This post isn’t a direct response to Chris’s or Enoch’s posts, but I want to touch on some of the same issues which I’ve been mulling over for the past year or so. Especially the label “TBM.” Joanna Brooks used it in her recent RD column:
“Romney is what many Mormons call a TBM–or “true-believing Mormon”—an orthodox believer and devout practitioner of the faith.”1
Contrary to Brooks, I don’t know that “many Mormons” would use that label at all. I suspect that not one in ten Mormons, active or otherwise, have even heard of it. I’m personally not a fan of it, and this manifesto is an attempt to explain why.
And the Amlicites were distinguished from the Nephites, for they had marked themselves with red in their foreheads after the manner of the Lamanites; nevertheless they had not shorn their heads like unto the Lamanites…yea, they set the mark upon themselves, yea, even a mark of red upon their foreheads (Alma 3:4, 13).
Come on, folks. Don’t make me crack out The Sneetches!
What is a “TBM”? I’ve seen multiple explanations. “True Believing Mormon” and “True Blue Mormon” are descriptors which seem harmless enough, perhaps even flattering. But “Truly Brainwashed Mormon” and “Truly Blind Mormon” seem closer to the intent of many who employ the acronym.
Chances are that reactions to this post will pop into your mind before you finish reading it all, since it’s so long. I hope you’ll read through the whole thing before responding. My intended tone here is not anger or outrage, and I hope I don’t sound too whiney. I understand that, in the grand scheme of things, “TBM” is low on the scale of terms to worry much about. I believe it manifests the same sort of problems I see with even worse methods of labeling, however, which is what I intend to discuss. Hear me out.
The words we use have a history, so I tried to trace the origins of this acronym. I’ve seen it attached to the story of Joseph F. Smith, who, when confronted with a pistol and asked if he was a Mormon is said to have boldly replied: “Yes siree; dyed in the wool, true blue, through and through.”2
I’m not sure this is where is really began. These newer acronyms most often spring to life in Internet conversations (LOL, OMG, BRB, etc.). The first place I can remember seeing the term was on the exmormon.org (“Recovery From Mormonism,” or “RfM”) message boards, which unfortunately purges its history, thus demolishing what I believe is its online origin. That board still leads the Google search results for the acronym. From there it seems to have spread to FLAK and MDD, and other online forums. The earliest blog reference discovered via a cursory Google search is from July and August 2005, where it was still being employed with quotation marks, as though it was fresh. If you can find any earlier references, please let me know.
My overall point point is that it didn’t originate in these discussions as a flattering term, nor is it employed that way there today.
In most cases, “TBM” has been used to describe “an orthodox believer and devout practitioner of the faith,” as Joanna Brooks claims, but such a believer/practitioner is generally understood to be something of a gullible fool who lacks the interest or ability to think critically, and thus does not see the obvious fact that Mormonism is ridiculous at best and downright evil at worst. A TBM is active in the Church (or “TSSC,” “the so-called church,” another acronym used in these same conversations) because the poor things don’t know any better. They don’t understand all the problems in the history of the Church. they believe in silly stuff like angels and golden plates and miracles.
The label is used most often, I believe, to invoke either pity or contempt. Take your pick, either way it’s not very nice. Many examples backing up my interpretation can be provided. You can check up on it yourself by googling the term along with “mormon” to see where it leads.
One of the more articulate explanations comes from a blogger who creatively utilized the story of Adam and Eve.3 His eisegesis labels Adam as the TBM. When offered the forbidden fruit by Lucifer, Adam issued an “instant, knee-jerk rejection,” responded with an “almost-automated thought process resembl[ing] that of a computer,” “does not carefully ponder,” “does not engage in any dialog,” demonstrates “unquestioning and absolute obedience” to “Authority,” in this case, God. His approach is “admirable,” but would have caused disaster for the human race because it would have prevented procreation. This behavior is contrasted with Eve, the “NOM.”
Uh, oh. Another acronym.
“NOM” is a “New Order Mormon.” They have a website now, newordermormon.org, which may be unrelated to what Andrew was referring to. The site defines “NOM” as “those who no longer believe some (or much) of the dogma or doctrines of the LDS Church, but who want to maintain membership.” NOM Eve talked it out with Satan and advanced God’s plan, in contrast with TBM Adam, a sort of robotic pitiable fellow who stood in the way by bowing to authority. And there are even more labels springing up. We have “Open Mormons,” “Internet Mormons,” “Chapel Mormons,” “uncorrelated Mormons,” and the “DAMU,” or “Disaffected Mormon Underground.”
