My name is Stirling Adams. I’ve been invited to be one of the Dialogue guest bloggers.
If the Mormon wards you’ve attended in the U.S. are similar to mine, it’s likely you’ve heard periodic reports in sacrament meeting about a visit to another ward and the comfort in finding that the church is the same wherever you go.
For most of 2003, my wife and I and our 3 children (then 9, 7, and 3), lived in Buenos Aires. Based on our experience, my report is a little different. In case I take too long to develop my point below, let me summarize it now:
In Argentina, I felt like I experienced a Mormonism stripped of a heavy overlay of U.S. politics; a Church less burdened by assumptions of cultural superiority and institutional pride that I feel can be associated too often with the U.S. Church; a Mormonism with members more attuned to how individual and institutional actions fare when judged by scriptural teachings (particularly the injunctions towards social justice in the N.T. and BoM).
Also, the just-released issue of Dialogue ( Vol 38:4, Winter 05, dialoguejournal.com ), has an article called “Mormon Europeans or European Mormons? An ‘Afro-European’ View on Religious Colonization.” It is written by anthropologist and former stake president (and current bishopric member) Walter E. A. van Beek. It is part of a continuing series of articles on international Mormonism. At the end of the post I’ll briefly relate his analysis of the church in Europe to my experience in Argentina. But first, here’s a summary of that experience.
In Buenos Aires, we lived in a 24-story apartment building in the center of the capital city. Our children attended a local school and soccer academy while my wife and I pursued our separate professional activities. The Mormon ward we attended averaged around 200 in attendance. The ward boundaries included a “villa” (the B.A. equivalent of a “project,” “slum,” or “shanty-town”) near the central train station.
A large majority of the ward was not PorteÃ±o, most were immigrants from other South American countries. I think all of the investigators we met were also immigrants, including some from Russia.
We attended ward meetings on Sunday when we weren’t out exploring the provinces, or Uruguay or Brasil. I was a leader in the Young Men’s group and met weekly with the youth as they performed plays, competed in a speaking competition, hiked (see here) attended music concerts, played futbol (and sponsored a stake-wide tournament), and put on a talent show for the ward. One Friday we had around 10 youth over for a pijama party (their idea) that started at 8 pm ended the next morning at 10 am.
We frequently invited ward members and investigators over for Sunday dinner. Once we accepted the invitation of a couple to have them present family home evening in our home. That turned out to be a pitch for multi-level-marketed nutritional supplements.
Due in part to Argentina’s serious economic woes, it was easy to become involved in service. We had the opportunity to assist in directing a food kitchen, build a small school for children living in a villa, help immigrants find and/or prepare for work, etc.
In “Mormon Europeans or European Mormons?” Van Beek refers to the Church in sociological terms as a “greedy institution,” one that claims the much or the life of an individual (24). For us in Argentina, the church certainly was greedy, and I welcomed that in a way that comes much harder back in Utah.
You may know that in 1986 Argentina won the World Cup with an assist from the “hand of God” in a game against England. In the land of Maradona I felt that as a family we were able to act as the hand of God in meaningfully providing physical or spiritual support to others.
With that background (which may explain my thesis better than my following comments), let me get back to my argument that the “the church is more true in Argentina.”
We left Utah County for Argentina in January ’03. If you’ll remember, the U.S. war against Iraq started that March. We left a Church in Utah where we heard multiple pro-war sermons (in both stake conference and sacrament meeting). In one of our last weeks in Utah, a ward member who works for the Church’s education system bore his testimony that whether or not one believed the upcoming war was justified, church members were obligated to support the war because our nation’s President had chosen that course.
We left the Utah winter to arrive in the Argentine summer, and in a religious contrast just that stark, in our first Argentine church meetings a woman spoke about how she had joined her husband in a prominent anti-war march. She hadn’t wanted to because she considered the dispute to be someone else’s. Then she described her strong spiritual feelings while participating, and concluded that because we were Christians it was important to raise a voice against the war. Similarly, one Sunday in March, in a talk based on Christ’s sermon in 3rd Nephi, the speaker wondered how the United States could think of itself as being a “Christian” nation while pursuing the war.
I’ll share one more example of the war as a common topic of conversation, because it provides details about members’ response to the war. In April, during a social gathering for the men, at around 11:30 pm, after we’d played futbol in the court adjacent to the church house, and as we were finishing some beef burgers, I was grilled on the U.S. justifications for the war.
The bishop offered his opinion that Pres. Bush had gone to war to kill Iraqi youth because Bush thought doing so would reduce the number of future Osama Bin Ladens. The bishop predicted that the war would increase the number of Arabs who wanted to damage the U.S.
