The New Normal

When I was serving my mission in Russia, almost no-one I met had heard of the Mormons, but those who had had learned of us from a particular source. Leo Tolstoy? President Benson? or Premier Kruschev? No. Our mediator, it turned out, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

A Study in Scarlet is the first Sherlock Holmes novel and most of the Russians I met were avid Holmes fans. Upon hearing our Mormon connection, they almost always cheered up. We were twice exotic, once for simply being Americans living amongst Russian, twice for belonging to a secretive, woman-kidnapping, polygamous cult. They were rarely interested in learning about the gospel, of course, but the Russian mindset is attracted to the grotesque and they hoped talking to us would provide an ample supply. Sadly, we more often than not disappointed them.

This was all brought to mind a couple of weeks ago when I learned of the decision to remove A Study in Scarlet from the sixth-grade curriculum in a Virginia school district. In the curriculum, it served to introduce the students to both the mystery genre in general and the Holmes character in particular. The parent who objected to its inclusion argued it would also be “our young students’ first inaccurate introduction to an American religion.” Instead, she suggested that students read “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” another Holmes novel, for their first exposure to mystery.

First of all, I think that if you are going to object to a book in a school’s curriculum, this is the way to do it. Be clear about what you find objectionable. Find and present an alternative that doesn’t feature the offensive elements, but that does fulfill the same function. I think the parent took the best possible approach and the school district chose to remove it from the curriculum for the sixth grade, making it optional for teachers at a higher grade. All that said, I don’t think she should have objected at all. There is no better way to get a child to read a book than to forbid the reading of that book. We are a sufficiently diffuse information society that all attempts to censor are futile. Just teach your kids right and hope they paid attention.

Now, having done my librarian duty, I admit that I am a bit bumfuzzled by this event. Have we become the sort of people that the majority feels a need to protect? Just a couple of months ago, I was thinking that Mormons continued to be considered about on the moral level of Scientologists for most folks, but I don’t think you will ever hear people arguing that books that bad mouth L. Ron Hubbard’s followers should be disregarded (quite the opposite). Then there was the recent episode of Talk of the Nation that featured Michael Purdy and Joanna Brooks discussing the church and whether it is misunderstood. NPR, lefties that they are, gave Bro. Purdy and Sis. Brooks the opportunity to explain us to the NPR audience.

The most interesting exchange, to me, starts at the 25:28 mark when the host reads an email from a member of the church. The member basically says that we are normal, we are just like any other religious group. Note the slight pause and then the awkward laughter from Joanna. Her first statement is “We pass really well,” quickly followed by a brief history of our early rejection of America and subsequent re-assimilation. Her shock and rush to provide context is fascinating.

If, as the Virginia incident might indicate, we are becoming normal, do we want to be? I remember being in high school in a majority non-Mormon town. Being a Mormon was sufficient to grant me individuality. When my chemistry teacher was asking about something unique from each student on the first day, I said, “I’m a Mormon.” He said, “That’s unique?” I responded, “Not among Mormons.” But that’s the issue. We are not really among Mormons, even when we are. We are aware of a vast sea of not Mormons out there around us. So, even in groups, our group identity gives us self-knowledge. I didn’t have to be a budding journalist or a drama geek; being a Mormon was enough.

The New Normal would mean that we’d lose that. We’d still be Mormon, but it wouldn’t mean anything more in America than being Catholic or Methodist does. You can share jokes with insiders, but for outsiders it just means that you were given a too-religious upbringing. They’ll expect us to grow out of it.

Joanna’s awkwardness is a natural reaction to this loss. When threatened with our normality, Joanna quickly made us a little weird, even though she just spent about 15 minutes making us as non-threatening as possible to an NPR audience. If she is any indication, it seems we want our peculiar status. However, I’m not sure, in the era of big-budget Broadway satire and presidential candidates, that we’ll be able to maintain it.

In the meantime, I’m curious what you think the result of Mormonism becoming normalized in American Society might be, both for us and for the nation.

