How Much Does Church Activity Have To Do With ‘Being Mormon’?

Clay Whipkeychurch, Culture, Mormon, Mormons, religion 29 Comments

Not so long ago, when I would hear about someone who didn’t go to church at all or have any interest in returning would refer to themselves as Mormon, I would be annoyed that they still identified themselves that way. I used to see being Mormon as a choice, as a religious path, and if you aren’t choosing it then you only make a bad name for the rest of us… or so I felt at that time. Yet, it seems there is something deeply cultural about being Mormon, especially those raised or at least members from a young age. How much does your activity in church determine how “Mormon” you really are?

Sinead O’Conner identifies herself as a Recovering Catholic, but there is still a “Catholic” in that. Its a deep rooted aspect of her. The faith of her parents informs her life, even if to avoid it.

Jerry Seinfeld might be one of the first names that come to mind when I think of a Jew. He is Jewish, but he has never indicated that he’s particularly religious. He’s certainly a far cry from his Hasidic brethren.

OK, it might be different for Jews, since that is technically an ethnicity as well as a religion. But try driving up the I-15 along the Wasatch front sometime and stop at the Walmart. If being Mormon in Mormon country is not ethnic, its as close as you get. Mormons trade anatomical traits (no, I’m not going to make a list) for things like knee-shorts, khaki, cap-sleeves, 3-eye Doc Marten’s, and denim dresses. Maybe we trade phrases like “oy vey” and “mashuganuh”, for “oh my heck”, “fetch”, and “Gol!”. But you can usually spot another Mormon instantly. In Arizona during Summer, just look for the ones with multiple layers on.

Some of the cultural things I mentioned are hallmarks of active Mormons, but how can you grow up in that world and not have any residual “mormanity” left in you? Michael Quinn described himself as a “DNA Mormon”. Is that possible? Can you be so Mormon that you are still a Mormon even if you don’t go to church, or if they kick you out? Is being Mormon in this sense an American Mountain West thing? Do Mormons in Prague or Rio De Janeiro still feel Mormon when they leave?

What does “being Mormon” mean to you?

Comments 29

  1. Perhaps this question is best answered by contemplating your response to another: “What would I do/be if I left the Church?” I think Mormon theology, doctrine, practice, and, depending on where you live, culture all have an indelible effect upon a person’s worldview. Even if you come to the party late, it becomes a part of you, so much that you have serious difficulties laying it aside to look at things from other perspectives, or laying it aside if you choose to leave the faith. I don’t know what I would do if I left the Church, but I would still self identify as Mormon on many levels.

  2. I think there is a difference between a convert who leaves the church and one who was BIC and leaves the church. In the former case, there would probably be less “residual Mormanity” than in the latter case. Being raised Mormon (vs. being a previously practicing Mormon).

  3. I think church activity has a lot to do with being Mormon and not much to do with exaltation unless you also include temple activity.

  4. Personally, I always feel a fondness for someone who is not active or even practicing but self-identifies as a Mormon. “If you’re not against us, you’re for us!” But I’m an optimist. 🙂

  5. I don’t say “oh, my heck” or “awesome” or go to church. You’re not saying I should deny my testimony of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the truths such as the divinity of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Son of God. Should I deny my testimony of the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith, or of the truthfulness of the Bible and the Book of Mormon?
    I’m a Mormon and I know I need to get back to church. I’m also a Texan even if I live in Utah. Remember not everyone in Texas are Texans are not everyone in church are Mormons it just makes it easier to be a good one.

  6. I’m not very active due to health reasons mostly, but I totally identify as Mormon and am 100% LDS. I think it’s about having a testimony of the restored gospel and not about how active you’re able to be. I would like to be more active, and maybe when I retire I’ll be able to be, but for now I just do what I can.

