In the vigorous debate about Iraq happening below, Laurie Burk (hi, Laurie!) wrote: “In the Mideast, America is still viewed as a Christian nation. In most of the world the LDS church is still viewed as an American church, and the violence of the Iraq war is seen as American instigated violence. And violence does not advance the cause of Christ.”
I will leave the Iraq debate to that thread, but I am interested in the idea of an American church. I heard this often on my mission, and I heard it just last week in Germany. It was never intended to be flattering, but it wasn’t necessarily intended to be insulting. The speakers often applied the description as a simple statement of fact, which carried with it the implicit suggestion that the Church was not relevant to them.
1. What do people intend when they say that we are an “American church”? I think that they intend to imply more than the fact that Joseph Smith was living in the United States when he received the First Vision and the Book of Mormon or that the Church headquarters is in Salt Lake City, even though these may be the only facts that they know about the Church. They intend to say something about the content of Church teachings, inferring that any church founded by an American and based in America must have an American slant on gospel principles. If this is the starting point of the discussion, missionary work is almost surely doomed, especially in a day when the U.S. is so widely reviled.
I suspect that most people who care about the Church would prefer to position it as a worldwide Church. We think of Church teachings as inspired and — at least to a large extent — not cabined by political boundaries. This prompts question #2.
2. What, if anything, would change this perception of the Church? Here are two possibilities:
(a) More Church leaders — especially at the highest levels — from outside the United States. The Church has recruited a number of Seventies from outside the United States, but have we ever had an Apostle who is not from the U.S.? (I suspect that the Church had an early Apostle from England or some other country outside of the U.S., so I might limit the question to “a recent Apostle,” meaning Apostles within the past 50 years or so.)
(b) A larger institutional presence outside the United States. The building of temples outside the U.S. probably helps, as does the construction of Missionary Training Centers in other lands. I have long thought that the Church should consider building smaller versions of BYU in South America, the Philippines, and Africa, but that would entail enormous costs.
Even if we accomplished these two things, I suspect that the Church’s image as an American church would persist. Does this mean that the Church is inextricably bound to the fortunes of the U.S.?