On America and the church

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.

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  1. It’s hard to espouse American exceptionalism these days unless we consider massive federal and household debts, large trade deficits, decreasing economic competitiveness, and states issuing IOUs as exceptional.

    And no, I’m not blaming this on Obama or any of His predecessors. I would never blame Him for any of our problems. This has been going on for several decades.

  2. David M. Morris says:

    Very insightful and fair, possibly far fairer than yours truly would have been. I remember we did sing God Save the Queen in church a few months back but whether it was out of shock or maybe a feeling of embarrasment it was muted somewhat. Somehow in the UK we just don’t seem to do the open loud public patriotism. Wheras in the US most sporting events will open with a patriotic rendition, in the UK we only seem to hear the national anthem following a winning event at sports or motor racing, which seems to be getting less as the days go by. I think the church is slowly building local centres of regionalism into its programmes, for example some of the proselytising DVDs have dubbed over English acccents and more missionaries seem to serve in their own locality, Area Authorities called locally and local/national events which certainly reduces an American worldwide church perception. Regarding the American continent as the chosen land, well we are informed it for the seed of Joseph, and I am the seed of Joseph therefore I have my eye on a nice piece of land as my inheritance, I think they call it Upstate New York. Mind you it will only be a summer home next to my inheritance in the mission field…in the UK.

  3. some of the proselytising DVDs have dubbed over English acccents

    I feel silly-stupid for this not ever having occurred to me before, despite my consciousness of providing church materials in non-English languages. I hope members worldwide realize that perpetuating the Americanness of the church isn’t always deliberate, that sometimes it comes from simple obliviousness without malicious intent. Local members who notice such things have a responsibility to bring those things to the notice of mission presidents and AAs who can advocate for changes, and not just simmer in frustration (or worse) because American church leaders don’t somehow magically recognize all aspects of the problem.

  4. Nameless says:

    more missionaries seem to serve in their own locality, Area Authorities called locally

    I think this is too bad actually. I enjoy it when we have missionaries from other countries and hopefully helps to foster an appreciation of other cultures.

    My experience here in Northeast has also been that patriotism in the church is much more muted than what I remember growing up on the West Coast. As a child my ward always had a flag raising ceremony on July 4th. I am not even sure I have ever seen the flag out of the closet in my current ward with the exception of a Scout Court of Honor.

  5. I believe that our mormonism being too closely wed to americanism is a very dangerous thing. All too often it seems we adopt nationalistic views, opinions, and actions over Christian views, opinions, and actions. To some extent our willingness and other individuals in other countries willingness to demonize the other and engage in violence against one another stems from nationalistic akin to tribalistic associations and views. We excuse all sorts of actions when they are done under the color of flag and nationalism. This is of course why actions that would be considered morally wrong in our day to day lives are excused when national duty calls. This is also why I sat in primary last week as the US flag was unfurled, hands were placed over the heart, and the next twenty minutes were spent in reverence for the nation and flag. We were taught the revolution was needed because the British were equal to the commie Chinese and no one should ever want to visit or live in China. Particularly disturbing, and I assume this or at least hope this is aberrant, were the comparisons between Jesus blood and the red on the flag. In many regards, I fear our joining of America and the church mirrors too much the fundamentalist attitudes in America.

    It is this conjoining of religion and patriotism that led our former president to proclaim on the first anniversary of the destruction of the World Trade Center that the “ideal of America is the hope of all mankind.” In even worse form he went on to proclaim America is “That hope still lights our way. And the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.” Aside from plagiarism we should recognize the blasphemy in replacing the Word of God and the Light of Christ with America.

    When in his 2003 State of the Union address, the president said that there is “power, wonder-working power in the goodness and idealism and faith of the American people” lets remember that the conclusion to the hymn is “power, wonder-working power in the blood of the Lamb.”

    As one writer suggested, at what point will this stop? When we claim that “In the beginning was America, and America was with God, and America was God…”

    I had the opportunity to interview
    the theologian Stanley Hauerwas last year and I think his comment on our allegiance to nation over religion is unfortunately true.

