(The following is an excerpt from a larger study on the concept of “gospel culture”, which I have been working on. I hope that comments will help me correct and refine this aspect on Americanness).
For the past few decades, in their efforts at internationalization, church leaders have stressed that this is “not an American Church”, but an international, universal Church. It seems J. Reuben Clark jr. was the first to stress it in such terms, in the 1937 October Conference:
“This is not an American Church. This is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its destiny as well as its mission is to fill the earth and to bring home to every man, woman and child in the world the truths of this Gospel of which I have spoken.”
In the following decades, with the reversal of the gathering principle and the establishment of the Church in many nations, came the concern to de-americanize the Church’s image and to cater to cultural differences. The correlation movement since the 1960s has put major efforts into making the Church “less American” by removing or diminishing in church publications typical American items (e.g. those referring to the political system, affluent living style, dating patterns, sports, food, etc.) and by stressing the core message of the gospel and its principles as valid for all human beings.
“This is not an American Church.” But the nationality of the Church, whether American or universal, does not exclude, nor can it avoid, a transnational “gospel culture” with infusion of American components. I would indicate three areas of such infusion: historical-geographical, ideological, and behavioral.
1 – The historical-geographical component
First, the historical-geographical component. It does not seem possible to define our gospel culture as a simple “religious way of life” without considering the impact of Mormon history and location. Indeed, there would be no Mormonism without its past, this chronology of astonishing events starting with Joseph Smith’s personal search, the First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the founding of the Church, and all the subsequent dramatic stages of a people trying to establish a physical Kingdom of God, each time persecuted and chased, and finally reaching their Promised land, a desert they made blossom like a rose. That history and one of its resulting main symbolic images, Zion’s banner high on the mountain top, are located in America.
The preservation and the retelling of that history are an intrinsic part of the message of the Restoration. Mormon converts, anywhere in the world, step into that history as they learn about Joseph Smith and the founding events of the Church. Locations like Palmyra, the Sacred Grove, Cumorah, Kirtland, Jackson County, Haun’s Mill, Nauvoo, Carthage, Winter Quarters, Martin’s Cove, This is the Place, become part of their spatial religious consciousness. It also becomes their “Legacy”. Converts abroad, facing forms of incomprehension and persecution in their own environments, may sense themselves as living partakers of that heritage of the early pioneers.
Even the physical experience of that history in the form of “Mormon historical tours” is starting to be offered to members abroad who can afford it. Mormon travel tourism to America, with a sense of pilgrimage, is expanding. By restoring historic places as tributes to its past and as locales for commemoration and inspiration, the Church itself is encouraging this tendency. It contributes to the formation and strengthening of a cultural identity in which members worldwide are invited to partake. In a press conference in conjunction with the Grand Encampment Celebration, Council Bluffs, Iowa, President Hinckley answered a question about the significance of historical places and events in the U.S. to e.g. members in the Philippines:
“I have just been among those people. They are proud of their church and they are proud of the roots of that church. They are proud of the foundation on which it is established. They want to know about it. They do come to know about it. They study about it, and it gives them the strength that comes of knowing that what they have has a tremendous background of courage and fortitude and sacrifice and faith. That to me is of tremendous significance to our people all across the world” (cited in Dew 1996:592).
Even as the Church is internationalizing with the concept of multiple Zions, by the organization of stakes abroad with full church programs, by the multiplication of temples, a fundamental America-oriented awareness remains part of our faith. This is perhaps even more true for members abroad, as they take the counter-cultural step of converting to a unique “home-grown American religion”. It ties in with their acceptance of the historical reality of the Book of Mormon, and its explicit hailing of America as “a land choice above all other lands.” It ties in with the patent reality of Salt Lake City as Mormonism’s brilliant, self-affirming capital, home of the First Presidency and the Twelve, base of the General Conferences. It ties in with the 10th Article of Faith: “the building of Zion on the American continent.”
