‘Mormon’ vanquished; Moroni missing; pageants pulled — Is the LDS Church losing its identity?

As the global religion continues to evolve, leaders and members grapple with how to chart a unifying, yet distinctive, course.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

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In the early 1990s, some Latter-day Saint missionaries got on a bus in Venezuela and headed to a zone conference. The bus was stopped by a soldier, looking to conscript his young countrymen into the army. He asked the dark-suited evangelizers who they were, and they proudly proclaimed in unison, “We’re Mormons!”

Taken aback, he let them go.

Being recognized as a “peculiar people” with a strong sense of community has been a hallmark of Mormonism since its 1830 founding.

By the mid-20th century, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were so tightly woven and distinctive as a group that one 1950s sociologist categorized them as “an ethnic minority” — despite being mostly white.

These believers in the “restored church of Jesus Christ” and their all-volunteer clergy had created congregations across the U.S. and parts of Europe that functioned almost like small towns — with their own verbiage, theater, basketball leagues, speech tournaments, bazaars, dances and picnics.

They called the place where they worshipped and played together “meetinghouses” rather than chapels, because they functioned as community centers where they gathered often throughout the week.

That all began to change in the 1980s, with a “consolidated meeting schedule” — a three-hour block of services on Sunday — and worldwide expansion into far-flung regions.

It has evolved even more dramatically in the past three-plus years since President Russell M. Nelson took the helm of the 16.6 million-member global faith.

Statues of the Angel Moroni, a figure from the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, are rarely being added to the tops of new temples. The “live” endowment temple ritual, created as a kind of religious theater, has been replaced by a film. Ward (congregation) activities committees have been disbanded. Youth celebrations before new temple dedications showcasing local cultures have been discontinued. Class names for Young Women, including Beehive, Mia Maid and Laurels, have been stripped away. Long-standing, even iconic, outdoor pageants have ended.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artist's rendering of the Syracuse Temple is on the left. The rendering on the right is of the Deseret Peak Temple, which will be built in Tooele. Neither has the distinctive Angel Moroni statue on top.

Meanwhile, Latter-day Saint teachings have been continually simplified to become nearly indistinguishable from some evangelical Christian beliefs.

On top of all that, Nelson has declared that even using the name Mormon is “major victory for Satan” and has generally prohibited its usage.

What’s happening here? Is Mormonism losing its identity? Is the Utah-based faith in the midst of a sea change?

“We are definitely in a transition phase for Mormon identity,” says Utah attorney Steve Evans, who founded the By Common Consent blog. “I grew up in a Mormonism that hinged around societal bonds: roadshows, activity nights, Scouting ... so many activities that our social calendars were full with ward participation. Now we live in a libertarian church that has pared religion down to weekly meeting attendance and the occasional cannery project. Politics have surged to fill the gap, and now I would guess a lot of people no longer look to their wards for their social identities.”

The church “used to be such a big chunk of who we are,” he says. “I don’t know what we are without it.”

The correlation movement

The need to systematize Latter-day Saint worship started in the 1960s, with the rise of the “correlation movement.”

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Church leaders worried that as the faith spread internationally, “it would fragment into various national churches and lose the perceived unity of culture, belief and allegiance to Salt Lake City that church leaders valued,” says Latter-day Saint historian Matthew Bowman, who is writing a book about the correlation effort, and that the “organization and administrations of auxiliaries [programs for children, youths and women] were growing unwieldy.”

They thus sought to streamline church administration and “to produce a unified church culture, by way of instituting standardized manuals, centralized periodicals, standardized architecture for church buildings, approved art, and even a single hymnbook,” says Bowman, who directs Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California.

The result was “a deeply American church culture, largely because those who were making these decisions were American,” he says, “and were marked by the presuppositions of the white American middle class.”

The norms of what these leaders considered “spiritual” were translated into universals, Bowman says. “Sitting quietly — what church leaders in the mid-20th century began calling ‘reverence’ — was more respectful than loud singing or dancing as Christians in Latin America or Africa did; business dress was more appropriate for worship than other sorts of clothing; art should be the simple realism of the American middle class rather than abstract; hymns imitated the style and pace of white American Protestantism, and so on.”