As the labels multiply it becomes harder to know who to call what, when. It’s hard to remember who has marked themselves as opposed to who has been marked, and what they are marking with and why. Most recently, John Dehlin had to differentiate himself from the “DAMU,” for instance.4 Websites, podcasts, message boards appear where communities who take on these labels can gather.
This is the sort of thing I was trying to articulate in my conference paper called “Google Earth Mormonism,” where I argued that the Internet offers more possibilities for us to connect, but it also presents more opportunities for us to divide.5 Even in the prehistoric years before the Internet arrived labels were cropping up. Richard Poll wrote an interesting piece comparing “Liahona Mormons” and “Iron Rod Mormons” back in 1967.6 They didn’t become acronyms, though, and we Mormons do love our acronyms!
Despite my own interpretation of TBM as being largely negative, I also want to emphasize there are other possible reasons why people might employ such labels. There are self-applied labels and labels which are not self-applied. Some Mormons don’t view themselves as being “TBM,” but apply the label to other members. I’ve seen many former members use it to describe their pre-enlightened selves, it boosts credibility and functions as part of a larger exit narrative. Some Mormons see it as the insult it started out as. But even some Mormons who are aware that the term started out in derision might want to co-opt it. The label “Mormon” itself began as a pejorative which was subsequently co-opted by members of the Church, after all.
Other words have made a similar journey. There are “Queer Theory” courses in various schools around the country, for instance. “Jack-Mormon” traveled a path of definition from Mormon sympathizer to a Mormon who drinks or smokes, etc. “Anti-Mormon” began as a local political party! The Church based in Salt Lake City has sought to keep other groups from using the “Mormon” label, although Church leaders have also discouraged the application of “Mormon” to their own organization. So terms can transition from pejorative to acceptable and vice versa.
I don’t see “TBM” making this transition anytime soon, mostly because I don’t believe most Mormons have ever heard of it to begin with. (The fact that most Mormons are unaware of the label is more evidence in favor of my belief that it began as an otherizing, unfriendly term.) Maybe someone out there can convince me that co-opting is the best option. I’m not opposed to it in principle. I love the part in U2’s Rattle and Hum when Bono introduces their cover of “Helter Skelter” saying “this is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles. We’re stealin’ it back.” But at this early stage I say, why bother?
As for members of the Church, we’ve also used labels like “apostate” and “anti-Mormon” in ways which totalitize, explain, or dismiss people, to otherwise avoid meaningful interaction. I know what you are, I know what you think, I need not engage. “TBM” almost seems like a return of that favor, which brings us to the bottom line I want to discuss, which is the purpose and function of labels.
These labels seem to be an attempt to organize and make sense of ourselves and our interactions with others. Adam was asked to name the animals, now we name each other. Maybe it’s human nature. So long as we use language we won’t be able to expunge all labels—doing so is not practical or warranted. We need words. The trouble with labels, it seems to me, is that they can slip all-too-easily into a sort of reductionism. And words have rhetorical affects on us.
This slippage is demonstrable in a discussion I recently encountered regarding multi-lingual students. Bear with me. My wife had the opportunity to teach an “ESL” class at West High last semester. ESL stands for “English as a Second Language,” but there has been debate about the propriety of that label. (For instance: many of the students already speak multiple languages, English is not their “second” language anyway.)In debating this subject, Ruth Spack of Bentley College expresses
concern about the extent to which the linguistic and cultural labels that teachers and researchers attach to students’ identities send negative messages about and misrepresent who the students are. Words such as ‘foreign,’ ‘other,’ or ‘limited,’ for example, have the rhetorical effect of setting students apart and focusing on their deficiencies.7
The questions Spack thinks we ought to ask when thinking about labels include: who employs the label, and for what purpose. The label “TBM” seem innocuous enough on its front, sort of like the labels applied to these English-learning students, but Spack continues:
Labels that identify students by culture (e.g., ‘Chinese students’) do not capture the hybridity and complexity of students’ cultural backgrounds.8
Then Spack really brings it home:
“In my experience, students…display a wide range of linguistic and cultural behavior, depending on the number of dialects or languages they speak, the countries in which they have been educated, the type of schools they have attended, the variety of cultures they draw from, and a host ofcomplex variables such as age, gender, religion, and class. All of these factors converge to shape the student as writer and learner.”9
I’m letting Spack do the heavy lifting for me, but like the students she discusses, it seems to me that we Mormons have variety amongst our similarity. Our backgrounds, prejudices, beliefs, attitudes, and interests differ. Our approaches to Mormonism differ, and we’re trying to negotiate those differences. We might be rigid in one thing and completely loose in another. We might be ignorant of some things and knowledgeable of others.
