The following is part of a larger study on the concept of “gospel culture”, which I have been working on. In a previous post I presented the question “How American is the Church?”, which yielded very interesting comments. For the present post I excerpted some further parts on culture and Mormon identity, with various questions to the reader.
1 – In search of identity
Most religions display exterior features that are uniquely recognizable: style of buildings, particular rituals, sacred locations, sometimes for the adherents a specific piece of clothing or a full dress, or even a bodily marking. This affirmation of identity fulfills an important social role as an expression of community selfhood and of belonging to that community. Wittingly or unwittingly it also stresses a demarcation line excluding others: identity alienates.
Predominantly in older religions that have permeated whole populations on regional or national levels, religious identity often seems to match with ethnicity in its genetic sense, such as Japanese Shintoism, Greek-Orthodoxy, Indian Hinduism, Arabic Islam. History documents the clashes, and numerous wars, between such groups claiming their authenticity from ethno-religious roots. But even more recent religious groups, without such an ethnic identity, are sometimes viewed as peculiar and thus threatening, as the history of Mormonism in the 19th century illustrates. In various countries Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Krishnas, Baha’is, and many others without any ethnic relations between the members, continue to endure such prejudice and sometimes persecution. Religious intolerance along these identity perceptions remains of great concern in many parts of the world. Actively proselytizing religions moreover test the boundaries of tolerance as they seek, in the eyes of vested religions, to steal away souls and incorporate them under a new communal identity. This creates special strains when converts are drawn from ethnic or national religions. To answer such concerns the Mormon Church has pledged not to proselytize in Israel and is extremely careful regarding Muslims in certain countries.
In another part of this larger study I analyze various approaches to the so-called Mormon “gospel culture”, a term that emerged in the 1970s and that can be found in texts of church authorities and Mormon sociologists. The analysis shows a wide variety of ways in which a conversion, as a form of alteration in identity towards participation in a gospel culture, can be described. The descriptions range from a total overhaul to keeping the original identity with just some additions. These different views reflect the underlying religious rhetoric of the period or of the individual’s perspective, from a resolute rupture with one’s past to the most diplomatic and reassuring embrace. For outsiders, as well as for converts, it may be somewhat confusing as to what brand of identity change is expected. What does it mean, identity-wise, to become a Mormon, to become part of the “gospel culture”?
Mormons have no ethnic roots to base an identity on. The theme of adoption in the House of Israel is not in the doctrinal foreground anymore. There is no visibly recognizable “Mormon identity”, required by the Church, that an individual can display to the outside. Except for the missionaries, Mormons do not wear exterior signs which show off their faith. In that regard it is perhaps significant that temple garments are worn discreetly. Abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea is what outsiders often note as one of our main characteristics, but it is not “genuinely” Mormon and can hardly be called an identity trait. All in all, on the street, in public life, Mormons do not wear on their sleeves who they are religiously. Interesting to note: more than once, abroad, a (sloppy) article on Mormons uses photos picturing Amish. The press needs a visual identity for the adherents and the confusion between the two groups — as Christians who in America have separated themselves from the world to preserve an own serene life-style on idyllic land — comes naturally.
Only on Sunday could one discern some semblance of vestimentary sameness, when the Mormon life-style extends to dress and grooming standards, especially for men wearing white shirts and ties. It seems that converts in foreign lands actually like to adopt this uniformity, as the outward manifestation of their newly found identity. Then there is of course, but hidden from the eyes of the world and only occasionally experienced by most Mormons, the homogeny in the temple, where members wear uniquely Mormon vestments. Though this does create some form of common identity, it is not comparable to the daily, public effect of a Jewish kippah or an Islamic head scarf.