I explained that I didn’t support the war due to the process the U.S. had followed, but because of the Iraqi government’s significant crimes against the Iraqi people, if the U.S. had first exhausted the weapons inspection process, and if we had obtained U.N. approval, I might have supported it in certain circumstances. One person suggested that even then the war would not be in keeping with BoM or NT teachings. Another brother tactfully suggested I had erred by accepting Anglo lies about Iraqi weapons programs (Argentines, he said, were better detectors of government lies as a result of their experience in the Malvinas (Falklands) war with England). Another suggested people in the U.S. too easily choose war to resolve disputes (again, rejecting BoM and N.T. teachings) because our phenomenal war machine had turned us into a “war-like people.” He, like most of the other men, was echoing the opinions most commonly offered in the Argentine newspapers at that time. A year later, when I read Quinn’s “Elder Statesman,” I was struck with how similar this last brother sounded to First Presidency member J. Rueben Clark in 1945, when he wrote a statement for the First Presidency to lobby against a peace-time military draft. Among other arguments against a peace-time military draft, Clark wrote:
“A great standing army has the effect of making the whole nation war-minded. It makes a nation truculent, overbearing, and imperialistic, all provocative of war.”
Ok, enough on the war. Some other areas where I noted significant differences between Argentine SUD and U.S. LDS members were:
- The role a church should play in government affairs (note that Arg. is 80% Catholic and the Catholic Church has long had official influence on the government, so it would seem especially easy for non-Catholics to be uncomfortable with church-state confluence).
- Communal responsibility for the poor.
- International free trade (including capital, labor (immigration), and goods and services)
- Public policy on issues related to sexuality. For example, the Buenos Aires government granted same-sex couples the ability to enter a civil union. I never heard any commentary by church members (pro or con) on this development, even when the Proclamation on the Family was discussed.
- Attitudes about wealth and poverty (whether such a status is deserved and what to do about disparities)
All in all, I found their same-but-different religious viewpoint regarding contemporary political issues welcome and refreshing. This may be partially because I disagree with some (not all) of the political platforms many U.S. Saints assert are dictated by their religious values. If, for example, the Church strongly advocated eliminating corporate farm subsidies (to, among other reasons, to allow poor African farmers to compete against our subsidized crops), would President Lorenzo Snow’s 1901 dislike for church involvement in politics still resonate with me? (he is reported to have said “I despise the use of Church influence in politics as I despise the gates of hell.”)
Now, how does Van Beek’s article relate to the above discussion?
After describing 19th century Utah Mormons as a “tribe” using ethnographic terminology, and describing some ways in which our church/tribe was “domesticated” by American colonization, he suggests that once the Church gained power and started to grow in the latter half of the 20th century, we began to exhibit some colonizing behavior regarding the Church in non-US countries. This leads to his title question of whether Mormons who live in Europe are “Mormon Europeans” or “European Mormons.”
His analysis includes examples from various European countries, but since he knows the Netherlands best, he includes more data about the Dutch. Of them he writes:
The base culture for LDS membership is Dutch social culture, with compassion for the less fortunate, tolerance toward different opinions, and the notion that one not only has to cooperate but also to compromise to reach one’s goals
Permissive Dutch society bears the stigma of drugs and other vices among some outsiders (especially for the French and Americans), but most Dutch do not experience any drug problems at all, and a permissive drug policy refines massive support in Dutch society, including among LDS members. The same attitude holds true for… the acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriages, the regulation of abortion, and the official regulation of careful practices for euthanasia…
As many Latter-day Saints subscribe to Dutch cultural norms and government policy on these issues, they tend to avoid discussion about them in church since their collective stance would stand out against an LDS Church policy they find awkward. (30)
One example: a few years ago, when the Domestic Church openly mobilize members in California against same-sex marriages, an apostle told European stake presidents to fight against legislation accepting same-sex marriages in European countries. All stake presidents listen to dutifully and then conveniently forgot the advice…. no LDS voice was heard when those laws were passed in Europe. But more important, the stake presidents felt no reason at all to be against those laws; in fact, acceptance of same-sex marriages take so much wind out of these fruitless debates that homosexuality becomes much less of an issue for Church members as for others…. (31)
For Dutch Mormons this difference [here, the possibility of heterosexual marriage by contract instead of an official ceremony], as well as the others mentioned, is first and foremost a question of culture, not a question of doctrine. They have the impression that the Dutch views as expounded here, could in large measure be accommodated within the restored gospel without losing any essential teachings….
Thus, many members make some separation between doctrine and their evaluation of existing social practices, a cognitive compartment colonization that comes with the minority situation of being a non-European Orthodox Church in a secularized environment or, I might add, even a church on the road to fundamentalization. (32)
He suggests in his final section that in some countries in Europe, the Church’s strong U.S. identity has become/is becoming a liability, particularly as US credibility declines.
Van Beek’s more thorough, sophisticated, and knowledgeable analysis of some differences (or at least different trends) among the U.S. vs. outside-the-U.S. church and church members roughly parallels my experience in Argentina.
But, I hasten to acknowledge that while I chafe sometimes at the uber-Americanness of the Church in the U.S., the preferred alternative is not that we be overly influenced by another country or culture (though if it were Argentina, instead of funeral potatoes, ham, and jello, we’d be having grilled beef, dulce de leche, and more grilled beef at our communal gatherings). Instead, it’s that we ought to try to focus our religious community and efforts on our core principles, taking care not to get bogged down too much by the shifting sands of fickle American politics and culture.