How American is the Church?

(The following is an excerpt from a larger study on the concept of “gospel culture”, which I have been working on. I hope that comments will help me correct and refine this aspect on Americanness).

For the past few decades, in their efforts at internationalization, church leaders have stressed that this is “not an American Church”, but an international, universal Church. It seems J. Reuben Clark jr. was the first to stress it in such terms, in the 1937 October Conference:

“This is not an American Church. This is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its destiny as well as its mission is to fill the earth and to bring home to every man, woman and child in the world the truths of this Gospel of which I have spoken.”

In the following decades, with the reversal of the gathering principle and the establishment of the Church in many nations, came the concern to de-americanize the Church’s image and to cater to cultural differences. The correlation movement since the 1960s has put major efforts into making the Church “less American” by removing or diminishing in church publications typical American items (e.g. those referring to the political system, affluent living style, dating patterns, sports, food, etc.) and by stressing the core message of the gospel and its principles as valid for all human beings.

“This is not an American Church.” But the nationality of the Church, whether American or universal, does not exclude, nor can it avoid, a transnational “gospel culture” with infusion of American components. I would indicate three areas of such infusion: historical-geographical, ideological, and behavioral.

1 – The historical-geographical component

First, the historical-geographical component. It does not seem possible to define our gospel culture as a simple “religious way of life” without considering the impact of Mormon history and location. Indeed, there would be no Mormonism without its past, this chronology of astonishing events starting with Joseph Smith’s personal search, the First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the founding of the Church, and all the subsequent dramatic stages of a people trying to establish a physical Kingdom of God, each time persecuted and chased, and finally reaching their Promised land, a desert they made blossom like a rose. That history and one of its resulting main symbolic images, Zion’s banner high on the mountain top, are located in America.

The preservation and the retelling of that history are an intrinsic part of the message of the Restoration. Mormon converts, anywhere in the world, step into that history as they learn about Joseph Smith and the founding events of the Church. Locations like Palmyra, the Sacred Grove, Cumorah, Kirtland, Jackson County, Haun’s Mill, Nauvoo, Carthage, Winter Quarters, Martin’s Cove, This is the Place, become part of their spatial religious consciousness. It also becomes their “Legacy”. Converts abroad, facing forms of incomprehension and persecution in their own environments, may sense themselves as living partakers of that heritage of the early pioneers.

Even the physical experience of that history in the form of “Mormon historical tours” is starting to be offered to members abroad who can afford it. Mormon travel tourism to America, with a sense of pilgrimage, is expanding. By restoring historic places as tributes to its past and as locales for commemoration and inspiration, the Church itself is encouraging this tendency. It contributes to the formation and strengthening of a cultural identity in which members worldwide are invited to partake. In a press conference in conjunction with the Grand Encampment Celebration, Council Bluffs, Iowa, President Hinckley answered a question about the significance of historical places and events in the U.S. to e.g. members in the Philippines:

“I have just been among those people. They are proud of their church and they are proud of the roots of that church. They are proud of the foundation on which it is established. They want to know about it. They do come to know about it. They study about it, and it gives them the strength that comes of knowing that what they have has a tremendous background of courage and fortitude and sacrifice and faith. That to me is of tremendous significance to our people all across the world” (cited in Dew 1996:592).

Even as the Church is internationalizing with the concept of multiple Zions, by the organization of stakes abroad with full church programs, by the multiplication of temples, a fundamental America-oriented awareness remains part of our faith. This is perhaps even more true for members abroad, as they take the counter-cultural step of converting to a unique “home-grown American religion”. It ties in with their acceptance of the historical reality of the Book of Mormon, and its explicit hailing of America as “a land choice above all other lands.” It ties in with the patent reality of Salt Lake City as Mormonism’s brilliant, self-affirming capital, home of the First Presidency and the Twelve, base of the General Conferences. It ties in with the 10th Article of Faith: “the building of Zion on the American continent.”

However, how “America” is understood in this awareness, i.e. to what extent it is tied or not to a certain perception of the United States, is mainly determined by how the topic is profiled in discussions with missionaries, lesson material, conference talks, and church magazines, and by how individual members understand “America”. For converts abroad, the perception of Mormonism in its American perspective is obviously more at ease with stressing the 19th century tension between the Church and the U.S., rather than with the confirmation of present-day American patriotism and right-wing political allegiance among Mormon U.S. citizens. As anti-Americanism (here understood as focused on the U.S.) is rampant in the world, there are no doubt church members abroad troubled by U.S. policy. For them the historical perspective of Mormons as a separate, persecuted people on the American soil probably better squares with their appreciation of the gospel.

2 – The ideological realm

There is also an American ideological realm, less manifest perhaps than historical events and places, but clearly tied to a political and socio-economic realm of the United States, i.e. the relation between Mormonism and the “American way of life”, understood here as the free opportunities given to each individual, regardless of social background, for personal development and the pursuit of happiness. It is part of the concept of the American Dream, to which a few dozen texts by church authorities explicitly and proudly refer, especially in the 1960s and 70s, but also up to the 90s. The rhetoric spills over in a sense of superiority and election, against the backdrop of America’s messianic role in the world. For years it was often interwoven with an abhorrence of socialism and communism, or at least of the perception of these -isms. This American ideology, which hails liberty, believes in the power of individual talent and hard work, and acclaims economic success and prosperity as a result, permeates the Mormon message (as well as other churches in America). This ideology is evident in the numerous exhortations and examples of self-actualization, often in an American socio-economic context of entrepreneurial values, emanating from church leaders in their presentation of “gospel living”. Members in the international church, called to leadership positions, tend to naturally adopt the same view and rhetoric.

To what extent this American emphasis on personal development ties in with original Mormon doctrine is a difficult question. One could refer to the belief that man’s earthly mission is one of learning and growth, a time of probation, within a perspective of eternal progression, which is a recurrent theme in Mormon sermons, already in the 19th century. However, the encouragement to reach material goals already during mortal existence sounds definitely more “American” than Scriptural. Also, it has frequently been remarked that the highlighting of individual ideals, including the pursuit of personal wealth, was a 20th-century development in Mormon ethics, when the Church adopted American values in the assimilation mode. Compared to 19th-century ideals, the thrust was then more to develop an egalitarian Mormon society in which individuals served for the common good.

Whether this emphasis on self-realization is appropriate or not is outside the discussion here. But we should at least note that in many countries it runs counter to religious ideologies that, in their very core, revere abnegation, self-denial, submissiveness. For Mormon converts from such realms the adoption of the Restored gospel will thus require, at least mentally, a realignment to notions of self-actualization and glorification of the individual. The rhetoric thrives, directly or indirectly, on rhetoric from the American Dream, with even in the background the spirit of “true-blooded Americans of Pilgrim stock”. The expression was used by Elder Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the Church. Though his remarks date back to 1924 — but others of the same alloy can be found in following decades –, the core message may still run deep in present-day Mormon thought, more than anyone would probably be willing to admit nowadays:

“I rejoice this morning with all my heart that I am a member of the Church — this American Church that owes no allegiance to any foreign power or potentate, the only real American Church worthy of the name. It is American through and through. It was established by true-blooded Americans of Pilgrim stock, the best Americans from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the surrounding New England states. Such men were the founders of our Church. It is American in ideals, American in thought, American in every activity connected with it, American in its desire to bless and benefit the people. There is not any other church that can claim anything like that” (Conference report, October 1924).

3 – The behavioral realm

A third area seems more intricate to distinguish as it pertains to elements in the behavioral realm — I point in particular to physical, affective and pragmatic conduct in interpersonal relations. I bring it up as a tentative topic, for I don’t think it has been paid much attention to.

