What is Mormon Culture?By: hawkgrrrl
Just what is Mormon culture? Recently, as I read Joanna Brooks’ memoir, I noted that there were several elements of culture that I shared with her (dance festivals – on a much less grand scale, open-minded BYU professors). But there were many that differed from my own experiences (apocalyptic food storage, pioneer heritage, and Marie Osmond worship). I have also observed a tendency for people to describe culture as if their own personal experience holds true for the entire population at large.
In the book The First 90 Days, author Michael Watkins talks about the different cultures within companies that new leaders (or those changing assignment) must successfully navigate: geographic, professional, and organizational. A change in any of these 3 areas can create a very different cultural experience. In essence, organizations don’t have a single culture, but rather multiple layers of subculture that interact, and depending on how strong or controlled the culture is, you might find different subcultures dominating. It’s possible, for instance, that a person who is a consultant will change organizations but stay in the same profession, but she will find that the profession (being a consultant) is the strongest aspect that defines the culture in the workplace (more than say working in Boston or working for Bain). But a person who is a professional clergyman may find that changing organizations (being a Jewish Rabbi vs. being a Catholic Priest) creates a bigger cultural change than profession.
So, how does this relate to the LDS church? Which subculture dominates? I’ll rank them in order from lowest to highest:
- Organizational. This is the difference between being Mormon and belonging to another faith. I believe this is the biggest differentiator. Despite my own experience that there are key differences between congregations, there are more similarities than differences. The rules apply more or less to all congregations. The church has a very top-down approach to creating culture thanks to centralized leadership (which the SBC doesn’t have) and correlation (which most churches don’t have). So while there is local richness and diversity, going to church still feels roughly the same whether you attend in Shanghai, Brigham City, or Buenos Aires; you will recognize the service and know more or less what to do. Catholicism as another authoritative church has a similar quality.
- Geographic. Many have remarked on the difference between Utah Mormons and the rest, and I have certainly experienced geographical cultural differences. The biggest difference I have noticed is that between where the church is in the majority vs. places I’ve lived where it is in the apologetic and misunderstood minority. Given the church’s strong organizational culture, some of the church’s culture outside of Utah is influenced by Utah Mormons who have either colonized (relocated to those areas), or by diaspora Mormons sending their kids to church owned Universities who bring traces of Utah culture back, or through exposure to Utah culture through the missionary program. As the church becomes more global, and especially as members stay put in their existing geographies, new geographic cultures will emerge and become stronger.
- Professional. The core question here is whether the church culture is the same for leaders as lay members (and lay leaders) and if it’s the same across quorums and auxilliaries. Because members frequently change callings, and also because manuals are correlated for consistency, I would rank this as the least dominant subculture.
Within and across those 3 subcultures, there are cultural markers: symbols (or artifacts), assumptions (usually unquestioned), and norms (including behaviors and values). Since Mormon culture is so uniform and centralized, there aren’t many symbols and assumptions that are unique from ward to ward.
- Symbols: We have the same art work everywhere (that picture of Jesus on the right hand of this post that was painted by the Seventh-day Adventist), the same lack of crosses, the same Young Women’s medallion (or going back in time, the same circlet), the same Youth Conference, the same lace doily accent table in Relief Society.
- Assumptions: The folklore seems to make the rounds to various geographies, and the same assumptions about polygamy, revelation, the role of women, how we parent, following the prophet, etc. Thanks to general conference and correlated manuals, the assumptions we make about things are pretty standard. The Word of Wisdom doesn’t vary much from place to place (and no matter where you are, there are some who want to make it more strict).
- Norms: The norms, however, do change. There may not be pioneer heritage, there may be more mixed faith marriages, and people may dress differently. Political values certainly differ greatly in other countries. People aren’t always smiley, vacuous and enthusiastic (I am, but I have met a dour Mormon or two in my travels). Foods differ. I made it into my twenties, having been born in the covenant and raised in the church, without ever having heard of Funeral Potatoes (which sounded like Soylent Green to me), yet most Utah Mormons I met had never had a Tandy Cake or a Nutter Fluffer! Instead of making their own funnel cakes, they made scones. Weirdos. I remember the headache our mission president’s wife caused the Spanish language translator when she was sharing a story in a talk about a backyard barbecue on the grassy lawn of their American home. None of the locals had backyards, barbecues or grass!
I’ve highlighted above the biggest differentiator I’ve seen in cultures within the church: whether one lives in an area where Mormons are known and understood or in an area where Mormons are very much in the minority, often on the defensive, or misunderstood. When we talk about “Utah Mormons,” I believe that’s what we are describing. And the best articles I’ve read that explain (or defend) church culture are written by those who’ve crossed cultural boundaries (including from many who’ve left the church but are still “friendlies”) and can interpret for outsiders what it is like to be a Mormon. I would say this all might change now that the church will be under scrutiny in the media, but it won’t really because most of the pressure will still be on those in the Mormon diaspora who are already (often) misunderstood.
In reviewing this, I was surprised at how little variation there is in Mormon culture. The variation there is causes enough strife! But we are fairly uniform from congregation to congregation. We are (as has been said elsewhere) the McDonalds of churches.
What cultural differences have you experienced or observed? Do you find the uniformity comforting or stifling? Discuss.