Are Mormons a “myopic” people?

Are Mormons a “myopic� people? The historian Richard Poll first suggested the possibility in an article on Mormon personality published many years ago.

By myopic, Poll meant something like detached and removed from the larger world outside our daily routines. Mormons, he said, are, by and large, “uninterested and uninformed about the problems of the world beyond the valley [that is, the Salt Lake Valley] and apathetic in the discharge of our civic responsibilities.� For support, Poll cited anecdotal evidence from his BYU classes and his own work within the Provo community.

Poll’s main point was to rally Mormons to political activism, but it is his explanation for Mormon myopia that interests me. In a brief aside, Poll implied that Mormons are apathetic because they believe the world is doomed. Society’s institutions will inevitably fail, many Mormons say, as they point to the instances of moral decay they see around them. This apocalyptic mentality, according to Poll, keeps Mormons from throwing themselves into the weighty problems that exercise most college campuses and legislative hallways. Mormons would rather sit back and watch for the “signs of the times� than enter the gritty details of world politics. What is the point in investing all the effort if destruction awaits at the end?

Do T&S readers think something like Mormon myopia exists? Are Mormons less likely to read newspapers, to vote, to have well-thought-out opinions, to look for solutions to big problems. Is the myopic portrayal fair?

Personally I think evidence exists on both sides of the ledger, but I would like to hear what others think.

21 comments for “Are Mormons a “myopic” people?

  1. john fowles
    December 9, 2004 at 3:04 pm

    This apocalyptic mentality, according to Poll, keeps Mormons from throwing themselves into the weighty problems that exercise most college campuses and legislative hallways. Mormons would rather sit back and watch for the “signs of the times� than enter the gritty details of world politics. What is the point in investing all the effort if destruction awaits at the end?

    If this is true then it is not right and even warned about in the NT. We should try our hardest to be anxiously engaged, not only in building up the Kingdom of God but also in strengthening the society around us; eventually, these two goals will unite and move forward together.

  2. December 9, 2004 at 3:07 pm

    I think that magnifying church callings, having large families and paying tithing (and offerings) often prevent LDS people from activiely participating in politics or contributing to non-LDS causes. Also, attending lots of church activities (having social circles that are almost entirely LDS) might create a barrier to Mormons interacting with the world-at-large as well. The Word of Wisdom could play a role as well, since it might limit the degree to which LDS people interact with non-LDS people in certain social contexts.

    So maybe the answer is yes in many cases. But I have to believe that there are people who manage to get past all these barriers.

  3. December 9, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    “Mormons are apathetic because they believe the world is doomed”

    Well if that’s what’s really going to happen are Mormons being myopic or pragmatic? ;-)

    But to address the question:

    Anecdotally at least, Poll’s analysis doesn’t sound quite add up to me. Although you may find less ‘political’ activism among Mormons (and has that changed since the late ’80s?), in my experience Mormons tend to be very active in their community. Perhaps our theology makes us focus on more mico-concerns, but, in general, most people who are engaged with the world are engaged in this form of service/activism.

    And to turn it around — one might say that some of the failures of academics and politically-motivated individuals is their focus on the weighty matters — especially when they do so from a secular-utopian (i.e. modern) perspective.

  4. December 9, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    While there probably a fair amount of myopia in the Church (danithew elucidated possibilities that make sense to me), the idea of an apocalyptic myopia is (at least empirically) shaky.

    I admit that there was a period in my youth when I read anything apocalyptic and LDS I could get my hands on and (while I am now a wee bit embarrassed) actively “waited�. I believe that there is a dynamic segment of the church that is at any given time “apocalyptic�, the bulk is probably better described as capitalistic.

    Although, apocalypticism could account for the Mormon affinity for debt. Why save when you’ll just have to give it away?

  5. Mark B
    December 9, 2004 at 6:11 pm

    I’m reminded of the floods in Salt Lake City in the early 80’s. Apparently the mayor and other civic leaders made pleas for volunteers to come downtown, fill sandbags, build levees, etc., and about 37 people showed up.

    Then the Church notified stake presidents to encourage people to get to work, and thousands showed up. City Creek was diverted to one of the major east-west streets, with sandbag embankments, and major damage to the city was averted.

    Similar engagement of church members is disaster relief occurs in other places–Idaho when the Teton Dam broke, Florida after the hurricanes, southern California when fires destroyed homes, etc. I think we as a people can be a considerable force for good, when we are asked or invited to do so by our leaders.

    The question remains whether we have any particular inclination to “do good” when we haven’t been asked or invited by our priesthood leaders. I can only speak for myself, and admit that, frankly, I’m not very good at doing good. In fact, I know many people of other faiths who seem to do better at it than I do.

    Even more than lack of political activism, lack of charitable activism is a matter that should concern us. (And, if there are charitable activists among us, God bless them! May their kind increase.)

