So I read Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017) by Suzy Hanson. The author was a young journalist living in New York who, sort of on a whim, applied in 2007 for a fellowship to do research in Turkey and got it. She has lived and worked there (or in nearby countries) more or less ever since. The book notes “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” on the cover, so I figured it was a good read. I won’t say much about the substance of the book or its reflections back on the United States. I’m just going to use the author’s format and general claim of a “post-American world” to reflect on the LDS foreign mission experience as well as whether we are entering a “post-Mormon world” at the same time as we are entering a post-American world. Of course, at the end of the post I’ll invite readers to share their own notes and observations about America and about the Church, reflected through the lens of a foreign LDS mission or an extended posting overseas.
The American Religion?
The connection here (for W&T), of course, is the close association between America and Mormonism in the eyes of many foreigners if not always of Americans. If it’s a post-American world out there, it is also to a certain extent a post-Mormon world. If non-Americans don’t much like America anymore, they don’t much like Mormonism either. If Americans are largely ignorant of the countries the author discusses in the book (Turkey, Greece, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan), so are Mormons. Now it’s true that Mormonism is a worldwide religion in the sense that there are LDS wards and stakes and missions scattered across the world, but it’s not yet a global church. For a global religion or church, the nationals in any given country who are part of the church or denomination take ownership and exercise a good deal of control and influence over their national church. The given church is planted, so to speak, in the native soil and grows its own roots and branches, which are independent and possibly rather different from what sprouts in other countries. For Mormonism, overseas wards and stakes are more like outposts of an American church. Worldwide, not global. Recognizably American. Hence the relevance of Notes on a Foreign Country from a Mormon point of view.
Like a Travel Book
Notes is much more analytical and oriented towards history and politics than the average travel book. But it does have the double-edged effect that most travel books do at some level. Yes, you learn about the county or countries you are visiting or reading about … but that also reflects back on one’s view of the home country. If you, an American, live in Italy you of course learn a lot about Italy, but you also learn a lot about America, too. Yes, in a travel book you learn something about the locals that the author encounters and writes about. But the author learns something about herself as well, and by extension so does the reader. Which is why travel sagas, a distinct and popular genre in the publishing business, are more interesting than you would think. Really, what American gives a crap about Turkey? But learning that Turks once loved Americans for a few short years after World War II but that they now largely detest or at least resent Americans and America, and how and why this all came about, that’s more interesting and relevant.
Here’s the first question for those who served foreign missions or who have lived overseas for an extended period. What did you learn about your foreign country? As an LDS missionary, probably not as much as one might think. I was a missionary in France. I learned that older French men and women had warm feelings for Americans; not so much the younger cohort. I suspect that is even more pronounced today. There were prominent Roman ruins to visit, like “Les Arenes de Cimiez” just a couple of blocks away from the chapel in Nice. So I learned how long and deep the shadow of history hangs over places in France, more than two millennia compared to hardly more than two centuries in the United States. But, honestly, I don’t have a lot in the “what did I learn about France?” category to share. I don’t think LDS missionaries really engage with the culture or history of the country they serve in. I didn’t read any French literature and visited only a couple of museums. Learning the language and eating French food when visiting with members or contacts are the strongest points of contact with the culture. Oh, and the bakeries: millefeuilles.
Did You Miss America?
That leads to the second question for readers: What did you learn about America? First off, there are the things you miss about the home country. I recall missing driving a car, eating fast food or really any restaurant food, and listening to rock music, but that’s more like homesickness than anything enlightening about America. I do recall thinking about where I was in terms of a mental map of the world, sort of a globe inside my head, and when you are in France you aren’t that far from Eastern Europe and Russia. It was a looming presence. I felt it. Contrast that with the United States on that mental map of the world, surrounded by two large oceans to the east and west, and friendly Canada and Mexico to the north and south. No looming presence. Instead, security, surrounded by oceans and friendly nations. We take for granted our geographical security. No American is particularly troubled, at this point, by the fact that the British captured Washington and trashed the Capitol building in 1814. That doesn’t happen anymore, not in 2021, does it?
