A Response to Matt Bowman on Beards and Correlation (p.3 of 3)

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/expanded analyses: 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.” Expansion #3:

III. (Un)Official

So there’s been plenty of chatter lately about what does and doesn’t count as “official Church doctrine.” The LDS Newsroom has published statements on the subject–one perhaps a response to Romney’s last campaign effort, the other a response to Bott-gate–and a member of the Quorum of the 12 addressed the issue explicitly in Conference. There are various motives for advancing this distinction, but here I’d like to make one quick comparison which, like Bowman’s column, can be mercilessly nit-picked due to its terseness.

It seems more than coincidental that Lee’s correlation’s efforts were taking shape around the time Vatican II was recalibrating Catholicism. Consider the council’s approach to Mary: efforts were made to turn her from being the object of devotion to being one’s moral exemplar.[1] One church bishop recalled, having seen Mary statues in the homes of parishoners, resisting the urge to break them in pieces. He worried that a too-superstitious membership inappropriately spent more time praying to Mary than to God (57). Church leadership sought to quash such devotion. Despite official calls for change, “devotion to the Mother of God persisted in American Catholicism” and continues to reemerge in various places to the present.[2] Mary exists between pulpit and pew, and between individual Catholics and heaven, and not simply as an officially-declared aspect of Catholicism approved by the leadership thus accepted by the masses. Catholic leaders themselves display a range of positions on the place of Mary in the Church, some being informed by memories of their own mothers piously looking to the Virgin for intercession. Or, as my Catholic priest/college professor John Haughey likes to remind me, “every Pope came from a womb.” There is feedback between laity and leadership.

Likewise in Mormonism, we see perhaps somewhat competing, if complementary, paradigms operating–as when public affairs promotes “I’m a Mormon” and Mormon.org even while apostolic members of public affairs committee remind church members that we’re not the Mormon Church. Bowman doesn’t discuss the way most Mormons believe that the Church leadership is divinely-guided, thus stamping official manuals and directives from church hierarchy with a certain seal of divine approval. (Think I’m wrong? Try writing a blog post about deviating from the lesson manual in Sunday School!) At the same time, we should also keep in mind that a certain bifurcation arises between Correlation and the official church leadership. The unnamed people who form the Correlation committees and write our manuals also provide a certain buffer for the leadership. Committees are supposed to filter the “folklore” out of the more broadly acceptable tenants, to use Elder Holland’s term, but sometimes they let stuff slip right by. Regardless of these distinctions, I think for most active Mormons official church publications are understood to be the safe road to distinguishing the official from the unofficial.

But this “official/unofficial” distinction only makes sense in a post-Correlation church where guidelines have been more expressly drawn up to help members distinguish between what is official and what isn’t, precisely in those press releases and conference talks I linked to above. And just as importantly, to help non-Mormons make the distinction, as the Newsroom’s ongoing efforts show. So we have apostles, prophets, public affairs representatives and unnamed correlation committee members. There appears to be some cross-over between Public Affairs and the folks who work on our manuals, as my recent post on online manual updates suggests, and since an apostle or two sit on the various committees we know there must be some interaction between them. But these official channels are still competing with—or growing alongside—blogs, musicals, plays, Bowman’s Slate column, movies, and music which aren’t sent through correlation’s efficient sausage-grinder and, like Saturday’s Warrior (and perhaps even the “Mormon Rap,” to a much lesser extent!) both shape and are shaped by Mormons.

See all these relationships? Family members, lay leaders and teachers, academic authors and bloggers, correlation committee members, public affairs officials, members in the pews, non-Mormon friends and neighbors, apologists, critics, prophets and apostles. What I’m trying to describe, and what I think Bowman does a good job of doing although his limited column elides it, is an analysis of Mormonism using Robert Orsi’s “dialectic of religion”:

Religions arise from and refer back to discrete social and cultural worlds and they are inevitably shaped by the structures and limits of these worlds as they engage them. This is the dialectic of religion, which takes place within and in complex relationship with the dialectics of culture.[3]

We all continue to watch as these things unfold. And we perhaps even affect those things, regardless of whether that is our overriding goal, as we are in turn affected by others.


[1] Robert A. Orsi, Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005), 52.

[2] Ibid., 58.

[3] Ibid., 170.


  1. Riccardo, Rome Italy says:

    I’m a Catholic and I can assure you that the Vatican II has never made any effort to turn Mary from an object of devotiom to a simple moral exemplar.
    On the contrary, her devotion has always been encouraged and John Paul II an Benedictus XVI have always had (and advocated) strongly the devotion towards the Virgin Mary.

  2. “thus stamping official manuals and directives from church hierarchy with a certain seal of divine approval.”

    If anyone doubts this, remember the discussions here whenever evolution or the Priesthood ban is mentioned – or, more generally, former Church Presidents’ statements are analyzed and questioned. “If it’s in the manuals, the apostles all have approved it as absolute truth” is not hyperbole in some members’ minds.

    Just to add to the concluding idea of the post, I’ve listened to General Conference in the last five years I’ve been participating in the Bloggernacle and been struck by statements in more than one talk that I believe were influenced by posts I’ve read. Maybe that was hyper-sensitivity in some cases, but in a few cases I think it’s nearly indisputable – given the specific wording in the talks.

    I’m really glad that is happening.

  3. Riccardo, If you get a chance, check out Orsi’s work on it.

    Ray: I’m honestly doubtful that any of my own posts have filtered up that far. :)

%d bloggers like this: