Mormonism, a global counter-church? (Part I)

by Walter E.A. van Beek
Chair, Anthropology of Religion, Tilburg University, The Netherlands

1. World religion: variety and identity

What constitutes a world religion is hard to establish, as in principle it is not an analytic but more of a public relations term. In order to avoid normative definitions, which easily slip in the discourse on world religions, I just want to isolate some crucial characteristics shared by a few religions which are recognised as a world religion or a world church: Islam and the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, Islam is not a church in the sense of a closed bounded organisation, has no doctrinal authority vested in someone, and Catholicism is part of a large gamma of Christian churches. What they do share, however, beyond a common region of origin, is quite impressive. Both are monotheistic, scripture as well as tradition-oriented. Both have their saints, their folk expressions of faith, both have a long history of active proselyting. Both are tied in, or have been tied in with secular dynasties and earthly realms. In both the separation of state and religion is not primarily wished for. Both have holy places, pilgrimages, and both have waged holy wars. In both, the historical connection with the land of origin or first florescence is still present, but both have grown out of an ethnic or regional definition of identity. In Islam the Arab connection is still strong, but in no way is Islam restricted to one ethnic identity or one geographic region. The same holds for Catholicism: Rome centered, historically Jerusalem interested, it has outgrown its Mediterranean orientation.

My focus here is on the variety of identification processes, and thus on internal variation. Both religions house a wide array of forms and expressions, of actual beliefs and factual rituals. Islam has, even restricting ourselves to its Sunnitic form, many law schools, cults, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, saints and a vast array of folk expression of Islam, the “popular Islam”. Christianity as a whole is even more diverse, easily warranting the term “christianities” that is sometimes used. But the Catholic church itself, is the haven of a large, and probably increasing diversity. From ultra-orthodox to ultra-liberal, from charismatic to base movements, various monastic orders ranging from contemplative to secular and scientific orientations, the Catholic church is the prime example of outward unity combined with internal diversity.

The possibility to incorporate diversity does not imply that these religions have been tolerant, in the past, of diverging opinions and heteropraxis. The “Holy Office” still exists within the Roman Catholic Church, even if its function is nicely tuned down after the heydays of the Inquisition. Islam also have waged war against apostates, especially when the political situation made this expedient. Many a jihad has been fought not only against infidels, but also against Muslim nations, with at least the pretext, however flimsy – that the enemy did not heed to the doctrines and praxis of “real Islam”. Yet these institutions could not curb diversity in their own ranks, and in many ways used diversity for their own purposes: the array of monastic orders is a point in question, while the tolerant attitude towards popular expressions of Islam and Catholicism, has been a definite means of penetration to the grass roots of believers.

Now, how is diversity constructed and reflected at the grass roots level? The presence of multiple forms of religious options within one religious community implies a flexibility in self definition of the individual as part of that particular religion: “all roads lead to Rome”. If options and possibilities are open within one religion, then the concomitant options for the construction of individual identity are open as well. So, the question is what theological and sociological processes of a particular religion lead to identity constructions of individuals that remain within the general framework of that religion. The diversity mentioned in Islam and Catholicism allows for identification processes of the individual with that religion, that vary widely. People may define themselves as Catholic or Muslim on widely diverging grounds, ranging from full and total commitment (the literal meaning of “Islam”) to identification of a very low intensity. The latter is essential: many people identify as Muslim or Catholic almost irrespective of their factual adherence to norms, rules or belief systems. The world religions seem to generate a process of identity construction that allow for wide margins. A Muslim may strictly adhere to the five pillars, pray five times a day, give alms and fly to Mecca every other year for the hajj, or drink liquor, eat – even pork – under the sun of the Ramadan; he will call himself a Muslim anyway. Of course, there is some hierarchy in adherence to rules, as some taboos are more easily broken than others, but he keeps defining himself as part of the Umma. One of the reasons for this process is exactly the diversity allowed by the religion: the others still consider him a Muslim as well. There is leeway in the self definition and the social construction of a member of that religion, the religions are inclusive, with a wide margin of people still under the general umbrella.

Another reason is of course, that these world religions do not operate in a cultural vacuum. Both Catholicism and Islam have a large imprint on the society and its culture; someone raised in a Catholic environment, who from his early years have been part and parcel of a catholic culture will always, whatever his later relation to the creed, define himself as a Catholic or as a “raised Catholic”: he went to a Catholic primary school, probably a Catholic secondary school, maybe a University or College with one or two saintly names; in some countries, like Holland before the depillarization he played soccer at a catholic club, went to catholic scouting and when ill had a catholic doctor. A catholic culture raises catholic identities. The same holds for Islam, though there the political and juridical imprint of the religion is larger than the social and recreational one. A Koranic school, with its drone memorisation of sura, a childhood in the immediate vicinity of the muezzin’s call, the continual presence of prayer and recitation and the feasts of the end of Ramadan, tabaski and the return of the Hajj, they all add to a powerful denominator of identity, a Muslim one.

Together, these aspects of diversity and cultural inclusion are sufficient to generate a cultural religious identity. Even bereft of any knowledge about the religion, without firm convictions or laden with heavy doubts, the people in question define themselves as part of the community, part of the religion. From the standpoint of orthodoxy, these religions have a core of firm and steadfast believers with a clear orthopraxis, plus a wide and varied margin of marginal, diverging and even non-believers, all under the umbrella of the religion in question.

