Warning: Incoming Wall of Text.
I’ve started this blog post many times over during the past few years, but decided that it was finally time to write it up and post it. The question, quite simply (right, like this is going to be simple), is “What is a Mormon?” or alternately “Who is a Mormon?”
The original genesis of this post came from my time at Yale, mostly from two different encounters. The first was the encounter with liberal Protestants. To be clear, “liberal Protestant” is a vague term, but in my experience it included people who claimed to be Christian, but didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ. Sure, he was a nice guy, we think, and said some good stuff, we think, and we can do good things in his name, but as far as that entire “Son of God” thing, well, that’s not something we can know, so we shouldn’t bother. The epitome of this was a student named Jay, who said that scripture, reason, and tradition were the “unholy trinity” of Christianity, and we ought to abandon them. I’m not sure if his position was all that well thought out, but the arrogance that idea displayed astounded me. You just want to ignore the founding documents of your religion and the last 2k years of trying to understand them? My response was, “Well, if we’re making our religion up, I’m going backpacking. I dunno why you want to sit in pews and sing hymns. That’s BORING!” Part of me feels that C.S. Lewis was at least partially right-that Jesus has presented us with a binary choice. “Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse . . . But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.” But then we get into issues of who actually wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and I think Lewis has also oversimplified the situation. I am sympathetic completely with Richard Neibuhr’s statement: liberal protestants of the 1930s say that “a God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Seems that they’ve missed a large part of the boat. Doctrine may not be the most important aspect of being a Christian, but it’s not unimportant either.
The second encounter at Yale was with one of my LDS friends. This friend still attends church in New York City, and even teaches the High Priest’s quorum, but he does not believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet (but he was “inspired”), that the Book of Mormon is historical in any sense (but it’s certainly got some good teachings and has some religious value), that Thomas S. Monson is a prophet (again, “inspired”), that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the “only true and living church” (though it is where God wants him to be), or any of the other relatively fundamental doctrines of the LDS church. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, and title it “[Name], Buddy, You’re Not a Mormon!” But I was never quite comfortable saying that, so it languished in the back of my mind and I never got around to writing this post.
However, recently I’ve come across a different impetus. I’ve been listening to podcasts during my runs. One of my favorites is Mormon Stories, usually hosted by John Dehlin. John interviews a variety of Mormons from Greg Prince, who is on my stake high council and wrote “David O. McKay and the Beginnings of Modern Mormonism” to Lisa Butterworth, the founder of the Feminist Mormon Housewives blog. The topics range all over the place, and for anybody who hasn’t listened to them, I highly recommend them. A community has grown up around the podcast and they’ve recently started having Mormon Stories conferences. At their most recent conference in Salt Lake City, they came up with a set of value statements that I think are most enlightening to their aims. I reproduce them here with their caveat that this represents “a draft that is open for discussion.”
1. We choose to self-identify as Mormons. We claim this identity based on our genealogies, upbringings, beliefs, relationships, and other life experiences.
2. We believe that one can be Mormon or claim a Mormon identity without necessarily adhering to the teachings or doctrines of any religious organization.
3. We celebrate the richness of Mormon heritage, teachings, and community in all of its diversity.
4. We seek spaces where we as Mormons can live lives of intellectual and spiritual integrity, individual conscience, and personal dignity.
5. We acknowledge and honor different spiritual paths and modes of religious or non-religious truth-seeking. We respect the convictions of those who subscribe to ideas and beliefs that differ from our own.
6. We recognize the confusion, distress, emotional trauma, and social ostracism that often accompany personal faith crises. We seek constructive ways of helping and supporting those experiencing such crises, regardless of their ultimate decisions regarding church affiliation or activity.
7. We affirm the inherent and equal worth of all human beings. We seek spaces where Mormons (and all people) can interact as equals regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. In this spirit of egalitarianism, we prefer non-authoritarian and non-hierarchical means of organization and affiliation.
There’s some interesting stuff there, and last week on my runs I listened to the podcasts from the conference, namely talks by Carolyn Lynn Pearson and Joanna Brooks. Joanna made me stop in the middle of the run after I started laughing so hard when she exclaims in dismay that there are no tissues at the pulpit, since it was at a Unitarian church, and apparently Unitarians don’t cry at the pulpit like Mormons do. So, I finally decided to dust off the idea for a blog post about the definition of Mormonism. Since the draft of those seven principles is open for discussion, this is my attempt at continuing the discussion. I will also be responding directly to things that were said in those podcasts.
I am extremely uncomfortable with any definition of Mormon that doesn’t include some kind of religious belief. Both Joanna and Carolyn make a big deal over the fact that Jewish identity is not wrapped up in Judaism. You can still call an atheist Jew a Jew. Joanna, however, rightly points out briefly that there are problems with equating Jewishness to Mormonness, but doesn’t elaborate on the point. I’m not sure what she would say if she were to elaborate on it, but I think that one thing which is quite clear is that Mormons are not a unique, genealogically related people the same way Jews are. I could become an adherent to Judaism, but I would not be a Jew. A Jew could become a Mormon, and he would just be a Mormon. So to say that Mormon identity can be similarly discussed like Jewish identity is a huge mistake.
