Mormon Anxieties

A week or so ago some state had some vote about marriage, or so I have heard. It was discussed ad nauseum in the bloggernaccle, if I remember correctly. In all honesty, as a mostly libertarian, I couldn’t have cared less about the whole thing, especially since I no longer live in said state. What I did find interesting was the whole discussion in the ‘nacle and in church, which I think revealed something very important about us Mormons: our fundamental anxieties.

Different types of Chrisitians have different types of anxieties. In fact, different theological structures in each type of Christianity make certain types of anxiety possible and others impossible. Put simply, what you believe defines what worries you. A Catholic might feel very anxious about whether they are in a state of mortal sin or grace. This is not going to trouble the died-in-the-wool Calvinist who has fundamental anxieties about whether they are one of the elect or not. I don’t know too many Mormons who have these types of anxieties. That’s simply because we don’t have those categories in quite the same way as those other denominations do. We may talk about election, but we don’t talk about it in the same way that Calvinists talk about ELECTION. When F.F. Bruce, an evangelical Christian, wrote his life of Paul, he subtitled it “Apostle of the Heart Set Free,” which says a lot about what kinds of anxieties evangelicals feel. That no Mormon would ever subtitle any book “Apostle of the Heart Set Free” says that we don’t share those anxieties.

So what did the whole proposition and ensuing discussion reveal about our fundamental anxieties?

First, we Mormons are terribly anxious about what it means to follow church leadership. When I was in California in October I tried to discuss the proposition with a person at church who I am good friends with. This person explained that he had donated some money to the cause and had gone door to door, but was drawing the line at holding a sign on a street corner, though church leadership had asked him to do this. He felt he had done sufficient and had answered the call. I told him that I thought he had done enough, and that I wouldn’t worry about it one way or the other, because the legal reasons the church was giving for supporting the proposition seemed rather far fetched. I intended this as a way of agreeing with him. However, this person got angry with me for questioning the leadership and its reasons for action. I thought about pointing out that if he really felt that way, then to be consistent he better get his butt out to that street corner to show his support. However, I just laughed and changed the subject. I realized that you don’t argue with yourself unless there is some fundamental anxiety driving you to do that.

I also saw this on the ‘nacle. Time after time I saw people twisting themselves into pretzels in an attempt to support the amendment without really supporting it. Or to not support the amendment while really supporting it. Quite silly because you have to pull the lever for one or the other, you can’t pull the lever marked “both.” In most cases the arguments given were variations on attempting to divorce support for church leadership from support for the proposition. That they were intertwined for Mormons is undeniable. That no other group saw this type of intertwinement is also undeniable. This caused Mormons a lot of anxiety, anxiety that no other denomination was capable of feeling.

Second, we Mormons are terribly anxious about our church membership. Some Mormons were terribly anxious that they would be disciplined if they did not publicly support the proposition. Others took the opportunity to resign their membership because they saw it as being tied to the proposition. Others took pride in the group effort, “We Mormons put it over the top!” I can hear them saying. The commonality for all of this emotion is due to the unique anxiety we Mormons feel due to having our names on a roll somewhere in Salt Lake City. Of course just having the name on the roll doesn’t say much, it’s all about what that recorded name means. For some it was positive, for others negative, for others just worrisome (neither positive nor negative). I know of no members of any other denomination that would have that type of anxiety. No Catholic or Baptist saw the proposition as being tied to their denomination, though they also supported the proposition.

Third, we Mormons are very anxious about our relationship with the rest of the world. Many people in the ‘nacle are anxious that this could be a repeat of the 70’s, just substituting gays for blacks. For others it was a time to show that “We’re different” and channel the anxiety of assimilation to worldly ways into obedience in the political sphere. Lurking behind a lot of discussion was the whole polygamy issue, “How can we be against marriage redefinition when we tried to redefine it in the 19th century?” And, whenever you bring up polygamy, you bring up Mormons’ relation to the rest of the world. To what extent will others tolerate our morality? To what extent should we tolerate theirs? To what degree can we form coalitions with other believers? And even if we can form coalitions, should we?