    Q: In your essay “Sacrificing the Sacrifice of War” you observe that nationalistic “patriotism” has become for many a substitute religion, and for Christians in particular. What has caused that to occur in your opinion?

    Hauerwas: I’m not sure any of us know how that happened, other than the general subservience of the Christian church in America to America. The general view of most Christian Americans is they can let their children make up their minds about whether they are a Christian or not but they don’t let them make up their minds about being an American. Now that’s an indication that national identification has become more determinative for the way people live than their Christian identification. Now I’m sure they will deny that if you suggest it, but ask them if they don’t believe that they ought to raise children to grow up to make up their minds and they will always say, yes of course. But then they don’t, when it comes to the issues of national loyalty. They don’t let children make up their own minds; it kind of comes with the drinking water.

  6. Natalie says:

    Although I think that Mormonism can and should transcend America and have local variations, in my mind certain core ideas about the plan of salvation, particularly the idea of being able to rise to the next level and become like God do reflect certain American values about being able to rise above one’s position in life. While this value is perhaps no longer so unique to America, I think America’s political traditions, including an emphasis on hard work, fresh starts, and equality, and its vast amount of unused land and natural resources probably did play pivotal roles in shaping Mormon beliefs and our view of life’s purpose.

    On another note, my general observation is that most Americans really do believe that America is the world’s best country, even if it isn’t perfect. I have rarely ever heard an American member think to question the idea that the US as a country is central to the restoration of the gospel. This leads to problems when Americans take what they have for granted and ignore facts on the ground, but it can also be a source of immense productivity when people both feel invested in maintaining the ideals they are raised with and fully think through their actions.

  7. Great interview, Ronan. Well done. I also think Peggy’s article was well done.

  8. Ardis,
    The new visitors’ centre at the London Temple has a large Christus complete with booming *American* voice. FYI.

  9. Very nicely done. A few years ago I was working in Thailand. I saw the missionaries walking down the street and at first glance thought they were school children, because what they were wearing is a common school uniform in Thailand. Spirituality and religion were identified there with an orange robe. I thought then it’s too bad that our missionaries can’t wear an orange robe or even an orange sash to mark them as religious messengers. How can you take someone seriously who is dressed like a schoolchild?

    The assumption that a white shirt and tie are markers of seriousness does not hold everywhere in the world. In Africa, a Kaftan would be much more acceptable for religious messengers. I liked the point in the article that other people’s sacred music is not founded on piano and violin. We could do so much better if we did not confuse gospel values with American values.

  10. Ronan, too bad Peggy couldn’t print all of your comments because they certainly provide context to her lede paragraph. Thanks for sharing this.

  11. David M. Morris says:

    “in my mind certain core ideas about the plan of salvation, particularly the idea of being able to rise to the next level and become like God do reflect certain American values about being able to rise above one’s position in life.”

    The last time I checked these ideas were in existence thousands of years prior to the birth of the US, Christ himself taught these things so maybe they might be Hebrew in origin, or even Centro-South American if you follow the Book of Mormon and but certainly predate the US (whose characteristics themselves are influenced by worldwide immigrants, ignore Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis it is so so wrong), even true that the restoration had to happen where it did, only after many many hundreds even thousands of years + of worldwide events was the church established, and once established it remains a fact that in order to continue, it required European converts to go back to America and strenghten it, or as Joseph said that he was doing something for the salvation of the church. Don’t get me wrong there are somethings good about the ‘US’ and this is not intended to be a US bashing but the gospel of Christ is not American it transcends on too many levels, aspects of its administration, however, has in the past, been one size fits all. One member of an Area Presidency I heard say, ‘well this worked in Brazil so it should work here (UK)’ and the local intiative failed within the first month. Seek to understand before you seek to be understood might be wise here) I like SteveP’s point about sacred music and gospel values. I have some wonderful friends in the US, even in Utah who are not oozing of arrogance of the greatest nation on earth (like an impetulant child), at the risk of embarrassing Ardis, she is a most wonderful person, always friendly and willing to talk and help out and just so grounded. Unfortunately many others are not and that is the key problem, well actually it is more loudly heard in a particulalr Western state. I served my mission in Ca. it was great, I have lived much of my life with American forces growing up so i have a little experience of what I am suggesting. The church is being administered, governed led by an increasing international membership I wonder how much different that will be when China and other parts of Asia freely have the gospel. As they say the 18/19th C were British, the 20th was American but the 21st will be the asian Tiger’s century. I look forward to a worldwide church with common values, common programmes adapted for local use. Okay my spleen is still in tact and heart rate has lowered……

