Mormon Culture: Four Decades of Essays on Mormon Society and Personality

Mormon Culture is an assortment of essays on institutionalized and processual features of “Deseret Mormon” life. Topics range from the interplay of “Mormon folk” and “Mormon elite” to dissent, disagreement, and error in Mormon thought and from Mormons as cultural Americans to a beginning study of Mormon personality. The essays are written for lay audiences and are commendably clear and straightforward. In many ways, this is a book of hors d’oeuvres, analytical teasers—each essay introducing a topic and direction of analysis but never fully completing its program. Many of the essays are deliberately advocatory in tone, demonstrating the usefulness of anthropological analysis. While the described processes and quandaries of Deseret Mormon life are not unique to cultural Mormonism—but part and parcel of the difficulties of social and personal life everywhere in the world—it seems that some of these problems may be exacerbated in the modern Rocky Mountain West. In reviewing this book, I will look at the essays I found most thought provoking rather than attempting a critical summary of each one.

In “Mormon Folk and Mormon Elite,” Sorenson explores “two strands of Mormon culture” by juxtaposing Mormon elite (the ethos of the financially secure and the somewhat isolated hierarchy of Church leadership) with Mormon folk (the average, faithful Latter-day Saints who live in varying economic circumstances, endure sporadic uncertainty, and move in a world far less insulated than the world of the elites). By citing conflicting attitudes toward the repeal of prohibition, the fine arts versus blue collar entertainments, birth control, working mothers, and polygamy, Sorenson demonstrates the existence of two slightly different world views largely emanating from the material conditions of life—world views that create a certain amount of drift between leaders and followers. Such drifts have little or nothing to do with the core tenets of Latter-day Saint faith but instead with issues of practicality and American political and social life. Those moving in “higher circles” are portrayed as detached from some of the instabilities of life and therefore better able to pursue the “ideal,” while most of the “folk” believe in the ideal yet must confront it from very “real,” often insecure circumstances. The result is that elite and folk views influence each other through an uneasy process of accommodation. And more often than not, it is the hardline, ideal, elite positions of Mormon orthopraxy that soften over time.

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