Imagining Mormonism

July 12, 2012 | 10 comments
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So after several recommendations, I finally got around to reading Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. The book examines a simple question: how do institutions or nations (the book’s focus is on nationalism) create a sense of identity in their membership or citizenry? It’s one thing to feel a sense of identity with a group whose membership one knows personally: an extended family, a village, a small company. But what about churches or corporations or countries whose members, workers, or citizens number in the millions? The more you ponder that question, the more interesting it becomes. In that light, let’s talk about the strong identity that Mormons seem to feel.

First, this sense of identity does exist. A good recent illustration is Sarah’s recent post here at T&S, “Globetrotting, Mormon-Style.” The sense of Mormon identity easily transcends differences of culture, nationality, and language. There are many LDS congregations in larger cities around the world that are radically diverse compared to the self-sorted congregations of other Christian denominations. No doubt most readers have relocated a few times and had what should be an odd experience but is, in fact, the rule: you and the family visit a new ward full of complete strangers, yet you are fully and comfortably a full and accepted member of that ward (sometimes even with new callings!) within 24 hours. Even people who exit the Church can’t shake the identity thing. However it happens, Mormonism is a well-imagined community.

What makes that happen? I’ll throw out a few ideas. (1) Fitting seamlessly into a new ward doesn’t just happen by accident: Correlation actually has an upside. Same hymnals, same roster of callings, same programs, same sacrament prayers. It’s easy to criticize the sameness that Correlation brings, but fostering a sense of identity is certainly a positive effect. (2) We’ve got a great myth or grand narrative (or several) to work with. I posted on this back in 2007 as a T&S guest blogger: “A Mormon Narrative for the 21st Century.” (3) General Conference. Even though it numbers in the millions, the full membership of the Church joins together twice a year at General Conference. Some do so physically at Mormonism’s Ground Zero (the capacity of the Conference Center is 21,333) but the rest of us do so more than just figuratively. It’s not like those 21,333 are delegates to a semi-annual convention. Even remotely, we do, in some sense, participate, and are aware that hundreds of thousands of fellow Mormons are doing so as well at the same time.

Other ideas for what makes Mormon identity so well imagined? Other examples you have experienced of the depth of Mormon identity?

10 Responses to Imagining Mormonism

  1. nate on July 12, 2012 at 10:09 am

    The spirit of conformity and obedience. The dark suits, white shirts and ties. Then there is the fact that missionaries and higher leadership come largely from Utah culture, and that culture is spread outward by missionary and leadership efforts.

  2. Janell on July 12, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Even the Primary Sharing Time lessons and monthly new song are now completely coordinated. (Provided the local Primary Presidency sticks witht the prescribed program.) Children visiting this summer from other wards are learning about the exact same topic (Choose the Right) and learning the words to the exact same new song (The Wise Man and the Foolish Man, but even the sunbeams already know that one.) Even the daily lesson will include the exact same object lessons and activities that they might be missing out on in their home ward.

  3. Jonathan Green on July 12, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Nice post, Dave. I know when we were living abroad, we made sure that our kids got to see General Conference for exactly the reason that you bring up.

  4. Sam Brunson on July 12, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks, Dave. Though I hate to speak well of Correlation, I suspect that you’re right. The trick, I think, is to find a decent balance between the sameness, which helps form a transnational community, and the individual tics that ground each ward and stake in a particular place and allow it to feel like a distinctive home.

  5. James Olsen on July 12, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Great book and great post.

    I think there’s a lot to the mechanics you bring up in forging a shared community. Jan Shipps has talked about how the comfort levels and shared practices that come out of our uniform building style more than makes up for the abysmal aesthetic. Lay callings are another big part of it (as you alluded to). But I also think ideology and doctrine plays a signficant role. This is related to your grand narrative – but is not about big themes in Mormon history or our public relations. Our rhetoric of literal as opposed to metaphorical Israel, our bonding through a sense of persecution, our doctrine and practice of sealing, the way we continually take up and reinvent pioneerism, our sense of a divine mandate to share the gospel, seal generations, and prepare for the millenium, etc. The reality is, we’ve got a lot more in our discussions and and religious understanding than an individual connection with deity – we’ve got an understanding of a vertical relationship with deity that is largely mediated through horizontal connections to the community.

    Finally, I would note shared experiences. The misionary program serves as a coming of age experience and plays so large in our communal imagination that it’s shared even by the large percentage of those who do not serve missions. Likewise, callings come back in here – it’s not just the logistics of a lay clergy, but the actual experiences we have in holding callings that bonds us. The temple as an experience that consecrates our efforts and wherein we have a shared experience of holiness is another example that gets at perhaps the most important of our shared experiences – that of the spirit. I of course think that part of the reason our testimonies sound so similar is because we’re in a specific institutionalized religion that orients us in certain ways. But additionally, I believe quite literally in the Holy Spirit, and a sameness in the way in which God makes contact with us. Joseph Smith set the model of personal revelation for us, but it happened because God appeared to him.