Is there a certain “American” behavior, and I should perhaps narrow it down to a subjectively defined sphere of “white, middle-class, easy-going, efficient American”, which is therefore also found in the U.S. outside Mormonism, but (much) less in other cultures, and which transfers to Mormon units abroad? Depending on the distance between American culture and the foreign culture, such transfer of behavior will be more or less noticeable (but, by default, inconspicuous to Americans themselves). Again, the point here is not to discuss appropriateness or desirability, but the identification of behaviors as idiosyncratic.

One should indeed consider that wherever in the world the Church has been established, white middle-class Americans were (and often still are) the originators, organizers, and first leaders of church units. Historically this came about through thousands of missionaries, mainly from America’s West. It has been remarked that converts are often those most amenable to America and American culture, thus facilitating the transmission of behavior from the missionaries to them. Next thousands of Mormon American families living abroad, as well as scores of older missionary couples, also infuse local units with their behavioral patterns. Present-day missionaries, called from foreign lands, are immersed in a mission organization where the rules and interactions are shaped by Americans and to which they are expected to conform. After their mission (sometimes even fulfilled in the U.S.) and their return home, there is a fair chance that newly acquired habits will remain. Mission presidents, most still from the U.S. or Americanized, and visiting authorities, American or Americanized, disseminate through their function as role models particular behavioral patterns in their contact with local leaders and members. Church-produced media contribute to the same. The channels through which these patterns flow to members abroad are numerous.

What kind of conduct does this all pertain to? The informality and equality of social contact between genders and between ages — often a major dissimilarity with patterns in other cultures. The way to approach strangers and start a conversation. The open signs of friendship as tokens of belonging to the network. The distance between standing persons when talking to each other. The facial demonstration of assertiveness and commitment. The firm and somewhat longer handshake, with a smile and a direct gaze in each other’s eyes. The way to hug. Eye contact during interviews and meetings. A certain jovial looseness in conducting meetings. The humor. The casual speaking style from the pulpit. The presence and conduct of children during meetings. The effect of homogenizing dress and grooming standards on behavior. The use of superlatives, extolling others as “wonderful” and “great”, praising each child or youngster as “special”. And more.

These examples of behavior, which of course represent averages and which are in stages of progress in parts where the Church is new, may seem trivial to Americans because they have them ingrained as natural. But, in most foreign countries, it would suffice to go to the worship meeting of any other local, vested religion, or to any other kind of meeting for that matter, to understand the distance from behavioral patterns which have been adopted in a Mormon unit and which come, basically, from American models. I underline that my approach to this topic is tentative. Still, in view of the importance of behavioral patterns to form a community, this aspect might be significant in the subliminal layers of a worldwide gospel culture.

Note that I have not included, as an American component, the corporate, managerial style of doing things, first because that style is not typically American (any more), second because it does not necessarily affect all the members. But, indirectly, the tendency to call as ward, stake and regional leaders, and hire as Church employees, members who seem most fit, by personality and profession, to blend in the corporate, managerial style, reinforces such leaders to other members as role models.


Considering the three areas touched upon — historical-geographical, ideological, and behavioral — I believe these components can be called “American” because, considered in worldwide perspective, they could not have been infused from another cultural realm. Mormonism, in its expansion to other parts of the world, can thus aptly be called “an American world religion”, as in the subtitle of Eliason’s anthology of landmark essays on Mormonism (2001).

Evidently, we understand the rhetoric that tries to defuse the idea that Mormonism is an American religion, on the one hand to avoid the political halo or the derogatory connotation tied to the term “American”, and on the other hand to stress the universality of the gospel message. But is Mormonism not American in a similar sense as Hinduism is an “Indian” world religion, Islam “Arabic”, or Catholicism “Roman” — with all of the nuances and caveats such characterizations entail? Moreover, with this main difference that Mormonism is, in comparison, extremely young and therefore still intensely tied to its birth place. It took many centuries to start perceiving Islam or Catholicism as geographically universal religions. Still, the etymological meaning of “Roman Catholic” is “from Rome, universal”.

And so, while we know that the message of the Restored Gospel is universal, how American is the Church? What do we lose, what do we gain by affirming that we are, or that we are not, an American Church?

76 comments for “How American is the Church?

  1. “As anti-Americanism (here understood as focused on the U.S.) is rampant in the world, there are no doubt church members abroad troubled by U.S. policy. For them the historical perspective of Mormons as a separate, persecuted people on the American soil probably better squares with their appreciation of the gospel.”

    Fascinating way to phrase that. Are they also encouraged in a way by the problem of acceptance highlighted by Romney’s candidacy?

  2. I am struck by the differing need among differing times and cultures for differing expressions of an economic ideal. In a time and land of relative abundance and opportunity for individualism on steroids (American 1800’s), it might be necessary to highlight the need for cooperative effort among a community (United Order and isolationist community); in a land and time of economic hardship and widespread deprivation (much of the global community today), it might be necessary to stress the chance for individualism and economic improvement and growth.

    Neither might bear directly on the core of the Gospel, but they might be necessary distinctions for the Church that administers among those who are trying to accept it. Fwiw, I see a growing emphasis in my own calling here in the states on debt control as a way to increase fast offerings, stop paying out more than we take in and, consequently, providing resources for poorer saints in less-economically privileged countries. Right now, non-North American saints provide fast offering relief for North American saints – which should shame us deeply. Ironically, in that way, they might be more “American” than we are – by carrying the burdens of those whose **lifestyles** bind them financially even in their relative wealth.

  3. Wilfried, About the behavioral issue:

    Have you tried to look at those areas that are moving away from the American-missionary dominated model – those where a growing percentage of missionaries are from the native country? It might be interesting to see if any of these areas are beginning to move away from the American behavioral pattern, as well.

    Also, have you looked at whether native members exhibit the “American behavioral characteristics” when they are among non-American members – or, even more interesting, among other native non-members? If the behavioral discrepancies you discuss can be shown to be leaking into interaction with native non-members, it would bolster a claim that the Church is changing the actual members in fundamental, American ways. If not, perhaps the Church’s Americanism is not creating Americanized non-American members – except perhaps in actual Church meetings. Perhaps they are more “American” in formal church settings, but not more “American” outside those settings.

    I have no idea, frankly. I’m just throwing it out there, since the thought hit me as I read your post.

  4. You raise broad and fascinating questions, Ray. Political, economical, social… Thanks for reading the issues so closely and seeing the wider implications. I will let the points sink in a little as they are challenging to discuss. We’re looking forward to comments to the post, also to your questions.

  5. Wilfried,

    Good stuff here, and some ideas very critical to church growth worldwide. I read your statement with irony: “there are no doubt church members abroad troubled by U.S. policy.” As an American citizen, I’m troubled by US foreign policy over the last decade. As a member of the church, I keep reminding myself that while I’m an American, I really am coming to think of myself as Mormon first, or as we discussed a while back here in the bloggernacle, an American Mormon.

    The recent statements by Elder Jensen regarding the Utah State Legislature’s recent harsh rhetoric about illegal immigrants, and asking for a more compassionate approach, seems to have set off a firestorm of protest. The comments on the SL Tribune web page in particular are rampant with LDS members being very critical of the church, and taking it to task for “ignoring the rule of law”. It would seem that the First Presidency, by giving Elder Jensen the assignment, is recognizing that the Utah centric view of the church, really doesn’t play as well nationally or internationally.

    I’ll do some more thinking, and perhaps drop some more notes later. I especially want to think about the behavioral aspects that I also don’t think play well in an international, less capitalistic paradigm that the church will face more and more often abroad.

  6. When did most of the Church in Utah become middle classed? Certainly it wasn’t through most of its history. I suspect even in the 1960’s much of Utah would hardly count as middle class. If my hypothesis is true then the “middle class dominance” really was a product only of the last 30 years or so. In that case then isn’t seeing the Church in terms of white middle class ethos inherently problematic?

