CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Comments on the session ‘Contemporary Mormon Issues'

by Armand L. Mauss, School of Religion, Claremont Graduate University
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

            This session provides us with a miscellany of papers in which no unifying theme is readily apparent, except for the pair by Bringhurst and Foster dealing with Mormons and presidential politics. In response to the authors of those papers, I take no particular exception to anything they said, though Foster’s expectation of seeing a Mormon president by midcentury still seems rather optimistic to me. I would say that the fulfillment of such an expectation depends primarily upon changes in American public opinion at two different levels : (1) normalizing the image of the Church, so that it appears less weird, secretive, and theocratic; and (2) normalizing the image of the LDS candidate, so that his religious commitments don’t seem quite so central to his way of life. In America, a politician must subscribe to the traditional “civil religion,” but he must not be noticeably devout in any denominational religion, especially a “peculiar” one.

            Normalizing in the first above-mentioned sense (church image) will depend on an extensive campaign by the LDS leadership, which I think has already started. Normalizing in the second sense (candidate image) will depend on the candidate’s own skills and on those of his campaign. This proved very difficult for Mitt Romney, whose life was constantly presented as a great “Mormon story.” By contrast, Harry Reid has an interesting Mormon story too, but somehow his religion does not come across as so central to his life. I suspect that most Americans don’t even know that Reid is LDS. I think also that one reason John Kennedy was so readily able to dispense with the worry about a “Catholic” president was that no one thought his religion was truly central to his life or career. Even though Catholicism before Vatican II was at least as theocratic in image as today’s Mormonism, that didn’t seem to matter as long as Kennedy himself was not perceived as taking his Catholicism very seriously. A successful Mormon candidate will somehow have to come across as a “mellow” kind of Mormon, rather than as a seriously devout one. That will be an obvious problem for a Mormon candidate who (like Mitt) really is quite devout. His father George was probably equally devout, but his image didn’t suggest that as a defining characteristic of his life. Furthermore, the LDS Church in George Romney’s day was not well enough known to be as “scary” as it seems now (it simply lagged somewhat in race relations). So I am suggesting that both the image of the Church and the image of the candidate will need a lot of work before we are likely to see a Mormon elected as President.

            Rick Phillips, as usual, writes a convincing paper that counters the image of Utah Mormons common among their coreligionists outside the mountain west – namely that Utah Mormons are complacent about their religion and don’t work at it as hard as (say) the California Mormons do. Many decades ago, apparently in reaction to some of Durkheim’s early work, sociologists were warned about the “ecological fallacy” – namely the fallacy of attributing to individuals in a given population the average traits of that population as a whole. Ever since then, regretably, sociologists have been wary about ANY causal attributions derived from collective community traits, even in trying to explain differencs in rates, rather than in individuals. 

            Phillips uses an “ecology” explanation very successfully here by invoking the concept of “social density.” Rodney Stark & William S. Bainbridge have shown that the same concept is useful for explaining why criminal and deviant behavior is lower in communities with large proportions of church-goers, even among segments of the community that are NOT church-going.[1] It seems clear that when the proportion of a population sharing a given cultural heritage reaches a certain point (maybe not even a majority), its culture both influences and constrains various behavioral expressions in the population as a whole. (Is there a “tipping point” here? Can the “tip” go either way?). Sometimes these cultural influences are subtle (as in the visible contents of one’s shopping cart), and sometimes the influences are quite overt and obvious (as in local liquor laws). Without necessarily using the term “social density,” Mark Shibley, in effect, made a similar argument when he referred to the “southernization” of American religious culture, as devout and conservative southerners moved north and west, where they simultaneously influenced (but were reciprocally influenced by) less evangelical congregations.[2] To some extent we see a similar phenomenon politically in our designation of some states in the Union as “blue” and others as “red,” with transitional cases as “purple.”

            In any case, there is little doubt that we can expect Mormon cultural influence to be diluted in the traditional Mormon Culture Region (MCR) during the coming years. How will the current generation of LDS leaders respond to this challenge? Will there be another retrenchment effort, as there was in the wake of the cultural and political challenges of the 1960s and 1970s? Or will the outreach and engagement mode now so apparent be continued? What will be the likely consequences for LDS growth, retention, and influence of the one policy direction or the other? Is there any way for the Church to prevent the erosion of LDS influence in the MCR, and the disaffiliation of its members, even as its baptisms continue in large numbers?

            Finally, a few comments on Irving’s “postmodernism” paper : This term seems to mean somewhat different things to different users. I will not claim any expertise in the literature of postmodernism. Such knowledge as I have is entirely second-hand, largely interpretations by others of some of the writings of Foucault or Lyotard. In recent years, the term has been discussed and applied to developments in Mormonism by some of the LDS apologists at BYU (especially at FARMS, now part of the Maxwell Institute), as well as by critical analysts of intellectual developments like John-Charles Duffy.[3] The term has been making the rounds also in the blogosphere, where agreement on its meaning and applications to Mormonism seems far from complete..

