Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Mormons, the Media, and Me

For reasons I can't quite figure out, Mormons have been getting a lot of media coverage lately. From cable TV to obscure blogs (hi!), everybody's talking about Mormons and talking about people talking about Mormons. Frankly it's nice to go beyond cheap polygamy jokes and to actually be a part of the national conversation to some extent. Still, between the multitude of media outlets, talking heads, commentators, journalists, bloggers, and trolls, some controversial stuff has managed to find its way out there. Some of that stuff is uncomfortable and even unpleasant. Some of it doesn't bother me too much. Some of it does. Here are a few thoughts on the matter.

Things I am Officially Okay with:

"Are Mormons Christian?"
An old sectarian debate enters the public square. Mormons, of course, self-identify as Christian and contemporary Christians - especially conservative evangelicals - disagree. I am fine with this debate, because it plays into larger, more interesting questions like what Christianity means and even broader ideas about ownership of words and how they're used to mark group identities. There is a lot of naivety on both sides, from Mormons who don't understand the doctrinal and cultural issues at stake when mainstream Christians disparage their Christian credentials to the same mainstream Christians who uncritically assume definitions of Christianity that ignore the historical realities of how their supposed-orthodoxy came about. To me it's a fascinating, if sometimes frustrating, discourse (the "Christian/Cult" argument is the bastardized, idiot National Enquirer version). And of course the Christianity question parallels the LDS relationship with fundamentalist Mormons on what "Mormon" means and who owns that word, so double fun!

Mormons and Women / Mormons and Minorities
This is an area where a lot of church members become indignant, especially when sloppy critics paint the church solely as a parochial club for white men in Utah and not a huge international organization with millions of members. Nevertheless, the church does has an uncomfortable history with race that deserves to be examined. Explanations that suffice in regular church discussion won't satisfy a political world that ignores premises of priesthood, prophesy, and revelation. And attitudes about women, especially in gender roles and leadership capabilities, are by church leaders' admission out of step with modern values, and so deserve scrutiny. If we're going to be in the world, the world gets its say too.

Strange Doctrines
Mormons believe some weird stuff. The Garden of Eve in Missouri? Ancient Jews in fourth-century upstate New York? A polygamist prophet who seems an awful lot like a philanderer? Future godhood? Plus there are embarrassing folk doctrines like black skin as a curse and the inerrant, divine origin of capitalism (please let these doctrines be false...) Thoughtful commentators have noted that Mormon eccentricity stems as much from its newness as anything - few Christians sputter in outrage over Old Testament strangeness - but if people want to know what Mormons believe then there's a lot more than what Preach My Gospel says, and we don't get to be the sole gatekeepers of how that information is disseminated. Unfortunately the result is plenty of sensationalizing and demonizing from critics, but I believe it's healthy to have more information out there on a historically secretive church. It could even help members be prepared to explain aspects of faith beyond the basics to inquisitive friends.

Things I am Not Okay with:

This kind of thing drives me nuts. It's common knowledge, to those who have done cursory research, that Mormons refer to outsiders as Gentiles. And maybe that's the Journal of Discourses. Is there any informal situation where modern Mormons call non-members "Gentiles" anymore? Maybe it's a stupid, pedantic point but to me it's a red flag: "Warning, this person has little firsthand experience with contemporary Mormonism." It's probably unfair to expect nonmorm...excuse, me, Gentile writers to know Mormon idiosyncrasies and vocabulary very well, but it never fails to annoy when I see widespread cultural norms distorted or misrepresented, especially when plenty of Mormons would be willing to set things straight.

Church vs Temples
This is another error that usually comes from ignorance rather than malice, but it's also something where a little research goes a long way. I recently read an article asserting that nonmembers are not allowed in LDS churches while extolling the extensive missionary program. Presumably we're making investigators sit outside or something, making them press their faces to the windows to read the speakers' lips. Maybe that's why so many high-baptizing missions are in warm climates.

Fanciful LDS Hierarchies
Again, vocabulary, and again, research! I've seen several authors wonder whether Mitt Romney's high position in LDS leadership means the church is secretly sponsoring his campaign. Because, you know, the synod of stake presidents decreed it.  Analyzing the church's role in politics is valid. Doing so in stupid ways is aggravating.

