Almost Christian: Mormon Envy

I’m blogging through Kenda Creasy Dean’s new book, a theological follow up to Christian Smith’s Soul Searching. I hope you’ll join me.  Find all the posts here.

In chapter three, Kenda’s provocative chapter title is, “Mormon Envy.”  Those of us who read Soul Searching remember how Mormon teens religiously outperform their peers by every measure, from behavior (later to lose their virginity; less use of alcohol and drugs) to belief (higher attendance at church functions; better able to articulate what they believe).

In this chapter, Kenda introduces and relies upon the “cultural toolkit” theory developed by UC-Berkeley sociologist Ann Swidler (co-author of the sociological blockbuster Habits of the Heart).  Swidler published an article in 1986 in which she spells out this theory, “Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies” (PDF), the abstract of which reads,

Culture influences action not by providing the ultimate values toward which action is oriented, but by shaping a repertoire or “tool kit” of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct “strategies of action.” Two models of cultural influence are developed, for settled and unsettled cultural periods. In settled periods, culture independently influences action, but only by providing resources from which people can construct diverse lines of action. In unsettled cultural periods, explicit ideologies directly govern action, but structural opportunities for action determine which among competing ideologies survive in the long run. This alternative view of culture offers new opportunities for systematic, differentiated arguments about culture’s causal role in shaping action.

In other words, individuals pick up “tools” in their experiences of life, add them to their “toolkit,” and develop “strategies” by which they use these tools to cope in culturally settled and unsettled periods.

Kenda nods to Swidler’s theory, writing,

Highly devoted young people seem adept at using at least four cultural tools in ways that mark them as members of their traditions: (1) they confess their tradition’s creed, or God-story; (2) they belong to a community that enacts the God-story; (3) they feel called by this story to contribute to a larger purpose; and (4) they have hope for the future promised by this story.

She then uses the results from Mormon teens as a prime example of a community of religious teens who are given and taught how to use valuable tools:

By intentionally reinforcing the significance of Mormonism’s particular God-story, by immersing young people in a community of belonging, by preparing them for a vocation and by modeling a forward-looking hope, Mormons intentionally and consistently create the conditions for consequential faith.

Kenda unpacks Mormon theology quite a bit in this chapter, and I learned some things about the Mormon conception of God that I had not previously known.  Among them, as alluded to in that last quote, is the very specific eschatology that Mormons hold, to which Kenda attributes some of the deep religiosity of Mormon teens.  In short: there’s something very specific for Mormons to believe in after death, and that helps Mormon teens believe during life.

It’s not till the end of the chapter that Kenda raises a theological problem with all this Mormonophilia in the NSYR, and that’s the lack of grace in Mormon theology and practice.  She even puts Swidler’s theory into question, writing that “Christian formation is less about acquiring cultural tools than surrendering them…”

I’m not a huge fan of Swidler’s theory because I think it gives too much agency to the individual human being — in general, I think that we’re trapped in larger systems and structures of influence than we’re able to see.  In other words, I don’t think we really choose our tools.

I also wonder if Kenda (and the NSYR researchers) underplay the fact that Mormons tend to live in community with one another, thus muting the parallels that most church-based youth workers can draw from the study.  The tightness of the Mormon community is something that simply cannot be replicated by the average American youth pastor.

But, the bigger question for me is this: Are we as Christian pastors and youth workers able to learn from Mormons about what works and doesn’t work in spiritually forming teens?

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  • I may be off here (way off, for some probably) but I’m not sure what we’re expecting (or what we can reasonably expect) from our youth.

    The “toolkit”, though it shifts focus to the role structures play in shaping the individual, gives me the impression that our youth are the sum of all influences they encounter. I think that’s pretty on point, but the bigger question is what is the Church calling them to?

