Mormonism and (Public) Self-Identification
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