“I say unto you, be one; and if you are not one ye are not mine (D&C 38:27).” And then comes the uncomfortable experience of sitting in Sunday School (or in the midst of some other group of Mormons) with the persistent, anxious thought, “I really don’t fit in here…” Humans are conformist creatures; it’s part of what makes the world intelligible (there are no non-conformists). Mormons, with our strong belief in Zion and our communitarian bent, feel an added conformist pull. I think this makes the very natural, human experience of alienation both more perplexing and poignant for us. When we fail to cope with or properly digest our feelings of alienation, they can be quite damaging, both to us personally and to us as a people. I believe very strongly in our peoplehood; I believe very strongly in Zion. I think most of us do. Consequently, I think it very important that we think deeply about this commandment to be one in our day of exponential diversity.
Alienation can be destructive for many reasons. One of its most insidious effects is the way it has of retroactively polluting our memories or past experiences. Once one feels alienated, it’s easy to see oneself as having always been different, always on the outside. Once cherished memories are no longer fondly remembered but are seen as further evidence of oppression or injustice. Not only are we distanced from present friends, but the genuine friendships we had in the past are perverted under our present gaze. Alienation can also be crippling to our ability to go about our social affairs naturally. We become tuned in to every little thing that can potentially serve as evidence supporting our feelings of alienation, and we become blind, or simply pay less attention to things that can serve as evidence to the contrary, blind to the things that make social life enjoyable. We live in a self-conscious, disrupted manner, and it almost always takes time to get back to a natural flow in our life. And a particularly unfortunate effect is alienation’s tendency to blind us to the difficulties and alienation of others. In the Church, we often see ourself or our particular group as somehow unique in the burden it carries, in its lack of an official ministry or acceptance within the Church.
I think that an oft overlooked but almost universal and ironic fact about alienation is that when feeling alienated, we’re not alone. Boy was I not prepared for Utah-County-style conservativism when I returned a few months ago (I was dumbfounded when not even the car dealer trying to sell me the 2009 VW Jetta TDI knew that it had won green car of the year!). I didn’t grow up here and hadn’t been all that politically conscious during my undergraduate years in Utah County, and I don’t think many of my friends at the time who were into politics were very conservative. So I was a bit unprepared for the onslaught. Consequently it was easy to begin to feel alienated on account of my political views; and since many of those I felt alienated from didn’t distinguish much between the views of the Church and their local brand of conservative politics, it was easy to begin to feel a bit alienated from the Saints (claiming a distinction between “the people” and “the gospel” only goes so far, especially since so much of our gospel concerns us as a people).
I see a lot of things that make us in the Church feel alienated: politics, social status, economic status, intellectual preferences or tendencies, race, gender, family type, sexuality, doctrinal belief, approach to our history, length of time in the Church, perception of orthodoxy, our current calling, ward relations, living “in Zion” vs. “the mission field.” I very strongly believe that almost all of our experiences of alienation are social, or have a social foundation, even when we don’t think they do (e.g., when we feel alienated on account of our doctrinal positions or our perception of orthodoxy or intellectual preferences). Even seemingly non-social forms of alienation flourish or dissipate in the wake of positive or negative friendships.
Several experiences have helped me along in overcoming my own feelings of alienation (or self-pity). A recent PPI turned into something of a political interrogation, making me extremely uncomfortable and raising all of my alienated hackles. Then Dave, my interviewer, sighed with relief and said, “Yeah, I feel the same way!” I began to realize how many “flaming liberals” (or what I think of as moderates) there were amongst my neighbors. I realized that my personal experience was very analogous to the experiences being reported on over and over by my students in their reflection papers. One of the most common phrases students wrote is “While [almost] everyone around here believes/thinks/feels X, I really disagree and believe Y.” I laughed to see that if the students were reporting honestly, than either I had every Y Believer on campus in my class, or else these students had a serious misperception of what “everyone” around them believed.
