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Sunday, February 06, 2005 

Mormonism and (Public) Self-Identification

First, I should thank Rebecca, Kaycee, and the VSM-ers for letting me post on this topic as a guest blogger. It's a fun topic, and the discussion so far has been quite interesting. (And this is the first time I've ever guest-blogged anywhere, so there's a fun little element of novelty in the process). By the way, I'm Kaimi Wenger, and I usually blog over at Times and Seasons. This week's topic has been: "Is it hard for you to say you're Mormon? What baggage comes with that label?"

My take on the Question

My read of the question is, because of my own circumstances, a little different than most of those so far. First off, I am a Mormon, and I'm in relatively deep (at least, I think so). I'm a returned missionary and married in the temple. I'm in the Elder's Quorum Presidency now, and I have been for the past three years; I'm the primary pianist; I'm no longer the called organist, but am still sometimes asked to play the organ. I also play a significant "utility player" role in my very chaotic mission-field ward -- I can say from experience that I'm considered one of the "reliables" who can (and will!) be asked on the drop of a hat to teach a class on any given topic, and won't (hopefully) botch it; if I'm around, I'm likely to be asked to speak or play at baptisms, meetings, or what-have-you, and so forth. And as you all know, I blog about Mormon issues.

So yeah, when it comes down to it, I'm a Mormon, there's really no question about that. And I'm not myself dealing with some of the interesting self-identification questions that some others have raised. But even if I'm pretty comfortable in my own self-identification as a Mormon, the question of the week still resonates with me. I'm reading it as, "is it hard for you to say you're Mormon? What baggage comes with that label?" And that's certainly a relevant question for me. I may accept myself as a Mormon, but do I want other people to know about that part of my identity? It's a similar angle as the one Carrie Ann uses, and her thoughts are in many ways similar to mine.

There are two issues with self-identifying as a Mormon. The first is the possibility that my own failures will reflect poorly on the church. The second is that the term "Mormon" may carry connotations that don't accurately reflect on me.

Desire not to Misrepresent the Church

Yeah, I know, this is part of my Mormon guilt complex. It's drilled into us from day one -- "other people are watching you." And in many cases, it's true.

Of course, many people don't know I'm Mormon. Unlike some groups, such as Jewish people, we don't really have distinctive names. You can see a Finkelson or Greenberg or Epstein, and more-or-less accurately assume that the person is of Jewish background; it's less obvious if someone is a Young or Smith. Members may assume that a Skousen or Nibley or Hinckley is likely to be LDS, but non-members probably don't know that; similarly, members may assume that every Mardell and Janelle and Delene are LDS (given the LDS baby-naming tendencies) but again, that's not common gentile knowledge. So unless I self-identify, many co-workers won't know I'm Mormon.

However, I do self-identify as a Mormon. People know that I'm LDS. I don't really hide it. (People also generally know that I'm married with kids, and that may make them wonder, even if they didn't know my religion to start with.)

I'm also an imperfect person. And sometimes I wonder if people should know that I'm Mormon, precisely because I worry about letting the church down. I worry about being angry or cussing someone out, or noticing that cute secretary or paralegal too much, and someone else thinking or saying "I thought that you were Mormon!" And then, of course, I would feel terrible -- normal Mormon guilt at screwing up, plus the added factor of making the church look bad for this person.

Not that I'm doing this particularly often, I think. But I know that if I'm late on an assignment, it's not just going to be Kaimi being late, it's going to be Kaimi the Mormon being late. If I'm unreliable, it's not just Kaimi being unreliable, it's Kaimi the Mormon being unreliable. It's a little added bit of anxiety for everyday interactions.

Desire not to Seem Reactionary

The second element of wondering whether I want people to know I'm Mormon is that I'm worried that they will attribute reactionary ideas to me. This may be more of an issue for me (or not, perhaps) since I don't live in Utah or Arizona or Idaho -- I live in New York City. And I wonder if people have preconceived ideas of Mormons as reactionaries.

I'm pretty sure that I don't hold racist or sexist ideas myself; I try to avoid actions that would seem racist or sexist. But many people think that Mormons as a group are racist, are opposed to rights for Blacks or rights for women. And they have some cause. For instance, the church has only let Blacks hold the priesthood for the past 30 years, and previously, some very ugly racist ideas were floated as to why Blacks were not allowed the Priesthood -- the idea that Blacks were less valiant in the pre-existence, for example. Even today, a number of members hold to those beliefs, and you can hear those ideas repeated in Sunday School or in the hallway sometimes, even if they're not official church doctrine.

Similarly, the church doesn't have a great track record of accepting women's rights and equality. It goes beyond the Priesthood ban -- a lot of Mormon men don't think that women should be educated or equal. That's not official, but (like my earlier note about people making assumptions) it's a perception that many outsiders have. They have met a racist or sexist Mormon -- and there are certainly lots around for them to meet -- and they assume that all Mormons are like that.

That's a perception that I find myself constantly fighting. It's especially problematic, since I hope to go into academia some day. I don't know if someone will be looking at my resume and think "well, he's smart and capable, but he's Mormon, and I know that Mormons are racist and sexist, so I don't want to hire him."

