Recently, Matt Frizzell posted an article on this blog reflecting on the differing possible identities for the Community of Christ. I have been reflecting on his article for some time now and considering what the dimensions of the Community of Christ identity are. Too often we have simplified the conflicts in the church down to a “Liberal-Conservative Split” which I think misses a lot of nuance. I have come up with a basic typology (ever the political scientist!) based on two dimensions:
1) a “Latter Day Saint/Protestant Axis”, based on a person’s attachment to the RLDS tradition, scripture, doctrine and story as opposed to a more conventional Protestant theology.
2) a “Fideist/Rationalist Axis” based on a person’s trust in reason, science and scholarship versus a sense that faith must come before and above reason (a kind of scholasticism).
This is what I get:
|Latter Day Saint||Protestant|
The primary dispute in North America for the last 40-50 years has been between the Traditional RLDSers and Liberals. However, in the last 10-20 years, the other two groups have grown in power.
The people I call Post-Modern RLDSers are people who believe strongly in the value of the traditional texts, stories and culture but have adopted a rationalistic approach to them. For instance, they may accept the liberal critical scholarship of the traditional RLDS story and doctrine, but still believe it holds value as a ‘broken but useful myth.’ They would argue that the Community of Christ has as much right to a distinctive religio-cultural identity as any other religious movement. Many of these people are actually liberal converts from Mormonism. They are particularly influential in the younger generation of Community of Christ intellectuals.
The evangelical/pentecostal bloc is, I think, the ‘sleeping giant’. As scholars of global Christianity have shown, evangelicalism and pentecostalism have had a immense revival in the last 40 years, particularly in the developing world. Some believe this is because a strict, emotive and conservative faith offers ready answers to the large scale social, political and economic disruptions in people’s lives. I believe the Community of Christ has not yet fully come to terms with the reality that its growth is largely happening outside its traditional core, where most converts come from an evangelical and/or pentecostal background.
Throughout the political life of the church these groups interact, conflict, compromise and make alliances. For many years, there was an alliance of sorts between the North American Liberals in the HQ leadership and the evangelical leaders in the developing world. This was because they both saw a benefit in deconstructing the traditional RLDS story and doctrine. However, there are substantive disagreements between the Liberals and Evangelicals (particularly over the issue of sexuality) that are beginning to create fissures in this alliance. Many evangelicals from the developing world are beginning to realize that they may hold certain doctrinal things in common with the traditional RLDSers, particularly about personal morality. We are also seeing a differentiation between the Liberals and Post-Modern RLDSers over the value of the RLDS ‘distinctives’, despite an affinity for rationalistic approaches to thinking about faith.
In short, I think it is important to talk of Community of Christ identities, rather than one monolithic Community of Christ identity. The future makeup of the church will depend on the shifting power, conflict and alliances between these four groups.