I was recently quoted in a Trib article by Peggy Fletcher Stack, a journalist I truly admire. The article is well worth your valuable time, as it explores some interesting issues of who is truly “Mormon”. I thought it might be worth posting the full text of my email to Peggy, which includes the questions I was asked. Each one of the questions is worthy of long discussion, and my replies are nothing fancy, but it’s good conversation fodder for a Friday before Conference.
1. Who is a Mormon? I use the word ‘Mormon’ to refer to functioning members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I realize that it’s also used as an umbrella term for former members, disaffected members, other religious groups like the Community of Christ or fundamentalists, but as a functional matter I use ‘Mormon’ almost always to refer to members of the Church. I’ll use the word Mormon for non-members as well, but usually in a qualified sense: “former mormon,” “disaffected mormon,” “fundamentalist mormon,” etc. Interestingly I use the word far more in conversations with non-members; I suspect that’s because terms like members, non-members, etc. are trickier to understand and don’t roll off the tongue. Now, I’ve just addressed usage of the word, not categorization, which is a little more thorny. My usage generally follows how I tend to categorize people, but there are always exceptions, especially when I encounter people who strongly self-identify one way or the other counter to common usage.
2. Should anyone who has ever been on the church’s rolls be considered a Mormon? This is probably a question of self-identification, primarily, and people can refer to themselves any way they want. And generally, if someone holds themselves out as Mormon to me, I’ll try and respect how they view themselves as well. But just being on the rolls, in the abstract, probably isn’t enough of a touchstone for someone to reasonably identify themselves as Mormon as I use the word, as the term to me signifies a religious life and a cultural identity. I think we’re missing the point if we look solely at registration as the litmus test for our community.
3. Should those who go but don’t believe? Of course, lots of mainstream members will consider these people to be wolves in sheep’s clothing. I’ve never known a wolf in sheep’s clothing who thought of himself that way. The point is there’s a whole spectrum of people in that category; the essence of faith is wrestling with the specter of non-belief, so most of us are in this category at some point or another. It’s helpful for people to identify themselves as Mormon even if they don’t believe, for belonging to the community, keeping up appearances for their family’s sake, etc., and I don’t begrudge them the right to consider themselves Mormon. They’re probably more Mormon than anything else, I guess. From my perspective, the more points of contact people have with the Church the better the odds of them staying part of the community, the better the chances of them continuing in the faith and returning to a belief in the restored Church. It’s probably worth it for them to ask themselves why they would want to be identified as Mormon and query whether they’re acting ethically or consistently, but ideally I’d rather have a non-believer in the pew next to me than cast him out.
4. Should those who don’t go, but still espouse Mormon principles? Sort of the flip side of the other. Again I think it boils down to self-identification. Personally, I view this sort of person as more Mormon than the person who attends but has no belief. Jesus said, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” Someone who doesn’t go to Church but is a kind, good person who follows the principles of the gospel has a better shot at salvation than someone who just pays lip service to the Church each Sunday.
5. Is Mormonism an ethnicity? No.
6. Is there any purpose in dividing members into “active” and “inactive”? If so, what is it? If not, do you find it offensive? Why or why not? There are many purposes to this division. Keeping track of who’s struggling, who needs some spiritual help is a basic part of Christian life and central to our duty to care for each other. Church activity — especially regular attendance at meetings — is a fairly good indicator of those who believe in the prophet, believe in the Restoration and who are “on board” generally. It’s shorthand, to be sure, and there are plenty of actives who are terrible mormons and plenty of inactives who are saints, but from a large-scale administrative point of view it’s immensely useful for resource allocation issues. Now, from a cultural and individual point of view the distinction is less helpful and probably damaging. We love to classify each other and judge each other, and the active/inactive distinction is especially fast and easy. Classifying someone as inactive is supposed to be a trigger for us to be especially kind, Christian and good towards such people, but ironically we use it to identify who we shouldn’t hang out with, who we shouldn’t spend too much time around, who we shouldn’t let our kids play with. So, like most classifications in the Church (temple worthiness is another easy example), it can backfire immensely on an individual level.
7. In the past, many people identified as “Jack Mormon” and didn’t feel embarrassed by that. Today, those who might fall into that category – at least public figures in Utah – seem to want to hide that. What has changed? A cynic would say that public figures in Utah have a tremendous incentive to appear to be active, believing members of the Church to get the Mormon vote. I think the truth is a little more nuanced, but not much more. In my mind, the public wants easy answers about people. If you’re a public figure who’s mormon, you’d best fit the standard mold for mormons or your religious beliefs will invite all sorts of unwelcome questions. I think we see the same process for people of other faiths in the public eye. Huntsman is a really interesting case because he self-identifes as mormon, and yet clearly is not the exact same sort of mormon as Orrin Hatch or Mitt Romney. This may work against him, particularly in Utah, but it may work well for him on a national scale, where people really don’t like mormons very much. This could be a deliberate strategy to differentiate himself from Romney. Or, just maybe, Huntsman is just being himself, and describing his faith with the complexity and nuance that all real people have with respect to their faith.