We are pleased to present our first installment of “12 Questions,” with sociologist and Mormon Studies scholar extraordinaire Armand Mauss (here is a mini-bio). Thanks to everyone who sent in questions. As you will see, they generated a wide-ranging and thoughtful set of responses. Questions appear below in bold, and Brother Mauss’s responses follow in plain text.
[Click here for part two.]
1. You have spent your academic career largely outside of church-affiliated schools. As a Mormon studies scholar, what are the advantages and disadvantages taking this route from your perspective? How does it inform and/or impede your work in Mormon studies?
The main advantage of working outside of Church sponsorship (academic or otherwise) is that one never has to worry about ecclesiastical pressure to avoid research and writing on topics that might displease “the Brethren”. Of course, if one’s academic specialty is engineering, then that’s not much of a concern, anyway. However, if one works in the humanities or the social sciences, and especially in the field of religion, that is a constant concern. Similarly, at least during the past decade or so, Church employees of all kinds are “strongly discouraged” from participating or publishing in Sunstone or Dialogue, which have been publicly and privately criticized by conservative Church leaders.
The main disadvantage of working outside of Church-sponsored circles is that secular colleagues, especially in academia, have little use for religious studies, so most scholars who teach and write in the major disciplines are expected to earn academic tenure and promotion through their work on topics that are more “trendy,” politically correct, or attractive to government funding agencies. If one can find the time to “do the religion stuff” on the side, that’s OK, but there is not much appreciation for religious studies in general (except, of course, in the relatively few departments or specific programs for Religious Studies). I did my doctoral work under a rare sociologist at Berkeley (Glock) who was interested in religious studies, so I was able to do my dissertation on Mormons and race. However, when I began my university career afterward, I had to spend the first 10 or 15 years establishing my “credentials” in specialties such as deviant behavior (including alcohol and drug use), other social problems, and social/political movements. Only after I had tenure and my final promotion was it “safe” for me to start moving out of those research fields and devote myself increasingly to religious studies generally and to Mormon studies in particular. Until then, I had, of course, always done some scholarly work in religious studies (Mormons and others), but it was always done “on the side.”
As I was finishing my doctoral work (late 1960s), I was ardently “courted” by BYU colleagues for two straight years, but I was never tempted to sign on – not even a little bit. I knew that I would get into trouble in the long-run, if not the short-run, because of my independent intellectual streak, my tendency to question authority, and my abrasive personality (which was much worse when I was younger!). These offenses were far more tolerable in secular academic life, though they caused me a little bit of trouble even there. All in all, I have found a comfortable and independent home on the margin between (on the one hand) unquestioning obedience to ecclesiastical expectations for conformity and office-seeking, and (on the other hand) obeisance to secular liberalism, with ITS OWN demands for conformity and orthodoxy. Neither has ever gotten my unquestioning loyalty, so neither has been able to control me totally, but both networks have nourished and strengthened me. Still, I have tried constantly to give each its due, in both loyalty and service, and to use balance and fairness in my criticisms of both. I have remained active in the Church throughout my life and served in many different callings, including bishopric and high priest leader, but I have understandably never been called as a bishop or as a stake president. If I were to start my adult life over, I think I would manage all of this in about the same way (though I would try to keep the commandments more fully and treat other people more graciously, even when it’s hard!). Implicit in all the above is that I distinguish between my relationship with the Church and my relationship with the Lord, to whom I have always tried to stay close, or at least to return to closeness after occasional periods of wandering.
2. What hitherto neglected topics in Mormon studies would you like to see more scholarly attention devoted to?
Here is just a start :
a. Any work that compares the nature and implications of cultural differences between Mormons in North America and Mormons in other societies of the world – including how these differences affect Church growth, retention, and doctrinal adaptations in various societies.
b. Studies of different “ideological constituencies” in Mormonism (at least American Mormonism) and the behavioral variations among those constituencies (“iron rod” Mormons, “Liahona” Mormons, or any other such labels or categories that might prove empirically valid).
c. The short- and long-term consequences of various forms of “boundary maintenance” in the Church (including, but not limited to, disciplinary councils).
d. A thorough and candid evaluation of the role of CES in LDS Church life, including not only the actual (as contrasted with the ostensible) part it plays in the socialization of LDS youth, but also the power and influence of the CES bureaucracy in LDS doctrine and organizational practice.
e. A thorough and candid evaluation of the cultural, intellectual, and spiritual impact of “correlation” in the Church during the past forty years. Is Mormon culture more emotional and less intellectual these days, or is that just my imagination? I feel that I have been living through a general “dumbing down” of Church culture, both in discourse and in music. If that is a reality, what are the causes and consequences of that development, both in North America and elsewhere?
