How diverse are we really?


This past Sunday, we had guest speakers in our sacrament meeting. The female half of the husband and wife duo marvelled at how diverse our ward was. And I confess that I had to stifle a laugh. Given the fact that I’ve never seen her before in the ward (although I have been out of town for the past three Sundays), I was forced to concluded that she was referring to racial diversity, since she probably didn’t know very many people in the congregation. Because really, we’re not that racially diverse … I may be one of about 15 members of color in my ward. And we’re not really that diverse when it comes to socio-economic status either … mostly middle to upper-middle class. And not even really diverse when it comes to education … mostly college educated. She might have been referring to marital status, since there are a rather large number of single (never married or divorced) sisters in my ward, but somehow I don’t think so. Or, she might have been thinking about the age spread, although even that is pretty much bell-shaped, with very few children or markedly aged members.

So, I was forced to conclude that when she mentioned diversity, she was talking about racial diversity. By my own account, there really is not much racial diversity in my ward, but it’s exciting to think that there is in the LDS church as a whole. I know that I was personally thrilled when the “more members outside the US than in” horn was tooted. And yet, I sometimes worry that our claims of diversity ring false when the church imposes culture alongside doctrine.

Racism has become such a dirty word. No sane person I know will admit to being racist. And yet, it’s there, simmering just below the surface of each of us. In my most honest moments, I recognize it as a fear of the unknown and/or unfamliar, and that I have a piece of it inside of me. A few years ago, I decidedly remember walking around a set of escalators at the SLC airport in order to avoid tow middle eastern men dressed in turbans and flowing robes. I remember because I chastised myself even as I did it. Served me right to have to backtrack because the path I’d tried to escape to was blocked off.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also had a checkered past in regard to race relations . And while I do think that we get better generationally, I also think that racism has become more insidious because we place a veneer of civility over the top. Yes, we’ve learned to interact with those of other races with less fear, but we’re also better at hiding our prejudices. We’ve learned to hide it better. Now, instead of singling out one portion of humanity out, we’re just counselled to leave behind the traditions of our fathers behind in order to embrace Christianity in general, and “mormonness” in particular. And while it may be conforting that Mormons are thought of as the nice young men who wear white shirts and black name tags when they knock on our door, wouldn’t it be better to be known as men and women of God who are dedicated to serving humanity?

I’m reminded of a couple of second generation immigrant friends. In their zeal to become American, the parents had abandoned many of the traditions of their homelands. It wasn’t until much later that the adult children tried to travel to the countries of their forefathers, and learn the language, that they were able to piece together and understand the societies that nutured their parents, and even do some genealogy. I worry that in the zeal to convert investigators, we ask them to assume a culture that cannot ultimately satisfy. Yes, the gospel can satisfy, but church culture many times fails to.

I believe that we shouldn be looking to incorporate as much as possible from the many cultures of the world, instead of cutting off. i wish that, instead of prescribing what we look like (dress codes, limitations on jewelry, body art and hair, etc) we could be more unified in doctrine (being kind, charitable and loving). I wish it were possible to to reduce the gospel of Christ to a strong core of beliefs, have those be our guiding principles, and be able to leave off all the extraneous fluff.

I distinctly remember an Institute class on the New Testament. The teacher was describing the numerous intricacies of Judaic laws regarding the keeping of the Sabbath. And I was amazed at the restrictions on travel, work, etc. The teacher likened the onerous laws to a restrictive series of pasture gates (culture) to keep a central area (faith) separate. The gates/laws were in place to protect the mindless herd animals. And yet, when Christ came, he did away with the debilitating gates. Abstaining from work did not equate keeping the Sabbath holy. It was enough to say that his disciples should keep the Sabbath holy, and let each decide what it meant, and grow through those decisions. Which begs the question: Can’t we just approach the faith and leave the culture aside?

As the church continues to grow, and indeed, to keep whatever new members may be converted, I think that the church will have to become more international in scope as well as membership. I hope that we can carry the message of the gospel abroad in such a way that will let members from far-off and disparate places keep the best parts of their heritage, and combine those things with the best that the gospel has to offer. And I hope that we will all be humble enough to learn and love and accept all of those best things, as opposed to thinking that we all have to be the same. That would be a truly wonderful way to celebrate the diversity that is inherent among God’s creations.

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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  1. Jungleface Jake says:

    One issue you are having here is not just with church culture, but also with middle class American culture’s concern about other cultures. The phenomenon you are describing is much more a feature of Americans dealing with other-than-mainstream culture than my experiences outside of the US. I have been a member of wards and branches in a dozen countries around the world in the last twenty years, and I don’t really see what you are describing on a large scale. Are some missionaries and ‘imported’ leaders insenstive about culture? Yes. But generally the church does not officially pursue interference with culture beyond the scope of say word of wisdom and chastity issues.

    Your piercing and ‘body art’ example is an issue because it is seen as a core moral value, or a symptom of one, not a cultural issue. We may disagree with that, but that’s a different argument. I would also say that all church members need to separate the ‘required’ and ‘recommended.’

  2. sarah k. says:

    Also, if that couple were coming straight from Utah, they probably consider a ward with even one person who doesn’t glow in the dark to be diverse. My ward in Provo had people from Africa, Mexico, Peru, China, Yugoslavia, Russia, Korea, Italy, England, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Southern California…and yet we were all there either pursuing education or providing it. It may not have been homogeneous regarding skin-tone, but there was a unifying factor besides the belief-system.

    At the same time, those people all had vastly differing socio-economic upbringings. In a way, it was their faith that led them to the education that led them to being a part of a ward where everyone has a PhD.

    So, although the comment may have been targeted at racial diversity, she may have been spot-on regarding overall diversity, if you just put the socio-economic issue out of the picture.

