February 20, 2012

Trying to Make Sense of Mormonism in the Media

by James B. Bennett

I have read with alternating fits of bemusement and dismay the sudden surge of articles about Mormonism over the past few weeks. Perhaps the revelation that Romney, like many Mormons, actually tithes (as opposed to most Christian's tendency to considering tithing only aspirational, at best) has increased people's interest in where that money is going. The media proliferation has become too great to keep a handle on, let alone summarize, so let me highlight one concentrated set that appeared over the course of several days in The New York Times.

The onslaught occurred during the last week of January, kicking off with two articles in the one issue! The first was a puzzling review of Matthew Bowman's The Mormon People, which criticized Bowman for accomplishing what he set out to do. The reviewer lamented the absence of titillating side shows and lurid details, wanting more of HBO's "Big Love" (never mind that "Big Love" wasn't about these Mormons!) and wanting to know if Mormonism is a cult (don't get me started on such uncritical use of the word "cult"—this guy needs to take an intro religion class!).

That same day, the feature story in the food section examined the expanding tastes of Mormon cuisine. Turns out that Mormons actually like to cook and eat foods other than cream of whatever casserole and Jell-O salad. (For those casting about for research/dissertation topics, how about the evolution of denominational cuisine in America?)

The January 25th double-header was followed the next day with an Op-Ed by David Reynolds, which was a call for religious tolerance that depicted Mormonism as just another branch of Protestantism emerging in the nineteenth century religious marketplace, albeit a highly successful one.

Finally, a mere four days later, the Times published an online round table in which our own Laurie Maffly-Kipp was one of the five contributors. While Laurie and the other American Religious Historian, Jana Riess, provided some context and critical perspective on American views of Mormonism, the remaining contributors proffered typical ad hominem attacks about a backward looking, conservative, misogynist church, suggesting a vote for Romney was a vote for the LDS Church to advance those views.

But what of Religion in the American West? On the surface, very little. As John-Charles Duffy points out in his recent post, Mormonism has long posed a challenge for scholars of religion in the American West as we seek to differentiate, as John-Charles explains, between religion in the American west and religion that happens to take place in the west.

Fortuitously, the same day that The New York Times published Laurie's roundtable piece she also contributed to this blog a very helpful reminder that Mormonism has never been a religion of the West (or even America) in the exclusive way we generally depict it. This corrective exemplifies the way that attention to religion in the West can contribute to our conversation about religion more broadly, even if one of its consequences is to diffuse claims about western distinctiveness.

And this completes the circle: Laurie's framing of the tension between Mormonism as Western or not (and even American and not) seems a helpful way to understand the slew of articles in The New York Times. Geography becomes a metaphor for the various and often conflicting views of Mormonism appearing almost daily in the media. At one extreme are those, such as the review of Bowman's book, as well as several of the round-table pieces, which want to emphasize Mormonism as peculiar, sensational and/or dangerous--something that is (or ought to be) confined Utah. At the other pole is something like Reynolds' Op-Ed, identifying Mormons as just another branch of Protestantism. Mormons are typical, even exemplary, in the Americanness of their beliefs and practices. Perhaps the most nuanced of the lot was the article on Mormon cuisine, which at least seemed to allow for change! And like good food, the truth lies somewhere between the two poles, with a touch of both the familiar and the exotic. But, as Laurie's post also suggests, the more significant questions is not where it is located (geographically or metaphorically), but rather what is at stake in the various possibilities? The challenges of understanding Mormonism are not a new problem in the media. But the ways those challenges are framed relative to the West as both geographic and ideological space might help us begin untangling the knot.

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