Friday, December 12, 2014

Things Mormon Culture Does Right

"As a way to help us keep the commandments of God, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have what we call a gospel culture. It is a distinctive way of life, a set of values and expectations and practices common to all members." - Elder Dallin H. Oaks1

Love it or hate it, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at least at the local level, brings with it a culture rife with eccentric customs, unfortunate social norms, and far-fetched folklore. These things are not endorsed by the Church proper, but they are perpetuated by the Mormon community and become just as much a part of Mormon life as our official beliefs and practices. Thankfully, many of the bad ideas of Mormon culture are being changed and rooted out as Mormonism matures and expands. Church members are having conversations every day about what it means to be Mormon and how we can make our imperfect culture better match our heavenly cause. 

But if all we think about are the negative aspects of Mormon culture, we do ourselves a huge disservice. We Mormons actually have a lot going for us, culturally-speaking. In fact, there are things about our culture that can make you real grateful to live in an 8-4 zip code and/or to be part of that "cult" people are always wondering about. For all our problems, Mormons have some cultural tendencies that are pretty awesome. Here are just a few worthy of mention.

Marriage and Family

In a world where young people aren't sure how to make a successful marriage and magazines publish stories glamorizing the childfree life,2 Mormons are still a shining example of family-centered living. Our culture values family and has a clear idea of what makes family life successful (isn't it about...time?). Books and workshops on marriage abound in Utah and if you're ever wondering what else you can do to strengthen your family, all you have to do is pick up the latest Ensign.  Weddings, rather than being a gaudy status symbol (à la half the shows on TLC), simply celebrate the beginning of a new family. That's a great thing for a Mormon, even though the statistical likelihood of having your reception in a basketball court skyrockets. In Mormondom children are welcome, stay-at-home mothers are respected, and family unity is valued. LDS families have their fair share of problems, it's true, but as a culture we definitely have a leg up. While no family fits the Mormon mold perfectly, the high regard we have for families is something to be treasured.


Mormons are nothing if not good record-keepers. Utah Mormons write in journals, document their family history, and take notes in their many, many meetings. Encouraged by the example of Nephite prophets who took the time to scratch their history out on plates, Mormons know the value of preserving information for the future. History shows us that the human race remembers only that which is carefully recorded. This bodes very well for us Mormons. In 2000 years, when other cultures' memories have been swept away by time, our history will remain. ("Look, Dr. Wells! This document dates all the way from 2014 A.D.! It's something called a 'Ward Sacrament Meeting Program.' ")


Here's a challenge for you: walk around BYU campus for one hour without hearing a foreign language spoken by a native English-speaker. I would be willing to bet you any amount of money that you couldn't do it (if I wasn't Mormon, that is, in which case the whole exercise would be kind of irrelevant). The perk of having a worldwide missionary program is that Mormon culture tends to be very accepting and even excited about foreign languages and cultures. While America lags behind the rest of the world in its linguistic attainments, Utah Mormons have fluent foreign-language speakers of all kinds. This is true for young Mormons, as well. Utah has the highest number of language-immersion schools in the United States, with academic content being offered in many different languages, ranging from Spanish to Chinese.3  Rather than being prejudiced against foreign cultures, Mormons are fascinated by them, and they recognize the value of being able to communicate with people different from themselves.


Somewhere in Madagascar there's a kid who can play the piano. When people find out about it, they are in awe. They wonder where he learned and how many songs he can play. Somewhere in Utah there's also a kid who can play the piano. When people find out about it they nod and say "that's nice" and they wonder how his piano skills compare to the forty other kids in the neighborhood who can play Jon Schmidt with their eyes closed. While this might be bad news for the Utah kid, it's absolutely fabulous for Mormon culture. It's hard to find another place where music and music education is so abundant. Mormon kids have many great opportunities for musical instruction and what's more, they can turn around and use their skills to direct sacrament hymns or perform musical numbers, getting real life performance experience in a friendly atmosphere. Music is a great gift, and Mormon culture values it as such. That's a gift in and of itself.


Of all the good things about Mormon culture, our aptitude for service is the most profound. In a selfish world, it's great to have good neighbors you can count on. That's what Mormons tend to be - good Christians who look out for one another. Many a joke is shared about Mormons' proclivity for casseroles and for making that Jell-O with the carrots inside, but how many times have those casseroles and veggie-desserts been a godsend for a family going through a hard time? Lots of groups preach about service and caring for the less fortunate, but how many of those have a culture where it's cool to actually take time out of your day and help your neighbor? Growing up as a Mormon I've personally seen homes rebuilt, sick people cared for, and destitute families fed. Do some of us drop the ball sometimes? Yes. Are there some people who slip through the cracks? Yes. But in my experience those are definitely the exception rather than the rule. Mormon culture seems to have an unwritten law that says "Even if we don't know the family, or we don't even like them, the least we can do is drop off a plate of cookies at their house when their Mom is sick. We're not animals, after all!"

I think we've got a long way to go before our culture is where it should be, but that doesn't mean our culture is bad. Mormon culture breeds great communities with strong values and that's not something you find just anywhere. There are plenty of people in this world who would give their right arm to live in a place like the "Utah bubble," and while we should never stop improving, it's important to be grateful for what we've got. I don't want anyone to sit back and think everything in Mormon culture is just peachy, but I do think we should acknowledge the good with the bad. So remember that the next time you write in your journal, sing in a choir, or eat a Jell-O casserole. Just swallow those carrot slices with a smile, because there really is happiness to be found "Happy Valley." 

What did I miss? Do you have a favorite part of Utah Mormon culture you want to share? Let me know in the comments. As always, thank you for reading!

1. Oaks, Dallin H. "The Gospel Culture." Ensign, March 2012.
2. Sandler, Lauren. "Having It All Without Having Children." TIME, August 12, 2013.
3. Center for Applied Linguistics. "Directory of Foreign Language Immersion Programs in U.S. Schools." Directory of Foreign Language Immersion Programs in U.S. Schools. 2011.

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