Mirroring Mormonism

Mirroring Mormonism June 14, 2012

Negotiations continued this past Sunday evening at the 2012 Tony Awards. The show opens with one Elder Price ringing Ricky Martin’s dressing room “doorbell.” After an awkward pause and a cheesy smile that sparkled as bright as any 1980s toothpaste commercial, the young missionary then says/sings, “Hello, my name is Elder Price, and I would like to share with you the most amazing book.” Unsurprisingly, Martin immediately slams the door shut. The scene then moves down the hall to Elder after Elder ringing doorbells and singing hellos to celebrity after celebrity, like James Earl Jones, who just happens to be in the middle of a Darth Vader photo signing session. The lead song to one of Broadway’s most popular contemporary musicals, “Hello” is beautifully written and executed, and is one of a handful of the musical’s songs that effortlessly manage to find that ‘repeat’ button in your mind, enjoyably playing over and over and over again. That the song begins at the door of Ricky Martin and ends with the entrance of Neil Patrick Harris—two of the entertainment industry’s most well-known gay performers—makes the irony of the moment all the more rich.

I said that negotiations continued, because the four-minute performance (viewed by millions) is nothing if not one more contribution to the enormously complex confluence of conversations that constitute whatever it is that we all keep referring to as the “Mormon moment.” Indeed, as Matt Bowman so astutely observes—e.g., here and here—this multiplicity of musings is only the most recent of many such moments. From the exodus westward in the 1840s to the emergence of statehood in the 1890s, and from the seating of Senator Reed Smoot in the early 1900s to the campaigning by Mitt Romney for the White House today, confrontations with Mormonism have come and gone about every decade or so. What we witness each time, Bowman says further, is actually part of the debate “over the role of religion – not simply Mormonism, but religion more generally – in American public life.” In other words, the “things which Americans find curious or threatening about Mormonism are a distillation of what Americans might fear or desire from religion at any given moment.”

Such debates are, of course, always situated within even larger historical horizons, and when one steps back to pay attention to the forest rather than the trees what one can see is a wide variety of intense interactions between, to name just a few, power structures, cultural institutions, political forces, economic entities, social movements, and religious communities. Negotiations about Mormonism’s place in the world thus reflect a very broad range of interrelated considerations, and among this global web of activity all parties are vying to not just survive but to thrive by obtaining legitimacy, influence, and growth. As such, we are all witnesses to and participants in the debates that determine what sorts of ideas, organizations, and ways of life are deemed either desirable or detestable.

With its ingenious satire and clever caricature, the Book of Mormon musical represents a kind of middle point in this difficult deliberative process, situated at a location and evoking a locution somewhere between the extremes of fear and disdain, on the one hand, and desire and admiration, on the other. Thousands of theater goers who would otherwise never consider inviting missionaries into their home, nor have any interest in exploring the beliefs and practices of Mormonism, happily spend hundreds of dollars enjoying an energetic and entertaining presentation about a very peculiar people. Hovering in a humorous space between rhetorical extremes—it really is an expression of appreciation rather than denigration—audience members are able catch a glimpse of that which is “other,” a strange community that is worth seriously laughing at but not really worth thinking seriously about. As Taylor Petrey’s recent column cogently conveys, Latter-day Saints are typically deemed nice as neighbors but ridiculous as religious practitioners. But what if a Mormon moves in, not just next door, but into the White House? Fully confronting the implications of that question is to engage in this process of negotiating spaces; it is to contribute to the multiplicity of movements that make up the Mormon moment.

Venues deemed less threatening, and, ironically, more trustworthy, like Broadway theaters and Comedy Central shows, are actually helpful in a strange sort of way, because they simultaneously allow the curious outsider to learn something about LDS ways of thinking about and being in the world and the committed insider to see how they are seen. It’s this elusive element of trust, so beneficial in any bargaining process, that I’m especially interested in here. Frustrated with all the fodder fomented by public relations machines and biased news organizations, a significant number of Americans have turned to comedic cultural commentaries for reprieve. Similarly, rather than visiting the LDS Newsroom or mormon.org, many will look to unofficial, non-faith-promoting, and satirical sources to try and make some sense Mormonism’s self-understanding.

However, Richard Bushman’s witty and insightful remarks in a CNN interview last year concisely capture the difficulty involved with placing confidence in such sources: “Based on what I have heard, and the lyrics of Elder Price’s song, the musical gets a lot of laughs, but it is not meant to explain Mormon beliefs. Mormons experience the show like looking at themselves in a fun-house mirror. The reflection is hilarious but not really you. The nose is yours but swollen out of proportion.” The musicals, the skits, and the bits often illuminate issues in unexpected ways, but even if a warped mirror is able to capture something of the “truthiness” of that which it reflects, it necessarily presents something of a distortion.

I want to turn the tables at this point, though, because I think it’s vital to not just look outward but also inward to try and make some sense of the general dearth of understanding of and appreciation for Mormonism. Why do certain questions keep coming up over and over again when (supposedly satisfactory) answers have been provided over and over again? Do Mormons practice polygamy? Are Mormons Christian? Is Mormonism racist? What is the status of women in the church? Etc. What if the satirical caricatures and critical commentaries aren’t the only sources of muddled messages? What if sources held to be reliable, credible, and even official have actually perpetuated confusion rather than clarity? What if the institution’s most ardent defenders have occasionally, even if unwittingly, fashioned fun-house mirrors of their own?

