Monday, January 6, 2014

The Mormon Drive

Before reading the below post, please know that I acknowledge Mormon culture has flaws, plenty of them. Also, please know that I am using the term "excel" in the same regard as Amy Chua (namely $$ and education). My own definition of excel would differ. Money is neither success nor happiness. 

It was brought to my attention today that Amy Chua is out with another controversial book. I personally loved her last one, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua struck me as someone who wasn't afraid to be controversial by telling the truth, but also as someone who doesn't take herself too seriously. I know a lot of readers felt she took herself way too seriously (she did refuse a hand made birthday card from her young daughter one year "this stinks, make me a better one," she said as she ripped it to shreds). She has been accused of claiming Chinese parents are superior to typical American parents, but I didn't see it that way. In the book's finale she does something appalling, she responds to her teenage daughter the way a typical American parent would. And you sense she is actually relieved by the act.

So in short, I think she was grossly misunderstood.

Now, this second time around, she'll be naming me, or my cultural group rather, the superior American. She and her husband (both Yale Professors) looked at hard data and statistics (income, test scores, education level, etc) to prove that eight American cultures are more successful than the rest. The eight groups are Mormons, Jews, Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Nigerians, Lebanese, and Cubans. There is obviously a lot of flaw in their argument. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence on all sides of such a thesis. But the mere idea that an author I admire has published a book naming my own cultural group as one that has excelled in America is quiet fascinating to me.

The book is titled The Triple Package, and it claims that three unique traits explain the rise (or fall) of American cultural groups. The three traits are: a sense of superiority, insecurity, and impulse control. The first two sound as though they would contradict each other, but if you look at the two aforementioned religions alone it makes a bit of sense. There is a long history of Judaism, one that teaches they are a chosen people. Mormons believe there is one true religion, and they have it. On the flip side, Jews the whole world over have experienced much persecution, and Mormons in America have had their fair share of violent attacks and media/artistic mockery. So yes, on the surface it is easy to claim these groups feel superior and simultaneously insecure.

However, it saddens me that people would view Mormons as seeing ourselves as superior. One of the most basic tenants of our faith is that we are all children of a Divine Father in Heaven, and that He loves all His children. That He has prepared a way for all His children to return to His presence, not just the Mormons.

That aside, I'd like to address what I think it is about The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints that drives Mormons to excel.

We are a goal setting people. The youth programs of our Church are designed around goal setting, personal growth, and achievement. Boys and girls age 8 to 11 work on a Faith in God award and Young Women ages 12 to 18 work on Personal Progress award. I am more familiar with the later. I do remember the former required lots of scriptural memorization and skill development during my younger years. The later required a great deal of scripture study, personal record keeping, continued skill development, and community service hours. A lot of community service hours. Eighty hours worth of planning, leading, and serving. Young Mormon Males participate in the Boy Scouts of America program and are expected to earn both the Eagle Scout award and the Duty to God award.

On top of that, our entire organization functions through unpaid service. All three hours of our church service are performed and taught through unpaid worship. This means that as young as 4-years-old I was to stand in front of my peers (ages 3 to 11) and offer group prayers, read scripture verses, give spiritually themed talks, etc, etc. One of my clearest childhood memories is of accompanying a group of 50 kids as they sang (very loudly) Book of Mormon Stories. I'd practiced the song a hundred times, but nothing could have prepared me for the sing-a-long. My knuckles were pure white as I lay them on the piano keys, and the little girl who had been excited to share her talent with her peers was suddenly terrified. But I kept accompanying, until this day. I've sang in front of entire congregations, and even spoke as a teen in front of congregation of over 700 people.

I don't say these things to sound boastful, but merely to point out that from a young age active Mormons are given opportunities that may be unique to other American children.

To speak more directly to Chua's points, I think the biggest factor of her triple package is the impulse control. Mormons live by a fairly strict moral code. The Word of Wisdom forbids us from drinking coffee, alcohol, and tea. It is also a guide for healthy eating and exercise. But what most people know about it is that we learn to say "no" to common household drinks. The Law of Chastity forbids any sexual relationships outside of marriage between one man and one woman. In pamphlets studied by the youth, we are taught to forgo any passionate kissing until marriage, this helps us avoid the temptation for more sexual behavior. Mormons also give 10% of their income to the Church as tithing, and additional funds are donated, as desired, to separate funds like humanitarian aid, missionary service, etc, etc.

Mormons don't like to look at all this as "things we can't." We try to focus on the blessings this living standard affords us, but obviously there is no denying that this code of conduct creates a strong sense of impulse control. And the most beautiful part of the whole process is that when we error (and we all will) we know we can repent and strengthen our impulse control with the help of Jesus Christ.

As for the insecurity, I do think there is a sort of competition (for good or bad) within local Mormon communities to succeed. Growing up nearly every Mormon adult I knew had spent some time living abroad, or at least outside of my small Utah farming town. Many spoke a second language as a result of their time abroad. This gave me a George Bailey like starry-eye for the great big world around me. I loved growing up in the security of a small farm community where everyone knows your name, but I always knew I had a simple way out, college and an LDS mission. These two life goals almost became a way to prove myself to that little community where everyone knew my name.

I'd also (almost jokingly) add that within the Mormon community there is a sort of superiority that surrounds admittance to BYU-Provo. I never had the grades or brains needed to attend such an elite LDS school, so kudos to those who do!

I am curious to read how Chua explains Mormon superiority and insecurity. I definitely think I'll be checking her book out from my local library. Hopefully it proves as entertaining as the last. I'm sure it will be just as controversial, if not even more controversial than her debut novel.

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