By Gina Colvin
Gina Colvin is the host of the A Thoughtful Faith podcast and blogs at KiwiMormon. She lives in Christchurch, New Zealand where she is a lecturer at the University of Canterbury.
The Gospel Topics Essays are making a huge splash in the United States, but it’s likely that they’ll barely make a ripple with the “international church.” Here’s why.
Having visited the U.S. annually for the past six years, I’ve come to know Salt Lake City and Utah County reasonably well. And as I have found out, Utah is pregnant with layers and layers of Mormonism that exist beneath the symmetry and coherence of Temple Square with its army of pleasant-faced greeters and hosts, beneath the orderly bustle of general conference, beneath the hushed business of the state’s many temples. If you are game enough to peek under the covers, you will soon learn that there is no single story of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The state’s culture, economics, politics, and social infrastructure refract through the LDS Church giving rise to many unique and diverse social groups with extraordinary things to say about God, life, and the universe. If you have a taste for something particular in Mormonism it’s likely that there is some community out there just for you, right at the religion’s center.
But this complex, multi-layered religion, with its broad array of conversations and communities, hasn’t historically transferred itself beyond Utah. The LDS Church is traditionally exported to the periphery via missionaries, official edicts, visitors with titles, a correlated curriculum, and media products. Mormon Studies materials—Mormon history that engages with polygamy, race, and women’s roles in the Church—are (except in rare instances) not found on home bookshelves outside North America. Not that everyone who lives in Utah County would affiliate with a Mormon subculture; most prefer to swim in the mainstream where it’s culturally safe. But you’d have to actively bury your head in a lot of sand to grow up in Utah without being somewhat familiar with Mormonism’s internal social and ideological diversity. Even the Deseret News sometimes reveals a Mormonism that is somewhat more nuanced than you might have heard beyond the U.S. ten years ago—and that is saying something.
But the world has recently arced out into dramatically new trajectories. Monolithic institutions are imploding; humans are connecting across the earth; information is moving with unprecedented rapidity; social media is creating movements. As long as we possess an Internet-capable device, we are awash with nuance and possibility. And the impact of this technological revolution has been felt heavily in Mormon culture.
For instance, these days my personal spiritual yearnings are expressed both in my ward congregation and in a worldwide congregation of my own making. My church has become a rich and beautiful tapestry of the Mormon unwanted, the shunned, the unloved at church, the furious and the content, the coming and the going, the nuanced and the unorthodox—folk who have gathered to share their words, their stories, and their exclamation marks in a kind of rolling, 24-hour-a-day international community of care.
What’s more, my spiritual resources today aren’t solely Mormon. They come from whomever I choose to listen to via live feeds, podcasts, and YouTube. The monopoly that the Church once enjoyed in terms of dictating my religious resources, and the management it once had over the boundaries of my community, have crumbled. Though my Kiwi pride is dented in admitting this, many of my closest spiritual and religious allies are American. My Mormon conversations are worldwide and take in a broad range of communities.
So thinking about Mormonism in terms of the “U.S. church” and the “international church” is using a false binary. The most profound social demarcations in the Church are no longer geographical; they are linguistic, economic, and—most importantly—ideological. I feel confident that it is one or more of these social conditions that dictates one’s engagement with the Gospel Topics Essays.
Mormons who live in first-world states, who possess material resources and enjoy good Mormon cultural capital, who are educated, live in socially liberal geographies and communities, and speak English are at a distinct advantage in terms of their ability to engage, discuss, think about, and process the Essays. And even though the Church has gone to pains to provide some translations of the Gospel Topics Essays, the process isn’t complete. As Geoff Nelson points out, these translations are piecemeal and inconsistent.1
Therefore, perhaps the most confounding impediment to engaging with the Essays is ideological. U.S. politics have played a central role in driving American Mormons into a stark social rift. The religious culture forms along the conservative/Republican and liberal/Democrat divide. The Church claims political neutrality, but Utah is a Republican state. The GOP and its conservative Christian values have become so ubiquitous in Mormon culture that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate Evangelical social conservatism from Mormonism. This conservative political export has huge consequences on Mormonism outside of the United States.
Non-American Mormons often find themselves having to hold their national and religious politics in tension. For example, while a left-leaning New Zealand voter might prefer a workers party to form a domestic government, in Mormon spaces she might feel obligated to support the U.S. Republican party because she feels that to do otherwise would be disloyal to her religion.
Which is why the Gospel Topics Essays are such game changers. They come literally come out of left field: out of step with the religion’s historically defensive communications strategies, inflammatory and unrecognizable against the Church’s former institutional practice of plausible deniability, the odd duck out in the dominant discourse that has held the Mormon conservative corridor in its thrall for generations.
The other complication is that international LDS communities, unexposed to the diversities of Mormonism in its geographical heart, often see the Church as a single, narrow, correlated story. Congregations are usually overseen by conservative leaders, and thus develop rigid orthodoxies. Local leaders typically lean toward a strict and sometimes punitive interpretation of Church policy, relying on exactness in order to retain institutional affirmation. This makes “alternative” conversations somewhat challenging to hold.
Some of this corporate rigidity can be attributed to the fact that the LDS Church has grown an elaborate hierarchy that customarily rewards deference with promotion. I’ve noticed that some of my ecclesiastical leaders, in order to curry institutional approval, rely heavily on received routines, habits, and ideologies that were initially transmitted through authorities, curricula, and handbooks.
Starved of intellectual nuance and deprived of the necessary conversations that spawn spiritual creativity; these leaders can become easily frightened by the challenges posed by the intellectual work needed to bring religious communities into social relevance. These Mormon leaders and their congregations often feel threatened by new contexts and changing times, and they try to protect themselves by building orthodoxies that rely on strict deference to the policies and procedures of the Church.
In short, the Gospel Topics Essays will barely register with conservative Mormon leaders outside the U.S. And if they don’t register with the international ecclesia, they will remain the solitary concern of Mormon intellectual sub-cultures and will not generate the conversations necessary to move the painful episodes the Essays address into healing spaces.
1 Geoff Nelson, “Noah, Same-sex Marriage and Citizenship,” Rational Faiths, http://rationalfaiths.com/noah-sex-marriage-citizenship/ (accessed 25 August 2015).