Alright people, here we go…on labels! (apollo, this one’s for you.)
- Labels of preference
- These are the labels anyone can just pick for themselves. “Awesome”, “feminist”, and “Abba fan” are all labels of preference. You just pick one, apply it to yourself, and no one can say you’re wrong! These labels aren’t owned by any organization, so they mean whatever you want them to mean.
- Labels of significance
- These are labels a person must earn, like “doctor”, “lawyer”, and “cosmetologist”. Labels of significance are “owned” by an organization, like the American Medical Association owns “doctor” (at least in America). In order to acquire a label of significance, a person has to meet the qualifications set by the body that owns that label.
- Labels of organization
- These labels are used internally within organizations, like “sergeant”, “project manager”, and “Relief Society President”. These labels don’t signify things a person has done, but rather point at the things that person will be doing. They are labels of convenience, and generally identify roles and responsibilities a person will carry within an organization.
Sometimes heated discussions ensue over the proper application of labels, like, say, whether someone really is a “feminist”, a “mother”…or a “Mormon”. Usually these debates are painful and fruitless because the parties are arguing about labels of preference as though they were actually labels of significance.
So what kind of label is “Mormon”?
It’s easiest to approach as a label of organization — from that perspective, anyone whose name is on the church rolls is a Mormon (and everyone else is not).
Is it also a label of significance? No. No one “owns” the word Mormon, and no one can stop you from calling yourself one. The one related label of significance that comes to my mind is “temple-worthy Mormon”. In that case, the label does signify that certain qualifications are met by the person who holds the label. Of course, not all the people labeled temple-worthy are actually temple-worthy, but then again neither do all doctors actually meet the qualifications of being a doctor — what matters, from the label’s perspective, is that there are qualifications and that meeting those qualifications results in some tangible privilege (temple attendance, in this case).
The question, then, is, is “Mormon” a label of preference? I think it is, in the same sense that “buddhist” or “taoist” are. I have two friends who are active members of the church who refer to themselves as a “buddhist Mormon” and a “taoist Mormon”, and for them the words “buddhist” and “taoist” express preferences beyond those that are just held in the organizational label of “Mormon”.
I’m told that the word “muslim”, in its literal sense, means “one who submits”, and that anyone who submits to the will of God, whether or not as an actual adherent to Islam, is, in that sense, a muslim. With these labels, there’s a sense that being “buddhist”, “taoist”, or “muslim” connotes a way of being, one that’s not necessarily strictly confined to a religion. So, in addition to the organizational label of “Mormon”, I think there’s a preference label of “mormon”.
So what does being “mormon” connote? If a Catholic friend of yours said, “I’m a mormon Catholic”, what would that mean? Of course, as with any label of preference, there’s no final answer — figuring it out through discussion is the fun. That said, here’s my definition for “mormon” (with echoes from Joseph and Brigham): a mormon is one who is motivated by the quest for truth and joy — to seek out every praiseworthy thing, and to live deeply in the greatest happiness possible, and to assist others in their own quests for happiness. In contrast to the submissive nature of “muslim” or the reflective nature of “buddhist”, “mormon” connotes an experimental, bold, carpe diem approach to life.
There’s certainly a case to be made (and I imagine some of you will make it) that “mormon” should connote a prudish, fearful, unimposing or demure approach to life — but those are not the traits that I see at the core of our religion. I think those are traits that we have accreted from our protestant environment, and from our human desire to fit into mainstream society. At its core, however, I see see mormonism as the beating heart of God, reflected in passionate, loving lives of His children.