  6. December 9, 2004 at 6:33 pm

    Timothy Flannigan, a politically active and very well connected LDS super-lawyer in DC, wrote an article a while ago making a similar argument. Entitled “Wiemar on the Wasatch,” it was published in the Clarke Memorandum, the JRCLS alumni magazine. I will try to find the link when I get a minute.

  7. December 9, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    here is the link to the Clarke Memorandum containing Flannigan’s talk, which was given as I recall as an early morning honors devotional at BYU.

  8. Julie in Austin
    December 9, 2004 at 7:42 pm

    I think the apathy has more to do with busy-ness than anything else. Take your average active member, and try to cram so much as a PTA meeting into a week already filled with Sunday meetings, FHE, Mutual, Enrichment, Scouts . . . did I mention Ward Temple Night and Date Night?

  9. Mark B
    December 9, 2004 at 7:53 pm

    I think you’re right, Julie, about the busy-ness.

    There’s another question lurking behind that explanation, though: are we “anxiously engaged in good causes” or merely, like Martha “cumbered about much serving”?

  10. December 9, 2004 at 7:53 pm

    Mark, I wonder if part of the problem with the Mayor’s request was chaos and organization. I think most people are willing to help if they think they are needed. Yet when someone makes a request, one isn’t sure if enough others will show up so that you won’t be needed. Further I halfway wonder how many heard the requests? I seem to recall that the initial problems weren’t had in Provo because they organized things a tad better. (I wasn’t around then so perhaps this is after the fact mythmaking)

  11. Mark B
    December 9, 2004 at 8:08 pm

    Good point Clark. There’s always the problem with calls for mass action that there will be either too few (so if you show up, you’ll work 48 hours straight) or too many (and you’ll stand around for an hour with your hands in your pockets). At least if you go with your quorum/ward/class, you have the benefit of being with friends when you’re either slaving away or standing with hands in pockets.

  12. Mickey
    December 9, 2004 at 8:14 pm

    What is missing here is acknowledgement that the “busy-ness” if often in fact “doing good” in a more effectual way than a lot of “activism.” Just because BYU students never burnt anything down doesn’t mean they’ve never done anything to change the world. The example of the 1980’s flood isn’t an example of apathy, it is an example of how the Wasatch Front COMMUNITY communicates. Different communities get mobilized in different ways. All those anti-globalization demonstrators aren’t simply responding spontaneously to one plea from a “leaderâ€? on the boob toob. They are organized very carefully in ways that work in their communities.

    The Latter-day Saints are very engaged in making the world a better place. We just do it in a slightly different way and a little more quietly. Having said that, we can always do better

  13. Mark B
    December 9, 2004 at 8:22 pm


    Part of me wants to say “Amen” loudly to the first part of your post, while the other wants to say it even louder to the last line.

    It’s like my dad used to say to me, or the dog, “What do you think about when you’re not thinking about anything at all?” What do we do when we’re not being asked to do something?

  14. John Mansfield
    December 9, 2004 at 9:18 pm

    This measure is only so useful, but consider the current U.S. Congressional delegations. For California, 3 of its 53 Representatives are Mormons; for Arizona 1 of 8; and for Idaho 1 of 2. Political involvement is only one kind of community involvement, and state legislatures work hard to make Congressional delegations as unrepresentative as they can get away with. Nevertheless, it is a measure, and by this measure, Mormons are not uninvolved with their communities.

  15. December 9, 2004 at 9:39 pm

    Generally speaking, most of the Latter-day Saints I have known (for about 25 years now) have been some of the most caring, passionate, actively-seeking-to-make-the-world-a-better-place people I’ve ever seen! Yes, in large part by making their homes and families a haven from the world, but also by reaching out to the world and playing some strong roles in grassroots endeavors.

    I don’t think in general that we are “myopic”; just maybe a bit preoccupied with all that we trying to do. And it is not easy to be “in the world and not of the world.” Sometimes it is easier to focus on the “not of the world” part and not spend as much time on being “in the world” (I have seen some families that do this–they seem to be completely out of touch with the real world-you know what I mean!). But our Church Leaders teach us that we need to be a part of making the world a better place, and I think that we do. We do have several LDS politicians who are doing their part to try to influence the world. But as fathers and mothers and teachers and doctors and lawyers and writers and citizens, we all have a voice in shaping the world, whether we realize it or not.

  16. Rob Briggs
    December 9, 2004 at 11:41 pm

    Mark B: “Then the Church notified stake presidents to encourage people to get to work, and thousands showed up. City Creek was diverted to one of the major east-west streets, with sandbag embankments, and major damage to the city was averted.”

    And on Sunday too. (Apropos of the thread on Ox-in-the-Mire of a while back.)

    Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge has a good description.

