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Where Do I Come From? What Am I? Where Am I Going?: Exploring Representations of Mormonism to Understand American Religious History

By: Cristine - May 13, 2013

In my years in Boston, I have been a frequent visitor at the city’s wonderful Museum of Fine Arts. While I couldn’t name a single favorite object, one piece that I return to again and again is Paul Gauguin’s epic masterpiece, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” While there is much to be said about the painting, I’m most concerned in this post with its title. Students and scholars tend to be a self-critical bunch, and I think most of us regularly ask these questions of ourselves and try to have ready answers for our colleagues. But when you’re a non-Mormon in the world of Mormon Studies, I’ve found that those questions take on a special shape and urgency. Who am I? What’s my real interest in Mormonism? What exactly am I going to do with my scholarly explorations of Mormonism in American culture? What’s a non-Mormon doing studying the Latter-day Saints? Am I anti-? Is it a fetish? Am I on the road to conversion? All of these questions are regularly leveled at me by Mormons and non-Mormons alike, and regularly with a degree of suspicion bordering on accusation.

So, where do I come from? I was raised in rural America, in a family that I only realized as I got older was noteworthy for our relative religious diversity – and our general acceptance of it. We counted members of a variety of Christian denominations in the extended clan, including a number of very heterodox members of different denominations (a Methodist grandmother who argued with people in church that the Trinity wasn’t biblical, anyone?), as well as nonbelievers of several different stripes. There was disagreement, but in general we accepted that we were all doing our best and, really, none of us could be sure we had the corner on the meaning of life. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized that many of the people around me – most of whom were generally decent people – were not as comfortable with religious difference as much of my family seemed to be. (As I got older, I also began to see that my family members were much more tolerant of Christian diversity than they were of non-Christian religions.) Unfortunately, I witnessed some respected adults in my life making very ugly comments – which they often used their professed Christianity to justify – about other people and their religions. In my teenaged brain, this gave rise to two questions: Isn’t Christianity supposed to be about loving your neighbor? Isn’t the United States supposed to be about separation of church and state and thus acceptance of religious diversity?

Fast forward a few years, and I arrived in Boston as a student of American religious history with a primary interest in the history of Protestantism in the United States. As it happened, my arrival coincided with the breaking of the sex scandal in the Catholic Church, which started in the Boston Archdiocese and quickly radiated out across the United States. While I was and am horrified by the conduct both of priest-abusers and of the church leaders who protected them, I was also fascinated and disturbed by the imagery used not only in popular TV crime shows to “dramatize” clergy sex abuse, but also by respected mainstream media outlets in their reporting of events. The imagery – of priests skulking through darkened cloisters and wooing children into confessionals – harkened back to the salacious anti-Catholic narratives popular in the United States in the 19th century. Like these much older stories – which were marketed to American readers as true memoirs – the 21st-century discussions of very real abuse were dominated by sometimes fanciful images of monstrous men hiding their sexual debauchery behind faulty, man-made theology and in uniquely Catholic secret spaces. What was going on, here? I wondered. Hadn’t the United States gotten past this sort of thing already?

Thus during my first years in graduate school I began researching and writing about the history of anti-Catholicism in the United States. I quickly came to see that anti-Catholicism did not exist in isolation. Rather, it was one facet of a larger pattern of Protestant fear of and intolerance toward a succession of minority religious “others.” I broadened my research to include other minorities, and began to chart the patterns I saw in representations of various groups: various (false, according to the primary sources) belief in a special, exclusive connection with the divine, often including ongoing direct communication; sexual immorality; tyrannical hierarchical religious authority; community members who are blindly loyal to their religious leaders over and above the United States government.

