Mormon Culture: Activist and Mormon. Is it possible?

Just so you know, I’m a feminist, and I believe our society needs to do more to treat others equal, including ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Do you think there’s tension between fighting for the rights of certain groups and being a Mormon at the same time?

I’ve always felt like members of the church get a little uncomfortable when I talk about being a feminist. Being a feminist doesn’t mean I hate men; I just think women and men deserve to be treated equally. Is that so far-fetched? And I’ve never understood why I’ve felt a level of discomfort from others when I get to talking about “activist issues.”

the discussion

But then I learned a thing or two from Dr. Ignacio Garcia, historian and author of “Chicano While Mormon: Activism, War, and Keeping the Faith.”

In an email, he told me there’s tension between being an activist and being a person of faith for a couple of reasons.

  1. Activism is about being anti-establishment and/or anti-institutional, while religion is about loyalty to authority, stability, and order. Activism gains traction by weakening and delegitimizing power structures, whereas centralized religions “thrive in places where central authority is strong and there is civility in the public square.”
  2. Activism’s goals, while similar to those of religion, do not fall in line with moral and “proper behavior.” Rather, activists protest, question authority, speak loudly, and challenge ideologies. Even if they are soft-spoken, Garcia said, they still seek for a shift in power and distribution of resources.
  3. Religious people are typically conservative and have certain views on what is considered “proper behavior.” Garcia said activists prioritize people over institutions and policies, while religious people privilege institutions, rules, and doctrinal interpretation — and “the religious person might truly love their neighbor but how they fulfill that loyalty or love is approached differently.”

So how does any of this relate to Mormonism? Garcia said Mormons (in the context of American Mormon culture) tend to be conservative in their behavior, meaning “they do not like to engage in open, honest discussions about equality, racism, poverty, etc.”

He then makes quite an interesting statement that I think could be true for some people, though not all. But it’s something for each of us to think about: “Mormons are also too protective of their economics (money) to talk about anything that might dislodge some of their possession,” Garcia said. “Most Mormons are good and generous givers but only as long as they can keep people at bay — arms’ length, on the other side of the world outside of their neighborhoods or religious spaces.”

There’s just some food for thought to stir the pot. But instead of getting upset at what he said, I want you to honestly ask yourself, “Could that be true? How? What is he referring to? If it’s an observation he has made, where could it be coming from? Do I do anything akin to that? Do I truly go out and help the poor and needy, or do I maybe just pray for the poor and needy and hope that my tithing is a sufficient way to help them?”

Garcia did say, however, that being an activist does not excuse people from living a moral life. “Activism resulted from my religious and moral principles and not as a rejection of them,” he said.

What he’s saying is that it’s okay to speak out, but it’s not okay to light someone’s car on fire (that’s called arson, which is also called illegal) just because you disagree with their political views.

the answer

Yeah, it’s okay to be an activist and be a Mormon. You just need to figure out how to balance it. Feel free to speak out, but also make sure you’re doing it in a way in which you can live a moral life. Now, there’s no exact formula, but I’ll let you know what it is if I ever I figure it out.

questions to consider

  • If people have strong beliefs that you disagree with, have you tried seeing the issue through their eyes?
  • Are their ideas stemming from a “love thy neighbor” attitude?
  • What about your ideas? Are you more concerned about “loving your neighbor” or “judging your neighbor”?
  • Are your thoughts rooted in the two Great Commandments (love God and thy neighbor), or are you judging, even though Jesus said “Judge not”?

Mormon Culture: Mission Presidents, Room for Interpretation?

Sometimes people got along with their mission president and sometimes people didn’t. But a mission president still makes an impact on the missionaries he presides over.

Wendy Ulrich, a psychologist who advises the missionary mental health committee, said sometimes clashes between missionaries and mission presidents come about because of personalities.

She said that when her husband was mission president, she even made mistakes sometimes.

“People are people,” Ulrich said.

Currently, there are no resources provided to missionaries on how to talk with their mission presidents. However, the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet includes general information on communication.

