Tuesday, August 07, 2012

American Mormon

For two straight years, we were absent from the world of American Mormonism. In the western United States, when Mormons go to church, we are immersed in more than just the gospel of Jesus Christ. There is a Mormon culture that exists alongside the religion. Stuff like huge hair bows, and streaked-dyed blonde hair, and clothes from DownEast, and handouts in Relief Society class, and words/phrases like "had the opportunity to" and "refreshments," and the lady visiting in Sunday School introduces herself to the class as coming from a place called "Payson" and everyone just kind of knows that's in Utah. Not all of us subscribe to this culture, though, even if we all believe in the religion.

In Sharjah, of course, church is a very different experience. There is much more of the religion and far less of the culture - because really, whose culture would it be? The congregation is mostly Filipino with lots of Africans and other miscellaneous nationalities tossed in there for good measure. As a whole, we Mormons in Sharjah are blissfully free of the American brand of our church - can you tell I don't care for huge hair bows? I love that a version of Mormonism exists that is so entirely non-Utah-centric. If you introduced yourself at church in Sharjah and said you were from Payson, you'd have to add "Utah" and probably "the United States" for anyone to understand where you meant. One time I asked a visitor from Utah to help me teach the children's class at church, and it happened to be July, near the time of Pioneer Day. Bless her heart, that woman chose to give a lesson to the kids about that holiday, and it was a great lesson, but it was totally over their heads. They were most fascinated by the drawings of pioneers she showed them - bonnets and aprons and overalls and boots and wagons with billowy white covers. They'd never seen such a thing, because of course, they weren't raised in the shadow of American Manifest Destiny.

Anyway. When I arrived in Idaho Falls last month, my MIL handed me a few issues of LDS Living magazine and, with a smile, said she couldn't wait to hear what I thought of them. I'd been out of American Mormonism for so long that as I flipped through the pages of that magazine, I felt like I was looking in on someone else's religion. And it wasn't the articles themselves that gave me that feeling (they were actually fine, even if it was strange to read a magazine about cultural Mormonism) - it was the ads. OH, the ads. I took a few pictures of the ads in one of the issues, but unfortunately missed the one where you could pay to have a bracelet made of the name you were taking through the temple so you could wear it on your wrist during the session.

I'm posting the pictures of these ads not to make fun of them, but to make you think: if you were a Mormon in Russia, or Ghana, or Mexico, or the UAE, what would these products mean to you?








How many of us see the difference between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the culture of Mormonism? To what extent do American Mormons realize that "matching ties in every size" are a peculiarly "big family living in Utah/Idaho" thing and not an outward indicator of commitment to righteous living that is observed by Mormons the world over? Sometimes I wonder, and sometimes I question myself. I'm in charge of the children's class in Sharjah and I never do cutesy cut-outs or fabulous themed snacks or modesty lessons that depend on an understanding of American cultural norms. Am I still Mormon? I think yes.

What kind of Mormon cultural oddities have you noticed that would make a Mexican/French/Japanese/whatever Mormon go, "huh?"

29 comments:

  1. The tie in all sizes thing is hilarious! This is a great post. I realize more and more that I belong to an American Christian subculture, and it is definitely interesting to consider how this culture looks to people outside of the US and fellow Christians around the world.

    I'm trying to escape!

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    1. I would love to hear more about your particular subculture!

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  2. I have always been put off by the utah church culture... Now that I live in the middle of it, I can appreciate the good things. Like knowing all your neighbors because you are constantly serving together in various capacities. That's fun. The assuming a stranger is morning still totally weirds me out. I don't think I'll ever get used to that. And YES, the giant hair bows/flowers!! They look like cabbages. The totally homogenous fashion (clothing) drives me nuts, especially when it only comes in smaller sizes and I am a little bit *fluffy*. The perfectly done hair and make-up. Going out in public in Minnesota or Oregon with wet hair didn't even get a second glance. Here, you'd think you had the plague. If you aren't covered in ruffles and chunky jewelry then you're weird. I guess I'll stick with weird.

