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The threat of excommunication and the future of progress

Posted by on Jun 12, 2014 in General | 0 comments

Yesterday the New York Times reported that LDS feminist agitator Kate Kelly and heterodox activist John Dehlin have received notice that they are being summoned for disciplinary councils. This announcement came as a shock to many heterodox Mormons, including the growing ranks of feminists– several hundred of whom recently came out in support of women’s ordination.

In Mormonism, disciplinary councils are meetings between a member and her local leaders; they are rather rare, reserved for cases of serious personal sins (think non-repentant adultery, illegal activity, abortion, or gender reassignment surgery) and for apostasy.  According to the Church Handbook of Instructions given to local leaders, disciplinary councils are mandatory in cases of apostasy, defined as a member who “repeatedly act[s] in clear, open, and deliberate public opposition to the Church or its leaders” and/or “persist[s] in teaching as Church doctrine information that is not Church doctrine after they have been corrected by their bishop or a higher authority” (along with following the teachings of apostate sects or formally joining another church).

Councils often end in disciplinary action such as probation, disfellowshipment (exclusion from certain rituals, but still considered a member) and excommunication. While any disciplined Mormon can eventually regain full fellowship by submitting to a lengthy repentance process, excommunication voids all connections between the individual and her church. Membership, baptism, sealings to spouse and family, and the hope of attaining the Celestial Kingdom, where Mormons believe they can not only dwell with God but eventually become like Him.

Thus facing a disciplinary council, a Mormon faces eternal banishment. And for what?

In the case of Kelly and presumably Dehlin, at issue is not, for instance, their heterodox beliefs in female ordination or gay marriage or (in Dehlin’s case) doubting the Church’s truth claims. Indeed, Kate Kelly’s letter made clear,  she is “not required to change your thinking or the questions you may have in your own mind.” Instead, as a Mormon apologist once said to me, “You can believe anything you want and be a Mormon. You just can’t teach it as doctrine.” Crossing the line into public communication and endorsement of heterodoxy, by actively calling for change they challenged the view of the LDS bureaucracy as solely, divinely directed through modern-day prophets.

But many onlookers were still blindsided by the threat of excommunication. In the last few years the LDS Church has made many small steps toward the equality and openness that Kelly and Dehlin call for, such as lowering the missionary age for women, allowing a woman to pray in General Conference, reconsidering the stance that homosexuality is a choice, calling for inclusion and love toward homosexuals, and publishing in-depth, official accounts of the hard history of Mormonism.

Building on classic Durkheimian theories, my mentor and friend Carolyn Marvin has famously argued in her book “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation” that nationalism is the American civic religion. To put it in general terms, true patriots must be willing to die for the group’s shared values, and periodically the authority of the nation-community — the totem– must slay a sacrificial lamb to reinforce who we are and what we stand for.  Precipitating the sacrifice is always uncertainty about the group’s essential borders and boundaries. By sacrificing one of its own, the group reinforces its borders.

It is easy to see the parallels with what is happening in Mormonism. Retrench, regroup, and slay two high-profile activists to remind the group who they are, who they answer to, and what the consequences are for violating the sacred covenant. It is a ritual of sacrifice and regeneration.  But the ritual of excommunication– the Mormon blood sacrifice– has another agenda: it provides a distraction from the changes and progress happening in the Church.  I contend that more small steps for equality and openness are on the horizon for the LDS Church, regardless of the outcome of June’s disciplinary councils.

Romney’s Mainstreaming Impulse

Posted by on Oct 17, 2012 in General | 1 comment

I was on the edge of my seat for much of last night’s town hall debate between President Obama and Governor Romney. Aside from the moment or two where I feared (or hoped?) the embroiled discussion would devolve to fisticuffs, my favorite moment of the night came during Gov. Romney’s answer to the final question, on what he considered to be Americans’ biggest misconceptions of him as a person:

“My — my passion probably flows from the fact that I believe in God. And I believe we’re all children of the same God. I believe we have a responsibility to care for one another. I — I served as a missionary for my church. I served as a pastor in my congregation for about 10 years. I’ve sat across the table from people who were out of work and worked with them to try and find new work or to help them through tough times.”

