Most Mormons

mmI distrust Most Mormons. Whenever I see Most Mormons, I’m inclined to disagree with whatever is being said. If it were possible, I’d like to do away with Most Mormons entirely – not the actual people, of course, but rather Most Mormons, the rhetorical device. As in: Most Mormons have no friends outside the church. Most Mormons don’t read the newspaper. Most Mormons don’t understand the New Testament. Sociological study of Mormons and Mormonism has much to offer, but Most Mormons (in our online discourse) usually consists of nothing but impressions built from a few cherry-picked incidents or acquaintances.

Even more pernicious is the way that the rhetoric of Most Mormons lets us flatter ourselves as exceptional. It’s only natural to want to demonstrate to friends and colleagues that we’re as (intellectually sophisticated, religiously respectable, progressively enlightened, unabashedly fun-loving, etc.) as they are. When conversation turns to some of the more unusual aspects of Mormon history or practice or theology, it can be tempting to preserve credibility by declaring, “Yes, well, that particular aspect of Mormonism is a bit embarrassing, but I’m not like Most Mormons.”

It won’t work. It’s better for your own credibility to embrace your religion rather than to flee from it. Note, however, that this has more to do with what you say than what you actually believe or do. Within limits, you can share your friends’ intellectual pretensions, slacker attitudes, and even their unhealthy habits without invoking Most Mormons. Rather than “Most Mormons horde insane amounts of wheat in preparation for the end of the world, but I’m not like Most Mormons,” how about, “My church emphasizes both spiritual and physical preparedness, so I try to keep some extra canned food and fresh batteries on hand in case we have another ice storm like last year”? Rather than “Most Mormons have irrational hang-ups about drinking coffee,” how about “I enjoy coffee, but I really like how Mormon teachings emphasize the importance of our bodies to our spiritual lives”?

See? You can be a food-storage slacker and Word of Wisdom scofflaw and still claim allegiance to Most Mormons. Acknowledging our membership and our affinity to our brothers and sisters when we talk about the church, rather than presenting ourselves as alienated observers who know better than all those other rubes, is probably at least as important for our spiritual welfare as not drinking coffee and storing a year’s supply of food. How many not-like-Most-Mormons does the world actually need? It seems to me that the market is satiated, and there’s a long waiting list whenever a position comes open. But there’s always a need for people who will say, “Yes, I’m a Mormon, and this is how I live my religion.”

I’d like to send Most Mormons (and its cousins, Most Missionaries and Utah Mormons) into permanent retirement at the Home for Worn-Out Strawmen, but it’s better to be not-like-Most-Mormons than not a Mormon at all. If you’re new to the church and still trying to figure out the odd cultural mores of your new religion, by all means feel free to be not-like-Most-Mormons. And everyone is allowed a period of searching and introspection while they make peace with their beliefs and doubts. If being not-like-Most-Mormons helps you, then please be as not-like-most as you want. Eventually, however, you should realize that you are just like most Mormons after all, despite (or because of) your questions and foibles. It’s generous to offer your place at the edge to someone who needs it more than you. Please move toward the center, so that those still arriving can find a seat on the aisles.

33 comments for “Most Mormons

  1. I suspect I will be linking to this in perpetuity. Bless you, Jonathan. (Particularly on the Utah Mormon bit, but I’m biased.)

    Most Mormons hoard insane amounts of wheat in preparation for the end of the world, but I’m not like Most Mormons, I hoard chocolate.

  2. Alison, the problem with “Most Mormons” is that they live outside the United States and are culturally very different than the not-so-most Mormons living in the USA. Of course the Utah version are even a smaller group. We must think internationally now. “Most Mormons” speak Spanish, not English. “Most Mormons” did not have the opportunity to vote for Mitt or Obama. “Most Mormons” are first or second generation Mormons, and do not have a pedigree going back to Nauvoo or Palmyra. BTW, “Most Mormons” do not hoard wheat. They hoard rice, millet or corn, instead.

  3. Alison Moore Smith: “Most Mormons hoard insane amounts of wheat in preparation for the end of the world, but I’m not like Most Mormons, I hoard chocolate.”

    I’ll do New Iconoclast one better: When the next natural disaster is impending, I hope you won’t be surprised to find me at your doorstep. ;-D

  4. I was cheering after the first paragraph and churlish after the second. I rarely hear the Most Mormons rhetoric in my ward or my stake. Most Mormons I know don’t spend a whole lot of time opining about Most Mormons. Where I do hear this rhetoric on a daily basis is on Mormon blogs. And on those blogs Most Mormons decidedly are not exceptional. On LDS blogs Most Mormons are, almost exclusively it seems, bigoted, parochial, reactionary, narrow minded, petty, condescending, spiritually shallow, backward rubes. Most Mormons seem to exist in the bloggernacle solely to show how the commenter is not like Most Mormons.

  5. “…but it’s better to be not-like-Most-Mormons than not a Mormon at all.”

    I was tempted to say a “Most Mormons” sentence regarding the affirmation above, but I will refrain….