  12. Anne (U.K.) says:

    today is the 32nd anniversary of the first Church service I attended- Sunday School back in the days before the 3 hour block. Being close to 4 July, the ward missionaries were asked to stand and sing America The Beautiful (which I had never heard before, and just referred to for years as the ‘song about purple mountains’). I had no idea this wasn’t a typical meeting, and left appalled at the thought I’d have to pay homage to the US every Sunday if I joined the Church, especially as it was the Queen’s silver jubilee year, and we were all feeling very patriotic for our own country, thanks very much. In those days we sang the National Anthem in Church more often, too.

    Attitudes have changed a lot in that time, and, imho, for the better. The move of leadership to more local members, the breaking down of cultural barriers with events such as the www, I think have all helped. These days the only gung ho pro USA ramblings I hear are from over- zealous missionaries, and any lesson I have attended in the past few years on Church History, dealing with the fact that America was set apart for the foundation of the Gospel, usually includes the reminder that it is a country born of an illegal act of treason, which seems to satisfy everyone :-)

  13. Jonathan M says:

    #8-Ronan, I thought most reputable scholars now accept that Christ in fact had a cockney accent, me old china!

    (For the benefit of Americans who may been unaware of such research and who are reading this, ‘china plate’, usually abbreviated to simply ‘china’ is rhyming cockney slang for ‘mate’, ie ‘friend’).

  14. Jonathan M says:

    In all seriousness, I find the concept of the ‘booming American voice’ in an English Temple very depressing. I’m sure I’m not alone.

    BTW, I am very far from being anti-American; I trust that no reader of this august site will assume otherwise on the basis of my comments above.

  15. The new visitors’ centre at the London Temple has a large Christus complete with booming *American* voice. FYI

    What, pray tell, does that booming American voice SAY? Our Christus here is just a mute, derivative, secondary, duplicate, copycat, over-exposed, replicated, unimaginative simulation of the original sculpture. At least it’s silent. Can’t imagine what yours would say, in any accent.

  16. “I am Jesus Christ, etc….”

    Said like a white James Earl Jones, which would be cool and all, but it sounds utterly out of place in the Surrey countryside. As we all know, Jesus spoke like Sir Ian McKellen.

  17. Peter LLC says:

    I’ve seen some wards on the continent where the shirts change colour.

    Yes, but as long as they are muted pastels, I believe no harm is done.

    By the way, the only sign of the 4th of July I spotted here on the continent was an American flag and burgers being grilled backstage at the Bruce Springsteen concert venue. Nary a peep at church from the American contingent.

  18. Ronan, does that mean Peter, James and John were Merry, Pippin, and Samwise?

  19. Galilee = The Shire? Yes.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    Can anyone say “tacky”?

  21. Lest we forget, Mormon doctrine has the pesky concept of it being a Millennial preparatory organization where two promised lands are mentioned, America and Israel. Initially, Zion will be in these places as the “troubled time” coalesce the world in anarchy. The principles, or law of Zion (aka the US Constitution), are in the doctrine and are meant to be eternal and worldwide – yes there will be a worldwide government – God’s government, with many of the concepts rooted in the Constitution which can trace its roots to Nordic and Israelite tribalism. After these refuges and their purposes are made known to the world, the rest of the world will inherit Zion. This is a very Old Testament concept, but according to the Old Testament, the promised lands are exceptional. I think there is no way around it except to discard multi nationalism or national cultural and legal parity. Like I said, its pesky, classically liberal, but not progressive in any way shape or form.

  22. Jonathan M says:

    Sorry, I should have made clear that I was referring to the visitor’s centre and not to the Temple itself.

  23. Joseph Smith said it best: “I teach men correct principles and they govern themselves.”