I was delighted when Noah Feldman accepted my invitation to give the keynote address at Princetonâ€™s Mormonism and American Politics conference because I knew heâ€™d offer a thoughtful and sophisticated outsiderâ€™s perspective on these issues. His latest NYT piece, a polished and updated version of his conference remarks, is even more that that, however. In challenging what Feldman calls the â€œsoft bigotryâ€ against Mormonism, still surprisingly so widespread, while at the same time effectively raising legitimate issues for Latter-day Saints to wrestle with themselves, Feldmanâ€™s piece does what few other articles on Mormonism have been able to do and is rightly getting a lot of attention.
Since I have spent time in conversation discussing these points with Feldman, it is perhaps unremarkable that I have mostly praise for his observations and as such wonâ€™t rehearse my significant agreements with him. Instead, what I will draw attention to are the LDS responses to Feldman which I find most interesting.
Feldman argues that â€œMormonismâ€™s political problem arises, in larger part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces.â€ The faces of the missionaries that seem to evoke wholesomeness and clean living on one hand and temple rites intended only for the worthy few, leaves outsiders uncomfortable and uncertain about the Mormon faith. Does Mormonism epitomize all-American, apple pie goodness or does its non-public sacred temple rituals, holy garments, and theocratic past define Mormonism as marginal and worthy of suspicion?
According to Feldman, Mormonismâ€™s understanding of sacred mystery implies a certain theological secrecy leading to public distrust. When distrust and fear turn to persecution Mormons feel external pressure to be secretive about even those beliefs regarding which there may be no theological rationale for silence and which they might more readily share but for the possible persecution they might face. Silence or secrecy then becomes a protective strategy. The category of secrecy looms large in the article as one of the sticking points that ostensibly both explains and engenders continuing national bigotry. Feldman suggests that Mormonism not only began in secrecy but that Mormon theology remains relatively inaccessible to outsiders because much of Josephâ€™s Smithâ€™s revelations are thought of as sacred secrets to be shared only with select initiates.
Many Latter-day Saints have a knee-jerk reaction to the charge of secrecy. However well-informed the outsider, they take these observations about the church as an accusation of shady practices so they respond like Paul when speaking of the early Christians to King Agrippa that â€œthis thing was not done in a cornerâ€! To demonstrate this transparency, which seems for some to imply goodness, they point to the churchâ€™s extensive international missionary program which seeks to educate anyone who will listen about the doctrines and practices of Mormon faith and issues reminders that the Book of Mormon is published in more than 36 languages and distributed all over the world. They note that the official church website publishes all major addresses by church leaders and that the current president of the church has gone on national television, agreeing to be interviewed by the likes of Larry King and Mike Wallace.
Though Latter-day Saints might bristle at this observation and offer evidence to the contrary, it is difficult to not to concede Feldmanâ€™s point. Plural marriage was a sacred secret for many years and the temple ordinances have never been meant for public consumption. Granting these points however does not do the damage that some LDS may think. Feldman draws analogies between Mormonismâ€™s sacred secrets and medieval Islamic esotericism, kabbalistic mysticism and ancient Christian Gnosticism, effectively arguing that there are strands within Mormonism that bear resemblances to old strands within Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. If Feldman is right that â€œantiquity breeds authenticity,â€ then Feldmanâ€™s emphasis on Mormon secrecy in the context of an argument for the antiquity of such a practice does Latter-day Saints a favor.
Feldmanâ€™s recounting of Mormon history is mostly the good standard story youâ€™d expect from an academic who has read the most important secondary sources. I do however think his account of what he calls Mormon â€œnormalizationâ€ could have benefitted from a more careful perusal of Armand Maussâ€™ The Angel and the Beehive: the Mormon Struggle with Assimilation. Feldman suggests that the level of assimilation that Latter-day Saints have been able to accomplish is due largely to a deliberate reticence to discuss religious beliefs (i.e. secrecy) as a survival tactic. Mauss paints a more complex picture than the one Feldman describes by arguing that there has been and continues to be much opposition to the diffusion of Mormon distinctiveness that has led to what Mauss calls the predicament of respectability. There is evidence of a hardening position against further assimilation and sometimes an apparent desire to reverse this trend from both the leadership and laity. That we are becoming too much like the world is not an uncommon cry. Mormons are proud to be a â€œpeculiar people.â€ Though Feldman acknowledges that it might be hard for contemporary Latter-day Saints to imagine such radical change, I think it unlikely that Mormonism would ever come to look like mainline Protestantism. Latter-day Saints want to be accepted as part of the mainstream, but they want to be accepted into the mainstream as Latter-day Saints.
Feldman spends very little time developing what, for me, is one of the most interesting comments in the article. Near the end of the piece, Feldman suggests that Mormon esotericism (which is perhaps less controversial a category than secrecy—I suggested early on that he use â€œmysteryâ€ as the native term to Mormon scripture, but that wasnâ€™t quite right either) is reflected in the political speechmaking of Romney and defined by â€œthe attempt to convey multiple messages to different audiences through the careful use of words.â€ Any effort to do this might sound coolly calculating and manipulative and these charges have certainly been thrown at Romney, but I would argue that learning how to discuss the religious premises that ground oneâ€™s moral and political beliefs in a way that is accessible without distortion is the challenge that faces every Latter-day Saint who enters the public square.