  6. I agree it’s a shallow rhetorical stab, used mostly in response to being left on the outside of the great ship of “most mormons.” I’m guilty of it, and I acknowledge I should use it less. That being said have you ever tried to be a mormon feminist in Rexburg? Where most mormons only have 20 nonmembers in their stake boundaries? See what I did there?

    Really, we all are complex beings and see things differently, I like your examples in the third paragraph of affirming our beliefs and commenting on how it’s applied in our lives.

  7. One I hear on the train a lot is “Most Mormon Women”.
    And, “Most High Priests” (as in, most high priests sleep through priesthood meeting).
    I suppose both of those will have to go?
    :-)

  8. “Most Mormons don’t understand the New Testament” as a cheap rhetorical device.

    Nope. This one is a universal truth. I want it to be wrong but it ain’t.

  9. For better or worse, I think you can lay the “most mormons” paradigm on the Church itself. It desperately wants approval for missionary purposes, etc. and likes to push the idea that “most mormons” are a certain way whether it be in the latest “Meet the Mormons” movie or in the Deseret News articles that obsess over whether outsiders like us or not.

  10. Jonathan,

    [T]here’s always a need for people who will say, “Yes, I’m a Mormon, and this is how I live my religion.”

    This is a lovely and important line; thanks for writing it, and I strongly endorse it. (Though it’s hard for me not to imagine that John Dehlin, et al, presents a difficulty with that formulation.)

  11. The difficulty with the “Most Mormons” construction, I think, is that we usually use it to criticize the self contradictions of Intermountain Mormon subculture where it is dominant, and where, as others have pointed out, most Mormons don’t live.

    But if you scratch the surface of that and start meeting those people one at a time, much more often than not you’re going to make the acquaintance of people who want nothing but good for themselves and everyone around them. They will be kind to you. Generous, even. That’s vital to remember.

  12. In my opinion, people in the USA live a different style of life and views with complete ignorance of how outside the USA really works. This article seems to sadly shares a similar view.

    I will not say it’s not true as in Utah but it’s dangerous to lump your words as you have.

    Good thoughts but with blinders on. I have luckily been impressed by the charity and desires to help those in need in many of my wards. Not to say that your life circumstances are not valid. That’s what you must live daily.

    I heard a talk about food storage that those who also don’t share, your food storage will spoil.
    You should get outside and see more of the real world. You will be amazed by MOST MORMONS.

    Also don’t worry about most Mormons and keep a positive view. You will be double suprised as positive people frequently run into more positive people.

    Just my humble thoughts.

  13. At least “Most Mormons” leaves open the possible existence of “some subset of Mormons – even if that is a subset of one, me – who are not like Most Mormons.” Pronouncements about “Utah Mormons” (or, per Joseph the Bold, “people in the USA”) are blanket statements that allow for no exceptions at all.

    Good ideas, Jonathan. Recognizing these strawmen is the first step to retiring them (or, maybe better, holding a lit match to them).

  14. Yes, Mormons are a diverse group and to say ‘most Mormons’ is often an incorrect generalization. I find it interesting that I hear the criticism of ‘most Mormons’ coming from more liberal and conservative camps. I constantly hear ‘Mormon culture’ criticized either because it is too doctrinaire or not doctrinaire enough. At any rate I think that it fairly safe to assume that most Mormons (at least the 15 million figure recently claimed by the LDS church), meaning over 50%, are less active and rarely, if at all, attend an LDS chapel on Sunday.

    “It’s better for your own credibility to embrace your religion rather than to flee from it”

    That really, really depends on the context.

  15. Thanks for the comments. This post was one of the first things I wrote for T&S in 2007, but it didn’t seem publishable at the time, although I never could just forget about it.

    As some of the comments point out, ‘Most Mormons’ is a term sometimes used to discuss or critique cultural issues of the Mormon-dense regions of the western U.S. One thing that changed between 2007 and when I revised the post this week was that I had a chance to live in Rexburg. Can I claim to have experienced life as a feminist in Rexburg? Probably not. I fit some definitions (agreeing with the “radical notion that women are people”), but don’t fit enough others that I shouldn’t attempt to claim that category, certainly not just to I can tell Kristine A that I have so been a feminist in Rexburg. I’ve been a Democrat and an Obama voter in Rexburg, which is not the same thing but as close as I can get. One thing I gained from the experience was seeing that life in a predominantly Mormon area was in fact noticeably different from other places I’d lived, both inside and outside the U.S. There are some useful and interesting things that could be written about it, and I’d like to read them – but most invocations of Most Mormons, Utah Mormons, or their cousins that I come across online (and I’m talking almost exclusively about online discourse here) are not engaged in careful analysis but in rhetorical sleights of hand at best.

    Take, for example, “Most Mormons don’t understand the New Testament.” It accomplishes a couple pernicious things. First, it suggests a comparison in which Mormons are lacking: Mormons are woefully inadequate compared to _______ – except the blank is never filled in. Also, “Most Mormons don’t understand the NT” treats ‘understanding the NT’ as if it were a single, well-defined object. What does it actually mean, though? It’s probably accurate to say that members of the church have a reasonable grasp on the most important points of the LDS interpretive tradition concerning the NT; “Most Mormons don’t understand the NT” thus manages a third pernicious accomplishment in creating a gap between the LDS interpretive tradition and whatever ‘understanding the NT’ is supposed to mean. One could say that the LDS interpretive tradition does not take particular note of contemporary NT scholarship; this might be true (and perhaps even in some respects deplorable), although it’s not nearly as provocative a comment.

