An Americanized Gospel

A chatty post at the This Week in Mormons site, “Americanisms in a Global Mormon Church,” recounts a few of those Americanisms: Scouting, patriotic music in the LDS hymnal, women wearing (or not) pants to church. At a deeper level, the LDS Church has self-consciously embedded itself in the American myth. Consider “The Divinely Inspired Constitution” by Elder Oaks (1992) or “The Constitution: A Glorious Standard” by Elder Benson (1976). The notion that only in the USA could the gospel of Jesus Christ have possibly been restored is part of the Restoration story. Few American Saints really notice the extent to which the Church has Americanized the gospel of Jesus Christ, but non-American Latter-day Saints certainly do. Quietly filtering out overtly American elements of the gospel that just don’t work in a foreign land and culture may solve some of the inevitable difficulties. Is that enough?

For a deeper discussion of this issue, we really need to start at the beginning. First, acknowledge that we have a thoroughly Americanized gospel. You can’t really weigh the merits or consider changes until you acknowledge the issue. Second, decide whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I suspect many LDS, if forced to expressly acknowledge the extent to which the Church expounds an Americanized gospel, would quickly respond that’s a feature, not a bug. Finally, if one both acknowledges the extent of the problem and holds that it is a problem rather than a feature, then a discussion of remedies can begin. What would a less Americanized version of the LDS gospel look like? How much local variation is desirable for a global church, and how much local variation can a highly correlated LDS Church tolerate in 2016?

I expect readers have plenty of examples to offer, both positive and negative. In a nutshell, I would answer the three questions as follows: Yes, it’s an Americanized gospel; yes, it’s a problem for an increasingly global church; and yes, there are things we can do to improve the situation. But who cares what I think? To actually produce positive change, that acknowledgement needs to spread to the general membership and LDS leaders. We need a better sense of how and why this is a problem — or perhaps even an opportunity?

Here is one such discussion that contrasts the church as an institution or community with the culture or society in which it exists, drawn from Burton Mack’s The Lost Gospel: The Book of Q and Christian Origins (HarperCollins, 1993).

Christian communities do not have to produce a fully fledged working society. The church as a social institution has only to produce other Christians and inculcate Christian ideals. So Christians invariably end up living in two social worlds, the community of Christian values and the work-a-day world of the society in which they actually live. (p. 254-55)

Non-American Latter-day Saints live in three worlds: the community of Mormon values, the attached values and even practices of American society (if not contemporary American society) that come packaged with the LDS gospel, and the work-a-day world of the society in which they actually live. Imagine if you could pare down that second component and uncorrelate the Americanism from the LDS gospel. If you had “The LDS Church in France” and “The LDS Church in Nigeria” and so forth, at least non-American Saints would have to juggle only two worlds (like all Christians do, according to Mack) rather than three. But just acknowledging that the LDS Church (and all Christian churches) are in a sense symbiotes on their host cultures, plus acknowledging the extent to which cultures and societies vary around the world, should move us to consider that, at the level of the country or state, the country-church unit needs more autonomy within the LDS Church. My sense is that two generations ago the Church entered blindly into a regime of global correlation without even considering this entire issue to any degree. Now seems like a good time to reconsider, as we blunder through a bizarre presidential election cycle and the rest of the world (non-American Latter-day Saints included) just rolls their eyes in disbelief.

42 comments for “An Americanized Gospel

  1. Dave, I agree with your assessment of this issue though I’m not particularly sanguine about change occurring any time soon, especially when you look at the national origin of the vast majority of senior church officials. Frankly, I don’t even believe the institution really considers this to be a problem in the first place. As a people, we have a history of often endowing American culture and Western values with something close to doctrinal status.

    To add to your collection of anecdotes, I’m old enough to remember when the church’s Family Home Evening manual for 1976 (back when it published those things) contained a special lesson for the first Monday in July about ways families could celebrate the Bicentennial. The saints in Great Britain had trouble feeling the spirit of that lesson.

  2. Honest question. Why is our being an American religion worse than the fact the Bible is from a culture ridiculously removed from any contemporary culture in the world?

  3. Clark, as a part of our Bible study we’re not encouraged to dress like ancient Jews. Except at the occasional Night in Bethlehem event, which, I must add, was awesome when we put one on in Helsinki. But we do tell all the men in the church to dress like 1950s American FBI agents.