  7. I’ll bite.

    I was raised Mormon, and I come from a family with a long history/tradition of Mormonism. I’ve been an atheist for more than fifteen years. Mormonism shaped me and my worldview, and it will never cease to be one part of who I am. For simplicity, I call myself an “exmo”, but I also identify as a “cultural Mormon”, and I have been doing so since the beginning of my blogging days: see my fourth blog post from back in 2005.

    I have a strong interest in my Mormon heritage, and I like to explore it in a manner that I hope does not come off as hostile (or really impolite) to believers. I’m interested in building bridges of friendship with believers, and I welcome their perspective on my blog and certainly on Main Street Plaza. There the focus is on finding the common ground that cultural Mormons share, as well as to have LDS-interest discussions with fellow non-believers that are more nuanced (and more interesting) than the same old “why the church is bad and wrong” stuff that we’ve all heard a million times. One of my goals has been to help build the possibility of seeing Mormons as a culture and tribe (in addition to being a religion) — along the same lines as the Jewish model you mention — thus inclusive of non-believers in a positive, accepting way. Many believers disagree with me and would like to narrow the definition of Mormon to include only those who have earned it (by the SLC-based organization’s estimation), but I can start throwing these ideas out there and see if they stick. 😉

  8. Just for the record, many scholars do consider Mormonism to be an ethnic group. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups has 11 pages dedicated to Mormons as an ethnicity.

  9. Well, I hardly ever go to church. But I am Mormon to the core. I was born into the church and fully believe in it. I basically don’t get involved with going to church or church-related activities because I HATE mormon culture, and I’m a big introvert, which doesn’t jive very well. When I do go to church I stay only for sacrament meeting. I can’t even begin to tell you what a strange dichotomy it is to have such strong beliefs, but to hate going to church. I basically decided that if God wants to punish me for not being active, well, I am willing to accept whatever punishment that may be. Knowing that God is just and merciful is a comfort. I am trying to get through life the best I can, and am grateful that I have the atonement of Jesus Christ to make up for where I fall short!

  10. #11-I’m not surprised at how many people fit that description. I am surprised that the church doesn’t do something to accomodate them.

  11. Bill, part of the focus of our stake’s new integrated blog network is outreach to those who can’t attend regular meetings for some reason or another. Hopefully, within a few months “j” would be able to access at least summaries of the lessons and some spiritual thoughts each week from home. I am really excited about it, although it still is in its conception. (Our Stake SS Presidency is using theirs, and others are being trained in the near future.) I agree, however, that the simple recognition that some reasons to miss meetings are valid would go a long way to mitigate the projection of guilt unto those where no guilt exists. Frankly, “The Church” can’t do much, imo, in this regard; it is up to the local members and leadership.

    Clay’s recent post about the 99 and 1 is a good discussion of that.

  12. #11 – I had an ongoing disagreement with a friend once about going to a particular miserable ward. He felt it important to go no matter what, and that he would receive blessings. I maintained that I would have to see some pretty profound and tangible blessings, because otherwise going to Church was far more of a burden than a blessing. We both turned out okay–and we’re both still active–but I suppose if you want to look for some kind of conclusion, I got married in the temple (eventually) and he did not. Go figure.

    But you are not alone. Were it not for my awesome primary calling, I would rarely be in Church. With rare exceptions, my wife and I get more out of staying home and observing the Sabbath on our own. And if we don’t have callings at a given moment, it’s not like we’re “missing opportunities to serve” either.

  13. Clay,

    If I hadn’t considered Mormonism my tribe, I likely would have stopped attending church after returning from my mission.

    So it’s as much to keep up with the family gossip as it is to learn all the family recipes that I continue to attend, despite taking an allegorical approach to much of what crazy Uncle Joey says at the weekly “family reunion”.

