Not an active Mormon or an ex-Mormon, but something in between

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NPR Cultural Mormons

On Sunday, NPR ran a story on the growing prominence of the “cultural Mormon” – someone who is inactive or less active in the LDS Church but happy to keep the Mormon label.

“I consider myself a cultural Mormon,” says Christy Clegg, who grew up active in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I don’t attend regular church services on Sunday, but I very much identify with my Mormonism.”

The group is called Feminist Home Evening. It’s a play on words. Mormon families are encouraged to have Family Home Evening — a night at home — once a week.

Like Clegg, these women represent a spectrum of belief, but it is their Mormon background that unites them.

“The thing that’s interesting is I can see another person that grew up Mormon and no longer attends or whatever their level of connection is, and there’s that automatic connection,” Clegg says.

The women profiled in the story might drink coffee, or believe women should be ordained to the priesthood, or disagree with the Church’s stance on LGBT issues. All of these positions put them at odds with traditional LDS belief and practice – but they’re still not willing to shed the moniker “Mormon.”

In my oral history interviews so far for The Next Mormons book, I’ve seen this too. I have been talking to current and former Mormons of all persuasions. Among the former Mormons, one thing that has struck me is how blurry the lines actually are sometimes between “active” and “inactive.”

To hear the LDS Church – and, at the other extreme, ex-Mormons — frame this narrative, there is an on-off switch between activity and non-activity. Either people are active or they’re not. Either they believe in the church or they don’t. Either they are in or they are out.

The realities are murkier. Some people attend faithfully and hold a calling while harboring serious religious doubts; others are true believers but stay home from church for a variety of reasons.

Often, they still love spending time with other Mormons and former Mormons. This is not an identity you easily slough off like a piece of clothing. One young man in his 20s told me that while he doesn’t believe in the Church anymore, he still goes to Institute regularly because he loves the scriptures and talking about them with other people. He’s also not at all interested in joining a different church:

Probably never. That is one very Mormon thing that I have never been able to shake, is the condescending pride of Mormonism as the only one, and seeing other churches as kind of broken. That’s a hard thing, I think. But I will say that having greatly reduced my activity in Mormonism, I do get excited when religion and spirituality come up in conversation, or when a song comes on with a biblical allusion.

I’d like to see the term “cultural Mormon” become more widely used to describe the large group of people who inhabit this in-between space. These are not ex-Mormons or anti-Mormons. Many of them are quite nuanced believers.

What’s interesting to me is that Mormonism used to have a term to describe exactly those who inhabited this same liminal space. They were called “Jack Mormons” – people who were on the margins of the LDS Church but still a recognized part of the Mormon community. The term “Jack Mormon” evolved over time but came to refer to people a little on the outskirts of the LDS Church but sympathetic to its beliefs and especially to its members.

Of course, the “Jack Mormon” label doesn’t allow for the fact that at least half of these folks are likely women, as the NPR story shows. It’s also not a term that is immediately obvious to anyone who doesn’t already know what it means. It assumes an insider status.

So: “cultural Mormon.” It’s descriptive; it’s gender-inclusive; it’s non-pejorative. I like it.