Joined at the Hip
Here’s the real issue to confront: If it’s a post-American world out there, how does that affect the LDS Church? How does that affect the worldwide LDS missionary program and the overseas stakes and wards it has produced? Let me try to narrow that down for a third question for readers: Does American decline around the world necessarily imply Mormon decline throughout the world? I don’t know about necessarily, but I’d agree that it practically implies at least some difficulties. Getting visas for visiting American missionaries gets tougher. If local opinions and tastes turn against American imports like McDonald’s and Facebook, will Mormonism get lumped into that group as well? I think that’s an open question, but I’m struck by how closely the post-WW2 expansion of LDS overseas missionary effort matched post-WW2 expanded American power and outreach. Will American decline and contraction be paired with LDS decline and contraction overseas?
The rejoinder to that view might be that the LDS Church has worked hard to train and develop local in-country leadership around the world, and promote locals to expanded Quorums of the Seventy (as Area Authorities) and the First and Second Quorums (as General Authorities). Local leadership is given a bit more delegated authority and autonomy than in years past. But they are hardly independent or autonomous to the degree generally encountered in other churches.
I haven’t really said much about the book. It’s enlightening and entertaining and thought-provoking. Definitely read it if you get the chance. There were a dozen times reading the book that my Mormon blogger alarm bell sounded (“Hey, I could do a post on that paragraph …”) but I didn’t drag a bunch of quotations into this post. Well, okay, if you twist my arm … here’s one from page 53 about creeping social pressure to conform to rising Islamic norms, a real contrast to the secularized norms that defined Turkey for most of the 20th century.
Rana was cool and independent-minded and loving …. [She] had emerged from an entirely secularist world: her mother came from a Kemalist, Westernized family, all of which I asked her about ceaselessly.
“The thing is, my mother tells me that when she grew up in a small town in Anatolia, in the fifties and sixties, girls rode bicycles in shorts and sleeveless shirts,” Rana said. “And now she says, you know, you can’t do that there. You can’t do that anymore.”
“But why? I mean, who says you can’t?”
“You don’t feel comfortable. You just wouldn’t,” she said. “You have to consider for a second that conservative religious people are different. Islam never experienced its renaissance, its enlightenment. And when it comes down to it religious people are not as liberal as we are, the way they live compared to the way we do.”
There’s even a term for it in Turkish, mahalle baskisi, “neighborhood pressure,” explained in the book as “the steady pressure by religious people on secular people to be more Islamic.” Remember that we’re talking about a neighborhood in Turkey, not in Orem, but you can see why my alarm bell went off.
So there’s your quote from the book and maybe a clue why I felt impelled to do a post on the book more generally. So go back and look at the questions I put in bold font up above. What did you learn? Looking back, what do you remember? Looking outward and forward, what’s the future of the worldwide LDS Church in a post-American world?
And let me broaden the topic just a bit. If you grew up in Utah or California and served a mission in Minnesota or New England or Florida or Texas, I’m sure you had the same sense of “some things are different here, and people think differently here.” That works too.
I think it’s pretty certain that many people around the world think they see two things when they see two LDS missionaries: two Mormons, and two Americans. In many cases, they are only 1/2 right because of the ever-increasing number of non-US missionaries. But that is the perception. And the questions is, is that a good thing or a bad thing for the Church?
I think it used to be a good thing. Even in past decades when the US was in conflict with other countries, most people in most places viewed individual Americans positively. You know, hate your country but like you. But I think that has changed over time. I think citizens of other countries are now less enamored by Americans they encounter. They reject the “tame the savages” mentality that US missionaries sometimes convey. If in the 80s it was generally a positive thing to be identified as an American, I think it is now generally negative. Just my opinion. Some of that is on Trump, but not all of it. The Internet has exposed people to information they didn’t used to have and the idea that America’s streets are paved with gold has disappeared.
How does this affect missionary work? I happen to think that the Church is still identified as an “American” Church, with mostly US leaders and an HQ in the US of A. And I don’t think that helps the Church anymore. We could probably mitigate some of that by dropping the white shirts and ties. Imagine missionaries who dress like everyone else and just blend in to the local population. The thing is, the Church and everything about it used to be an interesting mystery to people in other countries. That was my experience in Argentina in the 80s. But now, they are just as capable as any US person to go on the Internet and learn about “the Mormons”. And when they do, they come to the same conclusions many of us do: this isn’t what we thought it was.