I think a better comparison would be Islam. Can you really be a Muslim without believing the shahada, that “there is no God but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God?” I don’t think so. Islam is not a genetic identity. It’s much more wrapped up in belief, as I’ve talked about before. Of course, there’s also the orthopraxic side of Islam, but I think even if you don’t pray five times a day you could still be considered a Muslim, just one who doesn’t follow that particular pillar of Islam. But I think the shahada is non-negotiable. Are there similar beliefs in Mormonism?
New Order Mormons don’t think so. The Mormon Stories podcast with one of their founders was a very interesting one to listen to. She basically said that we’re all “buffet Mormons” to some extent, picking and choosing which doctrines we believe. So why not embrace that fact? And while I agree in part, I am uncomfortable with the idea that you can simply pick and choose anything to believe and still be Mormon. I’m probably overstating her case, so go listen to her podcast. Are there no necessary and sufficient conditions to be Mormon? Or is this like Sarah Palin calling herself a feminist, when she is pro-life. Can you be pro-life and a feminist? (I hope so.) Can you be an atheist and a Mormon? (I don’t think so.) Are we all simply “making it up?” If so . . . well, I’m going backpacking, just like I told my liberal Protestant friends at Yale.
So what do you have to believe to be Mormon? The temple recommend or baptismal questions might be a good place to start, and they are interesting because they are mostly orthopraxic, not so much orthodoxic. But there are statements about the Godhead, Jesus Christ as Savior, the restoration of the gospel, and the modern church leaders as prophets. As far as orthodoxy goes, that’s not very much (even with all it entails). Certainly less theologically dense than even citing a creed in mass, if you know what the creed entails.
But then there’s the niggling thought in the back of my mind that my friend in New York City cannot answer those questions the way the church would like, yet he still shows up to church and serves every week. He is clear and open to his bishop and does not want the Church to change to suit his whims. He is okay not holding a temple recommend, for example. Is he really not a Mormon? Or perhaps a contrasting example from one of the presenters at the Faith and Knowledge conference at Duke earlier this year will be enlightening. This presenter said it was completely okay to lie to the bishop about his Word of Wisdom violations in order to attend a family member’s sealing. To be clear, “uncomfortable” doesn’t even begin to describe what I feel for that particular aspect of what this presenter said at the conference. “Honest in your dealings with your fellow man” anybody? But does such a blatant violation of LDS rules mean he is not a Mormon?
Perhaps instead of Islam, a better analogy would be Catholicism. I recently read this article, and really liked the third option it gave, i.e. a Catholic is someone who believes somehow in the sacraments and sacramentals, and this belief ends up creating cultural Catholics more easily identified because of statues, pictures of Mary, etc. Calling this third option “cultural” doesn’t quite capture the nuance of the idea; there’s definitely something religious going on. And they do say their creed at every mass. But if we want to apply this rule to Mormonism, then we run into the problem that to participate in the LDS ordinances (sacraments), you need to answer the recommend questions correctly. I had to show mine to one of my brother-in-laws bishopric so I could help confirm my nephew last weekend. Oddly enough, though, nobody checks your worthiness week to week to take the sacrament, arguably the most central ordinance in the church. But that’s probably because of the impossibility of thoroughly interviewing everybody who shows up at church every week.
I very much don’t like the idea that the definition of “Mormon” is merely membership records, because heaven knows there are plenty of “Mormons” by that standard that don’t go to church, don’t believe anything at all church-related (or at least uniquely LDS, many will of course be Christians of one variety or another), and don’t claim membership in the church or of the term “Mormon.” So that’s not a good definition, even if you can only make your “I’m a Mormon” profile at Mormon.org if you have a membership record. (And at least the church’s PR department is working to make us not seem like this Newsweek cover from 2001.)
Mormons are getting more exposure, and “member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” is probably the most commonly accepted definition. I’ve even seen the mainstream media mostly get basic Mormon beliefs correct!
Nor should the definition be just those who actually show up on Sundays, because there are many that claim to be Mormon, but don’t go to church regularly. We call them “inactive,” but still Mormon. Grant Hardy made an interesting observation to me at a fireside he was giving here in DC when he said that he thinks the gospel works better when we’re a minority. The local leaders can't be as picky when they have to deal solely with whoever shows up, warms chairs, and fulfills callings. I wonder if those we would term “inactive” still self-identify as Mormon when they live in areas that are not predominately LDS? Is “inactive” a category that really only works in the Mormon corridor?
The values statement above says that “we choose to self-identify as Mormon,” and Joanna talks a lot about that in her remarks. Her field of study is different than mine, though both are in the general realm of “religion,” so I defer to her expertise on matters of self-identity and identity formation. And perhaps it’s just the theologian in me, but I think beliefs and doctrines matter. If anybody can claim to be a Mormon, then the term “Mormon” loses all meaning, even if it’s true that “the distinction between Mormon and non-Mormon is not as bright as many believe.”
