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What is Mormon culture?

January 18, 2010
mormon jello

The jello's the star

What is Mormon culture and, in turn, cultural Mormonism?

I so often say things like, “Mormonism is my culture,” and if people are (un)lucky enough to ask me about it offline, I’ll go through my spiel to them. Why do I do certain things? Do I believe in the church? One question that Ecumenigal discussed (along with her reaction) at Mormon Matters resonates with me…I’ll just update it a touch:

“If you…follow the commandments, what else is there?”

Mormon commandments and *actions* are so often tied with Mormonism that people think it’s all Mormonism entails. It is so strange to have to decouple beliefs from actions to people, yet most people get it after a while.

But what is Mormon culture? Within or without of the church, there seem to be great and terrible different ideas.

Some people look at Mormon culture as this loathsome and detrimental, un-gospel-like thing. I hear so many people talk about “Mormon culture” basically as everything bad and extraneous to the Gospel that “Utah Mormons” do. (This isn’t to say that the ills of Mormonism are ALL related to Utah.)

Well, I ain’t ever been to Utah, so how can I consider myself culturally Mormon?

I don’t think cultural  Mormonism has to do with a geographic area. So, Utah Mormon culture isn’t the same thing as cultural Mormonism, in my opinion.

Instead, I think that Mormonism proper — as a result of standardization, centralization, and Correlation — can still be said to have a universal lingo, universal action set, universal set of ideals, etc., Even if we can’t agree on what “Orthodox Mormonism” is (or even if such a concept exists), I highly doubt that Mormonism is as amorphous as people say. It is pretty jello slippery, yes, but I think “when you see it,” people can recognize something as being Mormon-esque or not. And I think that when you are away from it, you can starkly recognize Mormon culture in the difference between how things are and how you expected things to be.

(Of course, as I said before, here you can see that this doesn’t mean Mormon culture is all good. Plenty of people are irked by the tone for pushing correlation.)

I think the Word of Wisdom and Law of Chastity contribute to Mormon culture. I think the familiarity of our church structure and organization contribute to Mormon culture. I think common language and phrases contribute to Mormon culture — even when we share sacred books and words with other denominations or other religions, our different use of these words speaks to different culture (my aunt was very confused, for example, when I said that my teenage brother was a deacon.)

Ugh, every time I try to distill Mormon culture, I always feel like I’m being inadequate in the description. I feel like Mormons and ex-Mormons are going to come by and say, “OK, I know what you mean.” (Reading others’ lists makes this feeling obvious). Non-Mormons will continue to think, “What is the big deal?”

What is the big deal with not drinking coffee? I mean, plenty of ex-Mormons do it. Plenty of non-Mormons do it. They don’t seem to be worse for wear. But what I’d also suspect is that every ex-Mormon also has a moment of hesitation the first time he or she is confronted with one of those once taboo drinks. A moment when everything s/he grew up with floods back to him or her. It is an achievement, if she or he can pull it off, to confront the deluge of past memories, attitudes, and expectations. Meanwhile, everyone else around cannot comprehend (or perhaps even see) this internal process.

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  1. These kinds of questions are always fun to answer, but if I had to take a stab at it, I would include the following in any description of Mormon culture:

    * glorification of the Utah pioneer heritage
    * an insular attitude toward non-Mormons (Gentiles) that includes not being particularly well informed about attitudes, beliefs or concerns in other religious communities
    * mistrust of seminary-trained clergy of other religions, and skeptical attitude toward philosophy
    * (BUT!) strong emphasis on education
    * strong emphasis on self-sufficiency
    * socially conservative with a strong libertarian streak (though the libertarianism is less strong now than it was a generation or two ago)
    * emphasis on being super nice and helpful (and perennial guilt about not doing enough)
    * very family oriented, more likely to be involved in extended family structures, attend lots of family reunions, etc.
    * less likely to have close friendships with non-Mormons (i.e., HUGE part of social life is focused around family, the Church and Church-sponsored activities)
    * innocence in terms of dress, language (no swearing!), drinking, etc.
    * very conformist/uncomfortable questioning authority

    Did I cover it? I’m pretty sure there’s more I could add, but I think that’s how I would describe Mormon culture.

