Peculiar People and Assimilated Americans

“I am an assimilated American,” William Morris (“Wm”) recently wrote at the popular Mormon arts and culture blog, A Motley Vision. Citing his education, online social networking profile, eating habits, and a long list of eclectic interests, Wm unabashedly celebrated his assimilated status and expressed his own belief that all other Mormons in the United States are, too. “There’s no ‘And yet,’” he declared.

In a general sense, Wm is correct. There are now Mormons living in nearly every corner of the nation, and by almost all accounts, most Mormons go about their day-to-day lives as part and parcel of America’s patchwork society. Even the very tension that sometimes exists between Mormonism and American politics and culture is, as Ben Park explained in his inaugural post here at Peculiar People, a thoroughly American tale.

And yet, I cannot help but wonder about the nature and extent of that assimilation and of the place of Mormons in American society today. Assimilation, as I understand it, is a two-way street on which Mormon drivers must do more than simply cruise around the American neighborhood. The assimilated must not only feel at home, but the host culture must recognize and accept them as fully part of society. Historians typically point to the turn of the twentieth century as an era in which Mormons relegated their more controversial and outlandish beliefs and behaviors to yesteryear and began their move to the American mainstream. When that transition concluded—that is, when Mormons in America “assimilated”—is a more difficult question to answer.

From my point of view, that transition is open-ended and ongoing. Mormons are not yet fully assimilated Americans, even if they maintain otherwise. Consider, for example, some of the reporting on Mormon culture in widely read media outlets over the past year or two. Did you know that there are Mormon foodies? That they spend time on the internet blogging and social networking? There are even Mormon hipsters in New York City!

Don’t get me wrong—I think each of these articles has pointed to potentially worthwhile lens of analysis through which to view and understand the intersections of religious conviction and lived behavior and the changing nature of a minority group’s relationship with American culture. But instead of delivering such analysis, each of these articles seems only to drive home just how obscure and odd Mormons remain to the American public. There are currently over six million Mormons living in America, roughly the same number as America’s Jewish population and just less than the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Methodists. Can you imagine, though, an article on Jews who wear skinny jeans and flannel shirts? Or Methodism’s culinary culture?

No. Instead, the Mormons get lumped together with the Amish and Presbyterians in completing “the trifecta of unlikely hipsterdom.” And maybe the image most Americans have of Mormons and their culture is somewhere in between the sober and staid reputation of the Presbyterians and the small, clannish, and thoroughly unmodern Amish. Perhaps it is Mormons’ status as Presbyteriamish that makes not only their more outlandish beliefs but also their ironic mustaches and inventive recipes of interest to the public.

Which all leads me back to the nature of Mormon assimilation and the disconnect between Mormon and non-Mormon views of the subject. Are Mormons really assimilated if those instances in which they most look and behave like other Americans—those instances they use to assert their assimilated status—are used by others to not-so-subtly show how different they remain? Perhaps the relative obscurity Mormons have apparently maintained in American society has ironically allowed the myth of acceptance and assimilation to persist among Mormons themselves.

  • http://scholaristas.wordpress.com Liz

    Solid, Chris. What are the benefits, do you think, to wider cultural acceptance/assimilation of Mormonism, either to Mormons or non-Mormons? Or, is the way forward rejecting that myth and cultivating strangeness?

  • http://www.motleyvision.org Wm

    It’s good to know AMV has readers outside the core group of commenters.

    I also wrote:

    “I like living in the spaces among and between created by this overlapping of Mormonism and America. And while there is friction, I don’t know that it’s that much worse for Mormons than it is for any other ethnic, cultural, political or religious minority. In fact it’s easier for us than for most — it’s just not that hard to be a Mormon American.”

    So, yes, it may not be fully complete, but it’s about as complete as it is for just about any other group.

    I’m also unsure to what extent we can point to NY Times articles on Mormon hipsters as evidence of anything — the NY Times will make a trend story about anything and everything, especially if it smacks of hipsterism. And to the Times anything that smacks of cosmopolitan culture outside of NYC (and maybe San Francisco or LA) becomes an object of curiosity.

    When it comes to the material and social reality of everyday life, Mormons are pretty much fully assimilated into American life in a way that they weren’t a few generations back. We can choose to emphasize our differences by foregrounding aspects of our belief in our relationships with our fellow Americans, but even then is that treated substantially different than being part of any weird subculture? In some places, perhaps. And certainly the assimilation is more complete in some areas of the country and with some segments of Mormonism (in particular your standard middle class suburban LDS [who doesn't live in the South]).

    • Alan Hurst

      You know, Wm, your comment about middle-class suburban LDS makes me wonder whether Mormon academics, for all their greater contact with non-Mormon thought and culture, aren’t actually the most unassimilated group of Mormons in the U.S., the group that faces the most tension. Given that the suburban middle class Mormon is significantly closer to the mainstream of U.S. culture than your average non-Mormon academic, I guess that might not be surprising. I guess whether Mormons are assimilated depends as much on the segment of America they belong to as on the segment of Mormonism.

      • http://www.motleyvision.org Wm

        Indeed.

        But my list was also probably too much about non-material culture. Even American academics are wholly assimilated in their day-to-day living. There was a time when much of what we as a people consumed, we also produced. Now, of courses, there was tension over that from the beginning. The gentiles were a presence in Salt Lake from very early on, and the Saints attempts at self-sufficiency were mixed successes at best.

        But even so modern American Mormons rely much less on each other for the things that make possible our daily life. There are still pockets in the Intermountain West where the majority of your services may be delivered by fellow LDS (and even smaller pockets of sharing and some self-sufficiency), but we’re definitely no longer going to the co-op for our food and clothes.

  • Clark

    Ironically I watched My Name is Trinity over the weekend which is a spaghetti western where the heroes rescue an enclave of passivist Mormons. It is pretty hilarious watching how we are portrayed. (They portray the Mormons basically as Amish who practice polygamy) What’s constantly surprising to me is how often that is how people view us.

    Of course it probably is a slightly more pleasant view than perhaps focusing in on the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the prolific gunfighter Porter Rockwell.

  • http://eatsleepreadlove.wordpress.com Saskia

    I’m wondering here about a difference between assimilation and integration? But I’m speaking from a Dutch standpoint here, and the rhetoric here is different. I don’t think we expect others to become Dutch as much as we expect them to know what is Dutch and be able to do it when necessary. We never did the melting-pot thing, thanks to the tolerance we get praised/vilified for, depending on the audience.

    And I think you will find any number of articles on Jewish hipsters, or Jewish food, or Jewish whatever. Not Methodism so much, I’d think because Jews are viewed as having a Jewish culture along with religion (you can be a Jew without going to synagogue) and Methodists aren’t. (Can you be a cultural Methodist?) Maybe Mormons fall into the same category as Jews, of being a people and a religion. (On the other hand, you do have cultural Catholics and not many articles on Catholic hipsters, so maybe my argument doesn’t work. I’ll have to think about this some more.)

    Good post.


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