Mormonism was born in the USA but, under Nelson, is quickly embracing its growing multiculturalism as it aims to become a truly global religion

Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

One July Fourth not too long ago, Ignacio Garcia’s clan gathered in Provo for a backyard barbecue and to watch an international soccer tournament on TV, which they had presumed would pit Mexico against the United States.

Unfortunately, the U.S didn’t make the finals, so while playing patriotic American anthems, the Mexican-American family ate hot dogs and hamburgers but rooted for Mexico.

Such split loyalties reflect their dual heritage as well as their conflicted feelings about Mormonism’s connection to the United States.

Indeed, as 19th-century LDS pioneers were driven from their homes in Nauvoo, Ill., they were determined to leave the United States altogether for — you guessed it — Mexico.

This month, as Americans celebrated Independence Day and as Utahns mark the arrival of Mormon pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, the inner tensions have expanded to include the whole globe.

Given the Utah-based church’s push to become a worldwide faith, Mormons’ attachment — if any — to the country that birthed their faith and the state where it is headquartered is evolving.

Disconnecting the United States from Mormonism, though, is not easy.

After all, the U.S. is where Mormons believe founder Joseph Smith saw God and Jesus in a New York grove of trees, where the nascent church was founded. LDS scripture even heralds it as the land of promise.

“Most of us are proud to be American,” says Garcia, a professor of history at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University. “I love so much of it. I appreciate it and its freedoms, but it’s not fully mine.”

For Mormons of different ethnicities, he says, feelings about the U.S. are “complicated.”

The America many Latter-day Saints revere is “fundamentally white,” Garcia writes in a recent article for Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought.

“I once heard that [the late] apostle Mark E. Petersen said the American flag would fly in heaven,” the Latino professor writes, “and that we would all speak English in our celestial home.”

Those attitudes are changing.

Under the direction of new LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson, the faith is moving in an even more global direction, revising programs to better meet international members’ needs, rather than reflecting the religious practices of American Mormons.

A genuinely multicultural church, Garcia says, requires “a multicultural theology, a multicultural history and a multicultural leadership structure, which is something we cannot easily claim to have now, nor do we seem to be preparing too rapidly for it.”

Multiculturalism within the church can happen, he says, only “if saints of color have their history told, are empowered by their religious identity, and have an institutional role. If we don’t, then Mormonism — a faith many of us love dearly — remains a white religion with shades of color in which Latinos and others remain governed and acted upon and not agents unto themselves in defining and constructing the future of the church or interpreting its past.”

To succeed, says Garcia, president-elect of the Mormon History Association, LDS authorities — “the brethren” — must understand this.

Mike Stack | Special to The Tribune David O. McKay Building and playing field at Church College of New Zealand.

View from overseas

Despite all devout Mormons’ faith in the story of the church’s founding and unique scripture, there is “significant cultural distance between the local (non-American) and the central (American-accented) church,” Melissa Inouye, a Mormon professor at the University of Auckland, writes in an email. “This distance can make church members more interested in their local church history than early (American) church history.”

Inouye once offered to teach a history lesson for New Zealand youths untangling some historical topics often difficult for American members, like polygamy and race. The bishop waved his hand, she recalls, and said, “I’m more interested in the history of the church in New Zealand.” He pointed out that some ward members were descended from the early Māori Latter-day Saints who had translated the Book of Mormon into their language.

In that moment, Inouye realized that when people outside the United States join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they have joined the faith as it was in that particular place where they first encountered it.

“I wouldn't go so far as to say that American church history is ‘irrelevant’ to them,” she says, “but it's not the primary context for their membership and ongoing practice.”

Still, some Americanisms seem inescapably linked to Mormonism.

“I’ve heard some New Zealand Latter-day Saints express annoyance that the voices — including the voice of Christ — in the Hamilton Temple Visitors Center were all American-accented,” Inouye says. “Imagine how American Latter-day Saints might give a little start if they walked into the visitors center in Salt Lake City and heard Christ speak in a thick Scottish accent.”

So what makes a religious movement truly global?

Mormons may be spread across the globe, but their top leadership and structures are not, she says. “This is very American, from the manner in which male leaders interact with other male leaders to expectations of the personal qualities that make a person a good or competent leader, and so on.”

But Latter-day Saints live their faith “in particular ways,” Inouye says. “This is because Mormonism is largely centered on practice [what people do in everyday life] and what people do in everyday life varies widely around the world.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Mormon apostles Ulisses Soares and Gerrit W. Gong speak to members of the media in Salt Lake City, Thursday, June 28, 2018.