  7. I’ll try to formulate a few thoughts in response to comments given.

    (1) raises a question I hadn’t thought about: to what extent has the negative reaction to Romney’s Mormonism been perceived by Church members abroad? Would it indeed have encouraged them, realizing that even in the U.S. such “persecution” is still possible? To the extent that Church members are aware of the events (and I presume many with internet & able to read English are), this could indeed have made them realize that the Church is perhaps “less American” than presumed. On the other hand, Romney’s candidacy in itself, combined with a still remarkable success even outside Utah, showed that a Mormon in the U.S. is far from a pariah. In the balance, I believe the latter had more effect. And then it would rather reinforce the feeling that the Church is “American”, with such a high profile politician. The main problem being then that Romney’s views would be taken as representative for the Church.

    (2) relates to the point of ideology I brought up, but then geared towards the economic realm in the relation between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Interesting point about the direction fast-offerings go. With the weakness of the dollar, I can imagine the change rate would make that direction from abroad to the U.S. profitable. But that topic would lead us away from the main discussion, so we’ll reserve that for another time.

    (3) is very interesting: to what extent do American behavioral patterns limit themselves to Church meetings abroad or do they spread further. I presume it will depend a lot on local circumstances and the kind of people involved, in particular their own social level and adaptability. From what I have seen in Europe and Africa, there is a tendency to apply some of these behavioral patterns also “among the natives themselves” and even to their relation with non-members. I think this would make fascinating studies.

    Kevinf (5) draws the attention to another, highly acute aspect, i.e. the internal relation of U.S.-Mormons to America. Indeed, as to the example given, the vivid tension between those who call for compassion in connection with immigrants, and other Mormons stressing obedience to the law, seems to highlight a growing rift: are we experiencing a situation where for a number of active Mormons allegiance to a certain view is more compelling than allegiance to the Church?

    Lots of tangents to discuss! I hope, however, that the focus of the comments can somewhat stay with the main topic of the post – In international perspective, how American is the Church?

  8. Clark (6), your raise a good point. I am sure you are right that a generalization about the class-status of Utah’s population in its historical development would be untenable. But the point I tried to make was the impact of American Mormons working abroad, either as missionaries or as professionals. I believe that for many decades their image (independent of their social and economic reality in the U.S.) has been, and still is, that of a predominant “white middle class”, especially seen through the eyes of non-Americans. Of course, this is perception. As to the ethos you mentioned, I agree, we are not to judge that. As mentioned in the post, we’re not trying to evaluate the positive or negative weight of the factors, only attempting to identify to what extent the Church worldwide has “American” traits.

  9. A small nit to pick: The Catholic church is not necessarily just the Roman (or any other Latin Rite) Church. There are Catholic churches that are in full communion with the bishop of Rome, but historically have different liturgical rites, such as the Byzantine, Alexandrian, Antiochian, Armenian and Chaldean Catholic churches. There are 22 churches that can correctly be called \”Catholic\” churches.

    This relates to the topic because even though various rites have developed in areas as geographically distinct as Egypt, Greece, Armenia and India, they still find common ground in their view of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Could it be possible to take more local traditions like all these Catholic churches – and yet view the primacy of the First Presidency?

  10. But my point is that how people judge the traits seems disconnected from what the traits are. That is how much of the judgment of middle classness comes from work ethic and dress and not really anything particularly characteristic of being middle class. Put an other way if the judgment of “Americanness” of Mormons comes primarily from white shirt and ties then there is something quite wrong about the dialog. It is inherently superficial. Now of course most perceptions are superficial and most judgments end up being more about stereotypes than realities. And perceptions of Mormons are no exception.

    I just wish “Mormons as middle class America” whether as a judgment by non-Americans, by Americans or even by Mormons entailed a bit more than what we usually get. (I don’t mean this as a criticism of what you write – far from it. Just something that has bugged me for a long time)

  11. Wilfried,

    Might the answer to your question depend in signficant measure upon the specific vantage point from which such perception is to be made? IOW, the set of characteristics that seem most “American” to a viewer will depend, right, upon the specific “foreignness” of those characteristics in the culture of the one responding. You might find that a Korean, a Chilean, and a Belgian might all agree that the Church is very “American,” but they might have decidedly different characteristics in mind when they say that.

    I’m not particularly adept with post-modernism, but to have a signified, don’t we also need both a signifier and a sign? Asking about the signified, alone, may lead to a misleading answer.

  12. #10: Clark, You are right. But the last time I checked, only about six Americans didn’t think they were or wanted to be known as “Middle class”. Nobody whats to be called Upper class. or Working class, in our classless sociality.

  13. Clark, I understand what you are saying, but there is a fascinating paradox within Mormonism. There is the general perception among many that this church caters to the poor and uneducated and ignorant and desperate. In fact, if you ask members themselves to identify the “best potential converts”, I would be willing to bet that many would identify exactly this group – the humbled ones.

    Contrast that with the actual demographic descriptions that often are published in comparative studies of various religions. In all of them I have seen, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are aggregated as (among, at least) the most educated believers in the world – with a standard of living that also is near or at the top of the lists.

    The question in my mind that rarely is discussed or addressed in these studies is whether both of these seemingly opposing claims are true – that the “empowering” nature of the Gospel that we teach appeals to the poor and oppressed initially and then, in very real and practical terms, inspires and motivates and literally “empowers” those who stick with it to raise their education and/or standard of living – if not with the initial converts, then at least with their children. I suspect the “middle class” perception of the Church from the outside is a result more of this growth from generation to generation (how 2nd and 3rd generation Mormons appear and live) than it is to the status of converts when they first join the Church.

    In that sense, if those around them tend to remain in poverty while Mormons (outside of America) tend to raise their standard of living in ways measurably different than those around them, then perhaps that contributes to the impression that these Mormons are more “American” than “native” – simply because they act and dress and carry themselves more “middle-class” than their friends and neighbors. (Fwiw, I have heard critics say that converts in poorer countries join the Church simply to “get a better education and make more money”. How’s that for a warped criticism – whether it’s true or not?)

    Wilfried, you wrote of “the behavioral realm”. Perhaps they aren’t just “acting more American”; perhaps they are “living more American” – with that phrase’s economical implications. It would be an interesting way to explain the oddity that I mentioned earlier concerning fast offerings: those in developing countries who become established in Mormon culture tend to raise their standard of living relatively high enough to have excess within their culture, while those who have enjoyed multi-generational prosperity tend to succumb more to the allure of their prosperity, over-extend and lose it. (Sounds like I’m paraphrasing the BofM, doesn’t it?) Perhaps I’m way off base here, but have you considered this possibility?

  14. Thanks, Ray, for gearing the discussion to this aspect of our main topic: to what extent does the Church empower converts abroad to become more “American”, in this case educationally and economically speaking. I believe that happens — I have seen it more than once. The PEF would contribute to it, but also members abroad becoming Church employees and therefore acting even more in certain behavioral patterns towards their mainly American employers. Of course, we cannot generalize this to a majority of members, but inasmuch these “Americanized” members are often also local Church leaders and role models, there is some widening impact of their behavior on other members. There could also be a factor that makes local members mimic “American” behavioral traits in order to come into favour with American authorities. It’s human…

    Greenfrog (11) raised the deeper semantic question of the characteristics of Americanness. I certainly agree that the respective values of signifier and sign must be taken into account and would require more in-depth study. However, this, I think, would pertain to the more debatable realms – ideological and behavioral. In the historical-geographical realm – and I believe this is the first and most obvious characteristic – it is difficult to deny that we are an “American” Church — and probably should not be ashamed of it. Hinduism is not ashamed to be “Indian” and Roman Catholicism is not going to abjure its historical Romanness.