  6. Barb on July 14, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    Well, identity and culture are some of my favorite topics. Having taken Organizational Communication and thoroughly enjoying the section on company culture, it has been interesting for me to analyze my companies culture and sense of identity that people have working for my company. It is a large company with world wide properties and has a good reputation and deservedly so. And it has such a strong culture that it is so interesting.

    As someone who has a condition so I have trouble going places including Church(seldom leave home), I have thought of all the ways that come my Mormon Identity going strong even without those same hymn books in my hands, and Classes to foster that identity. I often think how the Word Wisdom or my abstaining from certain substances certainly keeps me “Mormon.” And I have calling from home that I do for Relief Society and the Ward Bulletin so I am in contact with members of the Church.

    As we have had BYUtv for a couple years, my identity is stronger. My parents are not members and they take in the shows a lot too. They watched programming about Emma Smith. When something was later referenced either of the same show or time period, my mom said how we already know all about that. Yes, shared history even when you are first generation does instill a strong sense of identity of the sacrifice and persecution.

    As for Nationalism, I found that to be interesting to study in World History. I have learned more from my dad too who has read a lot of history. It is too bad those lines in the sand randomly drawn by Churchill did not give the people in certain Middle East Countries a solid identity as he did not pay particular care to sects.

  7. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 16, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    When a discussion of the social aspect of the Church comes up, the illuminating comparison that comes to mind for me is my twenty years in the Air Force. When you walk into a room full of people wearing the same uniform, gathered in order to carry out a common mission, you feel a strong sense of unity and assurance that the other members of your unit are people you can rely on to do their jobs, just as you are dedicated to doing your own and not failing them.

    Latter-day Saints “are all enlisted”, are “Christian soldiers marching as to war”, who can be counted on by their brothers and sisters to support each other in working towards our tactical and strategic goals. We have confidence in our leaders because we know their integrity will keep them faithful to us, and to God. We have high mutual expectations, which induce us to live up to our commitments. Just as the courage of a soldier often boils down to being faithful to his fellow soldiers–”semper fidelis”–our network of commitments in the Church is most brightly illuminated when we are standing together with our peers in a quorum or Relief Society or Young Women class.

    In much the same way that Alma rejoiced when he was reunited with his friends, the Sons of Mosiah, after 14 long years of their mission to the Lamanites, we rejoice in the common commitment we have with faithful members in our ward, stake and the Church. Our love for God is implemented through our love for each other. The Church allows us to live God’s commandments, and become what He expects us to be, and what we aspire to be. When we are caring for each other, we know that we are pleasing God.

  8. ji on July 16, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    RTS (no. 7)–

    But even with the uniform, there are some military members who are Republicans and some who are Democrats. Some are pro-abortion, some are anti-. Some like tattoos, some don’t. Some drive gas-guzzlers, some ride bicycles. Some are wasteful of their money, some are careful. And so forth.

    We are all united in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Beyond that, there is a tremendous diversity among us. No one should try to expand “Mormonism” to cover cultural or social matters. I am happy to be called Mormon when we’re talking about faith. But I’m not always so happy to be categorized as a Mormon when cultural or social matters are being discussed.

  9. Cameron N on July 16, 2012 at 10:32 pm

    @ ji – that’s the delimma though, because all things are spiritual. I think we need to let go of the hope or desire to be liked as Mormons. It will happen, but in general it won’t, and we all know why, so let’s rejoice in persecution and not fall away into dark mists.

  10. Naismith on July 17, 2012 at 11:47 am

    One problem with the military analogy–it kinda falls apart because of the huge social gap between officers and enlisted people. Which I understand can be a problem in church wards with a lot of military. Enlisted folks are just chattel to be used, rape is an occupational hazard. The unity on the ground is not always the ideal.

    I have a huge problem with these assumptions about church culture. I love the gospel, and I’ve been active in the church since joining. But I never feel like I fit in with the culture, some places more than others. There is a lot of cultural shorthand that people raised in the church find comfortable, that others don’t.

    One example: as a Relief Society president I was roundly criticized for not forcing help on people when they refused my offer of assistance. I figure we are all grownups, and I am not going to play into their passive-aggressive games. But I have been informed that this behavior is part of church culture, that it is customary to turn down the first offer. That’s something that wasn’t in the handbook.

    Another example, when our daughter finished her mission, we would have loved to pick her up. We had lived in the country where she served. But we got the letter from her mission president asking us not to, so we didn’t. Later, other members rolled their eyes and said that of course they do that for liability etc. but “everyone knows” to ignore the letter and go anyway.

    So I often feel like a misfit who doesn’t really know the rules of the game.

    It doesn’t bother me, because I never expected the church to be a social group, just a pathway to eternal life. I don’t think the culture is integral to the gospel or essential to our salvation.

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