Lines, divisions, and inactivity

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?

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.


  1. Huh. I think I disagree with you on every single one of these questions. I’ll have to think about which one I want to argue :)

  2. Steve Evans says:

    There are just so many options to choose from!!

    Kristine, I think I occasionally disagree with myself on them, too. It’s funny how you write answers to questions and suddenly you find yourself taking positions where you normally would consider yourself undecided.

  3. I’m not totally sure how I feel about this either. I guess, here in the East, I don’t run into many people who want to self-identify as Mormon without going to church, or actually believe in the faith. There isn’t much of a social capital bonus for hanging around, as there might be in say, Boise. If somebody has some sort of connection to the LDS Church, and wants to call themselves Mormon, that’s good enough for me.

    But I admit I feel differently about say, the CofC, or the polygamous sects calling themselves some kind of Mormon, even Fundimentalist Mormon. I equate the word to mean affiliation with the LDS Church in Salt Lake too. Maybe that’s wrong?

  4. “Maybe that’s wrong?”

    Yes. Or at least myopic. Especially considering how much it grieves us when people won’t allow Mormons to self-identify as Christians, it seems unreasonably to narrow to insist that other Restorationist groups that believe in the Book of Mormon don’t have any claim on the term “Mormon.” (which, ironically, we spent about a century trying to jettison ourselves…)

  5. “It’s funny how you write answers to questions and suddenly find yourself taking positions where you normally would consider yourself undecided.”

    Agreed, Steve. I’m very much a Romantic in that I find writing and dialogue more important as a process than a repository of final answers. Emerson may have been on to something when he’s called “foolish consistency” the “hobgoblin of little minds.” you can always take the Benjamin Franklin or Kierkegaard route and constantly write various viewpoints from different pseudonyms.

    /threadjack. I promise I’ll say something substantive about the post itself soon.

  6. Regarding the C of C; I served my mission in Missouri in the 90’s back when they were the RLDS. The C of C people did not consider themselves Mormon. They were offended if someone labeled them Mormon. I wonder how much experience the Trib journalist has had with C of C, esp in Utah.

  7. Yeah, my understanding was that the C of C didn’t even teach the Book of Mormon anymore?

  8. Steve Evans says:

    “constantly write various viewpoints from different pseudonyms.”

    Yeah, been there, done that.

    RE: CoC + mormonism, it sort of depends. There is a resurgence in recent years (linked in no small measure to John Dehlin’s Mormon Stories/Open Mormon initiatives) in the tendency for those who have left the Church or who identify with non-LDS groups to call themselves Mormon. Additionally, some groups have consistently fought for the Mormon label (see e.g. the Strangite web site). And the CoC does teach the Book of Mormon, though not with the same emphasis or direction as the LDS Church.

  9. K, now for the post: I agree that the main principle involved here is self-identification. And in my current research, I’ve been amazed at how self- and group-identity is so often the result of an acute anxiety toward constructing an “other.” By forcing labels on other people, especially those who do not feel associated with that particular organization, borders on restricting that indivdual’s agency in constructing their own identity. There is definitely a practical aspect involved, but I often take the perspective of inclusiveness within a framework of allowance toward self-identification.

    Regarding your 6th answer: do you think it is possible to separate the institutional, pastoral usage that can have a chartitable purpose, from and individual or cultural usage that can have more hurtful and problematic repercussions? Or are they inherently connected?

    And no, I refuse to be held to these opinions forever…

  10. Your understanding isn’t quite correct, Matt:

  11. If they believe in the Book of Mormon, it seems to me like they’re a Mormon.

  12. The C of C’s use of the BoM differs by members and congregation. Many still hold firm to it while others don’t consider it equal to the bible anymore.

    Interestingly, at JWHA last weekend, Steve Shields, a C of C ecclesiastical leader, respected historian of diverging groups within the Mormon movement, argued staked using the term “Mormon movement” or “Mormon studies” anymore when looking at the varying branches, primarily because many groups don’t claim the Mormon title anymore.

  13. Steve Evans says:

    Eric, what does that mean, “believe”? Adhere to the historicity of the text? Believe that its principles are generally correct? Believe in gold plates and translation? A mere recognition that it’s a cultural touchstone?

  14. I think Steve’s answers are pretty good. Kristine, are you sure you’re not just feeling contrary today? It’s true that Mormons claim the term “Mormon” like Evangelical Christians claim the term “Christian”, but as Steve says, usually when we communicate we want the short answer. Consequently, if someone asks me if I’m Christian, I don’t simply say “yes”. It depends on the general usage of the word by the person asking the question. Yes, it annoys me, but “Christian” to me and my tribe often means something different to my neighbors, and people are going to have to put up with that where it comes to the term “Mormon” as well.

