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The cultural constituencies of Mormonism

August 12, 2010


This week, Patheos has featured a series of posts from big names within (and without) the church on the Future of Mormonism. Nearly every article I read was interesting in some way or another, so I think Patheos did a great job in lining up these writers (but of course — how could anyone expect less of these big names?) I probably could write articles here about my thoughts and responses to each of these posts (but my thoughts would probably be nowhere near as eloquently as the original authors’ (dis)cussions of their topics), but today, I want to focus on Armand Mauss’s article, Mormons in the New Century.

The major work that Mauss is known for is his 1994 The Angel and the Beehive (which honestly, I will get to that one of these days~). The gist (which is probably a great oversimplification) is that religious movements predictably move in certain patterns…a pattern of becoming more (dis)tinct from the majority culture, and then a pattern of closing the (dis)tance between themselves and the larger culture around.

fencing distance

I can only imagine what closing the distance could mean...

What is interesting about the shifts between retrenchment (becoming more distinct) and assimilation (becoming less so) is that the religion never “retrenches” back to the original location — the religion never recovers all the uniqueness that it had given up in previous assimilation efforts. So, like a good fencer, the religion slowly (and perhaps imperceptibly to the other) creeps more and more toward the other. As Mauss wrote (emphasis added):

To the extent that the periodic “retrenchment” efforts are intentional, they are designed to halt or reverse this assimilation process, but somehow the retrenchment mode never pulls the movement all the way back to where it began, so each new retrenchment is launched from a slightly greater level of assimilation than the last one. In a few generations, the movement is well enough assimilated to enjoy general respectability, but it would no longer be recognizable by its founders. Yet it meets the needs of their more sophisticated descendants.

Anyway, that’s the gist. Not only is this a good description of other religions’ histories, but Mormonism itself can be plotted according to these ebbing and flowing dynamics.

There were two things that Mauss said that intrigued me in this article, however. The first was at the beginning of his article:

As a believer, I have hope and faith that this church will follow its own unique pattern, as the final dispensation of God’s true religion on earth, and guided by His inspiration through prophets. However, as a social scientist, I do not expect this particular movement to vary significantly from the general pattern discovered a century ago by Max Weber and his colleague Ernst Troeltsch, at least as far as Christianity is concerned.

Of course, that pattern is offered in social science as theoretical — that is, as “ideal-typical” — so some variation from the pattern is to be expected in the specific history of any new religious movement, at least if it survives its first generation or two. However, LDS history so far has not strayed far from the general pattern.

To what extent should we expect a true and inspired religion to diverge from such a mundane, human sociological theory of religious progress?

But the second thing by which I was intrigued from Mauss was his discussion of cultural constituencies. As he writes:

By “cultural constituencies” I mean the amorphous and somewhat overlapping segments of membership within the LDS Church itself that find, respectively, the principal meaning of their church membership in different forms and degrees of participation.

The first few cultural constituencies seem standard…”ward Mormons” and “temple Mormons.” The first thing to realize about these constituencies (which Mauss also emphasizes) is that they need not be mutually exclusive…obviously, a temple Mormon can still be active in the ward. However, as a matter of gaining principal meaning from membership, I certainly hear of people who are profoundly inspired by their experiences in the temple. I hear of others, however, who are profoundly (dis)couraged by their experiences in the temple, and others still whose primary meaning derived from Mormonism is the sociality they experience on the ward level that isn’t as easy to pull off in the more reverent temple setting. But it is the next constituency that Mauss offers that I really appreciated:

Yet another constituency would be the intellectuals for whom the main meaning of their LDS association is the production and consumption of sophisticated literature (whether apologetic or critical) on LDS theology, history, or culture. Again, these intellectuals typically participate somewhat in either ward or temple Mormonism (or both), or they might be virtual non-participants in both, but they are intensely involved intellectually with the LDS heritage. Finally, this typology might also include those who think of themselves candidly as only “cultural Mormons,” who acknowledge the influence of Mormonism in their upbringing but who no longer find that it provides meaning in their lives.

As Mauss points out, this constituency may participate in ward or temple Mormonism (or both), or they might be virtual non-participants in both…but nevertheless, they are intensely involved with the LDS heritage.