  14. I think post-Mormons or inactive Mormons who still consider themselves “Cultural Mormons” can be great ambassadors for the church. Instead of being embarrassed or angry about their former faith/culture, such people look to their Mormon heritage with some pride, fondness, or warmth, even if they don’t believe in Mormon doctrine. Though they may be critical of this or that aspect about the church, they are usually quick to defend the church against false accusations and misinformation, especially from Outsiders/Non-Mormons. This is important because Non-Mormons/Outsiders tend to take Cultural Mormons more seriously than active/believing Mormons. Their former Insider status gives them a better window into Mormonism than non-Mormon critics, but their current non-believing status gives them more credibility with Non-Mormons/Outsiders than Believing Mormons, because Believing Mormons can always be written off as biased or delusional. “You were one of them; now you’re one of us.” I know many post-Mormons or inactive Mormons who are just as put off by the lies and misinformation about Mormonism that pops up now and again (i.e. Romney, Polygamy, etc.) as active/believing Mormons.

  15. For most of my life non-Mormons have expressed surprise when they find out I’m Mormon. Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in their response is the usual “You seem so, well, ‘normal'”. I’ve never worn my Mormonism on my sleeve, even during the most devout periods of my life. Whether this is a “good thing” or a “bad thing” depends on you, I guess.

  16. Most Mormons I have known that go inactive rarely refer them selves as being Mormons. ( I think its been a religion based on standards such as the word of wisdom and clean living – if your not living that standard any more you may not want to tarnish the church’s name by proclaiming you’re a Mormon to others.)

    I have Jewish friends that are atheist and still are proud to say publicly they are Jews

  17. Ray,

    “simple recognition that some reasons to miss meetings are valid”

    How about that you personally don’t find the meetings to be fulfilling? Are we ready to call that a valid reason, or are you just talking about missing meetings because of long term illness or something like that? J’s reason was that “I HATE mormon culture”. If you tell your bishop that you don’t go to meetings becuase you hate mormon culture, I’m not sure that you’d get a sympathetic response.

    So how does someone like J fit into the church? Can you get a temple recommend when you don’t go to meetings because you ‘hate mormon culture’? There is a TR question about going to meetings. Is it reasonable to expect someone to pay tithing that never or rarely attends any church functions?

  18. This is such an interesting post, and I really identify with many of the responses. There are so many ways to be a Mormon or relate to Mormonism–culturally, emotionally, spiritually. I guess I relate in all these ways to some extent. I was raised in Salt Lake City and still feel very much at home there, even though I don’t have any close connections there anymore and I haven’t lived in Utah for over 35 years. My tie to Mormon culture is very much a tie to my childhood, which was relatively happy, so the memories of both or fairly positive.

    However, as an older adult, I definitely have doctrinal questions and don’t enjoy much of the culture. I also don’t attend any church meetings because of my chemical sensitivities (fragranced products give me migraines and/or asthmatic attacks). Though some may consider me to be inactive, I still have close ties (my children are all active and my husband is in the stake presidency), so I certainly consider myself to me a Mormon (and no one has asked for my TR yet).

    Ray, I’m really interested in what you are doing in your stake with your blogs and would love to have more detail. Is there some way I can reach you off-blog?

    And I agree with Matt. I think that ex/inactive/cultural Mormons are often some of the Church’s best defenders, in a more objective way.

  19. Exactly what Matt Thurston said.

    For example, I recently did an interview for Minnesota Atheists Talk Radio where I talked about Mormonism in a positive way. You can listen to it here and see if you agree.

    Another example is my brother, John Hamer. He’s very Mormon, very positive about Mormonism, and a great ambassador of Mormonism, despite being a non-believer.

    p.s. Sorry about all the links, but I have a whole lot of links on this subject! I’m actually restraining myself here because there are plenty more where those came from. 😉

  20. My father is from a many-generation Eastern-European Jewish family, and my mother is from a many generation British Isles Presbyterian family. So to the Jews, since my mother wasn’t Jewish, I’m not Jewish. And I never did the bar-Mitzvah thing, so I don’t count as a Jewish convert.

    Yet my patriarchal blessing says that I came through the line of Judah. (It implies a literal descent, and does not mention adoption.)

    So, am I Jewish?

