Active, inactive – do Mormon labels work or wound?
Identity • LDS faith relies on doers, not just believers, to make its lay-clergy system work.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Two black women at IBM once asked Ken Kuykendall whether his core characteristic was as a man or as a white person. Would he, his co-workers wondered, be more comfortable in a room of 100 white women or 100 black men?

Caught off guard, Kuykendall felt he would stick out in both environments. Instead, he told them the next day, his most fundamental identity was as a Mormon.

"I would be absolutely 100 percent at ease in a room full of 100 Mormons, no matter their race, socioeconomic status, gender or nationality," the LDS man told them. "We could spend hours together, talking, discussing, sharing stories, all these shared assumptions, easy. Room full of Mormons, my home, total comfort zone."

One woman was incredulous, declaring with amazement, "But that's just a church."

The other one said, in a kind of stage whisper, "He's like a Jew."

For Kuykendall, who now lives in Raleigh, N.C., Mormonism is a church and a tribe. It encompasses his beliefs, his behavior, his community, his best friends, his aspirations, his future — indeed, his life.

Other members feel their relationship to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, as presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman famously said, "hard to define."

For them, the word "Mormon" is inadequate to capture the various ways people engage with the faith. And so they preface it with qualifiers: liberal, progressive, orthodox, intellectual, true blue, jack, new order, cultural, practicing, Utah, California and mission field.

Even many who have left the faith still rely on it as a linchpin for their identity — note all the websites for post-Mormons and the upcoming Ex-Mormons Conference.

And then there are the two most common monikers — despised by many but used by many more: active and inactive.

In or out • In 19th-century Utah, just being in a Mormon community — and not working against it — was enough to qualify you as a Latter-day Saint. No temple-recommend questions; no formal prohibition against coffee, tea, tobacco or alcohol; no required church attendance.

"They had a common history and a shared homeland," historian Jan Shipps says. "Whether they were practicing or not was irrelevant; they were Mormons."

After the faith abandoned polygamy in the 1890s and outsiders flooded Utah, a new way to identify who was in and who was out emerged: Its health code, known as the Word of Wisdom, became a requirement for admission into an LDS temple. Members could turn over their coffee cup or wine glass at parties to send an instant Mormon insider signal.

The ward (congregation) became the LDS community in which everyone has a "calling," or assignment. In addition to Sunday services, the church also added more programs for every age and interest group — basketball tournaments, short plays, dance contests, women's bazaars.

In the 1960s and '70s, a Mormon was defined, Shipps says somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as someone who "was preparing for a meeting, going to a meeting, in a meeting or going home from a meeting."

That's because an LDS congregation is staffed entirely by a lay clergy and a beehive of volunteers; the whole system would fail without having a predictable number of members willing to commit to "active" involvement.

Thus, rather than words such as "orthodox," "pious" or "practicing," Mormons use "active" and "inactive" to separate the fervent from the uncertain.

Catholic or Protestant clergy are pleased to see believers who faithfully worship with them every few months; Mormons expect much more.

The church essentially says a person is "active" as long as he attends at least once a month, but members generally assume that such a person will come more often than that, accept a position, take part in services and fulfill assignments.

You have to be engaged in an ongoing way, says Jana Riess, a Mormon writer and editor in Cincinnati. "God provides all these opportunities for us to grow by serving alongside people of all different temperaments, personalities and perspectives."

If a member attends church only occasionally and "in a passive mode," says Riess, who joined the LDS Church after studying to be a Protestant minister, "that's profoundly un-Mormon in and of itself."

Belief and behavior • Broadway's "Book of Mormon" megahit features a show-stopping solo about a missionary's faith. The refrain: "A Mormon just believes."

Certainly, many members take to heart whatever the church or its leaders preach over the pulpit. But some wrestle with fundamental teachings and embrace unorthodox ideas, including metaphorical explanations for history and scripture.

They call themselves Mormons and so does the church — as long as they live LDS standards and refrain from pushing their alternative views publicly. And they are still part of the church's global faith, an extended family of sorts in which members call one another "brother" and "sister."

"Mormons have a shared identity and origin narrative, with a common language, traditions and life ways," says Tona Hangen, a Latter-day Saint who teaches U.S. history at Worcester State University in Massachusetts, "a sense of distinctiveness from others and consciousness of belonging."

In this system, the term "active" is "a kind of shorthand for what is, in reality, levels or degrees along a spectrum of engagement," Hangen writes in an email. "It's not simply an on-off switch. … There is a dynamism of faith, a sense of continual movement, of never resting. Mormons strive. The faithful fret about possible backsliding (of themselves, their family members, their neighbors, ward members or people over whom they have stewardship). One is in constant motion."

Those who reject some of the practices as well as teachings create a relationship to the faith that is, well, complicated. They may stop participating as fully but still wince when called "inactive."

It seems to imply a less-than-worthy participant, says LDS sociologist Armand Mauss, from Irvine, Calif., and might give offense.

If the label "inactive" clashes with a person's sense of identity, Mauss says, it can seem "condescending or invidious."

Ron Scott, a Boston-based journalist, knows how that feels.

He was "annoyed, embarrassed and offended" when a prominent, senior LDS leader referred to Scott in a large meeting as an "inactive Mormon."

"I was shocked, actually," Scott writes in an email.

A better term, he says, would have been "unconventional," although "that too would have been misleading."

Scott prefers the term "engaged Mormons" because it challenges members "who are only going through the motions but really aren't engaged in any meaningful or productive way."

"Coasting Mormon," Scott says, "seems an apt term, too."

Pros and cons of labels • Questions about another's level of belief and practice may seem useful, some say, when trying to put people in general categories. But it oversimplifies complex relationships.

