Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Do I Want My Religion To Be Mainstream?

[Cross posted to By Common Consent]

This cover story in Newsweek is pretty much the only thing Mormons in my crowd have been talking about this morning. (They've also been talking about the other features in the package, as well as a wonderful sidebar article on Elizabeth Smart, but not as much as the main piece.) The main article, "Mormons Rock!", written by Walter Kirn--who is a long-lapsed member of the faith himself--apparently started out as a piece on the new "The Book of Mormon" musical on Broadway, but grew from there. The editor primarily responsible for putting the package together and guiding it was Damon Linker, my old friend and frequent intellectual sparring-partner, not least when it comes to things Mormon. Here, thanks to the work of some fine other journalists, he's developed something that might well be read as a basically innocuous puff-piece (running through some of the basics of the church's history and current institutional culture, quoting several prominent members of the faith about how they deal with the misunderstanding and marginalization that comes along with being a minority faith), but which, to me anyway, presents a fairly challenging question, a question that might be legitimately asked to believers of any non-dominant religion: should you, as a adherent of a faith, actually want to have your "moment"?

I'm no expert on the Catholic church in America, but I attended Catholic University for graduate school, read and loved (and also hated and argued with) Richard John Neuhau's First Things magazine for years, and in general have tried to become fairly familiar with Catholic history and sources and issues. Same way it worked with Damon, by the way, who was RJN's second-in-command at FT for a few years, close to a decade ago. Neuhuas famously made intellectual use of an old phrase in American Catholicism, one which Tina Brown reminds Newsweek's readers of in her Editor's Note to the issue: with the nomination of John F. Kennedy as the Democratic candidate for president, American Catholics found themselves in the spotlight. No longer, or at least no longer primarily, a religion of immigrants, of a particular corner of the United States, of the non-WASP poor, but rather an organized community, which had penetrated government, academia, the arts, professional sports, and more--Catholics were capable of playing (and winning) at the very top of America's collective pyramid of games. And over the decade which followed, one change after another followed for the Catholic Church--Vatican II, John Courtney Murray's Dignitatus Humanae Personae, and more. Not that all this and more was caused by the fact that a Catholic (even if only a nominal one) had been elected as president of the most powerful country in the world, but the fact remains that the trends which led to all these occurrences coinciding were not, in themselves, entirely coincidental. Kennedy and his moment was a fair synecdoche of everything that was happening, and would continue to happen, to Catholics in America (and around the world) in the years to come. That moment meant Catholicism was no longer, or at least not primarily, practically speaking, a refuge from and/or a bulwark against a diverse and divided and damned world: it was, rather, part of the civil order. Catholicism was merging with--was making its peace with--Americanism, with capitalism, with democracy, with popular culture, with individualism, with modernity. If Mitt Romney--or John Huntsman, or HBO's Big Love, or "The Book of Mormon" musical--is a similar "moment" for my faith, is this something I should be okay with?

I'm not sure how many of us are. I found it fascinating that, to quote from the main article:

In recent weeks NEWSWEEK called every one of the 15 Mormons currently serving in the U.S. Congress to ask if they would be willing to discuss their faith; the only politicians who agreed to speak on the record were the four who represent districts with substantial Mormon populations. The rest were “private about their faith,” or “politicians first and Mormons second,” according to their spokespeople.

Kirn frames this as part of the general narrative of the piece: that we Mormons, a pragmatic and adaptable people, are only now getting used to the fact that our religion has prepared us to intelligently and diligently make the most of the world we find ourselves in, and are reasonably careful about expecting too much from a mainstream which has historically mistreated and misunderstood us. And surely, that's part of it. But there is another angle, which I think a couple of smart--but not especially religions people--people like Damon and Kirn have failed to grasp: that perhaps many American Mormons, even those quickly ascending to the heights of their respective professions and causes, are unsure how much we want to accept everyone and everything else.