Bushman’s observation above is in response to precisely the sort of question that is repeatedly asked and answered, and his comments continue with the following:

Take the issue of getting your own planet, for example. Elder Price talks about a planet for himself and one for Jesus. Those are not really core Mormon beliefs. Mormon scriptures and Church leaders don’t say anything about people getting their own planets. The idea is more like lore than doctrine. Mormons do believe in the principle of theosis, the doctrine that God wants humans to become like himself—in effect gods. That belief leads Mormons to speculate about creation. Will beings with god-like qualities have the powers to form earths? Perhaps, who knows? There is no fixed doctrine on the subject. Mormons themselves joke about the planet business. But they do take seriously that we may grow up to be like Our Father in Heaven.

Without a doubt this particular idea—the potential for human beings to become Divine—has consistently ranked among the most obvious examples of why the tradition doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. The idea is viewed as nothing short of totally blasphemous to many religious folks, absolutely absurd to secular critics, and completely confused to scores of otherwise disinterested observers. And, when the question of Mormonism’s relationship to Christianity comes up, it’s one of the first items trotted out by critics to show the (apparent) incommensurability between the two traditions. In my judgment, very few individuals are as capable as Richard Bushman when it comes to speaking to the media about Mormonism, and this interview is certainly no exception. However, his response to this issue, as well as the answer provided by the LDS Newsroom on its “Mormonism 101” page, and even Gordon B. Hinkley’s reply to the topic back in 1997, demonstrates that the potential for distortion may not be so much with what is said, but what is all too often left unsaid.

To be fair, in sound-byte-style interviews and short-form essays doing justice to the historical details and theological subtleties involved in these sorts of matters is virtually impossible. Furthermore, it’s no doubt correct that Mormon scriptures and contemporary Church leaders don’t say anything to members about getting their own planets, so when the Newsroom says that it’s not a doctrine of the church, that’s technically true. However—and here’s where reflections can tend to get a bit warped, and negotiations can start to break down—if one alters the wording and the tone ever so slightly, and does even the briefest online search, what one quickly discovers is that even if the exact phrase “getting one’s own planet” has often been employed by critics in a pejorative way, the idea upon which it is based has a long history and flows deep within the veins of the LDS Church.

This isn’t the place to enter into a detailed exposition, but any attempt to do it justice would require adequately acknowledging and addressing as much of the relevant data as possible—e.g., scriptural passages, Lorenzo Snow’s famous couplet, Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse, statements made by church leaders throughout the Church’s history, and the significance it holds in the lives of contemporary Latter-day Saints. To be sure, there are legitimate differences of opinion as to the meaning of the claims that “as man now is, God once was,” and that “as God now is, man may be.” Even so, from the implications contained in the primary song “I am a child of God” to the crowning temple ordinance of sealing (marrying) couples for time and eternity, the notion that human beings are Gods in embryo with the potential to one day literally create, govern, and people worlds is a pillar of faith for many Mormons.

A couple of quick points then. First, when it comes to negotiating these treacherous spaces, I think insiders will have a greater likelihood of establishing trust and representing the faith with the highest degree of fidelity if they begin by taking a long, humble, self-critical look in the mirror. Before one turns to the sincere inquirer or hardened critic to say that some idea has been badly misrepresented, taken out of context, or horribly misunderstood, perhaps it would be good to first spend a significant amount of time examining whether the claim has any legitimate basis—even if that basis is slightly indirect as in the case of getting one’s own planet. Maybe, just maybe, there are valid reasons why such questions keep coming up, and maybe, just maybe, insiders have contributed to the confusion by being too dismissive and not self-reflexive enough. Perhaps, in other words, deep introspection rather than defensive positioning is a more productive starting point.

Second, given that saying as little as possible, or sometimes even nothing at all, about controversial matters hasn’t exactly led to either a high degree of trust or a high level of understanding, perhaps an alternative approach is worth considering. Could it be that the greatest possible amount of openness and candor ought to be the rule rather than the exception? Could it be that painting beautiful portraits in order to avoid the messiness of the historical record ultimately represents its own kind of caricature? What I’m suggesting, then, is that for every sound byte response, or “Mormonism 101” page, maybe it would be worthwhile to also provide pointers to in-depth treatments, written by individuals with expertise, in which all relevant data is frankly acknowledged and rigorously analyzed. For example, while book-length treatments certainly aren’t always necessary, Massacre at Mountain Meadows exemplifies the kind of careful analysis I have in mind.

Please note that this is not a blanket condemnation, but rather a simple observation that in certain instances, and quite often in relation to topics about which there is a substantial amount of disagreement or controversy, there are good reasons why individuals might mistrust official and sympathetic sources. Deeper introspection and increased openness may not keep doors from getting slammed in the faces of missionaries, and they may not win large numbers of converts, but in my experience as both a committed insider and a teacher of Mormonism at a secular university they definitely raise the level of conversation and foster greater degrees of trust, appreciation, and understanding.


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