Latent Racism, Orientalism and “Magic Underwear” in American Society and Mitt Romney’s Presidential Campaign

African Muslim Men in Religious Attire, source http://www.thingsoftheday.com/?p=3285

As I made my way through the crowded local Costco recently, I stepped back a moment and appreciated the diversity surrounding me. Although approximately 92% of the population in the UK is white, about 45% of the remaining 8% of the UK population that are ethnic minorities live in London. And we’ve enjoyed having a high concentration of this 45% in and around the area of London where I currently reside. We have become accustomed to seeing people in their religiously significant daily dress in all circumstances, from the morning school run, to regular visits to the supermarket, to going to movies in the cinema and just about everywhere else. (In fact, it is not unusual for us to see such dress in our LDS ward on Sunday as investigators from all of these ethnic and religious backgrounds politely keep their commitment to the missionaries working in the area to visit us and see what the Church is all about.)

Indonesian Muslim Women Wearing the Hijab, source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijab#Women

At Costco, I had to navigate around a family of what appeared to be Somali Muslim women forming a guantlet as they moved slowly down the aisle near the store entrance. A mother with two teenaged daughters — all three wearing a black hijab. Mingling in perfect commercial harmony, these Somali women mixed with white British (and Americans, such as myself), a large number of black British and black Africans, some of the latter wearing the recognisable religious attire customary for Muslim men, Indian men and women wearing traditional dress with religious significance, and a group of what appeared to be Pakistani Muslims with the women wearing the niqab-burqa.[1]

Hasidic Jews in Prescribed Attire, source unknown

Stopping in front of the granulated sugars in Costco’s warehouse-style aisles, my ears picked up a conversation in Yiddish and, sure enough, a family of Hasidic Jews turned the corner, dressed accordingly. Unable to restrain myself, I lingered and listened to the husband and wife discuss the products on their shopping list in Yiddish (it’s so wonderful!). This pause gave me occasion to step back, really notice, and appreciate the ethnic and religious diversity on display in the store that day, as easily observable by the ethnicities, languages and, of course, the traditional religious dress that so many of them were faithfully wearing.

I was faithfully wearing my religious attire as well.

Wait, what? A white, mid-30s, middle-class suburbanite American working in a secular profession wearing religious attire? That simply doesn’t compute, does it? Aside from very few (infamous) exceptions, such as John Walker Lindh,[2] this perhaps comes across to the casual observer as an egregious category error.

But there I was, standing next to a family of Hasidic Jews, having just passed a group of Pakistani Muslims with women wearing the niqab, shopping together with Hindus in their characteristically colourful clothing and Somali Muslims in their more subdued religious attire, and I too was wearing the unique religious attire of those Latter-day Saints who have chosen to make what we consider to be holy covenants with God in the temple: the temple garments lovingly referred to by both our creedal Christian brothers and sisters and secular America alike as “magic underwear”.[3]

Temple garments are worn by a relatively small number of Latter-day Saints — not all Mormons have decided to visit a Mormon temple and make the lifelong covenants of Christian discipleship that are exclusively on offer there. Latter-day Saints who have done so and remain committed to their faith have promised to wear the temple garments under their clothing whenever practical as a symbol and reminder of these covenants. The garments remind the Mormon men and women who wear them that they aspire (through allowing the Atonement of Jesus Christ to take effect in their lives) to become “priests and priestesses” to God in the hereafter[4]; the temple garments are therefore, in fact, priestly vestments. As a result of their symbolic significance, Latter-day Saints see them as providing spiritual protection against the mundane temptation to do things unbecoming of a disciple of Jesus Christ because they are meant to be a constant reminder of these temple covenants of Christian discipleship.

The comfort taken by Latter-day Saints in the potential for such spiritual protection offered by the temple garments as an ever-present reminder of these covenants expanded in Mormon folk beliefs to faith promoting rumours of instances in which the temple garments also provided physical protection against external physical harms. This latter belief apparently held historically by some Mormons — that this priestly vestment worn under the clothing could also afford actual physical protection — is likely the source of its description as “magic underwear”.

But Mormons can jusitifiably wonder why this characterisation of the Mormon temple garments as “magic underwear” remains so prevalent among such disparate segments of the American population. In fact, it does not seem like a stretch to conclude that latent racism — or at least Orientalism[5] — could be a factor in this analysis.

It is understandable to see how some might find it funny in an adolescent kind of way to think that people might believe (1) that God would command or at least endorse the wearing of priestly vestments underneath normal clothing as a reminder of covenants of Christian discipleship and (2) that this underwear can provide spiritual and/or physical protection. But something else perhaps a little more sinister is conceivably at play here.

Until recently, it is fair to observe, the majority of Latter-day Saints have been white, middle-class Americans living in the suburbs of American cities or in rural areas — this certainly seems to describe a considerable period of Mormon demographics throughout the twentieth century. And white, suburban-dwelling middle-class Americans simply do not wear ritually prescribed religious attire of any kind on a daily basis. Even the most religious among this demographic, unless he or she is actually an ordained minister of their particular church, still wears standard middle-class secular clothing provided by our profit-driven fashion industry. Perhaps a subconscious belief among this demographic, who throughout most of the twentieth century were the main peers of suburban American Latter-day Saints, that religiously prescribed attire is just for orthodox Jews and the various “brown” peoples of the world, not white middle-class Americans, could be behind this lingering fascination with the temple garment.

