Do We Want Our Religion To Be Mainstream?

[Cross posted to In Medias Res]

This cover story in Newsweek is pretty much the only thing Mormons in my crowd have been talking about this morning. (They’ve also been talking about the other features in the package, as well as a wonderful sidebar article on Elizabeth Smart, but not as much as the main piece.) The main article, “Mormons Rock!”, written by Walter Kirn–who is a long-lapsed member of the faith himself–apparently started out as a piece on the new “The Book of Mormon” musical on Broadway, but grew from there. The editor primarily responsible for putting the package together and guiding it was Damon Linker, my old friend and frequent intellectual sparring-partner, not least when it comes to things Mormon. Here, thanks to the work of some fine other journalists, he’s developed something that might well be read as a basically innocuous puff-piece (running through some of the basics of the church’s history and current institutional culture, quoting several prominent members of the faith about how they deal with the misunderstanding and marginalization that comes along with being a minority faith), but which, to me anyway, presents a fairly challenging question, a question that might be legitimately asked to believers of any non-dominant religion: should you, as a adherent of a faith, actually want to have your “moment”?

I’m no expert on the Catholic church in America, but I attended Catholic University for graduate school, read and loved (and also hated and argued with) Richard John Neuhau’s First Things magazine for years, and in general have tried to become fairly familiar with Catholic history and sources and issues. Same way it worked with Damon, by the way, who was RJN’s second-in-command at FT for a few years, close to a decade ago. Neuhuas famously made intellectual use of an old phrase in American Catholicism, one which Tina Brown reminds Newsweek’s readers of in her Editor’s Note to the issue: with the nomination of John F. Kennedy as the Democratic candidate for president, American Catholics found themselves in the spotlight. No longer, or at least no longer primarily, a religion of immigrants, of a particular corner of the United States, of the non-WASP poor, but rather an organized community, which had penetrated government, academia, the arts, professional sports, and more–Catholics were capable of playing (and winning) at the very top of America’s collective pyramid of games. And over the decade which followed, one change after another followed for the Catholic Church–Vatican II, John Courtney Murray’s Dignitatus Humanae Personae, and more. Not that all this and more was caused by the fact that a Catholic (even if only a nominal one) had been elected as president of the most powerful country in the world, but the fact remains that the trends which led to all these occurrences coinciding were not, in themselves, entirely coincidental. Kennedy and his moment was a fair synecdoche of everything that was happening, and would continue to happen, to Catholics in America (and around the world) in the years to come. That moment meant Catholicism was no longer, or at least not primarily, practically speaking, a refuge from and/or a bulwark against a diverse and divided and damned world: it was, rather, part of the civil order. Catholicism was merging with–was making its peace with–Americanism, with capitalism, with democracy, with popular culture, with individualism, with modernity. If Mitt Romney–or John Huntsman, or HBO’s Big Love, or “The Book of Mormon” musical–is a similar “moment” for my faith, is this something I should be okay with?

I’m not sure how many of us are. I found it fascinating that, to quote from the main article:

In recent weeks NEWSWEEK called every one of the 15 Mormons currently serving in the U.S. Congress to ask if they would be willing to discuss their faith; the only politicians who agreed to speak on the record were the four who represent districts with substantial Mormon populations. The rest were “private about their faith,” or “politicians first and Mormons second,” according to their spokespeople.

Kirn frames this as part of the general narrative of the piece: that we Mormons, a pragmatic and adaptable people, are only now getting used to the fact that our religion has prepared us to intelligently and diligently make the most of the world we find ourselves in, and are reasonably careful about expecting too much from a mainstream which has historically mistreated and misunderstood us. And surely, that’s part of it. But there is another angle, which I think a couple of smart–but not especially religions people–people like Damon and Kirn have failed to grasp: that perhaps many American Mormons, even those quickly ascending to the heights of their respective professions and causes, are unsure how much we want to accept everyone and everything else.