However, how “America” is understood in this awareness, i.e. to what extent it is tied or not to a certain perception of the United States, is mainly determined by how the topic is profiled in discussions with missionaries, lesson material, conference talks, and church magazines, and by how individual members understand “America”. For converts abroad, the perception of Mormonism in its American perspective is obviously more at ease with stressing the 19th century tension between the Church and the U.S., rather than with the confirmation of present-day American patriotism and right-wing political allegiance among Mormon U.S. citizens. As anti-Americanism (here understood as focused on the U.S.) is rampant in the world, there are no doubt church members abroad troubled by U.S. policy. For them the historical perspective of Mormons as a separate, persecuted people on the American soil probably better squares with their appreciation of the gospel.
2 – The ideological realm
There is also an American ideological realm, less manifest perhaps than historical events and places, but clearly tied to a political and socio-economic realm of the United States, i.e. the relation between Mormonism and the “American way of life”, understood here as the free opportunities given to each individual, regardless of social background, for personal development and the pursuit of happiness. It is part of the concept of the American Dream, to which a few dozen texts by church authorities explicitly and proudly refer, especially in the 1960s and 70s, but also up to the 90s. The rhetoric spills over in a sense of superiority and election, against the backdrop of America’s messianic role in the world. For years it was often interwoven with an abhorrence of socialism and communism, or at least of the perception of these -isms. This American ideology, which hails liberty, believes in the power of individual talent and hard work, and acclaims economic success and prosperity as a result, permeates the Mormon message (as well as other churches in America). This ideology is evident in the numerous exhortations and examples of self-actualization, often in an American socio-economic context of entrepreneurial values, emanating from church leaders in their presentation of “gospel living”. Members in the international church, called to leadership positions, tend to naturally adopt the same view and rhetoric.
To what extent this American emphasis on personal development ties in with original Mormon doctrine is a difficult question. One could refer to the belief that man’s earthly mission is one of learning and growth, a time of probation, within a perspective of eternal progression, which is a recurrent theme in Mormon sermons, already in the 19th century. However, the encouragement to reach material goals already during mortal existence sounds definitely more “American” than Scriptural. Also, it has frequently been remarked that the highlighting of individual ideals, including the pursuit of personal wealth, was a 20th-century development in Mormon ethics, when the Church adopted American values in the assimilation mode. Compared to 19th-century ideals, the thrust was then more to develop an egalitarian Mormon society in which individuals served for the common good.
Whether this emphasis on self-realization is appropriate or not is outside the discussion here. But we should at least note that in many countries it runs counter to religious ideologies that, in their very core, revere abnegation, self-denial, submissiveness. For Mormon converts from such realms the adoption of the Restored gospel will thus require, at least mentally, a realignment to notions of self-actualization and glorification of the individual. The rhetoric thrives, directly or indirectly, on rhetoric from the American Dream, with even in the background the spirit of “true-blooded Americans of Pilgrim stock”. The expression was used by Elder Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the Church. Though his remarks date back to 1924 — but others of the same alloy can be found in following decades –, the core message may still run deep in present-day Mormon thought, more than anyone would probably be willing to admit nowadays:
“I rejoice this morning with all my heart that I am a member of the Church — this American Church that owes no allegiance to any foreign power or potentate, the only real American Church worthy of the name. It is American through and through. It was established by true-blooded Americans of Pilgrim stock, the best Americans from Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and the surrounding New England states. Such men were the founders of our Church. It is American in ideals, American in thought, American in every activity connected with it, American in its desire to bless and benefit the people. There is not any other church that can claim anything like that” (Conference report, October 1924).
3 – The behavioral realm
A third area seems more intricate to distinguish as it pertains to elements in the behavioral realm — I point in particular to physical, affective and pragmatic conduct in interpersonal relations. I bring it up as a tentative topic, for I don’t think it has been paid much attention to.
