Dragons, Unicorns, and Cultural Mormons
Greetings listeners. I hoped you like the title of this podcast. I thought it was provocative. At least that's what I was going for. The premise should be clear enough. I listed several things I believe are mythological. They don't exist. The first two are obvious. The last one might require some explaining. Make no mistake, I don't think the creature sometimes referred to as a cultural Mormon exists. I don't doubt there are some who will argue that such a thing exists. But to me there's better evidence for unicorns, dragons, and leprechauns. The so-called cultural Mormon is a product of pure imagination.
To start out I need to kind of define what the term has come to mean--to most. I admit right off, it's going to be generalized. The traditional definition of a cultural Mormon is a Latter-day Saint who feels a very real, perhaps warm and fuzzy connection to the religion of their youth or young adulthood, but has, for the most part, rejected the core tenets of its theology. Actually, the feelings may not be warm and fuzzy at all. They may be downright vicious.
Nevertheless, they don't believe it. And this is more than just the usual doubts and questions. They've already firmly decided what's what, and they give every appearance that there is no changing their minds.
The truth is, any definition I give is going to be rather simplistic. Everyone has a different story to tell. Most cultural Mormons would agree. They never liked labels to begin with. They didn't like the label of being a Mormon, so why would they like the label of being a cultural Mormon? Still, I'll do my best to explain the concept and explain why I think it's important that we understand that such a thing doesn't exist.
Usually someone classified as a cultural Mormon will have stopped attending Church and most of its activities. You might find such an individual in Sacrament meeting now and then, but for the most part they avoid fellow Latter-day Saints, almost as if these folks carry some contagious disease. However, they'll often turn it around and state that it's active, faithful Latter-day Saints who are the carriers of any contagion. So, unfortunately, the avoidance might become mutual. Neither attitude seems to fit teachings of Christ, but let's set that aside for a moment.
If there really was a creature called a cultural Mormon I suppose the most serious example would be someone who lives a double life—every week going through the motions of an active Latter-day Saint, taking the Sacrament, perhaps even submitting to interviews for a Temple recommend so they can fully participate in every part of religious life in the Restored Gospel, but in their hearts they just don't believe it. They've made an intellectual rejection of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, modern prophets—maybe even the Bible and the divinity of the Savior. But old, established habits die hard, and these folks might fear if they admit their doubts or despondencies, it would bring with it a swift stigma of rejection that might create a rift between themselves and many friends and family members whom they genuinely love and respect. And in all fairness, they might be right.
Now, the kind of person I've just described I believe does exists in our Church—people who maintain some semblance of activity, such as the occasional Sacrament meeting. They also might attend ward or stake social events and encourage their children to attend Scouts, and Young Women, and Seminary. They've just decided in their own hearts that most, if not all, of the religious pillars that support LDS doctrine are false, the products of superstition, ignorance--maybe even outright fraud. Still, I don't believe a term like cultural Mormon fits or applies. In this case we're just talking about a Latter-day Saint whose faith has lapsed, or whose faith is waning.
Of course such a phenomenon is nothing new. It existed in the earliest years of the Restoration. Surely it also existed in the days of Adam and Noah. The so-called intelligentsia of humanity have often reviled believers, publicly and secretly. Admittedly, there have been periods in history when the public rejection of religion has resulted in terrible consequences, even death. There've been periods when a rejection of the predominant faith has resulted in ostracism or social condemnation. But there have also been periods in history when the tables have turned, and those who believe are on the receiving end of persecutions, often with equally disturbing or even fatal consequences. I think that describes what's happening in many places today. Not only in lands and nations where the Rule of Law has broken down because of revolution and upheaval, leaving religious minorities at the mercy of vigilantes, but it also happens in modern, western countries, where the persecution and undermining of traditional religion is permitted, and sometimes even encouraged, because such belief systems are perceived as harmful to progressive philosophies of social evolution.
