Who is a Cultural Mormon?

by: Andrew S

July 4, 2009

First, Happy Independence Day (yay)!

…so I was digging through classic Mormon Matters and found Clay’s discussion asking: how much does church activity has to do with being Mormon anyway? He opened with something interesting:

Not so long ago, when I would hear about someone who didn’t go to church at all or have any interest in returning would refer to themselves as Mormon, I would be annoyed that they still identified themselves that way. I used to see being Mormon as a choice, as a religious path, and if you aren’t choosing it then you only make a bad name for the rest of us… or so I felt at that time.

I was excited…a post aimed at me! Yet later (the very next sentence), he writes:

Yet, it seems there is something deeply cultural about being Mormon, especially those raised or at least members from a young age.

Oh.

So, I thought…Most of us recognize the depth of Mormonism as a culture. (If you don’t, I’ll submit that you’re behind the times and T&S has already jumped aboard). If so, I think Clay’s next question (again, the very next sentence), is good:

How much does your activity in church determine how “Mormon” you really are?

(I promise I’m not just stealing Clay’s post. Seriously.)

The question is…what are the traits that make Mormonism endure as a culture and not simply religion? When people leave certain religions, the break is clean. Many people don’t linger for years and years as an “ex-Baptist,” for example. But with our church, we have that famous phrase about people who “leave the church but can’t leave it alone.” (And I’m under e-indictment for being an anti-Mormon, of all things, because of such a claim.) You may similarly know “lapsed Catholics” or  “secular Jews” (let’s ignore the elephant of actual ethnicity for that one).

With Mormonism in particular, we have a particularly strange phenomenon where ex-members can end up being vehemently opposed to the church, but they simply are not able to move away from their old heritage. Ignoring any possible faith-promoting answers (“ooh, that’s the Holy Ghost~!”), we can at least realize that we have a pervasive culture in our hearts. And it may be a good idea to delve deeper in how or what this culture is, so we can (try to) improve it.

From a comment a long time ago on the unlikeliest of places (Prop 8 day at LDS & Evangelical Conversations blog), Seth R. from Nine Moons remarked [I hope my comment patchwork isn’t a misinterpretation]:

I’d have a much easier time renouncing US citizenship than my faith. I don’t feel that (“American” describes me a whole lot more comprehensively than “Mormon”). I felt more in common with Mormons in Japan than I do with people in my own town right now.

I was impressed with these comments, so I posted about it a while back. As a military kid, I can certainly agree that I don’t feel I have a “home” in any onelocation or nation, but I most certainly have a lot in common with fellow Mormons. We share a language.

But indeed, I do present a conundrum, as Clay points out. Can a nonbeliever be Mormon just because he was raised that way? Does it have anything to do with being born into the church? Hawkgrrrl wrote a comment to Clay’s post:

I think there is a difference between a convert who leaves the church and one who was BIC and leaves the church. In the former case, there would probably be less “residual Mormanity” than in the latter case. Being raised Mormon (vs. being a previously practicing Mormon).

Is that so? I talked with BHodges at Life on Gold Plates and he made an interesting point for BIC ex-mormons who relinquish their “residual Mormanity.”

Do regionalisms matter? Am I less culturally Mormon because I’ve never lived in Utah? Because I am thankful for rain, not moisture? In the past, BCC has had aMormon culture tournament…could we make an accurate cultural literacy test from it?

Cultural Mormonism has been viewed as that weird Utah thing, something that degrades true religion. On the other hand…children with Mormon identities, as long as they are happy with this identity, indeed “never depart” from it. (If they are unhappy with it, they also never depart from it, and that produces bad consequences for all.) What say you?

If cultural Mormonism is focused in the Jello Belt, then what does that say about a religion that thrives from converts (especially converts in other nations)? While it seems intuitive to say a Utah Mormon understand culture more than a Japanese Mormon…it seems contradiction.

I have my eye on correlation. With correlation, every ward gets a similar foundation. So, the basic LDS lingo is the same everywhere. This, in combination with the church’s many activities, opportunities, standards, and practices, should “socialize” members who will attend for a critical period. So, perhaps it is that one must be active for some critical period to be socialized, and then they become culturally Mormon, regardless of future activity. This would allow for Seth to identify with the other Japanese saints, while allowing for regionalist distinctions. This will also allow for a culture that one doesn’t easily depart from, even when they want to.

And so, as a new question that has sprung about, what do you think about the pervasiveness of the culture? What does it mean for ex-members who remain? Does it possibly work against the church to create anti-Mormons? And who is anti- anyway? Is it anyone who disbelieves and speaks about it?

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2 Responses to Who is a Cultural Mormon?

  1. Kullervo on November 17, 2010 at 8:19 AM

    As long as “Mormonism” means “membership in a particular organization,” it will fail to be a culture in the sense that most people think of.

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  2. Mormonism as an ethnicity | Wheat and Tares on November 17, 2011 at 3:07 AM

    […] written of cultural Mormonism frequently. I have in the past called myself a cultural Mormon, even recognizing that cultural […]

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