“I think the church is reluctant to imply to a missionary, you know, ‘Well maybe it’s just your mission president is nuts.’ And sometimes that is the reality, but it would be probably a little too glib and too easy for a missionary to just assume ‘I don’t have to listen to my mission president because after all, some mission presidents are nuts,'” Ulrich said.

She said missionaries try to work figure out with other missionaries where the mission president has a blind spot rather than talking with the mission president about it.

The 2006 version of the Mission President’s Handbook is online and outlines things for the mission president to enforce. Not all of the guidelines in this handbook are stated in the Missionary Handbook that’s provided to missionaries.

While I was skimming through the Mission President’s Handbook, I found myself wishing I had known before my mission about some of the expectations I would be required to live, since they weren’t in any mission preparation materials. I remember also reading the Missionary Handbook while on my mission and wondering why the mission president had so many more guidelines than were outlined in the Missionary Handbook. I saw that some of the things my mission president asked us to do were in the Mission President’s Handbook, but not in the Missionary Handbook — and had I known that on my mission, I think I would have reacted differently to some of the “extra” guidelines he gave us.

Questions to consider

  • Even after your mission, do you consider what your mission told you to do equivalent to a commandment? Should you?
  • Is what you were told to do helpful to your salvation? Or is it just a nice suggestion, an opinion?
  • Is what you were told to do negatively affecting your testimony?
  • Are you basing your testimony on what you were told to do on your mission or on your relationship with God?

Mormon Culture: Unwritten Rules

Every culture has some unwritten rules. Often, these are called norms, of which there are two types: folkways and mores (pronunciation).

A folkway is “a custom or belief common to members of a society or culture.” And a more is “A set of moral norms or customs derived from generally accepted practices. Mores derive from the established practices of a society rather than its written laws.”

The unwritten rules are the mores. What are some of the ones that exist in the Mormon church?

  • Must women wear skirts at church?
  • Do deacons have to wear white shirts to serve the sacrament?
  • If you don’t live mission rules for the rest of your life, are you living a lower law?

The reason these are mores is people attach moral meanings to these unwritten rules, and therefore people treat the inability to follow these unwritten rules with social consequences.

BYU professor James Faulconer wrote a paper called “Why a Mormon Won’t Drink Coffee but Might Have a Coke: The Aethological Character of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” He basically makes the claim that Mormonism is not a theology because the teachings evolve because people give continuing revelation preference over a set of unchanging beliefs. He uses the Word of Wisdom to illustrate his point. He said the Word of Wisdom said to avoid “hot drinks,” which was defined as coffee and tea. But someone one day interpreted that to mean caffeinated drinks. He then explains that some people choose to drink decaffeinated coffee because they believe the issue with the “hot drinks” is about the caffeine.

But Faulconer says that even if the prophet were to “declare caffeine forbidden tomorrow,” he has no standing on which to say “hot drinks” means caffeine. Basically, he says that we can make up reason why things are the way they are, and we can make up reasons why we think these unwritten rules of Mormonism are valid, but in the end, that explanation could change with modern revelation. So the thing to do is not try to use theology, or doctrine, to try and explain reasons why we should live an unwritten rule of Mormonism.

I’m not saying people should just do whatever they want because things might change; and that’s not what Faulconer said. What I think he  was saying was that in the cases of things that aren’t spelled out, we shouldn’t try to make things up and pass them off as doctrine.

In 1917, David O. McKay’s book “Ancient Apostles” was published as one  of the first Sunday school lesson manuals. This started the time of written curriculum in the church.

In scholar Wilfried Decoo’s paper, “In Search of Mormon Identity: Mormon Culture, Gospel Culture, and an American Worldwide Church,” he said the church wanted a certain type of “uniformity” that was enforced with the 1960s creation of worldwide correlation, which standardized training and lesson material in the church. These materials, he said, “reinforces this trend toward a common lifestyle.”

