Religion? Ethnicity?

The "Ask Mormon Girl" column offers unorthodox and imperfect answers to real-life questions from Mormon and non-Mormon readers around the world. Are you a Mormon with a real-life question burning in your bosom? Are you a non-Mormon with a question about Mormonism? Email Follow askmormongirl on Twitter, or visit the Ask Mormon Girl Facebook fanpage.


Dear AMG:

What do you think: is Mormonism a religion or an ethnicity? 




Greetings, Tim!  The answer to your question "Is Mormonism a religion or ethnicity?" is, of course, yes.

That's right, yes.

Now, being a good academic, let me issue the caveat that the whole idea of "ethnicity" is a fantasy:  a construction, as we call it in the biz.  Trace the family tree back far enough, and one finds that even the most mono-culturally identified creature is actually a glorious mutt.  History is messy. People travel.  "Ethnic" identities are fabricated when a group of people with common histories decide to reappropriate and put to good use the stereotypes outsiders make about them.  In the 19th century, outsider travel writers came to Utah in droves, and they reported finding large groups of pale-faced, yellow-haired, narrow-featured polygamists clinging to a strand of desert outposts.  Hence, the Mormon ethnic stereotype was born.

But generally, the version of the story Mormons tell about ourselves is that Mormonism is an ethnicity if you are a multi-generational Mormon who traces at least a portion of your roots to the 19th-century pioneer exodus and, going back further, typically to 19th-century Scandinavia or Great Britain.  Ethnic Mormons can identify Mormon last names, Mormon hometowns, Mormon foods, Mormon phenotypes, Mormon language patterns, and other typically Mormon cultural behaviors. Depending on whom you ask, affiliation with or activity in the LDS Church may or may not be a defining feature of identity for ethnic Mormons.

To see an example of ethnic Mormonism at its funniest, look no further than the genius (and I mean genius) "Provo, Utah Gurls" by BYU's Divine Comedy sketch comedy troupe.  (As of tonight, the YouTube vid's gotten 300,000 views:  at least twelve of them from AMG.)

The women of Divine Comedy, fronted by the irresistible Mallory Everton, do a brilliant send-up of ethnic Mormon physicality.  The blonde hair.  The body-by-casserole.  And it's not that these ladies are self-loathing or unaware of the stereotypes.  They are, in fact, brainy, savvy, and fearless.  (Troupe actor Caitlin Clive is a vegan who attends Gwar concerts, and Whitney Call is an English major and Women's Studies minor -- woot! woot!) And they're playing for laughs and glory in  familiar features of multi-generational ethnic Mormonism.

With her long-sleeved wedding gown and cap-‘n-veil, Caitlin Clive looks like she could be a young Jessop plural wife in Colorado City.  And guess what -- that's probably no accident.  The FLDS are, after all, our ethnic cousins.  We all hail from the same pool of people who isolated ourselves for about 100 years in a centrally-administrated corridor of the intermountain west.

And yet, as all Mormons (and shamefully few non-Mormons) know, Mormonism now radiates far, far, far beyond our multi-generational core:  far beyond the Cardston-to-Mesa Book-of-Mormon belt.  Ethnic Mormons now make up only a tiny, tiny minority of the Church's global membership of 13.8 million.  Fewer than half of the Mormons in the world live in the United States.  And Asian Pacific Islander Mormons like Tongans -- where about 30 percent of the island nation belongs to the tribe -- and Samoans also have multi-generational membership that may in fact constitutes a parallel strand of ethnic Mormonism.

But let me take your question one step further, beyond the either-or paradigm.  Is Mormonism an ethnicity?  Yes.  A religion?  Yes.  Maybe more than one religion, in fact, if you count our Community of Christ (RLDS), fundamentalist, and unorthodox variants.  We are a family of religious movements.  A culture?  Yes.  At least three or four distinct strands of Mormon culture -- with probably hundreds of regional Mormon subcultures to boot.  Mormonism is also a multi-stranded, complicated intellectual and theological tradition, a body of art and writing.  But my favorite definition of Mormonism is this:  Mormonism is the sum total of the experiences, memories, visions, thoughts, beliefs, hopes, dreams, and fears of the people who have for the last almost two hundred years called themselves Mormon.

Now, readers, sound off.  Are you an ethnic Mormon?  What do you call yourself?  Roll call!

Send your query to, follow askmormongirl on Twitter, or visit the Ask Mormon Girl Facebook page.

12/14/2010 5:00:00 AM
  • Mormon
  • Ask Mormon Girl
  • Ethnicity
  • History
  • Mormonism
  • Joanna Brooks
    About Joanna Brooks
    Send your query to, follow askmormongirl on Twitter, or visit the Ask Mormon Girl Facebook page. Joanna Brooks is an award-winning writer, religion scholar, and university professor. She lives in San Diego and writes the weekly Ask Mormon Girl column.