    So I’m not making a point about generalization or even overgeneralization here. Just because there are exceptions to a rule, doesn’t make it illegitimate to state what is generally the case. But ‘Most Mormons’ seems to be attached too often to bad generalizations based on a few cases or one person’s experience rather than a reasonable attempt to seek out a representative sample, and to be used in some dubious rhetoric. Thus my mistrust of “Most Mormons.”

  16. Having spent years in both the Wasatch Front area and in Eastern Idaho, I know that not all parts of the Mormon-dense regions of the Western U.S. are the same. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to live in Rexburg, but, at least in some sections of Eastern Idaho, being a feminist, liberal, or Democrat Mormon is incredibly lonely. The sections of Utah I’ve lived in (Provo, conservative suburbs) were in fact quite different–and not quite so lonely. So there’s quite a bit of variation even inside the Mormon Corridor.

  17. Well, “most Mormons” don’t understand the New Testament — not from a scholarly viewpoint, but not even the most basic familiarity with the persons or stories, and not from a sense of respect or seeing value. I think “our” lack of familiarity with and respect for the New Testament works against us as we try to assert our Christianity. I see the point of the original posting, and I can see some basis for humor, but this one is too real for my comfort.

  18. ji #22, Since I’ve read Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman do I get to be in the “Mormon who understands the New Testament” column? What’s the criteria for being in the “knowledgeable” camp?

  19. Bryan (no. 23) — I don’t know what you mean by “the ‘knowledgeable’ camp” — but I do hope that after all our efforts in seminaries and Sunday Schools and personal scripture readings that Latter-day Saints will develop a basic familiarity with the persons and stories in the New Testament, and a sense of respect for and value in the New Testament. The persons are so genuinely human, and the stories so real and powerful, and true doctrine can be learned so much easier, by simply understanding the people and the stories.

  20. I especially like “Yes, I’m a Mormon, and this is how I live my religion.” and now I hope I’ve never used “most Mormons”. (Failing memory can be useful.)

    But there’s another direction to come at this. I have found myself saying “I am a Mormon but they would probably disagree if they really knew me”. For “they” one can read “the church” or “the cultural norm of Mormon society” or even “most Mormons”.

    I know I’m not alone in feeling that way. I suspect it’s pretty common. One response is the big tent approach. Tell me I’m wrong, that in fact I do belong and my feelings are invalid. But right or wrong, the feeling is real and I’m looking for the politically correct way to express that feeling.

  21. Wasn’t there a study a couple of years ago, that concluded that atheists and Mormons were the top two groups in knowledge of the Bible? But I do agree with Jonathan that in “Mormons don’t understand the NT,” there is an implied and unstated “…compared with all the people who understand it better.” I would guess that in the population at large, Mormons would do pretty well, stacked up against all the people who don’t know the Philippians from the Philippines.

  22. rameumpton, while it’s true that most Mormons (statistically speaking, not as a rhetorical device) live outside the US and speak a language other than English as their native tongue, it’s not true that most Mormons speak Spanish. Something around 30% of Church members are native Spanish speakers, depending on how you read the statistics.

  23. I’m going to give this a try:

    Most Mormons are conservative, but I’m liberal:
    I’m liberal, but I like being surrounded by conservatives in my church. It’s good to have a challenge.

    Most Mormons are against same-sex marriage, but not me:
    I’m for same-sex marriage but I like belonging to a church that reminds me how important family is.

    Most Mormons believe the General Authorities are practically perfect, but I don’t.
    I don’t think our leaders are perfect, but I admire the respect and reverence our church members give to our leaders.

    Most Mormons believe the Bible and Book of Mormon is historically literal, but I don’t.
    I don’t think many of the scriptures are historically literal, but I admire the great faith in our church, a faith that wouldn’t be possible without literal belief.

    OK, now that I’ve tried that exercise, I can see the point: We should give the church and its membership a little more respect, admiration, and credit, even if we don’t believe everything Most Mormons believe.

  24. rameuptom & others —

    Do we have any kind of reliable estimates of active and engaged members? I get that by the raw membership numbers, those of us in the USA are outnumbered by those without, but my impression is that congregations outside the US are, on average, much less active which makes me think that the church is still very much a “US church.” However, I don’t have any kind of numbers (wild guesses or reliable estimates) to back up this impression.

    Apologies for the threadjack, but my curiosity overcame my internet etiquette.

  25. Jonathan, since you have cleverly skewered Mormon “liberals,” I look forward to the follow-up in which you decry the way more “conservative” Mormons use “mainstream Mormonism” as a bludgeon against perceived heretics. As in “Well, you may believe that, but I prefer to stay within mainstream Mormonism.”

  26. Kristine, as someone who is often “accused” of playing both sides, I don’t think “mainstream” is used for blunt force trauma. :) I think it is usually just definitionally accurate with regard to less progressive views.

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