The theory is that Bill Maher and Robert Jeffress, examples of two white, middle-class Americans (though both are probably much richer than the average white middle-class suburban American), can both share a laugh about “magic underwear” despite their otherwise fundamental religious and ideological differences precisely because of the blatant absurdity (in their minds) of the idea of fellow white, middle-class Americans actually wearing such ritually prescribed religious attire on a daily basis. It is simply a shared assumption, not even necessary to communicate between the two in a live interview, even between two otherwise such differently thinking people. And the pundit class and the media — both still mostly made up of white, middle-class Americans — can ridicule Mormons about the garments in discussing the very serious candidacies of qualified contenders for the office of President of the United States because they find it ludicrous to think of people in their same demographic wearing priestly vestments, no matter that they are worn discreetly beneath the clothing so as not to draw unwarranted attention to them.[6]

To clarify, I am not suggesting that white, middle-class Americans are racist against Mormons; rather, mockery of Mormon temple garments as “magic underwear” could possibly be seen to reveal latent racism that stubbornly persists among white, middle-class Americans against the various races and ethnicities of the world whom they mentally associate with (silly or superstitious?) religious costumes worn out of ignorance or oppression.

* * *

Though Mormon temple garments are worn beneath the clothing and therefore are not readily observable like the religious attire of others, the temple garments simply constitute Latter-day Saints’ own religiously prescribed dress (for the relatively small number of Mormons who have made covenants of Christian discipleship in a Mormon temple). But in America, both fundamentalist Evangelical Christians — those exemplars of true Christian charity — and atheists on the secular left — enlightened, tolerant secular humanists that they are — unite in their derision of Mormon priestly vestments. Is it simply too hilarious to think that white, middle-class suburban American co-workers are wearing (hidden!) formally prescribed religious attire on a daily basis, much like the adherents of other venerable world religions, as an expression of their commitment and devotion? (Educated white people just don’t do that, do they?) It is an argument worth considering, particularly given that, far from ameliorating any criticism, wearing these priestly vestments unostentatiously underneath the clothing seems to have only led to further scorn because, after all, underwear is simply funny.

————————
[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niq%C4%81b#Hadith

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Walker_Lindh

[3] Nothing demonstrates how nicely the prospect of ridiculing beliefs that are holy to Mormons can bring together such otherwise irreconcilable parties as America’s secular political left and its fundamentalist creedal Christian religio-political right quite as well as Bill Maher’s recent interview with Dallas First Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, covered here at BCC by Ronan. Sure enough, “magic underwear” solicits a shared laugh from such odd bedfellows in the segment, which can be viewed on Ronan’s post.

[4] W. W. Phelps, Times and Seasons 6.10, page 916, at http://en.fairmormon.org/Times_and_Seasons/6/10 (quoted by James Faulconer, “Something Else I Don’t Know“, Patheos, January 5, 2012.

[5] Historically, Orientalism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orientalism) is the romanticised depiction in Western art or literature of “Eastern” life/culture/morals/motifs. As products of a nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Western worldview, these depictions were frequently based on caricatures or stereotypes of non-Western peoples/cultures/attitudes as ignorant, primitive, opulent, oppressive, immoral, lecherous, etc. (a prime example might be Georges Rochegrosse’s nevertheless gorgeous “The Slave and the Lion” or the various studies of Middle-Eastern or Indian harems by nineteenth-century European artists). A study of such depictions and the history of Orientalism in Western thought led Columbia scholar Edward Saïd, in his 1978 book Orientalism, to describe Orientalism as a biased view of the East (referring mainly to the Middle East and Asia) based on notions of assumed Western cultural and moral superiority that was and continues to be used to justify imperialistic political agendas. These ideas gained traction in the postcolonialist movement as encouragement for imperially dominated cultures to write their own stories and produce their own depictions of themselves. As can be imagined, however, Saïd’s description of Orientalism as propaganda against its own subject matter can itself be criticised (see here, for example) as a highly politicised reading of the development of Orientalism in the Western imagination. One art critic recently described Saïd’s 1978 book as “a modern classic — of fear and loathing” (Jonathan Jones, “Orientalism Is Not Racism“, Guardian Blog, 22 May 2008). Jones continued, “Today the west is bleakly incurious about the history of Islam, its art, peoples and learning. There’s a blank wall of terror. This wall has been strengthened by Said’s book because it closes down a crucial way for cultures to encounter one another: it closes down romanticism.”

In discussing the idea of this post with BCC permas, some queried whether this “magic underwear” phenomenon was more of an expression of Orientalism than of latent racism, as I have characterised it in this post. I was grateful for the thought-provoking comment but ultimately decided to stick with latent racism because it lacks the sophistication or implicit/subconscious admiration inherent in Orientalism, which at its root is based on a romanticised and highly idealised depiction of “the East”, based as it may be on mere stereotypes. The two are related, of course, but I think latent racism fits better as a description of white, suburban Americans being turned off by people who look and otherwise act and work/live like them wearing religiously prescribed daily attire (even though hidden underneath clothing, somewhat similar to Orthodox Jews’ tallit katan (Read more here)), as Kevin Barney helpfully reminded me), which is perhaps loosely (subconsciously) associated with “other world religions” and not standard American creedal Christianity or atheistic/agnostic secularism (given that both unite in ridiculing Mormon temple garments).

