I did a post early in my blogging days (April 2008) about a phenomenon many of us in the church have seen:  the tendency for Utah culture to be exported to areas outside of Utah as if it is a requisite part of living the gospel.  In that post I cited two examples:

  • The first “Utah” Mormons I ever met, when I was in my late teens, growing up in PA.  This transplant immediately set about making changes in the Young Women’s program, highjacking the planning so that the leaders rather than the girls were in charge of the activities, and introducing a lot of crafts, something we had previously not done.  Pioneer Day was also celebrated for the first time, unusual for us since very few had any pioneer heritage.
  • The second was an older sister in my mission who was appalled to discover that the local Relief Society sisters didn’t know how to knit.  She immediately took over the weekly meetings to ensure that this vital skill was taught.  Nevermind that people living in a tropical island really didn’t need knitwear. *facepalm*

I’ve seen a lot more of it since then!  When we moved to Singapore, our new bishop explained to us that whether we liked it or not, the locals had separate meetings from the expats, and he testified that “Utah Mormonism is not true.”  He explained the reasons for keeping the two groups separate:  that the long-term members, particularly those from Utah [1] had a tendency to explain how things should be done to the locals who would eagerly adopt whatever they thought was “the right way,” when there should be a “right way” that made sense in the context of locals’ lives, not a place so completely foreign as the United States or Utah.  What he was describing was a form of colonialism, [2] something that as expats, we were conscious of on a daily basis.

Does correlation create cultural colonialism?

Correlation is creating a standard set of publications for the church (magazines, hymn books, and manuals), and is a term used more generally to refer to the church after all auxiliaries were brought under priesthood oversight, which also means we have a centralized power structure rather than a localized one and centralized budgeting rather than different budgets based on local congregations’ donations. [3]  By contrast, some churches have a very local flavor to congregations, catering to the preferences of locals rather than enforcing a strict structure.  Everything in the Mormon church is correlated, from the design of our buildings to the three hour meeting block.  If local wards made these decisions, I can guarantee you there are a few that would have adopted a shorter meeting block by now!  Can you imagine local congregations conducting a referendum on what course of study they wanted to adopt in the coming year or the theme for the primary program?  Well, these are the types of things that are in fact decided by congregations in decentralized churches.

Correlation is the effort to make church a repeatable service experience, roughly the same from place to place.  It is similar to colonization, but correlation can be done without importing cultural norms as well as doctrinal ones.  For example, some other churches have a synod for doctrinal matters, but allow local congregations great latitude in meeting content and local structure.

So what are the cultural norms that get imported?

  • BYU dress standards have infiltrated the world-wide church, even in areas where they don’t make a lot of cultural sense.  See this guest post.  Given the role of BYU which has long been a place for Mormon families to send their kids to university where they can meet, date, and marry other church members even if they live in areas where members are scarce, it has a strong influence on how culture spreads throughout Mormonism.
  • When the church began in New Zealand, Maoris were told their facial tattoos were against the Word of Wisdom.
  • Including cheers and other Americanisms in international EFYs.

The internet age has just exacerbated the proliferation of cultural dogma to the hinterlands of the church.  Sites like Pinterest and Sugardoodle make it easy to share lesson helps, and those same teaching aids come with an interpretation or spin that is often cultural in nature.  Experiences like pioneer-themed treks are replicated and exported to all corners of the globe.

The internet is all about sharing ideas and interpretations.  One of the things I found in my travels abroad is that the Bloggernacle seems to be better known and more read among expats than among lay members in the US, and I have often wondered why that is.  Perhaps it’s because being an expat forces you to confront your cultural assumptions, to set aside the script you’ve been handed, and to determine with deliberation what you really believe and what you value.  In becoming an outsider, you view your own culture through foreign eyes, including church culture.

And to me, that seems like the most important thing we can do in the Bloggernacle, setting aside our script, unboxing and examining our cultural artifacts, and interpreting anew our values and beliefs in a way that makes sense on a global and human level.

Like all expats, we fail at this, but we still feel compelled to travel, to explore.

[1] He was from Idaho, which he said was “just as bad.”

[2] Or as the Borg would call it “assimilation.”

[3] Better preaching = mo’ money.  I remember the annual ward budget meeting in which ward adults, like my parents, would meet together to discuss the budget and determine how much each of them could donate to accomplish whatever they wanted to in the coming year.