Umm, Guys, I'm RIGHT HERE
This is something Joanna Books has touched on at Religion Dispatches - in this ongoing conversation about Mormonism, Mormons are - believe it or not - part of the discussion. You can't talk about Mormons like they're not in the room. We're all over the place. Big Mormons, small Mormons, church-representing Mormons, scholarly Mormons, scholarly nonmormons who study Mormons, ex-Mormons, super-active Mormons, liberal Mormons, literal-believing Mormons, fundamentalist Mormons, gay Mormons, poor Mormons, feminist Mormons. There are Mormons for any occasion! And that's why there is no excuse for not talking Mormon opinions into account, even if you want to disagree with them. But disagreeing is much easier when you lump all Mormons together. To hacks like Robert Jeffries and Bill Maher Mormons are so out there, so different, and so dumb that we're not even worth having a dialogue with in any of our varieties. Mormons are a homogenous, scary Other, to be mocked or attacked, not to be heard or spoken with. If these critics bothered looking, they'd likely find some Mormons they agreed with on a lot of issues. They might even start a few conversations. But I don't expect this to change because it's just easier to label and demonize than understand and talk. Mormons, they're no good; forget 'em?* Just like those treasonous liberals, and those ignorant conservatives, and those snooty intellectuals, and those terrorist muslims,  those Catholics, those homosexuals, those young people, those rich people, those Europeans, and all those other -ites too.

*In my mind this sentence sounds like a George Carlin rant so if your values permit please substitute the profanity of your choice here to get my full meaning, and add a few more for effect.


  1. I really like this--great post. It seems like there are so many valid things people could actually converse about, but everyone spends their time talking past each other or focusing on trivialities.

  2. Tonight I was describing who is and is not allowed into various parts of the temple to one of my roommates. In wanting to clarify that the temple does not work along Masonic, military, or pyramid scheme dynamics to the point that you just keep progressing in some form of promotion, I found myself saying, "In many ways, being able to go and participate in the temple does not operate hierarchically in the way you generally think...while all the time being incredibly hierarchical."

    When it comes to fanciful hierarchies, I think you're right, there tends to be a lack of research into the cultural and social dynamics which are pretty paramount to thinking about how power, positions, and authority operate. This is odd especially for a vetting process in which the vetting concerns the candidacy of a potential presidential nominee. The hierarchies don't work like the media assumes they do, while all the time being incredibly hierarchical. Who wouldn't want to delve into that and parse that out. You know, get at the meat of what individual candidates believe about governmental power and executive authority as informed by any number of standards, be they moral, spiritual, racial, economic, gendered, etc. I heard Joanna Brooks say something similar to that effect a few months ago on an NPR podcast.

    All of that said, I think the lack of research, while pathetic, bears some room for grace. How hierarchy functions in the church (like how hierarchy functions in any specific circumstance) has its own particular ticks. Parsing through the details is irksome to the soundbite coverage that comprises most televised journalism; however, it's also just plain hard. Would that we all were anthropologists or ethnographers, but lo this is not the case.

    I wonder if there's anything we can do to address that or is that simply something one pushes on along with in this "Mormon moment." How exactly did America come to terms with its concerns about papal interventions negatively impacting or limiting democracy? When that was an expressed concern during Kennedy's election, how has that not even become an issue for John Kerry or Newt Gingrich? I need to know more about the history of Catholicism in America. Are there parallels there to be made or learned from, or did it really come from the assassination of Camelot's president? Just wondering if there's a way to take your final point where we can point out there is a presence and have that guide how we influence or shape the discussion on church hierarchies.

  3. I wonder how much of Catholicism's decline as a such a perceived menace has to do with the liberalization of the church after the Second Vatican Council. Granted my knowledge of all this is very limited, but it makes sense that the pre-Vatican church, with its more distant priesthood and foreign liturgy, may have seemed a lot more alien and threatening to non-Catholics. Then right around the Kennedy years the church morphed into something closer to traditional Protestantism, so all that must have played some role in increasing acceptance of Catholicism. And I wonder if a lot of Americans - particularly the writing class, which tends to be more liberal and urbane - see the church like they might have seen old-school Catholicism - reactionary, closed-off, and impenetrable. But even then, Catholicism would have held a bigger place in American life so at least most people might have had firsthand experience with it. Mormons are still a funny minority usually experienced secondhand.

    Definitely the LDS church has been doing more and more media outreach, which may do some good but probably not as much as it hopes (I think Prop 8 trumps the I am a Mormon campaign). But maybe if there is going to be more engagement with the media it's going to come from Mormon intellectuals and members willing to speak up, and it's nice to see names like Teryl Givens, Joanna Brooks, and Richard Bushman popping up in articles. And there are a bunch of nonmormon scholars familiar with mormonism who can be useful. So it's mainly just frustrating when folks in the media are seemingly unaware or uninterested in the fact that these points of contact exist. Maybe what I'm saying is, "hey guys, someone interview me!"