[6] In fact, in comparing the temple garments to the hijab as religiously significant attire, BCC’s own Blair Hodges has discussed similarities between the significance of the hijab and the temple garments for their respective wearers, noting this key difference of not “broadcasting” religious devotion in the case of the temple garments (Blair Hodges, “Islam’s Hijab and Mormon Garments: On Clothing as Broadcasting“, Life on Gold Plates, 13 October 2009).

Comments

  1. So in one fell swoop they demonstrate their unwitting hatred towards God and also toward men. The latter confirming the presence of and reinforcing the former.

  2. Fascinating argument, john.

    Have you considered that it might even go a little deeper than just what you’ve described? Yes, religious clothing does group us with “those unenlightened savages” (to use a term common throughout the times when Manifest Destiny was preached most blatantly), but our use of them as people who look exactly like our critics on the outside (and, for the majority of Mormons, in the voting booth) also constitutes an explicit rejection of those critics and their own religion. Thus, as “part of them” in every visible way, we are, in fact, “part of those others” beneath the surface – and that rejection, I think lies at the heart of it all. Those others simply are unenlightened; we’ve rejected Protestantism openly and un-apologetically.

    Iow, our own religiosity is more insidious in their eyes (and, thus, worthy of open mockery), specifically because we look just like them – unlike the Jew, the Muslim, the Hindu, etc. Those people are “open” about it, while we are “secretive” about it – and that perception of secretiveness only adds to our being seen as a nefarious cult.

    When I lived in Alabama, I saw a book in a Christian bookstore that accused the Church being a cult. The back cover blurb said, in essence,

    “You see them every day. They look like normal, happy, well-adjusted people – but, underneath the facade, they really are dangerous cultists trying to drag you down to Hell with them.”

    I was struck at the time by the phrase “underneath the facade”, and I think it applies directly to your post about our wearing of garments.

  3. Oh, and I think we brought some of this on ourselves by fostering the physical protection stories.

    Yes, I believe it might have happened (probably did happen) miraculously in a few cases – but try telling garment wearers who have not been physically protected (or the families of those killed while wearing the garment) that the garment possesses magical powers of physical protection that will protect the righteous and faithful . . .

    If the mocking of the extreme positioning of that belief leads to its eradication among us (or, at least, to the cessation of sharing those experiences publicly), I won’t shed any tears.

  4. John, I like your analysis a lot, but I think “latent racism” might not be quite the best way to explain what’s going on. I think it has more to do with the perceived conflict between religion and the materialistic, scientific worldview that educated people are supposed to accept.

    Atheists, agnostics, and very liberal Christians mock the temple garment because the idea that God could promise to protect you if you wear certain underwear is patently ridiculous to them, betraying a benighted belief in literal revelation and the possibility of miracles. To them it’s an easy example of the things they find most ridiculous about religion. Atheist/agnostic/liberal Christian attacks on the garment are thus also coded attacks on Evangelicals and Fundamentalists.

    I think Evangelicals and fundamentalists get that, and their mockery of the temple garment is an attempt to preempt it. When they make fun of it, they’re saying in essence that they’re in on the joke. “Maybe we believe in literal revelation and the possibility of miracles, but at least we get that magic underwear is ridiculous.” Like they’ve been doing for decades (maybe since Reconstruction?), they’re using Mormons as scapegoats, drawing attention to how far out of the mainstream we are in order to make themselves look more normal and sophisticated by comparison.

  5. Ray said:
    “If the mocking of the extreme positioning of that belief leads to its eradication among us (or, at least, to the cessation of sharing those experiences publicly), I won’t shed any tears.”

    I will. Miracles are kind of a big deal to Moroni, and though I agree they should be kept private, I think they should be kind of a big deal to us. I already hear a dozen conference talks saying, “Revelation probably won’t come as a vision or hearing a voice” for every story testifying that, in fact, sometimes it does come as a vision or a voice! I don’t want our society’s belief that miracles are ridiculous infecting Saints and stopping them from experiencing miracles themselves. And if our openness to the physical protection stories makes us look weird, so be it. We’re weird.

  6. You are the B of the D, JF.

  7. Re # 5, Alan, you are right that we are weird and we really ought to own up to it. But even still, Moroni wasn’t wearing garments:

    31 He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.

    (Joseph Smith History 1:31)

    That is possibly another discussion for another day though. For now, although I like your comment # 4, and agree that this is also certainly part of the analysis, I think latent racism has some merit (as the post notes, I am suggesting that it is “a factor in the analysis” of the “magic underwear” phenomenon) in thinking about why they unite in ridiculing our priestly vestments (despite our going to the length of wearing them underneath our clothing so they don’t have to see them!).

  8. Alan, let me try to be much clearer in what I meant.

    Any physical protection that occurs is not universal. That is the belief that I would rejoice to see eradicated. I have no problem with the belief that someone who is endowed and wears the garment “can” be protected physically, but I do have a problem with the belief that the garment “is” a physical protection. I know of far too many cases where it has not provided such protection – and far too many cases where such protection has been given to those who do not wear the garment – to see it any other way. Thus, in those cases when such protection does occur, I want the experiences to be shared privately, not publicly.

