A Sociological Understanding of Mormon Culture

Introduction

I just wanted to briefly address the social processes in the Mormon church. For once, I’m not trying to make some grand point about the state of the world; just help non-Mormons understand what those “weird Utah people” are up to, and help Mormons understand their culture in a new way (after all, it can be hard to know what to fix in your golf swing until you see a third person video of it).

Mormons are located all over the world, and actually very few are located in Utah, percentage-wise (about 2 million out of a total 16 million, or around 12.5%). It’s an obscure religion to most of the world, but is popular among certain communities especially along the east side of the Rocky Mountains (Alberta, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona). And is also quite numerous in California, Washington and Texas (totalling about 1.5 million between the three). Since my experiences are with Mormons from those areas only, I cannot speak for what the cultures are like in other parts of the world. In addition, I am really only considering a very limited aspect of Mormon culture, as this is far from exhaustive; just a snapshot to get you thinking, and hopefully learning a little bit.

If you don’t know much about Mormons, feel free to skim this Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints

Alright, let’s begin with some brief theory introduction, and then discuss their beliefs and practices in a sociological context.

Integration and Regulation In Social Communities

There are two aspects of a social community that I think are quite valuable to look at: integration and regulation.

Integration is the degree to which a person is involved, supported, and feels benefited by their social community. This looks at things like quantity and quality of friendships, mate acquisition success, support in times of need, attachment, and level of individual identity in relation to group identity. High integration means the individual fits in well with the community, and low integration means the individual fits in poorly with the community.

Regulation is the rules, norms, and values represented and enforced in a group. This looks at things like morality, authority, power, autonomy, and social reinforcement of various behaviors. High regulation means very strict and low regulation means very relaxed. Regulation can either be internal or external. Internal regulation is expressed within the individual, while external regulation is imposed on the individual.

Are Mormons Like Jesus?

The Mormons claim to be following the example of Jesus Christ, but reading the gospels would teach you very little about the Mormons’ beliefs and lifestyle. This is for two main reasons.

The first is that latter day revelation is considered a new dispensation, and as such, the teachings of Jesus are rendered effectively inconsequential in many practical respects. For example, Jesus is commonly known to have turned water into wine at a wedding and later partaken of wine at the last supper. Luke 7:33-34 further affirms Jesus’ consumption of wine in contrast to John the Baptist’s abstinence. So, if going only by the life of Jesus, Mormons would be free to partake of wine. However, the consumption of alcohol in any amount is strictly prohibited. This is because latter day revelation from the prophet Joseph Smith ushered in a new ethic containing dietary restrictions not taught by Jesus.

Jesus was a celibate, single man who taught against lust of any kind (Matthew 5:28). He never made any mention of families being an important aspect of the gospel, let alone a requirement for heaven. Mormons, however, believe that marriage is required for attaining the highest degree of heaven. There are many more examples like this.

The second is that people are imperfect, and the calling of Jesus is impossibly high (at one point he says to literally “be perfect”). For example, Jesus teaches voluntary poverty as a superior ethic. He was obsessed with humility and rejection of wealth (Matthew 6:19-21, 24; Luke 12:15, 33). This seems to have manifested itself in a type of philanthropic socialism among members of the early church (Acts 2:44-45). These sentiments are supported by scripture of latter day revelation (Alma 1:27, Jacob 2:18,19). And yet, people like Mitt Romney, who have hundreds of millions of dollars, are not held to that standard by the church. Social and monetary status is even considered a virtue; church members marvel at the success of doctors, lawyers, and business people. Church leaders often affirm this idea of praising material wealth. Essentially, saying that you “want to be rich” in a Mormon YSA is socially affirmed, despite the fact that both Jesus and latter day scriptures would speak to the contrary. Once again, there are many more examples like this.

So What Are Mormons Actually Like?

Since Mormons are not typically similar to Jesus (and sometimes not even latter day scriptures), we may then ask what primarily governs their rules, norms and values. There is a basis in scripture for some Mormon beliefs and practices, but even then, their manifestation into the actual beliefs and lifestyles get expressed in a certain form. For example, Doctrine and Covenants 89 says not to partake of “hot drinks”, and was interpreted as a ban on all caffeinated beverages for many years. It was also believed that black people could not have the priesthood until 1978, despite there being no supporting scripture. The beliefs of Mormons are a peculiar, subjective, and constantly changing thing, just like any religious group.

The behavior of Mormons is regulated by individual, social, and cultural forces stemming from three main conflicts: the individual by repressive vs. expressive desire, the social community by the appropriate vs. inappropriate fulfillment of this individual desire, and the culture by tradition vs. progression. These conflicts are most often between something that has a basis in scripture or revelation and something that opposes it.

