Monthly Archives: July 2013

Mormons, doubt, the Internet, and the New York Times

On July 20-21, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt.” According to the NYT website, the print version of this story ran on page A1, which would make this a front page story, no?

That’s what intrigues me about this news story. The question I want to throw out there is: Why does the New York Times think this story is front-page newsworthy? I realize that sounds like a rhetorical question, and I admit my gut impulse is to ask it as a rhetorical question, which is why I think the question is worth exploring, i.e., I don’t think it’s self-evident that this story is front-page newsworthy.

But let’s handle this as a serious, open-ended question: What does the presence of this article on the front page of the New York Times tell us about religion in American culture at the present moment?

Evidently, editors at the New York Times believe that many Americans are or should be interested in reading about Mormons coming to doubt their faith because of information they obtain on the Internet. Why do the editors believe that? What do they think makes this story of that much interest to their readers?

I should interject here that to me, this story is utterly mundane. A headline reading “Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt” strikes me as being more or less like a headline reading “Some Farmers in Florida Grow Oranges.” Or maybe “Some People Surf the Web to Find Porn.” Who is surprised by these facts?

I should also probably say that I study Mormonism professionally, that I myself come from a Mormon background, that I move in liberalish intellectual Mormon circles where people quoted in this New York Times article move as well. I understand why the developments discussed in this story are important for liberalish Mormons who are trying to promote new discourses within their movement, new ways of discussing Mormon history or defining the bounds of institutionally acceptable Mormon belief. I don’t think these developments are as significant as their boosters think they are–but they do reveal noteworthy things about how some Mormons are negotiating their religious identities in, oh let’s say it, a postmodern context.

But back to the editors of the New York Times and their imagined readership. What is their interest in this story? I’m thinking on my feet, this is all very rudimentary, but let me brainstorm a few hypotheses:

  • Does this story function to marginalize Mormonism culturally by reminding readers of an elite newspaper how incredible Mormon claims are?
  • Is this story attempting to intervene in Mormonism by lending a high-profile platform to some of the movement’s more liberalish voices? (Are Eastern reformers still trying to remake Mormonism according to their own lights 100+ years after the anti-polygamy campaigns of the 19th century?)
  • Does this story reflect pessimistic notions about how religion more generally, not just Mormonism, fares in the face of modern knowledge and technology? (Is this story predicated on a version of the secularization thesis?)

Again, those aren’t rhetorical questions. They’re possibilities that occur to me, possibilities I think might be worth exploring.

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Botanica San Miguel

Yesterday my husband and I were running an errand in Hamilton, the next largest town over from us, large enough to have a visible Latino community. (The town we’re living in does not–not a very visible one, anyway.) On the way back, my husband proposed that we swing by a botanica he had discovered accidentally during a GPS mishap on an earlier trip. Botanica San Miguel.

What a find! I wish I’d known about this place last semester, when I was teaching a course that touched on Afro-Caribbean religions. I want to bring students on a field trip so badly. The proprietor is Dominican, so she and I connected over that. (I lived in the DR during the 1990s.) When I told her that I was interested in stopping by because I teach courses on religion, she was very forthcoming. She took us to the little backroom where the shrines are and where she does readings and cleansings. She practices a system she calls the “21 Divisions,” which I’ve been poking around a little online to read about. I need to learn more, but my hunch is that this system has roots in 19th-century spiritism–it has that feel, anyway. I’d be fascinated to know what she understands the system’s history to be.

The spirits are classified into three major groups: “black,” which are associated with the earth; “Indian,” which are associated with water; and then “white,” which aren’t associated with any element because they’re “above everything.” Yeah, the racial politics of that one aren’t too hard to read. I’m curious to know, though, why black = earth and Indian = water; I could just as well have imagined it being the other way around.

I learned that the proprietor was baptized (initiated) here in the U.S., which was a little counter-predictive (but just a little). Most of her clientele, she told me, are Mexican, not Dominican, which definitely surprised me. It’s not just a question of there being more Mexicans than Dominicans in the area: she told me that Dominicans don’t do the 21 Divisions. I’d like to know more about that.

The store has a Facebook page. There are a lot of horoscopes posted to it, but here are a couple of other posts to give you a flavor. (The translations from Spanish to English are mine.)

My beautiful people. Today is a good day to distance [alejar] ourselves from people we do not want around us, negativities, and a very very good day for disposals because it is the day of Saint Alexius [Alejo]. Light a purple candle and tell him what you want to distance [alejar] from your life or your side.

If your husband has a lover and you want a separation, then at Botanica San Miguel we can get you that separation 100% guaranteed. With the 21 Divisions.

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Muslim and Pentecostal neighbors

This is a photo I took last month while I was in Salt Lake City for the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association. A friend and I were driving into northwest Salt Lake from the airport when my friend needed a Taco Bell break. Right across the street were a masjid and a Pentecostal church side by side, both occupying buildings originally constructed for businesses. ProjectilePluralism moment!


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A pagan prayer for the Fourth of July

This is a belated Fourth of July post. Out of curiosity, I Googled “Fourth of July” and “pagan.” I could have picked any number of religious movements as the second search term, but “pagan” stood out to me, I guess, because my personal experience with neopagans has been with lefty p.c., granola, peace-and-justice types, so I was curious to see what they might do by way of resisting the nationalistic and militaristic tendencies of this holiday.

This was the first hit. I am surprised, I must say, by its “bless our soldiers” orientation. I wouldn’t have predicted that.


A Prayer for the Fourth of July

Gods of liberty, goddesses of justice,
watch over those who would fight for our freedoms.
May freedom be given to all people,
around the world,
no matter what their faith.
Keep our soldiers safe from harm,
and protect them in your light,
so that they may return to their families
and their homes.
Goddesses of liberty, gods of justice,
hear our call, and light the sky,
your torch shining in the night,
that we may find our way back to you,
and bring people together, in unity.

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