Comments

  1. Well, I can say that it seems to becoming normalized in the country of Mali, West Africa, which is 90 percent Muslim. Yeah Samake, a mormon, is running for president and has growing support. His website: http://samake2012.com

  2. Certainly more opportunities will open to those within the church. I feel there will be some sort of identity crisis for individuals too. The normalization of the church could be accompanied by a realization that many of the social aspects of the church are not unique to the LDS culture alone. I wonder if this could turn two ways: members could “dig a little deeper” (gain more loyalty), and/or they could branch out a little bit and start to do good things out there in the community more as individuals, without the collective “Mormon” ideology attached.

    The obvious effect for the nation would be an improvement for missionary work. I kind of wonder though whether this would create a kind of complacency within the religion too.

  3. Normal? They have not met Aaron B.

  4. I’m neither here nor there on this. How’s that for ambivalence? I do think it was a very bad idea to have that book switched for a number of reasons.

  5. I’d settle for weird but non-threatening as a middle ground. I am not convinced we’re on the verge of mainstream, but only because of the interfaith in-fighting over converts that will always pit evangelicals against us and continue to drum up controversy. What I don’t like is when the church waters down unique Mormon theologies (theosis, God the Mother) to ingratiate us with our detractors.

  6. I was a bit put off by the book-switching. But I would also have been put off if I were to hear that an anti-Mormon novel was foisted upon a bunch of teenagers in a public school. There’s just no pleasing me, I guess. I expect that is the feeling in general about normalcy and weirdness.

  7. John, I have heard both Armand Mauss and your good self describe this individualising component of Mormon identity as a teenager. If Mormonism is even a viable alternative to drama geek or budding journalist then normalisation has already occurred. That option is not available for most British teenagers; I suspect most hide their religion just to get through high school – but perhaps that was just me.

  8. Just to be provocative … becoming normalized in American Society might result in apostacy.

  9. I’m with hawkgrrrl – we should just let our freak flag fly.

    I’ve seen some embarrassed Mormons try to downplay the very best and most beautiful parts of Mormonism (God has a physical body somewhere in the real universe! He’s not the incoherent amorphous Neoplatonic nothingness that most modern religions believe, which can be utterly disemboweled by a cursory glance in Richard Dawkins’ direction! Theosis! God the Mother! Preexistence and the Divine Council! Uncreated intelligences! Worlds without number!) as if we should be ashamed of them, for fear that their stodgy Evangelical Protestant friends will stop thinking they’re acceptable.

    But it’s the distinctive character of the Church (very amenable to philosophical materialism, the scientific method, enlightened secular humanism – hell, even evolution, if people would just stop assuming that the lies of Creation Science are the only way to preserve the faith – while standing in a unique space which is neither Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant, yet still deeply Christian) which will really attract converts. At least, that’s why it attracted *me*.

    We’ve got bumperstickers here in Oregon which read “Keep Portland Weird” – I say we Keep Mormonism Weird. It began as a deeply radical movement among 20-somethings (reject established authorities? Study things out in our own minds?), and I think it has the potential to have the same power it did back in the 1830s if our generation doesn’t get complacent.

  10. When my father joined the church (and the rest of us, too) back in 1967, he was looking for something different — for a church that would not change its view based on social pressure as his protestant church was then doing.

    Just as it might be hyperbole to suggest that ALL Russians are “attracted to the grotesque,” so is it a stretch for us (or anyone else) to suggest that ALL Mormons are “mainstream,” “normal,” or even the same.

    I’d like to think that I’m a good neighbor, just like the folks who live next door to me. Yep, we have some doctrinal differences between us, but that doesn’t need to make me strange to them.

  11. hawkgrrl and Jeremy,
    The distancing from certain doctrines that you are talking about is not a new movement. It’s been a part of our assimilation since Joseph F. Smith. Part of the reason for it is that the men who espoused those ideas never clearly articulated them (or, when they did (Adam-God) they have often been rejected). I would love to be part of a movement that had a Mother in Heaven; it’s just that right now that could mean anything (see the poll from a few weeks back). It’s not as if any of our “weird” doctrines our internally consistent or externally definable.

