Several weeks ago, I read with interest Mormon responses to the situation surrounding the Fundamentalist Mormons. At the time, it struck me that one of the main responses amongst Mormons was to attempt to differentiate us from them. In context, there were many valid reasons to take such an approach. But the observation struck me: we Mormons, perhaps because of the marginal role that we feel we occupy and our commitment to a restored gospel, are deeply invested in protecting our religious “brand.”
Over the past few weeks, I have been observing how I participate in this urge to protect and project a certain brand of Mormonism. When I read newspaper articles on other Mormons, I approach them with a level of scrutiny and concern that I reserve for no other people. These people, I sense, will inform how other people view me, even I am not sure precisely how I want to be viewed. When other members observe the Sabbath according to rules that vary from my own, I feel my values slightly threatened and betrayed. Likewise, I feel hurt when others think that my actions fall outside the norms of our faith. When people approach me about the gospel, I suppress my own thoughts on the topic, speaking instead according to the official pamphlets and lesson manuals that perpetuate this brand. In short, my responses register a decided paranoia about protecting and not deviating from what I take to be the Mormon brand when I present my Mormonism to the public. Admittedly, sometimes it is unclear what constitutes this brand, but I feel urgency of the idea of it nevertheless.
Although Mormon history provides plenty of reasons for understanding how Mormons began to treat themselves as a peculiar people with a culture to protect and define in the face of outsiders, as I examine my own responses I cannot help but think that our anxiety around maintaining a brand of Mormonism carries negative consequences both within and outside of our community. Within my own community, how often has my concern about our group identity prevented me from viewing and nurturing the wealth of diversity to be found within it? How often has my refusal to see people as individuals rather than as Mormons prevented me from establishing friendships with those who might have embraced me? As I have interacted with those outside of my faith, how often have I squandered chances to express what Mormonism means to me in ways that might have resonated with them because I felt too much anxiety about presenting the official story?
My Mormonism gives me an identity that I value. But sometimes my anxiety to protect or live with a particular brand of Mormonism makes my limits my potential to enjoy the gospel’s blessings. And, sometimes, more importantly, I wonder if our urge to differentiate ourselves prevents us from actually bringing the gospel across the world. They say that the church is the same everywhere you go, but I wonder – when I sense that the phrase expresses more than a sameness in our core beliefs – if that is always such a good thing if it means that sameness is build on our blindness towards the differences that do and could exist amongst our people. If we are to move forward as a church and a people, are we comfortable embracing an identity that can include our differences? Or, in many contexts (and here I wonder in which ones), is it still more important to reaffirm our brand?