Then I entered that special phase of a PhD student’s life when you’re supposed to take all of the knowledge you’ve gained and the interests you’ve developed and find a topic that somehow encompasses all of it – but is manageable enough in scope to write a coherent 300-400 page book on. Just as I was searching for a way to demonstrate what I had learned about religious intolerance in the United States without trying to talk about EVERY group I had engaged in my research or about the ENTIRETY of American history, I participated in a seminar in which we were assigned Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) and, as a primer on the history of Mormonism and violence, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven (2003). Mailer’s non-fiction novel, which tells the story of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore’s crimes and eventual execution in 1970s Utah, showed me through its descriptions of non-Mormon responses to Mormons that anti-Mormonism was still a very real thing in late 20th-century America. Jon Krakauer’s crime drama showed me that people’s fears about the Latter-day Saints continue to be stoked by inaccurate information on Mormon beliefs and practices that are packaged as non-fiction. And my professor’s response, when I privately shared my concerns about Krakauer’s book, convinced me that even really smart people continue to accept and propagate standard narratives of intolerance. I had found my topic: representations of the Latter-day Saints in 20th-century American culture as a window onto the larger problem of ongoing religious intolerance in the United States.

And so I stumbled – a non-Mormon with hardly any Mormon acquaintance and no professors studying the Latter-day Saints in depth – into Mormon Studies. Or rather, I stumbled onto the edge of Mormon Studies, because I’m really not a scholar of Mormonism. I’m a scholar of what non-Mormons think about Mormons and imagine them to be.

Where am I going? I continue to examine popular images of the Latter-day Saints, but my objective has been and remains not just to illuminate the ongoing problem of anti-Mormonism, but rather the larger problem of ongoing religious intolerance in the United States and the common anxieties that drive the varieties of suspicion and fear that we all too often level at minority groups. To me whether I am, ever have been, or ever will be a Mormon is irrelevant. (Not to mention that the jokes that questions about my religious status evoke are generally tiresome and occasionally offensive.) I’m a citizen, a scholar, a family member, and a human being – diverse constituencies, all – who is concerned with understanding the reasons behind ongoing intolerance in the United States, somewhat naively hoping that if I can uncover those reasons it will help all of us to begin to overcome them.

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12 Comments

  1. I’ve seen images of that Gauguin painting without ever realizing the name. It makes a nice metaphor for your research into religious intolerance.

    Comment by kevinf — May 13, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  2. As a mormon let me tell you that we’d love to have ya’. :-)

    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing a bit of the story of how you found your way onto the “edge of Mormon Studies”. Good scholarship focused on religious history in America can only be a good thing.

    Comment by Jacob Smith — May 13, 2013 @ 2:25 pm

  3. Cristine,

    I was wondering… how do you view your relationship with the Mormon community now, especially since you blog about issues related to contemporary Mormonism? What responsibilities do you feel like you have to the Mormon community as someone who writes about their lives and the representations that are made of them in the media? What communities do yourself as being a part of?

    Comment by Amanda HK — May 13, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

  4. That’s a good set of questions, Amanda, and I try to regularly check in with myself and my colleagues on those issues.

    I see myself, first and foremost, as a historian. My primary responsibility to my subject, my peers, my field, and myself, is to be as thorough, accurate, and fair as I can: Thorough in an attempt to avoid representing only one perspective as if it were dominant or the whole; accurate in reading the highly polemical sources on both sides of any discussion of issues relating to a minority with a grain of salt, and trying to use primary sources as my guides through the often heated secondary analysis; and fair in trying to recognize both (or many) sides in my own analysis of critical representations. I think that being respectful is what I perceive to be my greatest responsibility to the Mormon community. That doesn’t mean ignoring unpleasant realities — it means trying to treat Mormon perspectives with the same respect I grant to non-Mormon ones.