He goes on to say that lifestyle “extends to physical appearance via dress and grooming standards.” He then cited advice given by various church leaders that lend to this, promoting mean wear white shirts and ties and have missionary haircuts. “Of course, not all members conform to this lifestyle,” Decoo writes. “But it is telling that anyone who deviates, even without breaking any commandment like wearing piercings or not dressing up properly for Sunday meetings catches the eye as ‘peculiar’ within the ‘peculiar people.'”

And that brings up an important point. Just because someone doesn’t conform to the Mormon stereotype doesn’t mean they’re doing anything wrong or breaking commandments. And even if they are, it’s not anyone’s place to judge.

Here are some perceived unwritten rules of Mormonism I’ve heard people complain about:

  • Only RMs are marriage material
  • Policies in the church are absolute and final (i.e. certain guidelines for modesty don’t apply to cultural dress)
  • Mormon women have to be stay at home moms
  • Mormons women cannot be feminists

questions to consider:

  • What other unwritten rules can you think of?
  • Are they based on doctrine or cultural or personal interpretations?
  • Are you wrongly judging people based on these unwritten rules?

Mormon Culture: A Polarized Group?

Nowadays, we constantly hear about how polarized politics are. The Republicans will agree with Republicans, even if they don’t agree — for the sake of the party. And Democrats will agree with Democrats, even if they don’t agree — for the sake of the party. And then there are those moderate ideas that everyone likes, but then when we get a moderate candidate, no one votes for him or her. So what are we to do?

In Mormon culture we might be able to see a little bit of this polarization within the culture. One extreme leads to self-deprecation and the other leads to arrogance. If you don’t know what that means, think of the member who’s amazing who’s always saying things like, “Oh no, I’m not actually that great” and the member with the “holier than thou” air.

Where does all of this come from? Why can’t we just be like, “Yeah, I’m awesome, but so is that other person”?

Mormonism in general will also have a tricky time navigating a type of balance as society changes. We hear all the time that there was a time when the values of the world were closer to those of the church, but as time goes on, they grow further apart.

It’s important to remember that Mormon culture is stronger in some places than it is in others, for example, “Mormon culture” as I’ve been referring to it refers mostly to an American Mormon culture.

Patrick Mason, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University, said one of the possible challenges of Mormonism will be to navigate finding a balance between individualism and community since America is becoming more individualistic, or more concerned about the needs of an individual over the needs of a community.

“On the one hand, Mormonism won’t thrive if it is seen as totally counter-cultural … as not giving individual rights or individual voices any room at all,” he said. “People will just opt out because of the culture that they live in, and they’ll see Mormonism as oppressive.”

He says on the other side, if the Mormon culture assimilates too much and adopts too much of America’s push for individualism, “it loses is distinctiveness,” which then leads to people not wanting to follow the hierarchy of listening to bishops, for example.

So the extremes for Mormonism could end up being too much individualism or too much repression. So how will Mormonism find its middle ground? That’s a hard question to answer —that everyone’s probably unsure about. But it’s a good thing to at least take note of. How will our individuals actions stay moderate?

While you can’t stand up in every congregation and say, “Culture, be chill and moderate,” you can start with your actions.

Individualism Advice

Own what you believe and love it, but also remember to let other people own their beliefs.

Community advice

Love people in your community even when you disagree with them.

some questions to consider

  • How am I living the culture? With self-deprecation, arrogance, or a balance?
  • How can I become more balanced?
  • Am I making Mormon culture all about what I want or making it feel oppressive? How can I change how I act toward others to reach a balance?

Mormon Culture: Ministering

What does it mean to minister? The dictionary definition is “to give aid or service.”

What’s interesting to me is that the LDS Church has a whole section of their Provident Living website devoted to “ministering” — which includes topics on abuse help, addiction, caregivers, early-return missionaries, employment, family finances, marital conflict, overcoming pornography, same-sex attraction, single expectant parents, and spouses of pornography users.

On the homepage of the ministering resources page, there’s a letter from the First Presidency  to bishops. It says, “The ministering resources listed below have been created to assist you as you respond to the specific challenges members often face.”

