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

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

Part I here, Part II here.

3. Support culture and church margin

What is different between mainline Christians and Mormons in the Netherlands, however, is the margin, the one of the disengaged believers and disengaged non-believers. The differences between the social function of churches in the USA and in Europe have been sketched elsewhere in detail but need to be stressed again. The social motivations for church attendance in the US are largely absent in Europe, but here other mechanisms prevail: cultural membership or individual choice. Cultural in the sense of being a “cultural catholic” or “cultural Calvinist”: raised in that tradition, defining identity in terms of the tradition and recognising the traces of upbringing and values are buildings blocks of the own personality, both social and individual; but one does no longer go to church. Disengaged non-believers have become the norm in this part of Europe: raised in the shadow of some church, recognising its influence, but having moved definitely out of reach of the church bells. It is with them that the church has retreated to its most general function, that of a part in the process of identity construction. In Holland, the pattern has been clear for decades: Holland is becoming a country of “Christians without a church”. Christians, yes, but cultural Christians; the simple credo is “I believe there might be something”, and if I live a good life, no real harm can befall upon me later”. A credo that is often voiced by inactive Mormons as well, at least in our sample. As a Catholic comedian voiced it: “O God, if you do exist, save my soul, if I happen to have one”. One clear example of this cultural Christianity is the role of the Catholic Church in Belgium. Belgian Catholics, in great numbers never go to Church, the last thing is declare themselves not a Catholic.

If someone of their family joins the Mormon church, theirs is a fierce reaction: becoming a Mormon is not done, not so much because one is a catholic, but one is a Belgian, and Belgium is a catholic country! In Holland reactions are less severe, because the Dutch never had a state religion or state church, but the same principle holds. Generalised Christianity, without real conviction, without church membership is quite all right, but a total allegiance to any kind of particular church – though often respected on the individual level – is thought slightly odd. The pattern of the disengaged, be they believers or not, follows these dividing lines. The Mormon church does not belong to the “generalised Christianity”, neither in its own definition nor in the views of the outside society. So the disengaged routinely nestle in that comfortable definition of self, thus severing the links that they may have kept with the Mormon church. A few believers remain among them, as seen above, but they are few and far between. For most converts the separation with the old church of origin, and thus with the old identity is maximal: in fact they maximise this difference, feeding on the notions of the “great and abominable church” of the Joseph Smith story. So the dominance of converts leads to drawing the line between Mormons and others in absolute terms, enhancing the dichotomy.

So, what is missing in Europe, compared to the USA situation, is the margin. Of 100 Mormons in Holland, some 30 are engaged believers (with hardly any engaged non-believers), 70 are disengaged non-believers (with hardly any disengaged believers).

So the result is that the composition of Dutch Mormons is that of a group without a margin; almost no occasional attenders, no “Jack Mormons”, and few returnees after absence. In terms of identification processes, the identification with the Mormon church is a polarised process, either in or out. Absent are processes for low intensity identification. The disaffiliated conform easily with current Dutch trends in generalised Christianity. The reasons for this polarised self definition reside, as stated, in Dutch culture, in the particular ways in which secularisation in the Netherlands has established itself and in the absence of a supporting Mormon culture. The first two might be specific for the Netherlands, though I really doubt it. The modalities of Dutch secularisation do differ from those of the neighbouring countries, England, Belgium and Germany, but not in ways deeply relevant to this notion of dual identification processes. Anyway, the supporting Mormon culture is absent in all European countries, in fact in almost all countries except the Wasatch front. So polarisation of membership indeed is to be expected in all non-Deseret stakes and missions of the Church.

4. Internal processes towards polarised identity: a counter church

This polarity is just what we did not expect in world religion or world church. But what in the Mormon church itself leads towards this polarity of identity? What processes lead towards this inclusion-exclusion dichotomy? What are the doctrinal or pseudo-doctrinal sources of polarisation? In fact, there are a lot, and on several levels. First, the notion of “the world” as something in direct opposition to the church, to Zion, a notion different, of course from the one used in this conference). Of course, this is based on New Testament teachings, but the point is how large the polarisation church-world is made in the habitual discourse of the church. In mission dominated congregations it is very large, as converts tend to overemphasise the breach with their own past. But also in official Church publications, discourse and especially the recent stream of warnings and statements from the first presidency, a clear separation between the norms of the church and whatever is happening in the world, is evident. In its discourse the church puts itself not in the world but against the world, a counter-world, by defining the world as the antithesis of good. The main discourse leads to a margin-less definition of self, a counter-definition.

Other discourses also lead to a clear-cut identification. The first is the almost total absence in discourses and teachings of marginal situations and marginal individuals. Let me explain. The church population, in the discourse, is made up of children, young men, young women, young adults, married couples, young single adults and single adults. The glaringly absent category is that of the divorced, an increasing proportion of the membership. The same holds for homosexuals. It is one thing to have clear preferences for styles of life and to hold on to family values, it is another and quite different thing to define away the existence of other types of people. Thus, church discourse leads to a polarised definition of self, one is in harmony with recognised patterns and “in”, or out of harmony and has to live without recognition of identity. This may be one important factor why divorcees often disaffiliate; in the Netherlands this amounts to a “gentle bleeding”, in the US it seems to be the main hemorage.