    In connection with that last point, thanks, Phouchg (9) for opening another issue – that of the official cultural/liturgical diversifications in Catholicism, which, indeed, opens an avenue of discussion on possible varieties of Mormonism. I propose to leave that for another post and thread — I have a subdivision on that topic in my study on gospel culture and plan to post is soon.

  15. This might be merely incidental to your main thesis, but I just wanted to point out that, as referenced in your opening paragraph, the Church didn’t start becoming global in scope with President Clark in 1937, but the idea was there from the very beginning. Moroni told Joseph Smith in 1823 that his name “would be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (Joseph Smith-History 1:33) and Joseph Smith commented in a June 1831 Conference, when the Church had scarcely been organized for one year, that “I want to say to you before the Lord that you know no more about the future destiny of this Church and kingdom than a babe upon its mother’s lap. You don’t comprehend it; it is only a little handful of priesthood you see here tonight, but this Church will fill North and South America, it will fill the world.” The Church started small, and past policies such as the gathering had their place, but the Lord’s intentions for His Church have always been global in nature.

  16. R Reeder,
    The church’s global presence has little bearing on its Americanness. There are plenty of things which are global which are also American.

    Nice analysis, as ever. I’d like to draw readers’ attention to an article about the Finnish temple, “America in Karakilio.” It seems the Finnish media saw the temple as utterly American, both in its design (in what “realm” would your place aesthetics?) and in the precision-like organisation of the open house, even when it was Mormon Finns who interacted with them.

  17. Thank you, R Reeder, for the clarification. The theme of “fillling the earth” has indeed been with the Church since the beginning, but, as Ronan said, we’re dealing here with both the reality and the perception of that universalization in relation to the birth place. It seems that J. Reuben Clark — as far as we know as first — used the negation “This is not an American Church” to explicitly counter that perception in the world. Perhaps I should have phrased the question “How American is the universal Church”? In relation to history, it would make an interesting study to see to what extent Mormon missionaries abroad were perceived as “American”, “marginal American” or “anti-American” in the period 1846-1890. From my analysis of French reports on Mormonism in that period, the “marginal” and “anti” sometimes took precedence.

    I expected comments from you, Ronan! Thanks for linking to Kim B. Östman’s contribution, which identifies the subjective perception from outsiders. Fascinating report!

  18. When I was a missionary many many moons ago, the cultural arrogance of the almost totally American missionary force was hard for local members to take and ultimately very destructive to the missionary program, as so many of our best young members — young men, young women, young families — were encouraged to emigrate to America where they could have a better life. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and Zion is being built at home, complete with stakes and a temple. Separating the gospel from America in that sense is a good thing. Now if we could just get American members to grasp the possibility that the end times might have something to do with the state of the entire world and not just America…..

  19. Bob and Ray, my point isn’t the Church of the past 25-40 years but rather the Church before then. The Church we have now is largely created by that earlier period. Even if we’ve shaken off many social trappings of the Joseph Smith era and the early Utah era the fact is that even the “assimiliation” period from say 1910-1950 was what really created the modern Church. But while most members lived in the last 30 years most of the society was created in Utah – Idaho – Arizona – California from 1910 – 1960. And in that period we were anything but middle classed.

    So the more interesting fact is that we are a middle class demographic who’s Church is remarkably un-middle class. One could argue that the Church has transformed the last 30 years. But to what degree has it really? Is the Church today really that different from the 1970’s when Spencer Kimball ran it? Other than more efficient use of Church space and time I honestly don’t see much difference.

    Yes the membership is quite a bit more educated. But I think we kid ourselves if we think most Mormons are well educated on the minutiae of Church theology, structure and history. Certainly our education and relative success affects our society. But if that is so then what we have is actually a very big divide between Church and the “social Church” given the fact that the Church proper was developed prior to us becoming largely middle class.

    Put an other way the so-called “middle class ethos” is nothing more than an artifact of most members being roughly middle-class.

  20. I appreciate the input, Clark, but I’d rather have no thread here on the definition of middle-class in the U.S. related to Mormons, unless it has a clear bearing on the “Americanness” of the Church in international perspective.

  21. “Is the Church today really that different from the 1970’s when Spencer Kimball ran it?”

    Hell, yes, would be far too mild an answer – in ways that directly relate to this thread.

    1) The majority of our members now reside outside the US.
    2) The majority of US members no longer live in Utah.
    3) California has nearly as many or more members than Utah. (I haven’t seen the latest figures.)
    4) Spanish soon will be the native language of a plurality of members.
    5) There are MTCs in multiple countries, staffed by local leaders and comprised of a majority of native-speaking missionaries.
    6) There are dozens of non-American GAs in the ranks of the Seventy.
    7) There is a non-American born or raised apostle – and he now is a member of the First Presidency.
    8) There almost certainly will be at least one non-Caucasian apostle in the next 10-15 years – at the very most.

    Wilfried’s study is fascinating to me specifically because I believe there are certain aspects of the Church and Restored Gospel that might appear to be “American” (or even “middle-class American”) that, in reality, are not “American” but rather “Eternal”. It will be very interesting to see how the Church navigates the balance between maintaining those aspects that are Eternal while letting go of those things that merely are American.

    For example, it can be argued that the Church’s refusal to accept polygamy in Africa or Muslim countries is an example of its American-ness. However, it also can be argued that this refusal is based solely on a lack of revelation rescinding the Manifesto – or revelation allowing it in certain areas while banning it in others (as is done by nearly every other Christian denomination with a global presence – an interesting threadjack in and of itself, since it points out that they allow now what they condemn the Mormon Church for having done in the past). This second argument goes against an “American” Church to a truly global, revelation-driven church with one standard for all on matters of eternal significance unless revealed otherwise. I can see both sides on this one, which is why I think Wilfried’s work is fascinating.

    Another example is how the WofW is interpreted within individual countries and cultures. Have you considered that, Wilfried?

  22. Thank you, Ray. To already comment on one aspect you mentioned — things that might appear “American” and are in reality “eternal”. Though I avoided in my text to discuss “desirability” of ideological and behavioral features, there are of course many elements that the “American” Church brings into the lives of members abroad, in certain cultures, that should be improvements, one e.g. I mentioned as “informality and equality of social contact between genders and between ages”. Let’s hope such will continue in the dynamic eternity we believe in! Examples can be multiplied. The impact “now on earth” depends of course on the nature of the local culture, i.e. to what extent items such as certain features already exist in the local culture or not.

    As to the question on the Word of Wisdom, I doubt that there would be divergent interpretations per other country or culture “as such”. The present guidelines are too clear to make room for such deviations on “official” level. My impression is that, worldwide, there are everywhere individual interpretations (more or less discrete) within a narrow range (coke, wine for cooking…), like there would be among members in the U.S. And the same discussions about what is allowed and what not can be heard worldwide…

  23. 1) The majority of our members now reside outside the US.


    You are of course correct, but when North America makes up only 5% of the world population yet has 48% of the members, it still looks, walks, and talks like an American church.

  24. Ray, those are all demographic changes but not necessarily changes in the Church structure or it’s context.

    That’s kind of the point I’m trying to raise. Most of what is said about Church culture is merely accidental qualities regarding those who have been born or joined in the past 20 years.

    For example, it can be argued that the Church’s refusal to accept polygamy in Africa or Muslim countries is an example of its American-ness. However, it also can be argued that this refusal is based solely on a lack of revelation rescinding the Manifesto – or revelation allowing it in certain areas while banning it in others (as is done by nearly every other Christian denomination with a global presence – an interesting threadjack in and of itself, since it points out that they allow now what they condemn the Mormon Church for having done in the past).