Is there a certain “American” behavior, and I should perhaps narrow it down to a subjectively defined sphere of “white, middle-class, easy-going, efficient American”, which is therefore also found in the U.S. outside Mormonism, but (much) less in other cultures, and which transfers to Mormon units abroad? Depending on the distance between American culture and the foreign culture, such transfer of behavior will be more or less noticeable (but, by default, inconspicuous to Americans themselves). Again, the point here is not to discuss appropriateness or desirability, but the identification of behaviors as idiosyncratic.
One should indeed consider that wherever in the world the Church has been established, white middle-class Americans were (and often still are) the originators, organizers, and first leaders of church units. Historically this came about through thousands of missionaries, mainly from America’s West. It has been remarked that converts are often those most amenable to America and American culture, thus facilitating the transmission of behavior from the missionaries to them. Next thousands of Mormon American families living abroad, as well as scores of older missionary couples, also infuse local units with their behavioral patterns. Present-day missionaries, called from foreign lands, are immersed in a mission organization where the rules and interactions are shaped by Americans and to which they are expected to conform. After their mission (sometimes even fulfilled in the U.S.) and their return home, there is a fair chance that newly acquired habits will remain. Mission presidents, most still from the U.S. or Americanized, and visiting authorities, American or Americanized, disseminate through their function as role models particular behavioral patterns in their contact with local leaders and members. Church-produced media contribute to the same. The channels through which these patterns flow to members abroad are numerous.
What kind of conduct does this all pertain to? The informality and equality of social contact between genders and between ages — often a major dissimilarity with patterns in other cultures. The way to approach strangers and start a conversation. The open signs of friendship as tokens of belonging to the network. The distance between standing persons when talking to each other. The facial demonstration of assertiveness and commitment. The firm and somewhat longer handshake, with a smile and a direct gaze in each other’s eyes. The way to hug. Eye contact during interviews and meetings. A certain jovial looseness in conducting meetings. The humor. The casual speaking style from the pulpit. The presence and conduct of children during meetings. The effect of homogenizing dress and grooming standards on behavior. The use of superlatives, extolling others as “wonderful” and “great”, praising each child or youngster as “special”. And more.
These examples of behavior, which of course represent averages and which are in stages of progress in parts where the Church is new, may seem trivial to Americans because they have them ingrained as natural. But, in most foreign countries, it would suffice to go to the worship meeting of any other local, vested religion, or to any other kind of meeting for that matter, to understand the distance from behavioral patterns which have been adopted in a Mormon unit and which come, basically, from American models. I underline that my approach to this topic is tentative. Still, in view of the importance of behavioral patterns to form a community, this aspect might be significant in the subliminal layers of a worldwide gospel culture.
Note that I have not included, as an American component, the corporate, managerial style of doing things, first because that style is not typically American (any more), second because it does not necessarily affect all the members. But, indirectly, the tendency to call as ward, stake and regional leaders, and hire as Church employees, members who seem most fit, by personality and profession, to blend in the corporate, managerial style, reinforces such leaders to other members as role models.
Considering the three areas touched upon — historical-geographical, ideological, and behavioral — I believe these components can be called “American” because, considered in worldwide perspective, they could not have been infused from another cultural realm. Mormonism, in its expansion to other parts of the world, can thus aptly be called “an American world religion”, as in the subtitle of Eliason’s anthology of landmark essays on Mormonism (2001).
Evidently, we understand the rhetoric that tries to defuse the idea that Mormonism is an American religion, on the one hand to avoid the political halo or the derogatory connotation tied to the term “American”, and on the other hand to stress the universality of the gospel message. But is Mormonism not American in a similar sense as Hinduism is an “Indian” world religion, Islam “Arabic”, or Catholicism “Roman” — with all of the nuances and caveats such characterizations entail? Moreover, with this main difference that Mormonism is, in comparison, extremely young and therefore still intensely tied to its birth place. It took many centuries to start perceiving Islam or Catholicism as geographically universal religions. Still, the etymological meaning of “Roman Catholic” is “from Rome, universal”.
And so, while we know that the message of the Restored Gospel is universal, how American is the Church? What do we lose, what do we gain by affirming that we are, or that we are not, an American Church?