Today, the church’s strategy seems to be “making organizations more flexible and stripping away many events and committees,” the historian says. “This might be all to the good, and some such changes probably are useful.”

The McDonald’s model

Mormonism has gone from a time in the very early church “when [founder] Joseph [Smith] and Brigham [Young] were trying on new theologies like new pairs of pants, trying to see if and how pieces fit into this new church structure they were creating,” says Liz Layton Johnson, a Latter-day Saint living in Saudi Arabia with her family. “That kind of innovation and revelation has really slowed down over the years as the church has grown and, to some degree, calcified.”

Currently, there is “this huge emphasis on obedience as opposed to experience, of always having the ‘right answer’ to questions (‘Read your scriptures! Say your prayers! Go to church!’) instead of having big questions that we can’t really answer (but we could try to),” Johnson says. “I feel like that creative, visionary spark is gone in a lot of ways, and that instead of exploring new waters, we’re just told to stay in the boat.”

That approach, she says, “bleeds over into the cultural experience of Mormonism.”

As the church grows around the world, “it has to reckon with the fact that America and its quirks aren’t supposed to be the center of the church.” Johnson says. “Christ is.”

It is fairly common to hear people who are visiting a new country say, “I just love how the church is the same everywhere,” she notes. “And that’s true, with some minor variation.”

But you know what else is the same everywhere? McDonald’s. “As a mother of kids who can be picky eaters, I admit that I am always grateful to find a McDonald’s in a foreign country, because I know that my kids will finally eat something without a fight,” Johnson says. “But as an adult with a more refined palate, I don’t want to eat at McDonald’s every meal. I want to experience the local flavors, to understand the history behind the region’s culinary influences, and to try a variety of foods.”

The church can be a place that is “both the McDonald’s for the picky eaters, but also host some of the finer cuisine for those who are seeking something a little more expansive,” she says. “I hope that we can embrace a certain amount of pluralism that allows local variations to influence our worship without losing the core of the Christ-centered theology.”

Losing ‘Mormon’

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A religious identity typically is expressed in a single word — Catholic, Muslim, Methodist, Jew and so on. Such a short word is quasi-identical in all languages and thus universally recognized. The ban against “Mormon” “obliterates that simple identifier,” says Wilfried Decoo, a retired Brigham Young University professor who lives in Belgium. “It disrupts easy communication with outsiders and makes it challenging for outsiders to write about the church.”

The ban on “Mormon” is “quite parochial since it only works well internally — within the church, when people mention ‘the church’ or ‘the gospel’ or ‘the members,’” he says. “There is no need for clarification. But external and comparative communication requires an identifier such as Mormon and Mormonism.”

Avoidance of the M-word also “greatly complicates our public relations efforts,” Decoo says. “President [Gordon B.] Hinckley’s injunction to let the word ‘Mormon’ shine so people would see the good in us, was very helpful at the time to proudly ‘come out,’ like in the massive ‘I’m a Mormon’ campaign.”

Getting publicity for the Salt Lake City-headquartered church is “now quite difficult without a simple [name],” he says. “One notices the problem in the dearth of articles about the church in the local media. ‘Mormon’ would attract attention because it is familiar.”

In regions such as Europe, “Mormon identity is also strongly influenced by the individual member’s relation to the surrounding non-Mormon society,” Decoo says. “The question is not only to feel at ease with Mormon identity but also to keep enough of the surrounding society’s identity in order to remain an integrated member of society.”

He points to the research of his daughter, Ellen Decoo, who recently finished a study of how Latter-day Saint women in Belgium view gender roles in cases of tension between church norms and societal norms.

She found that Mormon women overall perceive gender roles “from the perspective of Western European societal and familial norms of gender equality and sexual diversity,” he says. “On items such as marriage age, number of children, employment, male authority, or homosexuality, these women let their societal identity prevail over Mormon norms or traditions.”

Not at home in a home-centered church

Ignacio Garcia, a BYU professor of history who grew up in San Antonio, about 150 miles from Texas’ border with Mexico, needed to hang around the chapel because his home life was less than ideal.

His Latter-day Saint community was his life.

“Middle-class white families may have resources to deal with these issues, but, for many Saints of color, the church meant something. It gave them an oasis in the middle of a horrendous family or societal desert that included racism, segregation or poverty.”