I had been hoping Gov. Romney would mention his faith.  I’m always interested in the tension– seen both in institutional discourse and the narratives of LDS faithful– between differentiating and mainstreaming Mormonism from broader constructions of hegemonic, mainstream Christianity (noted scholar Armaund Mauss calls it retrenchment and assimilation; Terryl Givens clarifies it as a tension resulting from LDS constructs of election and exile).  In practice, this means that while the LDS Church’s raison d’etat is its claim to be the Restoration of Christ’s gospel necessitated by the apostasy of other Christian churches, often the Church downplays its elect status for pragmatic reasons– historically, to avoid persecution; more recently, as most LDS converts are acquired from another Christian denomination, as a marketing strategy (see “I’m a Mormon”).

So it makes sense — historically as well as pragmatically — for Gov. Romney to lean toward mainstreaming when he discusses his faith in the context of a national political contest. The excerpt above (which I’m fairly confident was his only reference to his Mormon faith in last night’s debate) sounds like any committed American Christian, and obfuscates the differences between  Mormonism and other Christian denominations. Gov. Romney’s belief that “we’re all children of the same God” is quite literal: Mormons believe in a preexistence where all people existed as spirit children of Heavenly Parents. But the statement itself is an ecumenical one that many Christians of various persuasions would assent to; in fact, Romney stated in the previous debate “We’re a nation that believes that we’re all children of the same God”.  Few Americans — even among the nonreligious– would likely disagree with the implied sentiment behind the rhetoric, e.g., the “brotherhood of mankind” (or… siblinghood of humankind?  Sheesh.).

Romney’s missionary past is remarkable for a political candidate, to be sure, and is perhaps the most distinctly Mormon-flavored statement of the night.  Of course, many Protestants and Catholics serve short-term missions in their youth, as well.  And any Mormonness highlighted by his missionary service is dampened by his next statement of pastoral service.  “Pastor” isn’t even the correct emic term, but of course that was intentional; the Mormon term “bishop” sounds liturgical, formal, even Catholic; and decidedly out of step with the Evangelical base Gov. Romney’s relying on.

With only weeks left in this contentious campaign season, my  money’s on a continued mainstreaming impulse in Romney’s political discourse; but will Obama’s campaign use Romney’s faith to marginalize the opposition?

LDS Church announces changes to missionary age

Posted by on Oct 7, 2012 in Ethnographic experience, General, Religion | 0 comments

The LDS Church announced today in General Conference that the are lowering the minimal age for serving a mission: to 18 for men and 19 for women, down from 19 for men and 21 for women.  Missions, which last for 2 years for men and 18 months for women, are paid for by the missionary’s family and are a requirement for men but not women.

The goal  of the new minimum age is to help more men and women serve missions, because logistics of military, education, and marital commitments can be interrupted by a mission beginning at a later age.  While the discussion about the change– from the Church press conference, news reports, Twitter and Facebook commentary– has centered on the impact on women, BYU admissions, age of first marriage among LDS, even college sports, I’ve yet to see any commentary on the impact on the millions of people around the world who will now get a knock on the door from an 18 year old Elder, rather than a 19 year old one.  Aside from sheer practical questions of maturity and life experience that occur in that time frame, where is the discussion of how effective an 18 year old can possibly be in one-on-one proselyting?

Speaking as a non-member and one of the countless people who has answered that knock on the door (over and over), it can feel uncomfortable to have an 19 year old introduce himself as “Elder So-and-So” and go on to offer to teach you about the Gospel.  Of course that discomfort has passed for me now, as a scholar of Mormonism, but I’m sure its a common experience among those who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of LDS culture.

My Juvenile Instructor Guest Post

Posted by on Sep 13, 2012 in General | 0 comments

The good folks over at Juvenile Instructor invited me to do a guest post on my research yesterday, so I took the opportunity to share some of the frustration I’ve been experiencing as a result of the insider/outsider problem of studying non-native cultures.  Although I recognize there are no easy solutions to this dilemma, and that its one shared by many researchers (of Mormonism and every other closed group culture), its still nice to see others dealing with these issues and working through them carefully and thoughtfully.   Thanks for letting me vent!

A non-Mormon’s guide to Utah

Posted by on Aug 27, 2012 in Religion | Comments Off on A non-Mormon’s guide to Utah

Several months ago I received a fantastic opportunity: a dissertation fellowship at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center.  The George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation Fellowship in Mormon Studies is intended to support my dissertation work on evolving LDS identities in the internet age.  I’ll be in residence at the U in Salt Lake City for a year.

