As promised, here’s the second half our our “interview.” [For part one, click here.] Thank you, Brother Mauss, for your willingness to lend your unique voice to the bloggernacle, and thanks to all our readers who submitted questions. (Again, the questions are in bold and his responses follow in plain text.)
7. In April conference, Elder Hafen discussed the “misconception” that the Church is “moving toward an understanding of the relationship between grace and works that draws on Protestant teachings.” Any reaction?
This is truly an interesting development. The “misconception” Elder Hafen is referring to might not be exactly what it seems.
On the one hand, he is right (I hope) that the General Authorities have not condoned or legitimated a drift of LDS doctrine toward the (e. g.) Lutheran idea of grace as the sole basis for salvation. This is important, because the Brethren have looked with “benign neglect” upon other examples of doctrinal drift in the 20th century (e. g. the drift from Calvary to Gethsemane as the main site of the Atonement, and the drift from North America to MesoAmerica as the site of the Book of Mormon story).
On the other hand, some of the CES faculty (starting with the Religion faculty at BYU) certainly have “mov(ed) toward an understanding of grace . . . that draws on Protestant teachings.” This development was first pointed out by O. Kendall White in his book Mormon Neo-Orthodoxy (Signature Books, 1987), and I reiterated it in my Angel and Beehive (pp. 277-78). It comes across too in the more recent (and widely read) Stephen Robinson book, How Wide the Divide. What is interesting to me in all such instances of doctrinal drift is that in the contemporary LDS Church, where we have no formal theologians among the Brethren, our theological innovations are generated instead by theology specialists at BYU (some trained in formal theology, some not). Some of these innovations are eventually addressed publicly and resisted by the Brethren (via General Conferences talks or otherwise), which seems to be the case with the grace-and-works issue. Other innovations (such as the Gethsemane doctrine and a MesoAmerican setting for the B. of M.) are not resisted, or are even embraced by a number of the Brethren and eventually become more or less official doctrines.
8. In Mormon America, the Ostlings discuss a series of incidents involving an African-American convert demanding a new “manifesto” from the First Presidency concerning Mormonism’s historical racial theology and efforts made by yourself, among others, to simultaneously secure some sort of statement (apology? retraction?) from LDS Public Affairs on this thorny issue. What is your take on the Ostling’s treatment of this affair? Is their recounting accurate?
Once again I am forced, in all immodesty, to refer you to one of my books, All Abraham’s Children: Changing Mormon Conceptions of Race and Lineage (U. of Illinois Press, 2003), pp. 248-49, where I refer to the incident discussed by the Ostlings in the context of post-1978 struggles to get rid of residual racism in the Church. And yes, their recounting is accurate, because they got the story from first-hand sources, including me. There is quite a lot to the story, and some of it I would prefer not to spread publicly.
Basically it is this : In 1997, an ad hoc advisory committee was put together by Elder Marlin K. Jensen, then a President of the Seventy and an overseer of Public Affairs, to assist him in drafting a proposal for an official public statement by the First Presidency that would, in effect, disavow the traditional folk-doctrines in Mormonism about pre-existent sins, or curses and marks on Ham and Cain, as the “reason” for denying the priesthood to blacks before 1978. Elder Jensen saw a need for such a disavowal and asked for the help of a few of the Saints who had contacted him about the matter in recent years. I was included on this committee, even though I had not been among those to contact him. Another member of the same advisory committee was A. David Jackson, the “African-American convert” referred to above. Not understanding Church procedure or normal bureaucratic processes very well, Bro. Jackson became impatient as Elder Jensen’s proposal worked its way up through the various quorums and committees to the First Presidency. Bro. Jackson (despite my efforts to dissuade him) eventually went to a reporter for the LA Times with the story that these deliberations were underway, in hopes that a “juicy story” in the press might put some pressure on the Brethren to hurry the process along (we had all hoped to get such a public statement about the time of the 20th anniversary of the 1978 Revelation). Of course, the LA Times story had the opposite of the desired effect, since the Brethren cannot ever be expected to make decisions in the glare of publicity. Accordingly, at a hastily called press conference, Pres. Hinckley said that he knew nothing about any plans for any such a repudiation, and he didn’t think the Church needed one. (He was telling the truth about not knowing of such plans, since Elder Jensen’s proposal had not yet reached the First Presidency). That’s the story in outline. My own assessment is that there was never more than a 50-50 chance that the First Presidency would have issued such a statement anyway, but this episode set back any such prospects for at least 10 years. I have also come to believe that Jackson had an agenda of his own that only partly included a desire to see old racist folklore repudiated. He was also anxious to be known publicly as the black hero who forced the Church to either “do the right thing” or else to remain exposed to the charge of continuing racism. Unfortunately, the alienation between Jackson and the rest of us has remained, and no one in his family attends church any more.