In contrast to the lack of an exterior Mormon identity-look, as it pertains to individuals, it is readily asserted that the real Mormon identity is internal, namely the shared testimony of the Restored gospel, the shared spiritual experiences, the participation in the social network, in the “great worldwide family” to which we belong, etc. These elements are indeed of primordial value, but do not help to affirm and feel a physical identity as in many other religions. Moreover, this view may underestimate the importance of unique material symbols in the creation and maintenance of a religious identity for Mormons themselves. For Utah such is Pioneer Day â€“ “one of the most important public expressions of Mormon identity” (Olsen 1996). Many Mormons of pre-correlation days, even members abroad, remember with some nostalgia other material tokens of identity — dance festivals, roadshows, Primary and MIA-symbols, medallions, bandlos, etc. The yearning for such objects probably explains the continued success of Mormon gadgets such as figurines, temple statuettes, pins, CTR-rings, necklaces, etc., but which are “non-official” and only reach a small part of the Mormon membership (and, ironically, especially those who are already part of long-standing and well-developed Mormon communities.)
To what extent do the various forms of “gospel culture” contribute to making a “Mormon identity”? Only forms that stress a significant measure of isolation and fear of the world? Can one of the broader concepts of gospel culture, which would include some, many or most good features from other cultures, still lead to a “sufficient” Mormon identity? Do we want a gospel culture that develops in converts a Mormon identity which alienates them from the host culture (and often also their non-member family), or do we prefer, at least outwardly, that they continue to blend in? Has the present correlation-era of the Church, by taking out of church life some of its substantial content as well as colorful Mormon tokens of earlier years, undermined Mormon identity or, rather, brought it to a higher level?
I have no clear answers to these questions. But I believe it is important that new converts, in particular for their retention, adopt as quickly as possible a proud, joyful, viable Mormon identity, which they also recognize as such for themselves, but which does not put them on a collision course with their non-Mormon environment.
2 – In defense of uniformity
I have always disagreed with the suggestion to somehow pluriculturalize Mormonism by determining a common, essential core and then allowing regional or national Mormonisms — Pacific, Japanese, Dutch, Siberian … — to develop around that core. There are serious drawbacks to such a proposition.
a – What would be the common, essential core? It should be more than broad generalities, but less than anything too specific. The discussion would be endless.
b – Those who propose such makeover to local cultures, are identifying them out of stereotypes. What would be “typical” Pacific, or Brazilian or Dutch? Take Dutch: the Netherlands are already a small country. But just as much divided into different zones, from Northern Friesland to Southern Brabant, with their own respective characteristics. Then, spread all over the country, the ideological puzzle: from staunch Calvinists, a dozen Protestant tendencies, over traditional and independent Catholics, to more liberal tendencies. Can we imagine what kinds of discussions the creation of a “national Dutch Mormonism” would involve? If we move to larger entities like Pacific or Brazilian, the divisions are as complex and diverse. And would it then be possible to even have a single “American Mormonism” with its own cultural identity? Mormons from California or New-York may not completely identify with Mormon culture in parts of Happy Valley… And is Happy Valley not dividable in various areas? There is just too much diversity to arrive at a “national Mormonism” once we would loosen the grip of worldwide correlation in favor of any of these.
c – Assorted forms of Mormonism would open a box of Pandora as to who is more or less orthodox, who has remained the purest to the core, who deserves not to be called Mormon anymore. Suffice it to point at such discussions within the factions in Islam or the sects in Christendom. We do not want Tutsi versus Hutu Mormons, nor Kosovar versus Serb Mormons.
d – This ties in with the preceding, one central aim of the gospel should precisely be to make nationalities and their threatening nationalisms fade away.
e – Through conversions among immigrants, the Church in many countries is already a melting pot. A relatively small ward like Antwerp (Belgium) has members from more than 30 nationalities. The membership in each of many church units across the world does not belong to one nationality or culture anymore. In fact it is in those units that a non-nationalistic, worldwide Mormon culture may be emerging. “The Church is the same all over the world” is a potent reassurance of our unity and our strength. With increasing travel for many people in the world, the assurance of finding a Mormon meetinghouse where things are familiar, where the same hymns are sung, where one feels at home, is heartening.