I certainly didn't realize it at the time, but it now appears that I grew up in an era that seemed much more live-and-let-live on political, social, and religious issues. Others might contend that they had a different experience during the same years, but I find that today there's far more pressure to keep our opinions to ourselves, otherwise somebody is going to claim to be offended, or even emotional harmed. Even lawsuits might be filed. In that regard I genuinely miss the 60s and 70s and 80s. In that era I felt Americans could talk about politics and religion with far greater civility, and, consequently, a listener had a much greater potential of being persuaded with the tools of reason and clarity. Not so much today. Everything seems much more divisive. Political correctness reigns. Those with strong religious viewpoints are seen as oppressive to those who don't hold the same viewpoints. It all seems upside down. Yes, it's true that certain minorities in our society and other societies have been genuinely oppressed for a long time—and in many categories--racial, social and religious. Now, as the pendulum swings the other way, we find instances where the oppressed have become the oppressors, and they're relishing every moment of it. Some feel they deserve to be the oppressors for a change.
Frankly, it all sounds like the same music, the same symphonies, the same cacophonies that have plagued humankind since the beginning of time. Nothing is new. We didn't study history very closely so it appears that we're doomed to repeat it.
Now in my worldview, which I recognize is not everybody's worldview--but that seems immaterial since this is my podcast—in my worldview there is such a thing as true religion and man-made religion. There's also such a thing as religions which possess certain true foundational tenets, but don't possess the whole truth. Or at least not the authority, and that is a critical point. Since most of my listeners are LDS I hardly have to explain such a position. It's the same position held by other faithful Latter-day Saints.
But, oh! For some people this worldview just—Man, it gets on their nerves! They see it as arrogant and intolerant and just plain stupid. They might even consider it the root of all evil and if allowed to continue it will devastate civilization as we know it. And, in many instances, I find that the people who are most emotional about this are not non-members from the other side of the world. They are former Latter-day Saints. Lapsed Latter-day Saints. Folks sometimes referred to by others or by themselves as cultural Mormons.
Now, admittedly, many Latter-day Saints have never heard that term before. That's okay. Chances are you have more clarity on the matter than those who have heard the term. Admittedly, many of those to whom I mentioned the term also weren't quite sure what it meant. Some wondered if it meant "Utah" Mormon, or some other kind of active, believing saint who somehow felt superior to other saints. No, that's not what it means. I understand where you're coming from, but I see that as a very different issue. Some folks wondered if it just meant Mormons who appreciate fine culture. Those who love symphonies and art museums and traveling the world. That was kinda funny when I read it. I love those things, too, but no—that's not the meaning of a cultural Mormon. Different thing.
In the end this discussion is largely gonna be about semantics—personal perception—but I think it's important to draw the distinction, because I firmly believe there IS no such thing as an LDS culture. Those who disagree, I mean, how are you going to define it? The Moroni spire on top of LDS temples? "Popcorn popping on the Apricot tree?" Is it the native dances performed by Church members at BYU's Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii? The Maori tongue-dance? I mean, what IS culture?
The dictionary offered two definitions. One referring to "qualities of a person or society arising from concerns about the arts, manners, customs, etc," and another talking about "activities that define certain groups of people based on social, ethnic, or age identities." It's natural to toss religion into that mix as well, but if Christianity is true—if there really is a Savior of the world and a true organization authorized to act in the Savior's name—and to some that is a VERY big "if"—a question that can only be answered by faith—but if that statement is accurate, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in reality God's authorized religion on the face of the earth, then there IS no such thing as an LDS culture.
