Why do voters have such a hard time connecting with Mormon candidates?  Is it our weird values?  Is it inauthenticity on our part?  Is it flip flopping?  Is it our inability or unwillingness to answer direct questions about religion?  Is it that we use unfamiliar language to describe our beliefs?  Is it fear of the unknown?

I’ve been reading a book by David Pollock about Third Culture Kids (TCKs), kids who are raised in more than one culture.  Pres. Obama is a classic example of a TCK:  born in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia, has multi-cultural parents who are also bi-racial.  TCKs have broader experience and perspective than someone raised in a mono-cultural environment, but these experiences also isolate them.  They often have a harder time fitting in to any one culture, and they often resent what they consider to be unexamined narrow-minded prejudices and assumptions. 

First, what is culture?  Generally speaking, it’s the shared assumptions, beliefs and values of a group of people.  It can include food, customs, behaviors, and even the prejudices that bind people together.

Both Huntsman and Romney are Mormon TCKs.  Despite multi-generational Mormon ancestry, they have both lived extensively outside the Mormon Corridor.  One type of TCK is the “hidden immigrant,” someone who looks like everyone else on the outside, but on the inside they know their values or assumptions differ from the predominant culture.  This is one reason that Romney (as a TBM) struggles to connect authentically with religious voters (and with more conservative Republicans); he says “I’m just like you” but he knows in his heart that he’s not really.  Huntsman (a not-so TBM) goes the other route; instead of trying to fit in, he points out how he differs (spiritual, not religious and other statements).  In so doing, he will connect with voters as being more authentic, but some Mormons (especially TBMs) may resent the rejection of their values and culture.  Both candidates run the risk of falling into a classic TCK trap:  having difficulty identifying and articulating their own values because of their empathy with a variety of cultural values.  The majority of voters are simple folks who favor clear-minded prejudice over situational values.

Romney & Huntsman’s experiences are not so rare among Mormons, just among Utah Mormons.  Here are some of the experiences that lead to being what I am calling a Mormon TCK:

  • Mormon kids raised where members are a rare minority.  This one is the most common.  A kid has to learn from an early age how to navigate a world where people may dislike Mormons, misunderstand them or never have heard of them.  Even if someone was raised as a Mormon in a single location, but Mormons are uncommon there, they have had to navigate between two cultures on a daily basis. 
  • Children of converts.  A kid becomes aware at an early age that their parents were raised in a different culture than the one in which they are being raised; extended family members may have different cultural values or break Mormon taboos like drinking coffee and alcohol and smoking.  This would also include kids whose parents join the church while the children are living at home.
  • One or more non-LDS parents.  Children with a parent belonging to another faith or even LDS kids raised with a non-LDS nanny will be exposed to varied cultural values in the home.  It could even include adoptees or foster children whose birth families are not LDS.
  • Racial minorities.  Kids whose parents are a racial minority in the church or who themselves are racial minorities in the church will adapt in cross-cultural ways.  It’s not important what the race is, only that it is not the majority in the local ward the child attends.

So what are the benefits and drawbacks to being a Mormon TCK?  First some benefits:

  • Adaptability.  They easily fit in with non-Mormons and can quickly adapt in groups where others don’t share their cultural assumptions; they come across as neutral and respectful.  People are sometimes surprised to find out that they are Mormons because they aren’t aware that they are different.  Of course, this means they make lousy targets for typical mission pranks.
  • Less Prejudice.  They are often more understanding of those who are from other faiths or various non-traditional backgrounds and who are in the minority.  They may not even be aware of the standard set of prejudices that Mormons sometimes espouse.  They don’t take an “us” vs. “them” mentality because they have been a “them” for so much of their formative years.
  • Creativity.  They are generally more willing to try new approaches or break so-called Mormon traditions.  Because they don’t have pre-conceived notions about how church programs “should” be run, they “break all the rules” since they don’t know they exist.
  • Confidence.  They may develop self-confidence from being culturally unique.  Their confidence may be taken for arrogance among those who don’t share their varity of experiences. 

On the downside, they may experience some drawbacks when they try to fit in with the traditional Utah culture or to fit in with TBMs:

  • Relativism.  They may become so good at adapting to groups of people with different beliefs that they aren’t sure what they stand for or which things are values and which are beliefs.  They may have a hard time grappling with the differences between their chosen values and the predominant assumptions they encounter at church.
  • More Prejudice.  They may go out of their way to point out how different they are from Utah Mormons, defining their self image as whatever the opposite is.   They may resent the dominant LDS culture when they are exposed to it because they feel they don’t fit in.  They may refuse to partake of the green jello, as it were.
  •  Anti-authoritarian.  Because their values and assumptions were formed outside of Utah culture, they may be quick to identify cultural differences that they reject.  They tend to be more questioning because of this cultural awareness.

Living in a Bubble

*NOTE 1:   In some cases, those who are raised cross-culturally further entrench into their Mormon cultural bubble and develop an elitist attitude toward local values.  This really only flourishes when parents have freely spoken with disdain about others.  They become ultra-Mormon to combat the wicked world that surrounds them.  The kids, however, still have to navigate both worlds. Unless the kids are home-schooled, they will probably get the crap beat out of them at school with this attitude.

**NOTE 2:  To some extent, missionaries may develop a cross-cultural perspective, but there are two caveats:  (1) most missionaries are already adults with fully formed values and beliefs, so they see the new culture in contrast to their existing values, and (2) many missionaries are capable of maintaining the cultural bubble while serving; mission rules can act as a cocoon of cultural protection (their intended purpose if I’m not mistaken).

TCKs vs. Utah Mormons

This goes a long way toward explaining why there are some negative feelings toward Utah Mormons or from Utah Mormons toward Mormons TCKs.

  •  Insecurity.  It boils down to fear of rejection and in some cases, actual rejection.  Mormon TCKs know that they don’t fit in and either they want to or they don’t.  Either way, they want to be accepted for who they are, even though they are different and have different experiences.  Utah Mormons may feel threatened by outside perspectives because their religious values are tied up with their cultural values.  They may also feel that they are being judged as provincial or naive.  And sometimes they are provincial and naive.
  • Arrogance.  Both sides may feel smug and superior, either because they fit in or because they don’t.  Whether the arrogance is real or perceived, it creates a divide.

Are you a TCK Mormon?  Do you share any of these experiences or attitudes?  Discuss.