Kirn quotes, without much comment, two Mormon politicians, Senator Harry Reid and Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, who both tie their (very different) political views to their faith. Perhaps it’s not surprising that doesn’t elicit much comment; after all, in a country where every politician with any aspirations gets brow-beaten into ending every major address with “God bless America!”, how can it seem odd to see religious believers tying their faith to their voting record? But if you think for a moment of two about Mormon history, it arguably can appear has very odd indeed. Ours was a faith that, throughout its long history, has at least as often organized itself in opposition to the existing civil order as attempted to work with it. Indeed, we’ve gone far beyond simply positing an occasional opposition; we’re the church which fled the United States in an attempt to build a theocratic settlement in Utah, who engaged in means both legal and illegal to thwart federal authorities who attempted to stop us from practicing what we (at that time, anyway) held to be central to our faith. Obviously more than a century has passed since those days. But as many fine histories that have emerged over the past couple of decades have taught us, abandoning that theocratic, Zion-building aspiration was a long, difficult, and by no means straightforward process, and it is only inconsistently absent from Mormon thinking to this day. In places where Mormons hold a voting and/or economic majority, we fall (back?) into the habit of constructing our own particular orders; in places where we don’t hold such a majority (which is everywhere except Utah and parts of Idaho and Arizona), many Mormons find it reasonable to see our own desire for an “oppositional establishment” in common cause with other Christian majorities who want to similarly legislate on behalf of their moral preferences, even if doing so arguably makes a hash of our purported theology. Kirn uses the old phrase by Charles Colson to describe this–the “ecumenism of the trenches.” And to be sure, some members of the church have thrown themselves into those trenches with great enthusiasm. But for quite a few of the rest of us, the prospect of seeing ourselves as engaged in some grand ecumenical struggle is…difficult (even if we can see an equally strong theological argument for it as otherwise). If we’re part of the mainstream, even an “oppositional” mainstream, then what becomes of our particularity, our community, our separateness? Is it gone for good, or has it been made entirely internal, personal, a matter of belief and lifestyle, rather than of politics and culture and our ways of life? And, most crucially…if the latter option, then isn’t that essentially the same thing as the former?

I’m as divided as the next person: I’m a modernity-loving geek, and yet I keep trying to find some way to explore alternatives, to live my life and, to whatever extent a piss-poor “patriarch” like myself can, to lead my family in the direction of something that isn’t just one more lifestyle in the midst of many others. The Mormon heritage teaches me that I ought to be about a grander task than that. The musical which generated this conversation at Newsweek in the first place has been widely recognized as brilliantly (and foul-mouthedly) riffing on the “sentimental appreciation for the psychological benefits of religious faith”. If this is our moment, then perhaps we need to be conscious of one of the possible prices of that mainstreaming moment, of that making piece with American pluralism–that we end up talking about our faith primarily in terms of sentiment and psychology. For myself, I want something more robust than that.


  1. Well, the phrase “true and living church” has been used more in General Conference over the last 10 years than any other decade, and it’s use seems to be on the rise. I think while as a church we’ll likely move more towards tolerance and working with other faiths, we’ll keep emphasizing the unique stance of being the only church with authority to perform salvific rituals.

  2. We are definitely moving out of obscurity. What we weren’t told is that the move from the shadows is a painful experience, and often somewhat embarrassing, as our sacred issues are broadcast aloud, and the wacko extremists in the Church also come out with the rest of us normal people – and yes, Russell, I was thinking specifically of you and Glenn Beck ;)

    I think that as we continue moving out of obscurity, we’ll find a place, much like that of the Catholic Church, where for most issues we will no longer be looked upon as a threat or jester. That we have two LDS running for Republican candidate says something large concerning this. Someone does take us seriously. We’ll have to see if enough someones will start seeing us in the new light or not.

  3. S.P. Bailey says:

    Yes and no.

  4. Chris Gordon says:

    I guess I have a desire that my faith become more “mainstream” in the sense that it fits into the larger goal of missionary work. Like Rameumptom mentions, I’m not sure that we’re very prepared for the painful embarrassment this experience can engender, but I’m fine with that.

    We’re a painfully immature lot at being good missionaries. We’ve got too many traditions of isolation, adversarialism, and ignorance about those around us to overcome. I see this all as a process of learning how to handle that mission appropriately as members, and it’s going to take some trial and error both on how we relate to those around us in a close-to-home sense (neighbors, co-workers, friends, etc.) and those around us in a macro sense.

