Exit, Voice, Loyalty and Mormonism

In his 1970 book "Exit, Voice, and Loyalty" economist Albert Hirschman discusses what members of organizations do when they become dissatisfied with certain aspects of those organizations. He argues that they basically have two options to express their dissatisfaction: they can vote with their feet by leaving the organization ("exit"), or they can speak up in an attempt to improve those aspects of the organization they find dissatisfying ("voice"). Which of those two options they pursue, Hirschman argues, largely depends on how much loyalty they have toward the organization. Members with low levels of loyalty often leave because the cost of exit is lower than the cost of using voice. Members with high levels of loyalty, on the other hand, will not leave but instead will resort to using voice to try to improve the situation. After all, they are loyal members who value their relationship with the organization; exit costs are high and undesirable.

This theory may be helpful to understanding the actions of many Mormon intellectuals and dissidents who have, over the last several years, taken to "using voice" in publicizing their concerns and criticisms over various aspects of Mormon teachings, practices, and policies. (Others have also applied the Hirschman model to understanding Mormon behavior in these situations, see here and here, e.g.)

Most recently, popular Mormon blogger John Dehlin was excommunicated due in part to his very public and vocal disagreement with Mormon leaders over issues like women's ordination and same-sex marriage, as well as expressing disbelief in some fundamental doctrines of Mormonism. (It should be noted, however, that there is some dispute over the specific reasons for his excommunication see here, here, here, and here.) This comes on the heels of last summer's disciplinary actions against feminist activist Kate Kelly, who was excommunicated for actions involving the Ordain Women organization that she founded.

Religion scholar and Mormonism expert Jan Shipps has explained that these disciplinary actions are ultimately about "boundary maintenance." That is, the Mormon Church is more aggressively signaling to its members what is and is not acceptable behavior for members who wish to remain in good standing. The actions of Kelly and now Dehlin, apparently, are being defined by church leaders as beyond the boundaries of what is expected of loyal members in good standing.

Albert Hirschman's theory, however, suggests a different perspective on the actions of these individuals. As explained, Hirschman argues that dissatisfied group members exit the group only when their level of loyalty is low. When loyalty is high, however, they choose to use voice. Given that they have chosen to very publicly use voice to express their concerns strongly suggests that, contrary to perceptions of many, these "dissidents" are faithful, loyal members who desire to remain part of the Mormon community. This is all the more remarkable given the very real and immediate risk of social marginalization and potential church discipline that Mormons can potentially face when they choose to use voice to express their concerns.

John Pavlovitz expresses this sentiment very eloquently in the context of Protestantism. He argues: "When you're a caring, passionate, responsible part of something, (especially if you're "family"), your obligation is to speak into that thing, especially when it isn't being all you believe it is supposed to. That is the very essence of what it means to love something deeply."

For Pavlovitz, Dehlin, Kelly, and others who speak out about the things they care strongly about, loyalty is expressed through voicing concerns and raising awareness of issues they care about, not passive submission or turning a blind eye toward (much less publicly defending) what they perceive to be mistakes and injustices. While their approaches are indeed strident and confrontational at times, Hirschman would interpret their actions as efforts to make their community a place where those with concerns or minority viewpoints, by some estimates as many as 10-15% of American Mormons, will feel welcome and valued so that the church will be stronger and more successful as a result. (Tom Grover is one of many who have publicly expressed appreciation for Dehlin's efforts to help provide a space for them in the Mormon community.)

Another application of Hirschman's theories may be worth considering. He argued that the manner in which an organization responds to the concerns expressed by its members strongly affects how its dissatisfied members, in turn, respond to the organization. When an organization provides opportunities for concerned members to use voice in a way that results in substantive (or even symbolic) reforms, member loyalty and emotional investment increases and those whose concerns were addressed become even more passionate about the success and strength of the organization.

When the organization responds to member concerns by stifling dissent, however, Hirschman argues that it can increase the cost of using voice to such a degree that members with concerns will instead begin to see exit as the more "cost-effective" option. In this particular case, it would suggest that a religious organization that continues disciplinary crackdowns and excommunications of those who choose voice will ultimately cause increasing numbers of exits from many who would have instead chosen to remain and use voice if only the costs to do so were lower, i.e. if there were a meaningful and effective way to express concerns in the community without fear of social marginalization or formal discipline.