Global Mormonism: decentered and decentering

One central question in Mormon Studies, from its inception, is in what measure preaching and practice in the Church is interwoven with American culture. Of course the American stamp on the Church is pervasive and evident, with its origin in upstate New York, its movement westwards with the 19th frontier, its establishment as the Deseret theocracy, all bolstered by an explicit theology of America as a new holy land. Plus, of course, the whole leadership structure. But religions do have their own geographic dynamic, especially a church that aims at expansion, and the LDS church is striving to become international, even global. What does that mean? Is expansion simply a spread around the world, a question of more-of-the-same, or does the encounter with different cultures entails dynamics that will change the face and form of the church and its message?

On 29 and 30 March 2019 the Montaigne University of Bordeaux, France, held a two-day conference on this question, hosted by prof. Bernadette Rigal-Cellard of the religious studies department of that university. The theme was ‘Decentered Mormonism: assessing 180 years of international expansion’. ‘Decentered’, but of course very much still a work in process. Demographically the bulk of the members now lives outside the USA, and even if growth rates are plateauing, this shift will probably continue in the coming years. Yet, ‘decentering’ was the word used more in the presentations, since both the leadership and the church culture still is quite ‘Deseret’, and Mormon history runs as a subtext to USA history, not to Peruvian, Tongan or French history. Anyway, the participants reflected this dynamic: a sizeable delegation from Utah – though not just BYU – slightly outnumbered by the ‘international’ participation, provided we count ‘the rest of the US under ‘internationals’. Of the presentations, 14 came from BYU, 2 from other Utah universities, 8 from ‘rest of USA’, 9 from Europa, 2 from the ‘other Americas’, and 2 from Oceania. And these last ones did come a long way, from New Zealand!

Three themes dominated the talks: the adaptation of the church to local cultures, the perception of Mormonism by other cultures, and the cultural adaptation of individual members to church culture. For the first theme, a handful of presentations zoomed in on the notion of ‘gospel culture’, as promoted by Dallin Oaks, a notion I have blogged about earlier. It was clear that in itself this notion is rather void, for any culture is much wider than what people do in and for the church, but it took a surprising turn. When international members ponder about it, it gets rapidly filled in with one’s own culture, with those elements that renders one Tongan, Danish, Peruvian or French. Thus, in Tonga the drinking of kava – a ritual drink made from roots – becomes gospel culture, and does the feast of the death in Mexico, as does the festival of Sinterklaas among Dutch Mormons; these are much more than just quaint and curious customs, but are at the heart of debates on cultural identity. The example of the African bride wealth passed muster again, an institution that increasingly shines as an accepted part of local ‘gospel culture’; caste in India is another such issue. Members have to construct their own story by weaving notions of ‘indigeneity’ into the colonizing force of the church. Thus, ironically, the very emptiness of Oaks’ notion seems an invitation for cultural differentiation. Even if the top leaders ‘do not do culture’, the members very much are into it! Glocalization, we call this.

One crucial area where this dialectic plays is in gender; women from different cultures experience widely diverging gender balances, and a series of presentations zoomed in on the way the church stance on gender feeds into local struggles. This ranged from the Truth and Reconciliation committees in Southern Africa, to the strengthening of local feminist initiatives in other parts of the world; what is conservative in American eyes and retrograde for Europeans, may serve as a support for women elsewhere.

How do ‘others’ see ‘us’, a question that engages mainly Deseret scholars, showed an amusing dichotomy between the Protestant cultures of Northern Europe, and the more lenient Roman Catholic countries in the South of the continent. Of course, the main issue was polygamy. As Massimo Introvigne from Italy remarked: in the North people are shocked to about polygamy, in the South they think it is funny, since that is what they expect their leaders to do anyway, in secret. Public relations-wise it makes some sense to be ‘a peculiar people’, but we have become so respectable! I was surprised at the level of information; for instance, the French in the 19th century really knew their stuff about the Mormons, with correct data, good analyses and on that basis produced delightful musical comedies.

Finally, writing international Mormon history still remains, to a large extent, a question of biographies, and we saw some spectacular ones come by, from Afghanistan, Tonga, New Zealand, England, India and Peru. The examples of China and Tonga showed how in authoritarian societies, institutional relations may depend on personal ones, mainly at the top level.
All in all, it was an interesting experience, as well as a pleasant and well-funded gathering, and a step in the right direction: Mormon Studies is coming of age, and so is the ‘IMC’, the International Mormon Church.

Walter E.A. van Beek, Netherlands

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