  4. Yeah the church is still an American church which happens to have international members. The business model rather than a pastoral model has difficulty in translation to other areas in the world, both in church and the missionary program. The injection of American right wing politics is also blatantly obvious and in many cases not welcome. The lack of community integration – isolationism – is a cultural hang up that stops growth in other areas.

  5. “But we do tell all the men in the church to dress like 1950s American FBI agents.”
    Men in some countries do not dress like FBI agents. They wear what is acceptable in their culture. It is my opinion that western style dress is the norm in other cultures. After all the British were the ones who lived in a country so big the sun never set.

  6. I find the whole idea of numerical goals for missionary work and above all goals for baptisms to be based above all on the American business culture. This business attitude of we get results above all else was reflected in Elder Russell Ballard’s quote related to the Prop 8 fight in California that he made to ABC news. “when something needs to get done, we know how to do it.” No surprise given his background as a car salesman and businessman. A regional authority came to a multi-stake training in Davis county, Utah about 2 years ago and said he was giving us a goal to have two missionary discussions a week in each ward. It was so ridiculous I almost laughed out loud in the meeting. I find efforts to convince people to join the church even when they have objections or concerns in order to meet the goals quite distasteful. People are to be converted by the spirit not by missionaries overcoming their objections. If it’s not by the spirit then we shouldn’t be baptizing them.

  7. In my Canadian ward the Bishop read that FP letter about SSM, that came out last year, and he made the remark that they were about ten years too late as SSM has been legal here for all that time and the FP said nothing about it-but when something registers in the US well then!!! True too we sometimes disregard stuff as “someone in Utah came up with this” like missionary farewells not being planned by the family, well hardly anyone here goes on a mission so it’s kind of a big deal and other things too

  8. YvonneS, there are some (more exotic) places where the church allows some variation in dress at church, but here in Europe there is pressure to dress in an American business style rather than in ways more common to the local culture. Selection of colors and cuts of shirts and suits are less subtle than men wearing lavalavas, but are still important culturally. I see a tendency of members who are more Americanized in their political views to conform more to the white shirt dark American style suit standard at church.

    This discussion extends to linguistic aspects as well. In Finland, members have long rebelled against calling missionaries “elder”, often calling them “brother” instead because the word for elder sounds so weird and culturally distant. It’s also always been unfortunate that the word the church chose for “companion” also means “comrade” in the Communist sense!

    Luckily the bishops here (in my experience) have always taken the tack that long hair, the lack of a tie, or the wrong color shirt should never be a reason to drive a priesthood holder away from fulfilling his duties. In the peripheries of the church the value of each and every member is accentuated.

  9. There are so many problems that stem from the Utah base of the church. Temples for example have so much that comes from US, even though the local product is better suited. Our humidity for example is rarely below 65%, Utah is rarely above, we have mould growing in our temple, and our temperature is controlled from SLC where the season is opposite.

    The conservative politics of the leaders, with respect to homosexuality, and women. We have hate spesk legislation, which makes people sensitive to breaches. When you watch an old movie where there is overt racism or sexism, you notice. Some of the things said by Apostles is similar.

    If Utah votes for Trump, a lot of us will be very disapointed.

    The transporting of modesty is driving our young people out. Our young people wear shorts and shirts normally, and swimers to the beach, except to church activities where a different (not better) standard is required. We have lower rates of teenage pregnancy, and sexual abuse, with our imodesty.

    What is particularly irksome is lack of ability to communicate with leadership above SP, who has no ability to influence decisions, is this also 50’s FBI? Certainly not good management here.

  10. Clark #2 and Owen #3 – here’s a curve ball. Which ancient Jewish custom is said to be no longer necessary in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants and New Testament but has very high rates of practice in Utah?

  11. Murray,

    That ancient custom is practiced all across the United States, in most cases for reasons wholly unrelated to religion. It is an American practice, not a Mormon practice. It happens in Utah because the people there are American.

  12. I’m just curious about this American gospel. I agree that the Church as an organization is increasingly based on American corporate values and practices, but I’d like to see some specifics about how the LDS gospel is American. Could you give some examples?

  13. I think, as an individual member, I could pick my way through various gospel practices and discard the ones that aren’t really doctrine (white shirts, no beards, language of prayer, taking the sacrament with my right hand, etc.). But I can see how it would be much harder to ignore them if I was a leader and my superiors insisted on Americanized policies, i.e. the temperature in True Blue’s temple.

  14. Murry, circumcision is common in the US. I don’t think anyone does it for religious reasons other than Jews. I had my son done purely out of a cost/benefit analysis of how disturbing it’d be to him as a baby versus the chance and costs of infection as he grew older.

