I’ve been contributing weekly posts here at W&T for over three years now. I enjoy the wide variety of views shared by the permabloggers who write the posts and the many readers who post comments. You would think a guy might run out of ideas after 150 posts, but it seems there is always more to talk about when it comes to Mormonism. Anyway, today I’m going to take a look at how individuals define their relationship (or perhaps manage their relationship) with institutions generally and, of course, the Church in particular. While I look at some groupings or categories, this isn’t really one of those What kind of Mormon are you? posts. Instead, the focus is on how you, me, and every other individual relates to or defines their relationship with the LDS Church as an institution — and, by extension, to any other business or system or institution you are voluntarily or necessarily involved with. And I’m going to make up my own labels and acronyms for these categories so we don’t end up repeating discussions you have had before about related ideas or classifications. This isn’t a post about about TBMs or Exmos. This isn’t a post about Iron Rodders or Liahona Mormons. It’s a narrower but hopefully productive discussion.
So here are my three categories and labels, sorting people based on their relationship to the LDS Church as an institution. And let me quickly add there is no ranking or implied judgment pro or con in these groupings. It’s just to help clarify my particular point of interest in this post.
- Fully Invested Mormon (FIM). This is a member who is not just “active” (a Mormon who attends almost every week and probably has a calling) but is a 100% team player. A FIM has internalized LDS institutional goals and priorities as their own goals and priorities. A FIM goes to every meeting, even extra meetings they know are a waste of time. A FIM sacrifices personal time and resources for the good of the ward or the Church. This might be someone who is intent on climbing the LDS career ladder (get to be a Bishop or RS Pres, followed by a stake calling or two, and if you happen to get rich maybe even an Area Authority or a GA) but also describes plenty of average, humble members who tirelessly and cheerfully do the Mormon thing.
- Pragmatic Mormon (PRAM). This is a member who might be fully active or might be partially active or might even be fully inactive in the sense of not attending LDS meetings on Sunday. A PRAM accepts most callings. But a PRAM quite clearly, in his or her own mind, distinguishes between personal goals and priorities and those of the Church as an institution, although there is probably some overlap. (Who doesn’t enjoy a good Mormon potluck? Who doesn’t have an hour to happily help a ward family move furniture into the moving van?) Distinguishing personal from institutional priorities and goals probably reflects an attitude of accepting or believing some, but not all, of the standard list of LDS faith claims. Possibly not even any of the standard LDS faith claims. A PRAM probably doesn’t rock the boat unnecessarily, but will offer the occasional uncorrelated comment in class. This is different from what might be called a “Cafeteria Mormon,” who chooses what they want to believe from the Mormon menu. That misrepresents belief, I think. Most of us do not choose what we believe. We believe it because … well, either you do or you don’t. In some sense you feel compelled to believe what you believe. A PRAM feels free to believe what they personally feel compelled to believe, whereas a FIM feels compelled to believe (or try to believe, or pretend to believe) what the Church tells them to believe. A PRAM is willing to act defensively, to protect themselves or their family from harm that might come from some LDS circumstance or episode or belief. In contrast, a FIM will take one for the team, regardless of impact on self or family, and be proud of it.
- Not Really a Mormon Anymore (NORAMA). This is someone who has pretty much rejected the institutional goals of the Church. They have mentally separated themselves from the Church’s mission, however you might define it. They might attend, likely for family reasons. In terms of the relation of the individual to the institution, NORAMAs are sort of like the 99.8% of the world’s population who are not, have never been, and never will be LDS. But someone who has left the Church, either practically or formally, almost certainly carries some LDS baggage. They quite clearly, in their own mind, put LDS institutional goals at arm’s length. A NORAMA is not necessarily a noisy critic: there are plenty of passive and quiet NORAMAs who have just had enough of Mormonism or who just don’t believe a darn thing about it anymore, and are living their life by different lights, doing their best to ignore their Mormon baggage. These might very well be great people, they’re just not great Mormon people anymore.
Notes and Observations
Let me offer a few comments on these categories and see if there aren’t some insights to be had.
Think about the Army. Just to highlight the institutional point I’m trying to make, let’s look at a different institution. Think about being in the Army. Same three groups. There are some soldiers (and more officers) who are 100% fully invested in the Army and its mission. They want that next promotion. They’ll be the first out of the trench when the lieutenant yells, “Charge!” Second, there are plenty of soldiers who will do their job and perhaps, in a pinch, do their duty in a heroic manner, but they are in the Army for the training and the job and a paycheck. They’ll exit the Army in a year or two or three. If they are in a firefight, they are as concerned with not getting shot as with taking that hill. Then third, there are a few who just check out, who realize they really don’t want to be there, and who either slack off so severely that they face discipline and possibly confinement, or they go AWOL. You could repeat this with lots of different organizations and institutions. Think of George from Friends. He’s at the very low end of the Pragmatic Employee scale. In the corporate or employment context, there are noisy critics as well. We call them whistleblowers.
