Tuesday, 20 July 2010

New Mormons, Old Message

In an article in the July, 9th 2010 edition of the Financial Times comment editor James Crabtree considers the rising generation of Mormons making major contributions to the business and political elite of America and writes, The last century saw a Mormon conquest in America. During our lifetimes, we may see the rest of the world follow, too.” He points out that while the most famous Mormon acolytes in a previous generation had been the Osmonds, today’s prominent Mormons are business executives, writers, financiers and politicians. The list is impressive enough, ranging from Stephenie Meyer, author of the anemic (pun intended) Twilight Saga, through Glen Beck, the controversial talk-show host and Stephen R Covey the self-help guru, to politicians like Harry Reid (Dem) and Mitt Romney (Rep) and business leaders like David Neeleman founder of JetBlue Airlines and JW Marriot, hotel magnate.

I do think, however, that in making this analysis, he has fallen between two stools. The article is entitled, The Rise of a New Generation of Mormons, and by the end of it I found myself asking whether he was writing about the success of Mormonism or the success of people in business, politics and entertainment who happened to be Mormons. He does seem to equate the two. He refers to the Mormon Church as a “major religion”, a claim that has become something of a shibboleth for anyone writing about Mormonism and he reproduces here the familiar testimony presented by Mormons and Mormon-watchers alike as indisputable facts: phenomenal growth, substantial assets, major development beyond the United States and, of course, the obligatory nod to Rodney Stark’s now thoroughly outdated claim that Mormonism is set to become, by the middle of the 21st century, the first new world religion since Islam.

This is so widely quoted that many have wrongly taken Stark to be a Mormon. Mormon Church growth has slowed alarmingly, however, since 1980 when he made that observation and is currently dawdling at 2-3% pa. I’ve no doubt Stark has reason, often, to regret making the claim and has learned the hard way that Mormons are no respecter of academic integrity. If it “bigs them up” they will use it – and use it, and use it...

“In a corridor of the LDS Missionary Training Centre” Crabtree observes, “there’s a plaque listing the dozens of languages taught to missionaries who study there – including Cebuano, Hmong and Tagalog. Next to it is a world map showing the countries in which the church operates, highlighted in bright colours. Only China and a handful of Middle-Eastern states remain grey. The last century saw a Mormon conquest in America. During our lifetimes, we may see the rest of the world follow, too.”

Of course, “operating” is not the same as establishing a presence, much less having a significant stake in a society. We all know examples of ministries sending out emails to other countries and thus establishing themselves as “an international ministry.” The Mormon Church is alarmingly short of people on the ground outside the Americas and no amount of massaging the numbers hides the fact.

Mormon Demographics

In October of 2009 I looked at Mormon demographics that certainly don’t affirm Mormon claims regarding growth and world status. Then I concluded that Mormonism is most definitely an American religion, that it is not the religious world phenomenon it claims to be and which claim commentators too easily repeat unchallenged. If you regarded Utah, the home of Mormonism, as a continent it would boast the third largest Mormon population in the world, after the USA and S America thus:

USA: 5.5m
S America: 3m
Utah: 1.75m
Mexico: 1m
Asia: 1m
C America: .5m
Brazil: 970,000
Argentina: 355,000

Crabtree does ask whether the perception of Mormonism will be changed by the presence of Mormons in key places in education, media, industry and politics. He cites the late journalist Molly Ivins who said that anti-Mormon bigotry is an “old dog that still hunts” but he goes on to suggest that this is changing. Culturally, Mormonism is making great progress, although I would add the caveat that this is still an American phenomenon. Mormonism is an American religion and the barometer by which it is being tested is very much American. Mormonism is still far too small outside America for it to have the same impact and in many parts of the world, while it may “operate”, it is nigh on invisible. Certainly, here in the UK, where Mormonism first arrived as far back as 1837, Mormons are still American, still from, “over there.”

Crabtree observes however, “...much of the US still sees Mormons as weirdly strait-laced at best, cultish at worst. Yet elite institutions are embracing them. What does that fact say about the world’s youngest major religion – and about success in modern America?”

Mormon Academics

There is a disconnection between what Mormons believe religiously and how recruitable they are professionally. This is illustrated in a paper entitled “Who is the Representative Mormon Intellectual? Assessing Mormon Apologetics”, by Jason J. Barker, Director of the Southwest Institute for Orthodox Studies, Arlington, TX, in which he examines the LDS educational philosophy. Whilst recognising that “an increasing number of Latter-day Saints are currently active in mainstream academics”, he goes on to quote Karl Sandberg, a Mormon and a French professor (emeritus) at Macalester College, who observes;

"There are Mormons who do scholarship in all of the various disciplines — they play by the same rules as everyone else, they participate in the same dynamics, and they produce the same kind of knowledge. This is not the case, however, when Mormons do scholarship about Mormonism or directly related subjects."

Barker goes on to explain that “The primary reason for this discrepancy…is that Mormon-specific scholarship in the LDS Church is necessarily limited by the boundaries of Mormon orthodoxy and orthopraxy.” He quotes Sanburg further who elaborates;

"There are prominent examples of Mormon scholarship whose purpose appears to be that of giving scholarly permission to people to believe what they already believed on subjective grounds and of answering and repulsing any perceived attacks on the Church."

This describes well the disconnection I mentioned earlier. People like James Crabtree might look at people who are successful in their chosen field and note almost as an aside that they are Mormons and wonder what can be so bad about Mormonism that Mormons are regarded with suspicion. On the other hand, people like Jason Barker might look at Mormonism as a cult and wonder that otherwise intelligent, sane professional people are Mormons.

Mormon Fundamentalism vs Christian Orthodoxy

But the fact is that people from all sorts of religious backgrounds are perfectly capable of holding responsible positions in commerce, industry and academia. While Mormonism as a cultural phenomenon might, as Crabtree suggests, better prepare people for success that is just as much because it is an American fundamentalist religion that instils unquestioning loyalty to the institution, values more than many American churches wealth and “progress” and teaches old-fashioned values as because it is Mormonism. Indeed, the original Mormons would stare in bewilderment at how integral to American society Mormons are becoming and how ingrained with patriotism Mormons are today. In their day Mormonism and America were anathema to each other and it surprises people to be shown the metamorphosis Mormonism has undergone.

Those who challenge the claims of Mormonism are not, then, questioning the right of Mormons to hold positions of responsibility enjoy success or otherwise make their way in the world. So-called “anti-Mormonism” is not born of fundamentalist spite towards people who are different. Rather, it is an honest challenge to a religion that once boasted of how very different it was, that stood apart from the world it now so readily embraces and that looked on Christians – and still looks on Christians – as constitutionally flawed and corrupt in what they believe. That is the message of Mormonism and, as nice and respectable and deserving as Mormons might be to become CEOs the fact is this is what they believe about other churches. So is it any wonder that, on the level of religious beliefs, there remains unfinished business? Is it really so surprising that, although Mormons are becoming culturally more accepted in this meaninglessly liberal society, they continue to face the challenge of the established, Christian churches they so easily dismiss with the vacuous message of Joseph Smith and his Gold Plates?

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