    The study of Mormon youth culture parallels another recent study I read about that was maligning mainliners because apparently youth raised as moderate to liberal Christians tend to hold less to Christian doctrines and distinctives as they age then conservative/fundamentalist young adults. To me, this shouldn’t surprise anyone–if you are taught in your faith-life to be open to the workings of God in the world, then it follows that you wouldn’t narrow that field as you got older and were influenced by other things.

    The findings on Mormon youth culture are the same thing to me. What are we (as youth workers) really trying to cultivate? Some variation of Christian soldiers that can hold fast to creed to accomplish a mission? Or are we more interested in helping them understand the image of God within themselves and how to use those gifts and abilities to reflect the radical grace of Jesus?

    Let’s be honest–we could learn from the Mormons–and the fundamentalists–and crank out an army of young proselytes to take the world for Jesus–but would we be guilty of malpractice if we did?

    Yes we could learn, but the better question is should we?

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  • I live in a neighborhood that is about 60 % Mormon (or more). I think a key factor in their “high scores” is a factor that the Christian Community is simply unable to duplicate. Every Mormon in our neighborhood belongs to the same ward. They meet, and work, and live together. My church on the other hand gets together from all over the Salt Lake Valley. What I notice is that we have a contrived community of sorts, whereas theirs happens naturally. In fact, simply due to geography, I feel more connected to my Mormon neighbors than the folks at my own church. I have to plan to see church members…. I talk to my neighbors all the time.

    Unless church members are willing to move to the same neighborhood… or we quit worrying about denominations and simply attended our local church, I don’t think there is any way to make up for that gap through doing youth ministry any differently.

  • I agree that the closeness of Mormon communities definitely contributes to the faithfulness of their teens. It’s essentially peer pressure. I grew up in a church with a close group of church friends as a teenager. It was no cult, most of the kids went to public school, but we were all church rats and involved in ministry – at church or Bible study all the time and hanging out together when not. The result was it never would have occurred to me to drink, smoke, or have sex (heck, most of us were on the Josh Harris bandwagon and holding hands was a huuuuuge deal). Because I would have been instantly ostracized. So I can’t agree with the fact that this type of community can’t exist in today’s churches – I’ve been apart of it and it kept me close to God and out of trouble through college.

  • Jay

    I agree with the perspectives on the place of community (and I would include family as a key part of that community) on the “success” of Mormon youth. This support’s Kenda’s four part structure — creed, community, call, and hope — which is in fact I think at the heart of what many have been saying in the emerging conversation and elsewhere about the focus of the church. When people have something to believe in; are a part of a community not simply of support, but accountability; have a sense of purpose and mission; and have hope for the future; they become engaged in what ever endeavor they are a part of. The failure of the church has been the tendency to lift up one of these components to the exclusion of others, or even worse, to ignore all of them entirely, leading to the place we find ourselves in now.

  • Bot

    What “lack of Grace?” Are we following a First Century Christianity or a Fourth Century Christianity?

    One Evangelical Christian author wrote of his sudden discovery that his previous beliefs about grace were very different from those held by the early Christians:

    “If there’s any single doctrine that we would expect to find the faithful associates of the apostles teaching, it’s the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. After all, that is the cornerstone doctrine of the Reformation. In fact, we frequently say that persons who don’t hold to this doctrine aren’t really Christians…

    Our problem is that Augustine, Luther, and other Western theologians have convinced us that there’s an irreconcilable conflict between salvation based on grace and salvation conditioned on works or obedience. They have used a fallacious form of argumentation known as the “false dilemma,” by asserting that there are only two possibilities regarding salvation: it’s either (1) a gift from God or (2) it’s something we earn by our works.
    The early Christians and Latter-day Saints would have replied that a gift is no less a gift simply because it’s conditioned on obedience….

    The early Christians believed that salvation is a gift from God but that God gives His gift to whomever He chooses. And He chooses to give it to those who love and obey him.”

    —David W. Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A New Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity, 3rd edition, (Tyler, Texas: Scroll Publishing Company, 1999[1989]), 57, 61–62.