A third “discourse of separation” is the notion of Israel. Though references to “the Latter-Day Israel” seem to have diminished somewhat, the notion of the “descendants of Israel” and of Ephraim” is still around. A recent example is the brochure “De Belofte” (the promise) where the Dutch mission president rekindles the burning embers of the Israel heritage, even transfusing the notion of the “Blood of Israel”. The main point is that a tribal discourse is inherently exclusive and does not lend itself to a global church.

The dominant identity discourse in the church, then , is more that of a minority, righteous, covenanted and fully dedicated, that wages battle against a large majority, a Gideons army against the hosts of the Philistines. That discourse supports and ratifies processes of identity formation that are characterised by oppositional definitions of self, polarised constructions of identity that do not fit in with the notion of a global church. Instead, it defines itself as a global counter-church, set against the world, against non-Israel, against the ones who dwell from the straight and narrow.

The only exception would be ” Deseret”, where mormonism is the mainline religion. There church affiliation and disaffiliation have different characteristics, due to numbers, historical presence and a general mormon culture. Those conditions will never be met in the ” International Church”, where Mormonism will remain, whatever its growth, a minority religion. And some retrenchment of the Church, also in Deseret has well been noted by Mauss. But my main point is that the processes of identity construction in the Church abroad lead to the definition of the LDS church as a global counter-church, not a world religion. A church which disengages its members from the rest of the world, which opposes trends and fashions and which maintains definitions of self, both collectively and for individual members, dominated by exclusiveness and the absence of low-intensity identification.

Walter E.A. van Beek, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Select Bibliography

W.E.A. van Beek, 1997, “Ethnization and accomodation: Dutch Mormons in the twenty-first century”, Dialogue, 29: 1, pp. 119-139

W. Decoo, 1996, “Feeding the fleeing flock: reflections on the struggle to retain church members in Europe”, Dialogue, 29: 1, pp. 97-119

H. Gooren, 1999, “Reconsidering Mormon membership growth in Guatemala”, Conference paper

J. Numano, 1999, “Mormonism in modern Japan”, Dialogue 29: 1, pp. 223-236

W.H. Homer, 1996, “LDS propsects in Italy for the twenty-first century”, Dialogue, 29: 1, pp. 139- 159

L.C. Bennion & L.A.Young, 1996, “The uncertain dynamics of LDS expansion, 1950-2020”, Dialogue, 29: 1, pp. 8-33

H.M. Bahr & S.L. Albrecht, “Strangers once more: patterns of disaffiliation from Mormonism”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28: 2, pp. 180-200

A. Mauss, 1994, The Angel and the Beehive. The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, U. of Illinois Press


  1. Casual Mormons are fairly rare outside of Mormon-dominated areas of Utah, southeast Idaho, and parts of rural Arizona. In Utah, the pressure to maintain some type of Mormon identity is pretty strong, especially among white collar workers in the suburbs (where most Utahns live). You can find all combinations of Mormons in Utah based on activity, belief, adherence to church requirements on alcohol, sex, tithing. In Utah, you can find Mormons who don’t go to church but still believe and still don’t drink alcohol. You can find church going members who have no problems ignoring church standards on drugs and sex. The combinations are numerous and sometimes very interesting.

    In areas where Mormons are only a small percent of the population, it’s pretty easy to walk away from the church completely. There are no former missionary companions or BYU classmates/roommates to keep you tethered to something you don’t believe in anymore. Outside of “Deseret”, you’re either hot or cold or out. Most of them are cold or out.

  2. Casual Mormons are fairly rare outside of Mormon-dominated areas of Utah, southeast Idaho, and parts of rural Arizona.

    Andrea, is that just your observation or experience, or is that something you’ve understood through studies of Mormon activity? I’m not (necessarily) questioning your statement if it’s the latter, but such has not been my experience. Each ward I’ve lived in, in Europe, both sides of the U.S, and in Idaho/Utah, have had plenty ‘o casual Mormons.

  3. There are no former missionary companions or BYU classmates/roommates to keep you tethered to something you don’t believe in anymore.

    My roommates and companions scattered when they went off to grad school at age 25 or 26. This is not a realistic assessment of “pressure” to maintain ties to Mormonism, in Utah Valley or out, IMO.

  4. Totally agree, Ardis.

    Oddly enough, through random, entirely unexpected circumstances, I have ended living in very close proximity to several former mission companions after graduate school ended for us all.

  5. Andrea is, of course, correct. Relationships matter and so do numbers and cultural hegemony. Empirically, I agree with Scott. There are lukewarm Mormons in Europe.

    More importantly, these days, lukewarm Mormons in Germany are more likely to remain Mormon than committed Mormons.

    The contradictions of the correlated Church are just too great. In the long run, they will grind many committed Mormons to pieces.

  6. My theory is that there is less of a role for “marginal” Mormons in the LDS faith. In many other religions, people may call themselves Catholic, Buddhist, etc. and be “less active” yet welcomed when they do go to church / temple / synagogue.

