The Salt Lake Tribune has published a July 4th piece on America and Mormonism to which I contributed. Here is my full conversation with Peggy Stack. (There’s also a great post by Wilfried that is, as ever, more articulate on this matter than most of us could hope to be.)
Can Mormonism ever truly be a global faith if it’s too closely wed to America?
Depends what you mean by “global faith”. As Wouter van Beek and others have observed, what students of religion call “world religions” tend to have global flavours. Islam is different in Saudi Arabia than it is in Indonesia, but it is still Islam, whereas Mormonism is very homogeneous. Mormons tend to see this as a good thing.
Does the American connection help or hurt its missionary efforts in Europe?
I think the American connection has helped the church in Europe in the past, especially during the post-war membership boom when America was pretty popular. Right now, growth is slow in Europe, but that has more to do with the continent’s religious laxity than anything else.
Have you seen any diminished emphasis on America as the promised land among Mormon missionary discussions or Sunday school lessons in wards and branches of Europe?
Mormons cannot ignore the fact that the American promised land is enshrined in Mormon doctrine, from the Missouri Eden to the Book of Mormon. Many older members will have read some of the political writings of people such as Ezra Taft Benson and Cleon Skousen who wedded American exceptionalism with Mormon teaching. Just the other day I was talking to a British member whose antipathy towards the British monarchy was based on what he perceived to be the Mormon teaching that republicanism was God’s preferred form of terrestrial government.
I see less emphasis on this now, particularly as the church teaches the idea of local Zions. In my home ward, some members joke about it, saying that there’s a printing error in the Doctrine and Covenants and that the New Jerusalem will in fact be built in England!
There would be some advantage to accepting the church’s American nature. Certainly American Mormons might then be more aware of Mormonism’s American traits rather than pretending they don’t exist. What is important, however, is that the church isn’t bundled with only one set of Americanisms, namely those associated with white, Republican America. Different sides of America attract different people. Right now, being associated with the more liberal, heterogeneous America embodied in President Obama might be a boon in Europe. “Big tent” America — with room for black and white, conservative and liberal — is still a stirring sight for many outside of the USA.
Do you know of specifically American cultural details that have been toned down in Mormonism as it plays globally?
I think it’s impossible to separate the two. Take, for example, the preferred priesthood attire of a dark business suit and a white shirt and tie. Is this Mormon or is it American?
Do Mormon churches in Europe have the American flag? Do Mormons there mention American holidays like July 4th?
You’ll rarely find national flags in church because of Europe’s muted patriotism. There would never be an American flag. Most wards will have at least one American, if only a missionary, so you will always have some awareness of July 4th.
We have an invented American holiday — Mother’s Day — as the day missionaries can call home.
British Mormons will celebrate Mother’s Day on the English Mothering Sunday, although missionaries here will generally phone home on the American holiday. I remember that as a British missionary serving in Austria I phoned home on the American Mother’s Day not on the UK holiday. I think this upset my mother.
What about the Star Spangled Banner?
Never sung, at least not nowadays, but neither is God Save the Queen. My parents tell a horror-story, though. Apparently on the day of my blessing at church, with all our staunch Anglican relatives in tow, someone thought it would be good to sing America the Beautiful! This did nothing to change my family’s perception that my parents had joined an American sect.
Do members in other areas follow the look of American business, with white shirts and ties or is the clothing style more loose?
Generally, yes, in the UK at least. Certainly high-ranking leaders will always wear a white shirt. I’ve seen some wards on the continent where the shirts change colour. But there’s ALWAYS a tie!
Does it bother European members to think of America as “the chosen land.”
I suppose some may be bothered, but as I said before, it’s a difficult to avoid that conclusion from a standard reading of Mormon doctrine. Some may try to expand America beyond the USA. Other will point out that America’s special status is contingent on its righteousness. I think overall the church is making a real effort to emphasise the idea of local Zions and generally speaking, European Mormons stay in Europe. The exception tends to be through marriage: it can be difficult for young European Mormons to find suitable spouses and so they may end up marrying Americans, met either on missions or at BYU. This is quite a big problem, if you can call it that.
A fairly common refrain from European Mormons who visit Utah is one of disappointment that “Zion” is not more “Zion-like”. It’s popular to knock the perceived faux-piety of Utah Mormons from time to time. Certainly missionaries from Utah may have to tolerate some good-natured ribbing. But I think that was the same in my old Baltimore ward too.
How does home teaching/visiting teaching translate into other areas?
I think that home teaching is done poorly in most places. There are geographical issues in Europe — large ward boundaries — but this is no different than in other places in the US outside of the Rockies.