    Eric,
    Yes, but how? What do you see as the potential problem? Is it greater than our tendency to turn inward which results, for instance, in the Manti polygamous group?

    Aaron R.,
    “If Mormonism is even a viable alternative to drama geek or budding journalist then normalisation has already occurred.”
    I’m not sure that Mormonism as a viable alternative is a good thing. A bit like Dr. King hoping that people would be judged by the value of their thought, rather than the color of their skin. I adopted Mormonism as my Me because I knew (or supposed) that most non-Mormons saw me as a Mormon first, a person second. I’m not convinced that is a good thing. I’d guess that this ambivalence is what causes most folks to “pass” in Joanna’s terms, including British youth.

  12. When Elder Bednar came two years ago to re-organise our stake here in Dublin, Ireland the one quote that stood out for many during the priesthood session was something akin to “Let your weirdness work for you!” As an example, he pointed out that we must seem very weird in a country known for its liberal approach to alcohol.

    I live in area which is very diverse and even among those who are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist or Church of Ireland the fact that I, as a pure blooded Irishman, don’t drink even a drop of alcohol is viewed as ‘weird’

    Our doctrinal beliefs are even more unusual than our programs and maybe that it one reason he emphasise the programs of the church rather than the principles of the restored gospel.

    I think if we are completely ‘normal’ in our individual cultures then that is a sign that we are uncomfortable with some of the things that are meant to make us different.

  13. “I am Mormon__hear me roar”.
    “I am going to color my hair purple__and the rest of the world can _ _ _ _ off”.
    I this really better than being called normal? I heard this from my ‘Goth’ daughter for two years__it gets old.

  14. Too clarify:

    Our doctrinal beliefs are even more unusual than our programs and maybe that it one reason we emphasise the programs of the church rather than the principles of the restored gospel.

    Elder Behnar wasn’t afraid to state the principles of the gospel. He struck me as quite fearless.

  15. Is this really….

  16. “Keep Mormonism Weird”… I like that! If you make the bumper stickers, I’ll put them on telephone polls and stop signs.

  17. Kyle,

    Hah, I’m totally on it. *grin*

    John,

    I didn’t mean to imply, if I did, that it’s an exclusively recent practice to downplay some of the “weird” elements, especially considering the whole evolution debate in the early 1900’s and JFS’s approval of fundamentalist lit. But neither do I think there’s such a thing as an utterly airtight, internally consistent doctrine; if we wait for such a thing, we’ll never move at all. Godel and all that. I actually don’t see why it’s a problem, considering the nature of ongoing revelation, in which there are many great things yet to be revealed.

    But coming from a former-hardcore-atheist perspective, the fact that we believe God has a literal, physical body and is *capable* of having a wife – even if we only see Her in passing implication – who are part of a Council of both male and female Gods which we hope to take part in is, in my opinion, utterly revolutionary in our day, while simultaneously being a Restoration of ancient material. (See my enormous post in the aforementioned Heavenly Mother poll for why I think there is *considerably* more evidence for Her than is sometimes assumed.)

    We are one of the last defenders of an anthropomorphic, dual-gendered conception of deity, and as such are one of the few religions still capable of dealing with the archaeological evidence of cultural diffusion (especially of the Divine Council) and still willing to take “myth” seriously, as something other than hallucinatory explanations of misinterpreted causality.

    Regardless of what model of Intelligence one subscribes to, tripartite or whatever, the fact that we are *uncreated* in some primal way is utterly revolutionary considering the common “proof” of God among way too many religionists is “Well, we couldn’t exist without a Creator who popped us into reality outta nothin’. Look at how awesome our eyeballs were designed!”.

    This, of course, is related to the “organizational” aspect of our view of Creation, which is revolutionary in that it describes a plurality of preexisting eternal materials rather than a lone, “simple”, First Cause. “Worlds without number” does away with the nonsensical idea that discovering life on other planets does away with the need for God, which fundamentalist theists and atheists alike are often convinced of.

