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Mormon missionaries pray before the start of a class in Mandarin Chinese language at the Missionary Training Center, in Provo, Utah. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File

Why it’s time for the Mormon Church to revisit its diverse past

In an era where traditional church attendance has declined and the fastest-growing religious affiliation in America is the “nones” – those who claim no affiliation with an organized faith – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has continued to expand.

This growth in the LDS Church, commonly called the Mormons, is largely a result of the increasing numbers in the predominantly white congregations, as well as a large number of new Latino converts. Elsewhere, Mormon conversion rates have noticeably declined.

From my perspective as a scholar of American religious and political history, these two streams for growth signify a crucial tension at the heart of the Mormon experience: The Mormon community is struggling to keep its cultural identity while embracing multiple racial, ethnic and national backgrounds.

The diversity of the Mormon past

Cultural diversity has long been a part of the American experience. In the early 1850s, Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found that an increasing number of converts to the LDS faith, mostly European immigrants, were having a hard time grasping the English language.

Brigham Young. More Good Foundation, CC BY-NC

It was a dilemma indicative of an age of globalization. Of the total Utah population in 1880, around 60 percent came from immigrant families. The question before Young was, how could the Mormon people retain cultural solidarity as they became more diverse?

Young’s solution was to reform the written language, so as to make the path of assimilation easier. In 1854, he announced that church leaders had “formed a new Alphabet,” which they believed would “prove highly beneficial” to foreign converts.

The resulting 38-character phonetic scheme, which they called the Deseret Alphabet, was an attempt to accommodate the faith’s European reach. But there were substantial costs for translating and reprinting necessary texts. And further, the language was never fully embraced outside the Church’s leadership. Eventually, the alphabet was discarded within a decade.

Nonetheless, it remains a testament to 19th-century Mormonism’s inclusive vision. Young and the other leaders genuinely sought to assimilate foreign converts. And the Mormons were not alone during this period: Their expansive growth took place at the same time as America’s largest immigration period, between 1870 and 1910.

Diversity in Mormon Church

But like many religions, Mormonism’s second century reversed many of the more radical impulses of its first.

Family of Mormon farmer. Santa Clara, Utah. Russell Lee. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540

Shortly after 1900, the practice of gathering converts to “Zion,” where members of the faith were expected to relocate to Utah, was discarded in favor of building individual “zions” throughout the globe. In other words, rather than immigrating to Utah, members of the faith were encouraged to remain in their homelands.

This new perspective of a globalized faith is evident today. Of the 15.6 million members in 2016, only 6.5 million reside within America’s borders. Church materials are published in 188 languages. Leadership and members alike boast that they are part of a worldwide gospel that transcends countries, continents and hemispheres.

In theory, and at times in practice, this may appear to be an extension of its previous inclusive vision. Utah is no longer the same melting pot, but divergent Mormon communities are found throughout the hemispheres.

‘I’m a (diverse) Mormon’ campaign

In the present times, however, both the LDS Church and the United States struggle with diversity. Research has shown a commitment to American exceptionalism still dominates much of Mormon culture. There remains a persistent tension between being a global faith and an American institution.

On the one hand, there have been signs of a more diverse and inclusive image from the LDS Church. Starting in 2011, the LDS Church’s Public Affairs team ran an “I’m a Mormon” campaign that highlighted racial and cultural heterogeneity. There are more than a million Mormons in both Mexico and Brazil. Just this month, LDS Apostle Jeffrey R. Holland warned in a powerful message that “when we disparage our uniqueness or try to conform to fictitious stereotypes…we lose the richness of tone and timbre that God intended when He created a world of diversity.”

The Mormon Church has retained a progressive stance on immigration that has at times surprised outsiders. They supported the 2010 “Utah Compact” which urged politicians to take a more charitable approach to immigration laws.

The church has periodically called for policies that acknowledge the humanity of immigrants, denounce the separation of families and provide a path toward permanent residency (though not citizenship or amnesty).

Discomfort with assimilation

Yet anxieties persist, both at the cultural and institutional levels: While the regional levels of church governance have become much more diverse, the two highest quorums of church leadership have remained completely white and overwhelmingly American. Only one of the 15 members of these governing councils was born outside the United States.

And despite the support for progressive immigration laws, there remains a reluctance toward racial assimilation. Hispanic immigrants to America are typically segregated into Spanish-speaking congregations, which often creates communities within communities.

Mormon families. More Good Foundation, CC BY-NC

Further, the faith has a long history of shunning interracial relationships. At points, some of its leaders even flirted with theories of eugenics, or the belief that they could help cultivate a pure race. Just until four years ago, a youth manual informed young men that the Church “recommend[s] that people marry those who are of the same racial background.” By and large, the Mormon institution has been reflective of their American demographic makeup: white, middle-class and conservative.

Parts of LDS discourse even forecasted the discussion these days concerning global immigration and fears of ethnic transformation. In a 2005 address to the general membership, L. Tom Perry, then a member of the Quorum of the Apostles, warned that “too many are sowing seeds of a fruit that will not nourish an eternal soul.” His reference to “seeds” was more than a figurative reference to future spiritual growth.

Perry related a recent conversation he had with an unidentified European traveler on a train. “What will happen in your country,” Perry asked, given that “the declining population and the influx of an increasing number of immigrants will eventually make you a minority in your own land?” When his interlocutor responded, “with great national pride,” that “this will never happen,” Perry continued to insist upon the problem. “How can you support such a position with immigration exceeding your country’s birthrate?” The European offered no satisfactory answer, and Perry left the anecdote on an ominous note.

This was, of course, a conversation reflective of a broader cultural pattern of racialized concerns. They have become persistent in American political rhetoric, whether Mormon or not. Sometime back, Iowa Representative Steve King, a Catholic, similarly warned that increased immigration would result in a lost Western culture. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies,” he tweeted in mid-March. He only partly retracted the next day, explaining that he would “like to see an America that is just so homogeneous that we look a lot the same.”

The words of King and Perry embody a persistent ethnic nationalism that prioritizes racial unity and warns of cultural diversity. These anxieties transcend denominational boundaries.

Omens for the future

The Age of Trump has witnessed an increase in and validation of this nativist rhetoric – one that privileges a particular group over others. The LDS institution was slow – and eventually tepid – in its response to Trump’s original executive action curtailing refugees and immigration from Muslim nations.

More Good Foundation., CC BY-NC

A statement issued by the church said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is concerned about the temporal and spiritual welfare of all of God’s children across the earth.” And, merely added a note saying, “with special concern for those who are fleeing physical violence, war and religious persecution.” This was not a direct condemnation.

Given Trump’s proposed policies, there are plenty of potential battles ahead. There are competing notions of how a society – religious, cultural or political – is to be constructed: Can a community be built on diversity, or must it be homogeneous? Is a national identity based on racial similarity a valid option in a global age? These questions will continue to drive both the Mormon Church as well as the American nation in which it operates.

Donald Trump’s rhetoric and executive actions may provide one model, but Brigham Young’s Deseret Alphabet might offer another.

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