Hmmm. I have a LOT of thoughts on this topic, stemming back to one of my original posts back at Mormon Matters in 2008: https://www.mormonmatters.org/cultural-colonialism-the-sun-never-sets-on-the-mormon-empire/ I’ve encountered this Colonialism mindset in many places. In addition to what I mentioned in that post, I grew up back East, and we didn’t have any families in our branch that were from Utah. When I was a senior in high school, a family from Utah moved in, and the wife became the YW President. Immediately she altered the types of activities we did (previously the girls decided on the activities and we did stuff like car maintenance, fitness, and scavenger hunts). Suddenly it was all crafts, all the time. I discovered later in life that the handbook actually said the girls should plan the activities, but apparently that wasn’t “how they did it in Utah,” a phrase that was thrown around pretty liberally by that family as a way to recreate their own comfort zone and to try to elevate their status as having “insider knowledge” over the rest of us.
I actually did learn quite a bit about local culture on my mission, which I suspect has more to do with serving at an older age than the elders did and being naturally curious about these things. We went to museums, and we talked with locals. I’m sure I didn’t learn everything I could have if I had more time and more life experience, but I felt I somewhat understood the political situation and the history of the Canaries, probably to a greater extent than the expat Brits and Germans who own condos there, but are really just ensconced with their fellow countrymen. I also was very curious about people and their views, political and personal. I just found it really interesting. Likewise when I lived in Singapore. The more I travel, the more I see the same types of patterns that alter local character: territorial disputes, native people, invading forces (who wins / how they win), and economic factors related to natural or other resources.
I’m not 100% convinced that the American brand has really sunk much lower than it did during the Bush years. I had to answer for a lot of things from random taxi drivers, foreign policy and wars, nuclear weapons, and particularly gun laws. My driver in Singapore used to keep me on my toes with pretty much every story that put Americans in a bad light, and there were ample to choose from. Mass shootings are right up there. I think during the Trump years our foreign image mostly suffered because we were seen as unreliable allies and also hypocritical for our prior moralistic stances. But I think many who thought well of us were more concerned on the behalf of American people than assuming we were all complicit in the extremism. Ultimately, Hollywood is our real foreign policy, and that’s not going away; it presents a really positive view of our country. The other thing that portrays us in a good light is our self-critical journalism. It speaks volumes that it’s OK to criticize the government (unfortunately it also speaks volumes when citizens violently attack the Capitol dressed like low class weirdos). A lot of the criticism, even in that case, probably boils down to gun control and whether it’s safe to be in our country or not. I’ve had quite a few people ask how we even walk down the street without fear of being shot.
@Angela I have to agree with your Hollywood comments. I flew to my European mission the day that the war in Iraq started in 2003. We had to stay in our apartments a number of days because of anti-American protests. But on the flip side, 8 Mile had just come out and everyone was OBSESSED with Eminem. They were generally more interested in talking to us about American music and TV than the war, and I think generally recognized that some 20 yr old girls weren’t really responsible for American foreign policy. But yes, they also think our gun laws are insane and barbaric.
My European friends certainly have not thought highly of Trump, but I think they also recognize that a lot of Americans don’t either. And it’s not like they are without extreme conservative elements, what with Brexit and all that.
I would be curious to know whether / to what extent the decline of Mormonism in European countries correlates to a decline in interest in / respect for Americans vs. simply a decline in religiousity overall. Not sure. I don’t know enough about the Church in areas like the Philippines (where there is or at least was a pretty big obsession with American culture) to understand how it’s going there.
I served a mission in Chicago, which, for a white guy from northern Utah with little travel experience, was a foreign country. In the predominantly African American neighborhoods they usually thought we were FBI. In the remaining areas of Chicago and the suburbs, they just thought we were weirdos who probably had horns and ate kittens. I recall seeing a billboard in Chicago announcing the introduction of Coors beer and I think Mormonism was as unfamiliar to the locals as Coors had been.