    The Problem of Evil actually has potential answers in a Mormonism, which posits physical constraints to deity, rather than the unjust fatalism of practically every other denomination (regardless of their protestations that their “omnipresent” deity manages to be Just despite being physically present in every cancer for some unknown higher purpose).

    Etc., Etc..

    The western world, even when it tries to deny it, has been embarrassingly eager to proclaim allegiance to absolutist Alexandrian philosophy for literally thousands of years. It’s about time we got over it, and I think Mormonism is just the thing. It doesn’t matter that we still have a ton of ironing-out to do ourselves; what we do have is enough to get the ball rolling.

  18. #17:Jeremy,
    Man has one of the worst of animal bodies. It’s low on the list of about everything: eyes, ears, nose, etc. About the only thing man has near the top of the list is a thumb and walking legs. A man can walk about any other animal to death.

  19. Alas, I’m failing to see your point.

  20. I had a completely different take on Joanna’s hesitation and “We pass really well” comment. It’s quite possible to view one’s self as both an insider and an outsider of a group simultaneously. I played clarinet in band all through high school, but I never felt I fit in well with the rest of the band geeks. Honestly, I felt like the core of the group was kind of weird. But, I enjoyed playing and I was rather good, so I ended up “representing” the band in a number of events as a soloist and was proud to do it. I wasn’t socially part of the group, I didn’t hang out with them, but yet I was viewed by the outside world as representative.

    Based on everything I’ve read and heard from Joanna, I get the impression she’s in a similar situation. I think she considers Mormons weird and doesn’t share many of their attitudes or beliefs, yet she is one, appreciates being one, and is proud to represent them. I don’t interpret her hesitation or comment as being protective of her uniqueness. Of course, if she reads anything here and I’m off base, I’m sure she’ll correct me.

    When it comes to “weirdness”, it’s not between being normal and being weird, it’s about the kind of weird we want associated with us personally.

  21. #20 Martin,
    If you like “weirdness”__fine. But if others would rather be seen as “normal”, don’t bag on them or think they are missing out on something good.

  22. Uh, Bob, I’m not following you… Maybe you weren’t following me either.

  23. #22: Marin,
    Mormons like to see themselves as “weird” inside their group, but don’t like people out their group thinking of them as weird. Mormons feel like if you are not weird (Mormon weird), you are missing out on something good.
    Me__I like being seen as ‘normal’.

  24. I can remember when Salt Lake City was campaigning to get the 2002 Winter Olympics, I often heard the statement that it would show people just how “normal” we really are. A friend and I decided that the effect would be just the opposite, confirming our weirdness. I believe we were right, but the efforts continue to normalize us. And I think the impetus for the normalization comes primarily from the rank and file, not necessarily the leadership (although an argument can be made that we have been glad as a church to accept and publicize every time someone sees us as normal). As the old proverb goes, be careful what you wish for.

    A second thought is that what passes for normal in the outside world is not always what we perceive as normal from the inside. For example, see Harry Reid. From the outside; “Harry Reid is a Mormon and a Democrat, so they must be normal.” From the inside: “Harry Reid is a Mormon and a Democrat? How can that be?”

  25. Capozaino says:

    In Italy, where I served my mission, several times we met people who misunderstood who Mormons were because the word “Amish” in the 1985 movie “Witness” was mistranslated as “Mormon.”

    With regard to the comparison to Dr. King’s dream by John C. in #11, I think many of us do want to be judged by the content of our character, which we think we excel at, rather than by our identification as Mormons. Specifically, I think that generally means we want people to judge us by our outward moral behavior and generally conservative appearance (broad brush here). I suspect many of us don’t want to be judged by our beliefs because, when held up to the harsh lights of cynical secular criticism, the beliefs we hold dear are likely to be the subject of ridicule (see the Book of Mormon Musical). I feel like we’re comfortable being *different* from other religions in our particular beliefs, but don’t want to be regarded as *weird*, or at least any weirder than more readily accepted religious persons in society.

  26. Chris Gordon says:

    Probably worth defining “weird” and “normal” at some point.