    I believe in miracles and the miraculous. Period. I just hate the arrogance of many of the extrapolations that arise after the miraculous occurs.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    I’m really uncomfortable calling this latent racism. I think there’s a very valid feeling among many voters that the President should represent them. By represent they mean not just their ideology in terms of a few major policy decisions but also be someone who thinks like them who in Washington can deal with the issues that arise. That is literally a representative characteristic of a community dealing with things the individual community members can’t. This is a very old conception of representation within our republic. This is why there’s often a concern that the President be someone they could sit down and have a few drinks with or the like. It’s less about ideology than feeling the President is like them and thus would make decisions like them on matters.

    Now of course politicians then spend an inordinate amount of time misleading the public about how like them they are. Look at George Bush who attempted to be one of the boys and seriously downplay his northeastern elite background. Instead he seemed like a Texan who you’d meet in a bar and have a conversation with. Obama did a few similar things. Evidence is he’s not especially religious but he played up religion although that backfired a bit on him. Ronald Reagan was beloved because he seem like “one of us” despite being a rich actor.

    Given all this should it be any surprise that things about Romney that are very odd cause problems for people? It’d be true if an African American ran who preferred wearing pseudo-African dress rather than typical American dress. I don’t think one should call that racism though. It’s a question of belonging. Heaven knows one might accuse people of racism for not feeling like people who are too different aren’t one of us. But I think that’s unfair to characterize as racism. And I think it’s unfair to characterize shock at some features of Mormons that are so alien to most Americans as analogous to racism.

    I should note that I think Romney’s #1 problem is his inability to relate to the common person and be “one of us.” He definitely doesn’t feel a part of the regular community and his extreme wealth makes things worse. There’s a real sense he doesn’t even understand the typical American let alone relate with him the way many other Presidents have. His Mormonism adds to that but isn’t the fundamental reason for that disconnect.

  10. Clark, Romney and his Presidential bid are actually only tangentially related to this analysis/query. It has given occasion for more Evangelical fundamentalists to unite with secular atheists (usually their culture war enemies) to mock someone else but both of those groups were already ridiculing temple garments before and will afterward as well. Latent racism seems like a fit to explain this, at least partially. I agree that it’s not particularly flattering to them to get called on it. Sorry if that makes you uncomfortable.

  11. I’m having a difficult time understanding how the belief that cotton, polyester, kevlar, and DuPont Nomex have very different tensile properties constitutes racism.

  12. Jeff, if you don’t like your white, suburban neighbors because they dress like African Muslims (that is, they wear ritually prescribed religious attire like African Muslims — and white suburban Americans don’t normallywear such attire; it’s not in the peer-approved “uniform” of white America) then it’s at least worth considering.

  13. Never Baptized says:

    This post led me to pull Edward Said’s classic work “Orientalism” off the bookshelf. While skimming through it several things came to mind. One is the issue of East vs. West. In the Orientalist view, most anything not part of a white-skinned European tradition is considered Eastern or part of the Orient (to use their archaic term). Even something today that we might otherwise consider part of Western culture like Islam (in the sense of a Western monotheistic tradition) was studied as something exotic and Oriental. Second, Orientalism involves speaking for others and not letting the group being studied speak for themselves. We can make all types of observations about this culture or that but unless we consult a view-point of someone a part of that culture (preferably multiple sources) then our conclusions will be highly flawed. This leads to my final issue, which is imagination. How would an Orientalist have to put their observations together without having consulted cultural authorities? By making things up! Much of what Orientalism consists of is imagined constructions of what the purpose and meaning of another’s cultural symbols and rituals are. And this imagined construction has, in the Orientalist tradition (which remains an influential force in spite of the political incorrectness of the term Oriental), been used with the intention making any non-European (non-white or non-Christian, specifically) culture one that is inherently inferior to that of the Orientalists (white Europeans).

    So to relate all this to this post: It would seem to me that most of the cultures mentioned as wearing religious garments (aside from LDS) are ones which would fall under the category of Eastern in the Orientalist tradition. The embedded notions of that tradition within our (traditional/historical) Christian dominated society have made the wearing of religious garments something exotic and foreign. In this sense, for LDS to wear garments, even under their regular clothes, DOES put them into this exotic “Oriental” category for many. For the majority of the population the assumptions and myths about why LDS wear the garments are taken at face value and are not questioned. They are certainly not asking LDS themselves to explain the purpose, instead relying on outsider observations (though I would acknowledge at this point those who have suggested the LDS have, in part, brought some of these notions upon themselves). Those observations have been based on imagined meanings that came about because people did not know the meaning of the symbols from within the culture/tradition itself.

    In all these cases, I believe the term Orientalism applies and was used wisely in this post. As far as racism goes, that’s a little more tricky. Orientalism can certainly lead to racism but doesn’t necessarily have to. If the myths about “magic underwear” are being passed along because of honest ignorance then discrimination doesn’t really apply. If people are using that phrase to bash Mormons and make them inferior then it definitely is discrimination. However, unless the person who is bashing Mormons for “magic underwear” is doing so because somewhere in their mind they link it to “Oriental” cultures, then the term racism doesn’t apply.

    In short, Orientalism can be easily demonstrated while racism cannot.

    My two cents, anyway. I liked the post.

