Not every question tossed my way about my faith has to do with deep doctrinal issues. Often, people are just interested in how life is different as a Mormon.
That may be the most important question you can ask about any faith. Ultimately, the value of any religion should be reflected in the lives of the people who follow it. For that reason, I always smile when I see critics of Mormonism caution people not to be duped by the positives they see in Mormon behavior. Apparently we are going to be the nicest people in Hell. But if we really are the whack jobs our critics paint us as being, wouldn’t you expect our behavior to reflect at least some of the bizarre circus going on in our heads?
The truth is, if people took the time to really get to know a few Mormons, they probably would be a little disappointed when they find out how…well…boring we actually are. But what they would also see an amazingly diverse group of people who may have little in common other than their faith in Christ and their belief in the doctrines of the LDS Church.
Much of a Mormon’s life (and I am writing from the perspective of someone living in the continental United States, so I can’t speak for people in Africa, Asia, or even for those wacky Hawaiians), is very much like everyone else’s. We go to work everyday, send our kids to school, worry about finances, lose our temper in traffic jams, and watch more TV than is good for healthy neurological development. We squabble with our families, complain about our weight, and try to remember to change the oil in our cars. We celebrate birthdays, dote over our Christmas trees, and salute the flag. We rejoice over births, suffer through sickness, and mourn our dead.
But people aren’t interested in our mundane similarities. People outside of the Church looking in want to know what makes us unique. That is something that is difficult to generalize, because each member of the Church and each family in the Church has their own quirks and peculiarities. It is no easier to point to a “typical” Mormon than it would be to identify the “typical” Catholic, Methodist or Muslim.
First, it is important to understand that there is a difference between the doctrine of the Church and the culture of the Church. The doctrine is consistent throughout the world, and there are some behaviors that you can expect of Mormons wherever you find them. (For what it is worth, don’t assume that you are always going to get what you expect. None of us are perfect, so you might find individual Mormons whose behavior isn’t consistent with what we are doctrinally directed to do. For example, if you cut me off on the freeway, you might see something other than an ideal Mormon in your rear-view mirror.)
But even with those differences, we would like to think that if you plucked up a random Mormon out of a group, that person is unlikely to smoke or drink. He or she doesn’t engage in sexual relationships outside of marriage. This “typical” Mormon probably tithes ten percent of his or her income to the Church. He or she prays regularly, both individually and with his or her family. He or she goes to Church every Sunday for at least three hours, and probably spends 10-20 hours a week in church-related activities.
These are things that we do because of sacred covenants that we have made with the Lord at the time of our baptism and each week as we renew those covenants at our Sunday services when we partake of the holy sacrament (communion). We tend to have a lower divorce rate, for example, probably because we view our marriages as eternal covenants rather than as transitory relationships lasting until someone better comes along. We avoid tobacco and alcohol not merely because they are unhealthy, but because our Word of Wisdom reflects a covenant between us and God, whereby we make certain sacrifices and he promised certain blessings in return.
Other things that people associate with the stereotypical Mormon are more cultural. For example, although our young men serving full-time missions are required to wear white shirts and be clean shaven, that isn’t a requirement for other men in the Church. Still, Mormon men overwhelmingly adopt the fashion sense of Ward Cleaver over Jerry Garcia. Similarly, caffeinated beverages aren’t officially forbidden by the Church, but good luck finding one on campus at BYU.
Like any organization, the Church has developed a culture or “vibe” over the years, and sometimes traditions seem to have taken on the force of doctrine. Notably, this is something that is changing dramatically in the Church as we become more global and learn that the prevailing culture in Utah might not be a good fit in small cities in Honduras, or in the developing democracies of Europe, or in my living room. The early Christian church faced the same growing pains as it balanced the traditions of the early, predominately Jewish converts with those of incoming Christians who had no background in Jewish culture or religion. Like the early Christians, the LDS Church is learning to worry about the “necessary things” drawn from established doctrine and to chill out a bit about the rest. Recent changes to the leadership handbook of the Church explicitly recognize this distinction between doctrine and culture.
The upshot off all of this is that the “typical” Mormon is an elusive critter, a surprising truth given the Church’s reputation for being a theological control freak. Although we are given some commandments through the scriptures and modern prophets relating to our behavior, what Mormons hear much more of is counsel as to how we ought to live. The degree to which an individual follows such counsel is anyone’s guess.
Lacking a generic Mormon that we can point to, I have to offer you an altogether less satisfying alternative: Me. I can’t honestly tell you what life is like inside the walls of other Mormon homes beyond what I have directly observed. But I can tell you what it is like at my house. In addition, since I wasn’t born a Mormon, I can also tell you about the changes I saw and experienced in my home after my parents were baptized into the Church when I was a very young boy. In my next post, I’ll talk about exactly that, and in particular the day-to-day changes I saw in one of my very favorite people: My dad.