Mormons were able to outshine every other group with fundraising and participation because so many fundamental anxieties were involved; it was a perfect storm of sorts. These fundamental anxieties define us and drive us as a group. Fundamental anxieties in my opinion are one of the engines that drive people to do extraordinary things. They lead to new churches and start wars. And, they also pass ballot measures in California, or so I’ve heard.

GROUND RULE: No discussion of the merits or demerits of that proposition are allowed. I will ruthlessly delete any post arguing for or against the proposition (it’s over anyway, deal with it or celebrate it, your choice).

27 Replies to “Mormon Anxieties”

  1. “I know of no members of any other denomination that would have that type of anxiety.”

    That is the part that interests me. Or should I say that it is what makes me anxious.

  2. I’m in AZ where there was a similar proposition, but not near the fanfare.
    Anyhow my in-laws live in a different part of the same city in a neighboring stake. They were read a ‘do all you can to support this measure’ letter, and heard a few rather overt talks about it during church. I’m pretty sure there were phone bank volunteering and whatnot too.

    To the best of my knowledge this letter was not read in my ward (and I have perfect sacrament meeting attendance). I spent rather too much time wondering if the fact that my bishop never read that letter over the pulpit meant that I (and my whole ward) was somehow exempt. I mean, technically speaking the word-of-mouth information I was getting from my in-laws was no more reliable nor binding on me than that forwarded email of President Packers talk.

    But, you know. Grasping at straws and all that.

    Incidentally I also spent a lot of time wondering exactly *why* the letter wasn’t read in our ward. Was is the Bishop’s idea? The Stake President’s? Was it lost in the mail? Did it never get sent to our stake? Did they just forget?

    So yeah I hear what you’re saying about our uniquely Mormon anxieties. Good post.

  3. Fascinating discussion David, I am not sure if I would fit that category of pretzel twisting. But yeah I agree there is often anxiety over our membership in the church. It just does cross your mind. And of course no, it really doesn’t to most others, other than maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses?

  4. You Mormons do whatever you are told to do. It’s how you are trained from any early age.

    Spoken like someone who has never tried to get people to do their home teachings, show up for service projects, or any of the other litany of things they are asked to do nearly every week in Church.

  5. Just to add,

    I bet if you make a list of the top 10 things people are consistently asked to do you’ll find them to be things not done terribly well.

    But people will be anxious about their FHE, HT, Family Prayer, Journal writing, scripture reading, service projects, and so forth.

  6. Clark,

    Great point. How do you see the difference between the ubiquitous calls to do the basics and the call to support Prop 8? The first thing that came to my mind is the novelty of it, but is there more?

  7. I think novelty has a lot to do with it but I also want to say that there is a perceived “significance” to things like prop-8, abortion, or the EPA that one doesn’t find in the issues that arguably the brethren spend most of their time trying in vain to get people to do.

  8. I also think that just as a characteristic of being American people are willing to engage in the culture wars far more than they are willing to engage in the basics of a Christian life. One can debate why that is. But I’ll avoid that tangent.

  9. I have not heard the California proposition mentioned at church officially. I ran across some news of “Mormons” being involved in it about two weeks ago, I think on the day of the election actually and read a few online articles about it. I asked a few member friends about our church being involved and none of them knew anything of it. I dismissed any claim that the church gave any money to the effort to support the proposition. As far as I know, the church has always stated that they do not take a position politically. Besides, I trust that they would not use tithing money without informing the entire church membership first.

    I will say that after I saw a video on youtube depicting missionaries breaking into a lesbian couple’s home, I asked a friend about it, and she knew nothing. She watched it later and it caused her so much duress that she could not finish her talk at church last Sunday, when she mentioned it. It was apparent from looking around the congregation that most were unfamiliar with what she was referring to.

    I consider myself a libertarian, and it seems to me that the proposition in California was simply about redefining the legal definition of marriage to mean “between a man and a woman”. This is how it had been until the California Supreme Court justices abused their power and authority from interpreting law to changing law. The people spoke back and have now corrected the mistake of the judges.

    The gay community seems to be completely confused about the whole thing. They seem to have made the issue about hate and equality. This is very sad. I bet most of the gay community have not even taken the time to carefully read the proposition and taken the time and effort to understand the events that led up to the proposition. Why don’t they just make up a new word like “garriage” or something for gay marriage and ask for a law to be passed that give them the same rights that heterosexual couples have with marriage?