The church’s push to become a “home-centered, church-supported faith” has made everything “even less community oriented,” Garcia says. “The more we nuclearize the family, the more people we leave behind.”

Pointing out the church now has more single adult members than married, the Latino professor says, “a lot of people are being pruned out.”

Garcia sits on a local “high council” for the church and says members in his Utah County area “are still struggling with the notion of ‘ministering teachers’ or the ‘Come Follow Me’ curriculum.”

He was a big critic of Scouting, when the church used it with its Young Men program, Garcia says, “but at least the kids had a program; now they are struggling to implement the new open-ended approach.”

What brought him into the church was “a sense of community,” Garcia says. “Without that Mormon identity, I don’t know that I would have lasted.”

‘Looking for harmony ... not conformity’

It is “almost impossible to build a global community,” says Pumza Sixishe, a Black Latter-day Saint in South Africa, “that is not dominated by American culture.”

Americans still dictate “how the church should change and when, and how much of our culture can be tolerated and deemed acceptable within the church,” Sixishe says. “Some of the African voices in positions of power are obsequious or if they have a strong voice, it is shut down. It ends up being a case of groupthink, which means even if the leadership is motivated to truly build a global community, they are not receiving correct feedback. Changes they may approve would miss the mark, and, in the past, they have [missed it], to the point of angering some Black members.””

She applauds some of the church’s organizational directions.

“A global church always needs to evolve and change in terms of being more inclusive,” Sixishe says. “The move from intense U.S. focus is good and we’ll see more changes where ‘cultural’ traditions are removed where they may be obstacles to inclusiveness.”

Even in the United States, the church needs to expand its narrative and traditions, says Farina King, a Diné (Navajo) of the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House) clan who teaches at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma. “A lot of the cultures pushing Pioneer Day, for example, were celebrating white Euro-American, colonial settlers.

Adding other perspectives can be viewed by some as a loss, King says, “while others can see it as an opening to recognize many Mormon cultures.”

These various cultures and traditions can become part of a global community, she says, “that believes in the same prophet, the same official church and Book of Mormon, but how that is lived will vary in every individual life.”

The church is “taking a pause here,” she says. “It is not an end to community building but infusing it with a new direction.”

Members are looking for “harmony in the church,” King says, “not conformity.”

Role of music and art

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Two girls sing from a Latter-day Saint hymnbook.

Kristine Haglund’s keenest sense of loss has to do with music.

“In the [switch to the] two-hour block, there are fewer opportunities for singing together than there used to be,” says the former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “I also strongly suspect that the new hymnal will be much thinner than the current one, and I feel sad that this part of our tradition seems to be dying. Then again, I wonder if Saints in other places might feel it a huge relief not to have to plow through ungainly translations of music in an idiom that seems strange and foreign.”

Singing hymns could reflect the complexity of the problem, she says. “Is it the doctrinal content of the hymns that needs to be conveyed to a worldwide church? Or is it the unifying function of cultural practices like hymn-singing (and roadshows and ward ball and ward Christmas parties and distinctive visual symbols) that has created a church out of a constantly evolving and somewhat incoherent body of doctrine?”

Erasing cultural elements of the church to find its core ideology “seems like the obvious way to make the institution more powerful across a range of cultures,” Haglund says. “Ultimately, though, I think the church will continue to grow if we can conceive of a decentralized Zion, where diverse cultures draw on the theological resources of Mormonism to create communities of faith that are unified by commitment to continuing revelation, rather than an ideology derived from American perceptions of what is essential to Mormonism.”

Johnson, the member living in Saudi Arabia, sees art as potentially unifying.

“The church-approved art for use in church buildings is so narrow. I would love to see that expanded, and not just more racially diverse, but also in the types of art,” she says.

How about “a quilt with scriptural symbolism or modern art. More stained glass? More sculptures? More fiber arts?”

“We could celebrate people’s individual experiences and understandings of the gospel,” Johnson says. “Let’s make these buildings come alive in a way that inspires the mind and the soul.”

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) "The Sermon on the Mount," by Harry Anderson has been approved for use in church foyers.

What about worship?