Multicultural versus universal

Since Nelson’s ascension to the presidency in January, “globalism” has become the buzzword.

His choice of new apostles (Gerrit W. Gong, a Chinese-American, and Ulisses Soares, a Brazilian), merging of all adult male priesthood quorums, revising the monthly visiting programs from bringing a message to “ministering” to needs, and his recent trip to multiple Asian and African nations all seem to point to an emphasis on the international church.

“Virtually every change that has been made under President Nelson’s tenure has clearly been with the global church front and center in his and the leadership’s minds,” says Patrick Mason, a Mormon historian at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. “Nelson clearly has an authentically global outlook, and the leadership recognizes that, with slowing (or negative) growth in the United States, they have to make changes that will provide the conditions for Mormonism to thrive around the world.”

Mason predicts even greater attention to the worldwide members over the next half-century.

“This is largely a matter of demographics, but it also speaks to a growing awareness and understanding among the U.S. membership and leadership that they cannot and do not ‘own’ Mormonism,” Mason writes in an email. “One of the great successes of the global missionary program is getting people out of their comfort zones, both attitudinally and geographically, to recognize (if their eyes are open) that it's a big world out there, and what might work in Lehi doesn't necessarily work in London, Lima or Lagos.”

How non-American Mormons view their church’s connection to the United States varies by region, the California scholar says.

“When I did interviews in Romania three years ago, I was surprised that almost none of my interviewees thought of the LDS Church as an American church, or had any misgivings about its American origins or the dominance of Americans in church leadership,” Mason says. “They would often say something like, ‘It had to start somewhere,’ or ‘Christianity began in the Middle East, but that doesn't mean it's a Middle Eastern religion.’”

Like Inouye, Mason notes that Mormonism is “mostly lived and practiced at the local level, so for the most part church members think of their religion as their own.”

(Courtesy LDS Church) Latter-day Saints in the Plumerillo Ward in Mendoza, Argentina, sing a hymn in church.

Music sets the tone

The LDS Church recently announced it would be producing a new hymnbook to be used by members everywhere while inviting them to send in their suggestions for songs to be included.

That is “the most significant and consequential change so far,” Inouye says. “Music has deep emotional and spiritual power.”

For too long, Mormon music has been dominated by European norms, seen as the “one true way.”

That is unfortunate, she says, “because so many church members nowadays come from very different musical traditions.”

Beyond the melodies, Inouye says, lyrics that sound lovely in English often “are terrible when translated into other languages.” For instance, in “I Feel My Savior’s Love,” one of the scholar’s favorite Primary songs, there is a line that in Chinese “sounds like you are cutting out your heart.”

In English, it goes, "I offer him my heart; my shepherd he will be," she says, but in Chinese, it goes, "He is my shepherd; I will sacrifice my heart."

At this point, Inouye says, “the Primary children in Hong Kong always made gruesome cutting-out gestures.”

The open call for hymnal suggestions allows Latter-day Saints from all over the world to propose “their most beloved, moving hymns,” she says. “If the selection committee includes people from a range of language and cultural backgrounds, in the end, all church members will have at least some hymns, written in their own language, whose words resonate deeply. If the new hymnbook is structured to allow musical flexibility (for instance, including guitar chords, and allowing options for a cappella singing accompanied by drums, instead of mandating a four-part European-style arrangement accompanied by piano or organ), church members will be able to make music in a way that directly accesses the ways people in their culture experience reverence and joy."

Music is a “powerful cultural form,” she adds. “Allowing our musical culture to reflect the church’s diverse membership is a huge step toward becoming a truly global church.”

Garcia, the Mexican-American professor, also is cautiously optimistic about the new hymnal. He worries, though, about who will decide what to include in the final product.

Will the deciders be white missionaries who served in far-flung lands and think they know the culture? Will the majority of hymns continue to be from Europe, Canada and the U.S.?

And what about the fact that the project will be dropping all national anthems?

White Americans may have outgrown their patriotic songs, Garcia says, but Mormons in other countries may not have.

Or they may yearn for hymns — Latino, Asian or African — that “reflect the beauty of their land,” he says, “or that speak to their own reality.”

Eventually, non-American Mormons may move beyond their cultures, but to “expect them to be there already is not fair.”

He hopes the LDS Church will find hymns with messages about God or Jesus for the whole body of believers, Garcia says, but then let the many languages and countries “come up with something unique to them.” It is in such personal and individual expressions that the universal becomes most real — and less American.

His church, he says, will get there.