International? Peripheries? Global? In search of a name

January 28, 2016

Cross-posted at Times and Seasons
By Wilfried Decoo
What is an adequate label for the areas outside of the so-called “Church’s center”? If it pertains to non-US countries, “international” is commonly used, but semantically it is flawed because the United States itself belongs to the circle of all nations. “Foreign” and “alien” sound non-inclusive for a church that emphasizes worldwide unity and belonging among its members. As a neutral geographical term, “abroad” fails if one wants to include in the discussion ethnic minorities within the United States. Those have become particularly noteworthy as the Church again allows Mormon wards with a foreign ethnic or lingual identity on American soil, such as Cambodian, Korean, or Russian.[1] Within the United States, thousands of immigrant Mormons, or converted after immigration, represent various cultures, languages, and countries. For decades the Church has been struggling to find optimal ways to accommodate their needs. Recognized American racial and ethnic groups, such as American Indian and African American, form similar groups for specific study. Even the interaction with Native Americans is, ironically, part of a negotiated process with an “outside” group. The same can be said of Hawaiians.[2] It shows the ambiguity and complexity of our boundaries.
Also, the terms “international” (meant as outside the United States), “foreign,” “alien,” and “abroad” proceed from Americentrism. This US-centered vantage point to look at “others” is understandable since church headquarters and the “Mormon cultural region” are in the American West. All Mormon activity in the rest of the world still emanates from its American center. This Mormon Americentrism led Dutch anthropologist van Beek to envision two Mormon spheres, US and non-US, as “colonizer” versus “colonized” and to draw parallels with colonial history in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. For van Beek, the Mormon base in the United States, commonly called “Salt Lake,” is the “domestic” church, while the ecclesiastical areas in other countries are its “colonial” outposts. As these areas mature in leadership and turn into stakes, the relation becomes one from metropolis to satellites, comparable to how colonies gained sovereignty, while still being controlled by the metropolis within the dependencia model. Van Beek words this relation, in more neutral terms, also as one of “homeland headquarters” versus the “international periphery.”[3] That last word, in the plural, is also used by Reid L. Neilson to mark out the distant areas apostle David O. McKay visited during his world tour in the 1920s.[4] It is also used by Paul Reeve in his definition of “Post New Mormon History,” which includes the exploration of “Mormonism’s emergence as a global phenomenon (…) at the ever-changing peripheries as well as at the center.”[5] The BYU Church History Symposium of March 2014 on “Mormonism as a Global Religion” had as one its topics “Center and periphery relations.”
“Peripheries” may have some advantages. It bears no political connotation, while still expressing a tension between the two spheres. It includes anything that is not the center, thus also including divergent situations within the United States.[6] The plural “peripheries” evokes the diversity of that zone—hence also “a periphery” for a specific locale. It is possible to use the word with adjectival value, such as in “church periphery research” or “periphery topics.” The adjective “peripheral” is also usable as it reflects the reality of an ambivalence: peripheral topics not only belong to the geographical periphery, but they are also, at present, still tangential and secondary in the totality of academic publications on Mormonism.
“Global” is another word that has come into use to refer to a worldwide reality. The “Global Mormonism Project” at BYU promises “easy access to information on Mormonism in every region and country of the world, as well as topics of international scope.”[7] A lengthy Washington Post article entitled “The New Face of Global Mormonism” described the spread of this “all-American” faith to other countries.[8] The term has also become common in academic contributions, referring to the international dimension.[9] However, compared to “periphery,” “global” has an almost opposite connotation. The notion of globalization is not intended to discover and respect diversity but to stress cohesion and commonality, as in stating that English is becoming the global language of the world. Merriam-Webster defines globalism as “a national policy of treating the whole world as a proper sphere for political influence,” coming close to imperialism. In that sense “global Mormonism” can be understood as not referring to peripheral diversity, but as creating an integrated, similar “gospel culture,” driven by Church correlation’s motto “reduce and simplify,” to enforce an identical church all over the world. Warrick N. Kear describes the effect of these “reductions and simplifications” on Mormon music since this strictly defined, uniform music must serve “global Mormonism.”[10] The term “global” may evoke immensity, but it also may suggest an impoverishing mass crushing the colorful tapestry of nations and cultures. Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye hopes that such a globalization may be avoided by “glocalization” in international Mormon studies.[11] This topic of the American identity of the global church will continue to inspire studies.[12]
But does any difference ought to be made between center and periphery since the Church is indeed supposed to be the same all over the world, with the members participating in the same worldwide “gospel culture”? Even for the past, is it not sufficient to identify a specific person, group of people, or location as object of study, without the need for a broader term englobing spaced-out situations outside of the center? Perhaps such a hyperonym is needed if Mormon Studies of local peripheries is to extract from these confined areas more “c’s”—comparisons, connections, and common causes and consequences. In other words, research is to connect peripheries.
