Tag Archives: Mormonism

“Missionary” horror film

A couple weeks back, students in my “Religion and American Popular Culture” read an essay I’ve published on representations of Mormon missionaries in film. Basically, I identified four trends in the films:

  1. Mormon missionaries provide a model for generic Christian evangelists (an association which should please Mormons, though I imagine evangelicals aren’t happy about it).
  2. Mormon missionaries represent a sectarian style of religion that is treated as annoying or humorous.
  3. Mormon missionaries figure in stories about sexual repression and liberation.
  4. Mormon missionaries serve, in sometimes complicated ways, as moral grounding or agents of transformation (though not in the sense of converting people to Mormonism).

Now someone has forwarded me the trailer to Missionary, a horror film that came out a couple of years ago but which had not yet registered on my radar. It looks like theme #3 is in play. Maybe #4 if the female protagonist discovers reserves of inner strength or learns not to endanger her family by having illicit sex, especially with a repressed young sectarian.

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Homosexuality vs. Polygamy

This past July, I attended a luncheon in Salt Lake City–I’ve referred to this before–where I rubbed elbows with foreign scholars who were in the U.S. for a seminar on religion in American society. I was there as an expert on Mormonism, and the conversation turned for a while to Mormon polygamy, historical and contemporary. An Egyptian scholar asked me: If Americans accept gay marriage, why don’t they accept polygamy? I replied that, actually, there does appear to be some measure of increasing sympathy for contemporary Mormon polygamists, as indicated by their positive treatment on TV (Big Love, Sister Wives, Polygamy USA) and by states’ general reluctance to prosecute polygamists for polygamy per se. If, I hypothesized, the Supreme Court ended up ruling in favor of gay marriage, Mormon polygamists would look very closely at that decision to see if its principles could be applied to their case.

In retrospect, I realize that I probably missed the point of the scholar’s question. I suspect, now, that the point of his question was to register surprise that Americans are proving more tolerant of homosexuality than of heterosexual polygamy. Which, when I think about, is certainly not a self-evident state of affairs. Until I started reflecting on this outsider’s question, I had taken for granted, as an American cultural insider, that social acceptance of polygamous relationships represents a “next step” beyond social acceptance of homosexual relationships. But why is that? Why isn’t it the other way around? Why aren’t heterosexual polygamous relationships–because they’re heterosexual–more acceptable than homosexual couplings? I presume that for my Egyptian interlocutor, that last is the more logical way to think about the issue.

I guess what this shows is that for Americans, monogamy is a more fundamental cultural value than heteronormativity. Increasing numbers of Americans–I think polls indicate it’s a narrow majority at this point, yes?–are prepared to re-imagine marriage as the union of two women or two men. But a greater number of us are still inclined to think that a marriage should consist of just two people. Presumably this has a lot to do with the popularization of romantic, companionate models of marriage during the 19th century, which is itself related to the slower shift toward equality for women in modernized Western societies, which in turn is related to the West’s self-perception of its superiority over peoples whom it had or was colonizing–Egyptian Muslims, for example. Eventually, the romantic, companionate model of marriage was expanded to include gay/lesian couples. It’s taking more work to stretch the model to include polygamous couples.

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Catholics in St. Anthony, Idaho, 1909

I was leafing this morning through Orbis Books’ documentary history The Frontiers and Catholic Identities, when my eye was caught by a reference to St. Anthony, Idaho, the little town where I spent my elementary school years. (My parents moved us out of St. Anthony at the right time to leave me with happy Lake Wobegonish childhood memories of the place rather than hellish hicktown junior high memories. Sorry, St. Anthony–you are what you are.) The historical document having to do with St. Anthony was part of Father Alvah W. Doran’s account of a 1909 missionary tour he made on the coincidentally named St. Anthony Chapel Car. Here’s what he had to say about his stop in the town of St. Anthony:

We could not omit this town, however much work our shortness of time compelled us to leave undone this trip in Idaho. The honor of the Chapel Car’s patron saint constrained us to preach his religion to a community as ignorant of it as they were of how their town received its good name. There are a handful of the very best kind of Catholics here, and the foundations have been dug for a church. We trust that our work will raise it above ground-level soon. St. Anthony, pray for them! […] At this place the opera-house had been lately burned but the Mormons granted the use of their meeting-house. Thursday evening the Mormon choir had a rehearsal, and then remained to sing at our services. (The Frontiers and Catholic Identities, pp. 125-126)

I would guess that the church whose construction he refers to is the same little Catholic church that was standing in St. Anthony when I lived there–and which is still standing there: Mary Immaculate. Here are some photos from the church’s website.



The last time I visited St. Anthony, over a decade ago, the church had installed a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe out front–a sign of the times. I knew already (from a Mexican immigrant family I met while volunteering as a medical interpreter at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City) that St. Anthony had experienced an upsurge of Latino residents.