  5. Chris Gordon says:

    By the way, that picture is classic.

  6. “Yes and no” works for me.

    I read the article with interest, and it really does pose some good questions and offer an interesting perspective.

  7. Moving into the mainstream implies that we are no longer a sideshow for the curious, but are easily recognizable and definable. The recognition part comes more easily than the definable, as evidenced that both Jeff Flake and Harry Reid are active, believing members with radically different political philosophies. And it is usually not our own choice as to what the definition is. Catholics, I’m sure, are often linked with a lot of baggage they would rather not be encumbered with; same for evangelical Christians.

    I’m not as concerned (although I should be, I suppose) about becoming just a cultural Mormon, as much as I sometimes fear that we as a church may become “culturally Mormon.” As we move even more into the mainstream, perhaps the definitions applied to us will encourage us to live according to definitions imposed on us by outsiders.

    Jan Shipps has often referred to the 20th century transition of boundary maintenance for LDS members from community oriented, somewhat insular activities like ditch building or welfare projects, to individually maintained boundaries based on personal behaviors, ie the Word of Wisdom or temple attendance. Perhaps another, less happy shift is in store, the moving of those boundaries to external definitions applied by others, that of happy, nice, harmless, but otherwise deluded members of a larger Christian culture.

  8. I’d like our religion to be just mainstream enough that when people list our weirdnesses, they’re at least hitting real weirdnesses and not making stuff up.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    One of the upsides may be a greater ease with things that are not a product of Mormon culture and history, but are truthful and beautiful. For instance, reading The Brothers Karamazov will give at least as great a space for talking about justice, truth, mercy, and the rest, as anything written by any Mormon, but our range has been limited by our fear. That is, we have been afraid of what lies outside our borders where an observant caution would have more than served. As we increasingly become aware of and a part of the world, we may be more accurate in our judgements of what is and is not ‘worldly’, and what has a healthy measure of the Spirit in it. We will find that God has been working with all peoples, all along. Our idea of what is and is not ‘religious’, in the best sense, might expand. It may be that we will be able to expand the borders of Zion and be less concerned with being watchmen on towers.

    The downside may be a further degradation of not only what is idiosyncratic but essential in our conception of God, and, ultimately, in our relation to Him. I think there is a danger of replacing what we have thought of as ‘true religion’, with higher-power-ism and everything else that is easy. My reaction here is to make constant gestures in favor of what it essential, and idiosyncratic; and to recall that the path that leads to knowledge is the most difficult and requires effort in every compartment of my being. ~

  10. Thanks for this.

    I like the idea of Mormonism as a critique of, not just an adaptation to, contemporary culture. Richard Bushman talked about this at SMPT a few years back:

    I’m not particularly convinced that Mormons have traditionally been marginal opposition to mainstream culture, especially political culture. Joseph Smith dealt with political figures and became one himself. Brigham Young and the church petitioned for statehood from the time they got out west til it was finally granted. They watched court cases very closely, felt like “true” Americans as opposed to corrupt leaders, etc. Then of course there’s the manifesto, etc.

  11. Mommie Dearest says:

    Hm. Thanks for the heads up; my in-laws will be getting this in their mail tomorrow. I’ll be able to see it at the grocery store later this week! Looks like I’ll have to read the article and this post, and probably all the comments. As soon as I get the free time. In the meantime, I’ll be playing with the mental rubik’s cube of Do I Want My Religion to Be Mainstream?

  12. Left Field says:

    I love Ardis’ comment. Though I do also love the delicious irony when people pontificate about how Mormonism is made up while simultaneously themselves making up stuff about Mormonism.

  13. Mark Brown says:


    I think we need to think harder about what it means to be mainstream. When we adjust for income, ethnicity, education, and geographic location, Mormons are very similar to their neighbors. In the part of America that is white, college-educated, and middle- to upper-middle class, LDS people blend right in, and our Mormon-ness becomes almost invisible. I view this as a cause for alarm, and I wish we would do more to make ourselves distinct.