It's interesting that sometimes even I slip and employ that term when I'm thinking in generalities, but when I think about the specifics, I come up blank. True religion has no culture. Only doctrine. The role of true religion is to subsume or adopt or surmount the customs or characteristics that define culture. Now why is that important? Because I think it helps to keep things in the right perspective. It presents the right balance. It can prevent some terrible errors from creeping into our doctrine. It keeps pride in check. Culture is so often a tremendous source of human pride. Sometimes that's perfectly fine. Whenever culture doesn't conflict with doctrine, Latter-day Saints should feel free to do everything possible to preserve it. But as every faithful, experienced missionary knows, sometimes the biggest obstacle that an investigator must overcome to receive a testimony are associated directly with issues of culture. Sometimes such cultures are really not in opposition to doctrine, but family and friends make the investigator think it is. Out of fear. Out of bias. Because the doctrines of Latter-day Saints may be markedly different from everything they've ever been taught. However, sometimes aspects of culture really are in direct opposition to doctrine. The religions of men, even religions that retain many true and foundational principles, often become a formulation of culture that sits in direct opposition to the Gospel. That's when the decision to unite with our Church becomes the most difficult AND the most critical. It's where the rubber hits the road. It's where someone must truly be touched by the Spirit. Without the Spirit, what's the motivation to join this Church anyway? Adopting a social circle? The Church's welfare program? I suppose such a thing has happened, but it's easy pickings for the adversary. Why accept the sacred and encompassing covenants that will unite someone with the Gospel of Jesus Christ—potentially severing forever ties that have united them to their habituated and lifelong culture? Obviously, the stronger, the more pronounced, the more defined the culture of the investigator, the more difficult it can be to embrace these changes. Make these commitments. Or KEEP such commitments. The Holy Ghost is the only force strong enough to overcome culture. That's why I think it's important to understand that true religion has no culture. Only doctrine.
That doesn't mean that converts of the Church don't have histories, beliefs, customs, and practices that are unique, but that's a different thing. For example, in our Church we have a rich pioneer history. In fact, it might seem kind of strange—I don't have any ancestors who crossed the plains, who came west and endured the hardships of the saints who settled in Utah. None of my ancestors came west with groups and settled along the Oregon or Santa Fe trails or migrated north from Mexico or east from the Orient. And yet the instant I joined the Church, I felt like I was automatically adopted into the LDS pioneer heritage. You know how in our Patriarchal blessings it talks about being adopted into the House of Israel? Well, by becoming a Latter-day Saint I felt like that whole history and heritage—being forcefully driven from Missouri and crossing the plains in wagons and handcarts—was suddenly MY history and heritage.
I wonder if converts from Ghana or New Zealand or Taiwan feel that same connection? I suspect in addition to any LDS pioneer heritage that converts from other countries might feel, they are also keenly aware of the first missionaries and converts who built up the Church in their own part of the world, and it's that bridge that connects them with the heritage of the Utah pioneers. Still, that's not really culture! Even the pioneers who settled in Utah brought with them many of the traditions and customs of the country from which they emigrated, and many of those traditions, especially culinary and craft traditions, are still celebrated in the counties and townships where their ancestors settled.
I suspect Latter-day Saints in India and South Africa and Samoa don't really celebrate the Days of '47 or eat Jell-O or pursue the same Homemaking projects as Utah saints. Or even American saints. And that's cool. That's where cultural differences are healthy and unique and good.
So really, it's generally non-believers who perceive Latter-day Saints as having a culture. Generally they mistake it for the Utah or Pioneer culture, ignoring that we're now a worldwide Church. Honestly, many non-believers classify the problem a little differently. They consider us culturally defunct. They contend that Mormons don't have any culture. No biggie. They say the same thing about most western and mid-western people, the residents of flyover country, as some term it. But some, especially LDS apostates, mistake this as a flaw associated strictly with Mormon culture. They're convinced we're boring. We have no appreciation of Mozart or Picasso or Byzantine architecture. Oh brother, what a silly, uninformed generality! The idea is so shallow it's hardly worth discussing. You're right! I don't appreciate Mozart. I prefer Beethoven, Sibelius, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. More of a Romantic, you might say. And I don't appreciate Picasso! I like Monet and Van Gogh. The point is that most people don't feel the inclination to immerse themselves in high brow culture. I presume the percentage of Latter-day Saints who do is the same percentage as the rest of humanity. And, as often becomes the unfortunate case, those who do pursue such passions sometimes adopt an elitist perception of all those little people of the world who fail to comprehend the finer things. Again, this is just a commonplace human failing--once more associated with pride—and has nothing to do with the fictional culture of Latter-day Saints.