  14. John F, latent racism would seem to include some sort of visual recognition, that we could be seen and recognized to be different from our neighbors. That is not the case with garments. It seems to me to be more of an example of religious intolerance, which is really just as bad, and perhaps even more acceptable in our white American culture. There are reactions by many to seeing more Hispanics in many parts of the country. That seems more like latent racism to me. Bill Maher is intolerant of all religions, Pastor Jeffress intolerant of Mormons (and I suspect Muslims, JWs, etc), and they intersect only in their dismissal of the LDS church in general as a cult. Orientalism seems a stretch as well, in my opinion, as I don’t see much evidence that we are viewed as exotic, romantically other, because we outwardly don’t look any different than the atheists or evangelicals that reject us. As priestly vestments, our garments are a private matter. Perhaps an interesting alternative might be that the lack of an external visible component to our “otherness” leads us to be more defensive. Is there a sense of pride, in a good sense, when Hasidic Jews, or devout Muslims, see others around them, also wearing the visible attributes of their devotion to religion? Does it make them feel less alone or different in their cultures? How often do we utter a sigh of relief, when we discover a co-worker or someone else at a business meeting or conference, also turns out to be LDS?

    When we moved to Seattle from Utah, my daughter, who was in high school, took to wearing her CTR ring and YW medallion so that she could be recognized by those others who shared her beliefs at a new school. My wife, teaching public school, gets questioned, always privately, by LDS students at her junior high, when they pick up on clues about our church membership, such as learning that she moved here from Utah, or that she has six kids. There is a visible relief when these LDS kids can identify her as also “one of them.”

    Religious intolerance in the long run is no less egregious than racism, but seems to be more acceptable in our American culture these days.

  15. Glass Ceiling says:

    I agree with Ray that we put alot of the mockery of garments on ourselves.

    Any every religion has something to mock…that can be perceived as utterly ridiculous. In the different flavors of Christianity: the Trinity, holy handkerchiefs (for $19.95), crying statues of Mary. And on and on.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    John, I think much of the recent discussion is about opposition, especially secular, to Romney. However I think the principle holds. One can have a level of comfort (in-group, out-group) without descending into racism. When people seem to far out of ones owns group practices then there’s a natural tendency to place them in the out-group. I think that explains a lot of uncomfort with Mormons.

    Now that lack of comfort can turn into something like racism. I think it depends upon how one over-generalizes about the other group especially with regard to caricatures of them. I think it undeniable that this happens with new immigrant groups. It’s interesting that such immigrant groups tend to be accepted around the third generation or so when the group has largely assimilated with the larger group and become somewhat indistinguishable. So I think that still fits that comfort model I mentioned.

    You end up with two models – the American melting pot model and a model like the Canadian multicultural model. I think it undeniable that the US strongly favors the melting pot model to the degree that there are strong social limits on how multicultural one should be. Lots of “ethnic” restaurants are acceptable. But such groups still are expected to fit in otherwise there’s distrust. I think you can see this in our own history.

    We became somewhat acceptable when we became more American. (Or as was noted in the 80′s and 90′s – super-American) In strong Baptist and Evangelical strongholds we were distrusted because there were other social markers that didn’t necessarily count as high in the rest of the nation. Whether we will become more accepted or not will be interesting to see this year. I think there is starting to be a big divide between strong secularists and religious people. I bet the more secular people – especially amongst the more educated elite – will criticize Mormons more than Evangelicals do simply because we don’t line up with their significant social markers.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    To add, I think the orientalism seems a better metaphor (if we take it only as such) than the label of latent racism. I think Mormons have often been our own worst enemies here since tales of fantastic salvation by garments haven’t been uncommon in the Mormon folk tradition. While you don’t hear such tales as often now as when I was young they still are there. Non-Mormon hear them. I do think playing the “magic underwear” card arises primarily out of Evangelical anti-Mormon traditions going back decades to the anti-Mormon roots in the 19th century. I think the fact we’ve not talked about them publicly as much as we do say general temple roots leads to those old traditional having a contemporary play even among secularist.

    I most definitely agree that playing up parallels to other ethnic groups such as northern Africans or Hasidic Jews is pretty smart.

  18. Glass Ceiling says:

    I think that traditional Christians take issue with Mormonism because Mormonism is different and yet strangely successful. They take issue with our doctrine because it spotlights the holes in theirs. So, they naturally jump to mock anything mockable in our religion. Nevermind that every religion out there has these idiosyncracies that are subject to mockery. It’s just that these other religions have the advantage of longevity. We are not old enough to pass muster in the court of public opinion yet.

  19. Not to be simplistic in this very thoughtful discussion, I can’t forget that that, stripped down to the basics, underwear PER SE is funny. Or so it is considered in our culture.

    Bras are hilarious. Any male comic putting a bra, or even acting out the putting on of a bra, is considered a riot.

    Jockey shorts are very amusing. Any handsome movie actor shown on screen in Jockey shorts gets a giggle. Homely actors in Jocks earn snickers. Boxers, not so much. Long johns, of course, get guffaws.

    As for petticoats–well, they’re passe now, but they certainly got terrific laughs before thongs hogged the screen! Even a petticoat flapping on the clothesline meant viewers were in a for a good time. And not one of the following was intended to be anything but comic, and, yes, at least mildly mocking:
    Operation Petticoat, Iron Petticoat, Petticoat Pirates, Petticoat Planet, Guns of Fort Petticoat, and the ever-popular Petticoat Junction.

