International Series: The Mormon Messiah Complex and the Worldwide Church
The American woman stood at the podium in my mid-sized Australia ward, yet paused before uttering a word. The bishop had asked her to speak, because it was her last Sunday in this ward. She and her husband were finishing their mission and this ward fell in the boundaries of the mission office where they had driven admin desks for 18 months. They were not in the mission presidency, yet had held office jobs that removed them from everyday interaction with the locals. In a way that I can only describe as Marilyn-Monroe-ish, she swished her perfectly styled and coloured hair then breathlessly said, “What words can I leave the people of Australia with?”
I looked at my husband and snickered as he rolled his eyes. “She is in a solitary, expat-heavy ward in all of Australia! Who does she think she is talking to?” we both said.
She went on with her testimony (which sounded more like a brag-a-mony) about how great her influence was on us locals, how humbled she had been to “serve all of you,” and how she hoped she’d left Australia a better place. Right? Because of all her desk work at the air-conditioned office where she pushed the papers of “the American church,” to its predominantly American missionaries…that was her idea of feeding my spirit?
And yet, she was typical of many American, Mormon visitors, who are most often missionaries (but also reflective of a large number of American Mormon expats visiting on temporary work visas). This understanding and belief of “American Mormonism” is, after all, what many American Mormons are taught. Corn-fed on conversion stories from fathers and grandfathers who served missions where they saved (or survived) ignorant non-Americans in administering the gospel seem to have fostered a belief wherein American missionaries perceive themselves as teachers of American Mormon culture as a component in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This perception is something I call the Mormon Messiah Complex. Though not a true Messiah Complex which is a psychological state wherein the individual believes they are actually Jesus or Christ, the Mormon Messiah Complex is a sociological state of mind manifested in an underlying belief that somehow the gospel, when companioned with an upbringing in the American Mormon Church, have given the missionary or work expat superior spiritual knowledge and rank. They perceive themselves in authority because the majority, if not all non-American Mormons are ecclesiastical simpletons because they were not raised sufficiently in Mormon piety and culture outside of the Jell-O belt. Mormon Messiah Complex is defined when it is isolated on the condescension side of a thin line that differentiates between empathy of local needs (coupled with a healthy appreciation of one’s American roots) and the sense of superiority in culture, education and spirituality on the other side.
To be clear, this is not reflective of all American expats, Mormon Expats, Missionaries, or even all temporary American (or other nationality) workers and their families. Many American Mormons are very good people. They are well and truly devout individuals, who get their hands dirty and calloused in service, regardless of the simplicity or complexity of local congregations. But there is yet a core group who fall into the Mormon Messiah Complex category who can’t see anything outside of their own sphere of cultural understanding. It is a position of ignorant privilege wherein they recognise they are privileged to have a testimony of the gospel and, in many cases, the ability to be educated, yet they fail to recognise that their brand of privilege is void of an adaptable position in the worldwide church. For example, in Southern Cross Saints, Marjory Newton recorded a time when an American YWMIA board member from Utah was visiting Australia in about 1960:
“Light the way to MIA” was the slogan and church members everywhere were encouraged to leave their porch lights on each Tuesday evening (to ensure YW were not walking in the dark to and from the MIA activity.)The visiting general board member asked the local leaders in Sydney whether they were finding the “Light the way to MIA” a success. On being told that the program was not operating in Sydney, she became very agitated and insisted that the members must be taught to use this program, which had come, she said, by revelation from the prophet. No amount of explanation could get through to the visitor the fact that, with two million people in a sprawling city of a thousand square miles, not one of the forty or so Latter-day Saint girls lived close enough to an LDS chapel to walk to meetings, let alone pass by another member’s house home on her way.” (p 202-203)
This is an example of the Mormon Messiah Complex first, because the board member declared the program was revelation from a prophet -invoking a sense that she had greater knowledge and/or education on the item at hand. Secondly, she could not recognise her privilege of living in a predominantly LDS community, so attempted to force a program that was not adaptable or even relevant in the area she was visiting.
