Women, healing, politics and history

Kris Wright, in her recent post, discussed women’s history in a way that complicated some of the comments I had made in a podcast with Scott on the participation of women in the Mormon healing liturgy. This is an important discussion, and the subsequent discussion was helpful, I think. Here I’m going to outline, hopefully with some measure of clarity, why I think that apolitical history is approachable and that the use of history as a “weapon,” as I said in the podcast, is not desirable.

For those that follow such things, there was an apparent media kerfuffle regarding Thanksgiving narratives. Jeremy Bangs, writing over at Religion and American History unpacked the idea of “simply telling the story” of Thanksgiving showing how writers with political agendas—including colony participants—began crafting narratives favorable to their causes from the earliest moments. He wraps up his post:

Recent writers who emphasize the year 1623 rather than 1621 when writing about the Pilgrims’ thanksgiving have made a choice that is obviously driven by a political agenda. And simply telling the story is not what concerns them.

Bangs was specifically responding to questions about “simply telling the story,” and I don’t imagine that he thinks such a thing is an uncomplicated or facile project. However his point about politically driven data usage is, I believe, cogent far beyond Rush Limbaugh’s Thanksgiving day commentary. Now, everyone has an agenda for everything they do. All historians write with an agenda (getting tenure, fame, filthy lucre). Moreover there are tribal dynamics in all human interaction. Consequently, political agendas are essential to most human activity, including writing history.

The writing of Mormon history is fraught with tribal dynamics. I have an agenda to promote what I consider to be scholarly history at the expense of the hagiographic history of yesteryear. My agenda is to encourage the writing of history that incorporates as much of the best data sources as possible coupled with the best analyses possible. What constitutes the best in those categories differs between the various scholarly tribes. When discussing the politicization of history and its use as a weapon, however, I envisioned something quite different than intradisciplinary historiographical wrangling.

As many have shown, Mormonism is tied to its history in important ways. Our history is foundational, theological, canonical, and exegetical, among a host of other “als” and consequently can figure importantly in all sorts of Mormon discourse, including discussions that potentially affect our lived religion. To use history as a weapon, however, is to define one’s rhetorical opponent as an enemy and then employ data or analyses (often decoupled from any context) not to discuss, but to damage the other.

A related danger to weaponizing history is the tendency to view history as prescriptive (see these comments on Jill Lapore’s recent work: here and here). With a topic like female administration of healing rituals, it is very easy to want such practices to be presently normative (I defy anyone to not find the source materials relating to such practice do be wildly inspiring).

I do believe that we can employ scholarly methods to approach history while minimizing extra-disciplinary political agendas. With regards to women healing, I hope that the Kris’s and my work does inform our conversations, conversations I look forward to having.

Comments

  1. Uh, J., you get the WVS award for coolness. There’s no money involved and little prestige. But it’s better than Steve Evan’s usual lukewarm congrats. Or for that matter a whack across the face from the lovely but deadly Kristine.

  2. Thank you, WVS, from saving me from the fate of creating the first BCC post to never garner a comment.

  3. As many have shown, Mormonism is tied to its history in important ways. Our history is foundational, theological, canonical, and exegetical, among a host of other “als” and consequently can figure importantly in all sorts of Mormon discourse, including discussions that potentially affect our lived religion. To use history as a weapon, however, is to define one’s rhetorical opponent as an enemy and then employ data or analyses (often decoupled from any context) not to discuss, but to damage the other.

    We know history plays an important role in Mormon faith declarations. In terms of lived religion, what sorts of things were you considering?

  4. WVS, it seems to me that just about everything we do as Mormons is influenced by discussions of history (although some of it may be very recent history), whether that be an oral propagation of folk practice (how to properly pass the sacrament; how to bless the food; what visiting teachers do at visits) or formal direction by church leaders (how to poperly pass the sacrament; how to pray; what visiting teachers do at visits). No?

  5. When I read this an hour ago, I was struck by the realization that you can write this, J., and be entirely credible, while if I had written anything like it I think it would be dismissed. There isn’t two cents worth of difference between our beliefs in the church’s faith claims nor in our distaste for hagiography or our desire to use the best sources, and neither of us shies away from topics that could be challenging to various camps for various reasons. I still can’t quite understand why, but I’m sure it’s true.

    Anyway, thanks for this clear and credible and helpful statement.

  6. Another related question but in the reverse: as the composition of the Church becomes less Utah-centric, does the role of the New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Utah story become less significant? Do interesting, even inspiring practices/ideas of the past become less meaningful to LDS? As you point out, the 20th century encodes much of what we promulgate as Mormonism.

  7. Ardis, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would have found such a piece by you to be credible.

    I think that that story is dilluted, WVS. Of course aspects of it are amplified (e.g., the First Vision), but I think generally that is true.

  8. Ardis,

    You are a more public figure, as a blogger at least. You are more likely to get in a scuffle or two on T&S than Stapley. As a result, some people are always looking for a reason to take a shot at you.

    J,

    I find your argument interesting, though much of this is driven by your approach to history…you are also politics averse. I agree that history often makes for poor normative argument. However, it can and should inform normative arguments as a source of evidence.

    History is political, almost always, because it has the potential to undermine the narrative which upholds some normative position or another. This does not mean that history should be used as a tool (I am an expert on being a tool) for one’s ideological agenda. This is usually sloppy and boring. But this does not make the history less political just because it is not ideologically driven.

  9. I think that the American historian Richard Hofstadter used history as a weapon. Not as a partisan weapan, but as a means of undermining the ideology of the powerful by looking at the roots of their thought. I think the key is this: what type of weapon. Is it a grenade? Is it a shotgun? Is it a battering ram? The greats like Hofstadter used history like a light-saber. The difference is significant.

  10. I imagine that even Stapley could get behind the idea of historical lightsabers.

  11. Natalie B. says:

    I think you are very right to point to the importance of understanding facts undistorted from political agendas. Bearing the facts in mind generally leads to better policies for those of us who find history interesting for its present political value.

  12. Chris, I do think that history should be incorporated into normative arguments, as you say. I also agree that there are political implications for almost all history. What I am arguing for is that political positions not dictate historiography.

    I also realize that damaging one’s political opponents is often quite effective at realizing some goals, so I may be just quixotic.

    Historical lightsabers…mmmmm.

  13. “What I am arguing for is that political positions not dictate historiography.”

    I think it is an admirable idea, I am just not sure if it is possible. Of course, these things are always a matter of degrees.

    As for historical lighter-sabers, I am with Han Solo…I prefer blasters. Though I do like to hang with Jedi.

  14. Why is it that anyone with a point of view wants to annihilate (people with) other points of view? Why is it that we reach for any weapon available, rock, blaster or history?

    Historians, meh, do they have a point of view? Do they hide it (the mailed fist) under the velvet glove?

    Even if they do not (which may be questionable), the lack of a point of view is also a point of view. As I read “Origins of Power” I was struck by Quinn’s thoroughness and apparent objectiveness by which he presented the facts. But, in fact, his bloodlessness also colored the whole scene without the color red, which was also a point of view. He did not capture the vitality of the time by my perception. How could he?

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