Mormon Culture: “Us” and “Them” Mentality

Sometimes you’ll hear an “us” and “them” mentality in religious rhetoric; the same is true for Mormon rhetoric.

In sociology, there’s a concept of the in-group and the out-group. If you feel you’re part of a group, you are the in-group. Whoever the in-group is “competing” with is the out-group.

In the April 2017 General Conference, Neil L. Anderson said, “Those of the world have difficulty with accountability to God — like a child who parties in his parents’ home while they are out of town, enjoying the ruckus, refusing to think about the consequences when the parents return 24 hours later.”

This phraseology “those of the world” puts members of the church into the category of the in-group pitted against the out-group, or “those of the world.”

The way this social construct plays out is situational and personal. I will explain.

There is a common phrase in the church that goes “be in the world but not of the world.” I’m not sure where it originated, but here’s a talk from the mid-1970s that talks about it. This mentality mirrors an “us” and “them” or “in-group” and “out-group” mentality. The problem occurs when those from the in-group treat those in the out-group as though they are blatantly part of the out-group. The reason this is a problem is scriptures says God is no respecter of persons, which means he sees us all the same. And if God does that, shouldn’t we as well?

Because Mormons are in somewhat of a social minority, it’s easy to see there’s some type of division. Sociologist Armand Mauss said he grew up in California where he didn’t have any Mormon friends in high school. “I periodically encountered not only ignorance but outright prejudice about Mormons from my non-Mormon friends and acquaintances,” he said. “I was always highly conscious of being ‘different’ and periodically having to ‘account for’ it.”

On the other side, anthropology professor Erin E. Stiles was one of the few non-Mormons at her school in a small town in Utah, but she said it didn’t bother her. She said there were some differences between her family and others’, such as her mom wore crosses and drank coffee. She also thought playing the piano was a Mormon thing. And I laughed a little when she said, “My dad had a beard, and my mom didn’t wear much makeup or have big hair, so a lot of my friends thought my parents were hippies (they were not).”

Some of the things she mentioned weren’t really my experiences as a Mormon from Washington, so I thought it was a little funny. My dad has pretty much always had facial hair, and I don’t actually know that many women from my home ward who wore a lot of makeup or had big hair. But I definitely know the stereotype Stiles mentioned.

Scholar Wilfried Decoo in his paper “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” writes that in the history of the church, there have been leaders who have shifted “culture of the world” from a positive meaning to a negative meaning.

He said the church’s perspective of not wanting to use “extraneous sources when teaching courses in the church” (from the correlation movement), while it was meant to “make a curriculum that can be used anywhere in the world, under any cultural or political circumstance, so that the only culture we’re bound by is the culture of the gospel,” it had another side effect. Decoo said it led to an isolation that “fosters deep distrust toward the world.” The positive side of the isolation is it stresses exceptionalism (“a chosen generation”) and exemplarism (“a light unto the world”). He said the negative side to isolation is it makes people think of “the rest of the world as evil and threatening.”

And I see that all the time. At church I often hear people talk about how evil this world is.

Personally, I found that I missed out on blessing a lot of people’s lives when I separated myself from people just because I thought they were in the “them” category.

On the positive end of the spectrum for church teachings of “us” and “them,” President Hinckley often encouraged that people bring the good they have and let the church add to it. That kind of language is inviting and welcoming, not divisive.

overcoming the divisive thinking

Susan Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst wrote an article for Psychology Today that talks about the concept of in-groups and out-groups. She gives five suggestions for combating the divisive nature of thinking in the in-group and out-group mentality.

  1. Realize that your in-group and out-group status could change depending on the situation. One day you’re going to sin, so are you going to then be part of the “those of the world” group and therefore out of the in-group?
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of someone in the out-group. Just imagine what it’s like to join the Mormon church and have no clue what people are talking about with all the jargon and cultural practices. Someone even wrote a book for converts so they can figure out how to navigate the culture.
  3. Look for commonalities. Those who are of other religions or are non-religious still hold some of the same values as you. You just have to be open to looking for them.
  4. Be confident about your identity. Whitbourne says if you’re confident about your identity, you’re less likely to criticize someone else’s. You can also root yourself more in Christ than in cultural things (the ability to make a good casserole is nothing compared to the ability to be like Christ). Because belief in Christ is what makes you a Mormon — not your ability to make a good contribution to the ward cook-off.
  5. Teach others how to overcome the “us” and “them” mentality. When you hear people using divisive language, speak out.

Something Stiles was able to do was find commonalities with her Mormon neighbors. She said she liked that “so many kids took school seriously, were not too wild, and enjoyed their family life.”

questions to consider

  • Am I being divisive in my thinking with Mormons and non-Mormons?
  • Am I being divisive in my thinking within the Mormon community? Am I grouping members of the church into “righteous” and “non-righteous” categories? “Kid goes on a mission” and “kid doesn’t go on a mission”? “Married” and “single”? “Gets married in the temple” and “doesn’t get married in the temple”?
  • Are we loving one another?
  • Am I actively trying to close the divide?
  • Aren’t we all children of God? And don’t you want to bring everyone into the church? Are you making them feel like they’ll be comfortable with joining the church? Or are you making them feel like they are “them” and not “us”?

Mormon Culture: Stigmas

Let’s talk about people who didn’t serve missions. Is it okay to have a negative reaction towards them because they decided not to serve missions — whether they be female or male? Nope.

