The Inconclusive Mormon Moment

Newsweek recently released their latest issue, their cover story focusing specifically on what they’ve dubbed “The Mormon Moment.” Mormons are in the media a lot today — two Mormons are front-runners for the Republican presidential candidate, and Mormons are replete in popular culture, from Big Love to Twilight to Brandon Sanderson. Despite all of our popularity, we’re still running into what the LA Times calls the “stained-glass ceiling” — despite our general initial acceptance into the broader American zeitgeist, we’re still getting strong resistance from other groups, namely other Christians (specifically Evangelicals, but who’s pointing fingers?).

Okay, so Mormons are having “a moment.” This much is true. However, the most interesting aspect of this whole “moment” is how ambivalent Mormons themselves are about all of this publicity we’re getting.

It’s been a dream for many Mormons to break into the limelight, to be accepted in the mainstream culture and not be viewed as weirdos or cultists or really bizarre polygamists living on fringe of civilization out in the deserts of Utah or something. Now, like the girl who has become popular overnight, some of us don’t like all of this attention, and acceptance isn’t what it used to be. My friend David, who blogs over at Catchy Title Goes Here, recently talked about some of the misgivings he has about the recent Newsweek press, specifically the compromises Mormons sometimes have to make to take the public sphere:

That phrase, “politicians first, Mormons second”, caught my eye. Now, I am not Mormon second to anything. That is who I am, that is what I believe. My faith shapes everything about who I am.

I found this especially interesting, since the “politicians first, Mormons second” phrase also caught my eye, but I found it somewhat refreshing. It’s one thing for a private citizen to devote him or herself to a religion, but for a public figure representing a constituency that is probably not majority Mormon, one must tread the path more carefully. For a Mormon to say, “I am a Mormon, but as a public servant, I know that I must represent those who are not,” shows that we understand that in a pluralistic society, we cannot just hope for (or enforce) everyone else to accept our ideals. It’s a sign to me that perhaps as a culture, we’ve become more cosmopolitan, or, dare I say, “worldly.”

Which is precisely the problem, David would retort. Would it profiteth a man if he gain the world and loseth his soul? Does this idea of Mormons inhabiting the public sphere but having to shed parts of who they are, does this not bother you? Maybe not, I would retort. Maybe, Mormonism is a constantly evolving religion that fits the times it inhabits. If we believe in modern revelation, don’t we also believe in changing according to our needs? David would probably retort once more that despite all of this, what we believe requires us to put all our chips in the pile no matter what the cards are, and a half-hearted Mormon willing to put his ideals aside in order to gain influence, power, prestige, recognition, or even acceptance in the world will do no real service to himself or his peers. Ah, I would retort, but doesn’t our mission to essentially “Mormonize” the world require us to interact with it, and maybe even make compromises? And so on, and so on, and so on.

This, I think, gets to the crux of the roiling ambivalence underneath the surface of Mormondom and its reaction to all of the publicity we’re getting lately. My friend Mychal once remarked that he felt Prop 8 (remember that?) was the beginning of a new age of Mormonism, one where once and for all, Mormons, once comfortable in the relative shadows of culture, had to make a public stand of whether or not they aligned themselves with the Prophet. At the time, I disagreed, but now I wonder if this is true.

It’s not just Prop 8 in general, but Prop 8 was the catalyst, the waking call to not only the nation but to us, that we had become a disproportionately influential minority. For the longest time, we were those really nice, but slightly weird, neighbors to America. Nobody cared about us because we didn’t threaten them. But suddenly, we were participating citizens, and not only that, we had power to influence state politics. A lot of hate was directed towards the Mormons, but this is not new; we’re used to this kind of stuff. Prop 8 felt different to a lot of members, precisely because like a robot who had suddenly become self-aware, we realized something that we had not realized before. We were relevant. Not only did we suddenly draw a lot of ire from others, but the Church underwent a type of cultural Peter Parker crisis — with great power comes great responsibilities. And what exactly were those responsibilities?

There’s an old saying that when you have two Jewish men arguing in a room, they come with three opinions. Mormons can be like that, too. Every Mormon has an opinion on what the Church should be. After Prop 8, and ever since then, Mormons have become self-aware to themselves. We realize we matter.

The question, then, is how do we matter? With this general emergence into the pop culture of the most powerful superpower in the world, the battle for Mormonism’s soul begins. What do we stand for? What do we represent? What do we use our influence for? The Sunday School answers just don’t cut it anymore in this complex position we find ourselves in. For good, all of us will say, we stand for good and we work for good. But what is good? Many enemies of the Church do not know or refuse to acknowledge the intense, often psychologically painful, debate many members of the Church had, from those hanging on the fringes all the way up to the zealous faithful, on whether or not this whole Prop 8 thing was the right thing to do. The very anguish the Church experienced as a collective whole belays how complex the idea of “good” is. There is going to be some serious soul searching, and, more than ever, Mormons will obsess over what our “legacy” should be, because we are finally leaving one behind.

In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions on who we are and who we should be and what we should do and who we aren’t and who we shouldn’t be and what we shouldn’t do, let’s remember that even if some of us may appear secularly liberal (like me) and devoutly orthodox (like my friend David), in the end, we are all Mormons, and what ties us together is the unique heritage we inherit. What could be termed the “Mormon Experience” is a complex, almost contradictory stream of events grappling with a unique problem and working on a unique solution. Boundaries will be drawn, and some will be excluded while others are embraced, but I hope that as we work through this communal angst of who we really are, we can also keep a level head, an open mind, and a softened heart. And at the end of the day, I hope we can still meet together every week to break bread.

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1 Comment

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One response to “The Inconclusive Mormon Moment

  1. I can probably agree that the Mormon community as a whole is trying to redefine itself– it seems that we do this periodically, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I suppose that it is necessary, but sometimes I think we’ve taken some funny directions as a group– like the very corporate mentality of most American Mormons..

    As for this argument about “Politicians first and Mormons second,” I can’t exactly agree or disagree with either your or David’s positions. I think that one of the things it means to be Mormon is to accept that most people aren’t, and to treat them respectfully and engage in the community without leaving behind your moral positions. I think that to be a “politician first” is a bad idea for anyone– I don’t think that politics encourages a balance of reasoning and firm moral stances. One seems to give way to the other. Mormons need to be Mormon first– as Elder Nash has said– it must be “the very fabric of our lives.” Yet, I think that those Mormon figures and people I look up to the most are those that believe in doing what is ‘best’ for other people– sometimes that is outright proselyting, or staunch defense of particular positions. More often I think it means that we suggest solutions that lay groundwork for more cooperation and understanding later– and often, these aren’t the kind of antagonizing positions that would alienate a politician’s constituencies, but rather would wake them up, and make them think.

    As a friend of mine says, “if you’re going to live in this world, you’d better get comfortable with paradox.” I think that what it means to be Mormon feels much like this. It seems paradoxical that we can be “Mormon first,” and yet be able to serve those we represent. I’m not sure it IS a paradox, but even if it isn’t, the relationship is complicated.

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