Now I realize there does exist a peculiar bias that can rear its head within the Church. It is ugly. And the bias can go both ways, between saints from Utah and saints outside of Utah. I've seen both sides point to the other as putting on airs or acting superior or more authoritative as people move from place to place and mix and mingle. Again, a human tendency. A human weakness. Nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And again, pride. I've also seen this bias emerge between American Latter-day Saints and foreign Latter-day Saints. That feeling of superiority because we are residents of that blessed nation where the Gospel was actually restored. Ugly, ugly, ugly. We know that God doesn't see it that way, right?
Here' s the thing. Human beings—ALL human beings—seem pathologically inclined to lump everyone into categories, we gossip, we look for reasons to feel more blessed, more privileged, and more qualified than other people. Latter-day Saints can fall into the same traps, and it's certainly nothing new that such issues can escalate into very serious and contentious things that simmer and burn and create rifts and divisions that drive people away from each other and often away from the Church.
Thomas B. March, the Apostle who would have succeeded Brigham Young as the next President of the Church, apostatized for reasons that, at its core, were as trivial as they could possibly be. A conflict over milk strippings between his wife and two other women. When Thomas appealed for redress over this issue to the First Presidency of the Church, they sided against Thomas and his wife. This had a terrible and tragic domino effect. It eventually led Thomas Marsh to come out against the Church in open rebellion, signing affidavits against Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. It was one of the factors that prompted Missouri's Extermination Order against the Saints, leading to incidents of death, murder, and misery. Hey, Orson Hyde signed this affidavit too. He just repented a lot quicker.
By the way, some anti-Mormons and disaffected saints have tried to twist this history, attributing Marsh's apostasy to far more serious matters. However, this is disproven by the testimony of Thomas Marsh himself. When at last, as a broken man, he rejoined the Church and reunited with the saints in 1857, he addressed a congregation gathered in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City and humbly told them:
"I have frequently wanted to know how my apostasy began, and I have come to the conclusion that I must have lost the Spirit of the Lord out of my heart.
The next question is, ‘How and when did you lose the Spirit?’ I became jealous of the Prophet, and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; and then, when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, and I thought I saw a beam in brother Joseph's eye, but it was nothing but a mote, and my own eye was filled with the beam; } but I thought I saw a beam in his, and I wanted to get it out; and, as brother Heber says, I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad. I talked with Brother Brigham and Brother Heber, and I wanted them to be mad like myself; and I saw they were not mad, and I got madder still because they were not. Brother Brigham, with a cautious look, said, “Are you the leader of the Church, brother Thomas?” I answered, “No.” “Well then,” said he, “Why do you not let that alone?” Well, this is about the amount of my hypocrisy—I meddled with that which was not my business."
I love Thomas's words. A broken man who just wants to reunite with truth. It's heartbreaking, and yet so familiar. "I was mad and I wanted everybody else to be mad."
To me that defines the very epitome of someone who has fallen away from the Church. Still, the concept is different than the so-called, non-existent cultural Mormon.
To me a Latter-day Saint who feels some unusual desire to remain affiliated with the Church, but not an active participant, is far more tragic than the case of someone like Thomas B. Marsh. To remain in the Church but not of the Church. It does seem strange, doesn't it? Sometimes such an individual's motives for remaining in the Church is to try to enlighten it as to its "follies"—from within.
