August 19, 2013

Mormons and the New York Times

by John-Charles Duffy

On July 21, the New York Times ran a front-page story about Mormons grappling with doubt as a result of discovering uncomfortable aspects of their religion’s history through online sources. The story was built around the experience of Hans Mattsson, a Swede who served in church leadership at the regional level but has now gone public with his skepticism. Other Mormons quoted in the story include well known scholars Richard Bushman and Terryl Givens, both of whom could be described as intellectually sophisticated, moderately orthodox Mormons—the Mormon equivalent of a Mark Noll, maybe, for those who know the evangelical Protestant world. In the article, Bushman and Givens refer to their own efforts to help their coreligionists come to terms with jarring aspects of the faith’s history by discussing these more frankly than has been (or is still) customarily the case in church publications. The story also cites a study conducted by a Mormon doctoral candidate John Dehlin of over three thousand doubting Mormons; Dehlin is also the founder of a podcast, Mormon Stories, that provides a forum for discussing controversial questions in Mormon history and teaching.

The appearance of this story on the front page of the NYT intrigues me. The story was not news to me: I move in or around Mormon circles where these discussions are occurring. I’m not too surprised that NYT religion reporter Laurie Goodstein would find these developments worth writing about. Mormons have been in the news quite a bit over the past few years (they’re “trending,” I believe the young people say these days?), and I can identify various angles of potential reader interest in the story Goodstein has put together. I am wondering, though: What does it mean that this story start on the front page of the NYT? Why did editors think the story was that important or potentially attractive to readers?

Let me tender three hypotheses—“interpretations,” as we call them in the humanities. I’ll save the one with the strongest “religion in the American west” bent for last.

Hypothesis 1. This story isn’t just about Mormons, it’s about modernization. In other words, this story is about a particular instance of a broader phenomenon: modern advances eroding the plausibility of traditional religious claims. The story ran under the headline “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt”—a headline which struck me as giving more prominence to the Internet than the story itself did. So from the get-go, we are being invited to read this as a story about what happens when religious beliefs collide with modern media. Charles Dickens had a quip about how incredible it is for Mormons to preach angels in the age of railways. The NYT has updated that sense of incongruity to: How can Mormons—alternatively, plug in the traditionalist religion of your choice—go on believing what they do in the age of the Internet? With difficulty, according to this story. And the trend, at least as painted in the NYT, is for the religious to painfully adapt.

This way of reading the story could dovetail with another media narrative I’ve been noticing more often lately—a narrative postulating the resurgence of liberal versions of traditional religions (Christianity is usually what’s being discussed), especially among millennials, the latest model of “the modern generation.” I have been surprised to keep encountering this narrative, because I’d become so accustomed to the narrative that “conservative religions are the ones that are growing,” coupled with the narrative that “young people are becoming seekers or nones.” Perhaps I’ve been reading more Rodney Stark than was good for me. At any rate, the NYT story on the Mormon doubters could be read as a distinctively Mormon iteration of the metanarrative that “people today want a more liberal version of their religion,” namely, a version more appropriate to the modern Web-surfing age.

Hypothesis 2. This story culturally marginalizes Mormons by reminding readers of an elite newspaper how incredible their beliefs are. This reading of the NYT story is influenced by my perception—which I have documented elsewhere—that quite a bit of scholarly and journalistic discourse about Mormonism since the 1980s has “exoticized” the religion—this after a period at mid-twentieth century when Mormons enjoyed media representations that painted them as model Americans. A lot of talk about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism during the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns likewise had this function, because exoticizing Mormonism served the interests of various political players who wanted to alienate voters from Romney.

In the musical The Book of Mormon, we’re given a humorous send-up of exotic Mormon beliefs, in the song “I Believe”: I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America. I believe that God lives on a planet called Kolob. I believe that God’s plan involves me getting my own planet, and that Jesus has his own planet as well. The NYT story focuses on a different set of Mormon claims, but the subtext is much the same: Who could possibly believe this? Joseph Smith dictated the Book of Mormon while peeping at a rock in the bottom of a hat? He was commanded by God to marry 14-year-old girls? God wanted Mormons to exclude black men from priesthood ordination? No wonder Mormons are grappling with doubt. Readers are meant to be sympathetic, I presume. Simultaneously, though, the story reminds readers that despite Mormons’ social conservatism, despite their presence in mainstream arenas such as business and government, their tradition makes claims that belong on the fringe. Don’t lose sight of that, dear reader, especially the next time you see Mormons running for high political office or professing to defend traditional values.

Hypothesis 3. With this story, an eastern establishment is—still—trying to mold Mormonism according to its own lights. The “still” in that last sentence points back to the nineteenth century, when Protestant reformers, determined to civilize the trans-Mississippi west, used eastern newspapers to rally citizens and lawmakers in the fight against Mormon polygamy and theocracy. Mormons had to be made to embrace proper American values, and they were quite literally denied citizenship (voting rights, statehood) until they did. In their crusade, reformers publicized Mormon or former Mormon voices that represented the appropriate values: the voices of polygamous wives, for example, who had seen the light and left.

This is the most suspicious of my suspicious readings—i.e., I’m hedging my bets—but it looks to me like something a little similar might be happening in this NYT story. Work with me here. We have here an article on the front page of one of the elite of the elite eastern newspapers. (They would probably prefer that I drop the qualifying “one of.”) This article provides a platform for various unofficial Mormon voices who represent a slightly more progressive approach to this religion. An approach that says: We need to be less defensively dismissive of criticism. We need to acknowledge fallibility and wrongdoing on the part of our past leadership. We need to stop being so literal-minded in the way we invest our scriptures with authority. We need, in effect, to be Mormon in a different way. We need to reform Mormonism.

It’s never put that bluntly in the NYT article. But that’s the resonance I pick up as my reading of this article crosses sound waves with the echo of eastern reform-minded journalism about Mormonism from the nineteenth century. Look! the editors of today’s NYT are saying to their readers—a more progressive kind of Mormonism! Mormons are starting to see the light! And that, evidently, for the editors of this elite eastern newspaper, qualifies as front-page news.

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