A few weeks ago a friend posted an article on Mormonism written by a former member of the Church which, for the most part, did a fine job of describing Mormonism for outsiders. After I “Like”‘d the link and responded with some clarifications another guy replied “BHodges would quibble with the angel Moroni himself.” Well, if not the Angel Moroni, I’m quibbling here with one of the most notable academic angels of present Mormon Studies, Matthew Bowman. I recently did a podcast with Bowman, author of a great new book from Random House called The Mormon People, which I pitch to you now.
The prolific Bowman has yet another article out this week in Slate called “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.” It’s another specimen of Bowman’s typically fun, frank, and insightful analysis. But I think the piece requires a bit of quibbling, as such popular columns always do, and I’m feeling a bit audacious today, so here goes nothing.
Essentially, Bowman describes the Church’s correlation movement as a handy short-hand explanation for how Mormon men have shifted from beard-donning 19th-century polygamists to clean-shaven bureaucratic businessmen, or how the church has shifted from radical outsiders to specimens of white bread Americana, all while maintaining a progressivist flare. (Notice how I pulled you in with the title about beards? Well, the original title was “A response to Bowman on Correlation and LDS Culture,” but that sounded too boring. Still, that’s really what I’m focusing on.) It’s a great piece (srsly, go read it!). My quibble is three-fold: First, the article paints a flatter evolutionary model of LDS history than I believe Bowman himself advances in his book. Second, as a result, Bowman glosses over some important distinctions between Mormon pop-culture and correlated materials. Finally, Bowman also might have drawn attention to how the shifts he describes directly relate to on-going discussions about “official doctrine.” I’ll address the first nit-pick in this post so I can keep your attention. Why write a three-part reply to such a short initial column? Because Bowman is exploring fascinating issues and his analysis deserves close attention!
Perhaps this is a bit inside baseball for Bowman’s column’s purpose, which seems largely to be aimed at helping Americans understand why Mitt Romney seems like a robot–man. At the conscious risk of simplification (he expressly calls correlation merely the “the short answer” to the Young-to-Romney puzzle), Bowman tersely outlines a linear history in which correlation rises to solve particular problems, resulting in mixed benefits and drawbacks. He tells the tale of Harold Lee’s revamping of the All-Church Coordinating Council. A certain “system of review” was formulated in order to monitor all published materials “for theological accuracy and adherence to various church goals.” Bowman notes how this allows for corporation-like streamlined efficiency which leads to better global uniformity in Mormon faith and experience, and also prevents some of the more flighty notions from overshadowing presently-affirmed fundamentals. His observation that the movement has interesting similarities to American corporate culture is almost a truism on the Bloggernacle these days. While the correlation movement somewhat sidelined women and children, Bowman says the Church progressively “discards some of correlation’s worst inheritances,” even while tensions remain.
It’s clear that such a discussion in a popular column provides too little room for Bowman to stretch out his legs. A useful way to conceive of Bowman’s approach is to say Bowman is more neo-Darwinan than Darwinian. Evolution is not a simplistic evolutionary advance leading from primordial goo up to the Goo Goo Dolls, as the old Darwinian paradigm suggests. Instead, a neo-Darwinian approach talks about adaptation to local environments with the result of maintaining sustainability over time. This is an important distinction, but perhaps overlooked by readers predisposed to see a nascent church evolving into a giant corporate machine. There are elements of truth to this simplistic picture, but it glosses over quite a bit. (And the media format itself is the likely culprit. Bowman’s writing for Slate and a non-academic audience.)
I think Bowman might grant me this quibble. Elsewhere, Bowman’s work seems to align with religious studies guru Robert Orsi’s description of “Braiding.” Orsi says “the linear narratives so beloved of modernity—[advancing] from immigration to assimilation, from premodern to modern, from a simple faith to a more sophisticated faith and so on—are not simply wrong but that they mask the sources of history’s dynamics, culture’s pain, and the possibilities of innovation and change. Braiding alerts us to look for improbable intersections, incommensurable ways of living, discrepant imaginings, unexpected movements of influence, and inspiration existing side by side.”1
The take-away: The story of Correlation and the Church shouldn’t be portrayed as a simplistic linear march of either progress or decline, but rather can be understood as a religious group’s negotiation with external and internal pressures, values, concerns, & etc.
1. See Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.