    But this is the perfect example of what I’m pointing out. The Church view of polygamy in non-American nations is pretty much shaped by the apostasies in Utah and Arizona when the Church ceased polygamy and the attempt to “assimilate” from 1920 – 1940. That set the policy of extreme opposition to polygamy in all forms. It has almost nothing to do with modern culture beyond a vague “yucky” factor. Further most of the leadership until recently were all born and formed during that period. But that period from 1920 – 1940 is completely different from middle America as we think of it today. It was a period when the Church was almost entirely made up of relatively poor folks in Utah, Arizona, Idaho etc. with a distinctly rural rather than urban mentality.

    To judge the Church view on polygamy, as is so common, in terms of the sensibilities of contemporary suburban America is really to miss the stresses that occurred early in the 20th century that created the modern Church. Surburbia has at best a coincidental relationship.

  25. To add, the Word of Wisdom restrictions which are so characteristic of the Church also have little to do with middle America. Rather they arose out of the debates that led to the constitutional amendment creating prohibition. There was a frankly a-textual use of the Word of Wisdom that ended up emphasizing alcohol, tobacco and so forth beyond the rest of the verses and then by extension applying to marijuana, cocaine and so forth. Now I think this was inspired in many ways – but the Word of Wisdom as practiced while having a connection to the D&C clearly is viewed different from the 19th century but also has almost nothing to do with middle America or modern views on drugs. (Or, put an other way, the relationship is more coincidental rather than causal – although clearly modern views on drugs are used to support WoW prohibitions but more as an apologetic)

  26. Thank you for making us think, Ray, Clark and others. I will continue to try to relate it more to the international church…

    To the extent that these changes — views on polygamy, views on WoW — directly impact on the behavior of members in the international church (who must conform to the norms set), I wonder how much they can be identified as “American” features, since they are indeed the result of social and political developments in the U.S. It puts the matter in historical perspective, in particular how the 20th century has shaped the church, from assimilation mode to retrenchment, in Mauss’ terms. Assimilation for polygamy, retrenchment for WoW.

    But, more important, where do we stand now and how are things developing? What is the impact of the “American way of life” (as defined under 2 in my post) and of a fair number of “American” behavioral characteristics (as described under 3) on members abroad?

    One aspect that I find intriguing is the apparent difference between members who retain much of their own socio-cultural habits (forms of interaction, dress, principles on how to raise children …) and those who try to conform as much as possible to the “American” behavior of missionaries and “Americanized” stake and regional authorities. Could it be that the “conformists” are the ones more prone to be called to local leadership positions and be hired as Church employees, thus constantly reinforcing the Americanness of local units?

  27. Wilfried, I think you hit the target in #2 with “the American Dream”. It’s not the same as the “America Way of life” One is a fact, the other a dream. My grandparents came to America as much (maybe more) for the “Dream” as for Mormonism. My parents left their failed Mormon Villages for that Dream, (that their parents never reached), for Salt Lake. They followed the Dream to California, but they too failed to reach it, but never gave up on it. Being “Mormon” and living “Mormon”, was one of the paths of that Dream. Mormonism held and offered the keys to a higher/better life. So even if you never reached Middle Class, in Mormonism, you were always reaching and hoping for it. And one day maybe you did, or maybe you only believed you had.

  28. “3) California has nearly as many or more members than Utah. (I haven’t seen the latest figures.)”

    According to, California has about 750,000 members and Utah 1.8 million. The number in California has actually gone down the last several years, and in Utah it is increasing.

  29. Wilfried, I think that the most intractable of the things you point to is the unconscious transfer of American behavior that occurs. As you note, it happens because we hire people “whom we can work with,” in other words, people who are generally more like ourselves. It happens because the things we transfer are largely invisible to us, so we cannot think about whether we want to transfer them. Etc. Few if any of these transfers are of things essential to the gospel, and some of them may make it more difficult for us to preach that gospel. It is a very difficult problem for which I have no solution.

  30. Recently the Church has acknowledged that it has trouble retaining converts in areas outside the U.S. and that the U.S. still has a greater number of active Church members than the rest of the world. As things now stand, about one-third of all active members live in Utah, and another one-third live in the rest of the U.S. When it comes to the missionary force, which has a great influence on the character of the Church in developing areas, more than half of all missionaries come from the western U.S. There has been an increase in the number of missionaries from Latin America, though. And in Haiti the Church is functioning without any Americans visiting the country at all in the last several years. But by and large, I would have to agree that the American influence in the Church is great. Members outside the U.S. sometimes resent it, as evidenced by the tenor of their comments about Church materials, particularly the Church magazines. Unfortunately, they often don’t recognize how hard the Church is working to reach out to them.

  31. Well said, mormonmagmeister. Interesting is the point you raise of perception among members abroad. On the one hand, some will indeed complain about things they feel as “too American”, on the other hand a number of things “American” are at the core of their identity as Mormons, but not explicitly identified that way. Complaints usually deal with surface things, but surface things can be pretty important. It’s a complex network of elements that play various roles in forging a so-called worldwide “gospel culture”. Anthropological and/or sociological analyses would be needed to sort out what members in each foreign culture experience, what they retain and what they adopt as ideological and behavioral traits, where compromises are reached and where conflicts arise.

    Overall I tend to think that the worldwide Church is more “American” (and perhaps even becoming “more American”) than we would like to admit. In that sense the statement “this is not an American Church” is ambivalent. Yes, the gospel message is universal, and Church leaders want to distance themselves from a “Yankee image”, but our historical-geographical base and much of the packaging and local implementation is American-based. Which should not be a problem per definition. But then explicitly “denying” the American character of the Church might be more of a problem. Would it be correcter to say we are an American Church with a universal message? Which brings us back to the initial question: what do we gain or lose by affirming that we are (not) an American Church?

  32. Tough question. I wonder if there will always be some kind of problem with community identification. Even if we were to get beyond the problem of national/cultural identity, there would probably still be some hurdles to overcome regarding religious culture. Imagine the problems, for instance, there may yet be for folks from the middle or far east matriculating into a more “universal” Mormon culture (for lack of a better way of putting it). The idea being–even if the Church were to become less American in it’s identity, it may still have a long row to hoe with regard to divesting itself of a global Christian culture that may yet prove itself quite a stumbling block for an even larger demographic.

  33. # 33 – Thanks for the acknowledgment, Wilfried. I think the statement “This is not an American Church” is usually a response to specific criticism by members an nonmembers outside the U.S., though the existence of this criticism is usually only implied in this statement and not specifically addressed. I believe that, if pressed, those making such statements would qualify it somewhat when it comes to cultural and historical aspects of the Church, while affirming that the statement has particularly to do with the universality of the gospel message.

  34. One problem is that some things that are Mormon are also coincidentally American. I think this allowed for the close suburban American -> Mormon connection. But it also means that some will judge a lot about the Church as American when it isn’t. I’m not sure there’s a solution for that given the way symbols are affected by context.

    The other issue is what Jim mentions (# 30). Unconsciously we tend to favor those like us. That’s true as much of converts as it is members trying to convert. I remember on my mission in Lousiana there were few black members. So we tried to recreate some elements of the churches most belonged to by having tuesday ‘Bible studies.’ There we had the investigators, recent converts and strong African Ameircan members meet together and have snacks. (The inevitable Mormon potluck aspect of our society – lots of sprite and jello) It worked amazingly. It gave a kind of cultural buffer and also a nice unintimidating place to ask questions. Then the friendshipping was great. Of course the Church grew quickly. (I’ve no idea what it is like the Baton Rouge area anymore — I heard that things peaked and then there was some falling away. I don’t know if that was because the program was dropped or for other reasons)

  35. #37:” I don’t know if that was because the program was dropped or for other reasons.” I must say I have visited some churches with their post meeting “coffee talks”, and they are very community building and “a nice unintimidating place to ask questions.”

