I’m off visiting family for a few days, which brings with it the pleasure of browsing someone else’s bookshelf. I came across Reflections on Mormonism: Judaeo-Christian Parallels (1978), one of the early volumes in the excellent monograph series from BYU’s Religious Studies Center. The short and intriguing lead article is an essay by noted sociologist of religion Robert N. Bellah titled “American Society and the Mormon Community.” Doctrine and history make for great discussion, but what the LDS Church really offers the sincere believer in our increasingly fragmented and disconnected society is a community. Not a sense of community or some mythical “church universal,” but an actual, functioning community of fellow-believers — what Mormons often refer to as “the kingdom of God,” a reference to the Church as an earthly and human institution, contrasted with “the kingdom of heaven,” whatever comes later.
In the early fifties, Bellah spent three months in Ramah, a small Mormon town in New Mexico, doing his graduate field work. Thomas O’Dea was there as well, part of the same research project. It was this experience that gave Bellah the material for his short essay on Mormon community. After comparing the similarity of the Puritan and Mormon experience building their respective Zions and contrasting “the communitarian vision of society as knit together by the bonds of love” with “the individualist vision of society existing only for the self-interest of individuals,” he goes on to praise the Mormon community he observed in this small Mormon town in 1953.
There was an extraordinary vitality of collective life …. Most of the functions in that community were carried out by voluntary association, by getting together with fellow members of the community (which, because it was almost exclusively a Mormon town, meant fellow members of the Mormon Church) to meet whatever needs the community had.
But it wasn’t just a small-town thing that was at work here. He notes that “the basic Mormon understanding of life was clearly the ground plan for daily existence in that community” and that the Mormon plan of salvation “dominated the lives of people and gave meaning and coherence to everything they did.” He continues:
The community was valued as a place where people cared about each other, were concerned for each other. I don’t want to give the impression that there were no tensions, no gossip, no family factions as there are in all small communities, Mormon or otherwise, because all those things were there. And yet the quality of life was extraordinarily fulfilling within its own terms.
Readers may agree or disagree whether Bellah’s description of community as manifest in a small Mormon town in 1953 is still reflected in the experience of present-day Mormons in the wide variety of Mormon congregations and communities of 2009. But I think it is accurate to say that, for most active Mormons, it is still true that participation in LDS congregations and membership in the Church as a global institution offers a “quality of life” that is “extraordinarily fulfilling within its own terms.” And this seems to hold true despite quibbles or serious disagreement with the Church that some Mormons have on issues of doctrine, practice, politics, or history.