Recently, I’ve been thinking about the topic of elite religion versus popular religion. In particular, it seems that the development of FARMS and other intellectual centers of Mormon studies has resulted in a division of sorts. On the one hand, Mormon studies scholars believe in a world where the Nephites lived in a tiny section of Central America, where the Hill Cumorah is somewhere in Guatemala, where the flood was a localized event, and where Joseph Smith was polygamous and polyandrous. On the other hand, most church members believe in a world where the Lehites covered the Americas, the Hill Cumorah is in New York, the flood was worldwide, and Joseph’s polygamy is never mentioned. Common church members believe the prophet is never wrong; elites believe the prophet may have opinions that are incorrect (such as men on the moon). Common members believe that women have never held any type of priesthood; elites point out early church instances of women wielding priesthood or quasi-priesthood authority. And so forth. Bridging this chasm are church leaders, who sometimes seem to favor one worldview, and sometimes another.
It seems the more that FARMS scholars research and write, the more that apologists respond to anti-Mormon attacks, the further away they move from the common beliefs that constitute and underlie lived Mormonism for most actual members. Is the church dividing in two? Is FARMS Mormonism even the same religion as the one I hear in Sacrament Meeting? And, if not, why? — and who, if anyone, needs to change?
On the one hand, this seems similar to common misperceptions about law that I notice as an attorney. Many people in the United States believe that the Constitution or the laws contain rights or provisions that aren’t there. I have had conversations where others have invoked a “constitutional right to happiness” that doesn’t exist. I’ve had discussions with people who think that a popular vote carries greater authority than a constitutional provision.
These kinds of statements show that many people simply don’t bother to educate themselves about topics. And society is governed by the laws as they really exist, not the laws as the public perceives them.
On the surface, the elite/common differences seem similar. But I’m not sure that these two phenomena are really the same. After all, there is a correct answer to “does the constitution contain a right to happiness” (it is “no”). We can go to the document and verify this.
On the other hand, is there really a correct answer to “did the Nephites live in Central America, or all over North and South America”? What are we to believe when a FARMS scholar states that evidence shows that the limited geography hypothesis is correct, but a general authority refers to all Native Americans as Lamanites? Is the elite religion correct, or the common religion?
And, until (if and when) ideas like the limited geography hypothesis are endorsed by church leaders, can we (should we?) hold these out to non-members as being indicative of church belief? When someone asks me “what do Mormons think of Native Americans?”, should I refer them to Sorenson’s articles on limited geography, or to the Book of Mormon introduction? (I’ve brought this topic up before, and have been told by elite-religion advocates that elite-religion views should be shared, because those are more correct. But if they’re really more correct, why aren’t they more widespread as church doctrine?). We certainly get angry when non-members refer to schismatic Mormons as Mormons — but should we be equally upset if they attribute to us beliefs that are in fact widely held by members?
At the end, I remain confused as to how I’m supposed to assemble this little structure called church beliefs. My daily and weekly contact is with members who have simple common-religion beliefs; blogging puts me in contact with many elite-religion advocates. I would like to use the scholarly insights of elite religion to bolster my everyday beliefs. But I must confess that I haven’t found any easy ways to blend these with the weekly church attendance and church doctrine as I try to live it as a member.