It is refreshing to see this acknowledgment of different ways to interface and interact with Mormonism than the standard ward experience or the more sacral temple experience. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel as if there would be far more others all too willing to define the church and define Mormonism more narrowly…


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  1. Good post, Andrew. And it dovetails perfectly with some things I’ve written at the SHAFT blog lately.

  2. Ooooh, I love to see that I now have a category! “Cultural-only Mormon”. Love it.

    I really enjoyed this post, Andrew. You have provided me with a cool religion website that I think will humor me for hours to come.

  3. Jon,

    and was that an article from *you* I saw that MSP earlier today?

    EDIT: NO IT WAS NOT. Hi there Jonathan Blake!

    Mme Curie,

    The best thing about Patheos is that it has sections on all of the major religions, denominations, etc., So it’s pretty cool to see the “Future of *” series for others too.

  4. I like Angel and the Beehive. I’ve used it two years in a row in my course on American religious history… One reason I like it is because Mauss’s framework for analyzing Mormonism is useful for looking at other American religious groups that have experienced pendulum swings between assimilation and retrenchment. You can see similar patterns in American Catholicism, American Judaism, Evangelicalism, etc.

    It does sort of beg the question, what is the relationship between institutional religion and faith. All new religions almost always begin as a rebellion against religious institutions that have become rigid and stifling of spirit and creativity. The religious rebellions actually benefit already existing religious institutions, because the success of new religions forces old, ossified religious institutions to adapt in order to compete/survive. Consider, for instance, the history of Pentecostalism… Pentecostals were forced out of old-line Holiness and Methodist Churches. But a few decades later, those same churches that once treated Pentecostals as anathema were experiencing their own “Charismatic” renewals…

    In my approach to American history, rather than focusing on the religious institutions themselves, I prefer to ask the question, Where is the Spirit moving? Where do we see faith and life breaking out? (Usually in unexpected places…) How does the Spirit dance both outside of and within institutional forms?

  5. I would soooooo take your class.

    ;_; there just aren’t any interesting people here at A&M lol

  6. I’d be scared to have you as a student. šŸ™‚ I’m sure you would keep me on my toes.

    As an afterthought… It occurred to me that I was one of those people who was absolutely horrified by the temple endowment ceremony. I’ve written elsewhere about it, but let’s just say my first visit to the temple wasn’t pretty. I spent a good part of the ride home from DC literally huddled in a fetal position on the back seat of the car.

    Of course, the ceremony has been revised since I left the Church. I understand the parts of the ceremony that upset me most have since been removed.

    But oddly, over time, I’ve come to appreciate the temple endowment ceremony. I’ve read transcripts of the ceremony. (They’re easily available on-line, as I’m sure you know.) A few years back, I also read The Mysteries of Godliness (by Jon Buerger) which helped put some stuff in perspective. Now that I have reached a point where I really feel I could benefit from temple worship, and I really wish I could go, I’m permanently banned from it. What constituency does that make me?

    I wish that — at the time — it had been possible to discuss the symbolism of the ceremony with someone, etc. But I was made to feel that I couldn’t talk about anything with anyone. Part of the problem was I felt like this was supposed to be sacred and a positive experience, and I was afraid that if I went to anyone and shared the real anguish that parts of the ceremony caused me, I would be viewed as less than faithful…

  7. You definitely fit in a constituency of your own — it doesn’t make sense to try to squeeze into the other ones with your situation.

    It was interesting how you put it: “I was afraid that if I went to anyone and shared the real anguish that parts of the ceremony caused me, I would be viewed as less than faithful…”

    But now, you write, (for example):

    To the spiritually mature, this shouldn’t matter, because in the spiritually mature soul, the outward appearance of the self and the worldly loss or gain that comes from appearing righteous should not rate as highly as virtues like submission to God, and the service and love that flow from such submission.

  8. You’re right… That’s the same as acknowledging that I was not very spiritually mature when I was 18 years old.

    Of course, having greater spiritual maturity now means, among other things, I can look back at my terrified 18-year-old self and feel not judgmental but compassionate. Sometimes I wish I had a time-machine.

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