“This Thing Was Not Done in a Corner”

January 8, 2008 | 28 comments

I was delighted when Noah Feldman accepted my invitation to give the keynote address at Princeton’s Mormonism and American Politics conference because I knew he’d offer a thoughtful and sophisticated outsider’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 “soft bigotry” against Mormonism, still surprisingly so widespread, while at the same time effectively raising legitimate issues for Latter-day Saints to wrestle with themselves, Feldman’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 won’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 “Mormonism’s political problem arises, in larger part, from the disconcerting split between its public and private faces.” 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, Mormonism’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 Joseph’s Smith’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 “this thing was not done in a corner”! To demonstrate this transparency, which seems for some to imply goodness, they point to the church’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 Feldman’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 Mormonism’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 “antiquity breeds authenticity,” then Feldman’s emphasis on Mormon secrecy in the context of an argument for the antiquity of such a practice does Latter-day Saints a favor.

Feldman’s recounting of Mormon history is mostly the good standard story you’d expect from an academic who has read the most important secondary sources. I do however think his account of what he calls Mormon “normalization” could have benefitted from a more careful perusal of Armand Mauss’ 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 “peculiar people.” 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 “mystery” as the native term to Mormon scripture, but that wasn’t quite right either) is reflected in the political speechmaking of Romney and defined by “the attempt to convey multiple messages to different audiences through the careful use of words.” 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 one’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.

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28 Responses to “This Thing Was Not Done in a Corner”

  1. California Condor on January 8, 2008 at 5:03 pm

    Romney should change his campaign slogan to “MILK BEFORE MEAT.”

  2. Ben Huff on January 8, 2008 at 5:04 pm

    I would add two other reasons why Mormon teachings can seem esoteric to an outsider:

    a) Mormons sometimes use the same words others use, but with a different meaning. This can lead people to feel we are not being up-front, but it really is just a different vocabulary, like how “work” means one thing in physics, another in common speech, and yet another in certain religious debates (e.g. “grace” vs. “works”). There’s nothing devious about the differences in how we use words, but they create a communication gap.

    b) There isn’t a standard Mormon theology (on many points, at least), and so people may get different answers to the same question from different Mormons. Again, there’s nothing shady going on; there are just different views among Mormons.

  3. Ben Huff on January 8, 2008 at 5:19 pm

    Oh, a third reason is that Mormons sometimes say the same things others do, but using different words! For example, Mormons believe in grace, but they refer to it with other language, talking about the influence of the Holy Ghost, or the atonement, or forgiveness of sins, etc.

  4. Dave on January 8, 2008 at 5:23 pm

    Nice commentary, Melissa. Hard to imagine that most of this would have gone largely unremarked had Romney not entered the presidential campaign. It’s like he’s not just running for president, he’s running a social experiment.

  5. Steve Evans on January 8, 2008 at 5:43 pm

    Wonderful. And good to see you around!

  6. Kaimi Wenger on January 8, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Great observations as always, M.

    You’re right that one of the more interesting parts of the article — not fully developed, I think — is the use of code words. Code words do have an interesting and complicated background in LDS history, in places like Joseph Smith’s coded denial/advocacy or polygamy — the repeated denials that he was advocating “spiritual wifery,” coupled with statements about celestial marriage, in an overall package that was meant to convey one meaning to outsiders and a different meaning to initiates. That tactic is troubling when read in historical context, and various church critics have suggested that the church often engages in this kind of behavior. Romney’s calculated use of terms like grace and personal savior feeds into that perception.

  7. JWL on January 8, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    First of all, thanks to you, Melissa, for bringing Professor Feldman into the Mormon Studies fold. Clearly this article promises that he can be a valuable contributor to the extent that he continues his interest.

    Second, I think that you make a good point about talk of “secrecy.” For most people secrecy implies deliberate deception, and it is understandable that Mormons are put off by that. This is illustrated by many of the comments to Kaimi’s post. I also agree that assimilation is really an important part of the explanation. In an all-Mormon town in Utah you might discuss where Kolob is at the barbershop or beauty salon, whereas talk of such esoterica must be avoided if you wish to fit in in a religiously mixed environment, especially one where you are the only Mormon. I believe that Mormons would have reacted differently to Professor Feldman’s argument if he had simply said that Mormons are hesitant to discuss more outlying doctrines of their religion when trying to fit into non-Mormon settings, and are therefore unpractised at explaining them when they have to discuss them with someone who has heard about them.