This tyranny of cultural and physical distance further identifies and isolates those entrenched in the Mormon Messiah Complex because it frustrates the ability to gain and give support to church members, and drives a wedge of apathy between them and the church members who might otherwise be better willing to serve alongside the visiting Americans. Examples from my experience include the missionaries in our rural branch who complained because the Relief Society president lived a 50 minute drive away from the chapel (in a branch that encompassed an area of 400 sq. kilometres). This upset them because they perceived that she could not help them in the way they felt was required for their work, and took on an ugly flair of sexism because males- even visiting missionaries, are are armed with priesthood authority, deemed culturally and ecclesiastically superior to non-authoritative, female, church roles.
Likewise, the mission president in this same area laid an edict that missionaries were not allowed more than 1 hour for dinner appointments. This was for an area where dinner appointments were rare, the missionaries were an hour’s drive away from most church members’ homes, and many members, such as us, had driven 4 hours just to attend this non-edifying, “dinner rules” lecture at a Regional Conference. Though a neighbourhood Relief Society president and a quick dinner appointment is likely sufficiently applicable in many areas in and out of the US, to non-US areas where the church is highly uncommon, missionaries and mission presidents alike can inadvertently further the sense of segregation between church members and American missionaries. In this, missionaries and mission president frustrate their own missionary goals, and foster apathy through ignorance regarding utterly disassociating the effort of the church member whom they rely on for referrals in connecting with church at all.
Absence of even minimal financial knowledge, or worse, indifference to economic survival is also a characteristic of Mormon Messiah Complex. To be clear, I do not expect 18-year-old men and 19-year-old women to have sufficient understanding of how to pay off a mortgage in their home county any more than I expect them to understand how to pay the rent in another country, especially when they might not even speak the language. But outright ignorance to local budget needs creates a problem from a church-wide perspective.
Consider this: Prior to 1990, missionaries needed to pay for the cost of their mission according to the local fiscal requirements of the mission wherein they were assigned to serve. This meant, for example, that a mission to Japan would have been significantly more costly than a mission to Guatemala, and the missionary and/or the missionary’s family would have had the burden of paying the expense. In 1990, a flat-rate was introduced for American missionaries that standardised the cost of missionary service. Though this was great for the American side of mission affordability, it also created a disassociation regarding international exchange rates for where the youth served the mission. This feeds the Mormon Messiah Complex in that empathy to the local cost of living became something to be learned at leisure, rather than experienced. To be clear, missionaries would comprehend that the cost of an average meal in the United States is not equal to the cost of a meal in Brasil. But the problem comes when missionaries and expats fail to learn or comprehend when church members are being generous, to the point of missionaries taking advantage of church members’ good will to support the missionaries.
Examples in my experience include the Stake Relief Society president assigned by the mission office to provide a quarterly meal for all the missionaries. She was given a budget by the mission to feed the missionaries a basic, no-frills meal. However, the Relief Society president was required to double budget from her own pocket in order to pay for the food necessary to feed all of the missionaries present, therefore, she asked for those sisters volunteering their time on that day to further donate food and money to help reimburse her. She spoke to the mission president once about the lowly budget, but was brushed off, as he had created the budget based on the costing of food in the US, rather than based on the costing of food in Australia (2.5 times more expensive than food in the US). She feared taking the issue to the mission president again, so chose to absorb the cost herself. Clandestine sacrifices like this are common (and from a devout member perspective, this is the stuff of miracles and blessings). But this revisits the awkward position of the Mission President as an ecclesiastical authority, though not a direct authority within the stake. In earnest, it positions him as an ignorant authority absent of the responsibility of the local church members. He is under no obligation to seek information regarding the needs of the members who are required though stake assignment to support him and the missionaries by virtue of stake assignment. Thus, unless the mission president is of a particularly empathetic heart and mind, the divide of empathy and apathy between missionaries and members becomes the epitome of the Mormon Messiah Complex.
