Beyond Critics And Apologists
Until recently, most literature on Mormons has been either apologetic or hostile. Armand Mauss has devoted his career to cultivating a scholarship that counters the reputation of Mormons as a “kind of cult with sheep-like members” and demonstrates that “believing Mormons can extricate themselves from religious apologetics and consider issues and quandaries on the same basis as other academics do.” A self-described insider-outsider, Mauss is both a believer and a questioner of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or, more commonly, Mormon) history and doctrine. He was born in 1928 into a devout Mormon family and grew up in Oakland, California. In his late teens he served the traditional two-year Mormon mission, and then attended college at Sophia University (Jesuit) in Japan, where he remained for several more years. Following his return to the United States in the 1950s he joined the graduate program at UC Berkeley where he completed a PhD in sociology under the supervision of race and religion scholar Charles Y. Glock.
Throughout his career as a professor of sociology and religious studies at Washington State University and since, Mauss has written prolifically on the Mormon religion. His book The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation, is a study of the unique Mormon trend of alternately assimilating into and retreating from American culture at various historical moments. All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage chronicles the shift in Mormon beliefs and policies about race. Since the launch in 1965 of the independent Mormon publication Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Mauss has been actively involved as a frequent author and governing board member. In his recently published memoir, Shifting Borders and a Tattered Passport, he describes Dialogue as a “borderlands where earnest thinkers have been able to gather and share their ideas…their struggles between faith and doubt, or even their disillusionment and anger over troubling encounters with the Church’s history, doctrines, [or] leaders.”
Although well into his retirement at age 86, Mauss continues to work at bridging the chasm between religious apologists and academics through his involvement with the Mormon Studies program at Claremont Graduate University’s School of Religion. For this interview he sat down with Contexts co-editor Jodi O’Brien at his home in Irvine, California to discuss the “intellectual borderlands” of his career as a Mormon academic.
Jodi O’Brien: The LDS Church hasn’t always been a comfortable place for intellectuals. You describe your experiences in a “borderlands” where you’ve had to negotiate your “tattered passport” in both Mormon and academic circles. How has it been on the church side?
Armand Mauss: Well, even as a graduate student at Berkeley, I began to question publicly the restrictive race policy of the Church while working on my doctoral dissertation (which much later became All Abraham’s Children). Soon my Mormon “passport” was increasingly questioned and tattered as I kept getting summoned by church leaders to explain myself. They showed some reluctance to give me leadership positions, because they didn’t see me as a model church leader, which frankly I was not, partly because of my tendency to pose sensitive questions in public ways—thus the occasional summons.
JO: And how about your experience as a sociologist?
AM: Almost nobody in the discipline thought that religion was important. Furthermore, I found among some of my colleagues, a personal animus toward religion generally and toward Mormonism in particular. One colleague simply told me, flat-out, that he never had liked Mormons, so he didn’t like me. It was a rather surprising thing for a person to say directly. So, I had trouble breaking into what you might call “the fraternity of mainstream sociologists,” as long as I was interested in religion. I had to prove myself by studying other topics, such as deviant behavior or social movements. Nevertheless, with the backing of my
department, I did serve for several years as editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the principal religion journal for social scientists.
JO: In your memoir you describe a strain of “adventurous thinking,” by Mormon scholars who are doing “unsponsored projects” (i. e. research not sponsored by the Church).
AM: One of the rather adventurous things that’s been happening among [Mormon] scholars is finding different ways to understand and explain the Book of Mormon and where it came from without relying on the official story. There’s quite a bit of research going on to analyze the significance of the Book of Mormon in ways that don’t depend on the claim of supernatural origin. And the origin itself, at the hands of Joseph Smith, a semiliterate youth, is hard to explain. I mean, it’s 500 pages of small print, and it’s not easy to read, so, what is it? Where did it come from? And until somebody comes up with proof of plagiarism, which, surprisingly, so far has never been done, all the theories I’ve heard about the origin of the Book of Mormon are just as hard to believe as Smith’s angel story. Literature critic Harold Bloom, in writing about Mormonism and the Book of Mormon in The American Religion described Smith as a “religious genius” (maybe something like Mozart in music). Well, that was a very helpful idea to Mormon apologists. It’s not exactly divine inspiration, but it’s close enough, you know. Calling him a genius is fine with me.
JO: One of your central contributions to the study of social movements in general, and religion in particular is your theory of assimilation and retrenchment. You write about this in your study of Mormon vacillation between assimilation and rejection of American culture in your book, The Angel and the Beehive.