I can’t imagine that the Mormon church I attended while living in St. Anthony is the same one Fr. Doran preached at in 1909, though I wonder if it might have stood on the same site.

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Who ordains women?

This weekend, the “Ordain Women” movement within Mormonism received a surprising amount of national media attention. I have a hunch that the media’s interest was driven partly by the LDS Church’s efforts to prevent the story from gaining media attention, i.e., by barring journalists from Temple Square so they couldn’t photograph women being turned away when they tried to gain admission to the male-only priesthood session. If you tell journalists they’re no longer allowed to go somewhere they’re used to going, you’re pretty much guaranteeing they’ll become interested in what you don’t want them to document.


The “Ordain Women” news stories made me think of this slide, which I created a couple years ago for a PowerPoint presentation on the history of women’s ordination in the United States. The slide lists the 10 largest Christian denominations in the U.S., according to the 2012 National Council of Churches yearbook. The green checks indicate denominations that ordain women, and the red X’s indicate denominations that don’t, as best I could determine. The Baptist denominations were tricky to categorize because of their congregationalist style of governance, but I assigned those denominations an X if I found that the national body had gone on record as disapproving women in pastoral authority.

Note that of the 10 largest denominations, only half ordain women. And of the 5 largest, only 1 ordains women (at least as of 2012–I think there’s been some reshuffling in the ranking since then). As I put it when speaking to a group of Mormon women last year: Women’s ordination is common, but I wouldn’t say it’s the norm.

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Muslim Punk

The_TaqwacoresLast week, the Comparative Religion Student Association at my university showed the documentary Taqwacore, about Muslim punk bands. My understanding–i.e., this is the impression the documentary gives–is that these bands were inspired by an imagined Muslim punk subculture created by writer Michael Muhammad Knight in his novel The Taqwacores, which has also now become a film (not to be confused with the documentary). Both films are, for the moment, available on YouTube; click the hyperlinks.

Watching the documentary–which you should see for the segment where the bands crash open-mic night at the annual ISNA convention–I found myself wishing that the filmmakers would tell us more about the grounds on which these young people identify themselves as Muslim. It’s a variation on a question I explored in one of my first AAR presentations: How do people with unconventional religious identities go about persuading people to ascribe the desired religious label to them? I examined that question in the context of gay Mormons: If people are going to call themselves gay Mormons, what do they need to do–or what do they think they need to do–to convince people that they are, in fact, entitled to the label “Mormon”? By the same token, I wondered: If you were to ask these self-identifying punk Muslims on what grounds they can be considered “Muslim,” what would they say? What, in their minds, defines “Muslim” identity?

I’ve begun watching the fictional film The Taqwacores, which does more with the “What makes you a Muslim?” question than the documentary did.

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In Nauvoo… with Catholics

I just returned from a mildly pluralistic holiday getaway in Nauvoo, Illinois, which my husband and I were interested in visiting because it’s a Mormon historical site–the last city Mormons established during Joseph Smith’s lifetime, and the place where some of Mormonism’s most distinctive doctrines and rites were introduced. (My husband and I were both raised LDS.) Most of the reconstructed buildings in historic Nauvoo are owned by the LDS Church; a few years back, that community also rebuilt the Nauvoo Temple, which was first constructed in the 1840s and once again now occupies a very high-profile place on the skyline overlooking the Mississippi River.

However, certain Nauvoo sites associated with Smith himself are owned not by the LDS Church but by the much less well known Community of Christ, Mormonism’s second-largest denomination, which in recent decades has undergone something of what I would call a “Protestantization.” The sites owned by Community of Christ include Smith’s two homes; his “red brick store,” where the LDS Church’s women’s organization was founded and where key esoteric rites were introduced; and Smith’s grave. During the couple of days we spent in Nauvoo, my husband and I stayed in a home in the Community of Christ-owned portion of the historic village; the home had been built in the 1840s to serve as a hotel.

On the block adjoining the Nauvoo Temple, sharing the skyline with it, is a Catholic church, Sts. Peter and Paul. Not being¬† welcome to worship in the LDS temple, I decided to attend Saturday night Mass at their next door neighbor’s. (Although never Catholic, I served in the 1990s as a volunteer in a Catholic mission, doing community development work in the Dominican Republic, the same country where I had been a Mormon missionary a few years earlier.) The sanctuary was painted pink and filled with Victorian statuary in pastel colors of the kind that immediately makes me think: German immigrants. The pre-Vatican II altar was still in place behind the post-Vatican II table.