Correlation, control, conformity seem therefore vital as principles. As a European with long experience in the mission field, also in Africa, I recognize the value of worldwide correlation as it ensures unity. We are too young and too fragile an international Church, to take risks of fragmentation or even schisms. It is interesting to note that the Church has been extremely careful, even reluctant to enter some African countries where the probability of independent diversifications is high in view of the ease with which break-away preachers can start their own versions of a church. The Church is moving very slowly in such areas. In that respect it seems the Church is pursuing a worldwide movement of consolidating shattered pieces into centers of strength which are easier to control. Indeed, in previous years progress has sometimes been too fast and has splintered forces, horizontally in the founding of weak units, vertically in the multiplication of callings on stake and area levels with a heightened risk that such leaders micromanage people and units under them with pet-schemes. With fewer mid-level leaders and with strength concentrated in wards uniformity can be better implemented.
In relation to the preceding section (1), one should remark that identity needs uniformity, but uniformity alone does not guarantee identity. Uniformity, indeed, is an externally imposed framework, while identity is the individual response to it, in terms of acceptance and conformity. But identity is more complex than simply matching the general framework. Individuals have divergent needs and expectations, characters and backgrounds. To what extent can the Church respond to these in ways that are helpful to create balanced identities? That leads us to the next section.
3 – In search of inclusion of local culture
My preceding reflections should have convinced all that I am strongly in favor of an identical, worldwide Church. This does not, however, imply antagonistic isolation. Except for some Utah pockets, church members live among people with other worldviews. Outside the Mormon corridor in the American West, they constitute tiny minorities and belong both to a Mormon (or call it gospel) culture and a local culture, defined here in the broader sense as a totality of traits that make a distinct society — way of life, manners, traditions, art, history, language, symbols, interests — including folklore, but vastly surpassing it.
Such a local culture should not be approached by default with the rhetoric that turns it into the despicable “culture of the world”. Normally a local culture, if considered as a complex whole, contains many more good elements than bad, if we could quantify them some way or another. Moreover, the most distinctive elements will mostly be good, i.e. the ones that provide the most cohesion and identity, safety and trust, while negative ones are probably disruptive to the society itself and found all over the world in various degrees — dishonesty, adultery, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc. Only certain cultures harbor distinctive customs which are patently evil, such as domestic violence or genital mutilation. Such customs need to be eradicated.
In considering the encounter between the two so-called cultures — gospel and local –, we must first of all recognize that many features of the local culture will simply be part of members’ lives without creating any conflict. Converts can continue in all aspects of their “normal life”, except the very few elements that fall under explicit commandments like the Word of Wisdom.
But at one point we enter the gray zone. Problematic items deal with “good” customs that somehow penetrate the realm reserved for religious assessment from a Mormon perspective. Can Mormon children in Finland, dressed up as witches and wizards, participate in the beloved yearly event to trek through their neighborhood (at least as momentous as Halloween to American children), passing out willow twigs in exchange of candy or a few coins? — but this is always happening on Palm Sunday, raising a question as to Sabbath observance. Even inoffensive folklore, for the joy of the children, can thus present a challenge. There are meaningful traditions that, depending on the criteria chosen, cannot be called “contrary to” gospel principles, but would raise eyebrows if followed by Mormons. Can a Mormon Japanese family keep ancestral shrines in their home and observe Buddhist and Shinto holidays? Can converts from Judaism keep a mezuzah on their front door and at Passover continue to have the Seder ceremonial evening meal? These are questions for the privacy of their home and we may not want to interfere. Things become more sensitive when we move to church grounds. Can Latino members celebrate quinceaÃ±era — a girl’s exceptionally festive 15th birthday — with an appropriate fireside-type service in the chapel (to approximate the special Catholic Mass at this occasion)? Can Congolese members conduct a funeral service with jazzy accompaniment and dancing — so vital for their sense of community in the face of death? Can Spanish members, many of whom are converts from Catholicism who may long after the delight of the Midnight Mass, organize a Mormon variant on Christmas’ eve in the chapel? Such items are representative for what can come up in the gray zone.