    It made sense in my head…

  3. Jamie Trwth says:

    When my wife and I started attending our ward regularly a Sister told her. “We are so glad to have you in our ward. You bring such diversity.” We are an interracial couple. We are the third interracial couple in our ward.

    There are prejudice people in our ward. One man can’t look me in the eyes. Either I am not his cultural, or racial equal.

    The other day I was watching a documentary about an African tribe whose women and children walked around their village nude or half nude. I started thinking. What if the missionaries proselytized in this village? They would have to completely abandon their culture, as they knew it. I wonder if this is one of the reasons there are just over 100,000 members in all of Africa? We need other cultures in the world. Even in the one true religion.

    Jamie Trwth

  4. FoxyJ says:

    I always think of that song from Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometimes.”

    A few of my thoughts:
    1. Americans are not the only ones who have a problem with racism. I served my mission in a European country where most people were quite racist, members included. Racism and xenophobia are a problem common to all people. I do think that we as church members should strive for a higher ideal, however.
    2. I think we should also more explicitly discuss racism and xenophobia and why they are wrong. I know with my kids I feel embarrassed when they notice differences so I tend to downplay them. Most of us are embarrassed by our natural man tendency to be scared of people who are different from us, so we don’t talk about it. If we can accept that most of us are racist at times, then we can deal with it better.
    3. I don’t think the Church is very different from any other church as far as lack of diversity. Religion is still one of the most segregated areas of American life. Not an excuse, just an explanation. I think we can and should do better.
    4. I also think that diversity in individual wards is usually correlated to the diversity of the community and will vary around the world. We were recently visiting my husband’s family in Hawaii and attended a stake activity there. I was amazed at the variety of races, clothing, ages, etc. present. But it’s also reflective of the fact that Hawaii is a very diverse state and has been for a long time. Even with that diversity, there’s still racism and classism, however. It’s certainly not utopia.

  5. Caroline says:

    Amen, Dora. So well said.

    We’ve talked about this before, and you know that I am on the same page with you when it comes to culture getting mixed up with doctrine in the Church.

    Jungleface mentioned the church stepping in to change culture when it comes to chastity and word of wisdom issues. But there are certainly others:
    a) dress
    b) body art (already mentioned – and so obviously cultural. If piercings were offensive to God, why is it ok for LDS women to have pierced ears?)
    c) music in Church

    And lots more I’m sure. Like you, Dora, I look forward to the day when some of the cultural ideas touted from the pulpit are shaved away and we’re left with just a few key and basic Christian gospel principles.

  6. Dora says:

    I should mention that this post gre from a panel discussion on diversity at the Exponent II retreat, which I thoroughly enjoyed!

    Jake, I think that the church (as opposed to the gospel) is particularly invested in having outward manifestations of righteousness. White shirt, tie and jacket to pass the sacrament. No facial hair, and short head hair for men in general. Limitations on piercings. Etc etc.

    Piercings and body art are not core moral values, they are culturally determined. If it were truly a moral value not to deface the body, wouldn’t there be a blanket prohibition against breast augmentation, much less single ear piercings?

    Sarah ~ I tend to think that BYU is an oasis of diversity in Utah, if only for the fact that college-aged saints from around the world are drawn there for the Mormon immersion experience.

    Jamie ~ I wish I could get my hands on the Dialogue article that focused on the disparity between baptised church members in Latin America, and those who self-identified as LDS on the national census. I wonder how effective missionary work is if the inactivity level is high due ti any number of obvious reasons: cultural concerns, baptising more than the local wards can realistically support, etc.

    Foxyj ~ thanks for stating so succinctly what I was trying to say! The Hawaiian stake may not be a utopia, but it sounds wonderful. I love the idea of having all that different-ness mixed together. Personally, confronting otherness makes me more inquisitive and willing to explore the person, rather than the fascade.

    Caroline ~ I find that even the church is very selective about Word of Wisdom issues. We hear tons about the Don’ts, and next to nothing about the Do’s. And it seems to come down to appearances … people are far more likely to recognize a Mormon by abstinence from coffee/tea/alcohol/tobacco, than they are for eating a lot of grains or a little meat.

  7. a spectator says:

    I think the goal of helping everyone understand that we can celebrate the best of our human cultures wthin the gospel is a great one. I also think that we are frequently too condeming of white American Mormons (of every class).

    I have had the opportunity to live and attend Chruch on four continents. I have found racism and a reluctance to accept “others” as equals in every place. I lived in an African country that is the home to dozens of cultures–although they all look the same to outsiders, these cultures speak and think of each other in a very derogetory manner. Although they are all the same color, the things they say about the other cultures are very devisive and ugly characatures.

    All I am saying is that white people are not the only ones who harbor prejudices and say stupid things. I know everyone kows that, but I think we are hard on each other about this.

    I think a clear discernment between culture and doctrine would force us to talk about actually living Christ-like lives in SS (as opposed to comfrotable discussions about coke, R ratings, and too-tight clothing), so maybe people are not ready for that.

    PS–there are many reasons there are not many African saints, and clothing is not one of them.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I too have lived in several countries. I agree wholeheartedly, and sadly, that racism exists everywhere. The one homogenizing factor that I have observed though is class division based on socio-economic status. However, I do think that the LDS church is not so very different from other churches in often defining class lines on fiscal margins. There are however some good reasons, albeit not excuses, to support such a delineation if we look at cultural studies. But the crux of the issue remains, and has been well articulated by previous posts, i.e. we should try to grow toward focusing on the core Gospel princicples that define our community. Utopia may be unattainable but then so is perfection. And the latter is a gospel principle toward which we strive, nonetheless

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