Kirn quotes, without much comment, two Mormon politicians, Senator Harry Reid and Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake, who both tie their (very different) political views to their faith. Perhaps it's not surprising that doesn't elicit much comment; after all, in a country where every politician with any aspirations gets brow-beaten into ending every major address with "God bless America!", how can it seem odd to see religious believers tying their faith to their voting record? But if you think for a moment of two about Mormon history, it arguably can appear has very odd indeed. Ours was a faith that, throughout its long history, has at least as often organized itself in opposition to the existing civil order as attempted to work with it. Indeed, we've gone far beyond simply positing an occasional opposition; we're the church which fled the United States in an attempt to build a theocratic settlement in Utah, who engaged in means both legal and illegal to thwart federal authorities who attempted to stop us from practicing what we (at that time, anyway) held to be central to our faith. Obviously more than a century has passed since those days. But as many fine histories that have emerged over the past couple of decades have taught us, abandoning that theocratic, Zion-building aspiration was a long, difficult, and by no means straightforward process, and it is only inconsistently absent from Mormon thinking to this day. In places where Mormons hold a voting and/or economic majority, we fall (back?) into the habit of constructing our own particular orders; in places where we don't hold such a majority (which is everywhere except Utah and parts of Idaho and Arizona), many Mormons find it reasonable to see our own desire for an "oppositional establishment" in common cause with other Christian majorities who want to similarly legislate on behalf of their moral preferences, even if doing so arguably makes a hash of our purported theology. Kirn uses the old phrase by Charles Colson to describe this--the "ecumenism of the trenches." And to be sure, some members of the church have thrown themselves into those trenches with great enthusiasm. But for quite a few of the rest of us, the prospect of seeing ourselves as engaged in some grand ecumenical struggle is...difficult (even if we can see an equally strong theological argument for it as otherwise). If we're part of the mainstream, even an "oppositional" mainstream, then what becomes of our particularity, our community, our separateness? Is it gone for good, or has it been made entirely internal, personal, a matter of belief and lifestyle, rather than of politics and culture and our ways of life? And, most crucially...if the latter option, then isn't that essentially the same thing as the former?

I'm as divided as the next person: I'm a modernity-loving geek, and yet I keep trying to find some way to explore alternatives, to live my life and, to whatever extent a piss-poor "patriarch" like myself can, to lead my family in the direction of something that isn't just one more lifestyle in the midst of many others. The Mormon heritage teaches me that I ought to be about a grander task than that. The musical which generated this conversation at Newsweek in the first place has been widely recognized as brilliantly (and foul-mouthedly) riffing on the "sentimental appreciation for the psychological benefits of religious faith". If this is our moment, then perhaps we need to be conscious of one of the possible prices of that mainstreaming moment, of that making piece with American pluralism--that we end up talking about our faith primarily in terms of sentiment and psychology. For myself, I want something more robust than that.

1 comment:

John B. said...

Nice conclusion, Russell.

I'm Lutheran, myself, but your remarks resonated with me in the sense that I came of age and have always lived in places where Lutherans are a distinct minority. But Lutherans take as given and embrace the fact of a pluralistic society . . . though this inclination to embrace causes some tensions with regard to some social issues such as, most recently, whether and under what terms the church should allow gays and lesbians to serve as pastors, and whether/how to recognize committed same-sex unions.

But my denomination's history is rather different from how you characterize Mormonism's history: Luther didn't want to cause a schism but to reform the Church from within; to this day, Lutherans are working to re-unify the church through dialogue with the Catholic Church and the idea of "full communion" with other denominations. I like that about us; the separatist attitude adopted by some more-conservative Protestants (and some Catholics as well) is off-putting to me for all sorts of theological and cultural (in the sense of both church culture and secular/political culture) reasons. But that go-along-to-get-along attitude has gotten Lutherans into trouble in the past, most notoriously with the Nazis (Dietrich Bonhoeffer notwithstanding).

More benignly, though, going along to get along reduces or ignores what I think should be a healthy tension between the church and the world in which we find ourselves, out of which arises the robustness you seek. The church is at its most effective when not cozying up to secular power but standing at a remove from it, serving as something like a loyal opposition, advocating as forcefully as possible that the state be an advocate for all and not just for itself or the powerful, and in the meantime living out the Gospel in our personal lives. At least as I understand what I'm trying to say here, that's not proselytizing, but it is witnessing.

That's my sense of what a mainstream religion is or should be; more important for me, there's a robustness there, in that from such a position the church can still speak with a moral authority and not be mocked or feared.

I hope at least some of this is clear . . .