The church has replaced vigorous discussions of church history and doctrines of salvation with lessons about “Jesus Christ and a simple Protestant-type gospel of love, comfort and kindness,” says Claudia Bushman, a Latter-day Saint historian in New York City and founding editor of Exponent II. “Much of what we get in church these days is repeated conference talks, a curriculum of limited value.”

The Relief Society, organized to provide charity and service, “is now only a Sunday school class,” she says. “And everything is always less and less.”

Shortening the Sabbath program has meant “much less chance for human connection, church work interactions,” Bushman says, “and community.”

Activities are certainly limited in buildings where multiple wards share the space, she says. “So why endless new temples and no new chapels? What seems to be stressed today are temples. Much effort and money go into the temples, which provide us with solitary and repetitive experiences rather than the community we need.”

If the aim is to create “an inclusive and open community,” Bushman says, “that is most successful at the local level, and our local interaction is increasingly limited. So many of the new converts seem to be those encountered online, loners already who will need more help at integration.”

The faith’s global reach should be to make the world better, she says, but how to do it?

“I’ve heard that it is unfair for us to have any other activities in the church in the heartland than poor little groups in distant lands can manage,” Bushman says. “But I don’t buy that. We have traditionally had programs of steadily increasing sophistication in ‘the mission field,’ [outside Utah] in branches, wards and super wards. Each stage of development should have a more sophisticated and extensive culture that can be managed.”

There once were so many volunteer positions, or callings, that every congregant could serve, she says. “Now it seems to me that the bishopric are the only hardworking people in the ward, and they work too hard.”

Bushman wants Latter-day Saints “to create a society, a culture, and close relationships that enrich us all as we reach into the broader society to help others,” she says. “Maybe it is better for us to do those things independently. But as a result our mother church just becomes more and more barren. We now hear that we should be inviting people to things rather than preaching to them. But what is it we are to invite them to? I do not think that our sacrament meetings are enough.”

Future identity?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A speaker addresses a pre-pandemic sacrament meeting in Ghana.

British convert Ross Trewhella has been a member for nearly two decades and likes Nelson’s changes, which seem to him to be centered “on helping people focus more readily on the fundamental principles of the gospel as well as reducing some of the burdens on the local leadership and members.”

The vast majority of church congregations throughout the world “are small and struggle even now to fill all callings with people with the time and abilities to do so,” Trewhella says. “So anything to reduce those burdens, I’m sure, is welcome in most parts of the world.”

To Trewhella, who served as a bishop for nearly 12 years, “any change that helps individuals focus more on Jesus Christ and their ability to receive personal revelation in their lives can only be beneficial,” he says. “There’s always a risk that the teachings of Christ get diluted so much that they become spiritual Twinkies that do little to nourish the soul, but I’m sure there’s a balance that allows for intellectual as well as spiritual growth.”

In an age of such divisiveness within and outside of the church, to get members to turn their faith into practice “and love each other as God loves us should be a thing to marvel at,” he says. “I’m ever the optimist that we’ll get there, and that’s ultimately the only cultural identity I want to be identified with.”

Simplifying to the basic truths is “what the Apostle Paul was trying to do when he said that being a Christian really came down to believing a few key ideas (what he called ‘faith’),” says Patrick Mason, chair of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, “which could then transcend any number of cultures, Jewish or Gentile.”

The Nelson administration’s push “is attempting to separate the pure essence of religion from other social, political and cultural institutions,” Mason says. “But religion isn’t just spirit — it craves body and form, narrative and experience. And that’s why we get pageants and pioneer treks.”

For all the talk of empowering local leaders and members, church headquarters still retains “very tight control on the way they want the religion to look, sound and feel,” the historian says. “They now recognize that it can’t look, sound and feel American everywhere, but they’re not sure what it means for the religion to be American in America, Ghanaian in Ghana, Filipino in the Philippines and Brazilian in Brazil.”

To fellow historian Bowman, the fundamental question remains: What does it mean to be a member of the church?

Inevitably, he says, Mormonism “will have a culture — and identity — as all churches do.”

Going forward, Latter-day Saint leaders need to think about “how that culture is built,” he says. “It should be something consciously pursued and developed, something conscious of the church’s own history and distinctiveness.”

You know, uniquely Latter-day Saint — or Mormon.