I arrived in Utah late Wednesday night, unpacked all day Thursday, and became acquainted with my new office on campus on Friday; but– since today is Monday — I’m considering this my “first week” in Utah.  I am not Mormon, and I’ve not spent time in Utah (nor elsewhere in the intermountain west) for more than a couple of days at a time (for academic conferences on two occasions) so to say this has been a new cultural experience so far would be a laughable understatement.  My plan is to blog my experience to keep track of interesting cultural and religious happenstances– my own “Mormon moments”.

On Thursday, I took my daughter to the local public elementary school for enrollment (she’ll be starting kindergarten next week).  At this point we’d been in Utah less than 24 hours.  The office staff was bustling in preparation for the start of a new school year, but took time to visit with us briefly.  One nice woman, hearing we had just moved to Utah, asked with a smile: “Are you LDS?”  The question might have been surprising, but when my husband had called the school weeks before to ask about enrollment, he’d been asked the same thing. Even in Bible-belt Tulsa, where we’re originally from, I cannot imagine a public school administrator asking such a blunt question about religious affiliation. If our apartment staff had asked the question, it would have been illegal– a violation of fair housing laws. And the school is, again, a public one.  At the time, I answered that we’re not LDS but had moved to the area for work.  Still… I continue to wonder what my “no” answer signified in this particular moment.  Will my daughter’s teacher ask the question?  Will it have implications for her first experience of school?

Later that day, as we filled out paperwork for enrollment, my daughter was given a bright orange nylon backpack containing various school supplies and a card identifying it as a donation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  This was less surprising; the school is a Title I school, and I could imagine a parallel, say, from Catholic Charities or some other religious group in a different cultural context.  My husband remarked, tongue-in-cheek, “Well, this isn’t Kansas,” paralleling the donation with one given to students in one particular school district in Kansas, where students receive $100 Visa check cards from the local casino.  The impulse, I suppose, is the same.

Our other Mormon moments thus far involve driving blindly through one SLC suburb looking for somewhere, anywhere, open on Sunday for lunch (we stopped at two places with “Open on Sunday” signs, and both were closed!); shelves of Books of Mormon and other books written by LDS authorities in the local Sam’s Club (where mainline Christian devotional books had been in New Jersey or Oklahoma); and an entire aisle at the local grocery store dedicated to food storage and “Emergency Preparedness”.

Looking forward to many, many more Mormon moments…

 

Inside outsider: Studying the religion of “others”

Posted by on Jun 27, 2012 in Religion | Comments Off on Inside outsider: Studying the religion of “others”

I’m doing a lot of thinking these days on what it means to study a religion of which you’re not a part.  This has been an issue of interest to me (and to the Mormons I study) since I began ethnographic work among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints four years ago. Still, it always catches me off guard when folks express incredulity that a non-Mormon would study Mormonism.  Doesn’t that happen all the time?  Isn’t it, after all, the classic anthropological model? My professor and mentor John L. Jackson Jr. studies black Hebrews… but isn’t a member of that movement. My advisor and friend Carolyn Marvin recently spent a year in India on a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, studying  Hinduism in public spaces.  Guess what? She’s not Hindu.  It doesn’t seem to surprise anyone when scholars enthusiastically study communities such as these.

Mormonism is in a different category, for several reasons: For one thing, Mormonism is so big and so American; more traditional anthropological studies have always focused on the “exotic other”.  Additionally, LDS communities are already academically reflexive, with vibrant scholarship in the emerging field of Mormon Studies (a field which seems to be overwhelmingly populated by Mormons).  And of course Mormons throughout their history have become accustomed to hostile scrutiny and often approach outsider interest with suspicion– and increasingly so in this “Mormon moment” when everyone seems to want a bit of the Mormon pie.

But here I am. I’ve never been Mormon.  I’ve no plans to become Mormon.  Yet when my colleagues or friends hear I study Mormonism, they assume I am– or once was– Mormon myself.


I loved this piece on Patheos by Seth Perry, who shares both my affinity for all things Mormon and my non-Mormon status.  I laughed when I read his anecdote about being approached after giving a conference presentation on Mormon patriarchy and authority.  Like him, after presentations on some aspect of Mormonism, I have been approached– and less often, accosted– by a member of the Church who has heard my talk and wants to know if I’ve read and prayed over the Book of Mormon. Like Perry suggests about his own experience, I’m uncomfortable with the question.  I hesitate.  I mumble. 