An elderly “TBM” fellow, a real “Chapel Mormon,” in my ward blew the stereotype wide open during a Sunday School class discussion about the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. He raised his hand and said something like: “That was the Mason’s signal Joseph gave at the window, it was the Mason’s cry of distress, not really a prayer.” This was the same fellow who, months before, had confused Dan Peterson as being a critic of the Church. (Dan was on the PBS “Mormons” documentary discussing Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon using a seer stone in a hat.) What do you do with him? Or what to do with me? I’m a TBM, and I’m not a TBM.
Moreover, in a Church that talks a lot about “eternal progression” perhaps we should be more attuned to the fact that moods, understandings, intensity, devotion, and other factors are not static. Perhaps the best way to prove that point is to ask you to think about yourself. You are my evidence, thank you! We want to conflate time periods, experiences, and moods with personality and religious categories. We run a significant risk, not just in regards to how we treat others, but in how we understand ourselves.
Embracing and Embodying Differences
I’m not denying that differences exist among Mormons. I’m certainly not opposing that idea that we need new and better ways to articulate or faith—Governor Huntsman is a prime example of that need, I believe, as Brooks articulated. But I am saying that labels—however inevitable they may be—can be used to otherize, or to perpetuate a “distancing and exoticizing effect” which results from the “supression of similarity.”10 This is Spack’s jargon-laced way of saying that when we focus on what makes us different, and forget or hate what makes us similar, we don’t stand together, even though we have the possibility of doing so. We mark our foreheads, or we try to mark the foreheads of others. We are not Zion.
Ironically, some of those who argue for “big tent Mormonism” actually reassert the very view of Mormonism they’d like to counter. In many arguments for inclusion, “TBM” and other labels are employed, which only reifies the very boundaries people wish to transcend. “Fitting in” falls victim to the same “us vs. them” perspective which gave them a sense of alienation in the first place. The need to fit in deserves consideration. Maybe we ultimately need the labels in order to simplify the way to easily find others with whom we can peaceably agree. We all seek to be understood. In the process of doing so, we run the risk of rejecting others, hurting others, even if we’ve felt hurt or rejected. So I appreciated much of what Chris H. said in his post yesterday. I thought Enoch raised interesting points too. But at the same time I worry that these are fresh examples of walls (however small), as opposed to bridges.
So call me a TBM. Call the people in my ward and stake a TBM, or those people “out there” whom neither of us really know. Your “DH” is a TBM, or maybe your “FIL” is a TBM. Your “HT’s” are probably TBM’s, too. Call your former self a TBM, or your current self. When you do so, please remember that all of us are more than the labels we use. Please remember that TBM grew out of animosity and not fellowship. Maybe you’ll be able to let that label go.
To all the “TBM’s” out there: it seems to me that a label can best be broken by those who simply don’t fit the categories, by those who simply are complex selves, by those who come to be known as complex sisters or brothers. Consider the labels you use, too.
I recognize that we’ll still be labeling people, even after this monumental post has been forgotten in a few days. If history is a reliable guide, the labels and motives behind them will keep shifting. New ones will emerge and old ones will recede from memory.
As for “TBM,” it probably isn’t going to disappear simply because I put together a long-winded blog post about it. But I hope my thoughts will encourage a few people to take a closer look at the way we look at people. Look at the way we sum them up in our minds in our sometimes-admirable quest for closure. Perhaps more importantly, this conversation fits into the wider dialog about what it means to be Mormon, and who gets to decide that matter. The trouble with labels is that they can more often be used to shut down such a conversation, they can be a shortcut to a conclusion rather than an effort at understanding or reconciliation.
I hope, like Spack writes, “that we can use language that emphasizes the numerous strengths [Mormons] bring to the [Church] and allow [people] to define and construct their own identities.”11 I recognize that you, like Spack’s opponent, might see all of this as pie-in-the-sky foolishness, because “getting to know [people] on an individual level is an impossible place to begin.”12
Like Spack, I believe it is most often the right place to begin.
1. Joanna Brooks, “Why is Huntsman’s Mormonism ‘Tough to Define’?“, religiondispatches.org, 13 May 2011. While Brooks was focusing on finding a way to explain John Huntsman’s ambiguous answer to the question whether he is Mormon or not, this post is not intended to enter that particular discussion.
7. Ruth Spack, “Comments on Ruth Spack’s ‘The rhetorical Construction of Multilingual Students’: Categorizing, Classifying, Labeling: A Fundamental Cognitive Process. The Author Responds to Nelson,” TESOL Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 4 (Winter, 1998), 732.
9. Ibid., 734.
11. Ibid., 732.
12. Ibid., 734.