I just got through reading Malcom Gladwell’s new book, Outliers: The Story of Success. Briefly, the book is about the story of success and an attempt to debunk the myth of the solitary genius and the self-made man/woman/person. Gladwell’s premise is that circumstance, societal support, hard work and culture account for success as much as any Seven Habits.
Now Gladwell has made a fortune writing books that are provocative and challenge conventional wisdom: The Tipping Point and Blink are his two previous efforts. He challenges traditional thought, but as is often the case with provocateurs he can go overboard in his attempts, winning him as many critics as fans, but take him for what he is – someone who makes us reconsider our world view. From that standpoint, Gladwell succeeds.
As I was reading his book, I realized how much my Mormon culture influences me in my life. I’ve had the opportunity in the past few years to watch how it shows up in the behavior of people who have left the church and people who remain in the church.
I went back one hundred and seventy eight years ago to 1830. The fledgling church was persecuted from its outset. I grew up with the stories of Hauns Mill and Brigham’s miraculous flight across the frozen Mississippi and then the trek west to escape persecution. I remember the stories of my ancestors tricking the federal government’s army as they marched on Utah. Our culture was one of rejection and persecution.
What a wonderful irony that the most profound and frequent sentiment in the Ex-Mormon community is directly from their own culture: they feel rejected and persecuted by the predominant culture. Ex-Mormon’s are being their best cultural Mormon selves when they talk like this.
If you don’t believe that Mormons still feel this way, just listen to the constant dialogue about Mitt Romney on KSL radio. Mormons still feel rejected by the American mainstream. "They say we aren’t Christians." I daresay that Utah’s devout allegiance to the status quo in government over the past eight years is yet another indication of our cultural past as the Mormons try and prove at the ballot box that they belong and are the most patriotic of patriots.
Mormons are a peculiar cultural mix. We have our religious culture. We have the culture of the West. We have the American culture as well. These collective cultural forces converge on us as individuals today and I think we are foolish, as Malcom Gladwell suggests, to ignore the cultural forces that are shaping our successes and failures.
Mormon religion is as Harold Bloom described it: "The American Religion." Now, Bloom has much more extended thesis, but observing American cultural trends manifest in the Mormon religion is a fascinating exercise. Joseph Smith’s story is all about rugged individualism, challenging authority and finding the truth for oneself. (Again, Ex-Mormons are showing their true cultural heritage in defying authority and trying to assert the truth for themselves.) What could be more American? Joseph Smith is the American version of a religious leader, declaring his independence from all the sects of his day. Does this story resonate with us because we are Mormon? Because we are American? Both?
We waste too much of our time arguing about religious detritus and end up ignoring the profound and important impact belief, culture and heritage have on us, whether we profess belief in a religion or not.