Are you a Mormon?

We recently discussed the various names we use to refer to ourselves (liberal Mormon, NOM, post-Mormon, ex-Mormon, etc.) depending on how we each perceive our relationship with Mormonism. I’m interested in much more direct question, which I’m never quite sure how to answer. Are you a Mormon?

It seems like a straightforward question, but I find it surprisingly tricky because it’s not always clear what is meant by “Mormon”. If it means a member of the CoJCoLdS, then my answer should be yes, because I am still on the records as a member of that church. If it means someone who has ever had the experience of being a Mormon, then my answer is also yes. If it means a person who considers oneself a part of the Mormon culture or believes Mormon doctrine, then my answer should be no, because I am neither. For others, the situation may be reversed; you might not be a member of the church anymore, but still consider yourself part of the Mormon culture. So are you a Mormon?

In my own mind, I’ve pretty much moved on from Mormonism, but to answer either yes or no without further explanation seems strange. I tend to give a different answer depending on the context. If a stranger asks, I’ll usually just say no unless I’m interested in having a conversation about Mormonism. If I actually feel like talking about it and they seem interested, I might start with something like, “Technically I am a Mormon, but…” I’ve heard of others using the phrase “I was raised Mormon,” which I would love to use, except that I was an adult convert. Do the details really matter? Maybe the phrase “I used to be a Mormon” is an acceptable substitute.

However, there is one situation in which I always say yes: whenever I run into LDS missionaries. I’m not interested in arguing with them, and I’m not interested in their attempts to convert me, either. So I just say yes, I’m a Mormon; no, I don’t have any referrals; good luck, elders, and have a nice day.

When I sat down to consider this question, I was surprised to discover that my answer depends mostly on whether I feel like getting into a discussion. In a way, my approach feels a little shady, but I think I’m okay with it. How about you? How do you answer the question? Are you a Mormon?

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19 Responses

  1. Andrew S. says:

    I find that I try to get into a conversation any time someone asks…because I always do say something like, “Well…”

    And then even if I follow up with, “I used to be/I was raised one/Technically…” it invites further questions.

    I think I’m a straightforward case though…born and raised…it’s been interesting to read Madam Curie’s contrasting experiences with Catholicism though…

  2. Flygirl says:

    Yeah, I am the same as you Saganist, it depends whether or not I want to get into a conversation. A simple no usually seems not quite right, but a simple yes is definitely not the right answer. So I do the “I was raised Mormon, but…I no longer practice,” or some variation of that.

  3. chanson says:

    I’m in the same boat — neither “yes” nor “no” really captures it.

    The question comes up so rarely for me that I tend to launch into the whole elaborate explanation at the slightest provocation. 😉

    I have the same problem when I’m with my husband and kids and people ask us where we’re from. I usually just laugh and say “It’s a long story!” But if they want to hear it, we’ll tell them.

  4. John Moeller says:

    [Accidentally posted this on the wrong comment thread, apologies.]

    Since Ive started reading chanson (LFAB) and subsequently MSP, Ive always been extremely confused by this preoccupation with delineation, especially with respect to the Churchs rolls.

    When I became an atheist, I stopped being a Lutheran. It was gradual, but nonetheless, I have no internal conflict whatsoever. Whether the LCMS calls me a Lutheran or not is of very little importance when it comes to my identity.

    What is it about that document in the Churchs records in particular that causes so much personal conflict?

    Just a question from an outsider.

  5. Saganist says:

    John, I see where you’re coming from. It also seems strange to me that I can’t just say I’m an atheist and have that be the end of the story. Maybe it would be easier if my family weren’t still going to the LDS church, or if we didn’t live in Utah.

    I think part of it has to do with the tight coupling between Mormonism the religion and Mormonism the culture. At least in Utah (this may be true elsewhere too), when you’re a Mormon, it’s not just your religion, it’s a huge part of your identity. You go to school with Mormons, you hang out with Mormons, you go to Mormon activities, you talk about Mormon beliefs with your friends, and you try your best to live Mormonism every day. A change in beliefs can trigger a huge ripple effect in nearly every area of your life.

    Mormonism is a very in-group/out-group type of culture. I spent some time in Japan, and the Japanese culture is similar in that way. If you are not Japanese, you will never really be part of the in-group, and if you are Japanese, you will never really be part of the out-group regardless of where in the world you live. The analogy is not perfect, but I think Mormonism can be like that. So when the lines between in-group and out-group become blurry, as in the case of unbelievers who are still part of the Mormon religion or culture in some way, it can result in confusion about who we are and how we relate to the world without the nice schema we had previously internalized.

  6. Robert says:

    I usually say that I am not a Mormon (which it true because I had my name removed from the records several years ago), unless the person doing the asking happens to be a missionary, in which case I say that I am an apostate. I don’t say that in an attempt to upset or get a rise out of the missionaries, but rather because it tends to end the encounter very quickly.