3. A few T&S readers have suggested that the purpose of General Conference is to establish the proper form of Mormon discourse in ways both large and small. How could General Conference be argued to serve, or not, as a standard for both the way we talk to each other and the things we talk about?
This is another area that could use some systematic research by skilled rhetoricians. I have little to offer here, since I never attend General Conference any more and rarely watch any of it on TV. I have found that it is a much more efficient use of my time to do selective reading of the Conference addresses in the Ensign afterward. The few times that I attended Conference in the Tabernacle during my earlier years were very inspirational experiences, partly because of the venue and partly because of the “uncorrelated” nature of the sermons. LeGrand Richards, who has been gone for many years, was the last of the great apostolic preachers. Today’s bland platitudes do not compare with the spirit-driven exegeses and calls to service that used to be common. Since the Conference talks have been correlated and homogenized, I find them mostly boring and repetitive, and I remain totally uninspired by the “large and spacious building” in which they are now delivered.
4. The Church in the U.S. seems to be navigating two different identities right now. On the one hand, like moderate Protestants, Mormons are well-educated, often embrace scientific discovery and progress, are government and community leaders, etc. On the other hand, like evangelical Christians, Latter-day Saints are often scriptural literalists and also believe it is the last days and that Christ will return to the earth. Can the Church continue to keep these two
identities or will the time come when they have to choose between a respected, Protestant-like image, or a more fundamentalist image?
This question forces me to the immodest position of having to cite my own book, The Angel and the Beehive: The Mormon Struggle with Assimilation (University of Illinois Press, 1994), which seems to have been largely overlooked by all but a few specialists. The quandary posed in this question (above) is, indeed, the main issue in my book. Copies are still available very cheaply through Benchmark Books and Amazon. Try it! You’ll like it! My main argument is that oblivion lies at either end of the Protestant continuum, so that the Church should not (and, I believe, will not) choose either but will constantly adjust its message and culture to remain at a point of “optimum tension” on that continuum (i. e. “tension” with the surrounding American culture, which may or may not be “optimum” in relation to other societies). As part of this process, the Church uses a somewhat different emphasis and form of discourse in addressing the outside from what it uses in addressing the Saints inside. In speaking both ways, the Church is not contradicting itself but is “Janus-headed,” for it exemplifies to the outside its “mainstream Christian” aspirations and goals, while emphasizing to the Saints inside that it is special, exceptional, and the “only true and living Church on the face of the earth.” The idea is to “stand for something,” but to emphasize some of the “somethings” to some audiences and others of the “somethings” to other audiences.
5. We have had a few discussions on the “greying” that has been happening in the more established voices of Mormon studies — it seems that fewer young people are involved in Dialogue, Sunstone, and the Journal of Mormon History than used to be. As a member of the Board at Dialogue, and a long-time contributor to the field generally, do you think this is accurate? If so, what do you think this means for the future of Mormon studies?
I concur that the “greying” is a big problem for the future of Mormon Studies. It has been brought about mainly by the collision of two social and intellectual developments : (1) the excesses of some of the intellectuals in the current generation (i. e. the generation after Arrington et al.), most of whom are now in their late 40s and 50s; and (2) the hostility, largely unwarranted, of a few very conservative Church leaders who happened to come to the pinnacle of their power over Church policy just as this post-Arrington generation was maturing and “feeling its oats.” The collision between these two throughout the 1980s and 1990s polarized the intellectuals, most of whom felt that they had to choose between two options in order to avoid the growing dissonance. Some of them (maybe half – who knows?) opted to put their Church loyalties, careers, and/or public images ahead of their intellectual yearnings and independence, feeling that the latter could not justify the disruption and jeopardy to their largely conservative spouses and families, to their aspirations for respectability in the Church, or to their career plans. Others (maybe another approximate half) decided that they could not simply put their doubts or their intellectual quandaries on the shelf, or compartmentalize their religious and intellectual lives. For them, it was just easier to leave the Church altogether, or at least to revert to minimal activity. This polarization has left a relatively small cadre of intellectuals in the middle (“moderates”?), who have been willing to accept a degree of marginality in the Church in order to continue their intellectual quest publicly.
