“Global nomads” is apparently how marketing demographers refer to people who make a practice of living outside their native country. I imagine itâ€™s supposed to make the expatriate experience sound adventurous, upscale, and fashion-forward, but mostly the phrase strikes me as a bit silly and pretentious. That being said, it’s remarkable how perfectly suited Mormonism is as a church for global nomads.
BYU professor James Toronto has an article in the most recent issue of BYU Studies about the rewards and challenges faced by LDS expatriate families. Apart from a few quibbles, the article does a good job of addressing issues that have been relevant for me or for people I’ve known. The families described in Toronto’s article are in general very positive about their international experience and the role of the Church in it. If you haven’t moved your family around the globe before, though, it might not be clear just how much practical and ideological work the Church does that supports the expatriate experience.
The missionary program is an obvious, and not-so-obvious, advantage for expatriate Mormons. Fluency in a foreign language and significant experience in a foreign culture can of course be important qualifications for employers looking to send personnel abroad, especially since sending employees overseas is an expensive proposition that often ends in failure. But the worldwide missionary program and the belief that the Church needs to fill every corner of the globe also lend support to what is, on close inspection, a fairly odd proposition, namely, that uprooting your family and moving to a foreign country is a good idea. One common experience of expatriate families returning to the United States is a sense of alienation from one’s own culture, and confusion at others’ lack of interest in or even hostility towards the years spent abroad. But for Mormons, this sense of alienation is part and parcel of the well-known returning missionary narrative. In addition, a sense of alienation from contemporaries in oneâ€™s own culture is legitimized, to a certain extent even encouraged, by church teachings about standards of dress, sexual morality, media consumption, and use of intoxicants. Modern church history itself is a story of exile, of leaving Kirtland for Missouri, leaving Missouri for Nauvoo, leaving Illinois for Utah, leaving the valley of the Great Salt Lake for settlements in Arizona or Canada, or for better jobs in California, or for grad school in New York and New Jersey. Leaving our homeland behind is in our blood.
Mormon emphasis on home and family can create unfortunate tension for women who pursue a career. But for single-career families, there are lower opportunity costs in accepting an international assignment, potentially giving them a higher degree of mobility. Toronto’s article discusses the frustrations of spouses who are often unable to obtain employment or continue a career outside the US. But for accompanying spouses, Mormon teaching and culture also provide ideological grounds for interpreting the change in a positive light.
The Church’s worldwide network of congregations has particular importance for expatriates. Sometimes members complain about undue emphasis on uniformity of doctrine and organization, but correlation minimizes the friction that geographically mobile Mormons face in new places. Learning to navigate a foreign culture is difficult and painful, but Mormon expatriates have instant access to local expertise through their ward or branch, and expatriate families have an instant context in which to provide and receive service. There’s much to criticize in an us-or-them mentality, but when you move to a foreign country, it’s incredibly helpful to have a local “us” to be part of. Bi-annual church conferences and other meetings mediated by satellite broadcast have helped us adjust to the idea that we are not just members of a local congregation, but part of a global communal body even without regular physical nearness.
Being part of a church with both international aspirations and stubbornly American roots can be frustrating, but the Church’s Americanness also helps temper resentments among members abroad. It’s hard to maintain serious anti-American biases when the Prophet, the Promised Land, and Paradise are all supposed to be in the Western Hemisphere. American Mormons are in possession of knowledge and experience that are valued commodities in congregations outside the US. Likewise, non-American Mormons have a greater incentive to put aside fears or suspicions about the United States and accept assignments there.
In other words, several aspects of the Church that are sometimes seen as annoyances by Mormons, American and non-American alike, can be quite helpful to those who find themselves somewhere in between.
 James A. Toronto, “‘Strangers in a Strange Land’: Assessing the Experience of Latter-day Saint Expatriate Families,” BYU Studies 45.4 (2006): 25-45. The article focuses primarily on long-term transplants in developing nations, rather than on the more prevalent temporary relocation to economically prosperous countries, so not all of its points, by its own admission, are relevant for all Mormon expatriates. For lack of relevant studies, the analysis of Mormon expatriate families is based entirely on personal experience and anecdotal evidence, and recounting the anecdotes sometimes gets out of balance with analyzing the evidence. The introduction and conclusion are irritatingly preachy.