I presume that in most cases the tendency will be to refuse any such cultural incursions into Mormon territory, simply because they do not match predetermined standards of acceptability. Or, in case of hesitation, better to err on the safe side and turn down requests.
But there may be reasons to be more lenient and to establish helping criteria.
a – For the individual and the family, a number of traditions belong to a cultural heritage that shapes fundamental identity within the local community. When such traditions are uplifting, joyful, reassuring, and have nothing detrimental in relation to the gospel, proscribing them could create voids that the Church cannot fill — especially since correlation has reduced the chances for socializing among members. Among these traditions are festive events celebrated all over the country (or in a certain locality), special historical remembrance dates, peculiar recipe days (when each family eats the same distinctive, delicious food), etc. Especially forms of yearly “childrens’ day”, which are celebrated in many countries in various forms and on divergent dates, connect the community through their activities and excitement. Sometimes such festivities are non-denominational (e.g. childrens’ parade on the Norwegian Constitution Day), sometimes they have a certain religious origin (e.g. Sinterklaas in Holland, la Befana in Italy). Prohibiting Mormon children to participate in such events not only can be socially upsetting to them, but may develop early on in them a rejecting, fundamentalist outlook on society as the only justification for the distance created. In contrast, being both a “good Mormon” and an integrated member of the local culture, without transgressing any norm of the Church, will most probably contribute to the construct of a balanced personality.
b – Having church members openly and naturally participate in local traditions can, certainly in critical cases, signal an important socio-political message to the host society and its leaders. The Church adheres to a strong policy of good relations with each government. But, from Mormon historical writings, not even so long ago, there is the possible negative impact that particular affirmations can have in the politico-religious realm — like promising to supplant all governments by the Kingdom of God. A religion like Islam carries, in some of its strands, the same rhetoric of future world domination and firmly rejects traditions of the “infidels”. Latent and emergent religious conflicts are sensed as potentially disastrous to many nations which have witnessed them in their history. National and regional governments look at “foreign” religions with suspicion, or outright aggressivity, in particular when these religions demand rights and facilities for their members, stressing their distinctiveness and therefore their apparent refusal to assimilate. A group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses is, in many West- and East-European countries, viewed as a sinister cult, partially because of its disturbing disengagement from the surrounding culture, refusing to celebrate days like Easter or Christmas, even banning birthday parties. Such societal disconnection is interpreted as treacherous cultic behavior. Participation in the local culture, on the other hand, is viewed as commitment to the common cause. It can happen on a neighborhood level, in the school context, through membership in cultural organizations, etc. It can also be highly visible as a public statement. I remember how, years ago, a Belgian missionwide Mormon choir participated as one of the three central choirs in a national singing festival covered by the media. The positive impact on the perception of such public involvement is incalculable.
c – Taking into account the often high internal cultural diversity of a Mormon unit abroad, with its immigrant converts from various foreign cultures, introducing these people to major traditions of the host society, can help them better integrate. Indeed, quite often these people have only the Mormon unit as their social connection point with the host society. Integration of immigrants is high on the agenda of governments. Even within its limited scope, a Mormon unit can contribute to that integration, but then it needs to include components of the local culture into its activities.
d – A fourth argument, in some cases the most important, concerns non-Mormon family members. The conversion of a family member to a “foreign” religion is, in many countries, sensed by the rest of the family as a betrayal of the deepest cultural heritage. The larger the breach in beliefs and practices between that heritage and the other religion, the more painful it often becomes. Some religions, like Jehovah’s witnesses, are accused of willfully harming those inter-familial relations by their rejection of the so-called “pagan” traditions that bind families together. In cult-investigations one of the criteria looked at concerns the severance with family and society traditions: isolation from those is considered unacceptable. So there is particular value in keeping certain local traditions alive in Mormon units abroad, where also non-Mormon family members can feel at ease when invited.