Mormonism teaches that if you read the Book of Mormon and then sincerely pray to know if it is true, the Holy Ghost will manifest its truthfulness to you.  Mormons generally describe this manifestation as a “burning in the bosom”– a feeling in your heart that what you’ve read is true and right.  Affect is taken as evidence for the Book’s divine source.  So implicit in the question “Have you read and prayed?” is the suggestion that if I took the faith I study seriously and approached it on its own terms, I would adopt it as my own.  I would be Mormon.

have read the Book of Mormon; I have never had a special feeling when I’ve read it.  I have not prayed about it: to do so feels disingenuous which already precludes me from receiving an “answer” since the answer is predicated on the seeker’s sincerity. Despite my lack of a testimony of the Book of Mormon or the Church’s truthfulness, I find space for studying and appreciating the faith without accepting its truth claims.

Although my insider-outsider dilemma has been ongoing, lately I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what it means to study the religious “other”, and for good reason: on August 3, I am presenting a paper at the annual conference of the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR).  This year marks FAIR’s 14th annual Mormon apologetics conference, and I’ve been told by conference organizers that I’m the first ever non-Mormon to present.  Given that FAIR is an apologetic organization, and the conference is meant to be faith-promoting, it makes sense that a non-Mormon would be a bit out of place there.  What can I contribute?  Hopefully, I’ll offer what only a non-Mormon could add: a different perspective.

A discursive break: Orthodox & heterodox conversations

Posted by on Apr 3, 2012 in Religion | Comments Off on A discursive break: Orthodox & heterodox conversations

This past weekend I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel at Utah Valley University’s annual Mormon Studies conference. The panel experience was unlike any I’ve sat on at other academic conferences — likely because the stakes, for the panelists and the audience too, are so high in terms of parsing out legitimate Mormon identities.My co-panelists are — put lightly — polarizing figures in various Mormon circles: Scott Gordon, President of FAIR, a website dedicated to apologetic defense of largely traditional and orthodox Mormon teachings and practice; and John Dehlin, founder of Mormon Stories, a progressive blog and podcast designed to “explore and challenge” those selfsame teachings. Each man uses the platform afforded by digital technologies to voice their experience and opinions to thousands of eager readers. Both represent communities of Mormons differing in important ways, but eager to be heard and understood on their own terms.

And yet both spoke past each other. I’m sure you can imagine the dynamics on the panel: Challenge on the one hand, defense on the other. Challenge, defense. Challenge, defense. Sometimes the defense became a challenge, and on and on. The point is that neither party was heard by the other.
The audience was divided, as well. Occasional bursts of applause marked moments of particular divisiveness when John or Scott said something particularly partisan. It was clear that they each had “supporters” in the crowd– and also clear that their supporters were sitting, quite literally, on opposite sides of the room.Of course, there I sat, the outsider, the non-Mormon, the “dispassionate academic”. Ironically my presentation had been on the narratives that faithful, heterodox, and former Mormons tell about their religious identities (their “testimonies”), and how their speech mechanisms mirror each others’ in distinct ways without ever acknowledging the others’ legitimacy. I felt quite like I imagine a marriage counselor often feels when tension and stakes are high, and when salvaging the marriage is nearly beyond hope. Afterwards conference-goers noted the tension on display during the panel, but hinted that at least it was “a step in the right direction”. For my part, I’m not so sure. True that the two men sat at the same panel and spoke to the same audience. But they did not speak to one another in any meaningful way. They did not dialogue.

Is dialogue possible when the stakes are so high, and both sides are already convinced they are right?

Welcome

Posted by on Apr 3, 2012 in General | Comments Off on Welcome

My name is Rosemary, and I’m a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication where I study the intersection of media, religion, and modernity. I’m specifically interested in personal and institutional religious narratives, the public performance of religious identity, and the processes of institutional meaning-making viewed through an interpretive cultural studies framework. To date, I’ve focused much of my academic attention on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or the Mormons), but my ongoing interest is in religious communication more generally.

As a scholar of religious communication, I envision this site as a place to explore current events of interest to scholars and practitioners of religion as well as those interested in understanding traditions, beliefs, and practices different than their own. The goal is dialogue and cooperation, not denigration or expose. Still, dialogue is grounded in mutual understanding, and understanding is predicated on transparency. My posts will attempt to get at religious matters from various perspectives but, recognizing the importance and fragility of talk about the sacred, I will try to stay as objective and empathetic as possible. With these goals in mind, please feel free to take part.