Am I a Pharisee?Earlier this week, J. Max Wilson wrote a substantial critique of the Mormon intellectuals who argue that orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy (he doesn’t explicitly mention many examples, but I can’t help but feel that Enoch’s nuancimony at Faith-Promoting Rumor, along with a lot of things here or on New Order Mormonism, would draw his ire). His central image was pointed: this trend represents the rise of modern Mormon Pharisees. Between the comments section and some buzz around disaffected and former Mormon blogs, the post struck a nerve. So I want to disclaim: maybe some of the NOMish and liberal believers on this site would be “right in the cross-hairs” of Wilson’s criticism — maybe Wheat & Tares in its entirety has this image problem. Maybe you will personally feel attacked.

Interestingly enough, I’ve addressed this topic individually in comparing and contrasting Mormonism with Judaism. I’ve grappled with the issue, but more and more recently, I’ve been resigned to the fact that maybe Mormonism cannot be as “open-tent” as some Jewish denominations…because Mormonism is a religion.

Mormon Perspectives: faithful, cultural, and other believer
Image courtesy of Chanson via Main Street Plaza. Click for source post with full-sized image

But in comparing and contrasting my post with Wilson’s, I think I found an interesting difference. If I have any fault, it is because I long for an acceptance of a kind of cultural Mormonism in addition to religious, believing Mormonism. But the fault that Wilson proposes is in the advocacy of a kind of liberal, orthoprax Mormonism in addition to conservative, believing Mormonism.

So, I feel that while I wouldn’t fit on Wilson’s “good side,” I avoid some of his criticisms and fears.

  • As a cultural Mormon, I don’t necessary want to give the impression that I’m a believer (especially if I know I don’t believe in the way people will interpret a belief statement in.)
  • As a result of the former, as a cultural Mormon, I wouldn’t want to “infiltrate” areas of the religion that are predicated on belief (being a Bishop or some other calling like that, attending the temple, and so on).

Nevertheless, it is true that I wouldn’t be a “seeker.” And I would be asking for some concessions of the church (the big tent movement generally asks for some changes. For example, changing the climate to accommodate “cultural” believers would by itself have ripples through doctrines and beliefs.)

…Anyway, I’m nearly 400 words into this post, and I’ve been assuming something that I have yet to justify.

Is there such a thing as cultural Mormonism?

I’ve always intuited that the answer here is, “Yes, of course!” I compare and contrast denominations, and conclude that Mormonism gives those who are raised in it not merely a vocabulary but a language — a language that seems mostly intelligible with super-culture languages (like, say, English, for the United States), but which still has some unintelligibilities. Mormonism inculcates vantage points and habits that one doesn’t so easily shake off even if they may not believe in core doctrines. Not a lot of other denominations do that.

I was trying to think of why this could be, and at some point, I supposed (can you guess what Mormon-related thing I’ll link to the word “suppose”?): aha! Cultural Mormonism exists as a function of correlation.

Correlation is what allows generations of Mormons to speak the same language and understand the same symbols, metaphors, and idioms. And the best thing is…this travels across the country and the world — we can go to any Mormon church the world over and basically feel at home.

Utah Culture: JelloI feel a lot of people conceive of cultural Mormonism very differently. They think of cultural Mormonism as a “Utah” thing — and reel in horror at it.

(This is obviously problematic for me, because if I mention cultural Mormonism, then someone will say, “But you never grew up in Utah!”)

So, I thought: cultural Mormonism is different from Utah culture. Once again, correlation is the reason why.

I thought for a time that this would be a slam dunk for cultural Mormonism…and when people could see that there legitimately are people who are Mormon through and through culturally (even if not orthodoxically), they would accept that cultural Mormonism should be accommodated.

…unfortunately, more and more, I’ve begun to think that there are holes all around.

For The Strength of Youth (vintage)For one, the solidifying tool of correlation on Mormon belief and practices also works against me. I saw this through several posts. One was a post at Main Street Plaza about the changes in the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet. J. Seth’s final lines struck me:

…maybe that’s why the 1965 edition surprised me: it’s a relic of a church I never knew, a reflection of a culture pre-correlation, and a reminder that members were at one time not nearly as micromanaged as they are now.

But that wasn’t all…because I realized there wasn’t simply a divide between a culture “pre-correlation” and a culture now…but that today’s correlated Mormon culture is just as ephemeral…because of correlation itself. Alan once posted before about the elusiveness of the LDS Newsroom, and when Ms. Jack posted her frustrations with talking both to Mormons who fully accept certain unique LDS doctrines and Mormons who reject those same doctrines as anti-Mormon and completely undoctrinal, I had to note that the quiet way correlation often works allows for a surprising diversity of belief.

There are times when the church changes some thing without much fanfare, and you might never know unless you were paying close attention. Consider the quietude of the Poelman conference talk change in 1984 (or see Rock Waterman’s written post about the same). The people who pay attention then can say, “Well, we believe (new thing.)” and be aware of the history of what we once believed. Meanwhile, the people who weren’t paying attention never know the wiser and stick with old beliefs, while the people who join after never know the wiser and stick with new beliefs.

Even if certain beliefs are simply dropped out of favor (“I don’t know that we teach that”), the ambiguity as to whether the belief is debunked or simply de-emphasized allows people to go where their mileage takes them.

I mean…did you know about the race-related changes to footnotes and chapter headings in the scriptures? Even if you don’t, these mean that some group of Mormons will “grow up” never having even recognizing there were ever such phrasings.

In the end, I have to admit: cultural Mormonism becomes more and more flimsy of a concept. Now, I can’t be so sure that I can identify via shared language or experiences with other Mormons…now, I am limited by age demographic, time of activity, and so much more.

The final nail in the cultural Mormon coffin is the fact that, even disregarding the frequent (and sometimes silent) changes in doctrine and practices that bifurcate the group of people who would otherwise share a Mormon experience…the problem is that none of this would even be possible without the believers in the first place. Cultural Mormonism always exists as an unintended and undesired byproduct of a real religion predicated upon belief.

EDITS: I’ve been editing the piece to fix my sloppy attributions. Please note the attribution of the Mormon Perspectives venn diagram and the corrected attribution of the article on the 1965 For the Strength of Youth to J. Seth Anderson.