January 30, 2012

A Plea for the West?

by Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp

Is Mormonism a "western" religious tradition?  I found myself mulling over that question recently after reading a blog post about teaching Mormonism in a History of the American West course. 

First it brought me back to my own experience as a teaching assistant in a U.S. Western History survey, more years ago than I now care to say.  We spent exactly one day on religion--and that day was, as you might have guessed, on the Mormons.  Students came away from the course with startlingly little idea that other religious traditions had crossed the Mississippi.  But they also departed with the impression that Mormons, by and large, lived in the American West and were shaped as a tradition by their experiences in that space.

I was, I think, rightfully bothered by the lack and selectivity of airtime for religion, something that is, as has been noted here before, lamentably true of scholarly study of the American West more generally.    But my feelings are more mixed about the notion of Mormonism as a "western" religion.  That framing of the tradition highlights certain features and obscures others, shapes the way we think about Mormon history, and follows a narrative that is deeply contested within the faith.

First, to highlight Mormonism as western is to focus on the 19th century.  Nothing wrong with that, one might say.  Those founding decades were important; the Mormon movement under both Joseph Smith, Jr. and Brigham Young migrated westward (thus participating in the westward trek that shaped much of that period of U.S. History).  Strictly speaking, of course, Joseph Smith and most of the Smith family never made it very far west, and the labeling of Mormonism as western leads many people (at least the ones I talk to) to assume that the founder of the faith spent some time in the Salt Lake Basin.   No, I have to explain:  the Smith family made it to Missouri--the gateway to the west, as legend would have it--but no further.

Granting that the movement did not begin in the West, one can still make the point that the vast majority of Mormons ended up in Utah territory, right?  Well, not exactly true, either--at least, not consistently.  In some of the early years of westward movement (before 1860), the church's missionary efforts in Great Britain were so successful that more members lived there than in the U.S.  They soon began immigrating in huge swells.  Prior to 1868, approximately 31,000 church members migrated to Utah from Britain, and in the 1870 census the British-born comprised 24% of the territory's population.  So, to describe the Mormons as an "American" tradition, and the movement as "western," certainly elides complex patterns of origin and the basic fact that considerable growth came not from native-born Americans but by dint of immigration.

My point here is that Mormonism, like Methodism and Catholicism, was a transnational movement from the beginning. Mormons were no more or less "American," and no more or less "western."  Indeed, the church was international almost from its beginnings, and at times members abroad outnumbered the members in the U.S.

Nonetheless, one might still persist, something important happened in the American West.  Brigham Young and subsequent LDS leaders shaped a Great Basin Zion that was, for several decades, a theocratic kingdom unto itself.  Their patterns of living, economic systems, and family arrangements were unique and distinctively adapted to the material environment of the West.  They achieved a remarkable level of interdependence and collective independence in their new home.

While this narrative of origins is true, it also reflects the romanticized and hopeful account of LDS believers, and avoids the splintering of the Mormon movement that gave rise to alternate, much less "western" tales of development.  One-third of the Mormons living in the vicinity of Nauvoo at the time of Joseph Smith, Jr.'s murder in 1844 did not venture to the far west.  They set up shop in Iowa, in Michigan, in Ohio, and eventually even Texas.  Some went home to Pennsylvania or New York, and reorganized there.  Many Mormons considered themselves diasporic, waiting for the day when a return to the Zion of Missouri was possible.  It's not that the Utah story is not true; it just isn't the whole story, and it is a tale told by the larger, ultimately more successful branch of the family tree.

The farther away we move from the 19th century, however, the less the Utah Basin story looks like the most salient or central element of Mormon identity.  Far fewer words have been written about Mormon movement out of Utah in the 20th century, or the remarkable growth of the LDS Church abroad since World War II.  Yes, the church hierarchy and its institutional framework reside in Utah.  But the everyday life of the church, the identity of its diverse members, and its trajectory for future development, by most measures, spring to life elsewhere. Today, calling the LDS Church a western American religious movement more closely resembles characterizing the Roman Catholic Church as Italian: it tells you something, and the label has some historical, ecclesiastical, and geographic merit, but it also leaves a gaping hole in the larger picture.

