How do ‘we’ as Mormons learn to view ‘others’? We can try to answer this question from the angle of various approaches to the concept of “gospel culture”.
The following is part of a larger study on the concept of â€œgospel cultureâ€ In previous posts I presented How American is the Church? and Mormon identity and culture. To win space I have not included references, but please ask if you want one.
1. Various approaches
It is only in the 1970s that the term “gospel culture” enters into Mormon parlance as an identity marker. The worldwide expansion of the church seemed to ask for a new rhetoric in identifying Mormonism in the broader context of intercultural encounters. The term has been used with different perspectives.
1.1. Antagonistic isolation from the other
In this paradigm the gospel culture is seen as a hallowed, protective enclave versus the “culture of the world”. Noel B. Reynolds (1978) claims that “the world view of the gospel is essentially subversive of the world views perpetuated by the cultures of man.” Even if cultures have “some notion of the good life and of human salvation”, each of them is “false to the extent that it does not correctly identify the Savior as the only source of salvation and his priesthood as the human agency through which access to salvation is available.”
As to other religions, their apostate creeds are considered with some repugnance, even if diplomatic rhetoric tries to avoid such direct condemnation. In one of the first uses of the term “gospel culture”, in the context of internationalization, we read that a Latter-day Saint convert “cannot simply acquire a testimony of the gospel without almost entirely reevaluating and reorganizing his own personal value system so it can fit without major conflict within the gospel culture” (Dehoyos & Dehoyos 1971).
Defining gospel culture in such contrastive and separative terms is thus found in many texts (mainly sermons) that proceed from the helpful clarity of this polarizing approach to oppose good and evil. It is part of an oratory of repentance that calls us to reject the “culture of the world”.
1.2. Exemplary impact on the other
Hugh Nibley (1978) reacts to Reynolds’ view by taking a less dichotomous stand. He defines “a gospel culture” (note the indefinite article), starting from the idea of a gospel community or society, which is Zion, “described as a city, an organized society, set apart from the world.” However, Nibley does not define this gospel culture as an enclave closed to external input, but as a society composed of “everything good”, which we can also actively “seek” to bring in from the outside, with reference to the 13th Article of Faith.
In contrast to an antagonistic view that excludes the rest of the world from anything valuable, Nibley also stresses that this central celestial culture has served “as a model for the greatest peaks of human civilization as a whole.” Religions and philosophies sprang forth from the model and as long as they continue to point to heaven — in particular with a temple tradition — they share in the original heritage, “convinced that they were imitating the heavenly model and doing the best they could.”
1.3. Selective appreciation in the other
The paradigm laid out by Nibley is known in church doctrine as the historical pace of divinely sanctioned dispensations, each followed by a period of apostasy that corrupted the full truth, but that also maintained parts of it. It is a diachronic view in subsequent phases. However, with the Restoration the comprehension of this phenomenon had to be related to a more synchronic view. Indeed, even restored to its “fullness”, the church had to accept coexistence with other religions.
Especially after 1890 overture to the world and a spirit of conciliation with other churches became themes in Mormon texts. This selective appreciation became widely accepted in Mormon thought, all through the 20th century. In 1978 the First Presidency issued a statement echoing many similar acknowledgments in the past: “The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.”
How to view the dynamic relation between a Mormon “gospel culture” and other religious cultures, in particular from the angle of missionary work? The Mormon position is presented as per definition superior, as it claims to possess the fullness, while others only have parts. One approach is: since a foundation of truth is already present in the other religion, people can retain it as their basis. The dynamics of conversion can then be expressed as an addition, as Marion D. Hanks (1965) stated: “Keep every good thing you have, and then listen to the additional word of the Lord in our time.” That same invitation has been repeated many times by church leaders. In a rhetorical address to members from Christian churches Hartman Rector jr. (1972) exclaimed: “We won’t take anything from you that you have that’s true; we will just add to what you have, and we will do it in love, with no compulsion, no force.”
1.4. Selective exclusion in the other
A seemingly reverse movement is first to define what a gospel culture is in the Mormon perspective, invite converts to adopt it in full and ask them to erase from their original backgrounds what is incompatible with this gospel culture. That approach is present in two General Conference talks by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in 2003 (April & October). He defines gospel culture as “a set of values and expectations and practices common to all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Converts thus “become part of the worldwide gospel culture of commandments and covenants and ordinances and blessings.”
It is an encompassing definition, with a strong globalizing undertone and emphasis on religious living. As to the relation with the original cultures of converts, Elder Oaks states: “We have learned the importance of challenging members to abandon cultural traditions that are contrary to gospel commandments and covenants and to live so that they and their posterity ‘are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God’.” The examples cited mention changes to be made in the realms of chastity, of weekly attendance at church, of abstention from alcohol, tobacco, tea, and coffee, and of honesty.