  17. Rob Briggs
    December 10, 2004 at 12:24 am

    Julie in Austin: ” . . . into a week already filled with Sunday meetings, FHE, Mutual, Enrichment, Scouts . . . did I mention Ward Temple Night and Date Night?”

    The church has scaled back on the meetings & their demands on our time. I’m home most nights and I suspect most of you are — judging by the regularity of your blogging posts (unless you’re posting during bishopric or high council meetings). The last Dialogue has an interview with former Utah Demo Congressman David S. King who was also on the YM General Board. He described what Mutual was REALLY like (back in the 60s & 70s). These programs are much simpler then they used to be. So I’m among those who say we can & ought to do better.

    But first, let me finish reading these blogs . . .

  18. December 10, 2004 at 12:10 pm

    If Poll is addressing the SLC valley specifically I’m not sure what I can contribute besides some observations on population. By the last census, Utah was listed with a 2.2 million population. SLC propper was about 182 thousand and the valley was about 1.3 million. We know the church estimates is membership at about 12 million. I would find it a little troubling to estimate the world wide church as myopic or detached on a 10 percent sample from a very limited pool.

    Perhaps the LDS population does not get so involved on national levels but who is to say how active we are in local issues, which are more of an immediate impact on us than national agendas. Also, its interesting to note activity or inactivity in politics is not the deciding factor in whether we are detached from the world at large.

    I would hope that to a large degree we are. Counsel such as p0rnography, WoW, alcohol, entertainment choices etc certainly set us apart from the world but can also present oprotunities to discuss our beliefs with the outside world. One of the greatest votes we can cast is the vote with our pocket book.

    Of course there is still politics and LDS activity again is not defiend by how many LDS serve and how high up in political power they serve. Politics is a dirty game. The fact that not many LDS participate goes a long way to say that we would prefer not to get swept up in corruption etc. Now, I understand this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t but thats why I think it is fair to say there is probably more involvement on local levels world wide.

    Out here in the mission field I find a lot of socially active LDS. Most everyone in our ward participates. Maybe that is just the anomally, but I would say thats a strong contradiction to Poll’s assesment of a myopic people.

  19. Shannon Keeley
    December 11, 2004 at 1:11 am

    “Counsel such as p0rnography, WoW, alcohol, entertainment choices etc certainly set us apart from the world but can also present opportunities to discuss our beliefs with the outside world.�
    This is a good point, Charles. Many members of our Los Angeles stake were very active in a community effort to restrict strip bars from being located too close to residential neighborhoods and other places where there are lots of kids.
    It seems that, at least in our area, members are more likely actively get involved in something political if it is linked to a “morally sensitive� topic, like p0rnography, etc. But when it comes to social problems like homelessness, poverty, etc., it seems we are less likely to get involved.

  20. December 13, 2004 at 10:47 am

    I’m not sure how accurate my thoughts on that are Shannon, but I would imagine that distintion between moral issues and homless or poverty stems from existing organizations. In most states and cities there is already a large facilitation for homeless, welfare, child services, and many other sicial ills. The government already recognizes the need to help these people. Another topic is whether I believe they are doing the best job they could, the best way the could. Also, there is a large church relief system in place for members and the church works with relilef for non-members in larger scales such as disaster. Thats probably why less involvment seems to be needed by the church for those issues over morality issues.

    I think there is an absence of government involvment in morality issues. In fact in many cases, such as gambling, the government endorses immorality because of the financial gain. Citizens groups need to be involved with these issues and I think we can make a huge difference as a church by standing with those who see the same battles being waged.

  21. Shannon Keeley
    December 15, 2004 at 3:36 am

    Charles, that’s an interesting point. I agree it does seem that there are already some government based (as well as church based) systems in place for social problems like homelessness, and there is less government involvement in moral issues. But I think that’s because on social issues it’s pretty safe to assume that most citizens agree that people in need should be helped. (Although, there’s plenty of disagreement about how that help should be offered.) But on moral issues, there’s too much disagreement among citizens regarding what’s appropriate, inappropriate, what should be legalized, what should be illegal, when government should intervene, etc. Obviously, the government can’t intervene if its citizens can’t agree or come to a majority decision on what should be done.

    In my area, though, it really seems like private organizations, not government organizations, are the ones primarily making a difference on social issues like poverty and homelessness. Nearby Santa Monica has a soaring homeless population (it was 30,000 the last time I heard a figure quoted). There are lots of worthy private organizations that need help and support, but again, it seems like members are more interested in getting involved with moral issues, like p0rnography, gambling, etc. I’m not saying that these issues aren’t important as well, but there’s no lack of other private organizations out there fueling the fight against these problems. In my opinion, having 30,000 homeless people on the street in your community poses just as much of a problem as having too many strip bars in your community. But we don’t seem to care about that problem as much, or find it as worthy of our attention adn efforts.

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