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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We Mormons: An Essay on Church Culture

We Mormons are a strange bunch sometimes. Most see us as being an ultra-cheerful bunch (which is a good thing), who despite being a bit naive to the realities of the world (which is probably true...that darn "Mormon bubble"), are always willing to give a helping hand wherever possible. And like most churches, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have also developed their own sense of "Mormon-ness", or in other words, our own micro-culture. Heck, we even have our own language. We "know beyond a shadow of a doubt" and "with every fiber of our being" that certain things are "true", we always ensure that our food is blessed to "nourish and strengthen our bodies", we "revere the brethren", "obey all traffic laws" after General Conference (except for the idiot drivers in Utah County), we "search, ponder and pray", color our favorite scriptures in our "triple combinations", and sometimes believe that popcorn really does pop on an apricot tree.

Oh, and we "always" vote Republican. =)

Of course, these stereotypes are nothing more than an illustration of the fact that Mormonism has, like virtually every other group of people, developed its own culture. And though this culture is far from a fair representation of church theology, the fact of the matter is that Mormon culture does sometimes get messed up with Mormon religion, and occasionally it can be difficult to separate the two.

For example:

1.) We Mormons sometimes revere a BYU education to any other. And though the "Lord's University" is a great institution (I can't rip on it too hard, my wife and most of her family graduated from BYU) there is definitely a cultural preference that is granted to all things BYU. For some, a BYU degree increases one's intellect (and spirituality) to an "Einstonian" level. In addition, BYU football is ALWAYS cheated out of a national championship by evil "gentile" voters, and Steve Young is the greatest athlete in the universe. Oh, and there is no greater musician than a BYU musician. =)

Of course, Mormons should be proud of BYU. It is a wonderful school with much to be proud of. It was inevitable that BYU would eventually become a big part of Mormon culture.

2.) We Mormons obsess over politics. In fact, politics are seen as almost a religious duty for every Latter-day Saint. To be uninterested, or worse, to be a DEMOCRAT, is akin to being sent to "Outer Darkness" for eternity. Republican politicians, even if not Mormon, are almost always considered to be soldiers of goodness, while Democrats are wolves in sheep's clothing. Glenn Beck (who will one day be a General Authority) is a treasure of righteousness that is to be praised in many a testimony meeting.

I find politics to be arguably the most interesting influence on Mormon culture. As most already know, Utah (and American Mormons in general) are overwhelmingly Republican. And though there is surely a large number of Mormon Republicans who are truly conservative to the core, the majority of Mormon "conservatism" is cultural in nature. Most Mormons are probably unaware of the fact that early Latter-day Saints were overwhelmingly Democrat. In fact, when Utah was applying for statehood church leaders resorted to assigning members to join the Republican Party in an effort to show that Mormons embraced all political ideas (the U.S. Government was deeply concerned that Mormons were overwhelmingly Democrats). Mormons in the 20s and 30s overwhelmingly supported FDR, the New Deal, and other "evil" progressive programs.

3.) We Mormons sometimes get upset when we aren't considered mainstream or when we don't get the media attention we think we deserve, but then are furious when South Park makes a "Book of Mormon" musical. I'm not saying I like negative attention but you have to be able to take the good with the bad if you are wanting to become more public.

4.) We Mormons start and end every activity known to man with a prayer, believe violence is only warranted in a church basketball setting, think green Jell-O with shredded carrots is a delicacy, believe the Holy Spirit goes to bed at midnight and think that every time an R-rated movie hits theaters an angel dies. =)

5.) We Mormons celebrate the 24th of July (the day early Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley) as a second Independence Day of sorts. We proudly cover floats in the red, white and blue and waive "Old Glory" from our rooftops. This is ironic since early Mormons were fleeing from the United States. Most early saints had a deep hatred for the U.S. government (and rightfully so). Their arrival to Salt Lake had nothing to do with American patriotism. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. And though I have no problem with modern day Mormons demonstrating our incredible patriotism (and make no mistake, Mormons today are very patriotic) I do think we sometimes forget that early Mormons were actually quite anti-American...and for good reasons.

6.) We Mormons love to collect and store tons of food. The church has done a remarkable job of making canned goods available to its members. Some Mormons have literally years of food storage saved up. We even like to cook creative meals with our massive surplus and then show them off. This is actually a wonderful cultural practice that most people in the world would greatly benefit from if they followed our lead.

7.) We Mormon men are given the "big" leadership roles in the church but the reality of Mormonism is that women run the show. There is no doubt that local Mormon wards and stakes would literally crumble without the women. Almost all of the actual work that is done in the church is done by those who lack a Y chromosome.