Subsequent teaching stints in South Korea and Macedonia were more interesting and educational. In both places, hardly anyone knew what a Mormon was. South Korea was 1997 and Macedonia was 2001 – 2003 and at both times American hard and soft power were ascendant. In Macedonia, the Serbia bombing campaign was winding down and KBR people were seen regularly at bars and restaurants on their weekends away from building military bases in Kosovo. It might seem like we’d be resented, but Macedonian Slavs are only loosely connected to their Serbian cousins and the Albanians who were our primary students thought America was the greatest country on earth by far.
I tried to learn as much as I could about Macedonia and the Balkans, and the more I learned the more confusing it got. Coming from such a young country, an American generally cannot understand why anyone would still have animosity toward another ethnic group for a war they lost in the 14th century, but that’s still how some Serbs see the Turks. The Macedonian / Albanian divide keeps the country pretty much ethnically divided and the persistence of seemingly anachronistic ideas like blood killings (Albanian culture can be rough) also seems to block progress.
What I learned from Macedonia is that most of the rest of the world is divided up into ethnic groups more than nations. Tito held Yugoslavia together in large measure by still granting the ethnic groups some autonomy, e.g., Macedonian became it’s own language when it is quite similar to Bulgarian and not that different from Serbian and Croatian. The national boundaries are often arbitrary and meaningful only to the UN. Macedonians have mostly embraced their identity, but it is defined by a Slavic language and an imagined history made great by the false inclusion of Alexander the Great. The Albanians are Albanian first, second and third, but have citizenship in Macedonia until they can carve out a Greater Albania by uniting actual Albania with Kosovo and western Macedonia.
What I learned about America is that I really miss good chips and salsa and hearty sandwiches when I can’t get them. I also learned that almost every other country on earth takes time to eat slowly, talk with friends and family, and generally strengthen bonds. Are those bonds based primarily on ethnic connection? Mostly, but not absolutely.
I don’t think American decline and church decline are correlated. Rather, the decline of Christianity, secular humanism and the availability of the internet are more reliable determiners. Where those social factors are ascendant, the church struggles.
Note: It is called North Macedonia now after the country struck a deal with the Greeks. There is also a Macedonia region of northern Greece and the government has generally treated the name like a registered trademark the Slavs to the north had no right to use.
Laughing because once in Italy I shared a bus seat with a Greek woman who talked the entire trip about her resentment of Slavs using the name Macedonia. To this day I have NO idea what sparked the conversation but her adamance has stayed with me to this day at least 10 years later.
I’m happy for her if she was ever able to take some resolution from the country changing its name to North Macedonia.
My experience is European and military. We lived on the German economy in Berlin well before the wall came down. So we had German people as neighbors. We also had Russian tanks rattling down the streets, because Berlin was occupied jointly by four counties. The east by Russia and the West by Great Britain, France, and the US.
The older Germans loved Americans, especially in Berlin with the American Airlift being what allowed them to keep their freedom. The younger people were not so fond of Americans because the Eastern Sector had a university they could attend for free, that filled them with Soviet propaganda.
Dave B mentioned the feeling of being so close to a hostile nation with the Soviet Union so close, but France was nothing compared to being in West Berlin and surrounded on all sides by the Deutsch Democratic Republic., communist Soviet controlled East Germany. We would walk along the Berlin Wall for entertainment because we were too poor as junior enlisted to do anything else for entertainment. There were several deaths of people trying to escape from East Germany while we lived there. The Soviet soldiers were allowed to shop at the American BX, PX, and commissary because of the treaty when Berlin was first occupied. American Levies sold at enormous prices when they returned to the USSR, and American instant coffee and cigarettes were so much better than anything they could get, and so everyday, a buss or two full of Soviet soldiers would come shop at the American stores so they could stock up on these American luxuries.
So, I learned a little about how good we have it here.
We were stationed later in an area of Germany near the French border. And yes, Roman ruins and old castles. The sense of history is completely different.
And, yes, Hollywood is the main US ambassador. They watch a lot of American programs. We were at a bed and breakfast with German TV, and my kids got a huge kick out of the German voices dubbed over the characters on the old Bonanza rerun because they had a voice for a 99 pound weakling dubbed onto Hoss.