    A third point which helps me understand Professor Feldman’s take is his own Orthodox Jewish background. In my experience Orthodox Jews are uncomforatble discussing religion with non-Jews (with non-Orthodox Jews they mostly just argue). This is at least partly due to centuries of practice at trying not to be excessively conspicuous for very understandable reasons of self-preservation. I suspect that Professor Feldman may have been reading a bit of this aspect of his own background into the Mormon experience. Of course, to some extent that perspective may be truer of Mormons than we want to admit, and therefore Professor Feldman gives us some insight that we would not get looking at ourselves. However, I think he may have got the emphasis a bit off in view of the differences, particularly that Mormons are such active proselytizers.

  8. William Morris on January 8, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    “Feldman draws analogies between Mormonism’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 “antiquity breeds authenticity,” then Feldman’s emphasis on Mormon secrecy in the context of an argument for the antiquity of such a practice does Latter-day Saints a favor.”


  9. William Morris on January 8, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Upon reflection, I see that a one word reaction looks pretty confrontational and flippant. I don’t mean it that way. I’m genuinely curious.

    And honestly, part of the issue may be that I’m viewing it as a New York Times (magazine) piece rather than as an expression of academic inquiry.

  10. Ray on January 8, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    William, by saying that it isn’t just some wacko, 19th Century American thing but actually shares in a long tradition of many religions – that it isn’t a new, upstart religion that should be viewed with extra skepticism but rather an extension of the type of “antiquity (that) breeds authenticity”? That’s what I took him to mean.

  11. JWL on January 8, 2008 at 6:39 pm

    William –

    I’m not trying to speak for Melissa here, but by showing that Mormonism has similarities to very ancient and honored religious traditions Professor Feldman is suggesting that it is something more than simply a naive concoction of the 19th century American frontier.

  12. JWL on January 8, 2008 at 6:40 pm

    Ray got there first.

  13. Latter-Day Sustainablist on January 8, 2008 at 8:13 pm

    “…I would argue that learning how to discuss the religious premises that ground one’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.” AMEN!

    Thanks for the review.

  14. Kevin Barney on January 8, 2008 at 8:25 pm

    This article had a fairly remarkable reception, in that my apologist friends all liked it (as did I), but I understand it also got rave reviews on the DAMU. My theory is that people are seeing in it what they want to see. Anyway, when you can get both apologists and denizens of the DAMU to agree on anything you’ve accomplished something!

    (Wonderful to see you here again, M! I’m hoping this isn’t a one-off but that you’ll post from time to time.)

  15. Ray on January 8, 2008 at 8:45 pm

    Kevin, if M does post more from time to time will her words be more or less provable than if this is a one-off event? (Sorry, everyone; couldn’t resist.)

  16. Clark on January 8, 2008 at 9:58 pm

    Ray, the problem one might raise is that the “wacky 19th century American thing” was itself a throwback to the traditions you mention. (And hardly unique to Mormons) And of course there is the unsatisfied debate about so-called Hermetic culture in the US as if affected Mormonism.

  17. Blain on January 9, 2008 at 2:26 am

    2 — I think your second point is one that needs additional attention among Mormons, because I don’t think most Mormons think/recognize that this is the case. I think many of them think there is a single Mormon theology which has existed with no significant alterations since Joseph left the Grove (or, actually, since Adam left the Garden), and that all true Mormons know it, understand it and believe it.

    An outgrowth of this belief is the arrogance shown in the comments about how “the world” has disputes about X doctrine, but “we know the truth.” Which causes another set of problems with Mormons interfacing with their neighbors.

    Another problem is that Mormons are seen as “sheep thieves,” because we actively seek to convert members of other Christian denominations. when they generally won’t seek converts from other Christian denominations. We don’t play by their rules — we think their rules don’t apply to us, because, well, we know the truth, while their teachings are just the doctrines of men mingled with scripture.

    I don’t see a simple solution to these things.

  18. peetie on January 9, 2008 at 11:09 am

    But some of our doctrine we DO hide – as you pointed out polygamy, but think back to Pres. Hinkley\’s Larry King Live interview. He definitely dodged bullets about eternal progression and polygamy, both very clearly doctrinal. As for why this was done, the \”milk before meat\” argument might hold water, but then so would the \”intentional normalization\” argument of Mr. Feldman. Over at mormonstories.org they have a discussion about a related subject, namely how some may have taken the Church\’s \”normalization\” to mean abandonment of doctrine (specifically polygamy). Anyway, my original point was simply that we DO seem to try and hide some of our doctrine, whether that is due to personalizing the message for the audience, damage that could be done by telling the truth justifying the lie (the \”murder\” of King Laban being justified for the benefit of the future generations), or whatever other purpose the Lord has in mind, it seems to me that we DO sometimes hide doctrine.

