The International Church and the “Gospel Culture”

When all is said and done, the proceedings of this past weekend’s LDS General Conference will have been translated into roughly eighty-three languages.  These include not only popular European-derived languages that spring to mind for many Americans (Spanish, Portuguese, German, French), but other regional languages such Cantonese and Mandarin, Hindi, Farsi, Tagolog, and Hmong. It also includes national languages and remarkable number of ethnic languages as well, such as Twi (parts of Ghana), Kuna (Panama and Columbia), and Dine bizaad (Navajo). The Church does this by utilizing the language skills of its own members, translation facilities, and distribution channels. Taken together, this is a remarkable operation that seems to underscore the evolution of the LDS Church into an fully international entity.

Language is only one of the challenges faced by any organization that aspires to be universal. That quest also comes with a host political, legal, other logistical problems. And beyond those, globalization presents deep cultural challenges, something made clear by the postcolonial scholarship of the past fifty years. Many Christian organizations who evangelize internationally have come have seen increasing criticism from those who see Christianity as arm of American or European “cultural imperialism.” Meanwhile, Western academia has come to embrace multiculturalism—an attitude that celebrates diversity, and largely rejects the valuation of one culture over another. Hence, as the LDS Church blossoms internationally, it enters a contested climate.

Church leaders have recently shown an increasing consciousness of culture as an important reality and concept. Last weekend, for instance, as he encouraged Latter-day Saints to shore up their families against social and moral decline, Elder L. Tom Perry called for the establishment of strong “family cultures,” which involve “clear, simple family rules and expectations, [and] wholesome family traditions and rituals.”

Elder Dallin H. Oaks has anticipated the conflict of cultures that will inevitably come as the Church expands into new countries and areas of the world. In March of this year, the Church’s international Liahona magazine published one of Oaks’ addresses on the subject. Adapted from talk he gave to Church members in Africa, Oaks outlined a “gospel culture” based on “the plan of salvation, the commandments of God, and the teachings of the living prophets.”  This is, he said, a “distinctive way of life, a set of values and expectations and practices common to all members.”

Oaks’ address also highlighted the need to forsake “false” or “negative” traditions and cultures, explaining to his audience that “some cultural traditions in parts of Africa are negative when measured against gospel culture and values.” He specified some practices like the servitude of wives and children to men, the “bride price” required for the purchase of wives which encourages cohabitation, and the incurrence of debt for elaborate celebrations and feasts. On the other hands, Oaks also praised elements of African culture, such as modesty and family solidarity that were “superior” that that of the West.

The few but growing number of non-American general Church leaders have also contributed a new cultural consciousness. In 2002, Dieter F. Uchtdorf (an ethnic German born in the Czech Republic), now in the First Presidency, emphasized universality, relishing the fact that “the blessings of the restored gospel are available to all, irrespective of culture, nationality, political system, tradition, language, economic environment, or education. “God is speaking to [all of] us,” he said, “in a consistent voice.”

Speaking in General Conference in 2009, Elder Joseph Sitati, the first black Church general authority from Africa (Kenya), affirmed the value of a culture taught by the LDS Church, noting that Church principles taught provide a moral anchor for  many Africans uprooted by urbanization and an “era of globalization.” He identified a new “celestial culture” developing in the homes of African Latter-day Saints around the practices of scripture study and Family Home Evening. These practices, he asserted, were helping many of his “break free from the shackles of traditions that restrict the exercise of their agency.”

No doubt these and similar statements pique the interest of those who have become sensitized to the ethical questions involved when distinct cultures come together. In an intellectual climate which questions the superiority of one way of life over another, some will see the Church’s influence as coercive, imposing a foreign system of values and practices and contributing to the destruction of native ones.

Like other organizations before it, the LDS Church will have to work to distinguish between its universal teachings and those which simply reflect the conventions of its American birth. It will also have to consider the extent to which it can adapt its “gospel culture” to cultural contexts around the world. The “cultural celebrations” associated with new temples, initiatives toward global history, and other signs suggest that the it has some appreciation of the richness and value of cultural diversity. But while establishing its gospel culture,  the Church will have to continually contemplate how to demonstrate its regard for native ways and heritage.

Indeed, in some ways, the Church’s global enterprise represents a challenge to multiculturalism, at least in its absolute form, asserting with Elder Oaks that some elements of culture are false or negative and that others are true or preferable. It assumes that it is possible and important to establish a wholesome gospel culture that transcends ethnic and other distinctions, and that can be authentically shared by all people. Whatever the result, there seems to be much more discussion of the global Church and culture to come.

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