Such labels are "not at all useful," says Anne Castleton, director of disaster-risk reduction at Mercy Corps in Oregon, "to answer the more interesting questions of who we really are, what we care about and why and how did I get where I am now in my spiritual journey."

Case in point: Castleton herself.

Despite her decidedly unorthodox approach to Mormon doctrine and practice — even having her name removed from church records for a time — Castleton always has been involved with her LDS community.

"While there are many doubts about what I believe," she writes in an email, "there are no doubts about me being 'active.' "

In recent years, says Brian Birch, professor of religious studies at Utah Valley University, the LDS Church has worked to "sharpen [Mormons'] self-identification."

The faith launched a nationwide "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign, featuring members from varied backgrounds, touting the fact that they were multifaceted, diverse and devout.

But with this push and other messages, Birch says, has come "an increased stigma associated with those who are not practicing members of the church."

Consider the evolution of the term "Jack Mormon."

A Jack Mormon once referred to a guy who drank coffee or a glass of wine with dinner, maybe smoked a cigar and went fishing on Sunday, but who was still considered part of the Mormon tribe. To many, it was an appellation of affection. Legend has it that an LDS president, possibly Spencer W. Kimball, said he liked the smell of tobacco in church because it meant "a smoker felt welcome."

The label "Jack Mormon," Birch says, was a "legitimate way to communicate an identity and was associated with a range of attitudes and behaviors that remained within the Mormon family."

That moniker is rarely heard today, he says, and when it is, it is almost always "devoid of the endearing qualities it once possessed."

Instead, it is a form of "boundary maintenance," Birch says, "in which those who self-identify as Mormons, but do not practice the faith, are viewed with increased suspicion. The dynamics of Mormonism in the global arena have moved toward an identity more closely tied to clean living and faithful practice, leaving less room in the Latter-day Saint imagination for the Jack Mormon."

There is no smell of smoke or temple-recommend checking online, however. And that has prompted little communities of like-minded Mormons to spring up and expand church-imposed boundaries.

Latter-day Saints today are "freer to dissent," Hangen says. "I see this in the Blogger-nacle world, where some writers do not hesitate to call out [an LDS] general authority for something said in a talk, or who address themselves directly to church leaders in open letters, or openly form organizations while remaining 'active' in the church so that they can be a voice for change."

There is new candor, Hangen believes, among members who say, "I'm faithful but I disagree here or here and my perspective deserves to be heard."

Giving up the name • So when is it time for someone to jettison the Mormon label?

Anyone who is a baptized and confirmed member of the LDS Church is, in fact, a Latter-day Saint, regardless of how often he or she attends church or adheres to its theology or behavioral code, says Patrick Mason, head of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University in Southern California. Members can lose this affiliation, whether through "voluntarily withdrawal or through church discipline, but short of that, they 'count.' "

In fact, vast numbers in the 14 million-member faith remain on church rolls but rarely if ever set foot in a church building. Many of them may not see themselves as LDS.

Still, if people want to call themselves Mormon, that is their prerogative, Mason says. "In the modern world, nobody gets to be the identity police."

So what happens when a member's relationship to the LDS community is permanently broken, yet Mormonism remains an essential part of the person's core self?

Many don't want to remove their names from church rolls and others wear the label with affection, though it has lost most of its presumed meaning.

Wilfried Decoo, a longtime Mormon in Belgium who spent many years teaching at Brigham Young University, worries that the more the LDS Church narrowly defines what a Mormon should be, "the more we lose Mormons."

There are many Mormons, he writes in an email, "who would like to keep their Mormon ID, but with less-stringent constraints on what can be viewed as trivial without moral implications. For Mormon leaders and teachers, it becomes a balancing act if they want to avoid chasing out good people."

Just being on the rolls probably isn't "enough of a touchstone for someone to reasonably identify themselves as Mormon," writes Steve Evans, a Mormon lawyer in Wisconsin. "The essence of faith is wrestling with the specter of nonbelief, so most of us are in this category at some point or another. It's helpful for people to identify themselves as Mormon even if they don't believe, for belonging to the community, keeping up appearances for their family's sake, etc., and I don't begrudge them the right to consider themselves Mormon."

After all, they're probably more Mormon than they are white or black, man or woman, Nebraskan or Nevadan — or anything else, for that matter.

pstack@sltrib.com —

Types of Mormons

You won't find these terms in the church handbook, but they pop up frequently in LDS culture.

Liahona • Believes that truth is discovered through open-ended spiritual inquiry; named after a kind of spiritual compass that is depicted in the Book of Mormon

Iron Rod • Believes the way to eternal life is through obedience to God and church teachings; named after a Book of Mormon metaphor for "holding fast" to principles, as in the biblical "strait is the gate."

Progressive • Believes in doctrine and principles, but thinks many issues are open to interpretation and pushes for changes.

New Order (NOM) • Doesn't believe all the teachings, but remains involved with the church for personal reasons. Name suggested by the term New Order Amish, which is less strict and more open to modernity than the Old Order Amish. Like the Amish groups, NOMs hold to strong standards of personal behavior and family loyalty.

True Believing (TBM) • Accepts all the teachings and lives all the practices.

Jack Mormon • May believe some of the teachings, but doesn't follow all the practices; likely born into the faith and retains some affection for it.

Utah • Has always lived near LDS headquarters and where Mormons are in the majority.

Mission-field • Lives outside the Mormon corridor in the West, where church members are in the vast minority.

Lifer • Born in the faith.

Convert • Joined voluntarily from some other faith or no faith.

Cultural • A multigenerational member who no longer believes or practices, but feels an affinity for the Mormon tribe.