AM: My interest in this arose in the 1970s as all kinds of new religious movements were emerging. For the first time, my colleagues elsewhere in sociology were willing to tolerate my interest in [religion], because it could be studied as part of social movement theory. I got really interested in a couple of [these new religious movements]. I even went on a couple of expense-paid conference jaunts that the Moonies offered. The interest in new religious movements was something that Rodney Stark, in particular, jumped on with some of his students, starting with his time at the University of Washington, when he worked with Bill Bainbridge. Their important discovery was a kind of macro-cosmic view of not just the Moonies or groups like that, but the whole new rise of religious conversion and devotion as an unintended consequence of secularization; thus secularization contains the seeds of its own destruction by nourishing the rise of new religious movements. The theory being that the search for ultimate meaning is a fundamental and universal human quest. So, to the extent that you lose traditional explanations for meaning, as you do when religious societies become more secularized, then space is created, or, as it were, a market is created for new constructions of meaning to come along. That was the framework in which I began to think about what was happening to Mormons and Mormonism. I grew up in a rapidly assimilating church, where assimilation was good and involved a degree of secularization by definition.
JO: The Americanization of Mormonism?
AM: Yes, The Americanization. [In the 1950s] Mormons wanted more than anything else to live down their reputation as a “weird, peculiar sect.” They wanted to go mainstream. But as a young adult, I began to see other changes in the Mormon case that seemed to fly in the face of the [assimilating church] transition that Weber had seen as inevitable. Instead, I began to see, in Mormonism, an attempt to have it both ways. To continue to try to look “American”—“Nobody here but us Christians! We’re all on the same page here…”—while, on the other hand, teaching Mormons inside the church, “You’re still a special—or peculiar—people. “
JO: And people embraced that term?
AM: Yes, internally they embraced the idea that, “There’s only one true church and we’re it and don’t you forget it!”
Meanwhile, [publicly], they claimed, “We’re all just Christians!” So there was tension between those two tendencies. Retrenchment’s the word I use to refer to the tendency that I saw in Mormonism to reverse course—assimilating only so far, then becoming uncomfortable about it. I don’t think for a minute that Mormon leaders sat down and said, “Hey, we’ve gone too far in the assimilation direction, let’s go back toward the ‘peculiar’ direction.” But, there was a vague, growing sense that Mormons were starting to look too much like everybody else, so something needed to be done.
JO: What was the impetus for this shift toward retrenchment?
AM: The retrenchment motif was the reaction of conservative church leaders to the Age of Aquarius. The nation began, increasingly, to tolerate drug use of different kinds, and permissiveness in sexual behavior, and this was really alarming to the church leaders. I sometimes use the word “fiduciary” in reference to how they conceive of their responsibility—you know, it’s up to them to keep the wolves away from the flock and the flock away from the wolves! [The result] was a series of policy steps that moved in the direction of retrenchment—which is to say, moving the religion back toward recovering some of the fundamentalist peculiarity that it had at the end of the 19th century (though not to include polygamy, of course).
JO: How would you describe contemporary Mormonism?
AM: Modern Mormonism is a large, impersonal bureaucracy that is deeply concerned with maintaining its historic peculiarity, or exceptionalism, while still managing its public image. The phrase I like to use is “optimum tension.” If you go too far toward assimilation, you lose identity as a religious group. But if you go too far the other way you’re basically going to get stamped out. So Mormons have always had to find the “optimum tension” that will keep them seeming peculiar enough so that people might say, “Well that’s kind of interesting! Let’s look into that.” But not so peculiar that they’re going to be pilloried in the press, which happens anyway. And so the church leaders, without ever, I’m sure, calculating, seem always to find the optimum location on the continuum. That’s worked pretty well, I think. As long as they continue to be able to do that the Mormon church has a long life expectancy.
JO: What are some recent examples of this?
AM: A lot of times what happens in this “managing the tension” is that things come up that you can’t anticipate. For example, when Romney decided to run for president, the tension management was somewhat disrupted by the storm of publicity about his religion. He didn’t have to get the permission of the church leaders and nobody would have told him either “yea” or “nay” if he had asked. But, when he decided to go for it—not once, but twice—there was no way that the church could not be implicated in everything he said and did (and vice-versa). He was the poster-boy for Mormonism, whether he liked it or not. I think that in some ways the church would be a little more relaxed if Romney had never come along. But since he did, the tension-management process now needs a little “recalibration,” and maybe a certain amount of “healing” will be required.
JO: What do you mean when you say “healing”?
AM: Well, the late night comedians and smart-ass pundits left Mormons and their leaders feeling rubbed a bit raw. So now they’re really, super sensitive. And, of course, the opposition to gay marriage was another crucial episode. I think the church leaders went into that with their eyes open—that is, knowing that they would get some flack, but not really assessing correctly how much! And it proved to be a serious problem inside the church as well. I would guess that maybe as many as a quarter of the church membership did not want the church to get into that fight. Certainly it was a large enough minority that it left a lot of hurt feelings that will also have to be healed.