  19. peetie on January 9, 2008 at 11:32 am

    Hmm. . . I just reviewed the comments over at mormonstories.org, and it reminded me that _we_ can’t really say “we” all-inclusively about much in the church. I hold a different view than 99% of the comments being made over there, yet still identify myself as mormon, as I’m sure the people commenting do. You might choose to strike my polygamy being doctrinal comment above, though the eternal progression (As God now is . . . ) I think would be much more universally accepted within the church. Regardless, we still sometimes hide doctrine.

  20. Ardis Parshall on January 9, 2008 at 11:31 am

    I’ve never tried to hide anything. If there’s a complaint from my non-Mormon clients who need a guide through the byways of Mormon history, it’s that I tell them too MUCH when all they want is a simple three-word answer. They don’t realize, most of the time, that I’ve already grossly simplified matters in order to give them what they perceive as a flood of information.

    Any successful teacher knows you need some kind of order in which to present large amounts of information, or even a small amount of complex information. You get nowhere with a scatter-shot, disorganized approach. And anyone who complains about that “milk before meat” approach as a smarmy excuse for “hiding” something needs to realize that effective teachers of all kinds use that approach — schools have prerequisites for advanced classes, the military requires progression through ranks to gain relevant experience, coaches drill their athletes gradually toward record-breaking feats rather than starting at Olympian levels.

    As a missionary I discussed polygamy candidly with an investigator from Madagascar, because she brought it up as an issue from her family background. I would have discussed any other “secret” as candidly as I could have, had it arisen. As it was, most people were so bowled over by the realization that the heavens are open, or with coming to grips with their feelings while reading the Book of Mormon, or struggling to adjust to the Word of Wisdom, that an advanced course in the King Follet Discourse, even had I been equipped to deliver it, would have been meaningless.

  21. Jon Duncan on January 9, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    Ardis — Agree with you 100%. In almost every situation, whether it was as a missionary teaching non-members, in seminary teaching member youth, or explaining my beliefs to friends and peers in the military or at school, I have never found a need for \”secrecy.\” But, you can\’t always explain complex doctrines with a three word answer, so it\’s often easier and more appropriate to build on common beliefs and explain little by little from there. That\’s not always an effective way to deal with the media, sadly. If it\’s not a sound-bite, forget it.

    Also, Blain — I\’m as quick as anybody to reconcile differences and try to work toward common understanding, but the simple solution is to continue what we\’re doing. Whatever mainline protestants want to call it, there is no such thing as \”sheep stealing\” because people are not sheep. If the gospel were a commercial enterprise or a means of making a living, then that argument might be worthwhile. But the gospel is about our worship of Jesus Christ and reaching the celestial kingdom. To that end, we think and act and work out our salvation for ourselves, like the scriptures say to. It doesn\’t matter all that much if that hurts the bottomline for other churches at the end of the fiscal year, especially if they really are interested in the spiritual salvation of their people and not their own temporal well-being.

  22. Adam Greenwood on January 9, 2008 at 4:14 pm

    I resent the soft secrecy of the school system. It was only after years of reading on my own that I discovered the real truth behind their Newtonian Physics Lies!

  23. Ben H on January 9, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    Ardis, you put that very well. This simple discretion about avoiding bringing up more than people will be able to digest is probably the main issue at least for the past 70 years or so.

  24. Bob on January 10, 2008 at 12:06 am

    I don’t think it was ever withheld from me, in any college class I had, what was going to be taught. I was always given an outline of what we would be taught, what the class was about, it’s goals, etc., before the class started. True, you can’t learn everything the first day. But you should have an understanding of the class before you take it.

  25. Ray on January 10, 2008 at 2:23 am

    I agree, Bob. The outline is given, but the details never are. That always happens after I enroll in the class. If that weren’t the case, there would be no need for the class or the teacher or the administrators.

  26. Blain on January 13, 2008 at 4:29 pm

    21 — Your perspective makes sense to me, but that very much misses my point. My point was not to have a discussion of the relative merits of the perspectives in question — it was to voice another perspective so it could be known of and possibly understood.

    I don’t think I’d make the concern about “sheep stealing” simply a matter of money or property. I know of no basis whereby other churches care less about their members than we do, or that their concerns are any more financial than ours are. We don’t feel happy when someone leaves the Church to join another, so why should they feel happy when someone leaves to join us?

  27. Ray on January 13, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    Amen, Blain. I believe we far underestimate the legitimacy of their concern over “losing a loved one to the Mormons” – as someone once told me in complete seriousness. If I didn’t think their pain was as legitimate as mine, it would be a terrible statement about how I view them. I hope I never get that cynical.

  28. Latter-Day Sustainablist on January 17, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Noah Feldman gave an interesting interview on Radio West about his piece.


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