  • Laura Smith

    Many Mormon families gather one night each week (I’m sure some less frequently) for something called Family Home Evening; I’m not sure if it’s required or just encouraged but seems to be parent led with scripture, lesson and something fun. Here is a video that one family recently watched during such an evening.

    I know of this because of some blogs that I’ve been reading. The writers only occasionally mention their beliefs or activities within the church as it’s not the focus of their blog. But its been cool to see behind the scenes of real Mormon families and how they live their faith. My impression is that it’s an incredibly powerful force in their lives. The youth seem to live full lives, have great maturity and wonderful relationships with their families. They are also very devoted to the LDS church in their youth, 20’s, 30’s and beyond.

    I like idea of the family evening ritual and have been impressed with some things that they’ve said and shared.

    What do you think of this video, Tony? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Laura,
    Were you raised Mormon, or are you a convert?

  • Laura Smith

    I am not Mormon. I enjoy a variety of blogs and a few of the writers happen to be Mormon. It’s given me insight into their expression of faith, etc..

  • Laura,

    You can learn more about how Mormon theology comports with Early Christianity regarding Baptism, Lay Ministry, the Trinity, Theosis, Grace vs Works, etc:

  • Laura,
    Hmmmmm… Nope, not buyin it. I have seen this approach before and your lead-in is textbook. Any non-member living in the SLC are could spot you a mile off; you try to hide your accent, but your Mormon-speak is still coming through.

    For those observing, an example scenario of this approach has been chronicled here:

    Basically, a Mormon apologist comes on to a blog that is discussing Mormonism and poses as someone not of the faith who has become interested in the Mormon faith.

    I am not a fan of this approach as I do not think it is at all indicative of the lives of my Mormon neighbors.

  • Laura Smith

    Dear Andrew, Sorry to get you all riled up but I’m not a Mormon apologist lurking on Tony’s blog; just happy to participate in this conversation. Do you have anything to contribute other than assumptions about a commenter that you know nothing about? It’s an interesting subject that you must have some opinions on since you seem to be from Salt Lake?

    Me? I’m from Minneapolis. It’s quite possible that I actually know Tony personally. Just sayin’.

    Thanks for the good laugh.

  • Jim

    Responding here to Kenda @ Kenda Creasy Dean July 20, 2010 at 11:06 am (two threads ago):

    Fair enough response.

    Kenda, it’s possible that factor analysis would support your advocacy (the substance) and your prescriptions, that is, that changing the variable of adult and church patterns of faith counts as the underlying variable which determines many (not all) of the other variables for the faith of youth. Since the youth study that you cite is empirical after all. Not just ad hoc pontificating. And Mormon-envy is a prime example of adult Mormons influencing Mormon youth. Like posts here say.

    Or, is the Mormon example a case of insulation (more below)? Or are Mormons safe enough to envy because of Mormon dismissible oddness, that is, compared to envying dangerous fundamentalist Assembly of God youth (a denomination growing a demographic nearly as fast as Mormons), which is too close to our Christian home (i.e. does it freak out mainline Christians to think they need to be fundamentalists or Pentecostals in order to grow, rather than to die their slow mainline death for the past 30 years?)?

    Focusing on adults and on the church as you do is too common-sensical a thesis to reject anyway. Even though the study you cite did not do this. After all, adults exist. Churches exist. Like sore thumbs. What other makeweight factor could possibly be studied? – and fixed? – besides adults and churches? – who else you gonna call (call on the carpet), ghost-busters? Holy Ghost busters?

    Unless you have a Wesleyan-Holy-Spirit-meter which detects the Spirit’s input/output measures in youth (youth outputs based on Spirit inputs) independently of factored influences by parents and churches?

    When the early Society of Friends saw themselves and their movement as exactly that (a movement based on input/output directly and intimately from the Spirit), and as a counterculture movement against the then socialized “adult” religions in Britain, those early Quakers had no clue that their own movement would evolve over generations (as did Wesley’s) to foment their current adult-intellectualized debates over whether true faith involves relativizing Christ (so as to incorporate Christ and faith into atheism and into a secularized and biologically innate shared mammalian “spirit” as some contemporary atheist Quakers do) versus defining the socialization of faith as reviving and evangelizing to some sort of pure Christian essence (say following Wesley’s strange heart warming, or say as evangelical Quakers still do today).