LDS scholar Hugh Nibley once spoke of a confrontation that he had with a group of liberal, secularist Latter-day Saints who called themselves the "swearing Mormons." These men, many of them academics, met from 1949 to 1950 to discuss intellectual issues about Mormonism in what they characterized as an open environment where everyone could talk freely.
Nibley tells of being invited to speak with them about the Book of Mormon. As Nibley recounts, “. . . they’d say, ‘You’re among friends now, you can say what you really feel about the Book of Mormon and about anything else.’ Well, then I bore my testimony, and oh, were they mad. They were just boiling. I never saw such anger. They just ripped me. And then going back...(they) laid it out about the Book of Mormon, ‘We have to get rid of it. It’s driving the best minds out of the church! You can’t see it, but with my training, I know it.’ . . . Joseph Smith was a deceiver, but he was a sly deceiver. The Book of Mormon is not true.’...They had a real active hatred of the Book of Mormon up there, even though they were members of the Church.”
I suspect anyone who has been active on the internet has experienced similar encounters. The established conception is that a convert can leave the Church, but they cannot leave it alone. They feel compelled to take an active role trying to lead others away from the faith they once espoused. The Prophet Joseph described how apostates often bring severe persecutions upon former friends and associates. He said, "When once that light which was in them is taken from them they become as much darkened as they were previously enlightened, and then, no marvel, if all their power should be enlisted against the truth, and they, Judas like, seek the destruction of those who were their greatest benefactors." (HC 2:23.)
Daniel Tyler, a contemporary of Joseph Smith, told of a visit he and another Church member named Isaac Behunnin made to Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. The Prophet had been recently liberated from Libery Jail and told these brethren of the persecutions he'd endured, many at the hands of apostates. Brother Behunnin retorted:
“If I should leave this Church I would not do as those men have done: I would go to some remote place where Mormonism had never been heard of . . . and no one would ever learn that I knew anything about it.”
The Prophet Joseph responded:
“Brother Behunnin, you don’t know what you would do. No doubt these men once thought as you do. Before you joined this Church you stood on neutral ground. When the gospel was preached good and evil were set before you. You could choose either or neither. There were two opposite masters inviting you to serve them. When you joined this Church you enlisted to serve God. When you did that you left the neutral ground, and you never can get back on to it. Should you forsake the Master you enlisted to serve it will be by the instigation of the evil one, and you will follow his dictation and be his servant.”
Lastly, Elder Neal A. Maxwell stated, " [There are a] few eager individuals who lecture the rest of us about Church doctrines in which they no longer believe. They criticize the use of Church resources to which they no longer contribute. They condescendingly seek to counsel the Brethren whom they no longer sustain. Confrontive, except of themselves, of course, they leave the Church, but they cannot leave the Church alone.
Unfortunately, this has always been the pattern, and it takes a very short investigation of the internet to discover that these efforts are ongoing and vigorous. The phenomenon never ceases to astonish me. Even in my own conversations with former Latter-day Saints they will express the most hateful rhetoric against the Church, its doctrines, and its leaders and in the very next sentence say, "Now, please understand, I have nothing against the Church." It's a weird thing to be so blind to one's own behavior. And yet it seems commonplace.
In a Conference address President Faust declared, " Among the assaults on families are the attacks on our faith, for which parents should prepare their children. Some of it is coming from apostates who had testimonies and now seem unable to leave the Church alone. One, complaining of Church policy, was heard to say: “I am so mad: if I had been paying my tithing I would quit.” Persecution is not new to the devoted followers of Christ. More recently, however, the anger and venom of our enemies seems to be increasing.
The statement that struck me most from President Faust is how parents should be preparing their children for this onslaught. How do we do that? I believe it's by living the Gospel, which is more than just going through the motions of Church activity. It's by exemplifying the life of Christ in our daily lives, through our choices and behaviors. Sometimes that not an easy thing, because our personalities can be so riddled with faults and flaws. So along with striving to live the commandments, we must also constantly emphasize the role of the Holy Ghost in defining and testifying of truth. We have to kneel down with our children, we have to read the scriptures with them, we have to bear our testimonies, and whenever we recognize the presence of the Spirit, we have to point it out, help them to recognize it as well. Maybe you're not quite sure yourself how to do that. Well . . . I hope you'll spend some time on your knees and figure it out.