  10. When we’re admonished to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, or to be anxiously engaged in a good cause, anxiety is supposed to be a motivator towards good. Too much anxiety can also be a demotivator: fearful of doing anything.

    And, yes, for many of us, “doing good” (or “being good”) means only “Follow the Brethren” or “Follow the Prophet,” rather than “keep the commandments.”

  11. Wandering Laughter,

    If you spend much time on our blog you will see that we are very open to thoughtful disagreement. We are more than willing to engage any issue presented in such a manner. Please tune down the hostility.

  12. My moment of anxiety came when I realized that none of the Brethren had donated (in their own name) enough to trigger the legal requirements to be included on some list. I wondered whether they “walk the walk” or just “talk the talk”. If the prophet didn’t man a phone bank, donate financially, or how a sign what does it mean to me to “follow the prophet”?

  13. To Anon, I believe that is because the Brethren really do receive a stipend from the Church and so that would really be an infringement on the tax-exempt status policy. Those who are lay clergy are being asked to do the volunteering.

  14. This only had a little to do with novelty. Home teaching comes and goes. And there is always a next time. Scripture reading, same thing. FHE same thing. This was a time sensitive request by a prophet of God to give “your best efforts”. I felt similar to this when president Hinckley asked us to read the BOM by a certain date. Either you did it or you didn’t. Make up all the reasons you want for not doing your part but it was pretty clear what was being asked and the level of effort it was going to take. We didn’t have the luxury of weeks and months to “gain a testimony” of it.

  15. I believe that is because the Brethren really do receive a stipend from the Church and so that would really be an infringement on the tax-exempt status policy.

    If this is, in fact, the case I would like to hear a more fulsome explanation. At the moment, it just seems to my non-legally trained mind to be an unlikely explanation.

  16. If this is, in fact, the case I would like to hear a more fulsome explanation. At the moment, it just seems to my non-legally trained mind to be an unlikely explanation.

    I seriously doubt this is the case as well. I don’t know of any accounting/legal tricks that would force cash given for personal expenses to be somehow tied to the tax exempt status of an organization.

    Even so, it’s a moot point. Most of the GA’s will be receiving pensions and/or Social Security from previous employment, which can’t possibly affect anyone’s tax exempt status no matter how they spend it.

  17. “I know of no members of any other denomination that would have that type of anxiety.”

    Maybe that’s because you don’t live in California. I have a few close Catholic friends who very much saw the proposition as tied to their own faith and membership. One Catholic friend did not even go to Mass during the election season, because she did not want to hear about it. She even surmised she was not given a position in the church nursery because the priest either wasn’t familiar with her, or because he heard she did not support the proposition.

  18. Maybe that’s because you don’t live in California.

    I used to, up until 1.5 years ago, that means I still get half credit.

    As for your Catholic friend, there are exceptions to every rule. I still think that for Mormons it is more of an existential anxiety because people on both sides of the fence were reacting to the same types of anxieties, but in opposite ways.

    In my post that’s why I only identified anxieties if I could identify a core anxiety which manifested itself in divergent ways. Do you have Catholic friends who saw it as a test of faith and action, as a test of loyalty to the Catholic church, and responded to the call? If so, then I guess we do share some anxieties with Catholics.

  19. Do you have Catholic friends who saw it as a test of faith and action, as a test of loyalty to the Catholic church, and responded to the call?

    Yes, there are Catholics who feel/felt this way about it. That sort of thing is much stronger when the issue is abortion rather than gay marriage, though.

  20. Mogget,

    I do think that is interesting. It does seem easier (safer?) to be pro-choice than it is to be hesitant on gay-marriage. The Elder Nelson article in the October Ensign might change all that.

  21. Yes, there are Catholics who feel/felt this way about it. That sort of thing is much stronger when the issue is abortion rather than gay marriage, though.

    Is this because the papacy has been more vocal on abortion than on gay marriage? If so, then that makes sense. I guess it also makes sense that this is an anxiety that Mormons and Catholics would share, since Catholics’ and Mormons’ organizational structures are similar in many ways (clear central authority, periodic pronouncements from central authority, well-defined hierarchy etc.)

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