If we just want to do good works and help people, what makes us different from the Rotary club? On this subject I very much more agree with Stephen Prothero’s God is not One which basically says that to call all religions the same and water them down to an injunction to “be nice” does a great injustice to all of them. Mormon pioneers did not cross oceans and walk across continents because God merely told them to “be nice.” There was a greater depth of feeling and belief there. Catholic priests don’t give up family relations and take vows of celibacy or poverty because God wants them to “be nice.” Buddhists don’t try to achieve enlightenment by “being nice,” they try to get rid of all desires, a thing diametrically opposed to the monotheistic idea that we should love God first, eternally, and then love our neighbor. Muslims don’t proclaim that there is no God but God, and Muhammed is the messenger of God to “be nice.” There is much more going on in all of these religions. To water them down is to wipe away the boundaries that separate us, and not all boundaries are bad. Identity is based on boundaries. On this issue, I found myself agreeing with Margaret Toscano from one of the other podcasts from the Salt Lake Mormon Stories conference, and completely agreeing with Margaret Toscano is not something that I thought was ever going to happen in my lifetime! (It may never happen again.)
I also absolutely agree with Carolyn that we should all be more inclusive. Being a Mormon doesn’t mean we all need to be “stormtroopers for Jesus” with no individual differences. However, I being inclusive doesn’t mean that labels aren’t valuable or useful. I certainly think the ultimate goal of the church is to create Zion, a people of one heart and one mind, but that does not mean we all need to look like the above cover of Newsweek. And I’m sure there will be differences of opinion even after we’ve created Zion. So “one heart and one mind” doesn’t equal “absolute homogeneity.”
I have a bit of experience with exclusiveness. Our first Mormon Stories meetup here in DC was arranged by one of the founders of Staylds.com. I showed up and had a good time talking with everybody, and as we went around the table introducing ourselves in the foodcourt at Tyson’s Corner in Virginia, I said that I was still a TBM (which in internet bloggernacle parlance means “true believing Mormon”). That earned me a comment from one of the other attendees. “Do we let TBMs come here?” So, the inclusiveness/exclusiveness sword cuts both ways. Not everybody who listens to Mormon Stories is having or has had a crisis of faith. Does that exclude me from the community that’s being built up around the podcasts?
Do Mormons need to be less judgmental? Absolutely. Does that mean that judgments are never acceptable? No. Do Mormons need to be more forgiving of those that are different? Yes. Does that mean that we should not have codes of conduct or articles of faith? No.
I realize that there is no one answer that everybody will agree on as the definition of “Mormon.” Yet there are a few things that I think any definition of “Mormon” must have.
1. An element of self-identity. You must claim the term “Mormon” somehow to be one.
2. A religious element. I’m very uncomfortable with the term becoming something like “Jew.” It needs to be more like “Muslim,” or better yet “Catholic.” This aspect needs to be primary and necessary.
3. An active communal element. There seems to me to be something fundamentally wrong with being a Mormon in isolation. Attend church. Show up for service projects. Post and talk on internet forums. Go to Mormon Stories conferences. Sunstone. MHA. Our biannual Faith and Knowledge Conference for LDS graduate students in religion. Something. Claim the identity and then still be trying to figure out what that means for you in your life! Like Joanna said, we all want to feel useful, and you can’t be useful if you don’t show up in some sense! “Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
To this end, I submit MY current definition of the term “Mormon.”
The people who claim the term ‘"Mormon," feel comfortable showing up in church on Sundays at least some of the time because of their religious beliefs, and try to participate in the community are Mormons.
They might not hold temple recommends. They might not be orthodox (whatever that term means in a modern-revelation-based church). They might disagree with the brethren. They might not like their bishop. They might never do their home/visiting teaching.
But if I were their bishop, I wouldn’t tell them they weren’t Mormon. I must be honest, I’m a TBM. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior, and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with all its failings (especially the Church’s building committee and the correlation committee, in which I am not alone based on this article from the Church-owned Deseret News) is God’s kingdom, and is led by true prophets, with all of their human fallibilities. So I would try to get these people to come to my understanding, which I believe is the correct one. But if they are showing up and trying to figure it out, that’s fine by me. They are trying to actively be part of the body of Christ, and I would do my best to make things work. We might mythologize the lost sheep, but we need to remember that the shepherd didn’t move the flock to it; he brought it back to the flock.
Perhaps a better way to deal with this whole messy issue of defining what “Mormon” means is simply to add additional adjectives. I’m a “true believing” Mormon. I also like the term “mainstream.” John Dehlin calls himself a “non-correlated” Mormon. My friend in New York uses the term “neo-liberal” Mormon. I also like this idea; it lets the term “Mormon” be broad enough that we don’t exclude people, but allows for enough nuance in the discussion that we still have useful categories. But for now, I’m sticking with my definition.
As always, I reserve the right to change my (possibly wrong) opinion.
TL;DR "Mormon" is a religious term. If it changes to something else, cultural or whatever, we've lost something that we shouldn't have.
Thanks to Brian J., the other Brian J. (haha!), Michael, and Susan for reading drafts of this. Michael’s response was so detailed that I didn’t want to include it in this post, so he gets the honor of the first comment.
Edit: I went back and added one bit to the final definition. The words "because of their religious beliefs" were not in the original post.