Small World

There is a profile of the fired BYU professor on the Salt Lake Tribune website as well as a story about the firing (or lack of rehiring) on the LDS owned Deseret News. I was just going to link to these, but I think the profiles have stuck with me for a few reasons.

The biggest: I went to the same high school as Mr. Nielsen. He was the studentbody president my freshman year. Nielsen seemed like all the other Mormons in my high school, forthright, considerate, nice and clean. During my time in high school, there was a sizable minority of students who were not Mormon. They were the children of rocket scientists, project managers, chemists, physicists and others who emigrated from all over to build rockets out in the desert for NASA and the U.S. military. This influx of brain power and ideas and people gave me a very different small town Utah experience compared to other towns the size of mine. I was close with a few people who were Mormon, but most of my friends in high school were not Mormon. Seeing how they and their families lived made a lot of the demonization that happened on Sunday easier to discern for what it was: paranoid crap.

I mostly laughed these things off, as my friends weren’t bad people. They helped expose me to normalcy. At least Small Town, U.S.A. normalcy. It should be said that my parents weren’t that censorious, with the exception of Led Zeppelin II, which was destroyed about 38 seconds after my immediately older brother spun “Whole Lotta Love”. We didn’t even make it to “The Lemon Song”. We were Mormon, however, and I believe the cultural divide was a big one in our small town. My mom hired a few of my closest friends to help with her business and this example always seemed to indicate that my parents were trying to make sure their children weren’t heroin users, never mind what religion our friends were.

The weirdness about being closer to Nielsen than I had previously thought is due to three facets. One, he has an adult child, but Nielsen is only a few years older than me. I don’t feel old enough to have adult children. Two, I agree with what he is saying, even though our experience growing up Mormon was markedly different and I’m out of the religion. Three, I’m still in shock that we went to the same high school. I would have never pegged him as a person who would choose to make a public stand like this. I’m compelled by how he’s changed. “Good” Mormons don’t challenge authority, especially not church authority. You can hear Nielsen talk about this here. Nielsen does a nice job of framing his views. The people who commented previously (this one, this one and this one) might do well to listen to this to get a picture of Nielsen that doesn’t come across in the news stories. It’s also of interest to those who might wonder how some Mormons think about God, gays and eternity. It’s not an easy listen and I’m not talking about the accents.

I think Nielsen is mostly comfortable in the church, and his points of contention with the LDS church are politcal/procedural and not doctrinal. What Nielsen wants is noble, but will never happen given the autocratic hierarchy of ultra-conservative leaders in the LDS church. I think this will hurt the church in the long run. Being less than honest about membership, growth rates or polygamy will only continue to hurt the church from within and without.

One example is that in the 1980s, a Baptist wrote a paper that has become so quoted by the media and by members in the church. It states that if growth rates continue as they had been, the LDS Church would be the fastest growing church in the world. This is rarely disputed and is stated as fact. I think it’s not a true statement. It propagates due to lazy journalism and because the LDS Church is very private about its real growth and activity rates. I would put the real activity rate at about 30% of total membership, maybe less. I decided to spend a few minutes searching online. Islam is likely the fastest, although I did find a site proclaiming that Wicca was the fastest growing religion (the info is down the page a bit) in the world based on a two year sample of growth rate.

I agree Nielsen is dead right in his expression that the real membership numbers are likely lower than publicly reported. Ask any former missionary about retention of those they baptize. The numbers don’t hold up even to anecdotal scrutiny in my experience, and it would be interesting to know the real number of active members in the LDS church. Sidebar: As a missionary for the church, I disagreed violently with the “chuck them in” philosophy prevalent during my time of service. It cost me in terms of leadership position and reputation, but I felt it extraordinarily short term thinking and asking people to make such a huge life change should take longer than 4-6 weeks. I felt that if we really cared about people, we’d have handled things much differently. I believe this thinking would be born out if true membership numbers were released.

All of the Mormon stuff aside, I think I need to state clearly that any organization would do well to have people like Nielsen among them. It’s sad that BYU and some members of the LDS Church feel differently. Nielsen is a strong person and deserves admiration for his stand. Even if you disagree with him. He’s made a brave stand. Not just as a Mormon, but as an American.