2. Mormonism: exclusive identity

How does Mormonism fare on the scales of diversity and variation? How diverse is Mormonism? This includes of course, the LDS and RLDS churches, plus the various splinter groups in the Deseret and Missouri zone. Even with that extension, the variation is limited: most share, on the basis of generalised Puritan Protestant theologies some “Mormon” characteristics, such as new scriptures, polygyny or prophetism. But then, most of them do not claim world-wide status, as the LDS version does. So we shall limit our discussion to the LDS Church. How diversified is it, in theologies, in expression and ritual, and in adherence?

Though characterised as a “do-it-yourself” theology, the mainframe of Mormon theology is remarkably unified. Several processes see to that: the absence of a class of professional theologians, the dominance of management over theology (the main diversity comes from history!), and the propagation of the faith by young, well-trained but non-professional missionaries. In fact, the unity in doctrine (the word “theology” is eschewed) is a continuous point of reference, an identity marker. Discussions in church classes, though frequent and stimulated, revolve around personal experiences and almost never question doctrine as such; in short, the discourse in the Church is intra-doctrinal.

In ritual and other expressions of faith the same standardisation operates. Church services are rite-poor, Protestant in kind in its heavy reliance on preaching (“talks”), listening is the number one activity. “Bearing testimony”, as an expression of individual faith and experience, is more personal. Therefore, it varies more, but even here some standardisation is evident: the “testimony” should be, and most often is – personal, experiential, emotional and short; also supportive, ending on a positive note, without discussion of doctrine. Problems should be dealt with, but with a positive ending: the solution is dominant, and some degree of success story is expected. Other rituals are either sober (laying on of hands, pronouncing prayers, blessings and ordinations), or are highly formalised and should never be discussed at all, such as the temple ceremonies.

How about personal adherence? How varied are the forms of belonging or not belonging to the LDS church? This, of course, is the main factor in our argument, as it points to the ways and processes of identification of the varying members with the church. What processes of identity construction does the church generate in various types of religious adherence?


  1. Sharon LDS in Tennessee says:

    And I would add, assuring a complication of course, an additional question to the “mix” of questions….both as a blanket answer of sorts AND a new one in and of itself:
    What about the “inner” church (?) which is comprised of the “higher” spiritually advanced & centered (already baptised/endowed/and qualified members of the LDS) church? This comments points to the first qustion of PERSONAL ADHERENCE, second one of VARIED FORMS, IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION GENERATION to RELIGIOUS ADHERENCE as well !!!
    Love to All ~!

  2. Perhaps we should include another class of Mormons now and how they may differ from “Chapel” Mormons. Of course I am referring to “Internet” Mormons. :) But all kidding aside, there really is a difference, at least in my opinion.

  3. One big point is tolerance of discussion and varied point-of-views. It seems that the more “fundamentalist” a religion is, whether Islamic, Jewish, Christian, etc., the less toleration there is for someone who thinks outside the “herd mentality”.

    The LDS faith seems very fundamentalist in this aspect. While lip service has been paid to to encouraging the members to “confirm” the truth of what the leaders say, especially in the early century of the church, it seems that this is very much discouraged now as not “following the prophet”. This attitude is encouraged from the highest levels.

    As a perfect example, witness President Hinckley’s thoughts on earrings and tattoos. While he never came out and defined this as a “God said” proclamation vs his own personal feelings on this, by the next conference, Elder Bednar gave a story about a woman who broke off her engagement to a man she apparently loved over an earring. There was no real forum for discussion, but this was presented as akin to apostasy and “not following the Prophet”.

    There is a natural need for a forum for discussion of various aspects of any religion or belief system. Because any “non-manual” discussion is effectively suppressed in an actual church setting, the rise of the “Internet” Mormon movement is a way to safely discuss these aspects.

    There is a great slowing of growth of the church, particularly in Europe and the US. The growth numbers as a percentage of existing members has shrunk (numbers available if anyone cares). This is my personal opinion and obviously anecdotal, but I attribute this largely to this disconnect between the “Sunday School” sanitized version of the LDS belief system presented and the more widely available information easily found on the internet.

    The frustrating thing to me is that the essence of the gospel is beautiful. We all want to approach God and Christ and have the same goals. We all want to be good people. But as an institution, the Church is turning off people who have a tremendous amount to offer for the sake of blind orthodoxy.

    But maybe this attitude makes me the same “apostate” referenced to in Elder Bednar’s talk…

  4. I think the amount of diversity is dynamic. Through the 19th and into the 20th century, the Church was generally concentrated in the Inter-mountain West. Attendance in Sacrament Meeting and Priesthood Quorum meetings were generally low (~15%). While some eschewed alcohol and tobacco, others did not. Great debates over doctrine were evident in the governing quorums and on the ground. I have a number of relatives that didn’t go to Church and had various levels of orthopraxy. Yet they were all Mormon to the core.

    Today, the cohesive culture that maintained Mormon identity is largely eroded, outside of a small minority within certain geographic regions. Diversity is also eroded.

    This observation – that diversity in Mormonism was at its peak when the Church was the least “Global” makes me wonder whether it is an appropriate measure of globality generally.

  5. #4: “Through the 19th and into the 20th century, the Church was generally concentrated in the Inter-mountain…”.
    But a big amount of non-Americans (?). Mostly English and Scandinavian (?).

  6. Gamma?

  7. 6: gamma = gamut (typo).

  8. MinJae Lee says:

    #4: Orthopraxy? The only meaning of that word that I know relates to medicine (using mechanical appliances to correct deformities). Is it misspelled or is there another meaning of which I am not aware?

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