  15. “Especially considering how much it grieves us when people won’t allow Mormons to self-identify as Christians”

    I’ve come to realize that I have no control over evangelicals who seek to define my Christianity (or lack thereof). In that light I suppose I can’t control anyone who would like to self-identify as Mormon, either. Particularly so for members of the LDS church who do not attend church. (My wife recently began training a new RS counselor in our stake — she had been inactive until a month or so ago. She told my wife that she always believed; she just got out of the habit of coming to church.) But also for those of non-mainstream groups that also so self-identify (though I would not identify them in that way).

    Steve, I appreciate your leaning toward self-identification in the OP. I think your views on active / less active (inactive) pretty much capture the intent in conversations within the church.

  16. I had the occasion to think about this classification scheme quite a bit as a missionary who had lived in Ephraim, Logan, and Payson Utah prior to serving. One of my companions had grown up on the East Coast, attended his last year of high school in Ukraine, gone to Ricks for a year, and then gone on mission. Meanwhile his family moved to Provo. His sister told him that “Utah Mormons are the worst. They are such hypocrites.”

    I wanted to defend my roots. Eventually I settled on the idea that in Utah it is difficult to separate the social idea of being a Mormon from the religious identity of having a testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel and the Restoration and trying to live accordingly. If you live outside of Utah (southern Idaho, etc.) and you struggle with your faith, leave the church, become a “Jack Mormon” etc. there are many inside the church who will never know you are a Mormon. No one outside the church will know or care unless you tell them. The identity issue is not one that is tied to who you are in every single aspect of your life as it is in a community where six generations of church membership on both sides of the family is the rule rather than the exception.

    As the church grows I think that these issues of identity will become more complicated across the geographical spectrum. For now, though, I think that it is really difficult to understand the depth of the Utah Mormon culture and all that entails. It is that much harder to explain it to those outside of our little world.

  17. I have issues with the term “allow us to…” Evangelicals (and other Trinitarians who aren’t nearly so hateful) should not be thought of as “allowing” us anything. I’ve had a seat at that table, and want no part of their brand of Christianity.

    This hearkens back to a conversation I once had with a very nice lady who said, “The reason we can’t accept you as Christians is…” and then went on to list a lot of theological issues that had nothing to do with faith in Christ. I didn’t say anything as arguing is pointless.

    Thus, arguing that we are continually puts the burden on us to prove that we need a seat at that table, and we do not.

    That’s where the CoC comes in, who (in Independence, MO) are considered (by evangelicals) (who know they used to be RLDS) to be Mormons. The CoC has always been trying to ride the fence between Mormonism and evangelicalism, trying to get a seat at the evangelical table, to the point of building a “temple” that has a cross on it. The evangelicals will never see them as Christians and they will continue to see them as Mormon Lite (if they even know the difference).

    So I personally don’t argue that we’re Christians. We are, whether they like it or not, and the fact is, they need us and our political clout more than we need them to approve of us.

    We have a collective inferiority complex and we need to get rid of it.

  18. I use those labels in different ways, sometimes on the same day, and I don’t think I’m being inconsistent. It depends on what those labels are intended to convey.

    When we’re talking about the entire scope of history from 1820 on, in a discussion of history or culture or general religion, “Mormon” seems appropriate for anybody connected to any branch of the Restoration, whether practicing, believing, cultural, or any other way — it’s a label that distinguishes those with some kind of Joseph Smith heritage from those without. Same with “Christian” — it distinguishes between those with any whiff of Christian heritage and those who don’t trace any of their belief or culture from him.

    But when the subject is closer to home, such a broad definition is practically useless. Then the labels mean “us” and only us — the Mormon Tabernacle Choir doesn’t represent any strain of Mormonism beyond the organization headed at present by Thomas S. Monson; Mormon standards of behavior or dress or diet means the people most like me and whoever I’m speaking with — the greater the distance from “us,” the greater the variation and the less useful the distinction is. Same with “Christian.”

    Problems arise only when both definitions are in use in the same conversation without one side understanding or accepting the other side’s intended meaning.

  19. Anne Onymous says:

    Hmmm, I’m a combination of #3 & #4. I’m not at all certain that I believe everything anymore, but I’m still there every Sunday, still fulfilling my callings (OK, I’m a lousy Visiting Teacher), trying not to commit sins (and failing, just like the believers), and still trying to raise my kidlets to follow the commandments and be thoroughly moral people. I don’t have a recommend because I can’t honestly answer the question of belief with a “yes.” I may be in a lifelong crisis of faith, but I still look at the fruits of gospel living and value them. I’d really like to believe, it would make my life a lot easier, but I think I’m destined to be a skeptic. I assume I’m still allowed to say “yes” when my neighbors ask “Are you Mormon?”

  20. Anne Onymous says:

    Oh, and #17 – BRAVO. I also used to want a seat at the table, but now as an adult I see clearly that I want very little to do with most of the “Christianity” I see on display in the world.

  21. The labels Mormon and Christian should only be used when the first can be followed by “so called” or the second can be preceeded by it.

  22. I reject all labels.

  23. Steve Evans says:

    Says the Rawlsian.