Similarly, on the issue of gay rights, the church's support of marriage amendments, combined with the high-profile role of Mitt Romney in Massachusetts, may make observers think that all Mormons are opposed to gay rights.

And I know people to whom that has happened. I know one person who was looking at an academic job; the hiring professor googled some publications and came across some Mormon, anti-gay writings, and assumed that the applicant was also anti-gay. And that applicant didn't get that job.

And so I wonder -- should I put my mission down on my CV? Should I mention church callings, church writings? Should I try to put it out in the open, so I can defuse it, or should I try to hide it? (Not outright denial like Peter, but de-emphasize it). How can I protect myself against people assuming that I'm a sexist, racist, homophobic bigot? And of course I can't. I just have to live with it. And that's tough. I do what I can to immunize myself against those kinds of reactions. In part, I may be safer because my legal publications are obviously not racist -- for example, I've published on the idea of reparations for slavery (see here for a published article, and here for a work in progress). But in the end, I just have to hope that observers can get past my Mormonness without too many hang-ups.

The fact is that Mormons are a diverse lot. You get people like me -- I have friends who are gay, I think that gay marriage should be legal, I'm generally in favor of civil rights. You get people like my co-bloggers Matt and Adam, who think that gay rights are a bad idea. And you get people even further to the right -- people who think that Martin Luther King was an evil communist, and that gays are equivalent to pedophiles. And it's hard to know whether someone will think that I'm one of the nuts, knowing that I'm Mormon.

How to Tell Others

A final question is, if I'm going to let people know that I'm Mormon, how do I do this? Do I hand out Books of Mormon around the office? Do I put my mission down on my resume? Do I just drop hints here and there?

I've gone the inconspicuous route. I don't advertise my Mormonness around the office, or when I was at school. On the other hand, I certainly don't hide it. Anyone who googles me will find Times and Seasons pretty fast, and will have that to go on. And I sometimes discuss religion with co-workers.

The bottom line, going back to the question:

Is it hard for you to say you're Mormon?

Sometimes. I wonder what people will think of the church based on me, and I wonder what they may think about me, based on some conception that they have of the church.

What baggage comes with that label?

It depends. Hopefully, not much, but in at least some cases, it's likely to be quite a bit.

And the third question -- what do I do about it?

I just keep on doing what I'm doing. I'm Mormon, and there's no way around that. And hopefully people will look at me for my own ideas, and won't think that I'm too crazy just because of my religion.

Posted by Guest Blogger: Kaimi Wenger from Times and Seasons

I’ve been anxiously awaiting to see what you had to say. Wow. You ended the week perfectly by tying the posts over the past week all together and creating some coherency out of it all. Not an easy task.

I find it interesting that in the Mormon religion individuals have a great responsibility to be the best person they can be in all aspects of their life because they are representing an entire group of people, not just themselves. This is a heavy burden to carry. This pressure isn’t something I notice in other religions. As you have pointed out, it has its pro’s and cons.

Very thoughtful, wonderful post, I am sure I will re-read it a million times.

Thank you for guest blogging Kaimi. 

Posted by Rebecca

K: you are obviously an intelligent man. This was a great post, and I appreciate that you can be so smart, and STILL have reservations and doubts. Thanks for making the rest of us look good, too.

All: Let's drop the Mormon baggage for a while, pack a swim suit and a snorkel and let's head for Mexico...any takers?  

Posted by Carrie Ann

Kaimi: "a lot of Mormon men don't think that women should be educated or equal."

lyle: really? how is that possible? Pres. Hinckley has been more than explicit on this subject.

re: the guy that didn't get hired. sounds alot more like a lawsuit for religious discrimination than anything else. of course, as you've posted elsewhere, religious bigotry isn't liberal hypocracy because tolerance isn't necessarily a liberal attribute.  

Posted by lyle

I know that I walked out of a Book of Mormon class and never returned after a teacher, in so many words, explained that ladies are at BYU to find worthy husbands and men are there to be educated. I also am aware that the majority of Mormons do not believe this, but rather view education as an important piece to their development, man and woman a like. Regardless, for a 20 year old girl with a chip on her shoulder it really wasn’t the best thing to be hearing. Fortunately I’ve matured and realize that I cannot judge a religion by a single individual’s point of view… I guess this is why people feel the pressure of representing the church in the absolute best light, so that they don’t give young, naive girls, like I was, the wrong idea.  

Posted by Rebecca

Thanks for the kind words, Becca and Carrie Ann. I've enjoyed reading the discussion so far, and participating just makes it more fun.

Lyle, I'll second Becca's observation -- yes, there is a stated commitment to equality by many leaders, but a lot of Mormon men just don't seem to get it. I've known a lot of Mormon men who think that women shouldn't be educated or outspoken or sometimes even competent (such as one person who refused to let any of his daughters get their drivers license!).

Yes, we can call those people unofficial or whatever -- they're not representing official stated views. But they are a common enough phenomenon that it makes you wonder.

