Mormonism is a religion, not just a culture

For people serious about their faith, religious beliefs tend not only to influence other types of beliefs but they tend to be presuppositional. Believers adopt particular cultural and political beliefs because of their religious views. For example, an evangelical who believes that abortion is wrong tends to adopt cultural and political views that flow from their religious convictions. Not all evangelicals oppose abortion rights, of course, and even those that do may have developed their position on the issue apart from their religious views. But those who are pro-life tend to be so in a way that is different than those who developed a secular-minded opposition to abortion.

While this may seem too obvious to mention, it can lead to problem for journalists on the religion beat.

A prime example from several years ago is how the media covered the Tea Party movement. There were at least three main factions of the Tea Party, and the main one could be described as a subset of the religious right. Despite the perception of the movement being comprised of economically oriented libertarians, the majority held social conservative views. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tea Partiers polled in 2011 said abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, and only eighteen percent supported same-sex marriage. When the Washington Post contacted 647 Tea Party groups, they found that less than half of the organizations considered spending and limiting the size of government to be a primary concern.

The bottom line: By failing to understand the foundational beliefs underlying the movement, the media continually misunderstood (and misreported) what the movement was really about.

To truly understand a cultural or political movement comprised mainly of religious believers requires understanding the presuppositional religious views that shapes it. But since it can be difficult to determine the motivating belief and cumbersome to explain, it’s often easier to simply focus on the non-religious aspects. That is one of the reasons why so many religion stories become political stories. Journalists know how to write about politics, so if a story can be “translated” it becomes easier to tell.

A similar process seems to have occurred in a recent New York Times Magazine story focusing on Brigham Young University’s film animation program, “When Hollywood Wants Good, Clean Fun, It Goes to Mormon Country.” Instead of writing about religion-as-politics, though, it translates religion into mere cultural expression.

Jon Mooallem does such an excellent job reporting on the program and its budding influence in Hollywood that it feels nit-picky to point out that it all but ignores Mormonism as a religion. Here’s an example of what sets the article apart from the stereotypical reporter-as-anthropologist style of religion reporting:

Many of the students I met in Provo grew up in insular, Mormon communities. They came from what’s dismissed as flyover country. They don’t smoke or drink, and I noticed that one faculty member, for example, kept saying, “Holy schnikeys!” whenever he wanted to curse. And yet creative types in Hollywood kept raving to me about how much “more worldly” these Mormons were than the moody, Gen Y art-school grads coming out of New York and Los Angeles and how grateful they were to have them onboard. This cut against so many different stereotypes — of Mormons, of Hollywood, of tortured artsy kids — and at the oddest angles. By coincidence, it seemed, Mormon culture was grooming its young people to be ideal employees of the same industry it predisposed them to be wary of.

Just when you think you know where he’s heading, Mooallem throws in a perspective-shifting, “And yet …”

My only complaint with that paragraph is that he doesn’t explain what it means for these seemingly “insular” young Mormons to be “worldly.” That would have been a fascinating area to examine.

But while the article is respectful of Mormonism as a culture, the impression it leaves is that being a Mormon is primarily about being part of a monolithic monoculture rather than a member of a religion. The religious elements aren’t exactly ignored, but they are certainly downplayed. For instance, here is how the mission of the animation program is described:

The B.Y.U. program is designed to be a similar kind of ethical counterweight: it’s trying to unleash values-oriented filmmakers into the industry who can inflect its sensibility. “Without being preachy about it,” Adams told me, “if we can add something to the culture that makes people think about being better human beings — more productive, more kind, more forgiving — that’s what we want to do.”

If this had been a story for an outlet whose readers are more familiar with Mormonism — such as the Deseret News, which ran an article on the article — then that might have been sufficient. But for readers unfamiliar with LDS beliefs (e.g., the typical New York Magazine reader), it makes Mormons sound like adherents to a stringent ethical philosophy.

A key theme embedded in the feature is that the young animators are driven to share a message. But the closest the article to comes to explaining what that message could be is a quote buried in a long paragraph:

“In the L.D.S. church,” he told me, “a really strong message is that everyone’s a child of God — that they’re a sacred individual. They’re born into this world clean and pure and beautiful.”

It’s easy to miss the significance of this quote — I missed it myself until I read the article a third time — and what it means for “Mormon culture.” This is the type of presuppositional belief that drives not only the students and the animation program, but BYU and the larger culture of Mormonism.

Hey reporters! Mormons don’t avoid R-rated movies and coffee because its part of “Mormon culture.” They do this because of beliefs — doctrines even — driven by even more foundational beliefs.

Failing to understand this point and make it explicit doesn’t ruin the article — it’s still an entertaining and information feature — but it does reveal a missed opportunity to show that Mormonism is more than just a cultural expression of really polite people.

