Mormonism as an ethnicityBy: Andrew S
Over at my personal blog, I reminisced over the time in my life that seemed to me to be the earliest, simplest, purest root of disbelief. The setting was junior high in the middle of the Bible Belt. I frequently got into debates and discussions with my friends over Mormonism as it stood with respect to non-LDS Christianity. I did my best at the time to defend the church — because I felt I was obligated to, as a Mormon — but I always questioned, at the end of the day: why do I have to defend something that seems implausible even to me?
Seth R made a comment that got me to thinking (as his comments usually do):
It’s kind of funny. I also didn’t feel like I had much of a choice in being in this religion.
But I never considered that a reason for me not to defend it. I won’t say Mormonism is “ethnic” for everyone, but it sure feels that way for me.
I’ve written of cultural Mormonism frequently. I have in the past called myself a cultural Mormon, even recognizing that cultural Mormonism is an ever-changing concept. In that previous post, I discussed how the phenomenon cultural Mormonism doesn’t exist because Mormonism itself is a concept on shaky foundations. (What does it mean to have a shared language and experience of growing up Mormon when this shared experience is only possible because of correlation, and correlation creates generationally different Mormonisms?)
But…an ethnic Mormon? The idea seemed enticing, but the conversation with Seth quickly made me realize that I didn’t quite understand what the word “ethnicity” meant. I had a larger grasp of the term “race,” in all of its socially constructed and socially determined aspects — and I had…have an acute awareness that race is, for many, something that they must defend because there’s little way to escape it.
But I thought…most ethnicities aren’t that in-your-face. For the most part, I can’t tell from looking at someone whether they are Italian or whether they are Greek (and I’m not saying that “white people all look the same” or whatever) — it’s that the distinctions of ethnicity are different, more invisible than the modern collection of visual traits we lump together as race.
So, I asked on Facebook and in some of my forums the following questions:
What does the word “ethnicity” mean to you? What obligations do you have as a member of an ethnic group?
The answers I got back weren’t what I was looking for. Many people said that ethnicity was either a meaningless term or a needlessly divisive and illusory term, and that one has no obligations as a member of an ethnic group. There were others who recognized that maybe ethnicity means something in some parts of the world, or in some eras of time, but in present-day America, for many people, it doesn’t mean anything.
One person answered in a way that I really appreciated, however:
I think that ethnicity is the practice of culture (dress, food, customs) that pertain to the people you come from. I don’t know a better way to say that…my former colleague would use the word “tribe,” and perhaps that’s right, but I’m not comfortable with the word.
I think that if you value your people/history and the unique ideas and perspectives that come from that, you have an obligation to participate and faithfully transmit the practice of culture from one generation to the next.
I liked this answer, of course, for that second paragraph. You’re not obligated because you’re a member of the ethnicity. You are obligated to the extent that you value your ethnicity and its culture.
To the extent that I have really appreciated how Mormonism has shaped me in my life, I still feel obligated to correct people when they say blatantly ignorant and stupid things. But I don’t feel bad or burdened by this task, because I already have that valuation…that motivation to do so. That’s why I still blog, even if some people think I’m an outsider talking as if I’m an insider.
It seems that even without throwing Mormonism or religion into the mix, the idea of “ethnicity” is already diverse, varied, inconsistent, or difficult to conceptualize. But when throwing in Mormonism into the mix, it gets even more complicated.
Can you change your ethnicity, or will you always be running away from your past? Can you change your Mormonism, or will you always be running away from your past?
It seems to me that in an extent, if you’ve been raised Mormon, then you can never change that. You can never change all of those years.
…yet…your standing with the church can change. And you don’t automatically pass Mormon-ness to your children.
…and what’s to say about converts, or the children of converts? I mean, it seems clear-cut to say that if you have pioneer ancestors that go way back, that you have a heritage of Mormonism in you. But, shall we say the same about someone who converts? The children of those who convert? The grandchildren thereof? Every one who is a Mormon is connected to a convert — either they are one or one of their ancestors were…so where do we say that one has Mormon “ethnicity”?
Then, of course, there is the same trouble with talking about a Mormon ethnicity as there is in talking about Mormon culture. Is Mormon culture Utah culture? Is Mormon ethnicity still tied to the Utah geographic region?
To assert a more general Mormon ethnicity is basically a rehash of the argument that correlation in the church — as it has created a standard and consistent experience in the church across the world — has created Mormon culture. But then, doesn’t the idea of a Mormon ethnicity fail for the same reason that Mormon culture fails? Instead of having a shared Mormonism because of correlation, correlation creates different Mormonisms.
Questions for today
I’m not trying to make general statements about white people or Americans with this next line, but many times, I hear from white Americans that they don’t think they have ethnicity. How would I begin to talk about “American culture”? Is it just a pastiche of “other” cultures?
Even for people of various European heritages, many don’t think of themselves as “hyphenated Americans” as we might think of other people. You might see “African American” (which actually doesn’t say much, since most black people have never been to Africa. I couldn’t say where my ancestors originated from that continent) or “Cuban-American” or “Chinese-American,” but would you see “German-American” of people whose German emigrant ancestors came here during the 18th or 19th centuries?
So, if someone is prone to think of themselves as non-hyphenated, wouldn’t Mormonism eventually change that? Then why not say “Mormon-American”?
My questions for today (although this post has really been strung with a lot of them) are simple:
1) What do you think the term “ethnicity” means?
2) Do you think that, regardless of the religious aspects, there exists a Mormon ethnicity?
3) When we have ideals about Zion, or the Kingdom of Heaven, etc., can these in some ways be likened to ideals of an ethnic homeland for Mormons?