[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]
Over the past 20 months or so, I–like a lot of other Mormon academics and bloggers–have found myself being contacted by reporters, being invited to conferences, and being asked to write up some thoughts, all of which had to do with the “Mormon Moment” which the coincidence of several pop culture trends and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign combined to create. (You can find versions of those thoughts here, here, here, here, here, and here.) That moment isn’t over, I think, though it’s obviously moved into a different phase, one that is far less public than was the case a year ago. In any case, there was recently yet another Mormon Moment gathering, this one held at Utah Valley University, and I was privileged to be a part of it, along with Kristine Haglund, James Falconer, Peggy Fletcher Stack, Matt Bowman, and others. UVU has now put up a video of the main presentation (which doesn’t include the wonderful Q&A with Matt, unfortunately); my contribution begins at 53:15, but really, if you’re at all interested in any of the issues which pertained to the Mormon Moment, however you defined it, you should take two hours and watch the whole thing.
My presentation covered material which I have presented about four times now, and each time I lay it out, I think my argument gets a little more clearer, a little more focused (which means it’s unfortunate that it’s the first version is the one which is probably going to get published). Since a couple of people (including my dad) have asked just what I had to say at UVU and at other presentations, I decided to lay it out here.
There are, of course, a lot of things to say about the Mormon Moment, from a lot of different disciplinary directions. My direction is a political one, and in particular on having to do with political ideas and theories and history. So while I could talk a lot about Romney as a candidate (and Jon Huntsman too), and about how voters viewed them and why, that’s not relevant to the meat of my argument. What I’m really interested in, politically speaking, is not how voters or candidates viewed Mormonism, whether from the inside or out, but rather how Mormons talked about this Moment, and what that talking shows us about Mormonism’s place in America’s political culture, which for me revolves significantly around issues of civil religion.
“Civil religion” is only one way to talk about this; in other places, I’ve made use of the idea of “establishment,” and how even though in the United States there are fairly clear rules rejecting any kind for formal religious establishment, there is reason to argue that Americans–and all people, really–nonetheless tend to seek for some kind of socially settled religious or moral order to their lives. In any case, when it comes to America’s civil religion, what we’re talking about is the idea that our laws, our civic expectations, and more particularly our publicly accepted ways of talking about morality and truth, reflect Biblical, and more particularly Protestant, norms. Absolute truth claims, and appeals to higher or revealed sources of moral authority and guidance, can be communicated as part of America’s civil religion, but it has to be done in ways which our cognizant of the pluralism, the open-endedness, the individual subjectivity which characterizes–rightly or wrongly–the way most Americans think about such things, or at least think they think about such things. It is simply, I would argue, a given–it’s “established,” if you will–that religion will function in American life in Judeo-Christian but also liberal democratic ways. So, that means there will be a degree of public discursivity, a non-specific form of evangelism, etc.
Now, check out the following three charts, all of which are measurements of the attitudes of religious believers in the United States. All are taken from American Grace, a tremendous detailed and rigorous sociological examination of religion in America by Robert Putnam and David Campbell. The first chart shows how much Mormons like myself tend to think highly of, well, ourselves. Of course, the membership of every religious group is likely to feel positive towards their own group, but look how Mormons exceed everyone else in their self-love:
The second chart shows the degree to which the members of different religious groups in America tend to make the claim that their own religion is the “only true” religion:
Finally, the third chart shows how members of the different religious communities in America feel about one another. Note that, while non-Judeo-Christians–that is, Muslims and Buddhists and atheists, those who consciously present their own religious beliefs in such a way as to put them outside America’s civil religion entirely–are the least liked of any grouping, Mormons are clearly the least liked, least trusted Christian group:
Now, there are all sorts of ways in which this data can and should be contextualized or have caveats attached to it, some of which Putnam and Campbell examine, and some of which is just common sense. There is Mormonism’s pseudo-ethnicity to consider, its historic isolation and doctrinal emphasis on in-marriage, and its particular style of evangelism, to name just a few. But my overall argument–which is heavily based on some theoretical explorations (inspired by this book) of how we Mormons, through our treatment of one of our key scriptures, The Book of Mormon, internalize the ideas of revelation and truth–really comes down to the claim that these three charts all reveal something about what might be called the Mormon publikum, which is just using an old German term to express the idea of a public world of words. What these sociological snapshots give us a glimpse of is a people who 1) spend a great deal of time focusing inwardly on their own appreciation