A global church seeks to broaden its image
On the day Ronan James Head received his traditional baby blessing in the mid-1970s, someone suggested the LDS congregation sing "America the Beautiful."
An odd choice for a hymn, perhaps. But even stranger, the blessing was taking place in Great Britain.
The proposal exacerbated the perception among Head's staunch Anglican relatives that the family had joined an American sect.
Several decades later, odes to the United States never are sung in far-flung LDS branches, says the 33-year-old Head, who teaches religion and philosophy at a private boys school in England. Neither is "God Save the Queen."
On this celebration of America's founding, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is striving to reinforce its status as a global faith, scouring the continents seeking converts and shedding some of its U.S. cultural remnants.
More than half the church's nearly 14 million members, roughly a third of its 50,000 missionaries and most of its temples are outside U.S. borders. The faith's unique scripture, The Book of Mormon, has been translated into more than 100 languages, missionaries from abroad dominate the tour-guide roster at Salt Lake City's Temple Square, and many articles in its international magazine are produced by members from around the world. More and more of the faith's second and third tier of authorities hail from other countries.
Even the governing First Presidency includes a German, Dieter F. Uchtdorf. Mormons observe a Friday Sabbath in Middle Eastern countries and experiment with shortened services in South America. Spanish soon may become the faith's most common language.
Still, it isn't easy to untangle America from Mormonism. It is, after all, embedded in the theology.
In The Book of Mormon, the Americas make up the promised land. Mormons consider the United States' founding, Constitution and form of government to be blessed by God. And its global headquarters is in the western United States. The Garden of Eden, Mormons believe, was in Missouri, and Jesus will return to reign in the "New Jerusalem" there.
"In my home ward, some members joke about it, saying that there's a printing error in the Doctrine and Covenants," says Head, an international editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, "and that the New Jerusalem will, in fact, be built in England." Some foreign-born members occasionally wonder: How can I be a Mormon if I am not American?
"Take away the Americanness of Mormonism, and you find yourself with an unidentifiable religion," says Charles Carter, a lecturer at the University of Bordeaux in France. "The challenge, then, for Mormonism to become a real global religion depends on how it uses, or not, its Americanness."
Born in the U.S.A Shortly after the church's birth in upstate New York in the 1830s, Mormon founder Joseph Smith sent missionaries to the north, west and across the ocean to Great Britain.
The incipient faith preached a "gathering to Zion," where members could live together and build a utopian society. That lasted until the 1920s, when LDS Church President Heber J. Grant urged members to build Zion societies where they lived.
Even as Mormonism began to sink roots in new nations, LDS leaders in Utah continued to celebrate the connection to this country.
"I rejoice this morning with all my heart that I am a member of the church - this American church that owes no allegiance to any foreign power or potentate, the only real American church worthy of the name. It is American through and through," said Charles W. Nibley, LDS presiding bishop, at the 1924 general conference.
"It is American in ideals, American in thought, American in every activity connected with it, American in its desire to bless and benefit the people. There is not any other church that can claim anything like that."
Beginning in the 1960s, the LDS Church started to shift its perspective. A "correlation program" put a major effort into making Mormonism seem "less American" by removing or diminishing in church publications typical U.S. items (such as those referring to the political system, affluent living style, dating patterns, sports, food and more) and by stressing the core message of the gospel and its principles as valid for all human beings, explains longtime member Wilfried Decoo, who alternates between teaching at the University of Antwerp in Belgium and Brigham Young University in Provo.
It eliminated the word "this" from the 10th Article of Faith, which read in part: "We believe that Zion will be built upon this (the American) continent." It also emphasizes the 12th Article, which encourages Mormons to give allegiance to "kings, presidents, rulers and magistrates" wherever they live.
In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the church now draws almost exclusively on home-grown members to lead missions, congregations and regions.
The incoming Europe Area Presidency will comprise a German, a Frenchman and a Portuguese member. "That is definitely a good thing," Carter says. "It will depend on them to blend in their European identity with the American values they represent and take Mormonism further in Europe."
Since more than a third of the church's members joined after 1995, many know little or nothing about teachings about Eden and the U.S. Constitution more prevalent in the 19th century.
That's good, says Southern California sociologist Armand Mauss. Such Americanisms "have nothing to do with coming unto Christ or with the covenants made as part of the proffered plan of happiness for all of God's people."
Celebrating cultures For Mormonism to shed some of its association with America, observers say, it must add new dimensions to the story of a people who triumphed over adversity by crossing the United States in covered wagons.
And it will take more than imitation handcarts to make Latter-day Saints in other places feel part of that history. They need their own pioneer yarns about suffering and sacrifice for the faith, says BYU sociologist Marie Cornwall. Such collective tales enrich the local experience and connect them to Mormons everywhere.
This may be happening in places such as New Zealand, where Maori Mormons built the temple with their own hands as "labor missionaries." Or in Hawaii, Mexico and Canada.
But it isn't happening in Italy, says Massimo Introvigne, a Catholic who studies new religious movements.
"There is no 'Italianization' of the Mormon experience nor an emphasis on the Italian pioneers," Introvigne says. "Studies on the first Italians who converted are known only to scholars, and, at any rate, they emigrated to Utah. Famous members (such as author Stephenie Meyer or football legend Steve Young) are American. There are no famous Italian members."
Creating a common story and culture may be what the late President Gordon B. Hinckley had in mind when he created "cultural celebrations" before temple dedications. Young people from all over the region swarm to a stadium to dance, sing and re-enact tales of their local culture.
In March 2007, an exhausted Hinckley, recently emerging from chemotherapy, addressed an exuberant crowd in Santiago, Chile. Teens chanted his name as they waved white hankies toward their prophet.
After he left the arena, though, they took up a new chant: "Chi-le, Chi-le, Chi-le." They then began to pay homage to their country's various regions and ethnicities. That, Cornwall says, is the beginning of their own Mormon identity, far away from the mountains of Utah.
American sights and sounds Some Americanisms die hard.
Take music, for example. LDS congregations favor instruments such as the piano and violin, while forbidding trumpets, trombones and drums. That leaves believers in Africa without their preferred sacred sounds.
With its all-male hierarchy, the church has developed a vast bureaucracy, and those who rise to the top typically are ones who most closely resemble their American counterparts. Unlike the Jehovah's Witnesses, who use homegrown members in their outreach, most Mormon missionaries come into an area from outside, usually from the United States.
And a seemingly American obsession with white shirt and tie and beardless faces continues in LDS wards - even where it is unusual in the local culture.
"Certainly high-ranking Mormon leaders will always wear a white shirt," Head says. "I've seen some wards on the Continent where the shirts change color. But there's always a tie."
Even the American calendar trumps others. As a British missionary serving in Austria, Head phoned home on the American Mother's Day, not on its parallel U.K. holiday.
"I think this upset my mother."