    So what? The Mormon experiment isn’t over.

    Whether Mormons are successful in their youth-capture because Mormons are good adult examples, or instead, whether Mormons are successful because they just insulate youth away from influences relativizing faith, envy is premature.

    I’m with you in not envying the lack of grace.

    Both ends of this spectrum of faith advocate their respective socializations: the true Christ as the Relativized-One, or the true Christ as a purified essence. You know the drill.

    But if it’s a socialization study that we want to understand youth, then it’s this net spectrum from relativization influences to evangelical ones – that’s the whole smorgasbord of influence on youth. Your book is an adult book competing with other adult teachings, say that of the president of the Episcopal church who says that the current hip-chic heresy is the false idea that there is anything like a personal relationship with Christ. That (and the atheist/agnostic Quaker examples above) are the true parameters for testing full spectrum socialization influences on youth. So even if your preachy-book ignited a fire of changes in praxis for adults and for churches, youth studies like the one you cite would still measure the influence of your book (ideas, advocacy) as just one more Procrustean bed on this spectrum of definitions of faith (as a socializing thing) – amidst a whole hotel full of Procrustean beds.

  • Not riled up at all … Just seen that play enough times…. You simply have too many “tells”. Yes, I could roll a set of dice and come up with a pair of sixes ten times in a row… I just wouldn’t count on it. I’ll stick with the odds on this one. 🙂

    But to move on … I did offer an opinion, but I will elaborate on it a bit further. For Mormons, overall, the religion is much further entrenched into the lifestyle. This gives them a much larger leap to leave it then with many other faith traditions. The “crisis” it creates when a family member leaves cannot really be understated. If someone in my church de-converts from Christianity, they may not associate with that church anymore but it pretty much stops there. My family is all Christian, but there is a lot of variance theologically and in tradition, so if I left the faith it would cause some rumbles, but not much.

    When a Mormon leaves, it is a much bigger deal. The entire extended family is on the same page, and you just left the book. Your neighborhood, school, workplace are ALL effected. It is just not nearly as easy a thing to do as it is in say, evangelicalism. So again, I see that as being a HUGE reasons why teens stay… it is really hard for an adult to leave, let alone a kid. Mormon males are expected to go on a two year mission in their late teens to early 20s. They are groomed for this since they were little kids. To not go has enormous social implications.

    Changing the way one delivers youth ministry is not going to make up that difference…. and to bounce off what someone said earlier… does anyone really want to?

  • Symbols matter.

    Just like the symbol of marriage matters to the commitment and love of husband and wife, the symbol of the Church matters to the devotion and worship of the Christian.

    And just like many young couples enter into marriage subconsciously planning their future divorce, many Evangelicals enter the chapel subconsciously planning their future exit.

  • Richard Jones

    I have enjoyed reading Almost Christian and have underlined and written notes and really engaged with the book. I am hoping for some specifics. I agree with much of Dean’s assessments. (And I would say that so far this is the book she was trying to write when she wrote The God-Bearing Life and Practicing Passion–both of which underwhelmed me.) I did find this chapter (Mormon Envy) both interesting and enlightening. However, I have a couple of problems with it. First, only 2.5% of the teens in the study were Mormon. Is that really a large enough to generate all these conclusions? Is that a significant enough group to merit a whole chapter? Second, the ending comments on how grace trumps the social toolkit seem to render impotent all the content before. I was left asking myself, “Why write this chapter then?”. Was it just to have enough content for the book? Maybe so. So much of the content of how Mormons live and what they believe sounded much more creepy than ideal. If the price I have to pay for highly devoted youth is keeping women down and practicing a very exclusive faith, no thanks. It seems to me that the real factors in Mormon youth’s devotedness is family and church control over the young people.