You might be a Pragmatic Mormon if … I suspect a lot of active members show up every week and never really think about the distinction between a FIM and a PRAM. If you show up most weeks, write a check or two, and accept most callings, you’re “active” and that’s how you think of yourself. It might take a significant discordant event to even make you aware that you aren’t really fully invested in LDS goals and priorities. Maybe there’s a gay or lesbian family member who has a negative LDS experience and it makes you rethink some things. Maybe you do your family history and discover a polygamous ancestor or an excommunicated ancestor, and it makes you rethink some things. Maybe you just read the right book or two and it gets you thinking. I’m guessing that in the average LDS ward, the active cohort of maybe 150 people is one-third FIM, one-third PRAM, and one-third who aren’t fully invested but haven’t really figured that out yet. They are Pragmatic Mormons without realizing it. That might be you, or your brother, or your SIL. You or they might be one significant event away from discovering there’s a line that you or they won’t cross. The Church is full of unawakened PRAMS.
Tell me a story. You can probably think of a story or two you have heard in General Conference that really brings home what it means to be a FIM, to be fully invested. It’s probably a story that rubbed you the wrong way. Say a story about a couple that had a hundred bucks in the bank until the next payday two weeks away, and faced the choice between paying their tithing or buying food to feed them and their three kids. Of course they pay their tithing. FIMS cheer their faith. PRAMS question their priorities. There are dozens of stories like this. They are staples of GA talks. I think they are great diagnostics for distinguishing between FIMS and PRAMS. I wonder how the counsel of local leaders falls when faced with an actual situation brought to them by a member. I suspect it happens, but not too often, that a bishop says to a member, “Okay, now that you have explained your situation and how busy and stressed out you are with job and family, I understand that you probably should not accept this calling I just offered you.” More often, I suspect, they say the Lord will bless you if you take the calling, even if it turns out to be an unreasonable demand to make.
The line between good and evil. There’s a famous quote from Solzhenitsyn, that the line between good and evil passes through every human heart. Here, there are good folks and bad folks, good Mormons and bad Mormons, in all three groups. Really, it is not a ranking. You might think I’m looking a little askance at FIMS, and sure there are some who are just too invested in LDS things, but who among us doesn’t admire the man who accepts a call to be a bishop, with all the time commitments and difficulties that presents? Who doesn’t respect the lady who bakes and brings the sacrament bread every darn week (to almost no fanfare or recognition) and helps out wherever and whenever asked?
Spiritual but not religious. You’ve heard this phrase before. I think it is somewhat related to my point here about how individuals define their relationship to their church or religious institution. Religious types will be FIMs or PRAMs, willing to engage fully or pragmatically with their local congregation or larger church entity. Spiritual types feel a need to distance themselves from organized religion. They’ll either be PRAMs with a lively sense of their own personal views and boundaries, or else they’ll fully disengage and focus on their own spiritual quest. The key point: the distinction is not really about spirituality. There are very religious people who are simultaneously very spiritual. The distinction actually turns on how a person defines their relationship with their church or religious institution.
Dark days ahead? Between Covid and smoldering political partisanship and the lingering problem of the LDS gay policy, there might be some tough times ahead for some Mormons who didn’t expect to have to redefine their relationship to the Church. Some who were regular attenders every week may balk at returning to a crowded LDS chapel with singing and poor ventilation, even when the bishop or stake president starts bringing pressure to return. Surprise! You’re a PRAM who has suddenly discovered that your personal priorities differ from LDS priorities expressed through your bishop. And so forth. It might get to the point that LDS leadership will need to review and modify the institutional expectations that have guided LDS church life for so long. Going from three hours of meetings to two hours seems like just this sort of step. There may be others. This reminds us that the member-institution relationship can be adjusted from the institutional side as well as from the individual’s side.
Unlike most posts, I don’t really have a good conclusion to wind up this discussion. Maybe the categories and notes ring a bell for some readers, maybe not. In the above discussion, maybe the deck is stacked in favor of Pragmatic Mormons, and sure that’s where my sympathies lie, but I have really tried to emphasize this is not a ranking or a judgment. In particular, these are not fixed categories of persons: people can and do move from one approach to another once or twice or thrice in a lifetime. In lieu of a conclusion, here are some prompts that might give readers something to comment on or respond to:
- Were you previously fully invested and then mentally shifted to become what I’ve called a Pragmatic Mormon? Was there an event or realization that prompted you to make that mental shift? Transitions between categories seem especially interesting.
- Have you at some point become fully disengaged from the LDS Church, becoming a NORAMA? Was there an event or realization that prompted you to make that change? Did you become spiritual but not religious, or did you shift into another religious denomination or faith community?
- Have you ever met a spiritual but not religious person who was actually serious about their spirituality? How did they approach that way of living? It just seems like a tough thing to pull off without a supportive faith community.
- Share a General Conference story of heroic faith (an exemplar of being fully invested in the Church) that really made you roll your eyes. Or maybe there was no eye roll. Maybe it made you jump up from your chair and shout, “Yes! That’s the kind of Mormon I want to be!”