I was talking with a French colleague at dinner about the differences between European politics and American politics, and he made a statement that left an impression. European politics are colored by their colonialist histories and how to balance a preservation of their culture while dealing with the other cultures they have essentially subordinated over time. For example, he mentioned the Muslims in France who demanded equal consideration of their separate cultural preferences in the very strict and isolationist French culture. The French people are very concerned with preserving their culture, values, and language (even governing the number of foreign words allowed to be added per year). I believe there is a Mormon parallel to be understood.
Obviously, there were actual Mormon colonies early in the pioneering days, which is how most of the West was settled. However, that is not the topic I want to explore. I have only had a few experiences with what I will call modern-day colonial Mormons.
- When I was a teenager (1985), I met my first “colonial” Mormon in my home ward. A family moved into the ward from Utah. All the membership prior to that were from the local area. Immediately, the mother of the family started (subtly) pointing out things that were “wrong” about how our ward did things. We should have early morning seminary, not weekly (despite having six different high schools and a 25 mile commuting radius). The Young Women should do crafts and present group musical numbers. The bishop should do something about the crazy Pentacostal convert who kept shouting “hallelujah” and rapping her fan on the pew when a particularly good point was made in church. And we suddenly had to have a Pioneer Day parade, even though it wasn’t a recognized holiday and hardly anyone had pioneer ancestry. Little things like that.
- My second experience was at the end of my mission (1990). An older couple was assigned to one of the wards as “leadership” missionaries. The wife immediately began focusing on getting the local sisters interested in “homemaking” projects (mostly crafts). She expressed to me her disbelief that none of the sisters knew how to crochet or knit! (Perhaps because it was a warm-climate island). Previously, they had spent their homemaking meetings discussing how to have stronger marriages and how to help sisters in need. I question whether this was an upgrade.
So, what happens in the cycle of colonialism?
- A colonizing group decides to expand to new territories, exporting their culture and traditions and imposing them on those colonized areas. This is also characterized by:
- A desire to preserve the cultural elements of the colonizing group and to impose those traditions, values, and practices on other cultures.
- A condescending attitude toward local populace and customs.
- A paternalistic approach to educate others on “the right way.”
- An initial fascination by the local group for the colonizing culture (e.g. Anglophiles); an (initial) agreement that the colonizing culture is in some way preferred or “better.” (Some converts, especially in the early days, awaited for instruction from HQ as it were).
- Eventually, one of two things happens:
- An eventual break at the local level with the colonizing group. This could be a violent, intentional break (e.g. the American Revolution), a passive yet intentional break (e.g. Indian rights reform) or a more evolutionary break as a new culture emerges in the local area which supersedes the colonizing culture (e.g. Roman Catholic Church vs. Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church).
- Guilt among the colonizing group about treatment of the local populace accompanied by awkward and problematic repatriation (e.g. French believe first and foremost in equality, yet do not like admitting the Muslim culture into their tightly-controlled society). This can happen when the local populace’s issues cannot be satisfactorily resolved to create an equal status through independence.
But perhaps a third option, in the case of the church, is to become a truly world-wide church (the stone that fills the earth) in which diversity of culture is embraced while retaining centralized doctrine. Is that really an achievable aim or is colonization a human tendency that is so ingrained it’s inevitable? A lot has been written about the introduction of harmful plants and animals that changed the eco-systems of North America, such as the honeybee. Are colonizing Mormons aware enough of the potentially harmful elements they may be introducing (e.g. funeral potatoes, green jello, prolific zucchini plants) into the native cultures to avoid it? IMO, colonialism is harmful to both the local group and to the colonizing group if it 1) implies superiority of one culture over the other, 2) shifts the focus to cultural elements away from doctrinal, or 3) creates cultural rifts and inequities between different groups of the church.
As Elder Uchdorff mentioned in conference, we should embrace the “faith of our fathers” and most importantly of our “Heavenly Father.” Jello optional. Crafts not required. Bring your own flan to the Pioneer Day parade that’s being held in someone’s backyard because none of the local members hail from pioneer stock; instead, they are all pioneers with their own tales of conversion and courage–they are among the first members of the church within their own family trees.
So, have any of you encountered cultural colonialism? Or has this largely been done away with over time (as you see, my examples are not recent)? What is cultural colonialism? Is it cultural colonialism that conference is in English, always held in Utah, even though there are more LDS outside the US now?