    As to customs of dress. My understanding is that they do vary quite a bit. Also I’d argue that Mormon practice is in some ways unAmerican. The US has since the 70’s typically taken relatively slovenly dress in most settings. Outside of limited business environments for white collar workers no one wears suits. I bet the typical American male doesn’t even own a tie.

    It’s fair to criticize Mormon dress customs for church, but if we do then a quick look at Evangelical meetings will show it’s not terribly American anymore.

  15. The Americanization of Mormonism I think was unavoidable, just like the Romanization of Christianity was unavoidable. The Restoration was a religious restatement of the Revolution, and Mormonism grew up with its own synchronous forms of Manifest Destiny.

    The American corporate model given new life in the Church through Correlation is a part of Mormon culture, and this also Americanizes the theological culture abroad. To be fair, Correlation allowed the Church to get out of debt, organized and simplified several different departments and publications. As a result, Correlation allowed the Church to grow in unprecedented ways abroad. The shadow side of Correlation is it is truly a modern-Americanized model which allows the Church to be a global Church, but prevents Mormonism from being a World Religion. The latter requires the adaptation of theology and theological values into current cultural concerns and patterns. By nature this is a little messy, but it is also the basis for world wide adaptation. Correlation, by definition, removes this capacity.

  16. Wally- here are my observations of American emphasises in the gospel.
    The idealism of the family. The focus on sexuality, particularly homosexuality and SSM.
    Prosperity gospel elements – obedience brings temporal blessings, the way we teach tithing, the way we teach word of wisdom, for missionaries the way we teach obedience leads to teaching opportunities and baptisms.
    Art work of Jesus. Which influences our image of God.
    Also I don’t think you can completely separate the church and the gospel. For example, our corporate dress and others lack conformity can easily create a condition of judgement which is not in harmony with the gospel. The are a number of instances where American cultural influences create a stumbling block for many – modesty, corporate dress, hair styles, funerals, weddings, right wing political ideologies, music, etc.

  17. Clark #14 I take your point. In light of Daves OP, would the question then be “Do Mormons in other countries have a tendency towards higher rates of circumcision than other residents in their host countries?”

  18. I’ve no idea if they do but even if they did I’d be cautious assuming causation.

  19. Murray, not in Britain. We definitely see that as a US thing, NOT an LDS thing. And to my knowledge it has never been preached from the pulpit in the way that white shirts and antibeard rhetoric has in the past. That would make sense to me, as it would certainly be a VERY high bar for converts should it have come to be seen as necessary.

  20. I think you make a good point Hedgehog! One US cultural thing that did come to Australia via the Church was basketball (a lot easier to play than the circumcision game!). The Church did a lot to popularize basketball in our country in the 1950’s. It was used as a missionary tool and many good converts came in because of it.

  21. Owen: I think what you said makes sense. I also think the local leadership makes a big difference to how much emphasis is put on being like everyone else throughout the church. I was surprised when I learned that the old church handbook had a statement that said local circumstances take precedent over the handbook. This made it possible for localities to make things work better where ever they were. It was really a book of suggestions not a book of commandments.

  22. In circa 1972, an Area General Conference of the Church was held in Great Britain – in Manchester. President Joseph Fielding Smith was presiding, and I remember him hobbling to the podium using sticks. At the Priesthood Session on the Saturday evening, the all-male choir opened with “Jerusalem”.

    Music by Parry, words by William Blake.

    “And did those feet in ancient time;
    Walk upon England’s pathways green,
    And was the holy lamb of God,
    In England’s pleasant pathways seen;
    And did the countenance divine,
    Shine forth upon those clouded hills,
    And was Jerusalem builded here,
    Among those dark satanic mills.

    “Bring me my bow of burning gold,
    Bring me my arrows of desire,
    Bring me spear, oh clouds unfold,
    Bring me my chariot of fire.
    I will not cease from mental fight,
    Nor will the sword sleep in my hand,
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In England’s green and pleasant land”

    You see Christ not only visited the Nephites in America (sic), but he came to England as well, as a young boy with his (reputed) uncle Joseph of Arimathea (a much travelled merchant) – so the legend goes. And the “countenance divine” shone on those clouded hills, ensuring that Great Britain would one day give birth to the modern world. (Blake was writing in 1804, at the heart of the Industrial Revolution)

    My point is that in Britain we understand all about American culture, for the simple reason that most of it was made in the UK – – including the need to be visited by the saviour of the world in order to achieve authenticity.