This doesn’t mean that my students’ (and my) perceptions were completely off-base. A locale’s particular milieu isn’t simply created by a statistical compilation of opinions—the intensity of a culture is not the product of a pro-con ratio. We’re much better at picking up on the unstated norms of an area – what is generally, publicly accepted and what is considered idiosyncratic or anathema – than we are at picking up on who holds what specific beliefs (though as we’ve all experienced, we can get the norms of an area wrong too). But even in a genuinely hostile environment (e.g., being a mother with a full-time job and sitting through a lesson on the importance of staying home), one’s feelings of alienation can drastically change when one recognizes how many others are supportive of or sympathetic to your views and behavior.
Next, I realized that individuals in line with the majority culture (e.g., BYU students who believe the honor code, as worded, stands in no need of reform) often feel a related and very real sense of alienation. Sometimes this is because we see ourselves as supported locally but under siege regionally. Sometimes it’s because we can’t get over nagging doubts that we’re wrong. Sometimes it’s because we support the principles of the majority culture and yet are disturbed by particular policies that seem to stem from (or are touted as stemming from) those principles. I’m convinced that very few people, especially today, stand firmly on a position without ever feeling doubt, even when that position is in line with the predominate culture. Some people do seem to be good at burying their head in the sand, and maybe some really do never ever doubt; but I’m not very worried about feeling alienated from them. Recognizing that those from whom I feel alienated, feel alienated themselves (often with regard to the same issue) has made a significant difference for me.
But even so, how do we reconcile self-segregation and pluralism with our ideal of Zionic oneness? While recognizing the experience of alienation as a universal phenomenon, and recognizing that there are always others in a similar situation to us can greatly reduce the strain we feel from alienation, how do we theologically proclaim Zion while recognizing how differently we often think and feel from one another? I think that a resurgence in our doctrinal and existential notion of Mormon peoplehood, together with the understanding that peoplehood does not mean homogeneity, is a very promising solution; at the least, I think it would be extremely healthy for us all. For much of our history we had a very strong, genetic notion of Mormons, our doctrine of the “believing blood.” Some aspects of this history are extremely distasteful; but there is also something deeply profound here, something that I think is at the heart of Zion. Maureen Whipple, in her poignant fiction The Giant Joshua has the starving and angry “apostate” Orson Pratt, Jr. say, “You people don’t care if a man rolls in a manure pile as long as he’s one of you!” (385) While meant as an insult – because for Pratt this attitude entails an opposite attitude toward gentiles and apostates – I see it as a potentially glorious slogan. This is especially true if we were to consider apostates like Jr. as Mormons in the same way loving parents still understand their apostate children as their flesh and blood, love them deeply, and yearn for their return to temple covenants, and at the least seek to have a wonderful family relationship with them. (In arguing for a resurgence in a strong notion of ourselves as a people, I’m emphatically not arguing for us to do so by alienating the “Gentiles,” or to attain a strong sense of peoplehood by merely drawing strict boundaries of distinction.) If we had a greater sense of and confidence in our diversity, than an individual Mormon could maintain as orthodox or zealous an opinion as anyone might want concerning what Mormons ought to think and believe, while still recognizing and being absolutely committed to all of the heterodox Mormons as Mormons, as members of one’s own people. We can remember that though we speak and act according the divinest orthodoxy and have not genuine charity toward our dissenters, we are nothing. We might not like the smell of manure they bring with them, but the smell can be easily, even joyfully overlooked in the face of their presence among us.
