Not Assimilation, But Alliance

by iStrfry , Marcus on Unspslash

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

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

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

No religious affiliation in America has grown to 19.6%

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 comments for “Not Assimilation, But Alliance

  1. It’s possible that, as the world becomes ever more doubtful of the scriptures, the church might become the flagship for all of those who believe in a literal Jesus.

  2. Great points, Nathaniel. If we assimilate to general culture, assimilating toward the political and cultural Left would look much different than with the Right. For religious culture, assimilating with the Evangelical wing of Protestantism would look much different than moving closer to mainline denominations. And so forth.

    If cultural fragmentation and conflict continues, assimilation may soon become almost irrelevant. The “conservative Mormon” religious/cultural subgroup may at some point be just one of many distinct and rival (or possibly allied) cultural subgroups, with no broad, general culture we could assimilate with, even if we wanted to.

  3. At least when it comes to government issues, our natural allies are not other religious people in a cultural war against “the Nones,” but rather those who believe in a pluralistic society in conflict with those who do not. President Oaks made this clear in his November 2021 speech at the University of Virginia. A few key quotes:

    “I am, therefore, distressed at the way we are handling the national issues that divide us. We have always had to work through serious political conflicts, but today too many approach that task as if their preferred outcome must entirely prevail over all others, even in our pluralistic society. We need to work for a better way — a way to resolve differences without compromising core values. We need to live together in peace and mutual respect, within our defined constitutional rights….

    As a practical basis for co-existence, we should accept the reality that we are fellow citizens who need each other. This requires us to accept some laws we dislike, and to live peacefully with some persons whose values differ from our own. Amid such inevitable differences, we should make every effort to understand the experiences and concerns of others, especially when they differ from our own.”

    (Incidentally, I do think that for some people “religious freedom” is code for “Christians get what they want.” But if you read that speech you’ll see that President Oaks is not one of them.)

    The stakes are high for us, because in an increasingly tribal society our distinctiveness makes us unwelcome in either of the dominant tribes.

    Just being people of faith would put us on the fringe of the secular left tribe, but it’s our stances on sexuality and gender that preclude us from ever being full members. While the left embraces pluralism in theory, in practice there is an element that sees our positions on exactly those issues as beyond the pale.

    Meanwhile, the “Christian Right” tribe insists we’re not Christians. Thus we’re useful allies for the moment, but we will never be members of the tribe. Does anyone think a Latter-Day Saint football coach who wanted lead the team in prayer on the 50 yard line after games would be tolerated by an Evangelical community? Our religion says a ten-year-old rape victim should have the opportunity to get an abortion after asking in prayer if that is the right course–where are the religious freedom exceptions that would allow for that free exercise of our religion?

    So I agree that assimilation is not our goal. I also agree that we must “do our part to help sustain the classically liberal ideals of tolerance and pluralism.” But I disagree that the “the Rise of the Nones” is the only or even the chief threat to them. Tribalism on both sides is the real danger.

  4. Thanks for sharing. As long as the litmus test is whether the LDS Church changes it’s policies one way or another (for the author of the article linked, to the “liberal” side) I’m not sure how useful the model is, esp. to the internal audience, which is largely concerned only with whether the teachings and policies are inspired.

  5. (Tried to leave this comment earlier, but WordPress ate it.)


    I guess my post might have been a bit hasty, because your impression that I think we’re joining in an alliance with Christians (or anyone) *against* the Nones is very, very much not what I was going for. The only reason I invoked the Rise of the Nones was to illustrate that the 20th century assumption that if you assimilated with mainstream Christians you were *also* assimilating with mainstream America no longer applied. There was no intention on my part to suggest any animosity at all in that observation (in any direction).

    And when you say “Tribalism on both sides is the real danger,” I couldn’t agree more.

  6. People who argue that the Church is trying to assimilate also cite the Church not using the Angel Moroni on temples anymore or the Church not sponsoring large pageants as proof that we are somehow trying to appear more Christian. I find those arguments to be absurd for three reasons:

    1) Angel Moroni was never an essential element on temples. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they became more common. Before then, only three temples had them (Salt Lake, DC, LA). President Nelson is just returning to that case-by-mindset like it was before the 1980s, which I like better because it allows temple designs to be unique without worrying about statues being awkwardly fitted.
    2) Pageants are outdated and expensive. I know that’s a hot take, but I was never really fond of them.
    3) Honestly, the Church never really cared about trying to appease Christians who don’t like our doctrine. Name another religion with a non-trinitarian godhead, exaltation, premortal existence, denial of ex nihilo creation, denial of sola scriptura, open canon, temple worship, proxy ordinances on behalf of the dead, modern-day apostles and prophets, and structured priesthood authority. Unless we throw out one of those key doctrines, I think that it’s safe to say we’re not trying to assimilate to anybody’s standard.

    As for the Mormon nickname, I never liked that either. Growing up in the South, whenever I heard the word “Mormon”, it was always with disdain by less than friendly neighbors. But at my ward, I was with other Saints trying to do their best in the latter-days. We’re not “The Church of Jesus Christ of Mormons,” we’re “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Ditching Mormon as a nickname has nothing to do with assimilation or “political correctness.” It’s simply about being correct, and in a Church that stresses the truthfulness of doctrine and the correct administering of ordinances (baptism, sacrament, etc…), being correct is kind of a big deal.

  7. I appreciate the clarification Nathaniel. It’s confusing because we can have different allies in different contexts. Sometimes we’re on “Team Christian” as Elder Andersen describes. Sometimes we’re on “Team Religion” as President Oaks describes in the talk you quoted. But I think in both of those contexts we’re talking about using persuasive power, not government power. (You can probably guess some of why government power is most on my mind right now.) When it comes to using the coercive power of government we’re on “Team Pluralism.”

    Tribalism is a problem in all those contexts.

  8. Mauss uses (assimilation/retrenchment) as a cognition and metaphor, but Reiss uses it as a description or explanation. Reiss seems not to see that the aim of President Nelson’s declaration is to divorce the culture of Utah-style Mormonism (and some of its history) from the Restored Church.

    President Nelson’s divorcing the Restored Church from “Mormonism” teaches us as a people to differentiate culture from the gospel, and allows our narrative to shed cultural “skin” while remaining a unified “body.” It is a way of slow-purging the culture of Utah-Mormonism from the worldwide congregation. In a decade, the culture of Mormonism, and mormonisms, will be framed in a context that separates the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, from the mormon culture from which it developed. In two decades, “mormon history” and “history of the church” will be far more distinct, very separate fields of study.

    Magnificent wisdom, a difficult decision, kind of a media-disruption that allows us to better sort out our narrative. Meaning, there is an effort to create the conditions for a new narrative–meaning, new revelation is at the door.

  9. Jesus focus = assimilation. “Mormon” demonization = retrenchment (and cult-like Behavior-Information-Thought-Emotion control)

  10. I agree with the general points here; at the same time, I wonder if the scope of discussion is too (geographically) limited. Many of these comments seem focused on the situation in the West–the United States first and foremost, and perhaps also applicable to Canada and (Western) Europe. Has anyone done an analysis of how a pivot towards the full name of the church (and particularly towards including the name of Jesus Christ in every mention) changes the perception of the church in those places where the church is less well-known, but growing the fastest — for example, Africa? This is where first impressions–such as the church’s name–may have the most impact.

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