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    ” I wish we would do more to make ourselves distinct.”

    I propose having sunstones tattooed on our foreheads.

  15. Raymond says:

    #8 – Exactly.
    I’m fine being mainstream, if mainstream merely means widely accepted. But if mainstream implies restricting our beliefs to those professed by or approved by others, then no thanks.

  16. Mark,

    In the part of America that is white, college-educated, and middle- to upper-middle class, LDS people blend right in, and our Mormon-ness becomes almost invisible.

    I completely agree, and I think this is something which the institutional church, and most of the American membership, is slowly processing, and not always, I suspect, in a particularly coherent way. One of the points I tried to slip into this piece, without making it too much about Proposition 8, was just how strange it can be–not necessarily “is” but “can be”–to see the Mormon faith aligned with Catholics and evangelical Protestants in constructing arguments on behalf of traditional marriage. Mormons can certain oppose same-sex marriage, and they can certainly engage in ecumenism, but argue, as Mitt Romney did way back in 2007, that there isn’t really anything about Mormon beliefs that doesn’t fit into the Protestant, evangelical Christian, conservative America-as-a-blessed-land narrative…well, it’s revealing. Among other things, it’s revealing of the fact that for “white, college-educated, middle- to upper-middle-class” Mormons who make up our primarily cohort of political and economic movers and shakers, there’s not really anything substantive about how one lives one’s life as a Mormon today that would flag Romney’s claims as troublesome in any particular sense. The Word of Wisdom? Maybe that’s one thing we have going for us. Garments too. But three hours of church on Sunday? Lousy hymn-singing? Missionary work? I know Methodists and Baptists who do all that, and they do it worse than us.

    Now maybe that’s not a problem; maybe it’s exactly what God wants. Because, frankly, those Methodists and Baptists are damn fine people; perhaps we should be pleasantly surprised to be able to look around ourselves and realize that we have fully accommodated ourselves to the American mainstream. It means we can work together to get more good stuff done, perhaps.

  17. Ron Madson says:

    #9 Thomas Parkins,
    Yes! Let’s have Brothers Karamazov as our text for one year in Sunday School! And spend half the year on my favorite and most provocative chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor.” ….let’s say every seven years have a sabbatical from correlation.

  18. “[T]here’s not really anything substantive about how one lives one’s life as a Mormon today that would flag Romney’s claims as troublesome in any particular sense. The Word of Wisdom? Maybe that’s one thing we have going for us. Garments too. But three hours of church on Sunday? Lousy hymn-singing? Missionary work? I know Methodists and Baptists who do all that, and they do it worse than us.”

    Surely the fact that Mormons actually marry as virgins in substantial numbers distinguishes us from pretty much every other denomination, no? I literally do not have a single non-Mormon friend that waited until they were married to have sex. This has rather far-reaching effects on our culture, much to the good, in my opinion.

  19. Funny, I was thinking about this all day (and I’m apparently in the camp of Thomas Parkin’s #9, BTW), then heard this on the iPod on the walk home:

    We were strangers
    And we were pilgrims
    Role models of the family man.
    Pioneers and patriarchs
    Patriots and matriarchs
    Staking out the promised land. . . .

    We’re on our way here we go
    We’re gonna take over.
    Set it off one last time
    Here we come again. . . .

    And if we die
    Before the battle’s through
    Tell your moms, tell your dads
    That we were super rad!

    (“Super Rad,” The Aquabats)

    Mormons Rock, all right (anyone know if the Newsweek article mentioned Neon Trees?)

  20. I absolutely think becoming more mainstream in the eyes of others is an advantage. What should be setting us apart as a peculiar people should be our covenant keeping, not all our other idiosyncrasies. Can you imagine if our “weird religion” was no longer considered weird, and people began to think chastity, teetotaling, and Sabbath day observance were mainstream? I live in So Cal where the church is strong and well-known, and we’re still viewed as pretty weird.

    What would be the downside? Do we need the external pressure of being different to keep our covenants? Do new converts need the pressure of family flipping out over joining a cult for them to prove their conversion? I would hope not.

