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?