    I joined the LDS church in my 20’s, went inactive in my 30’s, requested name removal, came back in my 40’s, and have been a regularly-Sunday-attending (all three hours), scripture-reading, daily-praying, going-to-singles-conferences-and-dances, attending-stake-conferences (even Saturday night sessions), volunteering-at-the-storehouse, ex-member for several years now. But I have not been re-baptized yet.

    So, am I Mormon?

    And as a teenager, I accepted Christ as my personal Savior, and had, what I consider even to this day, a geniune “born again experience,” and for a while I attended some of those waving-arms-in-the-air types of churches.

    So, to give the big picture, perhaps I’m a “back-slid evangelical Jewish Mormon.

    “back-slid Mormon”, yeah, we need to introduce that into the vocabulary.

  21. This is my first post. I am fascinated by this website. I am amazed to see civil and open discussion about the Mormon faith. I told my wife many months ago that I didn’t believe it could exist. I’m glad I was wrong.

    I’ve been thinking about this very question for years now. I stopped going to church meetings, the temple, reading scriptures or praying when it became obvious to me that I no longer believed that I was getting anywhere with these activities.

    While I’ve mostly removed myself from church activity, my upbringing, my family, my values, political views, and most of my desires are still lock step with other active members. I can’t imagine cheating on my wife or going out on the weekends to get smashed or anything like it. (or stop cheering for my cougars…)

    In my own head I started inventing terms for my status. I started joking with my previously converted, now inactive wife that “my race was Mormon but I didn’t practice”. (along the lines of Adam Sandler or other Hollywood Jews) Then it morphed into calling myself “culturally Mormon”. It makes me chuckle a little to see others with the exact same question.

    So while I’m trying desperately to listen to conference without crying tears of excruciating pain from the mind crushing boredom of hearing the same talks that I’ve heard hundreds of times before, I still feel a sense of comfort from the camera work showing the flowers in temple square and love to hear the voice over announcing the “178th semiannual general conference”.

    In response to #19 James, I think you’d be surprised to see how many people there are who are no longer active for reasons other than sin or going on drugs, etc. For me it was finally being able to put aside the brainwashing (I’m not sure of the verbiage I’m supposed to use in this company) that my parents so lovingly instilled into me. Only then was I able to look around and realize that the heavens really weren’t open and that prayers weren’t really being answered and that blessings were really just a crapshoot.

    I love the church and will raise my children in it. The principles and values taught in the LDS faith are priceless and I am scared to think of how I’d be without those teachings.

    So the next application or questionnaire I fill out I may change my answer to the race question from “European American” to “Mormon”. I’ll let ya’ll know how that goes! =)

  22. I was raised in an open-minded faithful family of deep Mormon heritage. I no longer believe that the church is true, more that it teaches a few universal truths. I find it extremely hard to self-identify with anything anymore! And yet at the same time, how do you walk away from something that shaped your world view so strongly? My ancestors gave everything to make it to Utah, all because they believed in Joseph’s gospel. Yep, I think it’s in my blood.

  23. I am a DNA mormon and nothing more. When I was finally brave enough to step back and take a good look at my “beliefs,” the constant brainwashing and especially the topic of free agency which is taught but definately not practiced! The guilt was exhausting. I finally chose to listen to my own heart, my own brain and have found a great deal of personal peace. I believe in a higher power (both female and male) that loves unconditionally and completely. Not a male God that threatens, bullies and has a bad temper and requires one religion to fit all personalities. I feel grateful that I have taken the time and courage to step back and take a clear look. I am healthier and happier than I have ever been in my life 🙂 My biggest hope is that my own children, now grown, will (and I believe they do) know that life is too big and wonderful to fit into such a narrow lifestyle.

  24. Pingback: My Tribe | Main Street Plaza

  25. Its awful when you’re in that hole with depression, but I believe you can climb out of it, its a long journey but boy is it worth it, as the suffering and the experience in the long term becomes an asset. Would you agree?

  26. Pingback: Who is a Cultural Mormon? at Mormon Matters

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *