“Peoplehood” Rocks…

September 25, 2007

…But Churches are a Dime a Dozen.

Part 2: Second Reaction to the talk by Jan Shipps, “No Mormon Church? – What’s Going on Here?” in “Sunstone Classic Podcasts”

As a Jew, one of the things that I identify with when interacting with Mormons is that we both (at least some of us apparently) have a sense of “Peoplehood.” No matter how disparate we might be on a variety of issues we still identify with other members of the tribe, for better or worse. For example, Mormons cringe when the news media discusses radical polygamists like Warren Jeffs and identifies them with the Mormon Church. Mormons routinely disavow any association with these groups (While simultaneously identifying with Jews, to general Jewish amazement!). It was painful for some of my Mormon friends when, a few years ago, a Salt Lake LDS stake president who was also a church attorney was arrested under a bridge with a prostitute.

Similarly, in the mid 1990’s when New York physician Baruch Goldstein, shot two dozen Muslim worshipers at the tomb of Abraham in Hebron, the Jewish community in my town (about 30,000) collectively took out a full page ad in our largest newspaper condemning the act.

On the other, I don’t get similar reactions from my Evangelical friends. When Ted Haggard, president of the American Association of Evangelicals and the pastor of a mega-church in Colorado was exposed as soliciting gay prostitutes and taking meth, the reaction was, “Well, he’s just another false Christian.” Oh, they distanced themselves certainly. But there was no personal pain — It was more of, well, he got what was coming to him.

Why is this?

I believe it is because both Mormons and Jews are “peoples.” While Evangelicals are merely members of “churches.” “Peoples” have a cultural interconnectedness that transcends matters of doctrine or official association. Argue if you will but there is a “Home” for Mormons and it is Utah. Phrases like “cultural Mormon” or “Ethnic Mormon” are symptomatic of this. These folks may not go to church. They may not keep the word of wisdom. They may not believe in the Book of Mormon. Yet, they are “Mormons” of a sort. It’s in the DNA. They may well be willing to give their lives for the church while simultaneously criticizing it. Perhaps this is only a feature of the Mormon core region in the intermountain west (and probably west coast), but it is certainly a phenomenon I’m aware of.

Jews are similar.

We all know we have a “home” and for better or worse, it’s Israel.  This “homing sense” is so great that even after two thousand year at what was seemingly our low point in the days immediately after the Holocaust, we reestablished the state at tremendous cost.  Incidentally, I think it is precisely the power of the Jewish sense of “home” that has inspired the Jewish-Mormon connection.  Joseph and Brigham tapped into our energy and created a people with a home.  Interestingly, I’ve taught the first verse of “Israel Israel God is Calling” to a class of Jewish kids.  It works without translation, as do a surprising number of Mormon Hymns, in a purely Jewish context.  Anyway, this sense of home creates deep roots.

We vary according to “activity level.” (We call it “observance” — Mormons are “active” but Jews “Observe”). My synagogue has 3000 members on the books. On a regular Shabbat, we are lucky to have 600 show up. On holidays however, all 3000 show and our facility is strained to the maximum. I suspect that of the 2400 who are no-shows, at least half wonder if they personally believe in God (Recent Jewish history has taken it’s toll on Jewish faith). Still, they support the synagogue, send their kids to Hebrew school and show up on holidays. We have bitter inter-Jewish debates on issues of “observance” (In this case how to keep the commandments — we argue less on actual theology, but that’s changing lately). There’s a joke that on any subject two Jews will have at least three contradictory opinions. Yet, where the rubber hits the road, we’re all related and will sacrifice to help each other when in need. We feel each other’s achievements and pains personally and viscerally.

Do people in mere “churches” feel this way? Somehow, I don’t think so.

“Churches” are more convenient and more adapted to modern life to be sure.  However, they feel less rooted, more atomistic and kind of superficial to me.  To me, as an outside observer, it seems as though, for most Americans today, “Church shopping” is a  lot like clothes shopping.  Jan Shipps believes that the LDS “Bretheren” want to make Mormonism less like a “people” and more like a “church.”

For your sake, I hope she’s wrong.

Moshe Akiva



  1. I hope she’s wrong, too. I like being a “people” within my LDS faith.

    But, I also understand that it can be insular, and therefore, unwelcoming to outsiders. An Us vs. Them kind of situation which can lead to conflict.

    So, how do we keep our “people-ness” while still being inclusive of others? I think that instead of a church as an institution trying to do that (which I feel lessens the strength of belonging), we, as individual members, need to do it through our daily interactions.

  2. I don’t know. We Jews have our issues with outsiders, though not in my area — I’m a western Jew. We’re very friendly, on average. We also have a lot of converts and we are not even trying to make them! Sometimes I think that we western Jews are a brand unto ourselves. (My neighborhood is probably one of the few in the world that is about 20% Jewish and 20% LDS).

    Part of the reason we westerners seem more welcoming and open, I hypothesis is that many old-time western Jews (including myself as well as Levi-strauss and Fred Meyer) are from German-Jewish families that set out here in the nineteenth century long before the holocaust. We retained our peoplehood yet never experienced the effects of extreme persecution. Lots of eastern Jews as well as many or most Israelis are descended from holocaust survivors. Those folks have plenty of reasons besides their peoplehood to be suspicious of outsiders.

    The bottom line is that I don’t think that peoplehood and inclusivity are necessarily opposites.

  3. In my experience, the “peoplehood” within the Church is alive and well. I have felt a sense of kinship and real brotherhood regardless of place, culture, or language. I’ve attended church services in Costa Rica, Panama, throughout the US, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Kuwait, and Iraq. It is felt by Mormons who are in no way related the “core” of genetic descendents of 1800’s Western pioneers. I agree with you that peoplehood and inclusiveness are not necessarily opposites. For us, the sense of peoplehood is formed by holding common beliefs and values, and understanding and experiencing the world in similar ways. That commonality engenders feelings of trust and kinship. And since they are belief and value-based, they can be felt by “genetic” Mormons as well as converts like Yours Truly.

  4. I’m not sure how I found this blog (the link was in my RSS reader).. but I’m here and I’d like to visit often. So I thought I’d just quickly say “Hi, I’m Heidi and I’m a Latter-day Saint”

    Being “a people” is what makes us peculiar to the general church goers. As a people, we stretch our beliefs and actions beyond just the Sabbath day, believing that God’s laws are everyday.

    I think it was part one that asked about the term “Christian”.. when I was a child, I remember being asked if I was a Christian and I honestly didn’t know what it meant to be able to answer the question. I thought that “Christian” was a specific organized religion.. I know I was very young, but I really found it odd, then, that I had no familiarity to the word/term.

    With all of that said ,though, I do consider myself a Christian.

    Thank you for allowing my comment.
    ~Heidi near Charleston, SC, USA

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