Comments on LDS in the USA

lds usaI recently read through the short book (114 pages of text, plus notes) LDS in the USA: Mormonism and the Making of American Culture (Baylor Univ. Press, 2012; publisher’s page). The authors are non-LDS academics who have some familiarity with Mormonism, Lee Trepanier from living in Utah for four years and Lynita Newswander from a dissertation on Mormonism in the Jackson era. Each chapter reviews the intersection between Mormonism and one facet of American culture: popular culture, family, politics, religion, and “the American narrative.” For those who read Mormon books, this one covers mostly familiar ground, but it’s a fun read nonetheless. I will just make a few comments on why I found the book so enjoyable.

First, the book was scrupulously objective in its commentary. I mean 100% neutral. Mr. Spock could not have adopted a more balanced tone. Take, for example, this discussion of the perceived differences between LDS and Protestant approaches to the Bible, which takes both LDS and Evangelicals to task:

[Evangelical Protestants] have criticized Mormons for relying upon extra-biblical traditions, such as the Book of Mormon, and therefore “following the late medieval Catholic pattern of favoring tradition over scripture.” By rejecting the sola scriptura principle, Mormons have mixed the words of man … with the words of God. However, evangelical Protestants also have used tradition in the interpretation of the Bible and theological tenets, like the Apostle’s Creed. Likewise, Mormons, who criticize evangelicals for using early creeds to assist them in the interpretation of the Bible, have their own creeds. … It is hard not to conclude that “The Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is a creed. Its thirteen statements, like most creeds, list the most important beliefs of the Church. (p. 87-88)

Second, the chapter on popular culture emphasized the odd but undeniable situation in which Mormons occupy two distinct and opposing roles:

The portrayal in American mainstream popular culture has followed two extremes: they are seen either as the epitome of all-American and wholesome values of family, clean living, and material success or as secretive, strange, and suspicious, with sacred temple rites, special garments, and a murky past that includes polygamy. The first set of values is personified in shows like 1970s Donny & Marie, while the second set is spelled out in the more recent show Big Love. (p. 9)

Third, the discussion of Mormonism and politics was very well done for such a brief treatment, discussing the presidential campaigns of Joseph Smith (1844), George Romney (1968) and Mitt Romney (2008). Even informed and reasonable commentators sometimes follow the approach of taking criticisms of LDS views or positions, however extreme or outlandish, at face value, then assessing the degree to which Mormons can muster persuasive counterarguments. But here is how the authors introduce political criticism of Mormonism:

Although some of these accusations [against Mormons] were objectively not true, such as discrimination against nonmembers or religious intolerance, these indictments would stay with Mormon public figures, and to their detriment. This is particularly true of national politicians …. The irony is that the suspicions that the American public continues to have about Mormons — about their intolerance, their social homogeneity, their religion of continuing revelation — actually reflect the religious intolerance and lack of respect for social pluralism in the United States. That is, Americans project their own fears and prejudices upon a religious group about which they know little. Americans’ own intolerance and desire for cultural conformity do not come under self-examination but are directed against a group that wants to be accepted but continues not to be. (p. 51-52; bold text added)

That last quotation is a gem. It’s not news for Mormons who have lived outside the Mormon corridor, of course, but it is gratifying to see non-LDS commentators pick up on it and publish it. LDS in the USA is certainly worth the couple of hours it will take you to breeze through the text.


Comments on LDS in the USA — 5 Comments

  1. Interesting review. The quotes you selected seemed to me to be more favorable than purely objective (not that that goal can be attained), a nice contrast to sensationalist books by non members but problematic all the same. I’ll take a look at the book, it sounds like a useful book to teach Mormonism with in a non-LDS context–especially since I teach un Germany where its hard for the students to differentiate between Mormon peculiarity and American peculiarity. Thanks.

  2. “Likewise, Mormons, who criticize evangelicals for using early creeds to assist them in the interpretation of the Bible, have their own creeds. … It is hard not to conclude that ‘The Articles of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint'”

    This is not true. Mormons have creeds in very loose terms, but even the Articles of Faith undermine in its own listings. What Mormons criticize is the use of creeds as the last word on any subject. There is always more to learn and the very amorphous nature of Mormonism drives Evangelicals and others up the wall. There is even a saying, “understanding Mormonism is like trying to nail down jello,” by critics. The function of Mormon creeds is as a starting and not a stopping point.

  3. Well, there were a few details that didn’t quite get it right. For example: “The Mormon Church did not begin to sanction polygamous marriage until 1843, more than a dozen years after its founding, and the revelation that sanctioned it took most Church members by surprise, including Church president Joseph Smith himself” (p. 32). No doubt the 1843 date was taken from the preface to D&C 132, but Joseph Smith (and a few others) were practicing polygamy years before 1843, while “the Church” did not really sanction plural marriages until the public announcement was made in 1852. As for surprise, given that “the doctrines and principles involved in this revelation had been known by the Prophet since 1831” (the modern preface to section 132 again), it’s hard to argue that Joseph Smith was surprised.

    But I was willing to overlook the small stuff while enjoying the broader commentary. Someone wanting to assign the book in a college class, however, would want to read it carefully first.