Global Mormonism: decentered and decentering

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walter E.A. van Beek, Netherlands

12 comments for “Global Mormonism: decentered and decentering

  1. Mormonism and global cultures is a huge issue for me. Sending missionaries to areas like Tibet seems wrong because we are seriously messing with their culture. And I’m not sure that’s right.

    I live parttime in Africa. In Uganda, with our Americanized church service, Mormonism seems out of place. No drums, no Africa hymns, western dress on men, boring meetings. It would seem that we need to make more accommodations for the local and regional culture.

  2. These are very helpful reflections, Walter. The “confrontation” with international cultures and the resulting various blends of Mormon and local cultures will help Utah-based leadership formulate a better sense of the distinction between essential gospel requirements and various American culture additions that have crept in over the years. In the long run this will benefit American membership as well the international Church if some of the American cultural additions to LDS doctrine and practice get pared back across the entire Church.

  3. Parallels, lessons, insights and guidelines can be found and applied from the scriptural and reliable historical accounts of the growth/expansion of the (Jerusalem) Church in the 1st century AD. These should perhaps discourage some from reinventing the wheel or trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear? Such info will further assist us to determine more clearly the difference(s) between “Being in the world” and “..of the world” and will perhaps discourage tribal drummers from adding interesting nuances to our sacrament hymns.
    After all is said, the Lord will reveal the solutions and road ahead to his Prophet(s) and all will be done right.

  4. It seems to me what you point out also points to a problem – not just to the international Church but to the American Church. When is local culture “good” and when should it be subject to critique and revision by the community. There are obvious examples in the US such as the rise of the Word of Wisdom or treatment of gambling, an issue within the old boundaries of Deseret as Wendover demonstrates. With some of the examples you list it’s interesting listing to local people critique traditions such as caste or even kava.

    The traditional issue of culture is always American individualism and what sometimes gets called classic 19th century liberalism versus socialism of various stripes (with the very word becoming rehabilitated in the US — even if what many mean by it is closer to the idea of Christian Democracy). So within the US you have some members criticizing local culture on the basis of desire for a larger welfare state, more governmental regulation, and so forth. While most Europeans share such views, it’s interesting that in a certain way this avoids the very critique of local culture they wish to take place in western American culture.

    It seems to me the most interesting feature of this new era of Church history is this wrestling with these issue. Both on practical terms to maintain activity but also in ethical terms. While that wrestling is going on, in some ways it’s really not given a space to take place in a normal fashion. There seems to be an intrinsic tension between wrestling with these idea while allowing enough diversity and low conflict in place.

  5. As Clark says, the biggest problem I see for church culture in other countries is that it places its self on the right in America. With 60% of Utah men still supporting Trump. So many overseas members think they must also be on the right politically to be good mormons. This is made worse by the position of the church on homophobia, and sexism. In Australia these are extreme positions, and the only other Australians who are homophobic and sexist are also, racist, anti muslim, anti immigration, and white supremacist. So our right wing thing puts us in unpleasant company.
    Kiwi Mormon puts her impressions in the wake of the NZ shooting
    On facebook many members could not read positive stories about Christchurch, without telling us about muslim terrotists killing christians. They just totally refused to join in the love. There was no mention of Christchurch in our Stake Conference the following week except for a Newzealander in a prayer, and the SP asked that we be positive and uplifting on social media.
    There are a limited pool of people who want to be part of an extreme right Church. Changing its name to include Christ is meaningless, unless we become Christlike in our actions, and we are haters. If I werent born to it I would not wish to associate with many members.

  6. “many members could not read positive stories about Christchurch, without telling us about muslim terrotists killing christians”

    Or maybe it’s because they recognize that a life of sin is contrary to the Gospel?

    “many members could not read positive stories about Christchurch, without telling us about muslim terrotists killing christians”

    Tribalism plus cognitive dissonance are both real things. I think 99% of the reason we see these “ya but…” replies is because the media does such a poor job of reporting for fear of stoking fires. So every minority victim is a tragedy and minority perpetrators are no big deal.

    But clearly, that doesn’t mean the coverage of the latest attack and condemnation, and overwhelming outpouring shouldn’t take center stage. Just theb reality that serious human rights crimes are happening around the world that virtually no one seems to care about creates a real cognitive dissonance. No left vs right wing dichotomy needed.

    “If I werent born to it I would not wish to associate with many members.”

    How can this sentence, be followed by this one?

    “Changing its name to include Christ is meaningless, unless we become Christlike in our actions, and we are haters.”