Imagine you are called as a bishop to watch over not only the spiritual needs of a large group of people, but the temporal needs — and these people are also going to come to you with many, many other things that they want you to help them with. And you probably don’t have any formal training with the things they need help with. And that’s probably super overwhelming.

The resources are not meant to teach bishops to act as psychologists, but are meant to help bishops help their ward members. Many of the sections include some sort of suggestion that members seek professional help.

Here are some highlights from the website:

Abuse (Help for the Victim)

Helping the victim feel heard and understood may be just as important as any help you can give.

Abuse (Help for the Offender)

When appropriate, discuss with the member the consequences of abusive behavior on self and family, including the doctrine and church policies related to abuse.

Addiction

Help the member make a plan to avoid or address situations in which he or she is vulnerable to temptation. Review the plan with the member regularly.

Support for Caregivers

If the caregiver and care receiver feel like they are a burden to the ward, help them understand that they are valued and that many ward members are glad to serve them.

Missionaries Who Return Home Early

Encourage the missionary, his or her family, and ward members to refer to him or her as a “returned missionary” and not an “early-returned” or “early-released missionary.”

Employment

Consider inviting the member to pursue opportunities for education, training, or certification.

Family Finances

Help members understand the importance of paying an honest tithing, living within their means, saving for unexpected expenses, and avoiding debt.

Marital Conflict

Help each spouse recognize that no one can change someone else, but with faith, effort, and the help of God, each person can undergo his or her own mighty change of heart.

Mental Health

When members do not seem to respond to normal attempts by leaders to be helpful, leaders should not be offended by their lack of response. Instead, leaders should seriously consider encouraging the member to get a mental health assessment from a qualified provider.

Overcoming Pornography

Expressing love and gratitude to the individual for coming forward is an important step to help the member overcome the problem.

Same-Sex Attraction

Feeling same-sex attraction or choosing to use a sexual identity label (such as gay, lesbian, or bisexual) is not a sin and does not violate church policy or doctrine.

Single Expectant Parents

Reach out in love to comfort, encourage, and care for the single expectant mother or father. Express your desire to help and thank the individual for his or her willingness to involve you.

Support for Spouses of Pornography Users

Spouses often incorrectly assume the problem is somehow their fault. Help the spouse of the pornography user understand that he or she is not responsible for the user’s behavior.

Mormon Culture: #MormonCulture on Twitter

Is “Mormon culture” a bad thing? Before looking into this subject as something to write on, I pretty much only heard the term “Mormon culture” with a negative connotation. Just ask someone how they feel about Mormon culture, and they’ll probably have some pent up angst about the topic. (I’ve been telling people about this blog, and I get exasperated responses every time).

I think it’s important to realize though that there are some positive things about Mormon culture. I was once talking to a friend who had met with the missionaries a couple times while at BYU. She said she liked learning about the church and interacting with the kind people. That was a great perspective for me to hear. I think that falls into the idea of the values of Mormon culture. Mormons value some great things, like “brotherly kindness” and caring for your neighbor.

In an article by scholar Wilfried Decoo, he cites a reference from 1903 that says “the culture of Mormonism” has the following accomplishments: health, education, the missionary system, unpaid clergy, and the charity system.

Decoo said that as time went on, the meaning of the term changed, and in the 70s, “Mormon culture” became a term that encompassed much more: religiosity, morality, family, health, dedication and involvement, education, work, material objects (ex: recognition medallions), jargon. On the negative side was “critique of the social pressure to conform, the insularity toward non-Mormons, the distrust of feminism, and the condemning attitude toward homosexual behavior.”

When I looked up #MormonCulture on Twitter, I got tweets from both camps. There were funny ones that just comment on the culture, there were positive ones, and there were annoyed ones. Take  a look:

Isn’t it funny that this happens? Often we just fall into certain rituals.

Mormons value family, and sometimes that leaks over into what seems like an obsession.

Mormons love their Mormon-related products.