  • Keeping “women down”? Utah was the first state to pass women’s sufferage. Mormons have the largest women’s religious organization in the world. Observant women may act as priestesses in Mormon temples.

    Regarding “grace”, please see Bot’s post which quotes Evangelical minister David Bercot. His thesis is that early Christians’ theology stated that grace was dependent on good works. They are not mutually exclusive.

  • The motivations behind women getting the vote are suspicious.

    “In sharp contrast to the long fight for women’s suffrage nationally, the vote came to Utah women in 1870 without any effort on their part. It had been promoted by a group of men who had left the Mormon church, the Godbeites, in their Utah Magazine, but to no immediate effect. At the same time, an unsuccessful effort to gain the vote for women in Utah territory had been launched in the East by antipolygamy forces; they were convinced that Utah women would vote to end plural marriage if given the chance. Brigham Young and others realized that giving Utah women the vote would not mean the end of polygamy, but it could change the predominant national image of Utah women as downtrodden and oppressed and could help to stem a tide of antipolygamy legislation by Congress. With no dissenting votes, the territorial legislature passed an act giving the vote (but not the right to hold office) to women on 10 February 1869. The act was signed two days later by the acting governor, S. A. Mann, and on 14 February, the first woman voter in the municipal election reportedly was Sarah Young, grandniece of Brigham Young. Utah thus became the second territory to give the vote to women; Wyoming had passed a women’s suffrage act in 1869. No states permitted women to vote at the time.”

  • Andrew, it would be interesting to see what sources that website used to draw those particular conclusions.

    Either way, it doesn’t matter. Let me rephrase the statement for you:

    Brigham Young and other Utah leaders wanted their women to be seen as more emancipated – so they gave them the vote.

    And this is a problem… why, exactly?

    Isn’t that part of the reason why EVERYONE passes needed reforms? What’s “suspect” about it?

  • Oh, incidentally, Utah under Brigham Young also had some of the most liberal divorce laws in the nation. Any woman who wanted a divorce was free to get one, basically. Not much hassle about it.

  • Don’t misunderstand me Seth. I am not negative on Mormons. On the contrary, I think I often come off as an apologist for them to my evangelical friends. However, I do occasionally get a little exasperated with my Mormon brothers and sisters for their tendency to use thick rose-colored glasses when looking at their history and their church. The ability to objectively critique their own religion is not typically in the Mormon DNA.

    But back to your statement, giving the vote is not a problem at all… but one has to wonder at the motivations. In addition to those stated above, during that time many non-Mormon men were moving into the state to work. This was giving parity of voting between Mormons and non-Mormons in many areas. Giving women the vote restored Mormon majority voting blocks in these areas.

    And again, one could be suspicious of the liberality of divorce laws. In a patriarchal system, this merely makes it easier for the man to maneuver without necessarily giving any benefit to the woman.

    As I see it, Mormonism grew out of a strongly white, male dominated religion (as did many). However, it has made good strides over time and it should be acknowledged for its positive movements.

  • Actually, the divorce laws were very one-sided in favor of the woman. Any woman who asked for a divorce could get one. It was very difficult for the man however (understandable given how the woman was typically relying on him financially).

  • Richard Jones

    I based my “keeping women down” comment on information from the book–which is what I thought we were discussing here. Can we leave the pro-Mormon and anti-Mormon stuff for another venue and stick with Dean’s book? I was really looking forward to some interaction around the topics IN THE BOOK that I brought up.

  • Ummm … no Richard… unless Tony wants to block or delete, the conversation (like all real conversations) will go where it wants to go. I don’t think anyone here is shy, so if someone wants to engage you on your point, they will…. everyone being quiet until such time will not change that potential outcome.

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  • Meg Stout

    Delightful post. I love the idea that creed, community, calling, and hope are the tools that produce individuals with religious strength to cope with their circumstances.