Sitting around our dinner table last night was our usual contingent of diminutive masculinity, but we were joined by three young adults and together we put to work our collective minds in order to imagine what the church would be like if its cultural and administrative centre was in New Zealand. In all earnestness there is a point here. A point that I have attempted to make time and time again over the last year, and one I will keep banging on about until I can’t be bothered anymore. Religion is cultural. Frankly, it has to be, to remain relevant and meaningful. As the scriptures lift off the page, they naturally adhere to cultural systems. They might indeed influence or shape pre-existing systems, or those cultural systems might in turn shape a religion’s ideas, but religion does not exist in isolation to culture.
So when we think about the LDS church with its administrative and cultural centre sitting in the US, and in Utah specifically, it takes on certain cultural habits and ideas which are not quite so evident if you live close to the centre, but are glaringly obvious the further you get away from it.
I know, I know, there are many people who live in the US who blame Utah for a brand of Mormonism that gets up the goat of many non-Utah Mormons. And its more than they way they say, ‘rif’, instead of ‘roof’. It’s a presumptive spiritual superiority that comes from the way that the church is used as a foil for reproducing and normalizing certain cultural practices. They get to do it Utah because they simply have the numbers. But to the rest of the world, it just seems slightly odd, and oddly scary.
But the continental US isn’t off the hook either. The Utah quirks aside, to us at the periphery, the church breaths and smells American; from its dogged insistence on white shirts and ties, to basketball courts in New Zealand chapels, to calling church leaders ‘President’, to this unhinged insistence that Jesus is a member of the GOP. All of this ‘cultural’ stuff is so deeply American I want holler Yankee Doodle and eat a Twinkie even as I write.
So, just for fun here is a question. What if we uprooted LDS Inc. and put it in New Zealand? Naturally it would shed some of its American cultural baggage and take on some Kiwi cultural habits. What would it look like? Well here are some clearly well developed ideas….
- We would have no appetite for that drippy Afterglow, hallelujah Mormon pop that makes us want to strip down to wear leather tunics, wield swords and weep. Our cultural music would have a definite R&B, soul, jazz influence. The Flight of the Concords would be an important influence on church music, and we’d make natty adaptations to their chart toppers such as:
- Instead of pioneer handcart reenactments, we’d have Froddo throws the ring into the fires of Mordor, dramatic pageants, where Mormons will play the Hobbits, the Elves will played by the Catholics, and the Dwarves are the evangelicals.
- Church gatherings would involve good food, and lots of it. We’d be chastised for our gratuitous eating. But it wouldn’t stop us from indulging. Firesides would become ‘food-sides’ and eventually certain food will be iconized as the quintessential Mormon fare. This would include sausages, chop suey, kina, white bread and butter, pumpkin soup and lamingtons.
- Speaking of chapels, our buildings would look more marae than the cinderblock blah that we have now. The interiors would have carvings that the ward whakapapa consultant (aka family history consultant) would have to be familiar with as a first requirement on the job. We would have to remove our shoes before going inside, which would inevitably change our apparel cause some dresses and suits just don’t look great without footwear.
- We’d drop the titles ‘brother and sister’ and use ‘uncle and auntie’ or just their first names. The bishop might be called ‘bishop’ but mostly he’d still be called Jeff .
- The sacrament prayer cards would have to be rewritten to say, “We arks thee…”
- The musical accompaniment would be the guitar.
- There would be more hugging and kissing. Handshaking would give way to the obligatory kiss on the check, even a hongi.
- We’d definitely employ cleaners. Saturday mornings are so busy with rugby in the winter, and cricket in the summer. So who can afford the time? In fact, because we New Zealanders are a resourceful sort of people, in rural and coastal areas we’d pay those who cleaned the chapel with a side of lamb, and a sack of mussels.
- We’d get rid of the recreation hall as a pointless waste of space and build an external pavilion over-looking a rugby field, and/or a cricket pitch. We’d drop the whole basketball thing – because unless you went to Church College, who plays the silly game anyway? It would be volleyball for the Samoans, rugby for the Maori, and cricket for the Pakeha’s (if there are any).
- Our elderly folk would all occupy the front seats in the chapel; they’d attend Ward Council as a matter of course, and they would have important ceremonial duties that will keep them busy such as funerals, the blessing of children, formal welcoming ceremonies.
- All new members to the ward would be welcomed with a powhiri.
- It would be expected, on a regular basis, that all members of the church would venture back to their ward or branch of origin to reconnect with their own, at which time a huge feast would be held in their honour.
- Women would have had the priesthood long ago.
- We’d be on a first name basis with the Prophet and the Apostles. There’d be no special pomp and wanton adoration of them. They’d be treated with respect but would be expected to take a drubbing from our kaumatua (our elderly folk) should they require it, in order to put them in their place.
- In the temple presentation, God would be played by someone with a BBC accent, and Jesus would be played by a Māori.
- The financial statements of the church would be transparent and there would be an expectation of accountability and responsibility. We’d get the Japanese, the French, and the Americans to come in and run our finances; The Japanese because they have strong company loyalty, the French because they are lefties and will see the greater communal good before private gain, and the Americans because they thrive in bureaucracies. All of this, done under New Zealand legal control, will be a heady combination.
- Nepotism is only rife in religiously colonized contexts, left to our own devices we’d settle the ‘whose who?’ and the ‘how much?’ questions with our quintessential egalitarian approach. Our antipathy for tall poppies would ensure that no-one got too big for their boots.
- Swandris, ladies in pants – all good as long as you show up. Culturally we are more modest than Americans so the emphasis on covering up would be redundant here – at least while Maori and Polynesians are in the majority. Long hair, facial hair, leg hair, arm pit hair, would all be acceptable and would be seen as largely unrelated to ones spiritual state.
- Only the North Shore Mormons, and one Mormon in Wellington, would vote for National, and try as they may to inflect this political habit into churched spaces, they’d be shunned and ridiculed by the rest of the country as being pompous and out of touch. The rest of the country would vote Labour, Greens and the Māori party. Our elderly would all vote for New Zealand First, which we’ll forgive them for with an indulgent pat on the arm.
- We could say ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ in sacrament meeting as much as we bloody well liked – without fearing offense!
- The Green Hymnbook would have a definite redo. We’d take out the whole section of American anthems and replace them with ‘God of Nations’, the All Black Haka, Now is the Hour, and ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat’.
- The question: “Do you have a sense of humour?” would appear in temple recommend interviews.
- We’d withdraw funding for BYU and pour into a New Zealand LDS university. We’d call the campus Emma Smith University, because she was clearly a New Zealander, as well as which it would do Brigham Young good to know ‘that she devil’ had bested him.
And what would this mean for the rest of the world? Well, if we were take a leaf out of America’s books we’d expect every other nation (including the US) to read our cultural behavior and replicate it as an important indicator of Mormon identity. But inasmuch as we aren’t ‘like that’ we’d give all other peoples their their dues and encourage them to love their nation. We’d also expect everyone to be culturally, politically and economically literate so that they are aware of the unhelpful proclivity of humankind to see their spiritual state as inseparably and unavoidably connected to their cultural ideologies. America could have their star-spangled GOP and green jello salad, Australia could have their tiny togs, England could keep their football and their ‘oi, oi, oi’, South Africa could have their ‘lets eat the side of a waterbuck’ BBQ’s, and Samoa could keep their jandals as cultural expressions, but we’d all be able to resist their sanctification as unassailable church rites and/or beliefs because we saw it as a grave religious duty to do so!
Aaaah! Now wouldn’t that be a wonderful day?! I feel so convinced, that I’m thinking of starting a petition!