Religion and American Culture Forum: “Contemporary Mormonism: America’s Most Successful ‘New Religion'”
Good news for scholars and students of contemporary Mormonism! The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI continues its emphasis on the study of modern Mormon culture with the latest issue of its journal. Back in September of last year, the Center convened a forum in Indianapolis with scholars Jan Shipps, Phil Barlow, Jana Reiss and former US Senator Bob Bennett to address “Mormonism in the 21st Century.” Now, the latest “Forum” discussion in the Winter 2013 issue of Religion and American Culture features a heavyweight panel comprised of Terryl Givens, Kathryn Lofton, Laurie Maffly-Kipp, and Patrick Mason, who speak to different aspects of the theme “Contemporary Mormonism: America’s Most Successful ‘New Religion’.” The Forum piece offers sophisticated reflections on many of crucial pressure points of Mormonism today: gender, homosexuality, family, politics, perceptions, popular culture.
In his contribution on “Mormonism and the Family,” Terryl Givens explores the rich diversity of meanings associated with the idea of family in Mormonism, showing how Mormons’ distinctive contemporary attitudes and positions on the family are deeply rooted in their theological tradition. Briefly tracing the evolution of Mormon theology on family and gender, Givens arrives at the present day and asks two questions: How applicable are the elements of this robust Mormon theology of the family to politics? And also, with the evolutions of the Mormon family structure in mind, what opportunity is there within Mormon theology for the reconfiguration of family structures? Givens emphasizes the ways that heterosexual marriage is “indissolubly connected…to Mormon conceptions of the divine, [and] to the highest ideal of Mormon cultural and religious aspiration.”
In some reflections that overlap at points with Givens, Laurie Maffly-Kipp offers a review of “Mormonism and Gender Issues,” where she focuses primarily on femininity, noting however that more exploration is needed of “gender as a subject that defines Mormon masculinity.” In characterizing Mormon conceptions of the female, Maffly-Kipp makes a number of insightful points. She draws attention, for instance, to the fact that gender has been a significant theater of the conflict between Mormonism and broader culture. “Female bodies,” she points out, “…have served as a key battleground as Mormons have moved from an insular subculture to an international religious movement.” She also notes that homosexuality is increasingly a site of gender debate within Mormonism, and predicts a interesting, burgeoning conversation about gender issues as the LDS Church globalizes and comes into contact with alternative systems of gender in non-U.S. cultures. All of these considerations, she notes, are heightened and amplified by the fact that theologically Mormons understand “gender as an eternally prescribed designation.”
Kathryn Lofton, surveying “Mormonism in Popular Culture,” attempts to typologize the many and freewheeling depictions of modern Mormonism, specifying “five different types of Mormons circulating in contemporary U.S. popular culture.” Tracing each type through its manifestations in popular media, she specifies: “the pioneer” Mormon, energized like the Mormon missionaries in The Book of Mormon musical to transform the world for the better; the “chaste Mormon,” curiously resistant to society’s sexual beckonings; the polygamous “primitive Mormon” of Big Love and Under the Banner of Heaven; the “crippled Mormon” who is “psychically damaged” and uses Mormonism as a sadistic shield to their own wrongdoings (as in Kushner’s Angels in America and Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints); and finally the “uncanny Mormon,” who is so evidently happy and successful that he or she raises questions of authenticity (Lofton gestures at depictions of Mitt Romney, Ken Jennings, Steven Covey, etc.). Lofton sets these culturally established images up vis-à-vis the images put forward by the LDS Church’s new “I’m A Mormon” Campaign and meditates on what the ideal aesthetics of Mormonism in popular culture might look like.
With some critical distance now to the 2012 presidential campaign, Patrick Mason reflects on “Mormonism and Politics,” starting with the startling observation that throughout history “politics has served as a principal vehicle for Mormon secularization.” Distinguishing precisely what he means by “secularization,” Mason invokes the recent reconceptualization of secularism and secularity by thinkers like Charles Taylor, for whom the idea denotes not elimination of or opposition to religion, but its bifurcation from some public dimensions of life. Following this line of thought, Mason recasts the history of Mormon politics, emphasizing the latter half of the 20th century. He arrives at a modern Mormonism where the once integrated domains of religion and politics are, he asserts, now understood as nearly or entirely distinct.
All in all, this looks to be a highly successful engagement with most of the issues of consequence in contemporary Mormon studies, worthy a close reading. You won’t want to miss it.