At this stage all these considerations are, of course, theoretical, because the center is not really defined, except through differences with what is not the center.
Any thoughts on this quandary?
[1]    Jessie L. Embry, “Ethnic Congregations,” chapter 6 in Mormon Wards as Community (Binghamton: Global Academic Publishing, 2001); also Embry, “Ethnic Groups and the LDS Church,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 25, no. 4 (1992): 81–96; “Speaking for Themselves: LDS Ethnic Groups Oral History Project,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 25, no. 4: 99–110.
[2]    Hokulani K. Aikau, A Chosen People, A Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai‘i (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Riley M. Moffat, Fred E. Woods, and Jeffrey N. Walker, Gathering to La‘ie. La‘ie(Hawai‘i: Jonathan Napela Center for Hawaiian and Pacific Island Studies, Brigham Young University Hawai‘i, 2011).
[3]    Walter E. A. van Beek, “Mormon Europeans or European Mormons? An “Afro-European” view on religious colonization,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 38, no. 4 (2005): 3–36.
[4]    Reid L. Neilson in the title of his edition of Hugh J. Cannon, To the Peripheries of Mormondom: The Apostolic Around-the-World Journey of David O. McKay, 1920–1921 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2011).
[5]    W. Paul Reeve, “Post New Mormon History: A Manifesto,” Journal of Mormon History 35, no. 3 (2009), 224.
[6]    In his comparison of “headquarters culture” and “Mormons living elsewhere,” Michael Quinn includes in the latter group all the church members who do not live in the immediate vicinity of church headquarters: “In religious, social, cultural, and psychological terms, church members at LDS headquarters have experienced Mormonism very differently from Mormons living elsewhere. Over time, this made the Mormon majority in headquarters culture “a different breed” from Mormons who lived as minorities.” D. Michael Quinn, “LDS ‘Headquarters Culture’ and the Rest of Mormonism: Past and Present,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 34, no. 3–4 (2001): 137.
[8]    Mary Jordan, “The New Face of Global Mormonism”, The Washington Post, 19 November 2007.
[9]    Reid L. Neilson, ed. Global Mormonism in the 21st Century (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008); Mikael Rothstein, “Religious Globalisation: A Material Perspective. Assessing the Mormon Temple Institution in terms of Globalisation,” New Religions and Globalization. Empirical, Theoretical, and Methodological Perspectives, ed. Armin W. Geertz and Margit Warburg, 243–260 (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 2008); Lawrence A. Young, “Confronting Turbulent Environments: Issues in the Organizational Growth and Globalization of Mormonism, ”Contemporary Mormonism, ed. Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton, and Lawrence A. Young, 43–63 ( Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994).
[10]  Warrick N. Kear, “The LDS Sound World and Global Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 34, no. 3 & 4 (2001): 77–93.
[11]  Melissa Wei-Tsing Inouye, “The Oak and the Banyan: The ‘Glocalization’ of Mormon Studies,” Mormon Studies Review 1 (2014): 70–79.
[12] See for example, Airen Hall, “A World Religion from a Chosen Land: The Competing Identities of the Contemporary Mormon Church,” The Changing World Religion Map: Sacred Places, Identities, Practices and Politics, ed. Stanley D. Brunn, 803–817 (Springer, 2015).