  24. That was a joke. After all, I am a True Blue Mormon Liberal Socialist.

  25. No. 12 Ben Park, right, Steve Shields argued for the term “Smith-Rigdon Movement” as the academic umbrella term for Mormon restorationist groups, by analogy to the widely used umbrella designation Stone-Campbell Movement. Part of the reason is the confusion and ambiguity that comes from use of the term “Mormon.”

    For me the lodestar is self-identification, as you alluded to several times in the OP. For instance, unlike the Church I have no problem with the term “fundamentalist Mormon,” so long as a qualifier is used. (From their perspective I might be a “mainstream Mormon”; ok by me.)

  26. We need “Brighamite”, “Rigdonite”, “Josephite”, “Strangite”, “Allredite” and all manner of “ites” to modify Mormon.

  27. Can I be a Haglundite? That would be awesome.

  28. Nope. You don’t have a big enough nose or scary enough eyebrows to join the tribe.

  29. Okay.

  30. Steve Evans says:

    You’re all BCC-ites. Whether you wanted it or not. Our chief weapon is surprise.

  31. Darn it, I still can’t tell if #1 was just Kristine’s dry wit or if she was actually sighting down the barrel.

  32. Mormonism is bigger than doctrine. It is identity, community, and culture.

    Fundamentalist Mormons
    Gay Mormons
    Dry Mormons
    Jack Mormons
    Cultural Mormons

    The Mormon culture should extend – without begrudging in the least – to anyone that wants to fit into our community, regardless of opinions on touchy subjects like political parties, feminism, gay rights, literalist interpretation of scripture, or college football team support.

  33. Steve, # 30, along with surprise, you forgot to add fanatical devotion, fear, and ruthless efficiency. Those are the three main weapons…wait, that’s four. Let me start over….

  34. Martin, I really do disagree, and I’m DYING to get in a good fight with Steve, but I also have actual work to do and kids arriving home from school any minute. Sigh.

  35. Well, I stand corrected then. Thanks!

  36. Steve Evans says:

    I can’t wait!!!

  37. An ever-interesting topic, Steve. I was going to make a snide remark about to whom you were referring in question #6 when you identified people who were struggling or needing spiritual help (sounds like active members to me!). But your insight in the second half of that answer took all the fun out of my lame barb. harumph.

    btw- Not to marginalize the discussion, but I’m recognizing a lot of parallels between this discussion and the ones I troll on sites like Seriously, though- Is Blink-182 REALLY punk?

  38. Steve Evans says:

    Blink-182 is just generic semi-loud garbage. They can go to hell for all I care.

  39. Do I have to ‘self-identify’ as a mammal to be a mammal?
    If I wish to call myself a bird, do I become a bird?

  40. Why not broaden it out and declare yourself I AM?
    eh, sorry International Blasphemy Day. I tried.

  41. 40. Bob, perhaps you should ask Professor Harold Hill. If you think you are a bird…

    Since you did not “join” the mammals at any time in your life, I think the answer to your question is no. The designations of mammal and bird are scientific categories that humans apply to organize the world around us.

    Ardis’ comment (18) applies here depending on our usage of the term. If it’s a term of sociological classification, then perhaps an external source ddetermines placement.

    In the end, my adult son does not self-identify, but he was baptized and his name still appears on the records of the church. He would not say he is Mormon (but he points out to his friends that I am one). The church would say he is.

  42. Jim H.,
    If there was a hard and fast, publicly distinguished difference between the Mormons and the LDS, I’d agree with you. But there isn’t, so I don’t. Carry on, though.

  43. Lincoln asked: ” If I call my dog’s tail a leg, does he now have five legs?”
    Why does ‘Mammal’ work in science, but not ‘Mormon’ in religion?

  44. Steve Evans says:

    bye-bye, Bob.

  45. Self-identification works for me – in almost all situations.

    I generally don’t like labels when applied to “others”, but there are practical benefits of using descriptors to distinguish types within categories. As Steve pointed out, the issue is using them in beneficial and charitable ways – and most of us aren’t as skillful at that as we should be.

    For that reason, I tend to accept self-identification labels.

  46. observer fka eric s says:

    Steve (38) I try and not utter that band’s name, in hopes that they will fad from our collective memory.

  47. I am good-looking and easy to get along with.

    I love self-identification!

  48. I didn’t know this blog’s taste in music was so hardcore. I guess I’ll just assume NOFX and Bad Religion reign supreme here. Rock on, XbccX.

  49. “Blink-182 is just generic semi-loud garbage. They can go to hell for all I care.”

    Way to go Steve. As usual, your head is stuck where the sun don’t shine.

  50. I found the “a Mormon lawyer in Wisconsin” part to be the most shocking part of the article…

  51. Don’t cast stones, Marko! Some of us have to make a living.

  52. Mommie Dearest says:

    I think Wisconsin is a lovely place to live. I spent a few days in Door County this summer. And Milwaukee has a lot going on for a city of its size.

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