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    1. Oh man, you get it. In this post I am talking about Sharjah vs. Utah-ish Mormons, but there is a huge difference even between church in Oregon and church in Utah-y areas. "Ruffles and chunky jewelry" - so true! My sister (living in SE Idaho, visiting here) is wearing a ruffled shirt even as I write this.

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  3. ahhhhhh!!!!! <---- this is me screaming.

    it's maddening, really. it's all so horrible. even here in southeast florida this stuff is foreign (thank goodness). when we were in utah for one day last month, i could just FEEL it. the utah-ness of it all. the CULTURE... it's oppressive.

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  4. It's precisely because the culture and the religion are so intertwined that I've become careful about looking down my nose at the culture, which is my tendency. I've noticed that too often I unwittingly confuse the two (clothing style is clearly culture, but "culturally-rooted" attitudes aren't always so clearly culture) so that I find myself distancing myself from the religion in the name of being independent from the culture. I've found it better for me personally to simply avoid thinking negatively about the culture -- it keeps me in safer waters.

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    1. But didn't you grow up in Portland, like me? I remember the first time I went to Utah and realized that there was this whole other world out there that was considered part of Mormonism. The culture and religion were not fully intertwined for me.

      Your thought really rings true - it is best to avoid thinking negatively about the culture.

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  5. Oh, and tight jeans with lots of plastic bling on the butt pockets and white contrast stitching. I will never understand....

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  6. Why do we hear this phrase in every single meeting/lesson: I had the opportunity to . . . Can we simply say "I went to" or "I did such and such"? Another one is "take out my endowments." We receive our endowment; we don't take it out as on a date or something.

    I've seen those ads in LDS Living; some of them make me gag. Making money or commercializing sacred things turns me off.

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  7. I'm currently trying to choose my words carefully and tactfully, because the truth of the matter is that I am screaming on the inside, too.

    Having grown up in New England, followed by 7 years in Provo, and then having returned to New England for the last 5 years, I found the nature of Mormon culture to have a net toxic effect on me. For me, it was the wrong combination of religion-meets-neighbors-meets-politics-meets-fashion-meets-EVERYTHING. There is an undeniable cultural focus on the OUTSIDE (clothes, plastic surgery, jewelry, SATELLITE DISHES ON BABIES' HEADS), when the religious roots of the culture are so obviously (and rightly) pointed inward. The contradiction between the two was a constant source of negativity for me that took a while (after moving away) to process and with which to make peace.

    Now having said that, I realize there are lots of people (many of whom I know, respect and love) who live in the "Mormon corridor," and thrive. But for me, being able to introduce my children to our Hindu/Muslim/Jewish/Catholic/Athiest neighbors (really! all on my street!) is of far more value than being able to drive 5 minutes to a Deseret Book to get the latest LDS Temples 12-month calendar.

    P.S. A lady in my ward is a Choffy distributor. Rumor has it that the stuff is actually pretty good. Haven't tried it, but it's all the rage. =)

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    1. P.P.S. Exception: Macey's. Best. Grocery. Store. Ever.

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  8. I spend more time then I care to admit trying to figure out if it is "Utah Mormon" culture or "West Coast Mormon" culture or if it is just "Utah"/"West" Coast culture. Here in midwest we are pretty behind the times in general and in Mormon culture...although there are always a few girls with strong Utah/Arizona/California ties with their cutting edge antropology skirts and clunky jewelry (although as a mother with three young daughters I'm a major fan of this style...less likely to be a big deal if they chew on it during sacrament meeting). Where they fail I have a mother in law willing to fill me in. The hair is extensions. The stripping is feathers. The eyelashes are not mascara but instead eyelash extensions. The jeans are True Religions. Boutiques are the place to get shirts. And last time she was here she told me that my leggings were no longer in because they were long and now all the girls are wearing 3/4 leggings. The hair stays up like that with a little backtease. For me this stuff is hard to ignore. Partially because it makes me feel inadequate, partially because it just makes me feel confused and silly. Another thing I've been recently into, looking at how pseudo doctrine becomes widely accepted as doctrine, such as when does opinion become widespread, issues of bureaucracy start to get preached from the pulpit, etc. Anyway as usually I enjoy your observations. Enjoy the last bits of your trip. So sad I didn't get to overlap so we could do lunch or something :(

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  9. Ugh. There is so much. I think it's getting better, but so much of it seems to stem out of white privilege. For example, how about ads that only feature white people? And intact, upper-middle class families? Assuming that every family has a working dad and a stay-at-home mom? Assuming that you not only have enough food for this week, but you have enough resources to have enough food for a whole year? That everybody wears a colored shirt with a white undershirt at the neckline?