    For most Mormons, “garments” fall into an altogether separate category from generic, bought-at-Target “underwear. ” But to most non-Mormons, unfortunately, garments are thrown into the same funny hamper as bras and “tighty whities.”

    to to

  20. This is a very clever angle to take and should work well with secular types who have been brought up to believe that “racism” is the worst possible thing anyone could be guilty of — certainly far worse than religious prejudice.

  21. It has always been my experience that Mormons – generally speaking – are thoroughly decent people who are genuinely striving to be the best they can in the best way they know how. Another generalization is that most want to be liked, accepted, and understood sometimes in that order. It is my opinion that some of these factors lead to the puzzlement that members feel when outsiders poke fun at or ridicule beliefs and practices held sacred.

    I think the problem is greatly aggravated in a number of different ways, some already described above, but claiming racism on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day seems a bit insensitive especially considering the fact that Utah couldn’t bring itself to call it Martin Luther King, Jr. Day until the year 2000. I would venture a guess that for whatever reason the delay occurred it didn’t have much to do with the white shirt and tie that he wore.

    There are many things in this world I don’t like including, but not limited to, acid washed jeans, dockers with no socks, Bill Cosby sweaters, Hammer pants, any suit that Arsenio Hall wore, purple Uggs with shorts in June, the Rachel haircut, any R.E.M. album not on I.R.S. records, etc. And Yanni. While these things make me a shallow snob, I don’t think they rise to the level of racism in much that same way that being generally annoyed at a New York apartment elevator that stops on every floor makes me an anti-Semite.

    Claiming racism over an issue that doesn’t involve race makes those who are generally sympathetic to your cause less likely to believe or act on genuine claims of real discrimination in the future.

    Let me add that there are some beliefs that I hope are not normalized by the passage of time. I’m fairly certain I could live several millenia and the fundamental tenets of Scientology would still look silly. Or so I hope.

  22. Never Baptized says:

    And Mormons didn’t allow people of African-descent to hold the Priesthood until 1978…
    I think it matters little when the changes are made as long as they are (besides half of Utah’s population is non-Mormon, if I’m not mistaken, so equating Utah with Mormonism is a little like stereotyping itself).

    Furthermore, the author of the post explicitly states that he is not suggesting that there is blatant racism at hand in Americans understanding of Mormon temple garments, just that it could possibly suggest a latent racism based on particular associations. Perhaps racism is too strong a word choice, I do agree. And I agree that religious intolerance is just as bad as racism (I leave off the scare-quotes on purpose) and perhaps even more of an issue the world over than simple misunderstandings and prejudices based on skin-color. However, I’m not sold that feelings of white superiority don’t play into religious misunderstanding in this country whoever is doing the bidding.

  23. Never Baptized says:

    I would like to add (half an hour later) that it seems to me that talking about racism, on any level, on MLK day is possibly the most appropriate time to do so. Besides celebrating the achievements of a great man, it is also a day to raise awareness of social problems. Race relations are one of them. Religious issues are another (MLK was a pastor after all). Kudos to John F. for using this day for what it is meant for!!

  24. One of the overlooked items worn by many Christians (probably because it is so accepted) is the cross. It is also used as both a spiritual and occasionally physical protection. The rosary might also fall into this category, but it’s certainly not as commonly worn.

    But you’re right, jewelry just isn’t as comic as underwear.

  25. 1989 called and it wants Jeff’s list of pet peeves back.

  26. For the record New Order’s Technique is not on that list but David Hasselhoff’s Looking For Freedom most definitely is.

  27. Raymond Takashi Swenson says:

    The mention of the crucifix or cross as an item of religious clothing (as distinct from mete jewelry) reminds me of something I heard from a man who had been part of an Army study of how Korean War POWs fared during their captivity. He said that one group that held onto their integrity were Catholics, who, even if deprived of their personal crucifix, would make a crude cross out of two small sticks and some string and hold onto it as a focus of their faith and prayers for deliverance. It helped remind them of who they were and what they believed.

    Temple garments are intended to perform that function for us each day as we see ourselves in the mirror. It reminds us that we are a “peculiar” (precious) people for God, and a royal priesthood. It is a “uniform” denoting the fact that we have privileges, authorities, and duties that others do not have. It is a private reminder that we all wear invisible name tags like those the missionaries wear, having taken upon ourselves the name of Christ and pledged to obey him each sabbath day. It reminds us we are set apart for service to God and our neighbors, called to be holy.

    Catholic priests and monks and nuns are set apart by their clothing to live distinctly. Our entire adult membership are priests and priestesses.

    I think that scares some people. Knowing that humans can live lives dedicated to righteousness means they are responsible for their own shortcomings. They want to tear us down, portray us as failures and hypocrites. Thus the criticism of Mitt Romney as being “too good to be true.” They search for ways to prove that he is not as virtuous as he appears. Thus the eagerness to call him a vulture, a despoiler of working men, who takes but gives nothing. They don’t care if it is true, because it allows them to be released from the burden of a virtuous man. That is why they embrace the adulterers like Clinton and Gingrich. They want permission for the easy redemption.

    And thus the hostility toward all Mormons.

