Lately, there has been a lot of use of the slogan “I’m A Mormon”. Yesterday, ABC did a news story about the “very savvy branding campaign” the Church just started in NYC with the “I’m A Mormon” campaign. In the ever-growing presidential campaign coverage, we hear about Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman and what Mormonism means for them. There have been a number of recent posts and comments on various blogs about what “being a Mormon” entails. So what does “I’m A Mormon” really mean? Who can be a Mormon?
There are 2 different ways of answering this question, an inclusive way and an exclusive way. Many groups are inclusive in their definition. Consider Judaism. There is orthodox Judaism, conservative Judaism, reform Judaism, as well as a number of other subgroups. There are people born into Judaism, people who converted to Judaism, and people who might just attend a synagogue. While they may quibble about various points, they are all seen as “Jews” by the majority of the world.
It is similar in Buddhism. There are three main branches of Buddhism: Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Within these there are many different subgroups. But, the various branches of Buddhism are accepted as different ways individuals approach the same ultimate goal. As one Buddhist monk taught, “Ultimately, you could say that there are as many ways as there have been individual Buddhists throught the history of Buddhism, because ultimately going for refuge is an individual decision that each individual has to figure out how to put into practice in his or her life. We can think of the individual Buddhists as the leaves on the tree. Leaves grow on twigs attached to limbs that grow out of branches out of the main trunk.”
Before considering individuals within the LDS Church, look at how the inclusive vs exclusive nature also affects us as a institutional Church. Consider Christianity. There are many different groups that, while differing in details, all consider themselves Christian because of their belief in Jesus Christ as our Savior. And many of them do NOT consider Mormons Christian. We, however, want to be included. We want them to expand their definition of Christian to include us. We change the logo of the Church to emphasize Jesus Christ. We claim that, while different, our beliefs are enough.
So, now let’s consider the Church. What does “I’m A Mormon” actually mean? The ads running around the country suggest that being a Mormon is a very inclusive thing. They suggest that someone can come from all walks of life and still be a Mormon. But, when it comes down to it, do we follow an inclusive definition or an exclusive definition?
Various lists have been made of “types” of Mormons. Some of these include True Believing Mormon (TBM), orthodox Mormon, Utah-Mormon, California-Mormon, New Order Mormon (NOM), Jack-Mormon, Anti-Mormon, Inactive-Mormon, Cultural Mormon, BIC Mormon, Liberal Mormon, apostate, fundamentalist Mormon, intellectual Mormon, ultra-Mormon, etc. Robert Kirby has listed Five Kinds of Mormons. These have all been used to describe various types of people.
A recent post entitled “I Am A Mormon” on a different site started out very encouraging. I quote:
I am a Mormon and I reject all adjectives and sub-categorizations. I have no respect for attempts to conventionalize them. Regardless of what individual members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believe, how they approach scripture, history or politics, they are my people, my fellow-citizens and my kin.
I really liked that paragraph. It is one of the more inclusive definitions I have seen. But, it isn’t as clear cut as it first appears. In a comment to the post, the author excludes groups OUT of his Mormon category. Even though they believe in Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, prophets and apostles, and continued revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Community of Christ (former RLDS) is OUT. So are all of the other “Mormon” groups that are not the current Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Further subgroups are then also cast OUT. After a bunch of virtual high-fives in the comments to the post about how nice it would be to get rid of the acronyms and categories, a few people started to question whether the post was really as inclusive as it purported to be. It quickly became clear that anyone who didn’t agree with the post was not welcomed. Because some people didn’t appreciate comments that questioned or disagreed, by the middle of the comments, there was a complaint that they were “NOM bombed”.
It also became clear that an inclusive Mormonism is NOT the ultimate goal and in fact, very loaded words were used against the concept. “Inclusive Mormonism” is equated by the author with “apostasy porn” in one of the comments. I can’t really think of 2 more loaded words in Mormonism than “apostasy” or “porn”, and here they are combined in a phrase (which I admit was cleverly unique) which suggests the true intent of the post.
So, something that starts out talking about rejecting all “adjectives and sub-categorizations” quickly introduces them to exclude people. Other denominations stemming from Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are rejected. Categorizations like NOM are used to denigrate people who might question. Phrases like “apostasy porn” are tossed out to condemn people who might argue for a more inclusive Mormonism. And, eventually, the comments were closed. End of discussion.
This is just a single post and is merely used as an example. J Stapley has a number of other really good posts which I’d encourage you to read. The bigger question is whether we do this in the Church. In spite of glitzy ad campaigns suggesting diversity, is there really one correct way to think and still be a “Mormon”? Is Mormonism an exclusive word? Are people who do not “fit the mold” labeled with things like “intellectual”, or “inactive”, or “apostate”, or anything else? Are people cast out of the Church if they don’t think the correct way, either informally in a ward or formally through Church discipline? Do sites like New Order Mormon exist because there is no room for at least discussing problematic issues within an official Church construct? Is there room for diversity of thought in Mormonism, or are comments closed and the discussion shut down?