There was a curious moment at the end of the Prayers of the People, when the priest announced that they were now going to recite the prayer to St. Michael for religious freedom–which everyone but me, it seemed, proceeded to do from memory. The prayer didn’t overtly mention religious freedom: it was a traditional-sounding petition calling on the archangel to stamp down the forces of evil. I wondered: Was this prayer a local custom? Or is this a practice that the bishops have been promoting nationally in the wake of the controversy over religious exceptions under Obamacare? Can any Catholic readers enlighten me?

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Your polygamous ancestors would NOT approve of your gay marriage

Bb9g8niCQAASYkRFederal judge strikes down Utah’s ban on same-sex marriage (Salt Lake Tribune)
Breaking: Utah’s first gay married couple? (QSaltLake)

I am, I must say, floored by how suddenly this has happened. An appeal is certain, and who knows what will happen at that point, which makes it premature to be issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, except for political/public relations purposes. But still… wow.

As a fussy historian, though, I feel I need to rain on the parade a little. One of the men who are now being touted as possibly the first gay couple married in Utah tweeted the following, accompanying a photo of the couple posing with their marriage certificate:

Me and my new husband!! My polygamous Mormon great grandparents would be so proud!

Ehhhh… No. And it’s worth saying “no” because this rhetorical move is likely to be thrown around a lot in the wake of this news story–i.e., people are going to want to suggest that Mormon polygamy and same-sex marriage are analogous. The analogy is usually drawn in the context of suggesting that it’s ironic for the Mormon church to practice polygamy in the nineteenth century but to oppose same-sex marriage today. In a variation on that move, Seth Anderson is invoking the analogy in his tweet to suggest that same-sex marriage is an extension of the values reflected in Mormon polygamy.

That analogy works if same-sex marriage and polygamy are both understood as “alternative relationships”–at which point Anderson can imagine that since his great-grandparents favored one kind of alternative relationship, they would approve of his as well. But that’s a very dubious historical proposition. Mormon polygamy is (was–take your pick, both verb tenses are defensible) deeply implicated in an enthusiastically heteronormative theology. Mormon polygamy is (was) about men and women coming together to multiply and replenish the earth, on the premise that multiplying and replenishing the earth is what God created men and women to do–and if they’re faithful, they’ll get to go on doing it forever, which is the greatest human bliss attainable. It is, literally, divine bliss. It is far from obvious that a couple committed to that theological vision of family and sexuality would approve of a same-sex marriage.

I’m just saying. The sprinkle of rain has now passed. The parade may continue for those folks who feel inclined to celebrate in the streets.

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“Oh, no, we’re not polygamists”

I’m up to my eyeballs in grading final exams, but I’m stealing a few minutes for a lazy post.

I had a ProjectilePluralism-ish dream the other night. Before you read any further, be advised that this dream trafficks in multiple religious stereotypes.

I dreamed that I was with one of my Mormon brothers and his wife and their (fictional) four young children.¬† We were visiting a mainline Protestant church whose congregation consisted of three people, all of them elderly. They seemed ambivalent about our presence–thrilled, on the one hand, by this sudden tripling of their numbers, but also annoyed by all these small kids tearing around the place.

They were getting ready for a potluck. My brother and his wife had brought green jello salad, of course.

One of the mainline Protestants, a retiree-aged man, approached me to make sure we felt welcome. In an effort to make small talk, he said, “I’ve noticed that in society these days, we’re seeing more . . . couples . . . like yourselves.”

I understood his confusion. “Oh, no,” I clarified, “we’re not polygamists.”

A look of enormous relief came over his face–like, he had been determined to be tolerant and accepting of this polyandrous family if he had to be, but thank God he didn’t need to after all.

In my dream, I didn’t clarify for him that if we had been Mormon polygamists, we would have been two women and a man, not two men and a woman. I also apparently didn’t feel the need to clarify that the man he thought was my husband was actually my brother. We’ll leave it to the Freudians to interpret that part.

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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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Native Americans as a Lost Tribe: American Jews respond

LINK: Native Americans & Jews: The Lost Tribes Episode, by David Koffman

Someone posted a link to this article a week or so ago at a Mormon-themed Facebook group I belong to. That group was interested in the article because, of course, the Book of Mormon arises from the belief that Native Americans are descended from scattered Israelites. What intrigued me most about the article is its discussion of how American Jews responded to this once widely entertained idea. From Koffman’s conclusion:

Many of the major figures in nineteenth-century American Jewry weighed in–in one manner or another–on the Jewish-Indian controversy. The practical stakes were never high, but the claim–so ubiquitous and so fluid (since it was used for so many different functions by so many different people)–was taken seriously and fretted over by Jewish leaders of very different orientations. The Lost Tribe theory had significant symbolic stakes–for Jews, Christians, and Native Americans. Linking America and its earliest inhabitants with the Bible and its theology, meant staking a claim on America–and championing God’s plan for the New World.

Read more


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