Your introductory paragraph today is brought to you by Aaron Rodgers, the stellar quarterback who, after spending the first 18 years of his NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, was just traded to the New York Jets. Residents of Wisconsin and the Big Apple are welcome to weigh in on the merits of this trade in the comments, but I’m going to reference one thing that comes up with every player trade: What number will he take on the new team? That number on the uniform is a really big deal for some players. Players come to identify with their number: It’s an identity thing. Rodgers wore number 12 at Green Bay. Every Jets jersey with number 12 on it has the name Namath on the back, so whether Rodgers would angle to wear 12 with the Jets was a topic of some conversation this week. Joe Namath graciously weighed in that he was fine with Rodgers wearing number 12 if he wanted to. Rodgers has (reportedly) been equally gracious in deciding to wear number 8, which he wore in college when playing for the California Golden Bears (that’s UC Berkeley if you focus on academics, not football).

If, like football players, we can get deeply attached to something as innocuous and as ephemeral as a number (phone number, license plate number, SSN), how much more we get attached to other features that define our identity: our given name, our family name, our birth city, our car, our favorite color, our awards or accomplishments, degrees, affiliations, and so forth. What about Mormon identity? For Mormons, the “Mormon” part is a pretty big piece of one’s identity, generally a positive part. For edge dwellers and Exmos, it’s still a significant part of one’s identity, maybe a more neutral or even a negative part of that identity. So let’s talk about that.

That Word: Mormon

The first current issue with Mormon identity is self-inflicted: members of the Church are not supposed to call themselves “Mormon” or call the Church “the Mormon Church” anymore. It’s been a few years now, but it’s still a puzzling initiative. It’s hard to see what the positive payoff is for this initiative. It has caused problems for those in the media and publishing, trying not to offend Mormons (who don’t want to be called Mormons anymore) while still using practical references to the Church and its members that the rest of the world understands.

But what about the members themselves? I think there is some degree of confusion and perhaps regret. And frustration. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir has a new and longer name (only used in full in General Conference and by the Deseret News, as far as I can tell). Isn’t it fun to slip and use the word Mormon on Sunday and get corrected by two or three church ladies? Do any of you fiesty readers do that on purpose, just to stir things up a little with your more politically correct (in the Mormon sense) churchgoers? In a deeper identity sense, does this strangely pointless, even counterproductive, change mess with the average Mormon psyche? Are some Mormons less happy about being members of the Church because they aren’t allowed to consider themselves Mormon or call themselves Mormon anymore?

My personal take is less about identity than about leadership. The whole episode just raises another question about the quality and competence of LDS senior leadership. It shows the problems with giving the President unfettered discretion in pursuing not just rational and reasonable policies but also ones that are hardly more than personal peeves. Like no one else in leadership could make objections to a difficult and expensive initiative that produces little positive result, if any? There is longstanding tradition, there are other supposedly authoritative quorums, there are counselors to the President, but none of that seems to matter anymore. Once the senior apostle assumes the Presidency, the Church becomes his sandbox. Even apart from the age problem, the whole leadership culture of maximal deference to the President just doesn’t work very well. Do you think any business school in the country teaches that leadership or management model as a good one? But I digress. Let’s get back to the identity problem.

An Identity Vacuum?

For the first twenty years, Mormon identity was the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. For the balance of the 19th century, it was polygamy (which still persists as part of the Mormon identity, if not the primary aspect). During the 20th century, it was American patriotism, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the oh-so-visible missionaries, and Mormon celebrities like Donny and Marie or Dale Murphy or Steve Young.

As we move into and through the 21st century, what is the Mormon identity? For outsiders, it’s probably regressive conservative politics and anti-LGBT policies. That’s not a great label for your religious brand, particularly for a proselyting religion with seventy thousand proselyting missionaries out there. The progressive/liberal half of the country doesn’t want to talk to missionaries because of Mormon politics and the conservative half of the country, largely Evangelical, doesn’t want to talk to missionaries because of Mormon doctrine and theology. If it’s not conservative anti-LGBT politics and policies that define the Church for outsiders, what does? Is there another concept or label that non-LDS colleagues or neighbors attach to you as a Mormon or the Church as a church?

For insiders … well, that’s the Mormon identity vacuum. If you’re a good Mormon, you can’t even use the term “Mormon identity,” which sort of illustrates the problem. A few years ago, the Church proudly endorsed the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which did its best to associate a lot of positive and diverse values and life paths with Mormon identity. Having repudiated the “I’m a Mormon” phrase and even the use of the term “Mormon,” what’s left? What fills that vacuum? What’s the Church about these days? As far as I can tell, it’s families and temples. That’s what they talk about in Conference. They don’t talk about the Hundred Billiion Dollar Fund (or SEC sanctions) or any of the negative stuff. That’s certainly not what the leadership wants members to include in their sense of Mormon identity. What else besides family and temples gets poured into the Mormon identity bucket these days? That’s a fairly bland package. Lots of churches support and promote families. Temples are a strange concept for most people and sort of rub the average Christian the wrong way.

So here’s a few issues to kick around in the comments.

  • Do you have any sense that the average Mormon, or the Mormons in your circle, are having trouble specifying their Mormon identity these days? Or am I just off base here and it’s no big deal?
  • Do you think the “we aren’t Mormons anymore” initiative has confused or even frustrated the average Mormon, or is it, for most Mormons, just one more annoying thing Mormons have to put up with?
  • If you ask the average Mormon these days, “What does it mean for you to be a member of the LDS Church?” what do they say? How is it different from what they would have said ten or thirty or fifty years ago?
  • Another President Hinckley slogan was “stand for something.” What do Mormons or the LDS Church stand for in 2023?
  • What is your Mormon identity? Is that a positive, a neutral, or a negative thing for you?