Men are more likely to be identified within the framework of the Mormon Messiah Complex as a result of male-only priesthood which places any Mormon male in higher position than any Mormon female. But men do not suffer from it alone. For example, the sister missionary, when her parents came to retrieve her at the end of her mission. We welcomed her and her parents in our home as they toured are area wherein she had served her mission. Prior to this, her phone had been provided and paid for entirely by the mission, so after she spent a single night in a hotel with her parents prior to visiting us, she finally learned the cost of a local phone call. In that single night, she made enough phone calls that her mother confided to me that they had spent the entire sum of their travel funds in paying that one phone bill. These were not international or even out-of-state calls; these were all calls to church members whom she had received calls from when she was serving in their branches and wards, and whom she hoped to see again before she went back to the US. Although she had been in the country for well over a year, this missionary literally did not know the expense associated with a local phone call.
Perhaps the knowledge of the cost of a local phone call is irrelevant in regard to missionary work especially when the mission is footing the missionaries’ entire phone bill. But this situation reveals the larger problem of missionaries who are ignorant of the cost of living, and expect members to interact with them in the same manner as church members interact in the US. Though most church members have grown a thick skin when it comes to the ridiculous advisements of missionaries who, for example tell us to “bottle our own tomatoes,” when doing so costs 3 to 4 times more than buying ready-tinned tomatoes. But in failing to recognise “the widow’s farthing,” of the cost of a local phone call, missionaries can unwittingly surrender the ability to empathise to the real needs of locals and make undue financial demands on them. This can result in hurt feelings, apathy and even anger— on both sides.
An example of this is the missionaries who giggled over one of the members in a previous area who heated his water by removing the coil from an electric kettle and placing it directly in hot water. He then plugged it into an active electrical socket, thereby heating the water. His normal hot water heater had broken, and rather than save for a new hot water heater, he chose to use what little money he could spare to provide snacks when the missionaries visited him. To be clear: He risked electrocution so he could provide simple, yet regular snacks for the visiting missionaries. The American Elders thought that this was an hilarious example of Australian ingenuity. I was numb with shock listening to them laugh at the poverty of a fellow citizen. Even though the laughing might have been a release of stress or anxiety, the Elder explained that their best advice to the man was to not put the element in the water because it was dangerous. They offered no real advice or help (not even to inform the local bishop), and could not see the sacrifice of love offered by the man. He ceased inviting them to his home, and I never saw him at church.
The divide between local members, visiting members and church headquarters is not new. At its root, it is the stuff of Church Correlation—or the program to bring the International church in line with the thoughts, focus and even culture of the church headquartered in Salt Lake. The primary goal of Church Correlation was to place “doctrines and ordinances, organizations and agencies, programs and activities, meetings, and printed and audiovisual materials” at a local level in “proper relationship” with Church headquarters (reference). Thus, in and of itself, Church Correlation can be defined as the institutional model of the Mormon Messiah Complex because its goal was to narrow the administrative power of the church in a central line, regardless of the financial, cultural and emotional needs of local congregations.
This insular line of prescribed church routine and culture has been slightly loosened in recent years with the introduction of The Come, Follow Me program for youth. In contrast to the hard line of church correlation, Come Follow Me states that:
“Each month all teachers will focus on the same doctrine, but teachers will choose their own lesson topics for each week. You may choose to spend more than one week on a topic. Let the needs of the youth, not a predetermined schedule, guide your teaching.”
In this, Sunday School youth teachers are encouraged to engage students in gospel topics in relationship to local needs, allowing for adaptation based on cultural, financial, and individual students’ needs. From an international perspective, this is a much-needed model of adaptability that can address challenges for teens based on their local and personal situations. Though this is not perfect, it does lend to cure a part of the administrative facet of the institutional Mormon Messiah Complex.