I’ll never forget a story I heard about a young man who decided to return to the LDS Church after years of being inactive. He went to do his home teaching, and the sister he taught said she would never date a guy who wasn’t a return missionary. And he was so hurt, not having served a mission himself, that he decided he was no longer going to go to church. I mean, if people are going to judge his marriage-worthiness based on whether or not he went on a mission — and he didn’t — that’d be pretty hard. And while people could say this or that about his reaction, the point is that it’s not okay to make people feel like they aren’t good enough somehow.

So there’s a stigma about people who haven’t served missions. Should that change?

A stigma is “a strong lack of respect for a person or a group of people or a bad opinion of them because they have done something society does not approve of,” according to the Cambridge dictionary.

So what is the root of the stigma about those who don’t serve missions? It comes with priesthood leaders saying it’s a priesthood holder’s duty to serve a mission. So people judge young men who decided not to serve a mission.

And there are stigmas around people who smoke, drink, and dress differently. You ever heard of G-checking? Yeah, don’t do that. If you don’t know what it is, good — at least you won’t know about yet another way to be judgmental.

Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, said stigmas exist in every culture. They come about when people don’t conform to the norms, or what’s “socially acceptable” in the culture. And Mormons are no different. They’ve in essence agreed upon certain things as being acceptable in their culture. Some of it comes from authority (scripture, prophets, church leaders) and some come from informal places (a congregation).

Something that sparked my interest was an interview with Mason I read about how there’s a stigma associated with doubt in the church. You see, I learned that doubt isn’t a bad thing, because in my life, it’s led me to find more truth. Even just the other week, I told the whole Relief Society that I used to have doubts about the temple and a bunch of other stuff. I told them this because I wanted them to get over the stigma that doubt is bad. I think people are afraid to talk about doubt, but everyone experiences it. And if we don’t talk about it, how are we supposed to accept it and consequently find some way to solve it? But those are just my thoughts.

“Mormonism has such a strong culture of spiritual knowledge,” Mason told me when I interviewed him. He went on to say that because people feel they have a witness of truth from the Holy Spirit, they can say “I know.” But what happens when people can’t say “I know”? Mason said when someone can’t say “I know” or questions something they once knew or something the community “knows,” it “violate[s] some of the agreed-upon norms.” And no culture feels comfortable when their socially accepted behaviors are violated.

There are of course benefits to being part of a community though (let’s not be Debbie Downers). I’m sure if you’re part of the Mormon community, it brings you friendship and support. If you ever move to a new city, you already have a built in community that you’ll feel you’re a part of. You can rally your new Elder’s Quorum to help you move, even though you don’t know any of them. It’s really quite nice to know that no matter where you go in the world, you’ll have an automatic support group.

But going back to the part people don’t talk about … why do people freak out when others “violate” the norms. “In Mormonism,” Mason said, “there are other kinds of obligations as well in terms of not embarrassing the community.” Now there’s an interesting idea. He said because of Mormonism’s history of feeling like a minority and feeling persecuted, “there’s a kind of protective quality to the community, and anybody who is seen as threatening the community from within, that’s oftentimes the most dangerous thing.”

So now that we’ve talked about how there are all these stigmas and that’s just how it is because of culture, I hope you’re not just wanting to throw your hands up in the air and give up on everything. I kind of get that way sometimes, so I know what it’s like. So instead, here’s some productive advice.

How do we deal with feeling like our behaviors are being stigmatized? Mason said there are two sides to this:

On the one hand

The community needs to think about how it will not leave people feeling judged or marginalized, especially if these people sincerely want to participate in the community. But Mason also says the community is allowed to “police their borders” if someone is being hostile.

Think back to the story about the guy who didn’t serve a mission but was sincere in trying to do his part in the church by doing his home teaching. If you are in the community and you are treating people differently because of a stigma, maybe you should think about if you are leaving people feeling judged or marginalized (because I’m sure you wouldn’t like it if someone did that to you).

On the other hand

No one is forcing anyone to be Mormon, and being part of the community means there’s a structure in place with leaders, scripture, and history behind it.

“If you’re not conforming, you need to realize you’re out of conformity and can hope for generosity and understanding and charity, but also humility and not force [your] views on the community,” Mason said.

Last words

Now here’s my little opinion on all of this. No one likes to feel judged or marginalized, but people are going to judge and marginalize — in all cultures you’ll encounter. But each of us can make a conscious effort to get over the idea that everyone’s going to do things exactly how we want them to. Just love people like Christ does, and you’ll be fine. Have dinner with the publicans and try to love them rather than judge them. If you can do that, you’ve just become a little bit more like Christ.

Some questions to consider

  • What are some other stigmas that we see in the church?
  • What do non-Mormons think of Mormons?
  • What needs to change so that people don’t harshly judge others?
  • How do you treat others when they behave in a way you disagree with?
  • Do you have the right to judge people based on their behavior? Should you be worrying about what you can improve on instead?

comment about how mormons are to other

Anthropology professor Erin E. Stiles grew up in a small Utah town and was one of the only non-Mormons at her school. She said she had “a wonderful time” growing up in Utah. She had an extremely glowing review.

But I also asked her to tell me about some of the perceived negative aspects or stigmas she noticed. She said she it seemed like it would be hard for LGBTQ+ kids and adults in the Mormon community, and “it can also be hard if people decide to leave the church.” She also said she thinks some non-Mormons think Mormons are docile and “willing to follow church leadership without thinking.”

I asked her “How do you think people in general view Mormons?” These were her answers: family-oriented, white, church-going, clean-living, Republican, conservative, educated, conventional/old-fashioned gender roles, not LGBTQ friendly.

If you disagree with any of those adjectives, ask yourself, “Why could people perceive us that way? Do I want to change that? How can I?”