be found in various political parties" is so damn hard for members of The Church of Donald Trump of Latter-day Republicans to understand. I think this is much less of an issue in Young Single Adult wards, though I've still witnessed a high councillor's wife get up and bear her "testimony" that "social justice and reproductive justice aren't really justice."
Just one more quote to wrap up, and this is a key takeaway for me since I need to critique myself and not just other people: "Deconstruction without reconstruction is a tragedy. If the path you’re on isn’t making you a more generous, compassionate, hopeful, and merciful person (or, in other words, more like Jesus), then the destination isn’t worth the journey." Ultimately, I only want to believe what's true, so ultimately, I believe that will bring me closer to Jesus. But I know I need to go about it in the right way and I'll keep making course corrections in that regard. I can't not take the journey, though. I was made for it. Everyone should read that article in full, so here's the link again.
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About the Author
C. Randall Nicholson is a white cisgender Christian male, so you can hate him without guilt, but he's also autistic and asexual, so you can't, unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual. This blog is where he periodically rants about life, the universe, and/or everything.