    In terms of missionary work, I think the two things holding it back the most are closed minds and apathy. Apathy wouldn’t change, but going mainstream would allow a lot of closed minds to open a bit.

    It’s true that our beliefs will only be thought of in terms of sentiment and psychology by the majority, but that’s true now. The only difference is they think we’re crazy.

  21. Mark Brown: When we adjust for income, ethnicity, education, and geographic location, Mormons are very similar to their neighbors.

    Is this really true? I’ve heard this claim before. I’ve also heard the opposite (on say divorce). When I try and look things up I find precious little hard data.

  22. Clark (21): Here’s some good data:

    I think you and Mark are right. Mark did say similar, but not indistinguishable. You’re right that there are still differences.

  23. Would there be any sales of short sleeve white shirts if not for the Church?


  24. I feel kinda mainstream…I sit next to two non-LDS coworkers who don’t drink and are faithful to their partners. We have kids, we spend our weekends in the park, we enjoy similar books, movies, and TV shows.

    The main outward difference is in how I spend my sundays. And I know that our younger years were VERY different (we took different paths to teetotalism, for instance). But to the casual observer, right now, our outward lives and behavior are quite similar.

    I guess I’m saying our “weirdness” is largely internal–our testimonies, the temple covenants, our outlook on eternal progression. To the extent that those affect our outward behavior, hopefully it does so by making us good people. And there are good people everywhere.

  25. History leaves a long imprint on a culture. I find that capitalism sits uneasily even today on Catholics, who (I believe rightly) fear squeezing their camel through the eye of that needle guarding the gates of heaven. The idea of a “Prosperity Gospel” is alien and repugnant to every Catholic I know and have known.

    No doubt Mormons have equally deep fissures with “mainstream” Protestant culture, which is a great thing, really. Only the Borg think that assimilation is a good in its own right.

  26. Thomas Parkin says:


    I thought of TBK because I had just been reading the bit where the Inquisitor talks about about mystery and authority as ways of “correcting” Christ’s “deed.” That chapter is a mind-blowingly good. :)

  27. #25 impressively cogent comment Dan. I can’t imagine liberation theology finding a foothold among us, for example, either. That construct may have been driven underground among Catholics, but hardly inactive: Witness Catholic clergy 21st century support of immigrants’ and workers’ rights. From Wikipedia–“Liberation theology[1] is a Christian movement in political theology which interprets the teachings of Jesus Christ in terms of a liberation from unjust economic, political, or social conditions. It has been described by proponents as ‘an interpretation of Christian faith through the poor’s suffering, their struggle and hope, and a critique of society and the Catholic faith and Christianity through the eyes of the poor’,[2] and by detractors as Christianized Marxism.”

  28. Ron Madson says:

    #25–#27, Now this is getting interesting. The question for me is not “why Jesus died” but rather “why did they want to kill him?” Jesus gave voice to the very least and in so doing was an affront to the powers that be. He did not just say “peace is nice” but “renounced” all violence. You might say He even followed DC 98. Real, raw “denouncing” war today would be political and mainstream suicide on 9/12/2001 (even today one cannot gain acceptance without without being willing like Henry V/Obama to show one can kill for one’s nation–or in case of Republican debates—“I hate our enemies more than thou and willing to seek revenge/kill/torture more efficiently). We would seek to make sure that there is no one that is not provided the basics (health care, food, etc.). We would give voice to any of the oppressed even if we/our culture considered them samaritans, sinners, pariahs (illegal aliens, same sex attracted, muslims). We would speak for those in prison (even Guantanomo), condemn all torture in any form. We would stand in the breach as the Quakers did in the underground railroad when it was last popular to do so, we would practice liberation theology in word and deed.
    Nope, we desire to be mainstream. So in an act of spiritual dyslexia we pick out “tenets” such as Section 89 and make them commandments while rejecting Section 98 in word and deed (which is an “immutable covenant” made to set us apart from the world). We glory in our chastity, appearances and chosen-ness and thus are not a light to the world but rather a zoramite spectacle.

