Last week I saw Neon Trees perform in Provo to a huge crowd. All the members of the band identify as Mormon, one of whom is openly gay. They definitely challenge stereotypes about Mormonism, bringing the question, “What does it mean to be Mormon?” to the forefront.
Do you need to believe a certain set of strictly defined doctrines? Do you need to go to BYU? Live in Utah? Be a Republican? Serve a mission? Not watch R-rated movies? Eat green jello and funeral potatoes? Deliver casseroles to neighbors/friends/Mormons? Shovel old ladies’ walks when it snows? Have temple recommend? Never wear shorts or flip-flops or show your shoulders or grow a beard? Tell terrible jokes about how you were tracked down to speak? Have a life-long love for all things Disney? Be able to quote The Princess Bride word-for-word?
Now that was a mix of cultural and doctrinal definitions for being Mormon, although different people would draw different lines and choose a varied mix of requirements to ‘be Mormon’. That very fact suggests that there is a close connection between Mormon doctrine and Mormon culture. If this is so, it becomes dangerous to divorce Mormon culture from Mormon theology/doctrine, arguing that you can be a doctrinal Mormon, but not a cultural Mormon.
This is not meant to be a full-fledged defense of Mormon culture as it currently stands (I’m usually the one bashing or criticizing aspects of the culture, not defending it). However, to think that Mormon culture developed totally independent of Mormonism as a religion is naïve. Rather than simply embrace all aspects of the culture though, this should serve as a call to examine our culture and beliefs and see where discrepancies are. Do we believe damaging things that lead to un-Christlike behaviors? Do we behave in ways that conflict with our beliefs? Are things less clear-cut than we thought they were?
Obviously, I think there can be some conflicts between the culture and the teachings of the Church, what I may dub ‘doctrinally dissonant cultural creations’. I don’t want to defend those necessarily, although they are probably an inevitable occurrence in the development of any culture.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines culture as “The distinctive ideas, customs, social behaviour, products, or way of life of a particular nation, society, people, or period. Hence: a society or group characterized by such customs, etc.” (interestingly this is the seventh definition for culture, but what I would consider perhaps the most frequent. I guess I just use words frequently in traditionally infrequent ways).
Basically, you can’t really have a religion without creating a culture (particularly given the emphasis that Mormonism has on practice). That means that to strip the culture from the religion is to try and take away the fruits from the religion, which creates a false picture. Now, I’m not suggesting that you need to peace out and drop everything if you hate Mormon culture, because, let’s be real, it’s not my favorite (to put it mildly). However, there needs to be consideration of what aspects of religion led to different pieces of culture.
If we simply accept that the culture is suffocating and damaging, but refuse to be a part of it, we are complicit in perpetuating that culture. If we want to change the culture, we need to immerse ourselves in cultural Mormonism and strive to be different from the norm, showing what could be, but still identifying as ‘Mormon’. Isn’t that kind of the whole idea behind the ‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign? To show this diversity of culture, within Mormonism (however distinct that may be from our own lived experience in Church culture).
That’s one of the reasons I blog, to engage with Mormonism, but show some of the room within the tent. I hope that my efforts, however limited can work some change in the larger culture. Like Gandhi said, “be the change you want to see in the world,” right?
So, in the future, before I bash on some cultural practice, I’ll try and examine the origins, see if I can trace it to a principle of value. Although, to be fair, there is some value in having a distinctive culture, independent of doctrinal belief. It creates a sense of community and a bond that unites Mormons wherever they are. You know how you can sometimes see people on the street or on the metro in DC and you can just feel their Mormonism? Some of that’s cultural. It creates a shared language and shared experience that brings people together.
The downside to that is that it can be incredibly challenging to become a part of the culture. As a convert, you not only need to accept basic Gospel principles, but a set of cultural codes (or at least gain an understanding of them, so you don’t offend others or unnecessarily alienate yourself from the rest of the congregation). And it can make us weird. Not that that’s inherently bad, but we’re a strange people (you could even say peculiar if you really wanted to).
I think this peculiarity can create a divide between those that may identify as Mormon culturally, but not religiously, or vice versa. Why do we need to draw a distinction? If someone wants to identify as Mormon, I don’t think we should necessarily draw a distinction there, trying to say that if they don’t meet requirements x, y, and z they aren’t really Mormon. Everyone needs something different and Mormonism can make lives better, regardless of how it’s experienced (obviously there are some theological implications for embracing Mormon culture and not doctrine, but that’s not quite the point. If the culture comes from the doctrine, at least at a fundamental level, engaging with the culture engages at some level with the doctrine, even if it’s diluted and removed).
So, to summarize: culture and religious beliefs are deeply intertwined, so we should not be too quick to try and separate the two. Culture can bind us as a group in ways that religious belief may not. However, there may be damaging bits of culture that should be changed, but to make that change a reality, we need to engage with the culture and strive actively to be that change, pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions between culture and doctrine.
Now, go enjoy your green jello and funeral potatoes, while watching Frozen, singing along and imagining our future, Hajj-like trek to the New Jerusalem that will be Missouri (mostly kidding, unless you’re into that sort of thing, then go ahead).