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”?
Antoine Taveneaux, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASan_Diego_Mormon_Temple17.jpg

Mormon Culture: What is it?

Mormon culture is simply the culture shared by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But this blog will mostly focus on American Mormon culture because while some aspects of Mormon culture carry over into other places, much of the Mormon culture I’ll be dealing with in this blog has to do with American Mormon culture.

And just like any other culture, it’s more pronounced in places that are more concentrated with people of the group. Without hard data, you can probably guess where Mormon culture is most prevalent: Utah and Idaho. But here’s the hard data anyway:

This map shows the percentage of adults who are Mormon in each state. Follow the link to see the percentages per state. (Pew Research Center)

So what makes up culture? In sociology, there are elements that make up a culture: symbols, language, norms, rituals, artifacts, values.

Symbols

An example of a symbol is giving a thumbs up, which means “good,” whereas in Australia its meaning is akin to flipping someone off.

In Mormon culture, we have symbols too. For example, why do Mormons like beehives so much? They’re on the doors to the temple, you can buy them on jewelry at Deseret Book, and they’re the theme of Mormon-related businesses (just look up utah beehive stores on Google).

Apparently the symbol comes from the early Saints latching onto the idea of beehives representing hard work and unity, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

Language

Branch, stake, sweet spirit, mia maids, eight-cow wife, investigator, vote of thanks, primary voice, companion, tender mercies, extend a calling, home teaching, MRS degree, ox in the mire, Jello. These words and others probably trip you up if you’re not in the know about Mormon culture. LDS Living even put out an article on “12 Funny Mormon Lingo Mix-Ups” to show Mormons have their own language full of jargon.

Here’s some other religious vocabulary from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Another fun fact: Back in the day Brigham Young tried to institute the Deseret alphabet as a way to teach people to write English. Sad fact: it didn’t work out. But because people are cool, there’s an online translator. Let the passing of secret notes begin.

Norms

Norms are “standards and expectations for behaving,” according to the book Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World. I think the “bad rep” that Mormon culture gets has do with the norms: women as the perfect homemakers, multiple ear piercings as being edgy (and to some rebellious), swearing as a deterrent for marrying someone, and the list goes on.

Just search #MormonCulture on Twitter, and you’ll see some more examples.

Rituals

Since Mormons are obviously a religiously-based culture, there are religious rituals, but there are rituals beyond the religious ones.

Think about a missionary’s experience. When they leave, there’s usually a “going away” talk and an open house type event where people go to the future missionary’s home to wish them good luck. When the missionary comes home from their mission, the ritual people (typically) follow is greeting the missionary at the airport with a welcome sign, followed by a “homecoming” talk the next Sunday.

Sociology professor Armand Mauss said “trek” — where the youth dress up like pioneers and pull handcarts for a couple of days to recreate the experience of pioneer ancestors — is another ritual observance. He said activities like these help the community to “reaffirm one’s allegiance to one’s heritage.”

artifacts

Boy, do Mormons have artifacts. There’s even a whole museum dedicated to church history.

In Jeffrey R. Holland’s October 2009 General Conference talk, he brought out the Book of Mormon that Hyrum Smith read from just before him and Joseph went to Carthage. (Go to 7:03 in the video.)

Scholar Wilfried Decoo, in his article, Mormon Identity and Culture, also noted Mormons have artifacts like young women’s medallions, CTR-rings, and temple statuettes.

VALUES

Mormons are known for valuing education (with universities and other schools they’ve set up over the years in other countries), hard work, and families, among other things.

Something interesting I found in my research was a quote from the book, “Directions for Mormon Studies in the Twenty-First Century.” The writer, Claudia Bushman, says she’s a California Mormon and then talks about how her values were different than those of Utah Mormons: “California Mormons were more independent than Utah Mormons; they were grateful for the distance that separated the from Salt Lake City. They paid less homage to old church fails. They were less pious, less judgmental, more aware of living in and negotiating with the secular world.”

It’s interesting to note that even within American Mormon culture, there may be some variation due to geographic location.

last words

So Mormon culture exists, but what are the experiences associated with the culture? You’ll have to keep up with my weekly posts to find out.