  29. IMO, as long as today’s Mormon Church rewinds it’s tape to the Joseph Smith story, the BoM, the ‘only true church’, it will not become mainstream.
    It can become mainstream by being more Christ believing , family helpful, and of giving service to non-Mormons.

  30. “It can become mainstream by being more Christ believing , family helpful, and of giving service to non-Mormons.”


  31. Mark Brown says:

    Now maybe that’s not a problem; maybe it’s exactly what God wants. Because, frankly, those Methodists and Baptists are damn fine people; perhaps we should be pleasantly surprised to be able to look around ourselves and realize that we have fully accommodated ourselves to the American mainstream.

    Russell, I guess my point is that we haven’t accomodated ourselves to the American mainstream, but to a single channel of it. By doing so, we have cut ourselves off from the Hispanic Catholics, Jews, atheists, black Methodists and many others who are also damn fine people.

  32. What are all those missionaries going out two by two for if we don’t want to become more mainstream. Thought we were bringing the world His truth. Shouldn’t we want to become less and less distinct as more and more become followers of Christ.

    Becoming mainstream is causing pain and embarrassment, what’s that all about? Jesus Christ died and bled on a cross. LDS pioneers had much pain on their journey. An LDS convert who is disowned by their family because of the faith they have chosen knows pain. When were promised that following Christ would be pain free.

    And embarrassment never killed anybody. It’s real uncomfortable, but hey we’ll live. We get asked questions all the time about our religion. And the whole being black and Mormon, please, we might as well go hide under a rock if we don’t want to be asked questions about our faith.

    Do we want our religion to become more mainstream? Nobody cares what we want. The creators of The Book of Mormon Musical don’t care, Newsweek doesn’t care, ya mama don’t care. Mormonism is out there, people are talking about it and asking questions and there is nothing we can do about it except be prepared.

    Our beliefs may seem different to others, but being different is not what we are all about. Christ didn’t come to earth to be different, he came to make a difference.

  33. #30: This is how the Church has become more mainsteam in the last 50 or so years, by being seen this way. But it has farther to go.

  34. Mark,

    I guess my point is that we haven’t accommodated ourselves to the American mainstream, but to a single channel of it. By doing so, we have cut ourselves off from the Hispanic Catholics, Jews, atheists, black Methodists and many others who are also damn fine people.

    Okay, I see your point, and I agree with it. There may just be a difference in how we’re using words here. I think it is fair to say–as my response to you assumed–that when one thinks of “the American mainstream”, especially in the context of religion, you’re probably talking about some kind of Protestant Christianity, or maybe not even that: maybe we should call it “white suburban Christianity”, to acknowledge the fact that this is at least as much a class distinction as it is anything else. Of course, if you define “mainstream” solely in terms of numbers, of bodies in pews, then white suburban Christianity hasn’t been the mainstream of American religious life for quite some time now. But it still–if only just barely–holds the cultural high ground, and hence dominates the businesses and institutions which reflect and amplify the power of that ground. I mean, how many “Hispanic Catholics, Jews, atheists, black Methodists and many others” are running credible campaigns for president right now?

    Of course, that’s a silly question to ask, but there’s a point to that silliness, and that point can turn on us as much as anything else. I think it is entirely possible that it would be complementary to God’s plans for Mormons to successfully run for president, and to become essentially indistinguishable from the white-bread mainstream, because it opens up so many avenues for expansion and (worldly) success. Certain, to the extent Kirn takes seriously what he wrote in Newsweek, that’s kind of where he stands–seeing us a wonderfully pragmatic and adaptable and assimilative and such. But I think it’s also entirely possible that our “moment” is a horror to God, that He wants this church to stay marginalized along with the Hispanic Catholics, Jews, atheists, black Methodists, etc. I simply don’t which is true. (Some will say that the fact that Joseph Smith announced an intention of running for president, as well as several other things such as those Blair mentioned in #10, suggests that the latter possibility can’t possibly be true. But then, that assumes God approved of every course of action His prophets and the church took from 1842 on, and I’m afraid I don’t have a strong enough testimony to automatically agree with that.)

  35. Romney 2012 Supporter says:

    We’ll see if Newsweek if laughing if Romney gets elected.

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