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Not Assimilation, But Alliance

by iStrfry , Marcus on Unspslash

I found Jana Riess’s recent post about the President Nelson’s pivot away from “Mormon” interesting but I believe her thesis could be refined. Citing the familiar Armand Mauss retrenchment/assimilation axis, she sees the move from “Mormon” to “member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” as a swing of the pendulum back towards the assimilation end of the spectrum:

We’re in an assimilation phase, a “we’re not weird” phase. Shedding the term “Mormon” helps us to assimilate ever more comfortably because the word, with its accompanying history, is one of the most distinctive things about us… the move makes sense as a piece of the larger assimilation puzzle. Emphasizing denominationalism may not win converts, but jettisoning “Mormon” makes us appear that much closer to mainstream.

This analysis might have been sufficient were we still in the 20th century, but the intervening decades have complicated the picture. We are now living through a moment of historically high polarization and tribalism, and these factors call into question the existence of a mainstream “mainstream” into which we could assimilate. What’s more, we’re also in the midst of the Rise of the Nones.

So when she says that the new emphasis on our formal name “just makes us sound like everyone else,” who is this “everyone”? There is no longer a simplistic American mainstream to serve as the basis for comparison. Something else is going on, and a couple of paragraphs from Elder Andersen’s October 2020 General Conference talk, We Talk of Christ, provide a hint as to what that might be:

Some of our fellow Christians are, at times, uncertain about our beliefs and motives. Let us genuinely rejoice with them in our shared faith in Jesus Christ and in the New Testament scriptures we all love. In the days ahead, those who believe in Jesus Christ will need the friendship and support of one another.

As the world speaks less of Jesus Christ, let us speak more of Him. As our true colors as His disciples are revealed, many around us will be prepared to listen. As we share the light we have received from Him, His light and His transcendent saving power will shine on those willing to open their hearts. Jesus said, “I … come [as] a light into the world.”

There are two key points here. First, acknowledgment and anticipation of the overall trend away from Christianity (“as the world speaks of less of Jesus Christ”). Second, a heightened and perhaps even unprecedented need and opportunity for Christians to unite in the face of that trend (“those who believe in Jesus Christ will need the friendship and support of one another”). T

Who are “those who believe in Jesus Christ”? It’s clear that Elder Andersen is referring to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and also those Christians who resist the Rise of the Nones. Protestants, Catholics, Latter-day Saints… we’re all in this together.

But the proposed alliance goes beyond Christianity. Consider President Oaks’ October 2021 General Conference talk, The Need for a Church. The indefinite article in the title is important. Not the need for the (i.e. our) church but the need for a (i.e. any) church. President Oaks makes this clear in an early paragraph:

Today, my message concerns such good and religious-minded people who have stopped attending or participating in their churches. When I say “churches,” I include synagogues, mosques, or other religious organizations. We are concerned that attendance in all of these is down significantly, nationwide. If we cease valuing our churches for any reason, we threaten our personal spiritual life, and significant numbers separating themselves from God reduce His blessings to our nations. [emphasis added]

The Church’s new emphasis on coalition-joining goes beyond religious institutions as well. Just look at the Church’s unprecedented partnership with the NAACP. “Without question, there is a philosophical alliance, there is a spiritual alliance, and there is a practical and strategic alliance because we want the same things,” Theresa Dear, the NAACP vice chair of religious affairs is quoted as saying on the Church’s website. “We are,” she continued, “locking arms… for the future.”

There’s definitely a connection between the Church’s insistence on dropping “Mormon” and our relationship with other Christians, non-Christian religions, and non-religious social organizations, but it is not assimilation. Assimilation means erasing differences and subsuming our identity. Insisting that everyone refer to us as “members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is the opposite. Regardless of how well it catches on (not very well, as Riess observes), the fact that we’ve become sticklers on a 10-word identification is the opposite of assimilation. Rather than erase our distinction, we’re doubling down on the fact that we are distinctive but also insisting on our prerogative to define the terms of that distinctiveness.

Asserting distinctiveness–and asserting the terms of that distinctiveness–and at the same time forging alliances may appear contradictory. And the two tendences–to maintain boundaries and forge relationships–are certainly in tension. But it can be a very fruitful tension. That is one of the key messages of Eboo Patel, who recently appeared on the Good Faith podcast with David French and Curtis Chang to talk about interfaith work and his new book, We Need to Build: Field Notes for Diverse Democracy. During the podcast episode (which is great), Patel emphasized that owning our differences–while daunting–can actually enrich interfaith work. Why? Among other reasons, because being honest about who we are–including our differences–is a pre-requisite to a genuine relationship of trust and friendship.

All of these ideas–self-definition, coalition-building, and pluralism in a democracy–are interrelated. There’s certainly more to delve into than I can do in this quick, off-the-cuff response. But, to bring it home to Riess’s argument, I think there are two ways in which President Nelson’s direction for us to reclaim the original name of the Church serve as key prerequisites for alliance-building:

  1. We can’t join an interfaith coalition without a very clear understanding of who we are. The fact that there is simply no good replacement for “Mormon” is actually a feature here, not a bug, because the cumbersomeness draws our attention to the question of identity. And the insistence on the name–Church of Jesus Christ–provides a prod for how we should rebuild our self-conception. As people who have taken upon us the name of Jesus Christ even when it’s kind of weird and cumbersome. As Christians.
  2. We’re not really fit to be allies for anybody if we’re not confident. We are not many, but we punch way above our weight class. We have a lot to offer our fellow Christian, our fellow believers, and our fellow Americans. But we can’t be good partners unless we–and they–recognize that. Insisting on the courtesy of self-definition is a part of growing that awareness. (Note that it doesn’t require particularly high levels of compliance to actually work. That we have the confident to define ourselves says a lot, even if not everybody actually gets on board with the cumbersome results.)

This is a very difficult time for our nation. In order to do our part to help sustain the classically liberal ideals of tolerance and pluralism (another topic we’ve heard an unprecedented amount about in General Conference), we need to be ready to master the art of being unabashedly and unprovocatively who we are and then reaching out from a position of humble confidence to work with people from other faiths and institutions to begin to restore the tears in our social fabric.

Assimilation is not really possible for us at this juncture in America’s history, and it would also provide no benefit for us or the nation. It’s not a time to fade into the background. It’s a time to have a clear sense of our own identity and to work in friendship and cooperation and tolerance with those who are just as confident in their own different beliefs and identities. And yes, despite some very, very real differences. “Tolerance” is a vacuous concept if it is only attainable when everyone agrees.

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