    From the perspective of what I imagine church leadership would want, I would define “weird” as Peter’s “peculiar,” as in interesting, special, different, distinctive, unique, rare. I would further define “normal” as approachable, inviting, unremarkable (yes, I recognize the paradox there given the definition of weird), not to be avoided, not so different as to be off-putting, etc.

    A challenge comes in when we see “weird” as something unpleasant, grotesque, repulsive, etc. and “normal” as just like everyone else. Neither captures much of how we want to feel or what we want to accomplish.

  27. Thomas Parkin says:

    “It’s about time we got over it, and I think Mormonism is just the thing.”

    You get my vote.

    “Alas, I’m failing to see your point.”

    Around here it is called a “Bob Point.” Seeing is not the thing; just have faith.

  28. We as a people are slightly weird, but as Jeremy put it in #17 our doctrines are the really weird part. They are what truly separate us from most other Christian establishments. But I don’t see weird as a pejorative. I cherish our peculiarity. Not in the defiant way I see some embrace it, openly defying the world, daring it to sneer at their otherness – I cherish it quietly, a thing I keep close to my heart and attempt to live without calling attention to it. Our doctrines, our beautifully weird and contrary doctrines, are the only thing that keep me clinging to the institution we call “the church.” As a lifelong outsider (I am too “off” for my most of my fellow Saints to embrace me fervently, but I can’t embrace the ways of the world either), I have had little choice but to embrace my otherness and understand the unique blessings it has given me. Our otherness has the potential to give us unique blessings as well (provided we live up to our commitments). I dislike our “mainstreaming” only if it involves watering us down. We believe different things and I don’t want to shy away from that.

  29. #26: Chris,
    Sorry, you don’t get to define ‘weird’ however you want. That’s Mormonspeak.
    For the outside world, saying you are going to drop a level in Heaven for drinking a cup of coffee__is weird.

  30. Bob,
    Clearly this post has struck a nerve. Please remember to be patient with the rest of us.

    Jeremy,
    You deserve a full response which I don’t have time for now. I’ll get you one tonight. I think you are basically right, but I think the ambition is a bit high. They won’t care about our solutions until they understand us as people.

    kevinf,
    The whole new Mormon.org thing is top-down internal LDS normalization. I don’t know what else to consider it.

    Everyone else,
    Thanks for your comments. I’ll likely respond to most of them tonight. :)

  31. Glass Ceiling says:

    Melissa,

    You speak for me absolutely. I am officially validated. Thanks. :)

  32. Glass Ceiling says:

    The thing is, Mormon doctrine IS weird, but it’s the only doctrine in Earth that answers the big questions. If the Church were proven untrue, it’s nor Luke I could go running to the Catholics or Jews , or antibody else for the answers. They don’t have them.
    For me, the LDS Gospel is the only and last hope for the existence of God. If it’s wrong, all that’s left is atheism.
    I am proud to be a weirdo because the Church is true. The Spirit says so, sp does history, science, philosophy.

  33. Glass Ceiling says:

    …didn’t mean to shut y’all down.

  34. Chris Gordon says:

    Okay, I won’t choose. Per dictionary.com:

    “Weird” – involving or suggesting the supernatural; unearthly or uncanny; fantastic; uncanny.

    “Normal” – conforming to the standard or the common type; usual; not abnormal (helpful, no?); regular; natural.

    I point out only that each has positive and arguably a negative connotation. We should be comfortable enough in our own skin to accept both, but it’s pretty honest to point out that most would be more comfortable with the positive than the negative. It’s also pretty much a truism.

  35. It is interesting how people find out about Mormons. We never know who will notice.

  36. MikeInWeHo says:

    “If it’s wrong, all that’s left is atheism.”
    Yikes, that’s a very black-or-white way of viewing things. Might I politely suggest the name Glass Testimony instead.

    But on topic: The study of subcultures and how they evolve is fascinating. Mormonism does appear to be in transition as a subculture. It will be interesting to see how things look ten years further down the road. Many seem to think the Church is on a trajectory to be absorbed back into more traditional evangelical Christianity, and given some of the PR coming out of SLC it’s easy to see why people might get that impression. That would be a bummer, in my rather pointless opinion.