  23. Here’s one that sets the English-speaking world of Mormons (not just Utah) apart from the rest: the use of thee, thou, etc. in prayer.

    In German, for example, God’s addressed with “du,” the same language used to address good friends and close family members, instead of “Sie,” the language used to address a superior. Other languages follow that trend. In English, it’s the opposite–we’re told to address God in a formal, archaic manner–a manner that may show respect, but also signifies distance.

    (And yes, this was recently addressed at another popular LDS blog).

  24. Umm. Thou is the personal form and thus more intimate. Admittedly because those forms of pronoun have largely been dropped from English (unlike say French) it can seem distancing if one isn’t educated on the terminology. I’m for updating KJV language much like the newer revisions of the KJV do. Lots of archaic words should be replaced with modern equivalents without really affecting the translation as such. I wish the Church would simply license this text and include the older words in footnotes where appropriate.

    I think that because we in the church are so nervous about corruption of the gospel because of our doctrine of apostasy that we’ve become perhaps too conservative (in the strict not political sense of the term). We’re very loath to change anything even when the original motivations are forgotten.

  25. “it can seem distancing if one isn’t educated on the terminology”
    It can seem distancing simply because it is no longer used with intimate associates. It has nothing to do with education.

  26. That doesn’t avoid the issue. The fact it’s archaic language simply doesn’t imply it’s distancing. Being respectful is to my mind an orthogonal issue to distancing. I simply don’t feel distant from God yet I have no problem using archaic language. It’s the equating of the two – especially when the original sense was intimacy – that I find problematic.

  27. Hedgehog: In Yorkshire and other parts of northern England, the second-person singular – thee, thou, thine – is still used by some people, but only in situations of familiarity. If you are going to eliminate it from religious parlance, what of the people of Yorkshire?

  28. Fellowbird, I am more than happy for those in Yorkshire, who experience the familiarity of the language to continue using it themselves. I have family living there. I find it distancing, not having grown up with that way of speaking, and I do find it to be something that gets in the way when I pray. It doesn’t feel real for me. This in spite of my knowing that such language is familiar. It isn’t to those who don’t use it as such regularly, was the point I was trying to make to Clark.

  29. In your personal prayers use whatever feels right. Don’t worry what others think. For public prayers then it’s more appropriate to follow others patterns.

  30. Clark, you are so right about the need of an updated version of the Bible being necessary, and our conservative tradition is preventing true progress in this regard. The KJV is not only outdated, but is too archaic a language for most of the youth in the Church to truly appreciate, and many do not read the scriptures as a result.

  31. To John Lundwall. Are they equally incapable of understanding Shakespeare, who wrote in an English of an identical period to the 1611 translation? Or should we abolish Shakespeare too? This extract gives you Hamlet’s speech in modern English. My own view is that the Authorised Version (what Americans call the King James Version) supplies a majesty, and a poetry which is sadly lacking in today’s English. I would love to be able to speak in the language of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version. Should we resign ourselves to defeat, and abandon trying to teach young people to speak good English at all?

  32. Fellowbird, is it an either/or situation? Can’t we make it readable for those who struggle with it while preserving the harder (yet beautiful) language as well?

    John, the NKJV could easily be licensed by the Church. It’s a nice middle ground of updating the language, being truer to the extant sources, yet offering some degree of fidelity to the KJV. Updating our other scriptures using the style of the NKJV but maintaining the older language in revised footnotes could then be done. (And as bad as the text is, the footnotes in our current version of the scriptures are in need of even more loving care)

  33. Clark Goble. I’m no longer involved in the LDS church, but in the years that I was, I could never understand why an appropriate Children’s Bible was not used for kids of Primary age. We used to read bible stories to our children, that were written for under 11s. Once they started secondary school at age 11, a child of normal intelligence ought to be able to cope with the important parts of the bible e.g the New Testament gospels in the 1611 version. When I was at school 60 years ago, we studied the gospels in that way. I also grew to adore the language e.g. “And there were in that same country, shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people”. What poetry! What beauty of expression! And what couldn’t a twelve-year-old native-English speaker not understand. Do you really want to abandon that?

  34. As an English Lit undergrad I am all for preserving the language of Shakespeare. Alas, there are few who understand it or want to. We now live in a post-literate age where the majority of people do not even read colloquial verbiage, let alone archaic poetry. Also, I find Shakespeare far more enjoyable then the formalisms of King James English. An updated reading will declutter and demystify the text, which is necessary for the rising generation I think.