  7. Geoff, I think what I said was a bit more complex. I think there’s an inherent tension between what people perceive of as ethics or politics entailed by the gospel and local culture and politics. Members in Europe who think their culture is correct see a tension with the culture of western Americans. But western Americans see a tension in traditions in other countries. Clearly cultures can be wrong. For instance it’s pretty hard to look at caste systems and not see something wrong. But also clearly using drum or brass instruments in church is a cultural tradition hard to see as an ethical demand. It’s more a cultural aesthetic. However these deeper cultural ethical issues aren’t really resolvable in a straightforward way.

    For instance you clearly think the conservatives in the US are mistaken and a cultural trapping. But upon what basis do you make that judgement and how is it any different from a typical Utahn seeing you as lost in your culture and merely seeing it as superior?

    The problem is that nearly everyone thinks their culture is superior.

  8. My point was that the Utah culture is mainstream in Utah. Transport that to another western country and it is extreme. The people who believe as Utah does politically in Aus are also anti muslim and anti immigration, and members take up those ideas because of the shock jocks they listen to and websites the look at. While most Australians were impressed by the love shown in NZ many members refused to be included in the love, because they are anti muslim, by association.

    This is purely Utah culture, has nothing to do with the Gospel, but if one questions it one is seen as less obedient/worthy. I believe the Utah culture is holding the church back outside Utah.

    Clark you want to see the culture being exported as things like music, I am trying to point out that the culture I see is much deeper and more problematic.

    An example; my EQP, who is an ex bishop, and councillor in Stake Presidency, was able to tell me that an article I showed him was fake news, because it was in Washington Post. None of the media I use tell me who is fake news, this is an extreme right concept.

    The new announcement may help some. It is not clear to me whether we still oppose gay marriage, or accept it, if the latter progress.

    Libcon the last couple of sentences are consistent. I assume the change to have members say the name of christ when referring to the church to outsiders achieves nothing if we are still bigots. Most people do not see Christ as bigoted but loving, the opposite.

  9. In Christ’s day, many turned from him and departed too.

    He was plenty exclusionary and IF you interpret this words unfairly, even biggoted.

    “Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.”

    The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said. He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

    “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth.”

    “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.”

    “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”

    “Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?”

    Latter-day saints are only bigoted if you likewise unfairly focus on areas where you disagree with them.

    The fact is this whole bigotted game is just moral preening at best, and sinister use of modern-day religion to gain and maintain power and authority at the upper echelon.

  10. Geoff, I think you have a very loose grasp on Utah culture and, frankly, Australian culture as well. Australia’s immigration detention policies and facilities are certainly on par with any nightmares dreamed up by the Trump administration, so deal with your own problems before blaming Utah. Your argument that pro-immigrant, pro-Muslim Utah culture is somehow responsible for anti-immigrant feeling on the other side of the world does not make sense, and can’t be corralled into making sense. I have no idea why you’re citing Kiwi Mormon, whose post undermines your own argument – all she says about LDS response is, “At our local LDS meeting the Stake President talked about the Five Pillars of Islam,” in a list of community support in NZ for Muslims. As for your accusation of homophobia, Utah has nearly the highest support for LBGTQ rights in housing and employment in the U.S. Don’t assume your Facebook feed represents Utah, Australia, “overseas Mormons,” or anything else. All you’re doing is peddling in stereotypes.

  11. Geoff, I think you have built up a caricature of Utah. I can’t speak to what your EQP believes especially when we don’t have a link to the article in question. Most conservatives I know here don’t believe what you think they believe, although they (and I) may think the NYT and WaPo are biased. Doesn’t keep me from having a subscription though. Have you considered that perhaps the portrayal you have of the United States may itself be more than a tad biased and distorted? Perhaps for cultural reasons?

  12. Dear commentors.
    I have been away for a week so I did not respond more quickly. Actually, I was in Paris, and enjoyed the French Culture, very much. And in France they do write Culture with a capital C.
    Thanks for all comments, and further reflections on the difficult relation between culture and gospel implementation. I do not have the answers, but the discussion is essential. We should beware of reducing culture to either political standpoints or aesthetics, in each culture there are different standpoints possible and feasible.
    Indeed, cultures are not sacrosanct, they are ways of living together in groups, and surviving. The point is where the limits are in the ethical leeway that comparing cultures leads to; I know colleagues who defend clitoridectomy as a culturally valuable practice, but that is for most anthropologists a bridge too far, and I cannot see that as part of any gospel culture.
    Truth is important as a gospel principle as well, and the present denouncement of facts as fake news can never be part of any gospel culture. But truth is not a station in life, but a pathway to follow, a continuous challenge to discern between soucrces, facts and opinions. Living the gospel is not a recipe, but a quest, and similarly integrating the values of one’s culture into the gospel is a quest as well.

    Walter van Beek

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