    I think it’s important to note that I don’t in fact write about Mormon lives, beliefs, or experiences, except indirectly. I’m not trying to be coy by placing myself on “the edge” of Mormon Studies, nor am I trying to disclaim a community of talented scholars doing valuable work. I’m being careful to acknowledge the limits of my knowledge, which is not of Mormons but rather of how other Americans imagine them. I examine what Bob Dylan and Tony Kushner and Trey Parker and Matt Stone and Wallace Stegner and Norman Mailer and John D. Fitzgerald — non-Mormons all — say about the Mormons. I don’t study what Mormons themselves think, say, or do, except as they respond to the representations that are my focus or participate in the larger conversations created by those representations. I don’t want to be viewed as speaking authoritatively about the interior workings of a community when I know I’m not.

    All that’s a very long way of saying that I feel I owe my subject respect and care, and that I’m driven by the desire to show that images of the Mormons, as with images of any minority group, are at least as illustrative of the hopes and fears of those doing the representing as they are representative of the group they’re meant to portray. I hope that by showing that, I can convince whatever audience I may have to think more carefully and critically about the images they encounter, particularly of minorities, and to look deeply at any group before forming judgments.

    Comment by Cristine — May 13, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

  5. Cristine-

    Good thoughts. Good work here, and as I’m using your diss again this morning, thanks for all of it.

    I find myself currently battling between not caring about the reality (only caring about the perception) and feeling an obligation to tease out the perception from the reality in some instances. Teasing out all of them would take many more volumes and patience than I possess, but how do you approach that balancing act?

    Comment by jjohnson — May 14, 2013 @ 5:04 am

  6. And be clear, when I say “reality” – I mean the reconstructed historical narrative insofar as we can responsibly determine.

    Comment by jjohnson — May 14, 2013 @ 5:06 am

  7. Thanks, Cristine. I enjoy your candor and appreciate your thoughtfulness here.

    Also, I want to hear more about your trinity-rejecting Methodist grandmother sometime. :)

    Comment by Christopher — May 14, 2013 @ 7:30 am

  8. Janiece, first let me say that I appreciate your distinction between reality and “reality.” Agreed.

    This is something I continue to struggle with and will have to resolve, somehow, as I really tackle rewrites on the dissertation this summer. In short, it all seems to depend on audience… do you think the people reading the work know enough about the history to know what’s wrong or right about the representations?

    My dissertation readers kept asking for more explanation, particularly around images of Mormon violence, but then in the final wash they thought I gave too much explanation and it made me sound defensive. On the other hand, the reviewers who’ve looked at the dissertation with an eye to publication seem to feel that the audience for my work is primarily a Mormon and Mormon Studies one, and so I don’t need nearly the explanation that I’ve got — they’ve even asked me to do away with my first chapter, which reviews the development of Mormonism and the Mormon image in the 19th century.

    So, to answer your question… I don’t have this figured out. We should chat about this in more depth and maybe we’ll come up with something together!

    Comment by Cristine — May 14, 2013 @ 8:17 am

  9. @kevinf, Yes, this is a great painting. I first saw it as part of an exhibit on Gauguin in Tahiti, which really informed my thinking about representations of “others.” Turns out that by the time that Gauguin got to Tahiti, French colonists had so suppressed the local cultures that nearly all memory of native Tahitian mythologies was lost (or so said the exhibit). Gauguin created his own mythology using fragments of descriptions written by earlier white colonists, along with a mishmash of images and ideas he pulled from various other traditions. In other words, the Tahitian mythology that Gauguin represented was almost entirely of his own making!

    @Jacob Smith, Thank you, on both counts. :-)

    @Christopher, I’m happy to get together at MHA and regale you with tales of my crazy family!

    Comment by Cristine — May 14, 2013 @ 8:21 am

  10. Very interesting, thanks, Cristine.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — May 14, 2013 @ 9:07 pm

  11. This post was useful to me. Thanks, Cristine.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — May 14, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

  12. [...] to sexual violence and exploitation on the nation’s religious margins.  This tendency—this habit of intolerance, as Cristine HJ might say—is by no means new (see Sarah Barringer Gordon’s excellent The Mormon [...]

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