I first ran across Noah Feldmanâ€™s writing last year when I read his personal essay â€œOrthodox Paradoxâ€ in the New York Times Magazine. I liked the piece so well that I linked to it here, and discussed it further here. I suspect that Feldman has now turned his attention to Mormonism at least in part for the same reason that I was so captivated by his first piece: the experience of living as an educated Orthodox Jew in modern America is analogous in many ways to the experience of living as an educated Mormon in the same, with several important and mutually illuminating differences. Because Feldmanâ€™s vexed relationship to the Orthodox community in which he was raised, I wondered whether his account of Mormonism would reflect any trace of the ambivalence with which he views Orthodoxy. I was pleased to find a fair, frankly sympathetic, and insightful treatment, rare indeed in this particular media cycle. Moreover, his exploration and explanation of Mormon secrecy suggested to me another parallel to the Mormon moment we are now experiencing, far removed from Feldmanâ€™s personal referent of Orthodox Judaism.
On February 20, 1595, the English Jesuit Robert Southwell was executed as a traitor in a sensational public spectacle on the gallows at Tyburn. Southwell, a poet and well-known crypto-Catholic priest, had been ordained at the English College in Rome, and in 1586 returned to England in violation of the statutes prohibiting the presence of any Catholic priest within Elizabethâ€™s kingdom. Southwell, together with his Jesuit brothers, undertook an itinerant ministry administering the rites to Catholic families and writing and distributing Catholic polemic and devotional works. It was Southwellâ€™s high-profile capture, trial and execution that seated the sinister figure of the Jesuit priest firmly in the English popular imagination, where it remains in some guises to the present day.
The Jesuit image was both shadowy and notorious: traveling by night and finding harbor in secret chambers called â€œpriest holesâ€ deep in the bosom of friendly private homes, these men nevertheless published defiant challenges to the political and ecclesiastical authority of the Elizabethan regime. Once apprehended by state authorities, however, their intentions became as opaque as the stone walls of their prison. Catholic casuists reasoned that priests may with safe conscience deceive their questioners by answering interrogations ambiguously or incompletely, thus preserving their lives. These notorious practices, known as equicovation and mental reservation, required for their moral legitimacy—from the Catholic point of view—a rejection of the questionersâ€™ authority in favor of allegiance to the true authority of Rome. From the point of view of the Protestant regime, of course, these impenetrable prisoners generated a persistent anxiety around conscience in general and fuelled the especially vituperative attacks on Jesuit conscience in particular. One John King, vice-chancellor at Oxford, decried Jesuitsâ€™ â€œMaeandrian turning & windings, their mentall reservationsâ€; this kind of conscience, he claims, is a â€œdeepe and dangerous vaultâ€ containing â€œa wicked and unsearchable heart.â€
In the end, the secretive discourse and practices of the English Jesuits probably saved some Catholic lives even as they infused the figure of the Jesuit with a stain of suspicion and fear it retains in the English imagination to this day. But the ultimate legacy of Jesuit secrecy is much larger than this: the terms of the social construction of Jesuit secrecy helped shape the prototypes of religious pluralism in England that persisted in profound and long-lasting legal substrates. It was a concept of private conscience deeply rooted in the arrangement of public and private space—a concept beholden to the tropes embedded in, for instance, chancellor Kingâ€™s comment above—that undergirds the Supreme Courtâ€™s 1879 Reynolds ruling against the Mormon polygamy on the grounds that religious belief is protected but religious behavior is not.
There are clear parallels between the Jesuit experience in early modern England and the Mormon experience in the modern United States, brought so lucidly to the fore in Feldmanâ€™s piece. Feldman traces the limbs of Mormon secrecy to two taproots: the esoteric theme inherent in the Mormon myth-and-ritual of temple worship, and the defensive posture of a institution subject to constant suspicion and bigotry. Similarly, Jesuit secrecy developed from both the intra-confessional casuistry of private conscience and the lived experience of Jesuit priests hunted and persecuted by hostile Elizabethan authorities. And the cognates proliferate.
But there are important differences between the Southwell and the Romney moments, as well. For one, the great wall between modern public and private spaces that arbitrated the competing claims of state and church for so long—a boundary, I have argued, that Southwellâ€™s experience helped to define—shows signs of decay in late modernity. The seismic counter-cultural shifts in the 1960s brought religion out from behind the wall of polite private discretion in the 1970s, and evangelical religion rampant has roared atop it ever since. New forms of media and entertainment—and the technologies that make them possible—penetrate walls of stone and flesh to bring private life into a censorious-yet-titillated public view. Medical and scientific technologies challenge our understanding of the protected privacy of thought. And in the free religious market Americans enjoy (and in which the Mormon church has thrived), believers are created in the image of consumers, choosing from a menu of options according to personal preference. Apple or PC? Prius or Hummer? Coke or Pepsi? Mormon or Baptist? Oneâ€™s personal preferences are recorded and catalogued by Amazon and Google, then reflected back to oneself and oneâ€™s friend as a kind of private identity, a psyche externalized and pixelized for all the world to see.
Feldmanâ€™s stimulating exploration of Mormon secrecy suggests the ways in which Romney and the church may respond to the challenge of a residual soft bigotry in American society. The question that remains, prompted by the early modern analogy of English Jesuits, is how American society will respond to the challenge of Mormon secrecy. Will the anxiety provoked by a Mormon presidential candidate help to redraw the boundaries between public and private realms? Will the old settlement recrystallize? Will a new cultural boundary emerge, a new social caculus of religion, politics and identity? With the old front in disarray, it could happen.