  2. I think these are pretty good ones, John. I mean, even outside of Utah, you still have glorification of the Utah pioneer spirit (e.g., new converts = pioneers). I agree there is little learned about other religions (and what is taught is pretty general and not necessarily all that applicable.)

    I agree with the mistrust of seminary-trained clergy (or even merely paid clergy; I was SURPRISED to find that people of other denominations wholeheartedly supported seminary-trained, professional paid clergy.) The emphasis on education does seem like a double-edged sword (e.g., become educated, but make sure it’s the right kind…philosophy is the wrong kind).

    In fact, the one I’d probably say isn’t necessarily the case is the one “less likely to have close friendships with non-Mormons.” In a majority non-Mormon area, this is just unrealistic. I agree that a huge part of social life is focused around family, the church and church sponsored activities, but in my experience, at school, I definitely didn’t hang out with the few other people I knew from church (and they didn’t either). I think insular attitude toward non-mormons is really what sums things up…because even being around non-Mormons for school, there is this sense that they don’t get you and you don’t get them, even if you’re “better” friends than the people from church on Sunday…

    • Andrew

      I grew up outside of Utah, in a community where for example at my HS there were only like 5 Mormons, we didn’t tend to just hang out with each other, however once entering adulthood and raising a family I started developing my close friendships within the LDS community and had very few if any outside of that, that I would call close.

  3. MHH, that’s also a pretty good list!

    although, now I feel bad because I can’t “do” things. Although I do remember at least one mutual/combined/young men’s event for each of those things

  4. I like Molly’s comment about your ward becoming your “instant family,” and being able to count on your ward for help with things like moving. I have fond memories of delicious Relief Society-cooked meals on the few occasions when my mom was sick growing up…

    You’re right about friendships… I grew up in upstate New York, and I had a few close friendships with non-Mormons I went to school with. But I felt closer to friends of mine from my deacons’ quorum. We literally grew up not knowing the names of our next door neighbors; on the other hand, my parents frequently had members of the ward over for various social events. Our social circle was heavily defined by our ward boundaries…!!

  5. I remember meals from RS. But I distinctly remember my father grumbling that every time *we* had to move (or when we did move), all of a sudden, no one was available to help.

    But even though we never got taken up on the opportunity to get free moving help, I think I recognized that it was at least there — even if in name only (maybe we’re just really unpopular people, I dunno). So, it has only been a recent phenomenon of realizing that I don’t really have that (related to school, my internship coming up next month, etc.,).

    Hearing about your experiences growing up in NY and your friendships with that, I can probably put another mark in the “my family was weird and unpopular bucket.” We rarely if ever had members of the ward over for various social events…and we knew that when people did want to come over for some event, it was probably motivated for nosier “let’s see the inside of their house” reasons. We didn’t invite the next-door neighbors over, but I definitely knew their names and played with their kids (until I got too old for outdoor fun. Ah, the sedentary life.)

  6. I agree with you that Mormon culture is different outside of the Intermountain West. The Great Basin/Utah Mormon culture has had a huge impact on Mormon culture in other parts of the world, if only because so many Mormon congregations outside the Great Basin have significant numbers of transplants from the Mormon cultural heartland.

    But obviously, there are local/regional and historical factors that have had a huge impact. For example, in France, where I served my mission, Mormonism is viewed as one of the “sectes” (a term that has connotations similar to “cult” in American English). The French also seem to be pretty sensitive about the assumption (in and out of the Church in France) that the LDS Church is an “American” Church. That has a huge impact on who tends to be attracted to Mormonism in France, and how Mormons in France self-identify… You tend to get a lot of noncomformists, and you also get a fair number of Americaphiles.

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