There's no harm in educating ourselves how to respond intellectually to criticisms against the Church as it relates to our history or science or whatever, but the adversary is always going to come up with some intellectual strategy that strikes us as new. His arsenal is unlimited. Don't think you can compete with it. I've been in settings where some of the most intellectually disturbing information has been laid out to a member of the Church and they've responded to this information by simply declaring, "It doesn't matter. I know the Church is true. I can't address the particular issue you've described, but I do know that my testimony is based on something more reliable. I've received a spiritual witness, and I know that an explanation will someday be available and make perfect sense within the framework of the testimony I've received." I love that response. I love it and it's fine.
Nothing is more frustrating to an anti-Mormon than a reply like this. As Hugh Nibley said, the anger might take you by surprise, steam might start coming out of their ears. The vitriol could become visceral and desperate. Every effort might be employed to make you feel about one inch tall, completely narrow-minded, dim-witted, and moronic. There have been occasions, however, when out of nowhere the Spirit enters the conversation. The Holy Ghost encompasses the setting, the agitator is silenced, and the contention is inexplicably neutralized. There's no logical explanation for this. It just happens, and those moments are to be treasured and remembered. Often the agitator remembers those moments as well, and the effect can be life-altering. Keep in mind, the goal here is not necessarily to expose a Latter-day Saint who's just going through the motions or pretending to believe. Certainly a member who is trying to destroy the Church from the inside out can be a very destructive thing, but the people in this category usually expose themselves. As for the rest—it's still better to maintain those final ties than to sever them. Because guess what?—I've witnessed individuals who I knew struggled with their beliefs, and with some of the core tenets of the Church, experience a conversion event like nothing else in their lives, all because they were in the right place, even it was only a limited amount of the time.
And that's my best argument for striving to eliminate the conception that there's something known as a cultural Mormon. Those who employ the term use it as a wall. It's a term intended to be dismissive, patronizing, and supercilious. Be patient. Be long-suffering. Be like Christ. Don't always believe it when you receive a message like, "Dop!--Don't even try to persuade me. Don't even try to deploy your hocus-pocus spiritual mumbo-jumbo because I am unreachable." That may be. But that's a choice. The term itself can often place people roundly on opposite sides of an argument when the situation is really so much simpler to interpret. Here we have someone who believes, and someone who doesn't believe. All the rest are meaningless, intellectual and psychological trappings and embellishments with no meaning whatsoever.
The fact is, the power of the adversary is no match for the power of God. But you have to tap into it. And you do that by staying close to the Lord. Never rely on the arm of flesh. You'll lose every time. Rely upon something greater than yourself. Resist hate. Resist the natural human tendency to be defensive and re-distribute the seeds of rancor. Rely upon love, and you will come out the victor. Even if you lose the contest by all earthly measurements, you will still be the eternal victor.
It's my prayer that everyone who feels besieged by any factors and phenomenon designed to undermine faith will hold to the rod, stay the course, and endure to the end. It's getting close, isn't it? The end times? If I think about all the changes that I've witnessed over the past ten years, it's hard to imagine what might occur in the next ten years. Does that mean we abandon our goals, our righteous ambitions, our objectives to build a happy life for ourselves and our families? No. Absolutely not. It just means we draw that much closer to the Lord. Don't even chance taking for granted any of the incredible blessings that are ours because of the knowledge we've received and the Covenants we've made. Stand in holy places and the righteous have no need to fear. This is Chris Heimerdinger. I bear solemn testimony of this Gospel. It's true, and it's tangible. This is ForeverLDS. Over and out.