So I recently read Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018). Appiah is a British philosopher who presently teaches at NYU and writes very good books. The general thrust of the book is that the primary axes that we use to define our identity — which he glosses as creed, country, color, class, and culture — are really much more malleable than we assume. We generally think of the particular configuration of the 5C’s that define us as being fairly stable over time and linking us back through centuries and millennia, when in fact it may only go back a few decades.
Think about Christians, who identify with the Bible and the Early Church, meaning the first-century Christians who lived just a generation or two after Jesus died. But Pentecostals only emerged in the early 20th century. Evangelicals did not emerge as a modern category until roughly the 1970s, and fundamentalism (a precursor to Evangelicalism) only goes back to about 1920. You might think of Catholicism as having ancient roots but modern Catholicism is largely defined by Vatican II, held 1962-65. So every Christian wants to extend their particular version of Christianity (their Christian identity, if you will) back in time and link to the Early Church, the Bible, the apostles, and Jesus. But an objective look at the historical details invariably show their Christian identity is of much more recent vintage.
What about Mormonism? Plainly, Mormon identity didn’t even become a thing until 1830. The mainstream LDS narrative, like other Christian stories, tries to link Mormon identity back to the Early Church, but also to Old Testament figures (Melchizedek, Aaron, Moses, even Adam) and to various places and peoples real or fictional (Kolob, Zion, Zarahemla, Cumorah, the City of Enoch, Lamanites, and so forth). But contemporary Mormon identity circa 2019 arguably dates only to 1890 (the end of polygamy) or 1978 (the end of the priesthood and temple ban) or 2008 (when the Church took a very active hand in supporting the passage of Prop 8 in California).
But that is to focus simply on the big events or ideas that define us. Obviously, a lot of smaller events and ideas shift from year to year. The particulars we use to define our identities (whatever they may be) are shifting beneath our feet from year to year and even month to month without us even noticing. The pace of identity shift in Mormonism seems particularly rapid at the moment. Let me throw out a few examples, then invite readers to expand on those or add additional examples. Or even tell me how wrong I am and that your particular Mormon identity is no different from that of Brigham or Joseph.
First, the name change. We’re not supposed to be calling ourselves “Mormons” anymore. Nothing subtle about this new initiative announced just last year in General Conference. Nothing speaks directly to one’s identity like what you call yourself or what others call you. Nothing shows an attempt to change that identity quite as forcefully as trying to change what you call yourselves or what others call you. The RLDS change a few years ago to “The Community of Christ” is another good example of an institution trying to distance itself from the Mormon label.
Second, Prop 8 in 2008 coupled with the Proclamation on the Family, proclaimed in 1995 but only becoming the defining document of the Church over the last decade or so. The Church fairly successfully shifted its identity from being the church of polygamous families (in the 19th century) to a more generic pro-family (in the standard sense) stance by the middle of the 20th century. But the more recent changes shifted that identity again, clarifying the Church is pro-heterosexual families but very anti-gay families, and on the whole very anti-gay anything. That’s a key component, perhaps the primary component, of current Mormon identity.
I’ll throw out one more: missionaries in white shirts and ties, riding bikes. This component of Mormon identity (particularly what non-LDS think of us) emerged only in mid-20th century I think, because in the 19th century it was not late teens who served missions but primarily older adult males. This item certainly got a boost in 2011 with the first staging of The Book of Mormon musical and the iconic image used to promote the show (the featured image of this post).
It’s anyone’s guess what else will change in the next five or ten years. President Nelson’s general approach seems to be: “I like that proposal. Make it so.” What exactly is Mormon identity at the moment? What else has changed in recent years? What else might change in the next few years? Or what hasn’t changed since the Joseph Smith era?