This was the generation of “baby boomers,” which was quite large to start with, so even that “moderate remnant” in the middle has been able to pass on the legacy of the earlier Arrington generation to some extent. Meanwhile, the Arrington generation itself is not only greyer yet, but it is also diminishing rapidly from “natural causes,” since we are now all in our late sixties, seventies, or eighties. If those of us who gathered around Arrington in the 1950s and 1960s can be considered the “first generation,” then the baby boomers are the “second generation,” the one hit hardest by the polarization and split I mentioned above. Attention must now focus on a “third generation” – those now in their 20s and early 30s, which include some of my grandchildren.
I remain optimistic about the next generation. This “third generation” seems to me somewhat more relaxed about their intellectual quests. They feel somewhat less need than their parents felt to choose between the two options I mentioned, partly because they do not expect to suffer the opprobrium or anxiety their parents suffered if they opt out of the Church entirely (many others having by now followed that path with seeming impunity). For the same reason, however, they are less inclined to put up with ecclesiastical and social censure and pressure, which will simply push them out of Church activity more quickly than it pushed out some of their parents; but if they leave, they are less likely than those in the second generation to leave angry. All in all, these youngsters seem to me slower to “get mad and leave,” unless they are actually faced with ultimatums (ultimata?).
At the same time, I think the Church leaders have shown less inclination during the Hinckley years to crack down on dissenters, especially in any public way. It has been enough, for their purposes, to marginalize Dialogue, Sunstone, and the like, and to use informal pressures, “behind the scenes,” to make potential trouble-makers uncomfortable and keep them marginalized (One such device is the still-active “Committee to Strengthen Church Members,” which continues to review Dialogue and Sunstone articles and tapes and report offending passages to Area Presidents, who then pass them along to Stake Presidents, who then “call in” the members for counseling and discussion).
Finally, another reason for my optimism is the emerging academic phenomenon of Mormon Studies Programs. A fledgling variety of such a program was started by Eugene England at UVSC and remains there under the umbrella of a more general Religious Studies Program (which is how other Mormon Studies programs have started). At present, Utah State University has instituted both an endowed chair and a special program in Religious Studies, and it is now in the process of doing the same for Mormon Studies (based on the Arrington Chair there, which will have raised its endowment this year). Perhaps less well known is the new commitment to a Mormon Studies program and endowed chair at the Claremont Graduate School in southern California, which will be operational by Fall of 2005. These new programs will have academic respectability and cannot be controlled by the Church, but they will also offer “cover” for LDS scholars whose legitimate academic research and writing, even if embarrassing to the Church, cannot bring Church discipline without a public relations debacle. I expect most LDS scholars who occupy (or aspire to occupy) chairs or other positions in academic Mormon Studies will themselves be loyal Church members. The difference is that a history of loyalty to the Church has not been enough to keep scholars out of trouble at BYU, but I think it will be enough when they do their work in other academic settings.
6. In your recent, brief comments in the July 2002 Sunstone entitled Seeing the Church as a Human Institution, you noted that large, bureaucratic organizations like the Church operate by supra-individual processes and imperatives. How can the Church avoid any possibly deleterious effects of such tendencies?
I don’t think the Church can avoid such effects altogether. Bureaucracies, like families, are “natural” institutions (i. e. phenomena of nature) that seem to operate largely by processes of their own. In the Church, that is part of the price we pay for “success.” The “kinder, gentler” and more “humane” Church of my youth was also smaller than a million members, and both wards and stakes had enormous autonomy compared to what they enjoy now with centralized “correlation.” Like families, however, bureaucracies are led and operated by individuals – in this case by bureaucrats – who have individual traits, skills, and weaknesses that can either ameliorate or exacerbate the “natural” processes that occur in these institutions. I have noticed during the past decade a growing tendency in the Church to take into account local and individual needs and differences (in wards and stakes). One sign of this is the growing emphasis on the use of councils of various kinds (not just the Ward Council), thanks largely to the leadership of Elder Ballard. Another is the greater public recognition of women and their leadership. So, I think a lot can be done “around the harder edges” of bureaucracies, but ultimately bureaucracies are bureaucracies.