    I do find, however, that if the conversation turns to Mormonism and I want to participate in the conversation that I will say that I was raised Mormon. I do this in order to try and establish some credibility. I certainly don’t try and sell myself as a leading authority on Mormon doctrine, but I do want to let people know that I know at least something about what I am talking about.

  7. John Moeller says:

    Certainly your particular family situation makes things more complicated. And indeed, Utah culture can be a lot more complicated than many think. Recently I’ve had to tolerate newcomers who think they’ve got the local culture pegged and feel entitled to rant about it at any opportunity, simply because they don’t like the liquor laws.

    I was not born here, but I’ve lived in Utah since I was four, so I understand the in-group/out-group mentality, at least from the out-group perspective. I think your example of not being able to stop being Japanese makes some sense (and in that respect, I will always be a “Utah gaijin”).

    But if that’s the case, can a former Mormon ever really claim that they’ve “moved on,” as you put it?

    I think that I should also rephrase my question: if one wishes not to be a Mormon, why does the Church’s record make a difference? Is this not, in effect, allowing another entity to define your identity?

  8. chanson says:

    John — I don’t think that being on the rolls of the CoJCoL-dS is that big a factor in retaining a Mormon identity. They’re not the only Mormon church. 😉

    I think that one reason people retain some Mormon identity (even non-believers) is because it’s kind of a strange minority culture — so you automatically have things in common with the people who have been a part of it. Sure, you also have things in common with other Lutherans, but since it’s not very far from generic, majority culture, it’s not quite the same…

  9. Andrew S says:

    re John:

    I’ll post this over here instead of from my post.

    The thing for me is that atheism doesn’t erase my past and heritage. I have to acknowledge, even in a crowd of fellow atheists, that I am markedly different in where I have come from than the others. So, even if we are in the same destination (in this case, atheism), I am always different as an ex-Mormon atheist. There’s a clear difference between an ex-Mormon and a non-Mormon…one has lived it and one has not.

    For me, church records aren’t the bother. Rather, it’s this residual inside. For me to say, “I’m not a Mormon,” would be to extinguish and censor 90% of my life.

    Does that make any sense? My conflict is in whether I should decide to eliminate and “drop” the past 90% of my life (and certainly, that percentage will go down as more and more time progresses…) or whether I should somehow find a way to remember and salvage something from it.

    I agree with Saganist’s analogy to ethnicity.

  10. John Moeller says:

    @chanson: While it may not be an important factor in retaining a Mormon identity, I have talked with several people for whom it is a major factor in shedding a Mormon identity.

    I should mention that for these same people, membership was a very negative experience, and the benefits were far outweighed by the drawbacks. Being removed from the rolls was seen as a major step for them. From my viewpoint, giving the same organization that gave you so much grief the control over your identity seems counterproductive.

    It now sounds like I’ve answered my own question, though, and I’m conflating two different groups of people (people traumatized and people reflective).

    @Andrew S: yes, thanks, that does make sense.

  11. chanson says:

    Well, it may be true that it’s a factor for some people in keeping vs. shedding a Mormon identity. I really can’t speak for those people.

    OTOH, I’ve met plenty of people who have resigned from the CoJCoL-dS who, nonetheless, retain a Mormon identity. A classic example would be my brother (John Hamer) who has cut ties with that one particular organization but has strongly embraced the greater Mormon community. Many people who embrace their Mormon identity don’t want it to be tied to that corporation.

  12. Saganist says:

    I agree with chanson and Andrew that it’s not church membership per se that is the defining issue. The fact that membership is not the single defining characteristic of what makes a person “Mormon” is what makes the question so tricky, and is one of the ideas that prompted this post.

    On the other hand, it certainly is a factor. One reason I can confidently say “yes, I’m a Mormon” (truthfully, even if it’s not the whole truth) is because I am currently a member of the LDS church. But it’s also partly because I have the experience of being a Mormon, and I don’t know whether that can be so easily excised.

    John, you ask a very good question. Is it possible to truly move on? And if someone wants to move on, what’s stopping them? I do think it is possible to make a clean exit from Mormonism, unlike making oneself un-Japanese. I haven’t done it, though. I’m not sure if I ever will, and maybe that’s okay.

    When I make the claim of having “moved on”, I’m referring only to my religious beliefs, though I have to interact personally with Mormonism on a daily basis. With my family situation, I expect to have to deal with it for the forseeable future. Sometimes I think resigning LDS membership would be a useful step in moving on, but in reality I don’t think it would make much difference because church membership is not what makes me a Mormon.

    If I sound a little confused, it’s probably because I am. 🙂 I appreciate everyone’s perspective on this, as it helps me think more clearly.