  36. And we can’t do Postum talks any more… (LOL) The singles wards in Utah often have munch and mingles after Church. But it’s more social meeting and then, honestly, not that effective. Doing this in a more discussion oriented format would be very useful IMO.

  37. Wilfried–

    It would also be interesting if you looked at the way American popular culture impacted Mormon popular culture. For example, the post-Gods’-Army glut of Mormon films were almost universally made by American directors, actors, crew, etc. Though creating a product for a specific religious demographic, these people were also American filmmakers influenced by American cinematic conventions and probably looking for cross-over boxoffice. To the extent that these films are consumed by non-American Mormons, they help create an American Mormon sensibility that is further reinforced by the non-LDS American films that non-American Mormons consume.

  38. Good point, Eugene. Mormon films of the past few years, in particular when they also depict meetings, congregations, home teaching… certainly convey certain behavioral patterns and confirm images of “how Mormons interact”. Mostly, indeed, do combine American cinematic conventions and “typical” Mormon interactions. In our international perspective another point is then to what extent these films have impact on non-American Mormons. My impression is that up to now few if any of these films reach a Mormon audience outside the U..S., except perhaps English-speaking areas — Canada, UK, Australia?

  39. #39″ Clark, let’s compare: When I visit my bro-in-law in Montana, we go to his A. of God church. They have a drummer and a guitar player. At the coffee talk, I talked with the guitar player, (any other place no way!). He plays in bars during the week, admits an ongoing drug and drinking problem, but plays at church Sundays as he’s “trying to do better.” This is different than how Mormons interact, there was no agenda or walls between the two of us.

  40. Bob, I’m afraid this discussion will let us deviate from the main topic of this thread. Unless there is proof that somewhere in the world Mormon congregations have developed quite different traditions than mainstream-American-Mormon.

  41. I think, Wilfried, Bob’s point is that many Mormon traditions aren’t that American at all. It’s a unique Mormon tradition. Mormons simply socialize in Church functions in a manner unlike many (most?) other American religions. So there’s no doubt it’s perhaps too invasive everywhere. But it’s not a particularly American export.

    Of course it may well be a social tradition that needs broken down. (I think the way Mormons socialize – especially new or perspective members is rather unfortunate)

  42. Yes, I see your point, Clark. My approach tries to focus on “American” behavioral traits that transfer to Mormon units abroad. It is certainly true that not all those traits or traditions, found in the interactions between Mormons, are typically American – e.g. the kind of socializing in relation to meetings Bob talks about. I’m afraid, however, that the discussion could lead us on a too broad tangent, away from the core issue on behavior – the physical, affective and pragmatic conduct in interpersonal relations, which are predominantly “American” and are adopted elsewhere. I realize how difficult these are to identify in an ideosyncratic way, but I tried to list a number in item 3 of the post.

  43. Warning! Too broad a tangent, I think the questions are: Can Mormonism be practiced more than one way? (Yes, it has been). Can there be more than one center? (America/Utah?). Why not? Could Europe go it alone? Will Salt Lake ever let that happen? Who knowns? But the Church let a physical “Zion” go, maybe it can let central control go. Sorry Wilfried, no more tangents from me.

  44. Aha, Bob, now we are back on the tracks. The questions you raise are all in the broader study I wrote on “gospel culture” (in worldwide perspective, not limited to the U.S.) and I will post parts of them in the coming weeks. I was only a little worried of a developing thread that would focus on what is happening in churches like Assemblies of God in the U.S. and how these differ from Mormon congregations.

  45. I asked my wife, who is from Germany, about this the other night. She said that she remembers hearing stories in General Conference talks about growing up on small farm towns in Idaho, or football stories, or other things she couldn’t even begin to relate to (luckily we now have Google Maps and the European NFL to help alleviate those poor Euro-Saints living in these unfortunate situations). I think these über-American stories have become less frequent in the last decade, but I still hear them crop up from time to time. I listen to talks nowadays with my Americanism radar in standby mode, and any time one of these things pokes through, I immediately wonder how my in-laws listening on the other side of the planet are perceiving the same story.

    Another difference my wife pointed out is that when members in Germany talk about helping someone in the ward (due to childbirth, illness, etc.) it’s not a plate of cookies or a dinner pre-cooked and hand delivered — it’s washing windows, scrubbing floors, and hanging laundry to dry. Actual work that needs to be done.

    The wards don’t change as rapidly as they do over here — some of them have had the same core membership for decades, and when a new family moves in, they’re simply relatives or the kids of well-known old-timers from across the country, so most people know them anyway. My wife said they don’t need home teaching assignments or excuses to go to the other members’ houses because they’ve been visiting their friends automatically for years. (Of course, I wonder how many visitors the inactive members can expect.) So our system of assigning “friends” to member-pairs to contact on a regulated schedule might seem a bit “corporate.”

    For a perspective from a completely different continent, a man from Africa was baptized in our ward on Saturday, and on Sunday when he was to be confirmed, he showed up in a fantastic tribal robe/gown getup. It was awesome, and in his mind, probably the best ceremonial attire he owns. I’ve seen many other African members in “traditional” dress come to church in our ward, and it is beautiful. I fear that our newest member might start to feel uncomfortable if he’s not wearing a suit (I’ve seen it before), and will likely give up his native clothing for our American “uniform of the priesthood” (a concept I completely disagree with). He’ll likely receive congratulatory handshakes for looking good in a white shirt from well-meaning members. But It hurts me to think of this unfortunate and unnecessary assimilation that is based on unscriptural, undoctrinal, American tradition.


  46. Thanks, Jon. Great contribution. Yes, I can very well picture the point about the African dress. Same situation in our Antwerp ward in Belgium where we have many members from Africa. When I was in Kinshasa (Congo) a few months ago, it was interesting to see the strict conformity in dress among men and boys in the chapel – dark pants, white shirt, tie. Even on a weekday they would come in their Mormon “uniform”. Wasn’t there a talk some time ago in a General conference encouraging this… ?

  47. Wilfried, did you run into Elder and Sister Thomas in Kinshasa? They’re serving there from my ward! (I can’t believe they’ll be home in a matter of months.)

    I don’t recall any recent General Conference talks encouraging a “priesthood uniform,” but Ardis posted some great insights on the topic here a couple weeks ago: The general consensus seemed to be that there shouldn’t be any strict enforcement on the matter.

    I think the only recommended dress standard should be “neat and clean” and let the local customs establish what the rest means. Some of us, even in America, get a little carried away in trying to be too much like The Brethren. (I saw Elder Bednar was wearing cuff links in his last Conference talk — should I go out and get cuffed shirts now?)


  48. Yes, Jon, I met them in Kinshasa. It’s a fascinating place to work.

    Err… about white shirt, tie, missionary haircut for members in Africa … yes, I think a few things have been said about that talk afterwards in a few places…

  49. One more observation from my wife. She noted how it seems to be an American Mormon idea that women stay at home and devote their time to taking care of the kids while the men bring in all the money. I don’t know about the historical or geographical aspects of this ideal, but it seemed to her that this lifestyle is just not feasible where she is from. From her perspective, most moms don’t have the luxury of choosing to staying home — they have to go out and work to help pay for raising a family.

    It seems to be the norm, as far as I understand in Europe anyway, that there’s just no easy way for many moms to not work outside of home. Again, historically, “staying home” wasn’t ever as “easy” as it is now, so there’s a whole wide discussion on this aspect alone, but our modern view of stay-at-home moms (and homeschooling, of all the oddities!) seems to be completely foreign to the rest of the world.


  50. Good points, Jon, and they deal indeed with our topic of possible impact of Mormon / American behavior on members abroad.