The difference with the preceding approach â€“ selective appreciation â€“, is that the focus is placed on negative items in other cultures. It entails a double shift in perspective. First, the term “cultural traditions”, which conventionally has a positive connotation, is associated with behavior such as sexual transgressions and dishonesty. Normally no “culture”, in its primordial meaning of carrier of values, would condone the inclusion of evil as part of its time-honored customs. By tying the possibility of rejection to certain “cultural traditions”, any local habit can thus be made suspect. The message is clear: members cannot justify transgressions on the basis of a cultural tradition. Second, no mention is made of positive elements that people could retain from their cultures, although this is obviously possible since only “contrary” traditions have to be discarded. Still, the approach could be interpreted as coming close to antagonistic isolation, as Elder Oaks concludes: “In these examples I am not contrasting the culture or traditions of one part of the world with another. I am contrasting the Lord’s way with the world’s wayâ€”the culture of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the culture or traditions of every nation or people.”
1.5. Broad inclusion of the other
In a 1971 talk about missionary work in Korea Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated (cited in Palmer 1978:147): “… whatever is appropriate and good we want to preserve. It ought to be one of the aims of the Korean people to preserve their culture, to keep their own dances and their own dress and their own mores and ways of life alive, as long as they are not inharmonious with gospel principles.” Also anthropologist John Sorenson (1973) refers to this talk to defend a view where the “core of Mormonism in its most basic expression” is found in the higher levels of ideology, values and knowledge â€“ a common “world view” â€“, but should be allowed to diversify into local cultural forms on the lower levels of physical realization, thus adapting “living the gospel” to other patterns and customs than those in America’s West.
In 1976, Belgium-born Elder Charles Didier responds in the Ensign to a â€œI have a questionâ€, dealing with the place of national feelings among church members. He answers: “When we speak of nationalism, or culture, there is in reality only one nation or one culture: the nation of God and the gospel culture, a vast amalgam of all the positive aspects of our cultures, histories, customs, and languages. The building of the kingdom of God is such an amalgam, and is the only place where these different values may and can coexist.”
Both Elder McConkie’s and Elder Didier’s views on gospel culture are broad and much-inclusive, with the perspective of a good deal of diversity in the kingdom of God.
Another “foreign” church member, Chieko N. Okazaki (1993), of Japanese ancestry, stresses that same understanding of broad inclusion. She talks about building bridges between cultures: “The greatest bridge of all is the culture of the gospel.” She defines it as “a culture based on the atonement of Christ and the restoration of his pure gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Faith, repentance, baptism, the gift of the Holy Ghost, living together in a righteous community, and serving each other with love are all principles of that culture. These principles are true in any culture and among all peoples.”
1.6. Sublimating globalism of it all
Again in 1976, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Twelve, gave a devotional address at BYU that throws another light on the issue (text in Hinckley 1997). With his usual wit and realism he starts as follows: “The subject assigned me comes out of a symposium held on this campus with people from many parts of the world concerning the expanding church and the problems it must meet as it moves against various cultures across the world. My assigned subject is ‘The Expanding Church among the Nations and Cultures of Man.’ I have simplified that to read: ‘Things Are Getting Better’.”
The thrust of his message is twofold: cultural differences hardly matter in missionary work and cultural differences are disappearing. For the first aspect, Elder Hinckley remarks that he is aware that missionaries meet “marked differences between our culture and the cultures of the people of those lands. But I feel these differences are of minor importance in comparison with the great burden of our responsibility to teach the gospel of the Master and that alone.”
For the second aspect, Elder Hinckley notes the “shrinking cultural barriers” and the reasons for it. There is the ease of modern travel which has “sublimating effects of such intercourse among nations insofar as cultural differences are concerned.” Next, the rising educational levels in the world are “a concomitant factor of greater understanding of the ways and customs of other people.” The “increasing knowledge of languages” it also a facilitating better mutual comprehension. Finally, Elder Hinckley mentions “the tremendous erosion of strong cultural patterns in many parts of the earth.” For him, “people are essentially the same everywhere, all over the earth.” This approach connects with recurrent themes in President Hinckley’s talks: reaching out to others, being good neighbors, simply acknowledging diversity without interpreting it as barrier, recognizing the good in all people, setting aside parochialism.
Of course, this globalizing approach does not entail giving up the identity of the church and the distinctiveness of the gospel. But other cultures are not viewed as obstacles, not even as realities, as the outlook only perceives the common core of mankind.
