April 6, 2008

How "American" is the Church?

[1]The early Saints were commanded by revelation to gather to geographic locations on the American continent where they would help establish a society in preparation for the impending second coming of Christ. During this gathering period the Church was somewhat provincial, especially after moving to the Utah territory.[2] Though still on the American continent, the Saints felt separated from a country they felt had rejected them and killed their prophet. Distance and difficult travel before the arrival of trains and faster transportation added to the feeling of isolation. Despite their feelings of alienation, how much were the early Saints still affected by the Church's American heritage; the "traditions of the fathers"? Some of those traditions can incorrectly become entwined with one's concept of the gospel (see Traditions: True and False). In speaking of the advantages and disadvantages of inherited traditions, Parley related a conversation he had with a man from New Hampshire who was raised among the "jarring of politics":

[The man said to Parley] “I was brought up to believe that my father was right in both religion and politics.” “What was he?” said I. “O, he was a Whig in politics, and a Congregationalist in religion;” and, says he, “I was so glad that my father was so lucky in both as to be right.” “What is the proof,” says I, “that your father was right in both?” “Why, the proof is, he was my father, and therefore he must be right, in both his religion and politics, for my father could not be wrong!” Well, fortunately or unfortunately, we have all had fathers; and, of course, because they are our fathers, they must be right in politics and religion, no matter which it is. Such has been our strong prejudice with reference to our fathers.
Parley believed that incorrect traditions or principles (in theory) ought to be done away through baptism, which initiates one into the community of disciples of Christ. People from diverse backgrounds come together and strive for unity by forsaking any prejudices or traditions that run counter to the new community.[3]
Well, now, how do we stand now: have we got rid of all this? How came we to have one faith, one Lord, and one baptism, and one Holy Spirit, as it is in a great measure this day? ... We came forward, when we see our sins, with honest hearts, determined to do right, believing in Jesus Christ; then some Apostle or Elder that had received the Priesthood through the ministration of Joseph Smith, or that grew out of his administration, took us and buried us in the waters of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins, and we then resolved to lead a new life. It expresses a covenant, whether they said it in so many words or not —they promised to lead a new life. Then just as soon as they could receive sufficient instruction, the Elders laid their hands upon them in the name of Jesus Christ, and...confirmed upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost, and the power thereof. And, by and by, many others were ordained to holy and important callings, and were anointed to take part in the work and partake of the power of the holy Priesthood after the order of the Son of God, and it is this power that unites us together in one. The world do not believe this, I am aware.
Baptism, covenants, receiving the Holy Ghost and fulfilling various callings in the Church all contribute to the potential for unity in the Church. Based on Parley's comments, various nationalities were thought to be somewhat left behind in the waters of baptism.[4] Parley said he thought himself a "Saint" more than an American, or a Democrat, or whatever; and saw the gospel and Priesthood as something that could transcend cultural boundaries and unite all:
It is really so long since I was among the sectarian world, that I had almost forgotten that I was a sectarian of any kind, and that I was a political partisan of any kind. I have been so long removed from those scenes which characterize the numerous parties of the world, I had almost forgotten whether there was a whig or democratic party, or whether parties existed; I say, I had almost forgotten whether I had ever belonged to any sect or party, and I had almost forgotten my nationality. It is true that I do not speak a different language from what I did in the world, but I had almost forgotten that, but I feel that I am with the Priesthood, and with all good men, I am one with them, to be used nationally, politically, morally, and religiously, to hold fast our faith, to build up a righteous people from every country, to preach and establish righteousness, and union, and peace, to all people in every country, for the benefit of all men that will obey it, without regard to persons.[5]
Over time, the Church began expressing a desire to separate the gospel from culture; to not be seen as an "American religion" per se. This is a difficult task for many reasons, not the least of which being the number of American General Authorities and the majority of American missionaries spreading the gospel in foreign cultures. Wilfried Decoo, a Belgian professor of French and Italian at BYU, notes that early in the 20th century, as the principle of gathering was deemphasized, some Church leaders stressed that the Church is not an "American church."[6] Decoo cites, for example, a 1937 October Conference address of J. Reuben Clarke, Jr. who said
This is not an American Church. This is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its destiny as well as its mission is to fill the earth and to bring home to every man, woman and child in the world the truths of this Gospel of which I have spoken.

