One way to think about religious difference is with isoglosses. Any feature of how we speak–the words we use, how we pronounce them, what they mean–can differ from other people’s usage. The imaginary line that separates people who share a particular speech habit from people who don’t share it is called an isogloss. In the US, if you drew a line around all the people who say “y’all,” or rather around all the places where a majority of such people live, you would have an isogloss. Most national languages of Europe have produced encyclopedic works of linguistic geography that map out the borders between dialectal features.
Some Mormon religious practices and beliefs, both major and minor, are shared with other religions. We’re on the monotheistic side of the line, along with Jews and Muslims and other Christians. Other practices and beliefs, such as according religious authority to the Book of Mormon, are important dividing lines that separate us from nearly all other churches. Isoglosses can run through the middle of language areas, just like denominations can experience religious differences among their adherents: High Church vs. Low Church, for example, or ‘willing to ordain women pastors’ vs. ‘not willing.’ There are distinctions within Mormonism. For example, we can imagine an imaginary line separating sundown-to-lunchtime fasters from not-one-second-less-than-24-hours fasters.
Do any of these lines matter? Some of them clearly do. If you don’t share enough common features, you’re no longer speaking the same language. But in many cases, minor differences are invested with more significance than they actually have. In Indo-European studies, scholars spent a century classifying languages as belonging to either the centum- or satem-group, depending on palatalization of initial velar stops, before coming to the conclusion that the distinction was uninformative and arbitrary; there were no other features that set apart centum- or satem-languages as a group. To note another famous example, it doesn’t really cause any confusion if you say ‘shibboleth’ or ‘sibboleth,’ unless the Gileadites decide to kill you because you and the other Ephraimites can’t pronounce a palatalized initial s-.
Is “Utah Mormon” a coherent dialect? We can map out all those places that enjoy released-time seminary and other relevant “isoglosses” of religious practice, such as proximity to church leaders, monuments, and meeting houses, maybe even a peculiar view of church and state. Maybe thereâ€™s a slightly different dialect of Mormon in Hawaii. Do the differences add up to something significant?
One lesson we can learn from dialect geography is that linguistic boundaries are messy. Isoglosses of significant features do not neatly run together, no matter how similar they seem. Among German dialects, the boundary between ich and ik is one line, the boundary between machen and maken is another. It’s a mistake to think that “liberal Mormon” or “conservative Mormon” identifies any neatly delimitated groups of people or beliefs. For example, some people will support legalizing gay marriage while at the same time holding fast to the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The hard part is figuring out what elements of Mormon belief and practice constitute necessary borders, and which have become shibboleths invested with meaning far beyond their actual significance.