Re: Worrying about others. Yeah, I think that may be related to the whole missionary emphasis. But in any case, it's something that most church members who I know seem to experience. Even the drinking, smoking, sleeping around church members in high school would tell their non-member friends "don't judge the church by what you see me doing."

Carrie Ann -- vacation? I wish. It's back to the salt mines for me.  

Posted by Kaimi

Kaimi, I liked your post, but I have one question: are you sure that you don't have racist or sexist attitudes at all? It could be true that you don't, but I think it would be unusual. The most difficult kinds of racism and sexism for us to exorcise are the ones that aren't obvious. Of course, it may also be that they are relatively less harmful.  

Posted by Jim F.

Kaimi- Your discussion of the topic is insightful and well rounded. I especially liked your thoughts on racist and sexist attitudes.

I think you covered your bases on the issue that Jim F brought up when you indicated that you made real efforts not to have those attitudes.

I've known a lot of Mormon men who think that women shouldn't be educated or outspoken or sometimes even competentI've known a lot, too, and while I was an active church member and an educated, outspoken and confident woman I often felt like I didn't fit the mold of what I "should" be like because I had those characteristics. I certainly dated less because of them.

Ironically, those are the same characteristics that helped me to feel unafraid when talking about the gospel. 

Posted by Kaycee

re: Mormon men who think that women shouldn't be educated or outspoken or sometimes even competent -- Maybe I'm naive, but I've been an active member all my life and I've never encountered such men. I've certainly heard stories or rumors about them(especially at BYU), but I've never come across this personally. I was always encouraged in every way to "reach high", study hard, be competitive, get a bachelor's degree (at least), and go for my dreams. I never heard a discouraging word from any man in my family or any man I knew in the church. I'm just curious where all of these pathetic men are hiding out. (They can remain hiding, for all I care!)

Aside from that, I love what you said and how you said it, Kaimi. You put into words many of my own thoughts and feelings on the matter that I had a difficult time articulating.

I rarely get asked if I'm Mormon, but this week someone did. She does contract work for me. I had just learned she was a member of the Church of Christ. For a split second I feared that because of her background she might have some negative preconceived notions about Mormonism and that it could affect our working relationship. I have always been very impressed with her and her husband for their Christian standards, their love of family, and graciousness. I felt grateful in that instant to realize that I have always dealt honestly and kindly with her, so whatever preconceived notions she may have, she wouldn't think any less of me.

I guess the point I am making is that it is dangerous and just plain not fair to make generalizations about such a large group of people (like Mormons). I will always look at people on a case-by-case basis, and try to remember that they are trying to do the best they can with what they've been given and taught.  

Posted by Suzie Petunia

Absolutely great post Kaimi it did tie everything together quite well-
I have liked all the posts this week, but I have been thinking: what about an active convert's view? I think of a number of friends of mine who have joined the Church and I know that old friends of theirs have been shocked when they run into them or when they hear the news from someone else. I think it would be interesting to see what Brandon would write on this subject. Maybe I can talk him into posting it over at council of worms. 

Posted by Mike


Yeah, my statement is probably a little too strong -- I meant to say that I try not to have racist or sexist attitudes, and I think I'm doing better than many who seem to affirmatively seek out and foster those attitudes. But I'm almost certainly still holding at least some of those beliefs myself, even if unknowlingly or subconsciously. 

Posted by Kaimi

It might be worthwhile to turn the problem on its head. Are you comfortable saying in Sunday School that you consider yourself open minded?

I feel much more constrained talking about my religious commitments in Church than out of Church. 

Posted by Hellmut Lotz

I am comfortable say out loud in Sunday School, that I am open-minded, and that I perhaps might have questions about some stances thatthe Church takes, as well as some aspects of what might be called "Mormon culture". Thankfully, I attend Church in the University town where Kristine Harris attended Grad School at. I wonder what teh consequences might be if I questioned Section 89, and said that i find the prohibition against drinking tea and coffee somewhat ridiculous. Alcohol and smoking,gambling I can undrstand, but, tea and coffee?
I wonder how that kind of questioning would be treated if I said that in Sunday Schoool in a Ward in Salt Lake city ro a Ward in Provo? 

Posted by ronin

i sorta stumbled on this blog today-link to a link to a link-but i really liked what you had to say Kaimi. I live in Boston and have some of the same reservations about shouting my religion from the rooftops. So thanks for the post. Sometimes just knowing that you aren't the only one thinking something is what you need to keep your sanity together.

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This Week's Topic:

  • The Sabbath Day

Various Authors

  • Monday:
    Kaycee opted out of Mormondom 4 years ago. She calls herself agnostic.
  • Tuesday:
    Sarah is not your average Gospel Doctrine Teacher.
  • Wednesday:
    Carrie Ann comes from pioneer stock, and lives in Provo, but is open minded and fair.
  • Thursday:
    Ned Flanders hasn't been to church in a while, but maintains an interest in all things Mormon.
  • Friday:
    John C. is an academic with a sense of humor and a testimony.
  • Saturday:
    JP's not going to church and feeling okay about it.

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