e – Dynamic connectedness of church members with the local culture allows Mormon missionaries from other countries to experience, through these members, traditions which bring them closer to the people and which can only be enriching for their own cultural horizon. This experience should, of course, transcend stereotyped folklore — an all too obvious problem when one notices the kind of memories and souvenirs some returned missionaries cherish. Understanding and appreciating a local culture requires a practical pedagogy to develop cultural sensitivity and responsiveness in its multiple facets. That way missionaries, in a guided interaction with local traditions that church members maintain, can discover and internalize more essential traits of the culture and improve their own communication with people.
If these arguments are convincing, namely to be more lenient in allowing cultural manifestations, proper to the host society, as part of local church life, some guidelines would probably be in order. The general statement sometimes made that everything can be kept that is “not incompatible with the gospel” leaves much room for interpretation and hence for inconsistent decisions and disagreements, with a high risk that nothing at all will be allowed. A first step in such guidelines could be the positioning of protective principles such as 1) the strict maintenance of our worldwide standard meetings (e.g. no local liturgical additions); 2) the clear distinction between the official church realm and the sphere of items of local culture, which are seen as temporarily and locally permitted practices. Next I can only suggest questions. Should each proposal for such practice be assessed on a one by one basis, to be approved on a multi-stake, national or regional level for the sake of coherence? Should proposals best pertain only to major cultural items that apply to large geographical entities, like Christmas’ eve services, quinceaÃ±era firesides, Childrens’ day festivities â€“ in order to avoid fragmentation over little issues? Or should the whole matter be kept very local and casuistic, only sustained by an acknowledged greater tolerance at the top? Some will probably fear that guidelines may tend to overregulation. Others that too much freedom will lead to incongruent decisions and disarray. Whatever the viewpoint, the present lack of any parameter is not helpful either.
Finally, perhaps we need to be as concerned about local church leaders who, in order to fashion an extremely standardized and thus safe “gospel culture”, impose restrictions well into the realm of the acceptable. In some places, certainly where the Church is still young, the tendency of local leaders to enforce strict uniformity, and to micromanage their flock, can lead to the prohibition of small ancestral traditions that should be perfectly acceptable in the daily lives of members. Also here some guidelines would be welcome to counter extremes. A Church News article (03/14/98) on Nigeria mentions that a challenge for leaders “is that of helping new converts shed their tribal customs and traditions and bring their lives to conform with the culture of the gospel.” Note the contrastive approach. The article tells of members who, by giving up some (unidentified) traditions, create such a rift with their non-Mormon parents that these do not consider them their children anymore. The local church leader is quoted with the conclusion: “That creates a lot of pain, but some members have decided to do that. It is really very hard. But the members are definitely blessed for this sacrifice, because they are free from bondage.” The problem with such information is that the reader has no idea which traditions were at stake here. Were they of such a nature that a dramatic rupture with the parents was inevitable? If not, perhaps we should, like Chieko N. Okazaki suggests in Disciples (1998), pursue wisdom by looking at principles in the host society’s culture and by continuing to accept some traditions for the sake of family unity and peace. As examples she mentions how the principle of prayer allows her to pray with her mother at the Buddhist household shrine, or how the principle of family unity allows her and her husband to participate in fun Sunday afternoon activities with her extended non-Mormon family. Her conclusion: “Before you dismiss any cultural practice, think about the principle behind it, decide if this principle is one you also believe, and see if you can find a way to participate in it in a way that honors that principle.”
Your thoughtful criticism and reflections on some of the questions raised in this post will be greatly appreciated. I am particularly interested in examples of possible inclusion of local culture into “Mormon gospel culture”.