This is a sad one that’s seeped into Mormon culture. In the Book of Mormon, there is a group of people called the Lamanites. The scripture says, “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren.” But luckily doctrine teaches that all are alike unto God. So there seems to be some sort of disconnect between the two in some people’s minds.

Missionaries are taught to be exactly obedient.

There seems to be a sentiment that women’s voices are not heard as much in the church. There has been more effort in recent years to change that.

Mormons have certain norms, and one of them is a belief (of some) that Mormons don’t drink coffee because of the caffeine — so some also don’t drink caffeinated soda. Drinking coffee is against the Word of Wisdom, which is a health code commandment.

Here’s a positive one. Youth in the church go to the temple with their youth groups.

Mormons are concentrated in Utah and Idaho.

Here’s an interesting aspect of Mormon culture that’s probably related to values. Mormons value humility and abhor pride, but in doing so often end up practicing a sort of false humility.

Mormon Culture: Missionary Mental Health Resources

If you’re the parent of a son or daughter going on a mission, you probably worry about their health when they write home saying something is amiss. And if it’s related to mental health, you might not know what resources are available to them.

According to psychologist Wendy Ulrich, who provides council for the missionary mental health committee, in general, we can expect one in five people at any time to struggle with depression. And missions connect to depression through stress.

“Stress isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but when we get overstressed, we start dealing with depression and anxiety,” Ulrich said.

Not all mission presidents will be very versed in mental health or know all the proper ways of dealing with mental health, but the Church provides them and missionaries with resources.

Here’s a breakdown of what exists to help missionaries with mental health:

Missionary Mental health committee

The church has a mental health committee that works to think of ways to help missionaries and their mental health while in the field. This committee has put together things like the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet and “My Plan.”

Adjusting to missionary life” booklet

This is a booklet that missionaries receive in the MTC as of 2013. It talks about stress and how to manage it. Also included are resources for managing physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual demands.

Ulrich helped put together this resource. She said the missionary mental health committee was concerned about the amount of stress put on missionaries and decided to create a resource to help missionaries deal with the new stress.

She said in an interview, “People maybe are not supposed to admit when they’re involved in these sorts of projects. I think we want to believe they just descend from heaven.”

They worked on this booklet for about two years. It was meant to be given to missionaries after they’d already been in the field for a while, but Ulrich said bishops are starting to give the booklets to priests and laurels so that the transition isn’t so “dramatic.” The booklet provides resources for the missionaries.

Before a mission, people can do things like talk to parents or friends or go to the movies, Ulrich said, but when they’re on a mission, they can’t do those things. Ulrich said once people learn to manage their stress in a missionary environment, their stress levels will go down.

According to Ulrich, for the past two years, there was an effort to teach mission presidents how to use the “Adjusting to Missionary Life” booklet — which is apparently a big deal since they spent several hours out of the short time the mission presidents are trained to go over this booklet.

My Plan

My Plan is a booklet structured to help returned missionaries learn to set goals when they get home and help with the transition from mission life to home life.

“It’s really a time when people are trying to gain a sense of independence, and that’s the important thing for them to be doing,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich said the committee in charge of My Plan is now reworking the program.

It seems as though there will soon be an online portal as well to help “strengthen returning full-time missionaries.” Missionaries will work with the material before, during, and after their missions.

mental health and medical advisors

There are mental health and medical advisors assigned to various missions. They work under the missionary department organization and help provide mental health counseling to missionaries.

Senior missionaries can also serve providing mental health counseling. In the  Senior Missionaries Opportunity Bulletin, updated May 19, 2017,  it says mental health counselors are needed to advise mission presidents on missionary health.

Ulrich said there was a spike  in concern about mental health right at the beginning of the missionary age change in 2012, but percentage-wise, things have stabilized again.

Mission presidents have resources to help missionaries, but Ulrich said she thinks they are reluctant to use them.

“I think most of them are probably pretty reluctant to make use of them because you’re trying really hard to pretend that you know what you’re doing,” Ulrich said, her husband having served as a mission president in Canada.