    1) For the “stay at home” recommendation (with all the nuances we’ve heard over the years from church leaders), I presume that recommendation is more typical Mormon, not American “in se”. And yes, in some parts of the world, that recommendation will probably cause more or less wondering and (non)-compliance according to local circumstances. Interesting topic: to what extent Mormons abroad listen “selectively” when their culture is at odds with some Church recommendations that do not apply to clear laws such as WoW.

    2) “Home schooling” on the other hand is not a “Mormon” recommendation (as far as I know), but something that seems “typical” American (at least promoted and practised in America). I don’t think it is that widespread in other parts of the world (inasmuch as even allowed by the law). But in that sense it is interesting for our topic: the idea of “home schooling”, which is practised among Mormons, probably attracts attention in other parts of the world as “something valuable done by Mormons”. I have known at least one Belgian Mormon family who tried it, inspired by Mormon example in the U.S. (and after a few months the Belgian police came to take the children away from the parents because of that “irresponsible behavior” – but that’s another story).

  51. One place you could dig deeper with your research is to see how Latter-day Saints around the world marry. What are the associated traditions? How many of them are Church related? How many are specific to their culture/country? How many are American?

    I know it is common for Latter-day Saints in Argentina to hold their wedding receptions (is that an Argentine custom?) at the chapel, but they stay until 5 or 6am (decidedly Argentine).

  52. when members in Germany talk about helping someone in the ward (due to childbirth, illness, etc.) it’s not a plate of cookies or a dinner pre-cooked and hand delivered — it’s washing windows, scrubbing floors, and hanging laundry to dry. Actual work that needs to be done.

    Dinner isn’t actual work that needs to be done?

  53. Culture, Adam, culture. Of course dinner is also actual work. But a dinner in Europe is normally not something that you bring to the door “pre-cooked”. So, if help is to be given in that area, a member will come and cook in the home. But a family will seldom let someone else come in their kitchen to cook. The husband or the wife will take care of that sacred culinary part. Hence, the other work is seen as valuable help.

  54. #48, While living in New Jersey (not even another country, though some might argue), I remember hearing President Benson during one general conference give a talk on Sabbath-keeping, in which he denounced “going for a drive up the canyon.” I searched my mental map for any canyons in New Jersey where I might be tempted to wander on Sundays, but alas could think of none. Then I thought of my friends in flat Belgium and the Netherlands who would be baffled by the reference. Maybe we don’t get as many such things nowadays, but that always makes me chuckle.

  55. Culture, Adam, culture. Of course dinner is also actual work. But a dinner in Europe is normally not something that you bring to the door “pre-cooked”. So, if help is to be given in that area, a member will come and cook in the home. But a family will seldom let someone else come in their kitchen to cook. The husband or the wife will take care of that sacred culinary part. Hence, the other work is seen as valuable help.

    Concession and condescension are apparently akin in more than just orthography.

  56. Adam (54), you raise an important issue in relation to “gospel culture” blending with items in the local culture. I will come back to that in a next post, for it is a key aspect in our intercultural relations, like also Bob (46) drew the attention to.

  57. Interesting topic: to what extent Mormons abroad listen “selectively” when their culture is at odds with some Church recommendations that do not apply to clear laws such as WoW.

    I’m not sure if this is what you’re getting at, but I’ve yet to hear a sermon about R rated movies in Austria. Sure, there’s general counsel about wholesome entertainment and everyone knows the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, but the MPAA ratings aren’t even “translated” to correspond to the local standards, e.g., I’ve never heard counsel to avoid films “freigegeben ab 16 Jahren.” Movie ratings just don’t seem to be an issue, though whether this is a case of culture clash, I don’t know.

  58. Dinner isn’t actual work that needs to be done?

    If all one can manage for the flock is dinner, the Lord will no doubt accept the offering.

  59. # 60 – Yes, Peter LLC, that’s another good example of where “church culture” from America would sometimes not square with traditions in a local culture. Belgium (and most European countries I think) do not know film ratings like in the US, so many members go to movies or watch films on TV that would probably raise eyebrows in Utah. Sensitivities to what is “permissible” or “immoral” would indeed differ. E.g. a pretty explicit love scene in a romantic comedy can be viewed as less disturbing than the casual “shooting of a bandit” in an action movie. Is killing not worse than making love? would be the reaction. Interesting field for the study of differences in perceptions.

  60. Peter (60) and Wilfried (62), my younger brother-in-law wanted to watch Jarhead with my wife and me when we were visiting last summer. I asked him to repeat the title, knowing I had heard of it before. I looked at the cover and instantly knew it — “this is easily rated R.” I searched for the German rating on the back cover. I couldn’t believe my eyes: “freigegeben ab 12 Jahren.” I checked a German online rating system — same thing: 12 yrs and up. I told him that despite that incredible rating (literally) I would not watch it because I knew there was no way. I showed him the outline of the movie’s contents at to prove my point. So we watch The Transporter instead.

    I long ago gave up the outdated argument against R-rated movies. It simply does not hold water any more. Not with an increasingly lax PG-13 category, and even less in an increasingly international church.


  61. Jarhead vs. The Transporter: a semi-accurate portrayal of the confusion of the Persian Gulf war from a new marine’s point of view, complete with plentiful f-words, vs. a mindless action movie with an excellent car chase and far fewer f-words. Pick your poison.

  62. Adam (58), in many European areas, “dinnner” (the evening meal) is not cooked. It’s a wonderful smorgasbord of breads, meats and cheeses. Oh, the bread! Oh, the cheese! * longing sigh *

    The point is, the first thing that seems to come to mind over here is “They need dinners!! We need to bring them dinners!!” They simply don’t have that same mindset over there. I can imagine the perplexed look on my mother-in-law’s face if someone were to show up one evening with a casserole, salad, and cookies. LOL.


  63. Russell (64), I’m glad you caught the irony. :)

    As a side note, for those who aren’t familiar, German swear words just don’t seem to have the same potency. I’ve heard bishops uttering things whose English translation would be appalling to most American/English churchgoers’ ears.

    Regarding Word of Wisdom differences, those German members love their (herbal) tea and (grain) coffee! It’s simply a part of their culture. But they view all those caffeinated pops that the American missionaries drink as sacrilege. Ironically, a good friend who served in the Philippines told me his mission president there made them drink the Mountain Dew that the locals offered to them, despite whatever misgivings they might have had back home.

    I’m personally against the horrendous meat-guzzling that so many of us still partake in (to the tune of 10 billion animal per year, just in the U.S.A.), which is very clearly proscribed in black on white in the Doctrine and Covenants — but that’s another topic for another thread.


  64. Re: Adam’s comment (54), I think many receptions around the world are held in ward buildings. They’re clean, they’re big, and they’re free (who’s got the money or the space otherwise?). In a number of German wards, the chapel doubles as the “cultural hall”, sometimes with a simple curtain drawn in front of the pulpit/sacrament table/organ area. We wouldn’t dare do something so unholy as to dance in the “chapel” over here, but for them it’s often a simple matter of space.

    Also, before the recent renovations of the Freiberg Temple (a truly “small” temple) in the baptistery, they had a stone-relief of oxen on the wall behind the small font, rather than an actual basin supported by oxen sculptures.

    Along those lines, I remember visiting the Chicago Temple with my then-newlywed wife, and she asked for a pair of headphones so she could listen in German. The poor elderly sister gave her an odd look. In Freiberg, every week was a different language, but in Chicago they didn’t know what to do and had to scramble to find headphones and a receiver.

    I’m wondering how American (or how BSA-oriented) the new “international” Duty to God and Personal Progress programs are. I’ll have to research the German version’s requirements tonight.