    And modesty... oh man. I read the funniest article about how modesty does NOT change and how it's NOT cultural and so you people had better get behind sleeves and undershirts. It was hilarious. I sincerely doubt that the author had ever left the intermountain west.

    I don't have a problem talking badly about the culture (especially the harmful, ostracizing parts of it) because I think it's important to tease out which pieces of Mormonism are cultural and which ones are religious/doctrinal. I mean, some of it isn't even uniquely Mormon, it's just American, and Mormons in the US glom onto it and take it to the next level (chunky jewelry? vinyl lettering? hobby photography?). But then it becomes part of "mormon" culture in a church that is increasingly international, and it has this hegemonic effect where the international culture gets stomped out a bit, simply because they're not the ones in SLC making the ads for Deseret Book. And thus we have a schism between the population of the church and the perceived population of the church.

    I don't do lace tablecloths and I don't do crafts. I don't make hair bows. I don't vote along Republican party lines and I support gay marriage. I really think the more people tell alternate stories of the culture in their own personal lives, the more "Mormon culture" becomes deconstructed and turned into a diverse, beautiful array of stories that don't fall into one particular box. WE ARE NOT ALL THE SAME, and we shouldn't feel pressure to all look & act the same way just because we worship under the same framework.

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  10. Also... what is up with Jesus' hair in that first picture? And is that supposed to be a dove? Man, even our doves are overweight in the US.

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    1. Wait, never mind. It's a chicken. My computer didn't un-pixelate until after I had written my first comment and I realized that it wasn't the typical Jesus-with-bird picture that I had assumed.

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    2. I prefer the "american doves are fat" theory, myself.

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  11. Ooh! Or the cultural notion that we don't watch r-rated movies. First of all, that's not a real rule (and neither is not drinking caffeine... the advice is to avoid vulgar/violent media and harmful/addictive substances, interpret for yourself), but R-rated doesn't exist outside the US. Just one more "Mormon" rule that isn't Mormon at all, for many reasons.

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  12. As a non-Mormon who grew up with many Mormon friends in Portland I can honestly say that I can spot Mormons from afar, there is definitely "a look." Mo-dar, if you will. I really have yet to be surprised when I ask or it comes about in conversation that the person is LDS. However, I could make similar observations about a lot of religious sub-cultures.

    For example, the Nazarenes, a Christian denomination which has their own universities, schools and camps and they definitely encourage the sub-culture. At a Jr. high camp they tell the campers: Look to your left and right your future spouse could be sitting next to you. By the time the kids get to one of the 8 universities throughout the country, preferably in their region (the country is divided by region and more-so by district, similar to stakes/wards)they all know each other. I attended University at Point Loma Nazarene University. As an outsider (I wasn't raised in the Nazarene denomination) it was a bit of culture shock. I had curfew as a freshman, the church has a stance against alcohol, dancing, movie theaters, etc. (Although the dancing and movie theater rules have relaxed.) Belief-wise they were more liberal, encouraged women to go into the pastorate, but socially they were more conservative. Many of my friends were married young at 19 or 20, and this was also encouraged so as not to engage in sinful behavior. The saying senior year was "Ring by Spring or your money back" along with getting the "MRS" degree.

    I really like your observations, it was an interesting blog post.

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  13. Blech, this is one of my favorite things about living abroad.