9. It seems that more and more orthodox members, including those engaged in apologetics, are making use of formerly “heterodox” explanations of the history of the priesthood ban. Margaret Young’s novels about early African-American saints, published by Deseret Book, all but explicitly endorse your work in this vein. Have you lived to see your work go mainstream (if not “official”) in the church? And if so, did you ever expect that?
Yeah, I did expect to live to see a change in Church policy on blacks, if only because the policy was so outrageously out of place with everything else in our religion and our scriptures; but I had no idea when to expect the change. And yes, I do feel vindicated for the position I took on the race issue in my first Dialogue article (Winter issue, 1967), and even before that in talks before LDS audiences in the California Bay Area. I never demanded that the Church change its policy on priesthood (that was not my job!), but my hope for change was always implicit in what I wrote, as I consistently pointed out that there was no valid scriptural basis for the conventional “explanation” that had been offered (even by some eminent Brethren). I took some flak for this across the years, since my view contradicted the writings of Jos. Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie, which most of the Saints, even today, consider the same as scripture.
However, I can take no credit for the hard-slogging research that eventually undermined the historical basis for the policy and demonstrated that it could not have originated with Joseph Smith or with any recorded revelation. This historical work was done by Lester Bush and Newell Bringhurst. Their published research, together with the discovery that a modern, academic translation of the fragments from the original papyri do not yield anything found in our Book of Abraham, removed any basis for the priesthood ban except for the heavy hand of tradition. These developments certainly facilitated, and provided some motivation for, the efforts of Pres. Kimball and his colleagues to seek and receive the revelation of 1978. My own contribution to the historical work on this issue has been focused mainly on second half of the 20th century, starting with my 1981 Dialogue article, “The Fading of the Pharoahs’ Curse,” and continuing with more recent articles, and with Chapter 9 of my book All Abraham’s Children.
The Young and Gray trilogy is wonderful. I was consulted periodically by the authors while they were working on it, and I read some early drafts, but I can take no credit for that work, either.
10. You have written extensively on social problems. Where should the Church fit in when trying to meet the social needs of our communities and greater world?
The answer to this question depends on what you mean by a “social problem.” Forgive me if I get too pedantic here, but if you have read my publications on “social problems,” you will know that I am an exponent of the theory that social problems are the products of (or are even essentially the same as) social movements. (Anyone who really cares about all this can read my article, “Social Problems,” in the Encyclopedia of Sociology, found the Reference Section of any decent library). Essentially I take a “social constructionist” theoretical perspective – namely, that social problems are actually putative social conditions that have become problematic through the enterprise of political and other interest groups (i. e. through social movements). No social condition, no matter how desperate it might look to us, is a social problem until it has been made such by a campaign to put get it on the national agenda. A social problem is thus relative to cultural, generational, and political factors. That’s why the same social condition will be defined as a “social problem” in some times and places but not in others (e. g. racism, poverty, homosexuality).
From that perspective, the LDS Church is only one of many claims-making organizations in the national and international arenas. The LDS Church shares in the claims that define some of the national and international conditions as “social problems” (e. g. poverty, substance abuse, family disintegration), and it joins with others in working toward amelioration. For other conditions in the nation, however, the Church does not share in defining them as “social problems,” or at least has a different definition of the nature of the problem (e. g. maldistribution of wealth, obesity, environmental degradation, gay rights). Still other conditions are defined as “social problems” by the LDS Church, but not by most of the rest of the nation (e. g. contemporary sexual norms and practices in most of Europe and America, mothers “leaving the home,” welfare dependency). Having now reached the greatest level of political and economic power that it has ever enjoyed, the LDS Church is in a position to work (with or without others) on the amelioration of those social conditions that it defines as the most pressing “social problems.” It has been doing this for some years and will continue to do so.
A totally separate question, both for the LDS Church and for other claimants in the arena, is that of efficacy – i. e., do any of the ameliorative efforts of any organization really work? The “track record” in our national programs of amelioration has not been particularly good in most cases. It’s not clear to me how well the Church programs have been working. In the last few issues of Dialogue, there have been two articles by Brad Walker (“Spreading Zion Southward,” Part 1 and Part 2) which make pretty clear that the LDS welfare program outside North America is not working well at all, though the humanitarian programs are more successful (which, ironically, are mainly for non-members!).