    In our church, people are expected to have callings, do temple work, home teaching, etc. If you’re not “both feet in”, you are, in many ways, out. This doesn’t leave much room on the margin. Additionally, as mentioned, if someone doesn’t fit the standard stereotypical white-shirt marching through life on the standard plan, there is little room. I don’t know that there are many other religions who would be as condescending towards someone based on a tattoo or an earring or the smell of tobacco or something else equally superficial.

  7. Thomas Parkin says:

    “In the long run, they will grind many committed Mormons to pieces”

    I suppose it depends on what you mean by committed Mormons, Hellmut. If you mean dogmatic Mormons who are committed to outward forms and are fixed in dogmatic answers, then I suppose that you are almost certainly correct. If you mean covenant keeping, temple attending Mormons who are spiritually mature and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, then I’m afraid there is an aspect of the religion that you continue to miss. But, possibly, these are not the folks you are targeting? ~

  8. Most people, RMs or otherwise, don’t go to graduate school. A majority of people don’t complete college (includes those that never went in the first place) and most college graduates don’t go on to graduate school so the scattering-everywhere-to-go-grad-school theory has very limited application. Even so, many of those that do eventually come back to Utah.

  9. Speaking from personal observation, it’s much easier to make a clean break from the church when your coworkers, neighbors, friends, etc are not LDS.

    It depends on what you call casual Mormons. In places where Mormons are less than 10% of the population, a majority of “official” members are not only inactive, but a large percentage don’t even consider themselves Mormon.

    Contrast that with Utah where people who haven’t attended church in 40 years or more still vocally and proudly call themselves Mormon.

    In Utah, the connection is not just religious. It’s cultural, historical and personal. Most inactive Utah Mormons are descendants of the original pioneers. Most of their friends and relatives are Mormon. That’s a lot to walk away from.

  10. I agree with you, Andrea, that there are no cultural Mormons in Europe. At least, I have not seen them.

    There are Mormons, however, who are semi-active, show up every other week, don’t meet their financial and calling obligations but are ardent about their Mormon identity.

    I would term those people casual Mormons.

  11. I don’t know about the disparity in mission service, Hellmut. If your hypothesis correct, of which I am not convinced, there was still a dramatic change in missionary life from 1940 to today, that isn’t accounted for.

    My contention with this work is similar to my comment in part 1. It seems to me that the attribute that the author is ascribing as a delimiter of world-religion status arises as a function of societal prominence, not with anything about the religion. For example, there probably aren’t a lot of casual Muslims in rural Alabama. I’m also interested in how the demography of the Church plays into this. If the bulk of the Church is converts, how does that affect identity? Also, and interesting counter point to Europe is Latin America – one of David Knowlton’s post comes to mind.

  12. Thanks, Jeff. It seems to me that the nature of the missionary life during the forties is irrelevant since Germans did not serve missions in large numbers.

    My point was that return missionaries were rare until eighties and that my generation was more likely to leave Mormonism than its non-serving predecessors.

  13. John Mansfield says:

    There are more varieties of the Mormon experience than “Deseret” and “rest of world.” In much of the American West, Latter-day Saints are a significant fraction of the population, but still only a fraction. That is also a place with enough ongoing incidental contact with the Church and its members, that a Mormon identity persists for many non-participating members, and returns to activity happen.

  14. I just have annecdotal evidence.

    Here in Texas we have plenty of people who show up once a year, twice a year. Or those who go through spurts of activity then lapse, then spurt again. Perhaps it’s not a matter in Texas of the LDS church being everywhere, but in Christianity being everywhere. Perhaps being asked by everyone “do you have a church home?” some casual Mormons are quick to say they do.

  15. I agree with Andrea (#1). Here in Santa Cruz, CA, lots of people have come here to really get away from the Church. I have visited lots of inactives and have found few who are cultural Mormons. There are antagonistic lapsed members and friendly lapsed members who will talk to you as long as you refrain from trying to get them to come to Church.

    Lots of LDS students at UCSC fall into the category of getting away.

    There are always a few people who have drifted away but have sort of a fuzzy warm feeling. These are few and far between here.

  16. Tracy Hall Jr says:

    Diversity in doctrine and practice is indeed an appropriate measure of the worldliness of a religion. I am quite comfortable viewing Church not as a “world religion,” but as a “global counter-church” positioned in opposition to much that is worldly and politically correct.

    The kind of “diversity” observed in Roman Catholicism and Islam is possible only because each disavows continuing revelation.

    It is continuing revelation, not only to prophets and apostles, but to individual members, that produces the miracle of uniformity throughout the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I actually see “correlation” as a sign of the true church. What other organization could possibly function with a requirement for unanimity in all its councils?

    A photo-essay by Scott Proctor of his visit to the Nungua First Ward, Accra Ghana Stake, convinces me that any faithful Latter-day Saint from “Deseret” would feel very much at home in Ghana.

    Although there is no doubt still much room for growth in numbers, prophecy indicates that we will always be numerically small, but that our influence will become sufficient to arouse world-wide enmity. The backlash to our involvement in California’s Proposition Eight might well foreshadow extermination orders yet to come.

    Tracy Hall Jr