2. How to view relations between ‘us’ and ‘them’?
In spite of the antonymic scale which I drew from the one extreme of “antagonistic isolation” to the other of “sublimating globalism”, it would be erroneous to view these paradigms of “gospel culture” as mutually exclusive or irreconcilable. All proceed indeed from the same underlying principle, i.e. that the gospel shapes a desirable identity. That identity can be broadly defined as a Christ-centered, virtuous life, with all the synonyms and paraphrases available in these rich semantic subfields of goodness and faith.
The differentiating criterion is the way that desirable identity is perceived in relation to its surroundings. Each approach senses the “outside” from a different angle, and therefore as a distinct variety, either intrinsically inimical (1.1), or deviant from the model (1.2), or ambiguously dualistic (1.3 & 1.4), or rather trustworthy (1.5), or intrinsically good (1.6). It means that in their adherence to one of these constructs, church members oscillate on a scale between the extremes of insularity and open collective acceptance.
Antagonistic isolation (1.1) fosters distrust towards the world. The accompanying rhetoric is always two-tone. The positive tone stresses exceptionalism (a chosen generation, a select people, a kingdom of Priests) and exemplarism (a beacon on a hill, a light unto the world). The negative one paints the rest of the world as evil and threatening, with plenty of dreadful paraphrases. Missionary work is seen as saving souls from Babylon and bring them to the fold. This position is in essence very Scriptural, both in ancient and modern holy writ, and many of the citations used in the rhetoric draw directly from there. It is also a recurring theme in hymns. For investigators the conversion process, as monitored by the missionaries in various steps, puts much emphasis on distancing oneself from the norms of the world, thus sometimes placing on potential converts a burden of self-exclusion from their original culture â€“ and perhaps more than needed.
The downside is that such a virtue, carried to excess, leads to undesirable results. At first, isolation, clannishness, parochialism. Chieko N. Okazaki (1998:150) warns: it is not wrong to build a loving community,
“but it can become wrong if our ability to see another as a brother or sister stops at the door of the ward meetinghouse, and if we save our love and our friendship and our acceptance only for other Mormons. I want to warn us all against this new tribalism, a way of seeing the world that still divides people into ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
She calls it “the tribalism of religious exclusivity based on our membership in the church.” Another, perhaps worse result, is that the demonization of “the other” can spill over in political and social realms, leading to the rejection of ideological diversity and thus to plain intolerance. The history of some local Mormon communities in Utah, up to the present time, is not devoid of examples of such developments. This paradox in religious practice, brotherhood and bigotry combined, is a known phenomenon in sociological research â€“ “the trap that turns religious conviction into prejudice and in-group fellowship into out-group hostilities” (Fallding 1974:78).
At the other end of the spectrum stand broad inclusion (1.5) and sublimating globalism (1.6), with a positive attitude towards the world. In many of his Conference talks over the years President Gordon B. Hinckley has heralded that view:
“We must be better Latter-day Saints. We must be more neighborly. We cannot live a cloistered existence in this world. We are a part of the whole of humanity. (…) Let us banish from our lives any elements of self-righteousness. Many regard us with suspicion, as having only one interest and that is to convert them. Conversion is more likely to come as a consequence of love. Let us be friendly. Let us be helpful. Let us live the Golden Rule. Let us be neighbors of whom it might be said, ‘He or she was the best neighbor I ever had’.” (October Conference 1997).
The two median approaches towards the world, selective appreciation (1.3) and selective exclusion (1.4), contain the message that there is both good and bad in other cultures. In “selective appreciation” the acknowledgment of external good is the most explicit, with reference to major religious figures and philosophers: “Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” In “selective exclusion” the focus is on what other cultures contain as negative elements, which need to be discarded.
Considering these various views, Mormonism projects ambivalent relations with the rest of the world. The recognition of good in other religions defines it as “moral truths” and as “higher level of understanding”, but does not extend to doctrinal or sacramental realms â€“ for, in original Mormon parlance, their creeds are an abomination and their rituals of no value without the restored priesthood. The Mormon Church is willing, if not eager, to cooperate with other churches in relief projects and in the defense of ethical and family values, but refuses ecumenical blending and does only permit cautious involvement with interdenominational religious initiatives. Missionary work and PR-initiatives incite people to get to know Mormonism, without restrictions, but the temple and its ceremonies are off-limits to non-members. Retrenchment rhetoric implores church members to assemble on a symbolic mountain top away from the world’s dangers, but other talks encourage simultaneously an immense openness to the outside.
The dual message reflects, to a certain extent, the perpetual paradox of being in the world, but not of the world.