11. Mark Leone predicted that after 1978 a new doctrine would emerge as a symbol of Mormon distinctiveness, and that family and the role of women, for all their sincere doctrinal bases, would probably serve this function. To what extent does the current controversy over same sex marriage bear that out?
Leone did not need to be particularly prescient to make this prediction, since the Church had been on a campaign to strengthen the family since the early 1960s, and this campaign always included a conservative definition of women’s roles (demonstrated, e. g., by the anti-IWY and anti-ERA campaigns even before 1978). Certainly the Church’s political and educational efforts against same-sex marriage and other “gay rights” are a part of that larger campaign to restore and preserve traditional definitions of family and of women in particular. In my Angel and Beehive, I identify and analyze several other special thrusts in the effort to restore or re-emphasize “Mormon distinctiveness” after two or three generations of assimilation into the great American melting pot.
My prediction about the same-sex marriage struggle is that the cause is already lost, from the LDS viewpoint. Considering what has already been tolerated, if not actually enacted, in the laws of both the U. S. and other Western countries, the Church will be forced (all over the world) to accept a new constitutional doctrine in which domestic unions of all kinds will be legitimated by governments (and, if based on formal contracts, enforced by governments, too). These unions might or might not be called “marriages,” depending on the nation in question. Probably in the U. S. they will not be called marriages. The term “marriage” (or some synonym) will then be reserved ONLY for unions that are ALSO “sanctified” by private religious or quasi-religious organizations. Churches will lose their authority to perform state-sanctioned “marriages” (as they already have done in many other countries). LDS couples everywhere will be required to have their contractual unions legitimized by a state agency, and THEN go to the temple for what will be called “marriages” (or maybe to an LDS bishop if the couple seeks a marriage “for time only”). In this situation, every religious denomination will be able to permit and perform whatever kind of “marriage” it prefers, including “gay marriage.”
Since all of this will imply a judicial acceptance of the “equal rights” claims of gay couples, it is difficult to see how the same claims can be denied when made by polygamists or others. Therefore, we can expect the various “fundamentalist” groups in and around Utah to demand “equal rights” and legitimate state contracts for their unions of two or more people. This might not be so bad if the state can thereby also enforce laws regulating the rights of multiple wives and children in these arrangements (which the state now finds it difficult to do with the extra-legal polygamous families).
12. We are always looking for the essential texts of Mormon studies. So, what good books have you read lately?
I don’t know about “essential texts,” but I think the most important books of the past two decades would include (but not be limited to) : Thomas Alexander, Mormonism in Transition; Allen and Leonard, The History of the Latter-day Saints, especially for the novice who knows little or nothing about LDS history; Leonard Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom and Adventures of a Church Historian; Phil Barlow, The Mormons and the Bible; Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (soon to be subsumed, however, in his complete and definitive Joseph Smith biography due out next year); the Cornwall, Heaton, and Young collection of essays, Contemporary Mormonism; Terryl Givens, By the Hand of Mormon; Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music; Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons; Erich Robert Paul, Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology; D. Michael Quinn, Mormon Hierarchy (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2); Jan Shipps, Mormonism: A New Religious Tradition and Sojourner in the Promised Land; Gordon and Gary Shepherd, A Kingdom Transformed. This list will at least give you a good sampling of history, sociology, science and culture. Two on this list are a half century old (Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom and O’Dea’s Mormons), but I include them as “classics” that people should have read along the way. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, so when you have finished reading all these, come back to me and I’ll recommend some more! I have also deliberately left off several good books on specialized subjects like polygamy (both 19th and 20th century varieties), of which the most recent are by Sarah Barrington Gordon and Kathryn Daynes, but there are many good older ones too. I have not mentioned the new books by Grant Palmer and by Krakauer, neither of which plows any new ground unfamiliar to those of us who have been keeping up on Mormon history.
A general orientation to both historical and social science work in Mormon Studies will be found in the bibliographic essays collected by Ronald Walker, James Allen, and David Whittaker, Mormon History (U. of Illinois Press, 2001). I strongly, recommend that one should browse first through these essays in order to get “the lay of the land.”
IN ADDITION, no one is really “keeping up” on Mormon studies unless s/he is regularly reading at least Dialogue, Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies, and Sunstone.