Richard Bushman seems to me to be advocating something similar. Discussing a panel review of Rough Stone Rolling at the Mormon History Association (May 31, 2006), a rather grueling experience (none of the panelists were typical believing Mormons, some not even a-typical non-believing Mormons), Bushman says,
Listening to these [at times hostile] scholars for about an hour, I decided to view them all as part of a wider Mormon culture. . . . all of them are attached to Mormonism in some compelling way. . . . While Mormons may think of Sunday School and home teaching as Mormon culture, the work [of the scholars on the panel] is also part of the Mormon whole. The intensity of their interest helps us to recognize the flaws in our conventional divisions into faithful and unfaithful, believing and unbelieving, active and inactive. We all attach ourselves to Mormonism in some peculiar fashion; we all have our irksome points where we don’t feel comfortable and particular sites where we obtain a purchase on our religion. We should recognize that we are all part of big-tent Mormonism and acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters. (On the Road with Joseph Smith, 120-121)
Jan Shipps (perhaps the most famous and widely respected non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism) recently gave what I think is related counsel to the Church’s Public Relations team in Salt Lake City. Last summer as our Church struggled with how to distinguish itself from fundamentalists/polygamists in the media, they invited Shipps in to discuss the issue with them (see the Church’s attempts here, and an articulate fundamentalist response here). She suggested that we shouldn’t distinguish ourselves by claiming that the polygamists aren’t Mormon. The Church’s difficulty is in how to get non-nuanced and ill-informed media publications to distinguish us from fundamentalists—they suggested that the media not refer to them as “fundamentalist Mormons.” Shipps’ point was that the non-nuanced and ill-informed journalists are never going to be able to distinguish as Mormon vs. not Mormon two groups when both of them believe Joseph Smith was a prophet, believe the Book of Mormon to be scripture, genealogically trace themselves to Joseph’s founding Church, and continue to follow leaders claiming to have authority descending to them in a direct line from Joseph. Nor should they.
This notion of big-tent Mormonism isn’t simply advocated by scholars like Bushman and Shipps. In one of his final General Conference talks, Elder Wirthlin discussed the alienation felt by many of our Mormon brothers and sisters on “the fringe”:
They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.
Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.
This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children. He does not esteem one flesh above another, but He “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; . . . all are alike unto God.” . . .
Brothers and sisters, if only we had more compassion for those who are different from us, it would lighten many of the problems and sorrows in the world today. It would certainly make our families and the Church a more hallowed and heavenly place. (emphasis added)
Many people have pointed out that we’re incredibly accepting of some diversity in our ranks, usually on account of time and familiarity – diversity like the black sister in your ward who can really belt out a gospel spiritual in sacrament, or everybody’s favorite Polynesian family who puts on a quasi-authentic luau for the ward. But other forms of diversity we sometimes accept with dramatically less luster – diversity (to name a few milder examples) like the openly homosexual individual in the ward, the “intellectual” in Sunday School who consistently (sometimes tactlessly, condescendingly, cynically) points out difficulties in our history or scriptural interpretation, the recent convert who still practices a form of Buddhism or Islam or the like, or the genuine Molly Mormon in the ward. My main point in bringing all of this up, in calling for us all to adopt a more “big-tent” Mormonism, calling for us to be more dedicated to one another as a people, more accepting of heterogeneity in our midst, being willing not simply to suffer but also to embrace those rolling in the manure pile because they’re one of us, is not simply to make people much different from us feel more welcome – though this is certainly part of it. Rather, by adopting both a more inclusive and also a more loyal notion of our peoplehood, my main point is that we won’t feel as alienated in Zion – regardless of our personal idiosyncrasies.
Leonard Arrington gives us an anecdote from Brigham Young’s administration wherein, following a serious and pointed disagreement, “Brigham remarked caustically to [Bishop Edwin Woolley], ‘Well, I suppose now you are going to go off and apostatize.’ ‘No, I won’t,’ retorted Edwin. ‘If this were your church I might, but it’s just as much mine as it is yours.’” (American Moses, 200). I think that if we all had this attitude, then in practice, we would love each other more and be much more accepting of one another’s differences, while actually being more committed to Zion. I don’t think this means we would have a watered down or less passionate vision about what Mormonism ought to entail. We wouldn’t need to be less opinionated (Brigham and Bishop Woolley certainly weren’t!). Rather, we would recognize that central to Mormonism is Zion, our peoplehood, our being unified, and that unity does not mean homogenous thought, feeling, and action, but a commitment to ourselves, to improving and serving one another as a people of God – not a commitment to exclusion. Also central to the gospel is the atonement, a divine reconciliation, a bridging of gaps, a bringing together as one; and each of us are to stand as saviors on Mt. Zion.
As Mormons we recognize that through the gospel, notwithstanding all our differences, “[we] are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God.” (Ephesians 2:19) And in this way, “you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” (I Colosians 1:21-22)