  28. Re # 23, thanks never baptized. To celebrate MLK day (though it is not a holiday in the UK), we watched his 1963 “I have a dream” speech with our four children for Family Home Evening. Truly inspirational, prophetic — one of the great sermons of all time. I would love to see MLK occupy the remaining space on Mt Rushmore — he deserves that even more than the massive white statue that has been erected in his honour.

    So for my family, it was the “I have a dream” sermon. For you lot, it was a rumination on latent racism in the American suburbs, inspired by that oh-so-American of an activity: a trip to Costco.

  29. re # 21, great comment Jeff.

  30. re # 27, thanks for that comment, RTS — it has given me some food for thought. I like your turn of phrase “the burden of a virtuous man”, and I agree that this is true.

  31. John Taber says:

    Before 2000, it was “Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, also known as Human Rights Day” in Utah. My uncle was in the Utah legislature in the mid-1990s and he showed me the appropriate passage in the state code. Nearly everyone in the state emphasized the latter.

    My mission president flat-out told us the protective powers of garments had more to do with wearing an extra layer of clothing than anything else.

  32. Jeff #21,

    Thank you for your comment. That is exactly what I was thinking. While understandable, the hypothesis that Mormons are criticized because of a racist mentality really downplays and minimizes real racism issues, of which Mormons (from the first presidency to the last of deacons quorums) are not exactly exempt of.

    I feel this post inflates quite a bit the mockery or disrispect towards Mormonism produced by some, and in specific circumstances (i.e. during a time of political debate and political cat fights and/or during religious debate). I see the point, but it is rather weak.

    I feel the hypothesis presented is very weak and inflated with a hasty generalizations :
    “To clarify, I am not suggesting that white, middle-class Americans are racist against Mormons; rather, mockery of Mormon temple garments as “magic underwear” could possibly be seen to reveal latent racism that stubbornly persists among white, middle-class Americans against the various races and ethnicities of the world whom they mentally associate with (silly or superstitious?) religious costumes worn out of ignorance or oppression.”

    And the sarcasm filled finale reflects the very attitude of what makes Mormons so difficult to talk when it comes to religion “we Mormons are not like Evangelical Christians and we are not like the secular, we are simply good people who are right about what we do, and if other people were good people too, they would inequivocally have to come to the conclusion we are simply good people who are right about what we do.” Gosh…

    Really?:
    “But in America, both fundamentalist Evangelical Christians — those exemplars of true Christian charity — and atheists on the secular left — enlightened, tolerant secular humanists that they are — unite in their derision of Mormon priestly vestments. Is it simply too hilarious to think that white, middle-class suburban American co-workers are wearing (hidden!) formally prescribed religious attire on a daily basis, much like the adherents of other venerable world religions, as an expression of their commitment and devotion? (Educated white people just don’t do that, do they?)”

    This is what happens: we Mormons play the vicious criticism game rather well, but we don’t like it when it is directed to us; therefore, I guess that makes us the same as the rest of the world.

    This is the last time someone made a personal reference to my temple garments (about two years ago in the locker room of an El Paso Texas health club) went something like this:

    Middle class white Texan American in Health Club states: “Excuse me. I see you every morning put on those underwear. They are nylon mesh aren’t they? They look like they are really good for ventilation in this awful hot and humid weather. I have been looking for something like that but haven’t found something that light. Where do you buy them?”

    I respond: “Oh, yeah they are very good for this type of weather. They are actually religious clothing, you won’t find them in a store. But I saw similar moisture wicking underwear in the Nike outlet store.”

    Middle class white Texan American in Health Club responds: “Oh that’s why I haven’t seen them sold anywhere! Thanks man, you have a good day.”

    Last time I was the same way towards someone else:

    A group of rastafarians walk into the restaurant where my sister and I are having brunch. I say quietly to her: “How can they live with such filth hanging from their heads. Disgusting.”

    I dare anyone here say they have never NEVER EVER done something similar.

  33. “This is the last time someone made a personal reference to my temple garments” — I think it was on Sunday, Maureen Dowd. But there is likely something even more recent than that. Google is your friend.

  34. When I said personal reference, I was talking someone referring to me personally regarding my garments.

    Furthermore, if you think Maureen Dowd or any other person that addresses Mormon temple garments, are good representative of “middle-class Americans” as a whole, good luck to you.

  35. BCC’s own SMB on garments at the Oxford University Press blog:

    These garments recall, respectively, the clothing of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Old Testament priestly robes, Jesus’ burial shroud, and the robes of angels. By wearing this clothing Mormons affirm their commitment to Mormonism, their connections to all humanity and their new life in the death and resurrection of Christ.

    http://blog.oup.com/2012/01/origin-mormon-beliefs/

  36. This is a rather racist, silly and completely fantastical analysis…If you want to talk of latent racism reread the silly nonsense that the author of this thread has written…In fact it isn’t so latent. I really am sorry to burst your bubble but blacks, asians and hispanics also think your masonic underwear are silly also. It isn’t just the “educated white middle class”. Mormon racism truly has no bounds and this article while accusing others of “latent racism” is a classic example of that.

    Sincerel,y a black middle class female (usually silent) observer of this blog.

  37. Keila, I think it’s more the structure of racism. By that token blacks, asians and hispanics can also be racist. (Say how they might view orthodox Jews on the streets of New York) I think the original post is overstated, but I don’t think the author in the least thinks blacks or asians can’t be racist. I agree that if that was the claim it would indeed be doing what it condemns.