    I wish people loved Shakespeare. But they watch Transformers. In LDS culture the literacy of the archaic text is already dilluted by the sopoforic somnambulism of its own print industry. We hold the King James English as the hallowed word, but write commentaries with crayons and produce Michael Bay versions of soap opera cinema. There is a sort of schizophrenia to our approach.

  35. John Lundwall. I certainly agree with the schizophrenia point. There is clear evidence of that in all sorts of places. But the word “archaic” has a horrible grating sound, as if it is something horrid – like a cup of tea which has gone cold, and needs to be poured in the kitchen sink and got rid of asap; because it has no further use. The OED defines it more gently as “Belonging to an earlier period, no longer in common use, though still retained either by individuals, or generally, for special purposes, poetical, liturgical, etc.”. I far prefer the term “old fashioned”, and as one gets older the more “old fashioned” one finds one gets. A Church of England vicar once told me, when I was a child, that I would enjoy singing psalms more as I got older. But today, apart from the 23rd – at weddings – psalms are rarely sung. As you grow old you will find that “old fashioned” is warm and cuddly, secure, and a place of peace. So don’t, for goodness sake, call it “archaic” and throw it down the kitchen sink. Old ways you will one day find out, are often better.

  36. Fellowbird, I don’t know if this is something you listen to, but poetic as Shakespeare’s language is, we are missing a whole lot of nuance that those watching at the time would have recognised:
    For scripture I think understanding has to take precedence over poetry.

  37. Hedgehog. That was an interesting programme. I believe I heard a little of it at the time it went out, as Radio 4 is frequently on in the background in our house. But as regards *understanding* and *poetry* – what do you want, scripture or an instruction manual?

  38. Well, Fellowbird, given the church tends to fall on the side of presenting scripture as the instruction manual for our lives, then we ought to be aiming for clarity. If, on the other hand we want to keep the poetry, perhaps we’d be better served by being more accepting of nuance, poetry and story in scripture, and rather less literal leaning.

  39. Hedgehog: A wise old parson said to me in my youth to think not of the bible as a book, but as a library. As such it contains, fiction and non-fiction, history and liturgy, instruction and poetry. Trying to wrap it all into a conveniently sized thing that fits in your pocket and is the same for everyone, unchallenged, unchallengeable, and “accurate” and “correct” is a total nonsense. That completely neglects its history and its origins. Mormon missionaries use it like a service technician’s instruction manual. One not only needs to read the bible, but to read about it, if one wants an understanding.

  40. Hedgehog. Not sure what’s happened here, but your most recent post which I have received by email has not appeared here. But what you need to consider is that Mormonism was a frontier religion, most of whose adherents would have owned no more than four – possibly – five books. i.e. the Standard Works. If they were lucky they may also have a copy of Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”. They would have had nothing of the wealth of scholarship, libraries and the internet, that we have today. They would also have had far less by way of news media etc. In those circumstances the bible (to which was added the B of M etc) was their “instruction manual” and was accepted with a literalness. One person mentioned schizophrenia. What appears deeply schizophrenic to me is the sight of highly educated people from BYU and elsewhere trying to employ the bible in the way they do.

  41. Fellowbird… not sure what post you are referring to since my last was #38, and is visible to me at least. I wouldn’t disagree with you, and I do find the church view to be inconsistent in some respects.
    But the other thing I would add is that the KJV is not the original, unlike Shakespeare (though for all I know that could well be edited by others, literature is not my field). There are better translations available.

  42. Hedgehog: Sorry the missing one came from someone called Kaimi. I think the most popular bible in the UK, certainly among Anglicans, is now the New Oxford Annotated Bible ( which was published in 1962, with the Apochrypha, added in 1965. Apart from the 1611 version, that is the only edition I have on my bookshelf, though of course one can access any number of versions online. Perhaps it is my Church of England origins which predispose me to the 1611, especially as regards all the familiar stuff – Christmas, Easter, Paul’s epistles, and naturally the Psalms. Of course the other great monument to English literature is the Book of Common prayer – where again I prefer the 1662 version, which I believe is nowadays seldom used: The words of the marriage ceremony seem irreplaceable. All of Jane Austen’s heroines would have been married to them

    “DEARLY beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this congregation, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified with his presence, and first miracle that he wrought, in Cana of Galilee; and is commended of Saint Paul to be honourable among all men: and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God; duly considering the causes for which Matrimony was ordained.”

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