On Monday, my wife asked a class of BYU students how many of them had heard a Mormon say “I hate Mormons” in a group of Mormons. Every single student raised his or her hand.
Now, some of us have probably heard an American say “I hate Americans” in a group of Americans, and it’s not entirely unheard of for a black person to lash out at black people. Once upon a time, there were also plenty of honest-to-goodness self-hating Jews out there, but nowadays Judaism is so fragmented, you can just roll your eyes at the Lubavitchers instead of having to complain, tackily, about “Jews.”
But there’s a significant and vocal number of Mormons who are sort of embarrassed by Mormons collectively. Common complaints? We’re boring. We’re naive. We’re obsessed with appearances. We’re spiritually shallow and try to make up for it by being excessively legalistic and talking down Richard Dutcher movies. We are all too prone to wear ugly, outdated clothes and the reason people still tell lame Jell-O jokes is that we actually do eat embarrassing quantities of the stuff.
It’s not terribly surprising, of course, that smart Mormons are often tempted to expound on these and other sad truths about “Mormons.” After all, unlike in most churches, in ours you actually have to listen to other people talk. Other people whose professions and associated biases do not match yours. You have to hear what they’re thinking about in large conversations where you can’t just change the subject or signal that you’re bored. You have to listen to them teach, sometimes in your very own home, although they have virtually no qualifications as teachers. People of other faiths and communities don’t have to go through all this, so it’s no wonder they can be nicer about each other.
And then, of course, there’s the outside cultural pressure. We may be Mormons, but we’re also Americans and Germans and Brazilians and Fijians. And pretty much no matter what outside culture we come from, it’s got at least some baggage about what Mormons are. In German culture, we’re a cult. In the individualistic culture of America, we look a little like the Borg. And so on.
What to do?
We could, of course, leave the church in the hopes of separating our distaste for Mormons from implicit self-hatred. But then we might have to spend our lives explaining to people that if we’re a little broken, it’s because we were raised Mormon, which is something they will never entirely be able to grasp.
We could also stay. We can train ourselves to be content sitting on the margins of American culture during the week, and then in the foyer for as long as possible Sunday. Or we take a more active approach: try to convince America we’re with it and hip and give interested Mormons remedial lessons in how to be acceptable.
Alternatively, we could do our best to ignore America altogether. It probably wouldn’t entirely work, and we’d probably still feel a bit gawked at or undervalued and have to compensate by being acknowledged by our fellow Mormons as the Mormonest Mormons of them all. Who cares if the neighbors think your life choices are weird if your district leader is really impressed with you?
But most of us, I think, try some variant of C. M. Malm’s approach in a comment yesterday, which is to keep a foot in both our host culture’s world and our religious world by asserting that Mormonism is the Revolution. We can be comfortable about the way the host culture looks down on us because we know we’ve got a secret for them, and any moment they may realize they’re chasing illusions and things of no worth, any moment they may feel the void in their lives and coming asking us what it is. Seeing Mormonism as the Revolution can also make us more comfortable with the church world around us: that brother may say dumb things, but he’s adding weight to the stone that will fill the earth. And long after the Republican Party and the Democratic Party have melted away into dust, their self-contradictory ideologies long forgotten, the sister-whose-politics-I-don’t-agree-with will still matter because of the contributions she made to the faith.
I’d like to get together a bunch of writers some day and give them a week to respond to the prompt “Gospel Dreams vs. American Dreams.” And then I’d like to get a big rally together so that we can all listen to stories that celebrate the identity we’re choosing, that celebrate the blessings and burdens of passionate commitment to the Revolution.