This 3-part series is a response to Matthew Bowman’s excellent Slate article, “Saturday’s Warriors: How Mormons went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.”
I’m going over my three quibbles: 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 relates to the present discussions of “official doctrine.” Nitpick #2:
II. Glossing Correlation and Broader Mormon Culture
Bowman traces the present conservativism of the Church to “a collision between the social upheavals of the 1960s and the progressive ideals of the early 20th century.” This is a crucial, and I think accurate, frame. But notice how he glosses what I see as a crucial gap (or perhaps a fuzzy border):
Brigham Young University banned facial hair and instituted a formal dress code. When the sexual revolution began, Mormon leaders issued a pamphlet titled For the Strength of Youth that instructed teenagers in proper dating etiquette. And 1973 brought Saturday’s Warrior.
Bowman goes from BYU policy to official church publication to a lay Mormon theatrical production created sans correlations direction and direct filtering. Why bring Saturday’s Warrior–a theatrical production which present American Mormons largely still embrace for nostalgic reasons, if they aren’t simply mocking it as quaint–into the mix? Bowman might be accused of privileging the exotic over the ordinary here. He might be accused of making a silly comparison for comparison’s sake between the present Book of Mormon Musical and Saturday’s Warrior. But Bowman doesn’t employ the musical in order to simply poke some fun; instead he contextualizes it to tease out what it might tell us about the values and beliefs of that earlier Mormon moment, which echoes in the present Mormon moment.1 I think Bowman’s case is astute not because of its quirkiness, but because the show can be understood as both shaping and being shaped by wider Mormon theological imagination and cultural concerns. Despite its non-correlated status, the show’s presentation of the plan of salvation has potentially influenced the present Mormon imagination as much as any correlated manual.2 This must be why Bowman sees Saturday’s Warrior as “a remarkable relic of the midcentury bureaucratic reform effort that gradually became the defining force of 20th-century Mormonism.” But he lumps it in with BYU honor code stuff (apostles sit on the Board) and officially-produced church literature without drawing any distinction.
While Bowman points to several of what he sees as beneficial outcomes of correlation (observations often ignored in present complaining about the depersonalization and seeming dumbing-down of correlation), he again glosses the gap between correlated and non-correlated Mormon fare by resurrecting the “Mormon Rap.” An outsider might easily get the impression that the “Mormon Rap” was at least a quasi-official effort by the Church to appeal to the mainstream, being discussed alongside the present “I’m a Mormon” campaign. But the Mormon Rap was never intended to be anything more than a tongue-in-cheek inside joke, a Single’s Ward film-type effort at exploiting Mormon stereotypes for cheap laughs–a Ward road show compressed into a little plastic cassette tape for mass distribution to insiders. And even for insiders there was some ambivalence about its acceptability–perhaps a result of its emerging from outside of the official correlated channels. My own dad, a former Bishop, confiscated my copy of the jam, not because there was something wrong with rap or anything, but because the song itself annoyed the hell out of him, and he thought it was a cheap way to exploit Mormonism for a few bucks. If the “Mormon Rap” is evidence of any particular Mormon impulse, it might be the awareness of being perceived as a bunch of squares within the wider culture. Juxtaposing the white bread Mormon culture with an edgier music genre makes for the joke’s payoff. The Mormon Rap is further evidence of Mormonism’s “peculiar people” impulse, not an attempt to mainstream. (The Church’s own “Bounce Back!” cassette, on the other hand, seems a more legit effort to sound more hip in the late 80s. And it was part of a commercial campaign and distributed by missionaries, to boot. Check out some of Michael McLean’s jazziest numbers. It, too, had a bit of playful tongue-in-cheek.)
My chief complaint, then, is that Bowman glosses over differences between lay Mormon products and correlated productions. To me, the interesting question becomes: What is the connection between correlation and broader church culture; between committee-approved manuals and lay membership efforts?3 In official church settings, teachers are to stick to the approved manuals, but now blogs and other venues provide places for “uncorrelated Mormons” to present and explore their faith(s).4 Bowman glosses over the “official/lay” distinction by focusing on the types of morals Mormons seek to promulgate which are manifest in Mormon-produced pop culture like reality tv and vampire fiction. Mormons are mainstreaming, he says, but again, this isn’t new, the Osmond’s were pioneers, too. Moreover, church magazines print stories by non-General Authorities all the time, and members are asked to create personal profiles on mormon.org with personalized testimonies.
These last efforts, though, receive some measure of correlation! Official…Lay… distinction…blurring….Which brings me to final point in the next post.
1. The exotic/ordinary distinction is a tension identified by religious studies scholar Jonathan Z. Smith in the introduction to his Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), xiii.
2. I don’t know if any in-depth research has been performed using Saturday’s Warrior, but it would be a treasure trove for analyzing unofficial public presentations of Mormonism. The play follows a family from pre- to present- to post-mortality, and the LDS Church hierarchy, ordinances, etc. are largely absent (aside from regular missionaries and a mission president). Its soteriology is basically equated with family harmony- I don’t recall Jesus being mentioned! Just a few off-the-cuff observations.
3. Daymon Smith has been emphasizing this theme as well. Perhaps if he’d walk away from the grindstone for a minute his observations would carry more heft.