However, she said some do reach out, and she’s done consultations with them. She said one of the reasons mission presidents might not reach out is because people of her generation aren’t accustomed to reaching out about mental health issues.

in-field representatives

Every mission president is assigned an “in-field representative.” There are about 20 representatives in Salt Lake City that are available full-time to mission presidents and their wives. They are the people who can connect mission presidents to medical help and other such resources.

mission president portal

Mission presidents have access to resources on various topics, including mental health, through a mission president portal.

Mormon Culture: “Mormons and Gays” to “Mormon and Gay”

What’s the difference between saying “Mormons and Gays” and “Mormon and Gay”? Actually, quite a lot. It’s a shift from “us” and “them” language to “us” language.

In 2012, the LDS church launched a website called Mormons and Gays (this link will take you to the old website). In October 2016, the LDS Church changed their site to Mormon and Gay. An article from the Mormon Newsroom says, “The new appellation, ‘Mormon and Gay,’ reflects the reality that a person doesn’t need to choose between these two identities — one can, in fact, be gay and live faithful to the teachings of Christ.”

This is a mentality that has changed over time. Back in the day, people used to hear that someone was gay, and that person’s membership status would be reevaluated. But today, the cultural meaning of the term “gay” is different. The term “gay” is a sexual orientation term.

Here’s what the current website says about the terminology:

“Same-sex attraction (SSA) refers to emotional, physical, romantic, or sexual attraction to a person of the same gender. If you experience same-sex attraction, you may or may not choose to use a sexual orientation label to describe yourself. Either way, same-sex attraction is a technical term describing the experience without imposing a label. This website uses this term to be inclusive of people who are not comfortable using a label, not to deny the existence of a gay, lesbian, or bisexual identity.”

We can see that the language is shifting. And Elder Holland in the October 2015 session of General Conference talked about a young man with same-sex attraction.

If you are a member of the church, and probably if you’re not a member of church, you probably know there’s still a stigma associated with being LGBTQ+ and being Mormon.

Sociologist Ryan Cragun said the following are stigmatized in the church: being gender queer (the idea that people aren’t just female/feminine or male/masculine), being lesbian/gay/bisexual, advocating gender equality in the LDS church.

He said he thinks that the church has changed the way they talk about gays because of a “combination of internal and external pressures.”

external

How society talks about gays has changed over time. Cragun said “gays were heavily criticized and demonized” in the 1950s, but that has since changed and “being gay/lesbian has become normalized outside the church,” which he said has “led to external pressure for the Church leaders to tone down their rhetoric against gays and lesbians.”

internal

Cragun said nowadays, many members have family who are gay, which is contributing to the change in the ways people talk about gays. “It is much harder to be critical and to demonize family than it is anonymous others,” Cragun said. Because there is “increased contact,” Cragun said it is “forcing many Mormons to reconsider their prejudices.”

possible solutions

educate yourself and stop judging

I’ve grown up with some close family friends who are LGBTQ+, which has often made me question a lot of what people in the church say regarding LBGTQ+ issues. I remember people saying that people aren’t really gay, that they pretend. And since I’ve talked to people about their experiences being LGBTQ+, I’ve realized that I have not had the experiences that they’ve had and there are things I won’t be able to understand. So my first piece of advice is that you should talk to someone who’s LGBTQ+ before you decide to judge them.

Cragun also said it’s important for people to learn about what it means to be LGBTQ+ so they can have an understanding  of how common gender and sexual minorities are.

put yourself in their shoes and love them

When you talk to people who identify as LGBTQ+ and hear their stories, really listen. But then put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself how they feel to be Mormon and gay. Have compassion and love people.

I can’t begin to understand what people who identify as LGBTQ+ in the church feel or go through. But what I do know is that I love them for the wonderful people they are.

questions to consider

  • Have you ever talked to an LGBTQ+ individual about their experience being LGBTQ+ and coming out?
  • Have you ever imagined what it would be like to feel like your religion is at odds with automatics feelings you have?
  • Have you ever imagined what it would feel like to not be able to feel true to yourself?
  • Do you judge other people for being LGBTQ+? Do you like it when people judge you?

