Armand Mauss has recently written on the costs of membership in the Mormon Church for European Mormons. They are high. Read any of Wilfried’s old T&S posts and you will have this view confirmed. I would like to note another way in which European Mormons shoulder a heavier burden than do their American co-religionists generally: missionary service.
My insight is largely anecdotal and Britain-specific. It may not elicit any sympathy (after all, Zion is a city of sacrifice). However, some realisation of the specific challenges of international Mormons is useful for an American audience, I hope.
Choosing to serve a mission is never easy, but a young Mormon male from Deseret will find that it is at least part of his culture. There are high costs to not serving. Even Americans from outside of Mormonland at least enjoy an education system which can tolerate two year absences. Less so in Britain where the absence is usually three years and more difficult to navigate. Missions can thus be a serious hindrance to university education which in turn has professional implications later in life.
In Britain, from about 14/15, children are placed on a conveyor belt which will lead relatively seamlessly through school and off to college (vocational) or university (academic). By 16 they have largely focussed their interests and at 17 will be choosing, if they are interested in university, their major field of study. Sometimes a “gap year” is taken after school; most often, students glide straight into three years of a degree and then into work.
Consider the British Mormon male. His religious culture wants him to serve a mission and, if he has reached 17 and is still active, he probably has an interest in serving himself. If he wants to serve he will have to withdraw from the university applications process. If he is at an academic school, he will likely be one of only a few who are similarly sidelined. If he is very bright, he will rebuff all attempts to get him to consider Oxbridge. His extreme Otherness will be confirmed.
Americans may wonder why he cannot start university, pause for his mission, then continue. Alas, people do not drop in and out of university here; once you start a degree you continue until you finish. Also, because he is confronted by the oddity which states that he cannot serve until he is 19, he has to occupy himself until he is 19 and will thus, in effect, be taking three years out of education. All the while his peers are starting their degrees and he is delivering pizza. A year into his mission he will have to apply for university intake and hope that none of the universities wish to interview him because it is unlikely that he will be able to return home. Hopefully they will also not see his mission as wasted time.
It is no wonder, perhaps, that some Mormon men thus choose not to serve missions, and some that do, choose not to bother with university. Here I reach for anecdote, so take it for what it’s worth, but in my experience in the UK, there are significantly more Mormon female graduates than there are male. I have one female friend studying in a university town where there are no male Mormon students. The men who go to university before missions tend to go inactive; many who come home from missions feel at 21-22 more obligated to quickly marry and support a family than to “indulge” in education.
In relating some of these costs, I am aware that I am myself an example that they can be overcome. Some of my friends have been similarly successful. I watched as my friends left for university and tried hard to convince my teachers that I wasn’t brainwashed into giving up my life for a cult. I worked in a cake factory before my mission and in a travel agency afterwards. I came home and eventually earned three degrees whilst married and with children. Professionally, I have arrived where I want to be. It can be done if you want it. I had to forego a potential place at Cambridge because I couldn’t return from Austria for an interview, and it has taken me until 35 to reach pay equality with my similarly-educated colleagues, but I have worked hard towards a goal and was determined to achieve it, thanks in large part to my family’s support.
And yet I do worry at all the undereducated and professionally-stunted Mormon men I see in the UK, and I do wish we didn’t lose so many who feel that the choice in favour of missions over university is simply too hard to make. If I could hope for the church to consider one thing it would be to consider one year missions for Europeans, or, if that is too radical, to allow our men to serve at 18, as two years out of education is qualitatively less than three. If the goal is active, educated, professionally-satisfied, RM Mormon men, it is something to think about, at least.