8.) We Mormons like to think that we are deep religious scholars. We debate over "deep" religious stuff like, "Did Adam have a belly button?", "What is an intelligence?", "Where is Kolob?", "Is Emma Smith going to heaven?", and "Were we all friends in the pre-existence?" We Mormons hold Gospel Doctrine classes every Sunday, send our kids to four years of Seminary during their high school years, include Institute of Religion classes as part of one's college curriculum, and send our missionaries to intense training centers. Yet despite all of this, most Mormons know very little about other religions. Heck, most don't know much about Mormon theology and/or history. Don't get me wrong, I am not knocking these FANTASTIC church programs (I have participated in all of them) but the fact remains that most Mormons are fairly ignorant when it comes to theology in general.

9.) We Mormons like to say, "The church is true no matter where you go." And though I agree that church theology can be found anywhere, the fact is that not all Mormon wards are created equal. Depending on location, demographics, wealth, age, etc., Mormon wards are actually very different from one another.

10.) We Mormons HATE swearing. And though I agree that swearing can be a disgusting practice, most Mormons probably don't realize that early Latter-day Saints swore like sailors...even occasionally in a talk. Hell, some habits are just too damn hard to break!

11.) We Mormons are extremely quiet during church services. Aside from the occasional obligatory laugh at a lame joke, the Mormon congregation sits quietly during a service (with the exception of kids). There is no applauding a musical number and it is rare that people get up during the service (again, usually because of kids). This is ironic because early Latter-day Saints were quite expressive during the church services. Members in the congregation would regularly chime in with an "Amen" or a "God be praised" comment. Members would even interrupt the speaker with a long comment and then the speaker would respond! In the modern Mormon church, the passing of the sacrament is a quiet, reverent time of reflection. In the early church, the sacrament was handed out while speakers spoke and music was sang. And instead of separate cups for the Sacrament water, early Mormons simply shared a cup (and it wasn't always filled water) that they passed around. Oh, and there was even some early Mormons who did the whole "speaking in strange tongues" thing while at church.

12.) We Mormons treat the Sabbath day (Sunday) with great respect. Most refrain from work, shopping, television, and eating out. Spending money on Sunday is sometimes seen as a Sabbath-breaker. And though I greatly enjoy such practices on my Sunday (for me they make Sunday feel special), early Mormons were notorious for spending money on Sunday. In fact, early leaders didn't care much about it. Of course, they preached against gambling and buying alcohol on Sunday, but spending money was no big deal. In addition, work was common on Sunday, in fact, it was a necessity. Crops had to be tended to, cows milked, chickens fed, land plowed, etc.

13.) We Mormons stress the importance of living a healthy life. Our "Word of Wisdom" teaches that we should abstain from harmful things like alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and eating too much meat. And though this is great advise, we Mormons sometimes forget that early Latter-day Saints regularly drank coffee, alcohol and tobacco...even in church.

14.) We Mormons preach frugality and condemn obsessive materialism, yet Utah is a leader in the nation in foreclosures and bankruptcies. That is a sad aspect to Mormon culture.

15.) We Mormons love to meet...for EVERYTHING! It seems like we have a meeting in order to plan more meetings.

16.) We Mormons are huge into scouting. For some, earning the rank of Eagle Scout is as important as baptism. Some Mormon girls require an Eagle Scout of their future hubby's. And though I have no problem with scouting, there is no doubt that the church's devotion to the program is purely cultural.

17.) We Mormons have refreshments for EVERYTHING. I remember going to a viewing for a dead person and seeing a table full of bean dip, casseroles and, of course...green Jell-O with carrots...at a VIEWING!!!

In conclusion, though these cultural facts are amusing, I love my faith. It has made me a better person than I would have been without it. Yes, there are a number of crazy cultural components to Mormonism that are fun point out, but none of them fly in the face of the Mormon religion. Perhaps some of my fellow Mormons will think it inappropriate for me to even point out these cultural truths. They may feel that it is "mocking" the faith. This is not my intention. Instead, I think it's more than proper to laugh at the silly things we do. Yes, life is serious but not so serious that you can't laugh at yourself. Being a member of the Mormon Church (or any church for that matter) means taking the good with the bad; accepting the religion and the culture. And even if I sometimes complain about Mormon culture I am, in the end, grateful for it. After all, where else would I get my laughs?

***Special hat tip: S. Faux's incredible blog


Jason said...

Hey MTC buddy! Long time no see! I just had to comment on this because I looked into the stats a while ago.

14) I wouldn't say Utah is a LEADER in foreclosures and bankruptcies. It's about middle of the road. Utah ranks 18 in foreclosures and 25 in bankruptcy. Point taken that if the Mormons were living their principles Utah should be on the low end, but characterizing Utah as a leader...well given the nature and intent of your post, I'm sure you can see the irony.



Brad Hart said...

Hey man! Thanks for the links. I appreciate the correction.

Craig said...

Actually, Utah is 4th in bankruptcies this year and 9th last year and are #1 in greatest increase. The data you provided is from 2007.


Craig said...

The foreclosure rate is very high in Utah County but middle of the pack state wide, I couldn't find the source right now but we did a story a while back on it.

Craig said...

You missed Utah's most shocking #1 ranking: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/705288350/Utah-No-1-in-online-porn-subscriptions-report-says.html

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