Let’s use sexuality as an example:

The Individual (repressive vs. expressive)- A young man typically has a strong sex drive, but the law of chastity teaches against such practices as masturbation, pornography, fornication, and homosexuality. This means the young man will suffer an internal struggle of having strong desires that he feels obligated to repress.

The Social (appropriate vs. inappropriate fulfillment)- The young man is situated in a social group of church members, among which there are potential ways of fulfilling his sexual desire. The only fulfillment deemed “appropriate” is sex with a woman that he is married to. He is negatively reinforced for deviating from this and positively reinforced for complying.

The Culture (tradition vs. progression)- After the young man has successfully acquired a mate deemed “socially appropriate”, he then partakes in a set of rituals necessary for continued social affirmation in the formation of legitimacy. This is done through a temple marriage, in which both potential marriage partners meet inside a designated part of a Mormon temple, and a bishop and others do and say certain things to make it “official”. A banquet of some kind is typically required for social affirmation, as well. The struggle comes in the fact that this marriage style is considered antiquated, as social norms and values in general society have become less restrictive of sexuality, and often don’t require these kinds of rituals in the formation of legitimacy. Church culture then has to resist the influence of the larger secular culture.

In understanding the succession from individual desire into its social and cultural context, we may then apply that to any desire an individual might have: for wealth, love, acceptance, fun, pleasure, power, etc. All individual desires are “socially appropriated” and “ritualized”.

But not all Mormons take part equally in these cultural practices. For this reason, I apply an adaptation of Merton’s strain theory. Instead of emphasizing goals and means, I emphasize individual regulation and collective regulation.

 

    Collective Regulation    
    Accept Reject  
Individual Regulation Accept Conformity Innovation  
  Reject Ritualism Retreatism  
        Rebellion

Conformity: The Mormon sincerely believes in and practices the ideals of the collective. They refrain from things like coffee, alcohol, and pornography, and take part in things like financial success, marriage and children, and regular church attendance. This results in high integration.

Innovation: The Mormon believes in the ideas of the church, but fails to live up to the socially approved practices. They may be addicted to pornography, unable to resist consuming alcohol at parties, unable to find a suitable marriage partner, or any other deviance from what is deemed “socially appropriate”. The Mormon “innovates” to achieve their own form of regulation, typically through increased affiliation with non-Mormon groups and ideas. This results in some integration, but limited.

Ritualism: The Mormon does not believe in the ideas of the church, but goes along with the collective anyway. To them, the practices of the church are something to be done for the social purposes: friends, marriage partner, parent’s approval, etc. This results in high integration.

Retreatism: The Mormon does not believe in the ideas of the church, and does not accept the collective. The Mormon then likely becomes “inactive”, meaning they do not attend church or accompanying social functions. They also do not practice the ethics and will seek relationships with non-Mormons. This results in low integration.

Rebellion: The Mormon is in opposition to both the individual and collective ideas. They typically become an “ex-Mormon” and wish to disparage the church and promote what they deem a “superior lifestyle”. This results in no integration, or the presence of negative integration.

Every Mormon has bits and pieces of the first four at any given point. The goal of the church and faithful members is to work towards conformity to the greatest possible extent. Conformity is the only state by which the greatest heaven (celestial kingdom) can be achieved, and does function well on earth to make people feel they have purpose and are loved and accepted by a community.

All Mormons will, at some points in their life, commit an act they believe is a sin (innovation), do something out of routine rather than spiritual sincerity (ritualism), or forget to read scripture consistently (retreatism). However, not all Mormons engage in rebellion. Because of the high level of social regulation, rebellion is quite a difficult task, and requires either a significant internal ail or external inspiration. An internal ail would be something like feeling socially rejected or morally oppressed by church members, or any number of things relating to personal life issues that get associated (often falsely) with the church itself. An external inspiration would be something like adopting a different religion that feels more inspired, or embracing a group identity in opposition to the church (such as LGBT or assertive atheism).

Conclusion

Hopefully these brief insights help you understand these “weird Utah people” a little better. The general culture has quite a bit of prejudice against Mormons, and I think if they spent time with the people and got to know them, that their prejudice would be reduced or even gone altogether. Addressing the prejudice and disparaging assumptions of those against the Mormon church is one of my favorite things, at least in a social sense, of my personal identification with the religion. Being part of a marginalized group has helped me empathize with the plight of the LGBT community, immigrants, black people, and others who, although don’t face explicit discrimination, do face an unnecessary level of intolerance from others.

I don’t think the Mormon church is anywhere near perfect (after all, it’s made up of people), but it’s a good lifestyle for many people. The values promote positive social capital among family, friends, coworkers, and the world at large. It is in our best interest as a society to allow Mormons the right to practice their beliefs freely, and to accept them without hindrance in social life.

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