Decoo notes some ways the Church has been separating "Americanism" from "Mormonism," but he realizes that there are specific reasons why conversion to the gospel in any nation still involves an "infusion" of some American components, and as a corollary, we ought to anticipate and accommodate for an "infusion" of some converts cultural aspects. He notes three realms which keep the Church "American" in a certain sense: historical-geographical, ideological, and behavioral. (Bear with me, here's a very brief summary.) First, the historical geographical component includes the historical nature of the restoration. The sacred grove, the Book of Mormon speaking of a "choice land" and the revelations of Joseph Smith involving the location of millennial events. Second, the ideological includes the "American way of life" which involves rhetoric of liberty, freedom of choice, economic success and prosperity, hard work, family values, etc. The third, behavioral, is more ambiguous and involves more nuanced aspects of culture like appropriate greeting, dating rituals, humor, and eye contact, among many other things. How much of one's culture or tradition should be retained upon uniting with the Church of Jesus Christ, and how can this integration be accommodated in a global Church? How much of us are we to "leave behind in the waters of baptism" so to speak? The general guiding principle seems to be that converts ought to be prepared to forsake anything that would overshadow their allegiance to Jesus Christ. This can seem extreme, as do Christ's words in Matthew 10, “I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother…” I don't believe Christ would have us wield that sword if there was any other possibility of maintaining relationships with those important loved ones. Still, becoming a Saint will likely include the formation of a new identity which requires the shedding of some old beliefs, habits, or allegiances. Overall, as Parley emphasized, becoming one with the Saints is only a part of becoming at one "with all good men" while still "hold[ing] fast our faith, to build up a righteous people from every country, to preach and establish righteousness, and union, and peace, to all people in every country, for the benefit of all men that will obey it, without regard to persons." An article of faith states that we believe in seeking after anything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy. Decoo rhetorically asks if the seeking involves some forsaking:
Do we want a gospel culture that develops in converts a Mormon identity which alienates them from the host culture (and often also their non-member family), or do we prefer, at least outwardly, that they continue to blend in?
For now, Decoo offers no immediate answers, but believes it is vital
that new converts, in particular for their retention, adopt as quickly as possible a proud, joyful, viable Mormon identity, which they also recognize as such for themselves, but which does not put them on a collision course with their non-Mormon environment.
While his study is tentative, Decoo offers this intermediary advice from Chieko N. Okazaki:
Before you dismiss any cultural practice, think about the principle behind it, decide if this principle is one you also believe, and see if you can find a way to participate in it in a way that honors that principle.[7]
Ultimately, the Church must accommodate an appropriate level of cultural integration as it spreads through every "nation, kindred tongue and people" building a united community of one heart and one mind; ZION. Footnotes: [1] The image is from LDS.org, where General Conference addresses are available in many different languages. "How 'American' is the Church" is a question that demands much further discussion that I am prepared to enter for my purposes here. The purpose of the question includes discovering how much of the culture of the United States of America effected the restoration and fleshing out of the principles revealed to and interpreted by Joseph Smith. [2] The gathering principle caused the majority of Mormons to congregate in the "Great Basin," Utah territory, where various nationalities cooperated to make the "desert blossom as the rose." One example of the effect of gathering was in the spread of the English language among immigrating converts. Efforts were made to assist newcomers in learning English; the Deseret Alphabet is one such development. It didn't last long. [3] The concept of ordinances, community, and unity was discussed in a previous blog post based on this sermon. See "A Visit to the Southern Settlements: The Miracle of Unity." [4] Parley explained:
Well, was there power in the ordinances of the kingdom, when administered by Joseph Smith? We say there was power in all that he did. Well, he ordained men to be Apostles, and Prophets, and Elders, and they went forth to administer in the sacred ordinances of the house of God; and I ask, is there power in their administration? ... You do not hear a man say that he is a Dane, or an Englishman, or of any peculiar nation, but losing his nationality, and all blending into one mass, with a united heart to build up the kingdom of our God, and to become one great nation, Americans to be sure, if you wish to call it so, as it is in that country. How came this to be, if there is no power in the modern Priesthood and in the modern ordinances? As I said before, if anybody disputes this power being with us, will they set us a similar example?
[5] Granted that this is a relatively simplistic view of culture, religion, politics, etc. As explained in "Political Neutrality" under the Public Issues section of the official Newsroom on LDS.org:
The Church is officially politically neutral, worldwide. The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics. This applies in all of the many nations in which it is established.
If the Saints ought to be
politically united in anything, perhaps it is that everyone is responsible for their own political views and ought to allow all the privilege of freedom of opinion in the political arena. Perhaps it is also beneficial to consider where our ultimate loyalty resides. Are we American Mormons, or Mormon Americans? Democrat or Republican Mormons, or Mormon Democrats or Republicans? and so forth. [6] Decoo has posted several preliminary discussions on culture and Mormonism on the LDS blog Times and Seasons. They are well worth the read, and I recommend them to all. His research aided me much in this post. See "Mormon identity and culture" and "How American is the Church?"

[7] Chieko N. Okazaki, Disciples, Shadow Mountain, 1998. Okazaki served as first counselor to Elaine L. Jack in the Relief Society general presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1990 to 1997.


Nametag Museum said...

I remember the experience of the first person to join the Church in Spain. It was the late 1960's, and the fascist dictator Francisco Franco had allowed non-Catholic churches to be recognized in Spain. Two missonaries were sent, and eventually found their first convert, Jose Maria Oliveira. He later became became the president of the first stake in Spain. I met him in the street one day when I was tracting with my companion, in Madrid. He said that meeting the missionaries and joining the Church was the greatest thing that had ever happened to him. His family and friends criticized him for joining this "American cult", but he said, "I know in my heart that what these men told me in the truth, and I will not leave it." He is today a successful and respected businessman in Madrid.
In another area I served in, one of the elders in my apartment's was in Europe on business, and they decided to stop and see their son. I can remember most vividly his mother's reaction to how the Church was run in Spain: "I had imagined that sacrament meeting and the other meetings in Spain would be completely different. But it's exactly the same. The words might be in a different language, but the Spirit is the same no matter where the Church is".

LifeOnaPlate said...

Thanks for the interesting experiences, Ben.

The spirit ought to be the same. My wife was sitting in a branch in Russia when the congregation applauded someone on the stand, if I remember correctly, because it was their birthday. For a brief second she thought "wait, applause in Church?" Then she realized how rare it was, and remembered she was in Russia.

I had similar experiences in the Milwaukee Branch I served in. It was a predominantly black congregation and sometimes you'd hear someone shout an "amen" here and there.

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