Rather than taking an up or down vote (western or not?  American or not?), perhaps we can turn the questions around.  What is at stake for various parties (LDS, non-LDS, scholars of religion, scholars of the West, etc.) in using the label “western”?  What does it stand in for?  Why does it persist in the face of countervailing trends or descriptions?

January 23, 2012

AAR CFP is up!

As promised on Friday, we are linking to the AAR's official CFP. You can find general information about the AAR calls here. For the Religion in the American West Seminar's call, check out our blog post about it here, or follow this link to the officially published version of our call. Be sure to check out other sessions' CFP as well!

Please note that the due date for the papers is March 8. This is a few days later than the initial date posted and we have no knowledge of whether or not the AAR will extend this deadline.

Happy proposal writing!

Late-Breaking Update (3:42 pm PST, Jan. 23, 2012): The AAR has two different proposal due dates posted in different places.  Some parts of the AAR's website say March 5; others say March 8.  We have contacted the AAR for clarification and will let you know what we find out. 

Final Update (7:40 am PST, Jan. 25, 2012): The due date for submissions is, indeed, March 8.  We expect that the conflicting information on the AAR's website will soon be reconciled.

"Twilight": Sign of Mormon Integration?

 by Susanna Morrill
The release of the latest “Twilight” movie got me thinking about this pop cultural phenomenon. This series, set in the Pacific Northwest and written by Stephenie Meyer, a resident of the Southwest, demonstrates that Mormonism, a church sometimes perceived as a clannish Western kingdom, has become integrated into U.S. culture in a way never seen before. More than the existence of two viable Mormon presidential candidates,  Meyer’s success demonstrates this integration. It shows that this religious subculture has produced an author who can translate Mormon ideas into the language of mainstream popular culture. The “Twilight” story and characters have become part of the American vernacular. Meyer makes Mormon theology compelling for non-Mormons.

Meyer’s series—Mormon in so many ways—has caught the imagination of American girls and women (and probably more boys and men than would admit it). Diehard fans, or “Twihards,” snap up “Twilight”-related merchandise and mercilessly hunt down Meyer and the stars of the “Twilight” movies. The love triangle between human Bella, vampire Edward, and werewolf Jacob is appealing to a young female audience. 

The love story plays out in chaste fashion that adheres to Mormon beliefs about purity before marriage and fidelity within marriage. This adds tension to the story, as critics have pointed out (see here and here),  and probably makes the love story even more attractive to a younger female audience.

But I think that Jana Riess and others  have got it right when they point out that the most obvious Mormon theme in the series is the idea of free will and the ability to change oneself and become better. Meyer herself identifies free will as the central Mormon theme of the work, even as she claims that she unselfconsciously put these themes into the series (see this interview and this article).   This is a theme hidden in plain sight amidst, and within, Bella and Edward’s passionate expressions of love and suppressed desire and this theme, I would argue, contributes mightily to the series’ popularity. 

Meyer’s exploration of free will taps into and resonates with the postmillennial perfectionism that overtook American Protestants during the Second Great Awakening. Of course—and here’s the connection—Joseph Smith channeled a portion of this upsurge into his new Mormon church. But abolitionists also rode this upsurge as they argued for the end of slavery. For Social Gospelers, this was the foundation of their work to aid and protect the poor, the laborer, and the immigrant. Later Civil Rights leaders used it in a powerful combination with African American Protestant critiques of racism to push for equality. Religious people felt that they could and should make the world a better place: They should make the country a Kingdom of God on earth and create the millennial age that would end with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

