Poll: Mormon American or American Mormon?

By January 10, 2008

While watching The Jewish Americans last night on PBS (ht: Paul Harvey), I was struck by the fact that every individual interviewed (including both Orthodox and Reformed Jews and everywhere in between) that was asked to describe his or her identity as a Jew living in the United States affirmed that he or she was an American Jew, and not a Jewish American.  Some of the interviewees explained that “Jew” described more fully and deeply who they were as an individual, and “American” used (in this instance) as an adjective simply desribed their nation of residence.  Some were careful to point out that this was not meant as a insult to or lack of appreciation for America and does not lessen their status as Americans.  It made me wonder how we Mormons identify ourselves in relation to our religion and our nationality.  In addition to the question asked in the poll below, I wonder how differently this poll would have been answered 50 years ago? 100 years ago? 150 years ago? How do you think this will be answered 25 or 50 years from now?

____________________

*For those readers not citizens of the United States, feel free to substitute your own nationality for “American.”  If you answered either answer choice 3 or 4, please explain/elaborate in a comment.


Comments

  1. I think for me it depends on the context I’m in and the group that I’m representing myself to. If I’m associating with Latino Mormons, I’ll probably construct myself as an American Mormon. If I’m associating with Anglo Americans, I think I’d say I’m a Mormon American, thereby emphasizing commonalities while recognizing differences depending on the situation.

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 2:43 pm

  2. Frankly, I’ve been seriously considering lately whether I like being an American(noun) at all. I like being American (adjective), which I associate with culture and attitude and personality, as opposed to American (noun) which I associate with an organized political system that I am more and more alienated from. (I expect many little fingers are already typing “well, then, go somewhere else!” — don’t waste your time.)

    This alienation has been growing because of my study of Mormon history, not especially because of the politics of the last generation. When I’ve seen how America as an organized political system has treated my people, and how their lives have been disrupted by the power and greed and corruption of that system, I find myself wanting nothing to do with it. That has only been reinforced by American political discussion in this election cycle.

    Mormons are my people. Americans, not so much. I am an American Mormon.

    Self-preservation suggests I should make this an anonymous comment, but I won’t be that cowardly.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 10, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  3. While I know it varied from time to time, my sense is that most 19th-century Mormons would have praised the American political system and condemned American culture. It was elected officials, not the system itself, that failed to uphold “every good institution, of every wholesome law, of every institution and constitution” when the Saints were persecuted (George A. Smith, “Liberty and Persecution—Conduct of the U.S. Government, etc,” JD 1:43).

    Now, whether or not 19th-century Mormons would have identified themselves as Americans first and Mormons second, or vice versa, is another question altogether. The answer, I think, would depend on the context of their representations. Among themselves, they’d be Mormons first. But when interacting with “others,” I suspect that they’d be Americans first.

    But what they meant by American would of course have been different from what a Protestant meant by American.

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

  4. American Mormon for me. No thought or hesitation required.

    Comment by Ray — January 10, 2008 @ 5:20 pm

  5. David, I think 19th century Mormons would have praised the theory of the American political system, and the documents behind it, but they certainly had no good to say about the 19th century administration of that political system. “I love the Constitution, but I hate the damned rascals that administer it,” sums up Brigham Young’s philosophy.

    And I really don’t think they would consider themselves Americans first in a contest between Mormon and American, although they were Americans when the alternative was Danish, English, or whatever. I also think they would have identified themselves as Mainers or New Hampshiremen or whatever, over generic American.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 10, 2008 @ 6:15 pm

  6. I tend to agree with Ardis, here.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 10, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  7. I suspect, when confronted by hostile Protestants, that Mormons would construct themselves as Americans first and Mormons second. In other contexts, such as among themselves and in proselytizing, they represented themselves as Mormons first and Americans second.

    That is an interesting point about state v. national identities, but again I suspect that that would also depend on the context and audience of the representation.

    BY did refer to himself as an American on occasion, but I don’t know if he preferred that to calling himself a Vermonter, or vice versa.

    As an American, shame and confusion would overwhelm me, were I to even think of trying to sustain my family by siding with tyranny and oppression. That is the only circumstance I wish to name. They are sent ostensibly to civilize this people. But I do not wish to talk much about such nonsense. The whole world are wrapt up in the garment of corruption, confusion, and destruction; and they are fast making their way down to hell, while we have the words of eternal life. (JD 6:43)

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  8. Maybe we’re talking past each other. I’ve just surveyed my collection of transcribed correspondence and find dozens of references by Mormon leaders claiming to be Americans, when the issue was whether they as American citizens had certain rights that were being denied to them. Is that the sort of circumstance you mean when you speak of being “confronted by hostile Prostestants”? Otherwise my quick survey shows references to Mormons as Americans only when they’re distinguishing between American-born brethren and European immigrants (as in “American Elders Should be Selected to preside in the first instance as being better acquainted with beginning in a new country”).

    And then there’s that whole matter of Indians distinguishing between Mormons and Americans. Brigham Young asserts in numerous letters that that’s a distinction the Indians themselves came up with, and I think they could only have done that if the whites themselves had repeatedly identified themselves as either Mormons or Americans. Perhaps that’s what you mean by Mormons calling themselves Mormons among themselves?

    In any case, I believe 19th century Mormons considered themselves first and foremost to be members of the Kingdom of God (Mormons) and Americans chiefly when they were claiming political rights or their heritage as children of revolutionary sires.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 10, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  9. I think you two are talking past one another. David seems to be approaching the question from an academic standpoint, examining complex, postmodern, sort of identity questions in answering the poll, while everyone else (myself included) seems to have answered in a much more personal manner.

    Comment by Christopher — January 10, 2008 @ 8:44 pm

  10. Chris: I apologize for answering in an academic manner:)

    Ardis: I don’t know if we’re really that far apart. I argued that in different contexts or situations, Mormons represented themselves differently, depending on the audience. You’ve provided some great examples of how that is true.

    Comment by David Grua — January 10, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  11. I’ve always liked this quote from Ed Firmage;

    The Gospel is universal in space and time. It has existed within governments as simple as Lehi’s patriarchal community, and as complex as the Roman imperial system….Christianity has grown in vastly different societies as well, and the sociological differences are often more striking and difficult to adjust to than are the differences in governmental form….We must learn to distinguish between the timeless and universal gospel of the Master and the politics and sociology of a particular time and place. Not to do so would be to link an eternal message with political and social institutions, which contain within themselves the seeds of their own death….”
    Ed Firmage, Paul and the Expansion of the Church Today, pps 20-25 1979 Deseret Book

    I think of myself as an American Mormon, with a higher fidelity to the church and gospel than a political institution, even though I am fascinated by it.

    Comment by kevinf — January 11, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

  12. I actually consider myself a Welsh-Canadian who is Mormon to be perfectly frank. Which makes me a WASCM (Welsh Anglo-Saxon Canadian Mormon).

    Comment by JonW — January 11, 2008 @ 11:55 pm


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