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: Transitioning From Mission to Real Life

Coming home from a mission is not as easy as you expect it to be. Sure, you learned how to study and make goals, but missions are extremely structured in a way that life is not.

Psychologist Wendy Ulrich has worked with the LDS Church missionary mental health committee on several projects, such as a booklet called “Adjusting to Missionary Life” and an online program to help missionaries returning home from their missions, called “My Plan.”

Adjusting to missionary life is difficult, but Ulrich said it can be just as hard transitioning back to “normal” life. There are a few reasons for this.

1. You have to make your own plans.

On a mission, you have your schedule laid out for you. You just fill in the gaps with teaching people and various ways of finding people to teach. And often, on missions you were told to not get “trunky” and to not plan for when you go home. “You feel like you surreptitiously have to sneak around and make arrangement for your classes or apartment or a job when you get home,” Ulrich said.

But Ulrich said that is changing. She’s noticed a shift with mission presidents. She said they are now “trying to move from this idea of work till you drop at the end of your mission and don’t even think about anything else” to helping missionaries anticipate the changes. Because when the mission is over, “there’s no mission president waiting for you when you get home to help you with that transition,” she said.

2. Sometimes you face depression or anxiety or maybe just plain confusion

Ulrich said the best thing for return missionaries to do is to seek out resources, like counseling, when they feel like what they’re experiencing is more than they can handle.

But she also said it’s normal to feel a little off. She said that when she talks with groups of missionaries, all the same issues come up.

“I think sometimes the best thing we can do is just open up a little more with other people around us who are dealing with the same issues,” Ulrich said. “When you’re in the middle of it, the feeling is ‘This is just me. What’s the matter with me?’ And when you get talking to people, you start realizing, ‘No, a lot of people are struggling with the same issues I am.'”

3. You’re confusing mission life with “adult spirituality”

If you’re around Mormons for long enough, you’ll probably hear a story about a mission president who told missionaries something he shouldn’t have, which caused the return missionary a lot of grief.

Ulrich said one of the biggest challenges for a mission president is that he will likely do what his own mission president did. So if his mission president said to go home and get married in six months or read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life, then he is likely to pass that on.

(Now, as we established in a previous blog, mission presidents saying things like “go home and get married in six months” or “read the scriptures for an hour every day for the rest of your life” is opinion, not doctrine. So if someone doesn’t follow that council, it doesn’t mean they are damned or “less.”)

“A mission is more like a boot camp than it is real life,” Ulrich said.

She compared the experience of a mission to learning discipline, which is helpful, but she said it’s not what “adult spirituality” looks like.

“Adult spirituality has a lot more to do with dealing with ambiguity and dealing with paradox and dealing with uncertainty and not knowing all the answers and figuring it out yourself and having to make lots of adjustments,” Ulrich said.

She laughed as she said when you have a kid, getting up at 6 a.m. just doesn’t work. But she said missions teach people to how get comfortable with the scriptures, how to get along with others, and how to testify.

What does it mean to be an adult in the Church?

  • “Learning to question and not fall apart over it.”
  • “Learning to cut people slack and to realize that your leaders are just human beings like you are, and they don’t have all the answers”
  • It can’t be prescribed.
  • You have to come up with the rules for yourself that “make spirituality alive in your life.”

Ulrich said the hardest part about coming home from a mission is “there are no clean answers” for a lot of the things people are going to encounter.

last words

I think everyone in the world can agree that life is messy and complicated. And Ulrich pointed out that the early 20s is a time when everyone is having a hard time, so transitioning from a mission to coming home is already harder because of that fact.

So if you’re transitioning from getting home from your mission, just know that it’s normal if you’re having a hard time. Cut yourself some slack and cut some slack for anyone who offended you or imposed their opinion on you.