JO: In your memoir book you write that, “a widespread and useful myth among the Mormon rank and file is that all the policies and programs implemented by church leaders have been received through divine revelation.” You connect this to what you call Mormon “pragmatism.” How does this work?
AM: Weber talked about the [shift from the] charismatic beginning of a religious movement to its routinization. This is particularly the case in the concept of revelation. There’s no longer a charismatic Joseph Smith or Brigham Young having a revelation and saying, “Thus saith the Lord.” That just never happens anymore. Now you have a bureaucratic process: no revelation gets announced unless there’s a consensus, approaching unanimity. The First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles [the top church administrators] get together, they talk about [an issue], they pray about it, and they keep praying until they get a sense of unanimity. There’s an interesting account about how [former church president, Spencer] Kimball finally came to announce the change in race policy [a policy prohibiting black men from the priesthood]. Kimball seemed to be very astute politically. He went around button-holing different leaders to ask them what they thought about the race issue and what they thought the doctrinal basis was for it. What would happen if [the policy] changed? He had personal visits with each of them in a non-threatening environment and then began to push them collectively toward a decision to drop the policy. But, it’s important to understand that within this routinized, bureaucratic organization, leadership responsible for promulgating new policies and ideas does so only through consensus.
JO: And this emergent consensus is experienced as collective revelation?
AM: Yes, but this revelation is not achieved in an informational vacuum. Increasingly, in recent years before any serious consideration takes place about advancing a new teaching or policy, the church leaders seek the help of consultants from both inside and outside the Church. But they don’t see that as subversive of the idea of revelation. They see it as studying the issue. And so there is, in Mormonism, the idea that revelation begins by asking questions, and then they seek the answers to those questions. But they seek the answers first by finding out all they can and formulating a proposition that they take to God for confirmation. So, the revelatory process confirms or fails to confirm what they’ve tentatively formulated as the answer to the question. That’s a very pragmatic idea. Mormon prophets don’t sit around waiting for revelations; they have to go out and seek for them and then come together in consensus—even unanimity—to promulgate them.
JO: What about your first encounters with ideas like the social construction of reality. This sociological framework, which you espouse in your work, is fundamentally at odds with religious belief in a discoverable truth and morality. How does a good young Mormon take that on?
AM: I not only had this Mormon upbringing and the experience of having been a missionary, but I also had that Jesuit overlay that came from my baccalaureate experience. So I went into graduate work with the belief that there is such a thing as “universal truth.” Humans grope to find it, but truth, as it would be known and understood by God, is out there somewhere. But it was Berger and Luckmann that changed it for me. I had to face the fact that I had embraced a version of the truth that worked fine for me, but could not be considered “truth” in any of the absolute ways that I had originally thought. So, then I had to figure out what to do with that. What I finally came to was a kind of relativizing the relativizers! You know? If all truth is socially constructed, then no construction of reality is, a priori, privileged over any other construction of reality—not even the positivism of traditional social science! Ultimately, the embrace of any construction is an act of faith involving much that is unfalsifiable in scientific terms. All constructions are problematic. They all have to be studied and tested.
JO: And both your life and career are testament to this studying and questioning.
AM: Yes, I finally decided that [the social construction of reality] need not be a threat to my personal religiosity. Because, although I am Mormon and I have had many questions about my Mormonism, still, that framework has worked for me. I’ve stylized it, but it’s worked for me, and I see no reason to give it up as my framework for living even though I don’t, for a minute, take the position that it is the only legitimate reality. In fact, I have no idea what God really thinks about Mormonism or any other religion. I don’t know what God thinks about anything! Furthermore, I don’t know of any way to find out with any certainty! And I think everybody’s in the same boat in that respect.
JO: Another managed tension?
AM: Yes, my “weird” Mormon construction of reality is as good as anybody else’s. And when I say “it’s as good as anybody else’s,” what I mean is not that it necessarily explains more, but that understanding reality as a social construction does not, for a minute, obviate the need, at the individual level, to have some sort of framework by which we live our individual lives and decide what kind of people we want to be. And I’m not just talking about questions of ethics and morality—which certainly are involved here—I’m talking about aspirations and many other things.
JO: Here again you’re in the borderlands. You have this very articulated position that enables you to embrace and live a faith-based life as a critically reflective sociologist.
AM: Yes, but, you know, this is another place where the pragmatism of Mormonism works well (laughs).
JO: [Religious scholar] Huston Smith describes it as “peeling back the layers” of the theological myths to find the core beliefs and practices and truths—the values that give you a real compass to live by.
AM: Yes, and that’s what I think Latterday Saints [Mormons] must do if they care to know more than what’s taught in the official church materials. They must study the historical origins of the things the church teaches to understand where they came from and whether they want to consider them “authentic” in a revelatory sense or just cultural shibboleths.