for their mutual membership in the Mormon community, and 2) strongly assert that their community is ultimately the only one which truly matters, and 3) are still, in the early 21st century, considered outsiders to and disconnected from Judeo-Christian life in America. I believe these three observations are of a piece. While there are, surely, any number of reasons for the relative suspicion of Mormons out there–to name three obvious ones: the fact that we are still a small church, mostly an unknown quantity to many of our fellow Americans; the fact that our prevailing moral positions are at variance with most of secular and liberal America; and the fact that our extensive missionary program sharpens the doctrinal distinctiveness (or, more simply, the doctrinal heresies) of the Mormon church in the eyes of many other conservative Christians–I think we Mormons, and all scholars of religion in America, are missing something important if we do not consider how the way we Mormons talk (to ourselves, mostly!) about morality and truth leaves us disconnected and outside the norms of America’s civil religion. It can’t just be that we’re the only ones standing for the particular unpopular moral positions which American church members (and the institutional church itself) mostly do, because obviously when it comes to abortion, same-sex marriage, pornography, divorce, and much else, the majority of American Mormons are already on the same page as the bulk of the (mostly evangelical Protestant) Christian right. And nor can it just be simple disagreements over theology, since studies again and again demonstrate that, outside of a few surprisingly strongly affirmed Christian doctrines, America’s “non-established Christian establishment” simply doesn’t take theology seriously at all. No, I think rhetoric–the plain matter of how and who with one talks about religious truth–is a big part of it as well.
Did the Mormon Moment especially put all this on display? Perhaps–there was Mitt Romney’s notorious difficulty in situated his language about faith and religion in a ways that didn’t appear clumsy, reserved, even duplicitous. But arguably, much of that could be accounted for by innumerable other factors: Romney’s own personality, the left-over dynamics of his 2008 presidential campaign, the shifting make-up of the Republican primary electorate, etc. Perhaps this aspect of Mormonism’s relationship with America’s civil religion was highlighted by the way the language of identity shifted around Romney–Matt Holland, the president of UVU (and an impressively well-prepared last-minute substitute presenter at the conference), threw out the fascinating observation that the frequent refrain amongst many committed Republican party activists that Romney “wasn’t conservative enough” might not have been just the consequence of Romney’s changing positions as he moved from being a moderate Massachusetts Republican to someone who wanted to win Tea Party votes, but might also have reflected a kind of evangelical Protestant identification with American conservatism, and that therefore a man who just didn’t speak the evangelical Protestant language could never seem authentic enough. But whether Romney’s campaign really brought any of this explicitly out or not, the experience of being under the national mass media’s microscope for the better part of two years certainly generated a great deal of introspection (Kristine Haglund’s presentation is especially sharp on this point), and I’d like to think this argument of mine has some relevance in furthering such internal criticisms.
In fact, if my experiences are any guide, it has certainly seemed relevant to other, non-Mormon audiences that I’ve spoken to. When I’ve described Mormon “testimony meetings” to non-Mormons, they’re really struck by, and often slightly unnerved by, the notion that Mormons, when they stand–every month, like clockwork–to witness to the place of God in their lives (something that some of the other religious audiences I’ve spoken to are very familiar with), they tend to–or at least are nominally expected to–do so in ways so that almost every experience which is related, good or bad, comes around to being a confirmation of and an expression of gratitude for the fact that “we (the person speaking, and every person they’re speaking to) have the truth.” Those of us on the inside may not realize the impact of that ethos on how we interact with America’s religious pluralistic society, but other believers surely do.
Is the upshot of my argument that Mormons, because of our highly inwardly focused notions of revelation and truth, are going to be permanent outsiders to America’s civil religion? Not at all–after all, Catholics themselves have very strongly articulated and non-pluralistic positions on moral authority as well, and they had the additional burden of carrying around some explicitly anti-liberal and even anti-American dogma for decades. And yet, in time, Catholics found themselves part of America’s civil religion. No doubt, as the decades go by, Mormons will find their way in as well. But whereas in the case of Catholicism the change was mostly a top-down, doctrinal one, I think we Mormons will likely have to work our way into the American establishment (assuming that’s what we want to do–there’s always the chance that Mormons could elect to turn Amish, reject modern society, and seek to retreat and rebuild our private isolated Zion communities once again…but for better or worse, I don’t see that happening) by adapting our public ethos to Protestant and liberal norms, one believer and one congregation at a time. That may take decades, but it’ll very likely happen. So Mitt Romney’s Mormon Moment may turn out, in retrospect, to have been an Al Smith moment. Our truer, Kennedyesque Mormon Moment is, according to this way of thinking, a ways off yet.