I don’t think the decline of American popularity has anything to do with the decline of the church in Europe. I think it has to do with a general trend toward secularization and the fact that currently there is so much information on the internet. They can quickly look up the same information that is causing people in the US not to convert. Even when my husband served his mission to Austria back in the late 60s, this trend of secularization and intellectual deconstruction of religion was happening and it was extremely hard to find investigators, and they would then do some research on the church and not want to continue the discussions.
I think it’s fair to call Mormonism a worldwide religion. Judaism has approximately 15 million members with 6 million in Israel. Sikkism has about 30 million members with 20 million in India. If they can be called worldwide religions, then a Church of 15 million with less than 3 million in Utah and less than half in the U.S. could also qualify as Worldwide, regardless of Church culture.
I was in Denmark at the beginning of George W. Bush’s Presidency. A few Danes would try to berate us for our foreign policy and how we had too many hands in places all over the world (a criticism I’ve come to agree with more and more over time), but ultimately they felt the U.S. had good intentions more often than not, and I think they felt we were a force for good overall. In fact, if memory serves me, after 9/11 they passed a law that any terrorist they caught would automatically be turned over to the U.S.
I’d like to think I learned a lot from the Danes, but always knew it was would never amount to much more than scratching the surface. I especially enjoyed the concept of “hygge,” a word that I hear is now making its way into some English dictionaries. There is no direct translation, and it varies from situation, but it could be relaxing on the beach, or sitting around the warm fireplace with family or friends, and just relaxing and enjoying the moment. Even that description doesn’t quite do it justice. It’s busy world, but Danes taught me to slow down once in a while.
Even as a person generally somewhat more reserved, I missed the friendliness of the United States. I missed waving or saying hi to a stranger on the street, or striking up a conversation with the cashier during checkout. Danes just didn’t do that (and America does seem to be drifting that way as well). What made me feel we had it right was talking to Danes who went to America as foreign exchange students or on extended vacations. They too would ultimately come to love the friendliness of Americans and wish more of it for their own country. I tried to explain to them that those exchange are often superficial, but one Dane told me she’d prefer someone take the time to make a half sincere hello or smile as she walked down the street than not make one at all. I wish more foreigners would get to see that side of America, rather than the Hollywood ambassadors.
With American decline, I think the Church will hit a few bumps, but I think it will ultimately make it through.
Consider Panaca, Nevada, 170 miles north of Las Vegas and 80 miles west of Cedar City, with 900 people and two LDS wards. Panaca is an old Mormon town going back to 1864. Seven years ago the Panaca Nevada Stake was reorganized by Elder Sitati. The Lincoln County Record reported:
“It is not every day that around 1,000 Lincoln County residents welcome new county-wide, religious leadership. It is also not every day the county receives visitors from Kenya, Africa.
“Both rarities occurred on Sunday morning in Panaca at the Panaca Stake Center on Main Street. The building was filled to capacity as members of the Panaca, Nevada Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sustained Paul Mathews of Panaca as their new stake president.
[ . . . ]
“Attendees also listened to addresses by Elder Joseph W. Sitati and his wife Gladys, from Bungoma, Kenya, Africa, and Elder Michael L. Southward of Cleveland, Okla. Elders Sitati and Southward are part of the general leadership of the Church. Both said it was their first visit to Lincoln County.”
It is kind of nifty that Elder Sitati, a convert from the other side of the globe, was given authority to come in to preach to and select the stake president for an old, settled Mormon community, a complement to the Utahns sent abroad to do similar things.
I was also a French missionary and took my wife back 25 years later. We toured the town cathedral where we were reminded of the presence of Catholicism in this Loire Valley town since 400 AD.
Globally, I think our historicity issues will become more of a problem. However, I faithfully watch the “Come Follow Up” series on byutv and was pleased in the 1/31 episode where Gerrit Dirkmaat directly addressed (and confirmed) the stones and hat model of BOM translation – it’s worth a watch if you can find it online.
When I was living in Germany several years ago (military) we had a lot of visits with the missionaries serving there, who were almost always Americans. Mondays were their P-days (only day off for the week), which was the same day that most museums and cultural sites were closed. They were prohibited from participating in many of the recreational activities I enjoyed there (skiing, hiking, mineral baths, professional soccer matches) and were generally oblivious to local cultural norms, regional holidays/festivals and such. They were constantly feeling beaten down and discouraged. It occurred to me that as members of the military (which is widely viewed as being a strict, regimented lifestyle with no personal freedom) we actually had much more freedom to really appreciate a foreign living experience than the missionaries did.