An interesting insight is seen from a post yesterday on the Mormon Philosophy website, which discusses a quote from an interview with President Hinckley:
RB: There does seem to be though an uncritical acceptance of a conformist style?
GBH: Uncritical? No. Not uncritical. People think in a very critical way before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform. And they find happiness in that conformity.
So, despite the ads, we are “expected to conform”. Because of this, it seems that the meaning of the phrase “I’m A Mormon” has been contracted over the past few decades, which has led to the exclusion of many, many wonderful people.
For some people, the meaning of “I’m A Mormon” is a sacred molehill. I would expand it.
I would return to times of old in the Church. I quote again from the “I Am A Mormon” post I quoted from before:
One hundred and fifty years ago, two of the largest personalities in Church leadership were Brigham Young and Orson Pratt. They were each powerful and influential and had each taken Joseph Smith’s teachings in dramatically different directions. At one point Young was so frustrated with Pratt that the First Presidency and Twelve held council over him. Pratt offered to resign his membership in the Quorum. And yet, despite their erstwhile antagonism, when Young had a job that needed intellectual finesse, it was frequently Pratt that he called.
To me, this says volumes. Brigham Young and Orson Pratt disagreed strongly in many ways, yet each had something to offer. Great arguments were had between B.H.Roberts, who taught that death occurred for millions of years before Adam and that pre-Adamites lived on the earth, and Joseph Fielding Smith, who disagreed with both of those ideas. Yet both men had much to offer and found a role in the Church.
I believe that we are all unique, and that Mormonism is just a tool to help us get back to God. Because of our different backgrounds, we all approach Mormonism differently, we all get something different out of Mormonism, yet we all have something unique to offer Mormonism. By excluding people, we are cutting off what they have to offer. So, I would EXPAND what “I’m A Mormon” means.
In addition to the “typical” Mormon (if there is such a thing), I would include as “Mormon”:
- The 6th generation Mormon who hasn’t set foot in a chapel since he went to Primary
- The convert who thinks a glass of wine with dinner is fine
- The presidential candidate who doesn’t really go to the LDS Church that often and who is raising a child in the Hindu faith
- The woman who read accounts of early pioneer women giving blessings and who feels prompted to do the same today
- The gay man who loves the gospel, who stays celibate so he can take one week of vacation a year and spend it in the temple
- The historian who is troubled by Joseph Smith marrying other men’s wives, but who still loves the people in his ward and is the first to volunteer to help
- The bishop who doesn’t necessarily believe in the literal nature of the Book of Mormon but who dedicates dozens of hours each week to serving his fellow ward members
- The girl raised in YW who has been with the same female partner for a decade and is raising a family with her
- The people in the Church of Christ who combined forces with people in the LDS Church to explore common historical background
- The woman who has no real desire to be a mother but feels her contribution to the world is through her career
- The missionary who doesn’t know if the Church is true but is willing to keep working on her mission
- The alcoholic member who would give the shirt off his back to someone in need
- The tattooed musician with jet-black hair and a pierced nose
- The LDS anarchist who expounds theories I don’t even understand but which cause me to think
- The man who no longer believes in God, yet is willing to follow the faith of his fathers to keep his family together
- The feminist who has a hard time with the patriarchal nature of the Church but shows up each week anyway
- The man who felt compelled to follow his heart where it lead him even though he was excommunicated for his beliefs
- The descendants of early Church members who didn’t go West with Brigham Young
I would consider ALL of these people Mormon. I would be honored to call any of them brother or sister. And I would love to sit down with any of them and have a true heart-felt discussion of what the Church is doing for them, and what it could do better for them. I wouldn’t judge them for what they thought or said or questioned or believed. I wouldn’t judge them for what they wore or drank or had tattooed on their body. I would just accept them as they were.
I would love to introduce the concept of the Eastern greeting Namaste into Mormonism. Among other translations, it means, “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you”. We all have a divine nature. We all have a great deal to offer. Like the post I referenced, we talk a lot about accepting everyone into Mormonism. We represent diversity in our advertisements. But are our actions on a general and local level that accepting? Or do we draw circles to keep people out? Do we exclude people who don’t fit some mold, overtly or subtly?
So, instead of me defining what “I’m A Mormon” means, I would go the opposite way. I would consider ANYONE who felt ANY connection with Mormonism to be Mormon. I would welcome them into the tribe. If I were in charge, I would expand the meaning of “I’m A Mormon”. And if this is “apostasy porn”, so be it.
- Does the “brand” Mormon need to be protected, and would making Mormonism so inclusive dilute the word “Mormon”?
- Can someone or some group define “Mormon”, or is the process more organic?
- Can someone be a “cultural Mormon” yet be a non-believer?
- For “non-orthodox Mormons”, is there a mechanism to discuss “non-faith-promoting” things in the Church? And if not, where should they be discussed? Or should they just be ignored completely?
- Can someone be a “Mormon” yet drink a glass of wine with dinner? Be gay? Not pay tithing? Not attend church?
- What is the MINIMUM someone can do/believe/say/be and still call themselves “Mormon”?
- Are all of the labels misleading and dividing? Or do they serve some purpose?