            Iain Irving’s understanding of the term in this paper is roughly similar to what I have seen elsewhere – namely, that postmodernism, as applied particularly to religion, regards the search for truth as fraught with subjectivity and ambiguity. It rejects any form of absolutism, defining truth as individual, not objective or absolute. Postmodernism is thus radically opposed epistemologically to empiricism and logical positivism as the vehicles for discovering truth.[4] In applying this understanding to the contemporary Mormon scene, Irving sees evidence both of the emergence of postmodernist elements in the Church program and of the persistence of the more absolutist modernism. This ambivalence gives his paper a kind of “on the one hand . . . .but on the other hand” approach to his subject, which is understandable and not inappropriate for such a topic.

            My own assessment, for what it’s worth, is that a postmodernist approach is ultimately the only one available for discovering “truth” in the humanities or in the truth-claims of religion. That is because “truth” in those disciplines is always unfalsifiable in the modernist sense. Modernist epistemology developed along with the modern physical sciences, where truth-claims can and must be tested empirically before they can be accepted and acted upon. A major feature of the scientific method is replicability – the assurance that if you follow Aristotelian logic, and subject a hypothesis (hypo-truth) to empirical tests, you will get the same results as I did; that is, the finding is replicable. Postmodernist epistemology rejects replicability as a criterion for truth, so it will never be useful to science, or at least not as science has been understood in Western civilization for the past 2500 years. Postmodernism is, however, ideally suited to religion, the humanities and the arts, where no one is concerned about logic or replicability. The disciplines of history and the social sciences are somewhat in the middle, and they have always had to deal with epistemological ambiguity and conflicting theoretical frameworks. As a social scientist, I recognize and appreciate this ambiguity, as well as the creativity that so many of my colleagues and mentors have shown in advancing unfalsifiable but exciting theories and hypotheses over the years. Yet, I remain fundamentally a modernist and a logical positivist, because of the value I place on replicability as the only reliable path to progress – which I define as the growing accumulation of enduring and pragmatic truths.

            Mormonism began in an intellectual and cultural environment which was permeated with both folk magic and folk science. By the latter term I mean a general tendency, under the influence of the European Enlightenment, to seek empirical verification for as many of one’s beliefs as possible. Early Mormons knew that religion was under attack from the emerging Enlightenment ethos, and they did not want to be made fools of. This outlook was well exemplified by the visit of Martin Harris to Professor Anthon for verification of the Book of Mormon “characters.” Such ambivalence betweem naturalist and supernaturalist thinking continues in Mormonism today, where unfalsifiable beliefs in the supernatural coexist with scholarly research intended to vindicate the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. A few of the more strident apologists at BYU, however, have actually embraced postmodernism as a vindication of their apologetic scholarship, on the grounds that if all truth is relative, subjective, and entitled to its own master narrative, as postmodernists claim, then their Mormon truths are entitled to the same ontological status as anyone else’s.[5]

            Postmodernism is far more useful and successful in criticizing the truth-claims of modernists than it is in helping us to understand the ambiguous social and physical world in which we live. As a logical positivist, I can tell you not only what I think is true (or real), but I can tell you why I think so, and I can tell you how I arrived at that conclusion in such a way that you can replicate my method and get the same result. That might seem terribly confining and absolutist to a postmodernist, but at least it represents a shared epistemology. Such an epistemology will not work in the search for the supernatural or other unfalsifiable truth-claims of religion, but it does have some applicability to the history and sociology of religion. Not all propositions in the social sciences are empirical, testable, falsifiable, or replicable, but many are (as the present paper by Phillips indicates). In such cases – that is, in trying to understand the relationship between religion and behavior in this world – I shall continue to prefer the modernist epistemology.

[1] Rodney Stark & William S. Bainbridge, Religion, Deviance, and Social Control (Routledge, 1996).

[2] Mark A. Shibley, Resurgent Evangelicalism in the United States: Mapping Cultural Change since 1970 (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

[3] John-Charles Duffy, “Defending the Kingdom, Rethinking the Faith: How Apologetics is Reshaping Mormon Orthodoxy,” Sunstone, May 2004: 22-55; and “Can Deconstruction Save the Day? Faithful Scholarship and the Uses of Postmodernism,” Dialogue 41(1): 1-33 (Spring 2008).

[4] See, e. g., Louis C. Midgley, “The Myth of Objectivity: Some Lessons for Latter-day Saints” (a review), Sunstone 14 (Aug. 1990): 54-56.

[5] See, e. g., David E. Bohn, “Our Own Agenda: A Critique of the Methodology of the New Mormon History,” Sunstone 77(June 1990): 45-49.