Growing Towards a Cosmopolitan Mormonism
I was raised with a strong dose of Mormon Exceptionalism. Rather than seeing other Christians as siblings in the Church of Christ, I was taught the narrative of the One True Church. I internalized the idea that people of other religious traditions had some truth, but that we had the full truth. That other people did good in the world, but that we did God’s work.
I exasperate myself even typing that, but it was a frequent message I received as a child.
Over time I came to see that as an unhealthy mindset. While growing out of that mindset is part of a natural maturation process for many, it is an idea that I still see taught and reinforced by members and in Church materials.
Both because of my interests in Mormon history and my discomfort with the One True Church narrative, I took great interest in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s interview with Richard Lyman Bushman for the Salt Lake Tribune, as well as the interview she and David Noyce had with him for the Mormon Land podcast. Richard is the husband of Claudia Lauper Bushman, a founding mother of modern Mormon feminism and a co-founder of The Exponent II. He is an accomplished scholar in his own right as an emeritus history professor of Columbia University and is best known in Mormon circles for his landmark biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.
Bushman’s interviews covered many topics, but I took interest in his discussion of the tensions inherent in Mormons becoming a more cosmopolitan people. He said, “By cosmopolitanism, I mean that we’re suddenly able to see ourselves as others see us and we can picture ourselves as one religion among a number of religions and a number of viewpoints. We can see how Mormonism looks from a global view.” As members increasingly engage with the broader world from a position of influence and power (both in terms of positions held by members and the financial strength of the Church), we are required to see ourselves from new perspectives.
Becoming a cosmopolitan faith, as I understand Bushman’s argument, pushes members to evaluate their core beliefs, discover how to express those beliefs on a world stage, and reconcile how some of our practices are problematic (he mentions the way we treat women and LGBTQ people as two examples). The challenge is to hold to core unique doctrines and beliefs while recognizing we are one people and belief system among many peoples and belief systems.
I was encouraged by his final thought in the article: “The ultimate good end of cosmopolitanism is to recognize that the work of God is going to be handled by the 99.9% of the population that’s not Mormon. It can’t just be this tiny speck of a church.”
The work of God is not limited to Mormons. The work of God, as I see it most simply and most powerfully, is to love our neighbors as ourselves. The work of God is primarily done by people who are not Mormon.
What a relief.
It is so nice to be able to see and embrace and learn from the goodness of other people. While Joseph Smith certainly taught an expansive vision of truth and intelligence, my Mormon upbringing taught me to fear veering outside of Church approved sources and ideas. While the One True Church narrative may be useful in creating a cohesive group and culture, it is rocky soil from which to grow.
I find it incredibly liberating to read and listen and engage far and wide without feeling the need to fit what I find into my tiny, correlated, Mormon box. My roots can deepen and my branches expand when my history, traditions, and beliefs aren’t hostilely defended against other people, but can be part of a larger, symbiotic ecosystem.
Reaching for a cosmopolitan perspective that values tradition but is not limited by it reminds me of Jon Ogden’s arguments in his book When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life. He writes that balancing truth, goodness, and beauty brings richer relationships and a more quality life. As my faith has matured, finding the balance of these things has been a struggle and at times immensely painful, but has nurtured me to a place of healthier growth.
The opposite approach, or needing everything I encounter to fit within my existing beliefs or be rejected, feels small and potentially violent. Groupthink, conspiracy theories, and culture battles thrive when only one group can be right. I’ve seen much of this mindset on social media lately and it worries me, not so much because I think it is crazy, but because it feels so familiar. I know that for individuals this way of thinking damages relationships, but on a large scale, it rips countries apart and crushes marginalized people in the process.
The most exhilarating part for me of a more cosmopolitan mindset is the freedom to be wrong—to reevaluate, question, doubt, and get cozy with uncertainty. When I find myself in error, I can change my beliefs and actions without fearing that my foundation will crumble or my entire belief system will fall apart. A living, breathing Mormonism does not insist that oxygen is the exclusive right of Mormons.
In elementary school, I deeply offended “Tina,” a Catholic friend of mine, when on a playdate I assured her that her church probably had some truth, but that the gospel had been restored to my church, and we had the full truth. On Sunday, I shared my “missionary” experience in Primary and received accolades. On Monday, I learned through mutual friends that Tina didn’t want to be my friend anymore. I was baffled. How could my sharing truth with her hurt her feelings? Wasn’t this exactly what I was taught to do?
Sadly, I did not learn my lesson with Tina. It took me years, and many more experiences of perceiving my beliefs as the True and Right beliefs before broadening my understanding that there were other ways of thinking and being that were just as good and true and worthwhile. While there are teachings of the Church I still hold sacred, I do not believe them to be inherently better than other people’s beliefs that lead them towards love.
I am a Mormon woman, but I no longer believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the One True Church. And yet, Mormons are my people, and their history is my history. It gives me hope to be able to see myself as a Mormon woman in the world and also as just a small, singular person in a big, wide, beautiful world.