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  14. As a fairy recent convert (6 years) I still struggle to distinguish between doctrine and culture, even after living in three different states, with three fairy different interpretations of Mormon culture. I had a bishop once state from the pulpit that the only appropriate attire for men at Sacrament was white shirts and ties. I thought this was doctrine. Then I went to church with a friend and her husband in California and her husband (a lifelong church member) wore a brightly colored shirt and tie to church. Not that it directly impacted me, but it was kind of confusing. There have been other examples, too, and I suspect that there are things now that I perceive as doctrine simply because I haven't been told otherwise, that may in fact not be and I don't even realize it.

    I often feel like an outsider because I don't follow all of the Mormon cultural elements, and I usually just chalk it up to being a convert. It is refreshing to hear from Mormons who don't ascribe to all the cultural aspects, and it helps me feel like less of an outsider. If only I could find people like all of you in person, and not just on blogs!

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    1. Amber, I'm a convert too, and understand exactly what you mean. It took about 10 years for me to fully recognize doctrine from culture. Rely on scriptures, general conference talks, the Ensign and most importantly, the Holy Ghost, for truth. Question practices that smack of culture and look out for people's personal interpretation of doctrine (the white shirt/tie thing, for example) (am not saying that white shirt/tie isn't proper--it is--but it's not doctrine).

      Best to you as you navigate through this process.

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  15. Having lived in both states, I feel like Idaho is a little better than in Utah. I don't feel like I have to dress up just to go to the grocery store here, where in Utah I felt underdressed most of the time.

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  16. I think everyone has already said what I was thinking - but thank you. This post was great in many ways. Take Care

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  17. Ha! This is so funny and so well said. I personally don't care for MOST of Mormon culture (especially Utah specific Mormon culture). We are moving back to Utah in a couple of months and I REALLY don't want to. It still exists on a smaller degree here in Georgia, probably because a lot of the members here are from Utah. But here, it's just at a level I can tolerate. I try really hard to just let it go and not let it affect my good feelings toward the gospel, but I have to admit, there are lots of times I dread going to church or any activities (or moving to Utah) because I just can't look at one more adorable baby girl in a big stupid flower headband that is bigger then her head. I feel the urge to slap the mother, and that's probably not what I should be feeling at church, right?

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  18. I agree with most of these comments. BUT, I do want to play the devil's advocate, just to make things interesting.

    1. First of all, I think when people say "Utah Mormon culture" they really mean "Rich Wasatch Front Mormon Culture." I grew up in a small city in Northern Utah and when my family moved down closer to SLC I was surprised at the difference.

    2. Secondly, I agree with Aimee--lots of religious denominations are quite discernible with their styles, habits, and "culture." Living in the Middle East, Bridget, don't you see a lot of class distinctions, even with the somewhat standard dress code for women? Hijabs with lots of bling, matching hijab and shoes, layers and layers of makeup...these, of course, are not because Muslim girls have to wear hijabs with lots of bling but because they try to be fashionable with what they have and within their dress code.

    3. Unique Mormon culture is everywhere, not just in Utah. I think it helps us stand out and feel part of a group, which happens with lots of groups. I have seen Taiwanese Mormon culture, FSO Mormon culture, those-who-live-abroad Mormon culture, DC Single Mormon culture, etc. Just because it's not like Utah doesn't mean it isn't weird and eccentric to those who are not a part of it.

    But with all that being said, I still think that some of those ads are way out there.

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    1. Breanne's comment reminded me that I very often seem Muslims talk about "Arab culture" which is NOT true Islam, but many think it is. And many hate it. I also see this often about Saudi Arabia. Things I hate about that place, they say are just cultural/tribal and not true Islam. So I guess it can be part of all belief systems. Likely there exists an Israeli Jewish culture as well as an American one.

      Really interesting post and comments! I don't know any Mormons here, but the few I see always have white shirts, ties and name tags identifying themselves as "elder." I find them cute really.

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  19. But what does that ad with the teenager say? "Losing Your Teen?" Or "Tired of Raising Your Teen?"

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    1. Hahaha, "Losing Your Teen." I think...

      Your point about blinged abayas is an interesting parallel to culture vs. religion. I'll be thinking about that one.

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I had to disallow anonymous comments because of all the spam I was getting. Sorry!

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