  13. John Moeller says:

    @chanson: Now your brother’s situation makes a lot of sense to me. Adhering to the principles that identify you, but rejecting the organization (whether it’s in protest or for other reasons). By resigning, you’re saying, “I dislike where you’re taking my community.”

    @Saganist: Thanks for tolerating my questions. 🙂 Clarity isn’t easy to come by. Good luck in your search for it.

  14. Holly says:

    this question is for anyone who might actually know the answer.

    is there any other church that keeps track of its members as assiduously as COJCOLDS? Is there, for instance, some centralized bureaucracy within, say, the baptist church or the lutheran church, where births, baptisms, missions, marriages, callings, church attendance are recorded?

    Do other centralized church corporations keep track of and forward their members addresses to local church authorities, so that the people with whom a member who attend church if they were active, could send birthday cards or leave cookies or whatever?

    I honestly don’t know if there is or isn’t any other church that tracks its members like the Utah Mormon church does, but I confess I would be surprised to learn that there is.

    For people who want to escape all that, the level of intrusion the Mormon church is willing to make into its inactive members’ lives, can feel a hell of a lot like harassment.

    so it can be pretty damn important to say, “You can’t claim me as a member any more, so quit calling me on my birthday, as if you were my friends and really gave a shit about me.”

    I admit I have worked hard to frustrate the record keepers, so that they can’t still send home teachers and so forth, because I have various reasons for not removing my name from the records of the church.

    But for all that, and for all the considerable trauma I’ve experienced through being Mormon, I’m definitely Mormon.

    I’m Mormon the way someone who saw combat is a veteran. I don’t see any point in pretending that some of the ugliness didn’t happen, and I don’t see the point in pretending that the experience of struggling (and failing) to find my place in this vast hierarchy, didn’t change me on some fundamental level. And I don’t see the point in pretending that I don’t have a very intense bond with people who went through the same thing.

  15. Andrew S says:

    Im Mormon the way someone who saw combat is a veteran. I dont see any point in pretending that some of the ugliness didnt happen, and I dont see the point in pretending that the experience of struggling (and failing) to find my place in this vast hierarchy, didnt change me on some fundamental level. And I dont see the point in pretending that I dont have a very intense bond with people who went through the same thing.

    Well stated, as always.

  16. John Moeller says:

    Holly: Thanks for your candid comments; it seems that my assumptions vis-a-vis identity and CJCLDS documents were ill-founded, even for those with traumatic experiences.

  17. Arthur says:

    I usually just say yes. A lot depends on whether you view your ties to Mormonism as belief/faith based or just cultural. Some people believe but don’t adopt the culture, some are ethnic Mormons but not particularly religious, many are both. My spirituality and heritage are my own, not something that can be taken from me just because someone in a dark suit speaking in patriarchal tones doesn’t agree with everything I believe.

  18. Arthur says:

    I usually just say yes. A lot depends on whether you view Mormonism as just a faith/belief, or a culture. Some people believe without adopting the culture, some people are ethnic Mormons without much religious activity, many people are both. My spirituality and heritage are mine, not something that can be taken away by someone in a dark suit speaking in patriarchal tones who might disagree with me on some things.

    And sometimes someone will say something like, “Oh, I thought Mormons didn’t drink coffee…” I just reply, “I never said I was a particularly ‘good’ Mormon.” By that point they laugh and they know where I stand.

  19. Madame Curie says:

    I’m an adult convert to Mormonism, but am almost entirely inactive now. I was raised Catholic.

    My answer to the question, “Are you Mormon?” would really depend on the situation. There is little to no reason why someone would randomly ask me if I was Mormon, since I no longer wear garments, I don’t keep the WoW, and live on the East where Mormons are not a household name. More often, the question is “What religion are you?” in which case, I would say “I was raised Catholic, but I am not currently interested in organized religion.”

    If it were the explicit, “Are you Mormon?” from a non-family Mormon, I would probably say, “Yes, but a highly unorthodox and non-practicing one.” That is the answer I have given to my bishop and other Church representatives who have asked where I am at spiritually. That answer usually gets them off my back. The same question from a non-Mormon would probably elicit a “No,” unless there is a specific reason that they would be surprised by that response (for example, if they found out of I was married in the temple. In that case, I would probably say, “I used to be.”)

    Sometimes (especially from former classmates), I am asked if I am still Catholic. I usually respond by saying I’m non-practicing. You can’t get the Catholic out of someone who was raised Catholic and went through 12 years of Catholic school. Its just not possible. No matter what I do or where I go, if someone were to ask that question of me, I would never be able to give a firm, “No.”

    I suspect that is the reason that most ex-Mormons have a similarly hard time just saying “No” to “Are you Mormon?”

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