  • Taylor

    There is a long history, going back to Dickens in the 19th century if I remember correctly, of something along the lines of “what the Mormons say is mostly nonsense, but what they do is magnificent” as if thought and action are somehow not interdependent.

  • Darren Blair

    As an actual Latter-Day Saint?

    I’m still reading the article as I type this, but one thing has already leaped right out at me:

    The author treats “Mormons being involved in animation” like it’s new.

    For example, the author mentions that Edwin Catmull of Pixar spoke to the assembled students… without, it seems, realizing that Catmull is Mormon! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edwin_Catmull )

    Nor is Catmull the only Mormon to have graced the animation industry. Perhaps the most famous is the legendary animator Don Bluth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Bluth ), who is pretty well responsible for a large part of the childhood of anyone who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. But in addition to Bluth, we have the very much prolific voice actor Ken Sansom (http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Ken_Sansom ), writer and director Leo D. Paur (http://tfwiki.net/wiki/Leo_D._Paur ; he once wrote an episode of “Transformers”), and Orson Scott Card (he wrote at least one screenplay for a series of animated adaptions of the Book of Mormon).

    If we expand “animation” to include “video game design”, then we must add to the list Sandy Peterson, the man who, either by himself or as part of a group, wrote and programed about 1/3rd of the levels in DOOM I and DOOM II.

    Really, we Mormons are all over the place in the world of entertainment. (http://www.famousmormons.net/ )

    In that sense, it’s not surprising that BYU finally got around to recognizing this fact by establishing an animation department.

    • Darren Blair

      Almost forgot –

      We Mormons have also made numerous in-roads into live-action children’s entertainment as well.

      Three of the current members of ska / alternative band “The Aquabats” are Mormon (specifically, the actors who play “Crash McLarson”, “M.C. Bat Commander”, and “Eaglebones Falconhawk”).

      Two of them, along with a former member, pooled their time and resources to create “Yo Gabba Gabba!” after they found themselves disappointed in the “educational” kids’ fare that was available at the time; it is my understanding that they continue to work on the series as time permits.

      Well, as of last year The Aquabats themselves have a show on The Hub; the show, “The Aquabats Super Show”, is essentially a parody of Power Rangers-type series. I’ve seen a few episodes, and it was actually quite funny. Perhaps the highlight, however, was when they got Jon Heder – also Mormon – to play Eaglebones’ evil brother Eagleclaw for an episode.

      In other words, just as Mormons were surprisingly dominant in the animation industry of the 1980s, it would appear that Mormons may also become key players in the live-action children’s industry of the 2010s.

      ***

      As an aside –

      I also note that the author of the article finds it shocking to learn that there’s a Mormon who is into anime. I myself have a rather extensive collection of anime and manga (with much of it collected second-hand, allowing me more bang for my buck), and know others who are similarly keen on it.

  • http://www.aaronshaf.com/ Aaron Shaf

    Part of me cheers this article on for telling people to pay attention to the actual religious, theological underpinnings of Mormonism, its worldview, etc.

    Part of me immediately thinks of the atheist and agnostic Mormons I increasingly meet — those who identify as Mormon, participate in the LDS Church as active members, yet privately don’t believe any of its fundamentals.

    • trytoseeitmyway

      This from the guy who makes a practice of violating the Ninth Commandment.

      • Darren Blair

        *Which* 9th Commandment?

        Different faith traditions parse the commandments differently.

        • trytoseeitmyway

          Yes, I understand. In must enumerations, the Ninth is the one which concerns bearing false witness. That’s the one I had in mind. Thanks for asking, though.

  • Derek Johnson

    Very typical: why are these reporters so insecure that they can’t acknowledge someone else may find their belief in God able to drive their life? There is something blatantly discriminatory about this: when a reporter finds out someone is religious, they automatically assume that they are closed minded. I could make a better argument that people who lead a socially liberal lifestyle are close minded.

  • E B

    I read the article last weekend. I thought he did pretty well for a journalist talking about anything to do with Mormons. I didn’t see anything blatantly wrong, for example. Even in the LDS Church, there are many people who misunderstand the distinctions between doctrine, Church, and culture.

    The doctrine is the gospel of Jesus Christ comprising all unchanging, eternal truth, love, virtue, etc.

    The Church teaches the gospel, at times changing policies to best meet that objective. Also, since it is administered by mortal men, sometimes the Church makes mistakes, for which our leaders have apologized and asked forgiveness (in accordance with the gospel of Jesus Christ).

    The culture is the byproduct of people living and working together with similar beliefs and practices and doesn’t always have much to do with either the gospel or the Church, and it is most pronounced in areas of high LDS concentration (such as BYU). The culture is where Mormons get the reputation for being insular, judgmental, naive, etc.
    http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com


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