  37. Glass Ceiling says:

    Mike,
    Are you saying that I ought to have a testimony of other belief systems that just don’t work for me …that is, if the Gospel was proven false? I don’t understand. (Not trying to be jerky here. I just don’t understand how, after knowing, say, the truth of separate Gods…how one could then embrace the trinity.)

  38. MikeInWeHo says:

    I don’t mean to be disrespectful, Glass Ceiling. You say that “history, science, and philosophy” all “say” the Church is true, and that “if it’s wrong, all that’s left is atheism.” In my experience, reality isn’t so “either-or.” We weren’t sent to an “It’s all true or atheism is the only choice” world. On the contrary!

    Also in my observation, people who view the Gospel that way tend to leave the Church when they discover some of the problems with the history, or the way sciences conflicts some religious ideas, etc. I just don’t think it’s so black-or-white, for a Latter-day Saint or anybody else. Faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things, right?

  39. Glass Ceiling says:

    Mike,
    I was a bit unclear in my comment. I see the Gospel’s truth validated in philosophy, etc. Personally, I feel that all other religions pale in the face of the LDS Gospel. That is not to say I don’t respect other religions. I just do not see that they offer (me) anything better than the LDS Gospel.

    And I don’t see why thus would offend another Mormon.

    In terms of the atheism comments, I also fail to see why THAT would bother you. There is no church out there that even comes close to answering life’s questions other than the LDS Church. It would be difficult to put one’s faith into another gospel after Mormonism …if Mormonisn were proven wrong. Again, I am speaking personally.

    So, is that better or not?

  40. Glass Ceiling says:

    Mike,

    I am an aspiring Church historian. I know a bit about its colorful history.

    I respect your comment, and I think I understand why you feel the way you do about mine. I just don’t think mine is all that uncommon in the Church.

  41. MikeInWeHo says:

    “It would be difficult to put one’s faith into another gospel after Mormonism …”

    Hope you never have to learn for yourself how true that statement is. I don’t think we disagree much at all, Glass Ceiling. Thanks for clarifying!

  42. Totally agree with Melissa. Outwardly, I’m not that different from my coworkers and non-mormon friends. But beneath the superficial layer, there’s a lot that’s different, and the closer people get, the more they realize “wow, he actually believes all that crazy stuff!” As far as I know, my weird faith has never hindered a friendship, and in fact I think it often comes in handy–relationships get to a deeper level faster, because people are curious and want to talk about it.

    I don’t wear the weird on my sleeve, but it’s there for anyone who cares to look closely enough. And I like that.

  43. .@42: That’s the thing (For me). Too many Mormons are proud to be ‘weird’. Therefore the Church will always be seen with purple hair and will be out of the mainstream.
    I know many are more than OK with that. Just don’t blame the mainstearm for ‘not understanding you’.

  44. Purple hair? I’m an outlier for having a beard…

  45. #44 — on outlier in the church or in the “mainstream”?

    My beard doesn’t make me an outlier in either place.

  46. I think that we need to factor boundary maintenance into the discussion: who is a Mormon? how can we tell (from the outside or the inside)? Previous to, say, the HJ Grant administration, Mormons overwhelmingly lived in Zion. Location and plural marriage defined us. A diaspora beginning with the Great Depression and WWII required some other boundary marker; through the McKay administration, it was probably the Word of Wisdom. Smoking cessation by many middle-class non-Mormons (at least in the US) removed that visible marker.

    What are our current markers? Are there any? “Weird” doctrines might suffice, except that mormon.org seems to be doing a great job of de-emphasizing those, and the “And I’m a Mormon” campaign attempts to further reduce perceived differences. Another decade of such assimilation, and we might as well be CoC or AoG Evangelicals.

  47. MikeInWeHo says:

    Paul’s comment led me to look up this Wiki entry about the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity. It strikes me has having a slightly anti-Mormon tone, as if it were written by an Evangelical. Not sure, though. Maybe it was written by a member. The Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy section seems most relevant to this thread:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mormonism_and_Christianity

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