  38. Never Baptized says:

    First of all, I think the diversity of the comments on this thread have been very enlightening. The dissenting opinions (as is usually the case) raise good points. That said, it seems to me that the racism issue has taken forefront in the ensuing thread as an issue on its own where, at least in my reading of the text, the racism is tied to the broader concept of Orientalism. When viewed together, in the classic sense of Orientalism being European-rooted people romanticizing non-European-rooted people without consulting their (academic) subjects’ cultural authorities for an insider’s view, the issue becomes, in this case, one of white American perceptions of other white American’s practices. When viewed separately, then the issues of why non-white perceptions have been excluded from this article, and even non-white Mormons as wearers of temple garments for that matter, comes to the forefront.

    The term Orientalism, even though I employ it as an established paradigm, irks me nonetheless (really any form of the word Orient bothers me). Keila’s comment, in particular, has got me thinking this morning that a broader definition of Orientalism is necessary. The term, as it stands, can still stand as a designation for what it is historically concerned with: 19th Century European academia. But using that term in a contemporary setting is misleading. As Keila points out, “blacks, asians and hispanics also think your masonic underwear are silly”. Calling them “masonic underwear” is a form of romanticizing (employed here, perhaps, just to make a point; even if the historical root of the garments may be in Masonry, referring to them in the contemporary setting as such ignores the “insider’s view” and understanding of what they symbolize). Being that the romanticizing is being done by non-whites calling it Orientalism sounds bizarre, even if the premise is the essentially the same. I’m rejecting outright such a nonsensical phrase like “reverse Orientalism” and instead suggesting that something as simple as “Cultural Romanticizing” take its place (except, again, when dealing with the 19th C. academic phenomenon). An umbrella term like this would make the inclusion of non-European-rooted people (both as observers and subjects) possible.

    This doesn’t totally resolve the racism issue, however, it seems to me that a broader definition than Orientalism offers patterns of discussion that focus on more universal ways in which people deal with “the other” than nit-picking over who is being racist and who is not (which, as we have seen, happens when Orientalism is the lens of through which the argument is made).

  39. Keila,
    Curiosity demands I ask, as a regular silent observer of this blog, what leads you to believe that referring to temple garments as “silly” is acceptable on this blog? Or that such a statement constitutes a critique of the argument? Please feel free to disagree, but do so politely. Also, don’t call temple garments silly. Thank you.

  40. Steve Evans says:

    John C., there’s no requirement that a non-believer should consider our temple clothing as other than silly. Lots of religions have rites and clothing that we might consider silly. That doesn’t make her wrong. Just rude.

  41. Never Baptized says:

    Maybe I’m stepping in where I shouldn’t but I don’t think she meant “silly” as a personal statement of opinion. She was making an observation about what other people think. Her use of the word “silly” was in conjunction with the implication of what Bill Maher and Robert Jeffress think by their sharing a “laugh” over the “absurdity” of how they view temple garments (as stated in the original post). It seems entirely appropriate to observe that other people think temple garments are both “masonic” and “silly” if that is indeed an accurate portrayal of their thoughts. It would be inappropriate if she had stated “I personally think temple garments are silly,” which is not at all what she said, though she did refer to the argument of the post as a whole to be silly.

  42. Steve,
    I meant to emphasize the rudeness thing.

    NB,
    No, I think she meant it, based on the remaining context of her comment. I’d very happily be wrong though.

  43. Never Baptized says:

    John, you might be right. I reread her post and can see what you mean. It reads like a jab in the guise of an observation when taken in the full context of the comment. She could/should have worded it in a more objective way if she meant it to be strictly an observation.

  44. Something in today’s news cycle makes me suspect that I was on to something in this post after all, despite those who were skeptical (sorry Clark):

    Gingrich escalated the attack in his remarks in an airplane hangar, saying Americans deserve a “government that respects our religions.”

    “I’m a little bit tired of being lectured about respecting every … religion on the planet, I would like him to respect our religion,” he said. A campaign spokesman confirmed Gingrich was referring to Romney. (http://www.article6blog.com/2012/01/30/gingrich-goes-nuclear-shame-on-gingrich/)

    Finally Gingrich has found the way to pitch Romney as “the Other”, and the approach is related to, or rather depends on or at least plays on the same or similar impulses lingering in white, suburban, (at least nominally) creedal Christian American minds that feed into my exploration of latent racism in the ridicule of Mormon priestly vestments.

    Since Romney’s supposedly “the whitest man in America” as the media was labelling him a couple of weeks ago, it’s been hard for the Sarah Palins (and the types that follow her or listen to her) of our country to cast him as a Kenyan Muslim. But as Gingrich shows, all you have to do is remind the creedal, Evangelical Christians (with whom many Mormons have attempted to ally themselves in the culture wars) that in the general framework of the War on Christmas and all this liberal political correctness — in which fanciful narrative creedal Christians in America are downtrodden and inconvenienced in being expected to respect other world religions — that people belonging to those other religions (such as Romney) have to respect American Evangelicals’ religion too (nevermind that Gingrich is a philandering convert away from American Protestantism to Catholicism). The obvious implication being, of course, that Romney is not one of the in-group from an American creedal Christian perspective.

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