Also, several times over the years I have encountered returned missionaries (almost always elders, not sisters) who served in developing countries and speak disdainfully of their former host nations and the people therein. Widespread poverty and corruption are usually explained as the “wickedness” that results from rejecting the Gospel, clinging to superstitious folk beliefs, lacking faith or some such nonsense. Not long ago, Pres. Nelson told West African saints that paying tithing will pull them out of multi-generational poverty (without explaining how), which is an idea cut from the same cloth. There is still very much an attitude of cultural imperialism that underpins overseas missionary work. And when these missionaries go back home to Utah and Idaho, they often become more deeply conservative/nationalist/xenophobic than they were before.
Thanks for the comments, everyone. Great stories.
josh h: “We could probably mitigate some of that by dropping the white shirts and ties.” Yes, it wouldn’t hurt at all to have LDS missionaries blend in a bit more. Looking less American would help them be seen as religious envoys rather than agents of American culture.
Angela: “Ultimately, Hollywood is our real foreign policy …” I think you sort of mean foreign PR, and I agree. When I lived in Sweden, they ran a couple of US “Cops” reality shows on Swedish TV. Most Swedes though the streets of America were the Wild Wild West gone mad, with gunfights between cops and thugs on every corner. On the other hand, most Swedes under 40 spoke American English and many had spent a year in the States going to college. They’re pretty pro-American.
jaredsbrother: “I served a mission in Chicago, which, for a white guy from northern Utah with little travel experience, was a foreign country. In the predominantly African American neighborhoods they usually thought we were FBI.” Overseas, CIA. In the States, FBI. I wonder if FBI agents ever get razzed for looking like LDS missionaries? I had a friend who served in tough neighborhoods in St. Louis. Kids there thought they were the cable guys.
Anna: “My experience is European and military. We lived on the German economy in Berlin well before the wall came down. So we had German people as neighbors. We also had Russian tanks rattling down the streets, because Berlin was occupied jointly by four counties.” I’m thinking you have a few great stories to tell. I hope the Russians love their children, too.
Since I’ve retired (and even before), I’ve become addicted to travel. Mostly in developing countries. I’ve attended LDS Church services in Cambodia, Uganda (multiple wards and branches), Ghana, Philippines, and Ecuador. It Ecuador, it was fun because the sister missionaries dressed in local attire, and the member conducting SM had on a heavy sweater and no tie. In the other countries, there is too much emphasis on white shirts and ties for men. This is silly in a country like Cambodia and in Africa. Additionally, there needs to be more local culture in the services. Certainly drums in Africa would be appropriate.
Thanks for the post and mentioning Turkey. I lived on and off in Istanbul for close to a year and have vivid memories of mahalle baskisi. It is most certainly a real thing. Great times in Turkey. Heck of a country. But it has drifted more Islamic in recent years.
As for the future of the church, I think the leaders are definitely angling in that direction. Especially in Latin America.
I didn’t serve a mission but have the experience of growing up in the church in England and seeing things from the other side. For the most part we really liked the Americans and looked up to them but as I got into my teen years I did pick up on a paternalistic attitude from some Americans that was perceptible. One missionary stood out as being less so – turned out he was Canadian 🤣 I later married him – long story.
My wife is a service missionary for BYU-Pathway so I am witnessing the paternalism first-hand (she’s just the messenger) as she works remotely with people from Africa. I have mentioned before that my faith crisis is ongoing and she is unaware…
David Ostler said somewhere that his “Bridges” book was not primarily intended for members from developing nations which is an interesting statement.
I would like to see all willing youthful members from developed countries serve a mission to developing countries. Not as “white saviors,” but as volunteers there to assist with humanitarian projects and to learn about the culture they are immersed in. As the opportunity arises, they could proselyte, but that would not be their primary mission. A similar message has been forcefully made by both Patrick Mason and Richard Bushman. It is time for the Church to serious revamp it’s missionary program.