Once let loose, postmillennial perfectionism took on a life of its own within U.S. popular culture and discourses. It mixed with ideas of American exceptionalism to produce Manifest Destiny, impelling people in a relentless march toward and over the Pacific. Or we can see it in the series of world’s fair cities that dotted the U.S. starting in 1876 in Philadelphia and culminating, most famously, in Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Attendees marveled at the White City in Chicago, seeing it as simultaneously a vision of heaven on earth and a concrete example of the perfected city of the future. Disney parks are distant echoes of these moments of temporary enchantment—millennial cities in a world that no longer believes in the possibility of future heavenly perfection on earth, but, instead, opts for a moment of retreat to an idealized vision of a trouble-free childhood. And politicians tap into this strain of optimistic, perfectionist exceptionalism to deliver their message to as wide as possible an audience by employing a lingua franca of American cultural religious concepts. Obama’s 2008 slogan, “Yes, we can!”, can, perhaps, be read as a secularized, postmillennial cheer abbreviated for an age of sound bites.
Meyer’s “vegetarian vampires” live in a constant state of mindful self-control of their appetite; against their bloodthirsty nature, they feed on wild animals rather than humans. In this moment of excruciating tension and victory of will, Meyer speaks simultaneously to Mormon and non-Mormon American readers. She expresses the central Mormon idea of free will, the belief that humans can become better morally, ethically, religiously. General Conference talks (like this one and this one) are chock-full of admonitions to utilize this free will and become more like one’s heavenly parents.  But Meyer also speaks to Americans—Mormon and non-Mormon alike—who resonate with perfectionist ideas that are all around them. Her story may be especially compelling to this audience that lives in a postmillennial bath of images and assumptions about the possibility of perfection and, simultaneously, within a steady stream of discourse from experts who urge them that human will is a result of chemicals and genes.  Meyer’s world of willed goodness speaks with great clarity and power out of this contradictory jumble of authoritative messages. Whether Meyer consciously or unselfconsciously centered her books around the idea of free will, she is able to translate this and other Mormon themes seamlessly and compellingly to a non-Mormon audience who do not know or care if these ideas originate in her Mormon faith.

This summer in the Olympic Peninsula, I found a powerful testament to Meyer’s ability to write compelling romance full of Mormon ideas. Forks, Washington, is the real town in which Meyer set her fictional story. Never having visited the town, she selected it because it is so rainy —a great place for her vampires, who sparkle in the sun, to hide their identities. Meyer’s choice has revived this old lumbering town, one of many Northwest towns hit hard by shifts in federal land-use policy. This past August, I stayed there a night during my annual trip to the Olympic Peninsula with a college friend.

We visited three of the “Twilight”-themed stores (Twilight Central, Dazzled by Twilight, and Native to Twilight) and noticed “Twilight”- related food items on the menus of the local restaurants, as well as “Twilight”-related advertisements even at the local pharmacy.
There are a number of “Twilight” tours that fans can take to visit places described in the book. The owner of one of these tours was happy to talk to us about the effects of the series on the town. He was excited that tourism had skyrocketed and that the annual tax revenue had increased substantially. But, mostly, he seemed to enjoy hanging out with visitors who were intent on having a lot fun. I found this same sense of fun and excitement in the young woman who greeted me at the Forks Visitor’s Center the next day. She told me that “Twilight” had saved the town. Tourism was its new economic base. She showed me a chart that tracked the annual number of visitors to the center. In 2006 when “Twilight” was just beginning to break big, there were 6386 visitors, in 2010, almost 73,000. 
More visually arresting, she showed me maps of the U.S. and the world on which visitors had placed pins to designate their home cities. The U.S. and Europe had disappeared into a sea of multi-colored pins.

All this drove home for me Meyer’s cultural relevance in a way that mere descriptions of the revived town could not.  Meyer’s success has helped to turn around a declining timber town, born from the optimism of nineteenth-century Go-West Manifest Destiny. In the American public discourse, these ideas seem to live, die, and be re-born again and again in new and changing forms. If Meyer’s success is any indication, Mormons now seem to be actively contributing to this cycle of birth and re-birth. I wonder if a subculture that produces such a nimble translator can be considered a subculture any longer—or for much longer.