  65. Re: Jon comment 67. Last week, I called a boy we baptized in Argentina on my mission to wish him a happy birthday (just turned 19). As we were catching up he asked what my calling was in the ward. I told him that I worked with the scouts (cubmaster was going to take too long to explain). He was curious about the program and asked if the Church had ever done scouts in Argentina. I told him they had but for some reason had stopped. He then told me that he would have been laughed at (or was it “he wouldn’t be caught dead” =) if he had done any scouting as a boy/teenager.

    Is this a good example where the Church recognized that scouting was too American and thus not a good fit? Or was it something else?

  66. Thanks, Adam. Indeed an interesting comparison point where a Church program might be sensed as “American”.

    Scouting as such is of course an international endeavor, more usual in some countries than others. I know from Belgium (and other European countries) that the Catholic church has had a widespread scoutsprogram for decades. I recently read that the movement has been picking up again, after some diminishing in the 80s-90s. Of course, “scouting” is sometimes a little different than in the U.S. As I know it in Belgium in the Catholic church (groups often Catholic by name only) , it’s totally mixed for boys and girls, uniforms are more symbolic (very loose), it’s more the style of a youth club (including disco dance evenings, beer-drinking…), patriotism is out of the question as inappropriate for an organization which is supposed to promote peace (note that in smaller countries “patriotism” is sometimes sensed as a “threat from the outside” — too much experience with patriotic invaders). I’m sure that in other countries scouting might be more the “original disciplined style”.

    I know they had Mormon scouting in Holland, perhaps still. In Belgium we tried it once in the sixties, but it floundered: the American-style, “disciplined” scouts group, with pretty strict uniform and goals to attain, flag raising etc. reminded some people too much of Nazi-youth. It probably also explains why the present scouts group have taken distance from that former style.

  67. The historical and geographic issues are there of course, but I’d guess the behavior aspect is the most powerful- consider the spread of basketball that seems to follow the Church as well.

    However, I think you are overstating the ideological aspect quite a bit. Primarily because American ideology isn’t nearly as uniform as you imply, nor is the Church as in sync with American ideology as you suggest.

    I have never felt the Church promoting self-actualization or glorifying individualism in my life.

    If anything I have always felt the Church has been a force in my life against those attitudes.

  68. Adam and Wilfried (68 and 69), my sense is that the LDS version of Scouting never caught on in Germany, probably due at least in part to the fact that it’s difficult to find more than a handful of young men in any given ward/branch. Besides the Scouting organization as far as I could tell is virtually non-existent there, and is probably true for many other countries. Plus the whole “I wouldn’t be caught dead” factor. :) So, since the official Aims of Scouting (in the BSA anyway) very much parallel the purposes of the Duty to God program, I imagine DTG is for most international units the replacement for an American YM program that didn’t export well to some places.

    In large, American units, the LDS-BSA program works well, but if you’re not an American unit, or if you’re not in a large unit (which I’m currently dealing with in my own small Scouting program), it doesn’t work so well. I have at least one dad in my ward who was never big on Scouting, and he is convinced that it’s only a matter of time before the DTG program replaces the BSA completely as a YM program.

    I don’t know that I agree with that prediction, based on a number of high-level leadership comments I’ve heard. But the Duty to God program appears to be the international answer to the failed export of the American LDS Scouting program. And personally, I think it’s a perfect solution — it encompasses all the good things that Scouting aims for, adds the specific LDS-religious aspect that Scouting lacks, is not hindered by the size of a unit, and is not tied to any outside organizations that might vary in strength and size.

    This is probably the biggest example of an American church program (LDS-BSA) not exporting well to other countries. But just look at the great solution (DTG) that came out of it.


  69. Not sure if anyone is still reading this, but I had one last thought. The Church would do well to emulate the superb training the BSA has developed. Practical things like youth protection, creating a safe haven, differences in age groups, and other practical issues would really help the majority of our amateur and otherwise untrained/unexperienced youth leaders. The best youth training I’ve received has come from our local district/council. Our stake presidency does one weekend every two years, but other than that and incessant preachings, uh, I mean “meetings,” the Church doesn’t even come close.


  70. When this topic comes up, I remember a visit to Calumet, Michigan. Sitting on a peninsula in the middle of Lake Superior, Calumet was a booming copper mining town a century ago. I asked my host why the small downtown was crowded with so many old churches, and he explained that the immigrants that poured into there from many nations all needed a church of their own. For me, the difference between a Swedish Lutheran church and a Norwegian Lutheran church may not seem worth bothering with in America, but it was to them.

    I suspect this is connected with why the Mormon church is perceived by people in other lands as an American church: For them, all churches are national churches.

  71. Thanks for these latest comments!

    Cicero (70) raises an interesting question on ideology which I need to study further. My first reaction would be to say that messages from above are ambivalent, even in the Scriptures. On the one hand the promises of glory, rule and kingship, on the other hand the admonitions towards humility and meekness. As to self-realization on earth, we would need a better analysis of Church messages, but I think there is strong evidence that encouragement towards self-realization (reaching objectives in life, progress, education, improving living standards, culture of awards and honors …) is pretty present in the Church literature and Church life, e.g. through examples of “achievers” (again, this is totally independent of a values assessment). On the other hand, we need to make the difference between self-realization and self-glorification (which would have a negative connotation).

    Jon (71 & 72), I also think that the scouts program has little future in the Church abroad. Perhaps the Church will also distance itself from it in the future in the U.S. The “revelation” of how much local and regional scouts managers actually earn, big 6 figure salaries, mentioned a few months ago in the press in Utah, gave quite a backlash in comments — lots of people vowing that was the end of their giving to the scouts program.

    John (73), indeed an interesting observation. It’s obvious nearly all churches / religions are tied to their birth place and it would take centuries to detach them from that origin. That’s what makes this topic so fascinating: to what extent can the Church ever be or become non-American? Denying its Americanisms does not change the essence.

  72. Wilfried, it’s a question of what the Church’s essence is, but it’s also a question of how others are able to perceive things. If a non-national church doesn’t altogether make sense to the perceiver, then any quality of the Mormon church, important, trivial, or imagined, is evidence of its Americanness, because after all, a church must have some national identity.

    As another example, a few years back I was riding trains and buses across Pennsylvania with some frequency, and I became curious about the Amish who were often my fellow passengers. The book Plain and Amish: An Alternative to Modern Pessimism by Bernd Langin was quite informative. It’s special value was that it is a German book translated into English; the German author, who had written other material on German colonies abroad, had an instant credibility with his Amish subjects that an “English” American could not. Langin wrote, for instance, that the Amish who embraced him couldn’t believe that the Germans could have any cupability for World War II and figured the stories about Hitler had to be exaggerated propaganda. The Amish affinity for Germans is a bit funny given that they fled the German domain for a reason: they could practice their heretical religion in relative peace in America, and sure couldn’t do that in their homeland. The Amish are an example of a default mental entwining of religion and nationality even in the face of good reason to doubt the link.

  73. Excellent remarks, John. “Perception” is indeed a key concept in all this and your referral to Amish is very relevant. Non-Mormons abroad will “of course” perceive Mormonism as an “American religion”. Mormons abroad may struggle with their identity: I don’t think we’ve studied this phenomenon with proper research instruments yet: when members complain about “American” facets of the Church, what are they exactly complaining about? Can they clearly identify those facets? And next we would have to determine how “American” such facets really are. To what extent do personal uneasiness-factors, independent of Americanisms, influence perception? Next the ambivalence: belonging to a clearly “American” church (undeniable, at least on the historical-geographical grounds, but probably on more), while maybe sharing some popular “anti-American” views (also to identify and analyze as to their substance). My interest in these matters stems from a desire to better understand the concept of a worldwide “gospel culture”. More posts to follow!

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