However, even though Come Follow Me may be implemented in global youth programs, missionaries and mission presidents still exist in the hard line structure of Correlation. What’s more is unless they are very motivated to be open and seeking of local culture (if they can find the time) the insular training of missionaries can only exacerbate the issue of the Mormon Messiah Complex, especially in those individuals who think of themselves in an authoritative context, i.e. they are call to “preach the gospel,” rather than listen to locals. Consider how missionaries are welcomed to a country: the Mission President, usually American, greets the new missionaries at the airport and they go to the Mission Home, which, in my experience, is well-stocked with American foods. The Mission president and his wife then teach some basic things about the culture that have noticed in their position, but yet might not be reflective of local thought or culture if only because their largest communication and interactions are with other American missionaries. In missionary companionship, the new “greenie” is partnered with a “training companion,” who, among other things shares some cultural experiences, but who is likely American, has the focus imparting missionary wisdom and no doubt makes some jokes of the cultural habits he finds amusing.
Though the MTC hosts native teachers and more locals are being called to serve missions in their home countries, there is still enough American influence that for individuals who see themselves as authoritative in a disassociate manner to fall into the scope of the Mormon Messiah Complex. Further, the items that are forbidden for missionaries to engage in also serve to isolate and, therefore feed the Mormon Messiah Complex. For example, one of my first posts on the Exponent was about the Queensland Floods. The missionaries serving in our branch were collected by church members before the flood hit, and removed to a safe area. Upon returning to their flat, and finding it (miraculously) undisturbed, they went back to focusing on missionary work, unaware as to why most of their appointments had cancelled. They noticed the UN aid workers on lunch breaks at the McDonald’s where food supplies had been delivered by specially arranged delivery methods, and that all of the local grocery stores remained closed, but it didn’t seem to sink into them that something of a disaster had occurred. The missionaries were forbidden from watching television, and having no access to the news, had literally missed the flood. It was not until branch members showed them a video of their destroyed home when it was still engulfed nearly 2 meters deep in muddy flood water– that the elders understood why their resumed missionary tactics were falling flat. It was a matter of mission policy to not read or watch news on TV, which resulted in unempathetic, ungrateful young men who branch members were content to see transferred.
So how can this issue be resolved? How can we cure the Mormon Messiah Complex, at least in missionaries?
Well, first, I suggest that we need to teach boys and men that they are as nurturing as girls and women. Nurturing is not a gendered personality characteristic, but it is taught as a gendered characteristic in the church. In doing this, we teach men that empathy and the ability to care for others is not something they need to be concerned with. Thus, they end up laughing at locals who cannot afford hot water heaters, rather than seeking to help find resolutions, or reporting the situation to the bishop or mission president. Secondly, I propose that the Relief Society devise a program –perhaps a series of discussions– to help mission presidents, their wives, missionaries and even temporary expats visiting a ward to 1) understand and mindfully adapt to the new traditions of the local congregation, 2) understand the financial culture of the general area, and 3) better try to comprehend the way of life for local members whom they will be reliant upon for member referrals. In short, so they learn the cost of a local phone call (with the added bonus of not overstepping financial boundaries when enlisting local relief societies to provide meals). These classes could be funded through the mission, so as to not be taxing to the local ward or branch, and, in impoverished areas, possibly the women could be paid to teach them. The class might even involve a visit to a local grocery store and community centre. Third and last, the embargo against local new media should be removed for local holiday observations such a Memorial Days (which would manifest nationalism otherwise removed from the mission experience) and during natural disasters, such as for the Queensland floods.
The church has long declared itself to be world-wide, but so long as there is a drive to Americanise church culture as preferable or superior to local culture, there will be a divide between traditional American and non-traditional American members. Easily manifested in missionaries, this Mormon Messiah Complex fosters the opposite of what the church is aimed at achieving: the world wide sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. When church members, including missionaries, position themselves as culturally adaptable, even and especially when placed in positions of authority, the work of Christ can better continue without the stigma connected with culturally disassociated apathy. So as the numbers of missionaries increase globally, my hope is that the Mormon Messiah Complex might decrease so that member retention and new members might find the church a newer, safer, place to share in the multi-cultured, open love of Jesus Christ.